Cheating the Punishment

My fourth grade teacher finally had enough of my impudence. My punishment: write all of this week's spelling words one hundred times each. At home, my mixture of dread and invention joined forces in a conspiracy of productivity. I would figure out a way to use carbon paper folded in between columns of a sheet of paper so that when I wrote in the first column, the writing would transfer through to four other columns. Secretly, in my bedroom, I folded one sheet of white lined notebook paper after another, with the shiny dark blue carbon paper intertwined in different configurations.  Finally, I got the pattern right! I pressed down with my pen, wrote a word, unfolded the paper, and there, wonderfully, were five columns of words across the top--four of them for free! I wrote several more words until, with a tap on the door, my mom came in. I instinctively shifted from guilt to elation: rather than hide the work-evasion scheme in which I was engaged, I proudly stood up and said "Look! I can write one word and get four more instantly!" Mom was neither excited nor disapproving. Her face showed that she was preoccupied with something far more serious. In a strangely calm and comforting way, she sat down on my bed with me and told me that my sister had just died. She was a Down's kid and had been struggling with a heart condition. Her struggle was over. My scheming to out-smart my teacher seemed trivial and small-minded compared to this.



The evening darkness starts to blanket the leaf-covered streets and sidewalks at around 5:00. Bands of children dressed as fairies, Muppets, ghosts, and zombies herd along the walks with parents tagging along behind. They have special privileges on the streets tonight. Cars drive more carefully than usual, easing along, hesitantly, yielding to the costumed youth as they wander across the streets. From one house after another, the make-shift thespians walk up to the front door of a house where they incant "Trick or treat!" From the door, an arm emerges with a basket from which the costumed beggars reach in and extract the candy wrapped in crinkly plastic. Then, each one dutifully says "Thank you!" as parents urge them to retreat and let the next tribe through. They shuffle down  the walkway, rejoin their parents, consult with each other about what they just got, and move on to the next house. Looking down the street, six groups of frightful tricksters generate a sound of children's high-pitched twittering with parents punctuating the noise with reminders to be careful. The shuffling of feet in the leaves, the cool night air, and the smell of leaves and candles inside of pumpkins adorn this curious annual ritual. By seven o'clock, the children seem to have finished and older kids are roaming in twos or threes without parents. By eight o'clock, the rite seems to be over for this year.


Autumn Sleep

In late October, the grass is as green as late spring--it bursts into growth and hungrily drinks in water and food preparing for a long, cold sleep. On top of the grass, leaves blanket the ground. They've departed from their tree that they fed for months. They've done their job, and now they die in the most beautiful display of artful ballet, dancing downward from their perch and landing on the ground with grace, exploding with color. They leave behind space as now the neighboring houses and yards become visible once again. The barrenness of November and the colder, silver air starts to take over. The noisy cat birds are gone. Now, the quiet, patient, longsuffering chickadees, mourning doves and cardinals remain, but without much song. They, too, are busy like the grass, preparing for the approaching cold, barrenness of winter. Winter will come, but what will it be this year? It will be whatever it wants to be, without consultation with others. It may grace the earth with beautiful white snow, or it may spit cold rain and turn everything dreary and gray. It may be silent and cool. No announcement, no signals. Just perfectly reliable in whatever the forces that combine to make it will do. But for now, the air is still pungent with the leaves that are still falling, silently. Until they return again in April!


Cold Morning

The house is chilly. Turn up the thermostat and the furnace blows warm air smelling of burnt dust, bringing comfort to your skin. In the bathroom, take a shower and turn up the water warmer than usual. The steam gathers towards the ceiling like a small cloud. The mirror can't reflect your tired face because the cloud stuck to it, blocking the view. Dress a little warmer choosing that heavier, soft shirt. For breakfast, hot oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon and molten brown sugar. Plus scrambled eggs and melted cheese. Slowly, carefully, absorb this moment while tasting every bite bursting with conflicting flavors: spice, tart cheese, orange. No matter--it's the comforting routine. Go, finish with brushing your teeth. Pull on your coat, gather your keys, press the unlock button as the car acknowledges with a short honk, step out, and breathe in the cold, fresh air that brings your lungs and brain to life.


The Old Pool

We were scrambling down the hill through brush and dense growth, amidst the tall poplars and oaks, until we paused: an ancient swimming pool emerged before us. Stone apron and interior, leading to a dam that let the flow spill over and down a stream to the big creek below. The canopy of tall trees shaded this little paradise from the hot sun. Entropy is having its way with this long abandoned luxury as lily pads and moss carpet every surface. The stones have shifted and the dirt and roots are breaking through into the pool. Frogs and carp have taken up residence in the dark water. I imagine bathing parties long ago with men and women in their modest, body-covering attire and children running around, splashing and tossing balls. The symphony of birds: cardinals, thrush, cat birds, blue jays--all compliment this quiet oasis. It now rests from the human-designed purpose of retreat. Now it is simply a home for everything that lives there, but without that happy family that once prospered enough to build such an extravagance.  They are gone. Their estate, up on the land near the cemetery, long partitioned off and sold. This part, at least, is free to return to its former place in the world.

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