Reading, Revisited

 

I’ve been given a writing assignment. I like those. Especially when the ability to concentrate is at low ebb. I find myself wandering off lately. Physically wandering off has always been a habit of mine (apologies to everyone who has ever waited for me). Daydreaming, too, is a kind of wandering off (guilty). I mean wandering off mid-thought though. Mid-sentence, even. Nothing sticks in my head for long.

At the bookstore I found Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or it found me. It’s “the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of democracy and revolution.”  Honestly? This description did NOT excite me. It had been so highly praised by a friend though that I thought someday I should read it. I told this to myself repeatedly, the way I remind myself to eat salad. Someday. Now, my writing assignment was to begin: “I went to the bookstore because I wanted to read The Leopard.”  – and it does. But it’s not true and this is not my writing assignment.

I’d gone to the bookstore because I’d gone to the pet store because I was supposed to be grocery shopping. Obviously. I needed escape. The bookstore is almost in sight of the pet store and it is a near perfect place to escape for an hour or two. I rode the escalator just for the view and wandered through the stationery and journals. I looked for Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, knowing full well they didn’t have it but unable to think what else to want. Walking alone in the woods clears my head so that I can pick out a thought like a string and follow it to its end. It’s productive. Losing myself in a busy bookstore is just that: losing myself. And sometimes I need that, too. Hearing a hundred other voices I’m unable to hear my own. I am free to forget.

The phone in my pocket rang. So much for forgetting. I leaned my head against the shelves and closed my eyes. It occurred to me I must have looked prayerful and so I opened them. There was The Leopard,  directly in front of me. In my head I heard my friend’s voice proclaiming it “absolutely astonishing” and I plucked it off the shelf.

Since Mom died, I haven’t been able to immerse myself in a book. My mind skims over things and refuses to focus. But The Leopard,  lush and lyrical, drew me in. For four days I was in Italy with the Salina family, watching revolution take place on battlefields and in ballrooms. The blurb at the back of the book begins: Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time.

“Absolutely astonishing” is absolutely right. It was good to be engrossed in a book again. Reading, for me, is both the escape of losing myself in a crowd and the clarity of mind I find walking in the woods alone. A dichotomy, and yet there are few more perfect pleasures.

Fat Tuesday

 

Fat Tuesday and we’re feeling fortunate. I’ve made too much pancake batter, throwing in frozen blueberries by handfuls, the Fashionista cracking the eggs and pouring in half the bottle of vanilla. I sprinkle cinnamon until the batter is splotched with brown. We rub the griddle down with butter and the pancakes start to pile onto the platter. The syrup is lumberjack sized and there’s an audible “whump” when it makes contact with the table and a sweet relief when the strain is gone from your arms – that’s how big it is.

Fat Tuesday and we’re talking about how much we have and how little we’re willing to do without. They’re talking. I’m listening. The Boy says he’ll give up pancakes for Lent and I take another bite, wondering what’s wrong with them. But they taste great and I remind myself that this child means what he says. He’s enjoying them so much right now it’s hedonistic. He’s become a gourmand and he knows it’s wrong. He’s a good kid. I don’t know where he came from. The Pixie – who gave up triangles last year – swithers. “Flowers. Actually, not flowers. Cats.” Someone points out the fact that we have three cats and she can’t pet them for forty days. “Forty days!” she cries, and I’m right there with her. Forty days without the bristly feel of Huck’s head or Tom’s soft, furry belly? “Purple,” she says “or maybe pink.”

Pink? I see my beloved pink tartan handbag, the pink scarf I wove for myself, remember the favorite pink pearls. Pink? Maybe. It’s only forty days.

Thursday and I’m sliding into a booth seat in a diner, shedding my coat and scarf. It’s late and we’re giggling. The waiter comes to take our order. I ask for a Coke, no ice. “I thought you quit drinking soda.” I say I did. I know they’re bad for me. “What was that – yesterday??” and we laugh. It’s good to be out late. It’s good to be laughing with a friend. It’s good to be alive and I don’t want to give up anything. Not for a day, not for forty days, not forever.

Last Week

 

After breakfast the table was cleared and supplies laid out: cardstock, colored pencils, glitter, glue… it was valentines day.

I struggle against the store-bought ones. I don’t know why. They’re adorable and so alluringly easy; just fill in the blanks. But I remember too well the red hearts on white paper doilies, carefully cut and lovingly (if sloppily) pasted in place. The red and pink ovals folded and woven together – over, under – into one heart. It just doesn’t get more poetic than that.

I read the first name on the list of the pixie’s classmates. “No” she said. Excuse me? Everyone gets a valentine. Forget all that stuff about love or even his cousin, like. I’m not about to let her hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone gets a valentine. “NO. I’m going to make mine first.”

(Yours? They’re ALL yours! You’re the one making them! Who else’s could they be?)

Biting my lip hard, I looked up. She was writing her name across an envelope in red. She was making herself a valentine! And she was making it first. What a strange and wonderful creature she is.

This was not, of course, my first thought. I started Catholic school at a very impressionable age. My first inclination was horror. “Vanity!” I heard Sister Mary Something cry. But she is not vain. Precocious, but not conceited. She simply knows enough to love herself.

Sensible

 

We have a dark and quiet hour together every morning before my son goes off to school. I don’t wake the girls till he’s gone and we have the chance to talk, just the two of us, or not talk and sit in companionable silence instead. I set his plate before him this morning with eggs, bacon, bagel, and the directive: Drink your juice.

“Mom! You sound just like Dad. I don’t want—“

“And I don’t want to get bitched at because you didn’t drink it!”

Oops. Things can get a little heated over the orange juice at our house. I fought the urge to cover my mouth. I am adult. I keep telling myself.

“You owe me a nickel.”

“I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll drink your juice.”

“Plus the nickel?”

“Don’t push it.”

He downed the juice in one long swallow. I laid a quarter by his plate. Why isn’t everything this simple?

An hour later I’m serving the same meal to the girls. It is not quiet. The Pixie complains she can’t eat her bagel because of her snaggletooth. Her front tooth is dangling crookedly and she looks like Nanny McPhee. I sit by her and tear the bagel into bites she can chew on the side. “Better?” She nods her head. It’s a good morning and I decide to try the juice bribe. As if anything involving girls could be simple.

“Why do I have to drink orange juice?”

“It’s important to your dad.”

“Why? What does he care? Why’s he always yelling about it?”

Beats me, but he is and someone is drinking this juice. (probably me, after she leaves)

“Scurvy” I say instead.

After a discussion of Scurvy: Causes and Effects, the oldest daughter looks frightened and drinks her juice. Her younger sister is still dubious. “My teeth are already loose – SEE?” and she bares her teeth at me, the front one jutting out drunkenly as if to prove her point. I tell her about Captain Cook circumnavigating the globe (“What?”) and staving off scurvy with a steady diet of sauerkraut and Tropicana orange juice (“So?”), hoping to distract and take her by surprise when I swing the conversation back to the glass on the table. I pretend to be a brilliant military strategist but, as you probably guessed, I’m not. I get lost in my own story and the girls are gone. Finishing the Pixie’s orange juice I consider Captain Cook. He explored the South Pacific – Can you imagine? Leaving England and finding Tahiti?  – and went home. Went home! How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull. 

A friend once told me she hadn’t had a hot meal or her own plate in years. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner – even in a restaurant – consisted of whatever her boys hadn’t eaten. At the time I didn’t have kids of my own. I couldn’t imagine. It made me angry. Not so much allowing others to invalidate your needs, your very existence as a person, but to do it to yourself! I would never!

And yet, here I am. The kids have gone off to learn, to explore, to circumnavigate the globe, and I sit drinking leftover juice, nibbling the crust of cold toast from someone else’s plate.

How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull.

Hi

 

I’ve been reading a lot. And drawing. None of it makes its way here. I don’t know why. I’m really a very private person. Someone made the observation that the Pixie talks when she wants to, but when she doesn’t she just doesn’t. She’s as closed as a nut.

I guess I’m a little like her.

 

I was lately inspired to visit my grandparents. The cemetery isn’t walled or gated or overgrown and forgotten. Just a not-so-big Methodist cemetery in rural America. Open, sunny, well cared for. Optimistic. It would never be the setting for a scene in a Gothic novel. I’m glad. I’m glad to look out across a field of green and see sun warming the stones. Yes, I’ve cried there. The memory of playing tag between the stones is stronger. The cemetery runs right up to the Sunday School steps. While I waited for my mother I memorized the names on the headstones, making up stories to go with them. When she was late I visited the graves of my great grandparents and my sister, who lies beside them. I talked. I rarely thought to bring a tribute. I’m not good with observances and formalities. My tribute was my words. In my head I talked to them as though they were there. And now, my grandparents. They weren’t famous. They weren’t war heroes or social activists. They were more than that. They were mine.

A huge basket of wildflowers was spilled over the new grave that summer day seven years ago. She’d have loved them. Wild, leggy beauties that looked as if they’d been gathered on a mountainside. It would have been a shame to leave them to wilt and rot. We picked the ground clean and carried bouquets home to remind us of her. She’d have laughed and done the same. And that’s how it was. We each of us carried something of her away inside ourselves.

On the Road Again

 

I’ve been away. I’ll tell you about it later. Right now I want to talk about white-line fever. Not the book, the movie, the television show, or the song. No; Highway Hypnosis. Technically, a mental state in which the person can drive great distances, responding to external events in the expected manner, with no recollection of having consciously done so. The driver’s conscious mind is apparently fully focused elsewhere, with seemingly direct processing of the masses of information needed to drive safely. Automaticity. The conscious and subconscious minds appear to concentrate on different things. You sleep deprived mothers know what I’m talking about. It’s not just for truckers anymore.

I’ve had it many times on the road though and I don’t like it. I want to notice one place melding into another. The hardwood forests of New England easing into the scrub pines and eventually the scattered palms of the South. The soil that turns to sand as you near the shore. I want to feel the differences between one place and another. A uniqueness of space.

There’s truck driver blood in me. When I was ten I thought I’d grow up to be a Truck Driving Artist Librarian President of the United States. I’d take the Oval Office on the road and multi-tasking to a new level. My father drove a semi. From the time I could climb in, I spent hours sitting in the cab pretending to drive through the deserts of New Mexico or along the rocky coast of Maine. Always with an empty load, sailing along like the breeze. Free. My friends did not do this and I thought it was my truck driver blood that made me different. A rover.

Sometimes a sort of white-line fever comes over me at home. I go through the motions of domestic life daydreaming. In my mind I’m somewhere else. Today I’ve been back to Budapest, which I haven’t given a fair assessment of here, then to China and Japan. I want to see Mount Fuji from the air. I want to float down the Yangtze River. I want to be on the road. I want the wind in my hair and white lines running on before me.

Graduation

 

I told the kids come June they’d suffer for all those snow closings and delays this past winter. I also told them that when I was a kid we walked to school in snow. Piles and piles of it. Blizzards even. Barefoot. None of that was true. I did not walk in blizzards barefoot. There may have been slush, but not six foot drifts.

And they are not suffering. Not even close. Yes, school’s been extended into summer to make up for those days spent sledding. Mid-June, their days are spent in the classroom rather than in the backyard climbing trees. They don’t care. Friday I found out why. I’d been invited to an authors’ tea by the third grade. I had no idea what to expect. I asked if I should dress up, which got a laugh from my nine year old. Apparently not. I put my gloves back in the drawer. In the end there were no dainty tea cups or diminutive sandwiches anyway. The authors’ tea featured punch and cookies while the kids took turns reading books they’d written aloud. This is how we spent the morning. I stayed for lunch, which I ate surrounded by giggling girls doing one another’s hair. I saw the fifth grade teachers carrying out tubs of Italian ice for their class party. The rest of the school picnicked under trees with their parents. I passed out chocolate bars to the girls and we went to the playground. They are not suffering. This is one long party. I’m glad.

Flash back to Thursday night’s fifth grade graduation. Belatedly my fifth grader remembered there was a dress code. (Boys!) Everyone scrambled to change into something nicer or even just cleaner and I phoned a friend for advice. Two of her children had already been down this road and a third would give the official welcome that night. The welcomer answered with a “hey”. I asked what he was wearing, thinking to make a joke about it, but he surprised me with “a blazer”. A what? A sport coat? “Mom got me a flower to go on it.” A boutonniere??  I was seriously underdressed. My daughter, who knows everything about everyone, informed me then that a certain fifth grade girl (she of the sun-gold hair and pink sweaters – ah, poetic puberty) had gotten flowers and that all of the graduates were getting gifts. This is fifth grade! We didn’t have grand graduation ceremonies in fifth grade and we certainly didn’t get gifts. We got beat if we DIDN’T graduate to the sixth grade, that’s what we got! I considered telling my children this, then thought better of it. My humor is sometimes lost on them.

Instead I rummaged through my son’s room. He’s allergic to nice clothes, but I knew he had some. If you’ve ever broken an arm you know what I’m saying here: Everyone needs at least one button down shirt. This boy has broken his arm twice. I knew those shirts were in there. I came out waving a pale green dress shirt and matching tie triumphantly. He crossed his arms and set his jaw. Wrestling him to the floor and forcing him into the shirt was a momentary possibility, but I’d spent too much time doing my hair. We compromised. A short sleeve shirt – tucked in. Black trousers – with sneakers. I added a belt, he refused socks. It was a really nice belt though. Worth the loss of the socks. At the last second the phone rang. Could we bring an extra shirt with us? I guessed it was for some underdressed child and we’d never see it again. My son eyed the green shirt and tie. He’s generous.

And then we were sitting in the auditorium. There were speeches and award presentations. They went on forever. Yes, my friends’ children and even my own son gave speeches and were presented awards. You know what I mean though. It went on f o r e v e r.  At the end was a slide show the teachers had put together. A baby picture would appear on the screen, then a photo of a chubby toddler, a toothless grinning six year old, and finally a current picture along with the student’s name. The graduates loved it. As soon as they could guess, they shouted out the names to go with the faces. “Phil!” “Kimmie!” “Tommy!” I had tears welling up long before the image of my sweet little six month old boy in red overalls appeared. I was reminded that this whole production, which I’d thought overkill on a grand scale, was for them. They deserved it. And it would not go on forever. It would go on for a few moments of my life and then they’d be gone. The baby in red overalls became a toddler in nothing but a diaper and cowboy boots riding a stick horse, then a blonde boy rolled on the ground laughing with a big yellow dog and I couldn’t tell them apart by sight or smell. There were turtles and toads in buckets on my back step and pockets filled with marbles and rocks and BBs. He’s discovered where the lost teeth he put under his pillow went. He plays chess. He questions my logic. It won’t go on forever.

Heal Thyself

 

Dr Gray leaned back in his chair, rubbing his nose meditatively. Then he spoke, eyes still closed so I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. I always get the feeling he’s more of a philosopher than a physician and that in itself makes me feel better. In college we had a Philosopher in Residence. Every now and then I wandered down the hill and up long, narrow, switchback stairs to visit. It was like climbing the Sacred Way to consult the Oracle. At the top was a small, dark landing and a door. That’s all. I drew myself up to knock and the door opened onto a sanctuary. Sun poured in from long windows and stacks of books rose up everywhere like the vapors of Apollo himself.

There are no stacks of books in Dr Gray’s small office, but there are paintings. His wife is an artist, which is how we met. So we talk a lot about her and a lot about art and a little about my physical health. This suits me fine. As he walks me out I realize there is a life-size marble bust of Julius Caesar there in the hallway. He’s sitting on a faux woodgrain laminate desk as if the waiting room were too plebeian for him. Obviously the doctor would see him immediately. He’d wait right here. If it were a smaller sculpture I could imagine someone walked through and said: I’ll just set this down here a minute. But this is Caesar, large as life and ten times as heavy. He demands homage.

Dr Gray sighs. “That belongs to Dr Billons. I think he wants to put it on ebay.” Dr Billons, who I’ve never met, has been brought into the practice as a relief pitcher. I imagine him young and brash and wearing rubber gloves. He’s very clinical, probably diagnoses patients with his eyes open. This is his? Suddenly I don’t want to pull his name off the door. I want him to assess my lymph nodes speaking Latin. I picture him reading Catullus to the matronly receptionist between patients. “I entreat you, my sweet Ipsitilla, my darling, my charmer, bid me to come and rest at noonday with you…”  as she photocopies and files prescriptions for antibiotics and diuretics.

“You want it?” Dr Gray asks. Yes. YES.

No. Well, yes. But no, not really. What I really want is to have it at my doctor’s office. Julius Caesar wearing a bronzed breastplate and set on a chipped laminate desktop amid oil paintings of the doctor’s garden, his boat, his cat even. I want my doctor to know I was once 18 with a ridiculous crush on a colorblind painter and that I cut the tip of my finger off with a paper cutter trying to impress him. I want him to ask how many kids my sister has now and what I’ve been reading. I want to hear the funny story about his vasectomy and to have his home number in case I need it. I want there to be a huge marble bust of a Roman dictator sitting in his office for no particular reason. I want him to be a real live human being and to know that I am.

Isn’t that what we all want?

So I left Dr Gray the way I used to leave the oracle at the top of the stairs; no clear answers but lighter in spirit, with much discussed and more to think about.

Snow Day

The wind still howls, but the snow has stopped. My husband escaped to work on snowshoes this morning. What ever made me think snowshoes were a good gift? I should have given him a snowshovel or blower or a plow! Instead, over the years, I’ve given him a sled, a tobbogan, skis, and snowshoes. A means of freedom.

What was I thinking??

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