Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Gift" a story from Solomon's Puzzle

This is a work of fiction, an excerpt from my novel, Solomon's Puzzle, a story within a story.
The Gift
“… I recall his hands,/ two measures of tenderness /he laid against my face,/ the flames of discipline/ he raised above my head.”
On my eighth birthday, my parents gave me my first bicycle. A plumber by trade, my father worked steadily always doing excellent work. My mother cleaned houses and took in ironing. They put what money they could into his business and into the care of my mother’s elderly parents. Dad was fond of saying, “I’m not mean; I’m careful.” So when he took me out to the porch and showed me that gleaming, blue Schwinn, I understood the extra work it cost. “It’s great, Dad,” I whispered.
It took me a bit of practice in our little street to learn to ride the gorgeous thing. Then Dad let me go with it. I rode around our neighborhood and soon I could let one hand off to wave to the kids who came out to admire.
I felt confident, so I peddled uphill past the grocery store, the gas station and on. It was as far as I’d been by myself and as I sailed by on my bike I noticed overflowing trash bins, doors left ajar and a surprising number of adults standing by the curb or sitting on their steps. I reached my goal- the long, sloping, Rivendi Avenue.
I’ll never forget the bliss of speeding down Rivendi on that fine September day with the sun on my face so bright I had to squint. The wind lifted me; it ruffled my bit of hair; it filled up my jacket as if it were a sail. I was flying and free and nothing could catch me.
Nearly dark, I coasted home; so tired were my legs they felt like sticks of gum. I put the bicycle away in the shed, brushing off any noticeable dirt. I shut the door and I remember locking it. Dad kept his tools there. And as I said before, he had taught me to be careful.
Next morning, I woke before my parents. My legs so sore, I could barely move them, I had to have a quick ride before breakfast and church, so I hobbled out into the brief light of dawn. The shed door stood ajar. I saw the odd twist in the handle and the little padlock lying useless on the grass. I made myself look --heart thumping, breath stuck --into the dark shed.
“My astonishment was too great for tears. I ran upstairs, burst into my parents’ room., “It’s gone! My bicycle’s gone!”
There was no question of replacing it. There was no way to justify such a luxury twice. I knew it was gone forever. We all knew that.
My father told the police the thief must have been a child because none of the valuable tools in the shed were missing. Weeks passed; I grew angrier. I told my father that mine was righteous anger, like in the Bible story. My father’s response? “Only God is capable of righteous anger. Your disappointment is understandable, but remember, you’ve made mistakes, too.” My problem with Dad’s advice was that I figured I’d done nothing as bad as stealing a boy’s new bicycle. I figured if God believed in the Ten Commandments, then He was also angry with the thief. Righteously angry, like me.
The first week in October, the police called to say they’d found the bicycle. My mother and I considered it a miracle, but my father asked for the name and address of the suspected thief. He wanted to talk to him.
I went with him. I knew my father to be tough and principled, physically strong and always interested in getting to the heart of the matter. When he said he wanted to talk to me, my life changed. I was convinced Dad would talk first, thrash them righteously, turn them utterly subdued over to the police and hand me back my bicycle.
We met the policeman at the corner of Rivendi Avenue. He led us to an apartment that smelled of grease and boredom. My bicycle stood in the middle of the dim room. Shoes and pillows littered the floor beside stacked magazines; dishes filled the sink. I counted five children who stood very still rubbing their eyes with the gritty concentration of the intensely itchy. I moved toward my bicycle, but my father’s hand dropped on my shoulder.
My father introduced himself and then me to the only adult in the room-- a thin woman who sat at the kitchen table before an open magazine and a full cup of black coffee. Smoke curled from the ashtray beside her magazine in a slow, gray curl. Dad shook her hand, asked the names of the children.
“Kevin’s the culprit,” the mother pointed at the tallest. “He’s a handful and his dad can’t see it.”
“His father lives here, right?”I asked. I knew Dad wouldn’t thrash a woman.
“Course he does, child.”
“My father said, “When do you expect your husband, ma’am?’
“When was he here last, Kev?”
Without looking up, Kevin said, “Yesterday morning.”
“He’ll be back anytime get some clean clothes.”
“I looked around to see where these might possibly be kept. Kevin’s mother said, ‘What’re you going to do to him, officer?’ “That’s up to Mr. MacBride.” Now I had no worries. Especially when my father said, “May I have your permission to talk to Kevin, ma’am?” Dad always talked before he struck justice. He asked Kevin to wheel the bicycle outside. There the policeman, my dad, Kevin and I stood and stared at it.
“How did it get wrecked?” I said when I saw it in the daylight.
Kevin shrugged, rubbing his eyes and squinting. “I’m afraid that’s not the answer I need,” my father said, getting down on one knee, eye level with the criminal.
“You’re not from here,” Kevin said, rudely.
“I was born away.”
“Then how come you have more money than me? My parents were born here.”
My father thought a minute. “God has blessed me with strength to work and I’m paid for my work.”
Kevin pointed to the bicycle. “I hide it under that old truck,” he said, pointing to where a lopsided pick-up with the grocer’s faded logo rusted. “I ride at night. You run into things.”
“You run into things?” my father said.
“It’s dark,” Kevin shrugged. Dad glanced at me. A boy could always find his way in the dark, we both knew. “Like I’m riding along. Boom! Last night I crashed into the steps around front. That’s what bent the wheel. That’s when I got caught.”
A glance at the policeman confirmed this. My father stared at this solidly built boy. His hair looked the same color as his grimy skin; his watery eyes blinked, the eyelids puffed and cracked. In the awkward silence, the boy’s stomach groaned. Dad asked to speak to the policeman.
Alone with me Kevin said, “Your dad’s nice.” I began to tremble. Things were not going according to my liking. Something about the look on my father’s face spoke mercy, not vengeance. I stared at my bicycle, barely recognizable with its bent wheel, scraped paint, dented handlebars, one pedal missing. My father returned and asked to speak to me privately. We stood on the far side of the pick-up. I kept my eye on the boy and my bicycle.
My father went to one knee. “Tommy, there’s something we must do, you and I.”
“The child is ill. His eyes are infected and he needs food.”
“He stole my bicycle.” I suspected where this was going. What happened to tough and principled? Was there to be no thrashing?
“I’m thinking maybe your bicycle was stolen so we would have a rare opportunity to love our neighbors.”
My dad had a certain inspired look in his eyes that, to my shame, silenced me. The next week we began to fix the bicycle. Kevin and I were to work for Dad on Saturdays, earning the money for each part. Though my mother protested, Dad invited the entire grubby family over for Sunday supper. That same look in his eye vanquished her, too.
When I grumbled, Dad explained the money had to be earned to pay for repairs. I could do it alone, or share the work with the culprit. When Dad took a bag of groceries there Saturday mornings, I glowered at my oatmeal, imagining the bags we took them held Cocoa Puffs-- deemed “too dear” for us MacBrides. The third time they came for dinner, I made sure they knew my resentment. My father asked me to leave the table. After dessert, he came to my room.
“You have a choice, Tommy. You can stand against me or help me. If you refuse to be kind, I’ll leave you to yourself. But if you want peace between us, you’ll have to cooperate.”
If I admitted I’d been rude, I’d have to submit to his plan. I could escape this punishment as long as I was willing to fuel the hostility I felt growing toward Dad. An easy choice except when you love your father as I did mine.
“He stole from us,” I sobbed. “And you’re rewarding him!”
“Don’t you think it’s punishment to make the boy fix what he wrecked, all the time having to face you and me? Being forced to sit at dinner with the people he’s wronged, so his family can have the food they need?”
So I joined him, doubting though I was and prone to bursts of anger. We worked eight months and Kevin looked as healthy as me. His eyes were better; he kept himself clean and he had proven to be an excellent mechanic. The day came when we had no more to do and the three of us stared at the gleaming, souped-up bicycle. It was so beautiful, I felt like crying.
“I was wrong to take it,” Kevin sobbed. “I’m so sorry.” He went to my father who hugged and kissed Kevin just as if he were me. They heard me crying behind them and took me into the hug. I said, “I know. Let’s sell it and buy two cheaper ones.”
Both wiped their eyesFont size and stared at me.
“No,” Kevin said. “It’s yours. You don’t owe me. I owe you.”
“But I forgive you,” I heard myself say.

with thanks to Karl, Joe , Li Young Lee and Steve Larson for inspiration
Copyright by Loris Nebbia 2007

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eating Together: Hummus

"...we shall eat it with rice for lunch, brothers, sister."

Why buy hummus when you can make it?

At Giant hummus costs between 3 and 4 dollars per little container. Whereas a can of garbanzo beans or chic peas from which hummus is made costs 75 cents. Sometimes you can get a can for less than that. Here's what you do:
1. Drain the liquid from the can of garbanzo beans
2. Empty the beans into the blender or food processor

3. Add 1- 2 Tablespoons lemon or lime juice
4. Add 1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
5. Sprinkle over the beans, etc. 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 T dried or 3 T fresh dill, 1 teaspoon dried basil or 1 T fresh Basil, chopped.
6. Grind black pepper onto this according to taste (3 or 4 twists?)
Chop all this in the blender until the beans are in little pieces (about the size of -- little pieces)
If you like onion and garlic, or hot pepper, now is the time to add this. You should chop the fresh onion and garlic before putting them in the mixture. You could use roasted garlic which should mash up easily.
7. Pour 1/2 C olive oil into a measuring cup. (You may use less)
8. With the blender or food processor running, slowly -in a thin stream - pour the olive oil into the mixture. You will see the mixture smooth out and lighten in color. By pouring the oil in slowly you are creating an emulsion.
9. Taste and correct the seasonings.
Serve on french bread slices or with tortilla chips. I use hummus when I make dairy-free lasagne. It is also great on a sandwhich made with wheat bread, lots of fresh lettuce or spinach and a slice of pear or apple.

This recipe makes more than twice the amount packaged in stores like Giant and Trader Joe's. Garbanzo beans are high in protein and are best eaten with whole grains.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bright Star

“Bright Star”
“Bright Star, would that I were steadfast as thou art--”
Since I was small I’ve been in the habit of looking up the moment I go outside at night. I believe there inspiration waits for me to read it in the twinkle and pattern of far off light. Looking for insight day or night, spring of fall, remains one of my daily disciplines and I find it in all sorts of places. Recently I received a note in the mail from my Andrea’s grandmother, Libby. I had, just days before, had the pleasure of being seated beside her at my grandson Joey’s birthday party and during the festivities she corralled the crowd to take pictures. Several of these fell out of her cheerful note which apologized for their imperfection and urged me to share the copies.
I met Libby Anderson and her husband Maurice years ago at one of Andrea’s birthday parties when she and Joe were in college. They had driven quite a distance to the house Andrea rented with friends.. I remember how loving and friendly she was to Andrea’s mother, Barb, her ex daughter-in-law. I’m awfully good at sensing tension and try as I might I couldn’t read any between them. When one of Andrea’s sisters confided in Libby that she was unhappy with her grade on a recent exam, confessing also that she hadn’t studied enough, Libby took both her hands and said, “Now you know what to do next time. Next time you’ll study enough..” I was struck by her acceptance of the girl – faults and all— by her kind encouragement and by the fact that this granddaughter felt she could confide her frustration and failure in her grandmother.
Some years later, when Andrea included Maurice, nicknamed “Andy” and Libby as guests at their wedding rehearsal dinner we were hosting at our home, I was surprised. Because neither my mother nor my mother-in-law seemed enthusiastic about family gatherings, I had not even thought to invite them. Quickly I was able to cover part of my neglect and invite my mother-in-law, and I saw what an honor it was to include the older generation at this important event. It was there that I learned about Maurice and Libby’s wealth of practical wisdom.
They praised my garden, which was really nothing much at the time – just beginning to be cultivated. I asked them how to attract hummingbirds and the next time I saw them – at a graduation party a few weeks later-- Maurice had brought me a bee balm plant and Libby promised that the hummingbirds would flock to it. At this same party, we walked together as Andrea’s mom gave us a tour of her vegetable garden. I followed a few steps behind, noting the way that they noticed her innovations, the way their questions reflected genuine interest. Maurice said she thought the potato plants (big mounds of earth with the green plant burgeoning above, were the most beautiful she’d ever seen. Libby said she was sure they would yield an amazing crop. Because they were veteran gardeners, their genuine praise was both touching and valuable.
Standing beside those gorgeous potato plants I found some inspiration. Libby made it her business to help, love and encourage. She was always there at family gatherings, always cheerful, always finding some useful and positive way to give to her ex daughter-in-law, her grandchildren and the increasing circle of people who belonged to them. As I got to know Andrea better, I learned that her parents’ divorce had been hard on Libby and she had confided to Andrea that it was “the worst thing she had ever had to go through.” Yet, she built healthy, strong relationships and managed to keep loving and giving despite this struggle.
Libby maintained her bright outlook when Maurice became ill in a series of physical problems that would claim his life. When I saw her at wedding showers, weddings, baby showers, she spoke factually about her husband’s struggles, but she also smiled when she described Maurice’s continual stream of visitors – they had visitors every day during his two year illness -- and she laughed about gaining weight from the food friends brought. When Andrea’s sister married last March, Libby and Maurice attended, though he had to rely on the help of a wheelchair. I remember talking to them at the wedding. They did not wish to dwell on their difficulties; instead they expressed their enjoyment of the wedding, congratulating their granddaughter, her new husband and Barb on creating such a wonderful party. They had questions about my garden, the renovations we were doing at my house, about the book they heard I was writing. I don’t remember what I said because I found myself dazzled by what I saw -- a bright star – a woman who could, while pushing her husband in a wheelchair, think of loving things to say to each person she met.
Maurice Anderson lived to see all of his granddaughter’s progress through school and through college, all of them married, five great-grandchildren born and he died last Spring full of years, with the devotion of his children, his granddaughters, and the affection of his friends. I was concerned about how Libby would cope.
When I saw her this winter at Joey’s party, she was her same self, looking a bit more rested and still laughing about gaining weight from the food still left daily on her doorstep by her crowd of devoted friends. I asked her how she was doing, and after saying she was keeping busy, she turned the conversation to how proud she was of my son Joe for being such a great husband and father. Her compliment surprised me. But why should it? Had I really expected this grandmother-in-law to fall into the destructive and foolish pattern of criticism and manipulation so familiar, so commonly practiced in our culture? Oddly then, I remembered the potato plants and let Libby’s praise of Joe bless me as it was meant to. After all, here was someone who knew, from a long, happy marriage what a good husband was, someone who knew how to cultivate relationships with plenty of love and bright hope. That night, I did not have to look to the night sky, my inspiration sparkled right beside me at the dinner table.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Candle Indoors
"...Come you indoors, come home: your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault."

One of my favorite fictional characters said, "Where there’s life, there’s a mess," so with this truth in mind, consider this list about dinner time as an inspiration. I’ve used it to look for the truths behind the goals described. Maybe I’m serving leftovers late after retrieving children from practice ran long, or offering spoonfuls of applesauce to a coughing toddler – I can push the stuff away from the center of the table and light a candle just the same knowing that placing that flickering light at the center of the table helps me to put "blissful back" into life.
Here’s the list:
1. Begin dinner preparations in the morning.
Even if you’re planning to make pancakes, if you decide in the morning, you’re prepared come what may.2. Use the freshest ingredients possible.
3. Blend together cravings, favorites and established guidelines for nourishing foods.
4. Involve all the senses.
5. Set the table with beauty, restoration,
the best nourishment and communion in mind.
6. If you are late for any reason with preparing dinner... set the table first! It is a promise.
7. Make every effort to eat together each evening.
8. Give thanks.
9. Cultivate the practice of speaking kind words and truthful ideas at the table. Give everyone a turn to talk.
10. Dinner can be a family ceremony – a celebration of family membership, a time of ministry and revelation, a closing of the day, a hushed and reverent prayer, a bright and glorious nourishment to body and soul.

... more thoughts on the topics to follow.

Copyright 2009 by Loris Nebbia