Talking to Girls

“I would like to punch that person in the throat for being so stupid!”

This girl’s comment was the first thing that came to mind after reading an essay by Lisa Bloom written in 2011. It brought up a lot of other things as well: Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a student’s sliced up arms, as a teacher being a mandated reporter. How honest do you be?

Bluntness is always a choice. One woman’s truth is another man’s opinion.

My first day teaching in a US school, I was 45 years old, proctoring study hall. A girl, a senior, approached.

“Is it always going to be like this?”

“Like what?” thinking Really, you are asking me this? Someone you don’t even know? A stranger?

“Stress, tests, failing. Friends stabbing you in the back.”

“Ahhh. That.” A pause. A moment to consider. But comforting has never been a really easy style. “Yes, it will be.”

“Oh. Forever?”

“It will always be different. You’ll get used to the testing. You’ll have performance reviews at work. That’s a kind of test. You’ll get to be the judgy one yourself.”

“I will?”

“And you’ll get to choose where you work, and who with. You can always walk away from those friends who are just mean.”

It helped. It didn’t always have to be grim.

As much as bluntness, whacky humor is important. I howled at the girl who created a possessed green PostIt note that plagued the mop-up guy at the Seven Eleven.

Being a fashionista isn’t always bad. Amidst all the Einsteins, Gandhis, and Hillary Clintons chosen as the most wished for dinner partners, there sat Coco Channel. She would never have crossed my horizon, but I knew she was a perfect fit.

Open research papers always got the share of instant make overs, chocolate delivery systems, and the like. But it also brought out questions like:

“If I really wanted to own a monkey in Maine, what would I have to do and how could I take care of it?” (It turns out that moving away is the only choice for monkey owners).

“If I wanted to raise a family here, what things would have to change for me to feel safe?”

“How can I accurately measure the oil in my engine and not burn it out again?”

“What is a decent water delivery system for a multi-horse trailer, so I don’t have to lug buckets to fill it up?”

Girls need honesty and they need space to ask questions. Most of all they need to learn that the right sort of competition is against themselves, tweaking their own self-image until they can become the person they always knew they were.

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Rafe–Frozen River (rev 1)




This is a revision, augmented and edited, of a section published last year.

Scraping-Ice-for-CuttingRafe rolled her shoulders and cracked her back as she stood at the edge of the ice, leaning on Blade, to watch the developing circus. It had started yesterday when Old Farley drilled pilot holes and declared the river frozen enough to start gathering ice. The cutters pushed their saws along lines marked with sawdust, making their cuts to the three-quarter depth that Old Farley had determined. Drovers lined up, sledges blanketed with hay and sawdust, ready to haul the blocks into the ice house.

Blade pulled on the red scarf Rafe had knit that winter, then stole her hat, whuffling hot breath through her gray hair, cut short for the impending spring. He was restless in his traces and did not appreciate being harnessed to sledge loaded with sawdust. Rafe rubbed her knuckles in the valley under his jaw. “It won’t be long now. You know you wouldn’t be any happier if we were on the march through snow, hock deep.”

Wilf joined her, flapping a wax covered board, and fiddling with the stylus tucked behind his ear. “So Auntie. Doing some heavy lifting today?”

Rafe nodded and continued her scratching. “Blade, here, is. Malingering again, I see.”

“Is this what you did back in the day?” said Wilf, tucking the tablet under his arm to warm the wax as he blew through his mittens. “Or were you out on the ice with the rest of the young bucks?”

“What I wanted to be was a cutter. But that wasn’t ‘seemly’ my mother felt. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.” Rafe glanced at Wilf. That he ignored such an opening, she thought, said that he had, indeed, heard the stories. “I started as a sweeper, keeping the harvest field clear of chips and snow, and then as a gaffer, like young Jole, there.”

Rafe picked up her hat and dusted off the snow. “And you, are you sorry you didn’t leave last summer? You could be warming your back under the northern sun, plaguing some other old soldier to tell you the stories of a misspent youth.”

“It really is all about you, isn’t it. Mother is right. You have no sense of family solidarity.” Wilf made himself stand taller and tested the wax on the tally board with his thumbnail. “As interesting as your maunderings of ancient history may be, I have stayed to support my young cousin, in his first ice harvest as a gaffer.”

Upriver some of the gaffers were playing at quarterstaves, but Jole poked the end of his pike into the snow that banked the river. He had the height for good leverage, flinging chunks of ice on their way to the shore as they flew into the air, pushed up by the water that filled in the gap when the blocks were released from the floe. He was light enough, though, that without the hobnailed boots, he would go flying to the opposite side of the river with each block he grabbed.

Old Farley waved his flag and Jole moved out onto the surface of the river. “Hey! Watch out you kids!” Jole swung his gaff toward a group of sweepers who were creeping toward the men. He had, of course, done the same thing when he was a kid, seeing how close to the cut he could get, jumping on a block of ice as it popped out of its hole, and riding until it stopped, part way to the shore. It was a dare that all kids did. But last year little Pharnam had mistimed his leap and that memory stuck.

The first knife was slid into the hole in the middle of the river. The serrated edge cut smoothly, parallel to the bank. The second side, opposite the first was finished. A team of men cut, on opposite sides, perpendicular to the bank. They would finish together. Jole moved into position, his gaff ready. Mick Jake was opposite him. They would pull the flying block forward as the cutters ducked and slid out of the way. Hale and Mose, at the cut in the middle of the river, would pull the ice forward, keeping pace with Jole and Mick. They braced to catch the ice.

When the sides of the hole were more than half finished there was a sound like the screel of the low strings on a violin played out of harmony. Inchy Foal’s sister, Snicker, Leaped from behind Jole, landed, belly down on the block, as the ice cracked neatly along the marked lines and dropped out of sight. Thunk. Jole’s bugged out eyes locked with Mick’s. who shrugged. Where was the water? And where was Inchy Foal’s sister?

Jole turned toward the shore, locking eyes with Rafe. Her scowl as she stalked onto the ice, Wilf sliding in her wake, made her look rather un-auntie-like.
Jole skated on his feet with Mick and the rest of the men, up to the edge of the hole. Children dashed ahead. They could hear the ice block rocking. The cutters swore.

“There’s dead fish down here!” called Snicker Foal, “froze solid,” as fish, one after the other, came flying out of the hole to clunk on the ice. “And guess where Mare Fisher’s headpiece ended up!” A wedding crown, draped in dried riverweed, came arching out of the hole and clunked on the ice as well. There at the bottom of the river, high and dry but well below the bottom of the ice, standing barely eye level with the bottom of the floe, was Snicker, not a bit winded and quite undamaged.  Fish stuck out like flags, in each hand. “There’s all kinds of junk down here,” she hollered.

A pool of bright light made the girl glow like an angel. Mottled shadows surrounded her as the sun bounced off thickened places in the ice. Toward the ford the river floor sloped up, nearly touching the bottom of the ice. In the other direction the floor sank away into the ice-imposed dusk. The partially cut ice started to crack and Jole and Mick found themselves sitting on ice blocks on either side of Snicker. When they stood up, they found they could see above the ice.

When the boys dropped out of sight, half the people on the ice had turned around and headed back to shore. Under the murmur of the crowd the ice was groaning, driving the people faster than any barked command. The population of Riverside was now about evenly split between ice and shore.

To Rafe’s eye there was no real danger. The hole left by the sawed out block was nearly four feet thick, as thick as Inchy Foal was tall. The uncut ice was still a foot thick, and would support the weight of a single person, but probably not a crowd. Rafe could see his sister, Snicker, still in possession of her two fish, hauled out of the hole by her agitated mother, and hear the constant flow of squabble.

“You can just drop those stinking sturgeon right there.” Ma Foal didn’t bother to look up at her daughter, but made a grab for the catch.

“They’re frozen, Ma. We can have them for supper.” Snicker might tower over the rest of her family, but she was no match for her mother’s low center of gravity on ice.

“I’m not cooking any dead fish found lying in the mud at the bottom of the river.” Ma Foal snatched the fish and flung them aside.

“But Ma, is it a river if there’s no water?” Snicker strained against her mother’s grip to retrieve the fish as they slid back toward the hole. Knees locked tight and the leather soles catching on the ice, Snicker countered her mother’s weight, as she was drag irrevocably to land.

Rafe was impressed by the question, and the girl’s tenacity. As mother and daughter struggled to shore, Jole thriftily picked up the fish and tucked them in his pack. Rafe smiled at her nephew and stepped onto the ice followed closely by Wilf.

By the time she reached the hole, the balance of people were on shore. Old Farley and one of the other cutters had dragged a ladder out and the early scavengers were using it to explore the river bottom. Jole and Mick were back, poking around the junk. Rafe herself did not descend, but rather walked around the opening, scrutinized the treasure seekers and considered.

The amount of junk poking out of the frozen mud was astounding. How much had been washed from upstream? Surely someone would have tried to pull out the wagon, and yet there it lay, crates still tied on. Other things, the crown, the ironware, things heavy enough to have sunk directly to the bottom, must have come from Riverside. She recognized the white of bones emerging from a gap between two tree length timbers. A logging effort had clearly supplied the wood. The river had left them fetched up under a rocky ledge.

Rafe shook her head. The Foal girl was right. It was hard thinking of this as a river without the water flowing under the ice. Deep as the riverbed was, it seemed more like a ravine. It did not even evoke one of the dry wadis in the north, that always anticipated a flash flood. How long had the river been empty?

Old Farley and his crew were moving toward the logs now. “We can use some of this timber to make braces for the ice. That will let us widen the hole.”

“We already lost one block. How we going to keep the next one from dropping to the bottom?”

“We didn’t lose nothin’. That’s what these timbers will be for. We can make rails and drag the ice to shore. We’re going to need every scrap of ice we got. If the river is gone, who can say what’ll happen to the well.”

Rafe recognized the tone of a man who no longer needed to present a patient face to his crew. She’d reached that point herself before she rode out of Graven’s Guard for the last time. She called down to the men, “Sun’s gone. You haven’t got even a half hour’s light.”

“Well, then,” said Old Farley, “there’s plenty of time to get Marlon to help. He’s got brains enough for three of these louts.” He clapped his hands together and dusted his hat on his thigh. “That will do.”

“Before you come up,” Rafe shouted down, “check out those bones wedged up there under the bank.”

Old Farley sent Jole and Mick off to take a look. “I doubt it’s one of ours. I don’t know anyone has gone missing, except maybe you, in the last forty years. Maybe the driver of that wagon, there.”

Then he turned to Wilf. “Look, boy. You go tell your Da that I want a word with him. And your Uncle Ducky as well. And maybe that Molly.” As Wilf hustled off he turned back to Rafe. “You’ll stay a bit, aye? I’d just as soon make sure no one got the idea to go prospecting for treasure in the night.”

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Wandering in a group and alone

EPSON MFP imageThe first whiff of diesel and hot rubber smacked into us as the air conditioned bus unloaded in the center of Rabat, Morocco. It was like coming home. Bags were piled in front of an arched gate in a stone wall dripping with jasmine. The street was dusty, a clutch of small boys leaned against each other and the wall. “Hey ‘Merican!” There we were, ninety-five spanking new Peace Corps Volunteers, along with the people who would teach language and the ways of the Maghreb – the Land of the West. We passed through the gate into a cool, lily lined garden.

Family tradition meant living abroad, learning new languages, and assimilating into a foreign culture, a sort of Miss Rumphius life. Joining the Peace Corps seemed to be the answer, but it was easy. “Finish college first,” said the woman on the phone who seemed to have answered the lost paperwork question before.

I finished college and tried again. The application process started off well, then foundered as all the transcripts, letters of support, and pages of blue boxed forms disappeared in the world of the postal service.

Thinking a life in journalism might be the ticket overseas, I moved back with my folks and started free-lancing as a writer, covering the political season, writing brochures for cedar fencing and in house newsletters for area businesses. My family was unimpressed. In February, I turned twenty-three. “Get a real job,” they said, “or go back to school and get some practical training. Become a teacher.” Reluctantly I signed up for the graduate school entrance exams.

Then, salvation! A notice appeared, in the local paper, that Peace Corps recruiters would be in Bangor the next week, conducting interviews out of a motel room downtown. Walk-ins welcome. At the end pale green corridor with seedy gray carpeting, the recruiters had set up their office. We chatted. They loved me. “Where do you want to go?” Three countries seemed like interesting prospects. Two weeks later the phone rang. “You’re going to Morocco. Get a passport, get a physical, get fingerprinted. Get the documents translated. You leave the first week of June.”

The stone wall surrounded a girls’ school that would house the new Volunteers for the next two months. Language classes were formed based on past experience, and I was placed with the group who were on their second tour with the Corps. Our teachers spoke only Arabic, in class or out.

I made a habit of going off on jaunts, eating charcoal roasted brochettes, drinking milk blended with marzipan. I explored the stone fortress that lined the harbor. I had grown up watching Dad chat in Swahili, Kikuyu, and Luragoli in Kenya, and later Arabic in Jordan. He picked up new words in restaurants, never failing to address people in their own languages. He the liaison. When students went on strike, he negotiated. When the government wanted to close the school in Jordan, he found the common ground. That became my strategy as I moved about the city. When venturing out with other Volunteers, I jumped in and used my language skills.

Once we moved to our assigned villages, there was a wretched afternoon spent in the garden of a small hotel, slumped on a stone bench, crying on a cleaning lady’s shoulder. She pointed out I was a big girl to be sitting there bawling my eyes out. “You speak pretty well,” she said. “This is what you wanted and this is what you’ve got.” She pointed out that my entire complaint had been in Arabic and she had gotten the point just fine.

Two other volunteers, both men, stationed in the village. Beyond sharing a maid and occasional meals, they wanted nothing to do with me. “We came here to absorb culture. Make your own friends,” and finally “Just get a life.” Our maid said the mostly smoked dope with the other young men in town.

Language immersion was the only choice. Teaching students, and fifty rounds of “Whose book is that? It is my book” did not cut it as far as comforting language went. Some British friends in Fes, a full day’s journey away from what was becoming Home, provided an opportunity to relax and speak English.

I made friends with the girls next door. I frequented the public baths, used sticky black soap, hennaed my hair, and ate mandarins floating in icy cold water. I went on walks with neighbors, my students’ mothers, and other young unmarried women met through my maid. I learned to kiss hands, eat politely, join in bawdy wedding songs. The market-day routine was buying two eggs and taking them to the fried dough maker for a deep fried breakfast sandwich. Spices from cone shaped mounds of red and yellow.

I still dressed oddly by local standards, wearing a wooly man’s djellebah, a kind of over the head, floor length coat with a hood. The one worn by women, while prettier and often embroidered, was thin and required layers of clothing underneath in order to stay warm during the winter. I still misspoke to everyone’s great humor, but learned to avoid saying anything truly rude. Trips to Fes, to spend the weekends speaking English, became sporadic events.

One of the American men transferred to mystical Marrakech, then back to the States. The one who remained lasted about two weeks before suggesting we share a house. His or mine, it didn’t matter. “I know,” he said, “that we weren’t very nice to you. But now I really understand and want to make it right.”

It would, I realized, be an upheaval. “Let me think about it.” That afternoon I went to the baths. I helped wash a couple of kids, got scrubbed myself, and warmed my bones to the core. As I was getting dressed, one of the attendants said, “We’ve been watching you. You’re not a prostitute, like some of those other foreigner women. You try to belong.” Decision made.

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A Song Unsung

EPSON003The first thing Andrette said to me, once our parents had abandoned us to our future as roommates, was “You’ve got no Soul.”

“What? I have a soul!” I wasn’t being purposefully obtuse. It was 1968, and I’m sure Andrette thought I was just being another uppity, entitled, white girl, but at that point the only soul I knew of was the one Reverend Welch had assured me would burn in Hellfire if I kept on asking-those-questions during Sunday School.

Here is what I found out later: Andrette’s father, the Dean of Students at (then) Tuskegee College, wanted her to experience a broader vision of what white people were like, so he sent her to a Quaker boarding school up North. My own folks wanted me in a place where Future Farmers and Homemakers of American were not the go-to clubs, where critical thinking was a valued skill rather than a suspected Commie practice meant to  foment revolution.

There was a weak family association with Tuskegee. For a number of years we had lived in Kaimosi, Kenya under the care of the American Friends Service Committee. Some of my parents Kenyan colleagues, at the Teacher Training College in Kaimosi, had gotten degrees from Tuskegee. By the time I was fourteen, we had been back in the States for two years. Because of this, the people in charge of room assignments thought it would be a good idea to place us together. (Although that may have been a story my parents may have put forth to encourage me to take the high road.)

In any case, my experience with Kenyans did not translate well to Black American culture. Could I have known better? I must have been aware that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, because I remember Moms Mabley singing about it on the Smothers Brothers show. I was clueless about the 1968 Summer Olympics, or the Watts Riots. Andrette must have been raised with talk of Rosa Parks, Little Rock desegregation, the Montgomery Boycott, and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech the way kids today are kept aware of 9/11. I was clueless. I’d heard talk about Civil Rights and marches and busing, at potluck lunches with my dad’s graduate student friends in Ithaca, and murmurings against integration at church in the (now shockingly) white community of Marathon in upstate New York. Political talk, I’m afraid, nestled right next to football in my heart.

If I had been raised in the heart of American culture, I daresay I would have been aware.

Andrette’s explanation of Soul was not that far off from Reverend Welch’s, as far as I could see. In neither case did I stand a chance of being a real person, someone who could belong. The memory of that feeling of ostracism has stuck with me at a visceral level. I know, now, that she was taking a stand against a cultural posture that was pervasive. That, perhaps, turn about was fair. For my part, then, I was oblivious to anything except that, once again, I had fallen short and didn’t understand why.

When the family had moved back to the States, I found myself part of that Odd Family. I made a fool of myself buying milk at the Grand Union, unable to figure out the pocket full of change I had been given to make the purchase. The reappearance of snow in my life was both thrilling and weird. My sister, who had never really seen it, danced on the front lawn barefoot to celebrate the first squall of the season. Neighbors called my mother at school to tell her she needed to take a hand with yet another dim-witted child.

Far worse was music. I knew a variety of church songs in both English and Swahili. I bore a family reputation for randomly changing keys when I sang, as well as “infernal tuneless whistling,” and was frequently asked to stop. At school the “In Town Girls” group expected me to pick one of the Monkees to admire. What the Hell were they? There was lots of oo-ing about how cute they were, how lovely their hair, how dreamy their sound. I did not get it. Even being invited over to watch their show on Saturday morning did not help. The Monkees may have been too busy singing, but they definitely got me down.

Music became the turf which Andrette and I used as our battle ground. The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones were bad enough. With her I was introduced to a new palette of singers, The Temptations, The Supremes, Aretha, and, with a dreaminess that matched anything the Monkees had to offer, The Jackson Five with that adorable little Michael who could really bust some steps. All of these groups had Soul, which, I was reminded, I did not.

The last thing to come between us was Black Power. I was oblivious to the events at the 1968 Summer Olympics. At some point during the year, the music posters came down and were replaced with a giant fist and slogans. Apparently power was another thing Black people had that white people did not.

Should I have become politicized by this time, several months into boarding school? Probably, but I had not. My single foray into the political arena had been to participate in a march on the Poughkeepsie Armory. I had no clue what an Armory was, the signs and slogans seemed odd, I knew no one who was involved in Vietnam, and it was cold. I wanted hot chocolate. Yes, this was a Quaker school. Yes, they had done due diligence and had in speakers, people who were Conscientious Objectors, draft resistors, parents of people who had gone to Canada. I had heard it all, but it had not sunk into my fourteen year old head as anything that applied to me. I had gone on the march the same way as I went tobogganing at Hyde Park. I wanted to be part of the group.

If anything, it was Andrette and her message about my dual lack of power and soul that made even a dent in raising my political awareness. I tried a White Power sign to answer hers, and discovered a boat-load of grief. It was a friend who helped me out of that, a girl of an elegant mix of colors, a Townie though a boarder. She suggested that I add other signs, all the same size, in a variety of colors. So my wall was sprinkled with Yellow Power, Red Power, Spanish Power, Irish Power, Indian Power, Japanese Power. Power to the People.

Did I understand anything during all that strife? Not really, except that the year finally ended, and an uncomfortable truce was maintained for most of it. Mostly we talked at cross purposes. For me, it was actually the music. I was eventually told I would get a B if I would just stay away from chorus class. Why not try archery to fill the required activity slot? I wonder if Andrette ever saw my dislike of her music as other than a racist move against Motown. She was fourteen, too, far from home and in a new culture. Neither one of us at an age famous for empathetic understanding.

I look at the class picture from our Freshman year and see me in the far back and Andrette sitting in the second row. Although we both returned to school the next year, I don’t recall every really talking to her again. By our Junior year, I had returned to public school. In recent years I find myself wishing I could find Andrette and say “Sorry.” Sorry I was not, even remotely, a decent friend; sorry I couldn’t listen to her side, step away from my own fears; sorry I didn’t know how to take a breath and make amends.

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Vonnegut, Unstuck

Vonnegut_Wooden_NickelKurt Vonnegut has been on my mind lately. The movie Unstuck in Time has something to do with it, I’m sure. He had a knack for creating language. Foma, granfalloons, karass and sinookas are just a few.

The first of Vonnegut’s words I learned, when I bought Sirens of Titan for 35? at a one time Mr. Paperback, was chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a sort of nexus of truths, (plural) with an intersection of time and space. It is where  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” lives, where everything old is new again, where babies discover gravity the first time they leave their safety mattress escaping from their cribs rather than getting bonked on their heads by apples. It is the place where carbon dioxide can be both poisonous and vital, where Earth is just an unpleasant obstacle in an intergalactic highway building scheme, and where privacy is evil and homeland security saves lives. It is, perhaps, the antithesis of “It just isn’t done,” a phrase I grew up with and have heard echoed in staff rooms, around dinner tables, and in blogs of the outraged.

Foma, granfalloons, karass and sinookas, all come from Cat’s Cradle. Foma are the little lies we tell to smooth over a difficult situation. I suppose only time tells if they are harmless or not. Granfalloons are groups of people who imagine they belong to a common group through sort of trivial connection, like coming from the same state, or having the same color hair. Granfalloons are at the heart of racial profiling and have as much to do about how we perceive others who don’t belong to our perceived community as they do about the groups we identify with. Orson Scott Card, in his author’s notes on Empire,  delves into a discussion of what a right or left wing profile is really worth. I fell into the granfalloon trap when I bought my first car. I was young and still believed in female solidarity. I was wrong. The car had an emergency brake that barely worked, a alternator that died two weeks after I bought it, and a gas gauge that read, eternally full. At $100 per month I could barely make the payments.

Karass and sinookas are the gems of this collection of words. Karass is a group of people whose lives are linked in some weirdly cosmic fashion. Sinookas describe the bonds, “the intertwining tendrils” of people’s lives, like playing “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” using normal people. I have experienced both karasses and sinookas.

Shortly after starting my first stateside teaching job, I was having lunch in the upstairs staff room. One of the other English teachers sat down and asked “Was your maiden name Brightman?”

“Yes,” I said. “Did you have a class with my dad?” My dad had taught Human Development at UMaine in Orono and I was fairly used to people having taken his Human Sexuality courses, very popular at UMO. It was, in fact, why I had lived away for so long, but at age 45 I had moved beyond that particular shame.

“What? No. Who was he?” Clearly not Dad.

“Why did you want to know my maiden name?”

“Oh. My was best friends with Jannie Henderson when they were in college. They still are best friends. She said she knew your family in Kenya, or maybe it was New York.”  Jannie’s parents were old family friends from when we had all lived in Kenya in the early 60s. I was nine years old and Jannie was the first baby I was aware of being born.

A few years later I had another encounter, this time with a new history teacher at the school. She overheard me talking about Morocco. It seems she had been best friends with a girl named Glee whose mother had hauled her half-way round the world to live in Fes, Morocco. I knew them both. Glee’s mom had looked around my apartment and asked when I was going “home.”

“Home? I am home.”

“No, you’re not,” she had said. “You won’t always want to live like this.”

I didn’t see it, but she planted a seed. I looked more closely at some of the crusty old expatriates, and those that just passed through, and I recognized the granfalloon sitting in the midst of the whole business. Busy, busy, busy as Bokonon used to say.

In any case, I recognized the starting of a karass when I saw it, and the next year used some of my book money to get a class set of Cat’s Cradle. Soon after we started to read, little blue sticky coding dots bearing a hand written “9” started appearing all over school. They were on walls, windows, doors, toilet paper holders, tables, book shelf edges, lunch trays. And people. A kind of freeze tag stopped students in halls. The dots migrated, even those not attached to students, but the custodians did nothing about them.

We read “Harrison Bergeron” and watched excerpts from the Sean Astin film and the whole “2081” once that was available. I let it be known that the rest of the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House were not quite what our high school would support. A student sidled up one day during snack break. “Wanna see what I got, Mrs. Dewey?” He opened his jacked like a knock of Rolex salesman, and there was a copy of the book. “This is amazing. Thanks,” he said before backing back into the crowd.

On April 11, 2007, I passed out copies of Cat’s Cradle to a science fiction class I was teaching. That night we went home to find that Kurt Vonnegut had died that day. The kids returned, full of omen and portent. I recognized the conjunction of events for the granfalloon it was.

Picture: Morice, Dave. Feb 12, 2010. Retrieved Mar 15, 2015. Web.

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Childhood Illnesses

FBS - sisters

Me on the far right – FBS 1965

I am old enough to have been born before most modern vaccines were available. The only usual ones I got were for polio, a drink as I remember it, and small pox. I got a bunch of others, too, that were perhaps less usual, at least for kids growing up in southern Massachusetts during the fifties. I got vaccinated against cholera, yellow fever, and typhus.

I did not get a penicillin shot the time that Missy Blake’s sister came down with scarlet fever right after Missy’s birthday party. Mom felt there would be plenty of warning if that were really necessary, but, she said, she wanted the penicillin to work if it were every really necessary, that to get one just in case was frivolous. Apparently it was necessary when I had my tonsils out in second grade. I remember quite clearly fighting the nurses and screaming bloody murder as they tried to give me a shot in the butt.

A penicillin shot (three actually) was again necessary when I got measles. I’d caught those, in the usual way, from my younger sister. I was nearly twelve and she was five. We were living in Jordan (now the West Bank of Palestine) in a city called Al Bireh, right next to Ramallah where I went to school. After Christmas, we had packed up the Chevy station wagon we drove, a three-seater with the third seat facing backwards, along with Ken Shirk and his family, and headed out, across the desert, to Bagdad. We stayed in a hotel, hired a driver, and rode out to see different sights.

Gretchen started getting fractious (which I felt was a clear bid for attention) and by Sunday morning had started running a temperature. Mom and Dad headed out for the Embassy to see a doctor. The trip coincided with a military parade through the center of town, challenging the driver to find alternate routes there and back, and alarming my Mom with the potential for a coup. They made it there and back, with the tentative diagnosis of measles. The doctor couldn’t be sure, and wouldn’t confirm, or write a script. The word “quarantine” was whispered as we started to pack.

Back across the desert, we drove all night, with Mom wedged into the back seat with Gretchen moaning and occasionally puking. The moon was full, and I admired the stark scenery and wondered about life on other planets. I don’t suppose I was nearly as entertaining as I hoped. I certainly didn’t appreciate the problems associated with bringing a potentially diseased person across borders, but the party line was that she really just had a bad cold and we were returning home for her comfort.

But it was measles and Stephanie caught them, too, since she and Gretchen shared a room. They got gifts galore (at least that is how I remember it) from the faculty and the students. They ran fevers, they puked, and got better. Then I got sick, just as they were getting well enough to return to school.

It was my first experience with fever dreams when I actually knew what was happening. Images expanded and shrank alarmingly. Colors changed. Positives became negatives. Had I only known, it was trippy. As I got sicker, blankets went up over the French doors onto the balcony. My lamp was switched to a 15 watt bulb. I remember Dad sitting on my bed, hunched over the lamp, blocking the light as I turned toward the wall, and reading from Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and then Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. I know I was in no shape to pick out books, and I certainly couldn’t read myself, so they must have been his choices. I slept a lot and did not even struggle when I got the first penicillin shot. With two more in the next ten days, I was on the mend and eventually back at school.

Then came the chicken pox. This time I recognized the fever dreams as soon as they occurred. And just like with the measles, my sisters came down with them first, and reaped the present glory. This time, however, it was more a matter of keeping calamine lotion and goopy daubs of baking soda and oatmeal on the blisters. Constant reminders not to scratch nearly worked, and I was left with a small scar at the top of my nose which disappeared ages ago. I was in charge of my own reading and had free range of our library as long as no one might see me. I did read an abridged version of Lorna Doone, but also read O Ye Jigs and Juleps, Seventeenth Summer, Cheaper By the Dozen, and a whacky mystery whose title I can’t remember about a guy who witnessed a murder during a train wreck and encountered the murderer in the jungles of Brazil years later.

It was spring and Easter was nearly upon us. Dad was playing Joseph of Arimethea in the Easter Pageant held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I was well enough, though somewhat scabby, to attend the play. I wore a sweater with long sleeves and a scarf pulled down over my forehead. I wonder if I might not have been mistaken for an acne spotted teen.

We returned to the States in August, and by early November I had come down with the mumps. Those, for me, were just like an extra sore throat. The tonsils had long since been removed, as had my adenoids, so there wasn’t much left to swell in my neck. The most memorable thing of this childhood illness, besides it being really at the end of my childhood, was a card from my grandfather who commented on my “fat little face being even fatter.” The irony was, that my face wasn’t really fat, and although my neck swelled a bit, I looked more like a weight lifter than a balloon.

Some might say I was lucky it wasn’t worse. Some might say I was unlucky to get the dreaded three so nearly into adolescence. I had been raised on stories of people who had gone through terrible illnesses as children to become hearty, nearly indestructible ancients and people who had lived charmed lives until one small illness as an adult and they were felled like a white pine by lightening. My grandmother talked about my grandfather who had been brought down in the prime of his youth. He was, it turned out, days before his seventieth birthday. To come from people who considered seventy youthful in the ‘40s,  puts a perspective on disease. This same grandmother had buried a first husband and son in an epidemic over a century ago. She had fought off influenza, shingles, and blindness caused by poisoned dogwood. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she used to say. “The first hundred years are the hardest.”

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Rafe–Return Day

3306123512_f32f4f2dda_bIt was Return Day, forty-seven days past Solstice, and the town of Riverside had been living in Winter Home for close to seventy. The worst of the winter storms has passed and herdsmen reported that the ewes were near lambing. The sun had returned to the sky with authority, neither hiding below the horizon nor veiling itself in clouds.

The people of Riverside were putting the finishing touches on the brooms they would use to sweep out the old dirt and dust from their houses and shops, as if scouring floors and counters had not been the last thing they had done before descending the ladders into Winter Home. They would walk softly into their homes so as not to disturb the dust that had settled over the winter, dampening it to keep it from floating back into the air, and carefully sweep and clean.

Rafe saw a vision of her parents sweeping out house and forge while she and Jenna toiled in the barn, hauling three months of manure to the garden pile. That last year, Ducky had been part of the crowd of kids too old for the corn husk dollies and too young to be forced into labor. They had run into the woods and fields looking for snow drops and bare patches of ground that had started to green with the coming spring. She supposed he had taken her place the following year. Without either home or place of business she would be back shoveling the shit. It had been one constant in her life whether living in Riverside or in the North with her troops.

Rafe found herself enjoying her role as an Auntie, helping the little kids with their dollies, some looking human, others, with four legs pointing down and long necks, seemed more like sheep, or horses, or dogs. She still knew how to tie a good broom and how to plane the blade of a shovel, freeing others to make the holiday treats they would eat under the noon time sun.

It was the first day someone could spend the night above ground without one of the gossips muttering “She’s no better than she should be.” Rafe knew she would be nestled down in the hay above the forge. Others would take advantage of well aired feather mattresses on newly tightened bed ropes. Breathing fresh air, no one’s snores but her own, freedom to wander the dark – Rafe saw heaven approaching and knew she was on her way to the promised land.

“Sleeping up top tonight?”

Rafe tugged on the twine binding the broom and looked up at Bors Pubmaster leaning on a barrel, waggling his great eyebrows. “I am.”

“Scared of the dark, up there alone? A tender wench like yourself?”

“Not so as you would notice. No, I am not.”

“Scared? Or a wench?”

“Both. Another time, Bors. Another time. My back is itching and I could scratch my hair out with just my fingers, I need to be alone so bad.”

“I would have thought soldiering as you have been, you would have gotten used to living cheek by jowl with the masses.”

“And that’s where you would be wrong. Soldiers know how to respect a person’s privacy. They stay out of your business and you stay out of theirs. Not at all like you lot, needing to know every little thing, story telling all night long. A soldier wants to sleep off alone or turns his back … You can’t see his eyes, he’s not there. Here, I turn my face to a corner, or pull a hat down over my eyes, then it’s ‘Everything all right, Rafe?’ and ‘Can I get you something?’ or ‘You want to hear what I just heard?’ or even ‘I got a nice soft bed I can share with you and a door that locks if you’d like.’ And if I did go to my quarters and lock the door, then there would be discrete knocking and inquiring all afternoon just because I may have locked it by mistake.” Rafe rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Another time, then. I’ll get good mileage out of this little rant at the bar tonight, anyway.” He looked at the eavesdroppers who busied themselves as his eyes fell on them.

“And you won’t even have to say a word.” Rafe smiled and picked up another broom.

Taking over the job of tending her sister’s livestock had helped, giving her time to think and to hide a ditch bag, complete with bedroll and provisions.

The weather signs were good. While most of the people who tended the livestock kept well away from the dark and stormy windows, never opening shutters for a peep outside, there were a few in addition to Rafe who kept an eye on what was happening outside. Last night the evening sky had been red, and there had been no ring around the moon.

Early this morning, when she had gone up to feed the sheep and let the chickens out after having been cooped up for so many weeks, a warm breeze from the north had started to blow through Riverside. During the day there were traps where buildings abutted each other, that batted the warmth of the sun back and forth.

One of these heat traps, near the grain silos, was the traditional place for the picnic. Rafe, with some of the grumble of geezers from the warming bench, set up the tables and cleared out the fire pits. Some of them harvested greens that had been planted in cold frames along north walls, while others dug up the last of the root vegetables that had been planted near Marlon’s heat vents. This, Rafe thought, was a wonderful change from her youth, when the Return Day feast consisted mostly of grain and mealy potatoes. Only the meat was fresh thanks to the young rams sacrificed after doing their paternal duty. Now the current crop of rams was lined up near the freshly cleaned abattoir, ready to meet the next stage in their journey.

“How are you doing, Auntie?” Wilf waved his chanter as he approached.

“Fine, Wilf. Fine.”

“I bet you’ve seen finer things than this during your Sojourn.”

“I was just thinking how much this all irked me when I was young, and now I’m feeling as if I’ve come home at last.” Rafe adjusted a bench.

“Is this so grand then?”

“No, it’s more that I don’t have to think about it. I know in my bones what to do even though it’s been over forty years.”

“What would you be doing, then, if you were back with your Company?”

Rafe sat on the end of a bench, leaning back elbows on the table. Wilf straddled the opposite end. “We’d be preparing our battle gear. We’d have been cleaning and repairing all winter. Now is when we’d lay it all out and have one last look-see. Toward the end I’d be doing that and looking over the job petitions, seeing who was making offers, how much trouble they would be, would it be worth the money to take them on. That’s why I came back here, you know. None of them seemed worth the money for the effort of heading to battle against old friends – or their babies, really. The kids they’d had, gone into the family business, calling me Auntie, like you do, during the off season. It didn’t seem worth it.”

Wilf was fingering his chanter the whole while she was talking. “How about you, boy. How are you doing? Regretting spending the winter here and not going out on the road yourself?”

“That time will come. Fear not. I’ll be better prepared when I do go on my Sojourn. Something to bring to the table of them that may be willing to teach me. Stories, tales of the greatest commander the Guard have ever known.”

“You mean lies you can tell.”

“Lies, were they Auntie? Well then you told them first. What does it matter if I am just repeating what a venerable elder chose to use as an object lesson?”

“Who knows?” Rafe stood, leaning strategically forward as Wilf dropped to the ground, ducking as the bench flew over his head. She walked toward the abattoir.

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An Ode to Julia Child

1280px-Julia_Child,_1989 I’ve been listening to Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child as my audio car reading. In my Audible search Dearie came in a tasty 25 hours and 29 minutes, long enough to dig in for the trips to Bar Harbor and Bangor, too long for the drive-by reading I can manage before falling asleep. I learned things about Julia, and found connections, I had never imagined.

I had known Julia spent summers at Laupus Point, where I took my kids swimming, with her husband and his family. Thinking about her walking the beach, considering seafood options, looking across the harbor at the sardine canning plants, I tried to see through her eyes. Much had changed since Julia arrived in the fifties. Bass Harbor grew and then shrank back in on itself, and Julia, a terrible cook at the outset, morphed into a beacon of culinary technique.

Listening to Dearie, however, got me thinking about my own experiences growing up with food, things my family did in terms of eating. There was, I suspect, quite a bit of Julia’s influence. She burst onto the scene from WGBH out of Boston. That would have been the channel my family watched in the early sixties. I remember my mother bringing home egg plant and zucchini. Well, not so much her bringing it home, but the reaction when she served it up for supper. None of us, herself included, had ever eaten such a thing. It did not go over terribly well. My father at that time was still a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Fish could be broiled or fried, clams fried or steamed, eel well corn-mealed and fried. Beef was roasted or grilled and chicken like-wise. We ate hash on Wednesday made of the Sunday roast, boiled-dinner was not just for St. Patrick’s Day. We ate carrots, green and waxed beans, and peas. Canned spinach and beets were cause for rebellion. My mother must have been sorely frustrated. I remember my sister gloating, once when I got home from first grade, that she and Mom had eaten asparagus on toast and it was delicious. Since I never even tasted asparagus until I was well into my twenties, I can only imagine that the reaction to the egg plant kept most of the food experiments between the two of them.

By the time we returned to the States in 1966 our palates had broadened and we had all grown beyond rebelling outright at new food. We knew that egg plant could be cooked without being bitter. Lamb could be brochetted and not just served as an Easter roast, or in shepherd’s pie, but still I cannot remember anyone cooking with wine. Once, when being left to cook a roast beef on my own, I dredged it in flour and “seared it on all sides.” I still remember the mocking for having done it using a non-family-approved technique. My dad, at this time, was starting to work on a PhD. This meant he was home during the day, sometimes. He could watch daytime TV, and he was brushing up against folks at Cornell who experienced fine dining and cooked as a recreation.

Dad came home, one day, with an omelet pan. He lectured us on the importance of using real butter (we were a margarine family) and plenty of it. He diced enough onions and tomatoes to make four omelets, and grated cheese on the finest side of our grating tower. He talked about being able to slide the eggy pad around in the bottom of the pan, and how the sides were specifically sloped to help this and the subsequent flipping process. He extolled the virtues of keeping the eggs moist, when to sprinkle on the other ingredients, and how to fold and flip the omelet to seal everything in place. Cutting into the perfect omelet would reveal a nearly liquid creamy filling, enhanced by cheese and vegetables. We weren’t, he assured us, limited to onions, tomatoes, and cheddar. Bacon, mushrooms, parmesan, or simply plain were excellent options.

Listening to Dearie I knew the source of Dad’s enthusiasm. What he ignored in his conversion attempts was that we were not, by and large, an egg eating family. We used them in cooking, and ate them scrambled or boiled or in an eggnog . Mom only ever ate eggs in a dry oven-baked omelet made by folding whipped whites into yolks; we joined her under duress. At that point in our family life, no one except Dad ever willingly chose to eat eggs if something else was available. Mom would scramble them for us all if she was cooking breakfast, or fry them for Dad. He begged us to try them, and we did. Our uneducated palates were no more welcoming of the exquisite omelet that they had been of egg plant.

Mom’s oven omelets morphed into frothy cheesy soufflés which, like Dad’s omelets, were accompanied by a patter I now recognize as coming straight from Julia. They were a somewhat easier sell. We were older, and, by then sharing the cooking responsibilities. We understood the tit-for-tat by which our own attempts would be given a fair shot, and so less likely to argue when new food was dished up.

Mom was all about the end product, real food, and whether it could be accomplished economically; Dad’s passion was technique and tools. Julia addressed both their needs. I never caught them watching any of her shows, but they must have. Dad would recount Julia’s devil-may-care attitude in the kitchen. Mom produced meals that could only have come from one of Julia’s shows or cookbooks. I counted myself lucky when I scored a hard bound, coffee-table sized copy of The Way To Cook in a used book store for $5.

Julia was more of a technical than intuitive cook; she was an enthusiastic teacher who wanted to bring others on board. What she had was a sense of humor, especially when it came to herself, and an ability to turn a phrase in such a way that the uninitiated could follow instructions and learn technique. From Dearie I learned that what seemed spontaneous was the result of hours of refinement and pounds of food, of learning how to recover from mistakes. My first, and perhaps greatest, lesson from her was on how to make biscuits. If you did not eat them directly out of the oven, if you let them cool down at all, my biscuits could be used as weapons to knock tourists off bicycles. They would not crumble, even in soup. “For a hockey puck,” one friend said, “these are great biscuits.” Julia’s advice to stop cutting in the shortening when you get to the point where you think “just three more cuts will make it perfect,” was what I needed. I understood it in a way that “don’t over-mix” had never helped. I am the sort of cook who needs to understand why something works, before I can freely apply the lesson to other, perhaps new, situations. From Julia I have learned to cook with wine, the value of mirepoix, and mixing restraint. I am not sure I agree with her tenet to “Never apologize!” but in matters of technique I will follow her anywhere.

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Giving and Memory

FBS - sisters

FBS - Schools

LAB - Principal

Memories rise up from odd places. The donation request was for supporting an 11 year old student, with the goal to provide future leaders in Palestine with an education that includes the Quaker focus on reconciliation and achieving peace. It has sent me shooting down memory lane; I have returned a letter of my own to the requester. (Contact information at the end if any of you are interested. But really, this is just a blog, so no pressure.)

The green-bordered picture was my dad in 1965, when he was Head Master of the Friends Boys School of Ramallah, Jordan (actually in El-Bireh, the well where Jesus’s parents stopped when they discovered he hadn’t joined the group on their way home from the holidays in Jerusalem). Dad was 40 years old, 20 years younger than I am now. I was 11, then. You can seem me in the black and white snapshot, in front of the Head Master’s house. The plants to the right were calla lilies. Off camera were poinsettias. That is me, the tall girl on the right, next to my dad. My sisters are age 9 and 5.

I still grinned broadly at the world. I had read in a psychology magazine, that 10 was the perfect age – and it had been. Age 11 was shaping up to be the same kind of bonza year.

We had lived for three years in Kenya, on the Friends Mission of Kaimosi. We traveled through The Sudan and Egypt on our way to Jerusalem Airport. Haile Selassie’s lion cubs, the Pyramids and Sphinx, The Dome of the Rock, and the Mandelbaum Gate (which was pointed out to us from a rooftop shortly after we had entered the city) were part of the background against which I came of age.

While that sounds dramatic, I don’t believe it is. A keystone moment is when events, even small ones, conspire with understanding to push a person onto a path from which there is no exit. Moving to Jordan – the West Bank in 1965 – was such a moment for me. I learned to see a world that was constantly divided, constantly striving for unity, understanding, and calm, constantly striving for Grace.

I attended the English Speaking section of the Girls School with Palestinians (sent “home” from the States to learn about their birth culture), an international mélange of students (children of the UN Peace Keeping forces), and a smattering of children from foreign workers in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. I was in class with other kids in my own grade, again, rather than being in a class of three grades and four children. I no longer had even the illusion of steering my own course. We learned literature and writing with a journal we had to keep daily. I had to constantly figure out what was meant with very little hard information to go on. What the heck was ETHICS? How could I write about them if I didn’t understand them? Where were the Pilgrims in history? Gone! That’s where. Math was a comfort, as was knitting that was required for the crafts class, although the black garter-stitch headband seemed to take forever.

It was a year of firsts. I was introduced to a brand new alphabet, learning Arabic for 40 minutes each day. It was my first experience living in a culture where most people did not speak English as their first language. I recall one New Zealander, but all other classmates, even those born in the States or England, spoke some other language at home with their families. In Kenya we had lived on a mission, and, while there were certainly Kenyans who were our neighbors, the school I attended was for the children of British and American Friends and AID-type workers.

I made friends who mattered to me, girls who would walk around the basketball court holding my hand and buy me falafel for lunch when stewed okra over rice was on the menu. I learned the joy of having someone’s secret to keep, and telling one of my own, the misery of betrayal, and the agony of betraying someone for a moment of popularity. I learned not to make the secrets too big or too real. I learned the value of taking a hit, and the popularity that comes from standing up, though bloodied, to a bully. I had my first babysitting job that gave me the cash to buy the falafel, as well as the “sno-b’r” (crunchy green almonds sprinkled with salt). I learned the joy of food.

I experienced the thrill of walking across town on a Saturday, by myself, to visit the library in the Girls School, and cruising the streets with my best friend Mona (whom I never betrayed). Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes it was showing the sights to one of my parents’ visitors from the States. I have no real idea how many of these jaunts was sanctioned. I remember the constant fear that I was stepping outside some prescribed boundary, but seemed unable to stop myself.

There was constant tension at home, as well. Some of it came from my dad’s role as liaison between the Society of Friends, who ran the schools, and the Jordanian government, who had jurisdiction. Some came from the nature of living among countries constantly sniping against each other. There were occasional explosions in the basement chemistry lab, and, once, students I knew, home studying for mid-terms, did not return because they had been shot, pacing too near the border.

There were parties, and there were times my dad escaped from the house, taking me to see movies like The Ipcress File and Von Ryan’s Express. There was pressure (I now know) for my dad to stay on as Head Master and those discussions could not have been comfortable for either him or my mom. For me it was like living in a mine field.

It was attending the Friends Girls School, more than any other event, that set me on my course to join the Peace Corps, and maintain a passionate interest in the way people work within their own cultures, and what happens when cultures collide with each other. I got good at reading situations, figuring out cultural cues and learning to navigate the formal, public, ways. I developed a facility for learning languages. I learned to love the solitary path in the midst of a crowd.

So, when I got the letter from VQM asking for a donation to support a girl, I knew what I would say when Andrew got ready for the Charitable Donation part of our year.

Check to: Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting – Ramallah Friends School

c/o Joann Austin Treasurer

Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting

PO Box 150

South China, Maine 04358

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Lace and Me

When I first lived in the New City of Fés (Fés Djadeed as we called it),  I was not the rabid lace knitter that I am now. I had done color work during the Lopi Icelandic Sweater rage, and I knew my way around a raglan sweater pattern. But the color work was not even done holding a different yarn in each hand. I knew one type of increase, one decrease, and one bind off. I was 26 years old, I had been knitting for 15 years, and I was still a beginner. I was still a serial knitter. I would not have dreamed of starting a project, or even stocking the supplies for the next one, before the current job was done. I was on the cusp of change.

This would have been the spring of 1980, and I would have had money burning a hole in my pocket. It had taken nine months for my work visa to be processed, and to get my first pay check – a whopper with all the back pay. I had gone from scrimping, as the last of my $2,000 ran out, to feeling quite flush. I was experiencing that special sort of ennui that comes from at last having the where-with-all to entertain yourself, but having lost the habit of embarking on a spontaneous frolic.  This particular afternoon, I was flailing about for something to do, tired of sitting in the coffee shop; two hours was long enough to nurse a café cassé. It was Sunday, so The Oasis, the only place to buy books in English, was closed.

As I wandered the streets, looking in windows, I saw a display of attractive magazines and colorful balls of yarn. I had recently finished a sweater for myself, and thought that, since I could afford the yarn, I’d start a new project. I looked through the magazines available, all in French, Italian, and German. One, Anna, a German publication by Burda, had some good graphics of how to make stitches. I figured it would be easy enough to match up the words, symbols, and pictures. It would be a pleasant break from speaking Arabic and drinking mint tea and espressos in the cafés.

There was a pattern for an alligator in this particular issue of Anna and I figured it would be a fine present for a friend who was pregnant. I picked out the yarn and straight needles. The only circular needles were some unpleasant nylon ones in pastel colors. I went home, cast on, and started to knit.

I don’t remember much else that was in the magazine except for two things. One was a kangaroo and baby set that I later knit for another friend. The other was a lace table cloth by Herbert Niebling.

As a child I had fallen in love with tiny crochet hooks and #30 thread. My grandmothers both did handwork. I am sure they were pattern followers, and steeped in tradition. Today we would call them craftswomen, but then it was just what they did. Both crocheted, both tatted, and one knit. Both coached me with stories of how they had learned their handwork. One grandmother had a subscription to Work Basket Magazine from which she made doilies and edgings. She often had what she called a “plaster” on her finger from where she had jabbed herself with her crochet hook. I took this to mean she had some alternative to a Band-Aid. The other grandmother worked more with yarn, and was less wounded by her tools.

The lace table cloth was made of the thread I adored, but it was knit! I had never imagined lace knit. As I worked on the alligator, the lace whispered to me. Before long the magazine naturally fell open to the pictures of the lacey white cloth draped over a colored background.

For those of you who have never experienced a Burda pattern book, it comes in two parts. There is the glossy tantalizing display of finished projects, with minimal information about the required materials. Stapled in the center of the magazine are a couple of newsprint sheets. There are outlines of patterns you can trace onto tissue paper, each outline being in either a different color or embellished with different symbols, matching a different project. For a pair of rompers, you might follow the blue lines marked with triangles, while for a blouse black lines marked with squares. The patterns for each would overlay each other on the same sheet of paper. There were other sections where outlines for embroidery, knitting, or maybe cut work or bobbin lace would be laid out. This one had probably four different charts that made up the instructions for the knitted lace tablecloth.

It took me three days to go back to the shop. I bought a set of thin steel needles, 20cm long, and a couple of balls for #30 thread. Circulars, even nylon ones, were not an option for needles that small. I went home and abandoned the alligator.

The next several weeks were spotted with frustration and satisfaction. I learned to tension my knitting. The cotton thread was quite unforgiving and frequently broke. It took a while for me to work my way past round 20. I got very good at casting on in the round. I learned that when I got stressed about a particular symbol, my knitting got too tight and the thread would break. I discovered strategies for keeping my stitches loose enough to knit, but not so loose that the needles I didn’t have immediately in my grasp would come shooting out of their stitches. I memorized symbols, learned some German knitting words, and gradually made progress. I was working with two sets of stich repeats per needle.

Then the day came when my needles were too full for me to easily see what I had accomplished when I laid my work out on the table. I was in constant danger of dropping stitches, and I had no skills in repairing my work. I headed back to the store and got a new set of needles. I moved half the stitches from each needle to my extra set. Moving to a single set of stitches on each needle made it easier to keep track of the pattern and helped catch errors early on. I think I ended up buying four sets of needles in all. I resorted to rubber bands wound around the ends to keep my stitches from spilling off.

I never did finish that table cloth. Whether it was lost in a move, or there was a serious loss of stitches, I don’t remember. What was important about this was that I knew lace knitting existed. I did not return to it for nearly a decade when I came upon a book on Traditional Knitted Lace Shawls by Martha Waterman (the actual version I got, complete with errors). Then I discovered Gloria Penning and her Lace Knitting books. I made shawls, window hangings, inserted lace into sweaters. I learned the beauty of algebra present in all lace knitting – that if you add a stich in one place, with a yarn over, you need to take it away in another, knitting two stitches together. I learned that you could do the same with a different sort of increase and create beautiful flowing designs that mimicked the foam on an agitated sea.

By the mid-90s I had amassed quite a collection of lace patterns from German and American sources. My mother-in-law graciously got me an ongoing subscription to Anna magazine each Christmas. In an Ebay purchase I found that original magazine that contained my first lace tablecloth. Confronted by a gnarly series of projects at work, that had me learning to program and build applications for a variety of Unix platforms, it was to lace knitting that I turned to calm my mind and soothe my soul.

When I participated in the Maine Writing Project in 2005, I established myself as a public knitter; the it is way I am still remembered by alums of the class who invariably ask if I’m still knitting. We were required to give a 10 minute presentation about writing, learning, and self-definition. I chose to speak about the rhythms I see in lace and knitting, and how those are reflected in how I write, discovering images connected by a single thread.

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