Backtalk

I was told little girls don’t howl like banshees. They don’t go around with messy hair and dirty ragamuffin faces. They say please and thank you. They keep their elbows off the table.

I heard for goodness’ sake, stop harping about not being hungry. There are plenty of children in the world who would be happy for what you’ve got. Don’t get smart with me, you know you can’t share your supper with them. You will clean your plate, missy, before going back outside. No need to panic because your friends are waiting. And no hiding food in your napkin. If you think that will work you’ve got another think coming. That’s quite enough backtalk from you.  

Not till I’m grown do I learn:

Banshee comes from my Irish kin, meaning a female fairy or woman of the elves.

Ragamuffin comes from Ragamoffyn, the name of a demon in a 14th century poem.

To harp comes from harpies, winged half-human half-bird creatures in Greek mythology representing hungry wind spirits who steal food.

Happy comes from my Nordic kin, from heppinn (fortunate) and hap (luck).

Panic is related to sudden terror when woodland god Pan lets loose fierce cries, causing enemies to flee and saving his embattled friend.

I am glad to live for goodness’ sake. But hair messy, elbows on the table, I fly beyond what I used to call remembery, toward a world where another think is, indeed, coming.

Same

I haven’t seen my favorite eight-year-old since Christmas Eve. Her parents are, again, being careful because of Covid case counts in our area. Although I miss her and her younger siblings so much I feel tearful writing this sentence, our occasional phone call lets me talk one-on-one with her in a way we rarely get to do during visits.

Today, our nearly 90 minute call started with guessing games. What Am I Thinking is her favorite. Some of today’s correct guesses turned out to be ladybugs, clouds, and atoms. Then we played Would You Rather, which simply consists of taking turns making up questions like, “Would you rather travel by hot air balloon or sailboat?” and “Would you rather be an elephant or a whale?” but she’s so darn mature these days that she tends to say, “I’d like to experience both.” This lasts until our questions get much sillier, like “Would you rather eat worms or garbage?”

She switched screens to show me her room which she recently cleaned and organized. Her large stuffed bear, who she’s named Friendly Bear, holds its own toy animal pal under one arm and a book under another. “I know you’ll like this,” she said, “because books are your favorite thing.”

We discussed which superpowers we’d choose. I said healing, so I could help heal the world. She said she’d like to be able to fly. “I’d fly over right now to hug you.”

We discussed what it’s like to talk to animals and trees. She and I agreed, they are very good listeners. “Especially when you’re sad,” she said. I told her I don’t hear dogs or trees answer in a way I can hear with my ears, but I sometimes I feel what they say inside of me. “Me too!” she said, “We’re just the same!”

Then she talked about how her mind likes to go so wild that she doesn’t notice time passing. She said, “I look around and say to myself, ‘How is this real? How am I real?”” and I said, “Me too! We’re just the same!”

*****

My Mother’s “Joy of Cooking”

This vintage Joy of Cooking was my mother’s main cookbook for all 18 years I lived at home. The author’s foreword speaks from another time, addressing the “kitchen-minded” woman of long ago.

Its recipes include things my mother often made: chicken and dumplings, ham baked with pineapple rings, macaroni and cheese, split pea soup, city chicken, spinach soufflé, scalloped corn, creamed chipped beef, banana bread, tapioca pudding, chocolate cake, and an always-perfect apple pie.

I’m grateful she avoided many other offerings on these pages. She cared about flavor and tried all sorts of recipes clipped from women’s magazines as well as hand copied from library issues of Gourmet magazine. The Joy of Cooking recipe for “Beef Chop Suey” called for ground meat to be cooked with celery, onions, and mushrooms in a quarter-cup of butter, then doused with a can of tomato soup and served with fried noodles. My mother instead drove to an Asian market in Cleveland to purchase ingredients not normally found in grocery stores back then — tofu, cellophane noodles, bok choy, snow peas. Even I, the fussy eater of the family, enjoyed her attempts at Chinese cooking. My mother also talked neighbors into getting regular deliveries of fresh eggs from an innovative farmer and visited rural farm stands to get fresh fruit in season — well ahead of the farm to table movement.

I grew up glad to come home to a house smelling like supper. The aroma was reassurance that we were loved and cared for, another kind of hug. My mother’s dishes were a way of serving her time and attention to all of us, even if we were incessantly reminded in our early years to get our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, and eat everything on our plates. I’m sure my picky appetite didn’t make things easier for her. I abhorred the texture of creamed corn, detested having to drink the syrup that oozed around canned fruit (“That’s where all the vitamins are!”), couldn’t bear to eat anything containing sour cream or cream cheese, and was appalled when my peas touched my potatoes. I disliked meat, especially meat that wasn’t hidden in soup or casseroles, and never quite got over the idea of cutting up animal bodies as food. It took years before I stopped asking “what was it when it was alive.” I wanted to gulp my milk, eat a few bites, then get back to playing, riding my bike, or reading a library book.

My seat at the kitchen table was next to my father, who often took pity on me by serving me only tiny morsels of meat and even then, sometimes, pretending not to notice when I snuck it onto his plate anyway. I came up with all sorts of ways to get out of eating what I disliked. I’d crumple food in my napkin. I’d hide the nastiest bits under a potato skin. I’d say I needed to go to the bathroom, then stuff my mouth with something awful in order to spit it out in the toilet. Each gambit only worked once, although I kept trying. For a while my mother attempted get-tough methods. I spent several evenings sitting in front of a plate of food I was unable to finish, staying there until bedtime. This happened most often when she made hamburgers. These were rounded hunks of ground meat cooked in a frying pan; crusty outside, pinkish inside. They were served on a slice of white bread, as we didn’t fritter money away on anything so frivolous as buns. What she called “juices” soaked through the bread, making it a wet pulp, so the whole thing had to be cut and eaten with a fork. Condiments helped hide the brown mass but some bites I chewed with grumpy reluctance contained tiny bits of gristle and that’s all it took for me to feel nauseated. I was entirely willing to sit at the table while my siblings were excused to go play. I sat there thinking of myself as a greatly misunderstood character in one of my books, sometimes willing a dramatic tear to slide down my face. One time my mother, surely fueled by yet another Parents magazine article advising her to “show children you mean business,” got my plate out of the refrigerator and insisted I eat it for breakfast. I didn’t. I won that battle, as she was unwilling to let me go to school on an empty stomach. After that she gave up. Maybe she realized I read every copy of Parents magazine that came in the mail too.

Holding this book in my hands brings to mind a line from the poem “Food,” by Brenda Hillman — “imagine all this/translated by the cry of time moving through us.” These Joy of Cooking pages serve as distinct, sometimes full body travel through time. Just her handwriting on these splattered and bent pages brings me back.

She wrote revisions to some recipes.
Noted which weren’t worth repeating.
Kept lists of useful household information between the pages.

The cookbook also served as a repository for little pictures and notes from her three children. To safeguard the privacy of my older sister and younger brother, I’ll only include one (unsigned) image by each of them.

A cartoon drawn by my sister, from her preteen years.
A cheery non-complaint by my brother when he was in elementary school.

My mother saved a pile of drawings and notes by all of her kids, but I’ll share more of my own from different years as examples.

Note from an eight-year-old.

It’s strange to look back at these offerings, recognizing how much these little expressions of love must have meant to her. But that, of course, is exactly what her children intended when they drew or wrote them.

Note from a 14-year-old, home late from a babysitting gig.

She even, unbelievably, saved a test of mine from high school — graded with a huge zero. (Naturally, I corrected the teacher’s misuse of “your.”)

I’m glad to have this now-fragile copy of a book my mother held so often throughout the decades. She’s been gone for far too many years. I’m going to give these pages a closer look to pick out a few familiar recipes I’ll be making soon.

July 20, 1969

I was a little kid the day Earthlings landed on the moon. I stood in a campground’s crowded rec room, stopover on one of our lengthy summer trips. Each summer our parents drove us place-to-place in a small car hauling a 15-foot Scotty travel trailer for the most frugal, yet educational, travel possible. That’s why we were here, looking up at a TV mounted near the ceiling. I could barely see due to all the people around me and still remember the press of strangers’ sweaty skin on mine.

My family had entered the room with celebratory excitement about this history-making event. But the prevailing mood here was far different. People seemed to anticipate disaster with unsettling eagerness. I’d never heard grown-ups talk around kids as these people did. There was rampant speculation that astronauts would “blow up in their suits,” or be stranded on the moon to die, or return carrying undetectable germs likely to infect our whole planet. A loud man in front of me said, “You won’t know aliens snuck back with them till it’s too late!” My calm and reasonable parents were somewhere in the crowd, along with my two siblings, but I didn’t risk taking my eyes off the screen to look for them.

The static-filled TV images I managed to see were hard to decipher. It was even harder to understand what the astronauts were saying. But I could easily hear Houston’s Mission Control. The very idea that people on the ground were speaking to people on the moon, a moon small as a sugar cookie in the night sky, gave me a sense we were all connected. Perhaps improbably, it reminded me of a scene I loved from the 101 Dalmatians movie, where people gave up looking for stolen puppies, but intrepid dogs never gave up. At twilight they barked and barked, their voices moving from attic window to alley to hilltop across improbable distances in a mutual effort to save those puppies.

We’d recently learned about space in elementary school. I was troubled by the concept of endless galaxies because it made me think of the tiny place everyone I loved occupied in the vastness of space and time. But this mission to the moon felt like an antidote to smallness. These astronauts were also tiny in the context of space and time, yet they went ahead anyway. They packed up their smarts and their faith in science to head off for an improbable adventure that, we were told, would benefit all mankind.

There are always people who are afraid (I know plenty about fear) but the engine of hope can’t help but lift us.  I was wildly proud of Science, Humanity, and the USA back when those blurry figures bounced like tiny cartoon characters on the moon. I’m still hopeful. It’s amazing what we can do when we have resolve and act on it, together.

It May Happen For You

Here in the Midwest we say, “You won’t meet a nicer person” and that perfectly describes Sam Richards. Sam is married to my cousin Becky (another one of those truly kind people). The geographical distance separating us means we only see each other every decade or so, but nearly two years ago Becky and Sam came from Missouri to stay with us for a few days. Sam had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and because his symptoms were worsening they wanted to cross off as many bucket list items as possible before travel became too difficult. They went to parks, museums, visited extended family in the area, and walked around the tree-lined streets of Oberlin College where Becky’s father had graduated. It was an absolute delight to spend time with them, even though shadowed by our concern for Sam’s health. It was gutting to think this supremely capable and generous man was facing decline.  

Sam served in the U.S. Marine Corp for 23 years. He continued a life of public service as a police officer and code enforcement officer. His commitment didn’t end there. He served a total of eight years on two different city councils, nearly 20 years on a regional EMS board of directors, as well ongoing work on the executive council of their Methodist church.  He was asked to run for mayor of their city, Festus, but couldn’t consider it due to his health.

Later that year, Becky called with the most amazing news. It was discovered that Sam didn’t have Parkinson’s after all. A medication he was taking for another condition caused side effects that mimicked the disease. With a change of medication, his future was once again wide open. I could have laughed and cried at the same time. With everything going on in the country and the world, this was the best news we’d heard in a very long time.

It got better.

Last year, on April 2nd, Sam Richards was sworn in as mayor of Festus, Missouri.

                                                                     ~~~

Which brings me to today. Our new puppy arrived this afternoon. Many of the dogs we’ve had over the years came to us already named – among them Jedi, Winston, and Cocoa. But this little guy was ours to name. In these difficult times, I want a daily reminder that extraordinarily wonderful things are possible. That a good thing happened to a good man. That a town got a fine mayor. That there’s always hope. So of course, our new dog’s name is Festus.

He is an affectionate, playful, constant tail-wagging fluff ball. First nap of the afternoon.

SOMETIMES

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
fom bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
That seemed hard frozen: it may happen for you.

~Sheenagh Pugh  

First Time You Felt Brave*

 

I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.

I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.

One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments  He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.

My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way.  I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.

There’s an awful pause.

I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.

A longer pause.

Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.

~

Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.

*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave. 

 

2019: What A Year

2019 seems to have stomped by in adjective-defying ways, with giant lows and highs. And that’s just my own life.

I don’t make resolutions or choose a word for the coming year, valuable as those traditions may be for others. But I do have a ritual for the end of the year. I take down my old wall calendar (where a Luddite like me keeps track of life) and refer to it as I enter birthdays and anniversaries into the new calendar. There are plenty of digital solutions that would relieve me of this task, but I like going back over the last 12 months. Each day is scribbled with names, places, and events. As I write important dates in next year’s calendar, here are some of  my 2019’s most memorable contents, randomly ordered.

~~~~~~~~~~

Long walks with people dear to me, including one recent wintry stroll when I mimicked a fake fall on ice right before actually falling on it. Living example of the old “pride goeth” thing.

Shorter walks with small dogs. On our street we’re likely to hear braying donkeys, yelling goats, and neighing horses. We’re likely to be passed by pickup trucks, school buses, tractors, and the occasional Amish buggy. Occasionally our walks are entirely quiet except for wind in the trees.

Teaching creative writing classes for Cuyahoga County Public Library, Literary Cleveland, and other community-based organizations. I never imagined I’d get to do something I love SO MUCH.

 

Grayson Books publishing my poetry collection Blackbird. I am forever grateful for publisher Ginny Connors.

 

Watching my husband lift off in a helicopter from our small town hospital, headed for a big city hospital’s neuro ICU. The 50 minutes it took me to drive there, unsure if he would be alive when I arrived, was the longest trip of my life. Affirmations and prayer couldn’t staunch my full scale weeping, and I needed to see in order to drive. What really propped me up was talking directly to him as if he could hear me. “You’re fine,” I told him over and over. “You are fine. Everything is going to be fine.” He was. It was.

Doing art with little kids. A recent project was painting trees. Not painting representations of trees on paper, I mean using paintbrushes and washable tempera to paint on sycamore, maple, and ash tree bark.

 

A group of six intrepid poet friends who gather monthly.  They tell me how screwed up my poems are and I tell them how screwed up their poems are. Essential. We go by the name 811s, named for where in the Dewey Decimal system poetry books are shelved. (Name suggested by brilliant poet librarian Laurie.)

My longstanding book group, full of smart interesting people who make me read books I’d normally ignore.

Cooking weird things. These are stuffed enchilada skulls, with the filling showing through just enough to look thrillingly like decomposition. The most recent birthday cake I made featured gummy teeth. I cannot be stopped.

The utter delight of seeing out-of-town friends and family.

Books! With insomnia like mine, I get through a lot of books in a week. Some of my nonfiction favorites this year have been Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris (more medical history than you wanted to know, amusingly told), The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn,  A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, and Lynne McTaggart’s The Power of Eight, which inspired several of us to start a focused intention group. I was also lucky enough to get an advance copy of Mystical Activism by my friend John C. Robinson, who is a contemporary of Robert Bly,  Michael Meade, and James Hillman. I’m talking real wisdom in usable form. Read this!

 

The newest kitchen wench in training.

 

Hosting house concerts. Excellent live music in an intimate venue, a true delight.

Being interviewed by Dan Poletta. My squawky voice on NPR!

Vigils, rallies, marches. Fewer this year than last because I simply feel broken by all that’s going on, although what needs to change is ever more urgent. And I am ever more likely to cry at these things. Tears are not a useful measure because I also tear up at musical performances, fire trucks hurtling by, and any act of kindness.

Wonderful opportunities to read poetry at Loganberry Books, Wm. Skirball Writing Center, Lit Youngstown, Visible Voice Books, Wick Poetry Center, Ohio Poetry Day Association, Second Sunday Poets, and Literary Cleveland.

The incredible honor of having an excerpt from one of my poems stamped in a public sidewalk, thanks to Lit Youngstown.

 

Audiobooks, which turn a long drive into an enchanted journey. My favorite this year was The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher (originally carrying the much better title, Corrag). There’s unforgettably pure vision in this historic story, made real by  narrator Rosalyn Landor.  Other gems include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.

Podcasts. I used to listen to NPR while cooking and doing projects, but the last few years I’ve had to limit my news intake to an early morning deep read of the NYT and Washington Post lest I fall into ever deeper weltschmerz. The rest of the day its music, podcasts, or sweet sweet silence. I mostly listen to science podcasts but my newest delight is Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process with poet  Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and science writer Christie Aschwanden.

 

The amazing garden bells my husband makes. He kept this one for us.

 

A poetry appreciation group called Flat Tire Poetry Society, so-named because the idea for the group came about when four of us were stranded late at night somewhere in Cleveland on our way home from a poetry workshop. In the hour it took for a tow truck to arrive we talked about poetry that had changed our lives and decided we wanted to do this more often. Not the stranded part but the poetry discussion part. Now we meet seasonally with whoever of 20-some members can make it.

Two different women’s spirituality groups, one that digs deep into study and practice and another that dives deep into support. Both are lifeblood.

Dear friends who tell me when my work isn’t working and who support my writing no matter what.

 

Indulging in puddle delight.

 

Apollo’s Fire which enlivens even my pores. Alan Choo doesn’t plan violin so much as radiate music from his whole being and Amanda Powell’s voice makes any space sacred. We manage to afford two concerts a year and they tide us over.

Violating basic gardeners’ rules by planting seeds directly into hot compost, nearly all of it chicken coop bedding. Result? The most massive heirloom squash plants and fruits we’ve ever seen.

Putting up food from our gardens. This year we canned somewhat less than usual, but still put up well over 100 jars of salsa, sauces, jam, and syrups. This melange was photographed in our five gallon pot.

Binge-watching, because retreating from reality restores me enough to face it again the next day. We don’t have cable, so our binges are limited to Netflix and series we can order from the library. This year our binges included The Kominsky Method,  Occupied, One Strange Rock, Happy Valley, Grand Designs (our favorite episode was the handcrafted timber house in Herefordshire, from the 2017 season), the requisite Great British Baking Show, and the simple comfort of Father Brown.

Going through volunteer training so I can run writing workshops at a local domestic violence shelter. A lot of training…

Three Pushcart nominations this year thanks to Grayson Books, Gyroscope Review, and Typehouse Magazine.

Being named Ohio Poet of the Year 2019. I am still astonished.

 

 

Teaching one of my favorite small people the most important word.

What Not To Do While Being Interviewed

I have done all sorts of phone and online interviews since my first book was published nine years ago. Such interviews neatly fit into two imperatives for me:

  1. Make myself do hard things.
  2. Honor my hermit impulse to stay home.

Because I never, ever listen to the resulting podcast or online discussion I don’t have to count my digressions, annoying laughs, interruptions, or “um’s.” I’m pretty sure if I had to hear my voice I’d curl up in a nice comfy corner and avoid hard things forevermore.

But I recently told students in a writing class about my worst interview, so I guess I can tell the story here.

I prepare myself for the phone call as usual. I go into my home office and shut the door to keep out dogs and visitors. I say nice things to myself like you can do this while looking at the clock. I remind myself the interviewer’s name is Julian* and the call will be coming in at 7 pm my time from California. It rings at 7 with a local number, a number that looks like my friend Andre’s number, but I can’t hear the caller. Just static. The call ends. A minute later my phone rings again. Frustrated, I say “Andre?” into the phone. No response. The phone rings again and this time it is indeed Julian, the podcast host, who explains he is trying to work out some equipment problems. As we talk he says, “Whoa, it’s really loud from your end.” I hope he can dial it down so his listeners didn’t have to listen to me at max amplification, but he’s not sure he’s able to equalize my voice and his.

Julian plays the opening music, introduces me, and I promptly say, “Thank you for inviting me, Andre.” Apparently I still have Andre’s name in my head due to those glitchy calls. I laugh, apologize, and we start over. But making a mistake in the first minute isn’t the best thing for my confidence.

I have two tactics to deal with my nervous energy during interviews. I stand looking out the window at trees, which is calming. I also play with Thinking Putty, a gift from my much-missed friend Bernie DeKoven. The putty keeps my hands busy while I try to avoid what I consider some of my common interview failings:

  • telling the same stories I’ve told in previous interviews
  • making unequivocal statements
  • leaving air space while I ponder
  • giving in to my urge to talk about research (exciting to me, deadly to most listeners)

As the interview proceeds I roll the putty into an ever-lengthening strand, twirl it around into a tiny coiled pot, then squish it and start over again. Pot after pot is created and destroyed until a bubble forms in the putty. As I squish it a loud slow sputter noise is emitted. It sounds rather like a human emphatically passing gas. I am so startled that I pause what I am saying long enough to remember that my side of the conversation is over-amplified. Michael pauses too. I prattle on again in the eager high tone of someone trying to cover up a mistake, the badly behaved putty now back in its tin. But a few minutes later my nervous energy gets the better of me and I’m back to rolling it into strands, then coiled pots, then back into lumps to start over. And yes, before the end of the call the damn putty makes yet another resounding fart noise.

It may be a coincidence, but I haven’t been asked to do a single podcast since then. So here’s my advice — avoid playing with putty while being interviewed unless you really want to go with that hermit impulse.

*Julian and Andre’s names have, of course, been changed. 

There’s Something About Stacking Stones

I’ve always loved stones. Not gemstones; I’m not a swayed-by-shiny-baubles sort of girl. I mean the wonderfully rough-shouldered stones found heaving up in the garden, pasture, and woods. I’m drawn to their geologically long view of things. Their solid gray patience with scurrying life forms. And their reassuringly substantial form in a world preoccupied with ephemeral concepts like wealth, fame, and power.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a thing for stacking them.

It’s intriguing to pivot one stone on another, finding the spot where they rest in pleasing balance. Then to place another stone on top, then another, and another. I need to be careful. I don’t want stones to drop on my loved ones or my dogs or other innocent being happening by. What’s interesting is that they don’t. Sometimes stacked stones slump sideways a bit, almost as if establishing a balance they find more pleasing. Or maybe the Earth’s rotation is felt more honestly by stones as they lean in accord with the great whirling Mother stone.

The stack on the left is leaning off in its own direction.

A few seasons ago, what looked like a stone forehead emerged from our lawn. Every time the tractor passed over it the mower blades shrieked. So my guys got out a shovel, crowbar, and wheelbarrow to fully liberate it from the earth it was trying to exit. Now it’s above ground again, nestled with companion rocks by our garage door, safe from the mower. Being a stone, it’ll sink back into the ground eventually, waiting for Earth’s tides to heave it back up again.

Here’s that stone, waiting for a taller and more artful stack.

Actually, quite a few of my stone stacks have rocks piled nearby, waiting until I’m hit by stacking inspiration.  Like this one,

and this one.

These are sister stacks, seen from the side,

a

My current favorite is this gravity-defying stack.

a

I also stack stones indoors, although I’ve kept myself to one spot, the little dresser that served as our Waldorf-y nature table for years. (By the time my kids were teens that mostly meant animal skulls, fossils, and strangely shaped sticks.) These are three of the seven stone stacks there. Now, seeing this picture, I realize the one on the left has lost the pyramid-shaped stone that used to perch there. I’m off to search for it!

” The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”  ~ Bertrand Russell

This post is shared from our homestead-y site, Bit of Earth Farm

Broken Glasses

The nose pad on my glasses snapped off as I left Loganberry Books. I was vastly grateful they didn’t break while I was standing there reading from my new book. Now my glasses sat at a crooked angle and the world took on a sickening migraine-ish skew. I’m unable see much without them, although I’ve given that a try in the past.

When I was around 10 years old, I started getting answers marked wrong on my math homework. “Careless” the teacher would scrawl in red ink. Even when my parents checked and found every calculation correct, the next day many were marked wrong. No one seemed to notice I was incorrectly copying problems from the board. To the nearsighted, 7 looks quite a bit like 1, 4 looks quite a bit like 9, most numbers waver in a fog.

One awful afternoon I was demoted from the top math group to the middle math group. This meant walking across the hall from Mrs. Simoni’s class to Mrs. Goodrich’s class. The hall was quiet. Our janitor swirled a long shaggy dust mop across the floor. I wanted to take over floor swiping. Let him walk into the classroom where every face would turn to look, let him figure out how right answers became wrong.

Thankfully, Mrs. Goodrich figured out my vision was the issue and my mother took me to get glasses. The process was new to me. Drops blurring my vision. A doctor clicking neat circular lenses over my eyes, asking “this one or this one” as he hurried through a sequence to make the eye chart come into focus. Trying on the inexpensive plastic frames my mother steered me to, their price still making me gulp in discomfort at costing my parents so much.

I wore those glasses for the first time as we drove home. I was astonished. I could see expressions on people’s faces in the street! I had no idea that was possible except when up close. I could see individual leaves on trees! The whole ride I sat transfixed, watching miracles scroll past the window.

Those glasses fixed my visual problems. But by sixth grade, the plastic frames became a severe social liability. I was outgrowing them and needed new lenses anyway, but asking for something expensive like stylish frames was Not Done in our family. I asked anyway. I wanted wire rimmed glasses, the ones everyone even remotely cool wore in 1972. My mother said only hippies wore those frames and she wasn’t paying extra to make other people think differently about me. I wheedled. I begged. Finally she said if I could find a picture of even one respectable person wearing wire rimmed glasses she’d consider it. I found a picture of presidential candidate George McGovern wearing them. She said that didn’t count, she didn’t consider him respectable.

I prevailed, eventually getting new glasses. I felt cool in them for a whole day, maybe two. Then my skin reacted to the metal. Red bumps formed everywhere the metal touched —- over my nose and along my cheeks. The bumps swelled, itched, and burst like gooey blisters. Putting the glasses on over my broken skin burned. I tried all sorts of remedies — coating the metal with clear nail polish and coating my skin with various concoctions, from Vaseline to cortisone cream. Nothing helped. So at home I folded toilet paper strips to make a barrier between my skin and the metal. My family got used to seeing me with paper along my nose. I got so used to it that I often forgot how strange I looked, only to be reminded when my siblings had friends over or when I answered the door for a delivery. Sometimes, if I didn’t have to go anywhere for a few days, the red oozy bumps on my face nearly healed. But the world doesn’t allow kids to retreat, even bookish hermits who don’t mind being hermits

13 and not wearing glasses…

By the time I was 13, I’d largely stopped wearing my glasses in public, even though I could barely see much more than a foot in front of me. A metal allergy surely wasn’t my only reason. I was insecure and probably hoped I’d be faintly more popular without glasses. I can only imagine how stuck up I must have actually seemed, ignoring peers because I couldn’t see them… And the year I turned 13 was also the year I was assaulted by a friend’s father. Maybe I didn’t want to see men seeing me.

But without vision correction, I was legally blind.

This created all sorts of complications, mostly in the social realm. For example, I kept a vaguely friendly expression on my face as I walked to and from school, because the blobs in front of me might resolve into street signs and fire hydrants, or they might resolve into people. I had to get close enough to find out.

The cute high school guy I started dating when I was 14 surely must have thought I didn’t have much brainpower. One of the first times we went out to eat I picked up a piece of lettuce that had fallen from my salad. He stopped me before I put it in my mouth. It was his crumpled up straw paper. Another time we went to his house. Across the room was a new frame with three ovals inside. I assumed they were portraits of the family’s three offspring. “Oh,” I said cheerfully to his mother, “new family pictures!” Nope, it was a barometer.

I couldn’t see, he overlooked a lot. I ended up marrying that cute guy. (By then I was back to wearing non-allergenic glasses.)

All these years later that guy, after my poetry reading, carefully fashioned something out of medical tape and gauze to hold my glasses level so I could read. (Because he knows I must read.)

And the next morning he hurried my broken frames to The Eyeglass Hospital, the only place in the Cleveland area that welds tiny titanium eyeglass pieces back together.  When he returned and handed over my glasses, I could see! Leaves on trees, words on pages, and my dear husband’s facial expression.  He was smiling.