Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco, Part 2 of 2

Christmas Eve, Sahara Desert
Note: Part 1 of “Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco” can be read here: 
It sets the experience in time and context and contains terminology and background information pertinent to Part 2 below. 

The rain and cold in Casablanca continued for days. We decided to leave the city earlier than planned for Marrakesh. Like my visions of Casablanca being the city of romance, I also had notions of what Marrakesh would be like. On some level, I expected it to resemble a Grateful Dead concert. The pictures in my travel guide showed the central square covered in colorful food stands and bright lights with people dancing. It looked like a festive place to celebrate Christmas. 

Challenging travel conditions continued on our long bus ride to the magical city enshrined in the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Marrakesh Express.” Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes/Trying to make the train to clear Moroccan skies/Bugs and pigs and chickens call/Animal carpet wall to wall/Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express/Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express/All on board that train/. Fact was there was no sunset in our eyes and the “express train” was an old bus. Within the first thirty minutes the rain started to pour again and the window above our seat dropped a continuous stream of water. Girls tend to get their way: FBF (former boyfriend) swapped seats with me shortly thereafter. 

One of Many Food Stands on the Square In Marrakesh
When we rolled into Marrakesh I felt the magic I expected. I soon met a man named Aziz who offered to take us to the Sahara Desert. I said yes without asking FBF. He was leery; regardless we left for our journey through the Atlas mountains the next morning (December 23rd) in an old-style, mid-1970s Mercedes Benz with Aziz at the wheel. The temperatures rose and the sun shined brightly and for a few hours I allowed myself to relax and absorb the Vitamin D that my body craved. Late afternoon brought a jolt as the mellow drive turned into a manic car race on a winding, single-lane mountain road. Two inches off either side and the Mercedes and its passengers would tumble thousands of feet in the Atlas Mountains. The genuine fear of death smacked hard for the first time in my life. FBF thought Aziz had flipped a lid and I thought he might be taking us hostage. He shouted angry words in Arabic to other drivers, us, and the world in general. When the car finally skidded on two wheels in front of a village cafe it all made sense. Break fast. Dozens and dozens of men milled in the streets and on the cafe porch waiting for the mosque to sound.

Aziz (right) and His Friend

With the sun setting, Aziz and a young man from the cafe drove the Mercedes Benz to the end of the road and straight into the Sahara Desert to camp for the evening. He pulled out a makeshift tent and the chicken bought that morning from the floor of the trunk. “I will NOT eat that filthy chicken” pulsated through my head. Before long, Aziz siphoned gas from his car to fuel a small stove. With each ingredient he added to the tajine pot, Aziz mumbled “preparation chicken, preparation carrots, preparation bread” and on. All I could think was “Preparation H!”
Aziz knew limited English and French and his friend spoke only Arabic. Most communication was conveyed through gestures and laughs. When I tried to tell where we were from, drawing a map of the U.S. in the air and other tactics, the young Berber man finally had a bright look on his face and said with clinched teeth and a tone of voice that I will never forget: “George W. Bush!” Our vacation followed the 2000 presidential election and the Bush-Gore battle for the White House. In fact, unknown to us, the official winner had been declared back in the States just days before. 

Early on Christmas Eve morning, we mounted our camels (they had been tied to the back of the Mercedes and followed us in the desert the night before) and went on an exploration guided by a Berber man that seemingly appeared from nowhere. Without a doubt the Sahara ranked with the most awe-inspiring natural wonders that I had ever experienced. The vastness of the space was a fabulous exercise in insignificance: the land mass is roughly the size of the United States. By noon, I had stripped every piece of clothing except undergarments because of the blinding sun and suffocating heat. Soon Aziz had us on the way back to Marrakesh arriving at the hotel by early evening. We spent Christmas Eve night on the square, eating our way from stand to stand and drinking orange Fanta while dreaming of a beer in a country that bans alcohol.

Christmas Morning
When the mosques sounded at 5:30 on Christmas morning to break the fast, we ventured into the square to watch the sun rise and the bustle of activity surrounding another day of Ramadan. We Christmas shopped in the covered Medina of Marrakesh, eyeing all the vivid colors of the foods and crafts. 

Back at the hotel we found Aziz waiting for us. He extended an invitation to join us at his home for an evening meal with his family, acknowledging that he knew it was Christmas day. The gesture reminded me of something that I read in my Lonely Planet travel guide: “Moroccans are friendly people and open-minded tourists will likely get invited to a private residence.” Aziz and his family warmly welcomed us for the evening’s feast and the mutual feeling of an experience shared ensued among us all. As Christmas night came to a close, FBF kissed me goodnight. Here in Marrakesh we had luxuries lacking in Casablanca: two single beds and heat in the room. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco, Part 1 of 2

In December 2000 I discovered the other Casablanca--not the movie but rather a bustling, third-world city celebrating Ramadan. My visions of romance and an exotic land of cafes, gin joints, and beautiful people faded when I laid eyes on my now former boyfriend (hereafter referred to as FBF, not to be confused with BFF) at the Casablanca airport. Eight months had passed since he left to serve in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Over the next three weeks in Morocco, I would learn that personal hygiene is relative but when he greeted me I was unwitting to this fact. FBF smelled and looked like a man of the bush! “Couldn’t even shower and put on clean clothes to woo his woman”rumbled through my head.

Morocco is a popular travel destination for those who enjoy unique culture and adventurous conditions. December and January are the coldest and the rainiest months of the year. Most people would not choose to be in Morocco in December. And the maraschino cherry of it all? Twice every 30 years Ramadan coincides with Christmas and we were there for it! Ramadan, lasting 29-30 days, is the Muslim holy month. Ramadan traditions include the fasting of food, water, cigarettes, sex and other worldly pleasures from sunup to sunset each day. It is a time of sacrifice, prayer, and mindful reflection. 

It didn’t take long to figure out that Casablanca was not a Hollywood stage. All delusions of romantic trysts dimmed when FBF took me to our boarding room. I stared in disbelief: one single bed, a sink, and concrete floors. “Where’s the bathroom?” seemed a logical question and the answer prepared me for my Moroccan experience. He led me down the chilly hall, pointed out a group shower, adding that the hotel does not provide hot water. Then I saw the bathroom stall. A filthy ceramic hole and a faucet with a small bucket of water greeted me with a sneer. No toilet paper in Morocco--it is customary to wipe with the left hand and eat with the right. The bucket was there to rinse hands and catch the water from the spigot above. 

Choosing not to cold shower it, we took to the streets of Casablanca. Everywhere I turned men butchered live animals (chickens, fish, goats, and an occasional cow) to offer for sale. Despite the seemingly filthy conditions, I couldn’t help but guess that the process was less germ-ridden than U.S. meat factories. When a man purchased a slaughtered and plucked chicken, probably still warm with afterlife, and carried it barehanded down a narrow street I had one of many lessons that industrialized does not always equal better. Back in Missouri, I could only dream of meat that fresh.

Men worked and socialized in the streets during the day while the women, at home, prepared an elaborate meal for that evening’s break fast. It took me awhile to realize that they weren’t talking about breakfast. The mosques across Morocco play their haunting and beautiful sound (listen here at about 5:30 each morning and evening, alerting all that the day’s fast either had started or ended.

With few restaurants open due to the holiday, my first dinner purchase included bottled water, dry crackers, a banana, along with multiple packages of kleenex for bathroom use. In less than 24 hours, any thoughts of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s affair had dimmed yet I couldn’t help but look to the future. With our long bodies squeezed in a single bed I whispered in FBF’s ear: “We’ll Always Have Paris.”

Some highlights of our time in Casablanca include:

The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, is one of the two mosques in the world that allows non-Muslim visitors. It opened in 1993. The tour was a very aesthetic and spiritual experience and I felt privileged to be there especially during Ramadan. The mosque was designed under the watchful eye of King Hassan II who said, "I want to build this mosque on the water, because God's throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the Creator on firm soil, can contemplate God's sky and ocean."

I Spy a Tall Blonde (FBF)
It was hard to lose each other.
We encountered an unexpected mid-day gathering in the streets surrounding a local mosque. King Hassan II and his entourage drove to the town square procession-style and shared in a noon prayer with his people. The next morning with the rain cleared, we enjoyed the first glimpse of sunshine in days. I found myself relaxed in a Moroccan sort of way as we wound our way through some Casablanca souks and plotted our Christmas excursion over hot tea and crackers. 

Stay tuned for Part 2: Camping, Camels, and Survival in the Sahara Desert on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Marrekash.

The link to Part 2:

Monday, December 12, 2011

"To Trim or Not to Trim"

"To Be or Not to Be," declared Hamlet.

“To Tree or Not to Tree,” I responded. It was the wee, pre-coffee hours of Sunday morning.
Before my mind could turn from treeing to being, I hauled it to the basement for three large boxes containing tree, ornaments, and too much junk. Deep down, I dreaded this deed and chose a systematic and thoughtful method to the task. The ornament boxes would wait while I assembled the tree. It took a hammer and some muscle to bend the pieces to balance the tripod on which this tree stands. The only alternative would have been roping it to wall or furniture. The harder the task, the more determined my effort.
Sounds of Christmas music, with the snap, crackle, and pop of old family vinyl led me to a place of nostalgia and mindfulness. I found myself in a sing-a-long with Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, Elvis, and others. It buffered my relationship with the present for a short while. While advisable to always live in the present--out in the real world where all is new each day--a temporary escape strengthens my “now.” 
With the tree up and shaped, I delved into the ornament box with a growing enthusiasm. The Christmas Ball wiggled, knowing it always goes first. The only ornament with a permanent nail is a work of art created by my sister Mary. Notice the perfect needlepoint in the picture to the right. 
“To Keep or Not to Keep,” rattled my skull.
Four piles formed: ornaments from my youth; from college to present; basic colored balls to reflect the lights; and trash. Memories flooded and Ray Conniff’s take on “White Christmas” helped this be an easy and rewarding system. Every ornament on the tree tells a story: a glittery, octagon-shaped ball made from Christmas cards by my great-great aunt; childhood art projects though the generations; gifts from dear friends; reminders of vacations, loves had and lost, colleges and places I adore. “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know/Where the treetops glisten and children listen/To hear sleigh bells in the snow/I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/With every Christmas card I write/May your days be merry and bright/And may all your Christmases be white” sounded inspired. 
The antique round table that relocated for the holiday season folded down in size and shape to provide an extension to my tree that honors my little brother. Jim was a “Trekkie,” a proud and loyal Star Trek fan. Collectors leave Star Trek toys and items untouched in the original packaging. As a teenager Jim’s wall was covered with Star Trek spaceships, figures, and toys safe behind a plastic window and surrounded by a cardboard background. A punch hole in the cardboard allowed a pin to provide the necessary support to display.

“To Remove or Not Remove,” I questioned the boxed ornament.
With a wink to Jim’s spirit, I pulled out the ornament and set it next to its original box. After all these years, Commander Data deserved to come out of the box, I said. And I heard Jim’s response: a manly giggle. The lights ran out before reaching the top. Rather than run to Mom’s for another strand, I topped the tree with a white angel given to me by a friend years ago. The angel's been there before but this year it also reminded me of Jim. My friend loved him, laughed (and laughed and laughed) with him. Warm thoughts of an old friend and Jim’s bright smile illuminate things up there.
Christmas 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Brandi Carlile @ the Blue Note, Columbia, Mo.

Brandi Carlile at the Blue Note

Brandi Carlile’s spectacular voice, wicked guitar playing, and intimate stage presence on Saturday evening shattered my already high expectation for a smokin' hot performance. 
Following the opening act (Katie Herzig), the tall beauty appeared on the Blue Note stage with at least five guitars within her reach at all times. Brandi engaged the sold-out audience with the warmth of an old friend, reminding the full house that a concert is an experience that requires mutual participation. Opening with “Dreams” off her 2010 album Give Up the Ghost, followed by two additional original numbers, she stunned by stepping to the front of the stage to offer an unplugged version of one of her most beautiful songs. Forgoing microphone or amplification, she delivered a powerful version of “What Can I Say.” With this, Brandi had the crowd in the palm of her hand for the entire evening.
Throughout the show, Brandi weaved together strong material from all three of her studio albums, a few new/unreleased songs, and a handful of cover tunes. A string of storytelling tied each song to the next and built a rapport between artist and audience unmatched by most performers. She told of her lifelong dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry and the thrill of meeting one of her musical idols, Wanda Jackson there. Before she covered Radiohead’s “Creep” we learned that it was her Mom who suggested she buy the band’s CD. When she shared a new song (“Christmas 1984”), the first time she performed it live, Brandi explained that not all Christmas songs need be joyous. Her message of avoiding the materialism that overtakes the holiday season was exquisitely delivered through the song. 
Brandi belted out her anthem “The Story” as the final song of the set. Hearing her words: All of these lines across my face/Tell you the story of who I am/So many stories of where I've been/And how I got to where I am/But these stories don't mean anything/When you've got no one to tell them to/It's true...I was made for you/, it felt as if she had shared the Story of Brandi Carlile with her new friends in mid-Missouri. The authentic singer/songwriter returned the affection, expressing gratitude and awe for her Columbia audience numerous times. She promised that she would return to the Blue Note to see “one of, if not the best audience” of her tour.
The encore offered a short mini-set, opening with two original ballads. She followed by plucking a lucky young man from the audience who joined her on stage to duet John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” with her. The night ended with a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” an oft-covered song seldom performed by female singers. She nailed it. Of course.

Brandi Carlile in Parking Lot Following Concert at Blue Note 

Brandi Carlile sings "The Story" with her band at Austin City Limits, September 2011. Her performance at the Blue Note was a part of her first solo tour.

Friday, November 18, 2011

James Lewis "Jim" Rogers, b. Nov 18, 1976

Jim’s 16th Birthday. No one could of predicted that Jim would become the best driver in the family. Prior to his sixteenth birthday, he had finished off a couple of cars “practice driving” off road. His most dramatic incident involved racing through the pasture in an old Blazer. A low lying tree ripped the roof off making a convertible of this Blazer. With Jim unharmed, the story was added to family lore with a laugh and head shake, and  “oh, only Jimby ... ” crossing all of our minds.

Thirty-five years ago today my family welcomed James Lewis “Jim” Rogers to the world. This was not Mom’s first time around the birthing track--her seventh to be specific--and she walked out of the hospital with her baby cradled in her arms the very next day. Two years earlier, Mom almost died in childbirth and her twin babies went to heaven. On November 18, 1976, God blessed her with a picture perfect delivery and baby boy. She knew her family was complete.
The youngest in a large family is a unique place to live; I know nothing about it and never will. I watched my brother John as the baby for years before Jim arrived. Then, of course, Jim was the baby. I always envied that spot on the ladder though John passed the torch to Jim without thought. 
November 18 will always be Jim’s birthday, always a day to celebrate his life and love. He now has two birthdays: the day he went to Heaven and the day he was born on Earth. 

Jim’s 21st Birthday. No one anticipated their 21st birthday more than Jim. It wasn’t about a bar or a drink but rather our parents' tradition of taking each 21-year-old to Las Vegas. Jim invited me to be his guest on the trip with Mom and Dad. Caesar’s Palace provided our playground for a weekend of debauchery in Jim’s honor. This trip also became part of the family story but the two of us kept certain details of that chapter to ourselves. We owned it and still do.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Genie Banks Rogers

Mom pictured with her older brother
Hartley. Being 13 years older
he tormented my Mom by
taking her dolls and other
antics. As a young man, many
thought he looked like Elvis.

As a Toddler on the Steps of the Family Home

Deep down, Mom will always be a cat person though the dogs in her life have lacked for nothing, especially affection. She is a friend and advocate to each animal she encounters: I'm confident the geese, woodchucks, deer, raccoons, squirrels, and others flock to her place for good reason. 
Mom with Her first Cat (above) and Her Pony

A True 40-Year Love Story: Until Death Do Us Part
President Reagan Visits Columbia
My Dad won Mom's heartstrings when he invited her to see Barry Goldwater for a first date. Other romantic outings included drinks at the Heidelberg, Mizzou football games, and family time. Proof positive, these passions continued through the decades. President Reagan's visit to Columbia in the late 1980s thrilled--look at my mother in this picture. That's anticipation! Loyal Mizzou football fans, they endured the good, the bad, and the ugly from the mid-1960s through 2005.

Fall 2004, Night Game at Faurot Field
Below are the final lines of a manuscript prepared by my siblings in honor of my parent's 40th wedding anniversary, the last they would celebrate together. These words, as appropriate and meaningful today, I share with love and respect.

"Mom and Dad have often said that one of their greatest accomplishments was raising five kids who are each other’s best friends. Mom and Dad can also take pride that all of their children consider Mom and Dad their best friends too. We congratulate you on your 40 years of marriage. You have taught us each what love and family are all about. We thank you for each other, us, and many wonderful memories and experiences."
We love you very much,
Mary, Ann, Hartley, John, and Jim


Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Take on the "Happy Lamp"

It always sounded too good to be true.
It may be.
It’s large, it’s bright, it can attract attention in the office. People often question me about it, usually on behalf of a spouse, a friend, a parent. Can’t help but think-- “but of course, only others struggle with seasonal depression.”
When asked if the Happy Lamp helps, if it really boosts my mood and emotions when the days grow dark and gloomy, I always respond with this answer:
“I truly think it helps and frankly that is good enough for me.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I am a Tree Hugger

Oak Tree
On the first day of spring 2011, I transplanted three trees from my brother Jim’s yard. Eight months later and in the heart of fall, the trees are thriving and I believe he is smiling down on them.
(Look here at pictures of the trees when I planted them in March: )
Yesterday I built a mulch bed around each tree to blanket them for the extra cold winter predicted for this year. I started to weep. It’s impossible to convey all the emotion tossing in my skull but it can be summed up in a simple way: I miss him.
Still crying and on impulse rather than thought, I hugged the little tree. I then climbed to the top of the yard and gave Jim’s oak tree and crabapple tree a hug also. Sitting in the bright, blinding sunshine under the little oak tree my weeps turned to sobs, dampening the ground with my tears.
Before going inside, I gave each tree another hug and in process created an alternate yet more literal definition of the term “tree hugger.”

Crabapple Tree (left) and Magnolia Tree (right)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat in 1975

Each year on Halloween my Dad took his kids out to select friends and relatives prior to us terrorizing the neighborhood and hitting up any house with the porch light still burning. When back home, we set up a trading post in the family room. The four of us (Jim would not be born for another year) piled up all our candy, divided it in categories (think gum, chocolate, sweet tarts, suckers, and on), and exchanged our haul in a “what will you give me for this” manner. Everyone knew how I loved bubble gum. I lost a lot of chocolate for that indulgence. We did this every year--a tradition we built for ourselves.
Halloween evening 1975. We started at about 5:30, skipping dinner out of excitement and anticipation of our annual sugar overdose. Dad began the rounds, stopping at the five or six obligatory homes. The last one, due to proximity from my grandmother’s house, was Miss Julie’s. Her old mansion set back far, far from the road with steep steps and a spectacular leaded glass front door didn’t feel haunted but it always felt erie on a dark Halloween evening.
Miss Julie opened the door and as usual invited us in to pick up treat bags on the parlor table. There they sat: four fish bowls with little guppies swimming in circles. Wow, I thought: much better than the expected carmel apples! And shrewd she was--each bowl had three guppies to increase the likelihood that there would be a male and a female in each fish bowl.
The night’s trick or treating that followed lacked the usual allure this year even though it was a Friday night. The guppies had captivated our imaginations and the candy was, well, just candy this year. By the time we arrived back home, Hartley already had baby guppies. The next morning, we all had babies and by school on Monday, we had more than we could count. Show-and-Tell hour could not start soon enough--no one I knew ever received guppies for Halloween.
Unfortunately our excitement dimmed by the day and a sad couple of weeks ensued. Our twenty-pound alley cat Tiger had no use for the new pets. Over a period of a week or two, the fat cat knocked the guppy bowl off of each perch, leaving a soaked carpet and dead guppies. Even Tiger had no desire to eat them. I suppose this was his version of catch and release fishing. My parents appeased the trauma of the murdered guppies by adopting  a single goldfish He swam in an oversized brandy sniffer set on the fireplace mantel, one of the only places Tiger could not roam.
Trick or Treat? I think Miss Julie had Treat or Trick on her mind in 1975, with the later being her prerogative.
Baby Guppies

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tales From A Missouri Chestnut Grove

Twenty years ago a crooked, dying tree caught my mother’s attention. The shape intrigued her as did the unfamiliar green pods with fine sharp needles. Her curiosity drove her to the Missouri Conservation Department where a tree specialist determined that it was an American Chestnut tree--and a rare survivor in the state due to the great Chestnut tree plague that killed over 3 billion trees in the first half of the twentieth century. My parents worked with the department to use the tree’s nut for a grafting project. Their dedication and tedious labor resulted in about 35 nutgrafts; 29 survived. These nutgrafts grew a couple of feet the first year and required some staking to force upright growth but now form a Chestnut grove of trees that are prolific bearers of nuts enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. 
A good Chestnut harvest requires daily wrestles with the squirrel population for just-fallen pods. During the month I wandered through the grove, my eyes peeling the pasture’s floor for the green or velvet tan spiny burrs. Chestnut burrs should be picked up with thick work gloves as the needles will stick in the skin making it almost impossible to gather the burrs barehanded. Ideally the pods brown on the branch and fall to the ground and are gathered before getting squirreled away. If the burr is on the ground, I roll it with my foot to see if i beat the critters. If intact, the pod goes in a bucket, sometimes coming home full, other times just a few burrs. 

Each burr contains three plump Chestnuts, making each one an important find. Toward the end of the harvest, I climbed the trees and shook the upper limbs, catapulting the remaining pods to the ground. The final climb is my favorite part of the harvest season. It releases my inner monkey child and allows my body to succumb to muscle memory from my youth.

Last year we were spoiled by a bumper crop that did not repeat itself this fall (cicadas and the drought paid their toll on many trees and gardens). Even though we can’t sell the surplus to the farmer’s market or give bags to friends this year, my Chestnuts will still be roasting over an open fire this winter. If you see some Chestnuts at the market or successfully talk me out of some of mine, give this a try. The aroma alone will draw your friends and neighbors from blocks away.
Roasted Chestnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Clean Chestnuts.
  3. Use a sharp paring knife to cut an X into one side of each nut. This keeps the Chestnuts from exploding in the oven.
  4. Arrange Chestnuts on a baking sheet or in a shallow pan, with the cut or pricked sides up.
  5. Roast in oven for 15 to 25 minutes, or until nuts are tender and easy to peel.
  6. Peel the nuts when they are cool enough to handle but still warm, and enjoy.
Removing Chestnuts from Burrs
A Day's Work Ready for the Open Fire

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wednesday Night Tennis People

~Wednesday Night Tennis People~

Heading to the Green Center
to play tennis with people
older than my parents.
What a thrill to see friends
playing and serving and aging
all in the name of the little yellow ball.
Familiar faces, hugs, and welcomes 
from the permanent court people. 
Tonight I am a substitute player paired 
twice with an opposite gender partner.
“I don’t like to lose,” he tells me,“so don’t mess up.” 
I hear this every time we play together. 
Across the net the composite age 
is about 160. We are only 105. 
I assure my white, wiry-haired partner we will win.
The pop of the sound of tennis balls fills
my head for the next hour and a half. Shouts hailing
my brilliance come as often as the words
“waaaaayyyyy out,” when the ball just misses the line.
Nothing is too serious until we are down in score.
Tense serves and tennis chatter between the partners 
brings the players in the present. We win, 
because we don’t lose.
Partners change when eight people play
on two courts. The winning teams pair up 
and exchange partners while the two losing teams 
do the same. There is no shame in position with
the Wednesday Night Tennis People. All win,
because they don’t lose.
Point, Game, Set, Match. Court time over.
Off to Murry’s, the restaurant where a table
is waiting for the Tennis People to imbibe.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There's No Place Like Home

Growing up, my Dad told of a town character who would dramatically exit her car after crossing the line from Callaway to Boone, kiss the ground and exclaim proudly "Boone County, Boone County!" I've often wondered if she said it the way Dad imitated it. Probably not, but in my 30 years on the road I still mimic her--or my Dad--after a long drive even if I do not leave the car. In the words of the great mystic Rumi: "there are hundreds of ways to kiss the ground."
"My people" have been here for five generations before me and I see more to come ahead of me. Boone County, Mo., gives me a solid place to stand in this world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Centenarian Named Annie

Nannie surrounded by some of her great-great nieces and nephews at her 100th birthday party on September 15, 1976. I am standing directly behind Nannie wearing a dress that she wore when she was a young girl. I found the ivory lace dress in a trunk in the attic shortly before the party.  

Annie Alice Britts
September 15, 1876-November 30, 1976 

My namesake lived to be 100 years old. Take a close look at the dates above. Nannie entered this world in the centennial year of our country and died toward the end of the bicentennial year celebration. This club is small: through hypothetical calculations, I have determined that only about 100 people in the United States could also claim an exact centennial birth/bicentennial death.
Nannie treasured having a baby named for her and doted on me my first ten years. Wonderful and imaginative childhood experiences came from time I spent visiting Nannie for the weekend at the old family home in Clinton. I reminisce: sitting in the parlor hearing family stories; sliding down the ultimate banister; walking down to the square to buy candy at Ben Franklin's; a winding back staircase to run up and down; the lure of the attic; simply an endless playground of discovery and history.

She also taught me an appreciation of the written letter and, being my first pen pal, we exchanged mail regularly. She addressed the letters to “My Dearest Namesake” and as a young girl in a big family the special attention felt really important. When Nannie died in 1976 it ended an era in her branch of the family and within two years the 1868 family home disappeared and a Phillips gas station supposedly arose in its place. I've never bothered to check it out. In my mind the Britts home still stands on Franklin Street in Clinton, Mo.

As a Young Woman

I can still hear the trains in the distance and smell the woody scent of the old house in Clinton. 
This was my favorite place to be when I was 7-10 years old.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

In a world that often defines people by what they do for a living being unemployed has been a humbling and eye-opening experience. After 25 years of growing a career that brought pride and challenge, the job layoff this summer felt like a heartless punch in the gut. 
Being a free agent can’t last forever but I choose to embrace it. My roles have never been so varied: babysitter, writer, book seller, editor, lawn mower, and more. Yet I’d trade nothing to have the time and ability to help my Mom when she broke her femur earlier in the summer. It takes a lot for my fiercely independent mother to need or ask for help. But the wicked surgery and the long and painful recovery process perhaps humbled her in a way similar to my layoff. We both have to count on others right now. The ability to give back to my Mom--the person who has devoted her every being to her family--has been one of the most precious experiences of my life. 
Today she faces a second surgery on her femur that will take her recovery process back to where she started. It’s serious stuff and all I can hope is that she realizes that she has a daughter that just needs to be of use. 
To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, 
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used. 
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let it Hang Like a Bruise

Mom and Jim at a Holiday Meal

Yesterday I wrapped another band-aid around my finger that would not stop bleeding. It’s a small cut on the joint of my index finger. It will heal.
It forced me to think about the open wound I’ve lived with since November 2010. The bleeding, aching, oozing pain that Jim’s death created. Yet I may have developed the first layer of a scab--brittle and thin but strong enough to hang some hope. Perhaps in the months and years ahead the scab will toughen and the pain will not be raw and bloody.
My hope is that this horrible wound will some day hang like a bruise for that is the best I can imagine when I think about my little brother’s place at the table always sitting empty.