Some things that I need to write through, 2011

1. Ben goes one step forward, mama takes one disappointing step back

2. Presumed malfeasance

3. Miscommunication,

4. The politics of fear and its communications support structure

5. Simple pleasures

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Recipe: cranberry orange relish

I was about 6 when I had my first real cranberries. Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce was the staple “cranberry” food at Thanksgiving, an opaque cylinder you would slide from its can, slice into half-moons, and place on a glass plate as a garnish, next to the “spanish” and black olives.

We would have two dinners on that Thursday: the first at my mother’s mother’s home, and the second at my father’s aunt’s home. Grammie’s (the former) was a more familiar place – the same town, more frequent visits, etc. But my father’s aunt’s home was something a little more exotic. Aunt Gertie had married a 1st generation German man (we were irish-italian mutts) who had a catering business. Their home and land ran along a busy residential street in the adjacent town. On their land, they had a pear tree, a concord grape arbor, bankings overflowing with blackberries, always a vegetable and flower garden, a chicken coop, and a bed of the most lovely lilac-colored lily-of-the-valley.

Aunt Gertie was a very gentle, kind lady who loved me and my brother. We were the youngest children in the family for some time, and she would put everything else down when we came through the mudroom. She would find the cookies for my brother, and find a slice of Roman Meal bread for me. (My first brown bread; I’ve been hooked ever since.) I remember laying in the garden, Black-Eyed Susans resisting my attempts at gathering, and imagining the grape arbor as a new home.

But this is about Thanksgiving and cranberries and Gertie. When we arrived at her house in the early evening, we would be mostly full on turkey and soft vegetables, but my father and mother would each take a plate. And the six-year old saw a little dish full of wet rubies on the dining room table.

“What’s that, Aunt Gertie?”

“It’s cranberry-orange relish, Jan. Would you like to try some?” I nodded.

Aunt Gertie was a petite lady; her reach might not have been much  more than mine. But she took my plate and next to the slice of Roman Meal bread, she dolloped the deep relish. I had never seen anything so red and sparkling. It had three ingredients: fresh cranberries, navel oranges, and white sugar to taste. She made it with a food mill, and let it sit so the red juice from the berries and sugar colored everything but the tiny bits of orange zest. It was gone in an instant; and then another spoonful.

After that, Aunt Gertie set aside a small bowl of the cranberry orange relish and a few slices of the bread for our arrival, just as she made sure there was freshly sugar-sprinkled buttered bread for my older cousin, and coffee made from a saucepan for my dad. She knew the worst suffering any mother could ever know, but bore it silently. I never knew of her first daughter’s death until my dad told me the story. And yet, whenever one of the “children,” my father included, walked into the house, she welcomed us as if we were hers, and had come home. Aunt Gertie, if you were still here, my kids would love you too.

Cranberry Orange Relish

It’s so simple, and beyond delicious. Much better with a day or at least a 1/2 day to rest.

  • 12 ounces (a generous 2 cups) fresh cranberries
  • 1/2 heavy navel orange, scrubbed and cut into 4 pieces
  • 1/2 cup superfine granulated sugar (you will not need it all, I assure you)

Wash and pick through the cranberries. Pour into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a large blade.  Place the top on the food processor and turn it on, full speed. You can use the pulse function if you want to take your time.

Once the berries are chopped, add the orange wedges. The juice from the oranges will start to bring down the cranberry pieces into the blades, which is what you want. You want to grind the oranges – there should be no big chunks of orange rind  Now sprinkle some of the sugar through the feeding tube. What was choppy and stiff  should now roll with the movement of the blades. Stop the food processor, remove the lid, and taste the relish. Add sugar to taste, and blend again.

The texture is going to be wet and mushy – if you’re there, you’ve got it. Now, scoop the relish into a container with a lid and refrigerate until 30 minutes before the meal is served.

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Why I nearly hate Boden

Okay, I said it. That catalogue full of playful, colorful clothing for women? I am almost at the point of hating it. Not because I don’t like the clothes – no, they’re lovely pieces. What I don’t like is how they came about, and the guiding philosophy of its founder, Johnnie Boden.

Johnnie wants us mommies (or mums) to know he really cares about us, and our bodily insecurities . He wants us to feel pretty, to feel like we’re not “mutton dressed as lamb.” So he makes delightful, not-too-threatening clothing in terms of silhouette, palette, and implied intelligence, with the idea of making happy, pretty wives, happy to stay at home with children, or if we deign to work and deprive our children of the healthiest possible family structure, to communicate a sense that we’re really not all that important. We’re decorative, and we’re happy to be that way.

His career in helping slummy mummies began when Wall Street kicked his sorry arse back to the UK. And yet, he remains enamored of American capitalism. Evidently, a welfare state is to blame for people not picking up after their canine pets tend to their business streetside. What I wouldn’t give to see the trigger of his ire to be pure Tory.

Yes, I have flab, Johnnie, and yes, I don’t feel good about it.

But I feel a hell of a lot worse about being dismissed because of my gender; that there is nothing more threatening in our english-speaking culture than a woman who knows she is intelligent and isn’t so interested in hiding it, particularly if it might hurt some man’s feelings. I feel much worse about living in a neighborhood where placing priority on feeding your mind, particularly if your mind is awash in estrogen, might be about as evil as starving a baby. I feel much worse that your business is based on the premise that a pretty empire-waist frock will make me forget the things that genuinely vex and trouble me most.

In the end, I don’t hate clothing, and the catalogue itself has become better since they dropped the child-playmate q & a descriptors for each model in each layout. But I hate that it’s offered with a pat on the head and a “there, there” from someone I could easily think under the table.

p.s. this essay owes a great deal to Blue Milk’s dead-on Yummy Mummy post; here’s hoping to approach its thoughtfulness and writing.

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Mini epiphanies

It’s no secret that some things have taken longer for me to understand than others. Reading, no. Dating, yes. Understanding power, no. Making peace with what’s beyond my control? Oh, yes.

But when the puzzle piece finally finds its slot, because of or in spite of my best efforts, there’s no chance to go back. You know it – whatever that it may be – and there’s no way to unknow. Forgetting is different; it’s the gift of distraction. When reminded, your knowledge is again front and center.

In the same month I felt my heart like newly crushed gravel in my mouth, I discovered that I loved teaching young children about art. The rest of the world moves past the bloody rocks and mini-Matisses , like you do, but I know and will always know where one it ended, and another began.

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Three years

Three years ahead, behind me. Thicker, softer, more tired. Wiser, more careful with language, more understanding. Less money, from child to children.

Some things, like the children, aren’t plus-one experiences. It’s beyond increments. Transformative. But others are matters of degrees. Some are realizations which turn your perspectives permanently on their respective heads (true does not trump cruel, for example), while others are baby steps, formimg new habits, muscle memory rewrites.

But it’s been three years since I last met with my former colleagues, and the three years make all the more clear what was meaningful and valuable to me.

The local environment plays no small role – very few of the neighbors of “I’ve Got Mine”-ville share (ha!) what I treasure. My children remind me how much joy is in learning, discovering, and solving problems… Or how important it is to reach out to others without patting oneself on the back.

The workplace wasn’t utopia, except for the largely shared priorities and principles. The idea that money wasn’t capital. And that there was a time where respect was given to others, even if at times it was begrudgingly. I miss the reluctant but honest respect, or at least the chance to earn it, as well as anyone else.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? An environment where mutual respepct wasn’t an oxymoron. And that doesn’t begin to describe the people who made it so – their languages, their stories, and the chances we had to write, tell and listen to them together. For once, there was an entity which could accurately be described as a community.

So much has changed, in silken and sinewed degrees, and yet the positions, temperatures, none of these change the compass inside. The magnet of learning, of connection, will pull through the local scrambling, even if it’s not soon enough for my liking.

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Get in touch with her. Write on her Wall.

It was less than a month ago when I capitulated to Facebook’s nagging and clicked on a link with the intention of writing on a friend’s wall.

Get in touch with her. Write on her Wall.

She was someone with whom I had worked – a sparkling, cheerfully beautiful woman. We had exchanged pregnancy stories as each made her path to motherhood. I remembered the little thrill I felt finding the perfect petal-pink sweater set for her long-awaited daughter. She would be four years old now, only one behind my son. Might there be some pictures in a photo album? Status lines about pre-school? I have been thinking about returning to the world of paid work, though I know it is smaller than when I left it.

Get in touch with her.

There was plenty on her wall, but nothing from her. Instead, there were messages for her, reporting on her daughter’s performance at a school play. How proud she would have been of her, and her husband. How much her friends missed her, her laughter. I quickly googled and found the death notice. No cause listed. I remembered my mother explaining what she knew of the code of death notices – that no cause would either be an accident or suicide.

More searching, and nothing, except her beautiful photo and none of her words. And more of the same from Facebook – Get in touch with her. Write on her wall.

I had always mourned those who took their own lives, who felt so desperate that this was the only answer they had to the question of living. But this time, after the shock wore off, I felt sick. Sick for the daughter, sick for the husband. Of course I knew no details – she had decided to leave months ago, and her life did not overlap my own except in the history of conversation – but there was something that felt so wrong. The murder of a soul, of the loving relationship between a mother and daughter. How could she herself kill it?

The process of giving birth and the privilege of being in the presence of my own children – “own” being a loaded word, but one with meaning for other adoptees who felt blood connection might be their only path to belonging – also bring the heavy weight of accountability. To be there for them, to sustain them, to give them the best ten fingers over the wall and into the scrum, along with a map for getting back should they need to.

And then the agony, the grieving, the mourning returned in earnest. What would it take to break that bond? How far gone had she been? Who wouldn’t think twice about the happy-go-lucky, seemingly untroubled colleague, and ask them, privately, if the sparkle was the beginning or end of the life of a star.

Get in touch with her. Write on her Wall.

Another post might have been about how odd it was to stumble on such tragic news via FB, how many of my other former colleagues who knew her had no idea what had come to pass. But in the few weeks following that Saturday night discovery, all that has made it to words is how cold the world has become with the news of her suicide, the realization that no one was able to get in touch with her in a way that would allow her to stay with us, not simply haunt us.

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the agony of disconnection

This draft has been sitting in my box for so long, wordpress thought it was written in 1999. It wasn’t, but it was written well before President Obama was elected. I shudder to think of the examples of how people thrive on demonization now, but think most of what’s here is still the core of the problem we’re facing as people.

This is in memory of all we lost that day, including the opportunity to be better connected as a people. Rest in peace, Fred.

A while back, I wrote about the exceptionally personal experience I had 8 years ago, as someone one degree of separation from the tragedy of September 11. But rather than go on a rant – I do enough of that, and others have already expressed sentiments in ways more articulate and moving than I could – I’m reflecting on a result I would call the agony of separation.

Some thoughtful writers have already talked about the distance they felt from the day’s events, and from the aftermath. After all, there were no calls to reduce consumption of any sort, only to trust that people in the government would act in our best interests, as long as we trusted them. The contrary, that any question or exploration of their actions would be the equivalent of treason, kept many people quiet. Too many people.

From the start, then, we take the tragic events, the loss of lives, and decide that grieving is too much, unless met with unreflective aggression, not just in retaliatory action, but also in words, in thoughts, and what we allow people to talk about publicly. This is more then than the loss one never stops grieving. We move from the commons into a bunker.

But it’s more than applying bunker mentality to communication. It’s also who’s doing the fighting. Economic factors (extra income, the only possible path to college) have put our most vulnerable people into military service. When they return, they’re both damaged and denied the resources they need to recover – not unlike the denial of resources and information they faced on the ground, in harm’s way.

In this bunker culture, there isn’t a lot of encouragement to substantively connect – yellow ribbon magnets repel question authority bumperstickers, and vice versa. I see one of those magnets in the parking lot of my child’s daycare center, and wonder how I would talk to the mom who drives the car. We would talk about our children, I suppose, and I would ask when her family member is coming home, and wish a safe and healthy return. Anymore than that, and there is a serious potential for bunker communications, shutting down, dropping connections. Or would we not even talk at all, as the wrinkled John Kerry sticker (not exactly question authority, but close enough in our media and politically illiterate culture) would serve as an effective deterrent to even the most surface greetings.

Broadband bunker communciations fully support the agony of separation. Information sources that sides rely upon are often suspect, and the louder suspect sources tend to come from one side. You know how it goes; “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Who is this “us,” anyway? It is not the citizenry. How do you listen to someone who parrots Fox entertainers? Who has the interest, never mind the time, to read comparatively? Who would raise their hand and claim to be a media illiterate?

At the same time how does that person listen to me about the state of our nation in real time across the table, words at a breathtaking clip, all citations, disdain and by most standards, obscene privilege? How does that person communicate the realities they face

Where do we find the encouragement to stop, listen, connect? Is it even possible? Blogs certainly foster communities of interest, but my limited experience shows the only tangible evidence of crosspollination being the troll. I admit it, I don’t need to read another Clinton-bashing site as long as I live. Not because I think he was perfect – far from it – but because what they say is born of hatred of him, and while the hatred is real, the accusations range from overdone to truly bizarre.

And it is that unwillingness to ask and listen that stops connections from happening, that makes for gaps, for misinformed assumptions, for danger, for a strange sort of agony – one of a nation, unable to look at itself in the altogether.

Unlike the majority of my fellow Americans, I flew within two weeks, across country. And again the following week. And then in a ping-pong trip across central and western Europe. I can’t tell you what a mess I found – a tangled mess of ideas presented to me at every turn by colleagues from all parts of the globe. It wasn’t a bad mess, though many of the ideas were unpleasant, theories from the thoughtful to just shy of deranged, and a lot of anti-American sentiments. But the best part of that tangle was the chance to acknowledge it, and to listen. Not to agree, but to listen. To connect.

Whether it was at home or overseas (I lost count of the number of times I flew to Europe in the last 4 months of 2001), it became even more important to connect. To listen. To not dismiss. To understand, if only a little, and to consider and act on solutions. To untangle misunderstandings, while seeing some snarls were beyond my abilities to know at the time.

In my own way, because of my work and its very nature (I was a Communications Director of an international technical organization at the time), I was serving as an ambassador through listening, responding, asking.

I have to say, I wasn’t afraid of ideas, of people presenting them. I was glad to have the chance to hear it directly. To give a response if I had one, to simply say “I don’t know about that” if I didn’t, and to offer my own views if it seemed as though there was any interest.

Watching some television yesterday, I noticed how tender the wounds still are for people not separated from the events of the day. Whether it was by location, or personal loss, or identification.

Back to that tragic week in 2001 – I was loading the trunk of my rental car in Downtown Boston on the way to my own bridal shower, when my friend handed me a copy of Time she had saved for me. I remember seeing for the first time photos of people jumping from buildings – the scenes broadcast in every other country around the world.  I literally screamed, dropping the magazine into the trunk, and extending my arms, my hands palms up. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to catch even one person – an irrational, impractical, emotional, visceral, true response. It wouldn’t have mattered what they believed, who they voted for, what they watched. When faced directly with the loss of a human being, with suffering, only connect.

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