Post#66: Unfettered

IMG_2100Kresge Lunch Counter

There was nothing more yearned for. Nothing better.  Saturday mornings we would rattle around the backseat of the big squared off Oldsmobile, sliding off the vinyl seats onto the floorboards at every stop light, mashing our faces into the windows every time that behemoth gingerly creaked  around a corner.  When the car finally shuddered and sighed to a stop  that was our signal.  Shove the doors open!

Just us. We were free!

Two ten year olds, each one of us with three single dollar bills curled into our hands. A small fortune. We wandered from  Maple to Woodward and back around to the park.  Press through to the doors of the Continental Market, to scurry like rabbits through that warren of tiny shops.  Scented candles, ladies magazines and beaded blouses.  A whole store that only sold clogs.  A general store that sold everything else.

At the store she would always buy a tiny bag of salted peanuts.   I had to have jelly beans.

Then a swing around to the twirly seats at  the Kresge’s lunch counter.  The counterman wore a bow tie.  He wore a paper hat with the slight power tilt of a king’s crown.

Red Pop or Faygo Rock ’n Rye was squirted expertly into a paper cone that was tucked into a metal holder.  Double striped paper straws.

A serious study of the menu always yielded the same results. Grilled cheese for her. Tuna for me. Both were cut on same diagonal and placed on the plates  just so. Tiny paper cups of potato salad and coleslaw.

If we put our last quarters together we could afford a scoop of ice cream to share. Some weeks her favorite, chocolate.  Other weeks my favorite, vanilla.  Two spoons, two friends.  Unfettered and on on our own. The world was ours!

***

Somewhere Outside

I’m pretty sure no one ever actually knew where we were. The screen doors slammed and we were off. A few twists to the tetherball and we would start out.  Walking down the street  the group snowballed together, adding kid after kid, getting bigger and bigger.  We were all together.

Where would we go?

Sneak to the creek to catch tadpoles?

Jungle gym through the half built house down the block?

March to the drug store for Bazooka and Tootsie Rolls and Turkish Taffy?

The choice was ours.  The world was ours!

***

Ball Fields

It was evening and the setting sun made the spring sky soft and hazy and cotton candy sweet.

From our house we actually could  hear the cracks of the bats and the muffled shouts, and imagine that we were enrobed by the puffs  of dust kicked up from sneakered feet.  We could go over and watch, our faces pressed up against the fenced backstop our fingers curling over the edges.

There are three fields, three games on each.  We drift from game to game as if we’re changing channels. 

The players don’t preen. They play.  Their team t-shirts and hats worn with pride, the jeans are dirty and worn in the right places from sliding and climbing.. There are never any grown ups, save the coaches for each team. Why would there be? Little League, little kids.  Grown ups had other things to do with their time. And so did we.

At the end the wagon train of Chevys and Buicks and Fords circle up. They flip open their trunks to reveal true treasure:  can after can of ice cold pop!

The choice was ours.

***

Now

Keys and cash and clothes and cars.  Go here, do this, remember that.  Juggle the schedule, balance the checkbook, add the tip. We are individual tornados spiking into the ground, information peppering and pestering at us from every side.

Is the choice mine?

Some of it?  Most of it?  A little of it?  Does it matter?

No matter what, minutes and moments are always  there for the taking. I grab them, hoard them, treasure them.   Moments still to think and dream. To think and explore and to be free. The choice then is mine. the world then, is still truly mine. 

No matter what, still and always unfettered and free!

Advertisements

Post #61: Sprung from Joy

img_9756So naturally, against all odds of sanity, I went and did it.  Tossing aside the whole curriculum for day:  ruminations about Scout and Atticus gently pushed aside, Socratic discussions about the military prowess of Hannibal and the ethical conundrums of Cato and Carthage quietly reburied, mystical revelations of the Sistine Ceiling  temporarily shrouded.  We all needed it.  A screeching halt to the studies of the present for a zip line into the past.

With a snap of a switch the room was mote filled and dusky. My class comfortably settled into their seats like souffles sweetly deflating by an oven door opened a few moments too soon. An old movie. A perfect film.  A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version, 1951.

Over three full class periods,  we were all swept back in time to Dickens’ 1840s London and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a tale worth telling again and again.

You know the story as well as I do.  A crotchety, miserly old man, furious with with life and with the world around him,  is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. And he is changed.

At last with a whirr and a click,  the movie ended. I left the lights low. There wasn’t a sound.  And  suddenly from the back of the room, from the darkness a voice rang out, “So you tell me, Mrs. Frank, just what took that man so long to figure out how to be good?”

Hmm. To tell you the truth, I was wondering the same thing.

So here we are, hardwired into the present.  I’m late to work, I’m fussed about getting to the grocery store, I should have responded to that last phone call, I haven’t cleaned out that closet.  I meant to read the book.  That bill is late, the gas gauge is on empty, I need to make  dinner, I must fold the laundry.

Where am I going?  Who is mad at me for what? Where are the cats?

Most readers or viewers think, I think, that Scrooge was terrified into reforming his ways and living life as it was meant to be lived by the glimpse into his dank and horrible future.  But what if  it’s the return to the the loving and warm memories of his sweeter past that  truly changes Scrooge?  Perhaps Scrooge changes because of the reminder of love. Not the specter of fear.  In other words, it’s the memory of beauty and kindness that allows Scrooge to live and be embraced by his present and to move him forward.

Was Scrooge’s error to flatten his life,  making his present all encompassing, instead of what it truly is, a breath, a heartbeat, a mere whiff of time narrowed between past and future?

So what took him so long?  What takes any of us so long? 

Mired in the present, I push myself toward memory a lot. I think about memory not because I’m afraid of forgetting the happinesses past. Wrapping myself in the afghan of memory for me is a celebration of the joy of remembering. I remember to recapture joy.  Moreover, I am an expert at sieving memory, retaining all that is meant to be retained. And that joy is what hopefully catapults us toward the future.

So in the new year, a season of hope and of light. join me and raise a glass and  toast to the goodnesses of the past and to power of memory.  Be bold, be brave. Recreate your past world to create the world anew. Fling yourself forward, sprung from past joys!

Post #59: Spin

fullsizerender

First set your feet firm.  Grasp the steel curves in your hands and get ready to push. Push hard! Legs pumping pumping pumping  as you run fast, faster, fastest, around and around and around! Just when you’re about to be swept off your feet jump up!  Up! You made it. You’ve earned your moment, your ride.  Lay back, close your eyes and spin. The Merry-Go-Round.

Open your eyes and you’re just where you were, of course. Or are you? 

Spin

Outside the big sunflowers turn and turn, their faces following the sun.  It’s late afternoon and I’m staring out the big picture window, the one shielded by a thick opaque yellow shade.  It’s has  a tiny tear, proudly,  neatly scotch taped together. The rays feel so hot that they seem to melt through the window, sizzling the squares of carpet like toasted s’mores.

I ache to get a better look outside.  But as I lift the thick vinyl shade the tiny tear tears a bit  more. I should be sorry and stop but I can’t stop,  I don’t stop at all.  I love the feeling of the tear slicing upward, up and up.  I can feel the power of the rip the in my little  hands. 

When it’s over, I can’t fix it. I am sorry, so sorry.  Really I am.

Spin

My bow is bouncing through Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle, my fingers skittering over the strings of my violin like jackrabbits bounding through the woods.  The notes scatter through the air with wild abandon, flying floating, fleeing every which way, everywhere at once.  Can you keep up?  Can you catch up?  Let the notes grab you and hook you, and seep deep inside you.   Oh! Come along with me. Together we can fly!

Spin

I am sitting across a restaurant table from a man in an elegantly cut suit, owlish glasses balanced on his nose, gentle, dreamy smile on his face. The man in the Arrow Shirt ads come to life. He has ordered a gin and tonic.  I find myself ordering the same.  He chuckles, I laugh. He leans back. I lean in.  When he orders Mahi Mahi,  for reasons unfathomable I squeal, dolphin like.  Agh!  Why oh why did I do it?  But somehow he laughs sweetly and in turn I simply sigh. He thinks I like him. And I do.

Spin

On a Little League field, compact as a candy box, a tousle-haired boy bunts, then freight rains it for first. Safe!  A blink and he steals second. A breath and then he steals third!  A  teasing tiptoe from third base.  Do it! Come home!

With each spin of the Merry Go Round the memories swirl in my head.

One day, full of myself and of rhyme and before I know it, the joyful words cascade from my tongue:

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of  shoes—and ships—and sealing wax— of cabbages — and kings—. And why the sea is boiling hot—and whether pigs have wings.”

—The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

My son is nearby.

“I love that,” my son said wistfully.  “You know it?” I said wonderingly.  “Of course,” he replied.  “You always recited it to us before bath time when we were small.  We loved it. You remember.”

But I didn’t remember. I didn’t remember at all.  I feel a rising panic in my chest. How could I have forgotten?   Was I spinning too fast? What am I missing?

Whatever “quite myself is,” I haven’t been that at all lately.   But somehow it has seemed more important than ever that I remember every single good thing that ever happened. To gather them all and keep them very close.

To forget even one, especially one that was so sweet and important to my boy, seemed a travesty, a tragedy of absurdist proportions. I hardly knew what to do, where to turn.

His voice is soft and just for me. “Of course it’s true, “he says. “And I remembered to remind you.”

Post #58: Apples and Honey

img_3754

Late Afternoon

It has gone on like this for the longest while.  I jitter crazily  from moment to moment and  place to place only to finally stumble through the front door and bumble to the kitchen.  My anxiety is rising like a kettle shriek.   A haphazard glance through the cupboards, and then,  like an out of control tobbaganer careening down a mountain, I begin. A dissonant medley of ingredients tumble onto the counter — dried pineapple?  farro? cumin? pickled jalapeños?  along with  unnerving sleight of hand involving  knives, and somehow a steaming mound of something is piled on a plate. It’s edible, really it is, or at least it should be.   I stare. Oh please. Just eat it and be done with it and let’s get moving now, shall we? I don’t have time, I never have time. Things to do, things to  do, such important things to do!

But for once I don’t do. Instead  I stop. I can’t swallow the words.

What am I doing?

Where am I going?

What am I thinking?

And truly, what on earth am I eating?

I realize that I don’t just want “something.”  What I want is something else.

And so, this evening I decide to get it.

***

Early Evening

I look in the cupboards once again. How could I have not noticed? It’s all there. Lentils and rice,  cumin and coriander, turmeric and all spice and cinnamon. The ingredients were there, right in front of me,  if only I had taken the time to put them together.  I slowly swirl them, meld them into a whole.

The onions are slivered and sliced into circles of sweetness, the rounds jump roped, piled up together in little hills and savannahs.  Why is it that slicing onions never makes me cry?

A shiver of flour then  a sizzling safflower bath.  A short paper toweled repose.  A final jumble and the whole is complete.

A mound of Mujadara. 

A spoonful, or maybe two…time to go. That was the plan all along.

Still warm and swathed in kitchen towels, I carry my prize carefully to the car, the bowl nestled on my lap.

It doesn’t spill.

They were not expecting dinner. They were not expecting me. But there it was and I was there. Their favorite. Mujadara.

They ate and ate. I simply watched. And somehow I felt full.

The meal I didn’t eat was the meal I dreamed of, the one I gave away, of course  left the sweetest taste on my tongue.

***

Just before Dawn

Oh, perhaps a bit more! Greedy thing that I am.

I wake up dreaming of something sweet. I yearn for it. I need it. I want it.  I make my way downstairs in the darkness and throw my cupboards open wide once again. I’ve been good, I  can have anything I want!

And so I do. I am craving  the edible jewels of fall. Apples. Honey Crisp.  Macoun. Braeburn.  Winesap.  Snapdragon.   This early morning, while the sun still slumbers,  I choose the best of the best.

A Snapdragon.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it?  But somehow not. I hesitate and then reach back into the tumble of my cupboard. Ah.  Of course. A jar of honey. 

I cut my apple gently into the thinnest possible slices.  I need to make it last.   Slowly I drizzle the honey on top.   And then at last, at long last,  I take a bite.  The clean snap of possibility zings and the taste lingers tantalizingly on my tongue.  I won’t forget.

A new year begins when I need it to begin. 

Post #52: The Voice of Inanimate Things

IMG_0341 (1)It’s perfect.  Like a verdant, ruffled mop of hair, the green strands sweeping and swaying in the breeze, I am sitting in a bravely untended and dearly loved velvety nest of grass.   Even if every presharpened color in my box of 64 Crayolas was a different shade of green I couldn’t color it all right. I dig my toes into the damp coolness as my neck cranes up and up and up for my face to reach toward the warmth and light. I am expanding, growing, shifting—yet rooted to the spot—until I’m called in for lunch.

My sandwich is cut into four neat little quarters, the carrots sticks stacked in a pack, the tomato soup perfectly portioned into exactly a dozen mouthfuls. Tiny bite, tiny bite, tiny bite. And then finally, at last, I’m done.

I go back outside. But where is it? What happened? The screen door smacks shut behind me. I am mystified and then bereft. My phantasmagoria of tangled green has vanished. In its place is arrayed a precise and formal tightly clipped regiment. A moment of inattention and it’s gone! But is it?   I take a deep breath and the suddenly essence of grass caresses my nose, expands my lungs and delightfully coats my tongue.

***

It’s so early that if the sun had a face it would be rubbing the sleep out of its eyes. So early that the neighborhood seems to snore in unison, so early that the paper hasn’t yet been slapped onto the front porch.   Doesn’t matter, time to go. Drag open the car door and climb into the vastness of the front bench seat. Hand crank the windows all the way down, doesn’t matter the chill. Slide from side to side, bumping the door with every right turn.

We know where to go! Where else would we go? This is the only store with lights this early on a Sunday morning.

My mother pulls open the door and we are embraced by a whoosh of steam. The bagels are just coming out of the ovens. They tumble from their trays into the wire baskets, like giddy bunches of children released from school. The New Yorker Onion Rolls, the bialys, the flaky ones are already done, slabs of Russian Coffee cake, the Crumb cakes, the sprinkle cookies are proudly lining up in the glass cases.

Our brown paper bag is crammed full with our hot bakers dozen. I get to hold it. The open bag warms my lap as we ride home. A generous schmear of hot bagel scent fills me almost to bursting!

***

The cloud of gently floral spice wafts down the stairs, meanders through the living room, makes a short stop into the dining room before emerging full blown into the kitchen. My elegant and beautifully pressed father, not a hair out of place, arrives in the room a few minutes later. He has been announced.

A riffle through the mail, a bolted shot of orange juice, a quick flick of his wrist to check his watch, and he’s on his way for the day.

But the scent lingers…

Years later, I will buy his cologne and wear it myself, just to keep him near me.

***

What ho, to the great outdoors! Crack of dawn a winter Saturday morning, I am bundled beyond recognition and wedged on the Blizzard Ski Bus on my way to Pine Knob or Mount Holly or Brighton. As we pick up speed the rhythm of telephone poles blur into a Kandinsky. The roads are slick, the slopes sure to be slicker. The bus bounces over the pot holes, fishtails crazily when we turn…or don’t. Cool kids sit in the back. I sit in the front.

At last we careen into the parking lot, there are the mountains looming icy and distant in front of us. Our bus is parked with dozens of other buses disgorging hundreds of skiers on the mountain like ants spilling over a jelly sandwich. Clumping down the bus steps in my ski boots, I take a deep breath of good clean mountain air.   I am ready!

Years later I am walking the streets of New York on a hot summer day. I pass a city bus and am baffled as suddenly I get a jolt of good clean mountain air, just like that of the snowy ski mountains. How can this be? A bit more investigation proves, of course that the “good clean mountain air” I associated with skiing was actually the heady and intoxicating exhaust of bus fumes.

***

As I type this the smells of a good dinner caress the house, melding with the comforting, slightly musty scent of old, beloved books and cats warming at the windows. I can breathe in a soft hint of wild strawberries and wince, only slightly as I catch a whiff of slightly stale socks. It’s all here. Mary Webb says it best in her marvelous essay The Spring of Joy when she notes that “fragrance is the voice of inanimate things.”

I close my eyes to sniff the fragrances of memory, to remember and most of all to keep it all close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

IMG_4998

I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

***

A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

A BETTER DAY TOMORROW

IMG_4747

I hate the word but truly that’s what I am. At least about this. And since this essay is about words, let’s just do it, shall we? Just say it.

I’m a really awful prig. Thankfully not about everything. Really, I can even sit through most R rated movies like a big girl with hardly a raised eyebrow, good for me. But I am prig nonetheless. I am a word prig.

I’m not actually one of those tightly-wound grammarians self-righteously correcting complete strangers when they trip up on their tenses. My use of proper grammar, while decent, is what I would consider a work in progress.

But I am a lover of words. I love how they sound when spoken honestly and with conviction. I love the voices in my head when I read, which can sound like everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ella Fitzgerald to my mother, depending on what I’m reading. I love using them, choosing just the right one with the elegance and panache of Audrey Hepburn knotting a scarf around her neck. I love how certain words have a caress, others a rumble, and still more a resonance.

And like many lovers of words I am actually not a big talker. I think this is because choosing the right words takes time. Choosing the right word can be like trying to find just the right perfectly-shaped leaf on a windy fall day.

I’m a prig too, because I hate swearing, but not because I think swearing is a bad thing. People get mad, they have a right to get mad and they certainly have a right to express it. But that’s where things have gotten sticky. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call a word a word.

When I was a little kid at summer camp we loved to swear, we lived to swear. We could find a way to squeeze swear words into the most innocuous sentences imaginable. !@#$% pancakes for breakfast again? Is it !@#$% sunny today? Want to play !@##$% jacks with me? Over and over and over. Just saying things we weren’t supposed to say felt fantastic. Empowering. Pleasantly bad.

Everyone was doing it so everyone did. And then we stopped. We did not stop because we were evolving into polite little humans. We stopped because by the time we returned home the swear words had lost their fangs. Say @##$% enough times and it’s boring, it just loses it’s power to shock. There were so many more creative and interesting ways of doing that.

Constant swearing is like starting in a bag of stale jelly beans. They’re awful, they’re unsatisfying but you keep plowing through feeling that if you keep going you’ll be sated. Never works. You’re just left with an empty bag and a sickly-sweet coating in your mouth.

That obviously wasn’t the taste I wanted on my tongue when I had little kids at home. Or on my lips with the children I work with at school. But there was still the fear of knee-jerk swearing in front of them. And so I worked up some milder alternatives, training myself so these would be the first words I’d grab for in tense moments: “Phooey” “Dang” “Crumb” and so on. Said with appropriate fury or conviction, as is the case, they usually work just fine.

This is true except when I’m almost hit by some self-absorbed woman in an SUV, careening haphazardly out of the local gourmet store, with a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other. I am totally off the wagon here, so to speak, and fling swear words out like useless cannon fodder. But it’s utterly frustrating. The swear words I’m spitting aren’t ugly so much as impotent. No matter the awful words I’m saying, I am not actually saying what I want to say. Not getting the reaction I want to get. That’s the worst. No wonder swearing matches so often escalate to chaos like teetery tower of Jenga.

Using exactly the right words, quietly and with dignity, can truly quash complete fury though. I’ve seen it.

Ages ago when I lived in Brooklyn I was heading into the subway station during rush hour. A woman was standing at the token booth, furiously screaming every vicious epithet imaginable at the clerk. It wasn’t clear what sparked her anger but she was completely letting loose. When she paused for breath the token clerk said calmly, “I’m sorry, madam. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.” End of conversation. Game, set, match.

We all yearn to be understood. I don’t want to carelessly use words as mindless weapons. If I do, then how is anyone going to truly believe me when I say that I care or that I love them?