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.


© Ze Bernardinello

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


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.




For the Departed

This is Kansas.

variations on a tree 2

But so is this.

molly and g listening

And this.

bluebird bloodmobile


weed flag

And this.

papa sue and me

G and I just returned from our 2000 mile trek there and back. My grandfather, Papa George (that’s him above), died a week ago Wednesday. Saturday after came the funeral. Where I read this, upon finishing its writing the night before at Grandma Lita’s house in Indiana whilst G did naked flips off the side of her chair.

Papa Fills the Room

Papa knows how to fill up a room.
My mother tells me
how he put the-fear-of-god
in her, but I only know how
important I was when

he’d order me a Shirley
Temple in the clubhouse
after golf. Cherry intoxicating
fizz, the room warm
with drink and friendly faces.

He was the gleam
in his parents’ eyes, their
only one and only.
Even the faded monochrome
on my mantle—Papa in the middle
with his arms slung around Big Grandpa
and Grandma—comes alive
with him in it. Wholly
untroubled, he looks out at
the world laughing. He can fill
a room, Papa can, with his brand
of mischief and goodwill.

Jenny, remember
how I used to give you tastes of beer?
I didn’t, being hardly

two. He’d chuckle as he
sunk into his overstuffed
chair, his rack of pipes there
on the wall just
within (and maddeningly
out of) reach. Pipes
that always smelled of smoke
but I didn’t know how because
we never saw
him smoke one once.

It pleased him, that
he’d somehow slipped one past
my parents giving me
the beer, pleased him
more that I smacked my lips,
wanting more.

With delight, with desire was how.
With food and drink. With hunger for
the living. With teasing laughter.
His mama’s face agape
with mock horror as he let loose a string
of Serbian obscenities GEORGE!
She shook her head, giggled
like a young girl.

As he laughed the room got bigger
and I never felt small. There was always enough
room even when Papa filled the room.

The Marines played taps, with full honors. Watching the two Marines unfold the flag then fold it up again, I was fascinated, having never seen it. One Marine was older, the other looked to be just out of high school. I could tell he was nervous; I wondered if it was his first time. I imagined my grandpa telling him a joke to get him to relax a little, but then I was glad he was nervous. He wanted to do this right. And even if his motivation was just not-to-mess-up, that intention had honor in it. I palpably felt their intention to honor my grandfather, and I finally understood a little better the military code so elusive to me and mine (contentious objection runs deep in this Mennonite blood): Honor, Courage, Commitment.

So I cried, and I was glad. And I knew him a little better. Baptized an Orthodox Christian in the Serbian church, I felt a connection to him, but the Marine code of honor, courage and commitment better defines the way he lived.

O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life to Thy world, do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Pardon every transgression which he has committed, whether by word or deed or thought. For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives yet does not sin, for Thou only art without sin, Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is truth.

For Thou are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Thy servant George who has fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.

And okay. A few more pictures from Kansas.

g and isaiah

g with cello

g in the loft

g kissing mary

All Saints

While I might tack on a few pictures of the hooligans doing Halloween this year, the All Saints this post refers to are more along the lines of the Day of the Dead variety. Those gone before and those still here but approaching the ether that divides the dead from the living. Or, as death is portrayed in the Orthodox Church, that movement from life to life.

All Saints

It’s one day past the Day of the Dead, and this has been
a bad year, six funerals already and not done yet.
But on this blue day of perfect weather, I can’t muster
sadness, for the trees are radiant, the air thick as Karo
warmed in a pan. I have my friend’s last book spread
on the table and a cup of coffee in a white china mug.
All the leaves are ringing, like the tiny bells of God.
My mother, too, is ready to leave. All she wants now
is sugar: penuche fudge, tapioca pudding, pumpkin roll.
She wants to sit in the sun, pull it around her shoulders
like an Orlon sweater, and listen to the birds
in the far-off trees. I want this sweetness to linger
on her tongue, because the days are growing shorter
now, and night comes on, so quickly.

“All Saints” by Barbara Crooker, from Gold. © Cascade Books, 2013.

Each Sunday, our priest has this funny habit of mentioning how many funerals the church has held over the course of the year. We’re approaching forty. No wonder he’s a little preoccupied. Between our Fr. Nicholas and the running obsession with graveyards and spirits around here, I’ve been pondering a good bit about death—its imminence and the ways we rage against it, tethering ourselves with the materials of this world.

My grandfather—Papa George—is in ailing health. For several years now his body’s decline has been a hindrance to his mobility and a downright annoyance to his mental faculties. Getting old has not been a pleasant experience.  Unlike the “All Saints” mother, he is not ready to leave. Instead of sweets, he wants barbecue ribs, Quarter Pounders with cheese, steak and egg burritos, sausages.

I love the image of air thick as Karo warmed in a pan, the sun wrapped ’round like a sweater, pumpkin rolls and penuche fudge (had to look that one up—brown sugar, butter, milk and vanilla). Sugar seems a fitting gateway food to the other side. But Papa has no desire for sweet rapture. His animal instincts are fully intact. He ain’t goin’ nowhere, especially not toward that ether between this and the other side.

Of course there is great beauty and necessity in letting come-what-may. But what about the fighters? What do you tell them? Can’t that stubbornness be a road too? A way?

John and I have a recurring conversation concerning spirit/totem animals. Native American folklore is rich with such tales. It is believed that a person and her “life-long” spirit totem animals “share a spiritual, energetic connection in which the animals serves as an ally, guide, teacher, protector, and a source of power throughout the person’s life.” John’s animals are (of course) all very poetic and spiritually rich: the hawk (messenger), the heron (self-reflection, self-reliance), the turtle (Earth Mother, fertility). You know what I keep returning to? The Mule.  This afternoon I looked up the attribute the mule is said to impart: allowance. Yeah. Not even sure what that means.

Except. I have this sneaky suspicion that mules are horribly underrated. This is where Papa and I have something in common, that stubborn tethering to the things of this world. As for allowance, well, the word is rich. Most obviously, it means “to allow.” There’s a leniency and grace about it. A kind of benevolent tolerance. But it also conveys a particular amount, a sense of what will be permitted.

Papa was a boxer in the Marines. He played football for the University of Colorado. He’s not going to just fade away. But I’d like, somehow , to convey to him that making allowance might leave him a little less miserable. Permitting oneself to grow old might sound pointless, but if the mind and the body aren’t in accord, we end up fighting ourselves, and what’s the good in that?

I love my Papa’s will to live. His lust for life is contagious, much like his love of family. Which reminds me—those hooligans. G’s Darth Maul is pretty obvious. J woke up with an itch to be Charles Dickens’ Pointing Spirit (the ghost of Christmas future in A Christmas Carol). As his Texas Aunt Beth put it, it looks like he went marker-crazy on his face, but he was sufficiently spooky. I was just relieved he bypassed the creepy-trashy zombie suit.
pointing spirit crophalloween maul

Graveyard construction and black stabbing work

Looking for something to do with your kids on a brilliant autumn afternoon? Build a graveyard!

headstone j    headstone g
In the midst of church, Jonah whispered to me his afternoon plans:

“When we get home, I am going to build my grave!” Sure enough, as soon as he wolfed down his waffle, he was at work. Had a little trouble getting the right sized hole to make his headstone stand, but with a little help from John, all was well. A haunting ghost was assembled, blue and spooky. Gabriel predictably began chanting, “I want a grave too! I want a ghost!” With a little cajoling, Jonah produced a suitable representation, and a graveyard was born.

Personally, the whole set up looks a little too much like the gallows for my taste, but heck it’s Halloween, and I admire what some might call the macabre bent Jonah’s creating sometimes takes.

Speaking of bents, let’s move on to Gabriel. I’ve written before about his penchant for escaping. Thank God he’s pretty much grown out of that, though he does continue to be terribly sneaky-quiet when he’s up to something like, shall we say, finding a way to get the superglued-on lid off of the air freshener “smelling work” at school and then, of course, digging his fingers in, followed by a good eye rub.

Screaming ensued. His horrified teacher (I mean, she did  go to the effort to superglue the lid on), called me as I was on my way to the grocery store to ask if I would fetch G early. In the meantime she flushed his eyes and wrapped him in a tight bear hug, which calmed him considerably. I arrived to find him still in her arms, still rubbing his eyes. I assured his teacher that he would be just fine, that he gets into scrapes like this often, that I wasn’t too concerned  (or planning to sue her for negligence). Crisis withstood.

Next day…

I pick up G in carline to find his left index finger wrapped in a large stretchy bandage.  I hardly needed to ask “What happened to your finger?” before he returned, “I hurt myself with the black stabbing work!” (This might be a good time to mention that all of the activities in a Montessori classroom are referred to as “work.” As Maria Montessori puts it: “The child can develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experiences ‘work’.”)

Hmmm. Black stabbing work. While I was unable to home in on exactly what the activity was, G says “You do stabbing and gluing.” Further inquiry reveals that paper is involved.

Not much more to tell, but of course I have a dozen more things to say. The gist being, I’ll take my macabre-leaning rowdies any day, even if they do freak out their school friends talking about death and graves and their eventual return to bone.*

*[Happened. A parent at J’s first Montessori school asked me to ask Jonah to stop talking about death with her son because it was freaking him out.]

Enchantment, or, A little patch of yellow wall

I haven’t read Proust, but I intend to remedy that in the near future. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I can’t quote Proust, because people are always quoting him in this book or that, which is one of the reasons I feel compelled to read him. One day, when I’ve become an entirely different person (less the crow I am now, ever caught up by shining bits of things), I will not quote a book I haven’t read. Wouldn’t that be something?

But first, a word from Matthew Del Nevo, who wrote The Work of Enchantment:

…for to be captivated by the right things is to be enchanted. A child can be enchanted by almost anything, and even quite terrible things will not disenchant a little girl or boy…So we are prone from the first for enchantment; we are geared for it, and by that I do not mean a childish “magical” sense of enchantment with fairies or scary monsters, but enchantment in the strong sense, which we will also call metaphysical experience; it comes through art as the quintessence of life…

Jonah is a case in point for enchantment, especially the “quite terrible things”. Zombies, ghosts, Dementors and a certain level of bloody action. Death (which many would argue isn’t one of the quite terrible things—though just as many would argue it is), hospitals, and Voldemort all rank high. He will watch the Wicked Witch melting, the Tangled mother falling from her tower, and the final transformation of Anikin into Darth Vader (via a river of fire and robotic assistance) until I set the timer and say “five more minutes until enough.”

Is enchantment the why behind my love of Patty Griffin’s terrifically melancholy songs? I would contend yes, a good majority of the time. The woman “with the voice torn in all the right places” (Pierce Pettis) paints with her words and her instrument, in much the same and unique way as Chagall, Rothko or Vermeer. I’ll be returning to Vermeer directly, but let’s do Proust for the moment.

Del Nevo devotes three chapter to him, and this passage (Del Nevo quoting Proust) gets at that “quintessence of life” I quoted earlier. It’s from The Captive (1923) and centers on the character Bergotte gazing on a painting by Vermeer called A View of Delft*— “a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart.”

view of delft

But Bergotte learns from an art critic that “a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself.” Bergotte is terminally ill, but he rouses himself out of the house to look upon that yellow wall:

At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else that he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he remarked for the first time some small figures in blue, that the ground was pink, and finally the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His giddiness increased…

[Cut here to Bergotte considering his life’s work:]

“That’s how I ought to have written…My last books are too dry. I ought to have gone over them with several coats of paint, made my language exquisite in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition.

As Bergotte sinks into death before the painting, he mutters, “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.”

Looking (Del Nevo says we must gaze, which is a receptive ability matured through culture and education) at the Vermeer above, it’s virtually impossible to discern which patch of yellow he’s talking about. But I agree with Lorenzo Renzi when he says, “what in Proust has been unified in a single detail, in Vermeer’s painting is strewn out over the whole painting.” This isn’t about pinpointing a detail, it’s about knowing some one thing absolutely—which isn’t the same as knowing everything about some one thing. As Del Nevo puts it, “to know [one thing] even more intimately than one’s own creations, one’s own offspring; this is something great. This is enchantment. It is a metaphysical experience. This is an exemplary death.”

Here we are at death again. Enchantment seems to me a being-led-on, even if it be (as it will always be, one way or another) to death. “Short of a tragedy or a ruinous childhood,” writes Del Nevo, “we die of what we live for…so that, despite all consequences, even the most ultimate, we are moved, literally moved, if we hear something about it that we cannot remember and do not think we ever knew.”

My often quite literal mind leads me here back to England, to a vegetarian cafe a friend and I would meet up at. It was situated on a narrow street, and some days I would go there alone just to stare out the plate glass at a worn down brick building of a wall across the way. I loved that wall. I loved it like I love my dogs, if not quite how I love my children, though maybe like I love my husband. Matthew Del Nevo’s exploration of enchantment names what that wall was. Even then I would have told you (however irrational it may have sounded) that the wall was “something the soul cannot do without unless it is to starve” (Del Nevo). It was some thing by which I took my own measure—of who I was and who I wanted to become.

*[Del Novo mistakenly references Vermeer’s painting, Street in Delft, as the work of art attended to in The Captive, which I only discovered after attempting to find the painting myself. Personally, I’m more taken captive by Street in Delft (see below). I could gaze all day at those patinated shutters. The green of it!]

street in delft

Bobby’s dead

Funny thing, the way certain events filter themselves through the mind of a certain six-year.

It was a big day for the J-man. There was a field trip to the symphony. That event alone informs much of how the rest of the day turned. Jonah does amazingly well on trips. He gets terribly excited, but they take a toll. We’ve been on the edge of meltdown since school let out.

Walking home, we happened upon J’s new friend L. She and her mom (who will be J’s elementary teacher next year) and sisters were also walking home. The two clasped hands and off they went—running far ahead, carefully looking both ways (I trust L far more than J on this front) before crossing several streets. Of course we had to walk to L’s house before we headed for ours. Of course Jonah had to go inside to see L’s “horsey room.” How could it be otherwise? I ended up having to drag both he and G out of the house, practically kicking and screaming.

Onward home. J began obsessing about the girls (across the street). Would they be home? Was their van in the driveway? Could they play? Were they home? “I think their van must be in the garage,” he postulated. “Can I play with them? I’m sure they’re home. Can I play with them?” There are days when he just won’t/can’t stop himself. He only thinks about seeing them. He imagines hearing them from inside the house: “Did you hear that? I think it’s the girls! I think they want to play with me!” Today was one of those days. He hung on the gate, watching their house. He perched himself on a rock in our driveway and watched their driveway with doleful eyes.

Meanwhile, G attempted escaping over the back wall in our yard. Somehow he managed to move three very large rocks off the wall without crushing his feet (though later he did a good job of that while carrying/dropping a wooden box full of tools on his bare toes). Shortly after, Jonah tried to scale the wooden slats that wrap around the rest of the yard. Much to everyone’s surprise, a splinter lodged itself in his palm. A minor procedure with needle and tweezers over the kitchen sink ensued.

Merciful Lord, I kept muttering under my breath. How will I survive them?

But all of this is just to say, Bobby’s dead. And we didn’t find this out until bedtime when an exhausted J was finally still enough, long enough, to process what his brain had been bombarded with in the course of the day. I’m starting to realize that it must, some days, feel like bombardment to him—all of the activity and emotions and people and schoolwork he works so hard to attend to. No wonder his body goes berserk.

Bobby is the classroom rabbit. He died Sunday, it seems, at the home of one of the classroom aides. In her words (according to Jonah), Bobby died of being old and tired. Another aide went so far as to tell the children that “Bobby is looking down and watching you from heaven.” Seriously? He’s a rabbit. Why not use this opportunity to talk to the children about death instead of pumping them with useless cliches? Talking about a rabbit dying is a whole hell of a lot easier than broaching the topic for the first time when a grandparent or friend or, God forbid, parent dies. But I digress.

Bobby’s dead, and tonight, seemingly out-of-the-blue, it’s breaking J’s heart. I don’t think J and B were particularly close, but it doesn’t matter when you’re a boy of drama and you’ll use whatever you’ve got to keep either mom or dad in the room a little longer so you don’t have to go to sleep alone.

Don’t get me wrong: those were real tears J was crying. But he has this knack of getting himself all worked up (he learned from the master—or should I say mistress?—of the house).

He creeps to the door. Opens it ever-so-slowly.

“Mom? I can’t sleep. Bobby’s dead.”

I tuck him in and lay down to chat.

“I’m so sad. I keep thinking about Bobby. I miss him. He’s dead. I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about Bobby. And he’s dead. Petting him made me happy. But he’s dead. And I can’t sleep because Bobby’s dead.”

This is when I learn that Bobby is looking down on us from heaven. Then some gibberish-y talk about a friend being serious and how J needs to be more serious, except J is funny, and he needs to be serious. I’m thinking maybe Jonah was acting silly when the aide was talking to them about Bobby and J got reprimanded by said friend.

It’s unfortunate that J’s teacher has been out sick for almost a week. It’s unfortunate for her, obviously, but also for the kids. I think she would have handled the situation beautifully. As it is, Bobby has made himself known to us in a way he never did when he was alive. Expressing emotions with words is hard for J, so hearing him say petting Bobby made him happy melted my mama heart a little.

Long live the memory of the tubby bunny Bobby, who took refuge behind the wall of cubbies when all of those wiggling, poking, stroking, and ear-pulling hands were just too much to bear. I feel for you B.

Verluisant, Etsy


Yes, I’m talking about the Disney movie. Rapunzel, her witchy mother, the swarthy bandit-turned-good Flynn Rider (aka Eugene Fitzherbert), and the real hero, Maximus, head horse of the palace guard. I found it to be a surprisingly delightful and entertaining movie, straight out of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast mold. (You’ll be glad to know that Quentin Tarantino ranked Tangled number five on his Best of 2010 list.)  Yes, I’m the girl who owned the soundtrack cassettes to both of those movies. Yes, I could still probably sing them to you by heart. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Jonah, for his part, was entertained and all, but I don’t think it was quite dark enough for him. Some kids are obsessed with trains. Some with princesses. Gabriel loves anything that digs, pushes, dumps, or rolls. Jonah, well, Jonah is rather preoccupied with death. Awhile back, John described the process of growing old as shrinking. John’s father died about a year and half ago; Jonah attended the funeral and burial. I’m pretty sure that’s when the questions started. Jonah understands that he’s still a kid, and that kids are still growing and in no immediate danger of shrinking, so he doesn’t freak out about death usually (except occasionally, when he’s feeling anxious, and he repeatedly asks, “I’m not shrinking, right? I’m not shrinking. I’m still growing, right?”). So he’s aware of death. It’s firmly planted in his consciousness, and he’s trying to make his own sense of it. Several times he’s told us, “Someday you are going to die, and Gabriel and I will be big. And we will talk and think.” Like everything Jonah does, or is about to do, he wants to know when death is going to come. He needs to place it. In a way, it’s just a matter of semantics.

So while I was enchanted by the music and that great floating lantern scene (we’re back to Tangled here), he couldn’t get enough of the scene where the witchy “mother” withers before our eyes—her face goes ashen and wrinkled (not unlike Darth Sidious in Revenge of the Sith), her hands shrivel up, and she stumbles around moaning “What have you done?! O what have you done?” until she trips on Rapunzel’s hair and falls out of a very high window, disintegrating as she hits the ground. Makes sense; she’s hundreds of years old. Well Jonah just couldn’t get enough. Over and over again he wanted to watch that scene. “She disappears!” he cried. Rewind. “Look! She melts!” (An allusion to his other favorite death scene.) Rewind to where she’s shriveling up. “See her face! She is old! Look, she melts! Do you see that?” I cut him off at this point. It was bath time anyway.

Over the weekend, we passed a church just as the bride and groom were exiting. “Look,” I told Jonah, “it’s a wedding. They just got married.” His reply startled me. “Now she is going to die.” How do you respond to that? What’s going on in his brain? I don’t want to make him sound like a specimen, but I love trying to decipher his processes. A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities). This is where the autism label doesn’t mean much. Which one of us isn’t an astonishing, if messy, conundrum?