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.

Ah, the snow day

IMG_8950“Did you know that dog poop is shaped like a heart, except in a brown way? And what I mean by a ‘brown way’ is, it’s poop.”   —Jonah, overheard having a conversation with his brother, prior to which they both were shouting “Diarrhea! Diarrhea! Diarrhea!” (Someone please tell me, whose idea was it to make the word “diarrhea” so fun to say?)

So begins another snow-day morning.

I’ve already yelled twice. My idea of a snow day (coffee by the big front window, quiet, a book, staring out at the world in silence) and my sons’ idea of a snow day (iPad! Sledding! Running maniacally around the house chanting “Diarrhea! Diarrhea! Diarrhea!”) differs considerably.

Saturday, I practically barricaded myself in my bedroom with Jonah’s Pinkie Pie in response to such mania, intent on making some sense of the pony’s tangled mane and tail. (And let me just say, they don’t make My Little Pony hair like they used to. Someone needs to give those ponies a moroccan/argan oil treatment.) Making a braided rope of her long pink tail, I revisited my desire to do girlie things with a little girl. I have never wished that my boys would be otherwise, but there are days when I wish they were just a little less manic bruiser, a little more coloring pages and tea parties.

But what the heck am I saying? I was sitting on my bed braiding the hair of my eight-year-old son’s My Little Pony.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for a day. Is it ticking off the internal list of tasks I keep for myself? Is it getting the laundry done? Is it the book by the window or clearing the driveway of snow? Is it making dinner and fixing other people’s sentences? Is it taking the dogs (and myself) for our walk? Is it the killer margarita my husband makes? (Yes, it is most certainly that.)

Of course it is and of course it’s not. It is also only a way to measure time. A day is not a failure or a success. It’s more like a place, to attend again, over and again. To make the same hundred choices a hundred times over and every so often (I hope, dear God) to make a choice that moves me closer to the habit of love, stepping me back from that infernal internal checklist. It is writing another post like this, about attending and paying attention and moving closer to love and asking myself why I write it and not having a particular answer and writing it anyway.

Because doing a thing over again and over and again holds a strangely-secret joy, which grown-ups forget to remember they can become.

As G.K. Chesterton says in his inimitable way:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

–from Orthodoxy

And if you’re lucky (like me), or blessed, or whatever your words for it are, you’ll hear a few bars of that melodious song—“Get out of my penis! Get out of my butt!”—drifting up the basement stairs.

I kid you not.

5

(Better late than never, right? We are a week-and-a-half past G’s birthday, but that doesn’t make him any less five.)

***

It is cold, and we are here—home from school on account of it.

Lucky G to be born on such a cold day, to celebrate with a day off from school. We had to take the interstate to the hospital, on account of the ice that day, though I would have preferred the winding county road I’d travelled monthly, then weekly, to my prenatal appointments. But on that day I sang along to Rosanne Cash, making my way through the contractions (an understatement if ever there was) and trying not to scream at John every time he drifted over the rumble strip or hit a rough patch on that damnable strip of I-70 that runs from Columbia to St. Louis.

We were all finding our way through the best we could. Jonah was maybe the luckiest, still three and happily playing with his favorite sitter. John brought books and read while I walked circles in the hospital room, wishing I hadn’t drawn the old-school nurse, feeling sorry for the teenage girl next door, trying not to slap the three “specialists” who, trying to find a vein, made my other pain bearable in that moment.

And now here he is, five and chatty and stubborn and so sweetly loving. He and me, we don’t always see eye to eye because we’re both set on the thing we want the other one to do, or not do, whatever the case may be. With his dad and brother he can sometimes make a better match—his stalwart, pressing ways meet their give-and-take fishiness well; his sweetness always wins the day.

***

G: “I will help you Jonah. I will learn you how to play.”

***

J: “I don’t want you to turn five.”
G: “It will be OK Jonah.”

***

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Spots and more spots

Spots and spots and more spots. Let’s see…strep, impetigo, more strep, allergic reaction (Lots of spots) to impetigo antibiotic (no more sulfa drugs for us, thank you very much).

fever

In the midst of, both mutts escaped through the side gate—yes, it had been left open—and upon returning from their adventures, which most assuredly involved eating unknown carcasses and/or fast food litter, went all kinds of sideways in the digestive department over the course of the week. I won’t go into particulars here, except to say that I’ve never experienced vomit that smelled so much like diarrhea. Experience being the key word here, as I’ve spent a good few days on hands and knees with every kind of cleaner you can imagine trying to get the smell out of carpet. Unfortunately, fair Lucy the Grey cleansed herself of gastronomical distress while John and I were on a date at the movies and our equally fair babysitter didn’t find Lucy’s offering because, well, she was busy cleaning up another pile of the stuff off the dog bed. Being the explorer he is, Jonah discovered said carpet deposit in his stocking feet. And tracked it across the kitchen while yelling in disgust.

I have two words for you: enzyme cleaner. But not just any enzyme cleaner. Bac-Out. The stuff is a miracle.

In truth, I wish I could procure some kind of similar product for my brain, to get the stink out, so to speak. In recent months, I’ve taken to just about full-time copyediting and proofreading for various theological/philosophical/biblical commentary-type presses. I am good at the work, but for me to be good at the work, the work requires almost complete self-immersion. Meeting deadlines ain’t my cup of tea; I mean, they are so dramatic. They push my anxiety button, which is an area of my brain I like to avoid at all costs. Even if it means not taking risks. Even if it means failing to do the thing I know I need to do.

The work almost always means a great push at the end to meet the deadline; I invariably come out on the other side of it dazed, if not a little confused (and often hosting a head cold). My capacity for detail having been used up by the work, I forget things like turning off the spigot that is filling my glass with water; taking my child to the doctor for his check-up and immunizations; making my child’s lunch to send to school; sending my child’s lunch with him to school (fortunately, Jonah has charmed the lunch ladies, who seem to have taken him under their wing and bestow upon him piles of cheesy breadsticks).

Blue tongue

Granted, there is a kind of freedom in this obliviousness, a kind of freedom in single-mindedness. For as much as it exhausts me, the work is a simplifying force. As a tender of household, the multi-tasking can take me over. I know what Sylvia Plath means; there’s the sense that I’ve “Boarded a train there’s no getting off,” which is motherhood and womanhood and personhood in a nutshell. But the metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors are want to do. Aren’t we meant to stay on? Isn’t that what love does—keeps us on the train?

Did I say it feels like January? It is not. It is November. As a personal response/survival technique, I have swiped a phoenix charm with a bright blue turquoise stone in its belly from the odds-and-ends treasures John collected in a past life (I found it in the change bowl on his bookshelf). I have found a piece of leather. I have tied it ’round my throat. I have decided I will wear it to get myself to the other side of the cold grey. That blue in the bird’s belly will get me back; I know it will.

fall snow

 

 

 

Postscript

I’ve borrowed the title from a poem of the same name by Seamus Heaney. Because it’s summer. Because so much has happened since last I visited this page. Because it’s summer, and summer is my favorite of favorite seasons and all I want to do is live it.

Part of the so much happening is my general reluctance to continue writing these open letters to the universe. Granted, whose reading really? A handful of dear friends and family and people who stumble upon me through a Google search. Or maybe a picture of my boys that I’ve sent (somewhat thoughtlessly) out into that same universe, which encompasses this crazy world.

Not that I want to give any of it up (as my son pees off the deck for what must be the hundredth time this summer). None of the

…marvels and follies

and longings and lies and wishes

and error and humor and mercy

and journeys and voices and faces

and colors and summers and mornings

and knowledge and tears and chance.

(Lisel Mueller)

********************************

And while it took me almost two months to get back to this post (it being now the first of October), I will send it forth anyway. As writing, no matter how I rationalize it, will always be my way back into the world.

Do click here to watch and listen to Seamus Heaney read his “Postscript,” as it is a fitting gateway into autumn and worth every bit of its one minute and forty-two seconds. Worth quite a lot more.

Saff Onlee

[Translation: Staff Only.] So reads the sign on the door to the boys’ room. Part of an elaborate scheme involving Santa Claus, elves, reindeer (I think), and the requisite naughty and nice lists. Perusing those lists, it seems a greater honor to have made the naughties. Go figure.

After a visit to the cemetery on Memorial Day, it was priests and monks. Though G was disappointed he couldn’t climb the mound with the stonehengian-cross-monument at its peak (as is his custom), the sight of a Roman Catholic priest observing a Memorial Day service inspired them. Of course, they Both wanted to be a priest, but we only have one black robe. In an attempt to avert a great disturbance in the Force, I exploited G’s love of holy bread and announced that he should be the monk (we have a brown Jedi robe) who passes out the bread after communion (which plays into a favorite book of theirs—The Holy Monks of Mount Athos—in which the monks make the bread, which plays into the upcoming event of our good friend M-A teaching us all how to make prosphora). Yes, sometimes a mama must play All her cards at once. Upon arriving home, they quickly bedecked themselves just in time to parade before one of their favorite babysitters (We’d like to give a shout-out here for Kelsey-K!). The ever-versatile plastic skull chalice proved itself, once again, indispensable. I tore up some white bread, and the boys were serving the Eucharist in no time.

priest frontpriest back

This past weekend, we acquired an additional black robe, which I doubt G will ever get his hands on. I suspect this is okay with G, because the original black is a silky long Gryffindor number. The new black is a particularly fetching/versatile piece that J got his hands on Saturday when we spent the morning walking our neighborhood garage sales. Calvin Klein. Yep. CK. Though J does not know it was originally intended as a lingerie cover-up, he seems to instinctively understand its purpose:

Then there’s this: “Guess who I’m being?! Han Solo in carbonate!” Not exactly sure how that’s possible, but we’ll roll with it.

voldie swings 2
[A version of Voldemort (inside the turban of Professor Quirrell) swinging Indiana Jones style.]

Turn

I should not be writing this. I should be editing a manuscript about theological aesthetics, which is why I’m writing this. Also, a writer can only go so long without writing because, well…it’s that whole circular logic thing.

The boys are breaking in a new babysitter, or maybe the new babysitter is breaking in the boys. In either case, they seem a good match. The difficult thing about summer is the lack of morning down time. The boys pretty much wake up in full speed (especially when they don’t have to go to school), and though I hide in my bed pretending sleep as long as is conscionable, once the train leaves the station it’s damn near impossible to get off. All that to say, even though I’m at my desk needing to work, I am unable to work. My energies are splayed.

Have you heard that people, across the board, are less stressed at work than at home? So says the most recent study, and I am inclined to believe it because I need a reason to believe that I can find a way to balance more editing work with the bookstore work and home work and yard work and mama work that quite sufficiently fills my days thank you very much. I’m also inclined to believe it because when I am able to work, uninterrupted, for several hours, I experience something more than mere satisfaction. It’s half of wholeness. The working life gives the life of leisure meaning (as I begin to write in the “dissertation-speak” of the manuscript I am editing). In the words of German philosopher Josef Pieper, “The ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation.”

I turn to my work. I turn back to my children. I turn to my love. If I’m lucky, and smart, I turn to myself. I know—all this turning is like to make a person dizzy. Which, sometimes I am. But, there’s this:

Who among us has not suddenly looked into his child’s face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment “seen” that everything which is good, is loved and lovable, loved by God! Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is—peace, salvation, gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that “God holds in his hand the beginning, middle, and end of all that is.” Such nonrational, intuitive certainties of the divine base of all that is can be vouchsafed to our gaze even when it is turned toward the most insignificant-looking things, if only it is a gaze inspired by love. That, in the precise sense, is contemplation…

As the poet Rachel Hadas says it:

…We recognize the people whom we love,
or love what we respond to as our own,
trusting that one day someone
will look at us with recognition.

(from the poem, “Recognitions“)

Which is maybe how we start to learn to love the world, recognizing everything and everyone as our own.

But I’m the lucky one who gets to see this:

photo
And this:
photo 2
Dueling Potters anyone?
dueling potters
Lucky, lucky, lucky me.