Doorknobs

 

betting on religion, choosing faith when dying,

When I ring the bell Denise has to pull her three dogs away from the door to let me in. We’re at an awkward juncture. She’s actually my husband’s friend but I’m here alone. I come bearing gifts although she is more comfortable giving.

“I’m glad you called,” she says over the barking. “It gave me the first reason to get dressed in a week.”

“I hear PJs are a fashion statement,” I say.

She pulls the largest dog off my leg. Her face is puffy and she’s breathing heavily from the exertion.

“He’s not bothering me at all,” I protest. “Maybe he’s trying to protect you from my cooking. Let me just put this stuff away.”

She follows me to the kitchen. She is older and taller, yet around her I feel as if I lead. Her counter is full of supplements with names that sound like a bottled meadow —sorrel, motherwort, red clover. When I put down the dishes she pulls back lids and sniffs the contents deeply. She wants to hear about each one.

“Everything smells so good,” she says. “Mark tells me your recipes are never the same twice. What’s in this pan?”

“Oh, it’s just some curry. Brown basmati rice with cauliflower, peas, paneer, onions, spinach, raisins, almonds—you want me to go on? I just keep adding things till it seems done,” I laugh. “Drives the kids nuts. They long for boxed macaroni and cheese like everyone else makes.”

She scoops up a fingerful and slides it in her mouth. Her eyes briefly fill with tears. “This tastes like love.”

I’ve never heard Denise speak this way. Her shtick is sharp humor and witty complaints. She and her husband Greg have a somewhat difficult relationship, but they both find pleasure in spending. Greg lavishes money on cars. Denise adores buying riding tack, clothes, and gifts. We have been the recipients of her largess many times. She not only gives lavishly, she also offers her time. The week we moved to our new home, she and Greg helped with the last U-haul load, took the truck back, and surprised us by cleaning our empty house so we wouldn’t have to return the next day. It must have taken them hours.

No matter how kind her actions, Denise is uncomfortable being thanked. Brusque even. Usually she goes right on complaining about her job, her expenses, her marriage, even her beloved horse. With four kids and precarious finances, I’m perpetually behind when it comes to reciprocating. Sometimes I send along produce from our garden or homemade goods when my husband Mark meets Denise and Greg for their weekly breakfast.

Today she shows me things she has ordered online, some still unopened. At least a dozen hats, several specially made for cancer patients. When her dogs start to play with the boxes, she ushers them out to the back yard.

“Let’s go sit outside,” I venture. “It’s a beautiful day.”

“The landscaping is a mess,” she says, “I don’t even want to look at it.”

“Have you been out much at all since you started treatment? There’s something to be said for the restorative power of nature.”

“Not in this yard.”

Birdsong, sunshine, growing things, and fresh air all wait right beyond her patio doors. It is difficult to imagine healing in her house. The curtains are closed. Every surface is congested. Couches and chairs are crowded with pillows. The walls are jammed with prints, tables are laden with objects, bags with new purchases are stacked against the walls. But she wants to stay inside.

I notice piles of new books. I tell her they are the same things I like to read; spiritual examinations across many cultures and faiths. Denise says she has read a few and is drawn to their open-hearted messages, but she is afraid.

I’m not sure what she means.

“I hope there’s some kind of eternity,” she says with sudden candor, “but how do I know which religion will get me there? I can’t just suddenly decide to be a Baptist or a Buddhist and  …  believe.”

“I think there are truths bigger than anything religions squabble over.” I say.

“True, but now isn’t the time for me to piss off God,” she says dryly. Then adds, “If there is a God.”

I nod, “I’ve gotten hung up on the ‘G’ word too.”

“Well I started going to a church. I just picked one. I figure it’s like an insurance policy,” she says. “That way if there’s life after death, maybe I’m in.”

We sit on the couch crossed-legged and talk about approaching faith as a stranger might visit a new land, eyes open for wonders. Denise keeps the tone light but her anxiety hangs right on the surface until she finds a familiar groove and gets back to complaining about her husband. Greg only cares about his cars, Greg wants her to go back to work, Greg doesn’t understand.

Soon she looks tired. We say our goodbyes and I give her an awkward hug. My intention was to be fully in that room with her, sending love from my heart to hers like a soothing balm, yet as I walk out to my car I feel an ache somewhere in my chest. I realize her quandaries with religion grieve her almost much as her cancer does.

~

A few months after that visit, complications from her final round of chemo leave Denise in a hospital room too sick return home. The doctor tells her she needs to go directly to hospice care. Mark and I sit near her bed.

Greg says from farther back in the room, “Yeah, but how expensive is that?”

“You and your wife both have health insurance.” the doctor replies. “There shouldn’t be significant extra costs.”

“There have been a lot of costs with this whole thing,” he says, waving his hand at the hospital bed, intravenous lines, and monitors. Mark stands and walks Greg out of the room so Denise can talk to the doctor. A month later she waits until Greg goes on an errand, then dies with Mark at the side of her bed.

~

Greg has a beautiful photograph of Denise posing with her horse and dogs printed for the funeral program. I see he does understand what was important to her. When the new minister she chose gives the eulogy it’s clear he didn’t know her at all. As a bagpiper walks over the hills at the close of her memorial service, I pray that Denise has found a more loving Beyond than she ever imagined.

A few nights later I have a dream that seems to go on and on. In it I am surrounded by doorknobs. I examine them with fascination. Faceted crystal doorknobs cut in geometric perfection, each reflecting different shapes and colors. Polished wooden doorknobs darkened with age. Intricately patterned cloisonné knobs rich in lapis, green, and violet. Simple white porcelain doorknobs mapped with tiny cracks.

I understand, while still asleep, that I’m dreaming. It occurs to me to look up from this vast field of doorknobs. There I see a door. It’s huge and gleams with holy light.

Denise is nearby, more vibrant and confident than I’ve ever seen her in life. She’s looking with amusement at the array of doorknobs.

“The doorknob we choose doesn’t matter,” she says. “Each. One. Opens. The. Door.”

~

This is her final gift. Once again, I can’t reciprocate. Unless, I realize, I share her story with others.

 

Originally published by First Day Press.

 

 

Leftovers As Love

why we cook for people we love

Ingredients? I’ve got the stinking ingredients.  (Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1564)

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” ~M.F.K. Fisher

I’m scooping Thanksgiving leftovers into containers with tears in my eyes. Mashed potatoes, turkey, wild rice stuffing, cranberry pomegranate sauce, Aunt Tricia’s pecan bars and her pumpkin parfait are packed into a cooler along with mason jars of peach jam, applesauce, and salsa. They’re for one of my sons, who has a full day of driving to get back to his regularly scheduled life a few states away. He’s got a fantastic career, wide-ranging hobbies, and wonderful friends. I’m entirely happy for him and don’t for a moment want to hold him back. There’s just something about feeding him into the next week that gets to me in a tear-inducing way. I suspect it’s more than a mom thing.

There are names for people like me in nearly every language, some of them not very flattering. We lavish attention on people we love, in part, by cooking for them. We’re the ones foisting leftovers on you as you try to leave. We’re the ones who do our best to have (what we believe are) your favorites available when you visit — even if you last said you couldn’t get enough bean pate back in the 90’s. We’re the ones who hardly taste the food we serve, our senses already full from making it. We can be annoying. We can’t help it.

Speaking for myself, it’s not entirely about the people I cook for.* It’s about me too.

I can ignore serious pressing deadlines without a sideways glance when it’s time to cook for our weekly Sunday extended family get-togethers. For a few glorious hours on Saturday I make dishes for two meals the next day, sometimes happily getting up before dawn on Sunday to knead dough or roll out pie crust to complete those meals. I can also ignore my deadlines when we host one of our regular potlucks or, as we did last month, have a house concert here. Actually, I can rely on the Feeding People Excuse pretty much every day, whether I’m working in the garden or harvesting produce from that garden to make a pot of soup. Chopping vegetables is, for me, a more reliable way to enter that lovely state of flow than clattering at a keyboard, although I wouldn’t give up writing any more than I’d give up cooking.

All this time spent in the kitchen hasn’t made me more accomplished than anyone else. I have serious faults that include broiling when I shouldn’t broil, horrendous knife skills, an overly casual approach to measuring, and chronic delight in using strange ingredients when normal ones would have worked better. I’m also (rightly) accused of making enough food for a lumberjack camp. Which gives me all those leftovers to send with you…

But I can say this. The cells of our bodies are built by the air we breathe as well as by the food and drink we ingest. To grow that food, to cook that food, is to be part of nourishing life in those we cherish. This, to me, is one of the most basic ways to demonstrate love.

 

*Yes I ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m breaking rules outside of the kitchen too. 

Moving to the Hinterland

The car stereo shorted out repeatedly during our move to the country, defaulting from quiet public radio to a station transmitting evangelical hellfire at top volume.

I guess that was the first sign.

Though my husband, Mark, and I had long dreamed of raising our children in the country, we’d come to love the benefits of our busy suburban community. Along with a group of neighbors we’d established traditions including full moon walks, bike parades, Halloween get-togethers, even pig pen parties. But difficult circumstances — everything from a bully next door to a gun-toting gang  harassing our oldest son at school —  motivated us to leave. And because Mark had a home business without a commute, we were free to move farther away.

We scrounged the means to buy a rural place and found one we could afford.  As we carried our belongings into our new home we savored the pastoral refuge we’d found – a pond, fields, forest, and a low hill where we envisioned building a barn. We couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors.

The next day one of them walked over carrying a towel-covered dish. I’d always greeted new people on our old street with homemade bread so I was heartened to see her.

“This is my husband’s favorite,” she said. “It’s cherry pie.”

Her hair was sprayed into stiff curls, her face thick with make-up. Her expression seemed deeply unhappy. Three silent girls accompanied her. None of them wanted to meet my children when I offered to call them in from the woods. She stayed only long enough to ask if I’d found a nearby house of worship. I said we were still attending our former church. She asked its denomination, twice. I realized it was better to change the subject than tell her we attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

On the way out her youngest child noticed a painting from India on our wall. The girl looked at me and spoke for the first time since she’d arrived. “Pagan idols!” she said in horror.

A few days later another neighbor walked over. She brought cookies and promptly asked about our church affiliation. While her toddler rampaged through the house she suggested we remove the sign on our lawn promoting the library levy. “No one around here supports the library,” she said softly. “It’s an agent of Satan.”

I was confused.

She explained that the library had “that Internet thing,” exposing children to “evil and filth on the screen.” I nodded at her concerns but gave examples of greater good brought about by the net. Words like “awareness” caused her nostrils to flare. She informed me that worldwide violence was a preordained sign of the End Times. Just then her tiny child ran into the room, assumed a firing stance and yelled, “I kill you.”

As this first month in our bucolic country home continued, more neighbors stopped by, usually in an advisory capacity. A minivan pulled in while I was putting up our Halloween decorations. The driver cautioned me that such décor would mark me as a devil worshiper.

“It’s not worth the effort anyway,” she said, “no one trick or treats around here.”

We commiserated about the reduction of household chocolate this represented. She leaned an elbow out the van window and went on about the holiday boycott. As we laughed I experienced a surge of hope, thinking I might have found a kindred spirit. She said there was a movement underway to halt even the October 31 “harvest parties” at school to which children wore costumes. I let out an ill-advised laugh and said something sarcastic. The relaxed expression on her face changed. She retorted that her pastor did not support anything which pleased “the desires of the devil and his minions” and backed out of the drive.

A brief conversation with neighbor who lived a few doors down revealed that our families had attended the same Presbyterian church when we were growing up. She invited me over. This seemed promising. When I brought muffins she nodded as she took them, saying that God had told her not to bake. As she ranged around the kitchen smacking insects with a fly swatter, she gave me a who’s who of the area.

“Don’t talk to the lady in the yellow house, she has a hyphenated name, probably a feminist. And next door, they’re Catholic, you know, so-called Christians.” She went on to list those in her own family who were going to hell because they were still Presbyterians rather than members of her non-denominational church. Finally she noticed I had gently protested each of her denunciations. The fly swatter stopped. I tried again.

“Aren’t Christians meant to see Christ in each person?” I asked gently.

She kicked me out of her house.

We’ve been here nine years now. We cherish the simple pleasures of raising cows, chickens, and bees on our land. And yes, we’ve found friends nearby with whom we can discuss politics and religion openly (even though our views don’t necessarily align). We’ve developed new traditions including potlucks to which we invite friends from urban and farm community together.

All the while our most fundamentalist neighbors have served as amazing teachers. They’ve truly given us lessons on finding that spark of divinity in everyone.

But sometimes I have to admit to myself, “Christ, good disguise.”

 

Originally published a decade ago by Geez Magazine: Contemplative Cultural Resistance. Our early months living in this community were actually much more harrowing as well as more strangely amusing. Here’s more on that. We’re still here on the same little farm and can truly say we appreciate all of our neighbors. (I don’t ask if the feeling is mutual…)  

A Mother’s Intuition and 9/11

9/11 and mother's intuition

A happier vacation moment.

Like everyone else on September 11, 2001, where we were and what we were doing is locked into our memories. My family’s experience that day served to remind me that a mother’s intuition can be more powerful than the electronic devices we normally use to stay in touch.

My husband’s brother enjoyed taking our kids on short educational vacations. It was his way of contributing to their homeschool experiences while also indulging in his own love of history. For a few days that week in September he took two of our sons, then ages eight and eleven, on a learning-intensive trip from our Ohio home to Washington, D.C. He enjoyed fully documenting these trips. He took lots of photos and videos, bought commemorative items, collected every possible brochure, and had the kids call home at least twice each day to report on all they were doing. He always left a left a clear itinerary for us to follow.

On September 11th their agenda included the Pentagon and the White House.

At home with our other two children, I rhapsodized about the blue skies and lovely weather, calling it a “perfect day.” No intuition there. I wasn’t aware of the terrorist attacks until a friend called, telling me to turn on the television. I had no idea what he was talking about and asked what channel. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s on every channel.”

The moment I saw footage of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers I felt sure that there would be more devastation in more places. I phoned my brother-in-law immediately. I wanted to tell him two things. First, abort the trip, but drive home away from major population centers (I felt sure other cities would be under attack). And second, listen to the radio infrequently as possible so my boys wouldn’t be alarmed by the media coverage.

As I dialed, reports flooded in that a second plane had hit the towers. My call didn’t go through. I reached my husband at work but still couldn’t get through to my brother-in-law. My mother-in-law, who also had a copy of their itinerary, was frantic. She became even more frantic when the Pentagon was attacked. My husband left work and spent the day with her, trying to calm her fears and, like me, trying to reach his brother.

By now Flight 93 had turned over our area of Ohio. It was heading for a collision course with the White House until passengers seized control of the plane and it went down in a remote area of Pennsylvania. Three places hit. The media kept speculating about other cities under potential attack. Our phone kept ringing.

Every time a friend or family member called to discuss the unfolding horrors, I told them I needed to get off the phone in hopes my brother-in-law might get through. And each time they reacted with a great deal more alarm than I felt. Suddenly they knew two little boys who very well might have been at the Pentagon when it was attacked and who were still unaccounted for on this tragic day.

Their reactions, which should have increased my anxiety, didn’t. Although I was as overwhelmed as anyone by what felt like a day out of time, I was completely sure that my sons and their uncle were fine. I knew my brother-in-law would rise to the crisis. This wasn’t in keeping with my worry-prone personality but something, maybe a mother’s intuition, told me they were safe and would be home. Each time I talked to my husband we assured each other that our boys would be fine. I tried to talk to my mother-in-law but she could only cry on the phone. Even before I heard from my missing family members, I began to fear that my country might retaliate and more lives would be lost.

Hours dragged by. Each time we tried to call my brother-in-law we got the same recorded message: “all circuits are busy.”

It wasn’t until late that afternoon, more than six hours after the first attack of 9/11, that we finally heard from my brother-in-law. He’d found a pay phone and managed to get a call through, landline to landline. The connection wasn’t good but it was clear they were safe, on the road, and would be driving until they made it back.

 When they got home we heard our children’s experience of 9/11. The boy’s first choice of the day had been the White House. They emerged from the metro and started walking as a full evacuation seemed to be underway. People in business clothes were running full tilt from office buildings. Officers with squawking radios were everywhere. So they turned around, got back on the now jammed metro, and made their way very slowly back to the hotel before setting off for the long trip home. The boys tried unsuccessfully to talk their uncle into letting them swim first.
~~~

It wasn’t until they were much older that my boys understood the tragic magnitude of 9/11. Their memories have more to do with a trip cut short, a crowded metro, and very serious grown-ups. Their uncle never gave them videos or pictures from that trip either. If only we could unmake a day that easily.

Summer Day at Huntington Beach

poem, Lake Erie shore

Summer Day at Huntington Beach

 

I tick with alarm clock worry.

My sister is afraid of nothing.

Not the dark or death or

Jay Preslan down the street

who pushes kids in front of cars.

 

Look at her run into the water

while I stand squinting.

She doesn’t pinch her nose

to dive under. Doesn’t pause

before splashing back

strange splashing kids. Doesn’t heed

the lifeguard’s megaphoned warning

to stay away from the ropes.

 

Lake Erie grabs at the shore,

slurps it greedily in foaming waves.

I picture monstrous goggly-eyed fish

lurking under the pier,

ships skudded in the depths,

lost sailors forever unburied.

I inhale the curved scent

of suntan lotion, clench my toes

in the sand, stand still. Far out,

bobbing in foil-bright waves,

my sister is another being entirely,

straining at the boundary ropes

trying to see all the way to Canada.

 

Originally published by Silver Birch Press.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending. 

Playground Insurrection, National Divisiveness

National divisiveness like a playground rebellion.

Image by taffmeister

I was a good elementary school student. I wrote neatly and did my work on time. Year after year, teachers seated me next to badly behaving students to be an insufferably good example (although one of them then and still today inspires me). I went to school with kids very much like myself — safe, nurtured, suburban kids who had every reason to believe “work hard and you can be anything” was true.  We were also, as schoolkids tend to be, crazily bored and itching to play.

One day, something erupted as recess ended. Although disenchanted with our oh-so-tedious blacktop playground, no one wanted to go back inside when the playground monitor’s whistle blew. Somehow an insurrection was stirring.

I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I’d been waiting in line for a turn on the swings with my equally bored friends. As we reluctantly gave up to go inside, we saw some kids closest to the building  milling around instead of lining up. More and more kids began to do the same thing. A strange muttering seemed to rise in the air with dangerously enticing energy. Just breathing made it spread. I worked my way slightly closer to the front to see the teacher, whose yelling could barely be heard, abruptly turn and go inside.

This was unheard of. We’d never been left alone on the playground, not ever. The strange energy around us gained force. It felt like power, the sort of power kids never get. Then the principal, Mr. Page, stepped out. He was new to our school and didn’t know our names. He issued a stern command. I couldn’t make it out. He tried again. I still didn’t hear him, but even to a rule-follower like me it didn’t matter. A sense of our own power had fermented into intoxication.

Someone behind me pushed. Someone next to me pushed. Soon everyone, at least near me, started to push. It might be argued that kids were pushing each other to line up as we’d surely been ordered to do. But oh, oh my oh my, it was heady. And yes, I pushed too. It felt ancient and tidal, this pushing, as if we were caught up in something larger than ourselves. I got a glimpse of Mr. Page backed up to the brick wall, kids in front pushed against him by kids in back. His expression was one of utter surprise.

I usually write about moments of aliveness in an entirely positive sense, but this was aliveness too. The playground insurrection lasted no more than a few minutes. Everyone ended up marching indoors in abject chagrin. Every single child was punished by no recess for at least a week.  I’ve forgotten if the revolt’s instigators were identified and got more serious punishments. What I remember is utterly abandoning myself to the sheer thrill of pushing. Stuck in routines, little control over what was expected of us, we may have been expressing  a  form of play that’s been called ilinx.

Sociologist Roger Caillois defined it as a category of games

“…based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”

Melissa Dahl explains in the New York Magazine that ilinx is a “French word for ‘the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction.'”  She likens it to the way cats seem drawn to knock things over. Ilinx can be the mild thrill of intentionally slapping an empty water bottle off your desk or the rapturous state brought on by whirling, as mystics do in the Sema ritual (inspired by the poet Rumi).

Our playground insurrection might also have been a taste of mob mentality. Psychologist Tamara Avant defines it this way.

“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”

Mob mentality doesn’t have to be a negative thing. People participate in it when they stand up and yell at a sporting event. It’s also found in peace rallies and sit-ins, and has quite a bit to do with what’s called wisdom of the crowd.

Whether ilinx or mob mentality, on that long-ago playground my fellow students and I were just tired of being told we had to stop playing. We didn’t hate our teachers. We didn’t hate art class or gym or each other. We just wanted to express our frustration. We were, for the moment, having fun with opposition.

This may not be the best analogy, but I’m coming to think that the nomination of a man completely unsuited to become president of the United States is evidence of something similar.  I’m not for a moment dismissing how dangerous a Trump presidency would be to the peaceful functioning of our still young, still not always morally upstanding democracy.  Nor am I dismissing the obvious frustration of his supporters. I’m simply saying we need to stop pushing each other. We’re got more in common than we think we do.

A University of Maryland study compared Republican and Democratic congressional districts. In ten separate polls, people were asked 388 questions on what are considered highly partisan topics including abortion, gun control, and taxation. No statistical differences were found between red and blue areas.

For example, the Democratic party staunchly opposes cuts to the safety net and the GOP staunchly opposes revenue increases. However, the study reports, “when respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts.”

There was also no polarization found in topics such as immigration, climate change, health care reform, marijuana laws, and globalized trade. In an article titled, “Hopelessly Divided? Think Again,”  Bill Moyers points out major areas of agreement found in the study.

  • Climate change. Americans’ concern about global warming is at an eight-year high, with a record 65 percent of us now blaming human activity for rising temperatures.
  • Gun control. Eighty-five percent of Americans — including large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats — favor closing gun-sale loopholes by enforcing background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
  • Our federal tax system. Six in 10 of us believe that upper-income Americans do not pay enough in taxes, while 82 percent are bothered — either “some” or “a lot” — that corporations are not paying their fair tax share.
  • The influence of big business. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that large corporations and a few rich people wield excessive and unfair power in this country. A whopping 71 percent of Americans across the political spectrum believe that the economy is rigged in favor of a few special interests.
  • Special interests’ influence in our political institutions. Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.

Yes there are real divides on pivotal issues but let’s not forget we are in this together. Enough with the pushing already.

 

 

 

Piper, Pipe That Song Again

We were put to bed early. My mother, the registered nurse, believed strongly in things like scrubbing away germs and getting a good night’s sleep. Sometimes we could still hear neighborhood children playing outside while we lay in bed with our baths taken, teeth brushed, and prayers said.

Downstairs my mother watched detective shows and my father graded papers in another room with the stereo turned low. I could hear strains of his music mixed with her TV sirens through the floorboards.

I was never what is called a good sleeper. I would lie awake for hours telling myself stories. Sometimes, halfway asleep, I could hear impossibly faraway music and watch scenes unfold like a life retelling itself. I wondered where they came from, these distracting snippets that almost seemed like distant memories. Some were so strong I could feel them in my body. In fact, as a young child I was sure I could “remember” having died and for years could only fall asleep curled defensively to protect my ribs and throat.

Music brought the strongest sense of recollection. My mother says the first time I heard the distinctive sound of bagpipes I was a preschooler. “You put your arms up like one of those highland dancers,” she says, “and you danced your little heart out.”

I didn’t encounter bagpipe music again until I was about eight years old. Hearing the strains of those grand pipes in a parade made feel as if I could almost recall dancing in a majestic hall with the stirring of pride that no danger could stifle. The music seemed to speak to my cells all the way to the marrow. It kept on speaking as the pipers marched by and the music faded away.

Since I had been warned about my overactive imagination I didn’t mention those half-remembered scenes. But I did pester my mother about bagpipes.

“It’s funny you are so interested in that music,” she said. “We don’t have any Scottish blood in our family.”

An apparent coincidence? The fact that our last name happened to be Piper. My mother said she thought the name had been changed from a German surname, Pfeiffer, many generations back.

* * *

As an adult I have no idea where those so-called memories came from. Most likely I was creating stories that seemed real to me. There are, however, other explanations. Morphic resonance, archetypal images, echoes of past lives.

Another intriguing possibility is genetic or ancestral memory. Because, as it turns out my maiden name, Piper, is Scottish after all. Recently our history was traced, and we know now that my father’s family tree is rooted securely in the soil of Scotland. Not a German branch to be found. In fact, we are related to legendary bagpipers as well as to some oddly-named royalty including Malcolm the Big-Headed.

These days I am surrounded by bagpipe music. My two teenage sons are in a pipe band, the Red Hackle Pipes and Drums, under the direction of Sandy Hain, a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch. I drive the boys and their buddies in the band to practices, parades, and highland competitions; my car overflowing with an odd mix of testosterone, exuberant conversation, and hairy knees jutting out from kilts.

Every week when I pull into the lot for bagpipe practice I see bumper stickers and window decals proudly proclaiming the drivers’ pride in calling him or herself by my family name: Piper. Even on the coldest evenings the sound pours through the brick walls. And every single time I feel the music in my cells, all the way to the marrow.

And yes, I still hear it in my dreams.

Angus MacKay of Clam MacKay artist unknown

Angus MacKay of Clan MacKay
(artist unknown)

 

Throwback post. This piece was originally published in Bewildering Stories. 

Remind Me To Enunciate

speak clearly lest you be misunderstood

I don’t normally chat about my movie preferences without being asked, but recently a neighbor walked over with our Netflix envelope in hand.  It had mistaken arrived in his mailbox. I thanked him cheerfully, saying we still get DVDs mailed because my husband and I watch a lot of foreign films that are otherwise unavailable.

That innocuous sentence instantly wrought some sort of reaction. He turned his head ever so slightly to the right, his eyes looking up as if confused. I’m pretty sure his nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath. Then the charming older gentleman said carefully, “I didn’t know those were available on Netflix.”

Something was indefinably weird about our conversation but I had no idea what it might be. I assured him, in a far more cheery voice than usual, that we’re particularly fond of films from France, Denmark, and Sweden.

There was a long pause. I’d uttered two sentences about our fondness for foreign films and he was reacting as if I’d revealed a highly personal secret.  He looked at the plain red envelope and said nothing. His discomfort must have been downright contagious because I tossed in one more sentence, hoping to find some closure to the topic so I could say goodbye and retreat. I said, “Some people really hate subtitles but it’s totally worth it.”

Understanding broke out on his face like a rash. A red rash. He said, “Oh, foreign films.”

Then my face turned red. I speak with what we in upper Ohio consider to be no accent at all and it didn’t occur to me that he’d misunderstood. But he had. He thought I’d said my husband and I watch a lot of porn films.

The moral of the story? Enunciate!

(If you’re feeling kind enough to ease my embarrassment, please share a tale about a misunderstanding you’ve reacted to or caused…)

Spinning Straw Into Gold

laughing at adversity, it's all good,

Anne Anderson Wikimedia Commons

Annoyances seem to come with lessons built in, at least around here.

I trundle down the basement steps clutching piles of wet jeans so I can hang them close to our wood burning furnace, saving a bit of propane our clothes dryer might have used.  That seems like a farce when we discover a fitting on the propane tank has been leaking, letting hundreds of dollars worth of gas drift away in an ecologically irresponsible manner.

We have fresh milk, butter, and cheese thanks to our cow Isabelle. We avoid calculating if we’re actually saving money this way, but it’s obvious when it costs us. Like now, when we couldn’t harvest a single bale of hay last summer due to flooded fields. These days we have to buy each mouthful of hay she eats in exchange for the food she provides us.

What I can’t grow and preserve myself, I like to get in bulk from a natural foods co-op. It helps us afford organic food. But not when I find grain moths in my 25 pound container of buckwheat groats. Guess the chickens get buckwheat added to their diets and my kids won’t have to complain about pancakes the color of wet cardboard.

Sometimes I’m tempted to indulge in a Rumpelstiltskin-like tantrum. I don’t want to hear about the money we need to fix a tractor. I don’t want to clean a pile of dog puke or stay up late to meet another deadline or deal with unspeakably stinky laundry. I’d like the straw of everyday annoyances to turn into gold.

But then I pay attention.

Right now two of my sons are sitting by the fireplace talking and laughing with their father. My daughter is coming in from the barn, snow melting on her hair and on the bucket of eggs she’s carrying. The small dogs are wrestling at my feet while our old German shepherd rolls over to avoid watching such unruliness. It’s all perfect — exactly as it is. My socks still have holes, the window molding is unfinished, there are muddy footprints by the door. But none of that matters.

This is golden.

A 2012 throwback post from our farm site

Making Whole

reconnecting,

The garment is worn out. There are only a few stalwart threads stretched across, warp without woof, and its fibers are surely too frazzled to hold up.

A reasonable person would have tossed it out or torn it into rags. But here I am, strangely peaceful as I thread the needle hoping to weave these strands back into a whole fabric.

Before drawing my stitches across the expanse I realize its boundaries must be reinforced. I sew a merry line around the edge, reinforce it with another line of stitching and then another. The jagged edge looks a bit like the borders around a state or map of a continent. Sewing is a contemplative endeavor and this small task gets me thinking.

I’ve never been great at establishing boundaries. By the time I was nine years old I read every newspaper and magazine that entered our house. My parents cancelled news magazine subscriptions because my childish reaction to what I saw on those pages was too raw. I still read about suffering in the morning newspaper. I still asked questions about  war, poverty, prejudice, cruelty, and greed — unsatisfied with answers like “God’s ways are mysterious.” I wanted to understand how grown-ups could let these things happen, how they couldn’t see. I wanted to understand all the way down to the mystery itself.

As a much smaller child I had a recurring nightmare. The dream was too large to describe, but I’ll try. In it could see life on Earth from a vantage point far above. Cars hurried along on roads, people lived in closed-off rectangles, everyone urged onward by a desperation that — from my dream vantage point — was tragic and absurd. They couldn’t hear me but I wanted to shout “It’s not real!” I’d wake up nearly gasping with horror.

Slowly I’d muster up the courage to run through the dark hallway to my parent’s room. My mother slept through any disturbance. Only my father would wake. He’d get up quietly, take me to the bathroom, and tuck me back into bed. On the nights when my misery wouldn’t go away, I’d brave that dark hallway again and my dad would let me sleep between them. Their bodies, heavy with sleep, helped to calm me.

Sometimes my father would try to parse the dream by asking me about it. I’d cry, “Everybody thinks it’s real, but it’s not.” And he’d try to explain it away, the way he did with my zoo dream, where animals burst from their cages to live behind garages and in back yards —- sadly unable to get back to their real homes. “Their cages are strong,” he’d say. “And they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” His words didn’t help. His presence did.

I’ve been a grown-up for a long time now. I spend too much time rushing around in my car and busy in my own rectangle as if this is what’s important, no greater  perspective in sight.

But my task right now is to stitch across the threads. Draw what’s pulled apart back together. Appreciate the needle’s strength and the thread’s purpose. Imagine it can be made a whole fabric. In a larger sense, there’s no other choice.

beyond boundaries