Saturday, March 31, 2012


It's a bit of madness, creativity is. It's the kind of thing that makes you spend 3 hours on a rainy Friday afternoon trying to knit with foodstuffs for the pure enjoyment of it. You catch yourself ramming your head against a problem repeatedly, clock ticking, heart beating a little faster, fingers dripping with olive oil and reeking of onions - and enjoying it. For what? For nothing, really. And for everything. For taking your ideas and making them live, for seeing if it can be done, for trying something you've never done before, for using the element of us that is divine - the ability to create.

Somewhere along the line, some people learn to say I'm not creative because their own breed of creativity doesn't match what they see as the "right" kind, or because someone told them that, or because they tried something once and failed, or because, because, because... Sometimes I think it's because the madness is frightening. Because you do end up spending the afternoon with skewers, chopsticks, knitting needles and mutilated vegetables and the all-important question of life and death becomes "How can I weave in the ends of this spaghetti without breaking it?" And then because sometimes you discover after all of your effort, you can't. Not today, not with the materials you have, and you chuck it in the compost and go back to that first square and start again.

For what? For itself. That's what. But it's a bit of madness. It's irresponsible, it's unproductive, it's unprofitable, it's impractical. This bit of madness has changed the face of civilization repeatedly for millennia. Because somebody looked at the mold on bread and wondered about its properties, we can treat illnesses that used to kill. Because someone wondered if they could fly and crashed and crashed and crashed and then flew. Because somebody wondered why apples fall from trees, we now have vehicles that go into space. Because.

I'm not a Fleming, or a Wright, or a Newton. My dressing up a fish hasn't changed the face of civilization. I will likely pass into oblivion when I go, not to be studied by school children who would dress up in overlarge jeans with holes and muss up their hair so as to impersonate me on "biography day" at school. But I would argue for the civilizing effects of dressing up a fish.

 Because I met so many new people this week that I would not have otherwise: fishermen, shop keepers, artists, authors, actors, impersonators. I wandered parts of my city that I usually overlook. Because I spent a lovely afternoon with my daughter and my friend, basking in this small segment of our community who come together once a year out of a love of books and and food. Because I discovered that leeks knit better than green onions. A sole is related to a halibut. Cilantro doesn't knit at all. Crochet with noodles is easier than knitting. Because I gave away my sole to a strange man in impossible cowboy boots. Because I get to end my day with the reinforcement of faith that people are basically nice and strange and encouraging and unique and creative and I am part of that. You are part of that. Because.

Just because. "Knitted Comforts for the Sole"

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Price Is Right

One of my favorite things about staying home sick from school when I was a kid, was watching The Price Is Right. I loved Bob Barker's way with the ladies, I was fascinated by his long skinny microphone, the sets and the prizes mesmerized me. The blinking lights and shining teeth. The "New car!", the dinette set. They were what glamour was made of. I always wanted to do the game with the punch wall. You know the one with the paper circles you could punch through and then Bob would take out a slip of Price Is Right paper and read off the prizes? I could tell you the price of a can of tuna and that it was definitely less than the hand mixer. The box of laundry detergent was the black horse, though. The price could go either way. It always cost more than I thought it did. Lower! Lower! I'd shout with the crowd and watch the contestant sadly kiss Bob on the cheek and head off stage; or else jump up and down and hug him and bump his microphone and go dance on the red spot near the Big Wheel.

What I loved best about the show, though, was when it was time for a new contestant. All these schlubs, sitting in the audience with their great big price tag name stickers waiting for the big, disembodied voice to shout their name: "And the next contestant is... Come on down!" I loved the idea that one minute you could be sitting there, a hapless spectator, and the next you are tripping through the aisles, hyperventilating, high-fiving and shaking hands on your way to your brightly colored spot on Contestants' Row. You start your day an average person and then someone, somewhere decides you're ready for the show. "Come on down!"

Right now I'm reading The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne. It is his book on writing. Add it to your list, if for no other reason than to read the introduction. I promise you won't be sorry. If you're unfamiliar with John Dufresne, I suggest picking up a copy of his novel, Louisiana Power and Light, first. Then you'll know the man knows a thing or two about writing. He focuses primarily on the writing of fiction, but it's helpful for other kinds of writing too. Most memoir is a form of fiction anyway. It's full of ideas and exercises and admonition and encouragement, all written in his earthy, conversational, and often hilarious prose. Even if you don't write, it's an interesting read.

I was plowing my way through when I discovered this quote from Joyce Carol Oates which resonated with me:
"What one has lost, or never had, feeds the work. There is a chance to make things right, to explain and explore, and aided by memory and its transmutations, find a new place where I have not been and did not wish to go."
I have been intrigued by loss these last few weeks. No particular reason, just an idea my hamster has bedded down in. I wrote a little bit about loss last week. I will probably write some more in the coming weeks. But I want to know what you have to write about loss. Think back to the first time you can remember feeling that sense of loss? What was it about? How did you feel? Did it change you? If so, how? Now here's the dinette set: Can you bid on this in up to 250 words without going over?

I'm no Bob Barker - not by a long shot - but isn't that why we write? That hope of one day hearing your name called and being able to run, giddy and bouncing, to Contestants' Row? Dufresne says this: "... there is a cost. You have to pay for the privilege of writing with your time... You pay with your time, your patience, your passion, your persistence."

Is the price right?
So, you there! Come on down!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Date Night

Not much time to write tonight folks. I have a date. The Chief Lou is putting the monkeys to bed and I have a date. He's all the things a good tryst should be: he's dark and mysterious. He's rich and he's sweet, but just salty enough to not be boring. He sits silently and watches me write, he shares a double tall latte with me and waits patiently while I think. He's also famous. It doesn't get any better than this, folks.
Click here for his picture. Don't be jealous.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tangled Small Talk: Existential Fish

Hoo boy. I'm exhausted. I have been unleashed on the unsuspecting general public today far more than I am generally comfortable with so of course, it's time for another installment of Tangled Small Talk.

This weekend is the world famous Seattle Edible Book Festival. I entered last year and resoundingly lost so of course, I will be entering again this year. My jBird is, too. It's a family nerd thing. She's had her idea for months and I had been wracking my brains to no avail when suddenly one day at the library, a book leaped out at me and made me giggle. So now I have my book. Shh. Top secret. More on that later. But all of this is why, when I was at the grocery store today, I decided to harass the fish monger.

Me: Um, hello. Can I buy a whole sole?
Fishmonger: [Blank, open-mouthed stare.]
Hooligan: I have a soul! Why do you want to buy a soul?!
Me: No, the fish.
Hooligan: Are we having fish for dinner?! I don't really like fish, you know. [begins playing hopscotch on the floor tiles and chanting] Step on a crack, break a sole's back!
Fishmonger: A whole sole? [gestures vaguely toward the giant stack of beautiful fillets of sole in the case.]
Me: Yes. A whole sole. Like the trout you have here, only a sole. [At this point, I can't stop saying "sole". I want to say it over and over without reason. I have spent the better part of the day talking to strangers in uncomfortably hot rooms and listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*. Which might have been a mistake before some impromptu sole shopping.]
Fishmonger: No. We don't sell whole soles.
Me: Oh. Well, do you know who might?
Fishmonger: [looking over his shoulder as if for the cameras or some other explanation for the woman and the hopscotching Hooligan who want to buy his soul] I don't know. I don't think you can get whole soles. I think they just come in fillets.
Me: [imagining these ghostly white fillets of sole flapping about like amoebas underwater. I'm shocked by this mental image and possibly sound a wee bit more confrontational than I intended] What do you mean? They come in fillets? Surely they're whole at some point. Like a fish. [I added a little flappy hand motion to illustrate my point.]
Monkfish. Now that's a big-ass fish. It would eat your sole.
photo courtesy
Fishmonger: [I kid you not, taking a wary step backward and clearly losing his composure.] Well, who buys a whole sole? That's a big-ass fish.
Me: [Because I can't seem to stop myself for love or money.] Like how big? Like Salmon big? Monkfish big? [I am also gesticulating wildly to show the variety of sizes among fish.]
Fishmonger: [Deep sigh.] I don't know. Big. We have the fillets. See the fillets? Hey Todd!
Todd: [Interrupts his shakedown of another store employee for her part of the store's March Madness pool.] Yeah, man?
Fishmonger: How big is a sole?
Todd and Another Store Employee stop and gape openly at me. I gape back. Hooligan continues hopscotching and talking to the lobsters in the tank.
Todd: Ummmm...
Fishmonger: No, like the fish. [He clearly understood the possibly existential undertones of his question.]
Hooligan: I don't want to eat fish for dinner. Can we get a lobster?
Todd: I don't think they're that big. Did you see the fillets?
Me: Well, that's what I thought. Isn't the fillet like its whole side? [In case anyone in the meat department didn't understand what a fillet was, I turn and demonstrate on my own side where the fillet would come from.]
Todd: Uh, yeah. I could probably special order a sole for you but it might take a while.
Me: Thanks, but I don't have a while. I need a sole by this weekend. [I realize exactly what this sounds like.] Come on, Hooligan, let's go find some vegetables I can knit with. Thank you for your help!

Alas, I will have to try again tomorrow and frighten another fishmonger by attempting to purchase his whole soul. All in the name of edible literary art. I'm sure this happens to everyone.

*There is heated debate in some circles about whether this song is about drugs or about the devil. Of course, as everyone knows all rock and roll songs are about drugs and the devil and sometimes sex. So it's really sort of a moot point. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Building Sand Castles

There is laundry whirring and tumbling its way clean. I am winning my annual war on ants. There is an explosion of doll clothes and Legos in the living room, sheets that need to be changed on the beds. Tiny bits of wood and motes of dust and ash have found their ways to the corners of the hearth. I have work to do today.
This is the stuff of life. It is the every day. These are the things that we do that become undone, only to be done again. These are the sand castles we build, only to be washed away by the tides of being alive.

My husband wears his socks to bed, he takes them off as he falls asleep and drops them on the floor. I am grateful for this farm of wadded little black sheep. The toes pulled through the tops in groggy haste look like noses peeking out through rumpled bundles of fleece. I collect them to me and corral them in my basket. I will wash them and dry them and turn them into rabbits - floppy ears of toes sticking out of their bodies joined in pairs.

Photo courtesy of
I will bastardize Robert Frost in my head as I work "and piles to go before I sleep", I will pray for my friend who is having her 5th round of chemo today. I will conjure her face, recently devoid of eyebrows and lashes, but yet still smiling: positive, ready, in grateful awe of the doctors who are trying to save her life. My thoughts will drift from this beautiful soul to another sole entirely and wonder if the market will sell me a whole fish. "I am going to knit it a hat out of green onions and lemongrass," I will explain to the fishmonger, who will undoubtedly, in his thick apron slick with guts and scales, smile and shake his head and wrap my purchase in brown paper.

I will approach these sand castles with gratitude. The folding of socks, the scolding of ants, the molding of plans in my head. I have a love who shares my bed with his big, smelly feet. Spring has come and everything is waking up, which means the ants are stretching and seeking sustenance for their queen. I have hope and vision, a sense of things to come. As I build my daily sand castles, I am etching things in stone: this love, this awakening, this vision. These things I build every day that cannot be washed away.

Friday, March 23, 2012

David Is Not My Pal

They are at it again. The Davids. They are after me and this time they tried to break my brain.

[Back story: Read this post which explains, in chronological fashion, how the Davids have plagued me so.]

Over lunch a few weeks ago, a friend of ours (whose name is Mark and is in no way affiliated with any Davids of which I was previously aware) told us about this "sleep machine" that he had purchased. So well did this machine work that the only problem with it was that he would awake at 4 AM, completely refreshed and ready to go. The Chief Lou was intrigued and I was really only half-listening because I was still mulling over the previous conversation topic - some sort of water repellent that you could spray on your phone and then dunk it in water to no ill effect. I asked if it helped with the cell phone face cheese problem and everyone at lunch acted like they had never gotten face cheese on their phone before. Which is, of course, a lie. (Score one for the Blurters! Nothing says polite conversation like "face cheese".) So, imagine my surprise when this past Sunday, the Chief Lou danced up to me holding what looked like a camera bag. "He brought it!" [Insert confused conversation here. Who brought what and why? And why does that bag say "Brain Wave" on it?!]
Figure 1: David Pal. I have no idea what those nipple
clamps are for. They weren't in my kit.
Photo courtesy of Mind Alive Inc.

Skip to bed time Sunday night. We crawl into our bed, immediately roll into the giant divot in the middle, claw our way back up to our respective sides and turn on our reading lights. I am reading a book of essays with my hot pink reading glasses. The Chief Lou (so I thought) is reading some sort of dreadful "Hard Sci-Fi" (otherwise known as man-mances in our house. "Just because the women are robots does not mean they are not being objectified," says I. "I like the descriptions of the planets and technology," says he. "Suuuuurre," says I.) I momentarily thought his sci-fi had come to life because suddenly our room is full of beeping sounds and flashing lights. I look over and he is reading what looks like a homemade book whose cover says simply in block letters: David Pal. "I think I need setting C-3," he says and slips on the glasses and headphones. Yes, the glasses and headphones. (See Figure 1) Within about 10 minutes he's snoring away and it looks like a disco in our bedroom.

When I awoke on the couch the next morning I asked him how David Pal treated him last night.
 "I don't know, he did something. It was weird."
"Well, I'm sleeping with David Pal tonight and you can lie there and have seizures while I snore."

A few excerpts from "David Pal Operator's Manual":
"Welcome to the experience of the DAVID PAL, a digital audio-visual entrainment (AVE) device, designed to support you in your quest for wellness by promoting various areas of the brain to work together in a harmonious fashion. Through the use of AVE, you may experience yourself in a new and beneficial way."
Sounds good. Exactly how, you may ask does David Pal harmonize your brain? Well, according to the manual, in three ways:
"The first aspect of AVE involves dissociation.... Secondly, cerebral blood flow increases... Thirdly, EEG activity changes."
These all seem like very safe and innocuous things to mess with in the privacy of your own bedroom, right?
So, I selected setting C-3 because I was overwhelmed with my choices (there are 18 in varying wavelengths) and that was what the Chief Lou used and he didn't die or start to bleed out of his eyes or anything.
"Delta - The Sleep State - These sessions help bring on sleep by turning off the 'chatter' that sometimes occurs after a busy day"
C-3 is "Sub-Delta" (sounds like a cut-rate sorority) and is listed as being only "mildly dissociating". I donned the glasses and headphones and lay down. The glasses are muffled with a piece of foam on the inside of them and you are supposed to close your eyes when you wear them (so you can't read the warning sticker about seizures or scald your retinas, I suppose.) Lights pulse in patterns and rhythms across the glasses, which immediately my brain glommed onto and tried to make sense of. The headphones emit a series of tones in different frequencies, overlaid with a steady heartbeat that sounds suspiciously like a bass drum. In short, it's kind of like an instant, legal acid trip. (Hey, I've read Ken Kesey novels!)

You are supposed to think soothing thoughts during the first half of the "program" and then go to sleep during the second half. And then roll over and smash the glasses while you sleep and get tangled in the cords? (More on this in a minute.) Convinced to really give it a go, once I stopped giggling about how ridiculous and sci-fi I must look, I tried to think soothing thoughts. I think soothing thoughts all the time. It is a regular practice for me as I go about my day to soothe my bedraggled brain hamster. But when I am supposed to think soothing thoughts, this is what happens in my head:
I believe this is why I have never been successfully hypnotized.

Meanwhile the heartbeat bass drum is bah-booming at a steady pace that does not in any way correspond with my own heartbeat or breathing. The tones start changing from high to low and some background feedbacky kind of noise and the lights are still flashing and it's a regular Pink Floyd laser light show in my very own bedroom. Nay, in my very own brain. So, I try to focus on my breathing like any good transcendental meditator will tell you to do... In... Out...wheeeeee ooooo wheeeee ooooo flash blink top side left side bottom side bah-boom In... Out... SOOTHINGTHOUGHTS! In... Out... What if this gives me a heart attack? In... Out... In... What was I thinking about? Out... In... I'm going to kill Mark In... Oops, I'm holding my breath Out...SOOTHINGTHOUGHTS! In... Out... boing boing boing wheeee ooooo boing boing boing bah-boom In... Out... what will my children do if I die in my bed? In...Out... what if the paramedics come and find me wearing this ridiculous contraption? In... Out... In... Out... what if I fall asleep and roll over and break this?!I don't want to buy Mark a new one! In... Out... what is my name again?

David Pal, that rascal, did do something strange. I found myself in the position of not being able to complete a coherent thought. I would test it by trying to think about something and then lose it right in the middle, drift off into Neverland with my lights and my boinks and my bah-booms and feel like I was floating on some sort of sensory deprivation island. Not quite asleep, but completely at rest. Can I say this? I don't often get to experience a quiet mind, not even while I'm sleeping. It was at once uncomfortable and a blessed relief. I suppose at some point either the Chief Lou finished laughing at me and took the contraption off, or I did it in my semi-conscious state because it was on the floor by my bed the next morning. (I've got to say, the latter option is a little disturbing. I'm not entirely sure what my body would do if left to wander around at loose ends while my mind was vacationing on Neptune.)

But let's talk about the next morning. The morning on which I thought for a good 3 hours that I had broken my brain. Or rather, that David Pal had. I stood up out of bed and immediately fell over. Stood up again and the room was spinning. Not the room, exactly, but the inside of my cranium. I was so dizzy I could barely see straight. I crept down the stairs and went about my morning: making breakfast, packing lunches, getting the monkeys to school - all very quietly and calmly so as not to alarm small people. I got home and sat down and watched the room slow its whir and seriously panicked for another 15 minutes or so (including a quick email to the Chief Lou: "David Pal broke my brain! Mark is dead!") until I sneezed. And sneezed again and again. I never sneeze unless confronted with direct sunlight, so three in a row only means one thing. That one thing is decidedly not "some crazy brain wave apparatus dislodged some really old fat soluble psychedelia from deep within the folds of my brain and now I am ruined for life just like all those pamphlets and after school specials said I would be". Thankfully. It means I'm catching a cold.

I just returned from the doctor's office where she pronounced my left ear "full of fluid" and issued prescriptions for dealing with said fluid. When describing my symptoms, I did not in any way describe David Pal or his presence in the sudden onset of this cold and its terrifying implications. I'm pretty sure I would have ended up with a few more prescriptions and possibly a referral if I had.

I will declare this a win. The Davids tried to get me down again and I rose triumphant with the aid of a simple antibiotic and a nasal spray. Until next time, THINKSOOTHINGTHOUGHTS!

*I am in no way affiliated with Mind Alive, Inc. or its products. I am not being paid for this post except in the way of comment love and my experience with David Pal is pretty much like my experience with other mind altering activities - abnormal. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This Is How We Do It

Last week I posed a question: How Do You Do That Thing We Do?
How do you write? From whence comes your inspiration? How does the process work for you?
There were a lot of answers. A lot of them were similar: a lot of people just seem to sit and write, then edit what comes out when they're done. A lot of people get sudden flashes of inspiration at the most inconvenient times. For some it is a necessity, a drive. Some of us couldn't explain, exactly. It generated so much fascinating discussion - read the comments on that post! So much good information there. It generated a few posts, too. And that, my friends, is the beauty of blogging. People in their living rooms, kitchens, offices, pajamas, all across the world can sit and chat together instantaneously about the things they love. For your reading and writing pleasure, I've assembled the posts (that I was aware of) here. Please, it is not my intention to leave anyone out, so if I've missed you or someone you know, let me know!

Masked Mom wrote three! Two are full of good information about getting an essay ready for submission and waiting on the answer. One is about her process - or as much as she can tell us about it anyway. AND she has a hat.

Tara at Faith In Ambiguity talks about being alive while she writes. About editing, about telling the muse to wait. About finding exactly the right words.

Dawn at Alphabet Salad surprises herself where she ends up. She also edits as she goes along and then tweaks, tweaks, tweaks until it's perfect.

JT at In Search of a Title talks about the different kinds of writing she does in her life - for work, for pleasure, for herself, for others and how they differ. She prefers to write essays over fiction and to find exactly the right word to express herself.

M at the M-Half of the M & J Show prompted even more discussion in her post about writing vs. blogging.

And! The fashionably late Jane In Her Infinite Wisdom talks about the most key ingredient for writing - courage.

Jewels at Frazzled & Frumpy is in the process of shopping a novel. I have read part of it and I think it's going to go places. She shares some what she's learned here.

Are there more? Link them here in the comments. And a great big thank you for such interesting discussion and input. Having all you people around every day keeps me writing when the muse is stamping his tattooed foot and saying "IDONWANNA!" and chucking great big cinder blocks in my stream of consciousness.

Also, speaking of blog friends, the lovely Deb over at Kicking Corners is a busy lady making this writing dream come true, so she asked me to guest post today. Go check it out - not for my nonsense, but for her gorgeous blog.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Whose Goose Are You?

Why a goose?
courtesy of

You've surely heard the tale. The gift of a goose. A goose who gives gifts. That gift being gold. It's an uncertain, uncomfortable gift. (Surely for the goose!) It's wealth unearned, beyond expectation. It's a "dare I believe it's true?" sort of gift. The kind that makes life easier, leaves room for breath and a respite from worry. It seems indefinite, but the future is unsure. Will it continue to give? What should we do about it? Will we worry about tomorrow? Or shall we just be thankful for today? Why a goose?

Geese are vulnerable - those long, slender necks - but the vulnerability is deceptive. They are powerful. Geese are ridiculous and beautiful. They are strong, territorial, and fierce. They are loyal, smart, and they have a clear sense of direction. They can fly around the world, but have a sense of home. They are devoted to their partners, prolific, protective. They fall somewhere between the absurdity of ducks and the undeniable elegance of swans. They honk and waddle and, well, goose; but watch them swim, fly in formation - great black V's against the autumn sky - or tend to their young and it's an organic, fundamental, almost geometric beauty they possess.

What would you do with a goose that laid golden eggs? One a day for... how long? As long as they stuck around, I suppose. It's not up to you. What would you do with this goose? With these precious eggs? Where would you even begin to sort it out?

I have a flock of these geese. An entire flock. When I try to stop and count them, think I have a firm accounting, I remember one more and one more. Wealth unearned, beyond expectation. A "dare I even believe it's true?" sort of gift. I have this flock of magic geese, yet I am not special. These geese are all around us. All of us. Every day.

In her post Deb rattled something loose when she said "a goose is not a gumball machine." It is a living, breathing, loving-for-life being. My gold, therefore, from these geese is not the stuff of ingots and doubloons. It is far more valuable than that. Its price per ounce is immeasurable, ineffable. It does not rise and fall with the economic waves. My gold is untouchable, incorruptible, eternal. My geese come sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes every few weeks or so. My geese, my lovely gaggle of geese, come to me in person - muddy, messy, goosey life - and virtually - the light and pixels of dancing words in messages, posts, comments, pictures. I even have a few geese who no longer inhabit this earth, yet somehow have managed to leave me a cache of treasure to find when I need it.

This gold, these geese - they will not pay my bills (duck bills) they will not make me rich in any sort of common way. But they make me wealthy beyond measure in the things that really matter. These golden eggs get tossed my way, and yours, in tolerance, loyalty, love, kindness, trust, companionship, respect, in such abundance my arms overflow and I run out of places to put them. In the face of such great magnitude I would be ungrateful and miserly indeed not to share this wealth. Look around you, take in the glittering piles of gold that fill the corners of your life. You cannot miss it for looking, you cannot say it isn't there. For every rotten, stinking fart of a dud that gets sent your way, how many precious gold gifts outnumber it? Wealth unearned, beyond expectation.

Do we look for the gold from only the right geese? Are we disappointed because the ones we've hand-picked as valuable refuse to lay? Do we kick aside the piles of gold freely given us in order to chase a goose that has flown away? Do we look and say: Oh yes, you've given me this gift, but your waddle is silly and your beak is all wrong? Do we degrade our fiercely loyal, protective, practical and devoted geese by wishing they were swans? Do we forget to see them in their grandeur, in their element - that pumping, streamlined V on a steady course, that gliding grace across the face of the water - and see only the ridiculous honking and bobbing, goosing gait?

Geese are not particularly noble creatures on the surface. They are complicated and diverse. They are practical, hardworking, intense. There is beauty in their contradictions, their idiosyncratic selves. They are a feathered bundle of ridiculous and proud, of vicious and loving, of vulnerability and strength. They are you and me. The question is not "What would you do with a goose who laid golden eggs?" One would hope the natural reaction - the human and humane - would be to cherish it, protect it, appreciate it. The question becomes instead: "Whose goose are you? Where are you laying your golden eggs?"

Many, many thanks to Deb at Kicking Corners for sparking this line of inquiry with her delicious Fairy Tale Friday. Also to Tara at Faith In Ambiguity for lodging waterfowl so firmly in my brain this week with your misogynistic duck antics and for building a Battered Duck Shelter; and to Marie at The (Not Always) Lazy W for sharing the exploits of your Mia, the magical cuddling, hot-tubbing goose.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Feathering My Nest

There be geese on my horizon. I am wrestling with geese right now. They are flapping and honking and beaking  me. I love a good wrestle. One of us will emerge victorious and when the mud is washed off and the cuts and bruises are bandaged, I will display the fruit of those efforts here. Meanwhile, there are feathers everywhere. And there are things that come with Monday that preclude extended wrestling matches.

Here are some things from my weekend that I collected:

The feel and weight of bamboo and silk yarn in my fingers and across my hook. The drape and the sheen of the fabric they made together by the marvelously simple repetition. Hypnotic. Stitched into the whole experience is the knowledge that my mom will wear this sweater as she embarks on a brand new adventure, a life-long dream, and a courageous act of healing.

My jBird on my lap. So heavy, her head sticks up taller than mine, her boniness digs into me as she snuggles, her legs drape almost to the floor. But she sits and snuggles still. She turns the eyes toward me from an angle I've seen then since her birth. So dark and intense and thin veneers for everything under the surface. Her dimples and gums as she grins and closes her eyes, hugs and is happy.

The Chief Lou, who smiles and encourages and loves. I watched him flirt with the old ladies at church. I watched them twitter and giggle and clutch his arm in hilarity. He was telling them how much he liked my leather pants and my new haircut. He spreads ease to people in a way I find enviable, and I watched him, for a few short moments make a recent widow laugh uncontrollably and feel young and daring and fun again. My heart opens and opens and opens with love for him.

My Hooligan and his best friend sitting together, sharing books. She is a little younger, a little smaller and he knows it. Ever conscious, ever gentle, he shares and defers to her. They draw each other pictures and whisper secrets in each other's ears. They hold hands and pray. The Hooligan prays that "everyone who might get lost will find their way home" and I blink away tears. He tells her a secret and her laugh is explosive, surprisingly deep. In a fit of pure delight, he kisses her on the cheek and plays with her hair. He does this because this is how he expresses love to people that matter to him. An innocent, pure gesture of genuine affection for his friend.

A dear friend lolled about on the floor of my crowded living room with me. She saw my kitchen in disarray. She was close enough to the carpet to see the spots. It didn't matter and we talked of things that mattered. We talked like friends in comfort, silly, teasing, serious, wondering, blurting, madness. Three hours passed and I wondered why she thought it was time to go. Good friends are rare. Especially the kind that don't mind that your kitchen is a mess.

I picked apart a ball of fear in much the same way I do my beloved yarn. So tangled and claustrophobic at first, it's easier to just chuck it in the back of the closet and forget about it. It's not easier, though. I know this. I sat and unraveled, patiently, vigilantly. Strand by strand I sorted it out. I picked it apart and untangled the knots. I wound it into something useful and beautiful. The beauty of decision, of aligning and analyzing, of letting go and watching it whip too fast to see, round and round on my winder, turning it into something solid and manageable.

I will be back to speak of water fowl soon. In the meantime, read my inspiration most fowl: dbstevens at Kicking Corners has ruffled my mental feathers with this and this.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Short and Very, Very Sweet

This is the Hooligan a couple of summers ago. This little video clip is a happy place I go to when I need to remember that things are beautiful.

In case you can't understand his 3-year-old speech, he's saying:
"For the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."

This is for Marie at The (Not Always) Lazy W.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sweating With My Blog Homies

What do cliffs, needles, blackberries, mothers, whirs, and voices have in common? Why bloggers, of course! Sometime in the past few weeks (they all run together in blog-land for me) I posted about a poetry exercise that tickled my fancy and extended an invitation for some audience participation. That's the beauty of blogging, isn't it? The community of it?

Several sporting bloggers gave it a whirl and I'm dancing and whirling with them. They all came up with such vastly different pieces using the same tools. It has just delighted me to no end to see that sort of magic at work. The exercise was The Ten Minute Spill and I outlined the instructions here.

Confession time: This exercise was hard for me. It was much harder than I originally imagined. The time limit panicked me a little bit, as did the line count, did I use enough of the words? My offerings pale in comparison with those of my fellow bloggers. For some reason, this also delights me no end. I love a challenge, I love to sweat over things. I even enjoy the feeling that I've done something rather poorly and therefore have plenty of room to stretch and improve. I will never climb Mount Everest - I find sports that can kill you somewhat distasteful. I do, however, create mini-Everests for myself to hurl myself against and grow dizzy and deplete my oxygen in the process. Thank you so much to those of you who did with me. It has been so much fun. For those of you still considering, please do. We all write for different reasons and about different things and with different voices. I think what ties us together is discovery. What's not to discover?

Here are the lovely contributors, my fellow climbers who took their ten minutes and spilled. I've also added my favorite line from each of their poems next to their links:

Larissa at Papa Is a Preacher "I'll take on all it entails, the celery, the strawberries, / The fails, the victories, all that I can be."

sebtown at In Search of a Title  "I can edge to the cliff. / I can fly. / Every day I can be scared and I can be alive."

Michelle at Buttered Toast Rocks "They teeter on a tightrope cliff edge / Dreaming dreams bigger than I had dreamed for them"

Masked Mom at Masked Mom "The desire to protect them all--from the world, from myself--overpowers nearly everything, / Until, finally, fear's voice is the loudest one in my head"

Julie at Feeding The Cat "I can't hear her voice, / or smell her spit on my hair / to hold down a cow lick."

Esbboston at My Worlds My Words My Worries "But I thought about how much I had grown in the last year, plus how much weaker my mother was getting since her ax accident..."

Please do go check out their links and read the whole poems. They are just delightful and imaginative and so very exciting. If you have done this exercise and not shared it, or I've overlooked it please link up! [If I've overlooked yours, please hit me with the Twitter stick or something and LETMEKNOW so that I can add you to the post. I just got a foot of hair cut off and I'm still heady from the fumes of the styling products.] This has been so much fun. Who knows? I may drag out a few more fun exercises that I come across. 

Oh, yeah. I promised you dreadful. Here it is. Catch me in my black lipstick and a dog collar reading this at a college poetry slam near you:

She didn't know how to jump.
The clouds lay beneath her
And tremble, wobble, no.
She didn't care a lick
about the gazes, intense as needles
from the faces below.
She didn't want her mother
to find her.
She could almost see the News vans, helicopters now.
Nothing left of her but blackberry jam.

Author's note: When I was just now typing this, I typed "feces" instead of "faces" and almost left it because it made the whole dreary affair a teeny bit more interesting. Thanks for playing with me, blog friends!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Picking Over the Wood Pile

Our home is heated entirely by a small wood stove. We are a small piece of a century past, right here in the middle of the city. I love the feel of the heat - it's so different from the heat that comes from the flick of a switch. It's encompassing and so tangible. It's a completely sensory experience from the very start: choosing and splitting the wood, carrying and stacking, laying and lighting the fire just so, waiting for the moment for it to catch and spring to life, the smell of the smoke, the dancing flames through the window of the stove, the creeping satisfying warmth that comes from a good, solid fire as it warms the house. It is also a year-round occupation. We spend summer and fall procuring, splitting, stacking and seasoning wood. Every morning in the winter, the fire is the first order of business. You can't just start a fire and walk away. It must be tended, tweaked, fresh wood added, damped, stirred. It is always there in the consciousness on some level. Come spring, the fires are smaller, fewer, but still necessary. Mostly in the evenings, but it depends on the day. Also with the spring comes a much depleted wood pile and plans for next year's winter again.

This is how I write.

I gather ideas throughout the day. When I am not writing, my senses are wide open. I am alert to what is around me for the sake of being alert - not for the sake of writing. I'm an observer by nature, and by choice I focus on things that delight: details that may seem small or insignificant, smells, conversations, the way the light catches, the way something feels in my hands, the way things feel inside me. I put labels on things, I listen for bits of things in conversations, and try to decide the exact shade of green that new grass is. But this is not with any purpose other than to observe and appreciate. It is a spiritual and philosophical decision that happens to come in handy with the writing. Most of life is a mundane repetition of a handful of chores or obligations. Our routines do not vary much and the large and exciting events do not happen very often. Or so it would seem. It is my personal practice to look below the surface as a matter of survival. Much like the gathering of wood in the summer. I may not need it right now, but I know I will. Days will come when I would freeze if I didn't collect these lovely bits of fuel now. So, instead of growing bored with the track I run daily from  school to school, I notice two crows sitting on a wire above the street who look like they're kissing or telling secrets. I will save this, throw it on my wood pile for when I need it.

Like my fires in winter, I write every day. It is not a chore. It is not always easy, but it is necessary for me. There is the writing I do for my blog and then my other writing. I mostly write creative nonfiction. Some poetry when the notion strikes, I have tried my hand at fiction a few times and intend to continue to do so because I like the feel of failure and the challenge of doing something uncomfortable. I have a loose schedule for writing that is necessarily flexible for the sake of small children who need me. But mostly I create in the evenings, edit in the mornings. I carry a journal with me everywhere and sit and write or edit when I have time to wait - sitting at the park, waiting rooms, at the library, etc. A lot of time with school-aged children seems to be spent waiting while they do things, so I use the time. Again, a spiritual and philosophical decision. I'd rather be productive and do something I enjoy than resent the time I spend waiting on others. But my biggest chunk of writing time is in the evening.

I pick over the wood pile: the cedar sticks light easily, but burn quickly without much warmth. The maple burns hot and long, but takes longer to light. The alder, when mixed with a little cedar for kindling lights well and burns hot enough to get a good base fire burning, and then I can add the hardwoods when I've got a bed of hot coals. Then it roars. So it goes with the ideas I've collected in the back of my head. My blog posts are usually kindling. They light quickly, burn up and are done. Not substantial enough to sustain a steady burn unless combined with the harder stuff and a little more patience. Thus, my blog posts are usually quick writes, with very little active thought as I write. I usually write in the middle of monkey chaos, so I damp down my senses and concentrate inward, allowing my wood to burn a bit hotter once it has caught. My other writing - the essays, the character sketches, and to some extent the poems - usually begin with the same kindling, but I take the time to layer on the wood, to tend and tweak, to shift things around to produce the greatest burn.

I always, always, always edit. Even if it is just a comment or a grocery list. I am disgruntled easily by the green wood of cliche, misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors that have no purpose (although, if there is an artistic reason for any of the above I will let them slide) so I cull them out. They won't burn and they disrupt the efficacy of the rest of the wood. Some other green wood for me: complaining for the sake of complaining or at least complaining uncreatively, trite Hallmark-y type wisdom, obviously imitative writing. I will chuck these things aside and let them season some more: do I have a complaint? How can I write about it in a way that builds rather than destroys? Or at the very least, how can I write about it without sounding whiny? Triteness is tricky. Some things are trite because they're true and therefore repeated a lot. How can I say this in a new way that isn't insipid or overused? The obviously imitative is just inauthentic and can be spotted a mile away. I also chuck out things with knots. Those tangled ideas or phrases that don't quite catch where they are, are not quite ready for the fire. I need an especially hot fire for those and will set them aside for later.

Like all the wood on my pile, all of it will be usable at some point. It's just a matter of the season or the circumstance. I have sudden blasts of inspiration occasionally, but not usually. Even those come along the lines of a perspective shift about a particularly knotty piece of work. For example, my post The Gift of Slumber came as a result of a few days of seasoning. It was around the time that those dreadful co-sleeping ads came out and everyone was furiously writing posts for them and against them. I had some very strong feelings about the whole thing, but didn't want to be part of a herd, sound whiny or vindictive or any number of other things. I discarded probably six posts that I had started on the subject and finally chucked the whole idea aside. Then one day I was out in my garage doing something and thinking about how we think our personal experience is Gospel when it comes to raising kids and bam! I had the post I was looking for - I could address it without whining, without rehashing what 197 other bloggers were already saying, without condemning other people or elevating myself. And I could make people laugh, which is always a bonus.

Everyone has that dreaded blank page, blank screen, blank mind experience from time to time. I find I cannot write anything worth reading if I am angry. It is, for me, an unproductive emotion that chokes off any creativity or objectivity. I can later write about things that anger me, but not in the midst of being angry. These are the only times when I find I can't write. There are plenty of times I don't want to write or feel I shouldn't write because there are more pressing things afoot, but those times I write anyway and am usually grateful for it in the long run. Blog writing is relatively new to me and I am still adjusting. It is a different sort of writing as its audience is immediate. I love my readers, cherish them so much, but I don't think about them when I write because it makes my writing frozen and stilted. I solve the blank page problem by covering it with words. I just start, even if it's nonsense. I like Blogger for this because I can type a while, hate it, close it and start another until I'm satisfied. The Gift of Secret Codes was a post born out of blank page nonsense. I just crammed a lot of stuff in the wood stove and lit a match. Anyone who has ever lit a fire knows that sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.

This is getting far too long and rambling for a blog post. My apologies. The bottom line is that writing is survival for me. In one way or another I've been recording life since I could write. I have some aptitude for it I believe, but nothing to show for it but a growing pile of rejection letters and an uncomfortable blog with dear faithful readers, and reams and reams of scribblings. I have undertaken over the last year the discipline of writing, rather than just the activity of it. The regular schedule, the editing, the stepping across the abyss into sharing it through blogging and submission for publication. It is sometimes hard work, sometimes I'd rather flick a switch and have it be done for me but it's so encompassing and so tangible. And it keeps me warm.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Is Why I Keep Blogging

This is my concentration face.
I am loving the discussion from yesterday's post so much, I almost don't want to write today and drown that out. Blogging being the oddly ephemeral thing that it is, the discussion will eventually be swept away by new ones and I just want to hear more, more, more from people on this topic. So, please do continue the discussion. I wish I had a roll of paper and a lot of magic markers that you all could scrawl all of your responses on. How do you write? Why do you write? What do you write?

I will be back tomorrow with some very exciting things, I'm sure.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How Do You Do That Thing We Do?

How do you do it? This is a question I want to ask. To ask and receive honest, lengthy, magnificent answers. I have been reading about four books at once over the last few weeks, some of them about the process of writing, some of them personal essays, some of them the finished product. There are similarities across the board that I find intriguing. For instance, any successful writer that I have read about says that if you want to write well you have to read a lot, you have to write a lot. Most of them say you have to enjoy it. Most of them say that it's something akin to a necessity in their lives. All of those I understand.

I read a lot. I read a lot of different kinds of things. I read a lot of wonderful blogs. But when we read, we're seeing a finished product. If it's well written, we're not really seeing the process that goes into it. The sort of writing (both my own and others') that I get tired of quickly is the sort that seems overly thought out - overwrought - writing that tries too hard. I do this to myself all the time when I'm writing and have an Unpublishable Post Graveyard and journals full of tiresome nonsense. I figure if it bores or irritates me, certainly no one else would want to read it. But there is a process, nonetheless. We don't want to see the bones of that process in the finished work, but it's there. What is your process? Do you have one? What do you do when you sit down to write? How do you do it?

These are things in which I am sincerely interested. So, it's audience participation time again. How do you write? Where do you get your inspiration? Do you wait for inspiration or do you just sit down and write because you have to? Do you compose on the computer or on paper? When do you edit? How much do you edit? How much do you just scrap altogether? Does your brain shut down when you write? Or are your senses alive? Do you know where you're going when you start?

So many of you have such great blogs with such vastly different subject matter, voices and styles. Some are storytellers. Some are observers, synthesizers and reporters. Some are more journalistic. Some read like a frank and open diary. I'm curious. How do you do it? How do you write?

Leave it in a comment, make it a post, explain it in interpretive dance and video tape it, whatever strikes your fancy - I truly am curious. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tangled Names

You know how when you say a word too much, you start to forget what it means? Everyone does this. It's really fun if you do it with your own name. You find yourself sitting there thinking: Who is that? How can that be the name of anything? How can that have been my name my whole life and I'm only now just hearing how ridiculous it is?! Or at least I do. My name is not ridiculous. It's not terribly common for my particular age group. It is related to a much more common name which I get called quite often and it grates. Oddly, though, my real name doesn't get used much.

My mom calls me by it occasionally, but as we mostly talk on phones with caller ID, she already knows it's me and just says "Hi." or "Hi honey."

My dad rarely ever called me by my full name. He was the only one who was ever allowed to shorten it or make a diminutive out of it. He also called my by my sister's name or sometimes my brother's as parents are sometimes apt to do.

My kids call me Mama, sometimes Mom. Never Mommy. Sometimes they call me by my first name. It sounds so funny in their little mouths, so I let them. I don't hold to old notions of disrespect and it is, in fact, my name. They probably use it more than anyone, but even they don't use it that often.

My punk-face junior high students call me Mrs. and I let them. They think I'm old and horrible because I have gray hair and children and no iPhone and I make them read things for understanding. No one else calls me Mrs. That is someone else's name.

The parents, teachers and students at my daughter's school call me jBird's Mom, which suits me fine. She is far more memorable than I am and any capacity in which those people know me, it is unnecessary for them to know me personally, only the function I serve as jBird's mom. Ditto my son's school. Except the children there are mostly at an age where they don't know anyone's name anyway, or care. And I avoid their parents because they frighten me with loud baby talk and fur coats.

I have a friend who calls me Roxy, a friend who calls me Buttercup, a friend who calls me Esther, another who calls me Special K. All very old nicknames from different origins, times and places. They are perhaps the only ones besides my husband who have had nicknames adhere to me.

My husband calls me Lou. I call my husband Lou. It's a habit started in our first year of marriage. It comes from One Legged Lou - the name of the finger I use to poke my husband when he's sleeping, just to startle him. I'm annoying that way. It also comes from Lou Dominguez - the man whose mail my mother-in-law started to receive after living in her house for well over 20 years. We created a back story for him and my mother-in-law that was profoundly funny. At least we thought so.

We have called each other Lou so long that we forget when we say it in front of other people and they are surprised. When both kids were first learning to talk, Lou was among their first words. My jBird would stand in her crib and holler "Llllooooouuuu!" in the sweetest little voice if ever I dared to put her down for a nap in that little baby cage. The Hooligan was much more terse. He would point to me and say "Wou!" and then point to his daddy and say "Wou!"

My dad tried to call my husband Lou once and it was so awkward that we all just blushed silently for a minute and then never spoke of it again.

We knew before we were ever pregnant with the jBird what her name would be. The Hooligan's name was not solidified until a few hours after he was born. We carefully chose their names for very specific reasons and then after they were born proceeded to call them by a series of nicknames anyway. My sister-in-law said that jBird wouldn't know what her name was because we never called her by it. But she did. Very early on, she did. Same for the Hooligan.

I protect our names online because you never know who might be reading or what they might do with the information they do read. I find this a little silly and paranoid, but I'm told it's a good idea. I will be silly if it means protecting my children. I am silly for far less important reasons sometimes. So online I am Tangled Lou, decidedly silly. Tangled because that is the state of my mind, my tongue and my writing a lot of times. Tangled because of my knitting obsession. Tangled because the play on words is too irresistible with the Bob Dylan song, Tangled Up In Blue.

But somehow in this state of tangled names, with each their own source, their own piece of me, there in the center of it all is just Me. The Me that no matter how much I repeat it, does not begin to sound ridiculous. The Me that friends from grade school still recognize. The Me in whom my mom still sees shadows of the baby I was. The Me that I recognize no matter what the outward circumstances of my life. The Me that does not change. This is the Me that I embrace with all of her flaws and idiosyncratic ways, with her brilliance and her silliness, with her monstrous thoughts and tender heart, with her knowing and her wonder, with her naivete and her wisdom, with her intensity and heat, with her hideousness and beauty. This is the Me that has been there for as long as I can remember, the Me that no one can touch. And honestly, I don't really know how to pronounce her name.  

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Escorted Through Sleep By My Muses

I walk into the room and set down my bag. The room is dim and foggy, as yet unformed. The only tangible things are my overnight bag and my sense of dread. I am at a retreat of some kind. Like summer camp for adults. Excruciating sharing and splashing in the pool, small talk with strangers around a fire and someone will surely weep openly over an ancient wound before the weekend is done. I sense networking. The very word crawls up under my skin like an invasive weed and drains my energy. I want to be alone.

 I look around the room. My subconscious has done well. Thick carpets of Central Asian origin, a window seat without a window, piled with pillows. Inviting and safe, like a nest. The bed is a dense thicket of silk, velvet, fresh cotton sheets, more pillows. All of it - the carpets, the pillows, the blankets, the walls - is done in the rich jewel and earth tones I prefer. There is an empty desk - simple, small, of dark wood. I am comfortable here.

The dread starts to abate and I turn to grab my bag and find some clothes. My trickster mind has hidden my bag and replaced it with a closet. Resigned, I know I will find my clothes there. The closet is filled with negligees, all of them white. They are beautiful, tasteful, thrilling, revealing. My thought is not: I can't go out dressed like that, but instead: I will have to shave in order to go out dressed like that. I hate to shave, but I need to wear those dresses. I want to wear those dresses. They will make me beautiful.

 A basin appears on the desk, rich shaving lotion and a good, sharp razor. I'm naked now, perched on the edge of the desk, carefully shaving my legs. There is a pounding at the door and I'm gripped with doubt. Am I late for an activity? Is it a welcoming committee? Is it a roommate? Go away, I silently tell the pounding and go back to my legs.

The door bursts open and there are three. A jostling crew of burly men. Handlebar mustaches, large piercings, covered in beautiful tattoos. They don't frighten me. They amuse me and I bid them come in. They are playful and large and they fill the room. They touch everything and exclaim. They bounce on the bed and toss pillows at each other. They pull the nighties out of the closet and say it's time to get dressed. Not yet, I tell them, I'm not ready. They pick me up and toss me back and forth between each other like a game of keep-away - naked and soapy, half-shaven legs. Stop it guys, I tell them, I'm trying to do the tricky part behind my knee. They only laugh and toss me some more.

Somehow I have managed to finish shaving and get dressed. My new clothes glow white against the darker tone of everything else in the room. They are slippery and cool against my skin. They fit perfectly, but feel foreign on me. Too beautiful, like an impostor. My burly men laugh through absurd facial hair and assure me it is really time to go. One on either side, one in front - my entourage. My sidekicks each offer me an arm. I look down to take them and realize their tattoos are words. Thousands and thousands of words. I am excited, I am relieved. I look toward the open door and I wake up.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Making Minestrone with Monkeys

Warm the oil. Wait for that faint, sweet-hot smell of gently heated olive oil and then, deep breath, begin. First come the fruits from deep within the earth. The strong and the flavorful, heavily scented and full of their own magic oils - the onion and the garlic. Sizzle, stir and wait. Not too long, mere seconds... there it is. The garlic. Quickly now, the next layer. The hearty and the strong, roots and stalks - bright carrots and elusive but distinct celery. These are your work horses. They hold up to the heat, the longest simmerers, the taste of comfort. Throw in some salt to make them shine. Snipped oregano from the yard: pungent, peppery, furry little leaves to draw out the celery and make her dance. Cover and wait. Let the salt work its crystalline magic and coax the flavors, rooty and earthy, from these foundational elements.

A good minestrone is made in layers. When the corners are softened, it's time for the gentle greens of the fruits that grow from flowers: peppers, zucchini, green beans. These are more delicate bits, full of their own tears of joy. They need a warm bath to ease their company with the heartier roots. The stock, some tomato puree, a splash of red wine for its decadence and a little more salt. The pot is filling, these layers of flavor need time to mingle and sort themselves out. A gentle simmer and the lid goes on. Longer this time, leaving plenty of time for all to get acquainted. We wait. We wipe the counters, knead the bread. Tiny fingers dimple the surface to create divots that will catch melted butter and hold the crunch of sea salt. The focaccia goes in the oven and we dance a moment while we wait.

With a savory billow of steam, we lift the cover and check our soup so far. A sip of the broth and a sprinkle of black pepper, a pinch more salt, but not too much. These roots and fruits can speak for themselves and they are slowly assembling into a powerful chorus. We add the temperamental sopranos - fresh diced tomatoes and some baby spinach. The bass notes of cannellini beans and a handful of pasta. They rehearse together in the pot with burbles and a steady, thumping rhythm of a slow boil. The bread is done, fresh and steaming from the oven, wrapped in fresh white towels to keep the heat and the chewy, dense crust. My maestros of minestrone let it tend to itself after taking a tiny taste of its harmony and declaring it perfect.

Attention is turned to the sweets. Little, rich, decadent balls of batter - chocolate within chocolate - are carefully rolled in stark, white powdered sugar and carefully lined up on parchment paper. These little, gooey chocolate soldiers in ranks are cautiously directed to the oven where they will harden and crackle on the outside, while staying soft and yielding within. Tiny patient fingers and tongues wait until all the rolling and lining is done before they lick their sweet reward - remnants of sugar and chocolate dough. Again we wait. We smell and we linger, peeking in the oven's window through dish towel curtains, counting down the minutes. The raw taste of batter and sugar was only a tease and whetted our appetites for more - warm and fresh from the oven.

And now for the very best part. We fill bowls with lids, bag up loaves and cookies, write love notes, and load them in the car. One friend has been sick. Another has lost a loved one. Both said they were fine. We want to make them finer. The monkeys ring doorbells and dance from foot to foot in the excitement of a job well done and anticipation of being able to surprise.

A good minestrone is made in layers. The hearty and the homely work together with the delicate and fragile, they meet in common space and become sublime. A good minestrone is the hearty warmth of a rich soup with the light and verdant promise of brightness to come. It can warm you when the air is still chilly and speak to you quietly of summer days. When paired with the conundrum of focaccia - both light and airy and firm and substantial - it becomes complete. The warm yeasty pockets that were made to sop up the last of the broth, the crunch of salt to add the sea to the summer vegetables, the toothsome and the tender. And to round it out, a touch of sweetness. The dark excess of chocolate on chocolate, dipped in the flightiest of sugars to powder your lips and your fingers. The ending note of the grand symphony started by garlic and oil.

These layers take patience, they take time. They take a little bit of magic and a lot of love. They are the very least we can give to our friends.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tangled Small Talk: The Sisterhood of the Blurt

Have I mentioned that I am a secret agent? Probably not. It's a secret. It doesn't have to be a secret from you, though. Unless you are in the marketing department of a major grocery store chain, in which case you should probably just forget you read this. It's mostly a secret because it embarrasses me. I am a mystery shopper and have earned (I am not making this up) "premier agent status" because of the timeliness and accuracy of my work. Which essentially means that when the company is in a pickle, they call me and offer me extra money to drop everything and go to the grocery store of their choosing. It is a great power I wield, I realize. Do not be too impressed. It is my academic pride that finds this whole affair embarrassing and I frequently get disgruntled that I am pretty much a digital age Donna Reed with much shabbier clothes and wonder if I should give Betty Friedan a call for some advice. Except she's dead.

Today I had on my secret agent hat. It looks very much like my every other day hat. Which depends on what day it is, what the weather is, and the state of my hair. Today my secret agent hat was a basic gray knit toque - the sort that are favored by bank robbers and hipsters. I felt my bowler hat was a little conspicuous, my red silk cloche has grown suddenly to Mushmouth proportions and tickles my nose and it's not quite time yet for my cream linen floppy hat. These are essential details, ones over which I agonize most mornings when leaving the house. So I and my secret agent hat dropped the Hooligan off at school and then off to a local natural foods store where I had a list of 88 items for which to collect pricing data. Glamorous, no? It involves a lot of skulking around, pretending to be reading labels while glancing at the products in question, making a mental note of the prices, then running around the corner to a vacant aisle and scribbling down the prices on my oh-so-official sheet of paper before I forget them. And repeat.

Except today I ran into an acquaintance in the midst of my duties. Actually, I was pondering the six different brands of tofu in all of their assorted flavors and consistencies and wondering why, with so much selection, was the brand I needed absent? And this acquaintance of mine tapped me on the shoulder and said hello. Startled out of my secret agent tofu reverie, I jumped and said hello. She is a lovely woman. Her daughter is in the same grade as my daughter and they live up the hill from us. We see them occasionally on our walk to school and chat a bit. Have I mentioned that my small talk skills are appalling? The last time I saw this woman, we were both hurrying our respective charges up the last few stairs into the playground as the late bell was ringing, simultaneously advising the girls to "RUN!" So as we walked back toward home, we had a few blocks to chat. We discussed the new, earlier, start time at school this year and how it is well into the second semester and we are all still adjusting. I admitted to a certain wasting of fossil fuels from time to time in just driving the jBird the twelve blocks to school to save time and tardy slips. So far, so good. One more block to go without saying anything alarming or embarrassing. I could do this. Or not. "Yeah! Sometimes I just drop her at the corner and watch her until she goes into the school grounds so that I don't see anyone because I haven't brushed my teeth and I may be wearing my husband's shoes!" This was the last sentence I had said to this woman before I bumped into her in the grocery store today.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't see you. I was mesmerized by the tofu!"
She laughed and said, "Yes, it can be overwhelming." Yes, of course, tofu can be completely overwhelming. Everyone knows that.
"I suppose it doesn't matter much which kind I buy because I just grind it up and hide it in my children's food." I don't do this very often and when I do it is more out of financial considerations than nutritional or spiritual ones.
"Well, you should try this kind. It's to be savored, though. It's delicious." She hands me something that looks like a shrink-wrapped turd.
"Oh look! Tamari soaked grilled tofu! Mmmm." Both my monkeys and my husband would outright revolt if I served them shrink-wrapped turd for dinner and told them it was "to be savored" so, of course, I throw it in my cart.

Our discussion carries quite naturally from tofu to eating disorders and our own particular neuroses and how we create worse neuroses in our children by trying to rid them of all neuroses, etc. Meanwhile, in this tiny urban grocery store we are sandwiched between the tofu and the gluten free bread and at least five other shoppers are forced to edge around us and ask us to pass them things. And then the most glorious thing happened: an event of such epic proportions that has won me a dear friend for life. We got to that awkward point in a chance meeting chitchat sort of conversation where you know it needs to end or become strange but you're not quite sure how to make an exit, especially if you're blocking traffic in prime grocery store real estate discussing eating disorders.

Brief pause, and she says:
"Well, I have to go now because I am on my period and I feel like I might fall over because it's so heavy."
I very nearly hugged her and danced for joy. I have met, in the flesh, a kindred spirit in blurting bizarre personal information in inappropriate circumstances. In this simple declaration, she freed me from ever being nervous about talking to her again. Sure, she's beautiful and fit and smart and has the curly red hair I have coveted my whole life, but she blurts things! Giddy with our new found discovery, we stood blocking the grocery aisle* another five minutes or so, happily blurting things at one another. And then, as if it could get any better, we both did an awkward about-face and trotted off in our separate directions while blurting a few additional tidbits about constipation and not showering regularly over our shoulders.

I trundled around the grocery store for another hour, collecting prices on my list and some random groceries in my cart to make it look like I was doing something, feeling no longer like a beleaguered housewife doing housewifely things, but empowered. I am a secret agent, an odd duck who does random things to help out her family, and a Blurter. I am part of a sacred sisterhood who will never show up to Pilates with a skinny no-whip mocha and a fresh manicure. We of The Blurt will occasionally schlep to school in strategically disguised pajamas and men's shoes but we will never be called upon to solicit big-ticket items for the PTA auction. We are a sacred society of the un-cocktail party, where we can speak earnestly and suddenly, with too many exclamation points of bodily functions, strange growths, or the rat we found in our garage! We are there, diverting our morning breath with a cups of coffee, giving and receiving shrink-wrapped turds which we never intend to eat, hiding our premier agent status behind a journal and a grocery list, and lopping off conversations with non-sequitur! We are small in number, but mighty in courage! Hear us blurt! We are not alone!

*This sort of aisle hogging behavior, when conducted by others, sends me around a bend I don't like to visit. I completely realize the hypocrisy in this. I would, however, consider not getting upset if the aisle hoggers were of the Sisterhood of the Blurt. I would probably just blurt something random at them.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What Is

The sky was throwing a fit this morning. It was huffing around, throwing big fat tears every which way. This is March in this part of the country. It's a manic-depressive drama queen. One day bright and shiny and kind of warm, inviting everyone out of hibernation and into their yards; the next all storming or sulking or giving the cold shoulder. Sometimes all of that on the same day. It's a time of year for dressing in layers and then peeling them off, one by one, or adding them back on as the sky stalks around changing its mood. It is useless to get upset about it. There's no changing what is.

These are the thoughts that attend me like handmaidens this morning as the Hooligan and I get ready to go about our day. We safely deposited the jBird at school, where she will doubtless encounter many exciting things. She is always encountering exciting things. It is part of her nature to do that. The Hooligan and I have less exciting things in store for us today. But we are less exciting people, most of the time. Our excitement is the slow burn variety. The kind that quietly enjoys what there is to do. There are errands and necessities. There are things that must be done. It is useless to get upset about these things. There's no changing what is.

I spent a weekend disconnected from screens and sign-ins and electronically charged pastimes. In a quiet fit of rebellion I ignored this space and all that it entails. It was refreshing as rain. I spent time with friends that I can hug. I played and rested and read and reveled in the flesh and blood of my life. There comes a point where the ideas in my head grow stale, like so many leftovers in the fridge. I can almost always think of something to write. I cannot always think of something I need to write. There's a difference. Sometimes it's the equivalent of reheating some old soup I found and sniffed for freshness and joylessly consuming it because it's there and fuel is needed. Sometimes it's the discovery of odds and ends that come together in something new and exciting and delicious. But sometimes I pull the lids off of things and gag, leaving me no choice but to get out, out, out, away and seek new stores for my pantry shelves. It is useless to get upset about these things. There's no changing what is.

Outside, March is making up her mind. Will she storm and rage or will she coddle us with gentle breezes? Inside, I'm making up my lists. Lists of things to eat, things to do, things to dream, things to write. Will I be distracted and put off by the things that take doing to live this life? Or will I embrace them with purpose and simple appreciation? Sometimes I am like March - an alternately raging, storming, smiling drama queen. Sometimes I am like my jBird - a dancing flame, excited to lick up the world. Sometimes I am like my Hooligan - given to quiet obsessions and solitary delight, oblivious to the raging around me. Most of the time I am like me - a combustible combination of the three. It is useless to get upset about such things. There's no changing what is.

But there is preparation - the layers of protection we put on or remove as needed; there is perspective - the possibility of good in all things; and there is contemplation - the slow burn of intentional satisfaction, contentment, enjoyment. There's always acceptance of what is. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Kind of Exercise

I have an on-again-off-again love affair with yoga. I love the simple contemplative art of it. I like to feel each muscle as it stretches and works with the others. I like to feel like I have a big ball of breathing light in the center of me besides a messy jumble of organs and half-digested food. I like the way my mind reconnects in its simplest form with my body - simply as a driver, not as a commentator. I love the focus of in and out and filling myself with new air and releasing the old. I especially like that it's a solitary form of exercise and that there is no need for bouncy pop music and overly enthusiastic cheerleading: "O-K! One! Two! Up! Two! Clap! Two! Feel the burn!" I like to do yoga by my wood stove in the winter for the whole Bikram experience in the privacy of my own home. It is one of the few occasions on which it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, to sweat like a farm hand. I imagine the tiny demons pouring out through my pores and dissolving in my salty sweat. This is the sort of exercise I love but alas, life gets rearranged with alarming regularity and my exercise ritual disappears for a while.

I have been doing a different sort of exercise lately. Not the kind that burn very many calories or keep my muscles strong and limber, but the kind that keep my brain oiled and focused. I picked up a book at the library, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, that has become a useful tool. I dabble in poetry, don't really consider myself a poet in any sort of exclusive way, but the exercises are great for really any kind of writing. Most of them focus on freeing up your thoughts for breaking the bonds of regular association of words and for enabling the play and rhythm of language. That may sound like so much hokum to some, but my writing style lends itself to hokum. Besides, any sort of kick in the rear end in the direction of regular writing practice is a good thing for me. I want to share an exercise I stumbled upon last night that tickled my fancy.

It's called the "Ten Minute Spill" and is suggested by Rita Dove - she was a US Poet Laureate and has assorted hardware to her credit, so I think she might know a thing or two about writing.
Here's the gist of it:
Write ten lines in ten minutes- she suggests poetry, but I think it would work for lyrical prose, too.
These ten lines must include the following:
- A proverb, adage, or familiar phrase that you have changed in some way.
- Five of the following words:
cliff           blackberry
needle           cloud
voice                 mother
whir           lick

How fun is that?! I'm going to give it a go, but because one of the wonderful things about blogging can be the interactivity of it, I found myself thinking about what various other bloggers would do with it. I want to see. If you feel inclined, join me in this exercise and post a link or even just your ten lines in the comments or on my Facebook page. It will be fun. We will get to stretch our writing muscles, distill and focus, maybe sweat - but nobody will actually see us!