Post #55: The Sweetness of Nearness

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“The insect does not aim at so much glory. It confines itself to showing us life in the inexhaustible variety of its manifestations; it helps us to decipher in some small measure the obscurest book of all, the book of ourselves.” Jean-Henri Fabre

They are all surrounded by sweetness. Diligent, caring, and oh so industrious. They burrow and they buzz, their soft fuzzy bodies bely their stingers as they nuzzle and cuddle together. Stacked in hexagonal bunk beds that lock together like legos. All equal: they eat, they rest, they live, they love.

Flying far afield they swoop and swerve, pirouetting from flower to flower. Sated, consumed, exhausted. Even so, they know they always have a hive to come home to. Sweetness at its source. It oozes thick and slow, enrobing and ennobling them, caressing them all. So very, very sweet.

Their hearts and souls beat as one.

***

I buzz busily through my day, day after day. I rattle and I roar from place to place, nervously tapping and thumping and bumping and bungling. Sated, consumed, exhausted. But there are always tiny drops of honey. I guzzle them greedily: a nod, a smile a door held open. But eventually I do come home. If I wait, if I am patient, someday soon we all will all alight here, nipping together at the honeycombs, tasting the sweetness of nearness. We are here, whenever we get here, for each other. We always will be.

No matter how far away any of us fly, the hive remains. It always remains. Welcoming to loved ones, again and again. For always.

But I miss you all. I miss you. I do.

I dream. We are all together, enrobed and ennobled in sweetness.

Soon.

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CAVIAR WITH A SOUP SPOON, MINT CHIP WITH A LADLE

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I’m in deep. Buried. Delighted. Staked my claim to the couch, right next to the mountain of laundry that might be clean, might not be (can’t remember). And it’s only page 254.

If you say you don’t know what I’m talking about I swear I won’t believe you. It’s happened to you. How could anyone miss a feeling this all encompassing delicious? In this case the volume that’s snagged me is a gigantic tome called The Green Treasury crammed with essays by some of the world’s finest natural history writers, from Rachel Carson to Maurice Maeterlinck to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gorging on a compendium is dangerous business though. Kind of like eating caviar with a soup spoon. Or mint chip with a ladle. I’ve done both—same result. Don’t care.

At any rate, at some point during my reading revelries I was slapped with an uncomfortable realization. I love reading about natural history but find nature itself tempestuous and unnerving. I don’t go out to smell the first roses of spring nor crouch by ponds to watch bullfrogs burrow into mud. It’s cold out there. Possibly wet. Coffee can be distant. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that I am the indoorsiest person on the planet.

But I like it here. I know the terrain. Or at least I think I do. There’s a famous scene from Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit that he is so oblivious that he has no idea what color tie he’s put on that morning. I tried the same experiment by closing my eyes and trying to remember which paintings were on the walls of which rooms. Low score, no curve. Do over.

So I decided to look around.

There are first and foremost a lot of books everywhere, in every room, jumbled, piled, stacked, loved. There are people who adore books who take pleasure in keeping them in stunning Dewey Decimal’d glory but I am not one of them. I actually enjoy not finding exactly what book I’m searching for immediately because then I’ll find five or six more on the way that I hadn’t expected to find. I’d never want to deny myself the pleasure of those searches.

It’s that element of surprise that I truly love. Surprise is everywhere here. Over the years I’ve stashed odd bits of tiny amazements squeezed in around and between titles. A folded popcorn container from the Michigan/Ohio State game. A rare “Trumpet Horn” harmonica. A tiny glass case sheltering the Laffy Taffy that pulled out one of my son’s first baby teeth. (Probably should get rid of that one, but not just yet).

If I stop and sniff the kitchen stills smells faintly of risotto experiments and oatmeal cookies, even though with everyone everywhere I don’t make either much any more.  There’s the teapot that was purchased by small people with dimes and dollars saved over a long long time. A big plastic cube that is filled with masses of multi-colored super balls, all purchased from the same cookie cutter Ohio rest stops over so many visits to see loved ones. A framed Blazing Saddles movie poster because I really love my husband. A gallon jug of Tabasco just because.

If there is a nod to both nature and science, it’s seen in the Wild Strawberry Wedgwood dishes in the dish rack. (Charles Darwin’s mother was from the famed Wedgwood family). In spite of their expense and delicacy these are and have always been the everyday dishes simply because they are beautiful.  “A macaroni and cheese by any other name would taste as delicious” on Wild Strawberry.

Even the drawers are crammed full of wonders. The 12 Tribes Trivet, a wedding gift from my childhood violin teacher and in all honesty the only wedding present I can actually remember. A stub of a Blackwing pencil (Half The Pressure, Twice the Speed), jewel of all writing implements. I crave them. The metallic jingle of half a dozen M discs, the kind that the Metropolitan Museum of Art handed out to patrons before succumbing to paper stickers. A Pikachu keychain. Or maybe it’s Charmander. Whatever. It was all still there.

If I felt like paying attention, I’d see dust tumbleweeds and cat snagged curtains and unmade beds. But those things can be taken care of when I choose to. Not yet. Maybe soon.

A comfortably rumpled space once filled with people. It percolates with memories, waiting for the right moment for me to flip the switch. I didn’t look at photographs as I moved through the house. I didn’t need to. I remembered everyone and everything. They’re coming home soon for Thanksgiving. I won’t be reading then. Welcome back. Can’t wait.

THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME

College applications, rife with their convoluded secret codes of “EA” “ED” “Restricted EA” and so on have nothing on the real tension and drama of high school senior year: coming up with a cogent yearbook quote. After all, this mouthful of words is supposed to be not just the summation of who you are but a glimpse who you hope to be.

Here is mine:

“Men in history lose their centering in eternity when they grow anxious for the outcome of their deeds.” Huston Smith

Mmmm. But “anxious for the outcome” was exactly what I was. And so after a very interesting zig-zag through a number of years I became the very thing I never thought I’d be. I am a teacher. This was not a plan. Nor was it a calling, at least one I was aware of. But sometimes a path zigs in just the right direction, even if that isn’t the direction one was expecting. For someone who habitually kept eyes on the outcome, teaching anchors me firmly in the moment at hand.

I am witness to some remarkable things as the accidental teacher. Come with me and see some of what I see.

***

The kids are all together, waiting for the signal to send them shuffling off to class. They mostly roam as tiny, laughing packs, bouncing off each other like pinballs in an arcade game. But there are always one or two kids who stand apart and on their own, glued to the wall.

Finished with snacks and with nothing to do but circle the room, a group of cool boys lights upon one of these solitary kids. To grown up eyes they’re including him, how nice it is that they’re talking to him. But that’s not what’s happening at all. If you look closely you’ll see they’re not smiling but smirking. They’re not talking but taunting. You’ve got to admire their technique: it’s not what they’re saying but how they are saying it.  It’s a lot of “heeeeyyyy great shirt with all those stripes” or “Have you ever actually counted the freckles on your face?” Or “What is that thing that you’re reading?” It’s clear too that the solitary kid doesn’t want to talk to them. He looks uncomfortable. Panicky. Almost desperate. He tries to move away but they keep moving with him. Then they are all called to class and it’s over. But it happens the next day. And the next. It’s a game without an ending.

Until one day it’s different. The solitary kid comes into the room and finds the pack of boys before they find him. He doesn’t look for a safe corner—he actually walks right up to them. They are not expecting that. But there’s no drama. He says hi and offers some of his bag of gummy sharks. They take a few and then he just walks away. Completely off guard, the pack leaves him alone that day.

The kid makes a point of saying hello to that group of boys every day before going off by himself. Sometimes he offers candy, sometimes not. But now they leave him alone. Game over.

***

They were a great class and they had a great plan. Annie, one of the quietest girls in our room was having a birthday. The others decided they would surprise her by shouting “Happy Birthday” when she came through the classroom door, sing to her, ask her what she was going to do after school, make her the star for the day. Just before class started one of the girls ran into the room in a near panic. “We can’t do this,” she said. “I just saw Annie in the hallway and said ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She looked really terrified. She’s so shy that if we  a big deal it will be too much for her.” Class went on as normal. Annie looked relieved.

***

He’s the kind of kid who walks into walls because he’s always so preoccupied about whatever it is he is thinking about. Even so he looks up and makes a point of saying hello to the same red-headed kid whenever he passes him in the hallway or sees him in the library. Never misses. One day, a guy grabs the kid and asks him why he bothers saying hello to this boy with the red hair. “You’re an idiot,” the guy says, “That red-headed kid won’t ever answer you. Don’t you know he’s autistic?” The kid responds, “Yeah, I know that. And I also know he’s a person.”

***

The classroom is not a fairyland and there are times when it’s hard for moments like these to rise above the chaos. But things like this do  happen all the time. The other kids are watching. They’re learning.

People wonder how teachers can bear to teach the same lessons for so many years. The answer, of course, is that we never do. Lessons are like paintings.   Paintings aren’t ever complete, are never static—they are always shifting with the responses of different people, creating and recreating something fascinating each time.

Teaching brings me right to the moment at hand. The kids I teach are not focusing on encapsulating their lives in a yearbook quote or contemplating their centering in eternity. They are just living and like so many of us,trying to do the right thing at the right time.

 

TRAVEL DIMES

Stuffed into three or four drawers and crammed into my glove compartments are dozens and dozens of sealed envelopes. The envelopes are empty save for a single dime in each. They’re important, so I keep them safe.

I find myself thinking about the dimes and what they mean to me every September as school starts again. After a whole summer at home with little kids, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling exhausted and even little euphoric. But for a lot of people behind the exultation of sending kids back to school is a niggling sense of uncertainty. We want them to go, but really are they going to be okay? How will we know? What do we do? Are we doing enough?

Fear and uncertainty can make people, even devoted and loving parents, do strange things. I’ve seen parents who anxiously interrupt their children’s classes in the middle of the day with a surprise treat to parents who literally stop traffic at school to nimbly leap from the drivers seat, do an end run around their car just to plant a kiss on junior’s cheek. Or parents whose concern for their offspring is so great that they actually hide in the bushes to observe recess.

Is it our children’s safety that we worry about or the uncertainty of what their lives are like without us? Because when children cross the threshold of school an amazing thing happens. Their lives become their own. Separate from ours. They deserve that.

I know the world is a different place from the days when I used to walk the few blocks to school alone. But alone I could look at things and think, even if I wasn’t thinking of anything much. Once I found a four-leaf clover but I couldn’t reach it because it was behind a fence. (It might also been a three-leaf clover and a green bug. I’m still not sure.) When I walked back to school after lunch there were days I would spend my milk money at the ice cream truck. Sometimes I would just count all the cracks in the sidewalk. Nothing earthshaking. But I was looking at the world through my own eyes and no one else’s. Everybody, even children, deserves his or her own view.

But years ago separation was a fact of life. No longer. Today we are wirelessly tethered to each other with smart phones, but really, those lines can snarl like invisible apron strings. There is no wondering any more if someone you love is okay, little trust in either them or in the unknown. We have the ability to know and we want to know now. Parents can and do track their kids via satellite. When kids are away at “technology free” camps, their parents can still “stalk” them by scanning hundreds of daily uploaded photos from the camps themselves.

Which brings me back to the dimes.

A long time ago whenever any of us would leave on a trip my little Gram would give us what she called “travel dimes”. She always said it was so we could use a pay phone to call home if we ever needed to. But we knew each dime meant that she loved us, that she trusted us, and she would always be there for us. My mother has kept up the tradition, plying me, my sisters, the grandchildren, anyone close to her, with dimes in sealed envelopes before every trip. She gives us the envelopes with the dimes and trusts we do our best to be safe.

And although a dime will scarcely buy a stick of gum today, my sisters and I also send travel dimes to those we love as they travel hither and yon. Virtual ones, sent to our children via text. They still work. In my world that quietly says what I need to say. Stay safe as you explore the world. I love you. I’m here whenever you need me. I’ll be here when you come home.

 

 

THE SELF-SERVING SERVING WOMAN

When most people are questioned about past lives—assuming they believe that kind of thing – they always seem certain they are the living embodiment of someone powerful and famous like Cleopatra or Henry VIII or Catherine the Great. They really feel that mystical connection. No one is ever Joe Schmo in a past life.

To be fair I don’t exactly think of myself in a past life as Joe Schmo either. But I can never imagine myself as titan of the past. For me the fit is maybe a wild-haired, slightly disheveled serving woman.

This is probably because that’s pretty much what I find myself doing right now: compulsively making beds better left unmade, obsessively attempting to cook exotic specialty items like mejadra and shakshuka or anything lauded on Serious Eats. I have suddenly become an avid urban hunter of stray socks and crumpled t-shirts. It’s bizarre behavior for sure. The only thing that’s changed is that my boys, usually away at school, have been home this summer. I should be quietly blissful. But really. What is with me?

Here is the joke. They are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. During the rest of the year they live on their own. They absorbed so much Food Network from babyhood onward that for them cooking is virtually instinctive. As for laundry, they figured out my big secret a while ago: that it’s actually not that hard to stuff clothes into a machine and remember to return when the cycle is finished.

But they come home and there they are. The same but imperceptibly different. Sort of like a cubist Picasso, I can almost see them shifting from as many changing angles. I’ve always known them. I should know them. But I feel so uncertain. They’ve grown. They’ve changed. How idiotic of me. How could they not? I’m their mother and I feel shy as middle-schooler at the 7th grade mixer.

Is it any wonder then that I hide behind baskets of laundry and rush to make platters of food? Is it good? Do they like it? Is there anything else they need? I am slightly ridiculous. They are kind. They don’t ask or need to be waited on but they seem to know that I need to do this. To hide a little until I can get used to them. To try to get to know them again.

And I do want to get to know them again. But I know that as soon as I feel I do the perspective will shift, as will they, and then they’ll be off.   But I’ll try again. And again. Getting to know them over and over. It’s what has to happen. It’s what’s meant to happen. You’ve guessed the only constant. Loving them always.