Monday, July 23, 2012

Song of the Open Road

This is my son Sam, who is 22 this summer.

And this is my stepson David, who is also 22 this summer.

When last heard from, Sam was in New Orleans, debating which direction to head next.When last heard from, David was entering Yellowstone National Park for the evening. Eventually, both young men will crisscross the country, with each ending back up where he started from. In Sam's case, that would be Portland, Oregon. In David's, Akron, Ohio.

What is it about young men and summer that makes them want to hit the road? Long before Jack Kerouac ever took to the highways, a young man named E.B. White drove with his friend Howard Cushman from Ithaca, New York, to Seattle, Washington. This trip was undertaken in a Model T long before there were paved highways in many parts of the country. White captured his trip in his letters home (which are collected in The Letters of E.B. White) and in his essay, "The Years of Wonder." He and Cushman were 23 at the time.

When E.B. White became a father, he wrote a poem, "Apostrophe to a Pram Rider," on the subject of travel:

Someday when I'm out of sight,
Travel far but travel light!
Raise the sail your old man furled,
Hang your hat upon the world! ...
Joe, my tangible creation,
Happy in perambulation,
Work no harder than you have to. Do you get me?

So to my far flung sons, measuring their days in miles and destinations, travel far and travel light!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The List

This has been a summer of feeling my mortality. Even as I pen these words on a quiet Sunday morning, I am not quite at ease in my own skin.

Years ago, back in the 1990s sometime, I read an article in one of the women's magazines—Women's Day or Family Circle—about creating a "50 things to do before you die" list. This was long before "bucket lists" became part of our everyday conversations. If I remember, the author's point was the same one everyone always makes when it comes to such things: Time doesn't stop. If you do not conscientiously think about what you want to do and then do some of those things, you will one day look back and say "why didn't I...?"

Over the years, I would note one or two things for my 50 Things list. In 2002, I actually sat down and wrote one, topping 60 items by the looks of it. (Yes, I have that list. No, I am not sharing it.) In 2008, I sat down again and revised the list. The 2008 list was shorter by half, reaching only some 30 items. (I have a copy of that one too and no, I am not posting it either.)

A lot of life has intervened since 2002. A whole lot. A lot more has happened since 2008.

This morning, in a "time is short and the water rises" mood, I printed out both lists and made some halfhearted notes on each. Then I pulled out a fat yellow marker and, not paying any attention to "how many" items I had, highlighted the ones that still spoke strongly to me.

When I got done and counted, there were seven items splashed with yellow.


When I add holding Ramona Dawn in my arms, an item not even imagined in 2008, the list jumps to eight.  (This will be the easiest one to mark off, as planning is well under way for an Oregon trip in the months to come.)

I have to laugh at myself. Only eight items on my list? That's all? Am I selling myself (and my dreams) short?  Or am I merely focusing on those things that remain sweetest and most appealing to me (outside of the daily mix of my life, including family, marriage, and community)?

We do not come into this world with an expiration date stamped on our arms. On our soul, perhaps, or coded into our DNA, but not anywhere on our outward shell. The very mystery of its span is what makes life so achingly precious.

I don't want a bucket list. I'm not shooting ducks at a carnival looking to win a Kewpie doll. But maybe, just maybe, I will try a little harder to check off a few of those items on my list.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Norman Rockwell Moment

"Breaking Home Ties," by Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell is kind of a hard one to place in terms of his role in our cultural history. Was he an artist? An illustrator? Did he paint America as it was? Or America as it never existed? I enjoy his work because it reminds me of my childhood. I didn't live in a Norman Rockwell world; no one I knew did. But my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post and I saw a lot of his cover works as I was growing up. 

"Breaking Home Ties" is one I have seen often over the years. It is deceptively simple: a father and son waiting for the train. The son is off to college, undoubtedly a freshman. His father is waiting with him, holding both his son's and his own hats, one shiny new, the other worn and stained. The son is looking expectantly to the future, the father to the past.

Tuesday was my Norman Rockwell moment.

My son Sam came back to Ohio in mid-June, looking to lay over briefly, earn some money at odd jobs, and then go on farther east to backpack and hike. He spent four weeks here, managed by hard labor to make a tidy sum of money, all the time finalizing his plans for the next stage of the summer. He found a ride to share to North Carolina, his next destination, with a college student from the Cincinnati area.

It was time to move on.

Tuesday morning I drove Sam to Covington, Kentucky to rendezvous with the driver. We reached the agreed upon meeting point first by, oh, ten minutes or so. Sam pulled out his carefully loaded backpack and propped it against the car. He pulled out his shoes and a bag of food I'd packed for him.

Then Sam plopped down on a parking curb and waited expectantly, looking for all the world like Rockwell's young man sitting on the running board waiting for the train. And me? I'd have been holding both our hats and turning them over and over in my hands if we'd had hats. 

Sam was clearly ready for the next leg of his summer adventures. And me? I was saying goodbye yet again to one of my children.

When the driver arrived, Sam jumped up. We talked for a few seconds, then Sam easily hoisted his backpack on and gave me a hug. "Have fun," I said. "Travel safe," I told them both.

I headed back home. It was mid-morning and already hot; my car windows were down. I found an oldies station in Cincinnati and cranked it up high, singing along when I knew the words. And bit by bit, mile by mile, Sam's train rolled on into the future.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Thoughts on "Stuff"—An Interview With Tonya

I have written before about stuff. Other friends out there in Bloggerville also write about stuff and what to do with it. My friend Sharon is presently trying to declutter her life by 1000 items by year's end. Stuff is just one of those eternal challenges. This is how one friend handled "stuff" recently. 


My friend Tonya and I are the same age. I've known her since beginning flute classes in the summer of 1966, although we didn't connect and become friends until last year (in that weird, wonderful way people who ignored each other through high school find themselves reconnecting in later life). She now lives in the greater Philadelphia area, planning on relocating back here sometime in the next 18 months.

Tonya is currently downsizing from a house to an apartment, and is looking further down the road at her eventual move to Delaware. When she  messaged me she was coming here this weekend to drop off  a load of items, we made plans for coffee. We also had this discussion via Facebook:

Tonya: Last load...meaning load of stuff I don't want to move know...old kids things...outdoor xmas decorations that I won't need or use in the apartment. Things like that.

April: Don't you know that moving is a chance to get RID of stuff? I don't meant sentimental stuff, but I do mean STUFF.

Tonya: I have thoroughly enjoyed getting rid of all the STUFF in my life. This has been a very cleansing and rewarding experience. I have chosen very carefully the "stuff" that will go with me. Everyone should cleanse their life every once in a while! Hey, that sounds like a blog post!

That topic did sound like a blog post. So when Tonya and I met for coffee today, I interviewed her about STUFF.

Question (Q): Tonya, as we drove over here, you said you had a rule about stuff. What is Tonya's Rule about stuff?

Answer (A): That's easy. If you haven't looked at it, thought about it, or used it for a year, then it is time to get rid of it. Unless you are talking about mementoes of your children.

 Q: What was the most difficult item for you to get rid of?

A: My dining room furniture. I love cooking a big meal for friends and family. We shared them at that table and it reminded me of the meals, the holidays, the laughter, of telling what we were grateful for at Thanksgiving. It was about sharing. I know you can have that experience at that any kind of table, and I will, but this one represents all those years.

Q: What was the easiest thing for you to get rid of?

A: Almost everything else.

Q: What surprised you the most about getting rid of your stuff?

A: How easy it was. Clothing, shoes, dishes, stuff in the attic, like this wicker basket I had for a project that I never got around to doing. You know, just "stuff." All the gardening stuff. I carefully went through my Christmas ornaments, because there are a lot of my children's toys in there. But all the generic Christmas stuff, I got rid of. I think you need to recycle your ordinary Christmas stuff every few years.

Q: What did you do with the stuff you got rid of?

A: I held a big yard sale. Everything that wasn't sold was boxed up and set on the curb afterwards. 20 to 25 minutes later, everything was gone. I also sold my bedroom suite—which is too big for my new place—on Craig's list. I ended up selling it to my surgeon's secretary, although we didn't know that at the time we started emailing about it!

Q: What are five things you would never get rid of?

A: My kids' first baseball and softball uniforms, my son's giant bag of Legos, Gabby's red "spy bag," family photos, and my grandmother's letters.

Q: Tell me about your grandmother's letters.

A: These were letters she had written me over the years, at different times of my life. I knew I had them, but I had sort of forgotten about them. As I started packing to move, they showed up in various places—some put away in a box, some mixed in with family photos, some in the closet. There's about 20 of them. They meant a lot to me when I got them, they mean even more now that she is gone.

Q: What are five things you got rid of this time that made you wonder why you kept them so long?

A: Oh my gosh. Tablecloths. I had stacks of them and I never used them! Electric appliances, like a crock pot. I never use the crock pot. Oh wait, I brought that with me when I brought stuff over here. Books. I know, you love books and you are probably cringing. But they are heavy to move, unpack, then never read. You know, you buy something like 1000 Secrets of the Kitchen, thinking you are going to read it. And you never do. I actually have one like that. I always want to read it, but I never get around to it. So I keep moving it, thinking this time I'll read it and learn all kinds of tips and cool things I can do in my kitchen. Secrets of the kitchen that would change my life. (Laughs.) Then I forget about it. In fact, it's on my counter now—because I haven't gotten rid of it yet. Five things, huh? Ratty old toys, like really worn out, beat up dolls with no hair. Clothes that I kept thinking I'm really going to wear that, I really like that, but I continued to move it to the back of the closet. I finally had to admit to myself that I was never going to wear some of those clothes. Is that five yet?

Q: No.

A: Well, okay. (Silence.) There are things I used to do and then set aside because I got too busy. Can I add another item to the list of things I would never get rid of?

Q: Sure.

A: My flute. And my yoga mat. I want to keep those and keep them out to remind me of things I want to get back to. I mean, really get back to.

Tonya's boyfriend, who we will call TS ("Tonya's Sweetie") was present for most of this interview. Although it wasn't planned, I posed my next question to him.

Q: So how do you feel about Tonya's stuff coming to your space? What's your reaction now that you've heard her answers? Do you see any problems in absorbing her stuff into your house?

TS: Well, I'll definitely have to rearrange some things. This will probably cause me to purge some stuff out of my life. You know, boxes I haven't opened since moving in (5 years ago or so). But there's room for her.

Q: Tonya, is there anything else you want to say about stuff?

A: You know, considering I am 56 and have had a whole lifetime to collect things, there is not really that much stuff. I mean, I have my personal things—like my clothes, my shoes...

TS: Her shoes. That's a "we're going to have to build on, man" situation.

A: You know how I am about my shoes! But really, there's not that much. This whole experience has just been rewarding and easy and needed. Everybody should just do it!

Q: Thank you, Tonya! This has been great!

This is Tonya, with "TS." I don't know if that is his stuff or her stuff in the background.

Friday, July 13, 2012

First Tomatoes

Well, actually the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th tomatoes.

Sam and I shared the first two tomatoes of the season a few days ago. A little tart, a little thick skinned due to the lack of rain, but indescribably wonderful.

The long wait is over.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Project (With Literary Annotations)

"Even Belinda is learning to make tiny careful stitches."
"I'm not," said Belinda.*

I. Don't. Sew.

This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.**

I don't sew. Oh, I can mend things and, if pressed hard, I can stitch a little with the aid of a sewing machine and a lot of time. So whatever possessed me to undertake a sewing project, most of which had no patterns, only descriptions and an occasional instruction online? 

The project came about after Mona, my son's mother-in-law, wrote on Facebook that she saw Ramona, our soon-to-be-here granddaughter, as a fancy shawl dancer at future powwows. And after I read those words, I saw Ramona as a fancy shawl dancer.

Fancy shawl dancing, which is performed only by women, is a 20th century addition to the pantheon of tribal dances. It is a featured event at powwows. The dancer's outfit, also called regalia, is very, well, fancy.

Really, really fancy.

You can't be a fancy shawl dancer without the regalia, even if you are a baby. Alise has already made Ramona a pair of moccasins. After the Facebook comment, I found myself thinking about fancy shawl dancing and a fancy shawl dance outfit. What would it take to put together one for Ramona?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. I spent a lot of time on the internet, looking at fancy shawl dance regalia. Finally, with the help of some internet sites, a Simplicity pattern, a large dose of what my father calls "field expediency," and a whole lot of love and determination, I sewed Ramona her first fancy shawl dance regalia.

In looking back, now that I am done with the project, I can only conclude I was delusional at the time I undertook it. An experienced sewer would think twice before jumping in on this, especially since these outfits are often made of satin and brocade and are elaborately appliqued. But there is something to be said for inexperience (and delusions). Fueled by what I can only assume is a grandmother-to-be's fierce desire to make something special for the baby-to-be, my lack of experience carried me into, through, and out of a three week immersion in sewing the outfit.

"That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about our quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."
"I remember," said Milo, eagerly. "Tell me now."
"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
"Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
..."but if we'd told you then, you might now have gone—and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."***

Not that there were not pitfalls along the way. When you don't sew and don't know what you are doing, every step is a potential for disaster. My first pass at using bias tape to finish off the leggings resulted in this, looking like an awkward attempt at a potholder:

I almost cried. Then I sat down and ran the bias tape around continuously and came up with this:

Bill gets the tape measure and, kneeling, stretched it across the breakfast nook...He's storing up memories of decisions that seem right and ones that seem lucky, for the same reason footings are laid in order to build on. The tape snaps back into its case. "Now I understand what ten-feet-six by thirteen is,"says Bill. ****

The dress was almost my downfall. Halfway through sewing the pattern (this was the one piece for which I had a pattern, Simplicity 9784), I realized I had committed a major error in interpreting the sewing instructions. Small wonder, given my lack of sewing experience.

I emailed Cindy, who was my constant companion and champion throughout this project: Totally botched the skirt extensions—oh, they look great but they are on the inside and not the outside! I think it was kind of a "suggested" pleat in the back. So what I am going to do is cut them off entirely, because I cannot get them to the outside without destroying the whole skirt, and just set the skirt to the bodice. If it is totally screwed up, I will need more material...and start all over again on the dress. I hope not! 

As it turned out, it wasn't totally screwed up and I didn't start over. I also didn't complete the dress as per the pattern and instructions. In fact, I went so far afield that I folded them away and finished the piece with a fair amount of field expediency, to borrow again from my dad. Field expediency works. While the end result is not Simplicity 9784, it is a dress.

And when paired with the leggings, the vest/cape, and the fancy shawl, it is fancy shawl dancer regalia, just about the right size for a little one.

Ramona can go to powwows in style.

Many cultures, including a number of tribes, believe that the artist or crafter should make a deliberate mistake in a work to show that the world is not perfect and only God, the Creator, is capable of flawless work. I did not have to make any deliberate mistakes because I made so many without deliberation that there is no question of my humanity. Over the three weeks of sewing, I ran the needle into my finger countless times, and, in one brilliant move, ran the eye of the needle into my thumb. (Yes, it did hurt.)

The eye of Laura's needle slipped through a tiny hole in her thimble and ran into her finger. She shut her mouth hard and did not say a word.*****

As noted, fancy shawls are elaborately appliqued and beaded, often with a repeated motif such as a flower or bird. (My appliques are humble and within my limited skills.) As I thought about what motif to pick, I felt almost as though I were picking a spirit for Ramona. I could have picked something traditional and girly: butterflies or hummingbirds. I thought about fireflies and dragonflies. I could have picked something that carried a family connection: books or the Doyle owl. But in the end my heart told me to choose a comet, thinking of the blaze of light etching its way across the firmaments. As Ramona grows, she will have her own vision and find her own spirit, but for now, I am wrapping her in stars.

Back side of vest, with cape. Front of vest is seen in preceding picture.
For the longest time, I kept calling the fancy shawl, which is the piece I made first, by other names. Sometimes I would call it a spirit shawl. Sometimes I would call it a prayer shawl. It seemed to me to be all three. Of all of the pieces I made, this was the one that spoke to me most deeply of past and future.

The day came when I sewed the last stitch, which was on the white star on the cape back. In tying the past to the present and beyond, I sewed the trim on the cape with gold metallic thread I had originally bought years ago to sew trim on a Halloween costume for Ben. I knotted and snipped the thread, and then sat back. After days of working on and thinking through this project, it was done. After days of living with bobbins of threads and snippets of ribbon and satin, it was over. The next morning, the dance regalia headed west to Alise and Ben. 

I am not yet used to not working on the project. There are still stray pieces of thread on the floor of the kitchen (where I did most of the sewing). The extra bedroom, my staging area, is still in a jumble of cloth and spool of thread and pattern pieces. When I drafted this post, the package had not yet arrived, so I felt I was waiting, suspended somewhere between done and there. (And, as I indicated yesterday, I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever be able to publish this post!) 

As I sewed, sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine, I found myself thinking of Ramona and wondering about this unknown yet known and already loved child coming into our lives. I found myself stitching my hopes and dreams and love into the garments. 

So she had made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart.******

I hope she grows up healthy. I hope she is bright and strong and creative. I hope she has her parents' love of books.

And I hope she dances. With her parents, with her family, with her tribe, with the world.

*****Literary Annotations*****

While I sewed, quotes kept coming to mind, causing me to jump up and go track them down. The references are as follows:

*Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Rumer Godden
** A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
***The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Justin
****House, Tracy Kidder
*****The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
******Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Project: A Teaser

Then he began racing wildly up and down the bank, looking everywhere. ...[A]fter a while they found the canoe—but it was a mess. ... Stuart was heartbroken. ... "It's no use," he said bitterly, "it wouldn't be the same." From Stuart Little, by E. B. White

I thought I was going to learn first-hand exactly how Stuart felt. From mid-June until the 2nd of July, I labored on a very special project which, upon finishing, I wrapped and boxed and promptly shipped west to Portland. As Ben and Alise have recently moved, I sent the parcel to Alise's office by priority mail.

With the holiday last week, I nonetheless optimistically assumed she would have the box by Friday. It had not arrived by the end of Friday. Alise stayed home on Monday (so no package update) and home yesterday as well (so no package update again).

By last night (not realizing Alise had stayed home the second day), I was convinced the parcel had come undone somewhere between Ohio and Oregon. I had wrapped the project in numbered parcels; I knew parcels 1, 3, and 4 were scattered across the Great Plains. First thing  this morning, I emailed Cindy, "I am making myself sick over this—if it is gone, it is gone, because it 's not like I can go out and buy another (and I don't know if I could bring myself to sew another)!"

Visions of Stuart, sobbing because his canoe had been vandalized, danced through my head all morning. That is, they danced through my head until I received the following text from Alise: The parcel is safely on my desk. Thanks april!

Come back tomorrow to read the story of the project.