Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dividing the Pie

Starting back to work this week put me in mind of a time when I taught a class in fractions to seventh graders. We watched a video featuring a fellow who vainly tried to explain to his girlfriend why she couldn’t have 100% of his love. After all, he said, a percentage of his affections were wrapped up in his car, not to mention his bicycle, his cute science tutor, his mom and dad, his guitar, and, of course, his leather jacket. But, he promised, as he sang and danced around her, that the 8% left over was all hers.

What if your life was a big pie graph and you had to chart the outlay of your affections in fractions? How would your percentages read? Where does your strongest passion lie? Do your favorite possessions rank right up there with sweethearts and best friends and family ties? Where do things like your SUV or your new iPhone fall in the general scheme of things? Do you love things or just like them a lot? How large a piece of pie would contain favorite holidays or perfect places? What about chocolate?

These thoughts sent me running to fetch a sheet of paper, a dinner plate, a ruler, and a pencil with an eraser. I traced a circle around the plate, put a dot in the center, and sat nibbling the eraser while I contemplated just how I might apportion my adoration according to mathematical concepts.

It seemed expedient to begin with a list of whom and what I loved. I started with the obvious – family and friends – but decided the categories were too broad so I began a sub-list, identifying family members and then friends until I ran out of names. I drew a straight line from the dot to the edge of the circle and nibbled again. Where should the next line go? Did I spend the majority of my affection on my family? Should the number of names on each list determine the size of my pie slice or did the depth of my affection count for more? Where did the cat fit in? And what about concepts? I have been known to fall in love with ideas – which slice would they go in? I had room for 100% here and all of a sudden it didn’t look like enough.

I thought of all the things I love: waking up to birdsong on a spring morning, burying my nose in a bunch of bluets, taking that first sip of hot, sweet tea, green grass and pink sunsets and mud puddles and good stories, a cat curled on my lap, whipped cream on chocolate pie, my old blue sweater, kisses, movies, fresh asparagus, driving fast, warm hugs, walks in the woods, spiraling snowflakes, waves breaking on a sun-drenched beach, music, rare beefsteak, Christmas morning, mashed potatoes, birthday surprises, my old homestead, watching clouds as I lay on my back in a meadow, reading poetry, my fuzzy, leopard-spotted slippers, Mama’s old china teapot, snow angels… the list promised to be endless. And if I labeled each pie slice, would that make it immutable? What if I fell out of love with someone, or some thing? Would my percentages change?

I tore my paper into pieces. 25% of it went into the wastepaper basket. I crumpled the other 75% into a ball for the cat to play with. I felt 100% better.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There's the Door, What's Your Hurry?

I saw an article in a magazine the other day titled, “Bringing Nature Indoors.” I don’t have to bring it in; it walks in on its own. Or flies in. Or crawls in. And it doesn’t wait to be invited. Every corner harbors a spider, and, if the spider is lucky, an insect of some sort, destined to be dinner. There are ants climbing the walls and scurrying across the floor. Ladybugs inch their way across the table or fly dizzily about, landing in my hair or on my plate. There are gnats and bugs of all sorts either just passing through or setting up housekeeping. I don’t bother putting the vacuum cleaner away anymore. I want to be able to grab it quick and suck up whatever bug happens to be frightening me at the moment.

I’m not exactly frightened – more like grossed out. I don’t mind ants outside in the grass, but it gives me the willies to have several of them making a beeline in my direction along the bathroom floor while I stand barefoot making my morning ablutions. I have sprayed all the baseboards along the kitchen and bathroom walls with non-toxic ant repellent, and have set out ant traps. My hope is that word will spread amongst the ant kingdom that the lady of the house is not to be trifled with.

Spiders of every shape and size are making webs as fast as I can sweep them down. There are spindly-legged, pale brown ones; furry-legged, bulgy ones; teeny, tiny black ones; scuttling, chubby, round ones; creepy-crawly, fuzzy ones. They drop from the ceiling, inch across the floor, huddle behind the radiators, string filaments across the windowpanes, scale the sides of the sink, and lie in wait over the door. I no sooner dispatch one than ten line up behind me, waving their legs and plotting revenge.

Even though the open windows all have screens, every evening there is an onslaught of those pesky little midges that fit handily though the wire mesh. They cluster in hordes above the lamps and fuss about my face as I work at the computer. Moths bump and butt against the screens and when I come in at night, they flutter in ahead of me to commit suicide on the light bulbs. Mosquitoes line up at the door, fighting for the chance to whine in my ears the moment I drift off to sleep.

Parker, the cat, keeps the mice at bay, and there have been no bears in my backyard to date. There are bunnies aplenty but they keep a safe distance from the door, and though I made eye-to-eye contact with a possum waddling up the bank behind the cottage the other afternoon, it made no request to move in. The larger wildlings know their place. It’s the little guys – the bugs – that are bugging me.

Ah, life in the country. Nature indoors? Thanks, but I prefer mine outside.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Slacker Summer

It was going to be a summer of travel -to the west coast to visit family, to upstate New York for a week of camping, to Vermont to visit an old friend, to the eastern end of MA to visit the grands. When the longer, larger expeditions failed to happen, it became a summer of pure relaxation.

The vegetable garden, planted in the persistent June rain, failed miserably. Last summer at this time I was awash in tomatoes to be jarred, cucumbers to be pickled, corn to freeze. This summer I had exactly four cucumbers and just enough tomatoes for a meal or two. The good news? I didn't have to weed, to spend hours over a steaming kettle, spend extra on canning jars and lids. There is nothing so bad that some small good doesn't come of it.

The patio garden, on the other hand, flourished. There are five large yellow-orange pumpkins growing from the rogue seed in the compost. I have put fresh chives, parsley, oregano, basil or mint in almost every meal I've made. The flowers have grown splendidly, blooming first in shades of pink and purple and now in bright yellow as the Rudbeckia nitida 'Herbstsonne' reach for the sky. My daughter calls this the "clown" plant as the impossibly tall stalks support rather smallish blossoms in comparison to the height.

I have done some odd jobs from time to time, it's true - I've been tutoring a small boy weekly and spent time with the 93 year old mother of a friend, chauffering her to the doctor, the hairdresser, the grocery store. A former high school student brings her writing once a month or so for reading aloud and suggestions. I've been to see the grands, went to their swim meets and ball games. But the bulk of the summer vacation? I've mainly taken lessons from Parker the cat - eat well, sleep often, and greet each day with a contented smile.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Sunday In The Life Of

August mornings are often shrouded and mysterious. Today the sun was a glimmering disk, incandescent behind its misty veil. Once it broke through the fog, it pointed with golden fingers to spider webs spun overnight, sparkling like circus tents for fairies. It is easy to believe in magic and other worlds on an August morning.

Before the heat clamps down like an iron fist, I take a leisurely ride on my bicycle along the edge of the pond. The currants are ripening in a purple tangle. I pick some and nibble at the clusters of tiny, tart-sweet berries. The gentle roar of a small plane makes me look up. As I watch, the little yellow airplane heads straight up into the clear blue sky and then ever so slowly tumbles backward and dives again before leveling out and moseying off to its private grassy airfield a few miles south.

(I found this image of the actual plane on

Watching that plane roll and turn makes me think of the worlds within worlds we inhabit. Though I've been in a small plane myself and can identify with the thrill of flying, I can only guess at the pilot's thoughts as he tumbles through the blue like that. It looks so effortless and yet he's all concentration. There he is, in a world of dials and instruments and a knowledge of updrafts and tension and wind speed, while I, with my feet firmly planted on the ground think about how blue the sky is, what might tempt me for breakfast when I return home and how fast I have to ride to dodge the mosquitoes.

The middle of the day will be hot - the temperature is predicted to reach into the 90s - making a nap in the screen tent a necessity. A swim to cool off, either in my brother's pool or at a nearby lake will round out the day nicely. Sundays are rest days, after all. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow I'll clean the cottage and do the laundry and pull weeds. Today I will simply fly free.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Field Notes From the Cobble

The air is hot and muggy and full of mosquitoes. Walking in the woods is out of the question so we walk the road to the bridge. The Housatonic River rolls under the road there and winds it's way, snakelike, through a series of meadows. Farthest from the edges of road and river, the mosquitoes are fewer and it is possible to stand still for a moment to watch the water dimple and swirl over rocks and gravel as it makes its way to the Long Island Sound 100 or so miles away.

On the opposite side of the bridge is a bit of marshland bordering a vast corn field. Common egrets feed there, and a blue heron. Possums and raccoons forage at the water's edge, and foxes and coyotes hunt the small mice and voles that hide in the tall grasses. We bend over tracks left in the mud, now dried and cracked. A wild turkey has been there, and a coyote. A possum has left small starred marks and an egret landed, leaving its splayed three-toed sign.

In August the roadsides are awash in shades of white and blue. Queen Anne's Lace holds wide, saucer-like flowers to the sun. Wild blue chickory (we call them cornflowers) always grows in the same place. Goldenrod plumes glow yellow even though the sun is hidden behind a thick haze. In the distance, low clouds kiss the tops of the mountains. The harsh call of a crow breaks the silence. A duck answers from the river.

If one is still enough and quiet, the river and meadow will yield their secrets. The industrious bee, the stinging mosquito, the feeding birds, the transitory water all have stories to tell. I import them into my own day's tale and share them here with you.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Flying With the Moon

The full moon rose up through a feathery purple cloud at the same moment we lifted off the runway. You'd think the night sky a silent place and perhaps it is but the steady whonk whonk of the small engine filled the little cockpit, making talk nearly impossible. We resorted to a touch on the arm and a pointing finger. Look, look, there where the moon path is dancing on the water, or there where the lights of a town look like Christmas lights scattered by the hand of a giant. See where the road winds with its tiny cargo of cars, their headlights shining in the dark like radiating lines drawn in a cartoon. And there where beacon lights are flashing their warnings from steep mountain ridges.

Back on land, close to midnight, the moon rode high and distant, it's rising gold muted to silver. But oh, I rode the night sky with that moon. I spent time in its great, wide space, kin with the cold light that looked warm close up.