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.
[A version of this piece was published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and later ran as a radio piece on Ozarks at Large on KUAF 91.3 FM Public Radio.]
My father recently gave me an envelope full of my mother’s old photos. Inside I discovered an image of a twelve-year-old me, reaching out to pet our recently born colt. I’m wearing wranglers, an embossed leather belt, and my long hair hangs down the length of my back. In the background sits heavily wooded Spring mountain; in the corner of the frame the neighbors clothes are hanging out to try. Surprisingly, I am wearing short sleeves, a rare occurrence, even in the warm months.
My short sleeves exposed large patches of psoriasis, a skin disease I’ve had for years. I was already going into remission by the time the photo was taken; The patches are relatively small and only cover a small portion of my arm. For years there were scales all down my leg and from my elbow to the middle of my forearm. I tried all kinds of cream, sat under sun lamps, applied a medicated tape I had to wear for days at a time, and eventually took cortisone shots, something that is considered too dangerous today. But the patches only grew. Bright red and scaly, they would peel and crack. I wasn’t supposed to pick at them, but I could never resist. Sometimes they hurt, itched and bled. But mostly the discomfort was emotional.
Miraculously, by the time I around 13–around the same time I was diagnosed with scoliosis and given a back brace—the psoriasis was almost gone. This may have been the result of the treatments or just good luck. The severity of auto-immune disease are known to come and go. By then I had learned a lot about how cruel people can be when your body doesn’t fit their expectations. I can still hear the voice of the young girl who refused to sit by me at the Dardanelle Rodeo. She called me gross and began to run away, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her along, telling her that if she touched me her arms would turn scabby and bloody, too. By the time I was fitted for that back brace I was a little tougher, a tiny bit braver. And I had learned to quickly recognize the people who asked questions about my body with a kind and accepting curiosity.
My mother was always taking photos of our family, something that drove me crazy back then. I usually made quite an effort to hide my arms from the camera. I even developed a pose for family shots where I’d fold my arms in toward my chest, an awkward look to say the least. For whatever reason, my guard was down that day. Or maybe I didn’t even realize she had the camera.
I still have occasional flareups with psoriasis, but mostly it’s turned into psoriatic arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects adults who had severe psoriasis as children. It does cause me some discomfort, but thankfully I am able to keep it under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And it’s not a visible disease like my psoriasis, unless you count the subtle ways it’s reshaping a few of my fingers. Every so often when I play guitar my fingers swell and turn red. I sometimes wonder if I will have my hands will eventually curl in the way my grandfather’s did, a man greatly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis
Nearly twenty-six years later, I’m a distinctly different person then the timid girl in the photo. My mother is dead; those boxes of photos are where I have to go to hear her stories. I’ve traveled, I’ve started a family, I’ve faced more fears that I care to count, and I’ve come back home in more ways than one. And now I look at my arms reaching out to that colt and I think those patches look beautiful. The red is fiery and shiny. The white, pale skin around the red fades into my summer tan. I don’t have any regrets over the sadness and shame I used to feel, nor do I feel like I wasted my time worrying. I learned a lot about myself in those moments. And I certainly don’t regret what I learned about people and the limits of acceptance. All of us are so affected by mainstreams ideas of beauty. It takes bravery to reject this mask.
After staring at the photo for sometime, I decided to share it with my sons. I told them about the psoriasis, the cruelty of some of my peers, and the kindness of others. I told them how my mother almost never sounded sound fierce except when she made it clear to me that I was never, ever to be cruel to anyone, to shame or make fun of them. She had no tolerance for human cruelty–whether I was receiving it or dishing it out.
The had a lot of questions about my arms, and wanted to see the subtle scars near my elbow. The were particularly intrigued by the my telling of the repeated needle pricks from the cortisone shots and how my mother called me brave as I sat still during the whole procedure.
I owe a lot to that girl in the photo. I can see a latent fierceness there, and all these years later I might be starting to uncover it. While I do remember how sad I was back then, I don’t want to go back to console my fears or take away those patches. I want to bring that young girl with me into the present, show her how to channel her anger and would-be shame into a different way of being—to bring those experiences into everything I am and pass them down through the coming generations.
January 12, 2016
This column was first published in the December 2015 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
“I don’t want to be afraid of my children growing up.”
I kept turning the phrase over in my mind as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep. My 17-month-old daughter was sound asleep beside me. I ached a little bit when I thought of how tiny she once was, back in those early days when she used to fit in the curve of my arm. Now she seems to take up half the bed. How many ways are there to say, “she’s growing up so fast?” Isn’t that all parents ever seem to say?
My first children were twins. When I found out I was pregnant with a singleton I looked forward to nursing one baby at a time, holding her in stillness, getting to spend one-on-one time rather than running back and forth between putting out fires. After she was born, I marveled at how easy it was to hold and feed her and sank into the satisfaction of being able to meet her needs as they arose rather than asking her to wait in line behind another sibling. When nap time came I would put her in the carrier and hold her close to my chest, swaying back and forth until she fell asleep slobbering on my shirt. It was all so tender, holding one baby at a time. If you’ve had children you know how it goes. I blinked and then she was crawling. Now she walks along beside me, her tiny little hand wraps easily around my ring and pinky fingers. She points out cats and birds and likes to hide things under pillows and then pull them out exclaiming, “dere is!”
It rained all day today, and the early, dark evenings make it clear winter is here. Things will slow down a little, or at least the early dusk would have us think so. Holidays will give us extra time together with family and perhaps a snow day or two will keep us all inside on the couch. But nothing ever really slows down when you have young children at home. Even in winter.
I don’t think I’ll give birth to any more children, which makes my daughter the baby of the family. Presumably she’s the one I’ll find hardest to let go. I recently discovered something called RIE parenting. The RIE stands for “Resources for Infant Educators.” Titles for concepts of parenting usually get on my nerves, and this title is no exception. I mean, parenting isn’t a theory. It’s a moment to moment ever-evolving state of being. That said, we need words and phrases to help us name ideas and concepts, and those phrases give us the tools to turn these ideas and concepts over in our minds. We can’t challenge our misconceptions if we can’t name alternatives. Such is my frustration with the gap between language and experience, I guess.
Anyway, here is the basic tenant of RIE, as quoted from author Janet Lansbury: “We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.” Even the youngest babies are seen as active players in their own lives. There is an inherent trust there, a willingness to see the complete and whole person way before their little legs can stand.
I’m not writing this to expose all the ways of this school of thought, but you can find plenty of resources online, especially via founder Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury, the woman behind the Elevating Childcare site. (Be sure and follow Lansbury’s facebook page here). The more I read the more I realized this was the kind of parenting I’ve been attempting to practice. I just didn’t know it had a name. Part of why I’d latched on to this idea was that I am hyperaware that any attempts to hem my children in would likely only backfire. I’m not one of those parents who can’t wait for the kids to get grown. While I do enjoy time to myself, I don’t find my greatest enjoyment in my time away from them. I love my life with my children. It’s life-affirming, and it’s the most beautiful, difficult, challenging, eye-opening experience I have ever known. But I don’t want to be someone who needs my children to be children. I want my children to be themselves. And everyday they are becoming more and more of who they are.
I remember as a child feeling excitement as I grew older, that budding independence like sparks everywhere. If I am so lucky, my children will feel that too, and I want to find ways to be there for them. Not be there broken-hearted, begrudgingly weeping for the good old days. I want to be there at that very moment in that very moment with the people they are in that very moment. I know this will take some work.
There is a whole world of pressures out there that tell us to lean into a feeling of guilt as our children grow up. We recoil from the pain of it all. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of this is just about fear. And if I’ve learned anything about fear it’s that once you name it, it dissipates, a least a tiny bit.
So this winter I’m going to do what I always try to do: spend as much time as possible with family. But on those days when everything feels like it’s moving so fast and I feel that punch in the gut when I see how big my youngest is, I’m not going to guilt myself into fearing the passing years. I know growing up is a gift of enormous measure. And I refuse to feel guilty or fearful of the very nature of growth. Even in the most still, silent moments we’re growing. All of us. And that is one of the most beautiful things we humans can know.
Every being deserves an obituary. Here is ours to Patchen.
Our sweet Patchen dog passed away sometime early Saturday morning March 7, 2015.
We adopted from the Fayetteville Animal Shelter in 2003 when she was between 5 and 7 years old. I’d adopted Elsie in 2002, and she changed my life. I was so inspired by my life with a rescue dog that I started volunteering at the shelter in the hopes of helping other dogs find forever homes. While doing volunteer work at the shelter I met Patchen and her cage mate Luna. Patchen seemed timid, quiet, and distant. Bryan decided she was the dog for us and he adopted her in October of 2003. Our landlord, Marcia, adopted her cage mate, Luna.
Bryan adopted Patchen shortly before we were married in November of the same year. He named her in honor of the author and artist, Kenneth Patchen. For a short time Patchen lived with Marcia before settling into our house with Elsie and Chat (Orwell and Buddy James would come later). Not much is known about Patchen’s life before the shelter. She was listed as an owner relinquish and we know she was terribly skinny and a little distrusting of people. Soon after coming home, however, she put on weight, grew A LOT of wiry hair, and became the most people-loving dog around. It took a while for her to bond with Elsie, but once they were close they became inseparable.
We took Elsie and Patchen to dog training classes where they both excelled. Recognizing that Patchen had a uniquely calm and loving temperament, in 2004 I started training Patchen to become a therapy dog. We trained for many months and she passed her test with flying colors. She was certified through Therapy Dog International and we volunteered at the Fayetteville Nursing Home where Patchen loved to go visit with the residents and sit calmly to be petted. Around the same time period I started serving as an assistant in dog training classes at Canine Connection and both Elsie and Patchen worked as what is often referred to as “demo dogs” where they helped to show other dogs and their owners basic commands.
Patchen also patiently served as the doggy matron of the house while Bryan and I fostered multiple dogs for the Fayetteville Animal Shelter, helping to acclimate the dogs and prepare them for suitable homes. She shared her home with Alice, Eddie, Annabelle, Yarrow, and Fred, all of whom went on to permanent homes. She also helped my late mother’s dog learn how to be near other dogs. She got to travel to many places for a dog—all around Arkansas and Kentucky, to Missouri and Oklahoma.
She also was adept at singing, giving high-fives (tens, actually,) and held only one grudge in her life against our recently passed elderly cat, Chat.
In 2009 when George and Elijah were born she took on the role of protecting new family members. She grew to love the boys, especially when she realized just how much food they dropped from their plates. In recent months she realized that our youngest child, Pearly, could also drop food from her chair, thus making Patchen’s last days particularly exciting.
In December of 2013 Patchen was diagnosed with cancer and heart disease. We were told she probably only had a few weeks or months left to live. Yet Patchen carried on a year and a half beyond that diagnosis, tail wagging and always looking for a treat. In the last year she slowed down quite a bit, but she never lost her love for treats and the opportunity to greet visitors at the door. Every now and again she still enjoyed a short walk or trip to the park. She especially loved visits from Auntie Rachel Townsend and our friend Alex Handfinger, both of whom kept her when we had to go out of town.
Patchen loved food (all food, all the time), chasing squirrels, sitting calmly to be petted, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed sniffing things, and every person she ever met anywhere at anytime. We are certain she never saw herself as a dog but rather a family matriarch in charge of providing love, oversight, and vacuuming up after the messy children whom she looked after. In her last days her favorite things to do included sitting on the porch to smell the air, sitting on the couch to sleep the afternoon away, and sitting under the kitchen table to be rubbed by our feet and wait for someone to slip her some cheese.
Her last day was wonderfully uneventful. We had no idea it was her last. She spent the day home with myself and the three children. I remember her excitedly sitting near Pearly as she ate dropped pieces of a baked potato. It had just been a few days before that Pearly had learned to sit at the table, something Patchen was visibly excited about. She had a nice full dinner Friday evening, including potato and cheese from Pearly’s plate, sat on the couch with the boys, hung out with Bryan for lots of love, and died peacefully sometime in the early Saturday morning hours. She passed away in her sleep at one of her favorite spots at the foot of our bed. She was around 17 or 18 years old.
We love you, Mrs. Patchen. Goodbye, girl. We will remember you forever. You were, and always will be, a therapy dog to us all.
October 2, 2014
Here’s my newest column for ABOUT the River Valley magazine. You can read the original post here.
I tend to be one of those parents who take and share a lot of photos of my children. At least part of the day, I keep my cellphone camera in my back pocket and frequently snap candid shots of my five-year-old sons playing trucks, digging in the dirt or caring for their baby dolls. I regularly take images of my three-month-old daughter, hoping to document that elusive first year as she grows exponentially by the day.
For years I rejected owning a so-called smart phone. I didn’t want to be distracted by the lure of constant information, and I certainly didn’t want to pay the phone bill that comes with it. But then there was that stormy spring of 2012. It seemed like every day sirens were blaring and we were huddled in the hallway with a mattress over our heads terrified and longing for a basement. We don’t have cable in our home, and the thought of a device that would alert me to the locations of fast-approaching storms held an illusion of safety. I caved and finally accepted the free upgrade my phone company had been offering me for years. Suddenly I could read the weather all day long, check Facebook whenever I wanted and take thousands of photos of every detail of our lives.
From the beginning, I tried to set healthy boundaries around my phone. It may seem ridiculous, but in our home we make it a constant practice to give ourselves large chunks of time away from the accoutrements of entertainment-based technology. Though it’s sometimes challenging to make a conscious decision to turn off the computer and put the phone away, it gives us time and space to notice the details of our daily lives: the colors of the sky, the pauses between our children’s sentences, the clue-filled ramblings of our own hearts and brains.
Turning off the computer feels freeing. Ignoring the constant flow of information from social media can be liberating. But fighting the endless desire to take photos of my kids and share them with dear friends and family? Now that’s a real challenge. Yes, it’s true I want to be in the garden all day far, far away from a scrolling news feed. But I also want a picture of having been there. Why? Am I a product of our societal addiction to information and over-sharing? Am I more concerned with capturing the moment than actually living in it?
My mother was the documentarian of our family. Even in the days before digital she managed to take thousands of photos. She never missed a chance to record a special occasion or a birthday cake or relative who came visiting. I’m not sure how she would have felt about Facebook or Twitter. But I’m pretty certain she would have loved Instagram. Years after her death I look through those boxes of photos and can put together fragments of my childhood, image by image. This is, of course, a gift beyond measure. I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s love for taking photos. Whereas she used film to capture special gatherings and events, the endless accessibility of my cellphone camera allows me to document frame after frame of the everyday stuff.
Though I love taking photos, I hate the thought of my kids feeling like they have to perform or be on display. Instead, I prefer to capture the daily chaos of it all: the late afternoons in the front garden, their hands and feet covered in dirt; the impromptu dance parties in the kitchen where there’s upbeat music and four little legs forever dancing underfoot; my daughter sitting on my husband’s lap on a Saturday morning, her fat little legs hanging out of her slightly stained onesie. The photos are often blurry, snapped quickly so as to not interrupt the movement of it all.
In the spirit of helping to develop autonomy in my children, I usually ask my sons if it’s okay to take their picture, quickly putting the camera down on those rare occasions when their reply is “no.” I’ll do the same for my daughter when she’s old enough to answer. But still I sometimes wonder, should I put down the camera more often? Despite my best attempts—or perhaps rationalizations—to never make them feel on display, still I ask: am I focusing more on capturing the moment then actually being in it?
My children’s lives are not my own and, within reason, I try to never force my own desires into their realities. After all, this is their childhood. Not my own to relive. And I recognize my yearning to take thousands of photos stems, at least partially, from my memories of my own mother. I see those boxes of photographs as one small way I can still be near her, viewing the world from her camera’s temporary lens. I fully understand the depth of the gift she left me in those large, unorganized Rubbermaid boxes.
Someday I want my children to have their own troves of treasures, albeit packaged in little small boxes we call hard drives. Even though my obsession with the ease of the cell phone camera is somewhat at odds with my desire to unplug, my children’s generation will likely have decidedly different views on the prevalence of hand-held devices. We older people likely won’t agree. But it won’t be our decision to make. And if my children someday choose to pilfer through my library of images, I hope they’ll find something useful about their pasts and the people who came before them, and, perhaps, a connection to what will most surely feel to them like a simpler place and time.
September 3, 2014
This column first ran in the August issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Read the original post here. You can read all of my Backyard Living columns via ABOUT. Sometimes they also run on the Boiled Down Juice.
This past week we received yet another warning notice from the city of Little Rock informing us we were violating city code. This happens often. We make our home in the city but in many ways we live like we’re in the country. We sometimes hang out the laundry to dry in the sun and we tend to let our gardens grow a little wild. I understand this lead some people to assume we don’t value our home. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
We like to hang our clothes out to dry because the sun is a natural stain remover and the wind a natural energy conserver. It’s cheaper that way and, besides, I like the way the clothes smell. Wind-dried laundry reminds me of my grandmother who made her home in a tiny house on Second Street in Dardanelle. Having never had the luxury of a dryer, she hung everything on the line. Some of my best memories are running underneath those sheets as they whipped in the wind. As an adult with my own family I’d give just about anything to have a conversation with her now. Sometimes when my sheets smell like the outside air it’s almost like I can hear her voice and feel her calming presence. She made do with little, and this is a lifestyle I want my own children to experience, even if it does sometimes put me at odds with city officials.
But this time the notice wasn’t for the laundry but rather for all the “uncultivated plants” in the front yard. If you’re a regular reader of this column you know how much I love flowers and how much time I spend cultivating them. Hardly a day goes by that my sons and I aren’t tending to the multitude of baby flowers we have coming up around the house. For my first few years of gardening I didn’t really have much of an awareness of native varieties. But in recent years I’ve been trying to educate myself about creating a safe and welcoming habitat for bees and butterflies and have therefore turned my attention to the native plants and wildflowers these creatures prefer. It’s not that they don’t also love many of our more cultivated, human-made varieties. But nothing suits their fancy like mother earth’s wild growing blossoms.
I’ve been planting a lot of wildflower seeds, but I’ve also been taking notice of what comes up on its own. In an old neighborhood like ours where the lawns aren’t covered in bermuda grass the wildflowers come up easily. This spring I noticed one beautiful variety that seemed especially at home: the Daisy Fleabane. Looking much like a tiny, spidery daisy, it grows about 2 feet tall or more with little clusters of flowers near the top. According to my Arkansas wildflower guides it blooms from around May to September all around the state. It’s usually found in open woods, dry prairies, fields, pastures, roadsides, and disturbed areas. It comes up readily in our backyard and along the side of our house, far too pretty to plow down with a lawnmower.
I watched them bloom for a while and, recognizing that least part of the yard would need to be mowed, I decided to dig some of these wildflowers up and transplant them in my garden beds. They were easy to remove and look great at the base of my strawberry plants and next to the yarrow. I’ve added some next to the zinnias, butterfly weed, sunflowers as well. According to my online research it helps to remove the spent flower heads to prolong the growing season. Much like cultivated daisy, the root bases need to be divided every few years to ensure proper growth and prevent overcrowding.
I’m not exactly sure if it was the Daisy Fleabane that triggered the notice from the city. It could have been was the multiple patches of blue, purple and pink cornflowers, the flowering cilantro or the False Dandelion, another favorite that features beautiful yellow flowers that only open in the mornings. After all, what is a weed? Who gets to make such a decision? Ask one of my four year old sons and he’d be quick to tell you one of the prettiest flowers in the world is the fuzzy head of a dandelion, a flower people literally spend thousands of dollars trying to kill with Roundup. My sons aren’t alone. The bees also love them and the plants themselves are loaded with nutrients, make great teas, and add nutrients to the soil. God did a great job of making plants, but we humans are always trying to change up the landscape in hopes, I suppose, of convincing ourselves the wild world can somehow be restrained. What does this say about what we fear?
So I’ve made a compromise. I keep my wild plants, but I get the city off my back by digging up the wildflowers and moving them to my official garden area. After all, if it’s encircled by a rock border who can argue with my flower choices? And besides, it saves me a lot of money and makes my front yard literally buzz with winged creatures. And it gives me sons an endless supply of flowers to pick, which means I can more easily keep their curious little hands away from my carefully cultivated, high-growing foxglove and delicate carnations. There’s nothing like watching my growing sons walk through the large swaths of city wildflowers, knowing that at least for a short period of their life I can do my own small part in what I believe to be the most sacred act of parenting: encouraging what already grows wild.
December 2, 2013
I love to garden. It’s a spiritual practice and therapy and a path to peace and all that kind of perspective-inducing thing. And I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. It’s also about food, of course, but mostly this stuff is all interchangeable. Watching a garden for even a season will teach you that time isn’t something you get to master. Things cycle. In a garden, the lines between death and rebirth are blurry at best. The lines between wild and cultivation are gray; there’s really no beginning or end. I could go on.
As I was taking down the garden a few weeks ago, a few days after the first frost had killed off the last of the green tomatoes, I noticed my sons and our youngest dog playing off to the side. Laughing, throwing leaves in the air, and running their cars through the soil they were clearly not feeling the weight of a coming dormancy. Instead they were mystified by the process of pulling up a garden and the beginnings of decay, and they kept running up to ask me questions about the roots and soil and the birds hopping around frantically before winter.
There I was holding the cold plants, thinking about how long it would be until the next Spring and how (literally) pregnant I would be by then, yet they were focused on the coming of dormancy like it was as magical as planting seeds.
It is, of course, just as beautiful. At least logically speaking. But very few humans like this part. It’s a lonely part, a quiet part. Most of what’s happening we can’t see, and there’s a metaphor that goes on for days. But my boys were fixated on the wonder of it all and mesmorized by the feel of the cold plants in their own small hands.
Inspired by their observations, and an attempt to deal with this concept of dormancy (something I’ve been ruminating on for years now), I decided to share some photos of my dead garden. Any gardener knows it’s never just about the spring. So why do our pictures always suggest this? isn’t this dishonest, really? To focus just on the ripening? The harvest is nothing without the dormancy, right?
So I’ve decided to refuse to talk only of harvest. Everything cycles, even if this is something I don’t always welcome.
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.
December 31, 2012
Regardless of age, there’s something about autumn that tugs at our core. The new crunch underfoot, sharper air, and richer colors. After a light rain, the moist leaves collect in gutters and along roadways, filling the air with an earthy, sweet smell of decomposition. Those that don’t make it to the gutters are crushed by cars and pairs of so many hurried feet, becoming little ghosts of themselves, their outlines haunting the sidewalks for weeks.
Autumn is so clearly a time of transition. As an adult, and as a gardener, there’s a tinge of grief in knowing that ultimately autumn is not the joyous, electric, pregnant rebirth of spring, but rather a shift toward the dormancy of winter. The colors are deep and rich just before everything turns brown and gray. Soon everything freezes and the plants reign in their activities to focus attention to their invisible processes underground.
Whether it’s the literal or conceptual variety, dormancy isn’t something most humans do well. Or at least that’s the case for most that I know. Props to you if you are wiser. Whereas we may mentally understand the plants aren’t actually dead but just storing up to burst forth in a vibrant spring, we seldom enjoy the waiting. And for those of us who have lost loved ones there seems to be something about fall that exaggerates the hurt. The days get longer, the natural world less colorful. Autumn signals that transition into a process of waiting, the silence, and long periods of dark that are so reminiscent of the mourning process.
My three year old sons, unfettered by thoughts of time (or perhaps more aware of it than I) are fascinated with the spark and immediacy of this seasonal transition. The cooler air has pushed their already energetic selves into a whole new realm of excitement, their little voices perpetually turned up to 11. Even our elderly, overweight dog—who has spent most of the summer panting and dozing on the hardwood floor—seems to be coming alive, running down the back steps and sprinting through the leaves, ears perked up to chase a squirrel run the fence line. Who can deny the zap of the unexpected chill or the magic of texture-rich leaves that lay in drifts around the city? My sons love to reach down and grab them up and throw them in the air, crunch them in their hands, and stare intently at all the little lines and shapes.
Watching my sons I forget the sadness of fall and reminded of my own childhood leaf exploits. All raked up in a big pile, I was about six or seven and I had grown bored of running and jumping in them. Always a little to anxious for a home of my own, I wondered if I might be able to build some kind of house out of them. All I needed was some kind of paste, I thought. I’d mold them together and then make a dome of sorts. I slipped in the kitchen, mixed up some flour and water and egg to produce some kind of plaster. I dumped it on some of the leaves and began my attempt to sculpt a hut. My trusty dog—whom I had ever so creatively named Pups at age five—had other ideas. As I tried to mold the leaves, he ate the dough. Clearly he was much smarter than me, instinctively knowing the only thing that pasty mixture was good for.
My sons are not quite old enough to attempt to build leaf forts, and I hope when they are they’ll be a bit smarter about the whole process. But they are fascinated with this dying part of the tree, and I’m endlessly thankful for their curiosity and willingness to fall in love with autumn without fear of winter. The best education, of course, is observation, and so we go traipsing along, talking about the different shapes of the leaves, how each leaf can tell us about the tree from which it came. This gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of being a good steward to these living creatures that provide us with oxygen, shade, and healthy soil. And we’re not unique in this. If you spend much time online you’ve probably noticed all the parenting blogs are overflowing with leaf crafts, recommendations for leaf books, and instructions on how to make an alphabet chandelier from leaves (just kidding about that last one, although I’m sure some super mom somewhere has done this). I have yet to meet a young child, or a parent, who isn’t fascinated by leaves or fascinated with our child’s fascination. To state the obvious, trees are downright amazing.
More often than I’d like, I wind up using guidebooks and Google to learn the name the varieties. Despite living in the central Arkansas area for most of my life, I have so much to learn about these giants all around me. Whereas my grandparents knew almost all their names and their uses, my parents’ generation has, regrettably, lost sight of this magical knowledge that I’m so desperate to pass on to my children. But isn’t that how it goes? What one generation forgets the other seeks. And it works both ways. Watching my children find amazement in the wind shaking the leaves from the trees reminds me that transition is a fundamental part of life. Nothing something to be feared but rather something to embrace, as best we can.
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.