Friday, February 5, 2016

From tennis balls to sepia rainbows




From ink-black starless expanse under fleecy blankets I peek at red 3:20 blinking into 3:21, then 4:20. I roll into day that is still night, to-do list heavy on my mind. Taking my morning pills in the dark, I hum, “Alleluia, Christ … something, something …” Oh, where are my words? I apologize to the Lord for paltry praise. Maybe sweet song will awake later.

First order of business. My physical therapists have been telling me for weeks to put a tennis ball in a sock to smooth knots from my shoulder blades. But I haven’t wanted to waste the other two balls in the can on the off-chance arthritic knees will allow me to play the sport I love so much—and frankly, was pretty good at—again someday. At my PT session this afternoon, however, I would be embarrassed to repeat my excuse. I pad down into dim gray basement to face disappointment and anguished, ironic flashbacks of fluorescent yellow orbs sliding on polished nursing home floors under my dad’s walker. Fuzzy orbs that only a few short years earlier had pinged from his racquet down the line into his opponent’s backcourt. Four cans, blanketed with gray dust, lay on my shelf. Two cans of Penns, two cans of Wilsons. I choose a can of Wilsons to waste today because in my old sporting days I thought Penns held their bounce longer.

As long as I’m in the basement, I copy from the original lamp carton all the specs for the natural spectrum light bulb I need to find to replace the one that burnt out, way too soon for a fairly new lamp. With this note and the tennis ball can, I head up to the first floor. So that I don’t forget to take the lamp specs to the second floor to Google the nearest Menards, I put the little note on those stairs.

I stand the tennis ball can on the kitchen counter next to my pot of morning tea. Bracing for the whooshing release of all that pent-up newness, I peel off the plastic lid to find this can was opened years ago. Plucking out an old Wilson 4, I press it into a wall with my shoulder blade. Aaah. Relief. Reluctant new life for stale tennis balls. Flashback from my old sporting days: “Excuse me, Court 2, would you mind tossing me my Wilson 4? It’s just behind your baseline.” Sigh.

Wondering what next to check off my to-do list, I stare into limpid brown tea in the black Bose mug we got free fourteen years ago with the new, exciting, expensive Bose stereo system. Well, at least the mug still works. Planned obsolescence—the discordant soundtrack of our lives.


A roar splits the stillness as an ambulance streaks by, its red light strobing gray flannel skies. “Jesus, please help whoever’s in trouble.” Thanks to Sister Mary Annrita’s suggestion in 1963, countless nameless emergency victims and personnel have received lobbed prayers. Have they mattered? Only God knows. “His eye is on the sparrow …” so I’m guessing yes. Going upstairs, I flip on a lamp, so weak compared with the bulb that flickered out yesterday. I decide to pay bills.

The coaster in this room has yesterday’s tepid tea mug on it, so I set the Bose mug of hot tea on the short stack of Christmas cards I haven’t yet discarded. The top card is a sepia photo of a rainbow arcing heavenward. When I received the card, I found a rainbow without its traditional seven colors dull. Today, however, I see its beauty. The rainbow isn’t faded. The sepia tone is intentional. Hmmm.

I scrawl my physical therapy copay on a check to the hospital. I’ve been debating whether to join Sister Cities this year because I no longer have enough energy to attend meetings. Maybe my small 2016 dues might make a difference in someone’s international friendship, so I write the check.

Next? It’s almost time to get Valentines in the mail, so I pull out a few left over from ten-packs I’ve purchased in previous Februarys. I always like to send them to the young people in my life. I don’t remember receiving Valentines from them; maybe they find nonromantic Valentine greetings weird, I don’t know. But I figure it can’t hurt to tell people you love them and they’re special to you, and to God. My aunt and my mother always sent Valentines to us kids, and they made a difference. I thrilled to receive all the pink and red flourishes and gushy words. And if they had glitter on them—oh, bright joy. Say, I have glitter and glue, too. Maybe this year I will supplement my V stash with handmade cards—I could even cut Valentine shapes out of colorful Christmas cards, which I just happen to have under the Bose mug. And I could use heart stickers my aunt left behind.

Dawn is snowy gray today but still more light than night to shine on my giggly, girlish brainstorm.

Monday, January 25, 2016

My review of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford



Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is a quaintly told tale of small-town Cranford, England, in the mid-1800s. The narrator is Mary Smith, who visits the town frequently enough to be considered part of polite society there and to care deeply about certain main characters, specifically those in the Jenkyns family. The consistent kindness of Matilda Jenkyns, affectionately known in Cranford as Miss Matty, is the thread woven through the tapestry of village vignettes.

The Cranford stories are old-fashioned human interest happenings laced with lots of female gossip. Just when I began to think the indignant gossip was too tiresome to continue reading, however, a new intrigue or emotional development enticed me into the next chapter. Also, I felt affection toward Miss Matty and wanted to follow her story. I found these Cranford women’s loyal friendships inspiring. And the narrator employs a fair amount of subtle humor, which I enjoyed. This is a cozy, simple, quiet read.

One scene that particularly touched me was Miss Matty’s reminiscence of her and her sister’s planning out their lives when they were young. Their father once had them write in the morning what they expected to happen that day and then in the evening, what had actually occurred. This prompted a bittersweet remembrance of the contrast between their cherished dreams and their already half-lived lives.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

My review: Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes


MediumFrances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy is an antipasto (appetizer) for a sumptuous banchetto (banquet) at a long table in an Italian oliveto (olive grove). Her descriptions of her and husband Ed’s part-time Tuscan life whetted my appetite to enjoy Tuscany’s culture, sights, smells, and tastes myself someday. Yes, I took some notes on places I’d like to visit. For me, however, the book was more than thoughtful observations, sensory delights, and invitation to travel. Passionate about feasting on vegetables and herbs I grow myself, I felt a kinship with Mayes’ connection to her Bramasole garden. As enamored with French culture as Mayes is with Tuscan culture, I keenly felt her “C’est la belle vie!” observations about the richness of Italian life. And being a writer, I admired Mayes’ style and descriptions. She has a gift for communicating splendor in the ordinary. Bella Tuscany, part travel blog, part personal diary, held my interest throughout. With only words, Mayes has painted beautiful pictures.

One highlight for me was eavesdropping on conversations Frances and Ed had with Tuscan craftsmen helping them remodel and maintain Bramasole. I felt as if I’d gotten glimpses into their colorful personalities. And I saw beauty in their mutual dependence, and even joy in the need to need each other. The Mayeses needed a local team to realize their dreams for their Tuscan home, and their mutual friendships were sweet. Bella Tuscany embodies Frances’ reflections on travel and travel writing, [pages 175 to 180 in my edition] namely how sensing a culture’s heart and soul changes you, whereas just sightseeing doesn’t. The best travel experiences are exchanges.

Exchanges, at some point, require language skills. So I was glad Mayes included a Lost in Translation chapter on her Italian lessons, which encouraged me to blush and laugh at my French blunders rather than redden and despair. I also resonated with Frances’ desire to bring certain aspects of Tuscany home with her in the form of linens, tableware, recipes, art. Over many decades, I have also loved bringing beloved bits of France and North Carolina home with me after my travels. “Over and over, I surrender to the Italian sense of beauty. How to bring the elements I’ve come to love into my own garden? I want Humphrey’s fast and loose arrangements, his rustic sense of comfort and ease. Can I have those along with the Italian geometry and playfulness, those oxymorons that give such a sense of surprise?” [page 126]

I loved Frances’ and Ed’s eagerness to drink in Italian life, culture, history, art, flavors. I could picture the “ziggurat of ripe white peaches” a farmers market vendor had built [page 84] and taste Paolo’s fennel fritters [recipe on page 138]. I could see details of Sansepolcro painter Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia, and I appreciated Frances’ framing it in terms of T.S. Eliot’s and Kenneth Clark’s later observations. And Ed notices, “He [Christ in Piero’s painting] emanates the same mystery as his Madonna del Parto.” To this, Frances says, “Yes, he’s looking at what we can’t see.” [page 71] Insightful! And she offers bits of art and socioeconomic history such as “an amazing moment in history when shepherds—and apprentices and clerks and noblemen’s boys—took up the brush or the chisel all over Italy. The middle class was on the rise. The Tuscan vernacular began to be used in literary works.” [page 200]

Bella Tuscany’s Breathing Art chapter ends with the most beautifully evocative passage of the book. In describing how she might, by using watercolors and chalks on handmade papers, portray pleasure, Mayes has described her actual achievement using words on the printed page.