Thursday, March 27, 2014

Inch Three: Another Bird Story

Last weekend was the Symphony's March concert. This year was a blockbuster: Saturday and Sunday performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The Ninth takes a full chorus as well as four soloists, one of whom, the soprano, was our guest for the weekend.

Paola Gonzalez is a doctorate student in voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She is a sparkling, beautiful person both inside and out. Having her stay with us for a few days likewise turned out to be a sparkling experience.

We have had soloists stay with us prior to a concert before, but they have always been instrumentalists, not vocalists. Vocalists are a different type of guest.

Saturday morning, while I was tidying up the kitchen, I heard a bird trilling somewhere. Despite our cold weather, the birds that wintered over have started to emerge and more often when I step outside, I sometimes hear their chirps and trills. So when I heard the trills, I looked out the kitchen window at the dogwood tree, often a gathering point for several types of birds.

Seeing nothing, I listened for another moment, then laughed at myself. The bird was inside my house. The bird was Paola, warming up her voice a little with trills and runs.

Paola appeared a little later for breakfast and I told her my confusion. She blushed and apologized.

Oh no, I assured her. I loved hearing her. It is so different to hear a human voice trilling instead of a roll on the timpani.

Sunday morning when our upstairs bird began trilling, I smiled and listened with pleasure to the runs.

Paola and her fellow soloists gave two spectacular performances and I was at both. Sunday afternoon, with concert weekend almost over, I sat back in my seat and let the music wash over me. Paloa's voice soared to the high domed ceiling of the performance hall, taking sure flight.

It was bittersweet saying goodbye after the concert. Paola's thanks were as musical as her singing voice and we hugged each other hard before our songbird picked up her bags and headed back to Cincinnati.

Several of the soloists from the weekend. Paola is the redbird third from the left.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Inch Two: The Nest

Recently I came across this line of poetry:

Out there
a bird is building a nest out of torn up letters.

It is from a poem by James Schuyler, an American poet unknown to me. I did not read that line in any poem by him, but rather in a review of a memoir that opens with that line.

The image fascinated me the moment I read it. In my mind, I could see the bird sitting on a nest, scraps of envelopes and stray paragraphs surrounding it. The envelopes were in shades of pink and blue, the stuff of bakery boxes. Some of the scraps were love letters. Maybe there was a condolence letter in the mix or a letter trying to repair a family breach.

I fell asleep some nights thinking of the nest of torn up letters. What did the letters contain? Why were they torn up?

After more research, I found the line was from the poem, "An East Window on Elizabeth Street," and was not even the entire line. The complete line reads:

Out there
a bird is building a nest out of torn-up letters
and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.

Oh. That's a whole different image, a whole different nest. This is an urban bird, a bird scrapping for whatever bits and pieces it can find to construct its home. Those torn up letters? Oh, any old thing would do—an electric bill, a notice from the optometrist, a collection letter.

With the (slowly) warming weather, birds are starting to be more visible. I hung two suet feeders on the old dogwood that is just outside the kitchen window. Occasionally I see a grackle or two perch on them. Sometimes I stand and watch the grackles tear at the suet, twisting their heads at impossible angles before flying up to a higher branch and peering down again. The other day I saw a Downy Woodpecker hop up the vertical trunk of the same tree, testing the wood as it went.

The birds will be building their nests again. We sometimes have robins nesting near the house—once over a front porch light, more often in the dogwood. Their nests are made of dried grasses and old flower stalks and sometimes even a piece of shredded paper that has blown out of the recycling.

But no torn up letters, no pastel colors, no bird sitting atop a broken heart.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Inch One: The Pie

March 14 was Pi Day, not to be confused with National Pie Day, which is January 23.

The point of Pi Day is the same as Pie Day, as far as I am concerned. You need to eat pie on Pi Day.

Early in the day of the 14th, I decided it should be a coconut cream pie.

But not just any old coconut cream pie. I didn't want a store bought coconut cream pie or an artificially rigid slice from a restaurant. And I certainly didn't want to make one from a box pudding with coconut flakes stirred in, poured into a crust from the grocery shelf and topped with Cool Whip (my mom's version back in the day).

That left the pie in my hands, which is exactly were I wanted it to be.

One of the websites I have bookmarked on the computer is Curvy Mama Pies, a web-based pie bakery in Bethesda, Maryland. Catherine Gewertz, the pie maker, blogs on the site, and often shares pie recipes that have caught her attention. I took the recipe for my Pi Day's dessert from her blog.

Making the custard
A good coconut cream pie starts with a thick custard base. I learned the art of custard making over a decade ago, when my friend Gus asked for a custard pie at a meeting for which I was baking. While I quailed at the thought of making a custard (it sounded hard), I wasn't about to let Gus down. Custard turned out to be simple and I have never been intimidated by any recipe calling for a custard base since then.

By supper, the custard, thick with eggs and coconut milk, was cooling in the refrigerator. Later that evening, I filled the crust (which I had baked early that morning) and let it continue to set up.

Warren was gigging all this weekend, so Pi Day would be a late celebration. When he walked through the door late Friday night, I leaped to whip the cream that would top the pie. I cut thick slices, serving it on painted china plates that were wedding present for his parents decades ago.

Pies are wonderful things, full of good flavors and good feelings. Our Pi Day pie was no exception. As I type these words Sunday evening, some of the pie is still cooling its heels in the refrigerator. A slice will go to my friend Anne and the rest will go into us.

And I will savor every bite.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Inch by Inch

Anne Lamott, in her beautiful little book about writing, Bird By Bird, shared that she keeps a one-inch square frame on her desk.

"It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being."

I was reminded of Lamott's frame this week when I read Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro, yet another gracefully written little book about writing. Shapiro writes about the necessity of setting aside time in which to write, about the necessity of honoring and respecting that time.

"Be a good steward to your gifts," she says, borrowing from the late poet Jane Kenyon.

It has been a long, cruel winter, both inside and outside. While our winter weather did not come close to what family and friends experienced in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we had a hard siege of single digit  temperatures and harsh, frozen landscapes. Many days were spent stumbling from the door to the car, from the car to the office, then reversing that journey to stumble back into the house and try to warm up for the evening.

Inside, my myeloma was hellbent on making sure I was incapable of doing anything more than the bare minimum, reducing me most evenings and weekends to being curled up on the couch under a blanket, reading. I managed work by the skin of my teeth, I managed some limited household chores, and I managed to stay alive. Even once I started treatment, the daily quality of my life remained poor. The myeloma appeared to be subsiding, but the treatment more than made up for its retreat. I remained on the couch and many things remained out of reach, including any sustained interest in writing.

Even a one-inch frame seemed impossibly large.

The snow has finally melted, the last traces in the yard just recently disappearing. It is not yet consistently warmer outside, but the light is that of early spring and not of winter. That realization hit me when Warren and I topped a hill and saw the brown fields spread out in an afternoon light. "That is not winter light," I said firmly. "That is not winter light at all."

As I look out on the newly uncovered landscape—the brown lawn, the kitchen garden waiting to be tilled—I recognize that I will need to measure out my days for some time yet. My energy still flags faster than I would like, and when I overdo, I pay swiftly. So I am working on staying mindful of the day at hand.

I am painfully aware that brutal as winter was in Ohio this year, it was even more brutal in Cancerland. Stumbling through the frozen stubble of the distant fields of that fiefdom in which I reside, all that came to mind was this sentence from City of Thieves: "You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold." While I hoped I would reach shelter, this is the winter that made me realize at a gut level that I will not be able to take such shelter for granted again.

And yet spring is in the air.  Green things, including the first weeds, are trying to poke up. My oncologist and I have tweaked my treatment regimen, hoping to suppress the myeloma without suppressing me as well. We are hopeful that the myeloma will settle down once again, allowing the life in me to poke up and flourish.

What I learned this winter in Cancerland, not for the first time but perhaps so deeply that it has taken root, is that I need to be committed more than ever to spending my days deliberately and at a slower pace.

Deliberate living. A one-inch square focus out to be a good starting point.

So I have set myself a goal. A small goal. A one-inch square goal.

A post a week. A little post. A one-inch square post, respecting the writing and respecting the time.

It is all I have to bite off for the time being.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Turn Around

This picture of Ramona popped up on Alise's Facebook page the other day. Alise commented, "She picked up some info at NAYA tonight. We always knew she was advanced."

Ramona is 18 months old today.

What I wanted to say when I saw the photo was, "Don't turn away, Ben and Alise, because when you turn back again, Ramona will be receiving college mailings!"

I remember still when the very first college letter came to Ben, close on the heels of his PSAT scores. I remember opening the mailbox and wondering what was up when I removed an envelope from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

That Depauw entreaty was the first of an avalanche of letters and catalogues for Ben. And when I turned around again, he was in Portland, graduating from Reed College.

When I was little, the Sunday night "must see" television show was Disney's "Wonderful World of Color." A Kodak commercial ran weekly either during or immediately after the show. It was a song sung by a father to his daughter, with the opening lines of "Where are you going, my little one, little one?" When I saw the photo of Ramona, I thought of it immediately.

Time is fleeting. Every time I turn around, there is a new Ramona. Is she already 18 months old?

She must be, because I can already see her reaching up for that doorknob.