“Rose & Dine” at The Liberty Rose

The Liberty Rose Bed & Breakfast, one mile from beautiful Colonial Williamsburg, in this historic Virginia corridor, is a charming peaceful place to visit. The highlight for me, when I am lucky enough to spend any time there, are the gardens that cover an acre of wooded land. Secret places to sit, read, meditate, write, flowering trees that scent the air, and beautiful ground flowers and vines that compete for notice are everywhere. It is like a wonderland. I have been friends for several years now with Mike Farrell, the assistant innkeeper/cook/gardener there, and one thing we love to do together is cook and then eat delicious food. I was so happy to learn during my latest visit that the very first “Rose & Dine Dinner”, a special package which adds a gourmet dinner highlighting local meat, herbs, and produce to the traditional Bed & Breakfast offering of the inn, had been scheduled. The lucky couple, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, were very excited, putting their trust entirely in Mike’s choices for the 5 courses plus 2 amuse-bouches.

We started early in the day with an inventory of Mike’s extensive vegetable, herb, and flower garden. Noting what was in peak condition for cooking, we then made our way to the grocery store to pick up a few more things, and wound up the morning at The Cheese Shop in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square. We taste tested a few choices (we had to – really we did) and chose a washed rind cow’s milk cheese with a little bit of a bite, a bit of a tangy lingering finish on the tongue to serve as the bones of the cheese course, and a much stronger, smellier piece of soft pungent sheep’s milk cheese just for us, then headed back to the inn to begin cooking.

The first thing we do is caramelize fresh figs in a fragrant syrup of dark molasses, and red wine. These figs are fresh from the tree, and actually drip juice when their delicate imageskin is broken. Picked just yesterday morning after chasing one of the two fawns away who visit daily, waiting for ripe figs to drop, they are ripened to perfection. While we pick, the squirrel who also claims ownership watches proprietarily from a short distance away. In the kitchen, after they are washed, I slice them in half. The inside is a deep coral pink, yellow tinged with chartreuse surrounding it. They are sweet and soft and absolutely delicious. I scoop the fig halves up with my hands and then into the sweet liquid, and set it to simmering. It bubbles away for an hour or so, gradually becoming thicker and darker, sweeter and more fragrant, reducing down to a thick syrup, dark amber in color and complex in flavor. A shared taste tell us they will be perfect. I take them off the burner, spoon them into a bowl and set them aside to cool.

Mike’s task is to make the harissa for the beef. Harissa is northern African in origin; a wet spice paste, rubbed on the surface of the meat before roasting, made of toasted caraway seeds, smoked cumin seed, tomato paste, sugar, kosher salt, cracked black peppercorns, Sambal Olek, IMG_8850olive oil, powdered chilis, and of course whole garlic cloves. Much of the complex flavor of the harissa is due to the toasting of the caraway, and then smoking the cumin seeds in the pan with the lid on. The ingredients are all combined, and whirled together in the food processor. The flavor is deep and spicy and complicated, but open as well, asking For inclusion with something that balances it out. Like roasted meat. Like the local organic grass fed tri tip roast of beef that Mike has warming up on the counter. No marinade necessary. With the smell of the harissa in our noses, and the taste we are obligated to take on our tongue, we choose dishes and goblets, napkins and centerpiece, and make notes for assembly, timing, garnishing, and service of the courses.

Mike and I love to cook together. We read each other so well. We both know what needs to be done, and when, and can jump in and do it without any discussion, all our efforts oiled and geared to smooth accomplishment of the end goal – wonderful food – something we both understand and venerate. We taste and inhale and adjust and augment and try to bring it all forward as far as it can go. Until the next time. When we try to take it farther, after evaluation and research and reading and most importantly, eating and tasting anything and everything. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable mission to which we have devoted ourselves, and we both find joy in working on this together. And we laugh. And we drink wine while we cook, and we dance around the small kitchen, sliding by each other, avoiding collision, moving pots and hot pans from oven to burner, rapidly chopping spices and kale and onions and other ingredients, bringing good and interesting food to the level of a gift for our guests. I’m honored to be a part of this inaugural dinner.

The first dish we prepare is a little starter of cold dill soup. It’s a hot day, and this is just an introduction to the rest of the meal – both the flavors and the ambience we hope to provide. Mike waits until the last minute to cut the fresh herbs from the garden. imageThis small serving of soup meant to be picked up and sipped directly from the delicate handmade Colonial Williamsburg “bullet dish”, smaller than a cupcake paper. We hope this little informality encourages our guests to relax and enjoy their anniversary, instead of feeling that they must be stiff and formal, even when the table is beautifully set, and the food beautifully and carefully presented. Food should be enjoyed and we hope they will as much as we do. The chilled soup is garnished with a fennel flower, still warm from the garden sun.

As I’ve learned while watching my son, a chef who has served huge groups of people complex dishes with wonderful organization and attention to detail, you don’t rest once a imagecourse is served. As soon as our guests are enjoying their soup, we assemble the cheese course. Long thin slices of the cheese are arranged on a plate, and the caramelized figs spooned out over them. A bit of the syrup dotted onto the plate. We garnish this course with some rose petals separated from the roses in the gardens. A rose integrated into the dinner seems entirely appropriate and a nod to the place where it is being prepared and served. We nibble on the rinds we trim from the cheese, and eat a fork full of figs from the pan, find the combination delicious, and then it’s time to prepare the salad course.

The salad is simple. We start with a base of baby arugula – slightly bitter, slightly nutty; a welcome cleansing astringency after the cheese and figs – some deep green baby spinach, trimmed segments of an orange dripping with juice, feathery shreds of locally gathered Lion’s Mane mushrooms, thin slices of baby sweet onions, and a scattering of purple imageconeflower petals from the flower garden. We want the components of the salad both to stand on their own, and work together as a whole, and don’t want it overwhelmed by an oily vinegar dressing. Mike asks for my thoughts, channels his good Argentine sensibilities, and makes a simple dressing of good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and I drizzle it lightly over the prepared plates. It’s a simple enhancement, and not a mask. A quick sprinkle of plum-infused toasted sesame seeds, brought back in our suitcase from a wonderful spice shop in Annecy, France, and the salad goes to the table. We eat a couple quick bites ourselves from the ingredients that wouldn’t fit on the plates for the guests – sadly, the oranges are gone – and agree that it is really good. And then we’re on to the pasta course.

In Mike’s late summer garden at The Liberty Rose, basil runs wild. And the logical conclusion when cooking from this extensive garden is to make a big batch of pesto with that beautiful basil. But at this time of the imageyear, how do we make that something special and new? Mike suggests a “Rough Pesto,” and I think that sounds perfect. We begin by roasting some whole garlic in the oven, and then lightly heating some olive oil. Once the garlic is roasted, I squeeze the hot golden cloves out of the skins. With a fork I mash the garlic and whisk them into the warm oil. It smells heavenly, and I set it aside to infuse. We toast whole pignoli nuts in the oven, and Mike heats olive oil in a cast iron skillet for the gnocchi. He buys his handmade gnocchi at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and the difference in the flavor and texture from grocery store gnocchi is remarkable. He has already picked fresh Pesto Basil from the garden, and I remove the tiny leaves from the stems. Rather than boiling it, Mike pan sears his gnocchi in olive oil until it is hot and just taking on some color. It’s a good way to serve this course without enduring the heat of a big pot of boiling water on top of the stove, plus the flavor is different and much more interesting. Smoky, a little charred, and slightly nutty. Delicious. A handful of the hot gnocchi goes down on the plate. A drizzle of the garlicky oil goes over it. Some of the toasted pignolis, a scattering of freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a generous handful of the Pesto Basil leaves. A sprinkle of coarse salt and a grinding of black Tasmanian Pepper, also courtesy of that magical spice shop in Annecy, a gorgeous Thai Basil blossom for garnish, and the pasta course goes out. We have made a third plate for us to eat, and there is no sound other than mutual “Oh my god”s when we tuck into it. I may never make pesto in the food processor again. The textures of the gnocchi, the crunchy nuts, the whole leaf basil and the salty granular parmigiano all work together to make us very sorry indeed when our plate is empty. Absolutely delicious.

While the beef finishes roasting and rests under a tent of foil, we serve the second little amuse-bouche. A bit of a break between the gnocchi and the meat course, it gives our guests a chance to sit back, talk a little, breathe, pour a little more wine, and relax, because the best dinner isn’t just about the food. It’s about being with others and sharing and connecting. Time must be given for that as well. We scoop out small spoonfuls of goat’s milk ice cream, also purchased fresh from the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market, and spoon a drizzle of Russian rose petal preserves over the top. The combination of the tangy sweet earthiness of the ice cream with the delicately sweet and floral flavor of the rose petals preserved in a light sweet jelly, garnished with fresh chocolate mint leaves is swoon-worthy and Mike and I inhale the little bowlful we have prepared for ourselves. Delicious, and not nearly enough to satisfy us. That’s why there is no picture of this beautiful little treat. We couldn’t wait.

The meat course is ready now for plating and serving. We uncover the roast, done perfectly medium rare, and slice it up. The harissa has made a crust on the roasted beef, and also melded with the meat juices on the bottom of the baking pan. I reheat that on top of the stove, breaking up the big slices of red onion, now caramelized in the meat juices, that served as the roasting rack, and add a slug of redIMG_8861 wine to the sizzling pan. Steam boils up as the wine flash boils and deglazes the pan. The smell is absolutely sublime, and the thick dark liquid now simmering in the pan will be quickly reduced, and spooned over the meat on the plates along with some of the roasted onion. We have already prepared and have set on the back burner of the stove a sauté of a chiffonade of fresh baby kale in olive oil, with garlic, onion, coarse salt, black pepper, vermouth, and pancetta. The vermouth and the garlic balances out and tempers the strong flavor of the kale, and the crispy browned bits of pancetta add a wonderful salty bacon-y note. The result is savory and full, and stands up well to the beef with the spicy harissa crust. We put a spoonful of the kale on the plate beside the beef. The final touch is a couple slices of fresh cold heirloom tomatoes, garnished with some of the Pesto Basil, and some ground Tasmanian pepper.

If you have only ever eaten red beefsteak tomatoes, or grocery store tomatoes, you owe it to yourself to seek out a grower of heirloom tomatoes (or grow some yourself) and see just how delicious a tomato can be. The flavors are so much better than those mass-produced tomatoes, no matter how red they might be. We have prepared a plate for us as well, and as soon as we can, we sample everything we’ve just served. It tastes amazing. And the response of the guests is extremely gratifying. Being told you have just served people the best and most adventurous food they’ve ever eaten, when they are also food lovers and seek out interesting and exciting dining experiences wherever they go, is deeply satisfying. Cooking for appreciative friends and family (or ourselves) is one thing. Cooking good food for paying guests is quite another. We are so happy they have enjoyed our work.

Because this day has been hot and humid, our guests decided to eat dinner inside, but with the setting of the sun, a small breeze has sprung up, and they have asked to have dessert and tea in the garden. The gardens of Liberty Rose, with little white lights strung over the low table and comfortable rocking chairs is the perfect place to end the day, and surrounded by the cool greenery of ferns, trees, and blooming potted flowers, they enjoy some moments of quiet conversation while we put the finishing touches on the dessert for the evening.

Mike has chosen a traditional Scottish layered dessert called a cranachan. Earlier in the day, hazelnuts were roughly chopped and placed in a mixing bowl along with two cups of IMG_8865grated bittersweet chocolate. Mike toasted organic steel-cut oats in the oven until it was golden brown and hot, and then added to the mixing bowl. As Mike stirred in the hot oats, a miraculous melting and melding occurred, and the bittersweet chocolate coated the nuts and the oats. We set it aside until this moment, when we retrieve the bowl from the pantry, and break up the mixture into crunchy clusters of nutty chocolate. Meanwhile, Mike whips heavy cream into white pillows, and then beats in crème fraîche, making it taste amazingly buttery and impossibly rich. A little whisky is folded into the whipped cream – a traditional part of the recipe – and then the components layered into a tall glass. The result, garnished with a big fat fresh blackberry, is absolutely rich tasting and delicious, yet light and satisfying. It isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and is just right to finish off the meal we have served. We agree we will never eat whipped cream again unless it also includes crème fraîche. And whisky.

It was such an honor for me to be part of this dinner, part of the preparation, part of the celebration of a milestone anniversary for a very nice couple I didn’t even meet until just before dessert was served. Their gratitude and happiness was soul-satisfying, and the best reward for our hard work. The chance to plan and execute this intricate dance with a friend who feels the same about food and cooking and feeding people was so much fun, despite our bone-deep exhaustion. Food is primal. The connection that established between cooks and the people they feed has the potential to be wonderful, amazing, enriching. But the eating is only part of the experience. When you care deeply about food, the preparation of that food is a meditation. The serving of that food is a gift. The preparation of food, the sharing of food – that is the real celebration. I so look forward to my chance to dance this dance again.

 

 

 

 

Look In Her Eyes

img_2432

Her eyes are the deep brown of the Ethiopian coffee that runs through her veins with all the strength and sustenance that coffee is for that country. Deep wells of love and pain, sass and longing and empathy, with the unconscious knowledge of centuries of custom and tradition. She is firmly tied to those villages, that country, that continent. And she lives here in a new white world with her adoptive parents, centuries younger than the muscle memory in her DNA that she hasn’t yet consciously tapped into. When she was a toddler, adjusting to new life in this country, there was Ethiopian music playing in the house. She began to dance in that Pennsylvania living room with a distinctive tilt and swivel of her head that was distinctly Ethiopian. How could she know, if the lesson wasn’t already woven into all of her muscles and embedded in the deepest recesses of her young brain? It lay dormant, waiting for the stimulus that sparks all Ethiopian children to dance, to sing, to laugh with the same inflections, the same muscular twitches and flows that all those people before them, receding into the shadows of time beyond recording have danced and sung. It was miraculous. A moment of stillness and significance and deep cultural truth for those who will see it.

How can you adopt a child, especially from another country or continent, and not want them to know their beginnings and their heritage? At the same time, you help them assimilate into their adoptive culture with all the nuance and strengths and shortcomings that are part of that complicated package. Sometimes they look different from those in their new world, sometimes they feel different. Often one has everything to do with the other.

People, meaning well, say “She’s so lucky.” But really, she isn’t. Her eyes sometimes betray her grief; a grief she can’t yet name. She has always, from the very first, not even a year old, felt loss deeply and it colors every day and night for her. It is  helping her to frame the context for that loss that is the sacred charge of her adoptive parents. When she was a year old, Max, the gentle orange tiger cat, died. It was hard for everyone in this family that loves their pets like family. Weeks later, she sat alone on the couch, her beautiful soft fuzzy head, her giant black eyes brimming over with tears that traced two glittering silent paths down her warm brown cheeks. Her mother asked her to tell the reason for her sadness. “Max got sick….Max died.” Max was gone. Max left her. Like a mother. Like a father. Like grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins. Like the air spiced with eucalyptus, the rich red berbere spice cooked into the food that was in the breast milk that briefly nourished her, like smoke from the fire that cooked the food, like the coffee beans ground in the stone mortar and boiled over burning charcoal until it rendered up its velvety essence, drunk with a piece of cold butter floated in the top and barely processed gray sugar crystals dissolved in it.

It weighs on her young heart that she doesn’t know, and probably never will know her African mother. Or father. Or grandparents. She sharply corrects her Ethiopian sister, when she talks about her African parents and grandparents, a wishful family she has constructed in her mind to connect herself, a tool for belonging and to make sense of this transcontinental shift in being, “No! Momma and Daddy are your mother and father. Nana and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa are your grandparents.” There is no arguing with her. She talks of going to Ethiopia for a visit the day after school ends, so her Momma can ask some questions, to find her African mother. Testimony to the trust she has in her Momma to take care of things. She assures her, after they find her mother, “I will stay with her for a couple of days, but then I’ll be back,” so she doesn’t hurt her feelings. Her little heart so hugely loving and sensitive to the hurt her longing to know might cause at 7 years old.

We have a life of plenty. Even the poorest of us have more than most of the people that populate this planet. It is hard to quiet our minds and our lives to hear what is elemental inside us over the din of acquisition, consumerism, television. But there are things that we all carry within us. Fear. Grief. Love. Longing. Commonalities we share with all other human beings regardless of place or color or culture. We must quiet ourselves and our privileged thoughts and emotions to imagine, to empathize, to acknowledge that we don’t know or own it all, and a young girl longs for a lost life she doesn’t consciously remember, but she knows it is an inseparable part of her. My instinct would be to try to cover up the bruises of that life; to try to smooth over and to erase the pain.To try to make myself enough for this little one’s longings. Her mother invites her to talk about it. She tells her, “I think about your African mother too. All the time.” That is selfless parenting at its best.

We are the lucky ones, but at what cost? There are times when our love for her seems almost selfish because she brings so much joy to us. And we worry. Is this love we have for her enough? That is the big and hard question. Because love her we do. With heart and soul and mind. And as she grows up, a brown girl in a white family that loves her without question or reserve, will that sustain her? When she comes to know on a personal level the feelings of the racially ignorant, the suspicions of the narrow-minded, the thoughtless stubbornness of some of the family who revere the confederate flag and don’t understand what all the fuss is about, will she still feel the enormous well of love we feel for her and her little sister? Will it strengthen her sufficiently?  Will it be enough? There is no easy resolution or clear answer. It just has to be. It has to be enough to be the steady anchor to sustain her seeking. To buoy her up when she feels the weight of her adopted world on top of her. It has to be enough. It is all we have.

image
Photograph by Tracy J. Cole

Be a Star (To Matthew)

Be a Star (To Matthew)

….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….

Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright

IMG_20160329_0001
Photo by Cora Lynn Deibler

You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.

In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?

Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions,  made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.

And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.

And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.

Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.

There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.

I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.

A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the PDSCF0025acific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.

We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.

DSCF0084_1024We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.

The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place. 

We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.

That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.

Matt 2.jpg

 

 

Facing It. All Of It.

Her 6-yr old daughter assigns her super power to her as they play together at home: “Mommy, your super power is laundry!”  My friend tells me, “I knew then it was time for me to get a job. I had to show her I could do more than laundry.”

What is power in our day to day life, and why do many women who have it not realize it? Why do they discount it? Why do they wholly surrender it? And where in life do some of us become afraid of our power and bury it or neuter it? When does it become more important to get along by hiding the strength and command in our personae as thinking and feeling women than to shine comfortably, assertively? And how do we reclaim it when it’s been lost or seems beyond our reach? And is it weakness, and a betrayal of strength or the efforts of other women to gain it, if we choose to relinquish it ourselves?

Mothering is power, but in contrast to power in the business world, mothering power is silent, often unacknowledged, taken for granted, and sometimes is the phoenix rising from fear. When your child is sick or injured, using the adrenaline of the moment to overcome the panic, you use that surge of power to do anything to help your child. You ride that wave of empowerment to question, warn, and advocate. But when the crisis is past, does empowerment remain? Sometimes. But sometimes it is just what is needed at the moment, and then things return to how they were before the crisis. I watch my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister parent from a place of security and celebration, raising her two little brown daughters to own their difference, their beautiful warm dark skin, their glossy coiled hair, their black eyes, their strength. I see now that I parented sometimes fearful of my children’s enormous power and strong personalities. Sometimes, in place of helping them embrace it, mold it, teaching them to use it wisely, I tried to tamp it down, to get it under control because, frankly, their primitive strength frightened me.

I couldn’t see the turmoil their strength and determination raised in me for what it was: my fear of their power, and my fear of my own strength to meet it, because owning it might mean I’d be called upon to use it. And that meant even more conflict than usual. Then, it was easier to push it back and work at making my children conform. Strong children are resilient, however, and my strong children seem to have landed on their feet with commitment and good work ethic, and common sense. But I suffered. Agonizing uncertainty, shackled by fears of what other people would think, kept me from advocating for my children and celebrating them when I should have, despite the prevailing standards for appropriate behavior. And in parenting, there is little reinforcement from the children you’re trying to tame. They continue to push the envelope, to try to negotiate and bully their way to unlimited vistas of self-absorbed behavior, and you are never enough. That is what they’re meant to do. My strength was secondary, and I was often afraid to reach, to challenge, to speak out for myself, so how could I encourage my children to do that? And as they challenged me, I doubted myself and felt inadequate.

Part of the problem is that the acknowledgement that counts in modern society is monetary pay commensurate with power. And there is no pay in mothering that pays the bills. Mothers have no retirement accounts. Mothers don’t get raises, and can’t look forward to paid vacation. And I, and probably many other women, can’t fully believe in the power they have as mothers if there is no concrete validation from society. It can become a lonely place and the future is ill-defined and certainly terminal. Children grow up, and leave home, and the nest is empty. And then what? There’s no pension. There’s no retirement party.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cranking out a great load of clean warm laundry, especially if that tattered blankie comes out warm and soft and smelling like love and home. But when your daughter thinks the apex of your power is laundry, well then, maybe it’s time for some adjustment. Mothering power, used wisely, produces strong, compassionate daughters and sons who know their strengths and can figure out how to use them. Mothering power empowers children to be proud and sure individuals. How you love your children, how you navigate obstacles in your life in front of your children, how you discipline and talk and laugh with your children (or don’t) teaches lessons. And often the lessons learned from those unconscious moments are far different than the words that come after “Now listen to me….” The potential for growth in those countless moments is unquantifiable. Little eyes and little ears soak it all in and true power is in realizing that and using it in love.

My niece, Lidiya, is a glorious 5-yr old girl. She glows with strength and command as proudly and unconsciously as she wears the vivid clothing she chooses for herself every day; as beautiful and wild as the thick twisty hair that she likes to feel flying back and forth when imageshe shakes her head. For her, power is a fact of life and it is completely and organically meshed with who she is. She uses it to be kind to others. To hug her friend, assuring her she will be back soon, and will play with her then. She uses it to accomplish things for herself, from scooping out her own forbidden ice cream cone late at night, to managing two big dogs like they are toys. And her command of them is so confident and self-assured, they both listen, even though they could knock her over and drag her around the yard. She uses it for determined tug-of-war with her sister, and negotiations with her parents. She uses it without hesitation to stand up for herself in a conflict. She uses it to wade in and stand up for her older sister in a conflict. She uses it to make her world as close to exactly how she likes it as possible every second of every day. It is potent and fierce, and she only has it about half under control. It propels her through life like a water slide, and shoots her out the bottom at the end of the day when she finally drops abruptly into sleep, exhausted. And how she loves every minute of that wild ride. Anyone who lives with Lidiya can only try to climb on and keep up, maybe providing a little parental tweaking along the way. Maybe she’ll even listen, and consider, but compliance is always up in the air, and entirely up to her. I admire her and her molten core of determination, and I think she’s taught me a lot. “Face your fears,” she advised me when she was 3. And now I repeat her wisdom to myself often.

I’ve had some power for the last 15 years; power attributed to me by virtue of my title of Director. Power granted to me by parents of the children in my preschool, power accepted by those parents as governing them as well. Most of the time. My position gives me the opportunity to formulate programming and curriculum. I am trusted to make changes as I see fit. I advise and alert according to my experience as a teacher. I laugh and reassure according to my experience as the parent of children grown up and gone. It still surprises me that adults listen to me about their children, and that they seek my advice. When I realize that parents are nervous to talk with me, I haven’t worn it comfortably; sure I haven’t earned it. But now I give myself a mental shake, and my rightful due. I’ve worked hard for decades, and listened. I’ve made many mistakes, learned from them, and been through enough trial and error that I am finally becoming comfortable in acknowledging success. It wasn’t until I embraced the knowledge that I am good at my job because I work hard at it, and care deeply about the outcome that I felt comfortable wearing that confidence on the outside, and really feeling it in my daily navigation. This is a confident assertion I can hear my Lutheran upbringing tsk-tsk-tsk-ing in the background: Never admit you got this. Never assume you’ve nailed it. Once you do that, your pride and Karma will sucker punch you in the gut and an epic failure is your certain and entirely deserved fate. The thing is, I don’t think I believe that anymore. I also know I couldn’t have made this assertion at any other time in my life, and that awareness came just in time. After a lifetime of self-deprecating denial, I think I’ve accepted the mantle of the power I have earned. And then, recently, it became time to use it. And that is a different exercise entirely.

Before my eyes, a good woman’s life and family were irrevocably changed by a freight train of power fueled by fear and incompetence. Rumors about her and her job were fabricated, whispered, and exaggerated. People in the church, once her family and her foundation, turned inquisitors. One issue rectified and corrected, another would slither in to take its IMG_5596
place. She saw no escape, and her fate was a foregone conclusion from the beginning, despite the hoops through which she obediently tried to jump to keep her job. Once you’re on the radar of a person who fears and must control, you never are free, and her every move was scrutinized and curtailed. So you are told where you may go to the bathroom. You are told what you will wear. You are told how you will spend your time outside of work. And in my fear for her, frustrated with my inability to relieve her pain, and disbelief that this could even be happening, I listened to Lidiya’s voice and faced my fears. Struggling to steady my shaking voice, I spoke out for her. I questioned the way she was being treated, and why, and it built and built, and then there began to be whispers about me. About my teaching. About my intentions. About my character. And that same power slowly began to pile up and rotate in another direction, toward me, and
 I couldn’t get out of its way when it touched down. It’s fingers reached into my home, my sleep, pressing me hard under the weight of its size and anger, while smiling at me on the face of it, and offering thoughts and prayers as a thin veneer of pious sop.

I wonder at the coincidence of this happening just as I am making peace with, and embracing my own strength. And what I saw and experienced bears out what I have always suspected. Power wielded from a place of fear and weakness is the most oppressive of all. It took several years of self-protection, looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing each communication and request for a meeting for the hidden message, the code. I was always wondering how it would certainly impact me down the road, revealed as finished and sealed and my compliance an assumption, regardless of the effect on me or what was entrusted to me. It took many months to outlast the hope that things might just work themselves out, and finally, at the breaking point, I knew some action was necessary. And as I began to push back, to disagree, and to question, not to acquiesce to pats on the head and being told I didn’t really understand, the pressure became more intense.

It was a time of long nights of lost sleep, grinding worry, what to say and what to leave unsaid. There was the risk to my job, my security, my happiness to consider. It was difficult meetings at which supremely difficult things had to be brought out and examined. It was anger turned on me, and frustration exploding, and feelings unavoidably affronted. But make no mistake. I don’t regret drawing the attention of that freight train of a tornado. There was no choice. It was my time to speak. And now, after some time passes, there is no muddy sediment on that resolve, and it still glitters; pristine, brilliant, and diamond hard.

The resolve of women who are determined, organized, and supportive of each other is an inspiring thing to see, and it’s even more inspiring to be part of it. Women, at their best, are strong and kind. They remember who their friends are, and when necessary, remember who their enemies are. Good secure women don’t hold grudges, but they do remember facts, and then act carefully and deliberately on those facts. They bring dark mucky packets of IMG_5115resentment and manipulation out into the light of day, air them out, and dry them, revealing what was kept hidden. And while it is exhilarating and satisfying to finally be acting instead of watchfully waiting, it is also searingly painful, and we have to acknowledge and manage the collateral damage. I can finally celebrate that strength. I can finally say yes, it is mine and I’ve earned it. I’ve used it to help people. I have used it for an unpopular cause that I knew was right and true, even though it was certainly the difficult way. I have made enemies that I know can’t, and probably won’t, forgive me for the first time in my life. The flip side of that, interestingly, is that for the first time in my life, the idea of having enemies doesn’t make my stomach churn. I am comfortable with the necessity for what we had to do. We all were. We rectified the situation without hysteria or drama. We faced our fears down, and discussed our concerns openly and thoroughly.

When the dust settled, people rearranged themselves into new alliances, decisive action was taken, and a theatrical martyrdom was assumed like a heavy velvet cloak to deflect and obscure the real unowned ugliness. Even though the outcome was the only thing that could happen, what we hoped would happen, we each suffered regret and sadness along with the extreme relief, the exhilaration of new possibilities, and the sudden absence of scheming antagonism. And in the quieted aftermath, I discovered I no longer wanted that power. It drained me. It changed the landscape so completely, it could never be repaired. My limits for that turmoil were far exceeded, and there was no regrouping possible. For the first time I knew with clarity that it was my time to leave. I decided to voluntarily give up the power I so recently embraced, and I resigned.

But it wasn’t a relief. It was a swirled bittersweet candy I sucked on for weeks, moving it around with my tongue from spot to spot. Does it taste good here? Or here? How about here? There were isolated moments when I felt calm freedom and certainty. At those times, relieved and at peace, as I settled in to finally enjoy that sweet layer, thinking surely that was what there was at the center of all of this, I could still taste the sadness creeping in. And fear. And finally, depression. 

I ran.

With the blessing of my husband, I flew to South America with a friend who’s been through tough times and who loves me. Who has a good grasp on a solid reality that retains its magic and is sprinkled with serendipity. He’s a friend who challenges the assumptions of others and makes his life wholly and fearlessly his own. I needed that. We rented a car and drove away from Buenos Aires on a 2500 mile search for the Andes, dark purple wine pressed from spicy high altitude grapes, and cabrito, juicy salty crispy baby goat grilled over the hot IMG_6487embers of a wood fire. We laughed and took photos, and we talked about everything. We teetered at the edge of canyons, dizzy from the altitude, with our mouths open in awe. We drove 100mph on two lane roads, zipping around and past the pedestrian fearful slowpokes that plodded along, in the way and dulling the edge of our adventure. We spent a day content in silence, thinking our thoughts and shedding them like old skins, one by one as the miles peeled away under the tires of our car. We stopped by the road to photograph a cemetery made of carefully tended mausoleums and graves carved right into the side of the mountain that had its roots in the Inca tribes that occupied this land. The week before we got there, a raging river, flooding over its banks with Andean runoff had carried away half the town. We arrived as the Carnaval celebration, delayed for only a week because of the tragedy, took place.

In the dark dusty streets of the pueblo, lit only by the moon, lined with adobe houses made from the mud and grass of the ground we stand on, these people face their fear square in the face. They wave enormous rippling silk banners back and forth, beat drums and play IMG_5340trumpets in hypnotic rhythms that echo the centuries of ceremony and ritual that stretch back beyond recorded time. Their costumes are dark, and small mirrors are affixed to them, reflecting bits of light that happen to shine from open doorways. There are no street lights, and this Carnaval feels menacing and primal; all blood and bone, and thoroughly tragically human. Their dancing is frantic and aggressive in the dusty warm dark. Their dancing is a talisman against the death that stalked those narrow streets a week ago, as it has time and time before, as it rained and rained and water poured off the mountains and into their homes. This dancing is reclamation of their fragile hold on the land. They are injured, but they are not vanquished. We wonder to each other how much time these people spend worrying about their future, about their health, about their jobs. We begin to sense the value in being part of a Nature so overpowering there is no way to escape her. Nature always will find her way, and this humanity must keep dancing to survive; dancing quickly out of her way, or directly in front of her in defiance of her fury. They care for the graves of their ancestors as they know the only permanence in this huge land is death.

These mountains, the Andes, are massive. Their palpable looming power indescribable. They are breathing things, coiled up in the darkness and in the daylight, not caring whether we come or go, or even if we survive the trip. They planted themselves here eons ago, thrusting up out of the crust of a young Earth in a catastrophic birth of fire and lava, draining an ocean and exposing shells and sea life to an upheaval so violent the ancient sea floor is thrown up above the clouds where we now stand upon it. It is impossible to imagine. The chaos of primordial creation gouges out scars everywhere, and I, finally, am nothing. Stunningly insignificant. Utterly inconsequential to this huge harsh world. I am a speck. I am dust. And it is such a relief. In the heat of this high desert, with no one on the road except ourselves, and no houses to be seen, only the abandoned ruins of roofless adobe walls, life comes down to these four things: Water. Muscle. Grit. Luck. We stand in silent submission to the magnitude of these mountains because we have no choice. She will have it no other way. I finally feel my depression lift. I understand, I accept, and now I embrace my desire to give up the trappings of my small power, and in that I find the strength of real peace. I am enough as I am. The taste in my mouth is finally the ancient elemental sweetness of ground maize and dark purple Tannat, and my heart opens and flies. And I am free.

IMG_5727

 

 

 

Big Weather

I’m washing dishes in the kitchen in July, and sweating. Brahms’ 3rd Symphony is in the speakers, and while a nice distraction, I pause to wipe the drop of sweat off my eyebrow with the back of my arm, and my mind isn’t on the music. My thick humid days roll on and over to close damp nights and the sun struggles to push up into the sky again in the morning, and it’s been a week now. The sky is hazy and flat and the white glare of the light outside the window dulls my eyes and my thoughts. I can feel the ice pick jab of a migraine taunting me in my left temple, the sharp ache behind my left eye reminding me that I am definitely not in charge here, and warning me more surely than the special weather bulletin that something’s coming. Just not soon enough.

I long for some big weather right now. No slow rains. No gentle breezes, or bright sunny days like saturated molten gold. I want ominous clouds gathering on the horizon. Huge nimbus ships, boiling and blowing and rolling in on themselves, towering higher, getting grayer, bluer, then blacker, then greener with the coming storm. I want the hair on my arms to stand straight up with the electricity in the air. I look back out the window and I wait. Another drop of sweat runs down the side of my face. My hair is damp and separated on my neck.

The air and the light begins to change. There is now brilliant sun dazzling the green leaves of the trees across the street. Shimmering shifting emeralds when the wind begins to blow.  The sky is pale washed blue behind the trees, then slowly morphs to charcoal black, but the sun is still shining on those glorious leaves. The best light in the world. Fleeting. Then dimmed. Then gone. The wind picks up and a breath blows through the screen onto my face. The maple leaves turn their silver backs to the sky, inviting the rain that is now surely coming, and the wind makes them dance and twist on their stems. The deadest of the branches begin to fall down onto the grass, and that glorious sky goes darker still. The street lights flicker on in the middle of the afternoon. Now there’s a yellowish tinge to the light, giving the air a weird sepia tint. A sinister daguerreotype of a day with deep dark smudges at the horizon and the fabric of the sky cracking apart at the edges. The air is a cascade of booming and rumbling, rolling in in an incremental but surefooted scale. I plunge my hands through the hot soapy water and lay them on the bottom of the steel sink. I think I can feel it vibrating up my arms. It’s building.

I have to be outside on the porch for this, to feel the wind through my hot damp hair and on my neck, and hear the splintering of the dead branches snapping off and falling out of the old damaged trees around my house. I step outside, but the wind wants me in, and pushes the door back on me, and I have to muscle it open. I won’t miss this. On my street, people on bikes pedal by furiously, heads down, anxious to get home and safe from the storm before it lets loose. Using newspapers and book bags to cover their heads, some run by. And now the sky is heavy black and the wind is deep and wild. The rain begins, drops at a time, and the hot pavement smells metallic. Faster, gusting, soon it falls in sheets, driving into the gasping ground, and some of the spray blows on me, sheltered on the porch. The storm drains are overwhelmed and the hot street steams as walls of water wash over it. The air is thick with the smells of dark soil and ozone and earthworms caught by surprise, at once wet, evil, and fresh. And then, a ripping crack and a brilliant flash and an explosion louder than anything I’ve heard before. It shakes the windows and the storm door, aptly named, but a feeble joke against this. It shoves me backwards against the walls of the porch into a sudden violent blank separation from myself that seems to last for minutes, whether from the charge of the lightning or the visceral jerking shock of the sound.

Brahms and all sound is gone in a primordial silence. The lights are out. I gather my shaking self back in and back together. I look at the window that is incredibly still whole. And in the space of that keen infant quiet, the roaring congestion is purged, gone in a blazing moment, along with the huge old tulip tree that stood across the street. The shredded stump, 3 feet across, blown apart by a holy bomb, is all that is left. The grassy lawn is littered with missiles of wood, driven into the ground, hundreds of feet away from the center of the blast. The rain falls steadily, and as if the absolute destruction of this old tree was what it came to do, the storm now reluctantly retreats, the thunder grumbling and complaining into the distance, and finally away. The rain slows to a stop. Now people come out one at a time to see if it’s safe, to marvel at the destruction, to laugh with relief, control regained, and take pictures. They pose their children on the fallen giant like a sad pathetic conquest. They reclaim their fragile possession.  Me, I am sorry that it’s over. And I send this sacrificial tree a prayer of thanks for that brief violent slap with all my senses on fire. And this peaceful denouement is a poor faded substitute for feeling so alive for those few exquisite moments.

photo

The Quiet

Traffic noise on the street is a constant refrain. Music and shouting, cans rolling on the pavement, angry cats fighting, neighbors clamoring for all the air and space they can grab and it never stops. The noise inside me that no one else can hear is just as deep and loud and even though it’s silent, and although I don’t invite it in, it crashes through the door and then won’t leave. I have dreams at night that won’t let me alone when daylight comes, and the next night I dream about the dream from the night before filled with worry and trouble and no control over anything that will happen and walking through mud on legs weakened and weighted and pulling breath into lungs that refuse to inflate. Tornadoes roar an approach and children won’t listen to me to run, and run now, and I can’t gather them in and the wind is screaming and I know with visceral conviction that a suffocating nimbus of death is coming. The noise of my dreams drowns me with their weight in the quiet of the night. My husband sleeps beside me with his hand resting steady and warm on my hip and I lay awake rooted and listening to the noise thrumming through my head, amplified and booming in the dark.

In the morning the coffee drips and I slowly let in the lighted world and my fuzzy-headed waking isn’t strong enough or discerning enough to sift all the information accumulated while I slept and movie stars are misbehaving, and drones are striking and cranky people are bitching about life and it’s snowing again and bad grammar and the things they cannot escape or will not, and I can’t stay away, I have to know it and read it and listen to it and watch the clips and connect and comment because I’m certain my small weak thoughts will power a change and I have to read about the wrongs and the troubles because it is my duty as a voting citizen with all of society and my family and my friends on my shoulders and rail against the injustice that is living, until I want to throw it down and walk away to the shower. I scrub and scrub with hot water and peppermint soap with the water pounding my face and the soap blocking my ears and I think this is what it sounds like deep under Niagara Falls below the foam of the falls breaking where it is tons of pressure in that sonic boom of power and I ponder aromatherapy and the search for peace through my nose and think that if I just knew more I’d be set and quiet at last, and then I’m towelling dry my hair and my ears clear and the noise starts again as the sound of the water drips away and my list of obligations begins to shout at me and I know I’m running out of time to get it all done before I have to leave for work and all I want is a day or two or a week of quiet that is quiet.

How do I explain to the people I love and who love me that I need to be away from them to hear myself? It hurts the ones I run to daily for refuge and help, for calming and care like my husband and my parents, sisters and brother and friends and their eyes and the set of their shoulders say isn’t this good enough and haven’t we been here to prop you up all those times when you sucked out our energy and our patience and we gave it and gave it freely and willingly until it was gone and now it isn’t enough after all? Well thanks a lot and go then, but they’re hurt by my desertion, and when I’m really looking for the quiet I have to run away or drive away or send others away and then I choose my company carefully. My notebook. My fountain pen. My hiking boots. My camera. My orange cat. My night under the moon. Just watching, alone, on my dark porch.

The moon at night is quiet, known and unknowable, a pearl out of reach, and the trail through the pine and oak forest is quiet, pulling hectic energy out of me and dissipating it in the cedar scented breeze, and I could ask you to come but would you hear the quiet and let it be or would you try to fill it to lay claim to it and name it?

That’s the risk right there.

Field 2

The Knowing Of It

They fell for it again, and mailed sixteen Monarch caterpillars to me, no bigger than a pencil’s eraser. They’re packed in a box and overnighted to my front door with a cold pack to keep them drugged with chilly sluggishness. They arrive in little plastic condiment cups, atop a grayish green gel of “feeding medium”. Me and my credit card trusted to raise these helpless fragile beings to glorious adulthood, to teach rambunctious preschoolers all about the miracle of metamorphosis. It sometimes is a different lesson. I have their aquarium habitat ready, and I’m in charge of feeding them. I unconsciously scan the roadside for milkweed all year long. I commit the locations to memory. Their survival depends on me, and that weighs me down. The butterfly people don’t know their efforts to conserve and preserve Danaus plexippus are no more than a crap shoot when they mail that package off to me.

caterpillar

All my life I’ve taken care. Of pets. Of homework. Of my books and record albums. Later, of my husband, my friends, my house, my children. My children like those little caterpillars, needing constant tending and feeding. Attached to me with their sticky silky threads of need and love and touch. The primal attachment born with each one of them, seconds old, placed on my soft welcoming stomach, crying, wet, and slippery. Their blue eyes first looking into my blue eyes. Instinctively grasping my finger to reconnect the severed umbilical cord. An infinitely elastic unbreakable band that binds us to each other for life. Nursed and soothed. Cleaned and wiped. Cajoled and scolded. Limits and largesse. I have three children, and I love them to the dark unplumbed desperate depths of my soul every moment of my life, even while sometimes hating what they did, as they also at times hated me. It was, and is, inexplicably complex and nuanced. The whole time they are growing in my house, even though I am fulfilled, occupied, and stretched to exhaustion, part of me is waiting. Asleep. And I don’t even know it.

My job – I’m a preschool teacher – is odd. It is part-time, but all-consuming. Technically, I work two and one-half hours per day in that classroom filled with miniature furniture and miniature people. Two hundred ten furiously paced minutes that drain me completely. Sixteen 4-year olds never let you rest. They ask, demand, laugh, ignore, challenge, and delight and want me involved in it all, all at the same time. Despite what most parents think, teaching them to write their names, recognize letters and numbers, teaching them to read, is all a distant second to teaching them compassion, consideration, independence and compromise. Teaching them to be caring friends. It is often an uphill battle, and sometimes feels futile. These little people are in my care, preparing for their next step into the world. I need to convince them, and their sometimes reluctant parents, that they can trust me to do that. Any emotional detachment I have for my preschoolers that might relieve some of the exhaustion is negated by their sheer number. There are just so many of them, and in the end, I come to care deeply about them anyway. It is my curse while also my blessing.

The little caterpillars eat and eat and eat. Miraculous machines with an irresistible drive to grow. And they don’t even know it. They just do it. They get bigger by the day and split their old skins and reveal vibrant new bodies; brilliant green, black, yellow, and white stripes. My routine during those weeks is simple. Leave for school early, and drive out into the country to cut sticky dripping stalks of the poisonous milkweed they need to eat. It takes 30 minutes to wash the stems, remove the old chewed stalks and push the new ones into the holes in the lid of the container that holds them upright. I examine both sides of each old leaf, making sure that I move every little caterpillar onto green juicy leaves before discarding the old ones. They settle in seamlessly, and get right to work. If you look closely, you can see their mouths mowing off row upon row of milkweed, like corn on the cob. They never stop. There are times when some have inexplicably disappeared, with no trace remaining. I suspect cannibalism. I try not to think about it.

My children were busy. Intricate imaginative games, craft projects, made-up dramatic play, and construction projects in the back yard that besides hammers, nails, and scraps of lumber, usually involved help from me. Forts. Tree houses. Tents. Bicycle repairs. Endless snacks and drinks. Occasionally small forbidden fires. They loved ferociously and they battled ferociously, sometimes to blood. In turn, I fought too many battles for them, to try to spare them pain and darkness, and intertwined myself with them until we were indivisible, our separate roots indistinguishable in the black loamy soil of our lives. The inevitable separation is exquisitely painful, and the surgeon is utterly unskilled. I bear the fresh scars, as do they, and I hope they fade to silvery white in time. I hope that I can forget, or at least absorb, and push to the background, the grinding pain.

One amazing day, the caterpillars are hanging upside down from the screen covering the aquarium. And then, again, all at once, there’s nothing to do but wait. In seconds, they turn from striped caterpillar to a brilliant green luminous chrysalis with a glittering thread of gold necklacing the top. As much time as I have spent peering into their world, I have never witnessed that secret moment of transformation. Little jewels with a wonder inside them waiting to be realized. I am in awe every time. Some years, if I’ve been diligent and careful, we have 12 or 14 chrysalises. There are so many variables. Have I let the milkweed get too dry? Have they gotten too warm in the sun? Has the milkweed been sprayed with a pesticide by determined road crews? Have I unwittingly poisoned them, the grim reaper in a blue plastic cup with a scythe swinging a wide murderous arc? Last year, and one other year, I fear I did. They all died before achieving their chrysalis stage. We spirit the aquarium to the supply closet, the last body lying on its side in the bottom on the clean paper towel. He hadn’t eaten in days. We talk about death and dying at Circle Time. Everyone knows a cat or a dog or a grandmother who has died. You can see the pain in their open little faces. Sometimes I have to dam up my own tears when face to face with their stark losses and their struggle to understand this permanent absence.

milkweed

I tried to socialize my children, to keep them presentable and well-behaved, but I know I’ve been too cautious. Too conscious of what others will think of my children’s behavior, and thus, mostly, of myself. Why do I not realize this until it is too late for them? I fear I have smothered vital parts of their spirit, crushed their drive, limited them and hemmed them in, and incrementally, unintentionally dimmed their flame. Do they feel that way too? And when they morph into their adolescence, I fuss around on the periphery, begging for clues to how they are faring. I peer in countless times a day while they lead their own now secret lives in their darkening chrysalises, covered in clothing and friends of their own choosing. I am left to wonder just what they are doing, thinking, feeling. They share none of it. They talk with friends on cell phones, instead of with me at the bedtime kiss and snuggle. They seem to no longer want it, though perhaps they still need it. It feels sinister and shifty to me, and it is solely theirs, and dear God, did I do enough with this sacred trust? To have failed them doesn’t bear thinking. Suddenly cut loose, I slowly stop spinning and haltingly reflect on myself, creaky, painful, and unaccustomed. I am losing something huge and substantial, and in the bloody gap I see something vaporous forming. Indistinct. Eerie. Frightening. And it is irresistible.

Over time, the chrysalises darken to black, as if a bloody struggle is staining and obscuring the translucent walls of soft green. And then one day, the mud clears, the chrysalis is transparent, and I see the compacted orange and black wings of a Monarch butterfly. If I look closely, they pulse and vibrate with transformed life. The next day I arrive in the classroom and out of habit, glance at the aquarium. An empty chrysalis is a papery scrap attached to the ceiling of the aquarium with a sticky patch of silk. The damp and crumpled butterfly lies motionless in the bottom of the glassy hatchery, on a wet brown spot. The detritus of birth. It looks like it was painful. And as if the butterfly might want to go through this in private, without the shouting of 4-year olds and the boom of excited tapping fingers. Slowly the wet wings stretch out and slowly they dry, and the brilliant harlequin wings, orange and black and white, fan up and down, drying and strengthening and straightening and getting ready. 

One by one the butterflies hatch out of their chrysalises and they are hungry. The menu changes from milkweed to nectar. I mix sugar and water and soak cotton balls in the solution. They flutter to their dinner, and with their impossibly delicate legs and long curling tongues, suck up the sweetness. I place the aquarium in the sun, and they fan their wings, warming and strengthening for flight. We all like the opportunity to examine these butterflies, forced to hold still and contained for our inspection. We talk about migration and find Mexico on a globe. We read story books about butterflies. We practice saying the hard words like “metamorphosis” and “chrysalis”. We sing songs about butterflies and caterpillars. They fascinate and absorb us. And day after day, until a nice day arrives for release, I mix sugar and water, and tend them in their hatchery. They are beautiful. And they are safe. Nothing can hurt them in there. After the children go home, I kneel and watch them in their gorgeous elemental silence.

When I packed my children up for college, it was with excitement, dread, laughter, and tears. Huge hope. Huge faith. The final release, realizing they would never be wholly mine again. With each successive child’s flight I gain another ounce of freedom, and an emptier house. The departure of my second child is less exciting, and more sad. I see now how their release is also my irrevocable loss. My own chrysalis darkens with the struggle. The departure of the third child, my daughter, my own heartbeat, guts me, and leaves me gasping. It takes me months to remind myself that this is good and right, and even while I enjoy uninterrupted time and freedom, there is also an emptiness that begs for filling. I feel the struggle of separation and transformation in my bones. I ache in every muscle. I have to learn to live calmly again. Again? Really for the first time. Someone asks me, ‘What are your dreams?’ I have no dreams of my own. I dreamt of a marriage that was deep and substantial. I dreamt of babies; children to love and raise. My dreams were those I harbored and nourished for them. I have not thought about what I am beyond mother, wife, and friend. It all is churning and I start to feel my own faint vibrating. I poke at it and I wonder at it; what form it will take when it comes out. It grows and beats and becomes stronger and soon I hear it all the time. It is no longer distant. It is myself, in myself, and it is calling me.

Monarch

We look ahead to the weather, and a cool sunny day approaches. It’s time to let the butterflies go. We line up to file outside, me in the front of the line, with the aquarium full of butterflies. The Pied Piper of Lepidoptera. I have my class sit down on the sidewalk so they can all see, and so no little feet, milling around, step on a butterfly. We take the lid off the aquarium and the butterflies are stunned to stillness. Dismayed and frozen at their sudden freedom. I’m holding my breath. I reach in and coax one onto my finger. It is a singular gift to hold a butterfly in its weightless beauty, and pure fragile perfection. Its thread-like legs grasp my finger as I lift it up. Now they are all fluttering around and restless, and one by one, released from my finger up into the blue sky. My class watches them go with enormous excitement, calling goodbyes. I watch them fly away with tears clouding my eyes, saying my silent farewells, and I have to swallow hard to keep the lump of a sob down. How to explain to my 4-year olds the utter sadness of this departure for me. They all are sure they will fly on to Mexico to beget more Monarch butterflies like the story books promised. How to explain the harms that wait for them. How to know all that and still have faith that they will fulfill what they are meant to do. Safe in the hatchery, they remain protected, and beautiful to look at and I can keep them safe. Fluttering erratically away, seemingly directionless and buffeted by the wind, falling, then catching a draft and soaring upward, how will they manage? No one can know, but they have to go.

As they fly from our sight, climbing and spiraling smaller and smaller against that brilliant bluebird sky, rare quiet from my class of little people who stand and watch. Now free, they are more fleetingly beautiful than they ever could be in their glass house. And with a moment of stunning clarity, the darkness of my own chrysalis falls away in papery shreds and it’s like a dream I sometimes have where I am flying. The wind shushes by my ears and my heart seizes, pounds, and thrills to the fear and excitement and the sudden expansive seeing of everything. I soar up and, suddenly falling, dip and dive and soar again. I try out my wings and slowly sense the control that I have, but it’s not much. And I so like that, completely different from when my feet were so solid and so rooted to the ground. It’s terrifying and new and risky, but I want more and more. This new vision, my eye seeing the curve of the world in the distance, is rushing at me on the wind and I turn my face into it to feel it cold and cleansing. It’s not safe. It’s unknowable. I have to take it – whatever “it” is – as it comes, and it’s a celebration. I go on climbing, afraid of the unpredictable, and doubting my own strength. I go on climbing in the face of others’ judgements, still so rooted. My chrysalis is gone. And now, fulfilling its own exquisite timing, I rise, reaching, looking out onto the world with new eyes. My skin and my hair and my fingers and my heart testing the air, sensing the way, following the pulse that began in the chrysalis. Those butterflies know the beauty of it all, and now I will know it too.

Vista 2

Argentina Speaks

CafeNot being able to understand anything anyone is saying is both humbling and liberating. On the one hand, I can’t order my own coffee, and someone has to read the menu to me like I’m a preschooler, then help me figure out how much it will cost when the waiter asks for payment. But listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand, you are free to be an anonymous spectator, to watch the face, the eyes, the hands, the set of the chin, the forehead, the turn of a lip. Eyebrows alone tell a story in the language of the body that is too often overpowered by the noise of the words.  The tone of the voice, the upward or downward inflection at the end of a sentence. It all sounds somehow familiar, like listening to a toddler speaking – that if you could listen just a little closer, you would understand the words – but there is no real comprehension.

Two men, over coffee, looking sad, speaking quietly in short bursts, avoiding each other’s eyes. They examine their fingers, a fork, their untouched food, anything but the other’s eyes. They finally eat, silently, and then one leaves. The other stays, stirring a second coffee, looking out the window at nothing.

Two academics with bulging leather book bags and heavy beards, have a spirited and loud conversation.  Passionate, gesturing with animated hands, almost angry, but laughing as well. Their joy in the debate so clear.

PrideI’m sitting around a table with a group of people. Rapid conversation, short bursts of laughter. Quick sideways glances at me, then eyes sliding away.  I’m being discussed, and perhaps not kindly. I think it is good that an American feel self-conscious, on edge, and out-of-place. We so often assume ownership and welcome without earning it. The little dog on my lap licks my chin. She only knows the language of my fingers slowly massaging her tight shoulder muscles, and she’s happy with me.

Argentine spanish is lyrical, musical, singsongy and soft, with buzzing j’s and ssh sounds, the r’s rolling out of the mouth like bubbles of water.  When asking a question of someone, the language sounds always, to me, apologetic. I’m so sorry but could I ask…? No, I’m so sorry, but it cannot happen…., with shoulder shrugs met with entreaties to reconsider, have you thought of this? What about this? Then finally, the No, I’m so very sorry but we are out of that flavor of helado. Ah well, alright. We’ll choose from the other 30 flavors today. World weight and ceremony given to ice cream, to grilling meat, and to wine.  A country that understands priorities.

JacarandaWhen I have travelled abroad, someone with whom I’m spending time apologizes to me for their English, their second and sometimes third language, and I feel deficient and ignorant. I know no Spanish. I know so little French anymore I couldn’t communicate if I needed to, although I comfort myself by knowing I could still read a street sign. And so tonight we go to visit new friends who have apologized ahead of time for their English. Our friend translates freely, happily, tirelessly for me and my husband, and these men are gracious and make the effort to speak English to us so we feel a part of the evening. The food, tender baby goat roasted with potatoes in cream and almond sauce will be new and deliciously mysterious, the bottles of deep red bonarda will grease the wheels, and I know we’ll have a nice time. They will be able to communicate so much better in English than I will in Spanish, yet at some point, everyone will relax, Spanish will rightfully take over the evening, and I will again watch the conversation like a recital. I don’t mind. I love the music of the language. The build to the laughter, the fall to the quiet pronouncement. The calm of agreement and consensus, and the clatter of discord. Hands and eyes and mouths communicating more than the words themselves. Real friends. Affection pouring around the table with the wine, and two Americans folded into the circle. A privilege.