Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blue Star

7 August 2008

I took the blue star out of the front window. It had been there since April 2007. It was faded; the red gone to a faint red, not pink, the blue dimmed to blue-grey. The star is the same pattern that Betsy Ross used. I was going to join the Blue Star Mothers online and get a flag from them, thinking this would be a good thing. Thinking I might need to talk to them sometime during Seth’s deployment. But then there was the issue of the loyalty oath they wanted me to sign. A loyalty oath, to get into a group I had not desire to belong to anyhow? No. So I looked for a five-pointed star pattern online and found the one Betsy Ross used in first flag. I liked that, liked the continuity of it because while I didn’t believe for a moment my son was defending his country, I love my country and connecting back to our better selves felt good.
When I hung it, I didn’t think of the sun and the way it damages fabric. I thought a lot of the damage the sun in a place like Iraq can do and sent sunblock. Even though the Base Exchange carried it, he probably wouldn’t buy it. He said he didn’t need armor despite all the news stories. ‘We don’t wear most of it anyhow,” he said. So I sent sunblock, the only armor I could provide, unless you count love and prayers, a constant shield around him from roughly 6,000 miles. His friends and ours were praying, too. I fantasized that a mother’s prayers were special. But that was a fantasy. That was clear from the daily news.
He called from Ft. Lewis, back at last. He was safe. At last I turned off the cell phone, which had been on in class, in doctor’s offices, in places with clear signs ordering me to turn it off. The only place I lost that battle was in the Federal building in Syracuse. The security guards cared not a whit for my pleas. They took the phone and gave me a chit for it. The whole time we were in the Social Security office, I fidgeted, wanting to run downstairs and check. What if he had got hurt? No that would go to the home phone, but he might have just called. If I missed the call I couldn’t call back. For the entire deployment, I saved all the phone messages we had from before he left, in case I never heard his voice again. I especially loved the one about the free llama. He was driving back from a retreat in Canada and saw a sign. It was a typical message, laughing and light hearted, the way we would have wanted to remember him.
When his sister deployed to Qatar, I didn’t have a recording of her voice to save. But she sounds like me. In phrasing and vocabulary, in wry humor we all sound alike. And her daughter sounds so much like her I can no longer tell them apart on the phone. Amy and I couldn’t be more different in nature and temperament, but she is the self I might have been, a better me, who calls rarely, loves me from afar, and goes her own way. When she was two she walked off and left me in a mall and was non-plussed when I found her. Not even scared. A thing I envied, even as I scolded her for terrifying me.
We sent snack packages to both. I included lotion for her. The desert is dry. She laughs at me, in email; “As if we don’t have everything here.” True. The US works hard to make deployment like playing: AC, movies, a complete Base Exchange, phones, email. Over and over I wonder how those other women did it, during other wars when a letter might come occasionally or not at all. When a letter was an act of faith so great my heart quails to think of it. You wrote, “My dearest son,” walked to the post office, purchased the stamps, yielded the content of your heart, the prayers encoded in the minutiae of daily life that he wanted to hear, believing it would get to him, mostly to him, since women came late to the field of war. And then you waited, went on with life, ran the farm or business, tended the other children. During their deployments I often pictured myself perched on the mailbox, waiting. I had to wait there, to keep the mailman from pulling his black car into the driveway.
They come in a black car. Two soldiers. To bring the news of a loved one’s death. No impersonal telegrams with black borders, the ones my mother’s generation so feared. And further back there were lists from the newspaper or no news at all. One waited. We planned, as if it would help. I told his little sister what to do if they came and his father and I weren’t home. Let them in. Call us. make coffee for them. Wait. I planned in my head what I might do: lock the door, faint, wail and howl, serve them coffee in silence, run upstairs and hide in the room he sleeps in when he is here. But you never know and you can’t plan. His father never talked about it. He didn’t read the will his son left, a graceful, thoughtful document. We never even joked about the money we’d get, though I planned what to do with that: pay off the debts, set up funds (tiny ones-the ‘death benefit’ isn’t that much) for his sister’s kids or invest for our old age, maybe take one trip, mostly give it all to the Baha’i Faith in his name. When I explained to the mailman, he was more than happy to park on the street and lug things up the hundred-foot drive.
No letters came. He used email. But I wrote to him, long letters full of babblings about the garden, my classes, Da and the other sister still at home, what I was watching on TV. It was a grand gesture really, a way to feel kinship with women of other wars. And it was for the feel of writing, the fountain pen on paper. I wished for elegant stationery, but mostly wrote in the graph paper notebooks I favor. I tore out the pages and sent them with Star Wars stamps. Star Wars was a childhood obsession. He said he liked the stamps and the letters. Who knows? I imagine him reading them, grinning at my voice, so like his own, and perhaps keeping them. I hope he kept them.
Amy sent effusive emails of thanks for the snacks or as we call them snackies. Apparently we made quite a hit with the fighter pilots with whom she shared. Seth put his out in the day room or invited friends over for parties. Now that they are back, I cruise past the snack aisle in stores. I am not possessed by the urge to make cookies, nor do I search the King Arthur Cookie cookbook for recipes that will withstand the long journey to Iraq or Qatar,that will endure the heat. No chocolate they said between April and November. Savories were always welcome. For the Baha’i holidays in February we sent books and toys and goodies. Amy sent embroideries from Qatar and saffron. Seth sent things via the Internet, flowers for the little sister, books and music for us.
The rear battalion called to invite us to the welcome home celebration at Ft. Lewis. Nice. Also the first contact I had had from them in the entire fifteen months. Still, no news is good news. Seth had already called from the airport and then emailed. His sister emailed, but never called. So they were back. At first I walked around in an elated daze, grinning to myself and laughing and crying at odd moments. I prayed and thanked God repeatedly. No bargaining, no promising to be good forever because my children had returned safely, just praise and thanksgiving. And a remembrance of those who did not return safely and a prayer for their mothers who waited in vain. And then I took down the blue star and turned off the cell phone. And exhaled.
It's cold out. Near zero F cold, which even for central New York is cold. I haven't ventured out, having been house bound for a month with my new hip, I am not innured to winter this year. So I hang inside, vaugly resentful of the confinement, but not so much that I am willing to rouse myself, put on longjohns, heavy pants, socks, high boots. And that is just the nether half of me. The top gets a long-sleeved Cuddle-Duds undershirt, a turtle neck, a sweater, down jacket, scarf, hat, mittens. Fortunately I am old enough to go to the bathroom before I start this dressing ritual.
On slightly less cold days, in other winters, I get dressed, get the dog and her lead. J gets dressed. We get in the car, go to the neighbors to get their English Mastiff out for a romp. If the sun is out, as it is today, it is comfortable in the sunshine. We drive to the park, leave the car at the closed gate and head toward the lake.
As a kid, I'd have been sledding on the hill behind my house, spending hours careening down the hill, dragging the sled back up and doing it over. The goal was to go fast enough to slide past the flat space at the bottom of the hill and start up the next hill. I always wanted to get in among the small cedars that were retaking my family's garden area. We cut them occasionally for Christmas trees, but mostly we ignored them, letting that part of the property go back to forest. It is houses now, sold when my mother moved to Florida. Only the oldest, Mattie, who left it to her and one other sister had any feel for the land. The others viewed it as something to get away from. They grew up on the farm and wanted nothing to do with farming, farms, or farmers.
The place lives only in memory, mine. And perhaps in the one set of neighbors, still living there who would remember the place as it was.
Does it really make us unhappy, I was going to say crazy, to be disconnected from the land? Wendell Barry argues that it does, or rather he argues that the industrialization of our lives makes us crazy:"What is utterly alien to both is corporate industrialism-a dislocated economic life that is without affection for the places where it is lived and without respect for the materials it uses." ( We could live in cities with gardens, pets and the city wildlife and not feel so alienated if the valuation of those things were equal to the worth of machines and a life constrained by them. I am not arguing that we give up machines and go back to some non-existant Neolithic paradise. But the love of gadgets and machines, the eroticism of that physical and mental landscape distorts our understanding of our place in the world. We do belong to nature, even if only in part. We need nature. How many of us have plants on our desk or pets in a small apartment? What does that indicate about our psyches? If you don't grow rare violets, why do you have a plant? Is it only decoration? What are you decorating? Is it a statement? My boss likes plants so I will have one? Or is that violet or airplant a response to an unacknowledged need to touch wildness, to connect to the living world denied by the air-conditioned office, the artificial light, the computer and phone on your desk?
In winter, when nothing blooms where I live, the seed catalogues arrive in January. Nice timing, since by that time the outside whiteness makes flowers and vegetables REALLY attractive. Read the catalog, resist the urge to sniff the pictures, hoping for scent, admire the colors. The vendor hopes you will be overwhelmed by sense-longing and order a lot of seeds and plants. It is easy to do. I have lots of seeds left from other years!
But it IS winter. So I bundle up, get the dog, go to the lake to look at the geese, to find tight-furled buds on the trees, to look for the first returning ducks or later in the season, the bluebirds.
Winter is part of the life-cycle too. Go out and walk, even if it is cold and snowy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Marxist Rant

It’s funny how limitations become malleable. In order to get out of the house yesterday, I went to Wegman’s with Ron while he shopped for groceries. It is like hunting for him. He makes a list divided by categories, checks the sales, organizes his coupons, girds up his loins and plunges into the store. He loves it. I am indifferent to hostile about it, a result of reaching a space in my life where eating and cooking are a matter of necessity for me, not fun, unless there are friends coming over, but as a daily routine--snore. So while he was slipping up and down the aisles hunting the best deal on cannelloni or some such, I was walking the perimeter, as fast as I could go in a crowed store, with my big boots, cane, and winter jacket. I can’t walk outside. Too icy, and a fall would not be good. The carbon steel hip won’t break, but it can come out of the socket until all the muscles and such heal. So I am exercising in this huge, fancy grocery store, glancing at stuff as I go by.
Stuff. Four thousand kinds of cereal, all but three not fit for human consumption. What is wrong with us? How is it even legal to sell that shit? And who would eat it,much less put it in their children? These are not rhetorical questions? The few kinds of cereal I ate as a kid were not so bad, my family having an abiding passion for oatmeal. I confess to an abiding fondness for Mapo and regret its loss, but never as a grown up have I eaten Frosted Flakes, despite a passion for tigers. Now, if I eat cereal, I just eat steal cut oats with maple syrup. Food, as Michael Pollen would say. Things my grandmother would recognize. But what is in Cocoa Puffs, or Lucky Charms? Here is General Mills’ description:
Lucky Charms

Magically delicious Lucky Charms cereal features frosted oats and colored marshmallows.

The kids’ brand with adult appeal for more than four decades. Made with whole grain, Lucky Charms is fortified with 12 vitamins and minerals, and is a good source of calcium
And here are the ingredients for, God help us, the chocolate version:

Whole Grain Oats, Sugar, Marshmallows (Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Gelatin, Calcium Carbonate, Yellow 5 & 6, Blue 1, Red 40, Artificial Flavor), Corn Meal, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Caramel and Beet Juice Concentrate Color, Corn Starch, Salt, Canola Oil, Calcium Carbonate, Artificial Flavor, Trisodium Phosphate, Zinc and Iron (Mineral Nutrients), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), A B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A (Palmitate), A B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Wheat Starch, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness

Magically delicious frosted oats? And colored marshmallows? Without getting into the obesity debate, the awful thing is that this stuff tastes bad and degrades the budding taste buds of the children who eat it. Aside from that, which is evil enough, we are bombarded with several score kinds of this junk. All probably roughly the same shining examples of capitalism gone amok. Sell stuff at all costs. Caveat Emptor. No matter if the product is worth the money or worthy of consumption by any one.
The bread section, which i never go in , but was on my route, since we get our bread at the bakery section(bread snobs), is the same. It is a bit smaller than the hangar size cereal section.. In this part of New York, a place of massive Italian immigration, good bread is appreciated and sold even in regular grocery stores, which Wegman’s is not, and in various bakeries. Still there is a sizable section of enriched styrofoam, sliced. And I am stuck, food snob that I am , asking myself, who buys this stuff. It isn’t slicing that makes it attractive. You can get any loaf sliced. Maybe, I tell myself, it is the soft crusts. I know of adults who won’t eat crusts if they can avoid it. What baffles me is what are those consumers looking for? Certainly not an assertive bread. Something that gives one an excuse to eat bolonga or flutternutter sandwiches? Just eat the stuff out of the jar, for Pete's sake. . Isn’t bread part of the sandwich experience? White? Sure. We have a friend who makes a white bread to die for (Julia Child’s recipe), a white bread that is redolent of wheat and a hint of yeast, a bread that complements anything put on it, that turns into toast to make you swoon. White bread, plain, sustaining, tasteful. So how in the world did we get from there to Wonder bread in what, three generations? Ease. Feminism. Laziness? Did our mothers and grandmothers really find ready made bread superior or were they so exhausted that taste no longer mattered?

I wander back to Ron who is standing in the soup aisle. We buy Campbell’s tomato soup, cream of chicken, and cream of mushroom. We use the latter two for sauces and cooking. We eat the tomato but doctor it with garlic and dill weed. It is the only canned soup that doesn’t taste of the can. I don’t know why. I tell him I am converting to 1905 Marxism. He nods, preoccupied with his ‘hunting.’ I rave softly about a waste of resources, over choice, abuse of the people by massive corporations. He puts the soup in the cart and laughs at me. He agrees, mostly, but he is caught up in the hunt for bargains and the good stuff amid the dreck. There is nothing I can do to prevent the corporate breach of the walls. I limp off to the produce aisle, looking for food.
Down some snowy candlelit lane, snaking like ribbon candy, lies Christmas. Not one I ever had, nor anyone I know. We have not celebrated Christmas in our home for over thirty years. We are Baha’is and I guess that makes other people nervous. They rarely invite us to anything Christmasy. In essence, we have been Christmas free all this time. No shopping, no pressure to get gifts for people about whom one feels at best ambivalent. And most of them are relatives. The last gift I gave my mother was a miniature orange tree. She said, “This is the only thing you’ve ever given me that I’ve liked.” That was how gift-giving went in our family. There were years and years of wrong gifts: a pink and green sweater with a clown ruff, the wrong books, dolls I never wanted. Gifts so bad they had to have been intentionally picked for their badness. I guessed at that meanness as a young child. Though there were things I liked: Lincoln Logs, plastic horses, coloring books and paper dolls.
With my children, gift giving was simpler. I knew them in a way my adoptive mother never knew me. I could assume that what I liked would please them too. And mostly it did. They liked books and toys, music. Easy things to buy. Especially in February when the Baha’i holidays are and there are no sales, no Santa, no Must-Have Toy of the season. I wander empty malls, looking, spending time thinking, unhasselled by bored sales people. Valentine’s Day is out there, but it is still a lover’s holiday. And candy covers all contingencies. In February, I have time to shop and plan, to hunt for just the right thing. Without hype. Without pressure to conform to that icon of Christmas lying at the end of that lane. An icon against which it is almost impossible to stand. Have a natural tree? Make your own gifts? Don’t get family together. My god, you might as well advocate cannibalism. Everyone wants you to do what they are doing, to conform to the hive mind of the holiday. Dickens is to blame of course, but he’s dead a long while now, and we are grown up. No one in Florida has to have artificial snow or Santa in a heavy red suit trimmed in frackin’ fur. The hegemony of the Northern Christmas so pervades the holiday that despite regional differences, there is only one Christmas in America.
A hideous. bloated Christmas which proffers redemption, but rarely delivers and certainly not in the Scroogian mannner. I’ve seen fights over the turkey, sisters insulting and hurting each other, parents and children, spouses, all go at it. And despite Hollywood, I know of no one redeemed by trying to live up to “God bless us everyone.” Why? Well who goes to church for Christmas now? If I did Christmas, here’s what we’d do.
Chrstmas Eve, put up the tree.
LIght the luminiere
Go to midnight Mass.
Come home and open a small gift.
Sleep relatively late the next morning.
Open gifts, most of which would be handmade or donations of time.
Go serve somewhere.
Come home and eat with friends.
Listen to a lot of music. Over the next 12 days try to visit friends and do things together. On 12th night get together with friends and welcome the lengthening days of the coming new year
I like to think that is what I would do, that I would resist the Santa lie. Ok I am an old poop. But what is Santa but blackmail? Be good you little beast or you will get no toys! And really, who connects Santa to the gift of the Christ Child except in the most superficial way? What is the connection? God gives us a child,whom he will cause to be crucified later, so Santa is God, the gifts are what? No wonder people bail and just go with the shopping and Santa. Theology is too hard, and screwy theology is really hard.
Who needs theology when the aunts arrive in two hours and the turkey is all ready done?
Is there a way to sort out the holy day and the holiday? A holy day is a church day, services day, an observation of some kind. A holiday--public fun, general celebrations. Examples Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. There are others, mainly shopping days. But as a culture we do celebrate Thanksgiving (ok maybe the Indians don’t) and the Fourth. Everyone can do them, all the multiple diversity of this country can eat turkey and wave a flag. Even the vegetarians can celebrate with tou-furky and tofu hot dogs. And while the Fourth lends itself to drunkenness, it doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of Christmas. Thanksgiving can, if you don’t go home, but the burden of presents is missing from both holidays.
So there we are as a culture, saddled with a holiday that originates in Europe-yeah yeah, we do too-that was almost created by Dickens, whose other realities, I submit, we would not so eagerly adopt. And that is because of redemption. No story about the Fourth or Thanksgiving suggests that observing these holidays will make us better. Perhaps we do ask of the Fourth that it reaffirm who we think we are as a people, but it will never redeem us because it is too laden with death and violence. Thanksgiving should be a day of Atonement; it is a day of gluttony connected to football, not even Lacrosse for pete’s sake. Thanks to Dickens, we burden Christmas (shouldn’t it be Easter) with the weight of saving us. Whatever bad thing we have done can be expunged if we only promise to love Christmas and keep it all the year. Presents as bribes? The turkey makes up for the years of penury that Scrooge has foisted off on the Cratchitts. Playing games with one’s family? Oh what a metaphor. Scrooge and his nephew doing charades, as if they hadn’t been for years. And there we are every year charading our way back to the family, laden with turkeys, hoping for blessing, wondering why it doesn’t work.
So bah humbug on the Dickens Christmas. Bah humbug on all of it. Let’s go back to keeping the solstice. Let’s renew ourselves by reconnecting to the natural world every year. Go decorate an outdoor tree for the birds if you live some place where it snows. Go pickup the beach, then have a cookout. Screw presents. We all have too much stuff anyhow. Rejoice, if you live in the norther=n hemisphere, in the lengthening days. If you live in the Southern hemisphere, welcome the cool season.
Just leave Claus out of it.