This is Love

When the other Dr. Meescham was alive and I could not sleep, do you know what he would do for me?  This man would put on his slippers and he would go out into the kitchen and he would fix for me sardines on crackers.  You know sardines?”

Ulysses shook his head.

“Little fishes in a can.  He would put these little fishes onto crackers for me, and then I would hear him coming back down the hallway, carrying the sardines and humming, returning to me.”  Dr. Meescham sighed.  “Such tenderness.  To have someone get out of bed and bring you little fishes and sit with you as you eat them in the dark on night.  To hum to you.  This is love.”

– from The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Loss in Children’s Literature

The first book caught my eye from its display, the title singing to my soul, The Poet’s Dog, a novel by Patricia MacLachlan.  The second, I found flipping through the bins of picture books, its title, Until We Meet Again (Susan Jones), speaking to my family’s recent season of loss.  Little did I know how thematically intertwined they both were.

Both titles speak to children bearing and moving through the loss of a loved one.imgres

The Poet’s Dog is more novella than novel and told in sparse prose.  But it is told from the point of view of Teddy, the poet Sylvan’s dog.  And Teddy, while wise and loquacious for a dog, is dealing with the stark life left him by Sylvan’s death.  There is a beauty and simplicity to the unfolding of this tale and the healing that takes place.  Teddy, in saving two siblings from a raging storm, is himself saved by their companionship.  The siblings, Nickel and Flora, and readers don’t find out what exactly happened to Sylvan until halfway through the book, which is really quite wonderful in terms of grief.  Teddy, like so many experiencing loss, comes to a slow realization of the gravity of the absence of his loved one; even slower, comes the ability to share the painful parts of that loss.  He opens up as he comes to terms with it – and it is through the gentle love and presence of the now dear young friends.

untilwemeet-448x600Until We Meet Again, a picture book by Susan Jones, illustrated by Shirley Antak, is told from the perspective of an adorable little boy, made so both by Antak’s rendering and the amazing way he transcends death’s grip on his beloved grandfather.  The opening sequence shows the deep bond and ritual of this grandfather/grandson relationship.  The boy obviously adores the strong influence of his grandfather.  When he first gets news of his grandfather’s eventual demise, he is unsettled, of course, but this midsection of the book sets the stage for the last, when the boy becomes the strong influence.  He initiates and continues all of their special traditions, validating his grandfather, cementing their unending bond, and gathering his own strength for life without him.

Both these titles tackle a topic that is usually met with the awkward shrug of a smile, the stammering silence of not knowing what to say.  The subject matter is the stuff we try to shield our kids from, not books we willingly hand them.  But as with any tough topic, the children dealing with death need them right now.

Ironically, I chose not to share them with my children right now.  Perhaps I am being naive in thinking I can protect them from the direct blow of death for just a bit longer, but they’ve yet to be at a funeral.  They blessedly haven’t felt the stinging sorrow of a daily hole in their lives.  The deaths dealt to our family recently have been on their periphery.  But to know I have such gentle and poignant resources in literature should I need them – I’m glad the literary universe conspired to bring them both to me in the same lending cycle.

 

Three’s Company

How does one bounce back?

A perfectionist prolongs her reentry, waiting for the perfect post, story, sentiment; making her grand reentry so untenably grand, it may never happen.  Or be such a tremendous let-down, it truly disappoints.

A dweller in the present seizes the few minutes’ pocket of silence to write like her life depends upon it; easing back into life with the monotony of a moment, a microcosm of her world, the gentle ebb and flow of everyday.

If the procrastinator gets a hold of either of these two, nothing will ever be written again.  Too many of the dweller’s moments will pass, needing explanation, analysis.  Explanation and analysis swoop in upon the perfectionist like the ugly albatross.

As the sun warms my legs and slowly melts the snow outside, I sit at the center of a circle drawn by these three.

Everlasting

Natalie Babbitt is one of my favorites.

Sure, she’s written some great books, classics even.  But I didn’t read Tuck Everlasting as a kid; not until I was an undergrad, maybe even a teacher.  I do remember the ethereal glow surrounding the cinematic fountain of youth.  There was, continues to be, a magic connected to her stories.

But Natalie Babbitt was most magical to me when I heard her speak.

She was part of a panel on the craft of writing for young people at Rhode Island College, one of four published female authors in the field. She was the eldest, the most distinguished in terms of titles and staying power.  She was also the most emphatic, matter of fact, and unapologetic.

The question was posed to the panel: what is your writing routine?

Each in turn, the first three authors stated that one must write everyday; the secret to their success is continuity, establishing a routine; treating that time at their desks as a job.

Babbitt then stated, she was a mother.  Writing everyday wasn’t always possible.  Kids got measles.

She wasn’t trying to refute what the other authors had already said, just stated it straight out.  The way life was.  The reality of her writing life – or lack thereof.

In the midst of the chaos of three small children at the time, I instantly fell in love with Babbitt.  She’d never hold my hand and tell me it was okay to skip writing time, but she understood the realities of life with children, of real life, of days when life got in the way.

Countless times, when mothering saps my focus or free time, I see Ms. Babbitt, sitting in her spot at the long rectangular table at the head of the room, unapologetically sharing her secret to successful writing.  I suppose, it’s that there is no secret.  There is no perfect time – but there are also no excuses.

Natalie Babbitt got it done and masterfully so.  There is hope for me yet.

babbitt

In memoriam: Natalie Babbitt July 28, 1932 – October 31, 2016

At the Intersection of Love and Passion

If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and for long enough, she can remember pretty well everything that has made her happy.  The fragrance of her mother’s skin at the age of five and how they fled giggling into a porch to get out of a sudden downpour.  The cold tip of her father’s nose against her cheek.  The consolation of the rough part of a soft toy that she has refused to let them wash.  The sound of waves stealing in over rocks during their last seaside holiday.  Applause in a theater.  Her sister’s hair, afterwards, carelessly waving in the breeze as they’re walking down the street.

And apart from that?  When has she been happy?  A few moments.  The jangling of keys in the door.  The beating of Kent’s heart against the palms of her hands while he lay sleeping.  Children’s laughter.  The feel of the wind on her balcony.  Fragrant tulips.  True love.

The first kiss.

A few moments.  A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment.  And to love someone without measure.  Explode with passion.

A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be.  But after that, how many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves?  How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud, without a sense of shame?  How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia?

All passion is childish.  It’s banal and naive.  It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us.  Overturns us.  It bears us away in a flood.  All other emotions belong to the earth, but passions inhabits the universe.

That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk.  Our dignity.  The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.

 

from Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Nighttime Jewels

An island of green encrusted in jewels
illuminated by the light of oncoming traffic

globes of dandelion fluff sparkling
in the beams undercutting the night mist

a field of glittering diamonds
nothing but a mess of a nuisance by day

The Ghost of Winter

The ghost of winter,

a puff of breath

whisking swirls of snow
off the branches and into the air

suspended

a last gasp of cold crystals

the pine boughs flash frozen for a moment
and then it’s gone,

green grass poking through the raised mounds of snow
pushed upwards
by the fledgling growth of spring

a delicate dance

threatening
but gone in the blink of an eye

snow.Still0021

blackhillsfox.com

Pietro

 “Excuse me . . . miss.”

The way he addressed me, I almost thought he mistook me for a clerk. The blue and white check on the shoulder of my rain jacket flashed as I turned and reminded me it looked nothing like the blue polos of the store employees. He spread his fingers across the bridge of his nose.

My glasses. I forgot them.” His index finger moved to the half gallon of milk he held in his hand and its mottled hieroglyph of a date stamp. We peered at it together.

March 26th,” I said.

Today’s . . . the . . . 11th,” we said together, the last part punctuated by the speed of certainty.

He tilted his head back and forth as if weighing the amount of milk against the weight of days.

That gives you time,” I said.

I’d seen the same dance from my grandmother countless times. What was an easy decision for me – to throw two full gallons of milk in my cart for my burgeoning family – was agonizing to a single person afraid of pouring sour dairy down the drain.

We laughed, relieved to have solved this problem together.

Eh, the basket, where do you get them?” he said. At least that’s what I thought he said. The beautiful lilt of an Italian accent rounded the edges of each word. I went through the convoluted description of obtaining a shopping cart from the coin-fed chain contraption all because of one misunderstood noun.

Oh no, the pasta. Pasta fagioli?” He uttered a few other phrases to clarify what he was seeking, which included Germany in there somewhere, I think. I finally nodded in assent and scanned the signs above the aisles, pointing to the next one over.

Pasta!” I said.

Next aisle, ah yes. Thank you very much.”

After he shuffled off and I resumed the task of picking out paper towels, his voice carried over the rack of metal shelving separating us.

Pastina,” he said. “Pasta. Pasta fagioli.”

Pastina? You mean little pasta?”

For pasta fagioli,” he insisted. “In Germany.”

This is all the pasta we have, sir.”

He had found a clerk this time, but I could tell she was as thrown by his accent as I had been. And obviously hadn’t been raised on the tiny bits of pasta Italian families added to their soups and fed buttered to their babies in high chairs.

Armed with the knowledge my Italian husband and his family had fed me with, I figured I’d better hightail it over to the pasta aisle and intervene. I’d failed translating the first time, but maybe this time, I could help. Plus, I needed some campanelle of my own.

Pasta fagioli,” he said again to the confounded clerk.

They both looked at me as I approached. “You mean in a can?”

My Italian relatives would cringe at my suggestion, but the way he kept repeating it, I thought maybe he wanted some ready-made.

No, no, the pastina, to put in the pasta fagioli.” His thumb and forefinger made a small gap of light to show its size.

I had assumed that’s what he had wanted all along. Even though he was elderly and shopping alone, living perhaps presumably alone, a man who requested his type of pasta by the Italian name of the dish it was destined for, in a voice tinged with his mother tongue, would want to whip up a batch himself.

The clerk repeated that what was in the aisle was all they had. I agreed that I didn’t see it, nor the ditalini I instinctively knew would also work.

Sorry,” she said as she moved back to the front of the store.

Are you Italian?” he said.

My husband is,” I said.

Your husband,” he repeated as if processing the information.

Yes.”

What is your last name?”

I’d had this conversation many times before in supermarkets, nursing homes, and once a cab ride in Rome. It was not an interrogation. It was a sharing of roots; whether common ones or airing your own; a sense of pride; a tradition borne across the world.

Basile.”

He was not the first one to stumble on my last name, but his was not due to pronunciation. Once his hearing clarified it, he pronounced it more precisely than I could.

Calabria, Campagnia, Sicily?”

I knew, of course, where the maternal and paternal shoots of my husband’s tree hailed from, but struggled to find the short answer in the middle of the supermarket.

Rome.” I decided on the branch that bore our surname.

Ah, Roma.”

Si,” I said.

He smiled.

And you, you are American?”

I shouldn’t have been thrown by such a question, especially coming from someone who certainly did not sound like a native English speaker. Yes, I was American, but my family had been for three generations now – and that was the most recent immigrant branch.

Yes, Jennifer. My family is Irish,” I said.

The Irish,” he said.

My genetics must have been ingrained with the biases my ancestors dealt with, for I was almost afraid how he would react. I wanted to assure him with my grandmother’s assurance made just fifteen short years ago, that Irish and Italians marry well.

My daughters,” he said. “I have two. One she lives upstairs from me. The other, she lives in New York. She married an Irish man. Kevin O’Rourke. He’s a good man,” he said. “Even though, you know.” He paused to make a guzzling motion with his thumb and pinky extended, then laughed. I couldn’t tell whether this was an indictment of his son-in-law or the Irish in general.

Well, I don’t,” I said. “Especially now,” I quipped, indicating my pregnant belly.

He smiled. “A boy?” I couldn’t tell whether he was rooting for a boy as any Italian relative I’d encountered during any of my pregnancies did, or if he was just wondering whether I knew the sex of the baby.

I don’t know, yet,” I said. “We already have three daughters.”

He indicated pleasure rather than the surprise that admission usually met.

And what is your name?’ I asked.

He extended a strong hand spotted with age. “Pietro.”

It’s nice to meet you, Pietro.”

Yes, you have a good day now,” he said. “Good bye, ciao, auf wiedersehen.“

His litany of multilingual greetings threw my mind into a tailspin. It spun wildly for the words to wish him a good day in Italian.

Perhaps he mistook my pause for confusion, for he explained ‘auf wiedersehen’ was from the German. I realized I’d never asked exactly from where he’d hailed. He was obviously tied to Germany as well as Italy.

Si,“ I agreed.

He laughed. “Ciao, bella.“

As he left, I turned back to the pasta. Not only did they not have pastina, there was no campanelle either.

– Jennifer Butler Basile, 2016

Bigger in her Head

“When we first lost our house, I told Reba, ‘I just want things to go back to normal.  When is that going to happen?’

‘Soon,’ she promised.

Soon seems awfully far away.

‘Your mom’s on medication that makes her tired,’ Dana Wood explains.

‘What’s wrong with her?  She’s never been like this.’  I’m trying to get a breath.  I feel sick to my stomach all of a sudden.

‘The early diagnosis is that she had something called a severe depressive incident.  That can happen when people are very stressed and then something tough happens and they can’t bounce back.’

I sit down.  ‘Like not getting the job she was counting on?’

‘Exactly.  It was the last straw, and she shut down.’

‘She made it bigger in her head than it really was.’

‘That happens often, Sugar.’

‘But it’s not normal, right?  Normal mothers don’t do this!’

‘What I can tell you is that most people sometime in their lives make something bigger in their heads than it really is.’

‘But they don’t end up in the hospital!’  I’m trying to breathe normally, but it’s hard.

‘Sugar, the doctors and nurses here know how to help.’

That doesn’t tell me anything.  ‘How long does she have to be here?’

‘A week, probably.’

‘Then what?’

‘We’re not sure yet, Sugar.’

I’m getting tired of this.  ‘I want to talk to somebody’s who’s sure.’

‘I’d feel the same way if I were you, but right now, no one’s sure.’

I have another question, but I’m not going to ask it.

Could this shutting-down thing happen to me?

almost home— from Almost Home  by Joan Bauer

Driving Blind But in the Moment

[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
– E.L. Doctorow

A few summers ago, I sat in a writing workshop with the inimitable Kelly Easton that unexpectedly turned into a therapy session – perhaps most unexpectedly for her.

We’d been given an exercise to write a scene from our work in progress from the point of view of a secondary character rather than our protagonist. I love Ant. He’s so fun to write. His humorous and outrageous comments flow from a place that’s cheesy and cathartic at the same time. So he was my target voice.

When I read back my piece to Kelly and the others for feedback, she said she loved the energy and spontaneity of the beginning, but that lessened as it went on. It was, she said, as if I didn’t trust his voice, myself; that rather than letting the story go where it would, I clicked on that control switch, molding the plot to the overall plan I had in mind. That I was afraid to relinquish control.

The critique hit me like a ton of bricks. Not because she was wrong. Not because I can’t take criticism (at least from a trusted source 😉 ). But because Kelly’s critique applied to my entire life – not just my work in progress.

How often do we follow some preordained plan rather than functioning within and through the essence of our being? How often do we tick off the to-dos to achieve a goal rather than burning and glowing with the initial desire for it? How often do we rein ourselves in rather than galloping exuberantly forward?

For what?

Unless we’re acting recklessly, we will not crash. There’s a fair distance between joy and mania. Why are we so afraid to inhabit our joy? Are we afraid to feel it in advance of our perceived loss of it?

What’s the worst that could have happened in my story? Anthony would’ve surprised me? Would’ve taken the plot in a new and exciting direction? The writer me could’ve certainly looped him back around to my original story – or marvelled at an even-better blossoming of the plot.

The same applies to life. Long ago, a wise friend reminded me that when your dreams haven’t come true or prayers answered, perhaps it is because God has something even better in store for you. We need not see further than our headlights illuminate. Stubborn human nature makes us want to, but it’s not necessary to survival and success – and certainly not to our happiness.

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