Friday, January 29, 2010


Oh, we did think we were bad—teenaged Catholic school girls, acting out. Trouble is that we were even naïve about acting out. Our idea of being bad was dancing the locomotion with Little Eva in Mary’s basement. Yes, just the girls, dancing in our socks in the wood-paneled rec room of a suburban rambler in College Park. Bad to the bone, uh huh, dancing to records and singing along with Louie Louie like we knew the words and the words were naughty. Mary and I once crept into the woods behind her house and drank beer. We just sat on a pile of leaves and drank. We even had a bottle opener because we were experienced and we knew you needed a device to open the beer bottles. Mary walked back into her house and went to sleep and I walked down the street to my house and climbed into bed, no one the wiser.

I wish someone had given us some instructions on how to be really bad. It was pitiful—we were young. We just didn’t know better.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

God in stillness

A cold and damp day. I went to Quaker meeting this morning, sat in the wooden pew, quieted my mind, and closed my eyes to open my senses and my heart. Cars swished by outside in the rain. The unrestrained voices of children downstairs in Sunday school class, coughs and sneezes. The creak of the floors beneath gentle footsteps, the smell of wood and wet wool, a woman greeting a friend, "So good to see you," in a muffled voice. Not total silence but the simple sounds of life. Not silence but stillness. In recent years I've retreated more and more into a quiet life--no television, occasional radio, the only music often the music I play on the banjo or fiddle. There is such peace in this stillness. For me, it is where I find God. Beyond thought, beyond language, in stillness there is God.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Too old

One molecule at a time, I am aging. Sometimes, if I'm very still I think I feel those youth molecules slipping away. Yesterday I was a new mother. The day before that, a bride. Mere moments before that, a teenager. I didn’t think it would really happen but apparently someone in control had other plans.

Last week I was having coffee and discussing this aging phenomenon with my friend Mary, whom I’ve know since I was 13 years old. Mary and I were born within four days of one another. We look at one another and remember how we both looked nearly 50 years ago. We just shake our heads, wondering how we got to this stage in life so quickly.

First I started seeing the fat cells multiply in new areas, like below my waistline. My former husband only paid me two compliments in 30 years of marriage—he once said I had a nice flat stomach and he told me I had beautiful blue eyes. My eyes are still blue. Despite what I consider a proper diet and sufficient exercise, a little weasel has taken up residence under my skin below my navel. How the hell did that thing crawl under there when I wasn’t looking?

And hormones, those wretched things—when they were raging, I cursed them, hated PMS and menstrual cramps. Now I hate their absence. Hot flashes, sleeplessness, thinning hair, and an inability to concentrate are just a few of the byproducts of menopause. It’s not a joke when it really happens, one drop of estrogen at a time. Soon it’s all gone.

Eyes and ears are in a conspiracy to start failing at the same time. I struggle to thread a needle and I can’t see well at night when I’m driving. I can’t hear my dinner companion in a noisy restaurant. Am I going to take after both my blind father and my deaf mother? Yippee.

Bones, joints, muscles ache. I used to hurt if I lifted something heavy or took a more challenging yoga class. Now I hurt if I walk too much, sit too much, stand too much, or carry a load of laundry up the stairs. Everything is sagging—wrinkles on the corners of my eyes, cheeks sliding off my face, flaps on the back of my arms. Life’s not fair.

My dearest lifelong friends from high school have been plotting a way to cope with this aging nonsense. We're having a mini-conference at my house in the spring to work out the details. At this point the plan involves a pink house by the sea where we'll live communally, a masseur on call, and LSD. Nothing like a bunch of old women on acid trips.

I’ve been discussing this aging thing with God. I pointed out that I would have been perfectly happy to accept status quo with the imperfect 40-year-old body, but this 60-year-old body is not what I had in mind. God, in turn, pointed out to me that I am a human being and he doesn’t make exceptions, plastic surgeons notwithstanding. So I just looked at myself in the mirror and looked up at him and said, “Okay, I get your point, you don’t make exceptions. This is weird though. I didn’t really think you’d do it.” He just smiled knowingly.

So how do I accept this aging thing? I don’t know. I suppose I need much more time to get used to it. Maybe it will be okay. Maybe it will make me laugh, knowing that I am just like everyone else, watching myself get older according to the preordained schedule. Maybe some man will love me for much more than my body. Maybe my kids will still love me and I’ll be a better grandmother because I’ll really look like one.

However, I still think aging is overrated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue fairy godmother

Another writing exercise. I honestly don't know where all this blood-and-guts writing is coming from. It's so unlike me. I suppose I could blame it on the prompt sentences I'm pulling out, but I have to claim some responsibility for the direction that it takes.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut, p. 131

“The Blue Fairy Godmother knew something about killing.”

“Jesus Horatio Christ,” I screamed at the top of my lungs. No one heard me. I think it was about then that I passed out. I only recall the sensation of floating, something sticky, hot, then cold. Merle and his damned contraptions! He had rigged up a giant fan in the roof of the barn to try to keep the heat level down and to dissipate some of the stench from the never-ending pile of manure. Buddy, our ornery stallion, was acting up again, kicking his stall until the walls rattled. As I reached down to turn on the faucet I heard above me that wretched sound of metal-on-metal, wood splintering, and looked up and saw the fan blade—a blade big enough to power a small airplane—falling from the ceiling. I couldn’t move quickly enough to avoid it. That’s when I screamed. Apparently the blade hit me but I don’t remember the impact, only blackness. In an instant I knew everything about that village in Cameroon. I spoke the language; I looked like the others; I understood their customs, their food, their religion. I understood all the fine nuances of communicating with drums and my hands were hard from the playing. I was a woman of power, revered by some and feared by others. The mysteries of the native plants were revealed to me—the ability to heal or to harm. My people, the people I loved, looked at me with dark eyes, full of fear and hope for only I could conjure up something to protect them from the evil presence they called the Fairy Godmother. Villagers had been finding their animals dead, their throats slashed. Ancient stories had been passed through the generations of a woman who had been expelled from the tribe centuries ago. Legend was that this woman, the Fairy Godmother, had been cursed so that she would never die and would spend eternity roaming outside the village alone. She had painted herself blue and she wailed in the night and sometimes killed the village animals in revenge. And I had the burden—some would say it was a privilege—of putting an end to this evil woman. I regained consciousness in the hospital days after my encounter with the airborne fan blade. Merle was sitting by my side, saying, “Honey, please be alright, please, please, please.” Over time he explained what happened to me, how he had found me unconscious on the barn floor in a pool of blood, and how Buddy had died when the blade slashed his throat like a machete. The Blue Fairy Godmother knew something about killing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Very brief thoughts on Pat Robertson

I really don't want to waste much time thinking about the Rev. Pat Robertson, but here's all I'm willing to devote to the matter. The first thing I would do if I had the power is that I would take away his “Reverend” title. The title presumes that he is someone to be revered—I can’t imagine who could respect the man, much less revere him. How could a man of God condemn the Haitian people and say that they brought the earthquake on themselves by some pact they made with the devil a couple hundred years ago? That’s just plain silly. But mostly I just ignore the man. He’s a gnat, a silly buffoon not taken seriously by anyone with a brain and a heart. That said, I’m not going to belabor the point—he’s a goofball and he doesn’t deserve any more attention or energy. Let him just wallow in his own stupidity—that’s punishment enough.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The novel

I pretty much finished writing my non-fiction book and I've been trying to find an agent. Meanwhile I've started another book--this one completely different. It's fiction, but like all fiction, I suppose, much of it is based on real life. My real life. The title of the book (tentatively) is Believe. If I explained the title, I'd give away too much of the story line. Here's a sneak preview--the first couple of paragraphs. What do you think?

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” That was my mother talking. It was sometime in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson when the Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. I was stunned, scraped and bruised, but I managed to get up in one piece. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie.”

I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

No more muffins

It’s strange to consider the things that hold symbolic value in my life, sort of like totems that depict how I see myself at a certain stages. Take, for example, muffin tins. When my husband left me 12 years ago, my world fell apart. I thought that life, as it existed, was no more. In a sense I was right—life changed forever that August afternoon when he drove away in that creepy burgundy Buick LeSabre of his. (It was a stupid-looking, boring old-man car and it made him act just like the car looked. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he started wearing white patent-leather belts and polyester pants after buying that car. But I digress.)

When he left and I was no longer anyone’s wife I thought I would never cook again and so I purged much of my cooking equipment, most notably my muffin tins. I had sets of mini-tins and standard-size tins, jumbo tins, even fluted tins. I gave all the muffin tins to a young woman I knew who was about to get married. Actually I foisted them on her—I wouldn’t let her leave my house unless she agreed to take the entire collection of muffin tins. I don’t think she really wanted them. I think she was just humoring the crazy woman who was losing her mind because she was getting divorced. But at the time I was certain that I would never bake another muffin because I would no longer be a married woman. Had I subconsciously absorbed an image of women from Ladies Home Journal? Did I think I had to be Donna Reed to cook?

I rarely cooked in those early days when I was first separated. I would come home from work and have a beer and microwaved popcorn. If I was feeling particularly strong, I’d have a beer and angel hair pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. All comfort food, all the time.

But now, 12 years later, I’m back into the kitchen with a vengeance and reclaiming cooking has been a symbol of my reclaiming my life. And now I love it more than ever. I don’t have to cook for anyone else. I can cook what I want to cook, when I want to cook, and for whom I want to cook. I’ve reclaimed my life and my cooking on my terms. And I bought new muffin tins.

Here's one of my favorite muffin recipes:

Lemon Breakfast Muffins

½ cup butter
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs (separate yolks)
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (approximately 2 lemons)
1 ½ teaspoon lemon rind

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat well. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and add to butter mixture alternately with lemon juice and rind. Blend thoroughly. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into batter.

Fill buttered muffin tins 2/3 full.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until lightly brown.

Makes 12 to 18 muffins.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Erma Boggs

Restless I am. Troubled by something I cannot identify. It’s as if there is a vapor in the room, an aura, some noxious fumes that I cannot smell, cannot see. I need to write something to figure out what it is. And having no inspiration, not even knowing what to write, I pull out the freewriting exercise—close my eyes, pull a book from the shelf, open to any page, the first sentence I find . . .

Jeannette Walls—The Glass Castle, p. 180

“As we walked home, Mom asked us kids if we had anything nice to say about Erma now that she had passed.”

All I want is simply a dozen doughnuts all to myself—six jelly (but it has to be those perfect raspberry jelly doughnuts from Burke’s Bakery, not the ones filled with that strawberry slime with no real strawberries that they sell at the A&P), three chocolate glazed, and three plain. I am giving some thought to the order in which I will eat the doughnuts. I know I'll start with one jelly or two jellies and probably will end with a plain one. But the order in the middle has yet to be decided. I know that I will eat them all in one glorious doughnut orgy and that surely I will have a horrible stomach ache when I am done, but I need them to soothe my soul. I am also giving serious thought to including a biggie bag of rippled barbequed potato chips. Francine told me that she was reading a book on Roman history and the Romans used to have orgies where they drank and ate until their stomachs nearly busted and they had sex in public in front of other people. In comparison to the Romans, my little orgy will be nothing. And besides, there will be no sex involved. I’m only 12 years old—I don’t have sex. You might wonder exactly what happened that got me so worked up that only a dozen doughnuts would make me feel better. I am hoping doughnuts have the power to stop nightmares. It has to do with that old witch Erma Boggs. Erma Boggs lived up near the top of the hill in a big white house that had been built long before the Civil War. Her family way back owned slaves and grew tobacco. Our little town was built on land that used to be the Boggs family’s tobacco plantation. Erma Boggs weighed about 85 pounds and she was all bent and withered and her teeth were rotten. Her hands were deformed and her fingernails were long, yellow, and curled around like goat’s horns. She wore moth-eaten woolen black clothes, even in the heat of summer. I used to see Erma Boggs driving her old rusty car and every once in a while she’d show up at church. She’d arrive late, park in the front in the no parking zone, sit off to the side, and not speak to anyone. She didn’t mingle with the locals. Erma Boggs had no children and never married, and she was the last surviving member of her family. Francine’s mother, Maribelle Watkins, used to work for Erma Boggs sometimes. Mrs. Watkins would run errands for Erma Boggs and occasionally she tried to clean the house for her. But Mrs. Watkins said it was a losing battle because Erma Boggs had piles and piles of junk all over the house—magazines and spoiled jars of food and clothing that had belonged to Erma Boggs’s parents. So on a Saturday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, I was walking through the woods looking for pretty leaves and acorns for our cornucopia centerpiece. I jumped across the creek into a wet pile of leaves, tripped and fell. With my right hand, I grabbed what I thought was a branch in the leaves. It wasn’t a branch—it was an arm with bony fingers and long curled fingernails that looked like goat’s horns. I’m not even sure I screamed. Bubbie Link, the sheriff, said she probably had been dead a couple of weeks and it had been over a month since anyone had seen her alive. Mom said we kids needed to be respectful and she forced us to go to Erma Boggs’s funeral. Everyone was horrified at how she died but no one cried. As we walked home, Mom asked us kids if we had anything nice to say about Erma now that she had passed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Sometimes I think I owe my entire reputation as a cook to the fact that I steal great recipes. Thank you, Kath, for stealing the recipe from that Irish nun. I made four batches of dried cherry almond scones in the past three days. There is a sweet version and a savory version--either version is simply perfect. People ask me for this recipe so often that I decided to post it here for all the world to see. (Like anyone is actually reading this blog!)

Kath’s Scones

For sweet scones:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup buttermilk (may need more)
1 large egg
1 ½ tsp vanilla
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup raisins or other dried fruit (cranberries/cherries)
½ tsp grated orange rind

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in large bowl and cut in butter with pastry knife. In small bowl, mix buttermilk, egg, and vanilla. Pour into flour mixture then stir in fruit and orange rind.
Flour hands and turn dough onto ungreased cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Pat gently into circle 1 ½ - 2” high and score into 8 scones with floured knife. Sprinkle top with additional sugar.
Bake in preheated oven at 375º for 18 – 20 minutes until top is light brown.

For savory scones:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup buttermilk (may need more)
1 large egg
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp. minced chives

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl and cut in butter with pastry knife. In small bowl, mix buttermilk and egg. Pour into flour mixture. Stir in cheese, cayenne, and chives.
Flour hands and turn dough onto ungreased cookie sheet. Pat gently into circle 1 ½ - 2” high and score into 8 scones with floured knife.
Bake in preheated oven at 375º for 18 – 20 minutes until top is light brown.

Friday, January 1, 2010


My resolution for 2010 is that I'm going to start smoking. Really. Why not? I need a good meaty vice, something to rescue me from being so dull and squeaky clean. As of December 1st people can no longer smoke in restaurants in Virginia. For years I've bitched and moaned about the seepage from smoking sections in restaurants and now I miss having that issue to complain about. So I decided that I'm going to start smoking so I can be indignant about smokers' rights.

I'm already sick of this 2010 thing. The number is just weird--a 2, a zero, a 1, and another zero. Doesn't it look odd? It doesn't look like a real year--it should be the number for some sort of income tax form. Besides I was just getting used to the 2000-aught years. This one just came without being invited.

Can't we just skip 2010, or even better maybe rewind back to 1964? Back in the 60s we didn't worry about trans-fats and getting anthrax and global warming. Some of us still had hula hoops and 18 year olds could drink beer legally. The music was fabulous and we could go to free teen club dances with great bands like Little Willie and the Gondoliers. None of my girlfriends were having hot flashes and none of the guys had ED. (And we didn't learn about every malady known to man from television commercials.) Hamburgers (with trans-fats and too much salt and tainted meat) cost a quarter. Those were the good old days.

Happy new year anyway.