October 29, 2010

On the airplane

On the airplane

I shared my seat with a dog. The woman sitting next to me was a clinical psychologist, who uses a trained therapy dog with her clients. I have to admit, having this cute dog curled under my legs during the flight did help relieve my travel anxiety.

I arrived safely in Obscure City Amongst the Cornfields, but my luggage did not. I've spent the last two days borrowing clothes from colleagues at the conference I'm attending. My friends have been pretty good about letting me go through their suitcases to see what items I could use. Philadelphia Guy donated a pair of socks and a cool t-shirt. My two grad student roommates are too young and thin to lend me clothing, but have provided me with deodorant, shampoo, and lotion. Artist Friend is 6'6" which means the t-shirt he lent me is long enough to wear as a dress.

At the opening reception for the conference, I kept scanning the crowd to find women with my body type, so I could go ask for some clothes to borrow. It's definitely a different way to meet people. For Saturday's evening event, the program says that we are encourage to wear Halloween costumes. Since dressing professionally is fast disappearing as an option, I'm working on a costume based on random stuff I've borrowed — and perhaps a bit of duct tape.

October 26, 2010

Creative energies

Creative energies

My youngest son, With-a-Why, at the kitchen table — sketching, eating, and listening to music. He's drawing an egg against white folds of cloth.

October 24, 2010

Evicted

“We have to move,” Little Biker Boy told me last week. “We’ve been evicted.”

As soon as he said the words, I knew it had to be true. He wouldn’t have known the word evicted otherwise.

I had wondered how long the landlord would put up with the police visits, the neighbor complaints, the many broken rules. The family needs to move out of the little trailer by November 30. It will be winter. I don’t know where they will go.

Ponytail hasn’t said much at all. That day, she sat on my lap and cried about a cut she had on her finger. Then she went back to playing with the traintracks on the floor. But Little Biker Boy talks to me about it every day.

“When I’m older and I have a car,” he said. “I’m going to come visit you.”

“That’s right,” I told him. “I’ll still be here.”

“I’ll come visit you, and we can sit at the table and drink tea,” he said. He has watched me drink tea with Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter.

“That’s right,” I said. “And I’ll make apple pie.”

I reminded him that he’s like one of my kids. “You aren’t like your father or your mother’s boyfriend or Ponytail’s father,” I said. I went through the list of abusive alcoholic men that have come through his life in the last couple of years, naming each one. “You aren’t like them.”

“No, I’m not,” he said, nodding his head with emphasis.

“You are like my kids. Like Boy in Black. Or Shaggy Hair Boy. Or With-a-Why,” I said. It’s a ritual conversation; we’ve had it over and over again.

“When I’m older, I’m going to be like one of your kids,” he said.

I poured him a glass of milk: he was testing the vegan chocolate cupcakes I’d made. He ate a cupcake and gave it his approval.

“I have a car,” I told him. “I can come get you sometimes, and you and Ponytail can come visit. Do you remember my phone number?”

He nodded as he always does, and recited the number back to me. Then he said, as he always does: “I have your phone number in my heart.”

October 23, 2010

Season of cinnamon and pie crust

Protected

One of the things I like most about making apple pie is the way the scent of cinnamon and apple fills the house. Pie-making is messy: flour gets all over the table, the floor, and my clothing. But homemade crust is worth the mess, especially if you eat the pie warm with a cup of hot tea.

Apples ripen here in September just as soon as it’s cool enough to turn on the oven. Apple pie season marks the beginning of fall, when I’m still looking forward to the cold, and ends in late October, when the last apples come off the trees.

The last and best apples to ripen are the Northern Spies: they are hard and tart. The last couple of pies I made were filled with Northern Spies, and the apples were well worth the wait. I don’t like pies that are too sweet (that’s why I only make pie with apple or rhubarb), so the tart Spies are just right for my taste.

I’ve enjoyed seeing my older kids every time I’ve made pie this fall: a text message about homemade pie is usually all it takes to get them home. Last weekend, I went apple picking with my parents, With-a-Why, Red-haired Sister, and her kids. Most of the apple orchards were just about stripped bare. The kids and I spend a pleasant hour climbing the tallest tree in an orchard to get the last remaining apples down from the very top. Beneath every tree, old apples crunched and smooshed under our sneakers.

Apple pie season is almost over.

End of the season

In my house, food needs to be protected from wandering cats, so apple pies are imprisoned under over-turned laundry baskets while they cool.

October 20, 2010

One word at a time

One word at a time

It was a cold fall day, and I was on retreat with my friends. A group of them had gone off to follow the migration of the snow geese while some of us had stayed back for some quiet time. I’d taken a nap down by the lake, moving my blanket as the sun shifted, and then I’d come in to build a fire. Gorgeous Eyes and I began a conversation about relationships, and what happens after they end.

“We leave marks on each other,” said Gorgeous Eyes.

I liked the image of humans drawing on each other, marks that stayed even after they chose to follow separate paths. I thought of the many people who have left marks on me, who have changed who I am; I still carry the words and images left by people who have disappeared from my life.

By the time the other women had returned from their bird-watching adventure, Gorgeous Eyes had stripped off her clothes and I was writing on her naked body with a felt-tipped pen. She chose the words; I was just the scribe. We'd changed the metaphor by then. We were talking about ways to make our own desires and needs known to other people.

My friends are so used to my naked photo project that none of them found this unusual. “I think you’ve got the right idea,” said Makes Bread. “It would be so much easier if humans came with instructions.”

I finished writing on Gorgeous Woman and then took a photograph while she sat on the rug by the hearth, flames warming her naked body.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here .)

October 19, 2010

Piano Man

“I’ve figured it out,” Shaggy Hair Boy said to me one day in the car. “If I practice three hours each day, I can be an expert by the time I’m 26.”

He’d been talking to his sister, who told him that the idea of people having “talent” at creative pursuits is largely a myth. Mostly, people acquire talent through the number of hours they practice. More than 10,000 hours of practicing anything will usually make someone an expert.

Shaggy Hair already spends a great deal of time on the piano. He plays it several times every day. In addition to the lesson he takes every week with the wonderful woman who teaches us classical music, he’s got a jazz piano teacher from the local studio, a jazz piano teacher at Snowstorm University, and another musician who teaches his Improv class. He meets with his grandfather to play twice a month too.

But now, every night after my husband, With-a-Why, and I go to bed, Shaggy Hair Boy sits down at the piano and plays for hours. He plays classical music, he plays jazz. He plays some popular tunes and some old standards. From our upstairs bedroom, my husband and I can hear the music floating up the stairs. It’s relaxing to lie in bed and listen to the lovely rhythms.

Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of the “Piano Man” and I woke up with the words in my head: “Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feelin’ all right.”

October 17, 2010

Weekend at home

Green Lakes

Even though I've walked around Pretty Colour Lake hundreds of times, I never get tired of the view. The colours of the lake change depending on the season, the time of day, and the weather. Red-haired Sister was in town with her kids this weekend, their traditional trip home to go apple-picking, and we ended up, as usual, walking at the lake. Shaggy Hair Boy and Dandelion Niece went off in one direction while my parents and sister went around in the other direction, chatting as they walked. Suburban Nephew and I kept lagging behind or running ahead to take photos.

Eric

That's Suburban Nephew, venturing out on a log to take a photo.

October 16, 2010

What light

What light

Usually when I post photos of naked women on my blog (and yes, that happens more often than you might think), people will chime in on the comments and say, “How come you only take pictures of beautiful people?”

The answer is, of course, is that there aren’t other types of people. I’ve never met a person who didn’t look beautiful to me.

Almost every woman who has posed on my blog has complained, at one time or another, about being too fat or too skinny, too tall or too short, too curvy or too flat-chested, too pale or too dark. As we’re setting up the shot, the woman will confide in me that she hates her legs, or her hips, or her hair. “I don’t even want to see myself naked,” she’ll say. But then we take a bunch of shots, I put them on my computer, and I delete the ones that didn’t come out well. Then we look together at the remaining shots.

That’s when the woman will say, in surprise. “Oh, I look so much better than I thought.”

That’s what I look about the naked photo tradition. Women get a chance to look at themselves the way I see them; they get to see that they’re beautiful.

Today’s photo is of my friend Quilt Artist. She’s recently started putting some of her creative energy into writing poetry, and we had planned a photo of her writing in her journal in the morning sunlight. But then she turned to look out the window, and I snapped a shot that we both liked.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here .)

October 14, 2010

More thoughts about the teenage ghost

Here are my family’s reactions to my ghost story:

Shaggy Hair Boy listened eagerly, and said, “Oh. My. God. That is sooooo creepy.” He said, "After I'm dead, I'm going to go into people's houses and play the piano."

With-a-Why listened and said nothing.

My daughter made me tell the whole story on speaker phone so that Blue-eyed Ultimate Player could hear it. She said, “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Now I’m going to be afraid to sleep alone.” (Her apartment is the bottom part of an old mansion in Snowstorm City.)

My husband said nothing.

Boy in Black grinned and said. "It was just your mind playing tricks on you. Let’s see … you were tired, it was late at night, the lights were dim, you were in a strange place, and you had been having a creepy feeling. It's not a surprise that your mind conjured up the image of a teenage boy since teenage boys usually are standing outside any bathroom you use."

My mother said, “Hey, you saw a ghost?” in the same tone of voice she would use for, "Hey, you went on a hike?" She reminded me of the time she heard a ghost tap dancing in an old theatre building downtown.

My father said, “Oh, I’d love to see a ghost.” He sounded jealous. He wanted to hear the whole story again. He asked, “Was the boy solid or translucent?” He kept saying I should do some research and find out who the kid was.

Artist Friend’s reaction was pretty much the same as my father’s. He asked the same question. “Was the boy solid or translucent?”

The little neighbor boy said, "Oh, don't worry, I see ghosts too. When I lived at my Dad’s house, it was haunted. There was this old man ghost. He would just sit there and rock back and forth.”

Woven

Woven

October 12, 2010

The teenager who appeared in the night

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ghost before. I’ve had vivid dreams, and sometimes even dreams that predicted things that came true, but those always happen when I’m lying down and possibly asleep. Sunday night, I was standing up, with a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in my hand.

It was pretty late at night when it happened. My friends and I were hanging out in front of the fire, talking about our day. Three of the women had taken a ferry over to a spot where they could watch hundreds of snow geese fly over their hands. “I’m so glad we actually saw them,” said Signing Woman, my pun-loving friend. “We were worried that it might just be a wild goose chase.”

We were gathered in the living room of an old mansion owned by Signing Woman’s cousin. As the night grew later, the laughter and talking grew quieter as some of the women went to bed. I took a naked photo of Gorgeous Eyes in the firelight, and Signing Woman gave Makes Bread a massage. Nothing unusual.

Soon there were five of us left. We’d turned out the lights in the kitchen, the formal dining room, and the study, and the house was dark except for the flames.

“I’m going to get ready for bed,” Denim Woman said, yawning. That seemed the cue for everyone to go upstairs, retreating to their bedrooms to put on pajamas. I was planning to sleep on the couch by the dying fire, so I didn’t have a bedroom, but I went upstairs to brush my teeth.

When I walked into the main bathroom, Signing Woman was already there, brushing her teeth. I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste, and said, “I’ll go use the other bathroom.”

I walked into the dark hall moving quietly so as not to wake up any sleeping friends. I went into the little sitting room that’s outside the master bedroom, then through the master bedroom. It’s cute room with a row of windows and a green quilt on the bed. I’d been in there earlier in the day, to take a naked photo of Quilt Artist. The friend who had slept there the night before had gone home, so the room was empty.

In the little bathroom, I brushed my teeth. Because I was tired, I wasn’t thinking that clearly. I found myself hurrying. I had this feeling that I had to brush my teeth fast because someone was waiting to use the bathroom. Since I’ve always lived in crowded households, that sensation isn’t an unusual one. The room felt crowded, but that’s normal to me.

I noticed, as I looked to the right of the bathroom mirror, that the window of the bathroom led to a fire escape: kind of a balcony. I looked out into the darkness, at the balcony covered with pine needles, and felt a sudden weird sensation, the way I feel when they play spooky music in a movie. I spit the toothpaste out quickly, hurrying. I’d left the door behind me open, and I wanted to get back to my friends. I turned fast and stepped back into the bedroom.

Standing just a few feet away from me was a teenage boy.

I was so startled that I jumped about a foot and screamed, waving my toothbrush in the air.

The teenage boy looked maybe seventeen or eighteen – older than With-a-Why, but younger than Shaggy Hair Boy. He wasn’t dressed the way my kids dress: he was wearing light-colored clothing. He wasn’t scary-looking or anything like that: he looked like a kid patiently waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom.

But when I screamed, he disappeared. Suddenly the room was empty.

From down the hall, I could hear Signing Woman’s voice, “Are you okay?”

I walked through the bedroom, through the sitting room, down the hall. Signing Woman was in the bathroom where I’d left her, light spilling out into the hall. I told her the story, and she came with me back into the room. It was empty. I stood back in the spot where I’d been, trying to see if maybe it had been a trick of light, some reflection off the window panes or the bedside lamp. I told myself that maybe I’d imagined the teenage boy. I was tired, after all.

I admit I still felt a bit creeped out as I tried to fall asleep on the couch by the dying fire, but I kept telling myself that Signing Woman’s ancestors were all nice people, and that any ghosts who appeared were likely nice ghosts who didn’t mean to do me any harm. I woke up to sunlight — and no spirits in sight.

That afternoon, Old Neighbor Woman came to join us for lunch. I’ve met her before: she’s lived down the road for ages, and she lost her husband a few years ago. She joined right in with our chatter and joking around. We saved a spot at the table for Animal Lover, who had a headache and had gone upstairs for a nap.

When Animal Lover joined us, Quilt Artist said to her, “How are you feeling? Did you get a good nap?”

Animal Lover said, “I kind of dozed off and on. I had the weirdest dream. This teenage boy … he said his name was Jonathon, and he was killed in a farming accident over there.” She pointed vaguely to the north.

Signing Woman and I exchanged glances. Then Quilt Artist spoke up, “Really? That’s probably the spirit that jo(e) saw last night.”

Old Neighbor Woman said, “Oh, that’s just the ghost. The teenage boy one? He’s harmless.”

We all turned to look at her.

She took another sip of her soup. “Were you in one of the upstairs bedrooms?”

I told my story.

“Yeah, people see him,” she said. “I need to sleep up there sometime so that I can see the ghost. I’ve never gotten to see him.”

She took another sip. “Mmm … beet soup. I haven’t had this in ages.”

I started to feel bad for my reaction. After all, the ghost hadn’t tried to hurt me or anything like that. He was just standing there. Maybe he just wanted to be an extra, like the extras we have in our household. He was just a harmless kid.

(Hours later, when I got home and told the story to Shaggy Hair Boy, I said, “I felt bad for screaming.” Shaggy Hair shrugged. “I bet he gets that a lot.”)

I don’t know if it was daylight that changed my feelings towards the spirit or Old Neighbor Woman’s matter-of-fact reaction, but I felt that I needed to apologize. While my friends were cleaning the kitchen, I walked upstairs into the green bedroom. It felt creepy to be alone, but I didn’t want to scare the ghost off. “Sorry for screaming,” I said into the air. I didn’t see a ghost or feel one. Sunlight came in through the windows, making patterns on the green quilt. I felt silly.

It was almost time to leave. I cleaned the fireplace, emptied the compost bucket, carried my stuff out to the car. I decided take a moment to sit on the long cushioned bench on the front porch. From where I was sitting, I could see my friends, gathered over near the car, talking as they packed. I could see all the way down to the lakefront, where Signing Woman was talking to an old man who was some kind of relative.

I felt a presence next to me on the bench. I didn’t turn. I know from experience that teenage boys are more likely to listen if you don’t stare right at them. I have my best conversations with With-a-Why when I’m driving in the car, and we’re both looking straight ahead.

“It’s okay,” I said to the ghost. “You can be an extra here if you want. They’re nice people, it’s a safe place. Signing Woman’s family – they’re really good people.”

We watched as Signing Woman and Old Relative hugged each other. We were too far away to hear what they were saying, but they were both laughing about something. Signing Woman turned, and Old Relative massaged her shoulders for a few minutes. Then they hugged each other again, and Signing Woman walked up the lawn to the car, where my women friends were still busy sorting through what they had to pack.

I stood up, and turned to look at the bench. It was empty. I didn’t see anyone. But it felt okay. I left the house and joined my friends for the ride home.

Weekend in the mountains

Yellow

I just returned from my annual fall trip to the mountains with the group of women friends I refer to as the Wild Women . It’s the tenth time I’ve made this retreat: appropriately, we gathered this year on 10/10/10.

We did the same things we usually do. We went hiking, we admired the foliage, we walked the labyrinth. We cooked meals together. We sat by the fire, we listened to music, I took naked photos. Mostly, we talked, sometimes in a big group, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in pairs. I like the routine of gathering in the same place every year: I’m able to look at myself more clearly and see how I’ve changed. And it helps to have good friends who come with me each year and have become part of that journey.

October 08, 2010

Creature of the night

Creature of the Night

The grad student who never sleeps: Boy in Black, doing physics during last night's power outage.

October 07, 2010

In the car

On Wednesday evenings, With-a-Why and I pick up Chinese food and bring it up to the apartment where my daughter, Boy in Black, and First Extra live. It’s become our routine; we arrive with food just as the boys get done with Ultimate practice, and we stay to watch that week’s episode of Glee. Blue-eyed Ultimate Player, who lives across the street, will walk over carrying a fork and a bowl of food that he’ll share with us. Yes, the apartment feels very much like an extension of our home, except that it’s cleaner because grad students don’t have much stuff.

This week, on the way to the Chinese take-out place, With-a-Why started talking about the independent study he’s doing with his French teacher. I started telling him the French phrases I found most handy when I was in Paris. La meme chose is my favorite.

“You can use it on any occasion when you don’t know the right words,” I explained to him. “In a restaurant, for instance, you just point to someone who is eating food that looks good to you. La meme chose. The same thing.”

We were so busy talking about Paris that I drove right past the Chinese take-out place. That happens a lot when I'm driving: I go on auto-pilot and forget where I am.

“What are you doing?” With-a-Why asked as I turned the car around. Cars were moving past in both directions so it took me a few minutes to get back on track.

“I missed the turn,” I said. “I was still in Paris.”

“Good thing you weren’t in London,” he said. “We would have been killed.”

Ready for winter

Ready for winter

October 05, 2010

Pretend

My home office is right by the front door, and it’s often where I’m sitting when the little neighbor kids come over. I keep a Raggedy Ann doll on my bookshelf, and I’ve got coloring books and crayons, but what fascinates the neighbor kids most are the “grown-up” office supplies. They’ve gone through reams of post-it notes, boxes of staples, and several yellow pads of legal paper.

Today, they seized two small pads of paper that I’ve been using for to-do lists. They took them into the hall and then came right back. “Can we have some pens?” asked Ponytail.

“Sure,” I said. “What are you going to draw?”

Ponytail stood up straight, and held her pad importantly, pen poised to write. Biker Boy struck the same pose.

“We’re playing Caseworker,” Biker Boy said.

Ponytail knocked on my office door, even though it was already open. “Pretend you’re the Mom.”

“Okay,” I said. “Show me your ID.”

Ponytail looked surprised, but Biker Boy didn’t hesitate. He reached into his back pocket and pretended to pull out an ID. “I’m from Child Protective. I’m gonna ask you some questions.”

Ponytail bounced up and down, a big smile on her face. “I have ID too!”

They began barraging me with questions. “How old are your children? Do you have any weapons? Do you smoke? Do you smoke anything besides cigarettes?”

I gave answers, and they scribbled importantly on their pads. Then Biker Boy put the pad under his arm and began searching my office — opening drawers, looking under books, pulling back the curtains. Ponytail joined in.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Looking for drugs,” Ponytail said. “I found some cocaine.”

“Me too,” said Biker Boy, holding up an eraser. “Here’s some cocaine.”

“We’re going to take your kids,” said Ponytail. She put her face close to mine. “We’re going to put your kids in foster care.” She was smiling, which made the words even more painful. She’s only six.

“We might have to put you in jail,” said Biker Boy.

“Who wants cocoa?” I asked. I couldn’t stand the game any longer. The kids dropped their pads of paper and followed me out to the kitchen, where the tea kettle was already on the stove. I sliced some banana bread, and we played the game where they’re kids from a stable home, eating a snack after school.

"I want off"

"I want off"

October 04, 2010

Return

My parents, on a mountain trail

I go to the mountains with my parents every fall. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, to visit the place where my Dad spent his summers when he was a young man, working as a musician at the summer resorts. The mountains hold memories for me as well: we camped there often when I was small, and I camped there later with my own kids. I used to visit the mountains with Kindergarten Friend’s family too, and every year, we stop at her camp to take a photo.

I’m not someone who likes change, and I like the familiar routine of things that stay the same. The mountains, rising to hug each lake, look the same every year, covered with trees and jutting rocks. We stopped at the restaurant built in an old train station, and the same man stepped out of the kitchen to greet us; he cooked our lunch last year, and the year before that. The old mountain inn where we spent the night looked just the same too, with the big stone fireplace in the main room, the dining room with its windows overlooking the lake, and the wavy floors in the hallways that are so buckled that I feel kind of drunk when I walk across them.

Of course, some things change. The towns have grown since my childhood, with the mountains getting more developed all the time. The state forests might be forever wild, but the houses and camps on the private land seem to be forever getting bigger. My father’s stories don’t change — I know most of them by heart — but he’s 79 now, so he’s changing, getting older all the time. More than anything, though, when I visit the same place every year, I notice the changes in myself: I’m 49 now, and my kids are almost all grown up. When we took a walk near the place where I used to camp with the kids when they were little, I found myself wondering how long it will be before I come to the mountains with grandchildren and tell them my father’s stories.

Ripples

October 03, 2010

First light

First light

My parents and I took our annual trip to the mountains this weekend. I woke up early Saturday morning to slip out the side door of the old mountain inn. The weather had turned cold overnight so I was thankful I'd brought my winter coat. The sun was just rising over the mountains, and the lake was edged with mist.