chocolate is a verb

colors, flavors, whims and other growing things

Monthly Archives: December 2010

December 31, 2010


She paused on the path and looked to her left toward the distant hills. Low and blue, they seemed to roll up from the sea—the ocean made solid. How far were they, she wondered. A day? A week? As much a part of her life as the oaks in her yard, these hills were never closer than at this moment. She had never stepped off the path, had never set out across the fields, had always followed the track that kept parallel to the line of hills. It had seemed enough: the house, the oaks, the stream, the summer vegetables, the winter constellations, the distant hills. Finnegan bounding after rabbits, and his mother before him, and her mother before that. Her life felt spacious, stretching unrestrained to the blue hills…


My mother thinks she wants a wristwatch. Of course she can’t see well enough to read the time and the talking watches are awful, I tell her: they announce the time in voices like chipmunks. “Speaking of chipmunks,” she says, “your hair looks very nice.”


Nevin Giesbrecht Photography

On the scrap of paper she was using for her latest list, she had written the word Butterfly, though she had no idea when or why or what it might have meant at the time. She looked at the word. Butterfly, she mused. Butter. Fly. But. Butt. Butte. Utter. She couldn’t recall seeing a butterfly worth noting, or talking about Madame Butterfly, or even imagining a future Halloween costume. It had no meaning.

How much of her life would be littered with the debris of lost memories if she stopped to note more words? Each step would compact a fresh drift of words as she moved from room to room. Perhaps there were herds of wildebeest thundering through her past, or flambé desserts, or erotic interludes she had simply failed to write down—events and people and places she could not recall. But without the written reminder, she would never know they were missing.

So this butterfly was a gentle tap on the shoulder to alert her to the presence of the absent. It was the hole in the cheese. The pale skin in place of her wedding band. The look of joy, or disappointment, on the face of a stranger…
– – –
Nevin Giesbrecht Photography ~ used with permission


Her husband didn’t want children. Didn’t want the responsibility—or the expense. And lord knows, the expense was always foremost in his mind. For him, it was probably the right decision. And when they got together, got married, it was all right for her, too.

For quite a while they led their childfree life and everything seemed fine. But then, as she moved through her 30s and into her 40s, it was no longer all right. It was no longer childfree; it was child-less. A child was a palpable absence. A hole in her heart. An emptiness in her arms. She talked about it with him, pressed her warmth against him to defrost this icicle part. But he would not budge. It was as they had agreed—as she had agreed. There would be no child.

She was broken, and brokenhearted. The world became her child. She lavished her care on others. On newcomers and old-timers. On relatives and relatives of friends. On her house. Wherever she could find a need for love, she applied love’s healing salve. Her stomach flat, she admired the rounded bodies of pregnant women, cooed over their flocks of children, embraced them as part of her larger family. She laughed often, giggled like a child, had a hard time staying in her chair, seemed devoted to her husband, rode her bike and sang songs.

But in her heart, the stone of pain throbbed, the entire world a reminder. It was a sadness that would not subside, would not melt or shatter. It was a secret pain, a shadow on the X-ray, a catch in her breath. Folded inside her—a deep blue origami box—it became her solace. Her companion. Her unfulfilled hope. Her morsel of possibility. The door of “what if” that she could open wide and step through, into a world all her own. A world where a person could get lost. Completely.

my mother’s earrings…

earring Long after she had been abandoned by her ability to walk unaided or string together sensible sequences of words, my mother was animated by the persistent desire for beauty. More than once I found her perched on the edge of her bed, smiling proudly, mirror in hand. Luminous green eye shadow rouged her cheeks or scrawled jaggedly up through the faint trace of her eyebrow and wiggled off into her fuzzy hairline; coral lipstick smeared her smile.

Each night we labored over the next day’s clothing—black pants or blue? t-shirt or blouse? And then came the accessories: necklace, scarf and, always, earrings. The earrings seemed a symbol of all she had been and all she had not managed to be: artist, happy, eccentric, in control. In her top drawer, the earrings lived in a flat, clear plastic box divided into a grid of earring-size compartments, the lid long-since abandoned as too difficult.
At any moment she might demand to have the box brought to her, or launch with her walker into the perilous journey across the room, to stand, frail and wobbling, before the open drawer, examining and sorting, lost on a private trail illuminated by the sparks of these tiny bits of color. At 88, she could not really see, but her fingers on the earrings ignited some lingering shred of memory—a talisman of hope—as she lifted them out of the box one by one and dangled them, hand trembling, in front of her face, considering each one before dropping it back into place.

In the morning, cleaned up and assembled at last—soft black leggings, long red sweater with embroidery at one shoulder, sturdy black athletic shoes, a neat dab of lipstick and a funny pair of earrings with orange bottle caps and tiny swinging teapots—she would begin her slow pilgrimage to the kitchen, smiling eagerly, as if she might find a lover awaiting her instead of her solitary breakfast table—a lover who would be dazzled by her youth and her artful beauty, who would reward with undying affection and admiration her transformation from buck-toothed tomboy to graceful maiden.

joy to the words…

morning light…

In the fall, morning moves south, the dawn’s light breaking over Portland before crawling up across the canvas of the sky to reach us.

Living close to the world’s waistline, you know that the bright belt of the sun’s path is steady and uncomplicated. But here in the north you have to check every day or two to make sure that the sun hasn’t slipped from your grasp, one morning blazing up from behind the mountain and into the front window clear through the length of the house, another popping up in a neighborhood far to the north to awaken light sleepers on the cool north side of the house.

And now, the solstice troughed, the sun will return from its winter flight south, the days lengthening, its warming promise returning to the mountain and to the creatures who hibernate in breath-warmed northern dens.


When had he stopped wearing a belt?

Howard glanced down at the modest outward slope of his belly. He could still see the top button of his jeans—some measure of his growing girth that seemed important. He thought back to the neat rows of hooks on the doors of his father’s closet: on the right, bow ties, unfurled at the ready; on the left, belts, dozens of them. Fine leather belts with modest gold buckles. Serviceable old belts his father wore around the house. Howard could remember the leather smell of the belts and the shoes and the crisp scent of fresh shoe polish. He thought of the ties: how he had never seen his father in anything but a bow tie; how his mother had ironed a little handwritten label on the back of each tie describing the color of the suit it should be worn with.

Each night, his father would collect a suit, a belt, a tie, a folded shirt taken from the cleaner’s blue paper wrapping but still with a paper band around the chest and collar stays in place, shoes, and clean shorts, undershirt and rolled socks, and move it all from the bedroom at the far end of the house to the bathroom at the front of the house that he shared with Howard. There, every morning, they’d shower and brush and weigh and dress without disturbing his mother. He remembered the childhood fascination with his father’s electric razor, the little brush he used to sweep his whiskers into the sink, the smell of Lectric Shave. The routine of mornings, few words exchanged.

Howard looked back at his unbelted middle…


Lifting her foot behind her, she twisted to look at the bottom of her heel. A glob of tar sat in the center of the pink pad, another smaller bit clinging to the arch. Lowering her foot, she glanced at the bottom of the other one, but it was clean.

She hobbled to the bathroom with the one foot on tiptoe, the other flat. An old bottle of cleaning fluid sat alongside the shoe polish on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. She pulled off the metal cap and beneath it the bottle’s rough fabric scrub top was gray and coarse. Tipping the bottle to flood the top, she pulled her foot around into her standing lap and brushed at the tar. The black spots thinned, then vanished.

Her mother would be mad, she thought. She wasn’t supposed to use the brush on anything ‘dirty’ in case the color would come off on the next thing to be cleaned. That made perfectly good sense. But she hadn’t used or even thought about the bottle of cleaning fluid for years, and besides, she reminded herself, her mother was dead and this was just one of many small infractions in the grand scheme of failure they had mapped out for each other.

She thought about all the childhood trips to the beach and how they had almost always come home with tar on their feet. Where did the tar come from, she wondered. The beach was wide and deep and dry and almost too hot to walk on. Maybe it was the wet part, along the shore, where the waves lapped, or crashed, and swept up the shallow slope, and tiny sand crabs scurried to bury themselves before children’s hands could grab them. A small bucket with a dozen of the little sand-colored creatures that tickled when you held them in your palm, and that you’d eventually let go. They’d vanish beneath the sand, leaving a tiny hole that would itself vanish a moment later. They occupied the soft wet sand, where your feet would begin to sink as you ran from the hot dry shore into the cold water.

But above them, between the saturated sand and the dry beach, was the hard sandy shore, the footprints of shorebirds and dogs and barefooted running men impressed in the dark sand, but a child’s foot making no mark. There, she thought, that’s where we picked up the tar, I bet. Tar that oozed up from the ocean bed, from dinosaurs and sub-oceanic tar pits, to find and stick to their little pink soles…

eclipse night

lunar eclipse
moon slips silent and surprising into a neat rectangle of bedroom skylight, lazy astronomers sprawled in sleepy warmth to watch the shadowed magic, crater bright, this awe, to live on a planet that has a moon, familiar seas splashed across darkened skin, total, then furring haze, mist, and sleep.
– – –
eclipse photo by Adam Block

trying to write…8

elephant legs
The elephant pauses, standing in the shadow of a single leaf. He holds his breath, invisible, trunk curled round the tail of the elephant in front of him. He is still; they are all still.

She tromps through the leaf litter on the forest trail. The tree bark is gray and crinkled, like elephant hide. Now that she knows what she’s looking for, she thinks, everything reminds her of elephants. A distant sound makes her stop. It’s an elephant trumpeting. Excited, she runs toward it, dodging the gray trees. She runs into a clearing, listening again for the distant elephant. Back among the trees, the silent elephants release their breath and silently turn their eyes to follow her progress. They try not to laugh.

The elephant waits. Gray in the gray light, disguised as a tree or a thunderhead, a concrete wall or a desert floor, a rippled beach. Watches to see if she’ll realize he’s there. She listens only to the nattering inside voices, doesn’t hear his breathing, see the deep impressions of his footsteps, smell his musk…
– – –
elephant photo by thank Dog. photography

      ~ trying to write…9


oak leaf
Kendra sat at the kitchen table, needle in hand, the long thread of dental floss coiling and uncoiling in her lap with each movement. The bucket of brown oak leaves was beside her on the floor. She reached down with her left hand, picked a leaf from the bucket, stabbed it neatly at just the right spot near the stem end, and drew the floss through the hole. She had this idea about making leis for Thanksgiving. It was probably a stupid idea. She could already see, thirty minutes and three inches into the first one that it had achieved her usual level of obsessive impracticality. But she picked, stabbed, picked, stabbed, adding one glossy leaf after the next…
– – –
oak leaf photo


Distant Mt Baldy
Fitz laughed. Katie could name the snows in her life, enumerate them on her two hands. And of course, since they’d come to California, before she was born, he probably could too. Snow was something Katie saw, on the rare clear day, as a bit of white on top of distant Mt Baldy—something of no more consequence to her than a white-haired man living in another city. But Fitz’s childhood landscape had been a wide quilt of white and dark green, the Minnesota winters and summers stitched together by a child’s booted footprints tramping through snow, then mud, then snow again…

mt baldy photo by Bill Qualls


Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Lark’s eyes shifted to watch the gardener haul the green hose across the lawn.
Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Huge coils slung over his shoulder and a dozen feet of hose trailing on the grass behind him, he leaned into the work as if towing a reluctant mule. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. The lawn was clipped and weedless, sloping gradually away from her, away from the walkway and the benches, down toward the river, where it seemed to disappear. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. A seagull chortled from the roof ridge behind her and then wheeled into sight, banking downstream, laughing. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. The sun warmed the back of her freckled hands where they rested, one on each thigh, her feet and knees tucked tightly together. She canted forward slightly from the waist and seemed to be on the verge of rising, her hands pressing down to lever her free of the bench, free of the gravity that held her motionless. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten…


Cedar, patchouli, sandalwood and musk. The scent of fresh-ground coffee; chocolate, orange peel and orange blossoms. The fragrance of newly turned earth, of sun-heated skin, of clean hair and laundry pulled warm from the dryer. Pine needles crushed between fingers, basil, lemons. Onions sautéed in butter. Bread baking. Campfires.


Nurse Log sign
Fruitless. A casual word. We say it of efforts made unsuccessfully, arguments unwon. But what of the lost searchers? What of the barren? What of the hungry and the empty? Fruitless. Without future, without sustenance, without hope. The tree or vine gone to leaves, its buds dropped in a late spring hard frost, its blooms gone afoul of the bees or blown away in a pink blizzard. Nothing to show for all the effort except the leaves. Learning, then, to love our leaves, our gnarled branches, our peeling bark…learning to honor the artifacts of our existence: nurse log, windbreak, watershed, shade maker.

Concordance of the Unknown ~ I…2

I card She was the last to leave, except for her oldest brother, who would never leave, and would eventually disappear. Why had she stayed so long? She was 28, mother of three, at the prime of her life.

Like a mother, she had stayed to watch over her sister and brothers. But like children, they had left home, and her, year after year, until there was only Arpad, who had himself moved to the city. Then it was only her and Berti and the children. And once Berti had determined to leave, her future was certain. Around the children, she began sifting her past, the modest traces of memory.

Each week, she brushed the fallen leaves from her parents’ graves, explaining to them again and again why she would have to go. But they were fierce in their hold upon her, insisting that if she did not stay she would be shirking her filial duty, dishonoring a commandment, abandoning the most helpless members of her family. In her sorrow, she could not persuade them to see hope or possibility in her journey, and even she knew that her promises to return were hollow. Tears chilling her cheeks, she squeezed the warm round rock in her hand and set it atop the headstone…


“Darken my door,” she said, “please.” The late-morning spring light poured into the front hall and she pictured him silhouetted there. Now and then, even after all these decades of disappointment, she still attempted to conjure him. She’d feel the tingle of blood rushing through her veins as she imagined his phone call surging toward her. Calling to say I’m here, where are you? What are you doing? Can I come over? His e-mail saying Come to me. These little encounters sustained her, gave her a small frisson of hope, reminded her of the possibility of sexiness, even though they existed only in her imagination.


Howard opened his eyes, surprised to see that it was morning. He had no memory of the night, of dreaming, of turning over. It happened so rarely now. He had taken sleep for granted. Had, for decades, dropped into its deep pool without a ripple. Awakened with the fading wisps of vivid dreams. Then, perhaps ten years ago, sleep had become elusive. He wasn’t tired at night, had to lure sleep with hours of reading or hypnotic television. Some nights that old blissful tiredness would overtake him and he would turn out the light only to discover that he was wide awake. Or he’d sleep and wake up feeling finished with sleep only to discover that it was still the middle of the night. But last night, sleep had been waiting for him, a familiar lover.

The bedroom faced the morning, a wall of windows and doors opening to a small deck where he’d often sit with his coffee. He still expected to see Moira there, pretzeled into a yoga pose to greet the day. But she was never there. She had departed before sleep had left him, or perhaps they had left together, eloping, abandoning Howard to the empty embrace of his down comforter.

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