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Two blackberries remind the journeyman that each day is sufficient unto itself and that everything is likely to be okay in the end

Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”

– Wendell Berry, fr. “A Standing Ground”

Only to say
that while I was out in the hot sun today on my lunch break walking
along the two-lane road back to the office building I spied
a few blackberries that had grown plump
and dark
and juicy already and I stepped off of the sidewalk
toward the arching tangles of canes and picked
one
and set it on my tongue and closed my mouth
around it and squished it and felt the sun-warmed tart wetness of it filling
the grooves beside my gums and then I picked another and ate that
one too
but that was all because for that moment right then
two blackberries was enough.

The Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine

The precise origins of the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine play are now obscure, but it came about when Mara was four or five, and I think it’s probably a safe bet that the reason it was not the Blue Dragon of the Nighttime Routine or the Butterscotch Dragon of the Nighttime Routine or the Puce Dragon of the Nighttime Routine is because green was the color of the blanket that hung over the back of the sofa, that still hangs over the back of the sofa, and not one of those other colors.

It went like this: Mara would be Mara and I would be me, her dad. She would ask me to go and call for the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine to swoop her up and carry her from the bathroom, where I had just brushed her teeth (part of the nighttime routine), to her bedside. I, her dad, would grump that there was probably no such thing as the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine, but off I’d go, down the hall and into the living room, calling “Green Dragon! Green Dragon!” [Stage note: I would make my voice quieter with each call, as if a great distance were expanding between myself and the bedroom.]

I would then grab the blanket from the back of the sofa and unfurl it around me and hold it expanded like great green wings. I would make a rushing wind noise with my mouth as I returned down the hallway to the bathroom, where I (now the GDNR) would land kneeling before Mara and furl my wings. Mara and the dragon would converse in noble language. Mara would say how her father was out looking for him at that moment (she began using the elevated term “father” instead of daddy about this time, understanding that this was how children in stories usually addressed their dads), and the GDNR would say how adults never could see him. He would ask her if she was ready to be carried over sea and land to the realm of slumbers.

Then he lifted her up in his arms and carried her out and around the living room, alternating between making the rushing wings noise and interpreting the seas, deserts and oceans and forests they passed over. This all took only a few seconds, and they ended up at her bedside where she alit. The dragon then assured her that he would be keeping watch over her, as he always did, from his mountaintop in the forest.

I drew this years ago as a study for a more finished illustration that I never undertook.

I drew this years ago as a study for a more finished illustration that I never undertook. Click to embiggen.

Away then in a rush of wings again he sped, out of the bedroom and down the hall. Once again transformed — like Cinderella’s footmen at midnight’s stroke — to my accustomed self, I dumped the green blanket on the sofa to be folded later and began grumbling in a voice that now grew louder as if approaching from afar off, saying things like “…don’t believe there even is a green dragon…” and “…well, I called and called, but I sure didn’t find him…” and “…I think the whole green dragon business is hokum…”

Back in the bedroom, I (Mara’s dad) would announce that the GDNR was nowhere to be found, and then do a Fred Flintstone head-shaking double-take and say, “wait, how did you get in here from the bathroom?” Mara laughed delightedly and told me that the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine had come and fetched her to her bedside while I was out looking for him. I would dismiss this as nonsense, and she would insist that it was true, but in a very gamey, giggly way — she knew that this was a play, that there was a veil of pretense that must be carefully maintained, that I as dad could never acknowledge my identity as the wingéd guardian.

The Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine — Mara actually pronounced it more like “ratine” — eventually stopped coming around. A couple of years ago I asked Mara if she remembered the dragon, and she said she did. I don’t recall now how the play has come back into currency, even though it was just a few weeks ago. Maybe Mara mentioned it, or maybe I just grabbed the old blanket one evening at bedtime. In any case Millie, my younger, found herself standing before the great dinosaur for the very first time. He remarked how Mara had grown since last he saw her and asked who this little other person was, and Mara introduced her little sister to the GDNR in flowery court tones.

Millie was struck silly with glee and shyness about it all — the shyness I guess because the dragon’s gaze is penetrating and all-seeing, his manner kind but strange, his intense focus and upright bearing unlike that of the tired-ass dad who’s worked all day. And also, shyness, I think, because at this age and being Millie in particular, she is very attached to truthfulness, and the whole idea of my carrying out such a bald fiction makes her a tad nervous.

At first she giggled uncontrollably and insisted that the Green Dragon was really Daddy, not yet understanding how these things are to be spoken about (and because, gosh, the GDNR looks a lot like me). But now every evening after I finish brushing her teeth she says “I have to tell you suh-inks”* and stands on her tiptoes to whisper in my ear “I want the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine to carry me”.  At which suggestion, of course, I harumph that never in all the times of looking for him have I ever seen him, and don’t really believe there is such a thing, etc..

But I always go, and after several minutes I always come back and listen with exaggerated eye-rolling disbelief to the tale of a great, strong, kind, dragon that promises to watch over the girls while they sleep and keep them safe from all harms.

____________________________

*”suh-inks” is Millie’s word for ‘something’ — it’s one of those odd personal usages that linger, the same way Mara even now continues to say “regwial” when she means ‘regular’. We do not correct these aberrations and we try not to draw attention to them, cherishing them instead as temporary gems along the road of language development, because one by one they eventually will all lose their glimmer and become the bland stones of common usage.

First cut

…Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer hair
Here baby, there mama…”

 – ‘Hair’, the musical

There is something about a child’s first haircut that has enormous significance in the maternal psyche. It’s been months since we cut Millie’s hair but I’ve been meaning to post about it because in witnessing the event and photographing it I could tell that something was happening that I wasn’t fully grokking but wanted to preserve and pass on. I mean, I get it; I got it, I understood in a way, but there’s a current here that runs underneath the place where I comprehend these particular connections, somewhere in the mommish deep.

The uncut curls a year ago.

The uncut locks a year ago.

It has to do with the softness and fineness of those first baby locks, the innocence and vulnerability associated with them and the fact that those same locks are still attached to a fully-functioning humanoid who is now already back-sassing you and refusing to eat certain foods. That and something more. I don’t know. I should ask Angela to pontificate, but since we are always so busy now and the only time we spend together when we might have conversations without distractions is devoted to 1) information transfer regarding calendar coordination, and 2) our quest to catch up watching past episodes of Dr. Who, it might never happen.

After the shearing, on a recent outing to our favorite breakfast joint, Daddy has forgotten to put a hairband in and the plate of French toast and syrup is just about to arrive.

After the shearing, on a recent outing to our favorite breakfast joint, Daddy has forgotten to put a hairband in and the plate of French toast and syrup is just about to arrive.

With only the preceding ado, then, I present several photos from the day the scissors first closed on Emilia’s beautiful little tresses. Hillary, a young woman who is a very special person in Millie’s life and in our family, came over to participate in the event. Somewhere I have some great photos of Mara’s first cut, too, which I will post sometime.

Millie and Hilly.

Millie and Hilly.

Trust.

Trust.

If every child of every age could have someone they know loves them hold their hand when big things are happening, that would be great. That's my wish. Can that please be?

If every child of every age could have someone they know loves them hold their hand when big things are happening, that would be great. That’s my wish. Can that please be?

The first snip.

The first snip.

The rest is easy.

The rest is easy.

Update — Here’s one of Mara’s first haircut, and just for fun, another one from when she was five:

Mara was about 15 months old.

Mara was only about 15 months old the first time Angela cut her hair.

Mara carefully watches her bangs being trimmed.

June 2010: Mara carefully watches her bangs being trimmed.

A foxhole gospel

How shall the dead arise is no question of my faith. To believe only possibilities is not faith but mere philosophy.”

–Thomas Browne

Easter is not my favorite holiday. It should be, since I adhere to the Christian faith, and the event that this holiday commemorates is Christianity’s central fact and sine qua non. The resurrection of the Christ from death to life, the final impossibility and the signal that we, too, are more than, eternally more than the dust and ash we inhabit in this physical life. It’s the best news ever. He is risen. Hosannah in the highest!

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the fact that Jesus folded his wrap before checking out.

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the delightful fact that everyone raised as a Christian remembers…that Jesus folded his wrap before blowing the grave.

But it’s the very focus on that impossible fact that makes me fidgety. Faith is a strange thing for me these days. I don’t worry as much as I used to about what I call the “mechanics” of Christian doctrine, that part that explains how “the cross” is central to the entire “plan” that God has had in place since the dawn of time. I’m not exactly precisely concretely sure what I do believe anymore, but I know I don’t want or need my belief to be an edifice of logic or some scientifically arrived at construction, where failure in one part of the system means collapse of the whole. So the matter of whether Jesus rose from the dead is not as critical an item as it used to be for me. But the question doesn’t go away. We celebrate the resurrection and have done for two millennia, and we celebrate it not as metaphor but as an event that took place. So what do I believe really happened? Do I believe Jesus rose up from the dead?

Even the doubter has a place in God's kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

Even the doubter has a place in God’s kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

When this question presents itself, part of me answers No, of course not. I don’t believe that because it’s impossible. That answer has frightened me in the past, but I’m learning to accept it. It’s the only answer that a rational creature of earth, which is what I am, can return. The Reasoner in me says, people don’t rise from the dead, not by my experience or by any logic I know.

But I am not ONLY a rational creature, and in fact I consider it likely that my internal Reasoner is the least part of me. I am also spirit and body, and as I mature (if I mature), I become more and more alive to these other aspects of who I am. I think most Christians are able, unlike me, to convert or silence their Reasoner, or at least teach it to relinquish the wheel. A few let their Reasoners become monsters. Lately, my Reasoner is mostly asleep at the back of the bus, but this question is framed in such a way that it can only be fielded by the Reasoner. It’s a question about a fact, so I handle it in terms of likelihoods and probabilities and known data points. The answer that comes back is no, I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done.

And yet I pray to God every day with this same risen Jesus at my side, in the deepest place of belief inside me. I strive to live as though his resurrection secures my own, not only from a someday physical death but from my hundred daily deaths, my cowardices and failures and wrongdoings. I remember Thomas Browne’s dictum and tell myself that it is not necessary that what I believe in my heart be acceptable to my Reasoner. After all, everything physically possible is also merely inevitable; it’s the miraculous that makes the journey worthwhile. But if my Reasoner takes over, I lose my spiritual buoyancy.

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Lego scene by

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Jesus catches Peter as the disciple’s reason interferes with his deeper belief. Image of Brendan Powell Smith’s Lego scene found on Godbricks.com, used without permission.

There are many questions one could ask, and many ways to ask any given question. Since I desperately wish to be a capital B Believer, I don’t often ask myself whether or not I really think that this-and-such actually, factually happened. For all I know, nothing happens and everything I see and hear and think and do are just the eddies bouncing off of Cheerios in a bowl of milk in a dream inside the mind of a giant tortoise in a lagoon at the back of the North Wind. Those questions become increasingly unhelpful.

What is more interesting and more helpful to me is asking, where can I find evidence today of the God that I hope exists? I never have to look very far if I am open. And on Easter, I might ask what am I willing to let go of — what long-held grudge or too-cherished conception am I willing to let die with Jesus on this day, so that what rises up may be a better version of myself, and by better I mean more useful to others, and by useful to others I mean instrumental not toward some idea of their “salvation” in some prescribed way but toward the working out of their God-given journey however and wherever it may lead them.

I like William Bouguereau's vision of the women arriving at the tomb (Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it's spooky as all get out with that angle only half visible, and because the women express not only joy but also...something like worry or doubt?

I like William Bouguereau’s vision of the women arriving at the empty tomb (Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it suggests that even the first ones on the scene experienced confusion, worry, and maybe even doubt?

It may be a small faith and easily overwhelmed by the voice from the back of the bus, but it’s enough to celebrate with.

Pie

We got our pie at last. I’ll tell you about it, because it’s just plain damn time for a happy outcome. In fact, just because I’m feeling generous and expansive I’m going to tell you the whole story again, even though I’ve told most of it before, because someday I want my children to say of me, even if exasperatedly, that I used to tell this story about the apple tree, and that will necessitate my having told it at least twice. Maybe I’ll tell it slightly differently this time. Maybe not.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Mom demonstrates the dough nap.

PopPop always got a kick out of the idea of the dough “napping”. Gramma demonstrates this important step.

I grew up with this apple tree, you see. It was a Transparent, and every year when the apples got a yellow blush on their mostly green cheeks and started falling to the ground we would gather them up in the white porcelain bowls we called “basins” or in brown grocery bags and put them in the laundry room, and then Dad would help Mom core and peel them and then Mom would bake some of them into pies and bake the rest into applesauce with cinnamon. A
dish of my Mom’s applesauce, served up in a colored plastic bowl, was a treat like no other on the earth. To this day I do not eat applesauce of any other kind because by comparison to my mom’s it will be bland and watery. The applesauce produced at 1653 106th Avenue Southeast in Bellevue was dense, tart and — in summer when it was just made — warm from the pot. As for the pies, I will not set myself up for failure by attempting to describe the rarefied heights of ecstasy to which I was wafted upon the eating of same. I will say only that I once argued with a man — an apple tree specialist — at a fruit tree expo that I as a fledgling nurseryman took the opportunity of attending, because he dismissed the Transparent in favor of any number of newer cultivars that make for “better pie apples” and he was wrong. There is no better apple for an apple pie than a Transparent. I will say that and also this: my mom makes pie crust the way she was taught by “Creedy”, an old woman she first knew when my parents moved out West from Baltimore in the very late 1950s. It is a way that must be learned at the elbow of someone who has mastered it and it makes the most mouth-watering pie crust that ever was.

The tree was destroyed in the fall of 2006 when my parents suddenly, as if they were packing up to stake a claim in the goldfields of the Yukon, sold the house I grew up in and moved out of it. A matter of weeks later the house was bulldozed. I have not returned to the street since that happened, but just before it happened, while it was still legally my parents’ home, I went round there with my Felco #2 pruning shears and cut fifty of the suckers that sprouted from the top limbs every year, and brought them back to Seattle and stuck them in a bucket of rainwater until I could:

  • chop the suckers into eight-inch sections with at least four nodes each
  • wrap them half-a-dozen at a time into bundles in moist paper towels
  • seal the bundles up in baggies
  • put the baggies in the refrigerator

These were instructions I had been given by a fruit-tree growing friend (a friend being someone who does not try to talk you out of your apple love), who told me October was the wrongest time of year to cut scions from fruit trees and try to graft them onto new rootstock, but said if I was careful and lucky I might just be able to keep the scions viable until late winter.

I was careful and hoped I would be lucky. I rewrapped the bundles in new paper towels every six weeks through the winter, and in late February or early March I took some of them to the Fruit Tree Society’s convention in Ballard, where they had volunteers performing grafts on rootstock they had for sale there. I came home with eight newborn Transparent trees with their bare roots wrapped in plastic. I potted those in ten gallon pots with good soil and fertilizer and lined them up in the driveway where they’d get sun and rain, and proceeded to watch them all sprout a single leaf and die.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Mom taught two new generations of pie-makers that day.

Mom taught two new generations of piemakers that day.

All but one. One of the trees lived through the summer, having grown almost not at all. We moved that fall and I brought it with me and nursed it through another winter, remembering to bring it into the garage when the winds came down from Canada and the cold went deep for several nights in a row. Finally I planted it in our backyard up among the rhodies, where children playing wouldn’t step on it. It produced one tiny apple the next summer, and two the summer after that, but they didn’t grow to full size. Mara and her friend Gwyneth “accidentally” picked the two little apples the second year, but I doubt they would have grown much more anyway. The tree needed more sun than it was getting, I was advised by another knowledgeable friend. When cold came I moved it to a different spot, and it has slowly flourished there. I only got two or three tiny applets the next year and the squirrels got those, as they did the five I got the year after that. But this year 22 of the apple blossoms closed into little lumps and grew into apples, and I covered the tree with a net to keep the birds and squirrels off, and only six of the fruits fell off prematurely, so I ended up with 16 apples by summer’s end. They were not as large as the ones I knew in my youth, but they were the product of the same tree, genetically. The long journey was over.

I called my mom and asked her how many apples it would take to make a pie, and she said about eight apples “the size of tennis balls”.

These were not that big.

“What about sixteen apples a little bigger than ping pong balls?” I negotiated.

She said bring what I had, we’d make it work. So we kept the apples in the refrigerator for two weeks — Mom’s schedule was as busy as ours and it took that long to meet up — and then took them to her house in Issaquah (Dad died in 2011) for an historic baking.

I peeled, Angela sliced, and Mom prepared the kitchen for the event. Mom then showed me how to make the crust, including letting the dough “rest”, the part about which my dad, we always note aloud, used to say “the dough has to take a nap”.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

She's eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

She’s eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

Miraculously, we had enough sliced apples for two full-sized pies, one that Mom made with me watching and one that I made with Mom watching, and even a little one that Mom (Gramma) helped Millie make. With extra dough, she showed Mara how to make what we always just referred to as a pie crust, a simple baked crust sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, for a snack. Everything came out of the oven looking and smelling and tasting just the way it should. Sometimes we get lucky, and love makes up the rest.

So this odd migration of our family apple tree is finally at an end, or at least an oasis. If we move from our current home someday, the tree is coming with us, one way or another.


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