Archives for the month of: November, 2008

I am working hard to come up with a rationale for winter that sounds more convincing than “it feels so good when it stops”.  I am weary already of the hunched posture of winter in the north, the clench against the cold, and the days of grey rain or sloppy melting snow.  The things people cite as winter joys — sweaters, fires, hot food — seem more like defense against the cold than a celebration.

I am hanging onto the notion that there is some kind of kinship, remembered in our DNA, with people since forever who had to weather the inhospitable season. I think of those Dutch paintings of medieval villages, smoke from the chimneys, skaters on the ice, people and clothing the only splashes of color in a scene of black stark trees, grey sky, white snow.

Leeks and potatoes make a hearty soup that feels right for the cold, and grainy bread, squash and a few withered apples baked in a crisp seem familiar and timeless this time of year.

But I suspect winter has always felt like the enemy. People harvested their gardens and crops with an eye over their shoulders to the blue north wind, the clouds that looked like snow.  They worried whether they had enough laid away to get them through.  Old people and little children didn’t always survive the winter; my sense is that people hunkered down by the hearth in the smoky dark and waited it out, content to just be safe and fed in a time when worries included,  not just economic woes, but an actual wolf at the door.

Firewood, and meat.  Those are the currency of winter: enough wood (or peat, or buffalo chips) to keep some heat and light going for the winter, and the only winter harvest, which required a kill.

Yesterday morning there were two deer hanging from the frozen swingset in the back yard. I take some pride in being a good skinner, because it feels like work that women’s hands have been doing for millennia.  I am eager to remove the skin, the head, the feet, any evidence that the meat was not always just meat.   I’m aware of my emotional hypocrisy, as I am not the least bit hesitant to eat what comes in pink rectangles at the store — from creatures I have never met.  Still, I like the end of the process when the deer looks less like Bambi and more like those butcher shop diagrams locating roast,  tenderloin, chop, and steak.

We took the carcasses to my dad’s, so he could walk us through the process of removing the best cuts of meat.  He is better at wading in to do it himself than he is at showing us how, but he was having trouble with his hands and eventually relinquished the knife.

We brought the deer back to our own kitchen, working on big plastic fold-up tables, and Jeff and I worked late into the evening, cutting and vacuum-sealing steaks and chops, tenderloins and stew meat. Most of what we had we ground, with a little fatty pork roast for moisture, since we use it for chili, tacos, meatloaf and burgers (we really never buy beef.) 

Connor and Molly pulled up chairs and set to work with sharp little knives, oddly engrossed in the project. Molly was quite proud of her clever little hands, holding up each meaty bit to say, “This looks too good for the grinder. I’ll put this in with the stew meat.” Tyler is not a fan of gore, and opted to help get supper on, instead of joining the butchers.

We finally quit, backs aching and weary of little gobbets of red, but this morning two more rear haunches are waiting for me to cut steaks, and a mixing bowl of bits still awaits the grinder.  Jeff and Connor have gone to grandma’s to discuss the details of thanksgiving fare, peas and pearled onions, sweet potatoes with candied ginger.  I’m going to finish with the meat, fire a kiln, and this afternoon we’re off to the library. I need to pick up the full spectrum lights my doc recommended to keep me focused in this season of grey, and then we plan to take a family walk at the park if it doesn’t start to sleet or rain.

Either way, the summer’s split wood is stacked outside my kitchen window, and the fall’s venison is stacked in the chest freezer.  It’s like insurance against the worries of winter: we’ll be warm, we’ll be fed. We don’t know what’s coming but we’re OK for now.

Happy thanksgiving to all…

Yesterday we raked, dragged and blew the leaves from the back yard to the curb, where the big orange city trucks will come by and vacuum them up. Some are piled in the garden, some over the raspberry beds, some around the beehive, and some tucking in the flowerbeds and herb garden for the winter.

My mom had her tonsils out, at 70. I took her pudding pops.

It rained last night but cleared this morning, briefly, before going leaden grey again. I sat on the studio deck this morning and made bowls, teapot bodies, spouts, lids.  My hands froze, after a while, despite the hot water I poured in the throwing bucket, so I came in and worked on my portfolio.

The starlings were doing that annual miles-long flock migration thing, as I threw, and they always come the same way — from a tree East of here to the enormous, leaf-bare cottonwoods filling the sky behind my yard.  The tree looks like it’s leafed out in starlings, and they make a sound like a truckload of silverware poured over a waterfall.  Until suddenly, all at once, they stop, and lift into the air as a single, amorphous shape, headed north-east. The chickens stop scritching in the leaf-litter and look up. The silence is deafening.

The neighbor to my right has a small apple tree and a big, dorky, half-grown black lab.  As I sat at the wheel today, I watched the dog stand on hind legs and pull leftover frozen apples off the tree with his mouth.  The tree flailed wildly. I laughed, and my laughter got stuck in one of my pots and I left it there.

My oldest son suddenly has square shoulders, as tall as my eye-level.  I have to look up to talk to him.  When he hugs me, now, he rests his arms on top of my shoulders.  I know that none of this is remarkable, or unprecedented, but part of me still expects the talky little redhead to be hanging on my knee while I stand at the kitchen sink.

I just finished some historical fiction set in Viking times — good, but a littl ebloody — and now I am reading “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.  It’s making me feel like homeschooling was a good idea, like Tyler’s arty school is perhaps less impractical than I had supposed. That it’s OK to be a potter, that creative is not less important than “successful”. 

I can’t imagine how we can be expected to parent without a crystal ball: those who were schooled and trained for the new “Industrial Age” didn’t foresee those jobs going overseas. The schooling and messages I got, about which courses of study would guarantee a good job, didn’t foresee the internet or a global technology that allows our science, medicine, lawyering, technology and engineering to be done in New Delhi or Colombia as easily as here.  So what shall I teach my kids? To memorize facts, in an age when google can provide them in seconds? Pink says imagination, innovation, design, empathy, humor and a whole list of other stuff not on the ACTs will be the essentials of a new economy.

I will be satisfied if my kids have learned to respect themselves, to trust their own insights, to be true to others, and retain their creative individuality.

Hopefully they won’t starve.

Speakign of which: I was offered a spring semester ceramics 1 class today, at a nearby college, beginning in January.  Tomorrow I will write back and accept it, and try hard not to offer to take over the program, build them a soda kiln, write grants,  raise the bar, and put them on the map.  I could do it, and I know it… but it may be presumptuous to start there, y’think?

Molly is obsessed with paper airplanes.  She found a book about making them, and now anything that can be folded is either flying though the house, twirling to the ground, doing loop-de-loops or piled on the floor around the furniture.  There are airplane wrecks in every room, forgotten paper angles with names like “phantom” or “sonic flyer”.  Some have flames or eagle heads. Others look suspiciously like my electric bill or some unchecked homework.

Jeff made enchiladas for dinner, with leftover venison. We didn’t count the weight watcher points, but after yesterday’s raking and aquajogging we’re ahead of the game anyway.  He took Tyler to the dentist and I took Molly and Connor to clarinet/guitar lessons this afternoon, and we all met back here for supper.  Molly always comes up with a dinner discussion topic. Tonight’s was, “If you had three acres and an unlimited budget, and could build anything you want, public or private, what would it be? “

I bought some little thin reading glasses to keep next to my bed. They are in a wonderfully kitschy sequined tube that makes me think about design, and homeschool projects, and why the beautiful is as useful as the useful.  The cabin in Bastrop, Texas where Jeff proposed to me had that phrase carved into the fireplace mantel, and I’ve spent 19 years now trying to understand what it means.

It’s almost midnight. Rain is beating on the metal roof Jeff and I put on our sunroom-addition. The shy, bony old cat is in my lap, purring.  Tyler is asleep, threatening to grow longer than his bed like that guy in the Dr. Seuss book whose feet stuck out at the bottom.  Connor downloaded a Redwall book into his new ipod and is likely listening still, in secret, in the top bunk: he’ll walk around tomorrow half-there, pouring cereal and tending his pigeons with his mind in Redwall-chapters, until we make him shut it off and focus on school work.

Jeff is asleep. He gets up early to take Tyler downtown to the charter high school for the arts, and then comes home to wake us all, send me to the studio with coffee, set up their school day. 

Molly is asleep in a sea of pink bedding, with her light on — she read The Lightening Theif right up to the last minute, and blinked out without turning it off. I’ll do it on my way to bed.

When I went in earlier to say goodnight to the boys, I took Snowflake the guinea pig — (recently shampooed by Molly, and  fluffy white) — a leaf of chard from the hoop house, and gave and Dusty the chinchilla (in the cage next door) some raisins.  They both come over for scritches and petting, and I tell them absurd lies to make my boys laugh.

I remind myself that if one of us lands a full time job, and we have to leave this house, (our newlywed “starter home”  where my babies were born and raised)… If we move to Texas, or North Carolina, or wherever the CVs are winging off to tomorrow — well, this bony cat will still be in my lap, there. 

The pig and the chinchilla will still look at me with dark trusting eyes as I tell them ridiculous stories.  My boys will sleep, under a new roof, the way they do here, one buried under pillows and blankets and dead to the world, the other mumbling and gesturing and talking in his sleep.

The pigeons will come along, and re-home themselves to a new location, and the hens, and the bees… my potters wheel and kilns… the coffee pot and the truckload of books would all go along.  I could dig up my sinchokes, my rhubarb and some raspberry plants, and start again, if we move to a place with real soil and sufficient rain.

 

 

 

 

When nothing is happening in my life, I have time to sit here and tappity tap out details of daily triviata, small comforts, dear-diary.

When suddenly life goes haywire, I don’t write. Sometimes because situations are intense and controversial and you never know who is reading… sometimes because, as I told my friend Tony — “When you’re hanging on with both hands, you can’t always manage to wave”.

After a nerve wracking month, things have settled out to the point where I can share this much:

After 12 years of commendable work at UT’s Lake Erie Center, a place he helped design and build, my Jeff is out of a job. 

He negotiated a severance package that will get us through the rest of the year with pay and health insurance, and now we’re both applying in our fields, and working on that big, “Now what?”

There’s an up side, like always… we’ve lived frugally without a lot of debt, and Jeff was increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowing focus of his job. He was less and less part of the research, boat piloting and field sampling, teaching and outreach, aspects well suited to his enthusiasm and gregarious personality. 

And though we moved to Toledo 18 years ago because my family is here, it is not the only place to live in this world.  My brother and his wife are local but are travelers, and my parents spend more and more of the year in Florida,  while we scrape ice off our windshields and sigh over the grey expanse of stoplights, strip malls and payday loan shops.  The economy here is in trouble…  like everywhere, I guess.  Four people standing near us in the voting lines were also out of a job… one from Jeep, one from Chrysler, and one was a secretary for a small business that closed shop when the economy tanked.

So… maybe the adventure we were too comfortable to consider has been thrust upon us, after all.  My husband’s boy scout troop, my own girl scout troop, Tyler’s marvelous charter school for the arts, local friends, the potter’s guild, my house and garden and studio all keep us applying locally, but we’re also sending resumes and portfolios everywhere  — like those little dandelion seeds with the parachutes — and there’s no guessing where we might take root. 

The kids are on board, and have been supportive and marvelous. We are a close family, and any move that includes us all (and the pets, of course) seems “doable”.  (Connor informed me that Texas has an on line virtual academy just like the one he uses here) 

 I am also reconsidering the utility of my MFA, now that we’re no longer tied to the town that provided Jeff’s income and benefits all these years.  I would love to find a college small enough to really be able to make a difference.  The thing I’ve seen with ceramics programs is that the right person, in the right place — someone resourceful and energetic — can create a thriving program from the ground up.   I’d like to give it a try.

For now, I am out in the studio every day, making new work for holiday sales and on line stores.  I found I needed to reclaim those few rare uninterrupted moments I used to find every day when Jeff went to work and the kids were still in bed, or busy with schoolwork.  A remarkable number of projects are getting done, now, with both of us home;  Jeff has the kids on a schedule, helps them with algebra and science experiments, is rewiring my two extra kilns, and we’re talking about what we might need to do to sell the house.  The kids each have a night to make dinner, and thus far we are continuing with the music lessons (sax, clarinet and guitar) and the tae kwon do, the swim lessons, aquajogging for the grownups, and other quality-of-life expenses. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. But the family, together, is keeping a record of all our expenses and talking about the optionals and “non-negotiables” in our budget.  That’s probably the most important homeschool lesson they’ve had yet.

So. Life got weird.

Every morning for the last few weeks I have awakened to the unsettling realization that we have three kids and no jobs.

Yesterday morning, though, I woke with a smile and thought, “President Obama.”

Hope is good. Change is good. Scary, but good.  My goal is to control what I can, have faith about the stuff I can’t control, and keep one notion at the front of my mind, come hell or high water:

“Yes, we can.”

Molly was sad to have lost her guinea pig, Ebony… but her brother’s pig, Snowflake, is getting lots of extra attention.  She took this picture this afternoon.