Come a Tide That Broke My Heart

We needed the rain. All across Kentucky we needed the rain, especially after baking so in the early days of July, those days of withering heat.  And then we got it. 

Our friends in Eastern Kentucky were swept away by it, four children ripped from their parents as they clung to a tree and each other.  And they were gone, four sweet babies swirled away and their parents’ anguished cries echo, sweeping our anguish along in a choke of fellow feeling.  Because how can we think of such a thing and not imagine our own babies, our own feeble arms trying to hold on.

Numbers of loss of life climb.  Over thirty, and we hold our breath, for there will be more. 

The Appalachian Writers Workshop was going on last week when the rains came. Troublesome Creek lived up to her name, over-washed her banks. Sweeping away cars, roaring now, illuminated only by lighting strikes. The water kept rising, rushing, threatening all the low places.  

“Come a tide” Appalachians would say.

It rained and rained, Troublesome rose and rushed, and by the middle of the night, with no electricity or water, writers were jostled from their sleep to head for higher ground, until all who could safely get there huddled on the porch of Stuckey, a cottage that was first a hospital for the settlement school. They wondered with worry about their friends on the other side of the creek, with no way to reach them. 

I know all this, not because I was there, but because so many of my friends were, and I’ve heard stories.  I’ve seen their pictures and videos. Go to the Hindman Settlement School Facebook page and you can see them, too. 

The sun rose on devastation. While buildings were still standing, the flood waters wreaked havoc, destroying offices, meetings rooms, and especially heartbreaking, the archives. 

Looking at it, one wonders how it will ever be made right. Over the weekend and even now, volunteers are sifting through old pictures, letters, correspondence—the documents that help create and preserve a living place—with experts guiding them in preservation.  

My friend, Silas, sent a photo of a photo from the early 1900s, an image of a straight-backed woman in a doorway, a dulcimer in her lap, her hair piled in the fashion of the day. Flood waters and mud have done their best to ruin her, but, even so, we still get a sense of her, the time and place, though streaks of scratches dull her, we know her, even so. 

He said he saved this one, but so many beauties like her were lost. 

He spent the day, and so many others did, volunteering.  He worked the archives, unloaded flats of water, sweltered on the campus that started his writing career. 

You don’t have to be a writer to have a connection to Hindman,  If you have read “The Dollmaker,” and loved it, you have a connection.  Harriet Arnow was a pillar of the writing workshop for years.  If you adore Wendell Berry, you have a connection,  He is a great friend of the place. As is Lee Smith.  If you own and play a mountain dulcimer, you have a connection to Eastern Kentucky, if you have sent supplies to Red Bird Mission, you are connected.  

It was surely impossible to escape the devastation of the flood waters for folks from Hindman.  Family, friends displaced and homes destroyed.  But even so, the staff at the settlement school set up emergency housing for the community, provided hot meals cooked in a makeshift kitchen—grills in the parking lot—feeding and caring for anyone who wanders up and needs food and water and, there is no other word for it, love. 

Hindman and the settlement school aren’t the only ones who have suffered.  And right now, before FEMA funds kick in, before insurance pays out, our friends in Appalachia need our help.  We have so many outlets and ways to help right now.  

I invite you to go to the Hindman Settlement School and donate through  Hindman Flood Relief.  Funds are used for immediate clean up and the provision of cleaning supplies, food, shelter for the displaced.  Appalshop, that wonderful program, suffered greatly from the flooding too, and they have a Flood Support tab you can use to donate.  Buckhorn Home, too, suffered damage and their website provides a place to donate.

There are other outlets, too. 

This is something we can do, right now, knowing what we give will be used tomorrow, or the next day to ease suffering, to bring some hope, to save just one more photo, diary, little scrap of history. 

Thank you for helping. 

When England Melts

Our poor British cousins. If you are close to any of them, check on them.  They are sweltering in record temperatures this week and it is dangerous.  Not much air conditioning there,  you see.  Almost no ice.

As I write this it is 101 F in London.  The tarmac at Luton Airport has melted. The temps may soar past 104 F, roads have buckled and rail service is a hot and sweaty mess.  The guards at Buckingham Palace, the ones who don’t move and wear wool uniforms and those gigantic bear skin hats, they are melting, too, but they can’t save themselves. 

It is important to note these are the highest temperatures recorded in Britain, ever.  It is easy for us in the border south to poo-poo their discomfort with memories of our own hot summers, especially those of us old enough to remember life before air conditioning.  Oh, some stores had it, with penguins on ice floes painted on the door, exclaiming in tufted letters of snow,  “Brrrrr…it’s cold inside.”

We didn’t have it a home, but rather, a big attic fan that circulated warm air, kind of like a convection oven, and beds dragged to the window in vain hope of a breeze. This is how I can taste, even to this day, a window screen.  All dust and rust and some other thing.  Because when your little chin is propped on the window sill waiting for some air, it gets boring, and after a while there is nothing else to do but lick stuff.

I was in England for a heat wave once.  

After my work assignment ended, I had a few days and nothing would do but I stay in a Cotswold coaching inn.  I was traveling alone and needed a place on the train line. I ended up in Moreton-On-Marsh, where I dragged my suitcase from the the little station until the village green hove into view, and checked into my digs, The White Hart Royal Hotel. 

You can look this up.  Go ahead.  You will see the little courtyard I am about to tell you about.  My room looked out over the umbrella. 

The temps had been steadily climbing all day, and after my trek I needed a drink.  Which I could have, in the little bar right off reception, a sweating, tepid bottle of beer, there being no ice for a proper drink.  I made my way to the room, floors sloping, the ceiling lower and lower with each flight of stairs. 

I have never been so hot in my life.  The window opened, but just barely, and onto a courtyard below where no air circulated. I sat on my bed sweating and every fifteen minutes or so I shed another piece of clothing, until 10:00 pm arrived and I was down to my delicates, still perspiring and thinking this is dangerous.  Limestone, that lovely golden Jurassic limestone, is gorgeous to look at, but it soaks up heat all the day long, slowly releasing it all through the night. 

I feared my my life and I’m not kidding. 

The courtyard was empty, as was the ballroom just across the way, the one that was on my level, and I made the decision to crank open the window, throw wide the drapes for for any scrap of air. I wrapped myself in a sheet I had soaked in cold water, and, in the altogether, tried to sleep.

And I did sleep, until midnight, when I woke to raucous laughter from the courtyard below, a strong beam of light illuminating my room, the entire length of the bed, and the tangled sheet that had come undone and was now lallygagging about my ankles. I rolled out of bed and crawled to the window.

The ballroom was now bright as day and shining in my window. It was  stuffed to the gills with  people drinking, laughing.  They were as visible to me as I must have been to them, had any of them taken a gander.

I was beyond caring. I hoped they were drunk enough not to recognize me at breakfast. Assuming I lived to see breakfast. 

The next day was easily as hot, hotter, even, when I asked directions from a nice young man.  He was waiting for his bus and helped me, standing there in his short-sleeved shirt and wool sweater vest.  He lifted his arm to point the way and I fairly swooned. 

By noon I was close to dying again, and wished I knew of a pool.  Then I remembered the  great British tub in my room.  It was huge.  As was the book I took to the bath, where I stayed all afternoon, floating in cool water, working the taps with my toes, reading and drinking and saving my life.

Decoration Day

My grandmother wanted to picnic on the grounds.  It is all she talked about, Decoration Day out on the blowing prairie of east Oklahoma, the day her family met at the cemetery on the outskirts of town, which was hardly a town. They decorated graves, which meant, first they pulled weeds, but only after standing around a bit, as you do, in any cemetery where your people are buried. 

You stand, you look down, maybe gaze off into the middle distance, look down again.  Decoration Day, Memorial Day, birthday, maybe, or Christmas, whenever you visit, this is what you do. 

The Paxton clan would not have been alone out there in Fair View Cemetery. Other families would be working and picnicking on the grounds, too.  Nothing my grandmother liked better than a picnic, in a Talala, Oklahoma cemetery or in her own backyard. 

Can you imagine for just a moment, a family up at Elmwood, quilts spread out, unwrapping sandwiches, soda cans tipping over in the grass, someone with a butcher knife and a watermelon?  

Well, we couldn’t either, even as children, and we did our best to  ignore her when she talked in that wistful way about picnics and gravestones, because it was the only power we had. 

We showed up, not with picnic baskets, but tubs of peonies, iris, flowers cut from the yard. A watering can to fill at the pump with the red handle, that one there, by the road.  We wandered around while my mother worked, while my grandmothers worked, but the job was soon done. We went early in the morning, dew still clinging to blades of grass, and home in time for lunch.

But I can’t remember if we decorated the graves exactly on Memorial Day.  It seems we must have, returning later in the week to collect the vases, discard the dead flowers.  But maybe not. 

So, this is my question.  Is it tradition to decorate on Memorial Day or for Memorial Day?  It hasn’t bothered me until recently. 

After my grandmothers died and my mother was sole proprietress of the Memorial Day ritual, we began visiting Elmwood on Saturday before the holiday.  Early morning calls made the rounds, and whoever wanted to tag along, did.  For a while we still fooled around with fresh flowers but Daddy was a menace with the lawnmower and eventually the yard was bare. 

Mother began to regret the expense of bought flowers, so she bought, instead, flowering plants she could retrieve later and use in her planters.  Now my sister and I do the same.  We dig little divots to hid the price tags on the pots, nestle them into the grass, and worry they won’t be there when we return. 

But, of course, they are. 

We go on Saturday and reclaim therm on Monday, the holiday itself, before the day gets too hot and they wilt beyond reviving. But on Monday, Memorial Day, I see an elderly couple walking gingerly, he has her elbow, she has a fistful of flags. They walk at an incline, an arrangement sitting on the hood of their car, they will have to make two trips. There are lots of car trunks gaping open, gardening activity around stones even though Elmwood is supposed to be perpetual care. And I am driving by to get our potted plants, to take them home after their scant time in memoriam, and I wonder if I have the protocol wrong. 

Even when I was young I got the sense of putting flowers on the graves was more a duty, if not a chore. Not an onerous chore, but one my mother was always iffy about when we should go, what we should take, who’s going with her. There was always some hemming and hawing. 

Now Kathy and I do the graves,  and we hem and haw, too, never very excited. but coming around to the task once we crest the hill at Elmwood.  

I can never find the Skillmans, my mother’s parents, even though they are not five yards from the McDonoughs.  There is one spot left, by my Granny Opal, and I want it. I stand in the empty space and admire what will be my view.  Then, Kathy and I decide to visit other cemeteries, other family.  It isn’t the prairie or a picnic lunch, but it takes all day and we are glad.

Me and Mr. Jones…

The love of animals runs deep in my family.  I’m told my grandfather spent time in the woods, loved being out in nature with his cocker spaniel, Smokey, and he was forever bringing home orphaned critters he ran across. Baby squirrels, little red fox cubs, and maybe a bear cub or two. 

I can’t be certain about the bear cubs.  I never knew my grandfather, and my mother is no longer here to ask. But I want to believe I have that right.  I am certain, however, this habit of his was the vexation of the next door neighbors, and I would imagine words were crossed. Mother confirmed it, this I remember, and she was surprisingly benevolent about it, even on the neighbor’s side at times, because some of these animals smelled.

All my siblings have pets, rescues or bred on purpose, and I am the only one petless. As a child I was afraid of dogs, having been bitten more than once.  We never had cats, and I never wanted one, their personalities a mystery to me. But this doesn’t keep other people’s cats from seeking me out, even when they hide from others, doesn’t keep them from rubbing against my legs and majestically displaying their tail and other things for me to admire. 

And then, a  couple of weeks ago I invited myself to dinner at my sister’s.  Mostly I was going to see my new great-nephew, because I heard he would be there, and, low and behold, food.  There was something about the evening.  Impromptu, easy, no expectations. Just a few of us, and Bill Jones. 

I think he may have Russian roots, he has the coloring.  He is, if not moody, self-contained. On the edges, observant, mysterious.  

But, oddly, not aloof. 

So, as we were watching the baby tear around the living room, amazed because he is an early walker, I sat on the floor and Bill Jones curled up on the chair, and we had quite a pleasant evening together. 

When I was a kid, the D volume of the World Book Encyclopedia was grimy on the spine, so many grubby hands pulling it from the shelf to look up dog breeds.  We had dogs at home, strays, a mean rat terrier, procured precisely to cure my older brother and me of our dog phobia.  A miniature dachshund left in our care when one of my brother’s girlfriends went off to college. 

We loved all those renderings of dogs in their classes—working dogs, hunting dogs, toys—we spent hours discussing which ones would be ours, if our parents were only reasonable. 

The C volume of the World Book stayed pristine.  We weren’t interested in cats. 

But after an evening with Bill Jones, calm, loving, and not at all needy, I came home and googled cat breeds.  Thought I might need me one. It was interesting to read about the breeds, their personalities, and to see piles of kittens in baskets, as if they stay like that for long. 

Bill Jones is surely part Russian blue, and there is much to admire about his attributes.  But a British shorthair is pretty great, too, with a hruumpy old man’s face, broad shoulders and chest. They look like they are just on the verge of speech.  The exotic shorthair is pretty cute, too, bred to look like a  shorthaired Persian. 

I spent several days in happy revery, my little cat and I, and my cat-loving friends were gently encouraging, but never pushy.  Because taking on a pet is a serious thing.  I must tell you now, the feeling passed, and I suspect some of the love and glow of that evening with Bill Jones sprang from an easy visit with family, the newest generation toddling around like a little clown and filling us with hope for the future. 

But still, something lingers, and while I am not committing to any kind of pet, and I have done a serious assessment of my own dedication to caring for another life, there was something connecting in that evening, and old Bill Jones, who showed up one day and simply stayed, was a nice part of it. 

The Great Unmasking

We joke, or we try to joke, that if it weren’t for our doctor appointments, we would have nosocial life at all.  That, and babysitting.  The pandemic descended just about the time my friends were deciding about Medicare coverage, and the lunches were long and boring. I was spared the angst because the institution I worked for offered an excellent supplemental plan so I sat and picked at my salad, rolled my eyes a lot and sighed heavily. 

No one noticed, or else I was ignored, but I had no idea how important all that medical support was going to be to me, and in the very near future. Because I had to get out of the house.

Covid brought with it a slew of grand-babies, new nieces and nephews, and that was the other thing we talked about.  A lot. Once I, too, had some new little ones to coo over and brag about I was happy.  But frustrated, too, because I couldn’t get my hands on them, either through distance or cautious new mothers. 

Could we dare to hope now we are back to normal?  Could we dare to hope that spring going into summer going into fall will bring vacations and air travel without masks, and festivals on steamy humid days, all barbecue and funnel cakes and people galore? 
I think, maybe. 

The sign for me was spending the weekend with friends out of town.  A normal weekend out of town.  With lunch out, dinner out, shopping in a quaint but crowded antique emporium, a late evening performance with the large crowd growing more cozy as the night wore on, and I was up for all of it. 

Of course I was.  I am compliant but I am not always a true adopter. But the friends I was with are believers of the first order.  Hand washing, isolating, mask and double-mask wearers, vaxxed and vaxxed and vaxxed some more.  Friends who made big plans for things important to them, only to cancel them when numbers were high. Friends who did everything right. 

Friends who were now on a crowded dance floor at one in the morning, dancing with strangers, not a mask in sight.  

And it was a beautiful thing. 

It was Friday afternoon when the school bell rings, the last day of class, the first bike ride in spring, the unexpected snow day.  

Freedom, pure and simple. 

And freedom feels good. 

And there is plenty to go around.  I have friends who were dismissive of the mask thing, although they, too, complied, but not without some angst of their own. They didn’t agonize about the value of wearing the mask as much as they struggled with their feelings around being told what to do, being subtly or not so subtly shamed, the aggravation of friendships, relationships reshaped by a thin piece of cloth about the nose and mouth. So, no more of that.

Back to normal now.  Or almost. 

For years I have disgorged from aircraft into airports teeming with people in masks and I have never understood it.  The spectacle of it. Now, I get it and I am even relieved because airports scare me.  I am no germaphobe but my imagination runs wild in international airports when I think of the crush of humanity who pass through, exposing me to who knows what, and I go a little nuts with it.  

Now, like  a good neighbor, I can wear a mask when I want, lull myself into thinking I am protecting myself, reassuring the international traveling public I am protecting them from me. And I can do it with no self-consciousness at all. Once on the plane I can eat my peanuts in peace, fall asleep maskless with my mouth open and dream the dreams of the innocent. Or wear a mask the whole flight.

Free, then, to do it my way. 

Like the way I dance, at one in the morning.

Look, don’t look, who cares, I’m having fun. My mood lifting as my mask does. And each day a little more freedom, something I have missed. 

Spring and a Prayer

This time last year I had herbs in the ground, Gerber daisies riding shotgun along the edge of my porch, geraniums in gigantic and hopeful pots siting by the door, promising to be gigantic themselves. Spring arrived sometime in early March and that was fine with me. 

I gave up on one more snow storm and gave over to garden catalogs, plastic pots of English thyme and I dug in the dirt to my heart’s content. I circled tools and garden clogs in catalogs, drove out in the countryside for bags of my favorite potting soil. 

This year I watch the Weather Channel and wonder when I can plant the delicate herbs and poppies I purchased just before Easter. They are still on the porch and they complain like a toddler whose shoes are too tight.  Their roots are binding a little more each day and they droop and pout.  

The geraniums are still in the nursery, nestled with their siblings.  The season is so wonky they hadn’t made an appearance when I visited the weekend before Easter. I will go get them today if it warms up and I venture out. 

It is an odd spring, weather-wise, world-wise.  The time of all hope and promise, whether looking at the Christian calendar or the greening of the fields, yet a sadness creeps just at the edges, an unease, and I find myself blinking in the light on some days, wishing, in an ashamed way, for a little more rain, more clouds, so I can stay inside and crawl under a blanket, watch mindless TV, or do nothing at all.  

It isn’t like me, really. 

I spent the week before Easter cleaning and cooking and bringing up serving pieces from the basement.  I watched the news hardly at all.  My tribe ascended, lovely and loud, with babies crawling around, and I spun like a dervish between kitchen and dining room, replenishing plates and glasses all Easter Day long.  

I didn’t have a single cogent conversation with anyone, but I heard the sisters-in-law remarking how difficult it is to be happy or joyful this Easter with Ukraine…

The speaker trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.  How to see the images, how to think about the invasion and have adequate words. 

There are none. 

As a child who spent her bedtimes waiting for the Russians to come snatch her from her bed,  who hid under a desk with her tiny classmates, whose father worked on digging a bomb shelter after dinner each night, I can’t seem to grasp now the threat that Putin might use nuclear weapons.  

The immediate concern is Ukraine of course, and maybe Central Europe.  My friends in the Czech Republic are certainly on edge. But here? I can’t think so, but then, there is an unreality to what is going on over there, even as we see with our own eyes, even as dots are connected for us by retired generals, diplomats, experts. 

I am in incessant prayer, although I am not certain it is prayer, because prayer has always felt like this wispy and vague endeavor, lacking a firm beginning with a rush to the amen. Now, I have dispensed with even the amen, adding three dots of my own…which I mean to be a stand in for “more to follow.”
This circular prayer suits me these days as I watch the news and even for the poppies still on my porch, as they grow more pale and wan each day.

I dig in the dirt and plant my basil, because the earth is there to receive and the basil of full of potential, desirous of only a soft place to land.  The sun in this part of my yard obliges, every day, all day.  

I fear I sound morose or depressed, and I am not.  But I am more sober and thoughtful, I will give you that.  I wear the uncertainty of things a little differently now, a coat I feel the weight of, but not so buttoned up I cannot breathe. I stand with the world that suffers great pain. In my own small way I bear witness.  I tend the little piece of ground I’ve been given, and I am grateful for it. 

And the sun and the rain, the just and unjust, lessons I try to understand.  The childhood civil defense drills and sunflowers waiting to grow in a torn land beyond our reach, but familiar now, nonetheless.

Easter Then, Easter Now

It could be fall if I go only by that which I can hear.  The rain outside, nothing dramatic or torrential, but steady, comforting in its way, as the evening grows darker. The house feels humid, though, not on the verge of cold, as it does in autumn, but still on some dark mornings I wake and I am not quite sure what season it is, especially when it rains. 

The birds give it away on those mornings I wake early. I find them irksome in principle because they hinder my falling back to sleep.  It simply  isn’t done to admit this about the early spring birds, so I ask you keep my confidence on this. 

Last week some of us woke to hail, then it cleared into a bright sunny day, only to cloud up and hail some more, or was it sleet, or was it ice, in the afternoon.  My sister and I had a bit of  a tiff over it as we stood in in her kitchen and watched her puppies run around in it, oblivious to whatever it was. 

I would say we are having a bad spring, but of course, we are not. No tornado warnings to speak of, warm nights followed by cool days followed by freeze warnings followed by cold days followed by sunshine and balmy breezes.  

A typical spring, then.  

In recent years we have been bestowed with springs that seem to begin in February and last until the first of July.  Last year I bought herbs, geraniums, and Shasta daisies in mid-March and didn’t need to drape them with tea towels once during the long, long spring. 

Even though Easter is late this year, we still aren’t sure what to expect, weather-wise.  While we have two little ones in attendance at the family gathering, they are still too young to gather eggs, and we will be happy to avoid that all together.  When I was little it seemed to rain or snow on Easter.  The Easter Bunny hid eggs in the house on those early mornings, and we were fishing dyed eggs out of the couch for weeks.  

I reckon my parents were happy to hide the eggs indoors, but it was just a let-down, you know?  The house still dark from the early hour and the rain, eggs visible from the landing, and no real challenge to any of it.  Easter basket grass is lovely and fairy-like when backlit by an early Easter sun.  It is just kind of messy and matted sitting in a leaning basket on the hearth. 

Easter Sunday was church, and new shoes and something frilly which, in the early 60s meant scratchy and uncomfortable.  There were new gloves, white and cotton or sometimes crocheted.  A dime for the plate inside the glove, worrying my palm with its cool metal antics, moving and sliding as I moved and slung my arm.

Maybe we all came to Sunday school clutching our Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, or maybe we brought it the Sunday before.  In the Southern Baptist church where I grew up, women couldn’t participate much, except in the most womanly and motherly roles.  But the only historical figures of the church every child could name were these:  Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon. 

For some Easter is their favorite holiday. It is certainly the most high holiday of the Christian calendar. I liked the Easter hymns, although they made me shiver a little.  They were joyous and dark all at the same time, and the Easter stories were dramatic and upsetting, and sometimes we had preachers who went too far, pounding for effect on the pulpit as they acted out the nailing to the cross. The stories of all night vigils, betrayal, beatings, and the very word Golgotha terrified me.  That Easter weekend often ended with a TV airing of the “Wizard of Oz” just topped it off. 

But this Sunday we will gather from our various Easter services, watch the boys roll around on the floor, someone will almost step on them, someone else with drop cake on their heads, there will be ham and deviled eggs and mercifully no Easter grass.  

I will fall asleep remembering my Bible lessons, and flying monkeys, and the feel of white cotton gloves, as spotless as they will ever be. 

The Boys of Ukraine

I was traveling with my friend and colleague, Kveta, heading to an orphanage for boys somewhere in western Ukraine.  We traveled over pock-marked roads, sometimes driving on the right side, sometimes the left, dodging the largest potholes with varying success. 

This part of Ukraine is beautiful but remote, everything in sight churned up and lumpen from the thawing winter:  the fields, the forest floor, and especially the roads. 

Kveta and her school, Caritas College of Social Work, have deep roots in Ukraine, sending students to complete internships, students like Marketa, who travels with us.  We arrive in mid-afternoon, with Roystia, our driver and guide.  He is a priest and a great friend to the orphanage and the boys. 

We round a corner carrying our bags and a dozen or more boys hang out the upstairs windows, shouting down to Roystia. 

“Where will the girls stay?”

“Will they stay in our rooms with us?”

We are the girls, of course, old enough to be their mothers, grandmothers, maybe, and Marketa the beautiful and mysterious older cousin.

Roystia laughs and translates for us. 

“No, they have their own room, and you must leave them alone,” he shouts back, but already they boys are clattering down the wide stone steps and they clang out the door to get a better look. 

It is a place bereft of women, of motherly tenderness and care.  There is a cranky cook and a kind housekeeper, but she is busy and overworked, and the boys rarely see her as she swirls between her tasks. The headmaster, too, is kind, and the teachers.  They admit it is a problem for the boys, but can only shrug and look off in the middle distance.  There is no solution to this delimma.

The boys kick soccer balls and grab whatever is at hand to hold above their heads and wave at us, vying for attention and appreciation. One boy brings me an American football, surprised I know how to throw it, but good-natured and laughing when he throws it much farther.  

One boy, maybe twelve,  runs into a small out building and stands just outside the doorway with a chainsaw as big as he is.  It is running and he revs it, or I think he does, until he is satified we have all seen him.

Alexei, the youngest child here, is only five, too young to be here, but his older brother is here and looks out for him. Alexei is everywhere, follows us like our shadow, weaseling his way between us and the the railings of the winding staircase, managing to sneak into our room unseen as soon as we unlook the door.  He rummages then, looking in drawers, bouncing on each of our beds, saying something in Ukrainian I don’t understand. 

The older boys know his tricks, and come to remove him, embarrassed and apologizing in English.  Alexei will knock on our door at 5:00 a.m.each morning. Any time we head to the large room we share, there he is, tiny and fast, grinning and bouncing and repeating the same phrase, again and again.

On our last day I learn what he has said all week.  

“You will take me with you.  You will take me with you.”

Demetri wants us to stay.  He has made a space for our shoes in the hall closet where thirty sets of shoes sit, waiting for their owners to go outside.  He comes to get us, points to the place for our shoes, holds out the soft slippers for us, the ones the Ukrainians wear indoors.  You see? He seems to say.  We will make room for all of you.  Stay.

The little boys pose with their buddies for photos, seem to have endless energy for it. The older boys, the adolescents, watch in an amused way, always on the edges, not as frisky as the smaller boys, but not far away from us, either.  

They agree to a photo finally, when no one is looking. They go shy and awkward, these handsome boys, perhaps a little embarrassed that they want their picture taken as much as the younger ones do. 

I think of these sweet boys, the ones who spoke English like little scholars.  The one who had a way with the chainsaw, and the graceful athlete in the broken-down shoes, his arm instinctively finding the arc of a thrown football.

Demetri holding out slippers.

Alexei, and how he broke my heart, in the same moment we broke his.

How even he is fighting age now.

Where are they, the boys, as bombs fall on Ukraine?  And the boys who came after them, and how many more boys made orphans, this very night, by sheer evil.  And what are we to do?

WHAT DO I WANT NOW?

The question put to Marty Byrde by the drug lord was simple and direct.  

What do you want?  

Marty, under some duress, being held in a stone cell with blaring music and bright lights, was hard put to come up with something.  So back he goes to his dungeon accommodations to ponder on it some more. 

Halfway through the third season of “Ozark” the kidnapped Marty is given an opportunity for clarity and focus, although we can all agree the wages of his particular sins will be death if he doesn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

  I am re-watching the series in preparation for the fourth and final season, and because of the language and violence and unsavory characters—most all of them—I can’t recommend it.  It is a “buyer beware” kind of situation, not unlike “Breaking Bad,” another train wreck of a story line that was just like a train wreck to watch.  Upsetting, loud with lots of screeching, explosions and double-crosses,  and yet, we can’t look away. 

The line was delivered as I sat high over the Gulf of Mexico, the door to the balcony slightly cracked against a bright day with cool winds.  Not quite south enough to offer a feel of the tropics in February, but still, the sun was warm and palm trees swayed, and it is enough to give a hint of spring, and that was just fine for now.  And yet, beautiful though it was out the sliding glass doors, it wasn’t enough.  Not exactly. 

It is very nice.  I am surrounded by friends. A change of scene is always good, especially in winter.  There is lots of love here, and laughter. 

But it isn’t all I want. 

And I feel full of hubris and a bit embarrassed to even be having this conversation. Do we, any of us, get what we want?  Can we engineer it, craft it from pieces of pine and wood  glue, set it in a corner or on display, this thing that is our heart’s desire? Is it even a worthy use of our time, such contemplation? 

Well, yes and no. 

We can plan and wish and worry and wool our lives away.  I do this with notebooks, calendars, planners, notes on scraps of paper, written in the dark of a movie theatre, in bed, as ideas come to me.  That I never return to them later in the cold light of day doesn’t seem to faze me. Somehow, writing it down makes it so, a hold over from childhood when my dreams were bigger than the fat pencil I used to record them. Grand, but really, beside the point.

Beside the point because a child has so little agency, has so little means to make dreams come true.  Maybe that is why they are so big, those dreams.  The elephant rides across the Alps, the Olympic gold medals for ski jump, traveling to Mars, saving the world with a towel pinned to a pajama top, tight fists jutting out, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. 

I rode a slew of horses when I was a child, saved many, many lives. That’s me, right there, riding along side Penny and her uncle, Sky King.  Dale Evans and Roy Rogers relied on me, too.  And Cheyenne, although ours was a complicated relationship.  I had a crush on him, you see, or what passed as a crush for an eight year old. 

Perhaps I was so busy doing heroic things because so much of the time I was just plain scared.  There is much to spook a child, and I had my share. The dark.  Creaky old floorboards in creaky old houses, the bully who chased and sometimes caught me coming home from school. Losing sight of my mother in a crowded store, the mysterious things children see but don’t understand. 

By now, I have a handle on most things, can outrun a bully because I drive a car, am comforted by the sounds of an old house settling, as I sit and settle, too. I have agency in spades.  But time?  It no longer creeps up on me, it races by as swift and violent as a purse snatcher.  

The beach is nice, but, for me, it is a kind of staging area, not a final destination. It is so much nicer than Marty Byrde’s dungeon cell.  But deciding what I want seems as critical and time-sensitive as Marty figuring out what he wants. But we will both feel better, I think,  once we strike on the true, and have heart enough to utter it aloud.

The Way of Wintering

It will be some weeks until my birthday, my dead of winter birthday, but I think about it differently than I used to. I never liked my February birthday, but something a friend said this time last year intrigued me and I have been mulling it over since.  

She, too, has a winter birthday, and she also hated it as a kid.  I thought my February celebration in Kentucky was drab and cold and overcast.  She grew up in a northern clime so she has me beat, with snow and ice and slush, and bare branches against the sky.   No cookouts for her, either, or swim parties or park picnics.  

Perhaps my siblings didn’t have swim parties, either, what with their summer birthdays, but there were cookouts, there were picnics. I know because I ate the hotdogs.  I licked the salt from my fingers before and after scrounging around in a big bag of Lay’s.  And I never forgot, and nursed the resentment, that in seven months we will gather inside and after dark on a cold day for my birthday and presents, but it will be over in a twinkling because tomorrow is  a school day. 

My friend likes her winter birthday now, likes the dormant world, the cold, the early nightfall that wraps around her, creating the space for contemplation, quiet, and simple pleasures:  warmth on a frigid night, good bread, a book, rest.

Well, put like that, I began to see the merits.  It changed my whole attitude. I use the weeks after the holidays to do things there is never time for in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  I go to bed early, not to sleep, necessarily, but to read and dream, and check my phone for pictures of the new babies in the family. 

At first I thought I would celebrate Old Christmas, Epiphany, as a way to keep the Christmas spirit going, but let’s face it.  Except for a few pockets of people holding on to the old ways, and except for the Anglicans among us, there isn’t much to recommend it.  Now, the Tudors knew how to throw a twelve-day party, but even they were exhausted at the end of it and their neighbors didn’t see them again until the streams ran high.

I think my friend was talking about the idea of wintering. It should occur after the New Year and last until just before the birds begin to wake us up.  Here in the Ohio River Valley, that should be sometime in mid-March.  Wintering should include sleep, quality sleep with a favorite blankie, something I have only just discovered.  It may take some doing to find your perfect wrap, but it is important, and I don’t recommend you rush it.  Wintering requires soups, and something in the oven, and coffee brewed in fancy ways.  A French press, perhaps, or a Chemex, an item so beautiful it is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.  

The Chemex coffee pot—can we call it a pot?—was designed in 1941 by chemist and inventor, Peter Schlumbohm, and it is part Bauhaus chic, part chemistry lab gear, and the coffee it renders is as clean and glorious as its design. 

Like the French press, it takes some time to get your brew, and on a gray winter morning it is reassuring, the tiny tinkerings that engage us, the waiting.  It cracks the world, just a little bit, takes us to that soft place in the middle distance where we float for a while as we wait, never reeling too far out, but far enough to slow our breathing.  Such resting and waking, the symmetry of that. 

My time is my own now, and I have the luxury of letting a day take me where it will. This isn’t the way for everyone.  Or myself, for a long long time.  Then I was always thinking months ahead, begrudging the boredom of the cold, the damp, the snow that came or didn’t come, messing with every plan I had made.  I spent chunks of my year in suspended animation, waiting for the clearing of the weather, the clearing of my calendar, for the arrival of spring and birds, the pale greening that signaled the true new year. 

Now I think of late winter, of January, February, as the quiet quickening of all newness. The gray a blanket to crawl under and keep warm until I can warm myself. The snow, the rain and a roof, an invitation to sit still and wonder. And to rest.

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