Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Through the Keyhole

When I was little, holiday visits sometimes included a long drive up to the farm in the woods where my grandparents lived. A downstairs bathroom just off the dining room held the fascinating distinction of having a keyhole in the door that you could peek through. Normally, it was blocked with a wad of toilet paper - to protect unwitting inhabitants from prying eyes - but sometimes, when I had entered and slid a bolt to lock the door, I moved aside the wad of paper and peered out discreetly at what was going on in the dining room.

This was also the stage when I was carrying around a small mauve notebook and pencil to record happenings and hopefully solve mysteries. That hope was dashed when I accidentally dropped the notebook into the toilet of aforementioned downstairs bathroom. Oh, cruel fate. With one flush, my hopes of being a savvy agent were washed into the septic tank.

And after I had watched a procession of belts and slacks and skirts move back and forth past the keyhole to my heart's content - or when someone started banging on the door - I moved the wad of toilet paper back in place, lest I be found out, and exited, full of ease that my clandestine activity had gone undetected.

Today, I allow you to shove aside the wad of paper and peer through the keyhole, at your leisure, into the outer room of activity. If you were truly able to peek through the keyhole into my life, I wouldn't have the ability to edit anything you saw. As it is, I offer you a sampling. The picture is incomplete, therefore, but not insincere; it is only a portion, but it is a true portion.

Just don't drop your top secret notebook in the toilet.

Unemployment is a dangerous beast. It is a period of enforced leisure. This has benefits and drawbacks. One could baptize it by christening it a Sabbatical; but Sabbaticals are often chosen, and unemployment is often not. One can consider it a time for rest; but it is not uninterrupted rest: the pressure of needing employment battles any impulse to renew oneself through the break. It is opportunity: opportunity to search out new vocational avenues, to finish projects left undone, to learn new things. It is a space, a pause, an in-between. It is limbo. It's also a period of solidarity. Consider, for instance, the enforced leisure of a nursing home. Unemployment is a good time both to recognize the opportunity to order your spirit through new lessons, and also to sympathize with those for whom retirement has become burdensome, or lonely, or purposeless. The difference is that at my stage of life, I assume the period of unemployment is temporary, a blip on the radar, frustrating as it may be. To the others, it is unescapable. That is an important distinction.

Today, I did not feel well. Some days I try to redeem the time by investing a lot of energy in job searching; sometimes I labor long over household chores, or work at writing projects.

Today, I drank three cups of tea and savored every drop. Upton had accomplished a minor miracle and sent a tea order out remarkably quickly. I commenced with River Shannon (an Irish Breakfast blend), then followed with an untried Himalayan (intriguing - I expected far-off scents of sherpas to waft from the tin; instead, I closed my eyes and was taken quickly to a suburban ger in Ulaan Baatar, and the spicy smell of Mongolian wool and mutton that I was immersed in several years ago). Then I concluded with a mug of a new Assam, that brought me home. The malty notes of a hearty Assam always mean I'm home. I think Assam is probably served in heaven, along with The Perfect Scone.

Today, I watched a small vase of tulips on the table reinvent itself. I think it was after awaking but before the tea that I noticed only two tulip buds were erect; the rest were drooped in a submissive arch that somehow made me think of curled up ballerinsa in a circle around two pirouetting figures. The water in the vase had gotten too low. I filled it up, but was unconvinced that the bowing tulips would complete their step and raise again to dance across the stage. But as the afternoon wore on, the leaves perked up, and slowly, one by one, the smooth green stems refilled and lifted the tulips back into their places, completing the dance. For some reason, that small scene was immensely comforting. To know that sagging heads can be lifted is an important truth in life - whether tulips or humans are the subject. Did you ever see the Hitchcock in which a sick girl believes she will only live until the last leaf on a vine outside her window is finally blown away, and then she will die? But it clings on and on and she recovers, though in the meantime a kind old man falls from a ladder and dies. When she is well enough, she discovers the reason the leaf had clung on so long: the old man had been on the ladder, painting a leaf on the wall. We all need to see new life sometimes.

Today, I enjoyed the poignant story of Mark Twain's life thanks to a marvelous Ken Burns documentary. I started it the other day; I finished it today. It was educational; it was entertaining; it was mirthful and sad, much like the man. I heartily recommend it.

Today, I consumed a large slice of homemade wheat bread that my brother had ingeniously upgraded to a dessert bread through the addition of fried apples. Finding apples in your bread is like finding a twenty dollar bill in an old winter coat pocket. It's delicious. The fact that we made it together makes it feel like family bread, a household enterprise, a rather delicious, crumby expression of sibling creativity.

Today, as I watched the tulips unbend from their prayers, I reflected on how green growing things on a dining room table makes me feel deeply and irrationally comforted. Finally, I decided it was due to my stack of memories of women keeping potted plants and vases of cut flowers in the center of the table. Right now, I have a vase of perked-up tulips, three roses that my sweet husband brought home for me yesterday, an ivy plant, a shamrock my friend Angie gave me for St. Patty's, and two trays of infantile seedlings. Just typing that soothes my fevered mind.

But whenever I visit my Michigan grandmother, before the table can be set, a half dozen African violets must be moved from the dining surface, and depending on the time of year, plastic trays of adolescent tomato plants must be relocated. To set the table at my Mom's house, you usually need to find a place to perch the ivy. And my Indiana Grandma often has a vase of flowers on her table that needs placed on a desk or taken to another room to make space for mashed potatoes or beef and noodles.

So you see, plants on a dining room table show me how to be a woman. They are how I am a woman, as these women have taught me to be. Ivy and sage seedlings and tulips and roses remind me that no matter how much I don't know about my life right now, I know how to tend my dining room plants. I know how to make wheat bread, how to fry chicken, how to iron a shirt, how to crochet. These tangible reminders are, in times of uncertainty, more concrete than reading theology, no matter how much I love it. And they are something I hold in common with generations of women in my family. We plant things. We cook things. We tend things. We mend things. That is who we are - in case I had forgotten.

And this is what you will see if you peep through the keyhole at my dining room.


Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob said...

Check your email---daddy

Carrie said...

I have to smile. I have a vase of daffodils on my table.

Treehouse Chef said...

You are extremely gifted in writing. What a beautiful glimpse into your life today. I was touched and inspired. I too have been where you are (unemployed) and also know all the joy and uncertainty that goes along with it. For a moment I was at my grandmother's house and remembered her African Violets. Thank You for sharing.

Cari L said...

Bitty, your post made my morning :)

Unknown said...

I just love you, Elizabeth.

Also, I'm a fan of the Mark Twain documentary. Moving, poignant, funny - it's gold. It gives you a new perspective when you read his works, too. I shall join you in a thumbs up.

Christy said...

So you were channeling Harriet the Spy with you're notebook?

Also, I'm in need of a nanny starting in July, if you and John favor a move to south Mississippi.

Christy said...

I am not grammatically challenged...only tired.

That should have been "your" notebook, not "you're" notebook. Of course.