They Who Rule

Ok. Honeymoon’s over.

Readers of a recent post may recall me saying I wasn’t able to make a list of what I don’t like ’bout Bama. I’ve gotten over that hurdle.

I concurrently am fascinated and creeped out by the insect population down here: mammoth black grasshoppers and ants, moths,

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fire ants, monster cicadas and their accompanying exoskeleskins, mosquitos mosquitos mosquitos, cockroaches (cockroaches cockroaches), spiders, millipedes, centipedes, shiny green metallic beetles, stick bugs, stink bugs, shield bugs,

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preying mantises,

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click beetles,

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and let us not forget lice.

I’m getting to know the school nurse pretty well. Third day of school I get a call. Won’t go into that one, but it was a minor deal and we’re all good. Three days later I get another call. She assured me it wasn’t an emergency and then proceeded to make small talk. Maybe that was her tell, now that I think back. After a series of pleasantries, she ever so gently led me into a discussion of head lice—that the boys were scratching in school, that Jonah had been sent to her to get it checked out, that she hadn’t found any at first on Jonah, that upon a more intensive search she did find live ones of various sizes, that nits had been laid and attached, that Gabriel was, at that moment, also being called into her office for a head check.

I hung up the phone and started the hot water cycle in the washing machine.

Of course I know that lice is almost a rite of passage when you have kids in school. I have since learned that Alabama (especially this time of year, especially this year in particular) is teeming with them. [I can’t resist the etymology here: Old English teman (Mercian), tieman (West Saxon), meaning to “beget, give birth to, bring forth, produce, propagate.” With lice, I’m learning that eradication is all about foiling the begetting.]

I have also learned that, on account of my sometimes-obsessive-attention-to-detail superpower, I’m pretty good at the whole process. There’s the cleaning, yes, but lice can’t live long without a live host, so there’s only so much that can be/needs to be done. I do a mean hair wash, come to find out. And when it comes to combing out the dead little suckers (post-pesticidal), I can part and section off and clip and comb with the best of them. I’m cursing the fact, however, that I cut my nails the very morning I got the nurse’s call, because mostly the only way to remove those damn nits is to isolate them to the hair strand they’re on and pull them off with your fingernail.

John’s exclaimed twice that I’m really good at the whole rigmarole. Thinks I should go into business. The closest lice removal spa (yes, that’s really a thing) is in Birmingham, and I hear it’s uber expensive.

Did I mention the cockroach that scurried across my sandaled foot in church this morning? I’m trying very hard to keep my #@*!-the-cooties reaction in check about now. But as I learned today, with roughly 10 thousand trillion (1016) ants in the world (That’s only ants!), how could it be otherwise?  Avi Sternberg, in today’s New York Times Magazine article “King of Pain,” puts my ostensible predicament in perspective:

“The human conquest of earth is a recent and tenuous project; it would be more accurate to say that the planet belongs, as it always has, to the insects.”

Look at the time. Jonah’s due for his hair wash and comb out. I’m off.

Pastoral

These days I find myself quiet, nearly mute. New house, new life, same me, but changing. It’s a strange mix of change and continuity. While the beauty is different, it is no less striking. “Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams is the best way I know to say it. These photographs help, from my daily walk with Lucy Lou.

When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors.
No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.

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“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams.
© New Directions, 1991.

 

 

Here means Alabama

I love Alabama. There. I’ve said it. So has Gabriel, just yesterday, before taking a step back and admitting that he probably doesn’t know enough about Alabama to make such a declaration without reservation (our interpretation of events, plainly). I concur both with his pronouncement and his restraint.

What I love: the sun. the sound of insects at night. the tree frogs that live around our house. the heat. the egret and the heron that live on the defunct golf course right outside our front door. the river. the dam. the pines. the elderly black women sweeping off their front porches each morning. the popsicle shop. the gardens. the curious glances people give Jonah and me as we walk Lucy. the way the rain pours. our house on a hill. our neighbors! the view of the grain elevator from our front window. the sound of trains nearby.

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I’d make a list of what I don’t love, but it’s not so easily done. So much is strange and new. I feel myself adrift . . . not exactly disoriented, but nearly so. It is a curious thing to find oneself both firmly on course and unmoored.

The squirrels are super skinny. The birds have longer beaks and tail feathers. The grasshoppers are black, with red stripes. The cicadas are twice as big as I’ve ever seen. Sometimes it feels like I’m wading through the air when I walk out the door in the morning, or at night, or in the afternoon. I’ve started to drink my water with ice for crying out loud, and I find myself needing a nap each afternoon, promptly at 2. They say you can see baby alligators in the lake down the hill at night. What am I to make of it all? The Ruth in me finds herself a stranger in a strange land.

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So much of the work of change is absorbing the new reality. People ask us how we are doing, how we are adjusting, what the new life is like. The new life is very much like the old life; the same irritations and propensities plague us and urge us forward or threaten to drag us toward our not-so-better natures. We are, on the whole, more sensitive, more defensive, less able to weather irritations. There have been angry outbursts and the stomping of feet and the flowing of tears. But the freshness of things here is a balm. We are discovering where to find our favorite pickles and creamer. We are delighted by the beer selection in a college town and are trying new brews. We’re a week into swimming lessons; we’re registered for school; we’re looking for jobs. We’re adorning our spaces with our favorite things and settling in. We’re cursing each time we hit our heads on the 5 ft. ceiling in the crawl space that serves as our garage storage (possibly the biggest adjustment: moving from a four-car garage to a complete lack of a garage). We’re installing a gas oven and setting up a coffee station.

We are here.

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Alabama: Ohio version

So when I say that we are moving to Alabama, I mean next week.

Let me backtrack. In February John was offered the position of directing the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Alabama. After he returned from his campus visit, I had a sense he was going to get the job. I really did. But of course, that’s much easier to proclaim in hindsight. And there was part of me that kept thinking, it’s the University of Alabama. It’s not only a big deal, but it’s in the South, a place I know next to nothing about and have never experienced in any significant way (I don’t think Texas counts). I even dreamt he got the job—one of those true dreams that’s more real than waking. No metaphors or symbols. Like it’s preparing you for what’s coming. Being me, I cried. I started the grieving process straightaway.

I also, straightaway, proceeded directly to sort, toss, and organize. Everything. I began packing away what we didn’t need. We made plans to finish the many projects we’d started on the house. We commenced finding people to finish the drywall in the kitchen and to make kitchen cabinet doors. John painted. And painted. And painted. I cleaned out the garage and the attic above the garage and the basement. When we finally got the house on the market, we received a contract in four days. Honestly, I don’t know how people live in their homes for months while trying to sell. With two dogs and two boys I don’t think I could have lasted much longer.

In nine days the truck arrives, but I’ve run out of steam. Having lost Sophie the Blue Dog and regained the boys full time again, released from school, I’m moving around in a daze. I’m numb and hazy. Lucy Lou (our remaining mutt) and I hide out in my room in the morning as long as we can and stay up too late enjoying the quiet of the house. We are in a similar place, she and I. A little lost and wondering what to make of things.

Fortunately, the boys are out of school, and they are the best medicine for getting me up off my ass. Jonah in particular, who has the special gift (among many) of moving me out of despair and keeping me back from the brink, even as it sometimes feels he’s simultaneously pushing me there, is awaiting my entrance into the life of this day. He wants a list of chores. God love him. He’ll save me yet.

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Blue Dog Gone

I’m not sure that I ever explained where the Blue Dog comes from.
I’m not certain I know precisely myself.

It has something to do with this very black dog.

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© Ze Bernardinello

Who, over time, became this quite old black dog, with beautiful white and silver streaks.

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It has something to with the blue carpet in the picture, at the bookstore where I worked for ten years.
Something to do with the light and the shadow in the photograph’s composition, which is a reflection of how I have come to see myself.

I started this blog shortly after we moved to Ohio. It was a hell of a move. Jonah had just had heart surgery. John had a new job. Gabriel was five months old. A month before the move I slipped and dislocated and broke my long finger toe (if you have seen my feet, that description makes perfect sense), next to my big toe. We moved into a house that was and is so beautiful and full of promise and character, a house that needed a great deal of work. We poured ourselves into all of it, with all of ourselves.

And then Jonah was diagnosed with autism.
And then I was diagnosed with PMDD.
And then I very nearly had a nervous breakdown.

So I wrote (and I started taking Prozac, and then something else, and then Zoloft), because I was losing it and because I have proven to be nearly incapable of making sense of my life if I don’t write it down. But it wasn’t enough to write it in a journal because I needed someone to read it. I needed someone to see my life, see me in whatever way they were able, through the light and the shadows I cast. Call it a testimony to my introversion.

And over time, the need to write remained, but I allowed the circumstances of my life to convince me that I didn’t have time to right (interesting mistake there; I think I’ll let it stand). And sometimes I didn’t have time, because I started edited books and I also needed sleep. But here I am again—with my need, knee-deep in loss, another big move ahead.

Sophie died a week ago.
We are moving to Alabama.

It’s good to be back.

 

 

“Mom, can I have a break?”

I have become the Lego-Nazi overlord. How did this happen? O yeah. In my attempt to control what I have, at various times, perceived to be the Lego takeover of every hard, flat, potential working-space in my home I have enforced a strict timeline concerning use of the kitchen bar for Lego projects (which currently includes a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle transmogrification set, purchased with rolls of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies—O, so Many pennies—that G and I spent Saturday afternoon pilfering from John’s change bowl, counting and recounting, and packing into several dozen paper tubes).

But the kid is six. And while he has this rather grating habit of shrieking, grunting, and stomping at the ground instead of coming to find me and using discernible words to tell me he needs help, the kid is six. And Lego sets can be tricky to get right, especially when they try to do too much, like transmogrify a skinny guy in a white undershirt into, um, this:

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Seriously (as J likes to say), how can I compete? The Lego takeover shall carry on, even as I surreptitiously if accidentally, of course, vacuum up the odd hand, lightsaber hilt, or chewed up pair of Lego handcuffs.

 

 

 

The Hollow Land

Great old-marketed-for-a-new-audience-book I discovered (thank you New York Times Book Review—you are becoming a dear friend of mine): The Hollow Landby Jane Gardam.

The short, connected stories in this young adult fiction revolve around two families—the Batemans (a well-known London family with connections and a journalist patriarch) and the Teesdales (longtime native Welsh who know their land, every glade, bell, and legend). The youngest members of both—Harry and Bell—recognize in each other a ken and, over the years, set out on the adventures of boys who lived when boys roamed free without the fear of “stranger danger.” Never you mind the occasional jaunt down an abandoned mine that (not so surprisingly) collapses and traps them until (miracle upon serendipity upon miracle) Bell’s grandfather thinks to look where no one would.

Over Christmas holiday Bell comes looking for Harry to go on an icicle ride. Harry has no idea but follows along, game as he is.

With the sudden changes ’round here—icy rain to freezing cold and snow, icicles I have no idea how they came to be and fall—I wish I could have been along on this particular adventure, to see how a waterfall stops falling, mid-fall.

from “The Icicle Ride,” in The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam:

IMG_9034-1Harry climbed up the steps of stone in the wall and put his miserable blue hands in the sopped gloves on top of it and dropped down into the scrunching snow—and deeper than Bell, being smaller, nearly to his waist.

And there round a corner to the left where the beck fell sheer, stood high as the sky a chandelier of icicles. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of them down the shale steps of a waterfall. There were long ones and short ones and middling ones and fat ones like an arm and thin ones like a thread. They hung down from up as high as you could see and down to your very wellingtons. And not only water had turned to spears of glass but every living thing about—the grasses, the rushes, the spider webs, the tall great fearless thistles. You could pull the tubes of ice off the long wands of the loose-strife. You could lift them off like hollow needles. You could look right down them like crystal test tubes. You could watch them twist like fairy ear-rings. And as the sun reach them they all turned at once to every color ever known—rose and orange and blue and green and lilac—and Harry and Bell watched them until the sun slipped down a little and left them icicles again.

“It don’t happen often,” Bell said. “Once before I seed it when Grandad brought me years back—your age. It happens when there’s a temperature change—very quick. Snap-snap. It freezes sudden. Turns them all to ice in midflow. All the grasses an all—just as they’re standing or bending.”

“Just like a spell. Like The Snow Queen.

They stood on.

“Can we pick some?”

They began to pick. Not very bravely at first. It seemed a sin to spoil it. “But it’ll all be gone tomorrow,” said Bell. “Grandad says they don’t often last a day.

They took the tips off the rushes and pulled. They broke off the water icicles like peppermint rock or toffee. They took all thicknesses and laid them carefully in the snow. Somewhere they found in a pocket some bits of John Robert twine to bind them and parceled together a heap of the thickest. Then Harry collected some of the very fine threads in to his hands and they slowly climbed over the wall and walked, not feeling the  cold at all back down the road.