“Why?” I ask, looking toward the house we are passing.
“She’s severely handicapped and can barely walk,” he says.
I look over in the direction he is indicating and see a young woman, arms loaded with grocery bags, clenching a to-go cup in her teeth. The straw tips precariously. Celery leaves lean toward the ground. Even so, she props open the door with one foot, smiles and nods at us, steps inside and disappears abruptly from view. The screen door slaps against its frame, swings and slaps again, before resting. I imagine her lurching toward a kitchen counter, dropping the bags onto its smooth surface. Maybe that is the moment the groceries are waiting for, the moment where they can spill out of their tight bags and spread across the counter, twirling about in unruly patterns.
"Phew," she would say to herself.
“Who isn't severely handicapped?” I think. "One way or another."
Aloud I say, “She seems to be doing just fine.”
The car turns the corner, but I continue to watch the house, half-expecting her to reappear on the stoop to wave goodbye and wish us well.
My husband and I have a deal. Whoever doesn't cook dinner gets to clean up. Last night, the following happened:
Setting: After roasting a chicken and serving it with glazed carrots, sautéed mushrooms, roasted potatoes and broccoli, I looked at the disaster that had become the kitchen―dirty pots, pans and dishes covering the counters and piled into the sink.
Me: I feel guilty because I made a big mess.
The Hub: You always make a big mess.
Me: That was mean! I'll show you! I'll start cleaning up after myself.
In the early seventies, when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, my tiny whitehaired grandmother, whom we grandchildren called Mom, came for a week-long vacation with a friend. They shared a room in one of the resort hotels up in the foothills. On the day I was to join them for dinner, Mom's friend stepped into her morning shower, and, with no warning whatsoever, died of a massive heart attack. Mom made all the arrangements to have her body shipped back to the family in Cincinnati. I remember that before she left, Mom still took me out to dinner and spent most of our time together trying not to cry. I was in my twenties then and couldn't relate to any of this or even imagine how she must have felt, since the entire situation was so horribly surreal. I'm not young anymore and I still can't imagine how she felt, and the situation still seems horribly surreal. If I was reading this, I would think I made up the entire story, except the first two sentences.
Last year my sister gave me a milk frother for Christmas.
We don't live that way up here, I thought, not knowing that a year later, I would feel deprived if I didn't have steamed milk every morning with my coffee.
I remember, when I was a teenager studying in Europe, being served steaming, hot milk from a crisp, metal pitcher at breakfast. The French put it in their coffee. I mixed mine with Nestle's instant cocoa and enjoyed hot chocolate every morning with my warm roll, spread with smooth, sweet butter.
My sons and I spent two weeks in Kenya in 1992, on a school trip designed for middle school-aged students. By volunteering to chaperone, I was able to bring my fifth grader along with my seventh grader. Our guide was a Dutchman named Dan and our driver was Benson.
One day, when we visited a hippo pool close to the Kenya/Tanzania border, we were busy photographing two male hippos scrapping over a female, when Benson noticed that a group of monkeys had taken over the tour truck. They had unlocked and opened a crate of oranges and were munching away, letting sticky juice drip and torn peels drop, making a huge mess and finishing off our afternoon snack supply. Trying not to disturb the hippos, Benson snuck back toward the truck to shoo them away. The monkeys retaliated by throwing oranges at him, shrieking loudly, raising such a ruckus that the whole group turned around to see Benson being pummeled. He blocked his face with his forearm, ducked, and kept advancing toward the truck. When they finally scattered off into the trees, Benson discovered that one of them had placed a nice poop on his seat, the driver's seat. Since these students had spent hours sitting still, observing, listening and snapping pictures, they got pretty slap-happy, and it was hard settling them back down. The hippos didn’t seem to notice one way or the other and eventually drifted downstream.
While reading the book Love, Life and Elephants by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, I noticed that buried in the middle of the second photo section, in picture no. 72, was a face that looked familiar. Benson was extremely handsome, warm, friendly, with a smile that could melt butter. I looked more closely at the photo. Benson? Then I noticed the copy beneath the photo identified the caregiver as Benson!
Coincidence or my imagination? The chances of it being the same Benson, our Benson, are very remote, are they not? Even so, the possibilities for marveling at life's quirky little twists and turns and for drawing one's own conclusions are endless, going as far as the imagination can travel. Who knows for sure? So, therefore, yes. This is my Benson. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
**Photo Credit: photo of Benson is from Love, Life and the Pursuit of Elephants, written by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, published by Picador, 2012.
Tomorrow my cast comes off, but today I am reading about elephants, zebras and bushbucks that look like white-tailed deer. (Love, Life, and Elephants by Dame Daphne Sheldrick)
I have to stay quiet on this last day of my bed-rest, even though I would rather be in the woods, hunting for Rhea, a neighbor's dog, a German shepherd-rottie mix with a pink collar, who got loose from her yard a couple of days ago and forgot to return home. KC and I hope her outcome is just as happy as Charlie's was, our large English mastiff, who went missing and was finally spotted weaving down the middle of the road, less than a mile from our house. He didn't reappear from wherever he took shelter for three days, the longest three days of my life. He was already a dear, old man with unwieldy legs, grey jowls and white paws, so it amazes me to think that even after that ordeal, he stayed with us for another year and a half, before we had to say our final goodbyes.
On July 29, I had extensive foot surgery, a major battle in my war against arthritis, which hopefully corrected a crunching, grinding bone-on-bone condition inside my foot. When all is said and done, I will have been on basic bed-rest for two weeks, while bones re-knit, and wires and plates settle into their new homes. Meanwhile, my Cavalier King Charles mix, originally a rescue from Bellwether Harbor in Fremont, MI, has been promoted from pet to Prince. Prince Frankie is unaware that in a few short days, he will again be demoted to companion dog. My 50-pound, seemingly concrete cast will be removed, and I will be allowed to get up and about, without bearing weight on that foot for another couple of months or so. I am afraid the change will be a jolt for his royal highness, who presently spends most of his time with me on my bed, instead of at his usual post on the sun-porch, guarding the yard from squirrels and chipmunks, which our resident barred owls reduced considerably in the last year.
This is our living room lamp, sitting on my grandmother's table next to the tv. The Pittsburgh Pens got knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, my life must go on, so I drew it on a piece of scrap paper on June 8 while watching the Blackhawks battling the LA Kings. I watercolored it and pondered its significance (zilch) the next day.
Why on earth did I
then draw a ladybug? I'd never drawn one before and I was sitting next to Charlie on the floor, watching the above-mentioned hockey game. Despite the neck-and-neck battle for the Western championship, my husband fell asleep in his chair, the house was quiet, except for thousands of screaming fans, loud announcers and piercing sirens, and my team wasn't playing. I drew the ladybug and water-colored it the next day. Why? I haven't the foggiest.
The writers around me get right to it. As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off, computers snap open, fingers fly over the keys clicking, black characters fill the livid screens. Laptops and notepads, while I log into my tiny smartphone and fill white squares with black characters. In the time it takes them to turn their paragraphs into pages, reports and long, impressive emails to bosses and business associates, I use my new app to complete three crossword puzzles.
didn’t usually fly first-class, but, since this was such a long flight, I couldn’t resist treating myself. Just this once, I thought. I studied the handsome-uptight-Polo-shirt guy, who was seated across the aisle from the fat-balding guy, who shared the row with the blue-headphones-gray-haired guy, and, one row ahead of me, the young-loud-cool-dude-on-his-cell-phone guy was ignoring all of us, before he finally yelled goodbye. Two rows behind me and on the right, an I’m-a-big-fan guy was shaking hands and introducing himself to the too-tall-too-tan-too-blond-and-not-getting-any-younger, ex-Laker guy. I was starting a crossword puzzle in the back of the in-flight magazine and enjoying the steady murmur of people talking and bags scraping, feet clumping, compartment doors slamming, the beautiful noise of the regular, the everyday sounds of people taking care of business and buckling down for the long flight ahead. The sun warmed my skin. Below the window, the baggage guys were tossing suitcases and golf bags onto a ramp. So much for the handling with care. Did the greasy-haired-smelling-like-stale-wine guy next to me, whom I was trying to ignore, really raise his head from his paperback and randomly shout, “Aaahh, the chatter of the common folk?” The line in the aisle stopped moving, heads turned my way and I raised my magazine in front of my face, scrunching down into my seat. I’m not with him, I’m not with him, I thought helplessly, amid the glares and head-shaking. Four and a half hours was going to take forever.
I know they're supposed to give a healthy structure to the day, but I just assume slough them off, like a coat that’s too heavy. The sheer bulk of it makes it impossible for me to easily navigate a narrow store aisle, for I don’t know where I begin and end. Thus, I can take out an entire display simply by turning around. The purse hanging from my shoulder wreaks extra havoc, as I kneel down to clumsily retrieve unharmed objects from the floor to return them to their rightful places, and its straps slip from my shoulder and slide down my arm, like siblings sliding down a banister, yelling, “Whee!” and knocking everything back to the floor. Cleaning up after oneself is a tricky business. Daily schedules should be avoided at all costs.
How would I watercolor that tree, I wondered, gazing at our Christmas tree in the corner of the room, its branches filled with bright C7 bulbs, multi-colored mini-lights with white minis mixed in, and ornaments, round, spherical, fragile glass, metals and plastic, some sleek and gleaming, some sparkling with coils of golden wire and textured snowflake glitter. I supposed I’d have to start with a pencil drawing, tricky since I have had very limited experience with drawing trees. I have only drawn one. Well, actually, it was a tree part. Okay, it was the last two inches of a branch that I used as a perch for a bird that was the actual point of the whole thing. A birthday bird, a house finch, with a birthday balloon tied by a string, held in its beak. I had already used "A little bird told me it was your birthday," so I went with "Happy Bird-Day to you!" It was not my best selling birthday card. Anyway, with the lights and the spaces between branches and the ornaments, I would have to use generous amounts of white space in order to keep it from looking muddied. I'm not good at white space. It's hard for me to leave it alone, like a pause in a conversation, but I knew it would provide an outline, or, since it was Christmas, a halo for the different shapes, giving them their own definition. I stifled a yawn. I hadn't been able to sleep after so robust and busy a Christmas Day, but now I was tired. Warm and drowsy on the couch with the fuzzy, green throw over my lap, sitting alone with my computer, studying the tree and enjoying the Christmas lights. Sleep would come easily now, so I got up, turned off the lights and went back to bed, realizing that my path was lit with moonlight that glowed through the window and stretched softly across the floor.
I'm sitting in the doctor's office waiting room next to a man who smells like he's been shut up in a dark, airless room for three days, chain-smoking filterless Camels. Determined to be polite, I will not move to a different chair across the room, crinkle my nose, or roll my eyes to the ceiling. A lady taps her walker on the floor in time with the Christmas carol that's playing through speakers somewhere, and she moves slowly across the room to disappear through a door with the nurse who called her name and who is holding a brown clipboard. A young man, whose left foot is booted and curled behind him, resting on a scooter, zips by me on his way to the check-out counter, his wife trotting behind him. Beep! Beep! Before I can turn around to marvel at the scooter, another nurse, looking frazzled and holding yet another brown clipboard, calls my name.
“Don’t you think the last fifty pages will be the hardest to write?” TL asked. I had been working on my Masters in Creative Writing, plugging away to produce 150 pages of polished material, and was, at the moment of this particular conversation, working on the middle fifty pages.
The answer was simple. Years ago, when I lived in California, I did long distance swims at the Cove in La Jolla. Buoys marked a quarter mile and a half mile. I learned right away that the beginning and the end were snaps, when I was in sight of the shore or in sight of the buoy, because I could see where I started and where I was headed. But it was not a snap in the middle, where there was nothing but darkness reaching beneath me, filled with who-knows-what, with no buoy in sight yet and no shoreline visible behind me. This was the stretch where I struggled with uncertainty, even panicking a little at the thought I might not even be swimming in the right direction. Straying out of the channel with So Cal rip tides lurking was not an appealing thought, and being seen by others as flailing and clueless was even worse, since one must look cool at all times, no matter what, especially in Southern California.
So, returning to the question. Which 50 pages are the most difficult to write? Clearly, it's the middle ones, as they require a strong dose of steely determination and blind faith, in addition to the usual insanity.
Limited: At the Bear River Writer’s Conference, my first assignment was to write a page about "who I am, who I really am," as in what I wanted people to remember about me, and, instead of diving into it, like I should have done, I looked over Brenda’s shoulder, trying to read what she was writing because I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. This insecurity is exactly what I do not want people to know about me and, erroneously deciding this was to be a fun, warm-up exercise, I ignored Brenda's fine, conflict-filled example, and wrote a sunny piece describing the many wonderful ways in which I wanted to be remembered.
Light: In small group, when my workshop piece crashed and burned and brought whatever confidence in my writing I had left to an abrupt halt, the main criticism was that my piece had no shadows. Served me right for trying to write a glowing obituary of myself, an exercise in silliness, if ever there was one.
Listening: In all my years of schooling, I apparently haven't learned a thing, since I still detest, and I mean detest, critiquing other people's work. It offends me. It is theirs, not mine. My suggestions put my voice into a place where it doesn't belong. So I sit in workshops and listen. And every now and then, I say, Hmm, which seems to get me off the hook, at least for the moment. Maybe I don't want to comment because I really don't have all that much to say, and who listens to me anyway, which probably means I'm getting smaller and smaller, like The Incredible Shrinking Woman, played by Lily Tomlin, who was in danger of being swept down the kitchen sink drain, hoping no one would turn on the garbage disposal.
My advice today? Avoid workshops, stay away from drains and have a terrific weekend!
My cell phone buzzed until the very second I found my flash drive behind the headboard, wedged between my mattress and the wall, right next to the electric socket. Little things like that tend to happen to me, small warnings, my non-working home phone dialing 911, the fans in the dogs' area becoming unplugged, my car security alarm going off in the driveway while I'm on the phone, trying to make a decision, little things that happen all by themselves, little things my spiritual friends call "signs." How could I possibly refute or prove that one way or the other? Even so, I must stay on the lookout for more, for they may come in handy some sad, dreadful, horrible day.
Who are these valiant souls on paddle boards, rafts and jet skiis? The lake has barely begun to warm. Girls shriek, hold hands and count 1, 2, 3, under! I watch one couple wade in, water nipping at their waists, before they dive, with her going first, toes pointed. Body parts dip and reappear, smooth curves gleaming in the sun, the result of youth and long hours in the gym, weights, spin class, pilates. The parasailors fly over the water, skipping over waves with the wind, the sun flashing off their gleaming wet suits, the only sensible apparel for the first swim of the season here in Little Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan.
I know you think you’re protecting my spine by getting all uptight and spazzy and everything. But really? I'm getting tired of your constant overreaction. I’ve got it from here. Everything’s under control. So please. And I mean: PLEASE. Take a break. Relax. Let me loose. Take a chill pill. Oh. I already did that, plus I got a shot that should get the message across to just. let. me. go. It should take effect shortly. A nice vacation! All expenses paid. Such a deal!
Your father is the poem inside you when you wake up in the morning, the poem like a spine, shaping how you stand and sit, the poem that's with you on the toilet, at the sink, in front of the coffeepot, the poem that leans back into the driver's seat and spins the steering wheel with one practiced hand.
I have been staying in my father’s Naples apartment for a mere twenty-four hours and, when I walked in from my trip to the grocers, I felt as if I was walking through a war zone. The coffee maker looked like it had exploded coffee stains and grounds onto the kitchen counter, clothes were tossed on the floor and thrown over chairs. Piles of towels and dirty dishes. On the bed, in the sink. Even my nail polish remover was open and sitting in the middle the bathroom floor, with the cap next to it.
What was my nail polish remover doing in the middle of the bathroom floor? Why have I made such a mess and why am I such a slob? Neither of my parents was like this. Pondering this enigma in great depth, I could think of only one answer, which is this: being a slob saves time. Plain and simple.
When I drop whatever I'm doing/holding/wearing/using, and then quickly move on to the next thing, there are immediate time-saving benefits. Flowing from one task to another, without being interrupted by time-wasteful cleanup, I feel as if I'm getting hoards of projects completed with dazzling finesse. I know, I know. Someone's going to tell me that in the long-run, this is not so, that I am a short-term kind of gal, unable to visualize and plan for the future and incapable of seeing the big picture. Oh, well. Maybe that's true. That's okay for the time being, especially since it's late and I'm getting tired. My pj's are in a wad at the end of the bed, right where I can find them. The rest of it I can clean up tomorrow.