Sunday, November 24, 2013

219 Woldt: the fourth room

     I am eighteen and on my way north, to begin my post secondary education.  This is a dream for my parents and an exciting time for me.  I was accepted into the university that I wanted to attend, despite my low ACT score in math, which proved that I graduated from high school with a third grade understanding of numbers.

     Neither of my parents had been to a university, so this was new for all of us.  I had a few suitcases, a box of small personal items, a hair dryer and a curling iron, my winter coat and boots, and bedding.  We hauled everything up the stairs, and my father seemed out of breath when he reached the top. Mom made my bed.  There were supposed to be three other roommates to share my address, but none were present on my arrival.  We looked in one closet and noticed a band uniform.  My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sight of it, and felt confident that as a former band student, I would easily make friends with the owner of this sharp looking wool suit with brass buttons gleaming in the dark closet.

     They hugged me goodbye.  My mother was crying.  From my window on the second floor, I watched my parents wave to me on the sidewalk, then walk out of sight.  For the first time in my life, I was truly alone.

     And I stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity while I unpacked my belongings in silence, listening to someone's stereo shouting out something good, something rock and roll and bluesy, down the hall.

      What an awkward situation to suddenly be living in a dormitory and have a complete stranger insert a key into the knob and walk in.  Having only ever shared a bedroom for one week with my brother, and never knowing what it was like to have a sister, I was suddenly faced with a new challenge and no past experience to strengthen my confidence.  I felt completely unsure of myself. To make matters worse, after unlocking the door, Julia Roberts walked in.

    Yes, I mean the movie star, Julia Roberts. More specifically, her exact duplicate in a nineteen year old form.  When she walked through the threshold, she found me standing in the middle of the room, feeling like the smallest ant, feeling like a goofy nerd with short brown hair and glasses (why, why did I think having my hair cut before going off to college would make me look more sophisticated???) and Julia, whose real name was Heidi, smiled one of those smiles that only Julia Roberts can do, with that oversized mouth and perfect teeth...

    And became my friend.  I loved her from that awkward first moment when her long, blonde frosted hair made me self conscious of my dark, short curls.  Who could not love Heidi?  She was lively and excited and totally enthusiastic that I was her new roommate.  This was a welcome that I hadn't expected.  I listened and nodded my head in silence while she told me everything.  Heidi loved to talk, and during her rambling, up and down discourse, my shy insecurity gradually began to melt.  I learned that the two other "roomies" were her best friends from high school, and that there was once a fourth in their room, but this girl had partied too much last year and went home.  So the three who were left were incredibly nervous about who would be assigned to 219 Woldt.

    Those three girls were like a little family.  I became their adopted sibling.  Heather (another blonde, and so full of humor ---in a dry, sarcastic, witty way) was Heidi's best friend. They shared a bedroom on the opposite side of our tiny living room.  Just before classes were to begin, Stacy moved into my side of the dorm.  She was like me in many ways, practical, dark haired, serious about school, wise, and kind.  She was the grounding energy to balance the emotional swells and rushing currents of teenage girls headed into adulthood.

     They took me to all of the parties.  They took me to the dance clubs.  We studied together in our living room, but they did not go to the library with me.  When I needed to remember who I was again, the college library was my sanctuary.  I even got a job on the sixth floor, working in the Historical Library.  Once I was scheduled to work at eight a.m. and was so hung over (perhaps still intoxicated?) that I slept with my head in the microfilm viewer and dry heaved in the trash can.

     I probably almost died in 219 Woldt.  The night before, someone had given me an enormous super sized cup full of some red substance called Slow Gin. I think they had mixed it with some kind of sweet soda pop. I lost my mind drinking that stuff.  By four o'clock the next afternoon, I was still heaving, confident that soon my demise would release me from the spinning, brain shattering pain. Thankfully there was a picnic going on outside and Heidi made me go down and eat a hot dog.  After eating, I felt like I would maybe live.

     Heidi called me "little roomie."   Little Roomie was a term of endearment, and made me feel loved.  When I was a child I played on a softball team and was named "LJ," short for "Little Jenny."  At five foot two and a half (maybe), I'm usually the shortest person in a room, unless there are children around.  Once I was directed to move along in a straight line at my daughter's elementary school, and most recently I was nearly trampled by a crowd of munchkins after a theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz.   Maybe my short stature brought out the nurturing mother in Heidi.  Even though her best friend was Heather, she always showed me love and kindness.  Long after I left college because of my father's first cancer battle, which began five months after I moved into that dorm room, it was Heidi who made an effort to reconnect.

     That freshman year, I witnessed and was sometimes a part of the ongoing drama of 219 Woldt.  It felt like living on the set of a soap opera.  There was always some event to rage against, cry over, or laugh ourselves sick over.  My roomies always included me in everything, keeping me up late and talking, talking, talking.  Sometimes I felt like I needed to remember who I was without them.  I found an ad for a used loft for my twin mattress,  and that became another sanctuary.

    The first time I caught a glimpse of my adult identity, I was in the loft.  I had a paper to write for an English comp class.  I made my bed and climbed back up the ladder with a mug filled with  fifteen brand new, sharpened pencils and a spiral notebook.  I looked at the instructor's teaching on the scope of the paper and felt discouraged.  I didn't want to write on any of those topics.  But just sitting up in the loft, on my soft quilt, looking at the cup of perfect new pencils, I experienced a mindful moment; I was suddenly far away from friends and family,  fully aware of myself as an individual person with a soul and a purpose.  I savored the process of writing,  finding deep pleasure in the simple act of meshing the graphite pencil tip onto smooth lined paper, feeling the loveliness of thinking through a problem.  Although I was at college to earn a teaching degree, in that moment I recognized myself as a writer and felt a kind of love that no one else can give, a kind of love that suddenly happens within a soul when you recognize that you have been created to simply enjoy life and add a bit of goodness to it.

   It felt completely natural to write.  I felt whole and good inside.  Happiness started to flow into my being, along with contentment, security, and peace.  While standing next to my movie star roomies, who were always, always good and kind to me, I still felt like I was somehow less in their limelight.  But on the page, I could be fully myself without considering whether my hair was right or how dumb I looked in plastic frames.  I didn't have a need for anything when I was writing.  No need for a boyfriend to like me or take me to the movies, or kiss me at a party.

     After Christmas break, I returned to my roomies and a new set of classes.  I was scheduled to retake college algebra, which I dropped the first semester.  After a few weeks of transitioning back into my dorm life, I discovered an inner confidence that was unfolding in the act of writing.  The distracting drama of my roomies was always present, but I also had a new gift.  I needed to protect that secret joy found in solitary writing.

Then, one weekend, I was called away.  My father was diagnosed with small cell carnioma. A rapid growing cancer was spreading like wildfire in his lungs.

   It was hard to keep going to classes.  One day, I just lay on the floor of our dorm and cried and cried, like a baby who has no way to comfort herself.  I cried and could not be consoled, even by Stacy.  Finally, exhausted and empty, I stood up to face my life as it happened to arrive. In the following months, I stopped being the adopted younger sibling of my roomies, but an adult with a real problem that had nothing to do with teen drama, boys or parties.  I went home for the summer, hugging Heidi with tears in my eyes, not knowing if I would return.




Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Childhood Bedroom

     At the end of a narrow hall, on the right just past the bathroom, behind a brown door with a metal knob was Jenny's room.  When you opened this door in the Seventies, you would see pink walls, red carpet and a white canopy bed decked out in pink and white gingham ruffles.  There were two windows, one facing the east, one facing the north.  This room had a small closet with a hinged door, so that it folded out when opened. Inside the closet hung a row of  dresses handmade by my mom and pressed with care.  On the closet floor there were three pairs of shoes: a sturdy and practical pair made of brown leather with flat laces, my favorite black and white saddle shoes and one white pair of dress shoes from Easter Sunday.  In winter, I just wore boots which we stored in the basement.

     In this pink room, before it was moved to my play area in the basement, there was a child sized table and chairs that had belonged to my mother. It was made of a beautiful golden colored maple, with corners that had been angled and shaped into a hexagon so that tiny children would not walk into a sharp corner.  On this table, my mother and I would host tea parties with a set of small blue and white china dishes that she saved from her childhood.  There was a little tea pot, a creamer and sugar, beautiful tea cups with saucers and plates.  My mom would make real tea for the pot and fill the sugar bowl with real sugar.  Sometimes my brothers would have tea with us, and then it was like a little holiday feast.  We took nibbles of Saltine crackers and sipped the tea, which none of us really liked, even with sugar.  But having something real to play with made this imaginary game a sensory experience which stayed with us.  It felt special and important to be trusted with my mother's miniature china set.  With those dishes, I learned the meaning of fragile and how to be extra careful with something valuable.  A crushing memory of my teen years shows me slamming my bedroom door so hard in my mother's face that some of the peices of her little china set flew off their perch on the corner shelf in my room and were broken.

     Before I was an angry, sullen and independent youth, I kept my dolls and a few stuffed animals in my room.  I had a large stuffed turtle with yellow legs and a big floppy head.  He had a red and white shell that was big enough to "ride."  I had a Raggedy Ann doll with a music box buried in her chest that played Brahms Lulaby. I wound the little metal loop on her back to start the ticking clicks and tinny notes that sounded as if they were being played far away and in some mysterious and faded past.

     There was a framed prayer hanging over my bed, the classic "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," crosstiched in pastel threads with outlines of a butterfly and a child resting on her knees, palms together, head bowed in pious reverence. There was so much to pray for, even as a young child.  I once cried myself to sleep over the sad story of how my friend came to own her Raggedy Ann.  The story was that while driving home in the rain one night, they saw something laying on the side of the road.  When they pulled the car over, there lay this red headed rag doll, with dirt on her face and her dress torn.  They picked it up and brought her home with them.  I remember crying over the thought that this doll had endured such a trauma. As I grew, my prayers took on more desperation as I began to learn about the world.  Once while reading my mother's Bible called "THE WAY" I read a story (inserted among the scripture passage) about a family in Ethiopia who were starving.  The story included photographs of a child with a distended stomach and no clothing.  I remember praying for people who really had nothing, feeling guilty and ashamed that I had so much comfort.

      As I grew, the little table and chairs were replaced by a sturdy student desk which my father made down in his dirt-room workshop.  It was heavy and made with a hinged top that I had to be careful not to drop on my head whenever I was cleaning out the old papers and coloring books inside.  One winter day, after I had been sick, my mother cleaned out the desk and discovered a long row of little pink chewable tablets that she had been giving me to help with my fever. Instead of standing over me while I ate my plain toast and drank my disgusting glass of bubbly Vernor's (ginger ale), she trusted that I would naturally want to feel better, and expected that I would obediently take my medicine. Being stubborn and sneaky and not wanting to taste that powdery little pill, I hid the tablets in the farthest back corner of my desk, behind papers, crayon peels and pencil shavings.

     Being the only girl in our family meant that I didn't have to share a room. Once my parents decided to move Roger in with me while the room he shared with Ken was being repainted.  I remember how exciting it was to have a roommate.  We jumped from bed to bed and kept eachother up late talking about silly things.  At the end of the week, Roger moved back into their freshly painted room, and I was alone.  For the first time, my bedroom felt like a lonely place.

     Maybe that was what happened as I became a teen.  The little pink room with the sunshine streaming in through that eastern window just became lonely.  I had a need to be out and to grow up, to make my way in the world with new people.  It was natural that one day I would leave.  It was natural that one day I would know what it felt like to be the one to have an empty room at the end of the hall, just wating for a daughter's return.




Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Second Room

The Sun Kitchen

     As I sit with the remembered images of my family in Michigan, most of the time I find them in the kitchen, gathered at the table, playing a game or sharing Sunday breakfast.  The sun streams in from the eastern windows, filling the space with morning.

     I see Dad when he was living with cancer, playing Cribbage with my brothers and my husband.  Sometimes he's there alone, filling in a crossword puzzle, sipping hot black coffee.  

     I see me, sitting in the vinyl covered metal chair, trying to eat the bowl of egg drop soup that had become the source of my misery.  My father had taken a Chinese cooking class, sharing his new culinary skills with us; skillfully making broccoli dance with watercress in the wok, frying delicious wing dings and dropping eggs into a bubbling broth.  I enjoyed most of these delicacies, but something in my imagination prevented that soup from touching my lips.  It looked exactly like a bowl of snot.  It grew cold, and looked  even more like gelatinous mucous, with thick globs floating in a yellow sea.  It smelled funny.  It made me weak, but at the same time, stronger in determination.  If anyone wonders why I find it easy to sit in silent worship with Quakers, it's because I had been practicing my silent sitting at the dinner table for years.

    Have I mentioned that I was living in the south for eight years before I learned that the nickname of a female donkey is "Jenny?"  I sat at our kitchen table in front of my egg drop soup like my animal namesake.  The rule in our house was that we must finish our meal before asking to be excused.  It was a long evening of concentrated determination, a battle of wills between my father and I.  But something in me knew that eventually I would be excused and allowed to go to bed.  It felt like an eternity, a purgatory of wating for all those seconds to tick past.  Eight thirty finally came, and Dad gently called from the living room, "you're excused, Jenny, go to bed."

     The kitchen was often a place that I wanted to avoid, simply because so much work was always going on in there.  In the summer there were jars everywhere and piles of vegetables to can.  While this chore was done joyfully by my father, and cooperatively by my mother, it took weeks of snapping, scrubbing, washing and manipulating hot jars fresh out of the pressure cooker.  Every day there was an evening meal to prepare that normally included several vegetable side dishes, a main course of meat, casserole or soup, and on the weekends, a little dessert.  My mother was an excellent baker and a wonderful entertainer.  Our large extended family often gathered for holidays in our home, where all the counters and tables were filled to the far corners with plates of cookies, pies, cake, jello salads, potato salad, ham or turkey, breads, chips, fresh vegetables to dip, olives and pickles or some wonderfully tasty invention.  I learned how to make all of these dishes from observation, but mostly from putting on an apron and standing for hours at the counter with ingredients in the midst of transformation, or at the hot steaming sink, washing endless dishes.

    So I had mixed feelings about the kitchen.  In my room, I might smell something fantastic like hot pancakes and bacon on the first day of summer vacation.  Then, with the promise of an entire three months of sunshine and green grass underneath my bare feet, the kitchen would be my first happy place to start the day.  Sometimes our kitchen would be a long corridor to navigate, stealthily through the obstacle of this question, "Jenny, will you help with..."   Groaning inside at the thought of the book and the tree that had to wait for my return, I hung my head and said, "yes, Mom."  I was not a cheerful worker.  I acted like I was a prisoner in a work camp instead of a child who had abundance.

   In my teen years, I lamented that in our town there were no fast food restaurants.  Everything we ate was grown in our garden or made from scratch, aside from bags of potato chips, crackers or pasta.  My parents were foodies before foodies were popular.  By the time I went away to college, I suffered from the loss of my parent's cooking.  The cafeteria food made me fat.  My first summer back home, I nearly cried at the taste of a cucumber.

     The kitchen was also a place where my father patiently tried to teach me simple algebra.  Poor Dad!  My brain rejected the use of letters in place of numbers like my taste buds rejected the swirly whites and yolk floating in egg drop soup.  I was a hopeless reader of books, a dreamer with a craving for escape.

     My grandparents sat with us in the kitchen, around our table, often.  Card games with my parents would go into the early hours of the next day.   I have this precious memory of my grandfather, hunching up his shoulder before slapping down his winning card.  My dad was the toughest gamer to beat.  So when victory came to any other player, the hooting and the hollering were heard through the whole house.

   I have a rich life of memories in that kitchen, where my mom still prepares beautiful meals for us when we gather.  Each time I return, stepping through the threshold and into the kitchen, I return to all of us, and feel each stage of my life well up inside.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Seven Rooms to Keep Me: The First Room

Seven Rooms to Keep Me

The First Room

     In our three bedroom ranch that sat in the middle of our neighborhood, there was a full walk-out basement.  In the seventies, it was divided into three distinct spaces; a great room with our furnace, water heater and steel support pole in the center, a laundry room with a double basin utility tub and electric washer and dryer, and the dirt room.  The dirt room was named for the mountain of earth that stood behind its heavy steel door.  The previous home owners left the basement unfinished, not minding the presence of so much loamy soil, richly full of worms, bugs and spiders, their legs and bodies crawling and squirming just under floor where they walked, ate and watched television.  I suppose we all live this way, with the earth under our feet, but to have this brown dirt mountain encased in an unfinished room downstairs would creep me out today.

     Perhaps this unfinished aspect helped my parents negotiate a fair price, for if problems could be fixed by steady labor, skill and patience, my father put on his jeans and went to work.  Rolling his t-shirt sleeve over a pack of Kools, he picked up a shovel and started hauling.  His vision was for this room to store row upon row of home canned vegetables which he would grow by the bushels in his farmer's sized garden.  Hunger in childhood was the silent machine operating behind the motion of his muscles, the memory of scarcity and suffering manifested in his sweat.  The dirt room would also become a second workshop for maintenance projects and handmade gifts he would craft in the late hours, away from curious eyes.  Christmas was his favorite holiday, the element of surprise a sacred law to preserve magic for children.  

     Yet first room that kept me--- busy and active during the long, cold, gray and wet Michigan winter was the great room of the basement, the place where my imagination was free to follow inner leadings, uninterrupted scenarios taking shifting forms in the theater of my mind.  My capacity for dreaming and pretending expanded below the surface and business of family life; down in the basement I discovered me.  The basement was a place for solitude and discovery, quiet except for the mechanical operations of water through pipes and footsteps overhead.

This great room had a smooth cement floor and painted walls.  One year the walls were covered in texturized "popcorn" paint, which we loved to pick at with our fingers, leaving white dust flecks on the floor.  It was once a space for learning to ride a bike received at Christmas, but most often my personal roller rink.  I had a tan plastic record player which I placed on the water heater, enjoying my mother's collection of vinyl records.  Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve was my favorite skating music.  I laced up my bright blue roller skates and whipped myself dizzy around the basement floor,  feeling a connection to pop stars who drove around hairpin curves at a deadly speed. 

     In the farthest corner of the basement, a child sized set of appliances stood with a wooden table and two chairs.  "House" was my favorite game, and still is today.  What was once the serious work of childhood is now a form of serious play.  Back then, I was very protective of my imagination and when a neighborhood friend would come to visit,  I was often bossy in my "house," failing miserably at my attempts to have them play my way.  I never wanted anyone to mistreat my dolls or be careless with my toys. Today I'm learning to let go and live with clutter and processes beyond my control.  It's a happy life when you learn to let go.  It's taken me a very long time to stop being disappointed that every person plays "house" a different way.  Because of those differences, I now celebrate that a family home is a shared space for learning, togetherness and love.  Down in the basement, when it was just was me, my Raggedy Annie, and a set of pretty blue flowered dishes, I was content in the blissful solitude where conflict and negotiations were not present.  

     The great room of the basement was also the room where we outfitted ourselves for a day of play in the snow.  At the big glass sliding door, facing the eastern sunrise, we sat looking out over the perfection of a white landscape where no feet had made their impressions, thrilled to the soul by this magic that sparkled in white gems and promised to float softly on our faces, landing like tiny cold feathers which instantly disappeared on our warm skin.  Through the glass door of the basement, we saw an expansive land of white covering the gently rolling fields and our stately elm transformed by shimmering, glistening crystals.  Once covered fully in snowmobile suits or bibs and coats, mittens, scarves, crocheted hats and boots, plastic baggies over socks and inner layers of long johns, corduroy pants and turtle necks, we were ready for the hill.  This was the same hill that the builders dug into to build the basement.  At the base of the hill a tall pine tree grew that marked the property line between neighbors.  It was our favorite hill despite the obstacle: this tree taught us how to steer.  Riding down the hill on our toboggan, three of us together with our dog, is one of those childhood memories that becomes more sacred over time.  I once read a writer's admonition to be careful with writing memories, because once written, the writer is left with the written version in place of the image recollection.  Although a sacred flash of past feeling, I now dare to write what it felt like to be smooshed all together on that wooden toboggan, me in the back, Roger in the middle, Kenny holding on tight to the rope in the front.  We yelled together all the way down and fell over in a pile.  When we later learned downhill skiing, the separateness of the sport left me nostalgic for a sled.

     When we were called in for mugs of hot Ovaltine on the stove (disgusting stuff, but warm anyway), we would go back in through the basement door, peeling and peeling off the wet layers of gear.  We carried our mittens and socks upstairs to dry on the registers, where the forced air would suddenly fill the room with the scent of steaming wet wool and polyester.  It was a fresh smell, like laundry in the rain.

   Below us in the basement, the dryer clicked with the sound of zippers on sopping wet snowsuits, and we patiently waited to go out again, running through the drifts under the stars.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seven Rooms to Keep Me

I have been debating this thought:  should I take a complete break from blogging?  It's been kind of an off and on, hit or miss occupation for months.  While the impulse to write is strong, I feel hesitant about either subject matter or the insecurity that arrives with a habit of "oversharing." I feel drawn to engaging in life with my family and absorbing the beauty of the outdoors.  Technology is so addictive and habit forming; the internet captivates my interests and feeds my searching, wondering mind... but stands as a barrier against my creative writing.  With so much out there, why bother?  What could I possibly add to the massive amount of text that we'll never in twenty lifetimes be able to read?

 Then I remember that the heart of blogging is about the friends I am blessed to have here, and to stop would mean that I've become silent and withdrawn.

There has been so much I've learned in this space and I still feel like I'm growing from it.  It is a home were I find comfort. In one way that's wonderful, but in other ways, the comfort aspect allows me to be lazy with writing, and also incomplete in a fuller expression of meaning and imagery. I've discovered that critical academic type writing is not something I'm prepared to jump back into, but sometimes I feel like I must at least try to stretch my muscles on projects with a focus and deadline.

So at least for now, I'm continuing here.  A writing prompt I discovered in an old text book from the library has renewed my courage.  The prompt is to write about seven rooms in your life.  Knowing that places and people can open doors when there are writing blocks, I jumped at this thought and decided to post, in a series of installments, Seven Rooms to Keep Me.  I plan to post one per week for seven weeks, and finish near Christmas.  With my busy sewing season growing dormant, it's time to nourish my love for language again, while working through the challenge of spending too much time with technology and not enough time outdoors.  Unfortunately the first installment was written on a word document, and I need to figure out how to send it to my desktop computer so that I may print and retype it here.  The sun is beaming outside, with fall bursting everywhere!

I plan to have the first of Seven Rooms ready by tomorrow. I hope you enjoy this beautiful Sunday,

In peace,


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