Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Books of 2011

The Sacred Ordinary Best of 2011 Reading List. 

These books were not published in 2011 - they are just the most splendidly written books that I happened to snuggle up with during the year. 


I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
Here if You Need Me - Kate Braestrup
     Moving recollections of the author's sensitive work as chaplain during search and rescue operations for the Maine Warden Service.
36 Views of Mount Fuji - Cathy N. Davidson
     An armchair visit to Japan through an American writer's eyes.
Making Toast - Roger Rosenblatt
     A writer/grandfather accounts family life after the unexpected death of his daughter.
Broken Vessels - Andre Dubus
     see July post:  The woman with one and one half legs
Meditations from a Moveable Chair - Andre Dubus
     ditto above
Truth and Beauty - Ann Patchett
     The story of her unusual relationship with Lucy Grealy


Room - Emma Donoghue
State of Wonder - Ann Patchett
Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese


The Field - Lorna Cahall


The Writing Life - Annie Dillard
Unless It Moves The Human Heart - Roger Rosenblatt
The Memoir Project - Marion Roach Smith

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Pain of Unloved Presents

It's difficult to disappoint our son with the wrong present.  I don't think he ever expects to really like a present, so when something is truly a wrong match for him, he easily puts a positive spin on it by saying something like: 

"Where did you find this?"  or "It must have been expensive." 

I, on the other hand, really enjoy a nice present and hope that my husband will surprise me with something soft or beautiful or will get me a pair of my favorite exercise pants.  (He did.)

Last birthday, my husband stunned me with corkscrew earrings.  Corkscrews with levers, for opening lilliputian wine bottles. 

"Aren't they great?"  He wants to know.

I'm stunned beyond lying.

"They're great."

Later he says, "I can tell that you don't like your earrings because you didn't say thank you."

"You think I don't like them?"

His words ring in my ears on Christmas morning when I open an elaborately decorated package from Bali.  We have several Buddhas around the house and I'm guessing it's another quiet praying statue. 

It's a wooden sculpture of a naked woman in cobra pose.  Her buttocks is unusually round and large.  Her breasts are sharply pointed.  Her hands and feet are long and flat to support the form.  She has a ponytail. 

Right away I say it.  "Thank you!"

"I know you don't like it, but you'll learn to like it." 

He expects me to put it on display.

"You don't like it because you're not comfortable with your body."

I do not think this is the source of my feeling about the sculpture, and note that I have not claimed any dislike.

Our newly opened presents are scattered on the coffee table.  Dry sausages, cashews, canned oysters, stuffed penguins, a camera pen, a book on Italian food, and the naked yogini that traveled all the way from Bali. 

I remember the pain of not liking the corkscrew earrings.  Melvin's pain that I did not like his gift.  My pain that I hurt him because I didn't like his gift.  I'm determined to make Melvin's feelings more important than a piece of wood. 

I nestle the yogini near a plant on my chest of drawers.  Admittedly, she is slightly behind the plant, but she is going to help me hold Melvin's joy and love thoughtfully and tenderly.  She  will remind me to practice gratitude for my wonderful and caring husband.  I will visit the yogini every night when I take off my earrings and every morning when I put them on, and be thankful that at least they do not have wing lever corkscrews on them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I ache to draw.

At morning coffee (a ritual like Matins to be prayed each day, alone or in company) a still life image emerges.  Drain Board with Dormant Orchid.  Beside is an inverse coffee carafe and cone, a sharp knife, the glass jar my husband uses for his morning fiber, all framed by perfect taupe tiles. 

I take out a pencil. 

That's when the proportions start laughing at me.  I try drawing only the plant, but its leaves show their undersides and my pencil can't pry the knot apart.  Instead of stamping my feet, I sigh and think about getting a teacher, but what if I STILL couldn't draw?

Trying to draw - even thinking about trying to draw - alters my perception.  Now the man walking past with puffy skin is handsome in his complexity.  The discarded cup in a pile of leaves is a play of texture.  Even crumbs on my desk as I type are precious details that make this corner of the universe different from the rest.

But I still ache to draw.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beer and the Afterlife

My friend, Bob Erskine, is a cartoonist and painter.  A creative genius really.  I asked him to inspire me with a blog topic.

He suggested I. P. A.

That would be India Pale Ale.

     "You mentioned it last year in your yoga blog.  Also, I see all of these empty IPA boxes in your livingroom."

Oh, those boxes?  The ones holding firewood.  Surely Bob doesn't think I drank all that beer.  Hasn't he heard of going to the liquor store just to ask for the empty boxes?

Ok.  I like beer.  My current favorite is Triple Hop Belgian Style India Pale Ale.  Sierra Nevada's Torpedo is very good, as is Flying Dog's Raging Bitch .  (this refers to a dog of course)  Both of these beers are To Die For on tap, but so far I've managed to hold the line against installing one in the refrigerator.  

Which brings me to the topic of Beer and the Afterlife.

Many of us grew up singing, 

     In heaven there is no beer.
     That's why we drink it here.
     And when we're gone from here.
     Well our friends will be drinking all the beer.

I realize now that is children's superstition, and put my faith in the likes of the early Irish Saint Brigid, who espouses a mature spirituality in her poem, The Heavenly Banquet.

     I would like to have the men of Heaven in my own house;
     with vats of good cheer laid out for them.
     I would like to have the three Marys, their fame is so great,
     I would like people from every corner of Heaven.
     I would like them to be cheerful in their drinking;
     I would like to have Jesus sitting here among them.
     I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
     I would like to be watching Heaven's family
     Drinking it through all eternity.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Woo-Woo Shopping

We went to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia partly to "take the waters", but mostly as an excuse to get out of town.  

Before our hydrotherapy appointment we browse the shops - buy earrings for Andrea and smell the soaps and incense.  A Tibetan shop-owner welcomes us when we walk into Himalayan Handcrafts where a table of singing bowls are on display.  I ask him to play one for us.  I've tried before with poor results.  He plays and then teaches me to hold the mallet firmly with a pencil grip.  To trace the rim lightly, and when the sound arrives, to circle slower. 

Melvin has his credit card.  I have mine as well, but am not good with extravagances.  Besides, this woo-woo stuff embarrasses me. 

We play many bowls.   I do not allow myself to look at prices.  I only listen to the tones.  Like a devil on my shoulder, my husband keeps asking, "Which one do you like?"  Because I want them all, it becomes easy to justify buying just one.  It's beginning to feel sinful not to buy three or seven.  The tone from a small bowl penetrates my forehead.  A different bowl vibrates my sternum. 

I justify spending the money as an investment in my health.  A spiritual prophylactic.  In the mornings I will meditate and the pure tone will help carry my prayer.  

My only effort will be to trace the empty bowl.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Careful of the Quiet Ones

I go into a co-worker's office.  A quiet co-worker.  The kind who only speaks when spoken to.  A person who only opens his lips the minimum required to produce speech. 

Taking the lead, I initiate small talk, inquiring about the co-worker's recent vacation.  He and his family had taken a train trip to the World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. 

     "How was it?"

Storm clouds pass the co-worker's brow.  He shakes his head.  It turns out national barbecue competitions are serious business.  It's all about Watching Barbeque.  And Watching Barbeque had not been the plan.  All of that talent.  All of that roasting meat.  All of his family eating Subway sandwiches for lunch.  The co-worker also confided that the the 30-hour train trip en famille has cured him of his love of train travel. 

The story is painful and absurd.  I say, "That would make a great blog post."

The quiet co-worker replies, "You're right.  I've been a little dry lately.  Maybe I'll use it." 


This silent man has a blog.  At first he didn't want to give me the URL.

     "It must be naughty!"

     "Well.  It's not that naughty..... I let my parents read it."

Josh has been blogging since 2006.  He wants to be a writer!  He is a writer!  (except for those otherwise occupied hours from 9 - 5.)

So quiet. 

All of those unspoken thoughts, shared only on the World Wide Web.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Going Away to College

Girls are unloading funky desk lamps, personal cases of bottled water and plastic bins of colorful textiles.  A family from New Jersey unloads a full-length mirror in store packaging.  Another freshman has a floppy stuffed dog.  Everyone carries plastic Target bags. 

Here's what my son brought:

  • Laptop, Laptop charger
  • Telephone, Telephone charger
  • Pocket Knife
  • 1 sheet set, comforter and pillow (all white)
  • 0 Towel
  • Leather Dopp Kit
  • Industrial stapler (still in packaging)
  • Extra staples
  • Allergy Medicine
  • 2 Packs of Mechanical Pencils
  • 0 Paper
  • 0 Backpack
  • 0 Coat
  • The Clothes on His Back
There was also a sample pack of Woolite that I'd slipped in with his bedding.

     "What's this?"

     "Laundry detergent."

     "Oh, I don't use that."

The only thing harder than raising this strong-minded young person is having to say goodbye to him.  I stink at goodbyes and have been dreading this one for 18 years.

On the drive up to Philadelphia we listened to music - Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for a Common Man, and Wachet auf.  I tried to engage David with stories of my own freshman year.  I told him about Marie Claire Alain, the famous French organist who gave a master class for our department.  To clarify her point about the chorale, "Wachet auf", she referred to my friend Gilbert's music score.  The one on which he had written in all capitals, "WACK IT OFF!"   Gilbert and I pressed our knuckles against our mouths, and hoped against hope that her English was not that good.  It's hard to get a laugh out of my son, so I don't mind telling an off color story to achieve my goal. 

It's also hard to make him cry.

Then I told the story of my own moving-out.  It was my 2nd moving out, or maybe my 3rd, but my parents would not let me take my rug - my own faux oriental rug that Elaine had given me. 

     "Why?"  David wanted to know.

     "Because they knew if the rug was gone, that I would be gone."

David and his father adore each other.  They still snuggle together on the sofa and walk arm in arm down the street.  I've been wondering how this separation would go for them.  David spends the car trip giving his very best effort to make his father angry.  Melvin doesn't understand the sneaky technic and keeps snapping at the bait.  David clips his long toenails and fingernails, purposely scattering the leavings all over the car seat.  David wants to stop at Starbucks for a Venti Hot Chocolate, but then he doesn't drink it.  He buys a Roy Rogers bacon cheeseburger at the rest stop, but doesn't open it. 

Do you remember when rest stops were two outhouses, a picnic table, and maybe a pump for water?  No gas station, no Quiznos, no Popeyes, no jewelry, head pillows, sunglasses or Starbucks mugs from all 50 states.  Such crap.  And still I want to buy things for David.  Even though a small fortune is being spent on his college tuition (actually, it is not that small), I still want to buy presents.  Snacks for the dorm.  A stuffed penguin for company.  Something to hang on the wall.  Even sunglasses or a set of headphones would do.  I want to give him things and make him happy.  Thankfully, he saves me from myself by wanting nothing at all.  Except, now and then, to spend a little time with me. 

Around Philadelphia, David starts reviewing the dormitory check-in information.  "In order to obtain your dragon card (necessary for food and housing) students must present valid photo identification."

     "Did you bring your passport?"

     "Nobody told me!"

     "JEESUS, DAVID!!!!"

     "This document is 20 pages long.  They can't expect me to read all of that!"

Parents launch into plans A B C and D of how to get the passport.  Drive back to D.C.?  Fed Ex?  Call his uncle?  Whose Responsibility Is This Anyway?  Send David back by train to solve it himself?  Parents disagree, sparring in the car's close quarters.

     "Why are you two getting so worked up?  It's no big deal."


Upon arrival, David insists on going to the dormitory first, even though it's two hours before his assigned check-in time and we want him to pay his tuition first and find out about the elusive dragon card ID problem.  We drive up to Towers Dormitory - 15 floors of freshmen humanity.  The street is heavily patrolled by security who hand us a yellow parking pass for 20 minutes and instruct us that we must unload in that amount of time or we WILL be ticketed.  David slowly puts on his socks and then his sneakers, which he ties carefully, evening out the shoelace ends.  He goes inside to inquire and shortly comes out with three ID bracelets.  Smiling, he says, "Come on up!"

After installing David's modest belongings in his dorm, we leave him to address the administrative tasks.  Later in the day we call to check in.

     "How's it going?"

     "Great!  I paid my tuition.  They gave me my dragon card."

     "Can we come over and give you a goodbye hug?"

     "Sure!  Duong is here."

When we get to the room, David and Duong are playing a computer game.  Why did I think those things would disappear in college?  Duong is not his roommate, but is from DC.  They  met for the first time one hour ago. 

We visit for a short while, and then I say,

     "Mel and I need to go."

     "OK.  Bye."

     "No.  No.  I want a hug."


6'3" comes over and I get my hug.  Then I scurry out the door so they won't see me teary eyed.

We leave David and Duong - two friends from the old country who have met in the new world.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Italian Night

Here's what we planned:  Dinner at Buca di Beppo, a fun Italian restaurant our teenaged son discovered.  Bocco di Beppo serves "family sized" entrees "family style".  This is perfect.  The adults can have a bottle of wine and the family can choose just one entree for three to share.  My son said Buca di Beppo's cheesecake was the best, so that was part of the plan as well.  After supper Mel and I would walk to a 7:30 movie and David would go home to meet his friend for their endless computer network project.  

My son and I were meeting Mel at the restaurant.  We left five minutes late.  Then we went back home for an unlocked door.  We exited the wrong end of the train and walked the wrong direction for five minutes before walking five more minutes in the correct direction.  Once at the restaurant there was an obligatory "tour", part of the Buca di Beppo experience.  We saw The Pope's Table, The Cardinal's Table, The Kitchen Table and a photo of the world's largest bowl of spaghetti with a man diving into it.

Settling into our table, the family fun begins.  My son wants both baked rigatoni and chicken parmesan.  For an appetizer he wants either bruschetta or garlic cheese bread (I'm allowed to choose).  I remind him about the "family sized portions", diplomatically stating my preference for one entree and one appetizer.  SOMEONE suggests, "We can just bring home whatever we don't eat!"  (The noodles with a dab of riccotta, mozzerella and sauce cost $16.95.)

I resign myself. 

Next on the menu is dinnertime conversation.  My son can transform any bit of friendly chat from debate into a full-fledged argument.  We dabble with various topics - chain restaurants vs. independent restaurants.  We discuss different types of food and learn that "Jewish Food" is not possible because it's a religion and not a country.  Following futile attempts to explain the diaspora, I sputter, "I think we should talk about something else."

The servings of garlic cheese bread, chicken parmesan and baked rigatoni come.  We eat everything in sight, and I am left with double defeat.  My caloric intake has been tipped ominously over the recommended daily allowance, and, worse than that, I was WRONG about the portion sizes.

When the server asks if we would like dessert, my son says,

     "Three cheesecakes, please."

Oh God.

     "No.  No.  Two cheesecakes."

     "I want you to try it.  It's the best cheesecake."

     "I want to try it too, but I just want one little bite."
     "We can take it home!"

     "I don't want to take it home.  In case you haven't noticed, one slice of cheesecake costs $11.45."

All the while I'm holding two TWO fingers up for the server to see.  Back in my day a piece of cheesecake cost 75 cents.  I can't bear that it's $11.45.  My bathroom scale can't bear that a slice of cheesecake weighs one pound.  SOMEONE looks at the server and says,

     "Three cheesecakes."

I hate this family.

I insist the server bring the cake in a box.

The cheesecake arrives.  I try a bite.  It's good.  It's better than the rigatoni and would have been a more satisfying main course.  My son doesn't think it's as good as the last time he had it.  He doesn't think it will taste good the next day.  Melvin says, "I can bring it to work for lunch!"  I forbid him to put it in my kitchen refrigerator.  It must be kept in the one in the basement where I won't mistake it for my morning cereal.  At this point we have a heated discussion about whose refrigerator it is and what rights I do and do not have about its contents.

My son's cell phone rings.  It's his computer date.  He's late for their appointment.  It's now 7:40, ten minutes past when our movie, a 30 minute walk away, begins.  I roll with it gracefully.

     "I wasn't that interested in the movie anyway.  Really I just wanted a nice dinner with you guys and to try this fun restaurant."

We go to the subway together.  When the crowded train arrives, Melvin and I instinctively grab the only two available seats.  One wordless glance from our son conveys:  What am I, chopped liver that I don't get to sit down?  If you really loved me you would not be so selfish and leave me standing in this aisle.

     "Well, you could sit on my lap..."

Immediately, all 6'3" of his loving 18 year old man-self plops into my lap, his arm gently brushing the Wall Street Journal of the man sitting next to us.  My son has a gynourmous head of fluffy red hair.  He is not a person to overlook.  Every passenger of the subway car directs his vision to their books or telephones or shoelaces as my son rests his head on top of mine.  At the next stop some seats become available. 

     "There's a seat behind us.  Would you like one?"

     "No.  I'm perfectly happy right here."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ellie in Yellow

I remember Ellie in yellow
     hiding behind her mother's dress,
          afraid to come in for her piano lesson.

Now she wears the high heeled shoes of a lady.
     She knows to keep them on for two hours
          and no longer than that.

She knows how to walk with sure steps
     up to the big black piano
          where she plays Beethoven.

Her hair is dark and longer than anyone's,
     and in her trim skirt and yellow blouse
          she gives her music to God and Everybody.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Man Mugged for Bible

"Authorities are looking for three muggers who punched and kicked a Bronx man before stealing his Bible.  The NYPD says the attack in Fordham Heights was captured on surveillance video."

 - From news services

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rose Gardens

Thirty years ago we walked in the rose garden at Hartford's Elizabeth Park.  It's an amazing place, but we thought it was ordinary because it was just, you know, the park.  There was a pond where we fed leftover bread to ducks.  We brought apples for a snack, and ate some bread if we were still hungry.

Then we walked to his apartment and watched the shades of light change on the wall as the sun went down.  We ate smoked gouda and canned asparagus on a wooden table with a red and white table cloth. 

We have only rarely been apart from each other since that time.  And when we are apart, we have a letter (remember those?) or a telephone call.

In 1981 we were just finishing college. 

This fall our 18 year old son will begin college. 

We wish him academic success, good friendships, gardens,
and rose colored sunsets.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Woman With One and One Half Legs

My friend, Fern, teaches yoga for all abilities.  She works with older people and not so old people who sometimes do yoga sitting in chairs and moving what they can.  When they finish class, they've had good yoga practice filled with healthy, mindful breathing, stretching and loving attention for their bodies and souls.   

The yoga studio I go to is more of the sexy-hot-pants variety.  This is unfortunate since I'm more of the fitting-into-my-pants variety, but I work with what I've got.

This morning at sexy-hot-pants yoga we practiced in a circle, each student a spoke of the wheel facing center.  Most were lithe young women.  A few people taking the class were also teachers.  I spot them not only by the quality of their movement but by the quality of their focus.  They don't follow the teacher's lead, but follow their "inner teacher", noticing what their body requires in each moment.  This morning that meant while the rest of the class was standing in Warrior I, one teacher/student was in a kneeling lunge.

This beautiful yogini had intensity and focus that made you notice.  Her practice was 100%.  She gave herself over to glory.  She also made massive adaptations to her poses.  That inspires me since the fitting-into-my-pants practice is such a work in progress.  

The beautiful yogini wore black knee length shorts.  One of her legs ended at the hem line.  She was missing the portion of her leg from the knee down.  A round plastic nub was at the bottom of her shorts. 

I've been thinking a lot about legs and motion.  Last week I happened across "Meditations from a Moveable Chair", a beautiful collection of personal essays by Andre Dubus about his life as lover, father, person of faith, writer, and accident victim/survivor.  One of his legs had been amputated and he could not use the other.  Dubus so craved the feeling of his body in motion that each morning after daily Mass he wheeled his chair around the slopes of the church parking lot for an hour while singing at the top of his lungs.  (he sang torch songs)

Thank you, Andre Dubus for your beautiful essays.  Thank you, teacher for your inspiration.

Friday, June 24, 2011

True Worship

Be a gardener. 
Dig a ditch,
toil and sweat,
and turn the earth upside down
and seek the deepness
and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor
and make sweet floods to run
and noble and abundant fruits
to spring.
Take this food and drink
and carry it to God
as your true worship.

 - Julian of Norwich

Photo by Catherine Anderson

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sacred Objects

The structural engineer declared our house sound.  He also gently suggested the slight sag in our bedroom floor could be eased by lightening the attic load. 

Mel and I both want to clean out the attic which is stuffed with old life vests, holiday mugs, a turn table, 2 Monopoly sets, a penguin lamp, a wooden duck, a food grinder, 60s T.V. trays, and much much more.

Yesterday I learned that Laurie, whose baby was due last Wednesday, did not have a rocking chair, and so I was very happy to pull ours out of the attic for a worthy cause.  Mel and I bought the chair when our son was just a few weeks old, and since he was the orneriest non-sleeper, he and I spent MANY hours in it - him nursing and me reading novels, or just kissing and sniffing his head.

I didn't tell Laurie, but there is a little milk stain on the chair.  How could I give the rocker to a stranger when it had this precious mark that had passed between my son's mouth and my body?  Laurie and I were both happy with the exchange - she for getting a free chair and me for giving the sacred artifact to someone I hold in affection. 

The little guy that I used to rock in the chair is going away to college this fall, and I still kiss his head when I have a chance, now through a massive red afro.  And I still give it a little sniff sometimes as well.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spirit Shed

Today's Washington Post has an article about a high school in Chantilly, VA with a marvelously inspired outbuilding called a Spirit Shed.  The reason the Post found it newsworthy was that it is being demolished to make room for road improvement.

I wondered, "What's a Spirit Shed"? and then, "How nice that a high school in Chantilly had a Spirit Shed."  And finally "Maybe I need one for myself." 

In the past, when I've thought about a dedicated space for prayer or meditation, the structure had the shape of a Japanese Tea House, eventually involving gardens of moss and stone with koi ponds, arching bridges and 40 year old wisteria vines.

Now I see that I need a more practical approach.  It will be a simple structure.  Neighbors will walk by and ask, "What's that in your backyard?" and I'll say, "Oh, that's the Spirit Shed."  I can even paint the alley side with large lettering that reads, "SPIRIT SHED".  I'll invite people in to take a look.  The newspaper will come and do an article on it.  Before long people up and down Veazey Street and 37th and from even further away will be constructing Spirit Sheds of their own.  They will become so popular that Home Depot and Sears will have them pre-made and available from their on-line catalogues. 

For the Spiritual Do-It-Yourselfer

Handsome 12 x 12 Spirit Shed.  Guaranteed for Many Lifetimes.  Fits perfectly into any backyard.  Customer reviews report that once spiritual lives are in order, everything is in order.  This must-have for your spiritual tool box is maintenance free, creating even more time for your spiritual needs.  Do yourself a favor and order your Spirit Shed today.  Assembly Required.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


At the beginning of yoga class, teachers often say "close your eyes and set an intention for your practice."  Again at the end of class they will ask the class to recall their intentions.

My intentions vary.  Originally they were along the lines of, "Intention?  What the hell's an Intention?".  After a few months of that I began setting the intention, "To Survive the Class". 

Now my most common intention has been "Healing for Myself."  Some days I practice at a higher level and intend, "Healing for Others" or "Being a Good and Holy Person All Day Long" or the simplified version of that, "Not Being a Snot to My Family". 

Today the intention that came to me was "Strength".  To be strong in class and after class.  I'm not the strongest practitioner.  I'm a back row weenie.  I do chaturangas on my knees and side plank with one knee down.  Headstands are science fiction.  

But today was my Strong day.  Even so, there came a point when I substituted a "Fuck That Asana" and just lay on my back while the rest of the class did ab work.  Still, it was a great practice - one of my best.  I like practicing next to Josh who also modifies all of his poses. 

I'm going to start keeping a list of my yoga intentions in the word processing document where I keep a daily weight log.  Today will read:

February 2, 2011 STRENGTH  142 pounds

(Which is not really my fault.  It must have been last night's salty Gruyere and Sausage Stratta that did it, or maybe it was the third serving.  So much for good intentions.)