Our Aural History

aural historyWhen two of my newborn babies spent time in the hospital due to serious medical problems, one of the many things that distressed me was all the noise surrounding them.  I wanted them to be introduced to the world differently. I wanted to wrap them in the sounds of home — voices of people who loved them, clatter of dishes at dinnertime, wind in the trees, lullabies sung, books read aloud. Instead there were loud beeping devices, intrusive announcements, squeaking wheels on equipment carts. They heard all sorts of strangers’ voices too, often while those strangers (for the very best reasons) imposed discomfort or pain. When they came home, both times, I noticed the sounds around them more than I normally would just because it was such a blessed relief.

My concern wasn’t overblown. In utero, a baby hears a symphony of prenatal sound that includes the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement.  The baby’s auditory system is fully developed by the sixth month of pregnancy and what sounds it hears is a particularly big deal from that time until it reaches six months of age. Here’s what one medical journal has to say:

The period from 25 weeks’ gestation to 5 to 6 months of age is most critical to the development of the neurosensory part of the auditory system. This is the time when the hair cells of the cochlea, the axons of the auditory nerve, and the neurons of the temporal lobe auditory cortex are tuned to receive signals of specific frequencies and intensities. Unlike the visual system, the auditory system requires outside auditory stimulation. This needs to include speech, music, and meaningful sounds from the environment.

The preterm as well as the term infant cannot recognize or discriminate meaningful sounds with background noise levels greater than 60 dB. The more intense the background noise, especially low frequency, the fewer specific frequencies (pitch) can be heard and used to tune the hair cells of the cochlea. Continuous exposure to loud background noise in the NICU or home will interfere with auditory development and especially frequency discrimination. The initial stimulation of the auditory system (speech and music) needs to occur in utero or in the NICU to develop tonotopic columns in the auditory cortex and to have the critical tuning of the hair cells of the cochlea occur. The control of outside noise, the exposure to meaningful speech sounds and music, and the protection of sleep and sleep cycles, especially rapid eye movement sleep, are essential for healthy auditory development.

Hearing is also said to be the last sense to leave us at the end of life, as indicated by electroencephalograms of people in their last hours. (Oftentimes music can reach unconscious and dying people when other stimuli cannot.)

Sound has a way of sinking into us, linking with sensation and emotion to form lasting memories. When I read about refugees forced from their homes by war or famine or rising seas,  my sorrow for them (and my admiration for their courage) leads me to think about what sensory experiences they can never fully recapture from their homelands. Keeping one’s own language, foods, and faith alive is vital but I wonder if hunger for the unique sounds left behind ever goes away.

We carry aural memories with us forever. I suspect sounds from early childhood are rooted the most deeply. Here are some of the happiest I can remember. A summer of locusts, the sound cresting and falling like waves. The screen door’s awwaak as it opened and my mother’s voice from somewhere in the house calling “don’t slam it!” The shriek of a swing hung on chains as I swung on my belly watching ants scurry below.  My father whistling as he tinkered with some project. News on the radio my mother listened to for a few minutes each morning, all of it inane chatter to me except for ads that lodged in my memory like this one.  Planes taking off from nearby Cleveland Hopkins Airport,  curving overhead like toys even though adults insisted they were big enough to hold actual people inside (pffft!) Music my father listened to as he graded papers — classical, pop, big band. The creak of our old rocking chair. The indescribable security of lying in bed hearing my parent’s muffled voices. 

Imagine sounds from 100 years ago in the place you are now. Perhaps horses on stone-paved streets, vendors hawking their wares from open carts as they traveled through town, afternoon paperboys calling out the latest headlines, church bells tolling the hours, the whistle of steam engines passing in the distance, children playing outdoors everywhere.

Or maybe imagine sounds 100 years in the future, if you can.

What sounds surrounded you as a baby? Your children in infancy? What aural memories make up who you are today?

Rescuing a Desperate Creature

empath humor

Early mornings are dark and quiet in November. I put on my boots, coat, and hat to walk out with a bucket of kitchen scraps in hand. I pause to appreciate mist rising from the pond and autumn’s complex scents. Some mornings I chat quietly with birds and trees as I head back to the barn. Other mornings I sing.

This particular morning I’m wearing a heavier coat against the cold, a bright orange hat, and carrying a bigger pail than usual. As I walk I notice a muted squeaking sound. Immediately, I picture it coming from some small creature. I imagine its dark desperate eyes. Maybe it is trapped or injured.

I slow. Already the squeaks have become harder to hear.

I stop. The squeaks stop too.

Poor wary little thing, I must be close.

I walk slowly toward tall grasses lining the creek. A few distressed squeaks can be heard. I pause, hoping intuition might tell me where this little animal is hiding. There’s probably nothing I can do, but if it’s trapped I can free it. If it’s injured I might be able to move it to a place safer than the side of a flood-prone creek.

I stand still, listening.

Nothing.

Okay, I say to myself. It’s your imagination.

I head back toward the barn.

The squeaking starts up again, rhythmic and anguished.

Logic is late to this adventure, but it finally clicks in. I’m carrying a large bucket, one we left out on the cold porch overnight. The squeaking noise I hear is the frozen handle rubbing against the sides. I stop to confirm. The squeaking stops. I feel silly. I also feel, against all reason, enormously relieved for the imaginary creature that’s no longer in distress.

I take a deep breath and continue on toward the barn, ever more grateful for the peace of the day.

I hope your morning is less emotionally fraught.

Only imaginary animals were imperiled.

This post shared from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm

Time Turns Back on Itself

 

A post from the wayback machine, although it feels like yesterday to me…

memoir, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

“He fit right into the palm of my hand,” my mother always says.  Her arm trembles now when she holds it out. “His head here,” she gestures to her fingertips, “his little bottom here, and his legs curled up at my wrist. They never gave poor patients the incubators. They said babies that small didn’t make it anyway.  But he looked right at me and I knew he would live. I held him every night in the nursery until he was discharged. I wish I knew what happened to him.”

My mother’s stories of her early years as a registered nurse are becoming more common topics. I settle back and listen, encouraging her with my questions. The house seems darker each time I visit, curtains drawn against the daylight although family photos on every surface still fade in their frames. The cluttered rooms are hard to recognize as the same ones from my childhood. Time seems to stretch and bend out of proportion on these long afternoons.

“I nearly died of a staph infection when I was in nurses’ training. It was all through my bloodstream. The doctors were amazed I pulled through.” She shakes her head.  “It was a miracle.”

My two teenaged sons come in from doing yard work. They wash their hands, eat the snack she loves to offer them, and politely chat with her. She has tales to tell them too, usually emphasizing the value of working hard and saving money. Today she asks them to retrieve a bit of laundry she can’t reach. Somehow it sailed over the washing machine lid to fall somewhere behind the washer. Tossing anything while hanging on to a walker is an accomplishment for someone whose movements are as uncertain as hers. I thought I’d heard all her stories, yet she tells the boys that her laundry throw probably stemmed from her teen years when she used to be quite the softball pitcher.

“I never was never much of a runner in gym, but I had a great throwing arm.”

I am surprised. “You never told me that, Mom!”

“There’s plenty I haven’t told you,” she says.  Her gaze seems to linger on a field of high school girls from 60 years ago.

My father doesn’t settle down for long conversations during these visits.  He likes to work in the yard with his grandchildren, making use of their youthful energy, while my mother and I talk. I go outside to spend ten or fifteen minutes with him, reveling in the quieter connection we share, fully aware that my mother waits for me to return through the full length of each minute I’m away from her.

I see my parents bridging the passage beyond old age in their own ways.  My father redesigns the garden and invents odd labor-saving devices, always thinking ahead. My mother goes back to revisit her stronger years.

I am greedy for time. I want decades more with my parents despite their poor health. Their tradition of waving goodbye at the door as I back the car out always brings tears to my eyes.

On the long drive home my son comes across an old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tune on the radio. Time twists around itself again.  I recall listening to this record in the late 70’s, from the same house we just left, although the raspberry-hued carpet of my girlhood bedroom is now under a pile of boxes. I used to climb out the window of that bedroom to lie on the rough-textured roof, looking at the stars. I paid such close attention to the music of my teens that I felt wrapped inside the notes and the lyrics.

“You see it’s all clear. You were meant to be here.” While the song plays I remember being a wispy 14-year-old  who bought batik scarves from the forbidden head shop in town. I twisted them into halter tops which I wore under more demure shirts until I was safely out of the house. I’d tell my parents I was going to see a girlfriend when I was really meeting my boyfriend. He and I kissed so much I was surprised my mother didn’t notice I’d return with chapped and reddened lips.

When the song ends I’m almost startled to find myself driving a car—a woman in her forties accompanied by two nearly grown children, married to the boy she kissed so long ago.

As time turns back on itself in our memories it reshapes and teaches us. It occurs to me I loved Emerson, Lake, and Palmer because they honored the two sounds I couldn’t imagine converging. I had rejected my parent’s organized religion, and with it the evocative strains of organ music. Instead I spent my babysitting money on albums with sounds that stirred my soul.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer put hymns and rock back together for me. As I head south with my boys, I’m also lying on the roof with my back safely against my childhood home and my face lifted to the sky.

I try to say something to my kids about how odd time and memory can be. But they’re young and the radio dial needs flipping. I guess we’re bridging our own passages. I take a breath, choosing to hold on to the peace of this moment so this exact car ride with my sons will always feel as close to me as the palm of my own hand.

Originally published in the anthology,  Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between

Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Permission Slip

I’ve carried this piece of paper in my wallet for 7 years.  My father, an inveterate list maker, wrote it for me a few months before he died. On it, he suggested ways I might take care of myself, spend money on myself, and enjoy myself.

He’d spent his entire life denying himself and pushing himself to do more, but it troubled him to think his daughter might be doing the same thing. Late in life he gave in to new “extravagances,” mostly things he’d read about in health articles. This included grocery purchases more upscale than his usual canned vegetables and oatmeal, things like nuts, pomegranate juice, fish, berries, and fresh vegetables. These ideas topped his list of suggestions for me.

He’d always straightened nails to re-use and made do with worn out tools. He stapled scrap paper together to make daily planners for himself. But his list encouraged me to buy these things brand new. Even to buy myself an exercise bike!

He wore old clothes, even wore shoes he’d owned since college. He never bought new books. He skipped social engagements (whenever he could) in order to get more work done around the house or yard. He considered electronic gadgets unnecessary, although he was intrigued by new technology. Yet he wanted me to spend more time with friends, go to restaurants, buy books, invest in gadgets.

I’ve never been as starkly frugal or deeply self-critical as my father, but I understand what his list was trying to say —- to himself as much as to me. When we chronically push ourselves, judge ourselves harshly, or deny ourselves we are often unaware that we serve as examples to our children (as well as to our partners, co-workers, and friends).  We reinforce a social template that makes it normal to treat ourselves this way. Too late we realize we need treat ourselves as we’d like our loved ones to treat themselves.

Last Saturday would have been my dad’s birthday.  After a lovely stroll through the farmer’s market with my daughter where we bought grassfed cheeses, perfect tree-ripened peaches, and other delights I spent a few glorious hours listening to podcasts while cooking to prepare for our usual Sunday family get-together. Then, after a walk and some writing time, I sat on the porch with a book. It was another wonderful day in a life full of wonderful days. Thanks for the reminder, Dad.

The Queen’s Gift

beginning beekeeping

This is a throwback post, first published in the winter 2009 edition of Farming Magazine. 

It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Too much bad luck seems to tell us to change direction. Give up. Run away.

My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off naysayers who think we’re foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident and he’s still dealing with some chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt.  After that, Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.

Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, living here keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we moved here. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning about animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living closer to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.

We enjoy simple pleasures,  all the while hoping the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping.

Mark, and our 13-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter.  After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects.  Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes. We read about the science, mythology, and practical keeping of bees.

On the first warm day of spring we chose a clearing near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives.  We hauled them there under the inquiring gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help think of our land as one flowing with milk and honey.

The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down.  A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens didn’t seem promising.

Finally boxes teeming with thousands of insects arrived. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.

There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny lightweight wooden box called a queen chamber. This is sealed two ways. Inside there’s an edible barrier called a candy plug and outside of that is a cork.  The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the whole queen chamber into the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen chamber, then puts the hive lid on.  The bees become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own.  In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.

There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive. Mark followed the procedure— easing out the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned and lowering it into the hive.

Without warning, the queen flew out.

Apparently the wooden chamber wasn’t sealed with a candy plug. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive but no queen. After months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project, our very first hiving had failed. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.

Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun.  I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home. Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. All to no avail. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on another hive, focusing on what needed to be done next.

Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand. And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and improbably the queen crawled back into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam shook in the bees and closed the lid. All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing.

Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen.  They all said there was no chance at all.  But we know better.  Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day.

This article is old, but we’re still here and it’s still sweet. 

Beauty. Danger. Confusion.

Look where you're going.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is an hour-long walk with my friend Christie. We meet up a little after sunrise. It is quiet then, just birdsong and our conversation. We may start out discussing work or family but tend to veer off in all sorts of directions, typically on to the Deeper Meaning of things. Okay, we talk about aging too. We’re both in our 50’s and more than a tad annoyed at various body systems that aren’t in great operating order. We usually manage to verbally rummage around until we find a jot of wisdom we can gain from these problems.

A few weeks ago on a misty morning, we were walking and talking full tilt when I suddenly spotted something ahead of us. I gasped. I flung my arm out to stop Christie. I suspect we came to such an abrupt halt that we both wavered like cartoon characters.

“A buck!” I whispered.

There, beyond a rise in the road, was a huge deer. Christie and I looked at it for what may have been a full minute. She saw its white chest. I saw its upright posture, unmoving and alert. We both wondered if it would even be safe to continue in that direction.

That is, until we simultaneously realized we were not looking at a magnificent animal. There was no deer in the road. There never had been a deer in the road. What we were looking at was a mailbox.

Yes, we laughed ourselves silly. One more step and the dark silhouette ahead easily resolved into the outline of a simple roadside mailbox. We laughed some more.

Normally I’d go on to write about some insight I gained from this experience. And I’d probably tuck in some piece of research to demonstrate how easily we humans believe what isn’t verified. But I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I gained even a molecule of wisdom. That’s because my most recent walk with Christie took place on a similarly foggy morning. We approached the same rise in the road. And just for a moment, I gasped aloud again when I spotted the same buck-impersonating-mailbox.

Clearly I have no insight to share. Just a warning if you might ever find yourself taking a walk with me. My delusions are so contagious that Christie gasped that second time too.

Flapping My Wings

body awareness when recovering

“Wing” by Skia

Some mornings when I get up, I walk to the front door to let the dogs out while flapping my wings.  I waft them up and down as if they’re moving me through thermals high in the air, then when I get to the hall I pull them in and flap a bit more fervently as if my bird-self is flying through a narrow pass. By the time I open the door for the dogs I’m just a regular frowsy-haired morning person staring out at the dawn. My wings are arms again.

I act pretty normal most of the time, although I do have moments. I sing made-up songs, balance silly things on my head, quietly misbehave to keep myself amused in restaurants, laugh at the inopportune times, and am chronically too curious for my own good. I’m not sure this qualifies me as officially eccentric but it has been known to tax the patience of people who love me.

My family hasn’t bothered to ask me why, in the privacy of our home, my arms occasionally turn into wings. I haven’t wondered why either until I thought about it this morning while in that Realm of Insight, the shower.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One is a faint memory of an adult telling me to put my arms down and behave myself.  I recall this as happening in a cinder block room that smelled faintly musty, so probably Sunday school. I may have been happily twirling in my Sunday dress with my arms up like a ballerina or been a fairy sprinkling magic dust or been, as now, a bird. I’m guessing I was probably four or five years old since the adult in this memory is visible only as legs and hips. That memory is colored by vast shame. (I must have been a ridiculously sensitive child.) A thousand similar reminders to be a good girl left me with my arms down, flying nowhere. I can assure you, that’s no fun. I’m still in recovery from excessive politeness. I’m progressing well, thank you.

The other thought is how darn good it feels to move this way. My arms and hands move, of course. They reach upper kitchen shelves, lift eggs from nest boxes, greedily stack up library books, hug dear people —- but much of the day my arms and hands are in pretty static positions typing or reading or driving. Basic body boredom. Biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA, says our bodies crave natural movement. Instead of regimented exercise, she advocates moving throughout the day in lively ways that feel nourishing to us. She calls this nutritious movement. Try flapping your arms like wings. Does it feels wonderful to you too?

Our bodies are internal guidance systems with immeasurable storehouses of wisdom to share with us, as long as we actually take the time to pay attention. I understood my baby’s world better when I let his movements choreograph my own. Mirroring my children’s actions took me back to what it was like to be a child.  I even got some surprising insight into my own poor posture when I gave myself a few minutes to go fully into a slumped position, ready to find out what that slump had to tell me.

Maybe bodies are on my mind because I’ve had a bit of a health setback and spent a few days in the hospital recently. I still feel like someone hit me with a shovel, although thankfully now it doesn’t feel like as big a hit with as large a shovel as it did before.

We may think we’ve already learned the lessons difficult times have to teach, but there’s always more to learn. Here are some lessons I’ve revisited lately:

  • The bright light of gratitude has a way of shining fear away (even in the terrifying confines of a closed MRI) and it’s possible to be grateful for the dark stuff too.
  • It always helps to pay attention to where in our bodies we feel good —  right now for me it feels marvelous to breathe deeply, to stretch, to laugh, to sleep.
  • What feels healing is different for different people. For me it’s time in nature, hugs, time to create, stories other people share, good books, new ideas, playfulness, and more hugs. (Pretty much the same joys I’d list any time.)
  • When our arms want to be wings, let them be wings.

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.