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Heart

“Something strange and rather extraordinary . . .” my mind says. I was poised to avoid writing by trolling the internet, opened my computer, and poof – word processing program loaded.

I’ve been thinking about my grandma.

“Come out here.” My husband calls to me from the backyard. I’ve been huddled in the house avoiding . . . just avoiding.

“What?” I yell back from the door.

“You’ve got to come out and see this.” He calls back.

Everything is soggy, the patio stones shining damp from lingering mist. I give in to my curiosity, slip into my ugly blue rubber shoes, and shuffle out to meet my husband by the garden boxes that effuse last season’s dry bent stems like a tired sigh. “So . . .what?” I reply as I cock my head to look up at his face. He grins broadly and steps aside waving his arm like a magician revealing the trick. There below the crabapple tree the surprise bursts into view. He wraps a gentle arm around my shoulder, “I thought you would enjoy seeing this yourself.” The full, warm, squeezing-heart memories spill in and my eyes mist over. “Yes,” taking a deep breath, I absorb the moment, “grandma loved bleeding heart.” The flowers drip in glorious pink arcs over the feathery leaves.

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Just like comfort food for the mind, memories, especially those of certain special people calm all the turmoil around us. The memories of my mother’s mother do this for me. I can reach back in my mind, walk up to her front door and smell her tortillas greeting me even before I open it. Stepping in to her neat little living room, TV on a soap opera or 1950’s comedy or baseball (if grandpa was watching), the moist warmth of the air saturated with what was cooking just around the corner. I can hear her voice inviting me in for a “little taquito” – fresh tortilla filled with beans that have been simmering all day in a garlicy brine. I would always opt for a tortilla hot off the stove bathed in butter. I can’t describe the fluffy-soft goodness of her flour tortillas, a treat that I have never experienced elsewhere, and to my great sadness have never been able to replicate. I see her hands – they were small but strong, making tortillas; kneading little balls of masa (tortilla dough); “whack, whack” the sound of her rolling pin (made from the handle of a broomstick) forming each ball into a perfect circle; flip, flip, flip the dough circle tosses over each palm in a little dance before landing on the hot cast iron comal.

Sometimes my heart reaches out to the universe and calls to her, wanting to reach out and feel the strength from her hands. In their movement the rhythm of her struggles – through times of war and loss and uncertainty, and her ultimate success – holding her great-grandchildren in her lap.

Her voice parts the clouds and warms my heart – I can hear her chatter in Spanish, it was always so when she spoke to my grandpa or had rumors to share with my mom. The litany of Spanish and a single phrase that I could understand. “She wasn’t wearing a girdle!” tattling to my mother about what she saw at the Legion dance; it makes me laugh every time I think of it. Her way of saying just what was on her mind – something I inherited much to the chagrin of my loved ones.

Looking out over my yard, I rock in my garden swing and sense her presence near. My heart reaches out to her again and asks her opinion of what I’ve done.

“It’s very pretty mi hija.”

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Away and Back Again

I’m sure there are thousands of quotations about change. I don’t know of any that would adequately embrace the current tumult. My mind keeps playing tunes ranging from “Ch, ch, ch, changes . . .” (David Bowie) to “It’s the end of the world as we know it . . .” (R.E.M.). BUT – really everything changed dramatically, for me at least, six years ago and that is why my voice in this blog went silent. Those changes put family first (as was appropriate) and left me, well, behind. Maybe I’ll speak to that time at some point, but now I need to move ahead and writing has always been my catalyst.

We walk outside, the sights and sounds are at once familiar and foreign. A strange invisible cloud makes every human encounter awkward. In my neighborhood, an arm-distance style friendly place, every human contact becomes even more distant. We smile and wave and weave away from each other while walking the dogs. We have to raise our voices to say “hello” over the fence and back away when the smallest toddle curiously toward us. Even on the clear sunny days (of which we tend to have notoriously few) it all feels very cloudy and sad. The dear lady next door, who recently endured the long illness and passing of her husband, doesn’t even venture outside. I want to have her over for dinner, want to let her talk about the person we didn’t even get to meet.

What seems like eons ago, I wrote about the “never” list. The upheaval of the recent weeks took even the option of staying up beyond the midnight hour to watch a hockey game off of my in-home pleasures. I wish I could say that we were making great strides in finding new ways to enjoy this family-together-socially-distant life, but although we finally unboxed and “Escape(d) the Titanic”; played cards and Scrabble; solved many Sudoku and cryptogram puzzles; and streamed several movies, it doesn’t feel joyful. The idea of being under a self-imposed house arrest is suffocating. It’s not the actual staying in, not the physical distance, because we really haven’t changed too much – it’s the IDEA that all of this is happening along with a miasma of unknowns economically, socially, politically churning outside of our home’s walls. There is building anxiety with each day that it will stay like this – or worse.

I don’t know for sure, but I sense that there are probably millions feeling this same gut-turning unease. We all want to have everything go “back” to what it was before the health epidemic and I think we all have the burgeoning dread that nothing will really ever feel normal again. Knowing also that so many have suffered loss of health and life despite shuttering our lives makes it all seem futile. The recent refrain of how we are all in this together – doesn’t feel together, it feels like trying to Super Glue a crystal vase, there are pieces that are forever lost.

There is a grieving that comes with life-altering change. I just have to work through this, as all of us are. So, I emote – working through it. Listening to “S.O.S” (The Glorious Sons) and “Captain Jack” (Billy Joel) helps release some of the frustration. Watching the goldfinches at my bird feeder helps brighten the dark places in my mind. Making a spicy-gooey plate of Mexican food and washing it back with a double margarita fills a physical void. Being (gratefully) able to hug my husband washes away the tension.

Thank you to the optimists, thank you to the people who are working so hard in health care and life-sustaining services, thank you to those who are out there trying to keep us looking forward. For you, for my loved ones, for my neighbors I will keep my chin up, write and march on. I’m going to go out in my nightclothes and fill my bird feeders – maybe I’ll take a gin and tonic with me.

War for Words

I’ve been waging war lately. A frustrating internal battle of wit and words that has me quite literally stalled. Words, or more accurately the right words, aren’t flowing out on the keyboard in the normal effortless manner. Sculpting my thoughts feels more like hacking away at marble with a dull ax, everything crashing out in some crude mass – misshapen and not at all consistent with the vision.

I think I’ve identified the source of the conflict. A confrontation between head and heart, training and instinct, I am my own worst enemy. Trained in the hard sciences, I made a long career in crafting concise documents for public consumption. Less was more, and precision critical in an attempt to place complex problems in clear view of a diverse U.S. audience. The expansive, alliterative storyteller had to be packed into the recesses of my mind to allow the organized scientist center stage.

Now, when I need them both, they refuse to play in my literary sandbox together. I’ve trained myself to disregard one or the other and the toys aren’t being shared. The problem is especially pronounced when I attempt to write about topics of substance where there are facts to share. Piled onto the melee are the typical strife, struggle, and stress of everyday life and the pugilists seem surrounded with chaos.

Oh to bring order to this mess!

Relax – the first word of encouragement from my youngest sister appears to be the keyword in the solution. Relax my mind – take a break, quit banging away at the keyboard only to backspace the words into oblivion. Write without documenting, visualize, and let my mind hear what I want to say. Relax my body – take a walk, practice yoga or Tai Chi or just stretch. Relax my conventions – there are no rules for my blog, it is mine and I can combine expansive, alliterative, creative voice with facts and figures to my own delight or demise.

So, with that, I’m off to the outdoors to relax and enjoy what’s left of a beautiful sunshine filled day. From there I will cultivate the energy to quell the combatants and hone the messy edges of my manuscripts.

Porridge

“Malt-O-Meal, Malt-O-Meal . . .” I soon realized that my thoughts were being played out verbally as the lady with the shopping cart beside me hustled away. She looked back as if to confirm my psychosis and nearly took out a crossing shopper at the corner of the cereal aisle. I’m sure the sound of my chant was laced with anxiety and quite unnerving to those within earshot. Other moms probably understand the serious repercussions that can ensue from not being able to find the right breakfast cereal. The specific request from Cereal Lover (my youngest son) was for Malt-O-Meal, “Don’t forget my favorite.” He sang out as I dropped him off at school. Now the tick list of grocery items was going to have a blank spot and the disappointment from Cereal Lover at home was going to be very tough to accept.

My chant carried on in my head since I couldn’t find the box that I was searching for. Looking further, names of the potential replacements played in my mind as each box was read. Grits, grits, quick-cooking grits, old-fashioned grits, grits, Cream of Wheat – yes! That was familiar. As I grabbed the box, I spotted a store clerk near the end of the aisle.

“Hi, can you help me?”

“I’ll certainly try.” The clerk smiled.

“Where’s the Malt-o-Meal?”

“The what?” Now the store clerk was questioning my sanity. “Would you normally find that in the cereal aisle?”

“Yes, but I guess not here.” I felt a little dejected.

I don’t know anything about grits and here in Morgantown there are boxes and boxes of grits. I should probably try them sometime; of course prepared by one of the local experts as my attempt at cooking them would likely not turn out favorably. As I put the cereal in the cart I mused – there are some things that are quite different south of the Mason-Dixon Line and breakfast cereal is one of them.

This incident led to the recall of a summer long before sitting at the kitchen table in my great-grandmother’s house in Parsons, West Virginia.  I wasn’t quite five years old and our family was visiting my dad’s mom and grandmother. My little sister and I wanted oatmeal for breakfast and were served the warm bowls with brown sugar and CREAM. Having not experienced cream in our oats before (only milk), we promptly spit the offensive porridge back out into the bowls. My mother, mortified by our behavior, chastised us vehemently and ordered that we eat the “wonderful oatmeal” that had been made especially for us. At this we both bowed up, and ended up expelled from the table in tears with our stomachs protesting.

There were probably things that my mother could have done to make that memory turn out better. As a mom, I took this thought out of the grocery store and practiced the script to let Cereal Lover down easy. It started with “some things aren’t the same south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”