At the Intersection of Love and Passion

If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and for long enough, she can remember pretty well everything that has made her happy.  The fragrance of her mother’s skin at the age of five and how they fled giggling into a porch to get out of a sudden downpour.  The cold tip of her father’s nose against her cheek.  The consolation of the rough part of a soft toy that she has refused to let them wash.  The sound of waves stealing in over rocks during their last seaside holiday.  Applause in a theater.  Her sister’s hair, afterwards, carelessly waving in the breeze as they’re walking down the street.

And apart from that?  When has she been happy?  A few moments.  The jangling of keys in the door.  The beating of Kent’s heart against the palms of her hands while he lay sleeping.  Children’s laughter.  The feel of the wind on her balcony.  Fragrant tulips.  True love.

The first kiss.

A few moments.  A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment.  And to love someone without measure.  Explode with passion.

A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be.  But after that, how many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves?  How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud, without a sense of shame?  How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia?

All passion is childish.  It’s banal and naive.  It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us.  Overturns us.  It bears us away in a flood.  All other emotions belong to the earth, but passions inhabits the universe.

That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk.  Our dignity.  The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.

 

from Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Pietro

 “Excuse me . . . miss.”

The way he addressed me, I almost thought he mistook me for a clerk. The blue and white check on the shoulder of my rain jacket flashed as I turned and reminded me it looked nothing like the blue polos of the store employees. He spread his fingers across the bridge of his nose.

My glasses. I forgot them.” His index finger moved to the half gallon of milk he held in his hand and its mottled hieroglyph of a date stamp. We peered at it together.

March 26th,” I said.

Today’s . . . the . . . 11th,” we said together, the last part punctuated by the speed of certainty.

He tilted his head back and forth as if weighing the amount of milk against the weight of days.

That gives you time,” I said.

I’d seen the same dance from my grandmother countless times. What was an easy decision for me – to throw two full gallons of milk in my cart for my burgeoning family – was agonizing to a single person afraid of pouring sour dairy down the drain.

We laughed, relieved to have solved this problem together.

Eh, the basket, where do you get them?” he said. At least that’s what I thought he said. The beautiful lilt of an Italian accent rounded the edges of each word. I went through the convoluted description of obtaining a shopping cart from the coin-fed chain contraption all because of one misunderstood noun.

Oh no, the pasta. Pasta fagioli?” He uttered a few other phrases to clarify what he was seeking, which included Germany in there somewhere, I think. I finally nodded in assent and scanned the signs above the aisles, pointing to the next one over.

Pasta!” I said.

Next aisle, ah yes. Thank you very much.”

After he shuffled off and I resumed the task of picking out paper towels, his voice carried over the rack of metal shelving separating us.

Pastina,” he said. “Pasta. Pasta fagioli.”

Pastina? You mean little pasta?”

For pasta fagioli,” he insisted. “In Germany.”

This is all the pasta we have, sir.”

He had found a clerk this time, but I could tell she was as thrown by his accent as I had been. And obviously hadn’t been raised on the tiny bits of pasta Italian families added to their soups and fed buttered to their babies in high chairs.

Armed with the knowledge my Italian husband and his family had fed me with, I figured I’d better hightail it over to the pasta aisle and intervene. I’d failed translating the first time, but maybe this time, I could help. Plus, I needed some campanelle of my own.

Pasta fagioli,” he said again to the confounded clerk.

They both looked at me as I approached. “You mean in a can?”

My Italian relatives would cringe at my suggestion, but the way he kept repeating it, I thought maybe he wanted some ready-made.

No, no, the pastina, to put in the pasta fagioli.” His thumb and forefinger made a small gap of light to show its size.

I had assumed that’s what he had wanted all along. Even though he was elderly and shopping alone, living perhaps presumably alone, a man who requested his type of pasta by the Italian name of the dish it was destined for, in a voice tinged with his mother tongue, would want to whip up a batch himself.

The clerk repeated that what was in the aisle was all they had. I agreed that I didn’t see it, nor the ditalini I instinctively knew would also work.

Sorry,” she said as she moved back to the front of the store.

Are you Italian?” he said.

My husband is,” I said.

Your husband,” he repeated as if processing the information.

Yes.”

What is your last name?”

I’d had this conversation many times before in supermarkets, nursing homes, and once a cab ride in Rome. It was not an interrogation. It was a sharing of roots; whether common ones or airing your own; a sense of pride; a tradition borne across the world.

Basile.”

He was not the first one to stumble on my last name, but his was not due to pronunciation. Once his hearing clarified it, he pronounced it more precisely than I could.

Calabria, Campagnia, Sicily?”

I knew, of course, where the maternal and paternal shoots of my husband’s tree hailed from, but struggled to find the short answer in the middle of the supermarket.

Rome.” I decided on the branch that bore our surname.

Ah, Roma.”

Si,” I said.

He smiled.

And you, you are American?”

I shouldn’t have been thrown by such a question, especially coming from someone who certainly did not sound like a native English speaker. Yes, I was American, but my family had been for three generations now – and that was the most recent immigrant branch.

Yes, Jennifer. My family is Irish,” I said.

The Irish,” he said.

My genetics must have been ingrained with the biases my ancestors dealt with, for I was almost afraid how he would react. I wanted to assure him with my grandmother’s assurance made just fifteen short years ago, that Irish and Italians marry well.

My daughters,” he said. “I have two. One she lives upstairs from me. The other, she lives in New York. She married an Irish man. Kevin O’Rourke. He’s a good man,” he said. “Even though, you know.” He paused to make a guzzling motion with his thumb and pinky extended, then laughed. I couldn’t tell whether this was an indictment of his son-in-law or the Irish in general.

Well, I don’t,” I said. “Especially now,” I quipped, indicating my pregnant belly.

He smiled. “A boy?” I couldn’t tell whether he was rooting for a boy as any Italian relative I’d encountered during any of my pregnancies did, or if he was just wondering whether I knew the sex of the baby.

I don’t know, yet,” I said. “We already have three daughters.”

He indicated pleasure rather than the surprise that admission usually met.

And what is your name?’ I asked.

He extended a strong hand spotted with age. “Pietro.”

It’s nice to meet you, Pietro.”

Yes, you have a good day now,” he said. “Good bye, ciao, auf wiedersehen.“

His litany of multilingual greetings threw my mind into a tailspin. It spun wildly for the words to wish him a good day in Italian.

Perhaps he mistook my pause for confusion, for he explained ‘auf wiedersehen’ was from the German. I realized I’d never asked exactly from where he’d hailed. He was obviously tied to Germany as well as Italy.

Si,“ I agreed.

He laughed. “Ciao, bella.“

As he left, I turned back to the pasta. Not only did they not have pastina, there was no campanelle either.

– Jennifer Butler Basile, 2016

Bigger in her Head

“When we first lost our house, I told Reba, ‘I just want things to go back to normal.  When is that going to happen?’

‘Soon,’ she promised.

Soon seems awfully far away.

‘Your mom’s on medication that makes her tired,’ Dana Wood explains.

‘What’s wrong with her?  She’s never been like this.’  I’m trying to get a breath.  I feel sick to my stomach all of a sudden.

‘The early diagnosis is that she had something called a severe depressive incident.  That can happen when people are very stressed and then something tough happens and they can’t bounce back.’

I sit down.  ‘Like not getting the job she was counting on?’

‘Exactly.  It was the last straw, and she shut down.’

‘She made it bigger in her head than it really was.’

‘That happens often, Sugar.’

‘But it’s not normal, right?  Normal mothers don’t do this!’

‘What I can tell you is that most people sometime in their lives make something bigger in their heads than it really is.’

‘But they don’t end up in the hospital!’  I’m trying to breathe normally, but it’s hard.

‘Sugar, the doctors and nurses here know how to help.’

That doesn’t tell me anything.  ‘How long does she have to be here?’

‘A week, probably.’

‘Then what?’

‘We’re not sure yet, Sugar.’

I’m getting tired of this.  ‘I want to talk to somebody’s who’s sure.’

‘I’d feel the same way if I were you, but right now, no one’s sure.’

I have another question, but I’m not going to ask it.

Could this shutting-down thing happen to me?

almost home— from Almost Home  by Joan Bauer

‘Sweetness and Light’ Amidst the Darkness

“’So what new stuff are you going to plant in the garden, Mom?’ I ask.

‘Plant?’ Mom says. She looks out at the yard and shrugs.

‘How about if we make a list? Marcy said it was good for you to make lists and cross things off. When you first got home, you made lists.’ I stand up to go get some paper and a pencil. I want Mom thinking violets, daffodils, tulips, bright colors flashing in her brain.

‘Thinking about spring tires me out, Chirp,’ Mom says.

‘But in May we can pick lilacs!’ I say. ‘We love picking lilacs.’

Mom reaches for my hand. ‘Just sit with me, honey.’

I sit back down.

I need to stay patient with Mom, especially since her new psychiatrist just told her that he thinks her depression is chronic, which means it will never completely go away. She’s been depressed at different times in her life and will probably always struggle with it. That’s news she needed like a hole in the head just two weeks after gettting home.

Three black-capped chickadees play follow-the-leader around the rhododendron bush. I can’t tell if Mom’s watching them.

‘You don’t have to pick lilacs,’ I say. ‘You can just keep me company when I pick them.’

Mom puts her arm around me and squeezes tight. When I look at her face, tears are streaming down.

‘Listen, Chirpie,’ she says, brushing the tears away like they’re pesty no-see-ums. ‘I need to tell you something important, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘You’re a really special girl. A beautiful, strong, special, special girl. You know that, right?’ She’s gripping my arm.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Good,’ she says. ‘It’s important.’ She lets go of my arm. She rests her hand on my knee. ‘When I was a girl, my mother loved to tell me what was wrong with me. I made no sense to her at all.’ Mom stares out at nothing. ‘Luftmensch.

Luftmensch?

‘It’s a Yiddish word. It means a dreamer. From my mother, the worst thing a person could be.’

‘But didn’t she like some things about you?’

Mom doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally she says, ‘My hair. My mother liked my hair.’

Wind whips across the yard. The grass shivers.

I touch Mom’s hair, but she doesn’t look at me.

‘She didn’t love me,’ Mom says quietly. ‘That’s just the simple, hard truth.’

A crow screeches, and all three chickadees take off into the air at the exact same time.

‘Wow!’ I say.

Please, Mom. Please, Mom. Notice.

‘Wow,’ Mom says, with a little smile.

We watch the chickadees until they disappear into the trees.

‘Lilacs are my favorite flower,’ Mom says.

‘I love them,’ I say

‘Me too,’ she says.

‘They smell so good.’

‘Like sweetness and light, Chirpie.’

I put my hand in Mom’s pocket. She reaches in and holds my hand. It’s sweetness and light, our hands together in her warm pocket.

— from Nest by Esther Ehrlich

You Can Tell a lot about a Man by the Car He Drives

“And there were very likely people who thought one could not interpret men’s feelings by the cars they drove.

But when they moved onto the street, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. After the accident Ove bought a Saab 95 so he’d have space for Sonja’s wheelchair. That same year Rune bought a Volvo 245 to have space for a stroller. Three years later Sonja got a more modern wheelchair and Ove bought a hatchback, a Saab 900. Rune bought a Volvo 265 because Anita had started talking about having another child.

Then Ove bought two more Saab 900s and after that his first Saab 9000. Rune bought a Volvo 265 and eventually a Volvo 745 station wagon. But no more children came. One evening, Sonja came home and told Ove that Anita had been to the doctor.

And a week later a Volvo 740 stood parked in Rune’s garage. The sedan model.

Ove saw it when he washed his Saab. In the evening Rune found a half bottle of whiskey outside his door. They never spoke about it.

Maybe their sorrow over children that never came should have brought the two men closer. But sorrow is unreliable in that way. When people don’t share it there’s a good chance that it will drive them apart instead.

Maybe Ove never forgave Rune for having a son who he could not even get along with. Maybe Rune never forgave Ove for not being able to forgive him for it. Maybe neither of them forgave themselves for not being able to give the women they loved more than anything what they wanted more than anything. Rune and Anita’s lad grew up and cleared out of home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. ‘And one can’t drive a Volvo all of one’s life,’ he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever. And for that maybe neither Ove nor Rune forgave him.

So there were certainly people who thought that feelings could not be judged by looking at cars. But they were wrong.”

– from A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

For the Love of Saab

“In the parking area outside the office stood an extremely old and worse-for-wear Saab 92. It was the first motorcar Saab had ever manufactured, although it had not been in production since the significantly updated Saab 93 had come onto the market. Ove’s dad recognized it very well. Front-wheel-driven and a side-mounted engine that sounded like a coffee percolator. It had been in an accident, the director explained, sticking his thumbs into his suspenders under his jacket. The bottle-green body was badly dented and the condition of what lay under the hood was certainly not pretty. But Ove’s father produced a little screwdriver from the pocket of his dirty overalls and after lengthily inspecting the car, he gave the verdict that with a bit of time and care and the proper tools he’d be able to put it back into working order.

‘Whose is it?’ he wondered aloud as he straightened up and wiped the oil from his fingers with a rag.

‘It belonged to a relative of mine,’ said the director, digging out a key from his suit trousers and pressing it into his palm. ‘And now it’s yours.’

With a pat on his shoulder, the director returned to the office. Ove’s father stayed where he was in the courtyard, trying to catch his breath. That evening he had to explain everything over and over again to his goggle-eyed son and show all there was to know about this magical monster now parked in their garden. He sat in the driver’s seat half the night, with the boy on his lap, explaining how all the mechanical parts were connected. He could account for every screw, every little tube. Ove had never seen a man as proud as his father was that night. He was eight years old and decided that night he would never drive any car but a Saab.”

— from A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backmansaab92

Make Room for Ove

“It was the first time since the accident that he heard Sonja laughing. As if it was pouring out of her, without the slightest possiblity of stopping it, like she was being wrestled to the ground by her own giggling. She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors, as if they meant to do away with the laws of time and space. It made Ove feel as if his chest was slowly rising out of the ruins of a collapsed house after an earthquake. It gave his heart space to beat again.”

                – from A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

For the Love of Ove

“And when she took hold of his lower arm, thick as her thigh, and tickled him until that sulky boy’s face opened up in a smile, it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry, and when this happened it was as if something started singing inside Sonja. And they belonged only to her, those moments.”

   – from A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove

We all know a man called Ove – or better yet, exactly like Ove.

A crotchety old man. The neighborhood watchdog policing persnickety policies about which no one else cares. A man who never has a nice word to say, who always has something about which to complain.

He exists in every family or neighborhood. In archetypes and novels. Small screen and silver.

He excels in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove.a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_lg

A third person narrative and clever titles for each chapter continually referring to the main character as ‘a man called Ove . . .’ (backs up with a trailer – as in chapter three) establish a sort of psychic distance between Ove and the reader. We see him as the world does. The archetypal cranky old man.

But just as many of us secretly yearn for the day and chronological age at which we can tell the world around us how we really feel, such outrageously brusque behavior almost endears Ove to the reader. At the very least, it entertains us. His dysfunctional interactions with his neighbors and clerks at the Apple store made me laugh out loud more than once. The fact that Ove is resolutely dedicated to his lifetime car of choice, Saab, brought me – as a Saab driver myself – even more joy.

While the chapter titles are structured the same throughout the book, readers slowly move closer to Ove and his motivation, the reasons for his dysfunction and underlying sadness. He wants to be left alone. He purposely pushes people away because the one person in the world who made him live – his wife – is gone.

“If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.”

And so now, “Ove just wants to die in peace.” He wants to meet his wife on the other side and will try whatever means it takes to get there.

What I appreciate about this novel is the empathetic way it deals with depression and attempted suicide. Ove, while archetypal in other ways, does not fit the stereotypical profile of a suicidal person. Backman’s portrayal shows that depression can be situational – and elicit feelings of such dire circumstances that the only option left seems to be suicide.

However, Backman’s novel also shows the amazing strength and redemptive powers of love. It may be love that causes Ove to yearn to be reunited with his departed wife, but it is also the long reach of her love that reminds him to be a better man. It is through the initially annoying love and attention of his neighbors that Ove finds a reason to live. It is the hard fought and won love of a feline companion that offers him solace.

There is love in a riotously abstract portrait blasted in color by a three year-old. In a hand to hold. A skill transferred. A deed proffered. A meal shared. There is love in a sense of belonging, community.

A Man Called Ove reminds us all what it means to truly live and love – and I loved every minute of it.


In fact, I loved Ove so much, the next few ‘Weekend Write-Off’ entries will be dedicated to favorite excerpts of the novel, which is just full of gems.  Ove and I will see you next Friday!

The Higher Power of Lucky

“Lucky stole her technique of keeping going from the anonymous twelve-step people, whose slogan is ‘One Day at a Time.’ If you think of undoing a big habit day after day for the entire rest of your life, you can’t bear it because it’s too overwhelming and hard, so you give up. But if you think only of getting through this one day, and don’t worry about later, you can do it. Lucky used the ‘One Day at a Time’ idea by putting one foot in front of the other without thinking about what would happen later. She knew she could do one step and then another step and then another step and then another step as long as she thought ‘One Step at a Time.’”

Life advice from a young adult novel. How profound.lucky

So profound is ten year-old Lucky’s voice in Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, that I almost didn’t believe it – except that she speaks with such authority. She also has been through an inordinate amount of struggle and strife for a child her age, which has given her wisdom while toughening her up.

The title, ethereal cover with illustrations by Matt Phelan, and book jacket summary drew me to this book. I’m always looking for quality literature for young people, but all that package material spoke to the adult in me who is still searching. If a ten year-old could find her higher power, then surely I could. As with anyone’s search – no matter what age she is – Lucky’s is filled with twists and turns, mysterious signs, with the only real answer being a feeling. But it sometimes is the simplest ideas, like the passage above, that get us through. And listening to and allowing our feelings to come through – as Lucky ultimately did with Brigitte – often is the ultimate goal.

The prose in The Higher Power of Lucky is stark, but gorgeous; as raw and beautiful as the desert setting of Hard Pan. It is in the quiet moments of Lucky’s days, the tone of which reminds me very much of Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, that such images sneak up on the reader. After Lucky, Miles, and HMS Beagle – who is not a beagle – finish their ramshackle dinner outside:

“The feel of the air, soft and nearly still, was something you usually wouldn’t even notice. But now, after the dust storm, it felt like a kindness, a special thoughtful anonymous gift.”

Susan Patron has given readers such a gift: a quiet, thoughtful piece of literature that reminds us that focusing on what’s right in front of us can reveal our higher power more readily than any grand adventure.

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