Thursday, December 27, 2018

Trust me, it takes an awful lot more than a spark

Dawn broke in streaks of pink, gray, and yellow, illuminating the cold morning in a burst of splendor. I heard some early birds high in the trees, chickadees and bluejays and the chattering of a pileated woodpecker. I wondered whether it was the same woodpecker that flew just overhead yesterday afternoon, and I told myself I never would have experienced this if the fire in the wood-burner hadn't burned out last night.

I woke to a cold house and cool air blowing from the heat vents, my first clue that something was wrong with the wood-burner. I wanted to curl up with a blanket and a cup of hot oatmeal while the resident pyromaniac went outside to do his fire-starting magic, but, tragically, my husband was still in Jackson and unlikely to arrive home for hours. 

Which explains why I found myself standing in the predawn chill trying to restart a dead fire. There was still a big log in the firebox, but somehow it got lodged in oddly so it was tilted up away from the coals, which were dead cold.

Now my husband is a fire-starting genius, able to produce a raging fire with wet wood during a downpour. I, on the other hand, am not. You don't want to know how long it took me to get a real fire going this morning (two hours) or how many weeks' worth of newspapers I sacrificed to the process (too many) or how many times I decided to give it up after one more try--let's just see if this one takes.

It was a quiet morning, cold and clear, and as I watched the wadded-up newspapers flare up and then fail to ignite the kindling, I grew contemplative. How many literary figures have gained deep insights while gazing into a fire? Isabel Archer, sure, and some Dickens heroine--Florence Dombey maybe, or Esther Summerson? And what's the name of the gothic short story about a charcoal-tender who gazes too long into the flame? I'm thinking Hawthorne but I could be wrong. Maybe Poe? Too much thinking before breakfast--time to gather more little sticks to serve as kindling, and let's toss in a handful of dry pine needles while we're at it.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going promises the old campfire song, but that lyric leaves out some important caveats. One spark might be sufficient to get a fire going in a pile of dry straw, but all of our wood has been sitting outside in the cold and wet and frost--toss a spark at all of that and it'll just fizzle out. I tried different configurations of kindling, pine needles, and newspapers, left the woodbox door open so plenty of oxygen could get in, added an empty cardboard box to fuel the potential conflagration, and occasionally sparked a nice little flare-up of flame that consumed all the papers and needles but left the kindling cold.

Did I give up? I did not, even when the cold crept up through my gumboots and chilled me to the bone. I tended the reluctant fire as dawn broke and the sky shifted from black to gray to pink to blue, and finally, after my umpteen-millionth reconfiguration of kindling, something worked right and I was rewarded with the sight of smoke rising from the chimney.

I hadn't planned to spend two hours this morning proving my incompetence as a fire-starter, but we do what we have to do. If I hadn't been out there, I wouldn't have seen the sunrise or heard the woodpecker or stared so long into the reluctant flames that I came to believe that they were getting ready to offer me some deep insight into the mysteries of the universe.

But then the flames would die out and I would have to start all over again.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Let me just serve you a nice big helping of holiday viruses...

The Christmas season is busy for a pastor, who has to juggle his usual schedule plus extra services and soloists and children's programs, all joyful and jolly but lots of work. The worst time for a pastor to wake up at 4 a.m. to puke out his guts is the Sunday before Christmas, but nevertheless that's what happened in my very full house yesterday, where the pastor dressed in his colorful Christmas tie and stepped into the pulpit looking as pale as death. "Let people help you," I urged him, and he did. Everyone was happy to help.

In fact we've been enjoying a festival of helping for the past few days: my granddaughter helped her two-year-old brother get dressed, and then he helped his uncle put together a toddler-sized hockey net. Both grandkids "helped" the adults roll out the cookie dough and we all helped decorate the cookies, all colorful and covered with frosting and sprinkles--and possibly unwanted viruses. Someone ought to do a study on the Christmas cookie as vector for disease.

When my husband fell victim to that nasty intestinal virus and spent the rest of the day in bed, my daughter mixed up some oral rehydration fluid and went out to the grocery store for jello cubes. It helped! And today, after my husband was back on his feet again, my son-in-law the tech guru helped him learn how to use his new smartphone, a task I was not quite up to because by then I'd become sick myself--not with the stomach bug, thankfully, but with a massively annoying upper respiratory mess that has suited me to playing the role of Rudolph.

Over the past three days we celebrated two birthdays and had our family Christmas celebration, and now the guests have all left and the house is quiet and we have nothing on the schedule for Christmas day except to rest and recuperate and try to get back to full strength. Peace on earth is what we're looking for--or if that's too much to ask, then at least a peaceful night's sleep. 

Joy to the world, and may all your cookies be virus-free.

Helping grampa

"I can do it myself!"

Rolling and scooting and almost crawling

Just a little family chaos.

Cooperative play

Yeah, that's what I'm doing!

Sisters, being silly.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Baking too close to the flame

Beating on pecans with a rolling pin is a great way to take out the frustrations, except that it inevitably creates more frustrations, to wit: little bits of chopped pecan flying all over the kitchen. But that's easier to clean up than spilled molasses. No matter how carefully I clean up the drops of molasses on the floor, I can't seem to get them all--and then someone (probably me) steps in a drop and spreads molasses around the house. 

I know that molasses is supposed to go in the cookie dough and not on the floor, but nobody's perfect, and some of us are the extreme opposite. I admit that I am a messy cook. I blame the fact that I'm always multitasking--baking one set of cookies while beating up batter for the next, and then when the oven timer beeps just as I'm pouring the molasses, something's gotta give.

For evidence, just look at my best-loved recipes: all splattered with splotches of batter and goo. Some are even burned on the edges, evidence of baking too close to the flame. This is why I rarely take my computer or phone anywhere near the food preparation space. Imagine molasses on the keyboard!

I prefer to imagine the end result: a clean floor, a house full of family, and platters of Christmas cookies that need to be decorated. Perfect? No, but delicious all the same.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Surrounded by stories told in stone

Another beautiful sunshiny day! I was just aching to get into the woods so after lunch we bundled up and drove out toward Lake Katherine, only to find the entrance road closed and heavy equipment blocking the way. There are other forests! But this time of year they're likely to be crawling with hunters, so not a good time to explore unfamiliar trails.


Reluctant to forego our time in the sun, we parked at the big cemetery on the edge of town and walked up and down its hilly paths. It's not quite a walk in the woods; for one thing, the there's more visible wildlife at Lake Katherine and the massive stones out there aren't inscribed with birth and death dates. But the sun was shining and the air was crisp and there's plenty to see at the cemetery, where walking around a corner can take you to a whole different era.

We saw old, illegible stones tilting in every direction and fresh news ones featuring realistic color portraits of the departed. We saw angels reclining on graves, carrying loved ones toward heaven, or standing triumphant over tombs--and I'm not sure what that one angel did to merit being placed behind bars. We saw flags and flowers and wreaths propped on graves plus all manner of holiday decoration, from snowmen to Santas to sparkly garland that shimmered in the breeze. One stone had a toy tractor trailer driving around the plinth. There must be a story there, but who will tell it?

In fact we felt surrounded by stories, some suggested by mottos on the stones and others by items left behind, but all the stories are incomplete and doomed to fade eventually. I'm sure someone knows why this grave features a bluebird house while that one wears a worn baseball cap, but who will remember those stories 20 years from now, or 50 or 100? 

That's why I'm not waiting until I'm dead to tell my stories. If the things I've written can't stand as a monument to my life, a few words carved on a tombstone won't do any better. So welcome to my tombstone. Settle in for a long walk among the words.   


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Making something from nothing (for 36 years)

Thirty-six years ago when we were first married we used to spend a lot of time cooking together in a tiny kitchen, bumping elbows and reaching around each other to see what we could make from whatever meager ingredients happened to be hanging around. We were both students and desperately broke, so we often had to be creative: "Let's see, two scrawny carrots, a box of macaroni, some raisins, and a can of tuna--want to make something of it?"

Today we were bumping elbows in a bigger kitchen trying to see what we could make from meager ingredients, but not because we're broke. We're trying to clear miscellaneous stuff out of the refrigerator to make room for all the holiday goodies we'll be cooking for our family next week, so we've got to finish up a the tail end of a ham and a sad-looking red bell pepper and some sorry potatoes and whatever all those mystery containers are in the freezer. My husband made the hash browns and I made scrambled eggs with ham and peppers (and cheese, of course), so that's one corner of the fridge looking a little more open. Sometimes when we put our problem-solving skills together, we can create something delicious.

Most weeks I'm busy driving home from Jackson Sunday afternoon, so it's been months since we've cooked a Sunday lunch together. I turned in m final grades late Friday and packed more than the usual amount of stuff in my car before I drove to Jackson Saturday morning, and now I'm relishing the fact that I don't have to drive anywhere all week unless I really want to. We've survived six months of living in two houses 90 minutes apart, and I'm ready to be a little more stationary. The grandkids are coming here next weekend so I have all week to spruce up, decorate, and bake before we celebrate our first Christmas in the little yellow parsonage near the corner of Grace and Daisy.We don't have a Christmas tree here but my husband twined lights around some giant potted banana trees and houseplants, which my granddaughter thought was about the funniest thing she'd ever heard of when I told her about it. 

It's a far cry from Christmas in our first apartment, where we put up a sad little tree we'd picked up for ten dollars at a tree lot but then wondered what to do for decorations. At the time I was working at a weekly newspaper that used ancient typesetting machines that spat out reels of yellow perforated tape that got thrown away after use, so I saved a bunch of it and brought it home to twist into stars and globes and garlands and miscellaneous yellow shapes. Our tree looked festive as long as you didn't look too closely, and we were proud of our resourcefulness and creativity.

I could come up with a list of things we don't have at the parsonage, from a Christmas tree to spare beds that don't have to be pumped up to the immersion blender I use to make soup, but what would be the point of that? Instead, I'm enjoying working with my husband to make the holidays festive and finding that after 36 years of marriage, we still know how to transform whatever we can find into something beautiful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Hungry for nothing

Today I encountered a group of faculty members attacking trays of food like a plague of locusts on a field of ripe wheat. They were shoveling in sandwiches and cheese and crackers and cookies and oranges and great big slabs of cake as if they hadn't eaten all month--and I was one of them. Stress-eating is what we call it, but as we grazed I wondered: what are we all so hungry for?

An end to the grading is one thing we want, an opportunity to put down the red pen, shove the papers in the filing cabinet, and walk out into the sunshine to see what's been going on in the real world while we're sequestered in our offices in front of piles of exams. But after reading all that frantic student writing, we're also hungry for sentences that make sense, that include appropriate punctuation and words correctly spelled and ideas, for heaven's sake--or if not that, we'd like to see some capital letters once in a while. We can't all be e.e. cummings, especially on the final exam.

We're hungry for an end to students' excuses, their begging for better grades, for some sincere appreciation for our work that's not attached to a statement about how badly the student needs a B in the class. We'd like to be able to use words like superfluous without getting blank looks in response and to mention prose without being mistaken for sportscasters. My colleagues in the sciences really want to walk away from the Scantron machine and give their eyes a break from all those bubble-sheets, while those of us collecting papers thirst mightily for an empty dropbox.

We munch on junk food to steel ourselves for the siege ahead, the need to transform the mountain of exams into simple numbers and letters that can be posted to a spreadsheet, and then we want to see an end to reminders about submitting final grades, assessment reports, and D/F slips. 

What we're hungry for, really, is absence: the cleared desk, the empty inbox, the crossed-out to-do list. We thirst for a great big wad of nothing where all that something used to be, but we'll never get there unless we shovel all this something out of the way, and to accomplish that, we need to build up our strength.

Yes, we're hungry for nothing--and that's why we can't stop eating.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Things to do while proctoring exams

The right thing to do, of course, would be to grade the papers and exams that have already come in, but first you would have to decide whether to grade the tiny class first or save it for later as a reward, and that's too much thinking to do during the stupidest time of the day. (Seriously, who decided 3 p.m. was a good time to schedule a two-and-a-half-hour exam?) But what else can you do while proctoring a final exam?

Shop online for matching family holiday pajamas. Flip back and forth between the reindeer pattern and the holiday Minions. Wonder how they got everyone in the family to look so bright and cheery while wearing pajamas--including the family dog. Are they on drugs or what? If so, what kind? Plug in the sizes of everyone in the family--but try not to gasp too loudly at the total! You don't want to disturb your students. Contemplate how many starving people that amount of money could feed, and notice that there's no guarantee that the pajamas would make anyone in your family as happy and photogenic as the family in the picture. Close the window without completing the order.

Try to figure out who sings that one holiday song you heard on the radio the other day, except first you'll have to remember the title or some of the lyrics. Distinctly recall making a mental note to remember the chorus and then trying vainly to hold on to the lyrics throughout "Jingle Bell Rock," the all-consuming holiday earworm. It had the word "Christmas" in it, but what else? Google holiday music for a while before realizing that you're not going to find anything with the sound off. Whatever you do, don't hum.

Glance around the room. Notice how diligently your students are scribbling answers on the exam. Note that three-sevenths of them are wearing wool hats inside the classroom and wonder when someone is finally going to figure out how to regulate the temperature in this part of the building. Wonder if any of your students would look more alert if they were wearing matching holiday pajamas. Bite your tongue--hard--before the question slips out. Mmm, tastes like chicken.

Pull out your pile of holiday cards and address list and start writing cheery, personal, individualized notes to people you haven't seen in years but still feel the need to connect with at Christmas. Try not to repeat the same message on every card. Wonder whether the recipients wear matching holiday pajamas and, if they do, what style: flannel, fleece, or cotton?  Don't ask. When you get to the name of a distant relative and can't remember whether the person is alive or dead or suffering from dementia (or maybe you're the one suffering from dementia),  it's time to put the cards away.

Look at your students, still writing and writing. Send out brain-waves urging them to write more quickly. How can they expect you to sit in a cold room for two and a half hours watching them write? Don't they know you have stuff to do--like, for instance, grading that big pile of papers you're trying not to think about?

Remember that you brought your blanket with you. Clearly, one part of your brain was functioning properly when you set out for the exam. Bundle up and get ready for the next big event, which is: procrastination! Check your e-mail, read McSweeney's, check on enrollments for next semester's classes--anything but tackling that pile of papers. Wonder if the pile of papers would look any more compelling in festive pajamas, and, if so, what size they would wear, and would they prefer the reindeer print or the Minions? Realize that nothing will remove the burden of grading all those papers except for grading all those papers. 

Click open the file. Get to work. Wish for a Minion.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Plenty craziness to go around

Because it's the last week of classes and I'm still struggling to get over the nasty cold I picked up at Thanksgiving and people around me are going crazy in predictable but unbloggable ways (but seriously, dude, if you really want to know how to improve your essay, you could start by reading the comments I wrote on your draft), yesterday I took a mental-health day and stayed away from campus. I didn't even take any grading home with me, which I'll regret as soon as the next wave comes in, but I needed to take a breath and get some perspective, which I did by sitting at home writing notes on Christmas cards (by hand! with a pen!) while drinking spiced tea and listening to Christmas music. But then I decided to run some errands and encountered a whole different level of craziness.

I don't know if you've ever tried to park at the main post office in Marietta, Ohio, but one of these days some clever game designer will create a thrill game involving hundreds of cars competing for about six spaces so small that you can't open your car door without scratching the paint. This is true: once I parked there intending to mail some big packages and found that I could not open the car door wide enough to allow me to get the packages out of the car. And then postal workers are always popping up out of nowhere, wheeling big carts full of mail toward the waiting delivery trucks, and if you are fortunate enough to find a space, get out of the car, mail your packages, and get back in your car, you will then have to make a 17-point turn, slowly pulling back and forward and back again until you finally dislodge your car from the postage-stamp-sized space and make your way down the narrow drive, where more cars are lined up eagerly eyeing your horrible parking space.

And then I decided to do some gift shopping, assuming that the mall across the river would be quiet on a weekday. Ha! The place was crawling with little kids waiting in line to see Santa (who looked like he was nursing a migraine), riding around on the holiday train (which kept creeping up as if stalking me), and running around shrieking like banshees while "Frosty the Snowman" blared in the background. Lines were long and I had to stand in several; one cashier told me that she'd had to deal with some very rude and demanding customers quibbling over sale prices, but by that point I was so exhausted that she could have charged me double and I wouldn't have even noticed. That's the Christmas spirit!

Now I'm back in my office teaching my final day of classes and watching the final papers flow in. I know I'll have to buckle down this weekend and get to work on grading them, but after my crazy day off, I'll bring a change of perspective. They say a change of work is the best vacation, but sometimes all it takes is a change of craziness.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

When life is too complicated for an ordinary holiday card

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree--
I'm sad it fell on your kitty.
May holiday cheer fill your Santa hat
(when you're done mourning for your cat). 

Poinsettias are red;
varicose veins are blue.
I hope your CT-scan prep drink
doesn't taste like glue.

Jingle bells, something smells,
mousetraps caught some prey!
Toss them, dear, in the chimney here
and burn them all away!

The mistletoe is waiting!
I hope to meet you there.
(But first, sign this consent form--
initial here and here.) 

(And here.)

(And don't forget the back.)

(In triplicate.)

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care;
piles of gifts reach up to the rafters--whew!
Better make your escape before it's too late--
So sorry the IRS is after you!

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
but you have promises to keep,
so pour the egg nog down the drain
before it goes straight to your hips!

(That didn't rhyme--I know it's true.
I've done my best. Now how about you?)  

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Suddenly, sunshine

The first Sunday in December began with thunder in the wee hours accompanied by rain and more rain, pretty much what we’ve been experiencing all week, but then, wonder of wonders, the rain stopped and the sky cleared and we saw the sun—the sun!—for the first time after days and days of endless gloom, and the temperature rose into the 60s with just enough breeze to make me glad I was wearing a jacket when I went out for a walk, camera in hand, surrounded by the sound of water rushing down the creek and wind rustling through the cedars and the occasional pickup truck rumbling past full of men wearing camouflage and hunter orange—deer season! A good time to stay out of the woods—but who could stay indoors in such beautiful weather? I took the camera and went hunting for interesting shapes and textures, horizontal shadows on the forest floor intersecting with vertical tree trunks or round fluffy clouds juxtaposed with long skinny wisps, or bright rust and yellow hues exposed by recent rock falls on a cliff weathered gray and slimy green. I saw some mockingbirds, a kingfisher, a host of woolly worms crossing the road, the neighbor’s donkeys and another neighbor’s cows. Nothing too earthshaking, in other words, but sometimes walking outside in the sun after days of rain is enough to make me want to fall on my face and shout Hallelujah.   

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Finding the helpers--right in my classroom

Apparently not everyone in my building was aware that we had a medical emergency outside my classroom yesterday. One of my colleagues told me later, "From where I was standing, it sounded like a bunch of giddy girls giggling in the stairwell." They may have sounded like giddy girls, but from where I was standing they looked like heroes.

I've bragged about these four students before. They're the only women in my early-morning first-year writing class, and though they didn't know each other before the semester started, they quickly formed the best kind of supportive community. They sit together and help each other, not in a cheaty way but in a let's-try-to-understand-this way. I often come into the classroom and find them discussing the day's reading or writing assignment, and during in-class activities they consistently push each other to think harder, do better.

Early in the semester they developed the habit of going to breakfast together after my class, which may have played a part in what happened, because they hadn't had breakfast yet and we watched a bit of film in class that made one of the students queasy. She stayed in the room feeling dizzy after class but urged the others to go on without her, but they didn't listen, which is a good thing because if she'd collapsed in an empty classroom, the results could have been tragic.

They all walked together down the stairs and I stayed close behind; they all encouraged their queasy classmate to sit down when she felt dizzy, and when she collapsed and stopped breathing, they all stepped in and did what needed to be done. 

Things happened very quickly: I called out "Who knows CPR?" and one of my heroic students said she's certified, so I set her to work doing chest compressions while I went down the steps to the nearest office to get the administrative assistant to call 911. Colleagues stepped in to block off access to the stairs, and a prof who knows the student's parents gave them a call. Meanwhile, up on the stairwell, I watched my student's lips turning blue while her classmate thumped on her chest and her other classmates cocooned her and kept her from falling further down the steps. I've never felt more helpless, but I've also never felt more surrounded by helpers.

The sick student soon revived and the EMS techs arrived and took over, but even then my heroic students kept helping: they held her up, helped her out of her coat, gathered her phone and shoes and backpack, and then one of them went to the hospital in the ambulance so her sick classmate wouldn't be alone. Soon the stairwell was empty and everything went back to normal, except what could possibly be normal after a student stops breathing? 

She's fine now, back on campus and a little embarrassed by all the fuss, and I'm looking forward to seeing her back in the classroom early Monday morning, upright and breathing and not turning blue. She'll be surrounded by her supportive classmates, talking and laughing and maybe sounding a little giddy, but from this point on I'll never see them as anything other than heroes.   

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Well, they couldn't possibly build a WORSE mousetrap, right?

I did not give up trying the first time a mousetrap snapped shut on my fingers, or the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. Getting into double digits discouraged me but I kept trying until I started throwing things, and then I had to clean up the peanut-butter smears on my hands and shirt and on the floor. (What are the odds that a falling mousetrap will land peanut-butter-side up?)

When my husband and I first began this adventure with living (mostly) in separate houses, I knew I would face challenges, but I did not believed dealing with the mouse problem would be the most serious one. We've worked out a way to make it easier for me to load the wood-burner, and we're contracting out snow removal for the winter. I've learned to avoid buying large amounts of produce because I can't eat it all by myself and I hate the smell of rotting vegetables, and I even managed to bury my own dog when she died. But somehow the mouse problem has me flummoxed.

I've caught mice! (In traps my husband set the last time he was here.) I experimented with glue traps, which work admirably except for one thing: the mice do not die immediately, which means I have to either live with an expiring mouse squirming around trying to free itself or else I have to toss the whole thing into the wood-burner while the mouse is still alive, which seems inhumane. I can hear its squeaky little voice screaming No! Not the fire! Anyplace but the fire!

So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and learn to set the old-fashioned wooden mousetraps that work so well. I read the directions and even watched a YouTube video that made it look really easy. That guy never got his fingers snapped in the trap! And besides, people have been using those mousetraps for centuries without a hitch. How difficult could it be?

I used exactly the same brand of trap the guy used in the YouTube video, and I followed his method exactly--and I snapped my fingers in the trap EVERY. STINKING. TIME. 

Maybe the traps are defective--or maybe it's my fingers. Either way, no mousetraps got set in my house last night, which will no doubt make the pesky critters bolder. I hear them scrabbling in the walls, laughing, no doubt, at my incompetence: 

How many PhDs does it take to set a mousetrap? None because they can't do it!

She can split an infinitive at 50 paces but can't set a mousetrap!

Hey, let's have a square dance on her eyeballs while she's sleeping! 

In the war between my klutzy fingers and the vermin, the mice seem to be winning. However, I have a secret weapon, and no, it's not a flamethrower, tempting as that may be. My husband is coming home later this week, and he takes no prisoners. So look out, mice! There's a trap in your future and it will be fully loaded. (With bits of my fingers.)


Monday, November 26, 2018

A welcome surprise in the mailbox

After being away for five days, I wasn't exactly expecting a welcoming committee when I arrived home yesterday, but I did find some surprises. I was pleased to find the wood-burner still well stocked and the laundry more or less under control, clear signs that my son had done his due diligence in my absence. I found two dead mice--hurrah!--but also several mousetraps that had been sprung without catching anything, and I found a lot of empty birdfeeders. Also, the undergrowth in the woods has died back enough to reveal hidden things, so I was surprised to see the green garden bench that got washed away in the flash flood last spring. It's lodged against the trunk of a tree downstream from our bridge, a little out of reach but I think we'll be able to retrieve it eventually.

But the biggest surprise was a letter about books from someone I barely know. I mean, a real, hand-written-on-paper letter from a young person interested in books and reading. "You probably don't remember me," it began, but I do remember and I was pleased as punch to read and respond--by hand, in words written on actual paper and enclosed in an envelope with a stamp, if you can imagine such a thing.

I've always loved receiving mail but these days it's pretty rare to find a real letter in the mail. For a while my mailbox was so jam-packed with election flyers that I hated to open it up and let the vitriol spill out, and these days the mailbox serves as a temporary repository for holiday catalogs that I'll stack up and throw away, so it's nice to get some real mail that's not asking me for money or votes or any immediate response. Somehow, the lack of urgency makes me want to drop everything and respond right away.

And then what a letter! It came from the sister of a former student, someone I probably met once and then glimpsed a few times on Facebook. She'd just read Toni Morrison's Beloved for the first time and was trying to process her complicated response; "Not only was it unexpected," she wrote, "but it was impossible to expect." A letter from a virtual stranger eager to discuss a work of literature: what's not to love about that?

Of course we could have shared this exchange of ideas more quickly and efficiently online, but I like the measured pace of snail-mail discussions, the ability to think clearly before committing ideas to writing and then mull over responses, and I love the happy little moment when I see a real letter in the mailbox and the eager anticipation before opening.

But yesterday that anticipation lasted longer than usual, as I couldn't enjoy opening the mail in a house that smelled like dead mice. First carry in the luggage then put away groceries, discard the mice, feed the wood-burner, burn the trash, start some laundry, and finally reward myself with a nice cup of tea and a real letter. What a nice surprise! Not only unexpected, but impossible to expect.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Where the thankfulness never ends

If you'd been dropping off a child at a certain elementary school in chilly northeast Ohio this morning, you might have wondered, "Who's the crazy guy riding a unicycle to school in this frigid weather?"

That would be my crazy guy. We're spending some time with the grandkids and that's the way we walk the oldest one to school, with the resident clown in a big black puffer coat riding a unicycle alongside our granddaughter while I bring up the rear with her little brother in his light-up R2D2 boots. I love a parade!

If you had asked me 36 years ago to list the characteristics of my ideal spouse, it would not have occurred to me to say, "I want a guy who rides a unicycle a half mile in freezing weather just to entertain his grandkids." But that's what I got, and for that I am thankful.

I'm thankful also for the granddaughter running to keep up with grampa, a sweet and creative girl who loves sparkly things and flowers and books and bikes and unicorns. I'm thankful for her two-year-old brother, who keeps bringing me books to read and then, when he gets tired of carrying them up and down the steps, sits and listens to fresh stories we make up ourselves, about adventures with dinosaurs in a big squishy swamp. I'm thankful for how much he loves his sisters, loves to help his daddy, loves to blow raspberries with Grampa and baby sister in the back seat of the car.

And I'm thankful for that baby sister, the eight-month-old whose smiles light up the room even when she's under the weather, who squeals with delight at Peek-a-Boo and tries with all her might to say "Mmmma-mmma-mmmma."  And of course I'm thankful for her mama too, who brings delight into the world with her singing and serving and constant energy, whether she's making curtains or custard pies or family celebrations. 
I'm thankful for a son-in-law who knows how to install a new tub, train engineers on new software, or kiss a boo-boo to make it better, and for a son willing to feed the wood-burner while I'm gone, a guy who keeps me fully supplied with silly puns. I'm thankful that my dad is holding steady since my mother's death and finding new ways to be helpful with his church family. I'm thankful for a family that pulls together in difficult times, for a terrific dog who walked beside me for ten blessed years, for friends who know what to say when the pain is beyond words.

For colleagues and students who keep me focused and make me think and smile and laugh I am forever thankful. For a ruby-red car and a water bottle to match, warm scarves and space heaters, dark chocolate and spiced chai and cranberry chutney; for podcasts that enliven long drives and poetry that reaches deeper into my soul with each passing year; for many more wish lists to consult as the family expands and for a good excuse to buy a bunch of kazoos--for all this and more I am thankful.

And for that clown on the unicycle, puffing away in the early-morning chill, laughing with his granddaughter as they move forward into the future--it's nothing I ever asked for, but it's exactly what I need, and for that I am thankful.