Monday, May 19, 2014

Don’t Waste a Gift—Part One

The funny thing about having a “gift”—an ability or understanding that’s particular to you, something that sets you apart—is that it often works both ways. 

I can share my gift with you. 
Maybe you benefit from it.  But I benefit from it too.

            I began to realize, years ago, that I have a knack for explaining things to other people—it could be using Microsoft Excel, or appliqueing quilt blocks, or diagramming sentences.  Soon after, I realized how my own understanding (of whatever concept I was teaching) was broadened, cemented, and further enjoyed, simply by sharing it with someone else.

For instance, several college classmates approached me one day after Advanced Grammar class. 

“Can we study with you?”  They asked. 

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Busy Drinkin'
I was astonished.  I didn’t feel as though I knew the material any better than anyone else in the room.  I assumed their belief in me was simply because I was a few years older than they were.  But, just maybe they saw something in me I couldn’t see.  Flattered, I accepted, and we arranged to meet over the weekend.  Desperate to instruct them properly, I studied the assigned concepts more thoroughly than I would have if only my own grade was at risk.

That weekend I was able to lead them in study with assurance and pride.  Consequently, their scores on subsequent quizzes and tests improved.  And so did mine.  I learned each concept multiplied by three: once, in cursory read-throughs, to acquaint myself with each new topic; again, in formulating the plan-of-action I would use to review them; and again, when we drilled each concept together.  Needless to say, I made an A in a class that many struggled and suffered through.

Laziness too often robs me of the pleasure of the two-way process of sharing a gift.  I mean, think about all of the hard work I had to do in order to tutor my classmates!  Who wants to put forth that kind of effort every day?  It’s exhausting.  So I let the dread of the sweat outweigh the joy of the result. 

Don’t be like me.  Don’t waste it.

Maybe I’ll benefit from it.  But you’ll benefit from it too.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Whew! That Was Close!

I have had many close calls in my life.  When I nearly backed off a railing-less cliff outside of a roadside restaurant.  The time I fell asleep at the wheel.  For just a second.  Having twigs and other projections just miss gouging my eyes out.  Teetering at the top of a long flight of stairs. Sure, my life may flash before my eyes, but it's more disturbing than that.  Each time a close call whistles past my ear, I see what would have happened in Technicolor.
It's winter and we are standing outside of the restaurant saying goodbye to friends.  I'm laughing, bending over at the waist at a joke my father's told.  My knees are weak from amusement and I stumble a little, backing up too quickly for anyone to warn me. One more step and my heel comes down on air.  My head jerks up and I see my father's face slide down out of my field of vision as I tumble backwards.  The only sound I hear is a guttural, “Hunh!” when I hit the bottom.
My head dips over the steering wheel like a dashboard bobble-head dog, getting lower and lower in its ellipses. My shoulders fall and the three fingers that were lazily steering slip into my lap.  My foot, still on the accelerator, presses harder as I lean into sleep.  The car gently curves into the wrong lane of traffic.  The sportier cars and more agile drivers are able to dance around my drifting vehicle.  But there is a truck.
In my rush to get started on the weekend laundry, I load myself too heavy.  My arms are full of damp towels and bed linens, piled up, obscuring my eyes.  One tentative foot reaches out to find the top step of the stairs.  But I’m already closer than I thought.  The balls of my feet rock against the top step.  My toes cramp, desperately gripping the worn carpet. I’m falling.  The sound of the splintering banister drowns out the sound of my breaking bones.

I'll spare you the eye-gouging scenario.  Rest assured, it's just as dreadful.
The question is, do I want to disable the imagination that fathoms all of these terribly possible, most certainly terrible scenarios? 

I suppose not. 

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Wicked Witch

Sunday, July 28, 2013

You Like Me, You Really Like Me!

Being a grown up is not as wonderful as I thought it would be.  For one, my mother can't pick me up and rock me to sleep.  For two, I never realized that at 35-years old I would still want her to. 

As an adult, I enjoy spending the kind of time with my parents that I was not capable of, nor interested in spending with them when I was a teenager.  We sit and talk now.  We share a glass of wine over expertly grilled salmon (thanks, Dad!) and sit and talk.  I can talk to them about important things.  About sad or happy things.  I can talk to them about being-on-the-verge-of-tears things. 

And the best part? 

The very, very best part? The part that fills me with the kind of contented peace that has only previously been found on the other side of a long, hot bath and a mug of milky  tea? 

They like me.

They enjoy my company.  Two of the smartest, kindest, most gentle people I know enjoy my company.  If this is the only accomplishment I can boast of in my life, I will die happy.

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Heavy Bangs

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bossy Bestie

So my bestie, Kelly, tells me I need to stop slaving over each blog post and just simply write down what I do on any given day. 
She says, “It doesn't have to be perfect.  Just write this: 'Today I' and fill in the blank.”
“You don't get it,” I say.  “I can't.  I really can't.  It's physically impossible.”
“You're a jerk,” She says.
I tell her, “You don't understand.  I'm a sensitive, fragile writer.  I’m like a slug, I have no natural defenses.  Now shut your face, or I'll shut it for you.”

I find myself rewriting and revising emails, journal entries, and texts.  I even edit and revise TO DO lists that I write on little pieces of paper and keep in the right-hand pocket of my scrubs.  I can’t write a sentence without painstakingly re-reading for clarity and voice.  Those last two sentences?  A total of four rewrites.  I do it without wanting to, the same way a swimmer must come to the surface for a gulp of air.  It’s my oxygen, this revision.  I wish I could refrain from it, hold my breath and just keep diving for the unknown depths below, but I can’t.  After a few seconds, my lungs burn and my fingers ache to swim back.  Of course it doesn’t hurt to keep trying. 

Today I:

  • Managed to not cry when the alarm clock went off.  (No combination of favorite tunes and snooze buttoning makes the morning easier.)

  • Sent a series of prayers heavenward like devotional smoke signals.  (Will God accept code?)

  • Chewed caramels until my teeth hurt.  (Eating sticky candy is like whistling through the dental graveyard.)

  • Thought and thought and thought until it hurt.  (Is reflection supposed to be painful?)

  • Rewrote my TO DO list: do the laundry, wash the mini blinds, clean the stove, order more ink for my Pilot Plumix fountain pen, borrow Gorilla Glue from Mom, look for a job.  (No matter what I cross off, something new always fills its place.)

  • Ate pasta, drank wine.  (Isn’t it wonderful?)

Yes, Kelly that was hard.  If I told you how much, you’d probably punch me in the neck.  Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  Good Ol’ Natty Hawthorne.  I think, maybe if he were still alive, we might be besties.
 You don’t have to say it, Kelly—I love you, too.   

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Morning Moodiness

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Recipe for Five Garden Tomato Basil Soup

1.      Buy four Oxheart tomato plants from a chatty patient's wife who claims they are from an heirloom plant that originated in Sicily.
2.      Gather the supplies you will need to foster plant life in a tiny urban backyard devastated by the three-foot snows of late winter in early 2010: potting soil with fertilizer, large pots.
3.      Discover you don't have enough space in one giant fiberglass planter to sustain four plants (or rather, have your visiting mother point this out to you, because at this point agriculture is still The Great Unknown).
4.      Give the remaining three plants to your neighbors.
5.      Nestle the seedling in your huge pot, all the while arguing with your mother about whether the plant will get enough drainage and sun and water and whether it will grow large enough to ever possibly need the three-foot tall wire cage support that dwarfs it now.
6.      Water it.
7.      And wait.
8.     Watch the plant grow tall, your heart lifting with pride and joy.  Smile a little to yourself when you’re at work and you stop to think about the tomato blossoms.
9.      Watch your neighbors' tomato plants grow full, their baby tomatoes like clusters of shelled peas among the dark green leaves.
10.  Worry a little bit.
11.   Look at your tomato plant with resentment.
12.  Have your mother rebuke you for yelling at your tomato plant.  (“No wonder it's not growing well with the way you talk to it!”)
13.  Freak out about the dark brown stain spreading from the blossom-end on the baby tomatoes.
14.  Google “Tomato Blight.”
15.   Ask your mother to sprinkle crushed up egg shells on the soil and pray the calcium will be absorbed quickly.
16.  Cut off all of the infected green tomatoes and throw them in a corner by the garage steps, so your plant can see the corpses of those who have chosen the wrong path in their tomato life.
17.   Punish your plant by not watering it.
18.  Listen to your mother nag you about watering your plant.
19.  Ask your tomato plant why it can't be more like your herbs.  They grow like weeds with little care and only minimal attention.
20. Cull another round of blighty tomatoes.
21.  Harvest the first deformed fruit of your labor.  Have your mother try it, because you don't eat raw tomatoes.
22. Humbly accept a handful of large, ripe, show-offy tomatoes from your neighbors.
23. Gratefully take a bag of San Remo tomatoes from your coworker.
24. Decide to make soup.
25.  Beg for tomatoes from another coworker.
26. Pick Roma tomatoes from your aunt's plants that are so loaded with fruit that they have collapsed under the weight.  Mutter disgruntedly as you fill a reusable shopping tote with ripe tomatoes.
27.  Remove any remaining stems from 3-4 lbs of tomatoes (your plants only contribute four small tomatoes to the pile, try not to weep).
28. Quarter the large tomatoes, halve the small tomatoes (leave any Grape tomatoes whole). 
29. Throw all into a huge stock pot that your best friend bought you for Christmas and haven't used until today because you've almost given up on cooking.
30. Stew tomatoes for 1-2 hours, until soupy.
31.  Transfer tomatoes into a blender, add a fistful of fresh basil.  (You may have to make 2 or more separate batches depending on the amount of tomatoes you've grown/accepted/stolen.)
32.  Puree.  Secretly rejoice that the tomatoes are finally getting what's coming to them.
33. Transfer back to the pot.
34. Add 2 tablespoons of butter.  Or the whole stick.  You deserve it by now.
35.  Add 1-2 cups of heavy cream.
36. Add salt and pepper to taste.
37.  Serve hot with bread (brush thick slices of baguette with olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt and toast under the broiler) or just stand over the counter and suck soup from the ladle.
38. Take a Rubbermaid container full of soup to your mother.
39. And thank her.

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Lobster Fishing

Friday, July 8, 2011

"I had a farm in Africa."

            Remember the beginning of the film Out of Africa?  Meryl Streep with that affected Danish accent in voice-over: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”  Cue the swelling brass of John Barry's stirring soundtrack.  The sweeping overhead shot of a train slicing through the African veldt along the Great Rift Valley.  Oh, this one will make you cry—the music, the cinematography, it all promises tragedy in store.
            “I had a farm in Africa.”  What poignant memory is in these six words.  What loss. Meryl Streep's character (real-life memoirist Karen von Blixen) spent seventeen years in Kenya, from 1914-1931 struggling to run a coffee plantation.  During that time, she married, divorced, started a school for native children, and ultimately, found freedom from the repression of Victorian Denmark.
            Maybe I'm overdoing it to hear the soundtrack in my ears when I think of the past, but I had my own farm in Africa.  It was a handful of summers spent in Bedford for extended family reunions.  It was the last days of childhood running wild in the woods on the Chestnut Ridge.  Two years on a tropical island in the Philippine Sea.  A tour of the Lake Erie/Chautauqua Wine trail with a new friend.  Two weeks in Nova Scotia with a group of strangers who became friends.           
There is almost no single moment of my life during which I stop and think, “This will be a moment I’ll want to relive.  This is a moment that will make me ache with longing.  This moment will be so glorious in remembering that I won’t be able to think on it without pain.”  We never think that, do we? 
Nathaniel Hawthorne said “Our first youth is of no value: for we are never conscious of it until after it is gone.”  It's true of so much of our lives.  Is it a punishment to be so oblivious?  Or just a natural outcome of the overwhelming weight of the present? 

I cannot see the forest for the trees, but once, I had a farm in Africa. 

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Bad Hair

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


                I'm worried about my garden plants.  I think about them when I wake up in the morning.  I think about them when I close my eyes at night.  I think about them when I see commercials showing intimate (and slightly uncomfortable) close-ups of fresh vegetables.  When I stand, overwhelmed, in the Giant Eagle produce section.  When I order the veggie blend with my thirty-seconds-rare steak at the Outback.  I dream about the pale, bell-like blossoms on my Gypsy pepper plant, the softly furred blooms of my Oxheart tomato plant.  
                At first, I fretted over the little plants, worried that their growth was slow, that every imagined deficiency proved my fault.  I water them too little.  I water them too much.  They get too little sun.  They get too much sun.  Do they lack for attention?  Should I not fondle the leaves?  Is that a yellow spot?!
                I'm failing.  I'm failing.
                Weeks ago, the first pepper blossom fell and in its place a tiny green swelling appeared.  It grew.  I relaxed.  And turned my focus to the towering, but fruitless tomato plant.  Then the hint of a tomato appeared, like a droplet of rainwater trapped amidst the green.  I thought I would be satisfied.  I thought I would find relief once the first fruits made an appearance.  But the worry is worse.  Now every morning and evening, I check the baby peppers and tomatoes, turn them gently to inspect the skin, test the weight and firmness.
                I'm understanding just how much worry is involved in taking care of something alive.  How did my parents survive all these years with the constant concern about my physical well-being?  I know they worry still.   Am I growing well?  Am I bearing fruit?  Can I weather the coming winter? 
                I've never been neurotic about taking care of an infant or child.  Even though I'm not a mother, I can hear the difference between the angry howl of a hungry baby and the high wail of a frightened baby.  I know how to lull little ones to sleep with heartbeat pats and low-throated humming.  I know how to feed them, bathe them, clothe them, entertain them with silly songs and simple games.  Babies make sense. 
                But these plants.  Oh, these plants.

                I love them.     

Reason I Didn't Write Yesterday: Didn't Wanna