First Maine Sandal Day

DSC_0017First Sandal Day–reminds me of  “First Neighborhood Bank.” Somewhere, there actually IS a “Second Federal Bank and Trust”–I think I’ve even seen one, and being made of brick and plaster, surrounded by the trim bushes that marked out financial institutions in the Southern town of my teenage years, it couldn’t have been a joke. But which sad people would CHOOSE Second, or Fifth, Federal Bank and Trust if they could deposit their hard-earned savings in the First? In the same way, we all know that the rest of elasticated time will never be as memorable as the first day we do something.

Here in Maine, we think the winter will never end. I refuse to go along with those glass-half-full people at work who like to declare, “This is it! It’s not going to snow any more after today!” I’d rather harrumph and carry on in my tired salt-soaked hiking boots, dragging around my even more tired feet, than have my hopes dashed. “Of course it’s going to snow. Whaddaya want? Freezing RAIN?”

That’s why it’s important that despite little temperature fluctuations through the day, my toes are out in the sunshine along with the first forsythia and croci this week.  It’s the 3rd day in a row that my shriveled brown toes, like potatoes brought into daylight from a root cellar, have been out in the air and sunshine. Even when I was wearing some kind of jacket on my upper body. Yes, there was a count-down of sorts: first day without boots (which is to say that I wore normal shoes and socks all day, even outside, even to drive around in, not caring that there was still a bit of mess on driveways and parking lots–we could WALK like regular people, almost). There was the first day in closed shoes without socks. I looked for wilder and brighter socks, just to make the point to myself. First day in sandals. I felt like a renegade, a rebel, an assertive wild thing–although it is an unseasonably warm April by now. I spill water and tea on my feet. They even get dirty.

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Ma in the House

Before Ma arrived at our house, we tried to move or remove a few things to make life easier for her.  Backpacks and hat-and-mitten barrels were urged out of the hallway. The giant dust-bunnies (a creative collaboration between our Maine coon-ish cat and our aging suburban house) were swept up from the corners of each wall-papered room. Stacks of boring professional-type reading were carried out of the bedroom we were handing over to Ma. The rest of the library-studio-study-costume bank, in other words our house of groaning boards, we left pretty much as it was–just lightly dusted and a little more tightly arranged.

After Ma arrived, things changed further. She blended in gently and helpfully, and made us more civilized as always. An early sign that things were different was the command she called out from the dining room to the kitchen that the grocery list needed to be rewritten neatly. When I teased her about it, she asserted, in the tiniest huff, “Just to make it more legible.” My spouse and I go by the minimum standard, that a random miscellany of items scrawled on a scraggly envelope back  in the 3 usual hands (2 adults, 1 teenager) is list enough. Frankly, in our whirligig family life, we are lucky to even have that much forethought prior to a dash to the grocery–devil take the one illegible bit that indicates an arcane non-staple item (a tropical sauce or a particular flavor of vinegar). Meanwhile, Ma has always had handwriting that looks like an orderly set of blossoms and tendrils; she could have been a bookkeeper in a temple where neat writing was an offering to the gods, where tidy pages won one merit in the afterlife. To add to that glory, she actually got trained as a calligrapher when she was in her 40s, by a teacher who escaped from concentration camp in World War II by means of his handwriting (thus document-faking) skills.

My writing, painting, reading-and-note-taking mother is contented to stay in the house most of the time, and this tendency is encouraged in her by being in the shivery Northland that is Maine. Nevertheless, she was eager to make one trip: an early shopping run we made with her after she arrived was for decent watercolor tubes. She was managing to do full-page paintings of flowers while sitting at my tiny, antique, secretary desk with the fold-down top. Of course she apologizes for making “a mess” though in our household, which is a giant irony. The room we have given to Ma is usually the only tidy-looking place (though I’ll be the first to say that we have our own ways of organizing  cleverly hidden beneath a (“busy fools-“) distracting layer of clutter).

Yesterday we got Ma lightweight, lace-up, snow boots and a tiny steel tea kettle she can lift without stressing her malfunctioning thumb joint.  These are the additions to her stockpile of required items for the month plus she is spending with us over the winter holiday. The spooky warm December we were having didn’t liftour general suspicion that it might snow anytime in “inland Maine north of Portland”–we knew what was happening in the northern parts of the state. Ma is still mulling over the strangely familiar Tibetan-sounding brand name of her new lightweight boots.  I told her the name must have been chosen on purpose because it’s reminiscent of mountain-climbing in the Himalayas. Middle-class Bengalis have long vacationed in the foothills of those mountains and my parents continued to visit there even after we emigrated from India; Tibetan names and words have long studded the edges of standard Bangla vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the new one-quart tea kettle was quarantined to Ma’s sole use, and she no longer hadto lift the whistling brass-trimmed behemoth the rest of the family wields. The lady carries choicest teabags wherever she goes in case she finds herself where people don’t “get it” about good, hot, tea. Although we naturally had a large jar of loose tea leaves for when the day allows leisure for a ceremonial steeping, this is too much work now first thing in the morning with the 3 permanent residents dashing off in different directions.

We knew our heavy-weight pots and pans would be a burden to Ma–though she wouldn’t stop turning out hot, vegetarian means with whatever there was at hand. She is 78% right in her unexpressed fear that we’d never produce edible things for her ourselves, at least not in a timely, meal-time manner– so we were looking for light steel cookware for this slightly fragile seasoned professional . We thought of each new item we purchased in terms of its weight, the way one does before an overseas flight. It was a different way of seeing the world guiding my spouse and myself towards coordinating ourselves for our own, already-underway, aging.

If she wanted to, Ma could write a colorful column about the multifarious changes we foisted on her as she becomes a member of our household, even if it’s for just “some of the time”.  I’d have to edit her account, of course. Just so you know, I got her permission to write this.

August Cleaning

English teachers need big ring binders, REALLY big ring binders. White one for all the Tempest stuff, blue one for Midsummer Night’s Dream. One for the notes from the workshops the principal sends you to and one for the new lessons you’re building. Another for the really strange poems I get them to write (while protesting loudly) in the middle of the year. The beat-up binders I’m putting in a bag to give away won’t be taken by students–they’re too fancy. They’ll be taken by English or Social Studies teachers who give a lot of handouts or collect a lot of written work. One really old blue canvas binder I’m keeping so I can remember I was a teenager once although I’d like to pretend that I ALWAYS knew everything.

And then there is that bowl of shiny rocks I cleaned out. Over the dusty, furry, cramped winter, they were invaded by average-looking marbles with a twist of their own sense of preciousness inside, squashed glass bits that belong between the stems of fresh flowers in a clear vase, and a couple of mysterious little white corkscrew seashells–no one went to the beach! I segregated the interlopers and washed the colored stones. They are drying on a plate in the kitchen like privileged vacationers on the deck of a ship. My eyes are full of sweat.

Living Remnants: or why I’m not (really) blogging about de-cluttering

Feb Break Sat 2015 073In my teenage years I used to retort “I’m not really reading” when my disciplined and cultured mother would say “Either light a lamp or get out of that dark corner with that book.” And now, confronting the reality of usable space in the house, of my aging joints,  of my available time, etc. etc. I’ve embarked on downsizing my decades-old pile of papers, fabric, toys and clothes. Naturally, a perky cartoon figure of the mind pipes up and inquires “Why don’t you blog about it?” The following are my retorts to it:

1. The temptation to fib is enormous.

2. My house will still look cluttered by anyone else’s standard when I am through. It is a workshop and library, not just a place to park myself at the end of the day-job day.

3. My job as a teacher, and the rest of life, will not allow me to work continuously on the project, though I do chip away at it daily.

4. What I keep and what I let go of may make no sense to anyone else–here is where the writing comes in, little scribbles of conjecture and command to keep myself going. Notes and hand-drawn charts are my handrail up this slippery slope.  I’ve lived in a dozen places–my things, my insensible things, are my roots.  (Sorry explanation, of course.) My books I won’t even explain past saying that I’d have to be near one of a limited number of large university libraries to have access to similar things. I’ve given up my old plan to make patchwork quilts or collages out of every scrap (what can I say?– I was a stay-at-home parent/ artist), but the principle of eking the story out of what’s left remains.

A winter-break (our strange February holiday, for non-New-Englanders) exchange with teenager is to the point here:

Young Person: These night gowns are really gross. The front of this one is all gray. And this one is just a rag.
Me: The color supposed to be lavender. Knit fabrics don’t keep very well. Those are nightgowns from when you were born. I cut off that one because it was comfortable but I wanted to wear pajamas with it. We used the bottom half for cleaning rags.
Young Person: Well, maybe you should keep one then–if they’re historic.
Me: Nah. They really need to go.
Young Person: Then go write 500 words about them.
Me: OK. This is very appropriate use of your innate bossiness.

And really, folks,the textile me says:  cotton knits are comfy because they are light and stretchy like skin. Ironing them to interfacing and making quilts out of them is the most perverse craft idea I ever heard of! Do you preserve the skins of every chicken or fish you’ve eaten? No matter how clean your t-shirts and knit gowns are when you put them away, they get to smelling like dirty socks when they are stored in boxes.  I think they preserve some essence of your life and activities–and why not? They are the last step before nudity for most of us. You can bleach them and sun them, but then they fall apart even faster.  Think of knit cottons as clean bandages and not clothing, a daily bit of textile life that will not get woven into the tapestry of the ages except as a scent or an idea. And that leaves me here:  I have to take the wild chance that I will remember my strapping young roommate as a bald-headed wriggling baby in my arms in that wee rented house of yore, or I won’t. (She had her own knit cottons, of course, but she grew out of them in such record time that those tiny shirts and onesies were worn by several other babies afterwards.) I will remember my mother indulging me with nightgowns in my favorite colors, or I won’t.  I will remember my father–the grandfather of big-headed newborn–ordering me and baby off the thick futon on the floor so it could go on the wooden frame, or I won’t. My memories themselves, written or pictured, will become someone else’s clutter.  Digitizing them to get them off the floor is not good enough, as it turns out.  (See http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/13/google-boss-warns-forgotten-century-email-photos-vint-cerf).

I also just ripped up into dust rags the handwoven purple striped tablecloth that faded in the Banaras sun on my little study table; I took notes on the arcane poetry that was the subject of my doctoral dissertation while sweating into it. All that truly feels like another life, but of course those times made me a different person for the rest of my life. The strictness and chaos of that ancient pilgrim town layered with squawkingly aggressive commercialism, the unknown sea of “dissertation” that I had innocently waded into, both colored and hardened me, the me that is now sitting in this chair typing in a break between the snowstorms of this winter in Maine. The light lines through the deep, muddy purple of my tablecloth were like lines in a notebook.  The fabric is so weakened now that even gripping one edge in my teeth ripped out tiny patches.  The tougher red border tore off as one long piece which I’ve offered to my spouse as a rag for trombone neti. Relatives still living in South Asia are so pragmatically used to this process that instead of trying to save old curtains and spreads “for the memories”, they give them away or rip them up with alacrity. Only fancy clothes are sometimes saved for future generations.

4. I no longer WANT anyone’s opinion on what to keep and what to give away. Even my friends have been frequently in the wrong on this score. My mother possibly understands my immigrant’s aesthetic ties to Indian fabric, and but what about the *American* things? Having been through historical and geographical upheavals herself, she understands the need to preserve, but maybe she doesn’t even know what’s in my college notebook boxes…although I think she has a trunkful of wonder-struck and sophomoric letters I sent her back then, written in immaturely slanting longhand on lined paper.

5. The word “chuck” indicates waste to me. I certainly take part in our insane consumption, but it’s always made me nervous. Recycle, repurpose, donate to the right group: that’s where I want to be active. “Trade” and “sell” have not worked out very well since we seem to live on an elliptically looping minor planet at the edge of the universe. Give, give, give–that really is the cure for “keep, keep, keep”. “I kept it for you” is a good silent explanation when I hand someone something I’ve kept for years–the words often turn out to be genuine in an unexpected way. Why else would I have sewing patterns in sizes that don’t fit me (or now) anyone else in the immediate family? Heart-shaped plastic beads? Needlepoint needles with deliberately flattened tips?

Green Beans Are The Answer

 

A certain housemate once rolled his eyes at me because I was piling frozen green beans into the grocery cart when we already had fresh ones bought at the farmers’ market malingering in the bins in the bottom of the fridge at home. I might have reluctantly put one bag back. But the fact is, they do last a few days in the fridge, and a few frozen portions for backup seemed entirely reasonable to me.  After another year of absentmindedly consuming whatever flotsam and jetsam came my way, I have one foot back on the multi-hued vegetable path that has been assigned for my health and happiness.  When I follow it correctly and eat hardly any bread, rice, or crackers, it can be hard to feel full all day.  That’s where my friend the green bean comes in.

Green beans are a staple in my ideal diet.  I have had to say these words out loud.

Green beans can be eaten raw or practically raw, or they can be cooked in ways true to each continent on the planet.  The simplest are the best, and even people who “don’t like vegetables” will eat a few with their meal of mammal or bird body parts. You can eat green beans cold out of the sauteeing pan when the dinner guests are gone and the family is asleep.  You need not use a fork nor wash one. The fingertips may be used and they are not hard to wash if there is plumbing; if there isn’t, you can probably wipe your hands on the one cabin apron and no one will be the wiser.  My ragmop black cat, who likes to sniff everything I consume when we are alone in the house, is surprisingly not interested in green beans, at least when they are passive and still (thank goodness they generally are), which also facilitates the quiet midnight snack.  Green beans are good for your digestion without being overly dramatic about it.

Green beans are my answer to my evolving feeding needs. You don’t have to work as hard filling up as you do with salad. I love all greens, but chewing through enough to actually feel full could take an hour!  I don’t even mind feeling like a cow, but I wish I had the daily plans of one in either of my big notebooks: “Run out into the pasture.” “Turn around and face the same way the others are facing.” “Rest by the fence at midday and moo soulfully at humans driving by.” “Gaze at the forest-trimmed horizon.” “Welcome the new calf with a licking.” “Go back into barn.”  But I don’t. I rush from solitary to group work and back again all day, my mind trying to flex like a camera shutter going from telephoto to close-up. Give me half an hour of sitting still thinking nothing, and I feel like I’m on vacation. Give me another 10 minutes, and I’ll steam myself some green beans.

 

September Sweat and Whimpering

Ending the first week of school with a toast to new students, clean desks, new notebooks, new socks, etc. is my idea of fun.  Instead, the sweat, coughing and bleary eyes I would have happily attributed to unpacking box after edifying box of Representative American Authors in my hot 2nd floor classroom turns out to be influenza–the special new bug influencing far too many young students this week. And I, refurbished biplane of a teacher, now of the the 10th and 9th grades after several zigs and zags up and down the pre- and post-secondary strata of the educational skies, am down with it in the worst sense. I have prided myself on my immunity to pre-K through college germs, but the latest had two or three tries at me and finally won.

After a couple of days either lying in bed or noodling around the computer nervously, I ventured outside into the dappled sunshine today–seeing it out the window is almost painful, because you know that its very falling on the grass this way is allocated just some hours now. Coolness slices under the rays and the leaves rustle happily, being done with their prodigious growing of the last few months.  A couple of ripe grape tomatoes hang like bells against the barrel planter’s neglected side. No more palavering with the mate about which one of us is going to mow the lawn: it’s not growing much more at this point and I pick some long grass to weave into a seasonal memorial. The hydrangeas, so nice about yielding a few flower-balls for me to take inside–even when I haven’t brought the clippers on my dreamy 5-minute tours of the overgrown backyard–are starting up their dried-flower stalls for the harvest fair. Teachers don’t get to spend enough time outside in the fall, and sick teachers practically none at all. So while the novel illness is gradually relinquishing its hold on my lungs, throat and head, my mind is still hearing a soundtrack of tragic classical compositions addressed to the waning of the light. There’s a small dog yipping and barking a few yards away, though, who doesn’t seem to have been taught such mournful human associations.

Brewing a Few Aphorisms

20140608-084108-31268293.jpgMug drinkers like most Americans, we’ve taken to drinking tea out of teacups lately.  Certain old teacups surfaced in the household after years of being shunted around in well-packed boxes from one branch of the family to another.  With these daintily molded porcelain shells unpacked and in hand, we don’t necessarily drink less in the long run– the teapot is right in front of us and we greedily pour out more, especially of that potent loose-leaf black tea– but a scenario results that is different from the one in which a preoccupied family member fills up a big mug in the kitchen and wanders off.

Proper teacups have a matching saucer to place  underneath to catch the drips; my fourteen-year old, who wouldn’t use actual glass tumblers until she was ten for fear of dropping them, appreciates this.  I appreciate it because in haste for my morning sip, I often daub my shirt front with tell-tale brown–the saucer makes you more aware, and safer.  It takes two hands to handle a cup and saucer, and frankly, we need that kind of forced focus.

In Bengali and Hindi (and Persian, where we got the word), the word for cup is peyala/pyala, which neatly segues with the word’s pre-European meaning of a shallow bowl from which to drink wine.   In a poetic moment with your local artsy teenager, you could slurp the cooled slops from the saucer below (pirich in Bangla, from Portuguese) and declare, “Oh, good, I can have every last drop!” –acting slightly intoxicated with the very fact of living.  The hidden didactic then points to the utter irrelevance of alcohol in such a moment.

The humble tea-saucer suggests all kinds of offerings: hospitable, worshipful, charitable and amorous; from my childhood in West Bengal, I have an indelible image of one person holding a saucer to someone else’s lip so they can drink–that someone else being either too young, too ill, or otherwise too feeble to help themselves to fluids.  When you’re no longer inured to its use, a teacup seems to be about delicacy, but not the pretentiously frail sort of BBC costume -drama cliche.  In real life, drinking out of little cups does make you contemplate the little bit of the earth’s largesse allowed you at that minute.  Drinking from tea cups has come to mean pausing for a little while to relax or socialize, and the small measure of time is as significant as the small amount of fluid.  It takes you well away from the mug idea.

Now, what is the mug idea?  Mugs are useful. Mugs belong in workshops and working offices, so you don’t have to run back and forth to the kitchen or the corner hob to get more.   Mugs mean going on with work, or attending to each other or oneself with such intensity that social niceties such as tipping a teapot with a faintly rattling lid would be a noxious interruption.  I’m chatting with you in my floppiest sweater and neither one of us wants to get up to pour more.  Or, we’re thirsty and cold and need to chug a large amount of hot stuff before we get ill.   “Hold on, I’ll get you another mug of x”–this means your friend’s situation is truly a crisis, and might result in someone leaving school or changing jobs.  The mug idea seems to be catching on in other countries–why? Is the dual ideal of relaxed living and grunting hard work of (for instance) finishing those actuarial tables, spreading?  The little teacup seems to require more alacrity than the absent-minded mug, and its idea of comfort is a little more ceremonial and admonitory.  Do I go too far in thinking that tea in teacups has to do with solvable problems?  The tea in “tea and sympathy” implies that the problem seems large only to one of the party, and after dabbing his or her eye and sighing a bit, that party will resolve to do the sensible thing by the last sip.

So having built my edifice of sand on the theory of small teacups versus hefty mugs, I have to admit that lately I have spied Indians, West Indians,  and Brits on film drinking from LARGE teacups.  This is upsetting my whole scheme of tea moments I had neatly arranged in my mind like baby, mamma, and papa bears.  Yes, a larger teacup  (but  a teacup nevertheless, ornamented with those rapturous roses or blue and gold edging lines) could mean a longer moment to sip, to gaze, to chat quietly.  You’d have to sit down to drink a LARGE cup, and you’d be lolling restfully like the scrubbed-clean shepherds drawn on them.  A large teacup is honest refreshment after work, like a pint, but also its opposite.  If *I* grabbed a large teacup in the kitchen, it would still mean that I was shuffling off to some corner to read or scribble or grade papers or sigh as I gazed out the window.  It wouldn’t mean sitting with anyone, or pausing.  It would mean having to go on, feebly or doggedly.  It would still require more consciousness than the mug though–the mug is a dog that follows you and waits, and the large teacup is a cat that sits on the page you want to write on.