That Monday, Dear Host (DH) drove me all the way back to the airport with the cheerful alacrity that residents display toward long driving distances in all weather. There I briefly panicked, fearing that I had somehow left my keys back with Host Family. With the same cheerful alacrity, DH offered to drive back to the house to bring them for me. But thank goodness, they were with my metal items all wrapped in clear plastic for the TSA inspection. I was sad to say goodbye to him. Moving as fast as possible through the checkpoint (plastic bins, shoes, bags, then all of it in reverse), I turned back for long enthusiastic arm waves. But to my dismay I saw that people past the checkpoint are out of visual range. Perhaps the intent is that those who pass security can’t be given secret hand signals by the ones left behind? To DH my departure must have looked coldly abrupt, without even a look back.
I landed in Dallas, where the usual army of elders at volunteer posts cheerfully greeted me whenever I stopped to gaze around in bewilderment. At a CPR skills practice station, a boy 8 or so years old was chest compressing an animated model while the machine provided feedback. The boy’s father stood at his side with respectful moral support. It was a heartening scene of father-son learning, and I paused for a moment. “I hope this young man is on my plane,” I told the father. He and his son laughed as we waved in passing. And that was my last civil encounter of the day.
On the flight back to the city the other passengers in my row ignored one another in silence, communing with their blue screens. It felt dissociated to share the row for hours with not a single person asking “So where ya from? Visiting family?” We arrived at 10:00 in the evening. Other passengers dispersed to baggage claim. I was alone in an empty airport. No army of volunteers was waiting around. I hadn’t flown in years, and the airport was no longer familiar. For 45 minutes I hiked around looking for the ground transportation wing. Finally I waylaid an employee working hard to stack some ungainly bags of trash. He pointed over toward a sign for the airport terminal train; then I remembered that while ground transportation leads to Departures, from Arrivals I had to take the train.
At midnight I arrived home, dropped my clothes at the door, put them right in a punch bowl, and jumped in the shower after 13 hours by car and two planes and train and bus. I boiled the clothes on the stove, hung them to dry on the balcony, and went to bed.
Just before sunrise I half woke up from a vivid dream, believing I was still back in Eagle. Lying there I saw a black cross against the sky. That makes sense. The town of Eagle has Christian symbols everywhere. It stands to reason they’d put up a cross outside. Good. But where am I? Which Eagle neighbor let me sleep here? Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s such a hospitable town, even a new acquaintance would let me stay on the sleeping porch for the night. Besides, we’ve got to get up now. The whole town is heading out to the fields to start the search.
Except that — was that really a cross? I sat up for a better look. No, that was my own shirt twisted by the breeze, with outstretched sleeves on a laundry rack. This was my own balcony back here in the city, hung with boiled laundry. This was not a sleeping porch in Eagle at all. The trip was over.
But what a vivid dream! Back in Eagle, I was about to join a search party after an airplane explosion. The night before, a plane went down in a fireball over the sunflower fields. There was no chance of any survivors. The fire department rushed to put out the fire, and the whole town made a plan to run there at first light and start searching in the tall sunflowers for bodies, to bring them back.
What caused a dream like that? Well, part was flying out hours ahead of a Texas storm front with lightning and chance of tornadoes. Part of it was news from Ukraine. But another piece came from joining a search party for one day 40 years ago, when I lived 80 miles from Eagle. A World War II veteran believed that the Nazis were coming to take him prisoner. In late October he ran away and covered quite a lot of ground, finding hiding places in the fields. Investigators and bloodhounds followed his trail, and volunteers from all over town showed up at dawn to help. We searched culverts and barns and woods until dark in the rain. The townspeople kept at it for many shifts until they finally found his last hiding place. Volunteers didn’t need to be asked; they simply showed up. Grandfather’s lost? Then he’s everybody’s grandfather now; we’re going.
Wide awake, looking up through laundry to the drizzling sky, it came as a great wash of relief that nobody’s plane crashed. But there was also a profound letdown. Today was just a day off work in a big city. There was no great cause to join, and no one to join with.
Next night the dream was about Eagle again, where some of my new acquaintances were restoring steps on one of the local historic old houses. One of the ladies fell and got scratched up. She wasn’t injured, but her poor forehead was bleeding. The team decided to finish the steps while one of them drove her and me to her farm. There I was going to bandage her head for her and put her to bed and fix her tea and supper and keep her company. So in the dream I teleported to my own room at home (dreamtime logic) and got my favorite head scarf out of the closet to put over her bandage, thinking it would be a nice surprise for her. I was just rushing out for the trip back to Eagle when the alarm clock rang for work.
People here back home have asked warmly “How was your week off? Go anywhere special?” And for once, yes I did. Two listeners sounded charmed hearing about Eagle as a destination. But most have a guarded or humorous reaction. “They do eye contact there? They say hello and ask where you’re from? Eek.” They also expressed kind concern for my safety in a small town, strolling in some Twilight Zone dystopia of MAGA hats, meth labs, feral dogs, guns, religious fanaticism, and malicious character-assassinating gossip and shunning. Just for the record, I didn’t see any of those features. Granted, one popular Eagleite with a grand sense of humor has a sign on the door reading “Did you not know I own a gun, or are you just stupid?” But a comparison of our police reports and theirs would indicate that the guns in their town are in more capable hands and used for saner reasons.
The dreams about Eagle lasted for weeks. In each one, everybody needed to pitch in for some important intervention, and I was one of the team. In the last dream I was working the registration table at the annual women’s retreat at Eagle Christian Church. Women flocked in, all banter and hugs. One of them brought her knitting and offered to teach me how to knit too. Then I woke up. Who’s working registration? Where did the women go? (That dream felt so real that I got out of bed and looked up the church website. Who knew: They have a women’s retreat. It’s in September.) So, every morning I’d wake up all ready to be part of the group. Then I’d remember that nobody was around. It felt discouraging to face the day knowing that if not for my job, no one would notice whether I got up or not for the next three weeks. And it wouldn’t take a skyful of October fields to hide in; this studio room would work pretty well.
In the end, the difficulty getting up in the morning had a correctable health condition, possibly brought on by all that travel. That’s the next story.
On the main street of Eagle there was a tall stately stone house with wood detail in bright clean pastel tones. Signs outside indicated that the building was a historic landmark. Hoping this was not some unsuspecting family’s private home, I ventured up the stairs under the veranda with its lacy ornate woodwork trim, gave a timid knock, and tried the door. It opened, and I peered in.
“Would you care for a TOUR?” asked a gentleman inside, greeting me right at the entrance.
“Uh… yes. Thank you, I would love a tour.” After the full noon sun I stood blinking in the soft light, looking around.
The unique room looked to be a museum, restaurant, visitors’ center, lending library, and book shop all in one. This blog is anonymous, so it did not feel respectful to take identifying pictures of the house. But they posted this picture themselves on their website:
The host, Mr. M., was a trim distinguished-looking gentleman with silver hair and neat beard, keen bright eyes and expectant smile. He had the confident courtly air of a sailing vessel sea captain.
“Why, that author is Mr. S.!” I exclaimed, seeing a display of several memoirs. I recognized the author’s name as our local ornithologist, a man I’d hoped to meet personally to talk about birds. His memoirs looked full of life experiences, including his service in both the Second World War and the Korean War. “Imagine the adventures he has had since 1919. And now he is 103!”
“104,” my host volunteered with a smile. For over an hour this gentleman demonstrated a level of verbal fluency that I can not recall hearing since Tom Lehrer sang “The Elements” on TV (and even he used ready-made words, written by Dmitri Mendeleev). That command of language, as it unfolded the history of the house, had me spellbound. First, our host whipped open and spread across a table a series of laminated photographs and drawings showing phases of this remarkable building over two centuries, and its role in the history of White settlers crossing the continent. The story was in the details — 19th century engineering solutions, sections removed for one purpose, sections added on for another, transitions in uses, styles fortunate and unfortunate, owners changing hands, and finally the spiral of neglect and abandonment poised to condemn the building as obsolete and in the way.
The house owed its existence to Mr. and Mrs. M., the volunteers who saved and renovated the building. After their long illustrious careers, they deserved a shady porch and a lemonade apiece. Instead, they went to war. The couple fought for the house, inspired by its historic value and potential. What if (they asked each other) they could somehow find the funding, focus the stamina and know-how, gut the historically discordant modern “improvements,” track down the best version of the house as it was in its golden age, and build it all back again? What if they could search the countryside for authentic building details, furnishings, fabrics, handicrafts, adornment and artwork? Then, what if they could research and devise a whole menu of historically informed recipes to reflect and honor the unique diversity of ancestors from First Nation, German, Swedish, Utopian Vegans, and the other groups that settled this part of the country? What if they could then track down locally sourced sustainable livestock and fresh produce, direct from the farmers? What if they could open this place as a museum bookstore and library and cafe, and cook the meals themselves for whomever walked in through the door on their way across America? What if this labor of love could stand as a testimony to their faith in the Lord?
Over the years, they made it all come true. Now the house was a showpiece, lavished with creativity and care. The atmosphere was soft and contemplative. It was a hallowed place outside of modern mindless static and clutter, a haven for echoes from our ancestors’ lives. It brought to mind the reverent history house museums back in Leningrad, where visitors donned felt overshoes and talked in whispers to admire roped off rooms and furnishings, in a palpable vibration of the past and its historic characters and stories.
Mr. M. with deft agility sprang up and down steps and passageways on three levels, narrating stories with a crystalline recall for details. In an upstairs bedroom he pointed out some 19th century wainscoting made of beadboard — lined paneling punctuated with rows of round raised beadlike detailing. A piece of the beadboard had been lost, so Mr. M. set out in hopes of gleaning just the right match. Armed with a clear vision of the type of beadboard needed, he was able to spot the exact piece in an unlikely salvage source. The search made for a real detective story. Now he could point with pleasure to the panel, showing how the found piece matched the other panels to form a well-knit painted wall, seamless to the eye. “And that,” he concluded, “Was Miracle Number 204 in our renovation story. There have been so many miracles! This is why we keep a portrait of Jesus Christ in every room, and tell these stories as a tribute to Him.”
The house was a treasury of antique pieces. Some were elegant, like a tiny tea set and a case of little girl dolls in their colonial dresses. Some were homespun, like the little velveteen bunny peeking from the mantelpiece in that week before Easter, waiting for his new child to come find him.
Back on the ground floor across from the entrance, there was a recessed wall with steps leading down to the sunken kitchen. The kitchen passage held the rarest find of all.
Mr. M. stooped down to show me some scuffs on the wall. I looked right at and past those scratch marks; to my unaware uninformed eye, they looked like pen knife marks from a small child. But for some twenty minutes in all patience he drew my attention to every angle and side marking in the wood. It reminded me of reading Tom Brown, Jr., puzzling over some photo of a footprint in sand with a caption deciphering all the story of the person in that shoe. Mr. M. pored over those scratches with me. He told me how they discovered the markings during renovation, how Mrs. M. and her empathetic intuition sensed that the scratchwork had a story to tell, about their research, about their consulting with First Nation people in the area, about the collaboration that revealed the message: a pictograph memorial tribute to a White man who had distinguished himself by his cooperative respectful relations with the original holders of the land.
After our tour through time, I came back to the present with an even deeper appreciation for this community. Thanking Mr. M., I headed back out to the full noon sun. The only regret was the prospect of leaving town without a chance to meet Mrs. M., who was working at their home that day. Still, that evening I told Host Family all about the house, urging them to come and experience it for themselves.
Dear Host decided to take us all to the stone house the following Saturday, and treat all of us to lunch: the family, a good neighbor, and me. Mr. M. was happy to see us. He showed the family the house before heading to the kitchen to fix our meal. (I went for the toasted cheese on fresh-baked bread. It was perfect — delicious subtly sweet toast, and richly flavorful cheese, melted but crisp at the edges.)
While the family toured the house and I browsed the books, a visitor came in. She looked weary and out of sorts, and glanced around at the unique interior with a puzzled guarded look. In hopes of improving this customer’s spirits for Mr. M.’s sake, I went right over to greet her. We had to exchange the required “Are you from around here?” Then she confided that she and her husband had driven in from the countryside; he had a long tiring medical appointment here in town. As a break from waiting at the hospital, she’d decided to venture in to the stone house in hopes of a cool drink and a rest. Soon we were poring over Mr. M.’s laminated photos of the house. Taking an interest, she began talking about her own renovation projects on the farm. Mr. M. appeared with greetings and a menu. His gentle hospitality sooned cheered her mood as the two of them looked through the selections. She decided on an iced tea. Soon she was settled comfortably with her tea, admiring the room and exchanging cordial greetings with my party at the next table before she went her way looking refreshed.
Then there was a group photo session on the bright pastel porch. It’s a beautiful picture to gaze at now, those dear people on a happy day together, laughing over some friendly joke and beaming up at the big sky.
The only shadow over the outing was that once again, I had missed seeing Mrs. M. There was only more day to spend in Eagle, and I was sorry to leave without hearing her side of the shared vision of this house.
Next morning at church, after an uplifting worship service, I stood up and turned to leave the pew. The worshipper right behind me wished me a good morning. To my surprise and delight, he was a trim distinguished-looking gentleman with silver hair and neat beard, keen bright eyes and expectant smile — wishing to introduce me to his spouse!
Mrs. M. was an ethereally fair slender lady, looking lovely in turquoise jewelry and hand-sewn period clothing in lapidary colors. It was impressive to think of the construction skills she must have wielded on the house project. In photographs she stands before the house with her husband, and with keen eyes telegraphs the message “I will not step aside for your bulldozer.” But in person the impression was more of a violet aura of sensitivity and extreme fine tuning. During the conversation she mentioned her age; on hearing that number I could only shake my head in stupid wonder, unable to reconcile it with the radiant energy before me. Mrs. M. shared her own account of the inspiration and intuition that led the two of them to save the house, part and parcel of their faith in God and in one another. I offered to come help her in the kitchen on my next trip to Eagle. She offered me a volunteer job on the spot, working in and on the house; she even offered to advise me on the grants available for historic houses like this one.
That was a wonderful meeting. I came away with the fondest memory of the House of 204 (plus how many more of them?) Miracles, the gem of Eagle. Its facets are the labor of love, shared vision, and mutual devotion of Mr. and Mrs. M, and faith in their Lord Jesus Christ, portrayed with honor in every room.
Would I? You bet! Even if it’s groping down stone stairs like these.
In Eagle, that spontaneous invitation and a wave in the door seemed to be normal hospitality. For me it was always a pleasant surprise. (Cultural contrast: When I moved to my city here years ago, the local postmaster jokingly welcomed me with, “We might smile and make nice, but we ain’t letting you in to our houses.” These city folk are courteous, and enjoy going out to meet at a coffee shop or book reading or jogging trail. But here the residents don’t invite friends or neighbors into the home.)
In Eagle, house visits and tours are a favorite local entertainment. Upon my arrival, Host Family showed me around the house, narrating warm memories of the friends and helpers who assisted with the various features of home improvement. To them even the kitchen floor was not just a floor, but a happy souvenir of visits and good collaboration and bonding.
Another house tour was narrated by a good solid homeowner met during a walk in the center of town. (We’ll call him Augustine Johanson, a good solid homeowner name.) Next day I called a hello while passing the open door at the Johanson residence. Well! Augustine surprised me by waving me in for a tour of his immaculate house. That made an enlightening visit. He had gutted and renovated and masterminded and handcrafted that house for ultimate function in form, practical comfort, ease of use, and a clean clear trim pleasant appearance. Then Augustine revealed the story of his house renovation. After he retired from his long challenging career, life dealt him three misfortunes, any of which could have defeated any of us. He described with matter-of-fact logic how he weathered and forged through these adversities — by buying a fixer-upper as a new challenge! He showed me before and after photos of himself and the house. I stared at the pictures in awe. “Excuse me, but… is this the same house? And is this the same YOU?” Augustine’s method had worked wonders. His campaign of hard manual labor, salvaging needed parts, problem solving, and aesthetic creativity had left him looking years younger!
Listen up and remember, some instinct prompted me. When tribulations come in the future, you will look back and learn from this man’s example. I listened in rapt attention to my host with his renewed fresh appearance and eager eyes, looking happy in his comfortable welcoming home, now envisioning new projects and useful work. What a worthwhile hour and memorable story!
Visiting with Augustine tuned me in to an important theme in Eagle interactions. In the most casual conversation, passersby and business owners and neighbors would volunteer the history or construction or development of this storefront, or stone wall, or light fixture, or window treatment. This was their friendly way to orient and anchor me in a shared sense of the familiar. Town residents would greet one another with news of house or farm projects; the typical response was advice, and a decision to bring tools and to come help. (Opinion: We have many wonderful men here in my city. They are fine people whose work and rest and entertainment is sequestering up all alone with their computers day and night, with a few breaks for movie streaming services and takeout food delivered to the door in a styrofoam clamshell. In contrast, in Eagle it must be so rewarding for a guy to spend leisure time with other guys, talk shop, pick up a sledgehammer, knock stuff to smithereens in the fresh air, and then build something better shoulder to shoulder that they can point to with pride. In the UK they’ve put up shared “man sheds” stocked with tools, as outreach for mental health and wellbeing. In Eagle it’s just called Doing Life. No wonder a town 200 years old is in such good shape, and the men of all ages look so secure and content.)
A grand highlight of the trip came on Saturday — thanks to Mr. Jones, one of the pillars of the community, who had helped me earlier with the visit to the history society archive. Mr. Jones contacted Host Family with an offer to devote his Saturday free time to give us all a morning house tour! When we showed up in the center of town, Mr. Jones met us with a real treat in store: an excursion to three beautifully preserved and furnished historic houses. As a volunteer, he had the keys and a treasury of stories and facts. From cellars to garrets, we spent hours learning about the ingenious construction solutions and dedicated craftsmanship of early town residents.
We marveled at rooms stocked with furnishings and textiles and painstaking artwork. (The photographs below, cropped off center, did not capture their real beauty. For one thing, I had to hold the phone camera at crooked angles to dodge the morning glare.) Generations of residents had used materials at hand to produce poignantly lovely pieces to record their family history, convictions, and aspirations of beauty. This image, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” is the top detail of a memorial frame. The inscription below it named the babies born to one family, and the number of months each little one had lived.
A dedicated team of town volunteers preserve these houses in order and cleanliness in a hard climate. From other houses and antique shops and auctions they have collected and gathered numerous period pieces, and arranged them in these spaces to best advantage.
The tour of houses with Mr. Jones, generously sharing with us his knowledge and time, is an unforgettable memory. It was such a good way to round out the week. There was so much beauty and precious ancestral wisdom held in those buildings.
In Eagle, walls have ears and houses have a voice. They have caring guardians too, to unlock the doors and show what makes and keeps a house a home: shared community work, resourcefulness and skills, attention and care, stories in the sticks and stones.
The junket to the archive started with a question that seemed simple at the time.
“Where can I learn about the trees here?” I asked Dear Host (DH), when we arrived at the house from the airport. “Back at home we’ve got a tree expert; maybe Eagle has one too. And while we’re at it, who knows the names of these birds singing away?”
While I unpacked, DH sensibly whipped out his phone, and set the local grapevine humming: Who can talk to our guest here, about birds and trees? In no time, answers were rolling in. One nature enthusiast sent an actual apology! That week she was needed at home, and could not show me around. However, everyone had two suggestions: For serious birding, I should call on Mr. S. (“But we don’t know what field trips he leads these days; he’s 103.”) Then for trees, I should try for an appointment at the archives of the county historical society. Then DH decided to compose an email describing my interest in nature and in all things Eagle. With characteristic optimism he applied the old adage that to get a job done, just aim for the top and contact the busiest guy around. He sent that message to Mr. Jones, one of the most influential public figures in town, to ask how to arrange for a viewing of the local archive.
I didn’t count on an appointment to that archive. Some overworked librarian would have to set aside her tasks, hunt down the key, open the closet, and wait patiently for me to fumble around in a carton of folders for the file with the tree news clipping in it. Instead I made plans to just go out on my own and observe what I could. So early on Wednesday, after a truly refreshing sleep, I got up early in the cold clear dawn to a whole symphony of bird calls. These birds were not the shy crepuscular types like the ones back home, who fall silent by 7:00 am; this lot were out loud and proud all day long. Their happy ruckus gave me extra motivation to go explore the landscape.
After a long ramble in the 19th century cemetery and the riverfront with its blue heron and carpet of purple dead-nettle flowers, I headed back toward the house. Then an email pinged my phone. Mr. Jones himself was thoughtfully letting us know that the archive had public viewing every Wednesday at 1:00. The time was 12:45, so I hurried over to the building. A cheerful librarian was just unlocking the door, and gave me a warm welcome. I masked up, and she waved me right in.
This was no closet with a banker box of folders. This was a spacious lower floor with an extensive collection, and historic artifacts on display. Two additional archivists were already at work on the digital collections. The very mention of key word “trees” lit up quite a bit of interest and discussion among them. Then the cavalcade of holdings began. The women began piling materials on my viewing table. There were vintage photograph albums of the town trees, tree maps of the area, heights and diameters, longitudinal census counts of native and imported species, calculated sprouting dates from the 1600s on, dendrochronological data, casualties of fire and storm, historic events and accounts centered on the role of trees, economic value of trees and their harvested products, arbor-themed tales and poems and festivals and social clubs and school projects. These collections were beautifully organized and well preserved. With permission, I took cell phone pictures of artifacts and displays.
And so my simple initial question was more like a Matroshka doll of many growth rings.
The tall trees (burr oak, sawtooth oak, walnut, sycamore, sweet gum, on and on) were not just standing around looking majestic; they played a central figure in history. Many of our frontier towns of the America heartland have disappeared. But trees are part of the reason for Eagle’s unique identity and economic endurance, its microclimate and handsome natural setting.
Kindred souls in the Federation of Women’s Societies had done the footwork and writing, the documentation and preservation, for many years. They had preserved portions of felled trunks here in the archive for further study, and even designed handsome engraved metal plaques to place beside the trees around town. Here is a fragment of one of them:
Along with the written history, there were lively reminiscences of the ladies themselves, recounting their memories of notable trees in the community life of the town. I shared with them what a pleasant surprise it was, to walk down their streets and have passing residents greet me as a stranger and volunteer to point out this or that notable tree.
Soon another caller stopped by: Mr. Jones! He was dropping in with a cordial handshake to check on the out of town guest. We all had a lively visit. At one point, our archivist asked what I do for a job. I explained that I was, well, an archivist. “Girl!’ she exclaimed, with her bright eyes and appealing smile. “How soon can you move here?” Without thinking twice I leaped over and hugged her. That was a happy hour, to feel so welcome anywhere, or so at home with a group of people. Finally to let everyone carry on with their work, I packed up and thanked them for the visit.
As I headed out, they gave me some parting advice: I should go visit with Mrs. Dorcas. (That isn’t her real name. That’s a seamstress from the Bible.) Word was, that Mrs. Dorcas is accomplished at sewing her own pioneer outfits and bonnets; she also designs menus and cooks up historically informed cuisine based on the area cultural traditions of the 1800s, and works in antique house restoration. The ladies didn’t have to work hard to persuade me; meeting a town historian like that sounded like my next worthwhile adventure.
It was heartening to learn that an eye for trees made me not an eccentric outsider, but an observer in very good company with other members of the community down through the years.
Over the weekend in Eagle, Dear Host (DH) and Our Hostess (OH) decided to buy a small furniture item at the local thrift store. The business is situated near Main Street in a trim white building with this poster at the door.
Absorbed in jotting down some trip notes in the next room, I was only a casual listener to this plan. My expectations of the shop were modest. Based on many garage sales, and the large warehouse stores back at home, I expected harassed staff deluged with lockdown-era rejects fit for the landfill, with some poignant castoff bric-a-brac and perhaps some new cheaply manufactured imports. For me this expedition was just a part of my commitment to experience and observe as much of Eagle as possible.
Over the phone DH greeted the thrift shop owner and acknowledged that yes, he understood that the shop was closed Sundays for the Sabbath. Then he agreed that, fine, our assigned shopping reservation would be from 2:00 to 2:30. Then, in answer to an apparent question from someone at the shop, he added that his guest, Mary ____, would be coming along. Answering the next question, he agreeably spelled out my last name. Answering still another question, he volunteered “Why, she comes from ______ City. She is visiting us this week.” The call ended with sociable pleasantries. He signed off.
By now I was eavesdropping with wide eyes. A thrift shop that takes reservations? And imagine a generic “When are you open?” phone call — where the business asks the name, spelling, city of origin, and leisure plans of a household guest who is not even the customer. Even for Middle American social engagement, this seemed unusual.
DH explained. The store is of compact square footage and in great demand. During the pandemic, management began keeping a guest book to log in and distribute the traffic flow fairly among 30 minute slots. This maintains order, and safeguards the health and comfort of seniors and other shoppers who need to take special care of their health. When DH put it that way, the arrangement sounded like resourceful management. Besides, now that Eagle Thrift had included me in a time slot, and knew my name and which family in town was hosting me, the least I could do was pay the respect of showing up and summoning some genuine interest in our 2:00 visit.
We crunched up the gravel side street to the building. At sight of the Ten Commandments I flinched a bit, imagining how distressed my city friends would be at the sight. For those friends, the Commandments had been exploited by the adults in their childhood, to cause serious harm. In my city this billboard would have gotten an immediate response, perhaps with a can of spray paint. But to me they were an impressive sight; a clear transparent business statement that spoke for itself.
Opening the door, I was completely disarmed by the warm greeting of a tall strong-looking gentleman who sang out “Why hellooo, Darlin’!” and ushered me right in. He hailed each shopper wth the same greeting, making a welcoming fuss as if he had been waiting all day for the sight of our bright faces. This endearment surprised one no-nonsense man with a rancher/farmer appearance, who took a step back and asked “Why are you calling me that, Sir?” The greeter graciously replied “Young Man, at my age I don’t even try to keep track of alla your names. You are all Darlin’s to me.” Greatly mollified, with a slow smile the customer quipped, “Then ‘Let me call you Sweetheart.'”) When one young customer grew snappish over some purchase, he found the greeter’s sizable but gentle hand on his shoulder, and a word of fatherly counsel enlightening Son that in this house, we men use constructive uplifting language. The shopper calmed right down and finished his visit in peace.
And whoa, WHAT a store! If only I’d discovered this place sooner! Abundance, assortment, variety, all neatly and ingeniously displayed for best use of every inch from floor to ceiling. Sure, there was some poignant bric-a-brac peeking out. But there were plenty of good quality items in fine shape, and plenty of appealing handcrafted heirlooms. A whole wall of free Bibles took pride of place, all editions, some new and some well worn, for anyone to help themselves. I was longing to take a Bible home. It would have been a delight to spend an afternoon browsing through the versions, reading the family trees and inscriptions and margin notes, and choosing a copy to take home. (That was in my dreams just last night. The staff welcomed me back and let me look through all the Bibles for the one with the handwritten notes and events and family history that would tell me who my ancestors are, and where I come from.)
But alas, there was no time to tarry. This store was a thriving hub of activity, with customers waiting eagerly outside for their turn. Animated conversation filled the space as customers shared their stories with smiling staff and one another. Clients had driven in from miles around. Some were new military families over at the base, setting up house on new assignments. Some were farm families enjoying a trip from the countryside. Some seemed to be forging through hard times, in immediate need of goods. The wide selection, rock-bottom prices, and warm atmosphere must be a great comfort to people like moms who had to grab the kids and leave for a safer life, or families after a wildfire or flood who had to start over. Clearly, the patrons valued their store, its social connections, and its role in the community. To make way, I devoted my time slot to a quick enjoyable browse. On the way out though I did catch sight of an oversized pair of men’s New Balance walking shoes with thick padded soles. They were virtually brand-new and a perfect fit, kind and comfy to my arthritic feet. (They’ve proved to be excellent shoes, supportive and sturdy, handsome for office wear.) And what timing — on that gravel driveway approaching the store, I’d felt sharp stones slip in to worn sole spots in both sneakers. “Shoes, Ma’am? That will be 25 cents,” said a beaming young cashier. It took me a gaping moment to compute where the decimal point lay in that sales total, but I fished out a quarter and paid up.
Then I went over to visit with our greeter. “Sir, you are having too good a time for a working man.” He was delighted to banter with me, narrating his long career in useful service work, and how much he enjoyed volunteering now and greeting all of his many Darlin’s. “And with that, you’re quoting straight from Psalm 22,” I pointed out. “‘Save my Darling from the power of the dog.'” He agreed, and whispered a special tip: “The lovely girl behind the counter? She is a nursing assistant at the care home. Would you like to see a real angel? There she is!” He and I had such a hearty visit that 2:30 came all too soon. I was sad to leave, and could not help giving him a goodbye hug. “Your presence here today is a blessing,” he assured me.
Eagle Thrift called to mind the image from Matthew 13, and “a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” The name says “thrift,” but the experience felt rich, and not only in the material realm where rust and moth consume.
The owner helped DH and OH with their new end table and a lovely mirror, a combined purchase of $3. I expressed to her my appreciation for the greeter and his courtesy and good spirits. She said “He is in constant prayer. He prayed for you, and for everyone who came through that door.”
So that was the secret. No wonder the staff preside over such a cheering and peaceable place, a true asset to the town.
To give dear Host Family a little peaceful time on Sunday morning, I left the house extra-early to look around for a church.
All week the weather was windy, with blue skies and sunshine by day and frost by night. On Saturday and Sunday the stiff sturdy wind had died down completely. That let the farmers charge ahead with their controlled burning plans, starting and managing very small fires on rotated parcels of land. That explained the common sight of highways bordered by a broad strip, a good 20 feet wide, of jet black ash in sharp contrast to the spring fields. It’s essential for healthy prairie, native plants, and topsoil. What’s more, it lowers the risk of wildfires. (If only it were safe to do that here; our highways are choked with highly flammable thickets of gorse, Scotch Broom, and other invasives; the city can’t possibly clear it all out. But with this population density, burning it would be too dangerous.) Anyway, on those two still windless days, the skies were lightly hazy instead of clear. At times one could catch the scent of smoke from out of town. That made the early morning weather feel soft and wistful.
The Dallas airport halfway home was expecting severe thunderstorms, large hail, and possible tornadoes (as well as wildfires around the state) on Tuesday, my departure day. That meant changing the flight to leave on Monday. I was sad to leave Eagle, but at least there was all of Sunday still left.
So I strolled from one end of town to the other, looking at the churches and admiring the neat clean town. Main Street is handsome but homelike with its vintage storefronts and 19th century architecture and ornamental lamp posts. There are flower containers everywhere, waiting for spring weather and planting. The street was almost perfectly quiet. A number of the independent family shops are closed on Sundays, and there are no national chain or fast food stores. (The town has a Pizza Hut down by the river, but they’ve kept out Walmart and everybody else). No one was out walking. Virtually no one was driving; perhaps many were getting ready for church.
Right by this Coca Cola sign, the silence was sweetened by some soft music lilting from a storefront, a strikingly well arranged country western song. It fit perfectly with the atmosphere. A van of horses drove by. From inside, a ringing neigh was a glorious evocative sound.
One of the larger mainstream denomination churches seemed a good choice. First, I headed back to the house for some breakfast. I hardly noticed the signboard of the smaller Eagle Christian Church. Even that one glance was just curious puzzlement. “Christian Church”? That’s like calling an eatery “Food Restaurant.” In a town of churches, why would they distinguish theirs with a name like that?
Just then, a family car pulled up to Eagle Christian. A woman stepped out and called over to me. “Good Morning! Would you like to come in, and attend our church with us today?” She and her family looked so friendly, welcoming, and even hopeful that I stopped in my tracks, completely disarmed. My conventional mind felt some chagrin; I had never heard of this denomination at all, and did not know what they preached. What if, like many perfectly good Christians, they taught the Doctrine of Total Depravity? I’m accustomed to and comfortable with sermons and books stating that if left entirely to my own devices I am bound for hell and need to repent in the Blood of the Lamb, because in my case that seems a reasonable assumption. But what if the family at home offered to come to church with me and was surprised by a message like that? But while my conventional mind hesitated, my voice spoke right out. “Yes,” it said. “Thank you, I’ll be there!” They eagerly invited me to 9:30 Sunday School, and we waved goodbye.
Well, here was a fine how-do-you-do. I didn’t have the heart to just not show up. I returned to the house and with some hesitation broke the news to the family, assuring them that they need not trouble to accompany me to a church we’d never heard of. But, surprise: Dear Host looked pleased. As it happens, “Christian Church” really has a name in this part of the country. DH’s own beloved aunt was a faithful Christian Church member in her own town. He immediately offered to meet me there after Sunday School for the service.
Back at Eagle Christian, I was instantly greeted as “Good Morning, Ma’am,” by a tall earnest young man who offered to usher me to the Sunday School. The walk to church just a little too long, and it was now 9:35. So I confided to him that perhaps I ought to skip the lesson altogether; it felt disrespectful to attend my first Sunday School several minutes late. Another greeter, quite a tall sturdy-looking gentleman, overheard me. He looked softly pained that five minutes might keep me from the benefit of Sunday School. He reached out a large strong hand, clasped my hand, then cradled my arm gently but securely in his. I was very touched by his gesture of concern. In the best and kindest sense, he seemed to be guiding a little girl through some dark and unsteady path and into safety. He walked me right over to the Sunday School in the parish hall, straight through a good crowd of attending members, right to the front and center, and seated me in the seat left behind by our speaker of the day.
Our speaker drew straight from Scripture to spell out in clear and heartfelt fashion the seven traits which are ours to claim, in a life devoted to God. (In case you were waiting for it, “total depravity” was not among them.) He made the best use of personal interactions with the group, often inviting church members to answer questions and to chime in with the relevant verses (these people really know their Bible), all with touches of humor and kind encouragement. Two of the seven traits struck home: our true identity as adopted sons and daughters of God, and life as brothers and sisters in community. For people who feel alone and lonely, these are valuable cornerstones for taking our place in the world. They called to mind a favorite chapter, Ephesians 1:3-14, and the destiny prepared for us since before time began.
Sunday School did my heart good. So did the friendliness of that table of women. One turned to me and said something that belongs in the lexicon of every church: “If you do not have someone to sit with today, please do come and sit with us. We will be in the first pew, left.” (She turned out to be the spouse of our speaker, who lost his seat when I wandered in late.)
(Editorial rant: this congregation’s social network clearly does not end after the service, and their friendliness did not hinge upon whether I had a family with me. It is absolutely normal in Catholic and other traditional Christian churches that members will speak to me provided that I have a husband on display, and preferably kids the same age as their kids. Christianity has made itself irrelevant as a shared foundation of American society. One major reason is that half the country is now single, with a wealth of older women on our own. Christian churches have no message for us from the pulpit, and no fellowship to offer. We ladies are tolerated if we volunteer our hearts out and tithe away and keep smiling. Otherwise the congregations would be more comfortable if we’d disappear to Starbucks or the yoga studio or the dog park. In my city, that’s exactly what women do.)
I went off to look for a water fountain before the service. One of the men found me wandering from pillar to post. When I asked him for a water fountain he apologized that they did not have one, but made a rapid beeline for a refrigerator and from a stockpile he brought me a generous bottle of cold water.
Dear Host found me in the vestibule. In his signature fashion he was already making friendly contacts right and left; church members were gathering around him, pleased by his reminiscences of his aunt’s branch of the Christian Church, and the role it played in her life. Before the service a radiant fair-haired small child walked up and shook my hand, introducing himself. The gracious lady who invited me from the parking lot earlier that morning turned out to be a pianist, taking her place with a small ensemble of musicians. An electronic display board showed the hymn lyrics in print so large that even I could read it, meaning I could pitch right in without getting lost in an unfamiliar hymnal or dropping it on anyone’s foot. It was reassuring to see “How Deep the Father’s Love” on the screen. I’d learned it just that week from the Sounds Like Reign channel, sung by Mrs. Kirkland, and so could join in.
This was a special Palm Sunday for the church. They were preparing for Easter in just one week. They had also lost a cherished elder quite suddenly just two days before. Clearly he had been a deeply valued member of the church. It was moving to see the church leaders step up and find words to balance mourning and tribute, with faith in the Resurrection. At different parts of the service they took turns teaching about both, backing up all of it with Scripture and the personal viewpoint of their own lives in community. One of them told a sweet family story as a parallel to the lesson of Palm Sunday; as he talked, he cradled the little fair-haired ambassador who shook my hand before the service. (This happy kiddo was so secure rocked in his father’s arms, and so delighted to find himself front and center, that to support Dad he performed fancy acrobatic tricks for the edification of all. It was a joy to see his beaming smile hanging happily upside down.) There was also an interesting slide show and talk about the church’s recent mission trip to a small mountain town in West Virginia, sharing work projects with a congregation in a small mountain town.
There was one more surprise in store. After the service, familiar faces came right over — including the very first gentleman who welcomed me to town on Day 1, the curators and restorers of the house museum café, and one gracious insurance representative who hadn’t even met me yet but came to shake hands and say “We see you all over town. You keep passing our office window!”
That was a memorable Palm Sunday. Not the Catholic service with long green palms to carry home, to keep in a safe place over the home altar and carry back to church next year (they burn the palms to make ashes for Ash Wednesday). Not the Julian Calender Greek Orthodox service that fell after my return to town, where after weeks of fasting the congregation received palms woven into intricate crosses and then shared a beautiful parish hall salmon dinner. Not the Russian Orthodox service either, where we all hold bunches lighted candles and the Russian equivalent of palms — bunches of silvery pussy willows tied with ribbon.
Christian Church was different from them all: unvarnished Bible truth, earnest sincerity, warm kindness to a random stranger, and a strong solid sense of fellowship in church and outside it during the week. Thanks to a friendly word from the church pianist to a random passerby, it was just the right way to end the week in the right place, right time, and good company.
Eagle values its historic tall trees. They’re all over town, gracing its broad streets and charming wooden houses. Even before they showed their spring leaves, they were a real crown of beauty.
Here is the town cemetery, founded in the mid-1800s, with one of its own stately trees.
And here is a riverfront bicycle and hiking path, running right beside one of our great historic national trails. As I reached the water, a Great Blue Heron soared up from some boulders right beside me, then floated on ahead. He cleverly sidestepped all attempts to fix him in the camera, but stayed nearby all along the walk. Those purple flowers are a type of Lamium, or Dead-Nettle. During this April trip, they formed thick brilliant sweeps of color all through the fields.
For the destination airport, the newly remodeled little terminal is peaceful and clean. I was anxious to alert Host Family about the exact arrival gate, but they didn’t seem worried about finding me. I didn’t know there was only one other gate. All they’d have to do is step in the terminal door and look around.
It’s a relief to step outside into fresh air and take off my mask for the first time in 12 hours, to stretch out and contemplate the free open fields and sky. We’re near the center, the heart, of the country. It feels steadying and balanced to see horizon all around.
Outside the terminal, a man on a bench calls a friendly greeting. “Morning! Ya need any help?” We get to chatting. He is here to pick up his grown son. The two are teaming up to drive all the way to the East coast. It’s their chance to catch up with a long bonding road trip. His enthusiasm is contagious. So is his neighborly sensibility. Look: a human! Let’s strike up a talk!
Here comes our Dear Host in his trusty Toyota Cambry, 318,000 miles young and still sailing right along. We head out through the fields, passing one poignant austere artistically composed scene after another. At one point I have to bite my hand to keep from hollering “Stop the car! Look!” After all, it’s one lane of gravel each way, with a deep culvert running along each side, probably protection against flash floods. There is no shoulder. It would not do to start an accident with some cattle van, or that lumbering truck hauling slabs of flint the size of our car. But oh, the scenery! An abandoned farmhouse with beautifully crafted windows and a torn roof is lit by a single shaft of sterling silver light through a bank of clouds; its tall stately companion tree is charred and split, perhaps by lightning, with four circling turkey vultures. It’s straight from Jane Eyre’s art portfolio! Dear Host (DH) explains that we’ll see many Gabelán, or hawks, and eagles too. He’s right; majestic birds of prey are soaring along, or striding through the fields, the size of turkeys.
In the downtown epicenter of Eagle the side streets are spacious brickwork. Sidewalks are great slabs of uneven stone buckling from the roots of stately old trees. Bulb gardens are everywhere, with daffodils and grape hyacinths and a few tulips. Under the shade trees the houses have ornate wood and glass detailing. Some are fixer-uppers settling gently or blooming open at the roof line. Even at noon (and in fact every day all day long) there are cardinals singing away in the treetops, with songs of robins and flickers and tufted titmice, goldfinches and purple finches and ring-necked doves.
Host Family’s newly purchased house is trim, neat, and inviting. The roof is brand new, put on right before they bought it by a roofing team who reported to the wrong address. (Oops! Sorry, you’ve got a new roof free of charge — we can’t take it with us!) It has cozy little rooms with white walls and lots of tall narrow windows; wafting in the breeze are ruffly curtains hand-sewn by Our Lady of the home (OL). There are wood floors, fine wood molding for the window and doorframes, a pristine new wood veneer for the kitchen floor and new appliances (put in by an Amish-style workbee of relatives and friends), front veranda and back screened-in porch that will be a study for him, and a cute garage with loft that they’ll turn into a study for her. There’s a front yard, and a back yard soon to be fenced off with a corner for a family chapel shrine. The handy tornado cellar doubles as a laundry room. The decor has warm housekeeping touches, like a vintage yellow porcelain cookie jar on the kitchen table; DH keeps it filled with lemon cookies and coconut macaroons for OL, so that when she comes home from work she can always help herself to a cookie. DH shows me to the snug spare bedroom with an actual writing desk, at windows overlooking the shady veranda and the sparkling birdsongs in the trees.
My two boxes are here, delivered right to the front porch. Eagerly I open them up and get my sunglasses and sun hat. Then after a bit of lunch I head out to take in the sights.
The center of town is part of the Santa Fe Trail, one short block away. Off we go. In no time, the wind fwaps the sun hat right off my face no matter how tightly it’s tied on. I just have to pin it down with one hand. This wind is only minor, but it feels like a steady shoulder shove with a soft ocean roar.
2:00. The day is young. Here’s Main Street! And there’s… tornado sirens going off. Yike. The weather looks partly cloudy; nothing’s funneling in. Still, tornadoes move fast. Maybe it’s still a quarter mile off and spinning this way. Where to run? Here’s the Eagle Grocery store. “Should we be hiding somewhere?” I ask the staff. They give me a pleasant smile and friendly greetings. “It’s first Tuesday, 2:00,” one of them calls out. “They test the sirens. Besides, Eagle has never had a tornado in our history. We’re surrounded by hills. Any tornado gets in here has no place to go; it’ll just have to spin around and drill itself right into the ground.”
I stay and browse around the store. It’s a good asset for this community of 3,000 people. Plenty of much larger towns have no food store at all. But Eagle Grocery is a lucky gem, well kept by a staff with good spirit and morale. The produce looks fresh and varied; in the cooler there are even several kinds of sturdy leafy greens. The produce aisle carries fresh jicama and yucca (cassava) with printed leaflets on how to prepare it at home. There are other unexpected discoveries, like pink Himalayan salt and Greek yogurt. (DH says that at the Bakery counter, one staff member has chef experience and a real flair for home cooking; she told him about her ceviche and other interesting recipes. I hope to meet her one day to talk food.) At the exit, the mechanical horse for the kids brings back memories of many 25-cent rides at our own grocery store, and it’s nice to come across a welcoming rack of free brand-new Bibles for customers to help themselves.
On Main Street, a tall hearty gentleman gives me a courteous hello in passing. When I sing out a good afternoon he stops short and comes right over to me with a look of good humor. “You’re not from here,” he laughs. “Visiting?”
I explain about the DH family. He introduces himself, explaining which business is his, where he lives, in which house, that his father came from Germany in 1916, and the meaning of their family name in German. Clearly he’s a key figure in the town. His friendly readiness to strike up a conversation is an ideal introduction to Eagle society. It turns out to be standard courtesy here that in a conversation of any length, people will explain their roles in the town, and the history of their arrival or that of their ancestors and origin.
As a return verbal calling card, I put together my true story; that way people can fit me in to the fabric as well. “Today I live in City N. for the climate, but have always missed the people of this state. I used to live here too, just 84 miles away from Eagle; I got a graduate degree at the University there, and my classmate from 1982 kept in touch. He just bought a house here with his family. He has talked on and on about how wonderful Eagle is. Well, he did a pretty lackluster job, because it’s so much better than I could have imagined. Your town is beautiful. You’ve done a wonderful job of preserving and restoring its historic features and cultural life.” My role as a stranger from a big city is to take the initiative, to greet every person: You have my full attention and respect. So does your town. I am here to admire and be friendly. In every interaction I point out something good about Eagle: the April weather, this view, that set of trees, a historic building. In response, the residents invariably offer to guide me over to some interesting feature, or they tell me how to find some other resident who shares my interests, or they let me know about some worthwhile resource or upcoming event. Not a single resident, all week, communes with a cell phone while walking down the street. They are alert to one another and ready to greet me, with handshakes, shoulder pats, and even “God bless you”s.
There are plenty of sights to explore here. But I already suspect that my favorite sight will be the people.
Disclaimer: Eagle is not the town name. It does have eagles though.
Day One: Monday
For the trip to Eagle, the plan was to make sure blizzard season was over in the Midwest, then travel in May via Dallas Fort Worth Airport with Alaska Airlines, my favorite carrier, to a smaller airport where Host Family very kindly offered to drive out 40 miles and pick me up and drive back to Eagle. It’s a 13 hour trip from door to door.
But say, Alaska doesn’t have connecting flights going on to my smaller destination airport. Instead, from Alaska it’s American Airlines contracting with a local carrier operating an even smaller local carrier. But that sub- sub-airline’s website schedule didn’t mesh at all with the incoming flight schedule at the destination airport. Hm. I wasn’t keen on flying with any other airline, especially after two years of pandemic-era disruptive fracas among passengers. So I kept plying the Alaska Airline layover options (Chicago? Denver?) with a transfer to sub- sub-local carrier. But the connections between airlines did not match up. May flight seats were pretty much gone. The only options left reached the smaller destination airport after 11:00 pm. (That meant Host Family driving 40 miles late at night on a one-lane highway. This for a family who needs to get up at 5:00 for everyone to commute to work.) And what if the 11:00 pm flight got in late? What’s more, available return flights had a 4:00 am check in time, meaning Host Family waking up by 2:00 am to leave with me by 3:00 and still be crunched for time driving 40 miles back again and then another 35 miles the other way to get to work.
After a day of fussing with websites I finally tried flights farther out — later in May, then June, then July into August. Connections and availability, still no soap. Amtrak and Greyhound don’t operate in that part of the state at all. Then a quick weather check determined that as of late March there were already170 wildfires burning in central Texas, and Dallas was just barely outside the red flag hazard area.
Was this whole trip just a bad idea? I went to bed feeling discouraged. Then at dawn, some flash of insight shook me awake: Travel NOW. Let go of Alaska Airlines. Fly the one airline system straight through. I jumped up and logged in. Lo! Flights right now were cheaper. American Airlines had convenient connections via Dallas, with plenty of seats. I nailed my trip in no time, to depart in a few days.
My confirmation email showed the boarding pass. But say, the boarding pass showed only the first leg to Dallas, not the connection on toward Eagle. Uh-oh. That meant a call to American Airlines customer service. That could take hours on hold, maybe with mediocre cluttery recorded music, then bothering some exhausted harried representative. But… surprise, a calm young man answered immediately. He walked me through the process for correctly viewing the entire boarding pass, which did indeed show both segments of the trip. For good measure, he emailed me a new confirmation and boarding passes — then assured me that he would wait until I could open the new email and view the whole trip. He waited patiently until I not only downloaded my passes to my desktop but could call them up with their QR codes on my cell phone (the modern boarding option that seems to be all the rage). He stayed on the line to make sure that I was comfortable viewing the whole pass both as a printable pdf, and on my phone. He was methodical, precise, clear, and completely reassuring and gracious. As always after a good customer service experience, I asked to speak with his supervisor to pass on my compliments. The supervisor was pleased. Happy ending.
Next, write and mail letters. One was to Host Family with my itinerary and emergency contact information in case of Whatever. Then a letter to my dear emergency contact, with another itinerary and Host Family’s complete contact information.
Then off to the post office for two medium-sized Flat Rate Priority Mail boxes. I packed both with items to send on ahead, then typed up a list of the contents. For the peace of mind of guards at TSA, I mailed off my favorite paring knife. Since the nearest Trader Joe is 120 miles from Eagle, each box held some 72% chocolate chips and some nuts. A change of underclothes and cloth masks and head scarf goes in each box, with safety razor and band-aids. Between the two there were rain shoes, fluorescent vest for any strolling after sunset, sunhat, and a little souvenir or two for Host Family. Each box mails for $16 or so. That’s still cheaper than a checked bag, and a lot easier than hauling stuff around an airport. I mailed the boxes and kept the tracking numbers.
My trusty green travel binder holds documents in clear acetate page protectors. The binder includes a three-page travel template checklist useful for any trip. Before going anywhere, I can customize the template for a new destination (or the same destination, next time around) and print it out for the binder. Here is a sample of the printouts in the binder.
flight travel insurance
plan of online check-in times 24 hrs before each flight
all airport and airline phone numbers
Host Family contact info
priority mail box packing lists
Covid vaccine record
identity safety numbers (who to call for lost passport, credit card, etc.)
Medical directives (orders concerning emergency treatment options)
Packing lists for knapsack and waistpack.
This trip is more excitement than I’m built for, so it’s important to work through all of my checklists, including the final quiet walk-through at home with the list of things to review before heading out the door:
confirm flight status
check weather for 3 cities
pack cell phone AND charger
check the stove
check apartment door lock
After the apartment door lockup, the keys go right in a clear plastic bag for easy viewing by the guards at TSA, along with nail clipper and spoon (= metals), toothpicks for my perio-aid (= sharps) and eye drop vials (= liquids). TSA worries about food too, so the lettuce and apple and bananas and bread (sesame loaf, brand name Ezekiel 4:9) go in a clear plastic bag on their own.
That goes in the overhead bin right in my knapsack (tied with gaudy Easter bunting, so no businessman grabs it on the way off the plane). The carry-on item is the control journal with my large-print Bible. Next trip, I’ll tie them together with an elastic cord, and slip it all in a clear plastic bag. That’s because on the flight home, the Bible flew out of the binder and whalloped the ankles of the handsome well-dressed man in front of me. When he leaned down and then realized what lay in his hands, my shoulder tap and soft apology did nothing for his look of appalled dismay.
I used to catch early bird 8:00 flights. That meant check-in at 5:00 am, meaning limousine for 3:30 but they show up whenever from 2:00 on, meaning being up & at ’em by 1:00 and trying to think straight through a three-page checklist, meaning 8:00 bedtime and waking up every 15 minutes anxious to not miss the alarm. Now I book flights at night, in this case at 1:00 am. That means leaving work, a shower and a bite of supper and a little rest at home, heading out at 8:00 for the bus and train to the airport, security check-in by 10:00, then a quiet terminal and a restful flight in soft lighting where most folks and their kiddos are asleep, then arrival bright and early in the morning for the new adventure.
Tonight the TSA checkpoint lines are a couple of blocks long. Who knew that 1:00 am flights were so popular? The guards very pleasantly request permission to have a lady colleague pat my head. That’s because my laced hand-sewn cap from the Muslim women’s art collective shop has nice reinforced seams. I offer to remove the cap for their inspection, but the TSA protocol is that everybody has to leave their clothes on and let the x-ray and pat-downs do the rest. “Is any part of your head sensitive?” asks the courteous lady guard. Then she very gently pats my head, and — all cleared and good to go. In a chair I put on my shoes, then check that every bit of everything (passport, boarding pass…) is safely back in its place.
Now to text an update to my contacts. Then check the departure schedule, head for the gate, and it’s three hours of quiet airport time to pace around and stretch. Toting the large-print Bible is a little cumbersome, and after the trip I’ll wipe down the cover with Clorox wipes. But this 13-hour journey comes with many small moments of waiting down time. Opening to the Gospels or Psalms for even a line or two is always helpful and calming.
Long around midnight people are all camped in at our gate. An extremely tiny infant is sleeping blissfully with his grandma and mom.
“That is one secure baby,” I tell them. “Sleeping away with announcements and people coming and going. Me, I’d start fussing.”
“If you do, we’ll just pick you up and pat your back,” Grandma offers.
Nearby, there is a young man 9 years old or so. His parents look exhausted. They are trying to rest their eyes while their son asks them lots of insightful questions.
“Well someone is certainly alert and energetic at this hour,” I mention in passing.
The parents open their eyes briefly and smile. So does the young man. He courteously asks me about my travel plan.
“The goal is to photograph a distant bison, a buffalo. One retreating the other way,” I tell him. “Through a window. Or sturdy fence.”
Soon the gate attendants announce boarding for active military members and for VIP and Gold and other special groups.
“You’re probably ahead of me,” I explain, stepping aside for the others. “Group 7 rides with the barnacles clinging to the wheel bay.”
Finally it’s time to board.
The flight attendant at the plane door invites our alert 9-year-old to go and take a peek at the cockpit. “Good evening,” he greets me.
“And a good morning too!” I wish him. “Dallas?”
“Michael,” he replies. “But I’m frequently mistaken for a large metropolitan area in Texas. Which is where we happen to be going. Dallas in particular.”
“Me too! And here is your wee thank you note in advance, to read later during your break.” I hand Michael an envelope with this note:
Dear Valiant Flight Crew, Greetings,I’ll be the older lady in the head scarf in seat 38-C.If for any reason a passenger wants a seat change, and you don’t know where to put them, you can ask me to move.You can seat me next to the crying baby, the emotional support peacock, the person who wants prayers, or whatever change makes people happier and makes your job any easier.I also speak Russian in case anyone needs help with that.Also slow Spanish and a wee bit of Farsi.Thank you so much for all you do to keep us safe.It is a complex and honorable mission, to keep this magnificent airplane flying along while also dealing with the American public and maneuvering a crowded aisle with a cart of tiny pretzels.God bless you, happy trails,Mary
I always pick the aisle seat way in back in front of the rest rooms.
Two very strong strapping young men pause in the aisle.
“Scuse us, Ma’am,” says one, all muscles with a tattoo or two, in a tank top. “We’re 38 A and B. This fella here likes the window.”
“Certainly.” I spring to my feet. “Let me guess: and you like the middle.”
“Not much,” says 38B beside me as the two take their seats.
“Then you’ll get the arm rest,” I assure him. “I’ll wait until you’re buckled up before reaching for my seat belt parts. Don’t want to be grabby.”
After the safety demonstration I turn to my very imposing seat mate in 38B. “I think you should put on your own oxygen mask first, before putting mine on me.”
The two of them blink and then laugh.
We are inching down the runway at a slow walking pace.
“Captain drives like that girl you were seeing. Amber?” says my seatmate to his companion. “19 miles an hour.”
Captain Mitch Siegelman gives a friendly warm welcome, and breaks the news that there will be significant turbulence en route.
“Jeez, it’s good he told us,” I observe. “Turbulence is pretty bad here on this gravel surface.”
“That’s not turbulence,” says 38B. “That’s the poor pavement quality all over the state.”
“Gonna crack this window open,” says our windowmate in 38A.
“Good thinking,” I tell him. “This is smoking section, right?”
“Hear about that guy got sucked right out of the plane?” says 38B.
“Happens,” says 38A. “Except — no, I mean… doesn’t happen to us.”
“Yeah, don’t talk scary,” says 38B. “There’s a little kid in front of us.”
“And a 65 year old next to you,” I point out.
Time for water, and complimentary tiny coffee flavored oval cookies.
“Mary?” Michael stops by my seat with the snack cart. “Mary, thank you so much for your note.”
“Thank you, Michael. I felt apprehensive about this trip. Based on the news, I expected the plane to be like the barroom brawl in the opening credits of ‘F Troop.’ But this has been great.”
Bedtime. Cabin lights are dimmed. The guys in 38A and 38B turn on a film and watch it with headphones on. It’s not polite to watch a film on somebody else’s flight tray. But this one is gripping, alternating idyllic scenery and warm lighting with affectionate family members bonding away when they’re not reacting with horror for some mysterious reason. The subtitles don’t show much dialogue; the actors use a lot of gestures and signs. The family take turn saving each other’s lives from increasingly creepy hazards. Then clearly the mom is pregnant. That is all I’ll say, but things don’t go well for her. There’s a poignant scene where the teenage girl comes across a contraption with wires and puts it over her head, pressing it closer, and dissolves into tears of despair. What?
We 38-ers alternate trips to the rest room.
“What’s your film?” I ask when the guys get back.
“‘A Quiet Place,’” he explains.
“Are some of the actors Deaf? Are all of them? Am I just really bad at figuring stuff out?”
“Only the teenage girl is Deaf. The others sign with her because aliens are listening for them to kill them. They’re like the only humans left in the world. That apparatus the girl put on is a homemade hearing aid. All through the film the dad has been trying to build one for her.”
It’s unusual to see a film nowadays about a family whose motivation is expressing love and keeping each other from getting killed and using survival skills while terrified. Still, I can’t exactly recommend this film. It doesn’t seem productive to spend two hours experiencing cortisol and elevated heart rate with a sad ending. Still, I point out, “The lighting in that movie is amazing. The moods of qualities of light are like… a character. Or a soundtrack.”
After our chat the two of them go to sleep.
Finally we’re at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. I stop and thank everyone, including the cleaning crew, and head into the terminal.
It’s a little scary to discover that the Departures board is way high up and hard to read. It is more scary to find that my connecting flight has vanished. Luckily for me, the information booths are staffed by speedy and courteous senior gentlemen watching for someone to help. Seeing my squinty neck craning, one of them comes right over and explains that this board shows only flights leaving in the next two hours.
“Your flight will appear soon. Meanwhile…” He takes my paper boarding pass, and rests it on a scanner. Beep! Like magic, all of my flight information and my confirmation number pops up on a huge board, showing the right gate. A minute later at a different station I try scanning my own pass. Beep! Now it shows that my exact same flight has been diverted to Charlotte, NC. Which is probably a grand place, but there’s no Host Family there. I flee to the nearest volunteer with my plight. He smiles and explains, “Charlotte was for the passenger who used the scanner last. Look: you gotta touch the Close button on the screen before scanning your own boarding pass.”
Time to change terminals. I consider just walking it. But here’s a Skylink shuttle departing, and a good thing, too; even with this very fast train, it takes quite a while to get there. Turns out this airport is 27 miles long. Now we’re downstairs in a quiet tucked away part of the airport waiting for the smaller airline.
A young man in a Navy uniform sits down to rest. Another young man pauses in passing. “Sir? Pardon me: thank you for your service.”
Passengers walk up to the ticket agents, and just start right in speaking Spanish. A bilingual airport. Cool. Flights are leaving for Guadalajara and Laredo and Tijuana and Texarkana.
Here’s the SUN! A dramatic tropical red ball in a hazy sky.
Life is what happens after you snap the picture, and sure enough: I just miss a wonderful dramatic moment, a white plane at liftoff shooting past the sun, sparkling with fire-colored sunflashes.
Now the next flight is boarding. Night is over. Trip day one is over. On to Eagle for our excellent adventure!
This early morning dream came along about the Los Angeles River. How did that image come to mind, when this isn’t Los Angeles? Well, years ago there was a video about a dog rescue on the LA River. Now that might sound like throwing a net into some rapids, or wetsuiting up and swimming out for the dog. But no, this wasn’t a river with a slippery shore or swampy reeds or currents. It was concrete walls several stories high over a dry sun-baked concrete canyon that goes along apparently for miles. At that time and location the river was all out of water, so volunteers climbed down some dubious slap-up of laddering and ropes. They persuaded a panicked injured German Shepherd to not attack while being caged and hauled up to safety. It looked dangerous at every step. At the time it must have impressed its way into my subconscious as an Inauspicious Environment archetypal image.
So right, the dream. It was all about running through the LA River like a panicked animal looking for a way to climb out and escape. The only chance was to reach some safety flood gates up ahead and try to climb up one of them. But just as I got closer, each of the gates slammed shut one by one, and sirens started going off. Why were flood gates slamming in a dry riverbed? Because from around the bend here’s a high tsunami of burning radioactive slag rushing along the canal. After fleeing for as long and far as possible, I finally reach a glass control booth. It’s a laboratory full of men and women, scientists who manage natural disasters for the city. Behind the glass they’re completely rapt in their instruments and screens, running from station to station, snapping out commands. They have no spare time to notice that I’m pounding on the door trying to get indoors or trying to warn them. Then it dawns on me: this isn’t Los Angeles. This is Chernobyl. This the Ukrainian team keeping the reactor from blowing up even with all the other hell breaking loose this past month. Screaming at the glass wall won’t help. For one thing, I don’t know Ukrainian, let alone a term like “tsunami of radioactive slag.” I could scream in Russian; that would be comprehensible to them but not a sensitive thing to do. Then the intensity of their work makes it clear that they knew when they volunteered for this assignment what could happen out here, and they’re sparing no thought to whether they make it out of here or not. Distracting them for even a second is the wrong thing. They have something honorable to accomplish together, shoulder to shoulder, in lives full of meaning. Me, I was just bumbling around getting lost; in that much bigger picture of world importance, what happens out here in the canal really doesn’t matter. So I drop my hands and turn from the door and walk away.
Well, a dream like that was good for an early hour or two of lying paralyzed staring at the ceiling. It was really hard to get up and get going with the tasks of the day.
At that point, the most constructive recourse seemed to be tending the new sunflower seedlings. One week ago I planted 40 sprouting sunflower seeds in the garden. Not a single one has cracked the ground. That is probably because our crows are so interested and smart that they must have have fluttered down and dug them all up. It’s a good thing that as backup plan B there was another set of seeds planted indoors in a flat of dirt away from them rascally crows.
Plot review: March 17, put seeds in water. March 18, put seeds in a strainer with frequent rinsing. Then on March 20, when the seeds sprouted little roots, I planted them in seedling flats with potting soil and frequent water misting until March 27.
Note to self: From now on, when the pointy seed tips crack open and show a tiny white shoot, plant the seed with pointy seed tip DOWN and the rounder flatter side on top. That white shoot is a root — not future leaves! (Oops. I planted them all upside down at first. Next day I was puzzled to see no sprouts peeking out. Instead, each sunflower seed hull had somehow risen up out of the soil. Then gradually little leaves unfolded inside the seed hull and finally shed the hull.) Fortunately the seeds knew which end was up. Every one of the sprout roots turned itself top down, digging in and pushing the hull backwards out of the dirt.
Experience also shows that on Day 10 these guys belong in the ground. By then they are two inches tall and ravenous for light. Despite frequent rotation they will twist around to follow the sun and will get gangly stems. Plus they already have a tap root and side roots the same size as the seedling or more. So today I took the dozen largest, and planted them outdoors. Then to let the neighbors know that these are plants and not weeds, I picked out lighter-colored stones from the rock bed, and made little crop circles around each seedling. (It was nice that the sun lit up the inside of that little scallop shell.)
In other neighborhood news, last night neighbor D. and I decided to draw a hopscotch board outside the garbage cage because why not? So we swept the space really well and swiped the big floor mat from the front of our building as a template, and got to work. Here it is, cropped here and there to slice out views of the garbage cage and other peripheral clutter.
Other adults, some of them total strangers walking by, grabbed chalk and helped. Then for the hopscotch game we got some flat rocks to toss on the board, and tried to remember and figure out how to play while making up any rules as needed. My contribution was remembering that the flat rock is called a potsy, and on the way back to square one when we land on the potsy square we have to bend over on one foot to pick it up, calling out “Butterfingers!” Of course, those are New York rules, and the honorable opponent from Mexico had a different set of rules, which was different from Vancouver and Ohio rules. Then as more total strangers walked by we asked them to referee rules for us. Then as various unsuspecting grownups came to take out their garbage, Neighbor D. explained to them that from now on, the rule is that to access the garbage cage, you have to at least walk over the board. The surprise was that nobody turned us down; everybody tried at least walking or hopping, and some even threw in fancy backwards hopping and other tricks. Even when suppertime came and it started raining we big people stayed out for 90 minutes throwing potsies and making up rules and taking turns with the chalk. Between turns, on the far side of the hopscotch board people added big chalk flowers and hearts and smiles and frills and Peace and Love and Understanding. Finally it was getting dark and chilly, and we put the floor mat back where it belonged and headed indoors.
“Gee,” said one of our reigning champions, “and I just came out for a smoke.”
For several years I planted sunflowers in our raised bed. But my gardening skills weren’t equal to the task, and the plants didn’t grow at all. Nevertheless, sunflowers came to mind again with an episode of “Off Grid with Doug and Stacy.” In this episode below, Stacy shows us how to plant sunflower seeds in a snowbank. (Snowbank? Yes, apparently the seeds are fine sprouting under snow. Besides, that way the crows won’t get them all.) Stacy adds in minute 6:16 that the leaves are edible for various uses. The clip adds that the plants condition the soil; then after the flowers grow, the stems can be dried and used next year as tomato stakes.
(Here’s Stacy! And her sunflowers!
Well, that sounded like a good reason for giving this another try. Sunflowers grow fast and are very showy. That is what the neighbors like to watch, and neighbors are the whole point of having a garden.
So last week I went to our neighbor who feeds goldfinches. She very kindly donated a whole cupful of seeds for the garden. They soaked in a bowl of water overnight. Then the seeds spent four days in a covered strainer with frequent gentle misting with water. After four days there was no sign of life. It was disappointing to conclude that they must have been specially treated to keep them from sprouting.
But on Day 5, the first day of spring, all of the seeds showed white shoots:
Then yesterday, Safeway supermarket observed the first day of spring with an especially pretty bright display — a whole wall of sunflowers. Here is just one little snippet.
The Safeway flower display grew a whole new idea. One news story mentioned that in Ukraine there are now 10 million displaced people. Well, what if any of those people come to our town, and even to our own apartment complex? What if they see sunflowers growing, and it makes this new home look even a tiny bit more welcoming?
Well, that alone would make it worthwhile to try and learn how to grow these flowers. So yesterday in a nice healthy rain I took 40 of those sprouts and planted them in a row all along the whole bed. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, I noticed a quart of special succulent/cactus potting soil, donated by Miss Rose, and a large seedling flat donated by Captain Wing. So the next 40 sprouts went into those flats, covered with misted paper towels. If they grow, I’ll take them around to the neighbors and offer to plant them outside their doors. What if they actually grow? What if we could have sunflowers all around the apartments?
We’ll see. Day at a time. That’s what gardening is all about.
For the big soil purchase, and to beat the rain, Captain Wing texted me exact details of where to meet him in the parking lot. I brought along my trusty weed raker (a 2012 Christmas gift from the guys in Maintenance, but that’s another story), metal bucket, scissors so I don’t have to open the bags by pounding with a pointed rock this year, and exact change because we were getting there at opening time, and who knows whether their register has enough pennies.
Now one car looks just like another to some of us. But what a surprise to see Captain pull up and leap out and whisk open the back door (“Good Morning, Miss Daisy”) to a stretch-length car so distinctive that we won’t describe it here because he probably has enough fans asking for his autograph on the street. Suffice it to say, it was very shiny and the seats were super soft leather and there was enough foot room in the back to set up a cribbage table and hibachi. The wheels made the pavement a Silk Road melting along like butter.
“There has got to be a story to this car,” I told him, knowing his hobby of fixing up overlooked salvage things and renovating them into better things. “Let me guess: You bought this second hand at a mere fraction of the price and did all the work yourself?” That proved to be a great guess. He really did.
“It’s practical for taking the whole family on trips with camping gear,” he assured me from the chauffeur seat. “And, it will carry as much topsoil as you need.” At the nursery we pulled up in style. He loaded up the bags while I paid and counted out the correct number of pennies. At home he backed up to the garden, then toted the bags to the raised bed while I gathered my bucket and rake from the back seat.
We shook and smoothed out the topsoil. Here is just a little snip of the long bed. I cropped out the view of all the little houses alongside.
We transplanted and grouped together the plants that lasted through the winter: calendula, Neighbor Mac’s gladiolus bulbs, Canna lilies, and my celery plants that rooted upstairs. Then the real work was over until summer, when we’ll have plenty of watering to do every day. Potatoes and nasturtiums do well, so we’ll plant more of those. I’d like to get some sunflower seeds from Neighbor C’s bird feeder, and plant those along the whole bed. Coach will grow tomatoes again. Neighbor Lana would like to try lettuce. The Wings have lots of tulips coming up, with garlic leeks and California Gold poppies and raspberries. We’ll just fill in whatever seedlings and seeds are at hand until the whole bed is planted and growing.
I went to the garbage cage to clear away some pruned shrubbery to the compost bin. When I got back, Neighbor Mac was outside to check up on what’s new and to tell Captain “I just saw Mary getting out of a gangster car.” We explained that it was really a farm vehicle with extra buffing.
Tomorrow afternoon a big rain front is coming in, but in the morning we’re going out for topsoil. This is the big end-of-winter garden event of the year, and the neighbors are already taking an interest. I sent out some mild broad hints that it would be fun to see them standing around when we unload the sacks and break them open and start spreading it on the 40 foot bed. Many hands will make light work, or at least we’ll get some entertaining remarks from the kibbitzers watching it happen.
Last year good neighbor C. offered to drive me, so we two women went and got the topsoil. Earlier this year Captain Wing offered, but it didn’t seem right taking his time away from the family. So I asked neighbor C. instead.
Well, neighbor C. ran into Captain Wing, which is hard to avoid because he is everywhere all of the time, and they got talking topsoil the way people do, and she asked him to send me profound apologies for not being available this weekend to go buy the dirt. This came as a little surprise to Captain, who was under the impression that he’d be buying the soil himself. He got on the phone right away.
I was making a batch of kimchi when the cell phone rang with the Wing family phone number. When I picked up, Captain said “You do realize, of course…?”
I didn’t realize. I was supposed to chime back with the correct ending for that English sentence. The correct ending comes from any Bugs Bunny film, and is “this means war.” I don’t know anything about Bugs. I need research scientists from China to call me on the phone and explain that line, and to clue me in about my own popular culture of yesteryear. That’s pretty funny in itself.
“You are in trouble now,” he affirmed.
“Again? For which reason?” I asked. I figured he meant for spading the patch with Aziz’s shovel.
But no, he’d been talking to neighbor C. and learned that I’d gone right past him in my topsoil quest. So over the phone we confirmed our plans to go hit pay dirt tomorrow morning.
What about the egg?
That new bed sheet has been such a hit, and is moreover such an attractive pattern, that it seemed a natural match for one of Mrs. Wing’s pickled duck eggs. I added ground punkin seeds for texture, and put them all together in a shaft of wintry late-afternoon light. The result made me happy. It reminds me of some modern art poster from a warehouse loft museum with hardwood floors and stark white walls and soaring industrial ceilings and exposed copper pipes. But it’s really just my floor with a sheet on it and a bowl with an egg.
Off to call the garden store and see what time they open in the morning…
It was high time to have the garden all spaded up for spring.
My leisurely but persistent practice is to start nibbling on the job starting in January, just chopping and turning for 20 minutes a day. One essential element was the use of Captain Wing’s very nice pointed spade, a small light ergonomically handy garden tool. One day I borrowed it for a bit, did some work, then shined it up and set it back in its place on his porch. So far so good.
But for the long term, Captain had a plan to spare me further labor by spading the whole strip himself for me in one efficient upcoming fell swoop, just as soon as he had a little minute to spare.
Well, it didn’t seem fair to trouble him or any of his little minutes, nor to keep borrowing his elegant spade. So on Friday under cover of darkness and in stealthlike manner I passed by the lighted kitchen windows where the Wings were innocently eating their dinner, walked around the block, and dropped in on Neighbor Aziz.
“I’d really appreciate the loan of a shovel,” I explained to him. “And would appreciate more if you didn’t tell Captain.”
“He’d probably do it for you,” pointed out sensible Aziz, waving me to a chair and plying me with refreshments. “I am sure he will be happy if you just ask.”
“Yes, that’s the point. I’d like it done this weekend, but don’t want to trouble him or hurt his feelings. This way I can just sort of turf around a bit. He doesn’t even have to notice that the job is done.” Then the humor of the situation occurred to us both. “Our neighborhood is like a sitcom, isn’t it? Like ‘I Love Lucy,’ but ‘Everybody Loves Wing.'”
Then I headed home the long way, around the block, with shovel on my shoulder.
“Did you lose Snow White?” asked one of our smoking bench neighbors. I explained the whole shenanigan, securing their promise of secrecy and their high amusement. Upstairs, I parked the shovel in the bathroom and set an alarm for 6:00 a.m.
By 6:15 next morning I was standing on the raised bed, getting a feel for the shovel and realizing just how much potential racket a spading job can create. It was important to work quietly so as not to disturb the windows of sleepers all along the strip. This meant leaning carefully on the shovel instead of hopping on it, and shaking dirt off the blade instead of whacking it on the ground, and moving stones by stacking them on the wall instead of just casting them off to the stone drainage area nearby. As a computer potato unaccustomed to real work, I had to stop with every half-shovelful and squat and stretch out the spine first before carefully easing the clump of soil over and off. Then every few spadefuls it seemed wise to very gently float to an upright stretch, take deep breaths, and admire the early morning. There were gulls high overhead chuckling along, crows rivering past, and in the Scotch pines just overhead a tag team of chickadees and dark-eyed juncoes and squirrels. The building Golden Retriever appeared across the yard. At sight of me, he snapped to attention with ears up and jaw dropping in amazement. (Is that Mary up on that raised bed? How do I get there? Can I sniff her? Can I get her to pet me?) He had to figure out his way around the garden wall before bounding over and leaping half up on the raised bed with wiggles of ecstasy.
It was arduous, but a lovely way to greet the morning. That very easeful slow approach, visualizing the energy of the earth peacefully digging itself, yielded an unexpected safety advantage. The shovel kept bottoming out on something hard. Each time it did, I backed up a few inches and tried tapping at it, clearing the clods on either side, but to no avail. It turned out to be a tough orange Scotch Pine root as thick as my wrist, running parallel all along the bed six inches under. A vigorous attack might have broken the shovel, or jammed my boot underneath and sent me falling off the strip. With an attitude of peaceful coexistence I could just let the root be.
At 8:15, the first pass was done. I crouched down and gripped the wall, lowering one foot firmly to solid ground, then the other. Wiping my hands on some pine needles I put the shovel in my bucket to keep it from shedding dirt on the way upstairs. I carried the shovel and bucket to the front door, took off the boots, put them in the bucket, and carried it all upstairs in sock feet being very careful to keep the shovel handle level on the stairwell so it wouldn’t bash the light bulbs. The shovel and boots went in the bathroom to dry. Then I lay down, aligning my back flat against the floor under warm blankets, doing gentle posture stretches, and took a deep nap.
After chores and lunch I got back on the raised bed again. The second pass was more tricky. It meant standing precariously on top of unstable clods a foot or two above the raised bed, with uneven balance on one leg or the other as the clods kept sinking and shifting underfoot. Crouching on firm flat ground to lift and turn little slices of thatch takes some energy, but so does standing on shifting soil whacking the thatch into pieces. But finally that was done. Upstairs I cleaned off the shovel and give it a nice polish with some damp and then dry paper towels. I carried the shovel back to Neighbor Aziz.
Aziz was out in front of his house, tending his prized fruit trees growing along the street. Last year he fashioned polite little signs and tied them to the bottom of each trunk. But our neighborhood dogs did not stop to read the signs, so now he was putting up little white picket fences all along the strip as a helpful hint to the dogs or at least their owners. To my chagrin, Captain Wing was right there helping to brace the fences in their post holes. Busted! I was afraid that at sight of the shovel he would feel hurt. But the two men just had a friendly laugh about my clandestine tippy-toeing around.
Later in his kitchen, plying me with yet more refreshments, Aziz explained “I had a talk with him. I said ‘Just leave Mary be, with all her digging ideas with dirt. It is not only for gardening; it is helpful for her mental state.‘”
Aziz was so right. It sure made for a good night’s sleep too.
In 2006 I found some perfectly good navy blue sheets at the Methodist church needle-exchange thrift shop for about a dollar each. They remained perfectly good with only an alternating quick boil and hand wash on alternating weeks, and time in fresh air to dry the same day. In the last year they needed mending here and there. Then last week while sleeping I accidentally put my arm through one and it tore in half.
So, for the President’s Day holiday, it was off to the Goodwill store. The bed linen aisle was a bewildering array of odd sizes of folded fabric. Luckily, for one section some industrious staff member added tags: T, Q, K. That looked like twin and queen and king sizes, priced at $4.99, $5.99, and $6.99. What to buy? Well, I sleep on three stacked yoga mats, and they’re pretty narrow, so that seemed like a T size. The purchase quandary was that with a yoga mat there is no efficient way to tuck in the sheets. So by morning they can migrate off and roll up in a ball and the whole arrangement is all undone.
But then, here was a whole entirely new idea. The best fabric, in a sturdy cotton, was labeled Q. For only an extra dollar I could buy something roomy that was wide enough to accommodate even tossing and turning, and it would not scrunch up and wander off by itself! Why not?? Not only that, the Q had the most practical and pleasant pattern, flowers in mixed colors of cozy gray-brown-sage.
After some boiling and washing it draped out over all my furniture, and 24 hours later it was dry. The test run was last night. What a big difference. How nice to stretch out without the top sheet wandering off. It certainly is sturdy. The fabric won’t be wearing out any time soon. Now the only interesting complication was that the old top sheet was worn and chintzy enough that it draped right in, while the new sheet is sturdy enough to hold its shape, like a boat sail. That made it harder to tuck it in warmly. Still, this made a significant and welcome comfort upgrade.
On the way home from the Goodwill Store, I got off the bus to visit the local park, and then to walk the last 35 blocks home for exercise and fresh air. The park was very pretty, a clear sky with just one ethereal vapor cloud, shown below. Usually it would be nice to sit at the pond in the sun and watch for interesting animals and birds. But for some reason I soon felt anxious to get home, walking fast to try to warm up, racing the sunset and counting the blocks uphill all the way. With nothing else to do but hurry and feel stiff and cold, it was a good time to lean on my favorite prayers to ease the journey.
As it turns out, that vapory white cloud was a cold front rushing in, nicely combed and fluffed by high altitude winds. The precipitation that night looked like a sleetstorm, but was really rimed graupel, a weather pattern that forms tiny perfect spheres of soft snow!
The new sheet adventure, and getting back indoors, made two special reasons to be very thankful.
This pond is enjoying some sunshine, but the waters are choppy and the cloud is a cold front.
Gardens are possible with one daily bit at a time, each day all season long. The first and heaviest task is digging up the 40 foot raised bed. Captain Wing was kind enough to leave his spade outside upon request. (I was very sneaky, and did not explain just why the spade was needed.) To keep from feeling daunted by the task, I set a timer for just 90 minutes. Then I climbed up on the bed and started turning over hunks of soil, chopping them into smaller pieces. The soil is rich but heavy, so I only finished spading about 40% of the bed. Luckily, last year Captain Wing had the forethought to concoct a special mix of shredded plants, wood chips, and mulch in a 20-gallon compost bin. This year he’ll add that to the soil to lighten it up.
Part of today’s spading job was clearing and harvesting the winter greens. They date from last October, when I took some expired seed packets and tossed them all around. Some took root and grew right through our winter as a fresh menu supplement. They are still growing, but it seemed a good idea to clear them all. That way we can have a neat-looking bed, and can rotate in new vegetables. (Yesterday I first pulled and cleaned all the scallions and leeks and a few potatoes. A sample of each made a good dinner with a butter pat on top.)
Here is a sample of today’s harvest: Kale, baby collards, celery, and turnip greens attached to a jumbo turnip. Because our building garden hose is turned off for the winter, I carried the greens up to the fourth floor and washed them several times in bucket after bucket of water, carrying the full buckets back downstairs to pour outside to keep the grit out of the kitchen plumbing.
The trimmed outer leaves below got a final scrub and rinse. Now they are wrapped in brown paper in the fridge. The tough cores and stems were trimmed away; they will go in the stock pot with vegetable peels and seaweed to make potassium broth.
One neighbor stopped by the garden patch and expressed an interest in the spading project. Afterwards I hung a gift bag on his doorknob with a sample of triple-washed leaves wrapped in brown paper with a greeting card. As it turned out, his household was fresh out of greens, and they were pleased to have them for dinner.
Then the 90 minutes was up. An hour later all the washing and toting were done and the greens were put away. Last I washed Captain Wing’s shovel, dried and polished it well, and put it back at his door. Then I lay down on the floor to stretch and straighten my back. Captain telephoned a minute later to express his concern and dismay that 1). I had washed and shined up a common garden spade, and 2). had used it to do all that spading. He laid down the law that tomorrow he will take over the spading project himself.
Next perhaps one of the neighbors can drive me to buy more topsoil.
It’s an amazing piece of good fortune to have that raised bed right outside our building. The whole garden dream is not about food really. It’s about something hopeful and pleasant for the neighbors to look at and talk about. This year it would be nice to plant sweet peas. They grow well in the cold, the sprouts are edible, and children find it fun to watch them grow. Sunflowers would be a cheerful touch too. We’ll see. One bit one day at a time.
Today up on that raised bed toward the end of that 90 minutes there was a peaceful interlude. In the east, fluffy towers of clouds turned bright gold in the declining sun. From the west a little charcoal-gray storm front rushed overhead, full of ice crystals. The falling crystals made a white gauzy veil with soft white noise around me and the winter greens underfoot, with the robins and house finches and juncoes bursting into song.
The feast of the Presentation of the Christ Child is February 2nd.
That’s in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-39, when Mary and Joseph dedicate Jesus in the Temple, 40 days after his birth. The prophet Simeon recognizes the long-awaited Messiah, and sings the Canticle of Simeon or Nunc dimittis. He adds a mysterious prophesy about Mary as well: that in this child’s destiny, a sword is waiting that will pierce her soul.
In any ordinary year, day means attending Presentation Day Mass. But in 2012, it meant the presentation of me by me to the Temple of the cancer center downtown. A routine annual mammography triggered an urgent letter, referring me to the center for additional imaging. They booked me for February 2nd, at 3:00 pm.
The prospect seemed a little daunting; so for company I packed my bowed psaltery, and the Mary Frances Coady book With Bound Hands:A Jesuit in Nazi Germany, a biography of Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945). The book made a good waiting room read. It was cheering to discover that its hero found profound meaning in feast days of Jesus and Mary, days like this one.
Father Delp was a German priest, forging through the required 15-year formation period before final vows to the Society of Jesus. His superiors were sometimes surprised by his restless headlong physical energy, impulsive argumentative nature, booming voice, loud hymn singing unhampered by musical pitch, witty quips, flashing grin, cigars. He also had a gift for social connections, especially with the older women who made up his congregation; he took a warm kindly interest in their family news, troubles, and household cares.
The war brought out the best of the young priest’s colorful personality. His extensive social network collaborated to help Jewish refugees flee to Switzerland. After bombing raids, before the all-clear signal, he would charge from the shelter into rubble and flames, shouting to victims trapped underneath, digging them out while ordering the firefighters around. In the pulpit his sermons were so heartfelt and so outspoken that listeners jotted them down in shorthand for discreet circulation. But with only two weeks remaining of his 15-year discernment period, he was arrested. (That timing was a cause of particular grief to him. It haunted him to think that God must have found him unworthy of final vows.)
The official charge was involvement in a plot to kill Hitler; he was a suspect because he knew so much about so many people. But the arrest was part of a larger plan to undermine the German Jesuit order; this outspoken preacher made a prominent target. At the prison, rounds of torture reduced him to what he described in one letter as “a bleeding whimper,” but did not get him to name names or incriminate anyone. He was promised freedom on condition that he give up final vows. Meanwhile, for six months his gregarious energy sat in solitary confinement under glaring lights, handcuffed and chained to a table.
At Tegel Prison, clothing was commonly laundered by the prisoners’ families. This is where Delp’s legacy was salvaged and preserved, thanks to his rapport with his female parishioners. The women began showing up to demand his blood-stained laundry. The women also checked the clothing seams, extracted tiny tightly rolled strips of paper in microscopic penmanship, and copied out his Advent sermons, prayers, and letters — including a request for medicine for the head prison guard and his child. Then the women would return the clean clothes to the prison, where the same head guard somehow didn’t notice that the laundry contained discreet enclosures of paper, ink, food, and Communion wafers.
In a Radiology waiting room 67 years later, it was heartening to think of these courageous Catholic women in wartime, smuggling these letters. It was just the right uplift for that 3:00 appointment.
At 2:55, Radiology Technologist Sarah welcomed me to a changing room. I locked up my things, and put on an ample comfy robe. In the imaging room next door, Sarah marked my skin with inked arrows and adhesive stickers. As a calm gentle medical provider (and a ukulele player herself) she encouraged me to talk about my psaltery while she adjusted the equipment. After our mammography, she forwarded the images to the radiology team for viewing. She brought me to my cubicle to wait while she worked with her other patients.
At 3:15, the radiologists sent Sarah back to me. They directed her to start all over, reworking views from this and that angle. For this second round of images, Sarah stayed positive and calm, cradling our attention moment by moment on only the next indicated task.
At 3:40, I waited in the cubicle while the doctors summoned Sarah for a conference. They ordered her to start again, same images, now with two more angle views.
At 4:00, Sarah finished imaging round three.
Then the radiologists conferred for a much longer time. Sarah walked with me back to the changing cubicle and stayed for five minutes. The center saw so many patients that it’s unlikely she had five minutes to spare. But it still remains a golden memory that this radiology technologist sat right beside me and asked me to play her a song.
Then, she explained the next step. The room had two doors. The outer door faced the waiting room. The inner door faced the imaging suite. If I heard a knock on the outer door, that would be Sarah. It would mean that the radiologists decided that my topography looked benign, and I was free to go. A knock on the inner door would be a radiologist, calling me in for an ultrasound. After the ultrasound, the team would tell me the results and options for treatment. It was like the two doors in the Frank Stockton story about the lady or the tiger; but in this version, any tiger would be waiting inside me.
I sat in the cubicle, practicing my psaltery; that way, if a radiologist had to find me, it might make a nice change for them to be greeted by some music. But the minutes unraveled along and along. It was 5:00, then 5:10, then 5:20. In that soundproof booth the psaltery sounded plaintive, like a whistle in the dark or the music box in a scary movie. I put the instrument away and listened. In the hall, footsteps and voices had disappeared. Did they forget that I was in here?
I huddled up in the corner with my book and went on reading.
In 1944, Father Delp hoped that December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, would bring some sign that God still had some plan for him. The day brought a visit from fellow Jesuit Franz von Tattenbach, holding a page of Latin text. Delp recognized it as the rite of final vows for the Society of Jesus. To him, it meant that God had accepted his vows after all. It also meant that the Jesuits suspected he would not be leaving the prison alive. To be valid and binding, the vow had to be spoken out loud — in front of a guard who was very wary about this meeting between priests. Fortunately, Delp burst into wracking sobs, rendering his Latin words completely incomprehensible to the alarmed guard. That veil of spontaneous tears gave the priests a moment of space and time to conclude the ordination.
Thinking about the prisoner calmed me down. He waited and waited too, alone in a little room for a verdict. And not for an hour, but for six months. And not in a thick soft cotton robe, but in handcuffs and shackles. And not for people trained to come and help, but for people trained to damage him and break his spirit. If he were here now, I’d play him a hymn. He’d pray for us both, and from what we know he’d think of something humorous and cheerful to say. What cheerful message might that be?
Knock knock. The waiting-room door!
I threw it open. There was lovely Sarah, all beaming.
I tackled a big hug around her. And just in case she needed me to babble at her, I said “Sarah! Sarah! If your news were complex I would be still more huggy and more grateful for all your kindness today. But it is this news instead. So God must have some other ending for me. Maybe it’s a harder ending. Maybe not. Who knows what or when that is? But today, my walking out of here — it does not mean He likes me any better than He likes any of your other patients.”
“Well, look,” Sarah said. “I don’t get to give good news every day. So I say just run with it. Keep playing that psaltery! Go out there and do wonderful things for yourself.”
I rode the bus back uptown, and got out at my transfer stop. It was getting colder. The wind was picking up. It was too late for Mass. I sat on the bench for the next bus home, took out the psaltery, and played some hymns. One was the Nunc dimittis of Simeon the prophet, with words and melody composed in 1524 by Martin Luther. As someone who started out Lutheran himself, Delp would have known it too:
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, in Gott’s Wille… In peace and joy I now depart, by the will of God…
People at the bus stop came closer and listened. A little kiddo dropped 35 cents in my music case.
Home at last, a seven hour round trip. What a great relief and a comfort to pull off my adrenalin-soaked clothes and put my compressed magic-markered shape in a hot shower and to peel off the imaging stickers. I fixed some miso soup and tucked in to my blankie roll on the floor. While the wind rocked the trees outside I curled up to read With Bound Hands, all eager to learn the ending.
In 1945, the end of the war was only weeks away. There was a dramatic filmed trial (where is that footage today?). The judge, considered notoriously inhumane by his fellow Nazis, screamed at the accused so loudly that his voice kept wrecking the sound equipment. The prisoner was sentenced to death by hanging. The body was never recovered or returned; Heinrich Himmler issued special orders that it be burned, and the ashes poured down a sewer.
Without a grave, and so no place for pilgrims to visit and pray, no grassroots movement began for his canonization. After the war the remaining German Jesuits were too exhausted to gather the resources to promote and defend his case for sainthood. What’s more, by then questions were emerging about the stance and role of the Vatican and the Catholic Church toward the Third Reich, so the whole affair was quietly set aside. For the name Alfred Delp there is no place in a calendar of saints, or devotional litanies, or on icons. But it’s popular as a name for German grade schools, streets, care homes, and even a postage stamp.
Father Delp wrote farewells to his friends, signing one letter to his mother “Your Big Troublemaker.” To a parishioner, he wrote “Do not let my mother tell ‘pious legends’ about me. I was a brat.” Before the execution, the Catholic chaplain Peter Buchholz visited his colleague to comfort him with the hope of heaven. Delp smiled and said, “In thirty minutes, I’ll know more than you.”
On the feast day favored by German Jesuits for renewing their vows, Alfred Delp was hanged at 3:00 in the afternoon on the 2nd of February, the feast of a mother who walked up the steps to the waiting Temple, carrying her son all the way.
From “Figures of Advent,” December 1944: The world is more than its burden, and life is more than the sum of its gray days. The golden threads of the genuine reality are already shining through everywhere. Let us know this, and let us, ourselves, be comforting messengers. Hope grows through the one who is himself a person of the hope and the promise.
At the Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday there was a fortunate find on the used book / goodwill offering shelf: a 1962 booklet of all the favorite Orthodox prayers. The book showed Greek text, phonetic spelling, and translation into English. Nice!
Last night after work I was strolling to the library cradling my new book, glancing down every few steps to start learning the Hail Mary, or Theotoke Parthene, Khere! — God-Bearer Virgin, Hail!
Then, running right across 6 lanes of traffic from the gas station convenience store, a young man began staggering and reeling all over the sidewalk. A deep-level instinct alerted me that he did not have any negative intentions; but he had been drinking a great deal, and his actions and words were not balanced with wheels on the rails. Clearly he himself had no idea how to manage on the street, or how to react when he spotted me. My instinct advised that this encounter could take any of several outcomes. The instinct further directed me not to try walking or running out of the way, but to stop and stand square and balanced, hang on to the little book, and keep that Greek phrase of prayer firmly in mind no matter what.
He got in my face too fast and too close, with an excited monologue about having an item to sell. As he turned away to rummage in his bag, that gave me a moment to reach for some money and hand it over.
He was so amazed at ending up with both some cash and also his belongings that he launched himself at me with a huge hug.
Standing still I gave his shoulder a solid pat, but then drew his attention to the book. For a moment we stood under the street light reading the Hail Mary. He examined the Greek and English in surprise and interest. On hearing my explanation that this very same Blessed Virgin had wanted him to have this money, he went rejoicing, sprinting toward the gas station.
A good outcome, considering. It certainly reinforced the memorization of prayer for me.
Would you like to hear how “Hail Mary” sounds in Greek? Here it is, as the very opening of the prayer chanted here by Mr. Meletios Kashinda.
His invitation was a cherished high point in my time as morning cashier for our natural-foods grocery, where each day I’d show up half an hour early to learn the produce and how much it cost. Then I could ring up merchandise from memory instead of flipping through the price binder while the upscale customers fumed at me to hurry.
The produce aisle is where Jordan first noticed me. Soon he started telling how he chose and grew vegetables, citing research from his education at agricultural college. I was all avid ears and admiration; Jordan was living my secret dream of life on a family farm. Meanwhile, our co-workers noticed the two of us in rapt discussion in the break room. They decided that he and I shared a family resemblance: tall, fair, with red-brown curly hair and blue eyes. By then he and I were swapping mannerisms as well, being soft-spoken and attentive with a slow but ready smile. Soon, team members were calling out “Mary! Your cousin needs labels for the produce scale,” or “Jordie! Your sister needs you to tote bags to some lady’s car.” When they heard of our picnic plan, they said “The Twinsters on a date? How cute is that! Oh wait — is that legal?”
All that week, my spirits soared in anticipation of our outing. I resolved to make it a great day for Jordan. I figured that on a picnic a man would expect a healthy ample smorgasbord of home cooking, as a courtship display to show how a girl will treat him once they are married. For most of the night before, I cooked and packed enough food for six people, so that Jordan could choose the foods he liked best. The forecast called for rain, so for our uphill hike to the picnic grounds I chose a no-nonsense heavy lumberjack shirt; sole-slappy sneakers that would look no worse soaking wet; voluminous combat “gas attack” army trousers with drawstring; vinyl chaps tied at the thigh; and to conceal it all, a long hooded capelike slicker. To save Jordan the effort of getting out of his car, I stood outside under the eaves half an hour in advance, holding our food. By then the rain was an Atlantic northeaster with high winds. When my punctual escort drove up on time, I was soaked to the skin. In the plastic satchel, the multiple paper wrappings were so sodden that I feared we’d be foraging our chicken legs off the floor of his car.
“Would you stop at Unity Church?” I asked. “I have Tupperware left there from a potluck. I’ll run in for it, then repack all this.”
“Church?” Jordan checked his rearview mirror, signaled right, pulled over, downshifted, braked, and turned to me with unease and regret in those blue eyes. “I… don’t do church.”
“Oh no, they won’t have services today,” I explained. “Saturday is just Course in Miracles book club upstairs. I’ll duck into the basement, and grab my containers.”
“But… no, you see… I… I really don’t do church,” he repeated. “At all. No church.”
“Sure. You can stay put here. I’ll just be a sec,” I promised.
At the parking lot, we saw that Course in Miracles Club had a remarkable turnout. Cars were everywhere. We had to park a block away for my dash in the driving rain. Tense yet still chivalrous, Jordan accompanied me to the dark basement. With fogged rain-sluicing eyeglasses and sopping hair, I groped through the meeting rooms to the kitchen and grabbed my jumbo punchbowl piled high with plastic containers.
A side door opened. Lights clicked on. A child six years old or so peered in, looking intently at Jordan, at me, at Jordan, at me. “Excuse me. Are you both…” The sight of us perplexed him. “Are you two relatives?”
No wonder this observant African-American child thought two tall lanky auburn/blue Whites might just be related; our team certainly did. If this had been a grownup, I’d have said “Nah, we’re just people picking up our Tupperware. Enjoy your book group! Bye!” But because every young person deserves respectful validation, I said “People often ask us that. We do look like relatives, don’t we?”
“Elijah!” A young African-American man looked in the door. “The young lady just told you that she and the gentleman are relatives. Who are we, to ask questions?”
“Yes, Dada.” Elijah turned to me. “Miss, I’ll show you the way; you can come with me.”
“Thank you!” Relieved to follow Elijah’s short cut, I rushed up the dark stairs. I was so eager to start our big date that I did not wonder why these members wore matching black suits and black ties with black polished shoes just for a New Age book club.
Elijah held the door. While stepping through I turned back to smile and nod at him. Then, still mopping my hair out of my eyes, I faced front and saw a coffin. The coffin proceeded step by step straight toward Jordan and me, borne up by pallbearers.
Clearly, our guide Elijah, reprimanded for asking whether Jordan and I were related to him, had ushered us to the sanctuary for family seating — front and center, facing the congregation.
The pews were packed. Everyone looked resplendent, in suits and dresses, gloves, scarves, pearls, pocket watches, brooches, corsages, dotted veils, and trimmed hats. Not so the two storm-tossed Caucasians. The hapless sidekick had turned whiter than usual as he plastered his back to the wall. The Clem Kaddidlehopper minstrel figure stood frozen, punchbowl in arms. To stop drenching the carpet I struggled out of my slicker, then recalled too late that the poncho was a vast improvement over the rest of my getup.
One of the gentlemen seated by the podium rose, and with kind hands on my shoulders gave me his own seat. He stepped to the microphone and opened a profound prayer of blessing on the assembly and his parishioner. He raised a touching tribute to the courage and sweetness and humor of this loved one and her wonderful influence on generations of family. Then other congregation members began standing to contribute their own recollections of their beloved matriarch, their Granamere. They told stories of gratitude and sorrow and joy.
At the edge of the minister’s seat I waited on tenterhooks, begging God for help in easing us out of here and leaving this family in peace. But meanwhile, with their testimony the open hearts of Granamere’s children opened my own heart. They tapped in to the loss of my two grandmothers years before. In this sacred space, a state of true mourning set in, moving me to copious tears.
“And now, Dear Family and Friends.” The minister turned to Jordan and me. “See how this young couple came to pay their respects. What a gift! Sister, come up here. Tell us how you met Granamere, and your memories.”
At that I wept so hard that I could no longer breathe, let alone share anything coherent about anyone. With Jordan hard at my heels I bowed to all, and ran sobbing out the door.
In the car, on our drive to the park, Jordan and I watched the road in delicate restrained stillness. His silence looked like inert shock. My silence was remorse. My sensitive companion had trusted me to understand that he did not do church — yet was dragged in to needless distress by my buffoon-caliber foolishness. His tactful restraint, with no word of reproach, should have earned a retroactive merit badge for the Eagle Scout sash he’d earned back in school.
We hiked up to the park shelter and shivered in a gale force horizontal rain, eating a cold drumstick apiece. We squelched back to the car for the trip to my group house. After a chastened and subdued parting I waved goodbye with the sinking sense that Jordan might never ask me out again.
Next day, our store manager invited me to turn in my apron and try some other career. Jordan joined a self-awareness training program called The Forum, and moved off to new friends and new interests.
Tonight an online search by his real name and hometown and alma mater turned up no trace of him at all. All I know of Jordan now is that after me, his dating life could have gone nowhere but up. My better-looking Doppelganger deserved happier times with the right person.
To the family from Unity Church: I am so sorry for disrupting your beautiful memorial. Your mercy toward me was a splendid tribute to your Granamere. To this day, in customer service work, it inspires me with patience when distraught implausible people burst across my path from the northeasters of life.
And you, Granamere: God grant we meet one day. Bright Memory to you!
Bill and Sarah pulled up with my boxes and me, to move in my stuff and then take me shopping for groceries and household goods. But then the downpouring rain turned to sleet. So with hugs and assurances of speedy return they leaped in the van for an arduous trek back to their seaside home.
In an off-season housing market, just to stand here with bag and baggage waving goodbye in the freezing rain was a fantastic stroke of good fortune. It came about when a tenant moved out of a studio apartment, leaving a pile of trash and thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. Frank in Maintenance alerted Ella in Management. While Ella talked to Frank I walked in to her office, heard her half of the call, and wrote a check for first & last month and security deposit. Ella asked me for a one-month advance for phone and electricity, showed me the unit, and handed over the keys.
The apartment had small narrow rooms all in one line: kitchenette, bathroom, central room, alcove closet. Their windows faced west. Across a little courtyard, there was a close view up at six floors of windows full of neighbors with their TV and meals. In winter, the studio had shadowed daylight from 10:00 to 3:00. The other 19 hours, there were timed floodlights giving our courtyard an evocative Stalag Newsreel look.
I dedicated the apartment as a refuge of prayer and introspection, naming it Little Beje after Corrie ten Boom’s wartime sanctuary for refugees. I moved the boxes indoors, opened Bill & Sarah’s housewarming present, and laughed. They’d given me their mascot! Mr. Snakey was an inflatable nine-foot boa constrictor from the Museum of Science. Set up on my sleeping bag, he looked impressively lifelike.
Next I flicked on the light switches one at a time, then plugged in the refrigerator. Nothing happened. The landline phone, plugged in to its jack, had no dial tone. But thanks to Frank, the floors gleamed with fresh polyurethane varnish. The walls were slathered with fresh paint. So were the windows; they were sealed shut. The oil radiators had no off valve. They poured out dry heat and the roasted rancid-blood essence that hinted at cockroaches lurking in the pipes. The whole floor was crunchy with grout bits or paint chips. I grabbed a box lid as a broom and cleared the center room at a walking squat, moving each box at a time. Opening the hall door for light and air showed that the bits and chips were fumigated cockroaches — not lurking in pipes, but lying on their backs with folded multiple arms. That was great incentive to sweep the place corner to corner. Wrapping my hands with soggy advertising circulars from the lobby I scooped the whole rout into a garbage bag, then slipped and skidded across the courtyard to the dumpster.
The gas stove worked like a charm. So did the faucets, but the water smelled like paradichlorobenzene mothballs. After running the kitchen taps for twenty minutes I made tea, took a sip, and gagged it into the sink. Then I slipped and skidded to the Store 24 on Beacon Street, and was thrilled to find distilled water, crackers, spongy grapefruit, and figs on the nearly empty shelves. With the Sunday blue laws, the store could not sell liquor. But the men in the long line snapped up soda, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, scratch tickets, and magazines in brown paper from behind the counter. Unlike me, they had spent their weekend not packing, but monitoring the weather service.
Whiteout snow hit on the way home. There I stored the grapefruit on the cold bathroom windowsill. In the radiator heat I had to lock the door and drop all my clothes on a chair. To protect the pipes from freezing I turned on all the taps to a trickle. I washed up, and fixed oatmeal and tea while snow hurtled past the Stalag lights. Then for good air I put some clothes on, opened the hallway door, and set up for the night in the doorway with sleeping bag and Bible.
We had three blizzards in five days. The streets were silent; no people, no traffic noise but sirens, no trolleys on the Green Line. From a pay phone, a 40 minute round trip clamber away, I called my boss; he’d had to close up shop, and told me to stay home until after New Year’s. Other businesses were closed too. The drifts were 5 feet high. On side streets the plows could clear only one central lane both ways for cars and pedestrians to share, with blackening snow walls that lingered until April. Frank worked all hours on the roof chopping ice, or fixing burst pipes for tenants with no heat, or plowing snow from the doors. He promised to get my windows open soon.
Every morning it was time to break camp, roll up the sleeping bag, and lock the door. Then I dropped all my clothes. (Naturism was soon a necessary automatic reflex, if naturists vacation all alone in small dark rooms.) With the cardboard lid I’d sweep up the cockroaches, re-robe, drop the garbage in the dumpster, and gather some pine twigs on the way back. The pine twigs went into a stock pot of water boiling all day with grapefruit peels and cinnamon to improve and moisten the atmosphere. There was always pease porridge to tend on the stove too, with legumes and seaweeds and grain from my boxes. Then after a dip in the trickling bathtub I’d wash the laundry and dry it on the radiator in minutes. With a pickle crock weight as a hammer I’d tap a wooden spoon all around the window frames, in hopes of a paint gap for fresh air. When the fumes and heat made my head spin, I’d get dressed and stroll a bit on the snow drifts. Then with the Bible and sometimes Mr. Snakey for company, and a bath towel over my head for the draft, I sat in my doorway to study, read, write, and meet the neighbors.
But where was everybody? There was plenty of bustle in the building across the courtyard, but our floor had no one. Perhaps the other renters were students, at home for winter break? Only a couple of men traipsed through now and then, kicking the advertising circulars into a junkmail-mâché across the floor. I always said hello. They took one look at my setup and kept walking.
By Christmas the dizziness from the fumes wasn’t going away, even outdoors. The trip over drifts to the dumpster needed a sitting rest halfway through. The cold in the hall felt shivery even with extra bundling up. The heat with the radiators felt feverish even with bathtub dips and clothing-optional living. It was fortunate that I didn’t have to go out, because then a sore throat came along with laryngitis, a cough, and shortness of breath. One night I was resting in the doorway with head wrapped in towels, with a fold tucked down to cover my eyes; the fluorescents had a painful glare, and my stomach queased up at sight of the mâché slush on the floor. It was stained by melted rock salt from the snowplows in two city-issue colors (cotton-candy pink, and inauspicious pea green).
At about 3:00 am a rustling noise shook me out of a fitful reverie. Peeling back the bath towels I looked around blinking, and caught sight of Mr. Snakey. He was across the hall in the opposite doorway. While stumbling around feeling sick, I must have fallen asleep in the open door of the wrong apartment! In a panic I flailed around to an upright position against the door frame. “Oh no,” I tried to say. But this was my first human conversation in days; my voice was only a whisper.
To my delirious dismay, Mr. Snakey seemed to come alive. He yanked back his head, as would any sensible snake (a nine-foot python, as it turned out) when confronting a chill draft. A man appeared from inside, looming over us in the open doorway. With a few choice words he grabbed the moving snake and slammed the door. I wobbled up to my hands and feet, locked up, crept to the alcove closet, and verified that my boa was right where he belonged. (Yes, an inflatable boa is nothing like a live python, but don’t ask me how at 3:00 am in a fever.) Then, a breakthrough revelation occurred to me: because the bathroom was all tiled walls and floor, Frank hadn’t painted or varnished it! So that night I pulled my sleeping bag into the bathroom, closed the door, and had a restful sleep breathing well beside the trickling tub under a reassuring view of sky slice with star.
That day or next, a cheerful cricket noise rang out in the alcove. Phone service! The first call was from Bill and Sarah. All during the blizzard they’d been telephoning my inactive phone line, wishing they could pick me up to stay with them, or at least drop off some fresh produce; but by the sea the roads were still hazardous, and they’d had flu themselves.
From then on, people called every day for long insightful conversations. “You are SUCH a wonderful listener,” said one girlfriend. “Nobody pays attention like you.” “Perfect conditions for attention,” I explained. “Snowed in. Very little voice. In the dark. No clothes.”
The phone gave me a new daily ritual: calling the electric company.
“Mrs. Washington here,” a customer service associate snapped. “Name and address?”
“Hello Mrs. Washington.” I cleared my throat and croaked at her. “It’s Mary —”
“Speak UP!” she barked. “How do you spell that?” “It’s M –“
“Is that M as in ‘Mary’?” “Why… yes. Here is my address and unit number.” “What is the nature of this call?”
“I paid Management on December 1 for the first month, but…”
“EXCUSE me! We are under a SNOW EMERGENCY!” “Yes Ma’am, I see it out the windows. Just wondering, in a case like this —-”
“Hold the line.”
After 25 minutes of Muzak, the call disconnected.
So did the other calls. I kept on dialing, night and day.
Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Jefferson, Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. Madison, Mrs. Buchanan all looked up my address and unit, then put me on hold until the call cut off.
Finally, Mrs. Roosevelt let me know that the guy living here in Unit 3 before me had cheated thousands of dollars out of the electric company, and now they were in no scramble to light up my life. For all they knew, he was hiding behind a curtain and had put me on the phone. Now I would have to prove that I was me, prove that I was not him, prove that I was not in his cahoots, and that I was hereby renouncing all his vain pomps and works. “Only a supervisor makes exceptions. And they are all out with the repair trucks. To speak with one, you’ll have to call back.”
Mrs. Coolidge wanted a letter faxed to her with my previous addresses, signature, date of birth, and social security number.
Mrs. Eisenhower said I’d have to fax her a postmarked envelope showing my name and address. (Not that I had any; all my mail went to my post office box downtown. And I was too sick to walk to the mailbox and mail a letter from me to me.)
Mrs. Cleveland said that the fax needed to show a copy of the cancelled deposit check. (Not that I had one; the month wasn’t over, and the bank statement with cancelled check was going downtown to the same post office box.)
Mrs. Wilson wanted the fax to show a money order with a future deposit of $500. (Not that I could get myself to my own bank, which was probably still closed.)
Mrs. Harding wanted a past bill from some other utility company.
a copy of my lease.
Mrs. Truman wanted a government-issue ID with photograph, and a copy of my lease.
At least waiting on hold made a good meditation and stretching practice. Soon I could hum along to the different classical Muzak pieces while eating dinner or napping with the receiver tucked nearby.
On New Year’s Eve day I called again.
“Ms. Jackson. State your name & address.”
“Lo, Ms. Jackson.” I told it to her.
“What do you want?”
“Not a thing, Ms. Jackson. I’ve been calling about this account for a couple weeks. This is just to say that any day now it will stop snowing and I won’t always be sick, and then I’ll go out and find an open business with a fax machine and send you all the documents that you would like.”
“What is the nature of your call?”
“To say thank you. You have a high-stress job, and you’re saving lives in this terrible weather. And your Muzak! It’s all I have to listen here at home in the dark, and it’s LOVELY.” I started getting tearful. “So thank you. Happy New Year.”
“Unh.” Pause. “Right. Bye.”
For dinner that day I made split pea soup. An empty potato chip bag turned up in one of my boxes; the crumbs gave a delicious seasoning accent to the meal.
Eating dinner, I was longing for a church, a place with electric lights and people.
So I wrapped up warm with a bath towel around my neck and ventured out for the first time in days, down Beacon Street. Eureka! A large community church was open. In an upper floor all the lights were on. I hurried over snow drifts and up to the parish hall. About a hundred people were gathered for the service.
“You’re here!” The organizers rushed to greet me at the door. “Thank goodness! Wait — aren’t you…? Well, the invited speaker couldn’t make it. Can you lead the meeting anyway?”
“Meeting?” I looked around and saw the 12-Step slogan banners all over the walls. “Oh sure.” I was expecting a prayer service, but this was fine; I’d led many Anonymous group meetings before, including the mixed-program share-a-thons on holidays. “No problem.” Walking up to the microphone I greeted everyone, and suggested a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.
“We welcome you, to this meeting of –” I opened the speakers’ binder. “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.” I stopped and looked up at the audience.
They looked back at me.
These hundred people came through snow and ice, who knows how far, for my story of experience, strength, and hope with this addiction.
First, in keeping with Program standards of complete honesty, I let them know precisely how qualified I was to serve as their speaker.
Then we had us a moment of silence for sure.
Then, they laughed.
Soon laughter rolled through the hall in waves. People would start to calm down, take another look at me, and start laughing all over again. They laughed until they were weeping, slapping their sides or waving their hands in surrender.
“Were you gonna walk into just ANY meeting?” one man called out in friendly fashion.
“Meeting?” I said. “I thought this was Vespers!”
That set everybody off laughing all over again. While they did, I thought: Come Holy Spirit; this would be a fine time to give me an idea of what to tell these good folk. Finally I said “But aren’t we all here for the same reason? Isn’t it just human, to want to find safety and comfort, and also connection with other people? Isn’t that how we got here? Isn’t that how we can come together right now, this evening? We’re not alone; we made it here. We are in good company. We have wisdom and stories to share, and that starts now.”
So people shared their stories and treatment plans and recovery. There was a lot of adversity and courage and wisdom and cooperation in that room. It was a great meeting. And then people joined hands and said the Serenity Prayer, and gathered around with coffee and cookies and punch before saying goodbye. The gathering did my heart good.
That week, my flu got better.
Frank fixed the radiator valves and got the windows open.
Bill and Sarah took me to my favorite thrift stores and then to the Food Coop.
As the snow began to melt, neighbors showed up out of nowhere.
Here I’d been feeling down, thinking everybody else was off on vacation. But no. Some were hiding in their units all scared and wanting their Social Security checks, pain meds, baby formula, chemotheraphy. There must have been some way to help them. If only I’d put up posters in the hallways, or asked Frank to give out my phone number!
After that big snow, one lovely frail couple had to be taken to a nursing home. They’d survived World War II together in Belarus, and were so overjoyed to find a Russian speaker that they begged me to come for a goodbye visit, to have tea and view their photo albums.
What a life lesson for me! There is always more that one can do, to get out and meet and check on our neighbors.
But meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, the walk home from that SLAA meeting was beautiful. The air was cold and clear. In some places the snow still had some glitter to it. At Store 24, they had bananas and yogurt and lettuce for sale!
Locking my door at home I dropped all my clothes in the dark, put the groceries on the windowsill, fixed some mint tea, and sat watching six floors of neighbors together enjoying their TV shows and parties.
The sound of early fireworks sent me running to the bank of windows. I stretched up against the glass, peering at the scrap of sky in hopes of color and flash.
Instead, at midnight, the electric company made a judgment call. The First Ladies — Martha, Dolley, Mamie, Lady Bird, et al. — turned on my lights. All of the lights. Happy 1993!
I hit the floor out of public view. I shimmied into my sleeping bag, zipped it up to my chin, teetered upright against the wall, and hopped around in the bag long enough to turn off all the light switches with my chin. Then crawling out of the bag again I moved my yogurt and lettuce from the windowsill to the humming refrigerator. Then I drank a tea toast to the electric company, humming their best piece of Muzak.
You can hum it too. It’s the Intermezzo instrumental interlude from “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni.
Here was the Eastern sky today at sunset. When choosing one song out of many to fit this scenery on a reflective New Year’s Eve, I gave up and chose two instead. Here they are.
Song 1: “ИНОК” духовный стих
Artists: Лазурно-золотой Берег Запредельного “Azure-Gold Shore of Beyond”
“ИНОК” (Inok, the Monk) is an Old Believer folk song from the Altai region. My Russian isn’t good enough to catch most of the words. But apparently a monk is walking through a green field of flax, weeping and sobbing over his fate. In the refrain, “Cherno-Rizyi” means “O Monk (literally, O Black-Cassock).” The song ends with a prayer to the Theotokos, Queen of Heaven.
The Siberian music group Azure-Gold Shore of Beyond are proficient in many traditional instruments and songs. They also study the teachings of Sri Chinmoy.
Song 2: “Wintergatan Soundtrack 01 – MUSIC BOX, HARP & HACKBRETT”
Artist: Martin Molin
Martin Molin invents his own music boxes and other instruments, then composes music to fit. He and the Wintergatan music collaborative then post the music on their channel.
Off to work on a New Year’s story to post here…
Best wishes and blessings to all of you in 2022! – Mary
It just may be that every character, like every opal, has unique and complex facets.
The unique facet for me just might be the lifelong drive and everyday efforts toward optimal human connections at every level, combined with astonishing social clumsiness. Sure, there is a solid track record as a good grocery customer, model dental patient, friendly neighbor, and great customer service representative. But at anything closer and more significant, things veer right off into hilarity or heartbreak. Interactions that were made in heaven to be the most warm and close and loving and affectionate — well, they turn out more like flotsam that fractures into jagged splinters. It happened tonight, in a simple family phone call that went so cattywampus so fast that maybe it’s time to just quit talking.
And why? Well, the causative shortfalls and flaws abound. It all comes down to being way too naive, too eager, too religious, too literal, too huggy, too shy, too impressionable, too overwhelmed, too klutzy, too bursting with factoids about which nobody else gives the slightest hoot, and too deeply and permanently affected by words or tones of voice that were never meant to be noticed in the first place.
These everyday efforts make for some pretty good stories way after the fact. But meanwhile they add up to a general cloud of melancholic loneliness to carry around. If some little cartoon character (hedgehog, trilobite, whatever) were trudging through life feeling downcast to that degree, he would be followed by a big floating balloon, colored in with just a dark pencil scribble and a trail of bubbles pointing at his head.
But today for a couple of hours the floating thought balloon lightened up wondrously, and the pencil scribble inside it turned rosy and sparkling when I made another visit to the Greek Orthodox church. The service was just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see those familiar words written out in a whole new language. The church is very large and very busy with preparations for Nativity. Nevertheless, after service one priest hurried right over and offered to introduce me to the main priest, just in case I needed to talk! Then in the bookstore there was a big welcome and good books and icons and household things to admire and a lovely display for Nativity. (I bought a nice book on the Jesus Prayer, and little Nativity icon cards, and some jasmine incense to keep on the desk at work.)
After that I walked over to the park across the street with an amazing feeling of genuine happiness.
The clouds parted to a bright blue sky, the sun came out, and all the foliage sparkled. The air was perfectly fresh and clean and fragrant. The tall tall pines whispered and swayed. A Hairy Woodpecker (they don’t really have hair, but they really do peck wood) flew right up to me and started tapping around and around a snag tree, piping cute notes and fluttering a little dance and looking all spruce in his tidy black and white suit and red spot. A Labradoodle came rushing to greet me. “He really wants to show you that old tennis ball he’s got in his mouth,” the owner apologized; “he just found it now in the woods.” I gave the dog a good petting and told him “Did you? I love when that happens! I chew on mine too! Who’s a good boy?” and the three of us had a nice visit.
Then came the ferns. Now, it’s easy to find ferns. They are common enough growing in pots in houses. But as indoor plants go, the fern adventure doesn’t end well for the fern. In that close human relationship (owner + ornamental) they just pine away. But out here in the woods they were packed in all over the place.
There were all shapes and sizes, all kinds.
They marched along the ground, on rocks, in moss, growing right out of tree trunks.
In the winter woods, the textures and types of ferns were just a wonder. Here were these beautiful creatures with their unique facets, all faces and fingers, transforming decaying trees into soft luxurious pieces of art. Some of them might even be licorice ferns; I’ve heard that we can dry and pulverize their roots, and the starch is many times sweeter than sucrose. Imagine that.
What a revelation. If ferns can be this healthy and happy in the place that is right for them, then what if God has a place planned out where I can grow in a community too?
Maybe between here today and the Kingdom of Heaven, He has some little place even for me. One where it’s possible to feel safe and happy and close to other creatures who thrive in cold and rain; who take even the splintered jagged flotsam of circumstance, and then spin it into sugar.
Advent for the Catholics is the four Sundays before Christmas. (If you’re a Catholic, this year it’s November 28th through December 25th.) Back at our school with the Sisters of St. Dominic, the four weeks of Advent started off with the most important tradition of all: getting the crib ready for the Baby Jesus.
First, we needed to get a cardboard shoe box.
Shoe boxes were special at any time of year. We didn’t buy new shoes too often, not when there was always some kid on the street with bigger feet and we could wait for him to outgrow his shoes and then we could wear them. When we did have a shoe box in the house, our mothers used them to sort S&H Green Stamp booklets or recipe cards or nuts & bolts, and they tied up the boxes with red and white bakery cake box string and made neat labels and stacked them in the cabinet. Even when we did have extra boxes, we kids used them up for crafts right away. For example, you can turn a shoe box on its side so that the top long side makes a ceiling and roof. Then paint the inside blue, glue in some stones, cut out and color paper fishes and plants, hang them on strings to the ceiling side of the box, then tape a sheet of clear plastic wrap over the front. That turns the box into an aquarium, only these fish won’t die after you bring them home.
But shoe boxes were extra handy in Advent, an important time for an important project.
Step 1. The first day of Advent, get in line and follow Sister across the parking lot to church to examine our conscience. It’s always nice to sit there being perfectly silent so we can hear what God might say to us and gives Sister a minute to rest her feet in some peace and quiet.
Step 2. On the way home from school, go to Mr. C.’s shoe store and ask him for any empty boxes. Irving’s Pharmacy next door, with the big glass jars of color dye water in the window, they have boxes too. But we’re not allowed to go into Irving’s Pharmacy because it has one of those modern heavy glass doors, and our moms say we can get our fingers stuck in the door when it closes. But Mr. C. has the right boxes and he has just the screen door, so we’re allowed in there. If he’s not busy with a customer we can put a penny in the gumball machine while we are at it.
Step 3. Think up ideas for new good deeds to add to our life ever day. Like, the very first time Mom calls, run right home for supper or get up for school. Then set the table or make the bed. Carry your plate to the sink and say thank you. If you notice that the wash is dry, take it off the clothesline and fold it up and pick up the clothespins out of the grass. Finish your bread crusts. Say a decade of the rosary every night. Let Dad read the funny papers first because you make Silly Putty prints out of the faces in the comics.
Step 4. After dinner, sit at the kitchen table with a notepad and ruler and pencil. Draw 12 boxes. Then, fill each box by writing in one of your good intentions. Next, cut up the paper to make 12 squares. Put them in an envelope. Use another page or so to write and cut out one square or more for every day of Advent.
Step 5. Decorate your box with crayons or a little colored paper. But don’t be all showy about it. Like, don’t go paint a lot of macaroni shells gold and then glue them on, because Jesus was very poor as a baby and did not have a wealthy bed. And besides, the outside of the box doesn’t matter. What matters is the inside later at the end of your four weeks.
Step 6. Now the real project starts. Every day, pick a good intention paper slip out of the envelope and then work on your good intention. At the end of each day, if you finished your good deed, take that slip of paper and put it inside the shoe box crib. Don’t show or talk about your good deed; it should be a secret between you and God.
Step 7. Every day, carry out another good deed, and put each paper slip in the box. At the end of Advent, if you counted right, the envelope is empty and the box is full of good deed paper slips.
Step 8. At the end of Advent, put the lid on the box and fasten it down with rubber bands from the rubber band ball in the kitchen drawer. Take it to school on the bus.
Step 9. At school, take off the lid and everybody put their boxes under the little fake tree next to the Nativity scene that has all the figures looking at the empty manger. At the end of Advent all of the children’s boxes are full of paper slips! That means each box and all 4 Sundays of Advent were full of good deeds for our families and homes and neighborhood and school. They make the boxes into a soft warm manger bed for Baby Jesus. Then even in wintertime the Baby knows He is welcome in this world.
But most of all, the real welcome and the real soft warm place for Him is the change inside our hearts.
About the photo above: This is a very sweet and very thoughtful Nativity present. (The picture does not show how pretty it really is.) I’ve been sad for days, missing the Advent traditions from long ago. But then out of the blue my lovely neighbor gave me this woodcut picture! It is so much better than any shoe-box aquarium I ever made, and such a kind cheering gift, that I want to keep it on my windowsill to look at all year long. Thank you dear! Joyous Feast!
On the day after Thanksgiving I stopped to change buses at our little student neighborhood right on the water. It has quaint old houses and gardens and charming unique family businesses and shops and open cafes and fanciful public art. At holiday season the stores put up lights, and play holiday music. Young shoppers flock around with cinnamon rolls and cocoa. Musicians play in costume. Dogs wear reindeer hats and sleigh bells and blinky-light collars. Our magical music store keeps an open door with live or recorded music playing, and a lobby stocked with flyers for upcoming events — like their public open house the first Sunday in December every year where everybody brings a plate of cookies and has fun in jam sessions and playing the different instruments. (I once spent a happy afternoon there in the back classroom, playing all the hammer dulcimers.)
To recover from Thanksgiving I had my heart set on a cheering little stroll on the waterfront street to take in the people and the sights. This year, my hopeful idea did not work as planned. At 4:45 pm, on American peak-retail “Black Friday” and the kickoff to the winter holidays, our delightful mini-downtown was empty. The businesses were closed up. The streets were not full of shoppers or tourists. Even the music store was silent; their bulletin board had no upcoming event flyers, and they’ve called off this year’s open house.
The scene called to mind “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with George Bailey’s daymare vision of the Georgeless wasteland in Potterville. Darkness fell. It was starting to rain. Crossing the footbridge I was all alone. There were only three men around; they were conversing quietly beside the bridge, sitting on the ground outside a makeshift tent. A teenager crossed by on the other side, weighed down by a black trash bag on his shoulder. I forged ahead at a brisk clip, without even stopping to pull out the phone for photographs. I took only a glance overshoulder at the downtown lights, gold and silver on black velvet water.
Then, right in the middle of the bridge, there was a new sign:
No Jumping From The Bridge! Consequences are fatal and tragic.
Wait. What? The logic and sentiment of that public service message stopped me in my tracks. Not only the “fatal” part, but the appeal to reason pointing out that the outcome would be considered tragic to those left behind. It is rare for anyone (outside the world of advertising) to give urgent heartfelt personal counsel to anybody. In this pensive setting, the warning sign struck a caring philosophical tone, like a bedtime story moral read out loud by the little plush animals at Pooh Corner. It was heartening to marvel at the people who designed that municipal sign, processed the metal work, and set it on the bridge in anticipation that someone would need that very message, standing right on this very spot, and that the sign might help. Because you just never know.
That reverie led to four realizations.
Realization 1 of 4: It’s time to give up popular-culture holidays, or at least to give up the appearance that I can transform them into something fun. Secular society in general (and the world of advertising in particular) lays out the expectation that we should all have the supplies and organizational management and social skills to make these days a time of consumption and entertainment. For too many people that’s a heavy yoke to carry, one that leaves too many behind.
This cavalcade of assumptions gives single people a special task: please make being alone look like a great time, so that the rest of us don’t have to feel uneasy around you. The idea is that if single people are mature self-actualized adults, we should not have time to be lonely; we should be too busy on the El Camino de Santiago, whale watch, Vipassana retreat, and of course lots of volunteering. Well, I’ve worked a whole array of meaningful solo activities over the years (including the natural history museum feeding venomous snakes, but that’s another story.) Yet still, the hardest part of any holiday is the crash of sadness afterwards and when eager people ask “How was your holiday? Do anything fun?” And still my default answer is to burst into tears. Then people usually laugh in bewilderment and walk away, and that’s the end of the conversation and/or the relationship.
Well, it’s time to admit it. I have no idea how to be single, and no idea how to thrive at secular celebrations. Because to me, the essence of celebration is coming home at last to the person or people who I’m allowed to love, and who love me. That’s the holiday I’ve always yearned for, because celebrations outside the context of family don’t make any sense.
However, that said — no matter how one feels about holidays, it is still right and good and essential to supportotherpeople who celebrate theirs. (In fact, I just baked cookies and want to bring some to Neighbor Livie. Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.)
Okay, I’m back. Livie liked her cookie sample. Anyway, it is important to write out and mail cards to those who like cards, bring them flowers, bake them treats, make snow angels and chalk drawings with the neighborhood kids, visit the nursing home, check in on folks who live alone, and whatever else one can do to lighten this time of year for other people.
But it’s high time to put to rest the charade that holidays are in any way about me, or about having fun. My dream of love and family may happen only in heaven. So from now on when people ask the holiday fun question I can just say “Thank you, my holiday will be in heaven.” That ought to work just as well as standing there dumbfounded and tearful. All this led to Realization Two.
Realization 2 of 4: Celebrate real holidays from now on instead. That idea led to Realization Three.
Realization 3 of 4: If the most endearing moment in days came from gazing fondly at a Don’t You Even! placard in the rain, then that’s not good. It was time to get off the bridge and get to church.
Since then I’ve been studying articles in pravmir.ru, all about Orthodox Advent. Their calendar year round is a cornucopia of fasts and feasts and Scripture readings and lessons and prayers and hymns and saints to inspire, with something uplifting and beneficial to commemorate every day.
On Sunday, at the Greek church two buses away, the bookstore ladies gave me a warm joyful welcome. I hope that they forget my last visit two years ago, when they inquired kindly about my Christmas and I broke down and wept while blocking the icon aisle. Among the many works of art, household items, and reading materials there were two excellent new books to buy and take home. The store also had incense, all different scents. I gravitated right over to the rose oil, not to burn but just to keep in the prayer corner. It comes in pink nuggets with the sweetest fragrance.
Realization 4 of 4: Now that flower season is about over for the winter, why not start photographing and even drawing pictures of bridges? Bridges are good transition symbols for leaving one place in life and entering another. Maybe these pictures can be nice enough to cheer up someone else.
New neighbor T. would like a little help with a simple sewing alteration. She asked whether I knew someone in our complex with a sewing machine. Sure, we have lots of handy-crafty people here, so I made some inquiries. I was eager to help Neighbor T., introduce her to some other wonderful neighbor, and so set another good stitch seam in our network of residents. But, my inquiries led nowhere. The fruitless search was a disappointment, and was puzzling until I opened a favorite website pravmir.ru and found an article about the saint of the day. Aha! No wonder our sewing effort came to naught on November 10th, today of all days.
The Feast of Saint-Martyr Paraskeva Friday is November 10th. What a great name for a courageous girl hero. There she is fighting for the cause of justice, while her mom calls from the window: “O Paraskeva Friday! Dinner!” Well, Paraskeva Friday really was a genuine girl hero. Here is her tradition, taken mostly from these two articles:
This year, the feast day of Paraskeva Friday falls on a Wednesday. But “Paraskeva” is Greek for Friday, to honor the day of the Passion of Our Lord. Legend has it that this saint lived in the 3rd century in Iconium, Asia Minor. Her devout Christian parents spent their Fridays in fasting and prayer and almsgiving. After many childless years, they joyfully greeted the birth of their daughter on a Friday, and named her accordingly. The child was raised as a devout Christian. Orphaned early in life, she kept to her childhood faith and gave away her considerable fortune by feeding and clothing the poor. She was martyred under the Diocletian persecution, adamantly refusing the offers and threats of men in power who demanded that she renounce her heavenly spouse and marry one of them. Even in prison awaiting death, she showed such unearthly radiance that her captors were unnerved by her presence. As a well-born girl of striking beauty, she inspired many people toward the Christian faith through her life of devotion to Jesus Christ, her courage, and her charity to the poor.
Paraskeva Friday is honored as the patron saint of happy courtship and marriages, healing from illnesses, comfort from frightening dreams, and blessings upon cattle and fields. To this day, in the Russian countryside one can find little roadside chapels known as “Fridays” in fond memory of this saint — prayer point landmarks for friends to meet and to part on their journeys, and for young couples to socialize.
To observe Paraskeva Friday’s feast, everyone was to pay special heed to the commandments, to give alms, to assist the poor, and to refrain from harsh speech — arguments, scandal, and gossip, as well as idle or derisive laughter. As on Fridays year round, this was also a fast day with all-vegan fare. Men had to give the land a rest from agricultural labor, and they could not do any work with iron tools. Women were required to refrain from all womanly household chores. This meant that young girls were not to dress or style or ornament their hair. It also meant a day of no sewing, no knitting, no embroidery, and no washing clothes. (Interesting: canonical icon depictions show Paraskeva as a grave ascetic in red with unbound hair, sometimes with a black background to represent prison. But an image search also turns up many delightful stuffed Paraskeva dolls with flowing hair, beautifully dressed with fine stitching, knitting, and embroidery, and with no facial features — like the dolls one can find among the Amish.) And her icons with their frames show a full range of metalsmithing and tool work as well, probably done on the other 364 days of the year.
According to Ms. Mekhontseva’s article, the only feminine craft permitted on this day was a Russian term new to me. According to Google Translate, to “trepat’” means fluttering or rattling, in this case for rendering flax into linen. Now with Paraskeva’s blessing I want to go find out how to rattle flax, to prepare for next November 10th.
But the main way to observe the feast was by visiting church with the congregation, and at home praying with petitions like these:
O saintly blessed Martyr Paraskeva, O beauty of virginity, O wisdom: Send down blessings upon our womanly lot in life. May the chalice run full in this house. May the family be happy and strong. May the ones in love find good sturdy husbands. Amen.
4:02 Text from Captain Wing, at Wing Family Central: Are you at work?
4:05 Text from Mary: Yes. Do you need something photocopied or filed?
4:07 CWWFC: No. When you are near home, please text me. We have Swiss Chard for you and Neighbor S. Don’t rush.
ETA 5:30. Leaving the office.
But… outside on the wall, the creeper vine was losing all its leaves. A wind storm was stripping our colorful trees bare. Say! Miss Rose would love those leaves. She decorates her room at any excuse for a holiday. For years, I’ve brought her installments of colorful autumn leaves for her centerpieces. Now an intuition was prompting me: “Go now! It’s on your way home. In a year you might be living somewhere else, and she is thinking of a transfer to another neighborhood. Bring her lots. Hurry up.”
Well, one leaf led to another. Look at that tree up that street! And that one there!
(By the way, behold the ergonomic setup of that truly charming campus cottage above, on a steep hilltop with a back staircase. The staircase has no external barrier. The doorway has no connecting handrail or steps. Sure, if I were stepping outside I could grab the inner handrail against the house wall, but I’d have to lie on my face to reach around for it. Wow. Who lives there — Cirque du Soleil?)
Leaves flew everywhere. I chased them through the gusts, forsaking the main streets for the brilliant fall foliage behind stately old fraternity houses with immense trees and dramatic hilltop lake mountain views. I took the old shortcuts too from street to street all the way down: flight after flight of steep old stone stairs weaving past orchards and gardens and inviting little kitchen windows and porches. The steps were thick with wet leaves like slippery cornflakes; I had to pick my way gripping low makeshift pipe rails. On lower flights there was no way to tell what was leafy muck, and what was level ground. There really was cause to be thankful that I’d left work a little early, before the dark and rain set in.
That back way cost an extra half hour, but made the walk a glorious ramble. At the bottom the wind was left behind, blustering overhead, as the trees opened out on the park. As I walked through the field, a last sunbeam turned a distant tree (maple?) bright gold.
Hold on to your hats!
In the wind and gathering dusk, storm clouds massed together. With steep altitudes and high wind and cloud cover, there was real drama in the passing changes in lighting and mood. Sometimes within minutes the landscape advanced deeper into darkness toward winter, then sprang back toward daylight and autumn. These rocking pines stood at the edge of darkening woods. This park service men’s room looked like an appealing port in a storm with its little light and green door. (My favorite art is landscapes by Maxfield Parrish, and Ivan Bilibin. This picture looks a bit like both.)
It was tricky finding the path out of the woods; it was buried under fallen leaves. I hurried as carefully as possible. There was a huge fallen log, with the stump so wide its width came up higher than my waist. I stopped to admire its deep carpet of moss and ferns before realizing that this log was once a ponderous tree toppled — by wind! At that thought I got a move on, grateful for the good counsel in the Gospel of John, 12:35: Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.
That’s for sure. What a relief to see the woods end with the footbridge over the ravine. The sun came out! That elevation over the creek far below allowed a free view of the open sky. That drop is a whole lot deeper than the picture shows; I always stay well back from that railing.
From there the way was easy going — level pavement and familiar map grid and streetlights switching on.
At The House I sanitized my hands, took my temperature, took a pen from the Clean cup, filled in the visitors’ intake form and Covid attestation, dropped the pen in the Used cup, and sanitized my hands again. The wonderful front-line staff behind the clear plastic barrier have been running interference for 21 months now, delivering messages and packages and meals 24/7 to and from residents who last year were on lockdown confined to their bedrooms. The staff greeted me warmly while disinfecting everything in sight. They made pleasant jokes about my weekly delivery of fresh foliage — which, now that I think of it, are steeped in Mother Nature’s microbes and germs. “After today,” I told them, “autumn leaves will be one more household commodity affected by shortages in our national supply distribution system.”
Miss Rose was just folding her laundry, so I texted Captain Wing with an ETA update. (“If you are outside, look up,” he texted back. “The cloud is beautiful.” Alas, the laundry room had no windows or clouds.) Then, Miss Rose maneuvered her shiny ultra-modern firetruck-red electric wheelchair into the elevator with the laundry, me, my knapsack, and my rainwear and fluorescent jacket and duffle bag of leaves. Back at her room she protested mildly at my extravagance; Miss Rose is a thrifty sort, even with free stuff picked up in an alley. “So many! I won’t have space to display them all! You ought to take some of these for yourself.”
I pointed out that there were still oodle-googles of leaves whirling around outdoors, and that now she could pick and choose the ones she liked best for her decor.
We sat and visited for just a breath-catch, and then I was on my way. Only 20 blocks to go, but now the wind was strong again and it was really dark, and half the way was straight uphill. Fortunately, I chased and caught a bus east for 10 blocks. Then I chased and caught another for the 10 blocks north, texting Captain along the way, and hopped off at our corner.
He was waiting in the dark garden with a picnic basket. We walked next door to visit Neighbor S. There she and I marveled at Mrs. Wing’s harvest gift, picked that afternoon for the two of us to share: several plants of vivid magenta-red Swiss Chard, a dozen Jerusalem Artichokes apiece, and two bowls of more ‘chokes sautéed and seasoned, still warm and fragrant. While S. and I divided the bounty, Captain headed straight for the balcony, saying “Now to fix that drainage problem.” Neighbor S’s outdoor herbs are getting too much rain. So, Captain picked up every single potted plant, placed coins to surround and prop up the drainage holes, set them back in their planters, and then for each plant he took heavy foil and molded little coverlets for the stem base as a canopy. “Less water in, more drainage out,” he explained. “And here is a supply of foil in case you need more.” Now S. can enjoy her outdoor herbs well into the winter.
As Captain and I headed downstairs I told him about Miss Rose’s red firetruck. “The scooter chair is so large and so heavy that it can’t be lifted into a passenger car. That means she can’t visit children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren for the holidays.”
“No visit from Grandma?!” he exclaimed. “No way. What make and model of wheelchair?”
“Ooh, sorry. I wouldn’t know from one wheelchair to another if it ran over my foot.”
“Could the chair be folded up?”
“No, that’s the problem. It’s powered with little stick controls and weighs hundreds of pounds.”
“If I were her child, I would just buy an old schoolbus and fix it up with a lift.”
(He means it. His buddy salvaged a vintage ambulance, and the two men turned it into a dream of a recreational vehicle for the friend’s whole family.)
“If you were all of our children,” I told him, “this would be a different world.”
“I didn’t know you were visiting The House today! Next time, introduce me to your friend. I want to meet her and see this chair for myself.”
He took the empty chard basket and adjusted his glasses with a headshake and determined look, probably contemplating another engineering adventure.
The chard was fantastic cooked, then tossed with a puree of sardines, tomato paste, lime juice, and ginger. The sunchokes were perfect over brown rice. (Hm… maybe this weekend I can bake some kale chips with anchovy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder. The family might like those.)
A few scarlet oak leaves ended up at the bottom of my bag. They’re pressing now thanks to Neighbor S’s leaf-pressing kit. In a day or so they will look pretty downstairs on our lobby table.
“Good Morning!” said the hearty warm voice of Colleague T. when I answered the phone. “In a few minutes I’ll be at Friends Bench. Can’t wait to see you!”
I sat with phone in hand, blinking stupidly at my computer screen, where a cascading chain of misunderstandings at work called for immediate attention and assistance. Of course, the logical Yankee Anglo etiquette would be to cancel our lunch and explain to T. that something came up at the office.
Friends Bench is a garden seat at the Society of Friends Meeting House. For years, Colleague T. and I have met there to lunch and chat. Colleague T. is a resilient, generous, caring, upbeat woman of faith committed to family, church, and charities. In retirement she is busier than ever with worthwhile well-organized activities. Her aura is radiant and poised, with fabulous taste in earrings and accessories. She has faced life’s adversities with a positive outlook of charity and hope, and always has good energy and uplifting words to share.
One week in advance, Colleague T. texted me suggesting a Friends Lunchfest for October 11th. Great! I happily added her to my calendar for November 11th. In anticipation, I thought how nice it would be to meet on Veterans’ Day, so we could spend our work holiday in good fellowship without either of us hurrying back to the office.
But at that moment, on the right day wrong month, the truth was that I felt shy about seeing anyone at all. And Colleague T. was especially discerning and insightful. It would be hard to keep up appearances for a whole hour, and to hide from her how discouraged I was feeling about life.
On the phone, with a heavy heart, I confessed to her that I was held up working at home, and was not actually near our meeting place. To my surprise, she said “Well, would you like to meet somewhere else? I’ll drive right over!”
I suggested meeting outside my apartment to begin with. That idea came with some real trepidation; what if T. thought my hospitality was disrespectfully slapdash and half-hearted? After all, I had no refreshments prepared, my studio was in no shape for guests and neither was I, and the clouds were about to pour rain. But she cheerfully agreed to come right over. Fortunately, that gave me exactly enough time to tackle the email chain and set the communication issues to rest. Then T. and I met downstairs, I found a couple of lawn chairs near the garden, and we carried them under the trees.
And then, somehow the whole picture changed.
In a flash, Captain Wing materialized out of thin air with plushy towel in hand, and wiped down the chairs before vanishing back in the house. In another flash, Mrs. Wing sprinted outside to hand me a big bag of her fresh picked garden vegetables. As if on cue, one endearing neighbor after another and a cat or two headed past on their errands, and every one stopped with friendly greetings in a community-wide demonstration of good will. It was better than watching a Sunday promenade from a café in Paris. The storm clouds parted in dramatic manner, and tremulous autumn sunshine burst out on the nasturtiums, calendula, marigolds, geraniums, and Mrs. Wing’s fuchsias and flowering ginger. Goldfinches gathered in the pines overhead in a sweet warbly chorus, and hummingbirds zizzed around.
In this magically charming setting I confessed my calendaring mistake. Because our jobs depended upon accurate calendar scheduling for ourselves and others, we had a good laugh. Then somehow I went right on confessing, about how discouraged and useless I felt, as a person with not much function or meaning in anybody else’s life. Colleague T. caught my drift right away. After listening and hearing me out she responded with honesty and clarity. She talked about her own search for meaning after her hardworking career, and now that her grandchildren were virtually grown up with busy accomplished lives of their own. She was pursuing and exploring plenty of service opportunities, but was still searching for God’s calling for this stage of her life now. In particular, how could she really live the Gospel to witness to others who needed it most?
It was such an all-absorbing talk that I braved a suggestion that she come upstairs to my place — as the first guest to set foot in the door since the Age of Covid. We went upstairs. “This studio is clean enough and tidy,” I pointed out. “But — time was, I always had soup on the stove and bread in the oven ready for anyone to stop by. Now look. Half of it’s file boxes and a laundry rack and cartons of pandemic canned goods. It’s not a home; it’s a room with someone who has given up on her own life. Sure, there’s customer service work all day long, and church, and always neighbors with errands and chores and messages to share. But after a whole day of interaction I come up to this room and think ‘Is that it? I don’t really belong to anybody. What’s the point of my life?'”
Well, T. must have been inspired then. She shared the best and soundest Bible teaching for anyone who feels isolated and alone. All of it reminded me that here from the earthly view we can’t grasp what a difference we make in the lives of others, or how much meaning our lives really have, or what treasures are stored up in heaven. “And as for the room,” she added at one point, “arrange it for your self. It matters!”
That simple idea was hard to grasp. The room? For myself?
But one thing was clear. “God sent you a month early,” I told her. “And you certainly brought Bible teaching to me. This was a real fellowship call on someone who needs it.”
As we said goodbye and she drove away, I realized I’d forgotten to give T. some of Mrs. Wing’s vegetables to take home!
Ever since that talk with T., life has felt different in a good way. It’s still grief every day. But praying, working, falling asleep, waking up, all of it is 10% better. These dear neighbors and community members look even more dear. Friendship with T. is even deeper and warmer for the future. There are even new little changes in this living space, but that’s a story for a later day.
That night, it was heartening to discover this verse. It went right in my Bible notebook as a memento of our visit:
Exhort one another daily, while it is still called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end. — Hebrews 3:13-14
Looks as if Colleague T. has that new ministry she was praying about. She certainly ministered to me.
Big disclaimer again: There are plenty of ways to safely and efficiently process acorns. Consult the experts. Don’t imitate somebody who is just bumbling around.
In our earlier episode, I gathered about 2 cups of perfectly fresh sound fallen acorns from a white-oak tree. They dried in the sunshine while I studied up on library books and websites about acorn foraging and preparation.
Exhibit A: Whole shells
One source said that putting acorns in a dehydrator will help the kernels shrink in from the shells for easier removal. Ten days in the sun on the windowsill might have helped with that. I placed them in a plastic bag three at a time. I figured out how hard to tap each one with a Russian kettle bell weight: not enough to shatter the acorn, but just enough to get one clear dry splitting sound. That creates a crack in the shell. Then one can pry apart two shell halves with a half kernel in each, gently bending the flexible shell to pry out the kernels with a thumbnail. The shells went into the compost pail.
Exhibit B: Kernels and inner skin
That left these shelled kernels still with the “testa,” the papery brown inner skin, still attached. The kernels need to be peeled and have the testa removed. Testa has extra tannin, and a papery mouth feel. With chestnuts, it’s simpler; one can oven-roast the nuts, and generally the testa cracks right off with the shell. Or, with raw almonds, just dunk them in simmering water for a minute, then into icy water, and the inner skins should slip right off. (Even easier, I just soak the raw almonds overnight, then slip the skins off next day. No cooking needed.)
Blanching these acorns was more of a challenge. Even after blanching and cold water, the testa did not just slip off. So I simmered them for several minutes, then used cold water again. Even after several blanchings, I still had to chip away with fingernails to scrape the testa away from each kernel. Many kernels needed additional carving with a sharp knife to remove blemishes; I wanted only completely sound kernels.
Even after multiple simmerings in several changes of water, a taste test kernel had a crunchy texture. The flavor was pleasantly nutlike for about 10 seconds until the tannin taste kicked in. I had to throw away the kernel and brush my teeth to get rid of the bitterness. That double handful of kernels cost 90 minutes of slopping around with pots and bowls and strainer, a sore back, and two split fingernails. I felt like an inept loser up past her bedtime.
Exhibit C: Peeled kernels
Next I pureed the kernels with lots of water in the Vita Mix blender. This made a murky liquid with floating particles of sediment. Before putting the jar in the refrigerator, I took one very cautious lick. The solution tasted like runoff from a storm sewer. That discouraging moment brought to a close an evening of bother and fuss.
Exhibit D: Flour-water solution
Next day the acorn flour had settled to the bottom of the jar, leaving the water with a murky color and very bitter taste. I poured off and refilled the water, then shook up the jar and put it back in the fridge. After five days and dozens of rinses & refills, the solution looked clear with a well defined layer of flour at the bottom. The water and the flour had a neutral taste with no bitterness, and no astringent mouth feel. I poured off and discarded the water, drained the flour, and heated it a bit to make a soft more cohesive dough. It had a plain starch taste, like eating plain millet or white corn grits.
It’s impressive to imagine our ancestors devising and sharing tasks like this as part of their social bonding rituals. A project like this must have been much more efficient and enjoyable when a whole group worked on the harvest together.
Exhibit E: Starch dough
It seemed that this starch dough with its plain taste might lend itself as an ingredient in a highly spiced sweet like German pfefferneusse or Russian prianik cookies. So I mixed the acorn dough in the Cuisinart with dates, tahini, coconut, bitter cocoa, allspice, and a dash of xylitol. That made a soft halvah candy, rolled into small balls for the freezer.
Exhibit F: Voilá
Straight from the freezer, this made a delicious candy. Here is a sample below, on fresh edible nasturtium leaves from the garden. This confection would benefit from some ginger, and more festive flavorings such as cinnamon and cloves and orange zest. To me the acorns gave a very subtle note of centered calming autumn-woodsy flavor, like the smell of rain on freshly fallen leaves.
When more fresh sound acorns come along, I will try this venture again.
Big safety warning here, about fennel and everything else: This is an entertainment blog by a writer who rarely leaves the sidewalk and can only identify two kinds of lettuce. There are plenty of competent plant books out there. Study as many as you can, and go on plant walks with a competent guide whenever possible, before you pick anything. For example, one book warned that people might see life-threatening poison hemlock seeds and think they are fennel when they are not! What’s more, even plain edible fennel from the grocery store comes with medical warnings from the Mayo Clinic. So again, study up all you can and don’t take it from me.
There is a very popular Keeping Up With show on the television set nowadays, about a family with a lot of home businesses who are very good looking and wear nice clothes. I haven’t seen the show, but can guess that any family would have an interesting time keeping up with the Wings. Judging by the daily activities in our courtyard, the Family Wing (which must come from an ancient Chinese character meaning “Cavalcade of ingenuity and friendly helpfulness”) needs a reality show of their own. Which is pretty funny, since Captain Wing has been editing and making copies of Neighbor G’s memorial service video, the real reality show from last Sunday.
In this exciting episode of our neighborhood saga, I found a tall thick plant of feral fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) with a broken main stem. The flower heads had already bloomed, and were full of tender green seeds. The whole plant had toppled over and onto the sidewalk, but looked completely fresh and untrampled. The strong licorice scent from the broken bruised stems was heavenly.
There’s nursery fennel in my garden, and I’ve often snapped off and chewed on the green seeds. Unlike the hard pointy fennel seeds purchased as a seasoning, the fresh seeds are tender and sweet. But with this plant, uncultivated and close to the road, I didn’t eat anything without washing. (There is research proposing connections between microbes, and illnesses including gum disease and Alzheimer’s. It pays to be careful.)
Still, I took out a bag and filled it with dozens of flower heads.
Passersby and drivers paid me no mind. Anyone in that building could have pounded on the window and said “What’s the big idea? That plant was standing in the front yard of this apartment complex!” And if they did, I would hand over the bag right away with some recipe tips. But in general, people hurry past my foraging activities looking embarrassed for me. Once in a rare while, some older person might flash me a smile. Perhaps they are picturing the earwigs that will soon be running up my kitchen wall? Maybe all of them know that fennel is classified as a noxious weed by the extension service, and that getting rid of it is just being patriotic.
At home I swished and rinsed the flower heads very well in three changes of baking soda water with a final rinse, pouring all the rinse water into the garden bucket to throw outdoors; it would not be a good idea to start fennel growing from raw seeds down in the kitchen plumbing. Flower arrangers might enjoy working with these fragrant nest-like flower heads; they are curved up like an upside down umbrella, and cling together so well that by dropping flowers on top of each other you can easily build a whole pyramid of them in a tall stack.
Maybe if the seeds were mature and dry, they would have rubbed right off the stems. But these green seeds did not. I trimmed them off, then simmered the stems to make soup stock and set aside the stems for compost. The seeds stayed in clusters with tiny spidery stem bases. Some people might have the patience to pick off each seed, but they don’t live here. Because the seeds grew right on the street and not in my garden, I simmered them in the stock for about five minutes. While waiting, I rearranged some counter items to form a comfy hiding place to a panicking earwig. Then I drained and spread the seeds on a tray to dry. Their texture was fun to work with, fluffy and light, like a woolly green fennel fleece. The seed flavor was excellent; sweet and fragrant at first, then a hint of saltiness.
This raw seed idea appeals to me, and might appeal to others. I knew a woman who couldn’t stand any food made with fennel, but it turned out that she was fine with the taste. What she couldn’t stand was the mouth feel of unexpected tiny sharp points. Well, chewy tender raw seeds might be a better option. In Indian restaurants, it’s nice when after a meal the waiter brings a little dish of fennel seeds to chew on; they help ease digestion. But raw seeds would be even nicer to chew on if one can get them.
Finally the seed fleece went in a container in the freezer. It will be easy to pinch off fluffy pieces and add them to cooking. Today for lunch I prepared a spoonful of kimchi with almond flour and nutritional yeast in a bowl. Then I blended several stalks of celery, drank the celery juice, then mixed the celery pulp with two beaten eggs and some rice milk and paprika and a drop of Red Boat anchovy sauce. When the cooking eggs had set solid, I sprinkled on some fresh fennel seeds. The omelette finished cooking until it puffed up, then went in with the kimchi. The fresh seeds were a nice contrasting touch.
But, we were trying to keep up with the Wings.
Arriving home after foraging, I found the Captain inspecting his tomato patch. He was already strategizing improvements in his tomato seedling cultivation techniques for next year, having selected the five (5) varieties that he will raise, planning which neighbors will receive which seedling type based upon their garden spaces, and arranging his south wall and black pots for optimal heating units of sunshine. That’s just how he thinks about things all day long.
I showed him my batch of fresh green seeds. This time, thought I, this will be something nice and novel for him to see. But, what did I know.
“I’m ahead of you,” he said.
“We all know that,” I told him.
“No, I meant my fennel seeds. I have a whole batch in my dehydrator now. They’re almost ready. See, before harvesting these you should have waited until the seeds turned black, on a dried plant; then they’ll fall right off.”
Well, when it comes to stuff lying on a public sidewalk, for the sake of cleanliness I wanted to harvest immediately. But his harvest method certainly sounds more efficient.
Later today when I return a bunch of kitchen dishes from Mrs. Wing’s cooking triumphs, we’re all going to have a fennel showdown, a taste test of the two batches to see which method has the best flavor and fragrance. I like my tender chewable seeds. But it’s easy to predict that for long-term pantry storage, his dried method will yield a superior professional result.
So as it turns out, the family had their whole winter supply of fennel seeds almost ready before I even went out foraging. There is just no keeping up with these folks. But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em — join ’em.” On our street their work ethic, industrious ingenuity, lovely tended garden, and eagerness to share information and goodies with everyone else is the best entertainment value around.
The Memorial Service for Neighbor G. was on Sunday.
At the local grocery I bought the universally popular party pack of choco-chip cookies, then put on Neighbor D’s sleek black classic dress and headed uphill to the barbecue area. It was a worry wondering whether people would turn up, since it looked about to pour down rain. Would a few people show up and just dawdle around a bit for the sake of appearances, looking depressed and ill at ease? Was anybody else bringing food? If not, it would be conspicuous to show up with a party pack of cookies. But I decided that in case of questions, knowing the faith-based inclinations of our loved one of honor, I could claim that as citizen clergy I’d brought communion.
Well, no worry needed. The affair was a smash.
The men got there early and set up picnic tables. Captain Wing brought about 30 chairs and then served as video historian with two cameras at once. There was a true feast of home cooked potluck dishes. The women laid out tablecloths and decorated everything beautifully. They’d cleaned Neighbor G’s apartment and set up a big display of his favorite personal belongings to give away. There was his hat collection, his decorated walking sticks, stuffed animals, many small framed pictures (he was a talented photographer) and his famed red feather boa. There were even party costume accessories. Everyone was invited to take home (and/or dress up with) a keepsake of their choice.
Then everybody stood up and shared a funny or heartwarming story of the larger than life personality who was Neighbor G, alternating with lovely poetic readings and inspirational quotes. It was a revelation to witness that during his many years in the building, G. had reached out to so very many neighbors and local business people and employees, and picked out a great many as permanent friends. Over the years, they had teamed up on his health care, finances, living situation, social connections, and wellbeing. In this day and age, and in a city known for its courteous reluctance to talk to strangers, it was amazing to see such a large heartfelt turnout and hear the stories. There were some shared tears, but a steady wave of shared happy laughter.
Finally everyone converged on the tables, piled high with delicious things to eat.
At that point I slipped out through a back patio and went home and changed into regular clothes. As a memorial practice I listened to a recording of the Akathist to St. Nicholas read by Sergei Merkur’ev, praying along with it in my Slavonic prayer book. I also curled up with my current bedtime devotional, which happens to be Facing Death — and the Life After by Billy Graham. I am enjoying this book very much. It came from the Little Free Library located right by Neighbor G’s daily powder-blue smoking bench, where he held court for many years. Every time I came home from work, passing by the Little Free Library on the way, Neighbor G would call me over eagerly to his smoking bench and ask “Whatcha reading now? Anything new and good?” Well, he sure would have had some quotable bon mot to offer over this particular LFL choice, and he would have swapped out the photo on this post with something more scintillating. But he would have liked the cookies and the black dress.
Captain Wing saved for me a lion’s share of Neighbor R’s homemade molasses-bacony-spiced baked beans, the best I’ve ever tasted.
The men are going to re-paint the smoking bench in fresh powder blue. They’ll add a little G. plaque too while they are at it.
Yesterday I ironed a clean shirt for Neighbor D. She saw me wearing it recently and said “Ooh, nice shirt. Can I have it?” She was joking, but I washed and ironed and wrapped it with a note on her porch. Soon after that she called me over, delighted and dismayed. “I was kidding! You don’t have to do this!” But then she had an idea: with my encouragement, she’ll keep the shirt on condition that I take a gift in return. She ran indoors and brought out a very long sleek knitted black turtleneck dress that she wasn’t wearing; it’s the basic black classy number that ladies are supposed to have on hand for unexpected award ceremonies and the like. “It comes with cat hair,” she apologized. I asked whether if I assemble the hair, that would create a whole new cat? “No, but that little feral calico living over in those bushes? She needs a good home, and I intend to catch her for you.”
Then Mr. Wing flagged me down and presented me with a new hand crank food mill strainer for my future adventures with windfall fruit. Next Mrs. Wing insisted that Mr. Wing deliver to my door a hot plate of Chinese noodles with special sauce, scrambled eggs, grated cucumber, and some of her candylike homegrown cherry tomatoes. Both of them offered abject apologies that the tomatoes detracted from the pure Beijing-style authenticity of this dish. I had to promise not to expect or add tomatoes when visiting Beijing.
Then I slopped around, pitting and blanching the skin from three quarts of windfall Italian prune plums. Thanks to the food mill, this finally yielded a batch of sweet rose-gold puree. So I ladled out a jarful for the Wings, and popped the jar into the fridge in an empty oatmeal container for easier delivery.
Today between drenching downpours and before sunset we had a sunny break, with a fresh wind and towering rain clouds chasing brilliant blue patches across the sky.
That was a good time to leave the plum sauce at the Wings’ door. Then I planted some flowering kale and some rooting scallions, and picked a few young leaves of collards, kale, and purslane, and also some scented geranium for the icon altar. A tiny gold potato turned up in the dirt (it’s in the soup pot now). The storm knocked down a zucchini blossom, and a couple of late windfall yellow apples on the street.
That made today’s memorial picture for Neighbor G.
For many years Neighbor G. presided over the smokers’ bench out on the street. He wore knitted hats and looked very thin and seemed to store up energy by soaking in the sun on even the hottest days. He and his cigarette and his little talk radio and earpiece braved all weather at all hours. He stuck with that bench, reflecting moment to moment upon the meaning of the cosmos and saying philosophical or witty things to any person or dog passing by.
Judging by his pithy observations about organized religion, his path was as much Buddhist as anything. It seemed not sensitive at all to put the St. Nicholas icon or other Christian pieces in his memorial picture. But somehow it seemed okay to set out these leaves and fruit instead.
The neighbors report that G’s stay in the hospital was short and peaceful. When he was admitted, two young women neighbors went to his apartment and made some accommodations and purchases for his comfort, in hopes that he would come back home. Meanwhile a whole group of the men took turns driving over to the hospital to take turns at his bedside. One of our dear maintenance engineers, who doesn’t even work here any more, kept vigil like everybody else.
The memorial service will be held Sunday, behind the smokers’ bench. A neighbor from G’s building gave me the news in the garden.
My first thought seemed inappropriate, but I said it anyway: “For a service, he would probably prefer something highly irreverent.”
Luckily the neighbor took this in stride. “He’ll want us all in drag.”
Warning: this post is for entertainment purposes only. There are plenty of published experts out there if you want to read up on working with acorns. Do not stake your health or pantry on the adventures of a foreign language major.
Along the way home from work there is an old green grass median strip between two main roads busy with traffic. It’s an untended space with a few very mature trees. I was crossing the strip lost in thought and suddenly felt crunchy but slippery traction underfoot. What a discovery: three tall old White Oak trees, and acorns underfoot in a solid carpet inches thick. There’s a truckload of fresh acorns in perfect condition. This must be what the farmers would call a “mast year,” when the fruiting trees of a species team up and all produce nuts at once.
Back at home, in the last warm amber rays of sunset I hurried to take a picture of the acorns and leaves. The last light beam was just hitting the window sill. The timing was perfect, the last beam came and went, the picture was a success. But it revealed a line of soot inside the track of the double window pane. I’d never even noticed that before.
Fortunately, the sun this morning hit the window too. This time a scarf made a nice drape for the window track. Only trouble was that during the night, the attractive green-gold acorns had slipped out of their little hats. It took some Elmer’s Glue and a bit of patience to fit them back in. Then we were good to go. This acorn picture is about the upper limit of my cell phone photo taking skills. There are sure to be more artistic ways to portray flotsam that piles up and crunches underfoot, but it is beyond me.
For weeks I’ve been looking around for White Oak trees. For years I’ve wondered about exploring homemade acorn flour. The trick is that acorns have so much mouth-puckering tannic acid that they aren’t edible or healthy until the tannins are leached out. Tannin is after all what manufacturers have used to turn soft skin into leather. Not a target nutrient.Way back in Russian language major days I gathered Red Oak acorns and patiently leached (vs. leeched) them in many changes of water for weeks. One tiny tongue lick of the result was enough to end that science junket and incur plenty of hilarity from the roommates and their suitors.
Later, a library book pointed out that White Oak acorns are a better starting point; they’re lower in tannic acid. Another library book specified that you have to crack open the acorns. The goal isn’t to try leaching tannin out of whole shells. The goal is to get those shells open and harvest the little kernels, and that is your real square one for the leaching process.
Well, how hard can it be to crack open an acorn? Talk amongst yourselves while I go find out.
Back again. It took 3 minutes to split open one acorn using a 5 pound weightlifting Russian kettle bell. The acorn was so smooth and polished that any blow sent it ricocheting off the kitchen walls. So this took several rounds of searching for the acorn under the Bible table and stove and then putting it back on the cutting board. Placing the acorn in a wide jar lid helped to keep it in one place. At last, the acorn split in half, sending pieces everywhere. A quick crawl around recovered the two main pieces. It took a minute to pry out the kernels, tender white nut fragments. These tasted surprisingly pleasant, chewy and starchy and nutlike-ish. Then, the bitterness kicked in for real. Gah! It took another three minutes of tooth brushing with Bronner’s lavender soap to get rid of the taste. So. One acorn, seven minutes.
Next I’ll try putting an acorn in a bag and cracking it that way. Give me a second here.
Ok, progress. Putting five acorns in a clear plastic bag was a step forward. Three good kettle bell whacks apiece made ten acorn halves. The shells are thin and somewhat pliable, and the kernels are soft and waxy-crumbly, so working with an acorn is much easier than dealing with a walnut. But this really calls for a nut pick instead of thumbnails. At least the kernel halves are out, soaking under cold water in a Mason jar in the fridge.
Next question is the inner brown paperlike covering wrapping the kernel pieces. Are we supposed to remove that? Blanching might loosen it, but that would still mean buffing it away from a lot of fragments and halves. The optimistic view would be that when the kernels are ground into silt and soaking in their leaching water bath, the brown paper material will precipitate out.
Update: that brown papery stuff inside the shell is called “testa,” according to Alan Bergo at his https://foragerchef.com blog. He reports that testa is high in tannin; it needs to come off the kernels. For White Oak, once the acorns have dried one can rub the kernels and brush off that layer.
As usual, Captain Wing had a better idea. “No need to stand out there picking up each acorn off the ground. I have just the right short-handled rake. You can rake up all the acorns you want, and we’ll sort them in the garden on trays. And don’t try peeling off each shell. Twelve hours in the dehydrator, and the kernels will shrink down and shells will become brittle and breakable. Put down that kettle bell. Don’t be tasting that water; we have litmus paper. That what it’s for.” Alan Bergo’s blog agreed that dehydrating makes the shells easier and safer to open. The rake idea sounds good, but I still want to inspect each acorn for pinholes first before bringing it home; no point in surprising the neighbors with a knapsack full of emerging grubs.
Will go gather some more acorns and give this a try.
Red table grapes, sweet as honey and shining with health, grow ten blocks away.
They’re growing up the garage fence at my favorite house. It’s a little bungalow built in 1925. The owner died many years ago. The house is deserted ever since, with the lights on 24/7 and security cameras over the doors. It’s a poignantly appealing whitewashed cottage like a villa in Tuscany, fifteen paces by fifteen paces in size, with a crumbling chimney and porch with rounded arches and charming tiny medieval windows. In my dreams I want to buy and restore it. But the entire structure, roof to windows to steps, needs replacement and probably a wrecking ball. According to the internet it’s appraised at $840,000 (up $90,000 over last year). Restoring it would cost a fortune. Besides, it’s not for sale. In this affluent all-white residential neighborhood these old houses fall every day, replaced by tall personal castles of artificial stone or cubist condominium blocks. It seems possible that the house is somebody’s good investment and nobody’s home.
Anyway. The grapes have been growing over the sidewalk for weeks.
I stop to look at them every day. Surprisingly, nobody else walking past looks twice. Finally this morning I put on a nice Sunday dress and bonnet for a more respectable air, brought scissors and paper bags, and spent half an hour very openly and conspicuously snipping grape bunches in everyone’s full view. Families with baby carriages and cell phones and dogs kept walking past. For each one I nodded and smiled, waiting for them to stop and say “Who the hell are you? Are those grapes yours?” Where I’m from, any neighbor would have marched right out and challenged me, as they should. So I was all ready to say “Take some grapes!” and to explain that autumn rainy season is forecast for this week, these grapes are perfectly ripe and about to fall, grapes on pavement create mold and a slippery fall hazard, and they attract coyotes, raccoons, rats, and wasps. I was hoping that some kiddo would be excited to learn that grapes come from vines, and that some lifelong resident would enjoy telling me stories about the house and taking some grapes home for jam. Maybe I could find out the late owner’s relatives, and could drop off a thank you note and some grape juice and offer to prune and feed the vines for next year.
For 45 minutes I stood there in plain sight, cutting down the entire 2021 bounty hanging over the property line. Not one person glanced at the lady with scissors standing in shrubbery in the drizzle. Finally I took my triple-layered paper shopping bag full of grapes and leaves and vines, and headed home.
Here is just one half of the harvest. The other half wouldn’t fit on this chair.
Home is when the real work begins. Always plan for a much bigger mess and bigger time expenditure than expected.
I put the bunches in a baking soda water bath, then swished and lifted them into plain water baths several times. I set aside five of the most attractive compact small bunches to give to a neighbor. He doesn’t even know me, but on Friday he saw me admiring his plum tree, and he rushed out to hand me a whole shopping bag of gorgeous blue-black silver-bloom Italian prune plums, perfectly ripe and sweet.
For the loose grapes I picked off and inspected every one, checking for any traces of mold or bugs or bird droppings. Fortunately, the grapes were perfectly clean and just at the peak of ripeness. One bucketful of the wash water will go on the garden (maybe the seeds will sprout!).
Next I poured the loose grapes in a pot and began to heat them. Fruit sugars will scorch in a jiffy and ruin a pot, so I watched carefully in case they needed water. But the grapes sweated juice right away and melted down to half pulp, half juice. With reluctance I brought them to a boil, and simmered for five minutes. It would have been nice to consume them raw, but who knows what critters (and their parasites) might have been in those vines. Here are the six cups of cooked pulp with seeds and juice.
Then the pulp went into a strainer. Here was a source of unexpected fuss. Grape skins completely block the strainer, so I had to both press with a potato masher, and at each stroke also scrape the skins away with a wooden ladle. (A Foley hand-crank food mill sieve would have been the perfect help.) I set the pulp aside, and strained the strained juice several times. Even that was extra bother; the strained juice is hard to strain. It’s high in… pulp? gel? pectin? and doesn’t go through mesh easily at all. To strain it several times, I had to massage it through with my fingertips. The pulp, leaves, and vines went into the garden compost, but first I simmered them to make sour soup stock for Russian borscht.
The six cups of pulp strained down to this three cups of juice below. The juice has a wonderful taste. It’s clearly very high in sugar, but it’s nothing like commercial juice; it has a strong kick and complex chimes of flavor.
Two cups of juice will go to Mr. and Mrs. Wing; they both take fruit juices and Chinese herbs, and make craft tinctures and liqueurs. One cup of juice will make a good flavoring for my windfall apples and plums and Oregon grapes. Those fruit sauces will stock the freezer this winter. More important, they’re a good gift and point of connection with neighbors who take an interest in raising and cooking with plants.
This certainly gives a new appreciation for our ancestors and how hard they worked, to put a little taste of sweetness in their lives.
Update, 2 hours later:
The neighbor who gave me the plums was at home just now. I knocked on his door and handed him a bag of grapes. He seemed fine with the discovery of a fruit-bearing total stranger alighting on his doorstep, and he gave me a whole tour of his little garden. He then sent me home with a shopping bag of plums, and he even climbed a ladder to shake down some gorgeous jumbo apples. Now on the counter I have his shopping bag of apples, plus six quarts of his plums from Friday and today. We’re going to keep visiting and swapping our grown and forage fruit, and he’s going to walk over and tour our garden strip.
Then on the way home with my apples and plums I met still another neighbor, who was planting and harvesting a rotating crop of what turned out to be buckwheat to improve the woebegone soil at our apartment complex. Naturally I gave him some apples and plums, and asked permission to come back and photograph the buckwheat, a handsome plant with pretty white flowers.
Then Mrs. Wing came outside and sent me home with more plums (just in time for the next batch of fruit stewing), cherry tomatoes, and two giant zucchini. It would serve them right if I baked some zucchini into bread and left it at their door. Hm…
It’s a hot and sunny day. We’re in for a three day heat wave, clear sky and soaring temperatures. Better get to the office and settle in good and early.
Here’s the garden, with the raised bed and the row of potted…
Say, what’s this here? It’s a whole new houseplant.
This wasn’t here late last night when I did the watering.
Did somebody drop it off for the garden?
People drop off stuff all of the time — plants dead & alive, planters all sizes, birdbaths, tools, statues, planks, on and on. It’s really generous, but… I wish they’d talk to us first. Usually they’re moving out and they just dump things and leave. Often I need to scrub the stuff and then tote it to the thrift shop on the bus or out to the recycle or dumpster bin.
But this, wow. A supersize gorgeous Dracaena.
Elegant pot too. Right up on a display pedestal where the full sun will hit it all day long.
Except Dracaenas are understory tropical plants. They can not stand direct sun.
And this is one very expensive decorator statement. In New York City this would cost a couple hundred dollars.
What to do, what to do… must catch bus…
Whose plant is this? Is it really for us? It’s way early. Who’s around to ask?
Well, somebody has to rescue this plant right now, and find the owner later.
Neighbor D. is great with plants, and she has a deep shade covered porch 30 steps away. I’ll bring it there.
Gak, this thing is heavy. Struggle struggle struggle.
There! Now it’s safe at Neighbor D’s, tucked way back behind her prize-worthy wall of potted Hosta plants.
Now to text her and explain that… Oh… I don’t have her number in my cell phone.
Well ok, texting Captain Wing instead. Captain! If anybody asks you — the Dracaena is at Neighbor D’s! I’ll bring it back later!
Anybody who’s anybody, if they want to know the neighborhood news they’ll go ask Captain. He’ll let them know.
Neighbor P, appearing outdoors: My plant! It’s back!
Mary: Yes! This morning I saw it in the sun and didn’t want it to bake. I figured the relationships could be mended, but the plant would be Dracaena jerky if it stayed where it was.
Neighbor P: No, I was going to come out and get it super early!
Mary: I am so sorry! This caused you a day of needless distress.
Captain Wing: Hello! What’s this about a plant? Was it missing?
P: Yes! I said to my family “How could this happen? It was only outside for a few hours!” They said “Please don’t be sad. We can always buy you another.” But I said “No no, it’s not just the plant. What kind of person could have done such a thing?”
Captain Wing: Mary could.
Neighbor P: Then I said a prayer about it at my altar to the saints, that the person who took it would decide to bring it back.
Mary: You have an altar? I have an altar too!
P: Yes, I’m a Catholic.
Mary: So am I!
P: I’m an usher at St. Mary’s.
Mary: St. Mary’s? Father N. used to visit our building here to visit dear Mr. and Mrs. H. every single Sunday those last years to bring them Communion, when they couldn’t get out to church any more.
P: Wow, Father N. did all that??
Captain: Who’s Father N.?
P: Father is home in Ireland for vacation right now.
Mary: With his 11 siblings. Or wait, maybe it’s 11 kids and only 10 siblings.
Captain: 11 kids??
Mary: Which saint did you pray to? It must have been Anthony, patron of lost things. Except — you didn’t lose it. More like it was swiped. You could have prayed to St. Dismas the Thief.
Neighbor D: Mary! Here you are. I figured you would know how that plant ended up on my porch and where it came from.
Captain: Mary took it for her altar to St. Anthony. Or something. But she gave it back.
Mary: Yes, when St. Anthony says jump, I say how high.
Neighbor L, arriving from work: Hey guys? There are signs posted around: Somebody stole a plant last night! Right from the garden! We should report this to Management.
Everybody: It’s ok. That’s just Mary.
Neighbor D: She was looking out for people. And their plants.
Neighbor S: You know Mary, all this confusion wouldn’t happen if… Have you ever tried minding your own business? Except then I guess your life wouldn’t be very interesting.
Mary: No, it’s a pretty nowhere place. By interfering in the lives of others, you get to meet the nicest people.
My new neighbors were highly educated cultured women 70 years of age or so, with eventful lives and wonderful stories to tell. Lydia was from New England. Aliona came from Moscow. Both were staunch parishioners at my new church, both residents at Senior Home across the alley, and both eager to view and housewarm my new studio room.
The new studio was ready, scrubbed to a minimalist gleam. In the clutter and ruckus of the city, I desperately needed this sensory refuge, calming and clear with the fewest possible belongings, and everything in its place. I loved the Shaker simplicity of the wood floor, bare windows open to every ray of winter light, tiny bathroom with its buckled floor of six-sided black and white tiles, kitchenette alcove with its neat clear counter and the little open shelves (two bowls, two spoons, cooking knives, matching Mason jars). From the dumpster there were sturdy wood apple crates, well scrubbed in boiling water and Bronner’s soap. One upended crate was set for our tea. The other was a little corner altar with pine boughs and icons.
Over in the kitchenette, supper was ready. There was hearty Russian borscht, deep ruby with beets and studded with root vegetables, fresh parsley and green onions and dill. There was potato salad with mushrooms, and savory corn muffins. There was stewed fruit kompót, roasted nuts and seeds with cheese and black olives, and homemade halvah to go with our tea.
The ladies arrived to a fanfare of welcome. It was a joyful occasion to see these devout loving womenfolk in my pretty room. I sat them down on the bed with apple crates, paper towel napkins, and spoons. In a row of Mason jars I dished up borscht, tea bags and hot water, honey, lemon, and stewed fruit. It was a beautiful meal with the afternoon sunshine glowing on the clean windows, plain plaster walls, and wood floor. Setting sunlight illuminated the glass jars, kindling the gem tones of borscht and fruit.
Aliona had a lifetime of experience administering art museums, curating exhibits of traditional art, and creating painted and textile handicrafts. She was a deeply astute observer with a keen eye and heart for beauty. She stood still, taking in windows, walls, floor, and tea things.
“It was quite a surprise for Aliona,” Lydia explained, “to find an American apartment building four stories tall — with no elevator.”
Aliona was busy catching her breath and eyeing the Mason jars. She glanced down at the bed, delicately probed the heft of the mattress and yarnwork of the afghan. Then she stepped into the open bathroom door and sat down on top of the closed toilet seat, bolt upright with gracefully folded hands and a tactful neutral expression, staring straight ahead. I rushed to bring a jar of tea to her bathroom perch. But she graciously declined tea, borscht, dinner, and conversation. For twenty minutes, Lydia and I tried to lighten the moment by making pleasant small talk while I included Aliona by paraphrasing from English to Russian and back. Lydia and I exchanged our favorable impressions of the clear weather, Sunday’s Liturgy, and an upcoming winter social at Senior Home.
Aliona stood up and walked with restrained dignity straight to the door. She thanked me for my hospitality. She adamantly refused my Russian-style insistence on accompanying her to the street. Lydia hastily cleared her barely-tasted tea to the kitchen before rushing after Aliona, calling a hurried goodbye to me before closing the door behind them.
I sank to the bed, dismayed. Why did my guests run away in 20 minutes flat? Aliona was upset, but why? What could have done it?
Hm. Was it the borscht? Perhaps one glance told her that there was something amateurish and inauthentic about my staple soup recipe.
Maybe it was the tea. Tea played a crucial role in Russian socializing. The ladies at church prized their various Chinese blends, poured piping hot and super strong (with real twigs swirling at the bottom) from a real tea pot to real tea glasses with silver handled holders. They certainly didn’t use cardboard boxes of tea bags with this and that herb thrown in.
Maybe the muffins? Mine were made with corn. And say — in Russia, corn was traditionally a rock-hard toothlike forage kernel fed only to pigs. Hm.
Or the icons! According to some sincere outspoken members of our own congregation, Catholics as heretics were not even authorized to own icons. A devout believer was supposed to hang up icons in a permanent prayer corner, icons blessed by an Orthodox priest who had dedicated the room in a special house ceremony. My paper printout icons with little dumpster frames must have struck Aliona as a flagrant cultural appropriation. Perhaps I should have wrapped them reverently in towels and hidden them for her visit? And oh goodness — my Virgin of the bathroom! I always kept a little Mary over the sink in there for company. Would that strike Aliona as disrespectful and irreverent?
Too late, I remembered that cultured Russians of Aliona’s age (she confirmed this for me later) do not sit on beds! I thought back on the hotel staff member in the Soviet Union who reacted with horror when we Americans sat down right on our bedspreads and beds. She rushed into the room with shouted warnings that sitting on a bed caused uneven wear and tear on the State-issued mattresses and box springs entrusted to her care. And to make everything worse, what if Aliona thought this seating arrangement gave even the appearance of some improper exotic American tryst?
At that thought I burst into tears.
It took a good cry before I could hoist my heavy discouraged heart to the kitchen and clear away the untouched women’s fellowship feast. It looked as if I’d have to find a new church, if my new friends were so upset that they couldn’t even stay in the same room with me.
In the long term, Lydia and I visited back and forth for years. She finally moved to a lovely little town to be with her relatives and a wonderful new church family. (First she joined the Peace Corps at age 88 and had the time of her life on the other side of the world.)
Aliona did not visit me again, and resolved never to climb four floors for me or anybody else. But at least when I apologized for scandalizing her with my bedsitter seating, she only rolled her eyes and waved away my baroque American scruples. And until Aliona passed away years later, may her bright memory be eternal, she invited me to her apartment instead. There at least once a week she shared real tea and real china, prayer, art books, classical music on Russian radio, and wonderful stories. Her thrifty room was perfectly appointed. Before moving or adding any piece of furniture, she would sit with floor plans drawn on graph paper and labeled to scale; she would move paper furniture models like chess pieces to preview and choose the most harmonious final arrangement. She knitted matching slipcovers and pillow covers for her own sofa. She unraveled old cashmere sweaters to crochet soft wall hangings. She embroidered linen towel frames for her lovely old icons. She fished wooden spoons and cutting boards and scraps from the trash, painted them with Palekh-style fairytale motifs, and hung them on the walls. She braided area rugs, and crocheted lacy window treatments. And soon we were close enough that she could give me a piece of her mind, since my mind was clearly lacking in pieces of its own. “What were you thinking, living in that kennel? You’re an educated American, for the love of God! Buy a chair! Buy cups! Get some curtains and floor rugs! Hang up a painting!”
But that night, Aliona struggled down those four floors to the street. As Lydia told me later, Aliona sank to a low wall and doubled over, wailing in dismay. “So sad,” she wept. “I did not see such poor even in village! I think, Americans have the money, all goods and best style. But no, NO! Mary’s is nothing. Not chair, plate, lamp. Nothing for window and floor. Nothing for LIFE!” She made a twisting lid motion to indicate my Mason jars. (In the American South, a Mason jar is considered a charming homelike touch for serving tea. But Aliona explained that drinking out of a pickling jar goes along with drinking pickle brine straight up, a hangover remedy among alcoholics.) Sitting on that wall, Aliona gripped her aching heart and wept. “No wonder she is single! What man wants to come home to that?” (To be fair, I had not set up my room to serve as home for a man. I believed that a man was out there preparing a home for me and our future kids instead, and would marry and bring me there.)
But even as she sat on that low wall, Aliona was making plans for me.
Next day, small white-haired dignified Aliona buttonholed dozens of good folk at the church and Senior Home. She called in a battalion of Russian elders within a radius of twenty miles. They ransacked their homes, their children’s homes, garage sales, and rummage basements (Russian word tolkúchka, from “to push,” as in jabbing through a crowd with one’s elbows).
Two weeks later, after Liturgy, the women in the parish hall unveiled a surprise for me: a carload of merchandise, ready for delivery to my home. Someone’s strapping taciturn grandsons drove it around the corner, and unloaded cartons and bundles outside my walkup room. Once it was locked inside, they hurried me back to church for supper.
Later that afternoon, I got to go home and peek at the cartons and unpack. The Russians had rustled up metal chairs, a folding card table, and six sturdy boxes of utensils and decorations. There were floor mats, place mats, potholders, tablecloths, vases, a macrame wall hanging, doorstop dachshunds stuffed with sand to keep out drafts, dishes and glasses galore, more galores of cutlery, a melon ball scooper, Bambi salt and pepper shakers, a boiled-egg slicer, toucan wall clock, shish-kebab skewers, corncob grippy holders, a Carmen Miranda cookie jar with fruit hat lid, and a knitted clown tea cosie.
I spent one year in that studio. It took all that time to gently smuggle all that loot out the door. Obviously it wouldn’t do, to tote it on the subway to the various thrift stores. Chances were 11 out of 10 that some member of the bargain battalion would feel hurt by the reappearance of Carmen or Cosie the Clown, and word would get out all over the grapevine. Whenever my American friends planned a car trip out of town, I would plead with them to take a box along and drop it off at some good cause. Otherwise, my daily household chores meant moving cartons out of my way and then back again, shoving and stacking them along the wall and shelves, stowing them in the bathroom and kitchenette. All year, people at the church would ask “How are those lobster tongs working for you? I may need to borrow them some time.” All year, things with smiley faces or sharp edges fell on my head from upper shelves or tripped me at night. All year I carried this dark secret from the church, not inviting anyone to visit, afraid someone would show up to see the new furnishings. That’s what a caring community can be: people to shower you with support and help, and also to say (as so many guests have said over the years) “What a dump! Do you call this living? Let us show you how to fill your space like a real grownup.”
But on Trousseau Day, back in the parish hall, the women demanded that I pay Aliona on the spot: seventy five cents in exact change for a large carload of goods. “Because of the silverware,” they explained. “Three knives, three quarters.” The women supported their argument and enlightened my bewilderment by citing President Putin as an example on his visit to an artisan foundry. As broadcast on Russian TV, the artists gifted the President with a commemorative knife. He dutifully fished out and handed over his coin. That’s where I learned that when a Russian gives you a knife as a gift, you have to fork over the equivalent legal tender of twenty five cents. Otherwise the energy of the knife might cut the energy of the friendship, resulting in a quarrel. The token payment will even that out and keep the peace.
Of course I paid right up, three quarters for Aliona.
Aliona pocketed the offering. Then she passed me a civilized dinner plate, and a broad smile.
Father led the prayers. The church sat down to eat.
Oral surgeons know all about these things, and before letting me out of the chair last Thursday mine really laid down an extra rule for me: “NO singing! For two weeks at LEAST.”
It’s been discouraging. But times like this we have to let other people carry a tune for us.
Shouldering that burden here is Mrs. Lindsay Kirkland with music ensemble Sounds Like Reign, where all the musicians look alike. Maybe it’s because they’re all Mr. Brackin Kirkland. Anyway, here they are in their home studio in the mountains with two songs.
They’re done. Two hours of care, teamwork, tools, technology, bright lights, kindness, humor, and exalted privilege unfathomed and unattainable by most of humanity from Eden til today.
Goggles off. Stand up in a light cloud of endorphins and automatic pilot. Gather stuff. Thank everyone. Receive their shower of good wishes plus two pain pills with glass of water (tilt head to swallow; do not swish). Weave along in gingerly fashion to bus stop, climb aboard, sit still, get off at home corner. Take stairs one at a time. Open door. Ease shoes off with toes and kick them into closet; there’s no reaching up or bending over or lifting allowed.
4:30. Unpack Excel spreadsheet schedule in clear page protector, antibiotics, pain medication, antibacterial mouth rinse, instructions, gauze, styptic black tea bags. Set cell phone timer for every fifteen minutes from now to midnight, with orchestra triangle noise. Ting!
Open balcony door — or not. Dowel is on the floor holding it shut. Hm. My toes can’t budge it. Maybe the kitchen broom can sweep it out of the track? Nope. Wait, the broom handle works… there. Open door.
Get bag of peas from freezer. Wrap in washcloth. Hold cold side against face.
4:45. Pleasant tiny orchestra triangle sound. (Ting!) Cold compress interlude is up. Put peas in freezer. Stack bedding on chair to sleep with head elevated. Go fetch hassock and… uh. No stooping. Well, ok. Tilt head way back, and kneel on floor. Lean back against hassock. Inch hassock across floor to chair. Sit with feet up.
5:00 (Ting!) Fetch peas out of freezer. Put on face. Set up little card table with paper towels, bowl, water, and Bible.
5:15 (Ting!) Peas to freezer. Change to night clothes. Spread out sheets and pillow on chair. Sit. Fall fast asleep.
5:30 (Ting!) Get peas. Put on face. Fall asleep.
5:45 (Ting!) Peas to freezer.
Read antibiotics label. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Where can I find a clever six year old? Oh say: this outer lip is flexible and bendy. What if I press it down while turning cap, then firmly flip cap up? Agh! Where did they go? Here’s one on the floor. Here’s two on the stove. Lift up stovetop; any here under the burners? Gotcha! Spread out pills on paper. Count up. Thank heavens — all here. We’re good for 6:00. Put pills back in bottle.
Sit. Fall asleep.
6:00 (Church bells sound effect.)
Church? What? Oh. Bells = antibiotic dose 1.
Tilt head. Swallow antibiotic dose 1 with large glass of water. Do not swish. Jot down the time in the correct Excel column. Spoon some bone broth back along tongue on right side of mouth. Do not swish. Take out peas. Sit. Fall asleep.
6:15 (Ting!) Drink some water. Drop pea package in bowl. Fall asleep.
6:30 (Ting!) Wake up. Forget all about peas. Back to sleep.
6:45 (Ting!) Hey where are the peas? Are they coming or going? Oh look, they’re here in this bowl still nice and frozen. No need to get up even. Put on face. Open Bible to John 14. Fall asleep.
7:00 (Ting!) Hey where’s the Bible? It was right here. No, really. I was just reading it.
Peas are getting slushy. Back to freezer. Oh, there’s the Bible. It fell under the chair. Well, in a couple of days I can bend over and pick it up.
7:15 peas on 7:30 peas off 7:45 peas on 8:00 peas off 8:15 peas on 8:30 peas off 8:45 peas on
9:00 Wind chime alert. That means 9:00/3:00 pain pills. Wiggle up out of blankets. Lumber to kitchen. Peas to freezer. Grope for stove light.
Take out pain pills. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Wait, the cap shows a very tiny picture: a numeral 1 and two tiny triangles facing each other, and then numeral 2 and a twisty arrow. OH and there’s a tiny triangle on the lid, and a matching tiny triangle on the bottle. Then when they’re lined up, press down and twist and… thank goodness. Go me! Tilt head. Swallow pills with water. Do not swish. Jot down time in correct Excel column. Spoon some plain yogurt back along tongue on right side.
9:15 Sit down with peas. Think of the words for Orthodox evening prayer. (No hymns or chanting; no singing allowed for at least the next two weeks.) Concentrate on words for about a minute. Watch words swap around and unravel and float away. Fall asleep.
“Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Wake up. Where did that quote come from?? Oh, it was one of the Desert Fathers. Well, this makes a pretty good cell right here. Wall, table, chair arms, hassock, blankets, triangles and bells and chimes. There’s no place else to go. It’s all here: me, sins and fears, aches and pains, remaining teeth, sterile membrane, sutures, a new graft made of bone from somebody’s dear deceased loved one. It’s all me and all yours, Dear Jesus, to direct any way you will, with tonight and tomorrow and after.
9:30 peas off 9:45 peas on 10:00 peas off 10:15 peas on 10:30 off 10:45 on 11:00 off 11:15 on 11:30 off 11:45 on.
12:00 (Ting!) Midnight. Eight hours of cold packs is over; peas back to freezer.
Just 3:00 am pain pills left tonight plus water and snack plus antibiotic dose 2 at 6:00 in the morning plus water and snack. Oh, and first dose of this antibacterial mouthwash here, that I can’t get the cap to turn for. How do you open this? Any instructions? Well, tomorrow’s another day to figure it out.
Here are tonight’s big happenings in the dirt outside the window.
Captain Wing has persuaded the smokers at the smoking bench to donate their cigarette ends for a good cause, as one of the ingredients in a batch of tobacco slug repellent. He’s going to spray it only on the outside wall of the raised bed, because crawling up the wall is the preferred slug method for entering the garden. My own vote for safety’s sake would be that soaked nicotine solution sounds pretty potent, and we amateurs should not spray it on slugs or anybody else. But Captain reads up on this sort of thing and knows how to handle it safely, so that will be his research & development department. He just hand-picked 15 slugs from the roses at sunrise, so he is all motivated and qualified for this.
In related developments, I roped Mr. I. into roping the lavender. The lavender plants are doing so well that one of them is now six feet wide and splitting down the middle. So Mr. I. volunteered to hold up a triple armful of flowers while I skittered around with a bunch of old shoelaces tied together and managed to brace the whole cloud of it up to a bamboo post. This was very nice of him because the lavender was full of bumblebees, but they were too tranquilized with lavender fragrance to even care.
After watching all that, Mr. I’s cat decided that I might be a safe person, or at least a fragrant one, and for the first time ventured closer. While I crouched down in the lavender and pretended to ignore him, Kitty gave me a good sniffing over. Maybe some day we will be friends.
Last night I chopped up and cultivated three fresh new strips and planted a heap of calendula and marigold and collard seeds from the Goodwill thrift shop seed sale. Today the squirrels saw all that fresh soft dirt. They figured that someone must have buried acorns there, so they charged right over to search for them. That was actually pretty clever on their part.
Mr. G. decided to crush up a bunch of eggshells for his tomato plants, so we are all waiting to see how the tomatoes like that.
Mr. P’s potted lilies are a wild success this year. At sunset they have a wonderful romantic show-stoppy scent that stops people right in their tracks on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room.
Celery & leek harvest is done. Every time I buy celery or leeks I cut off the bottom few inches and root them in water and plant them outside. The celery has tiny white baby’s-breath type flowers, and the leeks have nice puffball flowers on leggy stalks that last a very long time. Anyway they got so tall that they toppled over, so now they are on the balcony drying out for soup stock.
Neighbor M. taught us that honeybees really enjoy having access to both fresh and salted water. So she has set out lots of little dishes of water, some plain and some with salt, all around the garden wall. Each dish has a stick or stone so the honeybees can enjoy their sip & dip and then get themselves back out and fly away safely.
Mr. N. came over to ask whether I ever practice my Russian any more. I said “Sure, I’m practicing Russian right now,” and reached in my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, which happened to be playing Akathist chants by the monks at the Valaam Monastery. He liked the sound of the monks very much, and freely credited organized religion for at least coming up with some nice ritual music.
Back in Research & Development, Mr. Wing has tracked down the perfect organic compost, and finished spraying all of our plots. His stringent testing on two sets of ginger plants indicate that after 10 days the treated ginger will grow 50% taller, so what’s not to like about that. Maybe we will get bigger slugs, and they will be easier to see sooner. The formula for this organic garden mix sounds supremely healthy, so I told Mr. Wing that I will take a pinch of it to add to my next batch of daikon radish kimchi. Mr. Wing was deeply concerned by this until I explained New Yorkers and our sense of humor, and then he found it pretty funny.
Last autumn Mr. Wing loaned me his flower planter and nasturtium vine to keep in my studio. On Christmas it actually had a little flower on it. This year after months of experimenting with optimal nasturtium growing conditions here & there, Mr. Wing found that the nasturtium in the pot grows much better than all the other nasturtia that are just roving free with their little feet in the dirt. So now he is fighting off squirrels, bunnies, and of course slugs from the planter, and is going to loan it to me again for this Christmas. This week the sunset imparted a nice backlighting, so I slid along the dirt on my stomach through the tomato plants and succeeded in snapping this picture below. Whether the vine grows this Christmas or not, we’ll still have the photograph.
There is something significant about this wacky garden. It’s not the flowers, and certainly not the harvest; we’d save plenty of time and money buying our carrots at the grocery store across the street like normal Americans do. No, the remarkable part is that these are people with major family responsibilities and jobs and pandemic stress and health issues and relatives in distant countries to care and worry about, plus a blogger who wakes up every day feeling discouraged and despondent. But folks still show up daily at sunset to talk over bags of laundry and garbage and to crush egg shells and tie stuff up with shoelaces and sniff lilies and pet cats and donate cigarette butts and hear Russian monks sing their hearts out to the Virgin Mary. It’s just the way it is.
On Friday there was unexpected discouraging news, out of nowhere. It was a whole new burden of anxiety about the future.
So that night I came home and thought Well, what pieces of the future can I tend to right now? And there were lots of small right-now things. Watering the garden, making green-leaf juice, simmering soup stock, washing the floors, and making a special plan to go right to sleep at sunset and just work on chores all day Saturday.
Then this morning, it seemed a nice idea to hide from the sunrise and avoid all that anxiety by just going back for a long Sunday sleep. But it seemed wiser to get up and walk straight to the park and just sit on a bench by the creek and watch the water.
Then on the way back I got lost in a cul-de-sac street. There on this new unfamiliar corner was a tall fence with a handwritten letter signed by the members of the family who lived in the house in that yard. The note invited passersby to eat the raspberries growing on the fence, to help ourselves and pick all that we liked. “We love to share! Please enjoy!” I took two berries and a picture of their fence, and wrote down the names and the address, to leave them a thank you note this week.
Tonight at Dollar Tree bargain store. In the parking lot between the car wash and the nail salon, some wonderful violin music was ringing out of the sky with an orchestra background. It took a while to recognize it as a melody sung by Andrea Bocelli, the Italian track of “Perfect Symphony” with Ed Sheeran. People hurried past, probably figuring it was some car stereo somewhere. But I walked all around the parking lot trying to figure out where this music came from. Finally after enough circling around I ended up near two young men hanging out with some sound equipment at a car hatchback. One was playing an electric violin of some kind. When he finished the song I dropped my donation in the basket and said “Dollar Tree has an orchestra? And do all of these people even realize that the music is you?”
The men were all smiles, but they didn’t follow my English kidding around.
“From Italy, one month in America,” said the violinist’s companion. “This my brother. Two kids, no green cards.”
“Say, that sounded just wonderful,” a driver called out, holding some bills out his car window. “You know what you do with talent of that quality? You thank God for it, is what.”
“It sounded straight from heaven,” I told him, pointing at the sky.
“That’s exactly where it’s from,” the driver said. He started talking to the men while I headed home.
Tomorrow it’s up early to make phone calls and start dealing with this new future problem. But this was a good Sunday.
It’s a roll of pink and white paper. Set one on the curb away from the grass. Take a toy cowboy gun (the kind with the handle made of fake mother-of-pearl), hold the barrel, and whack the handle down on the cap paper so it makes a loud pop. Our parents thought those were safe enough even for small girls. Small girls were also allowed, when the adults were standing right there alongside, to hold very still with their arms straight out and hold up a sparkler. It was scary but it felt like a magic trick, to handle something beautiful like fire, and all we had to do was hold still and not be afraid.
(Safety interjection: Be afraid! Sparklers burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. 900 is hot enough to melt glass. That’s according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Sparklers account for roughly one-quarter of emergency room fireworks injuries.” The Commission recommends handing the kiddos a glow stick instead.)
We girls didn’t set off firecrackers or any of that. That was only for the boys and dads, and we didn’t like the noise anyway. Besides, in the daytime we all had something bigger going on: Fourth of July was the Republican Day Picnic.
We kids were excited about the picnic, when the car with the loudspeaker and the flags drove through town the day before inviting everybody. We didn’t know what a Republican was, but maybe it’s from the Bible, like the Publican and the sinful man praying in the Temple, but you add Re- meaning “all over again” to show that these aren’t ancient publicans, they are modern day publicans. How do people know that they are Republicans? Dad said it is never polite to ask, because with that kind of talk people can feel hurt and upset. But the neighbors said right out loud that you can tell who are Republicans by looking at their sidewalk. They said the N. family up the street were the only Democrats around. We all liked the N. family, nice people with a good garden and the same American flag out front as anyone. But when the town made the sidewalks the workmen checked a list, stopped their wheelbarrow and cement roller at the N. family property line, and left the N.’s with an old sidewalk with moss and grass and tree roots growing through it so on a bicycle you have to be careful. But for all the other houses they made smooth white sidewalks cut into concrete squares like glittery fudge. So anyway, as far as we could tell, Republicans gave away sidewalks, and gave away food at free picnics.
The picnic was always the big news of the day. Before the picnic, Mom always got us up and out early before the sun was warm, to arrive before the traffic. The picnic was huge! Hundreds of people drove their cars in from everywhere to the beach park. (Was that Salisbury Park? They call it Eisenhower now. But our park was on the shore, and the map says that Salisbury doesn’t have a shore. There’s a text out to one of the relatives for editorial comment. Waiting to hear back. -m)
The picnic was a grand sight, with blocks and blocks of folding tables and umbrellas and transistor radios and volleyball nets and barbecue equipment and ice chests.
One year, the older boys waded out in the water and spread out a long net. Then they walked in holding up the net, to show us that it was full of tiny little silver fishes. It was amazing to find out that the water was full of little animals. We all ran up to look at the fishes and then the boys put down the net in the water and let them go again.
For the potato sack race, Dad pulled up a potato sack over his right leg and my left leg and held it up, and explained that we had to hop together. The parents and kids had fun trying to skip and hop together, but it was a lot of trouble for just a way to run a race. Then the men and boys played tug of war with a rope, and the boys and girl played volleyball. Then there were running races. The men went first and tried running, and their wives clapped and made jokes at them. Then the bigger boys had some fast races. Then there was a race for all the children. The adults lined us all up, and showed us that up ahead the boys were holding up a cord. “First one to reach the cord is the winner. On your mark, get set, go!” I ran and ran and ran and beat all the children, and stopped exactly right at the cord, and the whole pack of kids trampled right past me and past the cord, so I got knocked over and came in very last. People shouted at me “Why did you just stop and stand there? What were you thinking!” Well, I was thinking “Hey, I won at something!”
The men barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers on toasted buns, and corn on the cob wrapped in tinfoil. All the housewives brought food for a dozen people — watermelon and potato chips and pretzels and ice chests of lemonade with gnats falling in and chocolate cake with frosting and popsicles colored red white and blue but no devil eggs because they have maynaze mixed in and if they sit in the sun and you eat one, you are asking for trouble.
After lunch, everybody drove home. At home it felt unusual to have a holiday with no church at all, but on the 4th we really were allowed to just run around and have fun. The boys looked for ways to blow things up. They started with a special kind of paper; they could put it in the sun and aim a magnifying glass at it, and the paper started to smoke and then ashes crawled up out of it, twisting around like a live snake. Then they set off pink and blue firecrackers in the middle of the street. We girls went to the grass strip down by the corner and picked a lot of white clover flowers and wove garlands and ropes to decorate our houses for the day.
During the afternoon all the neighbors walked over to German Delicatessen for special foods for their celebration. That was one time when Mom said I could have chicken loaf. To her, chicken loaf didn’t make sense when we had real chicken in the fridge. But I liked chicken loaf; it was soft white loaf all ground up and pressed into pretty round slices with seasonings, and at German Deli I always put my nose on the display glass to look in at the chicken loaf. So every 4th of July Mom said okay already, she bought me my own little batch in waxed paper to nibble on under the cherry tree out back. And every year I read the Eleanor Estes story about the Moffats, and how Jane went to the beach on the 4th of July and the kids collected treasures to put in a cigarette-pack pirate chest, and they got Jane to give them her favorite blue ring, and when the kids buried the chest the tide came in and her ring was washed away and she missed it and wished she had it back.
At sunset the older boys took out their bigger fireworks, and they traded and swapped with each other and planned who sets off what when. At dark the families sat up on our steps and watched, and they set off their fireworks in the street. Most were firecrackers. Some were cherry bombs, and one of the guys set a cherry bomb in his family’s metal garbage can to make it sound louder, but he got in trouble with his Dad for denting the can and for making a ruckus. One time there was even a Roman candle that flew up into the sky like flowers. Maybe the people on planes to Idlewild Airport looked down and saw the colors too.
Finally our big day was over. But even lying in bed the kids could keep watch out the window. There were always sparks and lights from other people’s fireworks. The colors and flowers were beautiful even in dreams with snakes of ash and fishes of silver and Jane’s blue ring washing in, treasure safe and found again.
Around the United States this holiday kicks off summer. Around here, it ends rainy season and begins two months of stainless blue skies and dry 75 F degree days. According to our local plant expert, in summer we have the same plant growing climate as Rome, Italy.
True, the last few years for at least part of the season those summers have heated up, and those stainless blue skies can be dimmed by wildfires from as far away as Siberia. This year the ground is dry enough that even the official city display will be virtual with no spectators allowed, and all personal fireworks are illegal. Many of us are hoping that everybody shows some sense and finds other ways to celebrate. Two neighbors have already come to me to report that they are leaving their doors unlocked tonight, so I can come wake them up if need be. They have a touching trust that I will be more alert than they will.
Those neighbors don’t know that every year on the Fourth, at bedtime I wash up and change clothes, and take promenades every few hours during the night inside the building, and to check out the windows and off the balcony. That calls to mind Thomas Merton’s description of firewatcher duty at his monastery (The Sign of Jonas, epilogue), roving upstairs and downstairs and all around the grounds to make sure the night was safe. “Now is the time to get up and go to the tower…. where the night is wonderful, where the roof is almost without substance under my feet, where all the mysterious junk in the belfry considers the proximate coming of the three new bells, where the forest opens out under the moon and the living things sing terribly that only the present is eternal….”
But this morning brought a welcome cool breeze, so most of the day was reworking the garden for the summer. That meant grubbing out the spent California poppies and snapdragons and calendula. It meant cultivating and weeding, trimming the mint, and planting 10 new additions from the garden nursery holiday sale: six crimson sweet melons, two tomatoes, and two marigolds. It’s also gathering leaves from carrot, turnip, mint, spring onion, celery, and sorrel plants; those make green juice, and the pulp goes right back on the garden as mulch. There were new potatoes to gather. And of course a 40-foot raised bed always needs water, most of it carried down four floors in buckets from dishes and hand laundry. I have no gardening knowledge of my own, no idea what plants to buy or how to raise them. I just made up a few rules: buy more topsoil than it seems you will ever need, every February; pour on green juice pulp and plain vegan dishwater; and devote 20 minutes a day or more all season long.
It’s a blessing that this patch is not off in some specialty community garden elsewhere. The real benefit is having it grace our own environment, steps away from the kitchen and right outside the windows. Besides, the real crop is conversation among people who live side by side. Stick a trowel in the ground, and neighbors come right over one by one on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room or smoking bench, or they call down from the balconies, with lots of cheerful commentary and questions. These neighbors were the real reason for putting in a garden at all. It serves as a conversation piece, and in these two pandemic summers the community has paid twice as much attention. It’s touching that they show such an interest, stepping outside every day to see what is new and to call my attention to this or that new blossom or sprout. If only more of them would feel free to try their hand at gardening. If they did, we could renovate the grounds of this whole complex and make it a real oasis.
But at least there’s this patch. On this garden day there was plenty of time to think back on gardens created in the past, in other cities, and how they transformed rapport among the neighbors. Today that inspired my resolve to garden again, on an even larger scale God willing, no matter where my future home might be.
Kimchi was the special seasoning touch in some wonderful rice fried up by our dear neighbor; she handed out packages of this ambrosia to us fellow tenants. She also used to play us classical violin on the street, baked a cake for a family mourning the loss of their mom, and stealthily delivered a carful of topsoil and packs of seeds to my vegetable patch. But now we miss her company; she became a nurse, and works 12-hour shifts on Covid care for elders living with Alzheimer’s. That gives her Walking National Treasure status, if anything does for anyone. At the store in the refrigerated section there was something called Firefly Kimchi (7 ingredients — no additives), so I bought a jar for her. At this version of “sweets for the sweet” her thanks were so heartfelt that the other day I left her another jar, and this time bought a second jar for myself.
It was a bold move. Sure, I always add a little naturally fermented sauerkraut when making cole slaw. But for the most part I could never stand salty or sour or bitter tastes, or hot spices of any kind, or raw garlic, or more than a drop of ginger. But fermented kimchi has such a good health profile. At worst I could try a little bit and then take the rest to my neighbor. So for breakfast I dished up some hot sprouted boiled chickpeas with coconut oil and poached egg and turmeric, put the kimchi on top, and took a daring taste.
Gosh! All those strong flavors balanced out perfectly. The meal felt sustaining and solid but light. Since then, kimchi starts the morning off right. It goes with all kinds of breakfast foods — sprouted lentil vegetable soup, jasmine brown rice, leeks in bone broth, bitter melon (kû guā). A few days of kimchi even calmed down my cravings and stress-eating of sweets. That settled it: now I wanted to learn how to make my own.
I couldn’t wait to share this adventure with our Korean and Chinese neighbors. My telling them “This kimchi is great stuff” is of course comical, as if one of them ran up to me to say “Cookies and milk — a natural go-together!” But all of them were happy for me, and ready to share ideas.
For a first summer-weather attempt at kimchi making, one neighbor recommended the video “Quick-fermenting radish water kimchi with apple broth (Dongchimi),” with capable and sympathetic hostess Ms. Emily Kim, (“Work hard, stay humble”) on her Maangchi cooking channel.
First off, this venture was going to call for some proper fermented fish sauce. I consulted with two especially tech-savvy food-informed young ladies, one with strong roots in Korean culture, the other with encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cooking. “What brand of fish sauce can you advise me to buy?” I asked them. “Without your help I might come home with glop that is all MSG and sugar.”
The two gave me a serious philosophical look.
“Mary,” said one. “MSG makes the WORLD go round.”
“Sugar too,” said the other.
The Wing family were happy to weigh in on my fish sauce quest as we shared the daily chore of watering the vegetable patch. (As I explain to the neighbors, in our garden enterprise Captain Wing is the brains of the outfit and I’m the brawn. He finds this hilarious.) Anyway, Mr. Wing was delighted by my new discovery of fermented vegetables, a staple of billions of people for thousands of years. He shared the tip that to round out the taste, I should add thin slices of a sweet juicy Asian pear. He also decided that on the next family trip north of town to the real Chinese grocery, they would buy me some real fish sauce.
Then a quick search on line found a Bloomberg.com writeup of Mr. Cuong Pham and his amazing success story crafting artisan Red Boat brand sauce, made only of black anchovies and salt fermented for one year, sold at specialty stores. At the peak of our staggering heat wave I did my grocery shopping at 11:00 one night, and started browsing the various fish sauces. Say! There was Red Boat, way off on a tippy top shelf. I bought two bottles, then texted the Wing Family. “Hello! It’s very late, but if you are available I have something to hand through your door.”
It was nice to walk home in the dark and see a bright rectangle of kitchen door light pop open beside the garden, and the Wing Family inside waving hello. They looked pleased by their Red Boat doorstep delivery, and the news that it turned up at our regular grocery store.
I watched Ms. Maangchi’s water kimchi video. Then I made a much less elegant tiny test batch. I sliced a cup of daikon radish, and shook it up in a Mason jar with a little fish sauce and salt to ferment on the counter all night. Then I simmered and blended and strained two apples and a sweet onion to make the stock. In the morning I poured the cold stock over the daikon, added raw garlic cloves, raw ginger, spring onions from the garden, paprika, and cayenne, then covered with a very light loose plastic lid. It’s been fermenting in the fridge ever since. It’s only an elementary first attempt, but to me it tastes fine. Dongchimi is bracing and light as a hot-weather flavoring for meals.
But best of all, it’s a real conversation starter with the neighbors. Now they go to every kind of trouble to send videos and to greet me with instructions, recipes, stories about Grandma back home and her pickled vegetable expertise, and encouragement. After my little fish sauce gift, the Wing Family swiftly retaliated by bringing me bitter melons from the real Chinese grocery, along with a special treat to go with that breakfast dongchimi — six pí dàn, preserved duck eggs.
I hope to learn and practice, work-hard-stay-humble, and treat the neighbors to a fermented vegetable product that will taste good to them. They are certainly good to me.
Neighbor took a well earned vacation. Very first time away, leaving Cat.
Cat is almost a year old. Born in the woods, raised by feral mom, no socialization to people. Cat adores his owner, but any sign of any other human will send Cat vanishing under the furniture. That means any opening or closing door in the building, any voice or footstep indoors or out, any sudden sound like a car door or basketball. Poof, gone.
My three day mission: ignore Cat. As Cesar Millan would say, No touch, no talk, no eye contact. Scoop litter in bathroom. Wash and refill water dish in side hall. Go to kitchen, and pour dry kibble. In living room, fill treat mouse with treats. Then, sit on the floor and curl up for a 20 minute nap. Repeat every 3 hours. That way Cat would get a good leaving alone, but would also know that someone was still paying attention to his various little needs.
Day One, four visits. No sign of cat. I didn’t even look around for him, but did hum the whole time so he’d know I wasn’t sneaking up. Took nap each time. Left.
Day Two, visit 1. During food dish top-up, a speeding blur streaked past my heels. I could only hope it was Cat. Took nap. Left.
Day Two, visit 2. Scooped litter, left bathroom and started other chores. During nap, caught the sound of scuffly noises in litter pan, testing my craftsmanship.
Day Two, visit 3. Scooped litter. Moved on to water dish while scuffly noises came from litter pan. Put down fresh water. Proceeded to kitchen. Heard tiny lapping noises coming from direction of water bowl. Topped up kibble, left kitchen. Took nap while crunchy noises came from kitchen. Clearly, Cat is seeing this as a dialogue. Finished nap. Left.
Day Two, visit 4. Started routine, with sounds of Cat kicking litter around and lapping water. In kitchen, topping up kibble, suddenly found Cat peering his nose and one eye around door frame. Ignored him. Faced the wall. Held cell phone behind back. Took a photo of Cat. Texted to neighbor as poltergeist proof. Took nap while treat mouse jingling noises came from under furniture. Left.
Day Three, visit 1. Finished chores. Cat stepped into view to stare into kitchen. Filmed stare. Texted video to owner. Took nap. Cat stared from behind sofa. Ignored him. Left.
Day Three, visit 2. Finished routine. Settled down on floor for nap. At the sound of a door down the hall, Cat took an impressive flying leap right over my feet. Did not catch on video. Napped. Left.
Day Three, visit 3. Routine. Nap while using feet to block path to litter and water. Cat stared from behind furniture. Finally crept closer, stepped over feet.
Day Three, visit 4. Routine. Nap. Cat stared from behind furniture. Crept closer. Spent five minutes sniffing and batting at shoe soles, then batted treat mouse around three feet away until someone downstairs honked a horn. Vanished.
Day Four, visit 1. Routine. Nap, while holding Cat’s treat mouse. Cat inspected shoe soles. Batted treat mouse. Nuzzled hand.
Day Four, visit 2. Cat met me at the door, talking a blue streak. Talked back at him. Routine. Pretended to nap during shoe sole inspection, while holding both treat mouse and comb. Cat batted at mouse, nuzzled and groomed comb, then nuzzled my hand. Filmed with other hand. Texted video to owner.
Day Four, visit 3. Cat met me at the door, chatting away. Routine. Pretended to nap while holding a soft bristle brush. Cat groomed himself, then jumped in my lap to nuzzle cell phone during filming.
Day Four, owner returned.
Yesterday I came home and found a gift at my door, a favorite movie on DVD. It turns out that Cat has an Amazon Prime account and can write thank you notes and sign his name.
On a weekend next fall during Neighbor’s ideal camping season, word on the street is that Cat and I will get together again. We plan to ignore each other and catch up on our naps.
Update: Just paid a little visit to Neighbor, because he has a new set of popsicle molds, and invited me over for frozen pops made of Greek yogurt blended with blueberries. So we sat around licking our treats, and finally Cat emerged from hiding. I held a brush out, and Cat did the rest. It was very nice to see that he seemed fine with having me around, and prefers to sit right between the two of us. Apparently he has decided that being part of a pack of two test-driven humans feels even safer than a pack of just one.
This week, before 6:00 am the air has been pretty pleasant. With protective sunhat and the right clothing, one could walk right into the sun for half an hour or so, then loop back home and hide out for the day after taking a picture or two.
This is record breaking weather, totally unprecedented. Yesterday afternoon in a nearby town the temperature rose to 119 F (that’s 48.333 C, for the rest of you), and ours got to 111 F, or 43.888 C. It was too hot for me to walk, or even hang out at the bus stop and commute to work, so that meant taking a vacation day. That may sound comical to the rest of the country, and certainly the rest of the world. But around these parts we are are not used to that sort of thing.
I had all these good intentions of arranging with one of our local churches or public cooling centers, and to volunteer handing out cold drinks or helping people to settle in. But the heat knocked me all off kilter. It took some concentration even to walk a straight line down the street for those dawn strolls. My pulse was rapid enough that I kept lying down in the dark bathroom to time the beats for 60 seconds, then falling asleep before the minute was up and waking up an hour later. Towns around us were losing power, and cars were breaking down on melting highways; that made staying home seem wise. In all humility, it seemed a fair goal to just stay out of the emergency room myself and not cause some overworked paramedic extra fuss.
Few people here have an air conditioner or even a fan. So for three days I turned on the computer only for a bit before dawn and after dark. It was a good time to wash down and shine up the kitchen, go through closets, and declutter old paper. Every 30 minutes I drank water, soaked my head and feet, and took a quick basin bath and put on wet clothes. For meals, the best menu idea was kimchi with grated raw vegetables and some cold beans. At one point I hand washed all my bedding after 4:00 pm, then sat on the balcony in the shade in a tent fashioned from wet sheets, with a pillow streaming water on my head. That made for a wholesome interlude. So were naps with rice milk cartons full of ice.
As usual, I kept toting all my wash water down four flights to pour on the vegetable garden. But this time I hauled the buckets after dark. Turns out, Bucket Lady is by now a recognizable fixture around the complex. On Day 2 those neighbors who own air conditioners, even people who don’t even know me, were leaning outside to holler at me to get into their homes for a cooldown break. So before each visit I washed up and brought my bowed psaltery and a clean bedsheet and sat on various floors playing medieval tunes, to the amazement of various household pets. One sturdy protective 60-pound cattle dog has always barked at me; but he was deeply impressed when his owner ushered me right indoors. The dog seemed to see this as instant VIP status; he approached courteously with lowered head for a sniff, then every few minutes sidled over for a back rub.
There’s still wildfire season to contend with, but now the temperature is lower and the wind is blowing in from the water. That is a lot to be grateful for. Last night, leaving the last pilgrim stop, I told my host “It’s been wonderful meeting and visiting with neighbors. This has turned out to be a delightful Sunday after all.” He looked at me with compassion and said “Mary? It’s Monday. Soak your head some more.”
A few years ago he stopped writing back; not answering his home email, or the email at his business. Not answering the phone. Not returning calls. He didn’t even return the message I left in his second language; I wrote out the script, got a couple of native speakers to coach me until it sounded just right to them, left the voicemail, and waited eagerly for his reply.
It’s not unusual. People are busy, they start families, they move away and move on. His temperament and mine were implausibly different. He had a large creative life in broad brushstrokes, and it’s a wonder that he bothered to keep in touch with me at all. But since we parted ways in 1992 he reported his whereabouts, making sure I always knew where to find him. Even his sweet warm-hearted devout Catholic mom sent me a Christmas card and a family letter every year. Naturally, life being life, he weathered some exhausting setbacks and losses. But always he landed on his feet, and with resilience and a positive outlook would re-chart his course, make new plans, and charge ahead. He started his own company, designing high-quality products for a niche customer base who needed his services and could not pay market rate. For 20 years he worked day and night. His clients adored him. I got to witness him in action, working hard while engaging their hailstorm of banter in two languages at once. Next, he called to let me know he was moving again, teaming up with a large established organization with the resources to sponsor his idea and make him manager. Their collaboration sounded ideal, with a real financial incentive for all his hard work.
Last time I called him, he told me a detailed story about upper management, and how it took over and mass-produced his ideas with disappointing results, and left him and his guidance on the sidelines. The top brass, it seemed to me, failed to grasp that the unreproducible ingredient in the method was the intuition, charisma, and rapport of its founder. In one sense I was an unqualified listener, someone with no ideas worth stealing who had never been courted by any organization. But I recognized an established precedent: pioneering founders are too often rejected by their own good cause (even St. Francis was sidelined by the Franciscans, and John of the Cross imprisoned by his own Carmelites). During that call I listened hard, scanning around for the wellbeing of other areas of his life. I was sorry to hear that an important relationship was over, and very concerned to hear that his mother, who he cherished and revered, had passed away after a long illness. For the first time, he sounded weary and disillusioned. Fortunately, a trip to his town was in the works the following summer, and I looked forward to extended time with him. But by then, I somehow wasn’t able to track him down.
Every few months I look him up. He’s right there on Linkedin, and on his business website, and in listings here and there of accomplishments and achievements, even rocking with his band on You Tube in 2016. Then, a search last Sunday turned up a poignant discovery. It was a lovely Catholic memorial notice for his father, back in the old hometown. The obituary listed the whole rich dynasty of descendants. It mentioned that Dad was pre-deceased by his late wife and by his late son.
Memories have surfaced ever since. He was 24 when we first met, 31 years ago in the fall of 1990. Our group house placed a newspaper ad, looking for a roommate. His was the last interview appointment. The doorbell rang after supper. I answered to find a tall fit extremely handsome young man in a leather jacket with long thick curly hair and glowing blue-green eyes.
“Scarf trick,” were his first words to me. He whipped off a gray cashmere scarf and made knots appear and disappear again while holding both ends the whole time. Then from his knapsack he handed over a double pan of still-warm homemade brownies, and the five of us talked until midnight. It felt as if he’d always lived there.
The new roommate had a good Biblical name starting with Z. But to his friends he was simply Z, or Zorro, Zuzu, Zagnut, Zippy the Pinhead, Zeppo, or Zooropa. Z was a recent music institute graduate. He was always in motion and talked a great deal about an eclectic range of topics, particularly his projects and plans. He worked at two jobs, some contract landscaping, glass engraving at a studio, splendid calligraphy in three languages, artisan micro-brewing, crafting traditional musical instruments out of culturally authentic hardwoods, and of course music theory and practice.
But Z was not joking the time he picked me up at a Catholic church after a social mixer. The parish hall was rented out that night by a Christian language and culture group promoting international friendship. When I got into his van he sat a while, silently studying the organizers getting into their cars. I wondered what he was waiting for. “If I start a world service non-profit,” he asked the thin air, “Can I buy a car like that too?” He then spelled out for me the make of the founder’s vehicle, its optional luxury features, and the price range of such an optimized model. “Thaaat’s niiice,” he concluded in a robotic vocal-fry bass voice that probably came from some space alien movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “That’s nice” was a catch phrase used among his friends, when they encountered some form of malicious ignorance or hypocrisy.
I felt hurt and embarrassed that he seemed so unimpressed by my new group, and disappointed a week later, right before my group’s next party, when Z showed up at my bedroom door and said “It’s your life, but I hope you don’t go back to that group.”
“What!” I’d been looking forward to that social. “Do you think I’m stupid or something?”
“I believe you know the answer to that question,” he replied. “I can only repeat that I hope you stay in the house tonight, and that you are here when I get home.” He headed out to his weekend music gig. I stayed home.
Two weeks later, he sat me down quietly to explain. During that time, he and his musicians had driven by the parish hall, done some observing, researched the group. The group was not at all the international Christian friendship project that it professed to be. In fact, they soon moved their operations out of the parish hall for parts unknown. His intuition had been right.
Those protective instincts extended to my faith. He didn’t seem to pay attention to religion himself, but after life with his devout mother he recognized the similar trait in me. He believed that I had some special spiritual connection with God, one that earned his absolute respect. By association, even his drinking buddies from home picked up this protective behavior. One night a group of them were on the balcony below my bedroom window enjoying some beers and swapping recollections of high school days and their high-spirited youthful pranks. Getting into bed, I turned out the light and overheard one of them saying “Hey, that’s her window. We got to break this up; she’s probably praying the rosary.” In a flash they were down the steps and gone, taking the beers with them.
The friends were equally serious about protecting me when he briefed them before taking me along to a “Yes” rock concert at a packed stadium. “You can not take your eyes off Mary tonight,” he warned them. “She’s never done this before. She’ll be pretty overwhelmed.” No wonder: this was long before cell phones, and if we were separated I couldn’t have found them. For a moment I froze at the first sight of 14,000 excited spectators and first sound of a rock concert sound system. For the opening notes of “Rhythm of Love,” the four men linked arms around me and rushed me up and up the stairs through the crowd to settle me safely in our row.
On quieter nights, when he had no music gigs and no date, Z would play me selections of music while explaining the finer points of each musician’s technique and style. One night the topic was Joe Walsh; but the nuances of guitar licks went over my head, and my tutor could see that it was time to call it a halt. I had to go to bed to catch an early plane flight, so he headed out to a night of practice at his studio. At 3:00 am I was getting up when he was getting home. He washed up and changed and grabbed a mug of coffee, and we hit the road. It was 4:00 am, summer solstice in a northern city. A first firestreak of dawn sparkled on the river, fragmented into rubies in a skyline full of metal and glass. The streets were deserted as he cut through downtown.
“Here’s one,” he remarked, and punching some buttons on the stereo system he picked out a Joe Walsh song for me.
The song swept me in right away. It was poignant and reflective, with wonderful shifting key changes and harmonies. The city of rubies arranged itself to fit the song like a music video with us in the middle; a perfect moment of shimmering chords in shimmering light.
Tonight it’s summer solstice in another northern city. The sunset is flaming in the windows, announcing a heat wave tomorrow. Cleaning out some files I found a diary note about a valentine he engraved and sent me from overseas. The original was lost when I moved away. But in memory it’s beautiful; a red heart motif with hand-drawn calligraphy, ending with wishes for “…All the love that you deserve. It will come. Your friend forever, Z.”
Typing this, I sat and wondered: What could that song have been, that he picked out for me in the car? My mind reeled around, rummaging the archives of memory, and suggested that the lyrics mentioned a second hand store.
A quick look turned up a Joe Walsh song called, in fact, “Second Hand Store.” For the first time in 30 years I sat back to listen, and the lyrics wrung my heart.
Maybe somehow I can track down someone from Z’s family? There are dozens of stories to write down and share with them, nice ones; maybe his nieces and nephews would like a letter like that as a keepsake. And there’s a whole address book of people left to care for and check on while we are here, living our lives. And there’s prayer. He believed in mine, and he believed in me.
Now and then from the windows of our city bus system, the eager curious passenger can catch swiftly fleeting flashes of waterfront. What a view! Mountains, water, tall trees, bridges and boats. It must be nice to stand right there and take it all in at ground level.
So today at the office I took a lunch expedition, forging a new route to some nearby waterfront. There were lush patches of beach roses in pink and white, feathery wild fennel just blooming with its gold compound flowers, wild blue rosemary and lavender, California gold poppies, and right here some sweetpeas and skyline.
Trouble was, this charming scene was a thicket on broken unstable concrete, all of 12 inches away from speeding cars on a service road to the interstate. There was no time for a proper camera angle, so it was nice that the picture caught anything at all before I scrambled out of there.
It was like reading Heidi, where our heroine is exiled to the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. Yearning for a view of her beloved Alps, and being too small to see out the windows, she sets out from the house determined to keep marching along until she gets to some scenery. But she finds that life on the city streets is not the sweetness and light that she expected.
That was like the waterfront today. There was none. It’s all cranes and jackhammers tearing the hillside apart. Cars scream past in acceleration lanes every which way. There’s no sidewalk or traffic lights. There were only crumbling rusted steps leading up and down and around through weeds with blowing trash and graffiti. At one time, this waterfront with its breathtaking mountain view must have been paradise. In the 1930s, it held a lot of tiny wooden family homes and little gardens. Those are all plowed under now. Maybe when all the construction has gouged out the shoreline they will build a park with a bicycle trail? But today it’s all stanchions and underpasses to a huge bridge with deafening noise, and people underneath trying their best to get some sleep without some tourist traipsing through. One of them called out to ask very politely whether he could buy a cigarette. I called back a heartfelt apology, explaining that I don’t smoke.
“That’s all right, Miss,” he assured me. “Actually, you don’t look like a smoker. You look like a… I think a gardener. That right?”
“Right you are,” I waved. Gardening with a camera for the time being.
It took a while to beat around the bushes to pick out the most likely looking old stone staircases, and bushwhack under and over and around and back to the main avenue far up the hill. It was a good lesson on where not to walk again. Good workout, too, even for the hippocampus — to get a little lost for a while and figure out the best way back.
And, there’s a view of sweetpeas to remember it by.
“Hello! May I please borrow a copy of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Stay Sharp?”
Our lovely pandemic front-line librarian beamed at me through her mask and 10 feet of distance and a layer of protective plexiglass. “Would that be… Keep Sharp?”
“Oh. Okay. Maybe after reading the book, I’ll be sharp enough to remember the title.”
The title is Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. It’s a nice positive book of upbeat common sense, drawing on lots of research studies. Eat right, exercise. Sleep well. All fine.
Then here was Chapter 8, “Connection for Protection.”
Here, Dr. Gupta delivers a strong argument citing data and research about us lonely people. It hammers home the crucial medical and cognitive protection of having a spouse, a family, a close nourishing social circle — and how the lack of intimate connection carries “dire physical, mental, and emotional consequences” for longevity, happiness — and memory. The chapter quotes a TED talk by researcher Robert Waldinger that married couples who “bicker with each other day in and day out” were still better protected from dementia than someone with no spouse at all. (I thought back then at guys who had really enjoyed bickering at me. So I’d have been medically better off marrying one instead of sitting here alone reading this book?) That chimes right in with the media headlines every day in this Covid year. National Public Radio presented solutions to loneliness, interviewing U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In the NPR transcript, Dr. Murthy urged us outlanders to 1. Make close relationships a priority; and 2. Project a confident self-image so that other people will find us interesting and worth getting to know. In a recent Forbes interview he added, 3. Serve by volunteering in an area of our professional expertise.
Concluding Chapter 8, Dr. Gupta urges us to “spend more time with loved ones”; “make new friends”; find connection by making good use of social media; adopt a pet; and if we still feel lonely, to reach out to a therapist, religious organization, or telephone hotline.
And here’s the conclusion:
“Finally, don’t underestimate the power of appropriate touch. Hand holding has been found to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A friendly touch can also be calming. In other words, the simple act of touching another human is a way of connecting with others to protect ourselves — and them.”
Here I’ve been, moving myself away from that native New Yorker habit of bursting into Anglo Saxon. But this !@#$%^ book nearly bounced off the opposite wall. This is not to criticize the loneliness experts and all their hard work and expertise, if it’s their job to deliver this terrible news. But once again, it felt as if the world were handing down a familiar message, now upgraded for age bracket: “Your failing at the life game of Musical Chairs has not only meant decades of sadness and regret; just watch: your consequences are about to get a lot worse.” What if feeling extra lonely means extra vulnerability to falling apart? What if wanting to throw books at the wall is detrimental to our brain health?
It all upset me so much that on impulse I put the book down and seized upon My Life in Christ by Father John of Kronstadt. Flipping it open at random led to page 162:
Everything that constitutes me (the soul) lives solely by God, and only in union with Him, whilst when the soul separates itself from God, then it experiences extreme distress. But the life of my soul consists in the peace of my spiritual powers, and this peace proceeds exclusively from God…. The absence of peace in the soul is spiritual death and the sign of the action of the enemy of our salvation in our hearts.
That helped me to get a grip, and also raised an interesting thought. What if ANY part of the whole equation of loneliness = doom on the way was really a spiritual attack? The enemy of salvation doesn’t even have to bother arranging the usual temptations for me. He can just sprinkle on this specific condiment of pain, and then sit back and watch the fun fair. It’s probably pretty entertaining.
Well, doom on the way or not, there was no time to fret. It was time to hurry out for volunteer shift at church, greeting folks at the door and checking them in on the pre-registration list. Then after evening Mass, I set out on the three mile walk home as the light started to fade and a mist of rain began to fall.
Near church, a young man came along looking wan and worn out, dragging his feet. In one hand he held a thick hand-rolled cigarette and a jumbo sized can of some beverage. Maybe beer. Maybe caffeinated energy drink. Is there a caffeinated beer?
As when meeting anyone on a sidewalk I stepped aside and gave him a bow and nod. Most people don’t notice and don’t care. But this one did.
“Ayadoin,’” he murmured, heading one way.
“Evening,” I replied, heading the other.
He snapped to attention, whipping around to look me over. Then he held out the cigarette. “Smoke?”
“Thank you. But no, I’m all set.”
“Why — You don’t smoke at all do you? And you never did,” he concluded. “And, you ain’t never been married. You are some kinda nun, sorta.”
Yes, that’s how it works: Any guy on the street can feel like it’s fine to size up a woman and assess what he thinks. The nun comment comes up a lot.
“Do you go to church?” he asked.
“Yup. Just cleaned some pews too.”
“Cleaning?! Oh then that is different. Then you are more like… like angels or something.” He lunged over and briefly grabbed my hand, touching the back of it to his forehead. “Now I will have some good luck. You got to pray for me!”
My own inner angel nudged me to step lively and mind my own business and hurry home before dark. The stranger and I said good night and went our separate ways. But as the wind rose and clouds rushed in, from down the street and then the street after that he hollered back three more times.
“Praaay! Don’t forget!”
“Okaaay! I won’t!”
At the library, I dropped Keep Sharp in the book return slot just as the downpour set in.
It’s a blessing to have our Dominican priests and friars over at the Priory.
This young generation of the Order of Preachers is one dedicated crew. They walk a good balance of traditional reverence and strong principles, along with energetic adaptable good nature.
First, it’s nice to see that they wear full habits. Naturally, there are outstanding people in holy orders who show up in whatever work clothes will get the job done, no question. Some of them need to dress for an inconspicuous fit with the people that they serve. But around our church, it’s heartening to see the men work hard and beeline around in all weather, maintaining all those layers of white vestments and scapulars and cowling and hoods, with their rosary at their belt.
When I was growing up, families and altar boys and housewives rang the Rectory doorbell calling on priests for all kinds of parish business, and families invited the priests over for little picnics or barbecues, or just iced tea and a slice of pie. Those were special occasions, and great excitement for the kids. But here at our church when I tried to bring our Dominicans a plate of homemade cookies after Mass, one Father gave me his heartfelt thanks, but explained that due to the nationwide priest shortage, this Priory team pledged to keep up their health by not indulging in any sweets or treat foods or beverages. The Priory has a guest parlor for religious education, but it’s a locked cloister. For celebrations they’ll invite the parish and open their enclosed garden; the priests and brothers stand inside the second story windows calling greetings and pleasantries while volunteers on the lawn cook up hot dogs and scoop ice cream for all. Otherwise, the community simply don’t set foot off the grounds to socialize with the parishioners. One exception is the two who lead theology discussions for the campus ministry on Sunday afternoons at the student pub. Another exception was one young priest who would bring his guitar out to the park to sing a few hymns and talk with the young teens there, who would end up coming to church; when he died so many people grieved that his family took him to two funerals in two states and two languages.
Naturally, the priests are around for confessions and counseling. They’ll visit if a parish member is in the hospital or nursing home and needs the sacraments. And you can stop one of ours to talk after Mass; but he will start (and end) by suggesting that you both dedicate that talk to Our Blessed Mother by reciting a Hail Mary out loud together. That’s a good way to uplift a social interaction before it even starts, especially when someone waylays the Fathers while feeling discouraged or upset.
On Friday nights they’re praying in the church until 11:00 pm for Adoration. With the pandemic the church started live streaming the devotion over You Tube. It’s a good start for the weekend: finish the Friday night chores, and then tune in for a few prayers before bedtime, safe at home, seeing that the priests are there taking turns at the altar in silent vigil.
Last week I was late logging in to the computer, and so decided to get my blanket roll and pillow all ready on the floor, and to stay awake for the end of vigil and to pray until the close of devotions. That made for a peaceful rosary hour. It was very edifying to tune in and see our serious young pastor facing away toward the altar, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, completely rapt in prayer. At the end of my rosary hour he still had not stirred at all. What a moving experience to see someone so devoted, absolutely motionless, as if he had forgotten the world (and that leather kneeler, which had to be getting uncomfortable). With a heartfelt sigh, I asked God whether I too would some day attain such a state of profound recollection.
While struggling to keep either eye open, I was slow to realize that by 10:45 Father should be starting the Latin closing hymn. Finally it dawned on me that the candle flames were perfectly still, not flickering at all. Was that even possible?
Sure, because the live stream on my computer reception was frozen. It was 11:35. I’d been staring at the same visual frame this whole time. In 3-D earthly reality, Father had long finished chanting and put the Host back in its tabernacle and blown out the candles and turned out the camera and locked the church and walked home next door, and was hopefully getting some rest. Yet here I sat, stupefied with sleepiness, deeply moved by a stalled video image. (One of our priests has an unusually light sweet sense of humor. If he read this he might say “Sounds like this dear lady has a frozen image of us all the time!”)
I shut down for the night and turned in. It did my heart good to fall asleep laughing away at my own state of pious confusion.
The Order of Saint Dominic. Since 1216 AD, still showing up as an edifying public example, long after they’ve left the building!
Down at the hospital years ago, a Russian elder was rushed to the Emergency Room and prepared for surgery for that very night. She and her daughter remain in memory as remarkably gracious and grateful women, appreciative of all that the providers could do.
The patient’s daughter, a young mother with small children of her own at home, remained with me in the waiting room as anxious hours wore on. Her English was fairly good, but she was glad to have help as we processed the intake paperwork together. “Mama became ill so suddenly this afternoon,” she explained. “One minute she was there beside me in the kitchen, we were talking and laughing and fixing dinner and helping the children. The next moment she collapsed. The ambulance arrived. I waited with the children just until my husband could rush home. The doctors say her chance of surviving this surgery tonight is 50 percent. We will know nothing until morning.”
We continued with our clipboard of informed consent and questionnaires. To verify one medical term, I hauled out my heavy English-Russian dictionary. (This was back before cell phone apps, so useful to our new generation of interpreters.) From my bag, the dictionary also dislodged a small paperback book, one with this cover print here of Jesus — portrayed not as the Orthodox icon Pantokrator, the Almighty, but as a heart’s friend beckoning the reader to come close and follow along by paths unknown:
“What’s that book?” asked the young woman, snapping to attention. Despite her tiring wait, there was a fresh eagerness in her voice. “Something religious?”
“Oh… just an old title from the dollar shelf today at the used bookstore.” I pounced on the book and stuffed it back in my bag, musing with a sigh that although there are no photographs of Jesus of Nazareth, a wide range of portrait renditions still strike a chord for so many people, from so many cultures. But I felt self-conscious about showing the book here while on duty. Most of our Russian patients were old-school Moscow and Petersburg intellectuals. Many were deeply wary of any American provider who might have a religious bias in their practice of medicine. Several Russian patients had already quizzed me to find out my favorite books, and were appalled by my bucolic tastes in even secular literature. And even by my standards, today’s bargain purchase pushed the needle toward the cloying zone. (Though Wikipedia lists it as one of the top selling religious fiction books of all time at some 50 million copies, thanks to an improperly registered copyright.)
“Is it a Christian book?” Her kindly eyes grew even wider and softer. “Something good?”
“It’s not especially well written,” I confessed. I got up and walked to the reception desk to hand the paperwork clipboard back to the staff, then sat down again.
“What is the story?”
“Fiction from 1896. About a town of people who decide that for one year they will do everything as Jesus would do it.”
“In His Steps by Charles Sheldon? The question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’! Mama and I just love that movie!” she exclaimed. “May I possibly borrow your book for the night? I promise to hand it directly to your supervisor at the interpreting office tomorrow. Better still, would you consider selling it to our family? When my husband joins me with the children in the morning, he will gladly pay whatever price you wish.”
“Oh goodness! I couldn’t think of charging you. It cost a quarter! And… your leaving it with my supervisor! No, no need for that.”
That was my real reason for denying my Savior in book form three times.
This medical facility was a State institution. There was absolutely no religious proselytizing permitted. If this dear family member told my supervisor, I would lose the trust of this administration, and perhaps my job. My supervisor was a passionate secular humanist. Her lifetime of refugee care had shown her bitter examples of lives lost when faith-based conventions caused patients and families to refuse medical intervention. She would be very concerned at my revealing this book in the clinics.
“This hospital,” I explained, “provides the best care we can to patients of every faith equally. If I give out a Christian book to one patient, that will be promoting my religious belief, perhaps pressuring a patient to my way of thinking. Besides, the other patients may well think that I will care more about Christians than about anyone else. My supervisor knows that I’m a believer. But she trusts me to separate religion and medical care. I have to honor her trust in me.”
“When the ambulance left with Mama today,” my companion confided, “I hurried soon after her. There was no time even to take money for some tea or small snack, no time to bring warm night clothes for sitting up in this chair tonight. I just was thinking… while waiting for the surgeon’s news, how nice it would be to have some Godly book. I apologize. I would never want to cause a difficulty for you, after all your goodness to Mama.”
Who knew what news awaited this daughter in the morning? I pulled out the book. She and I sat side by side, gazing at the figure on the cover. What would Jesus do? He’d hand her the book. So I did.
She beamed at me, cradling that twenty five cent paperback to her heart.