Category Archives: Friends

Winter Party Plans

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Following the ancient customs of our people, I am planning a special event which will either be named, Winter Carnival, or, The Surviving Party.

For the opening ceremonies participants will wrap their winter outerwear in neon duct tape while listening to The Beach Boys in my kitchen. While singing a rousing round of, “wish they all could be California girls,” we will form a train and head for the chicken coop. We will drive the chickens from the coop into the sunshine, while serenading them with the chorus from Abba’s Dancing Queen. Participants will be free to dance in pairs or groups, with people or chickens, as the spirit moves them.

Other activities include:

Believe in the Green: guests will gather the ice scrapers from their vehicles and bring them to the garage where they will be painted green. Once dried, they will be planted in the snow symbolizing our belief that spring will come.

Throw it from the Roof :  Guests will add non-living items of their choice to a laundry basket to be carried up to the top of the roof and thrown down one by one. (This symbolizes the casting off of winter gloom.) Prior to the first throw, the roofer will lead the observers in a rousing chorus of, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Chef for a Minute:  Hot dogs and hamburgers will be available from the barbecue. Only males are eligible for cooking duties as chefs will be expected to cook topless. This symbolizes the determination required to survive the barrenness of winter (not to mention a little justice for the nasty habit of putting men in three piece suits all winter while women shiver in flimsy fashion of the day). Fully winterized spouses may link arms and sing, “it’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight . . . as encouragement if a chef is waning.

Keep the Party Going: Guests commit to going commando one day a week  (each day of the week must be spoken for) until the first buds of spring are visible through the snow. This symbolizes the casting off of winter restrictions. After the solemn commitment, guests may join in singing a chorus of, “Livin on a Prayer.” Whoa, we’re halfway there… take my hand, we’ll make it I swear…

Closing Ceremony: The child most resembling Pippi Longstocking will be placed on the pony’s back. They will be led from the field into the kitchen where the pony will eventually pee in shocking quantity. The result will be a fine symbol of the bitterness of winter. Misty will be given a carrot  by Pippi and led back outside while any of her symbols are removed because they are no longer wanted. From the cupboards every guest will receive a pot, pan, or plastic mixing bowl. Beating them loudly we will make our way outside. Still drumming, we will huddle together in a circle and howl at the moon. This will symbolize everything important that we didn’t have time to symbolize before. Any in tears may close with “I Will Survive.”

Date and Time TBA

For the Story Tellers

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 - 1663)

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)

I had naked tea last week. A friend and I talked storytelling (that wasn’t the naked part) and then sitting in a donut shop, we quietly told our own. Naked is better with a tea cup than without, but given one cup of tea and three places requesting coverage, it isn’t easy. If the tea weren’t so hot, the best solution may be to keep the cup moving in a triangular blur, but the thought of burning tea is scary, so you take your chances, keep what you can behind the cup, and trust that your uncovered self can manage an hour of exposure. (The value of a practical imagination for diversion in the midst of emotionally difficult subjects cannot in my mind be underestimated.)

Awake in the night with no tea to consider,  I wondered a question whose answer I have debated for years. Why do we tell our stories?

There are all the noble reasons people say they write . . . to save everybody else, etc. but I take those pronouncements with a grain of salt. They may well be true, but the only thing one can reliably say about preachers is that they preach.

Ten years ago and even five, the desire to tell my story was almost a burning. Then I put the pages in a drawer and gave them a time out. To my surprise, the words took to what I thought would be a brief sabbatical and requested an indefinite one.

Why now, I also asked in the night after my metaphorically nude tea time, do I want to forget my story?

The next morning I wrote a sincere list of reasons in favor of forgetting. It ended with, I don’t. I can’t. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

My desire for written memoir is either dead or deeply dormant, but that isn’t the same thing. I don’t wish to remember out loud very often. But sometimes is good. When the children of Israel escaped safely through the Red Sea, Miriam wrote a song to tell the story. She named the terrors of the past to be present to the joys of her new unfolding reality. Deliverance foresees a future. Telling our stories assumes we were delivered for a purpose.

Writer, Andrew Solomon tells a story of an experience in Senegal where he tried a traditional treatment for depression. At one point of the day long ceremony, he was asked to repeat the following:

Spirits leave me alone to complete the business of my life and know that I will never forget you.

I like that quote. It captures both my reticence towards gazing backwards for too long and my conviction that remembering is a gift. I found the musical celebration below after I’d written about Miriam above, but ending with it helps say what I’m trying to say. We may tell our stories with tears but telling them dares us to dance.

 

 

#Pilgrims Love Pilgrimage

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Pilgrimage is good. Especially if it involves a mountain.

Four years ago we were given an overnight ski package. Our youngest was two, I am not a skiing whiz. . . I left thinking I would enjoy it because the kids were enjoying it. This is now our fourth trip to the mountain and for all of us, it is a much anticipated winter highlight.

Our traditionalist children expect the order of liturgy intact whenever possible. We leave Friday in time to settle into our hotel suite before dinner. We walk across the parking lot to the same restaurant and talk about the stuffed monkey’s hanging from the ceiling while we wait for our food. We play our billioneth imagination game (Magic Fairy).

After dinner we swim. I fidget about hotel hot tubs and keep sending people back to the pool. My husband says it’s okay. To calm me, the children swear on oath that they are in perfect health. They take vows of fidelity to sleep, water, fruits, vegetables, hand washing, and sharing. I applaud the many tricks and triumphs of their water play.

At bedtime my husband gets out the map of the ski hill and the older ones make plans. The next morning I ferry out the early risers for breakfast. We watch cartoons on the lobby television until we can’t wait any longer. I remind all breakfast comers about their nutrition vows. I smugly allow a small danish pastry after winning the yes fruit, yes yogurt, no chocolate milk, no sugared cereal contests.

We check out and pack in. For the ten minutes it takes to get to the mountain the children fight because we aren’t there yet. We arrive. With a nod to the really irritated psalms, while everyone remembers how to put on skis, kids fight about who is going too fast or slow. I use this opportunity for ecclesiastical instruction about the danish pastry, which may be the reason we are fighting. Something to remember. But only if we care about having fun, and loving each other, and a happy life.

With that part of the liturgy complete, the kids take ski lessons while adults get in a run or two. The rest of the day is free. I pack a lunch (with clean tablecloth for the well used indoor picnic tables). The kids say almost nothing because everything is familiar enough that they feel safe, but foreign enough that it thrills them and fills them. They like being pilgrims.

On the way home we stop at the same restaurant. (Last year’s bids to change either restaurant were rejected.) For all I know they pick the same things from the buffet. We say closing litanies of brave deeds and success. A few hymns of wonder in the car and a prayer or two to live at the bottom of the mountain when they grow up and the whole thing comes to a quiet Amen.

Cats, Needles, and Countries

This image was released by the National Cancer Institute, an agency part of the National Institutes of Health

“Needle in a Haystack,” artist unknown. The image of this painting was released by the National Cancer Institute and is in the public domain.

I am writing while snuggling with a cat’s bottom. The choice of snuggling ends is the cat’s preference, not mine. Sadly, this is a rather excellent metaphor for the state of things. I am told some people come to the blog to feel cheery. If I disappoint, blame the cat. Her feline fanny does not allow my head to sit at any kind of normal angle. Soon, I fear, my chin will be forced into permanent fusion with my neck.

I don’t know for what purpose, but spam comments like the following sometimes knock at the blog door.

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I imagine moments when the spam enemies materialize into something I could fight with. I meet a spam creator in a dark alley and tie them to a wall. I set up three record players. Three genres to play simultaneously: Bluegrass, Opera, Techno something or other. Every hour or so I turn down the volume and approach the captive, kindly holding out the means of release. When the captive believes me enough to hunger for release, I walk back to the records and turn up the volume.

Saturday the Pope said that a momentary outburst is forgivable but that rancour is really bad news. In my head the sun burst forward from the clouds. I wanted a sweatshirt. Momentary outburst equals forgivable offense, it could say on the front. I support a liberal use of the momentary outburst, would read the back. Rancour is not something I think of myself as struggling with. I like to imagine my offenses (by “my,” I mean the other guy’s) named, numbered, noted and then magnanimously forgiven.

My very first response to the rancour quote was not actually about sweatshirts. First thoughts were about how much I wanted to show it to a friend who struggles with rancour and finds outbursting people distasteful. After merrily working through slogan ideas for my sweatshirt, by way of small reproof I advised myself to find a bit of rancour (however small) within my own walls. Visions of rancour regarding entrenched institutions, technology abuses, and materialistic culture pressed quickly forward followed by faces of persons. The needle I thought I’d be looking for in the haystack turned out to be a densely populated country. Which kind of ruined the quote for me. I felt like I’d finally made it up to the front of the line after a lot of standing around waiting for deliverance only to find out it’s the wrong stupid line. A sweatshirt with, I’m bitter about irritating people not changing, does not have the same victorious appeal. I’m not sure if it’s a sign, but the aforementioned cat bottom continues to bow my head for me. So maybe not on the whole quote sharing with friend thing.

Listening to Advent

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My already slow march toward sainthood has suffered repeated setbacks lately. There is limited pleasure in observations of my shortcomings at any time, but failure set to Christmas music can feel especially glum. I’m not sure it’s even the season that’s getting to me right now as much as the fact that I’m trying so hard and still not spreading peace and joy like dew drops from my wings.

I speak from experience when I say that there is nothing that makes me feel quite so hateful as when I try to be loving and end up being the worst side of me in the middle of it. Examples abound. In case my explanation has failed the clarity test, I’ll share a recurring one.

Loving act:  Extra nice breakfast prepared. Many loving thoughts and warm affections fill me as my feet step lightly through the kitchen. Delicious test: Flying colours. Presentation: Strong. Nutrition: Check. Tra la la la.

Worst side of self races to the fore: I react to the dawdling, complaining, and habitually tardy with acts of war.

Realization hits: I started out to bathe people in love and my irritation and anger is now dripping from their hair.

Result: I hate everyone I know. The Grand They has made me do this. The Grand They continually conspire to make me fail and they are exceedingly good at it. If it weren’t for them I would love everyone with patience and gentleness, possibly even me.

Resulting result: An overwhelming sense of failure salted for flavour with hopelessness

 

So goes the Advent slog on this side of the fence. I’m not feeling as depressed about it as I was. Probably because I got good and mad about something yesterday (again in the midst of planned lovefest for an undeserving segment of mankind). I was more justified than usual, ergo more mad than usual. Then an unlikely bystander was ridiculously kind and generous and I was invited without words to set aside the anger and return to the lovefest.  It didn’t feel logical, but it felt possible.

Advent whispers, if we watch for them, if we let them, at odd intervals, strangers and babies light candles in the dark to save us.

Advent whispers that life might be more like soccer than basketball (one or two goals scored in a game as opposed to seventy or eighty). Missed shots are just directives to shoot again.

Advent says a little louder, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, we need each other too much to bother with all the hating. Better to load up on matches and start striking. We don’t light our own candles, we light each other’s. Whether in a lifetime we manage one or ten for someone else is largely not up to us. But best to go down trying, with soot marks on our hands and wax dripped down our fingers, aiming for a thousand.

 

Windows of Time and Tea

Interior in the North of Holland tea-time. By Sipke Kool. Found on Wikigallery

Interior in the North of Holland tea-time. By Sipke Kool

Monday I invited a friend to tea. She wore a purple sweater. Deep tones that matched her long and flowing skirt. I’d forgotten that people dress for tea, but it wouldn’t have mattered. There was something about her seventy year old self I couldn’t have matched anyways.

Our farm’s not perfect, but most days we like it, I said.

Nothing down here is perfect, she said.

We talked about everything. Schools. Kids. The value of memorizing. Farms. Babies that die. Far away countries. Cows and milk production. Thirteen liters a day was a very good milk cow when she was young. Now the cows give forty liters a day. What have they done to the cows? We discussed the effects of poison and growth hormones for plants, animals and humans. Wondered about the best chickens for meat. Talked about when things go too far. When we forget we can’t control everything so we kill ourselves trying.

She told me of someone she knew who cared deeply about her home. Someone wanted to visit with her child who was in a wheelchair. No, the woman said. The wheels cannot come in the house. They will be too dirty.

That cannot be right, she said.

I told her my failed dreams of adoption, my thoughts about foster care someday. I talked about my piano teacher, Mrs. Murdoch. How strict she was, how much I hated her until I loved her and realized how lucky I was to have her.

My kids’ piano teacher was strict, she said. They didn’t mind her. I think they were used to strict with me so there was no difference. Some people didn’t like her, but I was strict and I wasn’t changing. That’s how I was. So they were used to it.

She shared my tea, overlooked the shortcomings of my presentation and gave me the gift of slow time together. She probably had clay feet hidden under the table, but I couldn’t see them. What I saw was her heart. Full up with tears. Courage. Love. Determination. And each of these in such abundance it left me quiet with wonder.

What a gift the moments when, however dimly or however briefly, we really see each other.

 

 

Boogers and Grace

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It was a bad day. I started off with a spring in my step, discovery and new possibilities at my finger tips. Why not an experiment?. Tra la. I chopped up a cup of raw Swiss chard and threw it in  my muffin batter. Zucchini, cooked spinach, applesauce, oatmeal, and all kinds of leftovers do just fine in muffins. Raw Swiss chard it turns out does not. They weren’t inedible, but the song they were singing failed to make the family set down their weapons, call a ceasefire and dance. With our worst foot forward, we picked at each other with all the God given skill available.

The morning worked like a giant search light. Illuminating the absolute pointlessness of what I do. The stupidity of even trying. It was a gym day, so no pulling back for a quiet day to reboot.

In P.E. Child X ran for the usual hug upon seeing me. Not a big fan of sports (in her perfect world, we’d all stand around hugging) she was joyfully tagged out and came to sit by me. Glancing down, I found her with a finger so far up her nose, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to retrieve it.

Obviously, I told her to stop. Nose picking, particularly at that kind of depth, was not part of the game and therefore not allowed, I explained.

A second later, she reached up to hold my hand. Naturally, I recoiled.

She was six and dumbfounded.

But I was 42 and unmoved. Another teachable moment. Most people (that includes me) prefer not to hold hands with boogers. No doubt that goes for ear wax and a few other things but I kindly only mentioned the boogers.

It was a giant metaphor. Almost everyone I ran into yesterday had boogers of one kind or another and was trying to touch me . . . despite my obvious need for space (on account of the worthlessness of everything I do).

So yes, a bad day. But it ended in unexpected mercy and by morning’s light, that really seemed the more important part of the day.

A friend came for dinner last night. I love when she comes. She helps the kids with French. I feed an audience that swallows and says thank you no matter what I serve. To my surprise, she arrived with arms loaded. A mammoth package of ribs, baguettes, and a container of my favorite salsa (not available near me and usually reserved for special occasions).  No reason for the gifts. She gave her usual excuse: they were on sale. But on sale, just means she buys lots and lots until she’s spent as much as she would have spent if there hadn’t been a sale.

I was too grumpy to let it fix me for good last night. But this morning, it’s hard to miss Love’s little fly by of mercy with the unexpected dumping of grace. Maybe an extra hug for my young friend is in order the next time I see her.

Dear Cindy and Dave

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Me, fretting about the particulars

In August, friends of ours are staying in our house while we’re away. We haven’t seen them for a few years. In fact, they’ve never been to County Road 21. Their coming was an idea followed by a possibility, which is now a plan. This has me thinking that some information is in order.

Dear Cindy and Dave,

We’re glad you are coming and hope you have a great time here. A few things to  mention …

1. Every bug on the property has been bred to squeeze through the holes in the screen. If you don’t open the windows at night, you will be found medium to well done in the morning, but we don’t advise windows open and lights on at the same time.

2. The 2nd sink does not drain properly if there is water in the 1st sink. We don’t know why.

3. half the time you run a load of wash, the washer emits a most unpleasant odor. Everything that can be taken apart and cleaned has been. The clothes come out smelling ok, which does not make sense, but since it’s true, we keep going.

4. The kittens are friendly but we advise socks. Toes make them crazy.

5. If you take a walk through the pasture and look at the lambs they will attack you, but only long enough to find out if you’re packing a bottle. Then they’ll offer some loud rebukes and high tail it out of there. Since you won’t be packing, don’t envision a lot of petting.

6. If you find something that looks like a lamb’s tail, it probably is. Our breed has long tails and a certain kind of fly tortures them by laying eggs underneath it if you leave it on. We follow the conventional wisdom and rubber band the tails when the lambs are a few days old. Eventually, the tails fall off and can be found in fields or hidden in odd spots in the house. Most recently, I attended a play at Girl one’s school, where I discovered her generous spirit in donating a real tail to be safety pinned on to the girl dressed up as a sheep.

8. The TV only has an antenna, no satellite or cable. We get about thirty channels, except for when it rains a lot or storms. Then we get three or four. The internet is very slow at night. We don’t know why. Cell phone coverage is also moody and weather related.

9. If you are sitting in the bathroom downstairs and you hear the rush of water in the pipes from the toilet flushing upstairs, you have about five seconds to move before some very energetic bubbling begins below you. On a good day, you get a mild spray (think bidet). On a bad day, think cold, not necessarily clean depending on where you are in your process, jacuzzi start up.

Hopefully that covers it. :) Welcome to our home.

Thanks to you

DSCN0010Dear Readers,

It is such a gift for me to be able to write for you on County Road 21. Having a venue to do what I think I am here to do means a lot to me. So first and foremost, thanks for reading. Thanks for the encouraging notes and for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me, both on the blog and by e-mail. To anyone who has ever seen something they liked and shared the link with others, or recommended the blog to a friend, thank you. Thanks to your recommendations, readership continues to grow steadily and has more than tripled from where it was six months ago.

Since beginning, I have tried to post five days a week, more or less. Heading into summer, I am experimenting with a change, and a move to posting three times a week. This is influenced by a couple of things. First, it is surprisingly  hard to maintain sustained writing time when kids are out of school. The ability to think is reduced even further.  I am also finding it hard some weeks to maintain the schedule I initially set for myself, just in terms of creative energy. I chose five days a week because I not so secretly still wish the world was all newspapers and magazines. Five days a week let me pretend I had my own column and was writing for a newspaper. When I didn’t feel like writing, I would picture my editor on the phone with a cigar dangling out of his mouth telling me it didn’t matter that I had nothing to say, the column was going to print in an hour.

I haven’t fired my imaginary editor (although Frank definitely lets me down on the proof reading some days) but I’ve decided (not without some anxiety) to take a chance on letting him fire me. I may increase the posting schedule again in the fall, or I may not. For now, I’m cutting it back to three, occasionally two posts a week, to give a little breathing space to my imagination and to make room for other things.

The last reason for the change is that every once in a while I think a piece deserves more than a day to sit there. It bothered me today to rush in and cover up yesterday’s Pentecost piece so quickly, but I hadn’t shared my thoughts yet, so didn’t feel I could. (Frank said it was unconscionable to break an established pattern without explanation.)

Thank you again for your support and readership. Please know that I pray for all of you. En masse, because I don’t know everyone, and by name when I know of a specific reason to, or just because you come to mind. I remain grateful for the gift you give me when you take your valuable time to read and when you return by choice to my simple attempts at true and beautiful.

With much gratitude,

Michelle

 

Chutzpah and Heritage

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A friend of mine was born with cerebral palsy. Her left hand doesn’t have the range of motion that her right does. Her left ankle doesn’t have the same strength as her right. She is not a champion typist or Olympic level jar lid opener. After that, it’s hard to find the long term effects of her debilitating condition.

She’s 61 now, a spit and fire of love and creative energy, gentle and apologetic for her ten mistakes, forgiving and generous of spirit to the 10,000 mistakes of others. She is a kindergarten teacher. Over the course of 30 plus years, she has taught hundreds. She had befriended thousands. She is a cycler, swimmer, cross country skier, hiker, skater. She bakes endless cookies, gingerbread men, and extremely fine butterhorns.

When she was young, she says she fell down a lot. Her mother let her pick herself back up again. They lived near the ocean, her beloved Atlantic ocean. She sputtered and swam crooked. Her mother let her sputter and she figured it out. She couldn’t always keep up with the other kids. Her mother told her to go play anyway.

By the time she was 18, my friend was running her own daycare in the summers. I’ve seen pictures. Kids everywhere that she fed, took swimming and played with. She went on to Gordon College and a life of teaching kindergarteners and a thousand million (as she would say) friends.

 

Yes, you can, she says laughing. Yes, you can, she says cheering. Yes, you can, she says nose to nose, I won’t take no for an answer. You try it and you do it because I know you can, you just have to know it too, she will say to young friends. In the history of the world, when someone tries something, she has never forgotten to cheer.

A few weeks ago, my friend came over to skate. She forgot to bring a brace for her ankle. I offered to help her lace up the skate on the bad foot and she accepted. It took us both fighting hard to get that crooked ankle to let her foot inside the skate. We got it in and we laced it up, but her left skate couldn’t stand straight, it had to go at the ice on an angle. I thought she might skate gently around the edges for a while and get a sense of the ice.

Great ice, she yelled to girl two. Whose going to play tag with me?

I’m not being facetious. I want to know. Who was this woman’s mother?