Notes from an Urban Cabin #22 | Year-beginning clearance
I think this is the seventh draft I've started since the last Urban Cabin newsletter. Consider this sort of the catchall that some people write around Christmastime.
I'm not in the cabin at the moment. I'm at Anchor and Anvil Coffee Bar, where I have spent enough over the previous year to get $5 off on today's order: Paris tea and a turkey-spinach-pesto panini. It's the first time I've had the Paris tea, and it's good as is, no need for sweetener or milk or lemon, which I can't say about all black teas. I think it might be Harney & Sons.
I'm here ostensibly to work, and also to pass some time, since my old Toyota just got towed to a body shop where a handwritten sign on the door said "LUNCH. BE BACK AT 1:00 or 1:15."
Why the Toyota got towed is a longer story than I want to tell at the moment. Why I still even have the Toyota, when I got a newer car more than a year ago, is perhaps a shorter story: I've had that car since June of 2002, I love it and I am having a hard time letting it go.
We've been to Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, a sliver of Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois together. We've gone almost 200,000 miles. We've driven the wrong way on a one-way street and lived to tell about it. We've hauled a kayak and a bicycle and both at the same time. We've carried passengers from preschooler to nonagenarian.
She's survived a T-boning and a rear-ending and an ice-covered pine bough falling through her windshield. Parts of her at the moment are cracked, or duct-taped together, or missing (like the front passenger door handle, which someone broke off in a gallant door-opening move that fell flat when the door remained shut and the handle remained in his confused hand, which made me laugh and laugh and laugh). But underneath, she's solid. No rust. Does she still have life in her, even if it's the kind of life where she sacrifices her parts so others can live? We'll find out.
She has a name, known only to her and me. And like a beloved bedtime stuffed animal, she knows many of my secrets.
Sometimes I have a hard time letting go. Of possessions, of relationships, of long-held opinions that turn out to be wrong or no longer serving me well. Of habits, whether good or bad. Of writing (see those starts sitting in the drafts folder, ideas I took so far and felt not far enough to send forth). I know it's silly to be so attached to a car. And if I cared that much, I probably would have taken better care of her. I think I'm still holding on because she is the last, or at least the largest, tangible link between the old life of 25 years in Arkansas and this still new life in Pittsburgh.
Last year had some hard things in it. My great-aunt had pneumonia three times, usually with some of the other things that go along with old-age frailty: anemia, low potassium, a UTI, shingles. Two of those bouts were possibly caused by aspirating food. Each meant a week in the hospital; the second and third were followed by three or four weeks in a subacute rehab facility for therapy, to get strong enough to go back home. Her swallowing ability has deteriorated to the point that she can eat only pureed foods. She would live on coffee and cranberry juice if she could. She would also live on bacon and chocolate if she could. Like her physical strength, her cognitive abilities ebb and flow. But always more ebb than flow, always a tideline a little closer to the sea with each passing year.
And much of this caregiving is new to me. "You knew what you were signing up for," someone joked around the time that phrase was in the news. Well, no, I didn't. Only that I would be here to do what is needed. There's a network of family, each with certain skills, certain insights about our aunt. I'm the one who lives here, but it truly takes all of us. When she has to go to the hospital, because she's clearly ill, or because she's fallen again, or because she's choked on some food, if I'm not the one to take her, I try to get there as fast as I can. She will answer the medical people's questions confidently, and she will often be wrong. Part of my job, it turns out, is to be her rememberer.
We recently marked her 95th birthday. Last time she was in rehab, a doctor talked to us about hospice. Not yet. I think she could make it to 100.
There are always new things to learn. Last week I went to a two-hour downsizing workshop (and that deserves its own story). I started a getting-your-finances-in-order workshop. Next week I'm going to a workshop on improv for dementia caregivers. One takeaway from all of these is that we are not alone. There is always someone, there are always multitudes, dealing with the same hard things and trying to do better.
Last year had some great things in it too. Because of a Facebook post two weeks before the fall semester began, I got to teach a composition course at the University of Pittsburgh, where I earned my MFA so many years ago. And I got to teach some online writing courses through Tweetspeak Poetry. And I'm teaching the same comp course again at Pitt. It's hard work, and good work, and I am so fortunate to have it.
One of the best things about my life here is the church I've found, a five-minute walk from my home. The church, of course, is the people, not the building. But that's often where we come together. It's given me a small group to eat meals and discuss things and laugh ( and sometimes cry) with weekly. And a choir to sing with (which is its own story, which I will tell sometime). And the friendship of women to study the Bible with. And another place where sometimes I get to restore order in the world by washing dishes. It provides several anchoir points in my week, and with a schedule that is more sloshy water than solid land, that is a gift.
I stopped liking the cabin last year. There's a draft where I talk about that. I'm not sure how much I want to say about that (and I know it is mean of me to hint and then hold back; I'm sorry). It's not the cabin's fault. I think it is about some restlessness, some long habits that made a hard thing harder and brought me face to face with the need for 180-degree change — or 360-degree, since I want to be pointing forward, not back, when I'm done. I think what feels gloomy in the cabin even on a sunny day is a bit like Pigpen's dust cloud, with me wherever I go. That is the thing I need to figure out and take steps to take care of before I lament on and on about why I stopped liking the cabin for a while.
The car guy should be back by now. It's time to go talk to him about my poor brave little car, and then to read and comment on some student papers, and then to make blueberry pancakes for dinner, and then to walk the block and a half to sit with others and consider a few verses in the second chapter of James.
Sometimes I think back to how much momentum I had when I decide to leave Little Rock for Pittsburgh. I'd been leaning toward the move for a few years. But once I decided (Friday, April 29, 2016), it was less than six weeks from that moment to the day I drove into Pittsburgh, got the keys and emptied my carload of possessions into the new urban cabin. It's probably impossible to sustain that kind of momentum. But something in me has been sitting almost as dormant as my tired old car. Something needs a jump-start.
Anyway, here's something from one of those drafts. Thank you for reading, especially the handful of you who consistently let me know you're there. It's possible I've repeated something you've read before, something that keeps making the rounds in my brain. Maybe I need my own assistant rememberer.
••• The first time I ever baked yeast bread was in grad school. My roommate and I decided to make bread, found a recipe and mixed the dough. We didn't read through the directions to add up the rising times and calculate how long it would take. By the time we realized, we were committed. It was past 1 a.m. when that bread cooled enough for us to have a first slice. It was worth it.
One weekend early in January when I mixed dough, I knew that the timing was all wrong. But I couldn't remember the last time I made bread, which used to be a weekly habit. And Facebook's on-this-date memories featured a Louis Jenkins prose poem I'd posted a year earlier.
Bread! The intoxicating smell of yeast. And bread fresh from the oven. Someone loves me and has left warm bread. When bread is broken, the life hidden within presents itself, a thousand little holes, windows open for the first time ...
How could I not? I dug out my flour-flecked, watermarked copy of no-knead bread from a 2006 New York Times story titled "The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work," a recipe I used to have memorized. Then I went out for afternoon errands, and on to see my aunt, later than I'd planned, and I stayed longer than I'd planned. When I got back to my kitchen, there was the forgotten bowl of rising dough, covered with bubbles, waiting for me to help it along to its next stage.
Dump onto a floured board, fold over a few times, cover with plastic wrap for 15 minutes. Shape into a ball, set on a tea towel sprinkled with cornmeal, sprinkle more on top of the ball, cover with the other half of the tea towel, let rise for 90 minutes. Heat the oven, with a Dutch oven inside, and let rise for 30 more minutes. Dump from towel into hot Dutch oven; bake for 30 minutes; remove lid; bake for 15-30 minutes more.
It was 11 p.m. when the bread came out of the oven. And though I didn't have anyone to eat it with this time, it was still worth it, partly for the arc of committing to a thing that at first seemed attractive but later seemed inconvenient or daunting. Seeing it through.