Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January in Ohio

It is January in Ohio and the prospect of deep snow and frigid temperatures looms in our future for several weeks. On this Friday in January though, I watched the thermometer as its needle approached, then went past the freezing mark. My desire to be outside walking increased in step with the mercury rising inside the glass tube. Watching the water as it trickled down to, then off, the tips of the dangling icicles finally set my mind.

Willingly giving in to the sirens' song, I began armoring myself in layers of warm clothing. A tee shirt followed by a thermal shirt and sweatshirt swelled under the hoodie that I zipped up over the bulk. Searching the top of the closet I found my hat, mittens, and scarf, and pulled them into place. Finally prepared and properly provisioned with iPhone, tissues, inhaler and camera, I stepped out of the garage door and into winter.

The first crisp, fresh breath of cold air is tinged with the wood smoke of the neighbor’s fireplace but still, so fresh. A deep breath in and out caused plumes of steam to flow from my nose and mouth and I stood watching this amazing thing. Emptying my lungs of the stale indoor air and filling them with the crisp frigid air of the outdoors, I walked slowly down the snow-packed driveway. At the end I stopped to consider the direction I should take. Dale Ford Road with its sheltering spruces and wider road would be the safer path for today’s walk, so following thought with action I turned north.

Taking the first step to cross the road is freeing. It feels odd to me that I’m walking on the road made for cars. I enjoy the mosaic created by the pavement’s pebbles and indents. Pressed into its surface are random items trapped there when the surface was soft and new. Today I don’t see any of the wildlife that traverse these roads the rest of the year. I imagine them burrowed in their winter homes. I do see the salt crystals thrown from the snowplows. They have settled at the edge of the pavement to mix with the other debris that has been washed there by the melting snow.

My camera, tucked away in my pocket to shield it from the cold, waits impatiently. My eyes scan the countryside as well as the ground, searching for something appealing to photograph. Framing each scene in my mind's eye, the cold landscape doesn’t offer up the bounty of summer. The bare trees display a stark black-on-white palette against the pale winter sky and I strive to capture that starkness in a photo. The tracks left by wandering deer dot the melting snow in a cross work pattern but none contrive to form a pleasing image.

As I walk, I subconsciously monitor my aging bones, muscles, tendons and lungs for signs of strain, taking care to make sure my booted feet come down squarely on each step as they avoid the icy patches in the road. The line between overdoing and pushing yourself to improve becomes harder to find as you age. This concerns me but around that I revel in the joy of the stunning isolation, the peaceful noisy silence.

Flocks of scavenging birds fly over in neat squadrons but none settle on the phone wires to watch me as I pass. They are scanning the trees for a few bits of food to fuel either their flight south or their winter survival.

I love walking my neighborhood in all seasons and I admit the other months are friendlier and have fancier dress then January. The delight here is the unexpected release of winter's grip. It lasted long enough to allow a brief reprieve and to send a promise of the spring that will follow. It is very welcome.

--Diana for the PGM

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rinsing Her Panty-Hose for Christ

Writers are recipients of more gifts than anyone on the planet. We need only be constantly ready to receive them, aware of our world and the stories floating all around us. Perhaps, God has given us this talent so that we can tell the little stories of the unseen lives that deserve to be heard. All of them honored equally on a level playing field, the Nobel Prize winner, the nurse, the office cleaner, the firefighter, the actor and the mailman.
Last night I was given such a gift, the spark for a story, as I went to brush my teeth before turning in for the night, on a winter writing retreat at St. Mary of the Woods, enjoying the hospitality of the Sisters of Providence. We are staying in the residence of the sisters who so graciously share their living space, their home, with us. As I entered the sink room, I got a glimpse into a tiny moment of a sister’s life. I knew this was a gift meant for me to write about, this moment in a life that most people never see.
The sister was of medium height, slender and had short wavy, white hair, the kind of white hair that glows of its own accord, not from product. I tried to imagine her as a young girl giving her life to Christ. Choosing not to go to parties with illicit drinking and furtive groping, not to go shopping for trendy clothes with her girlfriends, not to marry a mortal and have little earthly children of her own some day, choosing to live in the bosom of Christ, rather than the bosom of her family. I admire her strength for listening to whatever voice guided her to make these difficult choices that result in a lifetime commitment to serve God and the world. Along with big choices comes the loss of little everyday choices, indulging herself at Starbuck’s with a coffee light frappucino while reading the latest Toni Morrison novel, dropping by her mother’s on a Saturday morning for tea and sympathy and to my mind the big loss: privacy. Sharing quarters her whole life, making her nest as cozy as is possible in one room, sharing a sink room, a lavatory and shower room, no leisurely bubble bath enjoying a glass of wine while surrounded by candle light, reading the poems of Neruda.
But, for women, some things are universal. Every month the sister sheds her blood, sloughing off the possibility of children. Children that Jesus has chosen to keep by his side in Heaven. Month after month, year upon year she bleeds for Christ, the fruit of her labor never seen. Perhaps she’s a professor of literature or poetry in the college here, guiding the children of others who have made different choices in their lives, her reward, honoring Christ by exciting the earthly children of others with the words of Longfellow, Shakespeare or Dickenson.
The years have stacked up and she is past the age of bleeding. Her white hair and peach fuzz skin glow in the dimly lit sink room. It is ten o’clock on a Friday night and while other women her age are watching their grandchildren sleep, or celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with their husband in Hawaii, or baking scones for their Saturday morning poetry circle, this sister is rinsing her panty-hose for Christ because cleanliness is next to Godliness and that is her best offering on a bleakly cold, February Friday night.

Rebekah for The Poplar Grove Muse

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Goodbye, Hello

It’s really too late now to say goodbye to 2010. The new year has washed in on its new year wave and is already pulling me out to the sea of the “now” and “next steps;” a powerful undertow which, I’ve got to admit in the first week of 2011, raises my heart rate and puts me face to face with my suitability for swimming in fast-moving waters. Time does not slow down. The requirements of daily life, work, and love do not diminish.

Goodbye anyway to a year rocked by cataclysmic world events, extreme weather, bedbugs, disease, downturns and downsizing. Goodbye.

Goodbye and thanks for last year’s lucky breaks—the ones I was fortunate to get from some of that stuff. On peaceful hillsides in Umbria, watching gorgeous dark-haired kids kick soccer balls around in Todi, or a world cup match while eating gelato in the tiny town square of Grutti, Italy. The High Sierras. I tell you; listening to young people singing in the mountains does something to erase the jadedness of any soul. If one of them happens to be your young person –all the better! I don’t ever want to say goodbye to the light our children bring to this world. Or the light of a desert sunrise in Tucson, Arizona. Or the light I read by at night.

For someone who preaches the gospel of slowing down, but who has a hard time taking her own advice, I’m grateful to the instincts and friends that called me out to play more last year. Dancing at the Lotus Music Fest, toasting a storm rolling in out at our friend’s farm west of town during a long summer drought. I say bye-bye to some of the particular joys embedded in that play. But HELLO! Let’s welcome more of this in the coming year.

To the women I walk with most mornings in all weathers, the people I write with regularly, the stories which feed my stories and my keen delight in being alive on this crazy planet, last year was pretty great, I have no reason to think the next will be any less grand.

Goodbye and thanks for a peaceful personal year, in a series of years, I’m sure, in which our family unit morphs and we adapt to changing configurations and prepare for the next phase of the nest emptying.

Hello to what emerges each day, to keeping my eye on the questions that drive me, the creative force that keeps me curious.

Hello to every goodbye and new greeting in the daily turning of the world.

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, January 3, 2011

What I Did on My Vacation

My family was down to two for a few days this past week. My husband and my youngest daughter flew to California to celebrate his mother’s 82nd birthday between Christmas and New Year’s. Air fares were so outrageous that we only felt we could send half our delegation.

The result was that I was left at home with a fairly self-reliant 15-year-old daughter, post holidays (where for most of a week I prepared three squares a day for larger-than-usual crowds), with very little that I absolutely HAD to do. Faced with this unusual span of available time, I considered dismantling Christmas, various long-neglected organizational tasks, and the obvious housekeeping chores that had been suspended for the immediate needs of houseguests….

And so, of course, I read three novels, back-to-back, in bed, in my nightclothes, for much of the time. It was luxurious, disorienting, and thoroughly restorative.

I find that the only thing that can make me want to ignore my family is a good novel. As a girl, I devoured most reading matter that came my way, including medicine labels, cereal boxes, and junk mail. Before I was allowed, in fourth grade, to check out books from the more mature sections of my library (what a silly and outdated rule!), I would appear at the Bookmobile at the start of their shift in my schoolyard, check out the maximum number of allowed charges, take them home to read, and return just before the vehicle departed to check out a whole new allotment. My mother recalls how she could never send her three children to their rooms as a punishment, since we were never happier than reading in our rooms; I vividly remember the ache of being called from solitary reading to set the table, vacuum, rake, shovel, whatever task the life of the household demanded at the moment. Reading was refuge, escape, transport to other, better worlds, and sometimes seemed like the meaning of life. That luxurious childhood sense of the urgency of reading, and my parents’ acquiescence in my siblings’ and my pursuit of it, is one of the greatest gift of my early years.

However, being a good partner, and a passable parent, I rarely indulge this longing to forget the rest of my world and just read. So this week, with my diminished household demands, was a rare opportunity.

One of my closest friends, Harvard and Oxford educated, a busy physician, parent, and spouse, whom I regularly refer to as “the smartest person I know,” had a childhood ambition for adult success that I treasure. Early on, she defined her standard for adult success as being able to read “a book a day.” It sounds laughable, and in fact I have related this to friends who have laughed at the idea. But it is hard for me to imagine a grownup goal that better incorporates that greatest freedom and pleasure of my childhood, than this one. Needless to say, neither she nor I have achieved this success.

I talk to women all the time, for whom a great regret of adult life is not having time and energy to read. The refrain about reading only a few pages in bed before falling asleep is a common one. As are the piles of unread, long-desired tomes on the bedside table. I know of a number of book clubs that have sadly disbanded, due to the difficulty of mustering a critical mass of members who get the books read month in and month out. Often, there is a tinge of guilt in these narrations, as though we have somehow betrayed our younger, perhaps wiser, reading selves.

In recent years I have rededicated myself to reading more. Nothing makes me feel that I have attended to my core self more than reading. I invite you to join me in this ongoing project in 2011. There are lots of sources for raising your own excitement about making more time for reading: two favorites are Maureen Corrigan’s segments on NPR’s Fresh Air and our own Esmerelda’s “Esmerelda’s Book Thing” Consider joining the WWFaC book group, which meets third Thursdays at the schoolhouse.

Happy New Year! Happy Reading! Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse