If (for girls)

If you can do what others don’t do, and not do what they do,

and be confident that you did what’s best for you;

If you can be kind when it is difficult, and humble even when you’re proud,

and know when to stand up for yourself, too;

If you can love when you don’t like, and give when you are weary, but know when to  walk

away and not give anymore,

If you can be at peace with your whole self, and grateful for what God gave you,

and make His work a service and not a chore;

If you can be stylish and yet modest, light-hearted but not empty-headed,

not caring too much if others think you’re odd,

If you can see that beautiful people are the ones who smile and laugh,

and be fun-loving but in a way that pleases God;

If you can grieve when sadness is called for, but pick yourself up when it’s done,

not wallow in the sadness or despair,

If you can reach out a hand to others when they’re flailing or in pain, not being pulled in,

but showing that you care;

If you can win and be humble in winning, lose and be gracious in loss,

seek beauty and goodness when others seek darker things,

If you can hope when it seems hopeless, have faith when the path is unclear, and

go to sleep and see what tomorrow brings;

If you can recognize when hard work is the only route to take,

and do the work with tired and blistered hands,

and keep on working hard when you really want to quit,

and build your life on rocks instead of sand,

If you can turn away from the superficial, put aside temptation,

and see the difference between a pebble and a pearl,

Then yours is the world and all that is in it,

and what’s more, you’ll be a woman, my girl!

 

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On Motherhood: Being Tommy Lee Jones

It seems to me that motherhood is cool again. Mommyhood’s day has arrived, and it is cool as long as you have the right accessories. There are blogs and vlogs and articles and whole books about mom-ing (not to be confused with motherhood, which is not the same thing). Cool moms are in the movies, cool moms are writing blogs, cool moms are starting their own companies that sell cool mom stuff. Celebrities, being humans, keep reproducing, and we see and hear about their offspring when they are small. Somehow, without wanting to or meaning to, I have absorbed knowledge of celebrities’ kids’ names, from Lourdes and Apple and Coco down to North and Saint West. I don’t even want to know these names, but I do. Having babies and being cool and stylish and thin is in.

With the exception of Suri Cruise, we don’t hear much about celebrities’ kids once they have turned seven or eight. Having older kids is not as cool; they are not an adorable accessory anymore. Moms of babies can write about the challenges of those early years; lack of sleep, schedules and napping and tantrums, and the cute stuff (first day of kindergarten, first tooth fairy visit, first disastrous birthday party) with a “we’re all in this together” voice, and it sells. Man, it sells. If you slim back down after the baby and your nursery is cool and your diaper bag is cool and–this is key– you put up with the not-so-fun stuff like tantrums and melt downs with patience and humor and wine (because hey, it takes a village, right? And a screaming, thrashing toddler in the grocery store should be just ignored, right?) then you are a cool mom. A middle aged woman in size 12 jeans writing about parenting teens? Not so much.

It is not cool to be a forty-seven year old mother of three teens, or a fifty-two year old mother of two high schoolers and a late-in-life baby who is now eleven. Forty may be the new thirty, but forty-seven is just forty-seven, nothing cool about it. And fifty-two? Forget it. Not only does your body betray you in countless tiny ways, your children become complicated people with un-cute problems. Plus they do not let you dress them. The clothes they do wear are not what you would have chosen for them, and their rooms are not cute, particularly if they are boys. Their smiles–at least the ones directed at you–can be as rare as a lunar eclipse, and when they are sad, you cannot make it better. It is not in your power; do not even try.

The moms who find beauty and joy in parenting teens are such superheroes, such workers of magic, there ought to be thousands of blogs and vlogs and books and articles devoted to them, too. I sort of want to write one; I sort of want the world to see the imperfect coolness of my life. These beautiful kids that are smart and funny, with razor-sharp wit (and in one case, razor-stubble), and the admirable way I listened when one of them unloaded about the stress in their life and did not tell them that sometimes their own choices cause them stress. That’s right: I just listened; it was damn-near heroic.

Or I could blog about the cool accessories of my life: my repainted kitchen, done on a budget, the flea-market find that is now a nightstand, the grilled cauliflower we had last night that blew my mind. But something happens in your forties: you grow up even more. You no longer want to be the one raising her hand in the front row, waving it in the teacher’s face to say I know! I know! Or, in this case, I’m cool! I’m cool! Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe all of our energy is devoted to the parenting itself. Just this week my teens have mentioned things going on in their friends’ lives: stress, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, cheating, death of a family member, alcoholism, an eating disorder, gender-confusion, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that doesn’t even include the more subtle things we must diagnose and help with as parents: spiritual development, character development, work habits, nutrition, etc. So yeah, those years when I had four kids under the age of six were a little hard sometimes, but they were so cute, and there were answers. There was curious George and cherry popsicles, reading stories in a home-made fort, taking nature walks and naps in a quilt. When they were sad, sleep was almost always the answer (and still is–this is the one thing that doesn’t change). And whatever the problem was–yours or theirs–the stakes were not very high.

But now are the years when we must put on armor, not to protect ourselves from our teens but to stand in front of them and jump into oncoming arrows. When you have success at teaching them something, or when you see the fruits of your efforts in a teenager who refuses to cheat, is kind to the friendless, a good listener, a hard worker or a healthy eater, it is a glorious thing. The clouds part and the sun comes through and you rip the armor off for a moment, hair blowing in the wind, and you give your mighty, barbaric yawp–or you smile a private smile and make their favorite dinner. But then you put the armor back on because here come the mortar shells and arrows again, and they will not relent and you must fight them, fight them, silently and without seeming to intrude. It is a delicate dance and you must dance, dance and never tire, never give up and never rest, except to sleep. When they are grown and you look back and see those cute blogs and articles about Lego-organization and outgrowing naps, you’ll be like a grizzled, used-to-be-handsome General having a look at new recruits; you’ll be Tommy Lee Jones, chuckling. You remember that, and it was awesome. And you know the road ahead is wonderful and terrible and difficult and glorious and you wouldn’t change a thing.

 

 

 

 

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Poem-in-my-forties 1

A toddler in a red jacket bends

down to pick something up in the street,

wind blown hair hiding her face, his face, I cannot tell.

The mother tugs hard on the little hand, come on, her lips say,

the child’s wrist and body follow with one backwards glance at the wanted thing.

 

The little red jacket stays with me, familiar, though I don’t think any of you had one. I do

remember a small purple sweater, an orange windbreaker, a green raincoat, but

the red jacket is all of them

all of you

trailing behind me to pick up a rock, a bottle cap, a feather,

my lips saying Come on, the light is changing, a car might come.

 

I failed to see, she fails to see

the wind-blown hair as magic, the

whole moment magic, the

little red jacket sacred; the scarf or the jewel in a Vermeer.

 

She is thinking of laundry and how dinner

will not make itself and the chaos

of bedtime before rest

But I watch, unseen, behind a rain-smeared windshield, the beauty

pinning me to my seat, helpless and heavy-limbed

with memories.

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Bad Hair and Blueberry Muffins

I was in seventh grade. I had glasses and braces and hair that did not confine itself to looking bad once in a while, but betrayed me daily and especially if there were school pictures, a birthday party or school dance. I’d always had disappointing hair; I have memories of getting home permanents as young as six years old in order to “give my hair a little life,” as my mom said. I wanted curly ponytails like Cindy Brady and instead I looked a little like Bobby. But seventh grade was the year I really felt my hair’s deficiencies, the year I began to panic with the thought that this bad hair thing might be a permanent situation. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined, as those sort of things never are, but at the time I thought I had nearly the worse hair in the world, almost as bad as Shannon Fitzer,* and that was her own fault because she never washed hers. Or maybe she had a disorder that caused her hair follicles to produce a hundred times more oil than the average person, I don’t know, but it was limp with grease and an indeterminate shade of brownish-gray, even though we were twelve. (*The name has been changed to protect the oily-haired girl’s privacy.)

My own hair was blond, which, in the eighties, was like hitting the lottery. But my good luck ended there: it grew outward instead of down, it was oily at the scalp even though I washed it nightly, and it was dry everywhere else, maybe because I washed it nightly. My mom said it was “fine and silky,” which was eupha-mom-stic; it was just thin. My mom’s Southern friend Shirley, who was stuck in a mid-western town but was basically a character in a Tennessee Williams play, once told me, “Sweatheart, that hair of yours ain’t never gonna listen; you’d  best just chop it off.” The hairdresser who tried to put something like an up-do  in my (now short) hair for the eighth grade dance stepped back to appraise her work and said, “I put enough hairspray in there to hold a few small dogs on your head. If that doesn’t work, nothing will.”  My date–my first date ever, if you could call it that–gingerly touched my head as you would a porcupine and laughed so hard he had to hold on to the banister, until my dad shot him a look that silenced him so severely he was unable to put on my corsage, and it was a wrist corsage. My mom had to do it for him.

In early high school, my hair was even shorter, a style they were still calling a Dorothy Hamill, which is designed to make your hair stack up in the back and look thick. I did not have the high cheekbones and turned-up-nose to pull this off, but it was stylish enough, and daring enough–most girls stuck safely to long hair and teased up bangs–that I got by. My self-esteem didn’t suffer too badly, in fact that short hair may have boosted my confidence into the realm of “cool.” I was edgy. I was different. I had short hair and took art classes, wrote for the school literary journal and adopted the cool indifference of a girl who is not like all the other girls, though of course I was.

The thing is, despite the stacked-up cut, it took a lot of hairspray to keep my hair looking like Dorothy’s, and mine never flew gracefully around behind me when I skated on the town lake. It clung to my head like the helmet that it was in the winter, and in the summer it plastered itself to my cheeks in surrender. My sister called it ‘Shawn Cassidy hair” and warned against it, though she was a fan of the Hardy Boys reruns and had an old copy of a That’s Rock n Roll album. When my hair went limp, she would flash her eyes at my head and say “Da-doo run-run,” and I’d make a b-line for a can of Finesse. If I used a curling iron and turned my hair under, I could make it look a little like Valerie Bertinelli’s on One Day at a Time, or Mindy in that one season where she briefly had hers cut short and Mork made that joke about a human Q-tip. So I eventually got fed up. The Dorothy Hamill wedge wasn’t working for me anymore; I tried to grow it to my shoulders or at least into a sleek bob, but the awkward in-between stage was always too much for me. Friends wasn’t on yet so Rachel hadn’t shown us all how to grow out our hair gracefully, and layers weren’t a thing. I’d chop it back off, cry a little and start over.

On one particularly bad day in about 1989 I was so distraught that my mom found me in my room crying over the book we were reading in English: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Like so many high school reading list books, it was overtly depressing and upsetting and not remotely related to anything we were studying in any other part of school. I had studied nothing about the time period and had no context in which to fit anything whatsoever about the story, but I was crying about my hair: there was a party later that evening and my hair looked terrible. Fresh from a bad cut by the only barber in town (yes, barber),  limp with humidity and orange-ish because a friend had mistakenly told me that you could put QT in your hair and sit for a few hours in the sun for natural looking highlights. It must’ve been bad because my mom took one look at my tear-stained face and said, “The book?” I shook my head no and she looked sympathetic and said only, “Oh. The hair, then.”

She didn’t say it wasn’t that bad. She didn’t say what my dad said, which was something along the lines of “Suck it up. Be happy you have hair at all.” She just took my hand and pulled me off of my yellow flowered bedspread and to the kitchen, and placed a metal bowl in front of me and her copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cook book, which she just called “Better Homes.” I rolled my eyes, but the well worn binding and the red and white checkered cover were comforting:  it was already working. I made blueberry muffins. The blueberries were going to go bad anyway, my mom said to convince me, because I’d rather have drown my sorrows in a pan of brownies, or one of those snack n’ cakes that came with its own little pan. But those berries were round and firm, and the resulting muffins were perfect. The crumb was more firm than cake but less dense than bread, they had just a hint of both lemon and almond, and they crackled on top with a sprinkling of demerara sugar. I know you’re not supposed to teach your children emotional eating, and muffins are not health food, but this wasn’t about eating, it was about creating. She had me make the muffins, like she always did when I had a bad case of the blues.

It’s not the food, it’s the stepping out of yourself. The focusing on something other than self pity, and producing something beautiful that also happens to double as breakfast the next morning. Something that makes everyone happy, and fills the house with an endorphin-raising aroma. At some point my mom said something about me being beautiful, and that we are not defined by our hair, but mainly she just told me to put on some happy music and make muffins. It was a gentle “get over yourself” disguised as part benign chore, part sympathy. Really it was the same thing my father was saying, but with–literally–a spoonful of sugar. Happily, my hair got slightly better in my twenties, I am not sure why, and even better when I had several children and my veins were coursing with all those hormones that are supposed to make your hair terrible. The hormones figured they couldn’t make it much worse, the only thing to do was make it better. (Darker, but better.) It’s actually pretty thick now, and I wear it short and stacked up by choice; I don’t look good with long hair. And even if I still had bad hair, I wouldn’t care nearly so much. I’m older, wiser, and much, much less focused on ME. But one of my daughters, though she is beautiful, has  hair that is fine and slippery and rarely does what is asked of it, and the great sadness of her childhood has been her “skinny” ponytails. I tell her that this, too, shall pass. Or not. And that she is gorgeous and no one else is noticing this, and it does not define her. And even in the dead of winter, I keep a lot of blueberries on hand.

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The Spectrum Club

To view Chapter one, go to young adult fiction.

Two

In the beginning, their main activity was discussing others. Dagny was usually the initiator, always talking, and would simply bring up a name. Here was where Katie might shine; her quick humor and critical eye surprised them, even Katie herself. Everyone they knew was fair game: Debbie Simms, the fattest girl in the school, who ate nothing at lunch but kept hostess pies in her locker and ate them when no one was looking; Mr. Ellis, the PE teacher with a mild speech impediment that made his “s” sound come out like a whistle; gray-haired Mrs. Radcliff in the front office, who had an improbable figure (spindly legs, yet an enormous upper-body), and who insisted that her title be “administrative executive,” causing all the students to call her “the secretary.” The spectrum club’s real talent, at first, was poking fun at the misfits. It gave them something to talk about, and it set them apart. All of them were, in some way, a misfit, and the irony of this was not lost on them, but it did not prevent them from indulging their own cleverness.

At first, it was the default way to fill what might have been awkward silences. Dagny might say, “Did you see Linda Runyan’s skirt today? It was, like, long and ruffled. Like, a prairie girl, or…a minstrel.”

Had they thought about it, they might have admitted that historically, actual minstrels did not wear ruffled skirts. It didn’t matter. Wally might begin to sing, “Arise, my love! Arise my love, for I want to gaze at your eyes, my love…” in his best minstrel voice, his big hands clasped in front of him. It was a song they’d heard the school’s elite “madrigals” chorus sing the year before, the girls’ section of the chorus imploring the boys’ section to “arise” and then the boys repeating the refrain. A silly Renaissance song, the innuendo seemed to be lost on everyone in the auditorium except Joss and Wally, who, for the rest of high school, would begin to sing it when they saw a pretty girl or anything even remotely suggestive. They even had to explain it to Dagny, who was in the madrigal chorus, and was pretty sure Mrs. Parcell, the director, didn’t even suspect the possible meaning of those particular words. Now, they would break into that song whenever anything about stupid songs, jesters or the Renaissance in general, or the madrigal chorus came up in conversation. If Heather Andrews’ sweater was tight, one of the boys might simply say, “I have arisen…” It had become part of their patois, and now no one even laughed, but it had to be done.

Or, to fill the time and steer the conversation towards something better, one of them might simply say to another, “Ugh, that chemistry test was awful,” and the other might say, “Yeah, I was still on the first page and Shannon Hurley was turning to the last page. It was not good.” It was a natural, though intentional, way to bring up a name that could inspire conversation.

Shannon Hurley was brilliant at chemistry, and in line to be valedictorian. A large, oily-haired girl with a loud laugh and body odor, she raised her hand constantly, invited herself to parties, and had a general knack for alienating most people with her over-aggressive friendliness. They were repulsed by her lack of self-awareness, and resented her abilities in honors chemistry, but asked her for help in desperate, before-a-test situations. (They could not ask Cullen for help with chemistry or anything else. He’d taken that particular class in fifth or sixth grade, and was so far beyond it now, it was a vague childhood memory, like learning to tie his shoes. Plus, Cullen did not explain things to others. It was unimaginable.)

Here, Katie might make a clever play on words, spontaneously combining two bits they’d just read in English from a very condensed Henry IV, saying, “She is a knotty-pated fool, a greasy tallow-catch, but she has bested us, lads, with her knowledge.” None of them knew what it meant to be “knotty-pated,” and when she thought about it later, Katie would suspect that “tallow-catch” was something vulgar, but the insult was perfect for Shannon Hurley.

Katie wouldn’t have wanted to think of it as mean. She was, in fact, nicer to Shannon Hurley than most people were, always careful to lace her exchanges with sincerity so it wouldn’t seem patronizing. She was being sincere; Shannon wasn’t so bad. But that hair (did she ever wash it?) and her odd combination of ungainly awkwardness and total confidence made it so easy to make jokes. From there, the banter might easily continue, moving about between them like a beach ball that one could volley to the next person lightly, or with well-timed force. If she felt a little badly about the ‘greasy tallow-catch’ comment, or any of the insults, Katie justified them to herself, briefly, fiercely, in the name of belonging.

This was how this group seemed to converse, at least at first, and Katie was often still astonished that she seemed to have become one of them.

For one thing, she was the only sophomore, unless you counted Cullen. Her rare synesthesia granted her this right, she supposed, but she had to have more than that: she would have to bring more currency to the table if they were going to keep her. She could tell they all found her sort of cute, possibly because of Dagny’s “adorable” comment that first day. She was well aware that, looks aside, (and you might as well put them aside: curly hair that was neither blond nor brown and tended to literally grow out, not down, body just so-so, and, worst of all, freckles), they saw something amusing in Katie McDonald that made them accept her. She had mighty powers of observation, and a talent for articulating them that was unique within the group, and necessary. Wally could be scathingly articulate, when he felt like it, Dagny noticed everything and was merciless, and Natasha could go a week without speaking and then utter a single sentence they’d all remember for months. Joss had a dry wit, and Cullen occasionally made an accidental pronouncement of such hilarity that Wally or Dagny might hug him until he shook them off. But none of them had quite the comic timing that Katie did, and none could deliver a quip from a place of such apparent innocence. Katie was so nice, so apparently unworldly and sheltered, it made her all the more funny. So Katie’s value to this group, though she felt she didn’t really belong, was that she saw humor even before the others did, and could phrase anecdotes and punch lines more adeptly, which was always a bit of a surprise, coming from this unassuming, plain girl. She could, by her sheer consistency with observational humor, be their mascot and their muse.

Eventually, their secret, witty insults of the general population of West Jefferson High tapered off, (though they never entirely ceased), and actual conversations evolved. They all seemed to enjoy shocking one another occasionally, especially Dagny, who once rather suddenly asked Natasha, “So, ‘Tash, are you, like, half Chinese?” Natasha turned her regal head and replied “Half Japanese, dim wit.” Then an entire conversation ensued about whether Asians look alike to each other, or just to non- Asians, and whether this was a racist thing to even ask, and why, and whether it was insulting to be called ‘Asian’ when you are American and no one in your family has set foot on the  Asian subcontinent for generations. (The answers: no, yes, just because, and it depends.)

Natasha’s other half, it turned out, was Russian, so the conversation turned to the remake of Anna Karenina, which Joss had just the previous weekend watched twice straight through, but which Wally had also seen and didn’t like.                 “What was with all the snow?” Wally began, and they all waited to see how angry Joss would get. You were not supposed to question Joss’ taste in movies, but Wally could sometimes get away with it. Wally continued, “You know? They kept opening doors and there would be all this snow, but inside. They decorated with it, just to be…opulent. It was freaking Russia! They would have been sick of snow and ice, not decorating with it. And Keira Knightly? I’m sorry, Joss, but she can’t act. They didn’t even have her do a Russian accent, even though everyone else did. She’s great at pouting, you know, like,”–he raised his voice to a falsetto with an English accent–“What? You want me to leave my life? But she can not act. She can’t even smile right: it’s all forced and fake. She can’t even look happy without looking like, ‘I will now give you my Keira Knightly looks happy smile…”

Joss was enraged, at least for Joss. “What are you talking about, Cooper? You don’t even know what you’re saying! That movie is gorgeous. It’s friggin’ Tom Stoppard, man. You’re supposed to suspend reality, Cooper, it’s the movies. Keira Knightly can act: she is Anna Karenina. She’s trapped, man; Jude Law is, like, old and uptight, and she’s young and beautiful and all, like, full of life, and she’s got to be this puppet–“

Wally interrupted him, “Oh, and what was with the train? You know? Every other scene there had to be a big steam engine coming right at the camera–“

“It’s a metaphor, Dude! Come on, Cooper, the train is–“

“We all know what  the train is, Joss, it’s just, like, in your face the whole time–“

“Exactly! That’s the whole point! It’s all they can think about! It’s all anyone can think about! That’s why it’s brilliant! It’s the eighteen hundreds, in an empire run by a Czar, and all this…wealth everywhere, but people starving outside. And there’s all this politics going on, but really they’re all thinking about the train! Everyone does!”

Wally shrugged in a gesture of defeat, and rolled his eyes slightly. A moment passed, and then, to steer the conversation somewhere else, Wally said, “Well, Cullen’s not thinking about the train. Cullen’s thinking about exponents or something. Not everyone thinks about, the train all the time.” Cullen looked up from his notebook, gave a leveling look that said he’d paid at least some attention to the conversation, and looked back down.

I think about the train,” Dagny said, and they all laughed.

“We know you do,” Natasha said. She had been doing French homework the whole time and didn’t even look up. There was no emphasis on any particular word; she didn’t say, “We know you do,” and she didn’t say, “We know you do,” just the words themselves, delivered in a flat monotone characteristic of her… Natashaness. Sometimes this could actually work as humor.

That was Katie’s cue. She suspected she knew what “the train” was even though she hadn’t seen the movie. “Wait, what’s the train?” she asked. They rolled their eyes, they laughed and shook their heads, even Natahsa, and Wally put one arm around Katie in a fatherly way and said, “She art but an innocent.” Katie didn’t know it was from Much Ado About Nothing, but Joss did, and if they’d been keeping score Wally would have won by coming up with that.  So really, it was even.

*

Dagny Pierce-Brooks was new to public school when she was a freshman; she appeared out of nowhere and blew in to the music and theater department like they’d been saving the spotlight for her, and really, they had.

Mrs. Parcell, the chorus teacher and music director, and Mr. Schmelzer, the drama teacher and director of all productions, had been a little short on any strong female talent for a few years. Seven, to be exact, which was the number of years ago that Christine Bowers graduated, went off to college, and supposedly dropped out to tour with Disney Cruise Lines. Ever since Christine Bowers, there had been a few girls who could mimic a pop-voice, convinced they were the next Taylor Swift until their junior year or so when they grew up and reality set in. There had been a few boys who could sing, at least passably, but lacked any leading-man qualities. Every year for a while now, at auditions, they’d seen no one who could pull off Captain VonTrapp or Gaston, King Arthur or Daddy Warbucks or Tony, or even Troy from High School Musical, a surprisingly vocally-challenging role. None of the boys they had could even pull off Henry Higgins, and he didn’t really even have to sing as long as he could speak the words and come across as likeable-but-arrogant. Mrs. Parcell and Mr. Schmelzer tried You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with some success; at least that one was supposed to be a little awkward, and then a little musical review that turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, but they feared they’d never be able to pull off Rogers and Hammerstein again, or even a Disney, Junior! production, much less West Side Story or Sondheim.

Then along came David Chambers, a goofy, gangly kid with glasses and wavy brown hair who, it turned out, could not only carry a tune in a convincing baritone, but had the height to look like a leading man, if you padded him out with a blazer. He could even execute a passable box step. Mrs. Parcell gently suggested he replace the glasses with contacts, and voila, they had some male talent in the fine arts department. But the female talent was still lacking until Dagny Pierce-Brooks appeared, having transferred from Mulberry Farms Day School because West Jefferson was known for their theater department, despite those lean years.

Dagny Pierce-Brooks was beautiful; even the older girls in the chorus treated her with deference because of her looks alone: green eyes and the perfect facial symmetry of a model, and a sheath of honey colored hair worthy of a Pantene commercial. In fact she had been asked to model: once when she was twelve, walking through Stoneridge Mall with her mom, a thin, boring man in a suit appeared and handed her mother a business card from an agency and, nodding once in Dagny’s general direction, said simply, “Call me if you are ever interested.” Carol Brooks was interested, until she found out Dagny would need head-shots that cost several hundred dollars, and rides to auditions and locations that conflicted with school. School for both of them: Carol was getting her real estate license.

So the second time Dagny was approached by someone offering her a business card, alone this time, coming out of the bathroom at a tappas restaurant where her father took her once a year, Dagny simply threw the card away. It was an impulse, likely brought on by the fact that she hated these outings with her dad. It was bad enough when he brought Denise and their two kids, all of whom she kind of despised. Somehow it was worse when her dad took her out alone, which he really only did on her birthday. He made it clear she was supposed to be grateful; to be sure to have fun, because he’d left Denise home with Ali and Andy, and driven an hour for this. Never mind that she’d left her mom, alone in her jeans and fuzzy socks, probably cleaning out the fridge or something. Her mom could have made her a cake, maybe even invited friends over, but somehow that might be lame, and they both knew it. So her mom would heat up a Lean Cuisine and tell Dagny to go ahead and have fun with her dad; they both wanted her to have fun all the time, because it exonerated them. So staying home was lame and going out with her father on her birthday was awkward and frustrating, with the added weirdness that the older she got, the more Dagny probably looked like his girlfriend, a fact her dad would actually make jokes about, beaming like he was proud. So when the suave guy with the Tony Stark beard approached her as she came out of the ladies room at Cyrano’s, Dagny took the offered business card and shoved it in the trash, rather violently.

She thought about it sometimes; what would have happened if she’d at least called. Maybe she’d have tons of money in her bank account. But somehow Dagny knew it wouldn’t fill her, the way singing and acting did. Her voice was so good, when she was eight, her church choir director gave her a solo because she felt sorry for this little third grader with the recently divorced parents, having no idea whether the child could sing or not. The first time plump Mrs. Tilden heard Dagny sing out loud, she lost her composure and said, “Holy Crap!” Then Dagny knew she was as good as she suspected, and that singing, and later acting, filled her up in a way that nothing else did. This was during Carol Brooks’ brief stint with Stoneybrook Methodist, right down the street and boasting a marquee sign outside with weekly invitations to ‘Come As You Are!’ to the fellowship service, or: ‘Jesus is The Rock! Let Him Roll Your Blues Away!’ They stopped going by the time Dagny was nine, though she secretly missed it. The people were over-sincere, the whole atmosphere a little nerdy, but they had been so nice. Like a bunch of well-meaning aunts and uncles.

When high school rolled around, Dagny had starred in school and community theater many times, always earning reviews in the local paper that warned readers of greater Stoneybrook to “watch out for this one, folks!” But there were only so many roles for a fifth or sixth-grader, and by seventh grade, when she clearly had the looks to play someone in their late teens, her private middle school had already cast her in Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, and all the teachers were a little relieved to see this woman-child graduate. She was too big, somehow, for a middle school stage, and the costumes (the same blue dress and white pinafore were used for Alice, Peter, and Dorothy), looked wrong on her: no matter what they did, she looked womanly. Dagny’s precociousness made  directors outside of school uncomfortable as well. They could not cast a thirteen-year-old opposite a twenty-two year old leading man, but she looked too old to play a child. As for Dagny, she was growing tired of playing Disney characters in summer productions. High school would be a venue that could not turn her down, and would not, in all likelihood, stick her in a short red dress and make her be Annie. So when Dagny announced to her mom that she wanted to leave Mulberry Farms Day School and head to the public high school, which had it’s problems but boasted one of the better music and drama departments in the county, Carol Brooks was relieved. She didn’t like being beholden to Dagny’s father for tuition money, and all her friends’ kids went to Sandburg or West Jeff, as they called it. It seemed more…tasteful, somehow. More normal, for someone like Carol.

On the first day, having signed up for regular chorus so that she could audition for both “The Jeffersonian Chorus” and “the Madrigals,” both of which freshmen were not normally allowed in, Dagny walked into the room like she owned it, though she knew no one. When asked if she was a soprano or alto, she replied “Mezzo, or, you know, whatever you need,” with such casual confidence, Mrs. Parcell thought here was another cocky Taylor-Swift wanna-be, because surely a girl with those looks would not have been blessed with real talent, too. When she heard Dagny vocalize in a line-up with all the other new students–just a few scales, Mrs. Parcell heard that once-every-ten-years alarm go off, but louder than usual. She was indeed a mezzo, but with the range of a coloratura. It was like Julie Andrews and Adele combined their voices in a fifteen-year-old. She could sing the high notes without the warbly, under-developed vibrato young sopranos have, and she could sing the low notes with gusty, full-bodied emotion, and there was no weird break in the middle. Pop songs or Puccini, it didn’t matter. Here it was: they had their Geunevere, their Eliza Doolittle, their Maria–either Maria, though she didn’t really see this kid playing a nun. Now they could even do Sondheim.

Musicals aside, Mr. Schmelzer saw something in Dagny he hadn’t ever seen in a student, not yet. Not even in Christine Bowers, who could sing, for sure, though her voice had no depth of emotion whatsoever, just as her acting. It was more something he felt when Dagny took the stage: sort of a blow to the gut that made his breathing just a tiny bit shallow, a feeling he only got when watching Meryl Streep, or, sometimes, for a fraction of a moment, Emma Stone. And Dagny really did take the stage; she commanded it, even when she was just standing there, waiting to be told what to do. So, musicals aside, Dagny could play anything. Mr. Schmelzer could see them doing, oh, maybe Our Town, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if the administration would let them. Or The Crucible, without it actually making the audience laugh this time, and the tenth-graders were forever studying the Salem Witch Trials anyway. Or something funny; he could see that Dagny could do humor as well, so maybe She Stoops to Conquer. Or maybe even the Shakespeare Festival in the spring; she could do Lady Macbeth or Cordelia; you could see that she had range just by looking at her. Or maybe they’d go with a comedy: maybe Dagny could do Caterina in the condensed Taming of the Shrew, or Much Ado. She’d make a hell of a Beatrice, and maybe this time the audience actually would laugh.

The Spectrum Club had actually been Dagny’s idea, which protected her from the fact that she didn’t otherwise belong. Not really. It just sort of happened. She’d been new to West Jefferson, and when she registered for classes with Mrs. Davis, the guidance counselor assigned to students with last names beginning with L through Q, (Dagny’s back-up plan, if she didn’t like the guidance counselor, was to claim the “Brooks” part of her last name instead of the “Pierce,” and get assigned to the A through D counselor, but Mrs. Davis seemed fine), and her mom, sitting in that tiny office that smelled like burnt plastic, she’d asked to be in the “20th Century Films” class. It was full; it was summer, school was starting in five weeks, and all the students had already registered last March. Of course it was full. But Carol Brooks had nearly begged Mrs. Davis, in that pathetic way she had of looking like a victim and a hero all at once, and bragging about Dagny’s talent. “Oh, you should see her,” she said. “This kid can act! We probably ought to get her an agent, you know? But I said ‘Finish high school first. Go to college. Then become famous.’ And the agents?” She closed her eyes, ever so briefly, shaking her head. “That is not a world I want my daughter in right now, you know? Her father is not around much; he’s busy with his new family. So I need to protect this kid…”

Dagny said nothing, she just endured her mother’s embarrassing speech. She would charm Mrs. Davis later, she could see exactly how. Polite and humble, maybe make a little joke about something, like they were friends. And anyway, her mom’s little speech worked: somehow there was suddenly a spot in 20th Century Films, a class which proved to be mainly about 21st Century Films, but no one had bothered to change the name. Dagny couldn’t believe she would get course credit for taking a class about movies.

As a bonus, on the first day of school, her films class was full of people she could see herself actually being friends with. Mostly boys, and one in particular. She’d seen him pull into the parking lot in a light blue BMW, noticed the cool green eyes fringed with dark lashes, the shiny hair that seemed to grow in perfect, messy layers. And she didn’t pretend not to notice, either: she stared at him a moment as she got out of her own car, an old Acura her father had given her and talked about every single time he saw her so she would be grateful. Then she gathered her things and entered the school by another door. She was pretty sure he’d seen. Three hours later, he turned up in her ‘films class, and she’d plopped down at a desk next to him.

It turned out Joss Silverman could practically teach the films class, he knew so much. This came out slowly, over time, because mainly they just sat and watched movies and then discussed them a little, and Joss didn’t volunteer information readily. He wasn’t eager to participate, like some of them were. Dagny was, and a skinny blond kid in the back who was obsessed with Ingmar Bergman, and the girl next to the window who wore all black and spent class picking at her cuticles or drawing long-limbed, Tim Burton-like creatures on her notebooks. Nobody could ever remember her name.   Joss Silverman slouched in his seat with his arms folded, looking straight ahead, saying very little until something would suddenly animate him, and he’d deliver a vehement monolog on something: the brilliance of Franco Zeffirelli, the over-use of lens flares in JJ Abrams’ movies, or the necessity of violence in Tarentino films. He fluctuated between calling them “films” and “movies,” depending on the point he was making. Sometimes, Dagny would notice Joss was picking at the edge of his binder in a rhythmic way, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would stand up suddenly and leave the room. If he’d been less good looking, maybe narrow-shouldered and awkward like the skinny kid in the back, or if he’d been heavy-set like that Wally kid in her English class, or even just normal looking, she might have ignored his quirks. She probably wouldn’t have cared; every kid at this school had some kind of thing going on. But Joss Silverman looked like a movie star himself, and even when slouching or picking at his binder, he had a masculine elegance about him that Dagny was fascinated by. He was a little…off, maybe, but it didn’t repel her, it just made him seem European. She wanted to know why he knew so much about movies, what the necklace on his neck was and if his eyes were that green up close.

The second week of school, when they were about to begin watching Citizen Kane and Mr. Giles was having trouble getting the DVD to project onto the active board, Dagny turned to Joss, tossed her hair over one shoulder, and put her chin in her palm.

“So.” She starred at him until he lifted his chin enough to be looking at her. “What’s your deal?” She said it not unkindly. There was no petulance in the question, just honest curiosity. Joss had never had someone ask him point blank like that, and he found it disarming. And kind of cool.

“Oh, just…you know. Genius. Brilliance. Mild Tourrets.”

“Tourrets syndrome? Cool! The doctors thought I had that, a long time ago. Are you going to start shouting expletives?” She knew what it was, and she was smiling, actually making fun of him, and looking right at him. It was refreshing. And she’d said ‘expletives’ instead of ‘curse words’ or something. The girl was smart, and not afraid of him.

“Nah. It’s not really like that.” He was not going to elaborate; he didn’t want her thinking he was a freak or anything. Usually his good looks protected him from that, but this girl was kind of different. Bold.

She sighed dramatically and leaned on the side bar of her desk. “Yeah, I had kind of a weird thing, in third and fourth grade mostly, where I would sway back and forth all the time. Just a tiny bit, so you’d barely notice. But I couldn’t stop; I was, like, rocking all the time.” Dagny didn’t seem embarrassed by this; she continued as she leaned down to get a vitamin water out of her bag. “My mom had me tested, and it was, like, some kind of tick or something. They thought it might be Tourettes. They said it was ‘on the spectrum’ or something, so my mom was all, like, ‘Oh no! My baby girl is autistic!’ But I wasn’t. It was just this one thing. This swaying all the time.” She opened her water, took a long sip, and put the lid back on. “I don’t do it anymore. I don’t know why. My mom still loves to say I’m on the spectrum, though. She enjoys the attention.” She tipped the bottle toward him, offering it to him, the same bottle she’d just drunk out of.

He shook his head, declining, and feeling…what was it? Relieved. This new girl had come out of nowhere and zeroed in on his problem, or whatever it was, and just started talking about it like it was nothing. Like it was allergies or something; something anybody might have. Something boring, not even worth being embarrassed about. It occurred to him for the first time since he was thirteen and it started, that maybe it actually wasn’t a big deal.

“There should be a club,” Dagny continued. Absently, it seemed to him. She opened a bag of sunflower seeds with her teeth, and then went on. “Like, a school club, for people ‘on the spectrum.’” She wiggled her eyebrows, like the phrase itself was taboo. “We could embrace it. Start wearing little awareness ribbons pinned on. Maybe rainbow colors.”

“Can’t be rainbows. The gays have rainbows.” He was smiling, just barely.

“Right. Maybe…green?”

“Environment.”

Dagny rolled her eyes. “White…?”

“White’s probably something. Prostate cancer or something. It’s not a bad idea, though. But we’d get a lot of freaks.”

“Well, we could have club membership ‘by application only’ then. Seriously! People would have to apply, and have actual, documented spectrum issues you know? Just having to apply would keep the club small. And we could turn down anyone who was just, you know, a poser, or a total weirdo. We could have a club of only the exceptional. Only those of us who are spectrum experts.”

She seemed pleased with herself, smiling. She’d said “we” and “those of us,” instantly uniting herself and Joss Silverman in solidarity, though Dagny’s tick, the habit of rocking herself back and forth so slightly that most people didn’t notice, had stopped in sixth grade. In five minutes she had named and joked about Joss’ difference, his disability or whatever it was, and in doing so had diminished it. No one in his family talked about it at all; only vague references were made and only when absolutely necessary. It had become an albatross, this thing he lived with, and the new girl in his film class had made a casual joke of it, revealing that it was nothing, really. She was gorgeous, this girl, so Joss noted with some surprise that his initial reaction to her was platonic; she reminded him of his sister, who was twenty-five and had moved out, leaving Joss alone in his big house except for his parents. A powerful attorney father and dedicated psychiatrist mother: it meant they were never home.

Joss did a little inner examination of his first impressions of  Dagny and confirmed that no, unlike most other pretty girls he saw, he mainly felt he wanted to be friends with this one. That, too, was refreshing. He was so accustomed to girls flirting with him, or trying to, and of his own analysis of their looks, their intelligence, their bodies, that it intrigued him that his reaction to Dagny lacked any of this, for reasons he couldn’t put his finger on but that had something to do with Dagny’s breezy confidence. The thought of having a friend who was female, and only a friend, was intriguing.

Mr. Giles finally had success with the Active Board projector, and was turning out the lights. Dagny turned back around to face forward, but Joss, having seen Citizen Cane about four times already, poked her with his pencil and she turned her head back. “Are you named after Dagny Taggart?” he asked, though he couldn’t imagine any other way to get that name. He hadn’t read Atlas Shrugged, but he’d seen the movie. Both movies, both parts. Her eyes got wide and her mouth actually dropped open, which, on her, was not actually ugly.

“Oh my god, yes! Nobody ever gets that! My mom went through an Ayn Rand phase when she was pregnant with me, because she thought it was intellectual, or artsy, or something. The books. It’s a curse.”

“It’s better than…Ellsworth.”

She laughed. “Totally. Although, I haven’t read them. I’m in denial. She couldn’t have named me after someone in a Jane Austen book or something. I could have rocked a name like Emma.” Joss smirked, but he thought the name Dagny suited her better. It was different; a little weird.

After that, she wouldn’t let it go, the idea of a club. It was the first of many times Joss and then Wally and then everyone else would notice that when Dagny got something into her head, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, let go of it, no matter what.

*

Wally Cooper was Joss Silverman’s best friend, because it was an obvious fit. Their houses were three streets apart, and, though they’d gone to different middle schools, they’d both arrived at West Jefferson and found themselves in two of the same classes. They’d been thrown together on a group project in Spanish class the first week of freshman year, bonding over the fact that they were both already fluent in Spanish, thanks to their respective nannies, and over the fact that neither one of them actually told the Spanish II teacher they were fluent, preferring to appear to work hard in class and earn an A. As it turned out, it was more work than they’d anticipated, because the class seemed to have a lot to do with writing in Spanish, and because Senora Chavez was strict and a little crazy. They were expected to put together presentations on various verbs, acting them out in different tenses: “I am working on my book report today, because I did not work on it yesterday, but I shall work on it tomorrow also!” Senora assigned difficult verbs and tenses the boys had never heard of, (“I would have worked on it last week, but the work was too difficult!”) Senora gave extra credit for emotive acting, so those willing to throw themselves into essentially playing charades, or those willing to actually dance around the room when they had the verb “to dance,” got the better grades.

It happened that Joss and Wally’s group got the verb “to fly,” that first week, and Wally gamely flapped his arms while explaining “I fly, he flies, she flies…” Joss was supposed to explain, “they fly, we fly, they all fly…” but his single, bored, arm-flap caused Senora to demand that he flap with more enthusiasm if he expected to get a good homework grade. “Hacero, Joss! Volar! Volar!” She insisted, flapping her own arms and striding around the room, as if she might take off.

She gave up on Joss, eventually, letting him return to his seat. “You’re going to have to work hard in my class, people,” Senora instructed them. When Joss muttered in perfect Castilian, “I would, but this assignment is ridiculous,” Wally grinned and waited until Senora was talking again to whisper, also in perfect Spanish, (regular Spanish; Wally’s nanny had been from El Salvador, Joss’ from Cordoba), “She’s obviously a little crazy. Give her a break.” Joss didn’t smile, exactly, but the next time class met, and every day after that, he picked a seat next to Wally, saying, “S’up, Shrek,” or “Hagrid my man.” Wally would give him a wry smile, nodding at a grumpy Senora Chavez, and saying something like, “Ten cuidado el  maestro; que necessito un trago.” Beware the teacher; she needs a stiff drink.

Wally Cooper was big and barrel-chested and friendly, and Joss was in need of a side-kick. It was a little lonely being the only son of Neil Silverman of Silverman, Sloan and Watts. Neil Silverman was charming, demanding, and powerful in the circles he walked in, and expected that his son would grow up the same. His son looked and spoke so much like him that people always said he was a chip off the old block; the spitting image.  Joss heard these expressions when he was young and understood them in context, (even he could tell they looked a bit alike), but found them confusing. What was a ‘spitting image,’ anyway? And why did they always say ‘of your old man,’ and then all the grown ups chuckled? His dad wasn’t old.

At eight, when he began to have little verbal eruptions, completely uncontrollable outbursts, and the desire to tap on things over and over with the smooth, white edge of his thumb, Joss began watching his father for signs of a mellower, more subdued version of this, because surely that must be genetic as well. But no, his dad was nothing if not controlled; cool and contained. The pediatrician determined that it was Tourrettes Syndrome, which both Neil and Diane Silverman had heard of, Diane even had a patient with Tourretts who had weekly appointments. But the patient was fifty-seven, and had a whole host of other issues as well, so the Tourettes was really the least of his problems and not the one that Dr. Diane Silverman was trying to get him to work through. So it was still a surprise to find that her son had it; Neil and Diane never thought would have any relevance to their own lives, or their children’s. They bore the diagnosis with the smooth grace and denial with which they bore everything; Joss began therapy the very next week to learn to suppress his tics, which were fairly mild, and it was never spoken of again. If they worried that Joss would never become all they had hoped, they didn’t show it, except in the way that they never discussed anything about Joss’ future anymore. The outbursts lessened and then disappeared, and now, at seventeen, no one could tell that Joss Silverman was anything but normal: handsome and aloof, and having a tendency to slouch or hang his head a bit so his dark, loose curls fell forward. He wore the haughty, vacuous expression of a Calvin Klein model, and if he was detached or fidgety, it was attributed to his age, his restlessness. The tapping on surfaces had mostly stopped, in public, but the edge of his right thumb was calloused.

It had, in any case, been a year since Joss had left his private, Episcopal school in favor of a public school where he might take courses that could transfer to NYU, and it had been two years since his sister, Jillian, had moved in with friends in the city, and Joss recognized that he could use a friend to hang out with, shoot hoops with, get tacos with. The house had an eerie emptiness.

Wally Cooper looked like he could dunk a basketball without even jumping, and eat a lot of tacos. The two began hanging out often; Wally didn’t seem to have any pressing social commitments except occasionally babysitting a couple of younger sisters. They might go to Joss’s enormous house and play basketball or watch movies; there was an actual theater at Joss’ house with a sixty inch TV screen and ergonomic leather chairs with drink holders. Joss was into films by various directors: he might spend a month on Coppola, then Kubrick, then Cameron, watching their films and comparing them, forcing Wally to offer opinions so he could disagree. If they were hungry, they might go to Wally’s house; the presence of younger siblings meant there was more around to eat, at least more of the cheap, high-carb food of childhood that was easy to make, because his younger twin sisters were picky eaters who only liked kid-food. Though Wally’s mother didn’t want anyone to know, the freezer was well stocked with chicken nuggets, and the pantry with cans of Spaghettios. They could eat an entire family-sized bag of nuggets or three cans of the gluey little pasta circles and no one would notice. Joss’s parents’ refrigerator had mainly expensive cheese and San Peligrino.

The problem with the Joss Silverman/Wally Cooper friendship, the thing they both knew right away but did not articulate, even to themselves, was that they needed buffer. Theirs was not the easy friendship of boys who grew up together, who had known each other since childhood and therefore were used to companionable silences or long periods of doing nothing, or just talking. Both Joss and Wally recognized that, though they liked each other fairly well–Wally appreciated Joss’ intellect, his sarcasm and interest in movies, and that beautiful home theater, and Joss had never met anyone as congenial as Wally, who was also really freaking smart and had read everything that had ever been made into a movie–they needed to add some other people to this friendship or it was going to get weird. People would think they were gay. Besides, Wally hadn’t turned out to be a side kick after all; he was, despite the wiry hair and bad skin and hugeness, somehow the more charismatic of the two, and the last thing Joss wanted was to be thought of as the sidekick himself. It was going to be necessary to add people.

Of course they had other friends: Wally had a posse of guys who thought he was funny and wanted him to try out for the football team, where his sheer size would ensure him a starting position, and Joss had a good rapport with the other alpha-males at the school and various members of the lacrosse team, a sport they all knew was designed to single out the rich, white, athletic boys and bestow on the them the mark of the chosen in a more official way than their clothes and hair already did, and a more socially acceptable way than their skin color did. Because he was rich and white and marginally athletic, Joss played lacrosse freshman and sophomore year, until, thankfully, his left knee gave out. A torn ACL and a well-timed sinus infection forced him to miss a week of school and sit around watching Scorcese movies. It was one of the happiest weeks of his life.    But neither Joss or Wally had a permanent, designated group of friends other than each other, and casual acquaintances, and by sophomore year, this seemed a fairly pressing need, so when Dagny Brooks-Pierce suggested, albeit as a joke, that they start a club for people with ‘spectrum issues,’ the need to actually do it took on the urgent efficiency that projects do when they must be done before someone becomes convinced it was a silly idea. Dagny talked and joked about it for four days in film class, so Joss Silverman, rather uncharacteristically, made an appointment with Mr. Hurd, the head of guidance, and asked for the paperwork that began the process of forming a new club at West Jefferson High. All  he had to do was give it to Dagny, who would have gotten the paper herself but was waiting for Joss’ approval–some sort of sign that he was with her on this–and the rest took care of itself.

 

 

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True Grit

The Holiday Season is here, and the T.V networks are trying to work in a few feel good movies now and then, squeezed in between bad sit-coms and perverse cop shows. Last week an obscure cable channel aired Gone With the Wind and I caught the end while sewing on a stubborn cub scout patch (I Sold Popcorn 2014!!).

My favorite scene in Gone With the Wind is where Scarlet must deliver Melanie’s baby, alone, while Atlanta is burning outside. It is one of the first scenes where we see Scarlet begin to transform from a shallow girl who does not even dress herself, let alone do hard work, into the woman who swears, with her dirty fist in the air, never to go hungry again.

I say it is my favorite scene; really it is just the one I remember the most. I first saw the movie in Mrs. Shiplett’s seventh grade classroom, because she deemed it a worthy and accurate portrayal of the Civil War, and because she had a lot of papers to grade. When the little slave girl says she ain’t never delivered no babies, so Scarlet does it herself, I had the epiphany that childbirth must be difficult and terrifying and dirty  and—because everyone was so happy when the baby girl was born—wonderful, and I remember realizing that Scarlet was changing, that she was different. You had to kind of respect Scarlet after that; she’d just rolled up her sleeves and done what had to be done.

The novel was the quintessential best seller and the movie won Best Picture in 1939, and we’ve been comparing every heroine to Scarlet ever since. Perhaps because she was not perfect, but man was she strong when it counted. Strength has been a common denominator in literary heroines, going all the way back to Medea and Antigone and Lady Macbeth and all the others I can’t quite remember. But of course none of them were good or pure. Purity of heart is something we say we want to strive for, but the good characters are always a little boring. Jo March and Elizabeth Bennett were cool; Melanie was a little boring. We’d rather watch someone a little more sinful; a little more human.

Maybe this explains why, for all the reverence that Catholics have for the Virgin Mary, we forget to think of her as fully human. True, she is the only person other than her son to be born without sin, but her son was divine, and Mary was not. She was simply human, like you or me or the lady next door. Byzantine and Renaissance art is partly to blame: she is always pictured in a gauzy blue veil, looking passively down at her hands. In the Byzantine renderings, she looks angry or kind of queasy, and in later WEstern art she looks pure, and bored, and boring. And in her most famous scene ever, so to speak, when she gives birth to the savior of the world in a stable, it is warm and inviting, she is clean and dry and looks like a pretty on-looker.

Anyone who has ever had a baby or worked on a farm knows that childbirth is not tidy. And to give birth in a stable, realistically, would be cold, dirty, and frightening. It may even have smelled bad. Surely it smelled bad. Bethlehem was crowded! The stable wasn’t being cleaned hourly, and there were animals in there. Then there’s the pain of it: perhaps Mary was spared the actual pain of childbirth because she had no original sin,  but even if she felt no physical pain, it would have been a messy, exhausting, bewildering affair, with only Joseph to cut the cord and clean up and help. (Imagine—to be chosen to cut the umbilical cord of the Son of God himself!) Yet Mary did it, because God asked her to and she looked straight through her fear and said, “Yes.” And all the other famous lines of all the other heroines in the world pale in compression.

Maybe she did wear a blue veil. I suspect that when she covered her head, it was with some neutral color, and that when she gave birth to Christ, her hair was messy. We make her look beautiful in the Christmas cards out of respect, and that’s as it should be. But I like thinking of Mary looking up, not passively down at her hands. I think she had a sparkle in her eye that puts Vivian Leigh’s to shame, and a spirit in her heart that makes all the other heroines I’ve ever read about seem dull. I know she had no sin, but I think she was just as fun as Jo March and Lizzy Bennett and Anne Shirley, and that like all of them, she changed into something stronger. Though her heart was pure the whole time, I like knowing that she went from a frightened teenager, who was surely scorned by some who knew her, to a mother who gave birth in a cave next to farm animals, only to watch her baby son grow up to be rejected and crucified, to the Queen of Heaven, with one foot on a serpent, a crown on her head and her eyes on fire with love for the world.

I will try to remember it this season, when my reality isn’t what I want pictured on the Christmas card. I want the cookies baked and the children in matching outfits, with homework all done and the house perfect and myself with not a hair out of place. Though I will never, ever be sinless, I will try to remember that real heroes get past the mess and the fear and the imperfection, and see only God’s will. They’re dirty sometimes;  mud on their faces, hair flying wild. I will try to remember that if I fail, I can try again. I can change, and grow, and become the woman God wants me to be, dirty hands and messy hair and all. All I really have to do this season is say yes to God. Where there’s His will, there is a way, and it is always perfect.

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Gingersnaps

Everyone has their thing they make at Christmas. Or maybe it is a thing their mother made, or grandmother. A sweet thing that was made on the night they decorated the tree, or on Christmas Eve, or Christmas day. A specialty that was given to neighbors on a foil covered plate with a bow. A scrumptious little thing, or a weird, rolled up cookie that came to the New World with Nanna or MorMor or Oma, and no one can bear to stop making it because it is a tradition. When I was small it was Scottish shortbread; little circles punched down with those stubby-handled, ceramic coated cookie punch disks. We had three, the outsides of which were pea-green, mustard yellow and rust-red; the colors of the 70s. The pea-green one would punch the cookie with tiny holly leaves around the edges; you knew the cookies were done when they rose just enough that the holly leaves became fat.

I also remember my mother making cheese fondue at Christmas, and the two years when my older sister attempted a bouche de Noel from scratch because her French teacher promised extra credit. But the shortbread cookies (a pound of butter) and the fondue fell by the wayside when my dad’s cholesterol got high, and the Christmas log cake was a pain in the neck, and we are not French. So when I got married, I didn’t really have a sweet thing that I made at Christmas and only Christmas.

And then one year when the oldest two were two and three, my husband said he needed to make cookies to take to work, and he was going to try his grandmother’s gingersnaps. I was ambivalent about non-chocolate desserts and cookies: why bother? But then he whipped these up, made a couple alterations, and whipped them up again a week later. They made the kitchen smell like Christmas, and the kids begged for more. We have a picture of them sitting on the kitchen floor on a blanket, both wearing USMC t-shirts for pajamas, dipping gingersnaps into milk and laughing. They are tow-headed and cherubic and innocent and that picture makes my heart break a little; I miss their babyhood.

Anyway. These are the best cookies ever. Truly. I like them as much as my own homemade chocolate chip cookies, maybe more, and that says volumes. These babies smell like Christmas and Santa and happiness, and they will be the thing my kids remember that we always made in December. Like the best of their cookie brethren, they need to be eaten with milk, like my kids did that first time. And unlike the shortbread and fondue of my childhood, I’m going to make these forever.

It helps to weigh the flour on a kitchen scale if you have one, because the amount of flour in a cookie directly affects the texture and bendy-ness. And when they are cooled off and you put them away to store, make it an air-tight container with a piece of white bread in there. The cookies will suck the moisture out of the bread and stay bendy, instead of getting crunchy and stale. This recipe has been a secret for years, but I am feeling generous.

Makes about 20 cookies. Doubles nicely. I have never NOT doubled it…

3/4 C or 1.5 sticks butter, 1 C sugar, 1/4 C dark molasses, 1 egg, 2 and 1/2 C OR 12.5 ounces flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp salt, 1.5 tsp cinnamon.

Soften the butter in the microwave but do not melt it completely. (Or leave it out on the counter for 2 hours. It should be soft, but NOT melted.) Add to stand mixer if you are using one. Add sugar and molasses and mix on high, then add egg and mix again until fluffy. In a different bowl, whisk dry ingredients. Add them to the wet ones and combine well but do not over-mix.

Place dough in wax paper and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 375. Form the dough into ping-pong ball sized balls, and roll each one in sugar-in-the-raw. Regular sugar is fine if you don’t have sugar-in-the-raw. Place balls on cookie sheet lined with parchment if possible. Bake 15-20 minutes, until cracked on top but not over-baked. Slightly under-done is better: they will harden as they cool. Let rest on cookie sheet for 5 minutes. Enjoy! Store with a piece of white bread.

 

 

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