Saturday, February 23, 2013

early memory at Crystal Lake

Untied, a woven
cotton bathing suit
slips to the floor
around my feet,
red, ruffled
like a rose.
Mother creams
my sunburned shoulders
and I lie tenderly back
in the big bed,
stare up
at bare wood rafters
enlarged by lamplight.
She will leave,
I alone of the family
upstairs, under the sheet
white as fear.
If only
the shadowy rafters
looked kindly down
like the oaks and birches
above our earlier walk
to the big lake,
my hand in hers
past fusty porches,
past Frostic’s musical
gate of art and mystery,
past the assembly hall’s
black windows,
into the sunny circle of ferns
and off with sneakers!
a race up the short dune
in blind anticipation
and sand as fine and cool
as mother’s face powder.
Up, over and running free
to the blue water
that is like a deeper sky
for me to fly in,
waves whispering
hush, come
until exhausted
I give up
and sit on the beach, shivering,
burning, sand blowing
against my cheeks
like mother’s good-night kisses,
her freshly washed skin
white, smooth, her fragrance
of sweet water
receding from me,
always calling and receding
in whispering waves.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

shopping for basil in February

There he was piling bags of carrots into the lighted bin, a man who could help me find it. He might have piled carrots for fifty years. Or maybe he started at retirement after a job as a textbook salesman. No, he couldn’t have been a salesman with those teeth. 

It strikes me now how serviceable carrots are, how tossable, not easily harmed when stacked and laden with one another.

He stared at me at close range, mouth open, crooked teeth leaning like uncomprehending children. “Mango?”


“Oh!” and off he trotted in conversation with the air as I followed. The basil was far from the carrots, and I needed it though it was February. I have grown accustomed to having the food I want when I want it, and the week’s paralyzing wind made me want a panzanella salad with fontina, chunks of day-old cornbread, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and basil because all the comments at Giada’s online recipe for it said it was fabulous. I had googled “recipes with leftover cornbread." Since the first of the year I have been more diligent about using up what is in the fridge. I am conscious that women used to know ways in their heads to use up leftovers, but never mind.

The store itself is like this man racing away in front of me, soft at the edges from age, though he was leaner. The store’s passageways are barely wide enough to get a cart through, and even sturdy shelves seem to sag under mountains of onions, potatoes, oranges, peppers of many varieties for local Latinos and Latinas who know how to cook from their grandmothers. I begin to see that he is lean because he dashes off to another part of the store when called upon, rather than point and direct. Like my father, he walk-runs, and like my father, he loves to help.

He rifles through thin plastic boxes of salad greens and finds a large-ish one of basil, more than I will be able to use before it goes bad I think to myself. It costs $3.89, which seems a lot to me, I say, and I realize that I have said it to him because he is suddenly my father who shopped at this store for bargains for twenty or thirty years. Two months ago I would not have blinked at spending $3.89 for basil, but now that I have resolved to take more care with money and food, this seems too much out of the $20 I have allotted in my purse for this shopping trip.

After my mother’s hand operation my father took over cooking and shopping. He never went to fewer than three stores, and he never walked the aisles; he walk-ran, a man with a purpose. At this store, he came for boxes of slightly bruised fruits and vegetables that no one else noticed lined up on the floor tucked under the good produce shelves, or whole boxes of canned beans on sale four for a dollar. Our refrigerator perpetually smelled of rotting apples because he bought them past their prime, the whole box costing a couple of bucks. So yes, a large-ish plastic container of basil for $3.89 was a lot, and the man who was like my father agreed. But I tossed it into my cart all the same. I needed the panzanella salad, and I needed to use up the leftover cornbread.

As we started to walk away suddenly a look of discovery crossed his face. He remembered a stash of something else. “Thai basil” he said crisply with one finger raised, and he walked me over to the display where herbs were hunched loosely and unpackaged. He proffered a bunch of wilted green leaves with red stems toward my face a little apologetically, and I buried my nose, smelling the strength of it. “There is almost an anise smell,” I suggested. He said, “If you use this in your recipe, use maybe half of what it calls for. It’s strong, pungent stuff. And this one is what,” as he looked at the sign, “$1.69.” We smiled conspiratorially, and he left for his carrot piling while I went to put the $3.89 basil back with the stacked lettuce greens.

Satisfied with myself and the wilted Thai basil as if I were my father’s daughter I shimmied through stacks of spices and sauces, looking for peppercorns, all of which were at least $5. Then I pushed my cart through the automatic door into the dairy refrigerator as big as a semi-truck and picked up the smallest carton of half-and-half for my husband's coffee. Back out toward check-out and there was my father-man speaking something to someone and I realized it was to me. “Guess what just came in the truck!”

Of course the cart and I followed him back turning this way and that around corners to produce where a Latino man was unpacking a box of pristine basil in plastic. “They still have their roots, and look they’re grown right here in Michigan.” I could smell it before I held it by the wet roots. “Spring,” I said. “It’s like planting time.” The leaves were supple and curved, the color of new grass. The price: $2.89. “A little bit more than the Thai,” he said, “but this will last a long time because of the roots” with a fatherly look implying that of the three, this was the bargain.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Where is this going?

“I can’t handle conflict any more,” my friend said. She wanted to end her life. It wasn’t that she was miserable. She had lots to live for. She just can’t face conflict. Family conflict. World conflict. I suggested becoming a hermit instead of killing herself. There might be things worth staying alive for, like watching grandchildren grow up. Her eldest grandson just graduated from Harvard and worked full time for the Obama re-election campaign. He has a promising life ahead of him in public policy. Her youngest grandchild is 5 and full of spit and love. What will he see through his sweet tiny glasses? What will we see through him? Is there any amount of hope that counterbalances impossible and neverending conflict? Then there’s that middle grandchild, the teenage girl who smokes dope and terrorizes other girls as the school bully and dictator.

It’s the week of the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. They are saying that as the distance grows since her death, we see her less through that lens and take her work on its merits alone. Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it stops,” but most of us keep the stopping at arm’s length and wouldn’t dream of inviting it. Is this really our meaning? That today I might put my feet on the floor for the last time?

There are chickens outside the door pecking with their mechanized heads at birdseed. They are efficient at eating and at laying eggs. They are alive, and it is death that keeps them pecking at the seed.

Why on earth have we been given minds to devise such complications, setting us apart from other creatures as the judges and destroyers, and mourners and sufferers?

I watched a Montessori video of a one-year-old child sitting on the kitchen floor concentrating on a tin can, measuring spoons, and various other metal household objects. He examined each item, put it into the can, shook it, listened to its bangs and clangs. Then he pulled them out again, fit them together, exploring their shapes and sizes. He sat for several minutes in rapt attention.

Where is this going? We humans own such gifts! Our minds and hearts are our great treasure. We cannot, absolutely cannot control the world. And it is the very attempt by certain institutions to do so that could be our undoing.

I look to the babies. I look to the chickens, to see how to focus on a few things that are essential. Madness pecks at us while we tiptoe a path toward meaning and hope. We know. We know it can all be undone, every manmade and every unmanmade reality on earth.

Tomorrow is Love Day, and 99% of me rolls my eyes at the commercial sentimentality. (Yet I sent my littlest valentine a small gift and card with two dogs on the front who are really grammy and grandpa.) 100% of me believes we need to love better. I’ll accept that as my meaning today: This day may be my last chance to love better.

Monday, February 4, 2013

It never stops

For days snow has been falling lightly, enough to soften the ground and everything that rises up. The shape of what falls changes, sometimes small dandelion bundles of interlocked flakes, sometimes bigger rags of discarded gauze, sometimes not snow at all but glimmering crystals floating in sunlight. Out one window they are a cloud. Out another through slats of blinds they are bobbing flames, or moths drawn to flames. Like news items they never stop arriving, no two exactly alike. You could never begin to pay attention to each one, but the ones that fall on your coat or the cat are enough to fill the mind with their pellucid spokes and crosses visible to the naked eye.

I can’t tell if birds are distressed by so much litter in the air. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos and chickadees drop and rise in steady repetition to the seeds on the ground, like the cycle of water that starts in the ocean, rises to the atmosphere and falls again to earth. They must be quick, to keep after the seeds, which are continually being covered over by white. After thirty minutes of this cycle the birds are gone. Guards of bamboo wait, leaves hanging down like fingers in white gloves. Now that the birds have fled to their nubby perches invisible to me, there is no focus in the falling snow. Seeds lie scattered and still under white felt, invisible. Maybe the birds will return in an hour. Should I throw more seed? Shall I call them back to show me how to sift through the confetti of this parade and get at the point of the world?