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.

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?

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.

Absentminded Snow

I wore high-top boys’ basketball shoes to school today.  The ground was clear enough of ice and my ankles were enjoying the relief from day after day of wearing those heavy adult slip-ons with the driveway treads. The brown slip-ons sit like giant underbaked loaves on your feet, and you wear them because they obviate the constant changing of footgear that an indoor job in this climate requires.  You won’t fall quite as quickly on the ice and snow with them on, but you can get away with them indoors as long as there is a mat or towel to catch the melting mess you carry in on your feet.

My hightops were all about adolescent playfulness and strutting.  Yes, I feel the raw tug of desperate symbolism–the day long responsibilities of middle age brightened by the possibilities of youth– as we head into that grim late-winter early-spring stretch of work and home life. People have begun to give each other little packets of seeds as token gifts at the end of formal events. I think I see green under the melting snow and don’t know if I’m dreaming.  On the other hand, the basketball-playing girls who wanted prior notice so we could all wear our high-tops together (seeing me wearing them seems to a spectacle  akin to seeing E. T. break dance in the school entrance)  are weary champions now.

On these worn out days, sleepiness puts its soft arms around me for after 11 am.   At lunch I cross paths with another English teacher and quip that I am Sleepy, Hungry and Dopey all at once–she offers Creaky (denoting my joints) and Cranky (all of us with too much to do in too little time are)  for our Seven Dwarfs roster. My teenager has been asleep or huddled under a blanket almost every day this week when I arrive home in the late afternoon.  I was wondering what was wrong with us even as I’m wondering what kind of civilizational damage is being aided and abetted by our constant turning to coffee, the anxiety-breeding potency of which I’m just managing to avoid.  Wait, that worrying about civilization must itself spring from caffeine use, no?  My partner reminds me and I realize that there is another reason for the fatigue:  oh, it was that Spring Forward thing!  It should be called Curl Up and Cope instead, for our house at 4 pm, curled up pet and teenager being sniffed over by a barely-awake den mother in from a meager hunt, is like a cross-section of a hibernating animal den a few feet underground.

On my drive home I noticed that the snow remaining at the sides of the road is mighty dirty? I cringe when children exclaim proudly that they’ve thrown it at each other. Remaining at the roadside is the kind of fossil snowbank out of which,in another Northern state,  a fluffy rainbow-hued synthetic clown wig once emerged during the slow thaw. It added real mystery to the usual spring revelation of dog toys and poop.  Standing in our boots staring and laughing, we could only wonder what had transpired outside our cramped rental house some night, months ago, in the deep of winter. 

As I pulled up to our inland Maine house today after chuffing like a moderately courageous engine through another day at school, an absentminded light snow swirled through the air but did not deign to set its fairy feet on the ground.  I paused for a second and wondered, when it started, barely visible, if it might be “something else”.  What else? Apple blossoms for crying out loud?  Ticker tape for the coming parade of spring, so far nowhere to be seen as we sullenly refuse to crane our necks around the corner?  I hope it’s not a futile pursuit to keep asking the snow for a hint of something that is not snow.

Red Buttons

DSC_0042It was a crackling cold day outside, and inside the partitioned hangar of the junk store, I felt woozy from fatigue, caffeine and the space-port feeling (“Loading buses for Planet Q”)  shed by ranks and ranks of blueish neon tube lighting high up in the metal rafters. My serious work–finding a few hand-me-down letter trays and storage racks for my 10th grade English classroom–was done. Then I noticed a jar and several tiny drawers full of old buttons on a metal shelf.  Nothing I needed for school, certainly, and I had been doing a little better giving away junk rather than collecting it. . . but, buttons that have lasted through the wear and tear, washing, and finally, separation from the clothes they held on long-grown or long-gone bodies deserve a look.  Besides, even if one were to acquire a few, they wouldn’t take up so much room. I decided that as far away from home as I was, a few minutes of indulgence would not cause a complete collapse of the known universe. 

I began to notice in the brown- and white-flecked jumble of the jar a number of jostling reds calling out, their gloss slightly, poignantly, dulled by decades-old grime. Most vintage things in stores are pretty picked over these days, so someone like me with no spare time usually does not stumble upon lucky finds.  Some of the wee denizens in this partly sorted (someone had begun and also given up) stash were clearly more than fifty years old.  I would allow myself to touch.  I set my bags down and told the cashier lady that I was going to take a bit of time now–she could hold my other stuff if she needed to.

I got stuck–I mean time stood still and my afternoon fatigue was either suspended or it actually helped me to forget about the rest of the afternoon’s obligations.  I began picking the tiny things out one at a time, and setting aside the less interesting “modern” shirt buttons, predictable pink pearly swirl sweater buttons etc. I woozily swerved into an uncharacteristically simple decision to collect the old red ones.  I could almost hear my mother’s voice telling me that red was always the most cheerful color, a fact inescapable in this warehouse chock-full of somewhat worn and shabby things.  I was middle-aged now, so my youthful scorn of a color so basic and popular as red was finally gone.  Red was now the joy in the midst of practical drabs, of hard-bitten workaday blacks.  I no longer saw red as gaudy and suspect, i.e. the color of self-advertisement, as I had in my cynical decades.  So my fists were filling up with little red plastic raspberries, jewels, and swirls, when the cashier lady decided something too, and offered me a plastic baggie for me to collect my treasures in.  I kept picking out red ones until I had picked through all the buttons the store had–the deep red of un-self-conscious yesteryear, with a few green ones thrown in–yes, we were coming up on Christmas and I was giving in to all kinds of traditional compulsions I usually resist. The  snub rounded shapes tended to fly out of my winter-chapped fingers, and so I started making tiny piles of the buttons I was “still thinking about” on the edge of the metal shelf that was the small stage for my small drama of impulse. I could swear I recognized some of the cake-like shapes from coats and pants my brother and I had worn as children, rather long ago.  I could remember the roughness of plaid wool, of thick corduroy–the lower tech fabrics that we still wore in the colder months in the 1960’s, mingled with exciting new nylon jackets with zippers.  I could remember being an actual child (before my young-Turk cynicism came to roost on the family’s shoulder like a brooding vulture) and cherishing those few bright red things we owned–skirts, book satchels, sweaters–as life rafts of sartorial confidence, brazen boldness!  Red buttons and red piping could exalt a plain white blouse or dress into a beloved favorite. My then-little brother considered red his special property too–no one would get a red car or a red pencil away from him.  (Even as an adult, hasn’t he had some red cars??)

Then I poked around in the little drawers on the thrift shop shelf–meant for nails and screws, or alternately, cufflinks?–where the unknown organizer had indulged in some mysterious classifying and picked out some of the larger and distinguished blue or brown buttons.  I believed some of them would cost as much as a quarter, so I tried to be thrifty!  I muttered something to the cash lady about the “creative clothing”  I made when I can steal a couple of hours. I use the phrase to prepare people for the colors and fabrics I combine.  With kind incredulity, she declared “You’ll have to show me one of those things next time!”

It’s nice to think that the possibility of cutting and sewing exists at all, after four pounds of English papers are graded, after the water for the chickpeas is measured and corrected, after homework completing, vitamin gulping and boot-wiping are supervised, and after the cat who just won’t listen has been cleaned up after; but even then, I’d probably just gaze at my bagful of old buttons for a while, reliving the sensations and associations that each one evokes, and not just jump into a new sewing project.  But look at the photo, such as it is:  can’t you see the ebullience amid the practical simplicity that red buttons still suggest?

Coconut Oil Thermometer

The original name of this blog, Waterchili, came from the frozen green chilis we keep on ice to add to our cooking.  To keep with the transported-tropical-produce theme, let me note how a jar of coconut oil in our kitchen serves as a sharply accurate marker for the seasons.  I am surprised that the appropriate technology people haven’t made an actual oil thermometer–but perhaps they don’t need to.  People who keep jars or bottles or cans of coconut oil in their house as a regular thing would notice on their own how attuned it is to the temperature.

Even up here in the North of the Northern USA, our household uses coconut oil as a hair and head conditioner (though some people cook with it too) the way that traditional South Asians do.  You get it into a liquid state and rub it through your scalp and thirsty remnants of a mane before you bathe.  Shampoo and hot water wash out the excess, leaving your hair soft and your scalp more soothed than it might be otherwise.  Never mind that for a while my provocatively original 13 year old was applying it to her dripping locks AFTER taking a shower–one of the several notable instances of members of my extended family applying printed advice in unprecedented and impractical ways.  For South Asians, hair oil also has all kinds of mental health connotations, and is supposed to help preserve your hair as you age.  Coconut oil is mixed into fancier hair condiments in South Asia–ones with fragrance and color and poetic names–which will register the cooling of the season with their own uncooperative partial solidification, but these patent mixtures do not (perhaps deliberately) have the spot-on temperature honesty of pure coconut oil. Around here, we need to melt out the little bit we use each time; that is why we keep it in the kitchen.  Besides, my nervous sandwich-generation imagination can too easily see the glass jar slipping from young or elderly hands and smashing to bits on the hard tile floor of the bathroom; shards of glass lined with white fat just wouldn’t have the charm of the broken coconut fragments, white fruit lining the hairy and hard brown shell pieces, that were childhood treats on our West Bengal veranda.

This little story of the coconut oil thermometer really began one morning in June,  when we noticed a jar of straw-yellow liquid on the kitchen counter.  Around our devil’s workshop of a house, I keep everything from colored glass bangles to dried chrysanthemum flowers in old spaghetti sauce jars.  These jars are so handy, in their wide-mouthed, measured-capacity ways.  Nevertheless, I, who can sniff the difference between two year old ground cumin and coriander–when to most other people both resemble aged sawdust– jumped in slight alarm at the pale translucency in the clean jar and asked my husband What’s that?  Leftover wine? Kerosene? Less pleasant substances had also streaked through my mind just then.  He didn’t know either, but after our tea and coffee we finally realized that the intractable white solid that we occasionally dug at, and had to microwave or heat in a saucepan to thaw during most of the year, had liquefied completely overnight due to the short and furious Maine summer finally arriving at our typically un-air-conditioned house.

All summer my daughter (the hair-aficionado, or -nada) and I poured spoonfuls on our head directly from the jar, reveling in the ease of application after the jabbing and scraping that just about made us give up the stuff in colder months.  Friends as we are with the people who cut our hair, we could only get them to nod sympathetically, as if at two permanently confused and inarticulate people, when we described our own hot-oil treatment to them while they worked on our respectively salt-and-pepper and richly auburn-brown heads.

Suddenly, two days ago, the first cool breeze of September blew back to front through our cluttered house, and the next morning part of the coconut oil was white again.  I said, We could use this as a thermometer.  Panting in the car on the way home from work in late afternoon Portland traffic, I could not imagine my kitchen as a cool place, but I guess it had been all day:  this afternoon even more of it was white and solid, leaving just a sneaky smile of liquid yellowish oil in the middle layer.  Not just a thermometer–this jar could serve as a calendar too!  I called my spouse and he said It’s supposed to go up into the 80’s again; let’s see what it’s going to do.

If the stuff melts, which it might not for a brief quirk of weather, I’ll get my paint-splattered shorts out again (the pair that got left on the deck railing for a week one summer and was thus three shades lighter on the outside than inside) and go for a walk around the neighborhood in my flip flops, denying the inevitable even as my bag of schoolwork to grade gets heavier by the day.  The coconut fat did partially become oil again, but only on one side of the jar, as if to keep its slippery feet firmly planted in seasonal reality.

_____

I am finally posting this on an early October day when sweaters have begun to come out of their shady summer hiding places and it is out of the question for even the teenager to go out in flip flops.  In fact, gathering cold-season supplies from various malls this weekend, we noticed a bizarre wall hanging on sale:  painted tin flip flops nailed to a rectangular panel, an object that I’m willing to bet no full-time tropical person would actually decorate their wall with. Meanwhile, our coconut oil pet is sitting tight in its jar, creamy white and stubborn.  The heat coming on in the house might make it manageable for cosmetological purposes, but liquid oil? It won’t be that until the awe-inspiring movements of the solar system bring us around to June again.

Hall Pass

I’m a substitute teacher these days, and usually my students are taller than me.  But yesterday I was at the elementary school, and a second grader with shiny brown eyes took a little something out of his pocket during morning round-up, and excitedly declared “I found a coconut on my way to school today!” In his small, sweaty, palm was a triangular piece of dark coconut shell. I agreed that it was a wonderful find indeed, for a humid September morning. Then, I remembered “curriculum”–“Do you think that grew around here, in Maine?” Several kids articulated their more or less completed thoughts– no, coconuts grow far away, in warm places. I joked with the boy who brought it, that since *I* was born far away in a warm place, that this bit of coconut shell could be used as a hall pass if anyone needed to leave the classroom I was supervising.

Then we launched into the day’s lessons and activities–sitting around the story-mat (which turns out to be the math-mat as well), or sitting at our small tables in small colorful chairs:  listening to Jack Prelutsky’s poetry, opening apple juice boxes, chasing and then (finally, because they were so excited and upset and carrying it out on a piece of paper did not work at ALL) sending a rather large spider on to its next reincarnation with a dainty pink plastic clog; also handling and washing little rocks of three different colors, giving pep talks to our little blue math calculators, and so on. The day did indeed fly by, as the notes from the classroom teacher promised it would. Most of the kids took the time to give me high fives when they left in batches to catch their well-spaced out buses.

A day later, emptying out my pockets, I found the little triangle of coconut shell.  The boy with the shining brown eyes– the same little guy, who during morning Science Time, had demonstrated a “tough” stance with one hand on a hip and helped me to explain the difference between /tuff/ the volcanic rock and being tough–had given me my “hall-pass”, to keep, at the end of the day.  In the flurry of goodbyes after the bell rang, I hadn’t taken much note of it.  At home, nursing my aching feet (a second-grade teacher doesn’t sit much), I had forgotten about it altogether, until this morning when I went flouncing about the house picking up laundry.