Axe Attacks

My brother’s Christmas gift to Paco arrived yesterday.

It’s almost as though my brother understands boys–

because the Gil Hibben Generation 2 Pro Thrower Axe is a dream come true for our lad.

And three of his friends.

Even though an arctic front swept through last night, and it’s a few frozen nostril hairs past frigid on the thermometer, there was no deterring the middle schoolers from their hurling. Paco’s friends hadn’t been prepared for outdoor activity when they came over to hang out today, but despite the -10 degree temperatures and -30 degree windchill, they hucked that axe for a good half hour.

No fair-weather axers amongst my son’s friends. Hardcore all the way.

Cranky Broads

Upon learning of my career as a teacher of writing, a former college professor wryly noted, “Composition is the armpit of the university.” As had also been the case when he commended Wallace Stegner as the United States’ greatest author, the former professor’s judgment was keen.

Certainly, teaching composition can be inspirational and gratifying. At the same time, it’s a profession of back aches, headaches, exasperation, and drudgery. However, composition courses are the substance of our department, and without them, we don’t exist. To put an even finer point on it, without the money generated by composition classes, a few other degrees and programs at our college would also cease to exist. Because we English faculty each carry a load of 150+ students and bend our necks over non-spell-checked essays for myriad hours each semester, smaller programs–say, welding or machining–benefit from the tuition dollars we generate.

Few things highlight the tight miserliness of my character more effectively than the look on my face when I consider a trades instructor whose entire teaching load comprises a two-student cohort.

Fortunately, I manage to right my attitude when I admit I couldn’t do what the trades instructor does, even with a mere two students (‘tho I daresay our college would get significant coverage in the local newspaper–“Finger Severed on College Campus!”–were I to become an instructor in the machining program. I’d create a one-woman publicity blitz, really). Nor could the trades instructor do what I do, for it’s a rare individual who can employ the subjunctive mood with the precision of a Swiss-style lathe. We each work to our personal strengths.

Also: I chose my profession, and I stay in it willingly, so I don’t have a right to kvetch.

I don’t always stay within my rights. Indeedy, I do kvetch, complain, and snark. These activities clear the professional sinuses. After a metaphorical horking out of the snot, I get back to cleanly inhaling my good fortune.

I do best at appreciating my job when I focus on the heart-moving students; every semester there are at least a handful of them whose personal stories make me cry in the kitchen as I debrief with my husband. I do best at appreciating my job when I remind myself of the autonomy and flexible schedule, two things that are instrumental to my happiness. I do best at appreciating my job when I take a break from marking essays, stretch a crick out of my spine, and think, “I am so damn lucky. I get to live a life of the mind, not the mines. Sure, it’s a life of the mind peppered with strippers and addicts and dealers, but doesn’t every inflated aesthete need that sort of counterbalance? It’s like I’m Valjean, my students are Fantine, and only a genius state employer could assign a salary to that kind of dynamic.”

And I do best at appreciating my job when I get to teach a literature class.

In our department, we generally offer three or four literature classes each semester. Since there are nine full-time faculty and five or six adjunct instructors, there’s not enough lit to go around. Thus, when it comes time to create schedules, we try to give each full-time faculty one literature class each calendar year. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but for the most part, those without “release credits” (for doing other kinds of work for the college, in addition to teaching) will end up with nine sections of writing and one section of literature during the course of the year. In short, literature classes are the cherry on top of a towering sundae of cause/effect essays.

Even better is the fact that I have been able to teach literature courses online in recent years. Although many justifiably take issue with the online platform, I can make a firm case for the effectiveness of lit classes offered remotely, as there is no back of the room in cyberspace, which creates a class teeming with equal participation from all students; moreover, every contribution students make online must be supported with textual evidence–something that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, a place where three students do all the talking, and no one addresses the text when responding orally. Online literature classes are terrific, and they feed my teacherly soul.

But then. Both in traditional and online literature classrooms, sometimes students balk. Some students, usually of a fundamentalist or evangelical strain, refuse to read certain books because their perceived contents run counter to the student’s faith.

You can hear the echoing grate of my gnashing teeth here, yes? It’s fortunate I have a job that provides dental insurance.

I have had a student refuse to read The Red Tent because Anita Diamant had the audacity to re-imagine a biblically based story (“I will take a zero on all the assignments related to this book before I will pollute my mind with a fictionalized account of the Bible!”). One of my colleagues has had students in his Adolescent Literature class refuse to read Harry Potter due to the looming threat of Satan in those pages. These are but two representative examples of a larger trend.

It’s terribly difficult to respond to such students. If I were able to reel out my real self, the response would involve a skull-rattling shake of their shoulders, perhaps followed by a “Snap out of it!” slap across the face à la Cher in Moonstruck. After that, the offending student would be subjected to a three-minute finger wave about how true faith can withstand tests; how belief is strengthened when it considers conflicting ideas; how JesuseffingChrist the Bible as an historical text is already a work of fiction; how fantastical stories of wizards don’t create the black magic that lives in our hearts; how learning to think requires dancing with a capacious variety of viewpoints; how the whole point of college is to push our brains and values out of insulated walls and into challenging wilds.

I reel in my real self, though, because today’s community college students, shored up by righteous indignation and dislike of authority, do love to make an appointment with the dean. Instead, I give them a watered-down version of my reaction to their objections and then, with sadness in my psyche, type zeroes into the grade book or come up with alternate assignments.

In addition to the objecting fundamentalists, there are also the students of literature whose every analysis is rooted in “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” To a certain extent, I’m okay with those reactions because, at the very least, they indicate a connection to the text, and for students who have never read a book in their lives (which is often the case), being able to express “I didn’t like it, and here’s why” is significant. As the semester progresses, I urge students to stop using the first person pronoun in their discussions, for a move to third person point of view immediately boosts the quality of their responses. However, the majority of students aren’t ready to let go of “I”–they literally can’t see it unless it’s pointed out, which is a phenomenon ripe for psychological analysis (“So you can’t see yourself unless someone else notices you?”) and continue with “I think…” and “I liked…” all the way through the final exam.

Most important to me is that they justify their reactions and learn to examine and support their emotional responses. This is the toughest task of all. What I’ve discovered over the years, and I know I’m wielding a brush so broad I could paint a house with a single stroke, is this: retention and graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal compared to those at four-year universities and private liberal arts colleges. The primary reason drop-out rates are so high is that the backgrounds of many community college students make it so they crumple in the face of personal life crises. If an aunt dies, a student might go missing from an online class for two weeks. Last semester, I had a student get a gel shot in her hip, thus necessitating a ten-day hiatus from all online class work–during the days when her research paper’s rough draft, peer reviewing, final draft, and final exam were due. After not completing any of those major assignments in any appreciable fashion, she launched a barrage of messages, telling me how much she needed to pass the class. Apparently, she was able to work at the computer when it came to writing emails. She also was able to post a cute photo of her dog in the “Random Things” folder on the day she was to be critiquing her classmates’ papers. More than anything, she created in me a feeling of gratitude that she’s not my wife because I can’t afford the speeding ticket I’d get as I gunned my way to divorce court.

Both as an individual and a teacher, I find it important to acknowledge that the class continues regardless of what’s going on in the personal life, and if grief or health or meds or bad boyfriends or car troubles or nasty best friends or former addictions or video games or double shifts or evil roommates or tender stomachs or social anxiety or chronic procrastination or lost backpacks or getting fired get in the way, and the student can’t participate in class, then the student should withdraw from the class. If one’s personal life is melting down to the point of incapacitation, then the added stress of knowing one is failing classes should be removed so that focus can remain on handling the personal crises.

More often than not, though, the crises in students’ personal lives are actually just cases of “life happening,” and if they were better equipped to examine and support their emotional responses–skills that come from being students in a literature class, ironically enough–they could arrive at this realization: “My aunt died, and I will miss her forever, and I have a test tomorrow and a paper due Friday, so I can work on the paper in the car while we drive to Indiana, and I can ask my instructor if I can take the test early, after the memorial service, because it’s an online exam, and there’s Wi-Fi at the hotel in Indianapolis. Once I’m done with the test, I can go out to dinner with the family and reminisce about Aunt Mabel’s wigs.”

Truly, I realize compartmentalization isn’t that easy. It’s a skill learned over decades. To a startling extent, reading and responding to literature can help with the process. First, there is an emotional reaction. Beyond that, though, there is a moment of stopping, looking at the larger context, and asking oneself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction valid? Are there other possible reactions? Would it make sense for me to adjust my thinking, given what’s on the page in front of me?”

Beyond the life skills that can be learned from literature classes, students also gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition when they read stories and novels. Woefully often, though, they approach works with very limited criteria for what is “good.” They want happy endings. They want action. They don’t want long descriptive passages. They want likable characters. Were they to read blogs, I’d wager they’d say, “This post is too long. It needs more pictures. Maybe a numbered list.”

It’s my aim to ignore their criteria–gleefully–and assign to them works that are sad, slow, lyrical, full of prickly characters.

Right here, Gentle Readers, I am finally getting to the original intent of this essay. When I started, my plan was to crank out a short, quick post about a few books I’ve enjoyed, notable for their choleric characters. Approximately 2,000 words later, I’m still getting there. Ain’t that the thing about reading and writing, though? It starts with a word and an intention, and before we know what’s happened, we’re somewhere else entirely?

You know what else I never intended to do in this post? Get all meta on your asses.

Quickly, then, let me roll all my previous points about teaching and students and literature into a quick summary: I am never happier than when readers and writers embrace difficult.

Whether it be plot, setting, structure, or character, the best writing is like life: demanding, confusing, flawed, well-intentioned, untidy, and surprising.

Poor dead, bewigged Aunt Mabel never tolerated pap, nor should we.

Aunt Mabel’s wig would have been bobbing madly had she read the article “Novels Don’t Need to be ‘Nice'” in The Guardian, a piece that sums up everything I want students to know about reading fiction: “Why bother to engage with difficult, demanding characters when we don’t have to? This [attitude] is a great shame: it’s reductive, and antithetical to what literature is about … Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven’t met yet: rather, it is a site where the full panoply of human activity may scrutinised – and this isn’t always pretty.”

It is with a gleam in my eye, therefore, that I present to you a tidy list of three books featuring nettlesome female protagonists. They are tough, reclusive, cynical, sardonic, unpleasant, charming, and exceedingly human. If you’ve been on a Nicholas Sparks kick in recent months, I recommend these reads as a counterpoint to the dreck you’ve been consuming.

1. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett: When I randomly picked up this book at the library, I had no idea it was a sequel. In fact, I read the entire book as though it was a stand-alone, completely taken by the crochety protagonist from the first scene when she slips in her yard and hits her head on a birdbath. Once I became aware of the book’s predecessor, I went back and read The Writing Class and Willett’s other novels. But Amy Falls Down is the best. The New York Times notes,”Essentially, Amy is a character who lives inside her head, and she needs to get out more.” That’s my kind of gal. Crusty. Solitary.

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The Boston Globe review deems this book’s heroine, Aaliya, “an utterly beguiling misanthrope” while The Wall Street Journal describes her as “affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated.” All I know is that I loved to read her.

3. Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: The New York Times describes Florence as a “congenitally difficult protagonist–so caustic and cold she even walks out of her own surprise birthday party…” While the book as a whole could do more, in terms of establishing Florence as the thinker and feminist she is purported to be, it still effectively portrays a no-bullshit woman who is unwilling to suffer nonsense.

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So there you have it: a quick list of three books I’ve enjoyed! Yay! LOL! Thx 4 reading!

The Worst Gifts

With so many opportunities for gift-giving in our fortunate lives, nearly everyone has a story of receiving a terrible, terrible gift. An informal survey of friends recently yielded stories of some real corkers. Settle in with a cup of rose hip tea that your husband’s cousin gave you, even though she knows you spend your days mainlining coffee, and enjoy this list of:

The Worst Gifts

1. One year, a friend received a red polyester turtleneck dickie as a gift and was not able to formulate a gracious response because she honestly had no idea what the hell it was. She thought it was a dog sweater. Since then, the friend’s family is able to compliment all other gifts by noting: “At least it’s not a dickie.”

2. Another friend recalls the “worst I ever got was a mesh crop t-shirt my gram thought was super trendy”; significantly, it cost only $2 on sale at Lord and Taylor. Thanks to Grandma’s thrift, that mesh crop top went from adorning the clearance rack to barely covering her grandaughter’s.

3. Yet another friend, a retired teacher who taught writing for 30 years, reports that this year her mother is bestowing upon her a Groupon so she can take a $19.99 writing course. Although my friend has two degrees in writing, her mom apparently thinks it’s time she learned the craft. One idea: this friend could use her time in the writing class to crank out stories about her mother.

4. Then there’s the friend who never could quite figure out what to do when presented with ancient, dusty book bags emblazoned with logos from computing conferences held in the Eighties. Perhaps she could cut them up and use them as wrapping paper for a stack of 5 1/4″ floppy discs–a fitting present for the original gifter of the dusty book bags.

5. When one of my friends was in college–18 or 19 years old–her mom bought her a green-and-black lace bra with matching thong. There’s nothing that says “I love you, sweetie” more effectively than a gift that smacks of washed-up stripper. Even worse, the bra looked like something my friend’s mom would have bought for herself.

6. One of my students was given half a roll of cheap toilet paper (the other half had been used). In this case, the giver decided that she simply didn’t like the tissue yet didn’t want it to go to waste. Personally, I’d have been tempted to string that half roll of paper on a prominent tree in the front yard of the gifter’s house.

7. This one’s from the “When the State of the Marriage Is Reflected in the Gift” files: a friend reports,”The first year I was married, my husband got me an umbrella and a Lord of the Rings calendar.” When she burst into tears, he was befuddled: “WHAT? I thought you liked Lord of the Rings!”

8. Sometimes, the gifter is punting, as in this story: “My husband’s aunt gave a new member of the family a jar of green olives for Christmas. She just couldn’t find anything else around the house on short notice and didn’t want him to feel left out of the gift exchange.” Here’s how the situation could truly have been salvaged: the aunt could also have handed him a bottle of gin and a martini shaker.

9. One friend, a retired mail carrier, recalls the year she received a “normal” gift from a customer (cash, candy, cookies), and as she accepted it, a grumpy old man noticed, with alarm, and realized he should offer her something, too. The next day he handed her a half a can of clams.

10. This year, one lucky 13-year-old in Massachusetts will be getting a pair of leather pants from Grandma for Christmas. When the mother of the 13-year-old heard of this plan and protested, Grandmother explained, “But they’re beautiful. I would wear them myself.” “Exactly,” said the teenager’s mother. The best part is that the teen’s mother is choosing not to warn her Superintendent of Schools husband–because she wants to see the look on his face when their daughter opens them.

11. One friend often visits her sister in Canada over the holidays; they get together with her sister’s in-laws as part of the celebration. One year, unsure of what to give Friend, the in-laws presented her with a pair of house slippers dripping with strands of fur. Canadians. They think everyone wants feet that look like a yeti’s.

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12. Actually, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between Canadians and Texans, especially when it comes to loving creatures of the wild. A friend in Texas reports: “My cousin is an avid hunter…and one year I got a deer hoof; bone showing, freshly cut. He thought I might want to make a key chain out of it.”

Certainly, some of these gifts are breath-taking in their lack of thought, challenging the recipients as they attempt to gurgle out a “thank you.”

However, I daresay this gift, reported on the website Why Did You Buy Me That, wins Chanukah, Christmas, Easter, and Birthdays:

Kohls

 

Wedding Needle to Fabric

The history of quilts as utilitarian items stretches back thousands of years. In fact, the word quilt is adapted from the French cuilte, which grows out of the Latin culcita (“a stuffed sack”).
Originally, when just getting through a day entailed dawn-to-dusk work, quilts were entirely functional, made for warmth in the bed or to cover doorways or windows that were inadequate against the cold. As the centuries progressed, and life got easier, quilts began to marry function and art. On one hand, they were a practical repository for scraps of worn-out clothing; beyond that, though, they provided a canvas for personal expression, most remarkably amongst women who had been denied the opportunity to learn to read and write. Handiwork is its own kind of literacy. The resulting folk art tells their stories visually; without command of letters, they used fabric to create representations of their experience.
Taken together, all these folk art quilts present a unique version of history that words could never capture. We can look at a quilt, its fabrics, its stitches, its details, and be transported into the life of a woman who lived hundreds of years ago, feeling an intimate connection with the maker. We can touch what she touched. We can learn about her from her quilting choices. We get a sense of the texture of her days.
The website Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics sums up the lasting power of quilts:
…you won’t find an object more central to the history of women than the quilt. [We should consider] the quilt’s historical and current roles as (among others) an avenue of personal expression, a sly medium of social and political opinion, and a building block of financial security. Unique among objects, quilts are both lowly “women’s work” and great art. They are something made from nothing; they are both nurturing and inspiring. They can communicate both intimate memories and great societal truths, and they have throughout history.
For me, I am not only taken by the quilt as an historical artifact, as craft become art, as political statement, I am fascinated by its ability to tell a story. Thanks to the gifts and willingness of my mother and her sister, Byron and I have just such a quilt, a document of our wedding weekend, a piece of folk art that captures the support and community that surrounded us on the day we made a public commitment to each other.

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Byron and I married at an environmental learning center in Northern Minnesota; due to the generosity of its founder, we had the run of the campus for our wedding weekend, so most guests came Friday through Sunday so as to enjoy the rock climbing wall, ropes course, hiking, and canoeing. We also were able to ask them to take some time to create blocks for our wedding quilt. There was a room set aside for the project, and my mom and Aunt Geri not only brought material and implements, they also kindly dedicated six hours that Saturday, guiding guests in their creations.
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Byron’s mom and dad, with their home on the edge of Big Woods State Park, lived surrounded by trees. Also, his mom painted banners with these tree images on them; we stood in front of the banners during the ceremony.
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I have long called my beloved friend Virginia by the nickname “chicken butt.” No reason, really. I just like it. So she made us a chicken, pecking up hugs and kisses.
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My family name, in Finnish, means “Mountain Ash Tree.” These are the berries of the Mountain Ash, made by my mom.
After the wedding, my mom started work on the quilting. Her notes reveal that it took 25 hours to machine applique 46 of the 48 blocks. At one point, she asked for input from Byron and me for the placement or order of the blocks. We laid out all the blocks on friend Virginia’s living room floor and decided which piece should go where. A few months later, Mom pieced the top by machine, including borders, for 16 hours. She washed the batting by hand in a bath tub and let it air dry. The hand quilting took one-and-a-half years. Those with discerning eyes will note that each block has white-on-white quilting and a repeat of what is already in the block–like a bird or a tree. She sums up: “As usual–I enjoyed doing every step and every little stitch.”
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Here are pals Timmy (a devoted skiier), Mary Beth, and Siena. In the years since our marriage, they’ve added daughter Paloma to the line-up. In its way, this quilt block represents their family as it was at a very specific point in time.
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This block, which my brother made, also represents a specific moment in his family’s life: when they were about to wing off from New Mexico to Japan (his next post in the military).
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My cousin Kurt is an odonatologist (dragonfly expert). Here’s his book: http://www.amazon.com/Dragonflies-North-Woods-Kurt-Mead/dp/0979200652
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Byron’s aunt, great-aunt and great-uncle made this block before they were eaten by wolves.

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When Byron biked from Seattle to Minneapolis, as one does, he hooked up with a traveling group of biking kids and their leaders. One of the leaders, Julie, made this block.
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After finishing college, I nannied in the Twin Cities for a year. The family came to the wedding, and their son rocked the talent show with his mad yo-yo skillz. I used to change his diapers, and then he made a block for our quilt.

The blocks go on and on, each one telling a story or representing the connection between maker and bride or groom. Absolutely, this quilt is one of my most-treasured possessions, something I would be devastated to lose.

It’s more than a personal treasure, of course. It’s the story of a weekend, of a community, of the woman who stitched it, of the individuals who expressed themselves through cutting and arranging fabrics.

I hope one day my great-great-great-great grandchildren run their fingertips over the nearly invisible white-on-white stars, moons, dragonflies, suns, and berries

and feel each stitch as a legacy of love.

Dresden Plates

My grandmother, Mildred, was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1902. She died in Windom, Minnesota, in 1974.

During the 71 years of her life, Grandma moved frequently, particularly during her youth, as she was the daughter of a Methodist pastor. Moving within Iowa and then to South Dakota, the family uprooted in 1904, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1915, 1917, 1920; three younger siblings were added to the family at various points in the geographical shifting. Because of childhood illnesses, Grandma’s schooling took longer than it might have. After graduating from high school in 1922, she attended Drake University for four years. In that time, her parents moved twice. Once she had her degree, my grandma taught, took more courses, and traveled, in the process relocating at least seven more times. Eventually, in 1933, she married my grandfather, Julian, and they started their own family, living out the rest of their years in small-town southern Minnesota.

Sitting here, decades later, I try to imagine her life, as it must have felt to her. It’s impossible to know anyone else’s experience, of course; even as we live out our own days, it’s often incogitable to understand events as they’re happening. In the moment, it just is what it is, with perspective being the benefit of time and a larger sprawl of context. For my grandmother, frequently changing house for the first part of her life was the norm. She was a kid. When her parents announced, “We’re moving to Smithland (or Castana, Presho, Tripp, Armour, Henry, Salem, Doland, etc.),” Mildred most likely shrugged, looked for her favorite doll, and strapped on her shoes.

Later in her life, after she married and therefore stopped moving every year or two, how did that feel? Again, was it just “what it was”? Or was there a sense of shifting gears, of enjoying being settled, of chafing at being settled? Did she ever find it dull to wake up, year after year, in the same rooms, talking to the same people? Or was that something she’d always craved? Then again, even when her family moved frequently, she was always surrounded by the same people: her parents and siblings. Thus, in a way, she’d had stability in the midst of change. In that way, perhaps being settled felt the same as moving.

Even in the recordings of Grandma’s life events and in the notes my mom and Aunt Geri took when they questioned her about her memories, the emphasis is on dates and places, with anecdotes mixed in–undoubtedly, the focus is on the what more than the why and how. We know such-and-such happened, but we don’t necessarily know how my grandmother felt about it or what the motivating factors were. Why, for example, did Mildred’s mom and dad take a claim 15 miles outside Presho, South Dakota, in 1907, live in a tent and tar-paper shack for 16 months while building their “house to retire in,” and then move to Tripp, South Dakota, in 1908? I can’t help but wish for the story behind those numbers and place names.

Because I am fascinated by emotion and psychology, the moments in Mildred’s recollections when she does note her feelings are highlights. For example, it makes me grin to know she was a youngster who was proud of her sunbonnet–before she dropped it down the hole being dug for a new outdoor toilet:

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Ultimately, when we look back on the lives of our forebears, at history in general, it’s all piecework–taking this tidbit and that chunk and laying them out in a pattern that makes sense, given what’s at hand. We stitch the names and dates together with words, speculation, recollection, and possibility. Then, when all the tidbits and chunks have been stitched together, there is a story. Someone else might look at the same tidbits and chunks and, in the creative process of making decisions, stitch them together into an entirely different story.

Again, my grandmother provides an illustrative example. After she died in 1974, when her children were sorting through her effects, they found a quilting project she had started: a stack of circles in the classic quilt block pattern known as Dresden Plates. The fabric in the quilt blocks and rectangles she had cut for borders were scraps of Mildred’s old house dresses–as my mom explains, “That is, dresses for staying at home and doing household chores or going down the alley to visit a neighbor lady and taking a few cookies or whatever–often with an apron over the dress. There are no Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fabrics” in the quilt. Supplementing the material from her house dresses were bits from blouses, aprons, soft toys, and fabric from a church rummage sale.

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Before she died, Grandma had drawn the pattern, cut and sewed the plates (29 of them), and joined together the rectangles for the quilt’s border. After she was gone, the promise of her project remained, for she had laid out a basic framework, enough that another quilter could pick up the pieces and carry on.

Fittingly, the project passed from mother to daughter. My mom, busy living her own life, racking up the names, places, and dates that are the scaffolding upon which a life story is hung, carried those Dresden Plates with her for decades, from one house to the next, from city to the next, from one state to the next. Eventually, she turned her attention to creating four wall hangings out of the plates, one for each of her four grandchildren.

In this way, in this manner of fashioning a tangible legacy, women’s handiwork has profound power.

In the early 1900s, a girl named Mildred in the American Midwest learned from her mother how to make stitches. That girl grew up and had her own children, one of whom was my mother, Maxine. In 1939, Mildred taught Maxine the basics when they made a doll bed quilt alternating rectangles of colored and off-white fabric. Maxine hand pieced most of it, and Mildred tied it. In the 1970s, Mildred began assembling Dresden Plates for a quilt. In the 2000s, four decades later, Maxine picked up her mother’s start and carried it forward. In 2007, my mother gifted each of my children with one of these:

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Although these glorious wall-hangings don’t tell the story of a life–in the finished product, there is no indication of the tears, heartache, joys, confusions, and devastations of the maker’s days–they tell a story nevertheless. My children can look at their wall-hangings and picture each patterned fabric on a house dress as it walked down the alley, its wearer carrying a plate of cookies to a neighbor. As well, my children can look at their wall-hangings and picture the hours and energy their grandmother devoted to creating a symbol of her love for them. According to her notes, for each little quilt, my mom spent four hours on the hand applique of the plates, two hours (plus) embroidering around each plate, two hours straightening rows of rectangles that Mildred had sewn, plus an hour attaching them. After that she spent two hours marking the grid for the quilting, four hours quilting the background or grid, and three hours making and adding the binding. Finally, she spent, on each of the four wall-hangings, two hours cutting off the ends of threads. If those numbers don’t register as love to my kids, they can simply read the back of the quilt and let words achieve what numbers don’t:

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Indeed, what doesn’t come through in our handiwork is the why or the how of a life. Someone looking at the quilt can’t see all the years when my mom had the Dresden Plates in storage and felt caught in a marriage that made her miserable. The viewer can’t see how she took a leap toward finding her own happiness when she divorced my dad after almost forty years. There is no evidence of the ripples that decision set off in our family, many of which are still being felt today. A person in the future admiring her tiny stitches will never know that the quilter worked for years in a career that challenged and delighted her at the same time it exhausted and stressed her. Those considering the fabrics used will never know that the quilter used to turn somersaults in the hallway with her three young children. As they admire the contrast between circles and rectangles, they will have no sense that the quilter was not a sports fan but, nevertheless, worked as scorekeeper at her son’s baseball games. She loved donuts, sometimes to the point of hating herself. She loved to travel, to talk about books, to ring bells. She wished her hair weren’t so thin. She discovered, when she was 79, that she could do push-ups.

All of those small moments of life can’t be seen in a quilt. All we can see is the work, the craft, the diligence and creativity.

However, In the same way my grandmother mingled occasional emotional disclosures into her memories–pride over a sunbonnet!–my mom does the same. As she passes on the details of how many hours each part of the quilting process took, she also notes,

“I loved doing every stitch.”

And there it is.

In a single, short, declarative sentence,

she tells her story.

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Handiwork

Woodworking. Jewelry making. Embroidery. Felting. Pottery. Knitting. Gardening.

I am fascinated by handiwork, as art, as personal pursuit, and as cultural artifact. Just as much, I am fascinated by the psychological benefits of creating something with the hands. Certainly, there’s pride that comes from making something beautiful. There’s learning that comes from the challenge. Science even tells us that making things with our hands can help counter depression. Indeed, as the article “DIY Therapy: How Handiwork Can Treat Depression” reports:

… multigenerational surveys have shown that people born later in the 20th century, after the dawn of modern conveniences, suffer more bouts of depression than those born before World War II. Studies have also found low rates of depression among members of Old Order Amish communities — one-fifth to one-tenth those of the general population … the Amish, who sew their own clothes, tap their own syrup, and drive handheld plows through dry furrows, could be getting a serious neurobiological lift from all of their effort.

I can corroborate this theory anecdotally. When I started teaching college students 24 years ago, the biggest problems they brought to class were hard-won hangovers. Nowadays, though, in these times of tablets, smartphones, and online socializing, at least a third of every class suffers from anxiety, depression, or both. Tied in to these issues is often a resulting problem with addiction. Again massively anecdotally, I’d say less than three percent of my students make things with their hands. Even those who are into Pinterest are more about looking at the pictures than completing the crafts.

Mind you, I’m not drawing a clean line between lack of handiwork and troubled mental state. Of course, of course, of course, depression and anxiety have myriad causes. It is, however, interesting to contemplate the therapeutic benefits of creating with one’s hands. Just ask the next occupational therapist you run into.

Personally, I don’t necessarily have a handicraft-based hobby outside of baking and gardening (and including these might push the strictest definition of handiwork). In previous decades, I would make some of my own clothes–badly and inexpertly–and I also went through a few spates of cross-stitching. What I find therapeutic are writing, hacking away at the piano, reading, and jigsaw puzzling. Perhaps each of these, in its own way, is a kind of handiwork.

So I’m in a mulling kind of mood, when it comes to the activities we pick up for three minutes here, a half hour there. My mulling comes partially from living in a house with a guy who occupies his spare minutes like this:
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SONY DSC Somehow, I don’t think Ma Ingalls had a tumbler of vodka on the rocks nearby when she sewed Laura’s gingham dresses. It’s well documented, however, that Ma wore a black wool hat when she sewed. Pa always did build drafty houses.

Figuring out embroidery as an extension of his drawing has absorbed Byron’s attention these past few months. When he draws, he is all about black ink on white paper–and lines.

Telephone Wires

Now he’s seeing how he can translate black and white lines to a textile, and he’s having ever so much fun with it, particularly because he can stitch in the car, in front of the tv, while hanging out on the bed–places where an open bottle of ink and super-fine-motor control aren’t always possible. You can check out some of his blackwork embroidery on his blog, Laying Fallow, by clicking on this: Lake Superior Blackwork Series.

Part of my mulling, when it comes to what this handiwork is doing for Byron, focuses on the intersection of gender and hobby. Traditionally, when males work with their hands, tools like saws, hammers, and blowtorches are involved. The kind of handiwork Byron’s engaged in has generally been the purview of women.

Relatedly, I’ve always said Byron’s the closest thing to a woman But With Male Private Bits that I could find. Had I frequented more transgender night clubs, though, I could’ve ended up with a version of Byron who brought dresses to the marriage, and what a bonus that would have been. Maybe next time.

I like watching a man embroider, the same way I like watching a woman (not me) open the hood of a car with an eye towards fiddling with the carburetor. In essence, I like it when people find what they like to do and then do it.

Underlying my musings about gender and making things with our hands are thoughts of those who came before me and how their handiwork is a powerful legacy. Because I am a woman, I tend to look back at the women in my family and consider what they made and why they made it. My brain tries to weave my greats- and grandmothers and aunts and mother into the larger fabric of women throughout history who moved from making purely functional things into making functional things of beauty…and then into making non-functional things of beauty. My brain conjures up images of straight-backed wooden chairs, fire light, and tiny silver needles flashing up and down. My brain floats to contemporary times, and I recall my aunt Geri, an accomplished seamstress, teaching my children how to sew themselves pairs of denim shorts. I think about how Geri knits mittens for the poor every year; how she blows young girls’ minds with the gorgeous dresses she makes for their Barbies; how she sewed the wool vest that Byron wore when we married; how she has sewed, knitted, crocheted, cross-stitched, embroidered, tatted, quilted and amassed huge stashes of material all throughout her life.

And then I think about Geri’s sister, my mother, and how she, too, has provided me with an example of what a seamstress, knitter, crocheter, cross-stitcher, embroiderer, tatter, quilter, and fabric collector looks like.

When I think of these women who came before me, who practice their arts still, I am not only full of admiration; I am also full of wonder. I wonder at the energy, the hours, the thought that go into every piece. I wonder, awe-struck, at how they continue to grow as artists because they try one thing–nope, didn’t work–so the next time they try a different thing, thus refining their talents over decades.

I wonder if their handmade creations have provided therapy during the tough times. I wonder if their projects are, in some ways, their most steady friends. I wonder if my mother knows how much I love the quilts she’s made. She can read and hear a “thank you.” But I wonder if those words can convey how much I treasure her stitches.

Perhaps the words in my next blog post will deepen the thank you–because next I want to write about a couple of her quilts. Stay tuned, chums.

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Mommy, Why Is One of My Quads So Much Bigger Than the Other?

Sidenote: I was just updating some past posts that were missing their titles, and when I clicked “update” for this one, it did a whole new “publish.” Anyhow, enjoy video of the kiddles when they were younger, back during our year in Turkey when they took pottery lessons!


Paco Pottery from Jocelyn Blog on Vimeo.


Girl at Wheel from Jocelyn Blog on Vimeo.

Vigilantly Constricting

Tree Pose YogaThen there was the time I hotfooted into yoga class ten minutes late and discovered that, uncharacteristically, the teacher had taken some time for talk before movement. Hoping to illuminate the theory behind the practice, she’d explained a few terms and their role in the various poses we’d be doing.

By the time I slunk in, the class was well into its sun salutations. Much like when I was in college, I tried to fake my way through having missed the lecture.

Thus, whenever the teacher instructed us to “tighten in mula bandha,” I sucked in my rib cage, figuring mula bandha probably meant abs. What else could a person be tightening?

As someone who largely bluffed her way through college, I remain a curious being, however. My brain’s aware of its deficits and hopes to plug at least a few of them. Thus, massaging my tender abdominals, I later took a minute to look up mula bandha.

Well now.

So the yoga teacher had been telling all of us to clench the spot between our sex organs and our anuses.

In addition to feeling quite sorry I’d missed the presentation of that definition–what if there had been a pie chart? infographics? a laser pointer?–I also felt sorry that I’d missed out on the chance to use mula bandha to make A Special Place sore through repeated willful compression.

You see, I embrace new experiences. Every hour is an opportunity, friends, and it’s an intrepid woman who rushes forward, arms and anus open, to greet possibility.

After some consideration and online training, I decided to undertake an independent study; I spent the rest of the day tensing, contracting, and clamping in mula bandha. Not to cast aspersions on lovers past, but my nethers had never before experienced such focused concentration. By nightfall, I had managed to create in my privates an unsatisfied ache.

Ultimately, then, this is a story of how yoga taught me to be both my best and my worst lover.

 

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Blogging Like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” Is the Fresh New Tune

Back in the mid-aughts, when blogging was fresh and new, it seemed like everyone had a blog. Those of us writing recipes, rants, and random raves could toss out a post–and within 24 hours, there might be 40 comments. The blogosphere was jumping.

During the heyday of personal blogs, it was common practice for bloggers to pass out awards to each other and to tag fellow bloggers with memes and challenges. For me, whenever these things happened, I smiled at the compliment of it and then generally ignored the challenge. Every now and then, in search of material or a friend, I would respond to the meme and do a post where I typed out the endings to fifteen sentence starters. Generally, I adopted a long-suffering attitude as I completed each meme.

I’ve never been much of a joiner.

Then, you know. Time passed. Many folks’ enthusiasm for blogging waned. One by one, the formerly brightly lit blog spaces went dark. I would visit favorite blogs, hoping to catch up and leave a comment…only to be greeted with a post from three months earlier. If I visit those blogs now, that same final post still hangs there, sad and alone, now four years old, wishing for a tricycle.

On the other hand, even as parts of Bloglandia have been shuttered, other, new blogs have lit up. I do love the dynamism of this new kind of writing space; participants come and go–and sometimes come back again–depending on their needs, life circumstances, and reasons for blogging. Thus, even though most of the bloggers I connected with eight years ago have dropped out of sight, fresh friends have come along and reshaped the blogging experience by adding their voices to the mix.

One such friend is Alexandra from Good Day Regular People. This blogging phenom has taught me much in recent months about new possibilities for bloggers and our stories. She also decided, a few weeks back, to toss out an old-school style meme challenge to a few of us. The task is easy: write a post that explains “Five Random Things About Me.”

After letting the challenge sit for, um, a month, as was my way back in The Old Days, I am now ready to address it. Never let it be said I failed at Random.

1. I have a queer passion for books about arctic exploration. If there’s an image of a half-broken ship frozen in jags of ice featured on the cover, I will grab that book and stay up until 3 a.m., riveted by those poor sailors’ dire circumstances. Listen, it’s only a matter of time before the hard tack runs out, and then the crazed boatswain is going to roast the cabin boy for January’s rations. That’s just good readin’.

I guess this item on my list is actually aimed at letting you all know that if we all ever go on an arctic adventure together, and then our ship gets frozen in the ice for two years, and I die of the scurvy, I would like you to start with my tender ear lobes when you eat me. They’ll be like hors d’oeuvres, and, as your humanity falls away from you with each increasingly dark day, your sanity will need the faint memory of civilization that comes from a tasty hors d’oeuvre. So eat me, chums, but start with the best bits.

Caveat: if I died because you found some vials of arsenic in the ship doctor’s quarters and slowly poisoned me, then you not only may NOT have my ear lobes, you may NOT benefit from my tasty belly fat, either. Step away from the belly, You Soulless Murderer.

2. I also have a queer passion for drum lines. Not only does my jaw drop in the face of such coordination and synchronization, the inside of my brain often sounds like this:

If I ever was lucky enough to attend a drum line competition, I would buy the t-shirt.

Even if it’s, like, $20.

3. So long as we’re entertaining ideas of “random” and “ear lobes,” this is as good a place as any to announce that when I put my head down on my pillow at night, I take a quick second to be sure my downward-facing ear lobe is lying flat. There will be no furling on my watch.

4. Because the hours during weekends sometimes are sludge-like in their passage for our 11-year-old (“What should I do?”), we tend to make a lot of crafts. Projects. Experiments. Recently, he wanted to melt some beeswax so he could dip in his hands and make casts of them. As one does.

Then he wanted to dip other stuff. He nixed my suggestions of “your toothbrush” and “your butt.” He even vetoed my legitimate idea of making mini-acorns out of balls of wax and then topping them with real acorn caps. The kid is not an easy sell.

However, he was willing to help me gather leaves from the yard and give them a good dipping. Turns out beeswaxed leaves make a lovely fall centerpiece last lasts for weeks. We’ve got some serious Life By Pinterest going on over here.

5. I like to go to DSW–a huge shoe warehouse kind of store–and make my 14-year-old try on insane stilettos and boots that she would never wear in real life. The girl knows fun when she hears her mom request it; she is game. Thus, if you ever see a serious-looking teenager in a hoodie and sweatpants tottering around in six-inch leopard-print heels, come say hi. That’s just me, helping my careful, cautious, organized kid loosen up.

6. My last random fact is that I hate following rules and chafe when someone tells me what to do, so I’m not going to do a list of Five Random Things. I’m doing a list of Six Random Things. ‘Cause I want to.

So here: even though many people like to roll their eyes at comedian/commentator Russell Brand, saying he’s obnoxious, crazy, off-base, I quite like him. I am made glad when his quicksilver intelligence and verbal abilities unleash. I am extremely happy that his voice is in the mix. He may be a sex addict, he may be wild-eyed, he may have broken Katy Perry’s heart, he may not always hit the mark, but GAD am I ready for people with intelligence to have a platform.

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The other part of this challenge is that I’m supposed to tag others and have them respond to the task on their blogs.

I’m not going to.

Do what you want.

Just don’t eat my ear lobes if you poisoned me with arsenic.

Nine Volts

Chirp.

My brain is asleep. So is my body. The noise doesn’t fully register.

After a quick blip of “Huh?” I drop back into the blackness of sleep.

Chirp.

Hell and damn it. My brain pushes to consciousness like it’s swimming up from the bottom of a murky lake, half panicked, gasping for air. As it surfaces and draws in a shuddering breath of wakefulness, the only thing to pierce my confusion is this: there’s a chirping in the hallway. I lie there in the dark, discombobulated, trying to figure out what day it is, what time it is, what my name is, who’s the president, why Kanye’s a genius, why creme brulee isn’t the new kale, and how in the glottis my husband can still be snoring when there’s a robin or a katydid or a Kristin Chenoweth periodically pipping mere feet from his head.

I spend a few minutes engaged in magical thinking, during which I dreamily muse that the noises might simply have been the house settling, or something toppling off a shelf in the closet, or the sound of a ghost sharpening knives, lulling myself with assurances that the chirps won’t necessarily contin–

Chirp.

This time, I’m awake enough to understand: it’s the smoke detector remonstrating us for letting Daylight Savings pass without changing its batteries.

As I sort out what’s happening, I rue the law of batteries that decrees they must die when it sucks the most. Commiseratively, my husband, Byron, exhales a steady zzzzzzz. This takes me back to the early years of our marriage; he slept, while I felt around in the dimness for babies and boobies. Sometimes, with the first kid, he’d wake up, too, and we’d turn on a bedside lamp and spend precious Hallmark-sponsored moments together staring at our daughter’s soft, tiny fingernails while she nursed.

A few weeks into that, we realized that middle-of-the-night communal marveling resulted in a completely non-functional household the next day. If we hoped to eat good food and pay bills on time, then at least one of us should get some sleep. During the next handful of years, as my breasts and I continued to work the black hours, Byron applied himself wholeheartedly to the task of getting reasonable sleep, The result of this was a household wherein Daddy made delicious homemade pesto that Mommy loved to eat–that is, once she lifted her head off the steering wheel, wiped the tears off her cheeks, and trudged into the house for dinner.

In the intervening years, the zzzzzzzzzs have continued, but nowadays I sleep (or read or fret) rather than nurse. Instead of tag teaming our days, as we did when the kids were new, Byron and I now share a common purpose at night: resetting for the next day.

Unfortunately, that smoke detector is putting a serious crimp in my reset.

Shivering in anticipation of the cold air, I try to convince myself to throw open the covers and stand up. I try to make myself be the adult in the room. I try to fool my brain and body into thinking the chirp is actually a hungry baby.

Brain and Body are no patsies. They know I’m messing with them. In desperation, Brain argues that the definition of “adult” is actually, simply, clearly “the tallest person.” Then Brain points out that Byron fits that definition. Because Brain is emphatic about making her case, she also notes that the smoke detector is high on the wall, near the ceiling, a place that’s easier for taller people to reach.

The notion of thumping downstairs to get a stepladder convinces me: I’m going to shove the snoring guy and make the chirp his problem.

Rationalization is a glorious thing, for it throws itself across descriptors like “lazy” and “selfish” and muffles their mealy yelps. I mean: obviously, I have to wake Byron because he is taller. Possibly, irrationally, I have to wake Byron because he never nursed babies.

We’d have to ask Brain to be sure on that one, and she’s currently refusing callers.

With Byron’s next wall-rattling inhale, I slip my knees behind his, trying to pry him to consciousness with a hearty spooning.

He doesn’t stir. Spooning feels too much like clean, direct love, and this endeavor is about hoggish, miserly love. This is about a love that entails him getting up and taking care of things so that I can stay in the bed and be warmly supportive from the island of mattress.

I whack my foot into the back of his calf. Twice. Firm-like.

He rears up, bleary and confused. Poor thing’s a full four minutes behind me that way. Since he’s the one who’s discombobulated, and since he doesn’t know yet that he’s about to get up and handle my problem, he deserves kindness. Softly, I start to talk. In truth, I could just say “Eep, opp, ork, ah-ha” for the first few words, as I’m only moving my mouth because the act will get him to remove his earplug. Once the earplug comes out, I shift into genuine content: “So there’s a noise in the hall…”–

as though it had been scripted, a chirp echoes loudly.

“Wait. What?” he asks, his brain pushing up from the bottom of the same lake that had recently been drowning my consciousness.

“There’s a chirping noise out in the hall from the smoke detector. It’s been bleating every few minutes.” Then I trot out our household’s most terrifying currency: “I’m worried it’s going to wake the kids.”

Although Byron is less scared of wakeful children in the night than I am, he snaps to and gets that this is a pressing matter if we want to avoid a kitchen full of cranky whiners in the morning. Marshaling his forces, he thinks through the situation. “There are actually three smoke detectors on this floor of the house–one in each bedroom–and also a carbon monoxide detector in the hall. It could be any of them. Have you noticed where the chirp is coming from exactly?”

Every single day, my husband teaches me. Abstractly, I knew some nice men had come a few years ago to remodel our kitchen, and while they were here, they also updated the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house. Once they took down all the hanging sheets of plastic and drove away in their trucks, though, I got distracted by the new cabinets and forgot to look up and see what they’d done elsewhere. In my defense, if I look toward the ceilings, I see all these cobwebby things that someone should deal with. It’s better to keep my gaze aimed forward, really.

Helpfully, I answer Byron while sweeping an arm wide. “I know the noise is coming exactly from out there. Not in here.”

We decide to listen for the next chirp with an ear to specific location. As I listen, I realize both my pillow and my husband’s back are very soft.

We wait. And wait. Some more.

Because we are wide awake and ready to figure this thing out, there is nothing but silence.

After a few minutes, Byron throws open the covers and wanders into the bathroom to relieve himself, at which point a chirp from Could Have Been Anywhere resounds loudly.

How frustrating. But as long as he’s up…

Coming back into the bedroom, Byron grabs his headlamp. He straps the thing to his head and goes out into the hallway, ready to narrow down the possibilities.

With the stoic patience of a Scandinavian type in his forties, he stands there quietly, leaning against the banister. In his underwear. Wearing a headlamp.

Minutes pass. Silence.

More minutes. Still nothing.

He just stands, quietly, his eyes clapped on a six-inch space high on the wall. Waiting.

Eventually, I hear him yawn, and even though there’s nothing I can do, I can’t take it. I hoist myself from the bed’s warmth and join him in the hallway. I ask if he’s able to reach the detector, should he need to, or if he’d like me to run downstairs and get the step ladder. Thankfully, his legs are step ladders all on their own, so I am safe from the threat of exertion.

There, by the banister, we stand together and stare at the plaster. Come on, you damn thing: chirp so that we know it’s you. If it’s not you, then it’s time to bust this process into the kids’ rooms.

Silence. Obviously, our focused attention has made the thing shy. Trying to fool it, I begin to look around. The only thing worth looking at is Byron, all tall and leaning, shirtless, in his underwear, the headlamp an unexpected accessory to his ensemble. He wraps his arms across his chest, warding off a shiver.

Cripes. He is the cutest.

He stands there in his headlamp and underwear, the perfect foil to an unpredictable, ridiculous thing, and somehow it’s a metaphor for our marriage. All my own unpredictable ridiculousness ever needs is him, standing there unwaveringly, ready to deal with things–all the better if he’s in his underwear and a headlamp as he does it.

After a few minutes, freezing, I return to bed. As I lie there, willing the detector to chirp, the shadowy image of Byron, still leaning against the banister, makes me smile. When we got married, I thought I knew him. Our years together–fifteen!–have schooled me, though. There was no way for me to know that the 28-year-old anthropology-major-turned-naturalist that I married would

teach our sixth grader how to play cribbage so that the kid could feel confident when his new elective class in that game started;

attend cross-country banquets with our ninth grader, willingly spending hours making small talk (which he hates) in the presence of a pasta buffet (which he hates) because he delights in the community she’s found;

become a literacy volunteer at an elementary school for a minuscule monthly stipend because the work matters;

take up blackwork embroidery at age 43 as he continues to explore the various permutations of being an artist;

train our kids’ palates with his excellent cooking, to the point that they’d rather have a dinner of groundnut stew or Thai curry than spaghetti;

tell me every few days, “I like you so much”;

hear my point more than my fumbling words so that I always feel innately understood;

stand in the hallway in his underwear and a headlamp at 4 a.m., hoping to catch a wayward chirp.

 

Eventually, after silence reigns for a few more minutes, Byron surrenders and returns to bed, but not before checking the supply of batteries. We’re short on the nine-volt version, which he’ll need the next day when he changes out the batteries in all the warning systems. Then he snuggles under the covers, and we chuckle, knowing the offending detector, wherever it is, will be issuing a tweet any second.

It doesn’t, though.

As the minutes pass, the house is quiet. Dark. Still.

It sighs a little, as do I, when Byron drops back into sleep and emits a gentle zzzzzzzz.

I lie there for a long time–like a nursing mother listening for her baby’s cry–expecting another chirp. It never comes.

There is only Byron,

the soft skin on his back,

his steady breathing

the perfect noise.

 

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