August 9, 2016
A version of this originally appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.
(Sorry for my messy writing on this one. The deadlines, I can not meet them. 🙂 )
I have always been someone who has at least two books going at once. Back before I had children, I’d often balance a novel with a non-fiction read, slipping in a few articles here and there for good measure. With three young children at home, these days I am more likely to have eight books going.
Not intentionally, of course. It’s just that uninterrupted reading time is basically non-existent. I never know exactly when I might happen upon a few quiet minutes, so I just leave the books scattered throughout the house. There are some on the coffee table, another three by the bed. I have a few in my office to read when I’m restarting my computer or downloading a large audio file for my radio job. I read these books in very small spurts: Three pages here, a half a page there. I’ve long since given up on novels, as they don’t really lend themselves to this kind of patchwork. But I’ve always been more of a non-fiction reader, so this suits me just fine.
I recognize this may seem horribly chaotic, and you might wonder how in the world I ever retain anything. I’ll be the first to admit that many things fall through the cracks. But all we can do is work with what we have, right? Strategy can never be about perfection.
Long before the kids ever came along, I’ve been rather enamored with this idea of reading seemingly disparate topics at the same time and seeing what kind of connections bubble up. It’s something I try too hard to cultivate. I don’t try to come up with perfection combination of topics or anything. Rather, I just let my curiosities lead the way and just wait and see what commonalities bubble up: Here are a few recent combinations:a book on poor people’s social movements and the spiritual life of children; a anthropological work on the Quapaw in Arkansas and Ta-henishi Coates new book Between the World and Me; Articles on the Young Patriots and Rufus Jones’s Essential Writings; a children’s book about the life of Muhammad Ali and a book about an autobiography of a white anti-racist woman called Memoir of a Race Traitor.
Sometimes I have time to jot down a few notes about the parallels in my journal. Usually though the themes just get sewn together without much commentary, only later to come out in some radio piece of magazine commentary. They seep into the groundwater of the collective building of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. And, hopefully, they influence the ways I interact with the world on a daily, mundane basis.
Every so often there are books that seem to never be bumped out or rotation. I’ll put them down only to find them reappear on kitchen table or in the hallway floor, deposited there by my daughter who seems to gravitate toward anything she knows I find meaningful (I recognize this is a short lived phenomenon. By sixteen she will likely be repulsed by the things I love). One is my Quaker Faith and Practice book. That one is always around. But there’s another that keeps showing up: Louise Erdrich’s collection of poems Original Fire: Selected and New Poems.
I’m not much of a poetry reader these days. Back in my early twenties I was an avid reader of poetry. But these days I crave things a little less distilled. But a few months ago—as I was heading out the door to go camping with the family—I saw the title on the self. I’d acquired it years ago, but I’d never spent any time with it. After reading it by the campfire one morning, I felt something shift. And I have be re-reading it ever since.
There is one set of poem in particular that I keep returning to. I find it to be crushing yet invigorating. Futile, but with a spark. The kind of spark you have to work for. And I think, maybe, that’s the one thing I’ve come to crave in reading.
“Asinnig” by Louise Erdrich
The Ojibwe word for stone, asin, is animate. Stones are alive. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. The universe began with a conversation between stones.
A thousand generations of you live and die
in the space of a single one of our thoughts
A complete thought is a mountain
We dont have very many ideas.
When the original fire which formed us
we thought of you.
We allowed you to occur.
We are still deciding whether that was
We have never denied you anything
you truly wanted
no matter how foolish
no matter hos destructive
but you never seem to learn.
That which you cry for,
this wish to be like us,
we have tried to give it to you
in small doses, like a medicine, every day
so you will not be frightened.
Still, when death comes
you do not recognize it
as the immortality you crave.
December 31, 2012
This was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the December edition of the monthly “Penny Wise” column. You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here.
When I think of Christmas it’s not typically the trees or lights that first come to mind, but rather the warm squishiness of a clump of cookie dough, or a dense buttery piecrust, in my flour-covered hands. I love the feel of the rolling pin moving across the bumpy textures and the yielding malleability of a simple sugar cookie awaiting shaping. Baking is such a tactile experience, the transformation of a weighty mass of disparate flavors into a light, doughy, chewy morsel of warm perfection. Ultimately it’s the hint at alchemy that sustains my interest, the transformation of so many separates into such a satisfying whole.
Growing up with my maternal grandmother in a multi-generational home, and with the other grandparents less than five minutes away, kitchen alchemy was part of daily life. These were women who had cooked from scratch their entire lives; women who survived the Depression. They knew how to make delicacies like wild Muscadine jelly and how mix up a little flour, eggs, and water and create a feast. But during the holidays they, along with my mother, would go all out. Cookies and pies for days, y’all. And the best part was they always let me help.
I can clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s wonderful butter-stained recipe cards and her wrinkled hands in the dough, flour in the crevices of her silver wedding rings. Her kitchen was tiny and her movements precise. She’d give me eggs to whisk or flour to sift, and if I ever drove her crazy being so small and underfoot she never let me know about it. Providing me with an opportunity to fall in love with cooking was more important to her than a clean kitchen.
When I think of my mother baking, I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion. She had this wonderful and weird quirk of baking at all nontraditional times of the day. Come Christmas time she was likely to be whipping up cookies into the wee morning hours, and more often than not, even as a young girl, I’d be up with her. It was way past my bedtime, of course. But she knew those magical moments of midnight alchemy were worth infinitely more than following bedtime rules for their sake alone.
When my sons were first learning to speak and their words were few and (adorably) far between, they called any muffin, cookie, or biscuit I made a “mama cracker.” I’ve always marveled at their creative and highly descriptive use of limited language, including their short stint referring to ice cubes as “water crackers.” But the phrase “Mama cracker” was especially touching. They’d watched me make these baked goods and therefore named them after me. Such a name wasn’t just creative use of limited language. It was an idea funneled through a sieve.
According to Miriam Webster, the word “alchemy” has a few definitions, including the more historic concept of medieval chemical science, which involved a “speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” But it’s also a word meaning “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” and/or “an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” What is baking if not the process of transforming of something common (flour, eggs, milk) into something special? And, beyond that, baking has become one of my many attempts to mysteriously (or blatantly) transmute stories from one generation to the next.
My mother and both grandmothers are gone now, and the holidays are, at best, bittersweet days reminding me of this deep loss. They weren’t perfect people, but they were the women who taught me about being a woman, and I’ve learned that baking is one way I can channel the sadness of this loss into a more peaceful memory. I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking. Not nearly as patient as the women who came before me, I try to remember to shrug off the mess as my sons’ attempts at stirring sends a large cloud of flour into the air and onto the floor. When they break the egg with too much force, sending the shells into the mixing bowl, I get a fork and pick them out. After all, this is how they’ll learn to love the magic of baking, which is something I really want for them as men. And such pilfering through such childhood memories may be one of the ways they’ll one day search for me when I’m gone. I’d rather not be remembered as the woman who freaked out about broken eggs.
I’m a folklorist, and we often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. Looking at the stories behind food is like peering into a series of window opening out not only to the past but also towards the future. When I teach my sons how to cook I’m channeling my grandmother who channeled her grandmother; I’m channeling my mother who learned from her aunts and cousins. And, in some small way, I’m laying the groundwork for the men my sons will become. So it’s not just a pie (slightly crunchy from the eggshells) my sons and I are making. It’s a mysterious transmuting of one generation to the next, a ritual transforming many common things (food, memories, parents) into something special.
November 13, 2012
I recently started writing a column for Savvy Kids magazine in Little Rock. Entitled Penny Wise, it’s my humble attempt to explore the magic in the mundane.
Soon I will get this blog updated with all the new writings, but until then you can read the first two columns by clicking on the links below.
More coming soon.
July 18, 2012
My husband discovered this guy by the compost pile yesterday morning. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by turtles. I’ve got nine million turtles stories and I’ll have to write them down sometime.
I am convinced there is nothing more beautiful than a turtle. And it seems E agrees. When he woke up I took him out to the see the little guy, and he pointed out all his feet, his eyes, and his shell, which he really seemed to love. G was sleeping and we could not find him later on once G was awake.
It’s not everyday you see a turtle in the city. It’s hard to say which family members was the most excited. Here’s another photo.