Category Archives: Memoir Writing

The Art of Slow Cooking

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The day my father retired he threw away every suit he owned save one basic blue.

He also shifted into low, easy gear. A sort of simmering Crock-Pot sense of being.

He walked no farther than the mailbox or the perimeter of his one-acre suburban ranch of weed-less green lawn.

He leisurely patrolled his tiny fiefdom in a new uniform:

  • a mesh baseball cap
  • polo shirt
  • high-waisted, flat-butt jeans
  • a pair of Thom McAn loafers .  .  . with ruptured toe boxes where bunion bouquets emerged.

His days were largely spent on the back porch in the rubber band rocking chair. Reading the local newspaper. Smoking cigarettes. Drinking cans of Old Milwaukee.

By afternoon, he was finished with printed words.

His eyes slightly glazed and dreamy, he’d sink into contemplative silence.

Thoughts simmering like a thin stew.

His body beginning to look like a portly little pot.

And after 8 to 10 hours of back-porch marinating, he’s be ready to uncork a vat of ancient memories and freshly-poached wisdom.

Dad spinning a yarn to my brother.

 

From him, I learned there are two forms of retirement:

  • The Outer: the pride of possessions earned and achievements polished for posterity.
  • The Inner: the reflective retiring.

This last one fascinated me.

Those methodically lazy days. The slow-cookery living. My dad perfected them and gifted them to me as the legacy for his firstborn.

The stride meant for my adoption .  .  . a bit like a monk with an imaginary monastery.

But honestly, I feel rather lost and lonely trying to step in his footprints. I long for the days of his endless stories and jokes, no matter how stale. They gave me a steady sense of place.

 

 

Killing Faith

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I set up my writing materials on the picnic table at Abó, one of New Mexico’s more obscure Pueblo ruins.

This had been my Sunday ritual for a year or more. I was both seduced and inspired by the crumbling red rocks of the former Spanish Mission church. The rocks that are as red as dried blood; as red as the passion of a savior.

I’d been so enthralled by the tumbling rocks, in fact, that I wandered well off the path several times and was caught, reprimanded, and placed on probation by Officer Lopez, who was protector of the sacred Indian ruins.

It was a humorously embarrassing moment. He wanted to restrict my presence there; I fought for compromise. Eventually we agreed that I must check in with him at the Visitor’s Center each Sunday before entering the grounds.

I wanted a solitary place to pray and seek peace. He wanted to enforce justice. We coexisted for a few weeks with the tension of warriors. But I softened one day and decided to attempt a truce of faith.

As he was making his rounds one Sunday morning, I inwardly willed Officer Lopez to come to the picnic area and talk with me.

I gathered up all the juju and prayer power I could, placed it in a mental bouquet, then set to work typing.  Within thirty minutes, I heard him call out, “Hello Jayni!”

He waved.  Asked how I was.  Faltered a bit.  I coaxed him on with conversation.

We talked for nearly half an hour.

I learned that he was a marine for five years.  Officer Lopez stated that when he was in the Marines, he and his buddies wanted to go to war…wanted to kill.

I have never met anyone who actually wanted to kill people.  Someone who was excited and eager to not just exercise his military training – but wanted to kill.  His body vibrated as he spoke those words.  His face animated.

I am awed.

I crave to crawl behind this man’s militant majesty and find out how it feels to want to kill.

What animal instinct inspires a person to be excited about killing?

What is the thrill within the kill?

Why am I intrigued enough to pursue the conversation further?

Why do I want to learn about raw emotion at this coarse level?

Because it is pure – clean – honest. Untangled from the bullshit psycho-spiritual labyrinth I’ve walked my entire life.

This man knows who he is, what he likes, what he wants, and takes it without apology.

I’ve spent a lifetime apologizing for myself and trying to understand why I exist.

Of course his surefootedness grabs me.

It’s simple and solid.

It offers stability and a point to rebel against.  And rebellion has always empowered me.  I was my father’s little anti-soldier.

 

But now I want to be neutral and understand the operations of my former enemies.

I don’t want enemy lines drawn.  I want lines erased.  But I also want my own truth to emerge.

I listened to Officer Lopez speak with such strong conviction.

I wonder if I will ever be able to stand even half as self-assured and state my beliefs.

I may not agree with his faith, but I admire and envy his rootedness.

His rootedness reminds me of rocks.  Of the rocks he protects.  Of the rock I want to be protected by.  Of some rocks I’ve known and wanted to live under or on the edge of.

He’ll live long in my memory .  .  . as I keep practicing the art of crawling into the light and exposing my lies and my truth.

Little White Churches

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My heart can’t resist them.

A couple years of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, circa 1970s, I realized that I wanted to live in a church.

I found a little white clapboard Baptist church near Panther Falls, Virginia.   Abandoned, because the people lost faith in the midst of poverty.   But it was still structurally solid and safely nestled inside a grove of poplar trees and scrub oak.

The steeple looked like the base of an old windmill. Above the door was a round stained glass window, with red and blue hues, that reminded me of Jupiter.

Inside, the pews were lined in rows of horizontal soldiers. A grid work of dark wood and red velvet seat cushions. The room was small but it felt spacious because of the ascending ceiling and the choir loft that touched the clouds when fog descended.

The sunlight that crept through the trees was misty by the time it met the colored windows lining the building’s side walls. The interior was a mixture of light and dark and every color of the rainbow in-between. It was peaceful and solemn.

I love churches when they are empty.

Always have.

Those beautiful little handcrafted edifices without rituals, but with the accessories necessary to conduct one as décor.

A place to be still.

A place to call home.

I was too poor to buy that church and unable to convince the owners to rent it, but I still harbor a yearning to live in that Appalachian church-home.

I have thought lovingly of it for three+ decades. Every time I drive by a little white church of any denomination, my heart rejoices.

After I moved to the village of Estancia, New Mexico, several years back, I quickly discovered that around the corner from my tiny house was one of the sweetest white churches of all times.

Methodist.

Not acquainted with the religion, but I fell in love with the building. And when I learned that the back door was kept unlocked, on weekday afternoons after work, I’d slip in, sit on the red velvet cushion, and gaze through the painted glass windows. Noting that the southern exposures were singed – the edges of Jesus’ garments and the corners of the Last Supper’s tablecloth all charred and curling.

The wooden pews were arranged in arcs, with two aisles, like a huddle around the pulpit. Behind the lectern were tables draped in white fabrics that support forests of white taper candles.

I’d sit silently at different degrees of the arcs. Each radial angle reflective in a different color or shadow. I’d bow my head in some form of prism prayer.

Sitting in this church – alone – always washed me clean. Something about the simplicity of white that calms and renews.

I don’t yet understand my passion for little white wooden churches, but they invite my heart in.

They inspire confession.

When I feel filthy, a white church is my soap and washcloth.

And often I have some crazy sense of unclean.

I am always housecleaning; I am always heart-cleaning.

What am I obsessed with washing away?

Vacuuming some sin from the floor boards of my heart?

Scouring the toilet bowl of my soul?

Dusting the mantle of my mind?

Why is life – so messy – that I devote a lifetime to cleaning my space-of-being?

That I sit in empty churches to inhale purity?

That I focus my meditation upon the white fabrics draping from altars?

Sometimes I find my inner being crawling through the tunnels and webs of woven fibers, searching for the secret of the shroud.

I have never understood this passion for textiles either.

Maybe because fabric is tangible. Because I can see it constructed from its source – from the flax plants and silkworms and cotton pods.

I can track its progression. I can touch and smell its existence. I can also get lost in the fantasy of its lavish embroidery and festive beadwork.

I’m no fan of the new gospel churches that believe in bare warehouses as places of undistracted worship.

I need the distraction of beauty.

Especially the pageantry of ecclesiastical textiles.

I like sparse, but I need highlights of fabric embellishment. Lightly speaking: Holy dust clothes move me.

Sometimes I think that my deepest faith lies in empty churches and fabric. Somewhere in the honeycombs of stitchery, a wing of truth waits.

In a dust mote. In a spider’s dew-damp leg. In a tendril from a tightly-plied linen thread.

It’s absurdly simple. And mind-twistingly complex: sitting in empty white churches, contemplating sacred textiles, I find some sort of rogue religion.

And how happy was I, after remarrying, to find a tiny, tattered, white church about a mile away from my new home on the prairie.

A safe haven.

It offers peace of presence: Just knowing it’s sitting there .  .  . wind-beaten and bare .  .  . on a lonely dirt road.

A bit like someone’s stained and gritty coffee cup left behind.

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories

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One of the most alluring mysteries of my life continues to be my maternal grandfather, Papa B.

I hope that I never solve his enigma; I want him to inspire my imagination as I grow old.

Here’s a little vignette that introduces my fascination with his aura of being:

WHISKEY THEOLOGY

 

Every Thanksgiving I am most thankful for the memories of my grandfather, Papa Ballard. I can see him arriving on the Amtrak train from Newark, New Jersey. Stepping out onto the unsheltered concrete platform in Trenton.

He was a short, thin Irish man with hollowed features. His face wore a serious, “living-elsewhere” expression like the shadow of a leprechaun. In his left hand he carried his luggage. In his right hand he carried a cardboard box with a pliable white plastic handle. Inside nested a 24-pound turkey.

This was his annual contribution of our family gatherings. His employer gave a large frozen turkey to each company member as a holiday gift. And, Papa B., not having a built-in family, traveled south to share his plucked wealth with us.

He spent the four-day weekend with my parents, brother, and me. He and my grandmother, Toot, were still married. It was their encore marriage. A second chance that appeared reluctant because they chose to live in separate cities. I don’t know that they ever saw or talked with each other except during the most festive holidays when Papa B. grew tired of living alone and ventured off by train. This being the urban horse of inner city dwellers in the early 1960’s.

When I hugged Papa B. at the station, he smelled of damp wool that had inhaled tobacco smoke and captured it like a spider in its web of fibers. His voice was raspy and congested. He always seemed to be overwhelmed by the display of children’s affection. He couldn’t hold a hug for too long. He had to release and step back. Compose himself. Then greet my father with a handshake. My mother, his beloved daughter “Skibus,” was the only person who received a full-length hug.

My brother and I adored Papa B. Mostly because he was quiet and mysterious. Later, I learned that he had abandoned Toot and their two children and run off to California for a while. He also served time in prison for embezzling state money while serving as Tax Collector. But before I knew the details of his criminal past, I was enchanted by his aloofness. I think we all were, but only we children were brave enough to admit it.

Papa B.’s first stop once inside our house was to unpack his small black satchel in whatever room had been designated the guest room for that weekend. People would double-up in bedrooms, or someone would sleep on the sofa, just to accommodate our special guest.

I would creep upstairs and tiptoe around corners, just to peek in and observe the ritual. The hanging of button-down cotton shirts and dark pleated trousers on wire coat hangers. Then, the queuing of personal items along the bathroom sink counter: a toothbrush in a plastic traveling case, toothpaste, a hand razor and shaving cream.

On hands and knees, I watched his brown oxfords with skinny laces and punched-leather toes, crisscross the carpeted hallway. When the feet descended the stairs, I jumped to attention. Once his footsteps reached the end of the hallway, I snuck down the stairs. Sliding along the banister so I could step on the thickest edge of carpet. Silent as a stalking cat, I entered the family room. Then watched Papa B. settle into the corner of the sofa, next to the end table with the reading lamp.

He would pull his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and place them on the table. From another pocket, he would pull a pack of cigarettes and arrange them next to the amber crackle-glass ashtray. The Newark Star Ledger posed in his lap like a rolling pin. Papa B. removed the paper’s rubber band garter much like my mother unrolled her stockings and slid them down her slender legs.

He unfurled the snuggly clinging paper. Smoothed out the wrinkles with his long, filigree fingers.

Before he had time to begin reading, my mother served him a glass of Irish whiskey. She set it down on the altar of reading materials. It was a short glass, with two ice cubes. It reminded me of the communion chalice at church. Polished and waiting on its hand-embroidered cloth. Waiting for the end of the sermon when the pastor would raise it in his right hand and accuse it of being the blood of Christ. Then he drank the blood and called for the elders to serve sewing-thimble glasses of wine to each congregation member squirming in the wooden pews.

I would wait for my grandfather to mount his reading glasses on his long bumpy nose. Then light a cigarette and begin reading the front page news.

The whiskey glass would stand still, ice slowly melting into its clear liquid existence. By page three – the local news – Papa B. would raise the glass and sip. So softly that it looked like he was kissing a glass lip.

He would read and sip and smoke for a couple of hours. Not wanting to talk. Just wanting to ingest.

When my mother called us all to the dining room table, we took our assigned seats. Bowed our heads for grace. Toasted to our health with the tinkling of crystal wine and water glasses.

My father carved the turkey with the electric carving knife. I chose the white breast meat. Papa B. chose the leg with its moist dark meat. He helped himself to scalloped oysters – a favorite casserole that my mother prepared for her father only on this day each year.

After biting into its toasted Saltine cracker crumb topping, his shoulders slumped. He sighed. He seemed to relax and crawl out of his cocoon.

He began to talk. To talk of all the information he had been accumulating: stories about Newark. Stories from around the world. Historical facts.

Papa B. was a human encyclopedia. I loved to listen to his husky voice as it spoke like an ancient teacher. Like someone who knew more than a few dark secrets of knowledge.

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories

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Java Jolt - An Out-of-Tune Life

When I was growing up in the 1950s, radio was the Queen of Media. Especially in my family.

My parents didn’t even buy a television until the late 50s, so, I’m deeply in-tuned to the waves of radio frequency.

So much so, in fact, that I consider it religion within my secular upbringing.

Here’s a little memory of my mother’s kitchen cathedral belching out its radio religion:

Vintage Radio

Every Sunday night at dinnertime, my mother tuned the radio to WOR AM 710 on-the-dial. She blared the preaching of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, broadcast live from Grace Cathedral Church in New York City.

We chewed pot roast and potatoes in rhythm to Norman’s power of positive thinking. My father claimed indigestion and left the table early. My brother and I had to remain until our plates were clean. We were, after all, eating on behalf of all the starving children in India. Norman wasn’t interested in feeding the poor, however. He was focused upon increasing the wealth and well-being of the world’s wealthiest people. Something seemed askew to me in the theology. Religion and business were married. The electrical charges of thoughts were reversed. Could this be healthy? Ethical? Possible? I wondered.

I recall something dingy in the kitchen lighting on Sunday evenings that never existed on other nights. The light was amber – almost sulfurous. It bore a heavy, sickening weight. It lessened my appetite. I used to think that it was the dread of Monday morning and the return to work and school that I was feeling, but, now I wonder if the radio waves carried a power of acidity – a fog of pollutants – into our kitchen each week.

I much preferred the special Sundays when the immediate relatives would gather for supper at either Toot’s house (my maternal grandmother), or, our house. We would eat roast leg-of-lamb with pan-roasted potatoes and a dollop of mint jelly on the side. There would be salad and green beans almandine. Pillsbury bake-‘n-serve crescent rolls. And dessert. Usually a fruit pie or strawberry shortcake.

These suppers were served at 2:00 PM. Daylight was always present. And even if the kinfolk were feuding, the air was light.

I loved these occasions, especially at Toot’s, because my father couldn’t excuse himself for a football game. And my mother did not have command over the kitchen, so she was forced to relax. We four became equal. And the dining room was so elegant, with antique furniture and lace tablecloths and gleaming silver service sets. It was aglow with the history of love.

Somewhere in between church and daily life was the magic I craved. I vowed to search for it: the place that warded off the bogey men of Sunday nights and the bellowing of Norman. The place that balanced leather and lace.

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories

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Java Jolt - An Out-of-Tune Life

The first family tragedy that chiseled my character occurred when I was four years old.

The two grandmothers were recruited to assist. One lived locally in New Jersey; the other hopped aboard the Silver Meteor train up from Florida.

They collided at my childhood home, debating how best to care for me while my parents were virtually absent.

Toot, my maternal grandmother, won the match. She became my primary caretaker: walking me to Parkway Elementary on the first day of kindergarten, all the while teaching me to love bird notes and read tree leaves.

She instilled a love for the feel of yarn sliding through my finger-furrows, for doing needlepoint and embroidery. She taught me to cherish books in an active way: to read, to rummage the dictionary for meanings, to write words into sentences of expression.

Professionally, she was a junior high school English teacher turned science teacher, so, academics and children’s minds were electrically connected for her. She was, therefore, the perfect mentor for a lonely little girl who felt confused and abandoned.

Toot coaxed to life so many passions that live within me even today. For this, I’ll love her always.

One dream that we shared, though, neither one of us found a way to achieve.

We each wanted to sing.

We each failed miserably at matching vocal cord to musical note.

We each lived outside the precision of the musical staff. We lived, somehow, according to our own mathematical graph of pitch with respect to time and tempo. Although, I believe to this day that Toot was quietly convinced that she sang on key:

 

An Out-of-Tune Life

 

I hear Toot’s singing voice in my memory. The one she used in church. In the safety of a large congregation of Presbytery. The wavering silk thread of a soprano quivering like uncertain hands pulling the silk from the worm’s cocoon in the bend of a mulberry tree.

I allow myself to imagine an ideal of existence in which words and song might alter the course the events. Out of such moments, springs hope.

I hear a remote doxology:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;

Praise Him, all creatures here below;

Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host:

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

This short hymn. An expression of praise to God was of some value to Toot, and, what I extracted from these moments of interchange was of value for myself.

The church we attended was old and cold and settled in its ways of worship. It had the scent of a funeral rite, but, I felt more connected to my grandmother than to God or church.

I loved to recite the Lord’s Prayer; to chant the response after the Reverend offered the call to sing the doxology.

My faith was somehow built into an ancestry that spoke during those rituals.

I don’t know what to make of my early childhood religious experiences, but, they were not wrapped in a denomination or contained within a building or held captive in the words of a book.

They followed a person. A woman. A blood elder.

Portrait of Toot as a Young Woman

Portrait of Toot as a Young Woman

I may say that, for me, God was first found inside the upright spine and the vibrating strings plucked from an out-of-tune voice that ached to be celebrated as beautiful.

This set my own wavering voice free. Along with my questioning mind and seeking heart.

I was safe inside that out-of-tune life. And may be forevermore.