Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Attempting New Lives

I am a short-sighted person. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a ten year plan. I'm not sure that I've ever had a one year plan. I have ideas, vague notions, castles in the sky, and when I'm called to make a decision, I generally do it with little forethought or planning.

No. That's not entirely accurate.

I do plan. Sometimes I plan for months. I scour atlases and worn, informative books, sketch detailed drawings or outlines in journals, clip images from magazines and paste them into other journals. And then, when the time comes to do the thing that I've been planning, I put all of the journals and books and atlases and images aside and do something entirely different.

My kitchen floor, for instance. As I peeled back the probably asbestos-ridden sixties tiles and scraped at the sticky adhesive day after day for a month, I imagined painting an Oriental rug in the center of the floor. I sketched it out and dreamed about it each night. However, when the time came to start it, I traced circles with a mixing bowl and painted in a pattern of circles and diamonds instead, not bothering to determine the mathematical center of the floor, by the way, which galled my math teacher neighbor.

For years, I've drawn layouts for my kitchen garden, but in the end, I threw it together, completely disregarding the geometric loveliness of my fantasy gardens. In fact, once again boggling my neighbor, in digging post holes for the entryway, I dug one too deep, causing the posts to be significantly different in height, but I left it that way, declaring it to be an artistic choice.

Now, I am at that stage in my life where I wonder if a ten year plan wouldn't have been a bright idea after all. What was it that I wanted to do? I know beyond a doubt that I didn't want to teach when I was in high school. I was dismayed when I got the Teaching Fellows scholarship. But here I am, and I'm not bad at it. The fact is, I even enjoy many aspects of teaching, the creativity, the kids, the summer vacations. The summer vacations can never be sold short.

Still, I'm sure that there was something else. Did I always want to be a writer? I can't remember. I know that I always wrote. I wrote short stories about monsters and talking dogs in kindergarten and short stories about mothers and children in high school. I penned imaginary newspapers and tons of terrible poems about love and death. But I'm not sure that I ever thought, "I want to be a writer when I grow up." Maybe I just never thought it was possible.

So here I am trying to decide if I was wrong-headed. If I never allowed myself to make the plan because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow through on it. And if that's the case, if I felt that I wouldn't be able to follow through because I wasn't writer material or because I'm an inherently lazy person who finds planning easy and follow through...well, work.

Regardless, it's back to revising the novel. I don't have a plan, but I have an idea. Maybe that's the best approach to attempting new lives after all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My son's dreams

I have been curious about my son's dreams since he was old enough to have them, since I watched him sleep in my arms as a warm, milky infant, his eyelids fluttering wildly as they do when the dreamer has entered his fantasy.

I wondered of course what fantasy infants could have when their whole world is new and fantastical, filled with giants and ephemeral faces moving in and out of view, unknown beasts and unexplained lights and sounds. How would an infant even know the difference between dreaming and waking?

And then when he was three, he started to recognize dreams for what they are. He had a terrible nightmare about a bunny rabbit who sat on top of his head and wouldn't get off. I spent days trying to imagine this dream and what made it so terrible, trying to envision the reality that his fresh little mind had created.

Fearful of more nefarious rabbits, Fain requested that I do something about his dreams, so I began to "make" dreams for him over his head before bedtime, throwing in pinches and dashes of things that he would like: candy islands, pirates, sea monsters, skies raining impertinent bunnies. When he would complain about a nightmare, I would assure him that I had checked on him in the night and that the dream that I'd made was playing out smoothly in the air over his head. I could see him there, and he was having a great time, fighting pirates and eating candy. It really did seem to convince him, and for a while, a few years, I didn't hear anymore about nightmares.

Until Tuesday night. The night before the school Christmas play. He woke Wednesday morning to tell me that he'd had a bad dream and that I was in it. I'd ruined his Christmas play! I asked what I had been doing to ruin it, and he told me that I'd been blowing kisses everywhere, kissing him in front of everybody.

Well, it's pretty clear to me that kisses and bunny rabbits are bad news to a young boy, and I suppose that's natural. I'd really like an opportunity to see this dream in which I am so sorely indicted of heinous public displays of affection, but in the mean time, I recognize a growing boy's need for his mom to back off, so I promised him that I would never kiss him in public again, to which he replied, "But you'll still kiss me, right? When I ask?"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women

I've been thinking about a book that I want to write. I have the title: The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women, and I know that it will be divided into four sections, one for each season. I know more, but I won't tell yet because it's too early, but it has me contemplating time.

I imagine time in a Victorian lady's traveling gown, green velvet, hair a ringleted mass crowned by a tiny hat with a large ostrich feather. She sits on a wooden bench at a depot, her back line-straight. She has booked passage, and she awaits her transportation demurely, smoke curling around her, dampness in the morning air.

Of course, time does not wait. She booked passage years ago, and she has been riding ever since, I suppose, but it never seems that way to me, and the very idea of time overwhelms me when I try to make sense of it.

Time is really the addition or subtraction of elements from our lives. In this moment, there is the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air and the sound of the heater sighing its warm breath through the rooms. There is an absence of my son's capering adventures with imaginary heroes and villains because he is asleep still. As time passes, he will wake and there will be an absence of stillness and the addition of silliness, and I will know that time has passed.

If all remained the same, no aging, no births, no giggling or crying, we'd never note the passage of time; we'd sit stiff as boards there beside time at the depot, wishing for a game of I Spy to remedy our boredom, but there wouldn't be anything new to spy, and so we'd remain bored.

Time gets a bum rap, and so does age. Years and decades pass, filled with delight and with hardshipa, and then you reach a certain age when all that defined you slips away, your appearance, your job, your children, all of it, but I've listened to my grandmother tell stories about her grandmother, and I see that what is left is all of your time, given back like a Christmas gift to share with anyone who will sit still and share. All of your time is given back when you grow old, and the sharp edges are worn away like green glass on a beach, and your time is soft and smooth and lovely to behold

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snow Day Hoodoo

This morning, I woke at 4:00 to write, a habit that has taken several months to become habitual. Snow was whipping around in the dim cone of light projected onto the darkness by the street lamp next door.

I quickly paced through the house, turning the light over the stove on long enough to get a pot of coffee brewing, flipping lights on and off to finish the little tasks that have become my morning ritual. Normally, I would leave lights on all over the place, but not on a morning when snow is falling. Silly as it is, I've got myself convinced that if I leave a light on, it will somehow affect the delicate weather pattern. Hoping against hope for a snow day requires certain superstitious sacrifices. I will not contribute even a joule to the heating of the immediate vicinity through reckless light emission.

So devoted am I to the snow day that I have on countless occasions performed snow day dances. Fain and I frequently pray for them.

To the teacher who argues that we'll have to make them up at the end of school, I say that the end of school may never come. Any number of natural or manmade disasters or acts of God could come between today and that precious June day when we are all released from our scholarly servitude. We are promised only today, so let's make it a snow day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Infinite Variety of Christmas Trees

I pulled down all off my Christmas boxes before Thanksgiving. I admit it. The busted, brown boxes overcrowded with ornaments that span my life and some that predate my time were all stacked up, forming a fortress in the living room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

I love Christmas, but it was not holiday joviality that caused me to start working early. It was the irritability that decorating for the holiday generates. I wanted to get it over with before Thanksgiving.

I'm not one of those women who spends a week decorating. (My neighbor is, God love her, and she usually waits until the week before Christmas. At the last minute, her house becomes a photo spread for Southern Living.) If I can't get it done in a day, it's not worth doing. That's my motto in most endeavors. In truth, if my attention is diverted within an hour, it's pretty much all done but the Christmas goose.

That Saturday, I attempted to decorate and clean the house at the same time, a laughable feat, with Christmas music playing until my son decided to use the laptop to play video games while I worked (thanklessly) on the task that he had personally requested, at which point, I began to threaten the very existence of the holiday season. He, fearful that he would not get the coveted Nintendo DS, carefully got the Johnny Matthis "Marshmallow World" going again to drown out mommy's growling, and I finally gave up before the tree was decorated, having discovered that many of the pre-lit lights had suffered in my parents' attic and given up the Christmas ghost.

Later in the week, we had a friend and her child over as well as the neighbors for a tough roast and cold mashed potatoes (because that's how I roll), and I let the two boys decorate the tree, much to the amazement of my friends. As I mentioned, my neighbor has one of those really beautiful white light color coordinated Christmas trees and my friend has always had the same. They've got the really lovely fragile ornaments that children really shouldn't handle.

My tree is not so. First, there's the outed lights. I'm not going around the tree trying to figure out which one is the traitor, so I just wrapped some more (multi-colored) lights around the branches to hide the dim little corpses. Then, there's the selection of ornaments. One, for example, that elicited the comment, "You're really going to put that on the tree?" is a cheap-o stuffed rhinoceros that Fain and I were forced to decorate in pre-school. Yes, it's hideous with its cotton ball Santa beard and felt Christmas vest, but I can't quite bring myself to leave it in the box. There's a puff ball ornament, what I think is meant to be a yellow and blue owl, that belonged to my parents before I was born. It was always one of my favorites because it was so ridiculous.

So the boys hung the ornaments, mostly on the same five lower branches, which I did rectify later, and the tree looks really lovely to me now. Like a quilt or a homemade cookie.

I find myself excited by lunch time at the idea of going home to see my cozy little cottage, warm and full of twinkling lights, like a star in a kaleidoscope. A Christmas tree, whether pristine silver and white perfection or a Charlie Brown fiasco, makes a home feel different. Makes it feel like just the place you want to be at the end of the day.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The professional part...

It's the professional part of every profession that I really loathe. The paperwork and the connections and...well, what some might call "the work part."

Currently, I have two projects that I am attempting to pull together.

First, the final revision of The Absurd Coincidences of the Vicarious Woman and the subsequent submission to agents everywhere. Revision is work. I'm a little weary of revising now, having already revised this particular novel three times, and I'd like to put off this last go round for a while longer, but I've been putting this book off for years. It's time to bite the bullet. Buy the ticket.

Then, there's the sending it off to agents. This is the kind of thing that I need a personal assistant for because my mind does not deal well with this sort of secretarial labor. While I can be counted upon to sew monsters from felt and the vaguest blueprints drawn by a six-year-old and to complete a ridiculous novel in a month, putting a stamp on an envelope and putting the envelope in the mail is chancy. Ask my mom. She'll verify. Simple tasks are not my forte.

The second task: devising a strategy to fund the road trip that will become the travel memoir Always Time to Go. I have this truly brilliant idea to persuade Michael Sprague, VP of Marketing and Communications at KIA, to give me a KIA Soul to take across country in exchange for free publicity. Imagine the commercials! Single mother, public school teacher struggling in an economic crunch, seizing the opportunity of summertime, against all odds, to show her son the world...well, at least the North American part of the world.

Initially, I had intended to create my own home video style commercials, but my friend Molly insists that KIA will want to send along a handsome cameraman to shoot the commercials, and she promises that will lead to a wonderful romance as well as a best-selling book.

Do you see what I mean? The dreaming part I've got covered, but I have quite a challenge reigning in the dreamer in order to access my inner staff assistant. Or either my inner staff assistant is like the secretary from The Carole Burnett Show who just sits around smacking gum and filing her fingernails, looking pretty.

Now that I've put it out there, maybe I'll be shamed into getting the work done.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In the Beginning was the Word

I have an image of God as a rustic, in a cabin balanced precariously atop a high, narrow mountain, like the mountains in Japanese sansui paintings, a mountain that is in a perpetual state of fall, golden and scarlet forest encircling it. In my mind, I see him hunched over his desk, writing away, writing from the top of the mountain down so that his words flow out like thick threads, weaving everything around him, from his floor boards down into the trees, through valleys, cities, farmlands, even into my own little home, where sometimes I can even catch glimpses, tiny word threads, woven into the delicate green three leaf clovers painted on my porcelain coffee cup.

He writes in cursive, in black ink, never picking up his pen so that the words flow together, in the way that monks once wrote, but as the words weave their way into the world, they are imbued with color by God’s audience. We, the readers, add our own perception to the creation, the way that readers interpret all writing, believing that the author must have meant such and so because that’s what we would have meant if we’d written it. However, in this case, we are also characters interpreting the book that gives us our existence, which makes us very unique characters in the history of literature.

We are stitched together from words and phrases, which is true to this fanciful notion that I have but is also true to uncontested reality. If I have been told dozens of times by dozens of people that I am beautiful, then I perceive myself as beautiful, likewise if I have been told that I am worthless, I believe that I have no value.

We, in turn, pull threads from God’s creation to piece together our own existence, a bit of blue here, a thread of work or of play, embroidering in love and cinnamon and pots of stew beef and whatever else we choose to add to the tapestry of our lives. Even after we die, other people pull at our threads, stitching our stories into their own lives the way that Ma does when she tells me about her Ma.

Maybe God doesn’t writes down stories, and in fact, I don’t want to pigeonhole him into the role of story-teller. He is clearly also a poet because only a poet could create love and patches of snow, glittering rainbows in the sunrise. He is a lyricist, writing melodies for mockingbirds, and he is the author of manifestos, stirring us to righteous indignation when we see another human harmed by selfishness. He created elegant scientific proofs, algebraic equations and philosophical treatises. Who else would wonder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

New myths to solve old problems

It's the holiday season, and parents often face a host of holiday-specific dilemmas that can be mitigated with just a little creativity. The following were two solutions posed to me by fellow parents when dealing with two pesky problems that arise between October and December. Though the first is perhaps belated, it is something to bear in mind for next year.

To deal with the surplus of Halloween candy, the mother of one of Fain’s classmates suggested “the candy witch.” The candy witch, I presume, is the self-same witch as she of Hansel and Gretel, and naturally, with the perpetual demolition of her house by the nibbling of plump, pink young children in lederhosen, she is always in need of free or cheap building supplies. Therefore, if young children will stir up a pot of Halloween candy on an unheated stove and say a certain magical spell to summon the candy witch, she will come and take the candy at night while he sleeps and replace it with a toy. The beauty of this is that the toy can be a gently used one because it probably was left behind by one of the juicy little morsels she ate for dinner. (Of course, I don’t recommend that you tell your children that, unless they’re of a particularly gruesome nature.)

Now, how to deal with the pesky question of why some children get Nintendo DSs and mini-limos from Santa at Christmastime while others only get apples and cheap little wind up robots? This is the children’s philosophical equivalent to the problem of an all knowing, benevolent god and the existence of evil. The answer requires a little knowledge of the limitation of elf labor and copyright infringement.

The fat man and his elves have been making wooden toys and wind up robots and plucking oranges and apples from orchards on their world tours for centuries, but elves are not particularly tech-savvy; therefore, while the demand for new fangled toys has increased, the elves capacity to meet this demand has not. Frankly, elves are lost when it comes to anything requiring wiring or computer chips.

Furthermore, some toys are licensed. After the lawsuit against Santa pressed by the lawyers of Howdy Doody back in 1952 when Santa delivered an elf-made (read: unlicensed) Howdy Doody doll to Timmy Jameson of West Palm Beach, Florida, Santa has understandably been reluctant to ask elves to reproduce licensed toys.

Consequently, Santa has to purchase all digital as well as commercially licensed toys at Wal-Mart like everyone else. (Not at Black Friday prices because that’s his busiest time of year. Believe it or not, there are still kids the world over who are content with generic wooden puppets and teddy bears.) As a result, parents whose children want these “ticket item” toys must pay Santa for his trouble, including finder’s fees and delivery. It’s really just cheaper if parents buy the toys themselves and let Santa stick to his fruit delivery service.

Therefore, I am buying the Nintendo DS this year, while Santa will be delivering a bouncy ball, a few wind-up toys, a couple of books, and some fresh fruit just like the old days.

*Note regarding the threatened livelihood of elves: Elves tend to live a very long time, and currently, many are reaching retirement age, so do not fret that the desire of our children for technologically advanced toys will create a recession in Santaland. Elves have been putting money (re: chocolate coins) into their 401Ks for a millennia in most cases before retirement. Besides, their houses are made from gingerbread by the same gnomes that build for the candy witch, so the supplies that make the North Pole tenable for elven-kind are pretty easy and cheap to come by. It’s unlikely they’ll have to worry about a housing bubble bursting up there any time soon.

Friday, December 3, 2010

From the archives: Brunswick Stew Recipe for a Yankee

First, you cook a chicken until the meat falls from the bones. Then remove the bones and any other icky parts and put the meat back in the same pot of water. Let it simmer a little while longer just to really get all of the flavor infused in the water.

Chop up some potatoes into cubes, some smaller and some larger. The stew cooks for hours, so some of the potatoes should be small enough to break apart and thicken the broth, while others should be large enough to withstand the stew and retain their shape though they should still be bite-size and soft when the stew is done.

Also add okra that has been chopped into disks – not modern, high-tech disks, but rustic, stone-wheel disks. And slice some onions into rustic rounds as well. As to how many of each, when you’ve added all of them to the chicken pot, you should cry out loud, “Why! I’ll never be able to fit the other vegetables in this pot!” But never you fear. Allow the potatoes, onion, and okra to simmer for hours. I don’t know how many, so don’t ask. A lot of them. Enough so that you finally sigh, “Whew. There may be just enough room to squeeze in the other ingredients after all.”

But don’t rush. The key ingredient in Brunswick stew is time – and forehead sweat. The forehead sweat drips in as you stir and stir and stir. Not a lot, mind you. And you should really take a nice, long bath before you begin the process so that your forehead sweat will not be contaminated by hairspray, moisturizer, smog, or acid rain. But, once you are relatively certain that your forehead sweat is clean, then don’t attempt to make Brunswick stew without it. It’s just not the same. Now, if you happen to know a fat man from the coast of Georgia, you might ask him to stir for you because his forehead sweat will be more seasoned than yours. He should be about forty; older is fine, but if he’s younger you may just as well do it yourself.

One more comment on time. A good Brunswick stew will take no less than twelve hours. If it takes longer, even better, but if it begins to look done after only six or seven hours then your flame is too high, your water is too bubbly, you’ve added vegetables too soon, or perhaps you’ve let fall too much or too little forehead sweat. Shame on you. Your stew might not taste paltry, but I can assure you that it is not a true Brunswick stew. Don’t feel too badly. After all, you’re a Yankee.

Now, look into your pot with the intense gaze of a ninety-year-old chicken-bone-reader from northern Mississippi. Here is what you should see if you are thinking of adding any more ingredients – chicken strings, NOT chicken chunks, just threads of chicken stitching through a fabric of okra that has shed its earthly form to become one with the chicken, potatoes that have been mostly reduced to a shadow of their former selves, and onions that are now pure essence. But, regarding the potatoes, remember that some should retain their shape, like Elijah in a heaven of souls. The souls here being those of vegetable rather than Baptists.

If your stew has reached this level of soulfulness, then , and only then, you may add tomatoes. There may be some debate as to the kind of tomatoes you should use – some might attempt to persuade you to peel fresh tomatoes. These people are hippies, and they probably don’t bathe before they add their forehead sweat. Ignore them. They are probably from California anyway and don’t know the first thing about real Brunswick stew. The tomatoes should come from a large can. They may be whole or crushed, depending on your mood. But they should not be diced and definitely not seasoned with Italian herbs. This is Brunswick stew, not marinara. There should be enough tomatoes to tint the final product reddish-orange, the exact color of clay in the foothills of Georgia. If you are unsure of what I mean, you might consider Google-ing “Georgia clay.”

Once you’ve dumped the entire contents of one large can of crushed or whole tomatoes, including the juices, into your pot, allow the whole mess to simmer more, stirring occasionally or reminding Buford, your forty-year-old Georgian, to do so. After a while, a good long while, keeping in mind that while you may be on New York City time your Brunswick stew is on Southern, porch-sitting, howdy-do-ing time, the tomatoes will have intermarried with your okra and potatoes and onion and chicken, regardless of what their mammies and pappies have told them about it. This is the times to populate your stew with the more colorful vegetables – corn, green beans, and lima beans. Please do not add carrots or cauliflower or broccoli. Especially do not add Brussels sprouts. While they do have their places in a variety of stews, this ain’t one of them.

At this point in the game, if Buford is still sober enough to stir (you can rest assured that he’s sober enough to sweat), you may relax and enjoy a beer – but not a glass of wine or champagne – well, maybe a jelly jar of Boone’s Farm, if you must. And don’t be urbane or ironic and drink a German beer or even an English ale. Maybe I should explicitly limit you to Bud or Coors, but not Light. You can give that to the hippies with their freshly-peeled tomatoes and their free-range chicken.

When the stew is done, your stirring-spoon should nearly stand straight up in it. You should have the vague notion when you look carefully at it that vegetables once lived there. A green bean might bob to the surface and call to mind a memory of a swamp where once you saw a log that might have been an alligator peeping through the muck. A kernel of corn might seem to defy the uniformity of the whole, like a Cousin Myrtle who up and married a Mexican and now wears a sombrero wherever she goes.

Add some salt and pepper to your taste. Maybe even some red pepper flakes for Cousin Myrtle. But nothing more. You now have yourself a big, old pot of Brunswick stew. Enjoy.

But first a few more rules. Brunswick stew should only be made in the fall on a cool day when the leaves are a sympathetic orange. You might be able to pull off Brunswick stew in the winter, but you’d be better off just freezing some of what you made in November. You can eat Brunswick stew in the fall, winter, and during particularly chilly springs, but never in summer. Unless you’re the kind of person who eats ice-box lemon pie in December. I don’t think you are, though. The main reason for eschewing Brunswick stew in the summer is one of common sense – like why children only have three months of summer break during which to ride their bikes and abandon the rules of grammar – if you eat Brunswick stew year round, you won’t have it to look forward to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Always Time to Go

I've been trying to think of the title for a book that I want to write this summer, a travel book. I want to take Fain on a road trip and write about the experiences of meeting people and seeing things, but I could not for the life of me think of a title, which is unusual; that's generally what comes first for me.

The day before yesterday, my friend and co-worker Acker and I were talking about writing, I guess, and he asked if I'd read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and I'm ashamed to say that I haven't. I know the premise, but I just haven't gotten around to it. There are a lot of those books. I read so voraciously as a child and even through college, but as I've reached adulthood, I've fallen off in my reading. Or I might read five chapters and never finish the book. That's usually the case. I have good intentions, but I'm easily distracted.

However, feeling guilty over this lack of Vonnegut in my life, and knowing that I have many friends who would look down on me for this confession, I took the book that he offered me and went back to my classroom and sat down to read for a few minutes.

One line captured my attention. In the first chapter, Vonnegut wrote about stopping by the Hudson River to let the two little girls traveling with him reflect upon it. They'd never seen a river, only the ocean, so they were captivated, but eventually, of course, they had to move on. Somewhere in there, he writes: was time to go, always time to go.

I immediately scribbled this line into my journal, the way that I scribble in weird things that my students say or funny things that my friends say or random and wise things that strangers in malls or used book stores say. And I immediately thought, "This could be the title."

It fit. Traveling with children to see old friends, sure.

However, there are also the many other meanings lodged in the words always time to go. My first thought was the sad one. That's because I'm a mother and my child, my most favorite person in the world, grows each and every day, despite my protests. He is always headed in a direction far away from me, and it's impossible to be a mother and to not be aware of that. Time, like the Hudson, is always going, taking my son along with it, and one day, when I ask him to go with me, he'll say that he can't, and if I'm a good mother, I'll accept that and be happy for him.

My second thought was the more optimistic one. There is always time to go. Time never stops. It is always waiting for us to splash in and enjoy the ride. Time is one of those inner tube rides out in the country that I've passed and considered stopping for and continued on without stopping because I had another engagement, promising myself to come back on a warm summer day. There is always time to enjoy my child now. There is always time to go. Now is the time to go.

Sure. The economy is gray and there are wars and kids are growing up despite the protests of their parents, but right now my kid is still my kid and we have time to enjoy life and life to enjoy, and we shouldn't wait for some more convenient time; we should enjoy it right now. It is always time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Smith's Red and White

Yesterday, I took Fain to Smith's Red and White in Dortches for groceries. It's far out of the way, and it may be a little more expensive, but it's the only local grocery that we've got in rural Nash County, North Carolina as far as I know.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not opposed to warehouse supermarkets. In fact, I love them. Robert's in New Orleans. Ralph's in California. Fresh Markets and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's everywhere. I could spend as much time in a grocery store, whether warehouse or tiny shop like the neighborhood Zara's or William's in the Garden District, as I could spend in a book store, whether a Barnes and Noble or a Beckham Used and Rare Bookshop.

When I was a child, Sunday was what you might call "going to the market day" in our house. We made a special trip from Tarboro to Rocky Mount, a thirty minute drive, to go to Harris Teeter, which was (and still is around here) the closest thing to a high class, specialty item grocery store. It used to annoy me. I dreaded the call to the car to make the long trip to walk up and down aisles. Can you imagine anything duller? But it must have lodged in my brain, sandwiched between other pleasanter memories, because now I find myself making excuses, sometimes on a daily basis, to make a run to a grocery store.

It's not strictly the food. There's an aesthetic quality to a grocery store; whether it is a cathedral or a small chapel, it is dedicated to Andy Warhol and Normal Rockwell. The shelves are neatly stacked with rows of uniform cans, each with its own iconic image of sunshine yellow corn or bright cheerful green peas, like little round babies tumbled together. Mythical creatures and comforting mortals intermingle, the tiny mermaid on a can of tuna and the matronly Mrs. Butterworth, King Arthur on a bag of flour and an impish devil on the canned ham. And then there are the landscapes, golden wheat fields and lush vineyards, Sumatran jungles and maple tree forests steeped in winter snow printed on the labels in miniature.

And the smells. The thick, sweet smell of the bread aisle. I confess that I manhandle the loaves and insist that Fain stick his little, freckled nose into the flowering plastic packages to determine which smells the best before we buy any. The earthy, warm, dark scent of the coffee aisle intoxicates me. And the scent of the spices. I couldn't even begin to describe that. What I suppose must be cumin and chili and cinnamon and cloves and dozens of other herbs and spices in their pretty glass jars. The possibilities of the spice aisle. To just stand there and consider the names, Chinese Five Spice, Herb de Provence, Hungarian Paprika, and then all of those American mixes from Paul Prudhomme and Mrs. Dash. I've got a dozen herbs right now in my cabinet that I bought in a fit of scent-induced passion, believing that I would truly have need for them in the near future.

Grocery stores are centers of communities, comforting ports when the outside world is all awry. Living in my car in Los Angeles many, many years ago, I found myself walking through Ralph's on a daily basis, as much for its normalcy, grocery stores are mostly alike wherever you are, as for its novelty, each grocery store has its own local wares. (And then, of course, there were the samples, which my child also pilfers today.) Likewise, in New Orleans, I found myself drawn to Zara's, the tiny neighborhood grocery store on Prytania. It was the first time I'd ever seen a neighborhood grocer, and I felt as if I'd traveled back in time. I can still remember vividly watching the manager peel back the unappealing brown skin of onions to make the display tidy and attractive, the onions shiny and purple. Even though the goods were probably the same as what I'd have found in a larger store, they seemed different, specially chosen. I suppose because the space was so small, I assumed special choices had to be made. And in Nashville, I'm drawn to the old Lowe's because I see the same people there every time, people from my church or from my neighborhood, and so it feels a little like a home away from home. A home on a special occasion when everyone has gathered together in the kitchen.

So I find myself repeating the pilgrimages of the past with my own child, driving down country roads while Fain reads to me from Captain Underpants, in order to buy the same groceries that I might have bought just down the street. Insisting instead on Smith's for its local customs, the three toy trains set up for Christmas, suspended overhead so that amazed children can walk around and around following their paths while parents plunder the spice aisle. The Christmas trees and the old-fashioned candy barrels, the over the top holiday decor mounted on the tops of the freezers and shelves, wherever they fit, the temptation of meatloaf made fresh in the deli and the blackberry cobbler, a former student talking and joking at the cash register, a local woman referring to the employees by name. It feels like being home for the holidays. Over the river and through the woods, to the grocery store we go.
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A Mirror, A Summer, A Street by Autumn Crisp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.