The Beatles, the hippies, Jesus, and my brother

 

My oldest brother, Jeff, ran away from home the first time when I was probably only 7 or 8 years old. He played guitar in a band and he played music in his room all the time. I don’t have great recollection of specific memories of my older brother at that age. What I have instead is a sense of comfort, awe, longing, and a sense that he was connected to something greater going on in the world that I was unable to comprehend fully.

Our house had two bedrooms on the second floor, one of which was intended to be the master bedroom boasting three walk-in closets and a bathroom. But at that age, my older sister and I were sharing the larger bedroom and Jeff had the room across the hall. I’m guessing the year was about 1967 or 68. My brother’s room had peace signs and pictures of the Beatles from the Let It Be album hanging on the walls.

What I remember most prior to his departure is going to sleep at night to the sound of his music. Whether he was playing guitar himself or playing records, there was always music playing at night as I went to sleep. Then one day he was gone. And the music stopped. And I couldn’t get to sleep without it.

I was very young. I had not experienced a loss. My father’s parents had both died by that time, but they did not live nearby and I had not been close to either of them.

And with 8 years between us, it’s not as if I was very close to my older brother. But when he left, I felt a big empty space that eventually became filled with longing.

Other memories around that time are more like sense memories than actual events.

I have a vague memory of my parents’ dread as they waited for Jeff’s draft number, and the slight sense of relief as they explained after receiving it that they had reason to believe he would be safe. I can remember that the older boy who lived across the street was drafted and how the news came back that he had refused to carry a gun in boot camp and so was told to go home. I remember thinking, well if that’s all you have to do to get out of going to war, that doesn’t seem too bad. I had no notion of what a dishonorable discharge might mean.

I began to romanticize the journey my brother must be on. I was drawn to any movie that romanticized the hippie way of life or running away from home or a road trip. Even if the story didn’t intend to romanticize the idea, I could look past a story of a troubled teen addicted to downers and see, instead, a triumphant story of a young person striking out on her own to discover the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile, my brother’s journey was far less glamorous than I let myself believe. Struggling with his own demons, and after a requisite west coast hitch-hiking journey, he settled down on “The Farm,” a born-again Christian community not far from our house run by a very kind man with five beautiful dark-haired daughters. Having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, much to my mother’s dismay, he finished high school, continued playing music and went about his new life.

Lucky for me, he still looked like a hippie, with long scraggly hair and tunics, so I could continue to romanticize the role I had cast for him upon his departure. And I filled the empty space he left with a sense of longing—longing for adventure, for hitch-hiking, for discovering the rest of our country, for long hair, long flowing skirts, and the need to get away.

By the time I reached fifth grade, I found an old army shirt with the sleeves cut off that must have belonged to Jeff and wore it to school. Enduring ridicule for my fashion choice, I told the most popular girl in our class—a girl who regularly teased me even after she had invited me to her house for a sleepover—to “drop dead” loudly in front of the whole class, a move that was accompanied by sympathetic and admiring jeers from many classmates. I began to see that I was not going to lead a conventional life and I embraced the idea fully. Instead of feeling left out by the popular girls and ashamed to hang out with my second cousin, who was pretending to be a horse pretty much 24/7 at that age, I embraced my outsider status, reveled in being picked last for all team sports, and ran around the playground during recess with my second cousin, the horse.

Jeff still was a peripheral part of our lives. He had gone off to college to study music, was still one with Jesus, and soon brought home a girl he said he intended to marry. I was probably in seventh or eighth grade by then. His girlfriend was a buxom blonde with wild eyes and big full lips. She was loud, like us, and was a voice major in college. They kissed in ways my parents never had. They seemed very sure of themselves and full of the promise. I was infinitely interested in them, and they were willing to talk. I asked her about sex and she gave me frank and open answers to my questions. I asked them questions about their faith, not so much because of any spiritual needs or inclinations of my own, but because it was obviously very dear to them, and I wanted to be close to my older brother. Maybe I wanted to feel some of the things he must have experienced, what I assumed were the same things I was longing for, gain some sense of the adventures he must be having. Mostly, I wanted to feel that comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the sound of his guitar across the hall from my room.

brother, Jeff, and his oldest daughter, Rachel

It’s been many years since then. Jeff’s life has taken him many places, as has my own. Jeff and I have spent time getting to know one another through the years at various periods of our lives, whether here in Columbus, or in D.C., or on Block Island, or in upstate New York. He is as much a part of my family as the three other siblings I have. You might attribute my memory of it being otherwise during my youth to a combination of pre-pubescent angst and sibling adoration. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. For even now, we are not happy at family reunions until Jeff plays the guitar for us.

Soup’s On!

I make a mean soup. The whole process of making soup, even making the stock if that’s what I’m going to do, fills me with a sense of care. Care because making soup says to me “I like myself enough to create something really comforting and delicious for me to eat.” And because soup is best made in big over-brimming steamy batches, that care gets extended to my family and friends.

The story of how I became a soup maker goes back to Block Island, Rhode Island, and my first waitress job. I was nearing the end of my second year of college, in that transition from “aspiring actor” to “aspiring writer,” when my friend Mary came to me and said “I know this great place where we could go work all summer and have lots and lots of fun, too.”

Turned out she was talking about Block Island, a gourd-shaped mass of land 14 miles off the southern Rhode Island coast, dotted with freshwater ponds and rimmed with a combination of majestic cliffs, beautiful sandy beaches and tumbled rock-covered beaches.

So we loaded up her Renault Le Car (oh yes, you heard that right) and traveled through the middle of the night in order to make the first ferry at the break of dawn. The only plan we had was that Mary had arranged a room for herself in a rooming house. Neither she nor I had a job and I didn’t even have a place to stay.

But Block Island was an easy mistress; she lay wide open that late May and showed us how to work her. We were quickly able to secure housing for myself and jobs for both.

I soon tired of the first job I found working as a chambermaid for the biggest bitch hotel owner on the island, so I lied through my teeth in order to be a waitress at the airport diner. It was nothing but a little hole-in-the-wall with 14 seats at a counter, but I was ecstatic about slinging hash instead of making beds and cleaning toilets. The shift was 6 a.m. To 2 p.m., leaving me some afternoon time on the beach and some early-evening partying. Perfect!

My boss at the diner was a man who claimed to have been an executive chef at the Black Pearl in Newport, a fine-dining 5-star, yada yada yada. His long-haired, blonde, chiseled, 16-year-old son . . . oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog. Okay, scrap that.

The morning cook at the diner was Laurie, a sweet, incredibly competent short-order cook who worked with unbelievable efficiency and ease. The afternoon cook was Robin, a bright, quirky west coaster with dark shiny hair down past her ass, wire-rimmed glasses, and a kind laugh–even when she was cackling. We hit it off immediately. Our birthdays are 1 day and 5 years apart.

Robin’s style of cooking was much different than Laurie’s. She was all over the place, experimenting with different specials, putting chili in omelets, scattering greasy burgers all over the grill. And always with incredible energy, distraction, and sometimes consternation.

And it is Robin who taught me how incredible soup-making can be.

Where Laurie was a model of efficiency and economy, Robin’s cooking was about creativity, expression, caring, and fun. She’d make a minestrone soup as if she made up the word “minestrone” all by herself. My mother never made soup from scratch, so watching Robin make soup was like a whole new world to me. Each ingredient was like a discovery she’d made all on her own. For all I knew about making soup, which at that time was nothing, I learned mountains from Robin, watching her combine onion, carrots, and celery, then add tomatoes, green beans, corn, whatever she could get her hands on. Some days she’d take her time, slowly adding things in between cups of coffee and cigarettes. Other days she would frantically jump around the kitchen, adding this and that, digging through the coolers to find what she needed.

The soup I remember her most for is a beef barley soup. “I love barley,” she would say to me, her eyes bright and wild, “I think I’ll add barley to that.” Barley was this great comforter that could wrap up a simple stock and a few vegetables into a warm and hearty bowl of love.

It was a few years after college before I started to approach the soup-making realm. But once I did, I found it to be one of the most rewarding cooking experiences ever. Particularly when I’m making stock from scratch and then making the soup. The time involved, the care put in to making a flavorful stock, whether with chicken, or vegetables, or whatever. And then the decision-making, deciding upon what spices to rely on, whether they’ll be dry or fresh this time, what vegetables to add, whether it will be cream-based, whether to go vegan. Sometimes I think of my audience, who among my friends or family needs the warmth and care of a homemade soup today? Sometimes I think only of myself. Today, I’m thinking of Robin, the dear friend who inspired me to become a soup-maker. Maybe I’ll add barley to this one.

It’s a beautiful day—get outside!

I’m very thankful for a childhood spent outside. I

a lake in the Poconos

don’t remember my mother being too insistent that we make a decision one way or another about being outside or inside. Although she often got tired of hearing the screen door slam and would utter the familiar “In or out, kids!” mantra of so many mothers in my neighborhood. But in my mind, we were outside kids.

We had freedom to roam the neighborhood from a very early age. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill. Three houses past ours was a dead end. Past the dead end was a patch of woods that reached all the way to a thru-way street. This patch of woods only stretched one block from one end to the other, but it seemed immense to me. It was dense and it was ours.

We had a good sized back yard with lots of trees. At the back end of our property stood a majestic weeping willow tree and just beyond it a creek. Well, not so much a creek but an open part of a massive run-off drainage system. The end of a large cement pipe jutted out from the very back of our property and then the open creek led back through what seemed like a vast field behind our house.

The willow tree, the creek, the field, and the woods down past the dead end, that’s where I grew up in my early childhood.

Halfway through the patch of woods and on the side of the woods that faced the field sat one of our many forts. This fort was the most elaborate of all our neighborhood forts. It was constructed of rock, big, hefty foundation-type rocks. Probably left in the woods from some old homestead long-since torn down. The rocks were stacked in a circle about two to three feet high. Two entrances were left open where the two different paths led to the fort. This was the most secluded and remote fort we had. Here we were completely cut off from the neighborhood. No one could see us or hear us and likewise, we couldn’t hear anybody’s mother calling. It was a world to imagine and construct with no adult intervention.

Along the creek in back of our house we had another fort. It sat on the bank of the creek maybe 50 feet from the back of our property where the willow tree stood. This fort was of much simpler construction. It was a small square clearing in the field. There were logs marking its outer edges. Even though it was not far from our house, because the field grew tall around it, you could be in that fort and not be seen even from our backyards. But we could still hear our mothers calling if they stood in the backyard and yelled.

The willow tree was the fort closest to home, and in many ways, the most memorable since so much of my childhood took place in and around that mighty tree. There was a single rope swing hanging from a high branch. We could swing out over the creek and back. The more daring, like the boys in the neighborhood, would swing out over the creek and jump off. The ground around the tree was mostly dry dirt, no grass because it was so heavily traveled by all kids in the neighborhood. But on rainy days, it was perfect for making mud pies. Those are my earliest memories of life around the great willow.

The tree stood with a wide trunk that rose up 7 or 8 feet, at which point the trunk had divided itself into several secondary trunks that formed a natural fortress in the center of the tree. And as luck would have it, about 6 feet up the tree was a branch sticking straight out of the front of the tree about 4 inches in diameter, having been cut off about two and a half feet from the tree’s trunk. The branch was your ticket up into paradise. Without it, the tree would have required a ladder, a rope, something that you could use to climb up the first eight feet.

I’d hoist myself up by grabbing that first branch with both hands, hooking one leg up and over it and pulling myself up to sit then stand on it. The bark was worn off so that, even in shorts, it was an easy maneuver. The next step was the tricky part because for an instant while I clumsily hung onto branches way too big to get my small arm around, I had to balance on that small branch and get a foot hold in the crook of two big secondary trunks while pulling myself through to the center of the fortress. Once there, there were crooks in which to lean, a large branch on an angle a little further up where one could perch, all sorts of places to lean, sit, and hang out. The tree could easily hold 3 or 4 of us, more if you were willing to climb higher. I was not so adventurous. I happily hung out in the folds of those larger branches. I’d sit staring up at the willow’s canopy swaying in the summer wind.

Years later the city authorities decided that the willow tree was causing the storm sewer to back up and our basement to flood. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old when they came and cut it down. I sat in my second floor bedroom overlooking the backyard and cried the whole afternoon while they did it. I was crushed. That tree cradled what seemed at my tender young age to be a lifetime of exhilarating memories going all the way back to making mud pies as a toddler on rainy days underneath it, swinging out over the creek on the rope swing, and pretending that the crook of that tree was a lost world belonging only to us, the kids in the neighborhood. I cannot pass by a willow tree to this day without feeling a rush of summer glee.

Yes, we were outside kids. And it’s made me an outside adult–gardening in spring and summer, camping, or walking in one of my favorite parks. Undaunted by cold and snow, I’m out sledding or tubing with my niece in the winter. I even like shoveling snow. Yep, I’m an outside girl. Always have been.

All of these lines across my face . . .

waterfall in the Poconos

So begins a song by Brandi Carlisle, the upshot of which is that the stories of one’s life mean nothing if no one hears them.

It’s the start of 2011, the year in which I will turn 50. I’m sitting in my brand new recliner, an item I probably shouldn’t have purchased considering I will probably be laid-off from my job soon. But there’s nothing like turning 50 and losing your job to bring about some introspection, perhaps some reassessment. What am I reassessing exactly? Probably everything–my life, my goals over the years, my views–in other words, I’ll be using this blog to address the following: who am I and how the hell did I get here?

About thirty years ago I was pursuing a theatre degree at Kent State University. I was in an acting class with an instructor whose name I seem to have blocked out of my memory. I was doing a monologue from Death of a Salesman, the one where Linda Loman, wife of Willy, is kneeling over his grave at the very end of the play. I barely remember the text of this monologue. But I remember very clearly the old-fashioned humiliation the instructor was putting me through as she made me do the scene over and over and over again repeatedly declaring that I was flat, that I was not conveying anything.

She was right, of course. I had never related to the play, much less the character of Linda Loman, wife to the do-nothing washed-up salesman Willy. But I remember very clearly doing the scene over and over and over until, by about the fourth time, I was so pissed off at the instructor that I was positively seething. I was delivering the lines through clenched teeth and tensed shoulders, fighting back tears of humiliation, when at the close of the monologue, the instructor practically yelled as she jumped up and said “Yes! That’s it! Much better. Do you see the difference?”

I did not. I was completely perplexed. I had no further understanding of the text, no intimate connection with the character. How could I possibly relate to the feelings of a middle-aged woman whose husband, the man she’d invested everything in, had just committed suicide? I was 20 years old. I’d never been in love. The only loss I’d experienced thus far was the loss of two high school friends who tragically lost their lives when the driver of their car drove into a large tree trunk.

Anyway, the whole experience made me reconsider my major and my life’s trejectory. I’d been doing theatre since I was 4 years old, mostly musicals and comedies, nothing real heavy. I had a decent singing voice and a genuine lack of inhibition that made it easy for me to get on stage and make a fool of myself. But the idea of suffering this kind of humiliation on a constant basis, enduring constant rejection, subjecting myself to the starvation that comes with living in New York, Chicago or L.A. to pursue such a crazy career objective, and the real likelihood of success, which was virtually zero, made me think it was probably time to switch majors.

So I thought about it for the remainder of the semester and then switched my major to the only other thing I really enjoyed doing in high school—reading and writing. Yes, you guessed it, I became an English major. You may be thinking, why switch from one useless undergraduate degree to another? I received two awards at my senior graduation awards ceremony—one was for theatre and the other was for advanced composition. Truth be told, I was proudest of the advanced comp award. My senior year English teacher was a wise-ass Brit who loved the existentialists and who tried his best to get me to understand that there were jobs for good writers in the world.

So over the years, I have worked mostly in the communications field, writing for corporations, government entities, non-profits, and eventually writing content for secondary level textbooks.

However, back when I was still in my twenties, I also wrote for myself. I wrote short stories that never got published, began a novel that was never finished, did lots and lots of letter writing for which I received many accolades, mostly from people who received my letters, of course. By about age 30, I had to switch my focus to making a living and writing for myself kind of faded away.

Having decided to treat my fiftieth year with a certain amount of reflection and mindfulness, what better means than to engage in the craft of writing for myself, an activity that felt so much a part of me during my twenties, the time in our lives when we are so full of hope and promise, wound up with energy, and performing at the top of our game (at least that’s how I remember it). So I’ve committed to writing 50 blog entries in 50 weeks in my 50th year. I will blog about who I am and how I got to be who I am. It won’t be a tell-all, so those of my friends who are out there fearing that I might be finally ready to kiss and tell, worry not. I will try to show respect for the people I’ve had the privilege to know and learn from, and gratitude for the life I’ve had in an effort to take a deeper look at myself and think about what lies ahead for me. All the while, I hope to rekindle the craft of writing for myself, something I set aside so many years ago.

Thanks for taking the time . . .