3/19/23: Springtime Walk

This morning, Super Pup and Bingo allowed themselves to be lassoed with not even token resistance, and placed in the car by Angelina with drinking water and a bag of delicious yums made of dehydrated meats. We headed out for the dog park, where Super Pup chased the ball 1,100 times and Bingo softly slipped up to one stranger after another, peering upward with soulful dark eyes in hopes of a pet on the head.

At the park we found these “Blue Shade” Anemone / Grecian Windflowers.

At the demonstration garden, some industrious grower was well rewarded by cruciferous edibles that survived the winter, then bolted out these cheery yellow blooms.

This first outing of spring was overcast but warm. A dapper Spotted Towhee, black and white with rich burnt-orange side stripes, flew up to a twig and shrilled his ratchety “Whaaat?” Frogs were out in force with their husky little sleighbell noises. “As they hear us crashing past or even crashing closer, they will keep merrily croaking along,” I told Angelina. “But as soon as you stop, they will stop too and nestle in silence under the ooze. I keep trying to sneak closer, but any amphibian is enough to outsmart me.” For her nature edification I demonstrated by stepping off the path and holding still. Sure enough — freeze and be quiet, and their songs will disappear.

Here is half a minute of their happy ruckus.

They’re louder in person. As are we all.

At the end of our power chat outing, the dogs got their yums and Angelina bought us both a slice of pizza. She and I talked the entire time about the nature of evolution, people and dogs as pack animals, cooking, gardening, parenting, stages of grief, the state of medical care, health, and everything else.

Petting the dogs goodbye I told Angelina, “You and I have exhausted every possible topic to talk about. We ran out of words. Unless we can think up something else to say, this friendship is over.”

(That lasted five hours, and then I had to go bring her my extra fluorescent vest so she can walk the dogs with safety after sundown. She offered me an avocado and a really nice extra chair made of wicker that I might take for my studio.)

It was a good spring outing.

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3/11/23: Lymphedema — the New Adventure

Photo: These winter-blooming Hellebore flowers have nothing to do with this subject, but they are more photogenic than my new support hose.

The Usual Huge Disclaimer: Ask your medical care team. Don’t come to a Russian language major for your health information. This is basically a journal entry about the past couple of weeks, and is not meant to apply to anybody else.

Extra Disclaimer: Here’s a show tune I wrote to lighten the mood around this topic. I don’t own the rights to the copyrighted melody or the pastoral Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics named after The Sooner State. That said, if you want to sing along to this, go right ahead.

Lyyyyymph / Edema

Diagnosis. What to do with that???

And initial fears

when all these years

here I thought my ankles are just fat.

Tweeeeenty / Thirty

is prescribed for these new pressure hose.

They’re the right tight sort

for vein support

Iffen I can pull them past my toes.

Driiiiink / your water

ease up flour and salty snacks and sweets.

Keep up active motion

Slap on lotion

Take some break time putting up our feets.

So here I’ve been hiking around for years on stout thick stiff ankles with chapped dry flaky reddened and often-itchy skin, and thought nothing of it. Windburn made it worse, and so did sunburn, freezing air, gluten binges, and picture-taking strolls in the cemetery and golf course with, just maybe, chemicals to keep those lawns green. I just slapped on coconut oil and resolved not to scratch, and went on with life. Finally I ended up in the ER with an ankle staph infection, apparently after some trivial unnoticed skin break. Ever since then, doctors have been asking questions and referring me hither and yon.

A wonderful vascular nurse determined that it’s lymphedema. She prescribed compression knee-high stockings that apply 20-30 mm of graduated pressure, tightest around the ankles, to wear during the day but not at night. Apparently they help keep the lymph from settling down in the lower legs. She instructed me to put them on first thing in the morning, before the legs start to swell up. She explained that we’ll have to reduce the mechanical swelling in order to let the skin heal. She recommended frequent changes of position and exercise breaks. She referred me for a vein valve leg scan in April. (If there are defective valves close to the skin, they might be able to fix them. If valves are defective but deeper, we’ll stick with compression stockings.) She also referred me to an occupational therapist.

The 20-30 mm stockings from the drugstore are like a circular-knit stack of firm rubber bands, tightest at the ankle. My arthritic hands couldn’t get them up over my bent bunion toes. Uh-oh. I asked Angelina, Power Nurse at Large, to help me. “Am I gonna have to come over to your house every morning at 6:00 a.m. so you can get me dressed?” I asked her with some anxiety. “Maybe,” she said, cheerfully giving it a try. She couldn’t pull the stockings over my bent toes either. Over the next few days I kept practicing stocking techniques, all of which left me in hand pain and close to tears. I was failing as a lymphedema patient!!

Luckily for me, the outstanding occupational therapist immediately calmed me right down off the ceiling with her reassuring and cheerful solutions.

First, she defused my panic by starring me in a fashion show of wrap-around and other support garments, plus hand-held gizmos for pulling them up easily. It was really reassuring and fun trying them all on. Then she gave me a wee thin floppy square of Dycem, a wonder substance which on hard floors provides a non-skid surface. (Wash it with a drop of soap and water, and dry it on a lint-free surface to keep up the non-skid tacky qualities.) She put the Dycem on the floor, and coached me to put my toes in the stocking and slide my foot toe-to-heel. To my delight, the stocking slid right on like magic! No strain on my hands! Next, she gave me garden gloves with grippy nitrile palms. The gloves gripped and smoothed the stockings right up to the knee!

She showed me an anatomical chart of the lymphatic system with its channels and nodes. Our lymphatic system carries and cleans away dead white cells, cancer cells, and waste products. When lymph slows down and backs up into the tissues, it separates the skin more from the muscle and circulation system; then the skin breaks down, loses lubrication, and become dry and thin and fragile. Lymph pressure pushes red blood cells out of the vessels and into the tissues of the lower leg, causing iron oxidation and a brick red skin color (it’s basically rust).

She taught me lymphatic drainage massage to do for 40 minutes every day. We can use diaphragmatic breathing as well as soft gentle directional strokes (“like you’re petting a cat”) to massage and stretch bare skin along lymph channels and nodes all over the body. Stroking the lymph layer upwards and clearing it on its way (starting at the top, and working our way down) will allow the circulation to start healing the skin.

She also explained that the ankle skin needs to be kept clean and hydrated, with water-based lotion. A lotion with water as the first ingredient also helps during the massage, to gently stretch the skin. We need to avoid any activity that causes reddened skin. When the skin is reddened by topical allergens or cold or heat (overuse of hot tubs or saunas), the body will rush liquid into those tissues. (I did ask her about my Wim Hof Method daily cold water wash. She thought this short dip in cold tap water sounded okay.)

She emphasized the need to avoid cuts and scratches, because lymph is so rich in protein; any bacteria entering stagnant lymph will feast on protein and multiply rapidly. If the ankle skin shows redness and swelling or a rash, infection might reach the bloodstream and require intravenous antibiotics. At any sign of infection, it’s time to head for Urgent Care or the ER for immediate treatment.

She also emphasized the importance of hydration, drinking enough water, and cutting way down or out on flour and sugar. She suggested that I photograph the ankles so that we could measure our progress before my followup session.

I asked her, “Could this influence our emotions? I have a literal sinking feeling, a deep discouragement that is very hard to forge through.” She said “Water is heavy. If you are carrying extra water in your legs, that can definitely add to a feeling of heaviness.”

I went home wearing my stockings, and practiced the massage and skin washing and lotion that evening. But if only I had taken that starter photo before the OT session. Next morning I took a look. Whoa, thin legs! What? Are those ankle bones? Where did they come from? Since then the ankles look slender, and the skin is much softer and hasn’t had a single itch flareup. Even foot circulation looks better, with a healthy rosy color and warm feel.

That day I bought nitrile gloves and three more spare pairs of 20-33 mm stockings. (I wash each pair after taking them off, and dry them, for a supply of fresh pairs each day.) Then I shopped from store to store looking for a water-based lotion with water, not oil, as the first ingredient, and with the fewest additives. The simplest formula was Trader Joe’s “Nourish” Hydrating Hyaluronic body gel cream in a pump bottle. The pump doesn’t work, so I have to drag lotion out of the bottle with the pump stick and slop it on the skin, but oh well.

The new routine is an extra 40 minutes in the morning. It’s Wim Hof breathing exercises and lymphatic drainage massage, then a cold water wash (cold tap water feels wonderful for leg circulation and mood), then drinking plenty of warm water, then lotion, then letting the lotion soak in, then with the Dycem as an aid sliding the stockings on for the day. At work it means frequent sitting and standing changes, and breaks in the conference room holding the legs up against the wall. At night it’s all the steps backwards — stockings off & washed, massage, washing, lotion, then earlier bedtime and sleeping with the feet elevated on a cushion.

That is a whole lot of privilege and pampering. During the daily routine I think sadly about the working women back in the Soviet Union, forging around on their feet all day long. Some had massive ankles with rolls of swelling and the skin weeping fluid right through their heavy stockings. And even here, how many single moms have time to fuss with doctors and self-care like this? What about the many people I pass all day, sleeping in their tents on the streets? When do they get clean lotioned skin and the right stockings and adequate diet and rest?

Well, if I neglect this condition, that will not make me more useful to society. This is my homework for now. Lymphedema is chronic and apparently permanent. It’s painless and subtle and gradual, and I wish that someone had diagnosed it for me years ago. Like other gradual conditions, it can coast along for decades. But it can also make us vulnerable to rapid complications such as skin staph and strep infections, cellulitis, strained vein valves, and stagnant circulation leading to blood clots and embolisms. Our task is to slow down that progression in the future.

Maybe someone will read this, and start to wonder about their own ankles. Do they look swollen, or feel stiff or itchy? Does the skin look red, or have cinnamon-colored dot points? Do even soft loose low socks leave red lines on the skin? A medical provider can do the thumbprint test, where they press in a thumb (ow!) and then gauge the depth of the print and how quickly it disappears. Those are all signs to ponder.

Live and learn! This whole adventure is food for thought, and a lot to be grateful for.

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2/13/23: Sweet Peas

Peas are jolly little troopers, happy to be planted even before the temperature warms up. According to the seed packet, they can go in the ground 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date, especially if the soil temperature is above 40 degrees F.

Here are the peas at bathtime Saturday morning in a blue glass bowl of water for a good 24 hour soaking.

Here they are on Sunday morning, all plumped in together. The soaking is meant to give them a head start on germinating once they are in the ground.

On Sunday morning, hauling out of bed was just not my favorite idea. But those peas needed to get in the ground, so I trudged straight outdoors aiming for an optimistic mindset and humming “Why do fools fall in love?” with the peas and 25 bamboo stakes. The stakes went along the raised garden bed. Each stake got two six-inch holes dug beside them, hopefully deep enough to confuse the crows. Then the 50 or so peas went into the holes under a layer of garden soil.

It’s good luck when peas go in the ground while the weather is chilly and windy and damp. They’ll hatch along on their own and find their way up to the sun. If all works out well we could see 50 little shoots perk up through the ground on or around February 22. If all works out even better, we could have peas starting in 70 days, or early May. Peas are a very pretty sight, and they are dramatic and fast-growing enough to amuse the neighbors. Which is, after all, the whole point.

Meanwhile here’s another view of Mrs. Wing’s daikon, as pretty as… well, as a picture.

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Dear Wing Family: I’m Really Sorry!

It would have been really thoughtful and considerate of me to tell the Wings that for cataract surgery #2, I was going to go ask Angelina to take me to the hospital instead.

And why? Because for cataract surgery #1, it was so wonderful to have their perfect help — doing without the family car for two mornings, and rearranging their schedule. Thanks to Captain’s winter-weather navigation and motoring skills, the surgery and the followup appointment next day were a breeze.

Me being me, my first conclusion was “That was great! Therefore, I would never venture to ask this wonderful family to help me with surgery #2. Instead I will distribute this huge imposition elsewhere so that no one set of neighbors needs to be burdened twice.”

Ya whatever. But because I didn’t dream of asking the Wings to go again, I didn’t dream that they would think they were going to be asked again. Therefore I did not talk to them of my decision. Result: they waited patiently in readiness, having noticed that cataracts come in pairs. Finally they found out by chance (with a glance at this blog) that I’d moved on and hit up someone else without ever telling them, or explaining why.

Captain called me this week with a message from Mrs. Wing, asking me to drop by the house on my way home. The call was a pleasant surprise. “It’s so nice to hear from you!” I told him. “After imposing on you for that surgery, I was afraid to contact any of you for fear you would be upset by how much work that was.”

Tactful moment of silence on the phone. “We were waiting for instructions,” he replied. “Then we read that Angelina took you to the hospital instead.”

Oh dear goodness. I am such a dork.

For some reason, they are still speaking to me. Mrs. Wing gave me a whole sack of fresh vegetables from their expedition to the grocery wholesale store, along with a couple of home-baked supersize macadamia cookies AND part of her harvest of winter purple daikons which grew all sturdy in the cold and snow. Here is one of them, showing only part of its lavish healthy foliage. They really are this beautiful.

And (like the Wings), they are beautiful not only on the outside, but at heart:

Each nibble is perfectly crisp and bursting with juice, and remarkably sweet. Then the hit strikes — wow, what a spicy kick! The foliage was great too in long-cooked potassium broth with vegetables and a bit of wakame, and then the simmered leaves had a good flavor for munching. Those slices will make beautiful kimchi with some grated Asian pear, garlic, ginger, anchovy sauce, and cayenne. It’s a much appreciated home-grown super thoughtful gift.

Well, that is a life lesson for me. When God sends the best helpers, it is my job to be easy to help. That starts with updating everyone on what might be needed in future, and how best to strategize so that no one is too burdened or is left out and wondering about the plan.

Wings never wait around to be thanked or praised. But thank you all the same, dear neighbors. Maybe I can find some way to show appreciation back for all that you do for us.

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Angelina’s, Friday Night

Tonight we neighbors (is there a feminine plural? neighboresses?) are hurrying down to Angelina’s for Netflix and pizza. The group hasn’t picked out the movie yet. I’d like one with a Gospel message of redemption and salvation. But that may not be the case, judging by the 2023 film trailers I watched last night with the sound off, finger poised to click the mouse button to the next selection. Yike. Depending on the title I may have to leave after our supper of fellowship (is there a feminine singular? galship?).

But no matter what, I’m bringing her a salad for her weekend dinner.

It has steamed kale with grated raw carrots, red onion, boiled firm tofu, boiled eggs, chopped roasted almonds, goat cheese, yogurt, dried cherries, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, paprika, and a sprinkle of tiny fennel fronds that sprang up from an old wintering stalk out in the garden. Angelina is a grand-slam cook and comes from a background of classy restaurants, so it was necessary to think up something marginally gentrified. Besides, she was a Godsend last Saturday taking the lion’s share of weight when we wrestled four 60-pound sacks of topsoil from her car hatch to the garden in the freezing rain. Hopefully she will like the salad.

I’ll bring something to wrap around my feet and legs too, after leaving shoes at the door. The Dog Pack have decided that I am delicious, and are forever looking for an opp to wander up the couch and start nibbling my toes. That’s caused by regular foot and ankle applications of coconut oil. Apparently coconut oil must be some form of olfactory dognip. It would be interesting to see how the dogs react to alternate lubricants week by week — lard, schmalz, marrow, sardine can oil, or birdfeeder suet. As it is now, their collective greetings are all bouncy glee. “It’s Mare! Look everybody, I’m totally sticking my head up her dress! You can too!” Now I could protect my feet by sticking them in one of the tubular cages of chicken wire that we use in summer for the tomatoes. But for a visitors’ parlor Emily Post might vote for my rolled yoga mat. The yoga mat turned out to be good protection. The dogs still found great entertainment value in vaulting up on to my lap for a bite of my food. Whenever they try that, I give them a soft hiss and a firm poke, and they frolic off and pick some more hospitable lap. But it’s interesting; they are still just as pleased to see me every time. And they’ve figured out that if they edge closer in calm submissive fashion and just snuggle up next to me for a nap they know I’ll pet them, so it’s all good.

Update, morning after: We watched the first 5 episodes of a program called “Ted Lasso.” It was a pleasant surprise with interesting character development. I’m re-reading The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, so it was interesting to watch how Coach Ted’s brain worked. The character shows hyper-developed and hyper-attuned neuroplastic connectivity skills for matching people up with their best opportunities for personal growth. For example, during various scenes Ted keeps passing by an ignored street musician busking on the street, and always stops to give him pocket change and some word of encouragement. In the finale to episode 5, when a famous celebrity doesn’t show for a benefit concert, Ted steps outside and brings in the busker (“and now, live from… outside!”), and everyone jumps up and starts dancing and has a grand time.

Angelina not only served an ample selection and portions of yummy food, but made a very good and considerate entertainment choice that pleased all of her guests. She’d make a great soccer coach herself.

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Cataract Surgery 3 of 3: True Colors

The usual big disclaimer: For goodness sake, this is not medical advice. This is just one person feeling her way along, not an endorsement of cataract surgery or a prediction of anybody else’s results. This does contain an opinion about the color of my favorite breakfast bowl in my cabinet, but you could already pick out your own dishes and fix your breakfast without my say-so.

In these weeks after surgery, it is still a surprise to wake up and look outside the window. For years, the houses in this complex were turquoise blue. Now after surgery those same houses are heron slate gray. My favorite breakfast bowl was tangerine golden-pink. Now it’s pure pale rose. Those true colors, those slate houses and rose dish are new acquaintances, fresh every morning.

Of course the main dramatic change is sharp visual acuity. All day every day it’s amazing to live without prescription eyeglasses. (Of course, without eyeglass frames it’s easier to see how tired my eyes look, and how sensitive they are to light. But plain tinted safety goggles cover that pretty well.) After three years of wearing a Covid mask, it feels much safer to maneuver without the fall risk of steamed up lenses. (Stepping into a grocery store or library or clinic, I pull up my mask. Then to avoid the steaming I still reach up to take off glasses that aren’t there.) It is amazing to just type on a computer and tell the time on a wall clock and identify my books by title instead of topic order and binding color. Before, on the street corner there’d be buses materializing in the distant traffic, and I’d be there with glasses on bobbing and weaving and shading my eyes trying to figure out what the route number was, worried that if I flagged down the wrong bus and then had to wave it away the driver might be upset. The other pedestrians, the other deer in the herd, they didn’t seem to stare into the headlights at all; when a bus appeared blocks away they could just instinctively sort themselves out by stepping closer to the curb or by backing away. Now I was finally starting to catch on to the same hat trick and could blend in better with everybody else. So that’s all a marvel all day.

Next month the eye clinic team will run some tests and figure out new ideal corrective lenses. Now, the focus going forward is good care and prevention for any potential retina issues. Unfortunately, that is a risk after cataract surgery. (During recovery, resting alone in the dark, that possibility caused my melancholic mind to dredge up the “Flowers for Algernon” dilemma, and if your 8th grade curriculum didn’t make you read that then for sure don’t read it now.) One night it scared me to view what seemed to be a new internal black floater shooting across the visual field; what a happy relief to find it was a spider zipping across my monitor screen. But instead of fretting about the future, it is far better to research and learn all the symptoms of retina difficulties, to be vigilant, and to keep communicating with the care team. So, there’s an Amsler Grid taped to the bathroom wall for frequent vision tests. There’s a retina checkup in two months, and regular checkups after that from now on. This week I alerted the team to report a subtle vision glitch — an early warning? (The surgeon wrote right back, giving the phenomenon a scientific name and explaining that this was a normal short-term illusion and ought to resolve soon. He was right. It did.)

[Memory interlude: That same surgical team did a brilliant job of repairing a retina tear years ago. At the time I told my health-care colleagues in our medical department, “I need to be out of the office for emergency surgery. My retina is detached! They have to re-attach it again. Will report back in a few days.” My cubicle mates made a point of welcoming each other back from any medical time off with get-well cards, flowers, balloons, and cake. But for my return from retina surgery? Nothing. Not a soul asked how I was, or whether they could help. They even avoided looking at me. Finally, a an old-school high-level physician days from retirement stopped by my desk after hours. Looking around and clearing his throat, in gruff but obvious concern he said “So… how’s the rectum now?”]

Another rumination during rest days in dim light has been awareness of shame. It’s a lifelong tension, like chronic hyper-vigilant armoring in muscles and nerves. Some of it comes from being a failure at vision improvement exercises taught by inspiring authors like Meir Schneider. (When Mr. Schneider came to town I joined a large group for a two-hour workshop. He was an outstanding nurturing teacher. He would have been the first to say to me “Whoa, you’d better get a cataract exam.”) Mostly, shame is the memory of people’s frustration and ridicule, their assumption that near-sighted behavior shows stupidity or disrespect. It was the Sister of St. Dominic who used to comically mimic the gobsmacked look on my face when I strained to read the chalkboard. It was grownups warning “Stop squinting; you’ll get wrinkles,” or “For God’s sake come on, look alive!” or “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (I didn’t know what a pass was, and didn’t even want boys to throw a football at my head.) Now even after surgery, people still say “You were crossing the street at the WALK sign, and when you stepped in front of my car I honked but you didn’t wave!” (No, I was too busy fleeing the path of some yabbo leaning on his horn.) Last week I ventured out at night, wearing wraparound black goggles against the glare. I had to scoot two blocks from bus to train in a crowded but moderately distressed neighborhood where people run about with guns, knives, and tazers. A chipper neighbor (who knew all about my surgery) charged right up behind me on the dark street. He looked forward to how happy I’d be once I realized who he was. When he lunged at my head I spun around with a skewering combative stare, recognized him, and stared even harder. He burst out laughing, backed off, and hurried away. Later he said “Hey!! Even after you saw it was me, you STILL gave me an angry look!” (This behavior must be a vestigial artifact in the deep reptilian brain: Act like an apex predator. Tamper with a woman’s friend-vs.-foe meter. Laugh uproariously at her reaction. Fortunately it’s a gag that most men set aside once they discover Play-Doh.)

On the first day after surgery #1 and the checkup next day, I left the house without my eye shield. Still feeling tired and chilled, I bundled up in a long heavy dress with trousers and high boots and sweater and black hoodie sweatshirt and head scarf and cap and black goggles. I walked very slowly, looking into the distance up ahead, to let the brain balance the new left and right visual fields. For a quiet pleasant route I walked around the block bordering the golf course, an exclusive little cul-de-sac with a security guard inside a booth who waves back when I wave at him. Taking small steps, enjoying the fresh air, I suddenly heard a sharp thwack. Oh no! A golf ball! I’d only been near the golf course at sunset or at dawn or on moonlit nights, never a weekday afternoon. That called to mind the sign posted right at the entrance:

Yike! I shielded the goggles with my hands and ducked my head. Listening hard for any more thwack activity I turned my back to the putting green and walked sideways for the next three blocks, one foot at a time, slowly fleeing for the exit. Soon a little maintenance cart came putt-putting by. The course worker peered at me, and we exchanged waves. Then another little cart came by with two workers, conversing with each other in Spanish. I hollered “Hola Señores. Qué tiempo lindo! Tengan an buen día!” [Wait, where are the upside down exclamation points on this keyboard?] The men hollered back. More handwaves. Another cart. Waving, smiling. The carts kept circling around and trailing along behind me. It looked like a Shriner parade without the fezzes. Maybe the security guard contacted them on walkie-talkies? “Slow-moving intruder. Spanish-speaking granny moves off-kilter, difficulty walking forwards on pavement. Monitor scene. Hover while she heads toward exit. Keep waving.” Finally I sidestepped to the gates, and with more waves the friendly convoy doodled off and back to work and I went back to bed.

This has all been an amazing life adventure.

And just maybe some day the Goodwill housewares shelf will have a dish in a genuine shade of my lost tangerine. I might just buy it and bring it home.

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Haircut with Mr. K

Mr. K works very hard on my haircuts.

(Ferns growing not far from Mr. K’s business.)

Mr. K. met me three years ago. I’d had the same hairstyle all lifelong. It was thick handfuls of curls, brown with an early streak of gray, layered in a comforting thatchy fleece falling over my eyeglasses, around my face, and in younger days down the back. It was always nice to hide under all that hair. All it needed was a weekly wash, and a good backwards brush & toss every morning.

“This is wonderful thick hair,” Mr. K. marveled, during those first few appointments, “for a woman your age.” I was going to put on a straight face and joke with him that I’m nearly thirty. But he was so sincere and congratulatory and kind that I just didn’t have the heart. His haircut technique was terrific, and I’d go my way feeling happy for Mr. K’s help.

Then, three years ago Covid lockdown came along. One day a news article mentioned a pandemic-related hair loss called telogen effluvium. That sounded curious to me. Why would lockdown be causing hair loss? I got up and went to the mirror to take a look. Holy smoke! Sure enough: receding hairline, thinning on top. Over the next few months the hair grew straight and silver and baby fine. Salons were closed for months. But that was not an immediate issue, because the hair had simply stopped growing.

Finally Mr. K. and I met again. Like a true professional he said not one single word about the change in my hair. At first I worried that he would be depressed having me as a customer, and I should switch salons. But he simply shifted gears from congratulations and enthusiasm to a tactful kind introspective approach. To his enormous credit, now he devoted even more time and thoughtfulness and painstaking ingenuity working with half as much hair.

Mr. K’s gentle respectful diplomacy makes me appreciate him very much. Not everyone in his profession shares his kind approach. Some time ago, an independent high-end haircutter made the news when he specified that he’s be cutting hair for customers under the age of 40 only. The rationale apparently was that hair eventually loses its ability to stack and bounce and spring back with the same resilience, and would not hold up properly in the sleek geometric styles for which he was famous. I guess his cuts were the equivalent of ortho-molecular gastronomy, where the top of one’s head should look as striking as plated citron whiskers set alight over caviar foam. Anyway, local codes of fair public business put a stop to his habit of turning away customers who looked to be over 40. But his sentiment is not unique. At one establishment here in town, one which did not accept appointments, I showed up three times asking for a haircut. Each time the glam young employees welcomed their peer walk-ins who were equally young and equally glam, while flatly ignoring me. Each time when I asked gently why no one was speaking to me they snapped that “we’re busy,” turning away the Boomer who believes in loyalty, courtesy, and good tips. That establishment has since gone out of business, not before slathering on another layer of shyness to the prospect of going for a haircut.

Any fashion-based scrutiny of my physical appearance feels crestfalling. A haircut might seem a pampering hour of fun to other women. For me, it’s worrying that staff might say “You are too old to look good in one of our haircuts. Your hair does not meet our high standards. We’ll just have to kill you.” To be fair, no salon employee has ever chased me with clippers and a spray bottle. But those appointments from now on will mean confronting that hair loss issue, under competent appraisal and a well-lighted mirror.

Throughout childhood, the strong message among the grownups was that to attract a prospective suitor, a girl’s most important virtue (other than, of course, virtue) was a head of good hair, preferably light in color and naturally curly. At holidays and visits the women would greet me by examining and discussing my hair, making sure that it was still curly and thick. They would lecture me on the importance of hair upkeep as a ticket to a good future and good marital treatment. While mourning the death of her own mother, Mom kindly offered me the consolation of the ultimate compliment from Grandma, who among her final words said: “Mary has NATURAL CURLS. Don’t ever let her cut them.”

All that hair talk was their way of saying “We just want you to be happy and well treated.” How dismayed those salt-of-the-earth elders would be, to see that hair fading away now. Or maybe not, from their point of view in heaven now? And as a Christian who believes in eternal life, just how much upset should I invest in such a trivial concern, and for how long a time? From the standpoint of eternal salvation, none and none. So at a beautiful local clothing boutique run by a talented sewing cooperative of Muslim women, I stocked up on knitted caps and headscarves for everyday wear and resolved to think no more of it.

It dawned on me typing this that the only person left who notices or touches my hair, or even sees it unveiled, is now Mr. K. Today I stopped by for a trim. Normally he works in conscientious silence, but today when I remarked on a song over the radio he confided that his life dream was to be a singer. He shared in a pure open-hearted way about how he practiced his craft, until war broke out at home. “In war it is hard to make your dreams come true.” His family lost everything, started here with nothing, and now he has built up his life perfecting top-level skills in several careers. It was a thrilling story. I listened in rapt admiration. Today Mr. K. must have spent 90 minutes crafting what is left of my hair. It must take great artistry and care to sculpt hair in this condition, but today he absolutely outdid himself. It’s a whole new style, blow-dried in soft sideswept silvery layers.

Leaving the salon I texted Angelina, planning to stop by and show it to her while it still looks so nice. “Omigosh, Mr. K. gave me a really nice haircut! He worked so hard! Bingo and Super Pup will not recognize me any more.” She immediately texted back “Do you think Mr. K. will cut their hair to look amazing too?” I answered that it wouldn’t hurt to try, and that she should leash them up and all come in and ask for a Three In One family special.

Then I went to the grocery store for root vegetables to make cole slaw, and daikon radish to make kimchi. A woman behind me in line said “MARY? Is that you?” It was Angelina. “Mary, your hair style! SO elegant. Turn around. Let me see. You look TEN years younger! Wanna ride home? I made you split pea soup.”

All those front-line workers and specialists who for the past three years have taken the brunt of people’s stress and have helped to keep this country from losing their collective minds? Well, Mr. K. and his team are among them.

God bless you, Mr. K. America is a better kinder country with the precious gift of your artistic talent and kind spirit. Some day I want to hear you sing.

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December 2022: Cataract Surgery, Round 2

The Usual Disclaimer: This is absolutely not medical advice. It’s not a promotion for cataract surgery, driving in winter weather, writing on one’s arm in ink, or anything else. It is a promotion of Angelina, but in her own circle she was famous before she met me.

After Surgery 1, there was a followup exam one day later, then again one week later. Then one week after that, we had Surgery 2. For round 2, I knew more of what to expect; at least my hands didn’t start shaking a whole day in advance.

Another winter weather front was on the way. Angelina and I kept in touch with frequent weather updates about the advisability of driving. Angelina made the final executive decision on the day in the dark street while innocent ordinary rain fell softly on our heads. I threw my backup gear in her car in case we got stuck under some highway overpass for the night through my own fault. There was a knapsack and duffle with bottled water, bread and cheese, fruit and nuts, chocolate, blanket, raingear, two fluorescent vests, emergency whistle, torch flashlight, and my cell phone charger so we could charge our phones at the clinic in case the power went out that day.

We were off.

Angelina is a conversation artist. She will whip the life story out of you before you know it yourself. Now I understand that she probably did that to put me at ease. In any case, the rain only spit some sleet at us once, then settled back to rain again.

In the clinic a surgery team member approached to check my identity. As for the first surgery he handed me a whole roll of adhesive labels pre-printed with my name, patient number, and date of birth, so that I could verify the information. That might be the point when they attached the same label to a bracelet on my wrist. He asked Angelina “And will you be the Getaway Driver?” He asked her for her phone number, and I showed it to him written on my own forearm in heavy ink for good measure. (“You can write my number on your arm too,” I told Angelina. “Later we’ll get matching tattoos.”) 

In the prep/recovery room, the team greeted me and ran through the same solid checklist. “And which eye?” they asked at three different points, before the surgeon drew on a faint confirming arrow on my forehead. After answering three times I suggested “Let’s do the one with the cataract in it.” They asked me for the pre-printed labels, but this time I’d made the mistake of tucking them in to my waist pack, and placing that in my knapsack. “I’ll get them!” I offered. But no no, they kept me sitting still for my blood pressure check, and assured me that they’d flag down Angelina and get the labels back. Angelina as it happened had taken a stroll next door for a fortifying cup of coffee, so the team cheerfully printed a new label set. 

Finally the team waited at attention, poised to zip my wheeled chair into the OR across the hall. At that moment one of them noticed that outside the window, the heavens had opened with a thick fall of enormous snowflakes. (Fortunately the huge clumped flakes suggested that we had warm temperatures, and the snow might be short duration. I certainly hoped so.) Because I was already in place with heated blanket and electrodes, a nurse darted to the window with her cell phone. She made a little video of the dramatic snowfall, then darted in beaming to play the video so I could marvel at the snow too. Her thoughtful gesture was an extra cheering touch in those moments as they zipped me across the hall and into place.

In the OR a dear team member from the first surgery said “Why hello. Thank you for visiting. Fancy seeing you here.” I assured him that there was nowhere I’d rather be. “A nice place. I love what you’ve done with it.” Even our surgeon laughed. 

This time during very gentle slow deep breaths, it dawned on me lying there that I’d never felt so vulnerable or open or trusting to anyone as I was to this surgical team. That was a poignant thought, but at least the moment happened in good hands. It was a remarkable feeling. My body settled down into such deep relaxation that there seemed no need to breathe at all. I did keep breathing though, very softly and evenly, to maintain steady pressure in the eye and to keep from disrupting the monitors or the team. After 77 gentle breaths our surgeon said “We’re done.” I felt sorry to bid them all goodbye (“I guess we’re all out of cataracts now.”) but gave them a heartfelt thanks. 

The original team member walked me back to Angelina. Anxious about the weather, and anxious to not keep her waiting, I zeroed over and grabbed the straps of the knapsack and duffle. “Aaaaaaah No!” Both our nurse and Angelina (a nurse herself) grabbed the straps to keep from lifting them. “That stuff must weigh thirty pounds!” Angelina said. “I hauled it with me to get my coffee. YOU can’t lift anything heavy after your surgery!” I remembered that of course they were right. While I meekly and gratefully obeyed, she carried my gear to the car herself. At least this time I was clever enough to pay for our parking.  “Look at you, Girl.” She opened the car door for me. “You walked out of that surgery like it was NOTHING.”

The snow had tapered off, but the temperature was falling fast. Angelina drove home carefully, and she carried my things upstairs before I got into bed. Then the sleet set in, but thank God we made it home safely. 

Up next: Recovery round 2, and helping the mind adjust to a new visual world.

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December 2022: Cataract Surgery — Ready, Set

Disclaimer: There is no medical expertise or advice whatsoever in this story. It’s not meant to promote cataract surgery or anything else. Your surgical needs, precautions, pre-existing conditions, life experience, impressions, medications, and everything else may vary completely. Ask your doctor, not some language major.

Dedicated to Captain Wing (designated Grownup, surgery 1), and to Angelina (designated Grownup, surgery 2). 


Before surgery, I followed a checklist.

List all pre-surgery, surgery, and followup appointments together copied to computer desktop, and printed out on the wall at home and the wall at work, with a copy for supervisor. Note them all as Away time in shared calendar, and payroll schedule. Print a binder for the office with FAQs that anyone might have. Set automatic replies to let everyone know I’d be off email for most of two weeks.

Print a “Cataract Adventure” binder with clear acetate page protectors to carry in to clinic. List date and type of surgery (and which eye to work on), Captain’s & Angelina’s contact information, parking garage and driving instructions, family contacts, primary care provider and other care team contacts, health history questionnaire sent to me by the clinic, insurance information, pharmacy information, religious affiliation, Do Not Resuscitate orders, and health summary (no, no medication allergies that I know of; no, no difficulty with anesthesia in the past; yes, neck has a full range of motion and can tip back; no, no chipped or broken teeth).

Clean house. Clear any fall hazards up off the floor. Clean off work surfaces. Take down pots and pans off their high shelf, to avoid pulling one down on my head.

Wash and iron all clothes.

Stock up all filtered water bottles.

Prepare a week of easy-heat low-inflammation fridge and freezer meals.  

Print out a schedule for eye drop prescriptions (two different medications on a staggered schedule for the two eyes for the next four weeks each.)

Print an envelope wrapper for my cell phone with my alternative contact information if found.

Dedicate a workspace just for medications, eye shield, tape, and pharmacy instructions.

Schedule LOTS of time to drive to the hospital. Text meeting place, time, and plan three times in advance to designated grownup. Email them driving and parking garage directions. Emphasize the option to cancel in bad weather, or if their families need them.

Leave behind office keys and office access card and any superfluous items in a special box on desk.

Pack information binder, and lots of large and small dollar bills and quarters for pharmacy and parking garage. 

Pack black glasses, orange tinted goggles to deflect blue light, and sun hat.

Day before:

Complete “e-CheckIn” function on clinic’s software.

Drink water. The team asked me to drink enough water the day before to be fully hydrated; they needed good hydration for easy access to a vein when they put in my IV.

Midnight, day of surgery: nothing by mouth; not a bite of food, and no beverages. The team emphasized NO milk, cheese, or other dairy products. (Captain Wing explained. In the OR when the team tips back the chair the patient can experience acid reflux, and dairy makes that a lot more uncomfortable.) 

Morning of:

Check the weather for winter warnings. Call and email clinic in case they need to close. (When I called, the clinic let me know that they never close.)

Spread out blanket roll and pillows all ready for immediate rest time upon return.

Bring water and snack.

Meet neighbor outside at the meeting place 15 minutes early. (Both Captain and Angelina made a point of being right there 15 minutes early too, with the cars running and all warmed up. Or maybe they were parked out there all night? Who knows?)

On the way to surgery, chill out and cash in some trust in the universe.

The night before both surgeries I woke up often to check how many hours ’til alarm time, and to read bulletins from the National Weather Service. Our winters are extremely mild, with only regular soft rainfall, so scheduling them for December seemed reasonable. But our city completely shuts down in wintry weather, and all night the forecasters couldn’t tell whether we would get black ice and sleet, or six to ten inches of snow, or nothing. That left hours of time to sift through various discouraging thoughts like these.

  1. If I were a reasonably loveable person, I’d have a family of some kind by now. They could come with me. I wouldn’t have to ask for this huge favor from wonderful neighbors who have families of their own to care for and had to take time off for this.
  2. What if the weather gets worse? We’ll have to cancel. Then the surgery team will say “Forget it. You disobeyed our instructions. Now we’ll have to kill you.” (I don’t really think that is how surgical teams view the matter, but that inner program concerning authority figures is pretty well entrenched.)
  3. Or, the surgery team might say “Forget it. You cancelled on the day for a 9:00 am surgery, so we’ll cross you off our Good Standing patient list and will operate only on other people. Even if we ever do let you back, when we operate on you we will not be in a good mood.”) I don’t think that’s what hospitals say either, but the OR turnover for this rapid surgery is so precise that the team won’t like just standing there with a time gap.
  4. Or, we might drive there and the car might get stuck in bad weather or in a fender bender and it’s all my fault.
  5. Or, somebody might snatch my knapsack with my cell phone, ID, and keys, right out of the arms of my good neighbors in the waiting room!
  6. Maybe after two weeks off, the office won’t want me back. (Spoiler: They did. It was fine.)

It was sobering too, to ponder how much Privilege is wrapped around this surgery. It takes proximity to a good eye surgery center, a job with insurance and sick leave, a safe place to sleep and recover, washing facilities for keeping everything clean and sanitary, neighbors to drive, text and email access for the many clinic alerts, and enough mindfulness to follow all the physical restrictions during recovery and to log two medications on two staggered schedules for two eyes. 

At last, it was morning for Surgery 1. We were breathtakingly lucky with the weather. The worst of it either held off for the next several days, or passed right by.

Captain Wing’s crack starship-level rush hour driving was a treat. The excellent car stereo played a fascinating mix of modern Chinese hits. All of them were strongly cheery, and lavishly orchestrated. Each note and beat sounded flawlessly produced. I even recognized a few words, such as Wo ai ni, or “I Love You.” 

Then, a completely new vocalist swept in. Her voice was not only perfectly recorded, but had a naturally stellar command and tone. “Say,” I cried out. “This Chinese vocalist is really fine!” Captain Wing was uncharacteristically silent for a moment before tactfully explaining “Because she’s Sarah Brightman.” (I hope I did not hurt his feelings. With a few buttons and dials he smoothly swapped out the mixed musical menu for an all-Sarah program of opera and lighter music.) 

The song was Sarah’s cover in Spanish (not Chinese) of “Tú” (Tú, sin más porqué, Tú que bésame…), by composer José María Cano. One of the striking moments of the song was Sarah hitting a clear pure high note and holding it, while the melody line fell in plaintive unusual intervals. The music is copyrighted, but here is just a morsel with the interesting key signature and that striking second measure with falling notes:

Where else had I heard falling notes in a pattern like that?? It was a real rest for an apprehensive mind, to just gaze out the window at the early morning sky and the soaring bridges and skyscrapers, and to let the memory tick back over many many songs, fitting and re-fitting that template for a good match. Finally the answer surfaced from the 1970s. It’s “Look at the Moon” by Gerry Rafferty, and those lush beautiful chords falling at the end (complete with recorded fox bark). Solved!

The cataract surgery team was absolutely wonderful. Despite all the stresses at a regional trauma center and the added workload of the pandemic, their morale was superb. After all, their OR handles only relatively fortunate patients, for elective advance-booked non-urgent surgery that is over and done in minutes, with low risk and high revenue and dramatically positive outcomes. Hopefully the financial gain to the hospital gives the team some well-deserved job appreciation. Clearly they all enjoyed working together, in synch and in touch as they maneuvered their own checklists. They completely supported their surgeon, and he in turn was clear about voicing his appreciation for them and giving them all their due credit. They caught on that I was open to good humor, and engaged in gentle delightful banter with me and each other.

“So how sedated will I be?” I asked the nurse anesthetist, as she installed my IV. The clinic had been non-committal about this question, since every patient is different.

“Not at all,” she cheerfully explained. “This IV has no needle, so you can flex your arm; we put it in only for emergencies or in case you decide that you do want sedation, and then I’ll administer it right away. I’ll be right beside you the whole time.”

(Wait, what? Really? People just sit still with a scalpel coming at them?)

“You will have plenty of local anesthetic,” she assured me. “There will be pressure at one point, but you should not feel any pain.” (She was right. There was no pain at all.)

The team administered several kinds of eye drops. They applied adhesive electrodes, and tucked me in with a heated blanket. Then they wheeled me in to the OR, and clipped on an oxygen cannula. “You will have plenty of air to breathe under the drape,” they promised. They confirmed for the last of many times who I was and my birth date and which eye they would work on and why. Then they swabbed around my eyes and applied a large upper-body adhesive drape leaving only the eye uncovered. The surgeon greeted me and gently taped open my eyelashes, then fitted on an eyelid retractor to keep the eye open. (That had seemed a disturbing prospect, but fortunately a constant wash of cold silvery anesthetic took the place of tears and numbed the eye completely.) My hands were shaking from nerves, but really all one had to do was stare into a microscope lens and keep the gaze steady through a shifting wave of colors, shadows, and lights while the surgeon talked me through the procedure. The room was full of interesting tones: vital sign monitor, the sizzling whir of the machine pulverizing the cataract and aspirating it out. In one moment of pressure the new lens was fitted in. I breathed very slowly and steadily, counting each breath with full attention, sending thankfulness and appreciation to the surgical team. At deep breath number 166 the surgeon said “Done,” and peeled off the drape. They tipped forward the chair, and wheeled me back to the recovery room to remove the IV and electrodes, tape on an eye shield, and give me a team chat about medications and physical safety.

In the waiting room Captain Wing stood at attention, holding my knapsack out for me. He was ready to calibrate my balance as I minced along to the elevator, down to the very kind and overworked pharmacy staff. (With my Ofloxacin eye drop prescription, labeled “Patient speaks ENGLISH,” the staff included paper instructions. They were for Omeprazole, a GI tract medication. The instructions were in Spanish, perhaps as a tribute to composer José María Cano.) Then Captain stepped aside for a word with the main street reception desk. By the time I stood there ogling around with one eye and caught on that he was handing in his ticket from the parking garage, he was all paid up and escorting me to the garage elevator for the car. After I arrived home and got into bed, Mrs. Wing contacted me with an offer to bring me dinner. Fortunately I was able to assure her that the fridge was stocked up.

In the Tom Hanks film Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, when everybody braces for impact the flight crew chants “Get down, Stay down!” That made a pretty good motto for that day: Rest in dim light, get up only to tip down the eye shield and take the drops, re-tape the shield, write down the time, and back to bed. Stay off the internet, and phone screens. Rest both eyes in dim light for the first couple of days.

Through the eye shield there were very strange silvery flashes of a clear brave new world. But exploring that was an adventure for the following day.

Next up: Day 2.

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12/31/2022: The annual letter

December brings annual letters with words and pictures from correspondents far and wide, showing deep warm connection with spouses and children and family and friends, shared achievements, and celebrations. Even when the year brings difficult circumstances (and that absolutely does happen), these annual letters select and offer up the best of events to uplift and cheer.

There is a genuine and wonderful art of holiday living. It’s the gift that many people have, of aligning with loved ones in special places with shared activities, greetings, gifts, and rituals to create a space of happiness and good memories to pass from generation to generation. It looks nice. It’s only right and good to share a worthy update in turn. But what?

Well, here is the annual holiday photo: the flourishing rescue geranium from the urn outside our building management office; plus a gift from a dear neighbor, a Nativity scene that stands on display in the window all year long. And for an annual letter? Reading everybody’s news and looking over the family photos, I searched all month for words that are equally joyful and worth reading.

Father Seraphim Aldea at Mull Monastery posted a talk last year with the title “Don’t deny your doubts and your struggles.” His counsel is to be open and honest about the deepest of them, whether it’s loneliness or anything else, and then to walk the next steps between that reality and the faith that whatever happens “God is love, He has created the world out of love in order to save the world through love.”

Tonight the kitchen Bible fell open to Acts 20:24, to what looks like Paul’s own update message: “…neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God.”

The old year is over for us all. The next step awaits.

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12/25/22: Christmas spelled in small threads

In today’s downpour the bare trees seemed covered with budding new growth. But that’s the rich repertoire of lichens and mosses coating the branches, rocks, and fences all winter long.

Thread 1. 1999. At the food co-op for my 20% member discount I was bagging groceries and asking each shopper “Hello! Paper or Plastic?” as in “What kind of bag would you like for your purchases?” Shoppers would give me a startled look and say “Reg’lar. Just a reg’lar bag.” Many were too rushed to give the matter any deep thought. So as a compromise I would load the goods in a large square paper bag inside a smaller rounded plastic bag with handles. One Christmas Eve a couple was speaking what sounded like Brazilian Portuguese. The young woman cradled an infant and placed rice, milk, sugar, and eggs on the conveyor belt. The young man paid up, counting out exact change. He whipped open a plastic bag, and in a flash we dropped in their items. Then he smoothed out a dollar bill, and turning to me with a grave nod placed the bill in my hand. In all those years out of all those shoppers, he was the only one to offer me a tip. My conditioned reflex would be to duck away from the dollar with a self-deprecating little laugh. But I clasped it to my heart and bowed to them, and still think of that family every year.

Thread 2. 1995. At Winter Solstice my small bird died in my hands. She was a cockatiel, the liveliest most affectionate little pal, taking part in everything I did and all of my friendships and ventures. That was in a new studio room, in a new part of the city where I knew nobody. Four days later at Christmas there was no one to see and no businesses open. I left my room for a day’s walk exploring the neighborhoods, and ended up in a pocket pond urban sanctuary. In the clear cold and the stillness, an hour before sunset, I huddled up on a tree stump to listen to nature. It was startling to see the flash of an unfamiliar bird that called to mind my own cockatiel. The new species was a crested bird in soft gray tones. It turned out to be a Tufted Titmouse. Here is one, thanks to “All About Birds” at TheCornellLab:


The bird alighted close by with a piping two-tone call that drew in others just like him. Soon a whole flock gathered right around, peering at me with their bright calls. The weather was so cold and the day so short that all too soon it was time to head back to my room. But what a comfort it was for that hour, to be back in the company of birds again.

Thread 3. 2021. Neighbor Evie is a talented decorator and gardener. Her optimistic sociable active nature kept her engaged and cheerful even when her health began to keep her at home. Last fall, for weeks she and I looked forward to seeing her potted Amaryllis sprout up from its bulb. We even had a little ritual after suppertime where I’d walk down the hall and tap on her door with two cups of miso soup or cocoa, and would play Evie a “Song of the Day” on my phone internet. (Her absolute favorite was Wintergatan’s “Marble Machine” song by Martin Molin.) We’d examine and discuss the progress of that flower bulb and sip our cocoa while she told me interesting stories about her travels as an interior designer. The last time we met was last Christmas; she told me then that she would have to move away to be close to family. Luckily I had a chance to take this picture then, of the Amaryllis finally bursting into bloom.

Thread 4. 1990s. At the stately historic home base of Der Arbeter Ring (The Workers’ Circle) everyone came in from the freezing December night and gathered around for hot tea and our monthly singalong. We passed out the music books of favorite Yiddish hits, and were just making the difficult decision of choosing a warmup tune out of so many appealing selections. Then, the door flew open. Stepping in out of the flying snow there was a dapper gentleman in hat and overcoat and suit and walking stick. He called out greetings to all in Yiddish, adding “Hand me a songbook. I just had to get in outa those CHRISTMAS CAROLS.” He became my delightful seat neighbor for the evening. He sang along with gusto through our favorites — “Hof un Gloyb” (Hope and Believe), “Mayn Ruhe Platz” (My Resting Place), “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds), and many more.

By the way, for a Yiddish music break I just found this film clip. Maybe you can search by this title too:

“Molly Picon Abi Gezunt ‘Mamele,’ 1938.”

Molly Picon was a reigning sweetheart of Yiddish theater. The song from “Mamele” is “Abi Gezunt” (If You’ve Got Your Health, You Can Be Happy). This scene of Molly’s wacky housekeeping makes a poignant glimpse of this rich cinema heritage of the 1930s.

At the Arbeter Ring, during a break with more hot tea and a table of pastries, my seat companion told wonderful stories about his lifetime appraising gemstones and jewelry all around the globe. “In every diamond district, with merchants from Thailand, with souvenir vendors at the Vatican — the only language I needed was Yiddish!” He beamed at us. “Yiddish — it’ll take you right around the world!”

Merry Christmas Night to you all!

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12/24/2022: Christmas Eve

The cold snap warmed up today. Instead of snow or sleet or frozen pavement, all day there was dark cloud cover and hard rain flooding the icy streets and yards.

In that steady deluge, there was not a soul or passing car on the streets. For once, the park was empty of sports events and joggers and dogs. From the road it’s a sharp slope down, much too slippery to navigate today, on a trail descending straight through tall conifers and oaks, to a broad field covered with snow. Under heavy rain the snow was melting fast, steaming up in a blanket of thick drifting mist. This scene could be a backdrop by Ivan Bilibin, awaiting knights in armor on horseback.

In my dreams during the cold snap, Angelina showed up in a cameo role to help me be a better Catholic. (Later I sent a text to thank her. She texted back “Oh my gosh that is hilarious. Since that’s the last thing I want you to be.”) Anyway, Dream Angelina knew that in our icy weather, it would be hard for me to get myself out to evening Mass. She told me “Mary. Don’t even try walking over to church in this weather. You stay home. I will drive there, stand in the Communion line, and bring you back a little wafer whatever it means to you. You’ve been to Confession first, right?” Well, no; I haven’t been to Confession in over a year, and had to confess that to her. “A year!” said Dream Angelina. “Then you certainly are not spiritually prepared to receive Communion if you have not been to Confession. Well, I’ll go stand in that line too. Here: write down all of your sins on this piece of paper. I’ll carry it into the voting booth with me and add it on to my sins to tell the priest. Father can absolve us both, like a two for one special.”

To reward her piety, her offer to present all of my sins as her own, and her faith that they would all fit on one sheet of paper, I stopped by her house tonight to share an annual splurge holiday confection: four ounces of organic milk chocolate drops with a crunchy colorful candy coating. They’re an imitation of a familiar childhood candy, but made with different ingredients (the pigments come from turmeric, radish, red cabbage, spirulina, and beets). Real-Life Angelina and I tucked in to the jar and started munching the chocolate drops. They were an ideal festive backdrop to chatting and watching “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the Piano Guys.

When I unscrewed the jar lid, Super Pup snapped to attention on her dog bed. She’d just had a relaxing walk topped off with delicious pup-healthy treats. But even after I tightly resealed the jar, she zeroed in on that unfamiliar substance under glass, a food which canines are not at all evolved to digest. “Chocolate is toxic for dogs,” I informed her. She was not deterred. She rested a tiny paw on my shoe. She whimpered in a plaintive manner. She crept on to my knee. She nudged the sealed jar, staring at vivid colors that a dog (they’re pretty well colorblind) couldn’t even see. I put the jar away out of sight in my duffle bag, thinking she would forget about it. Instead she crept closer to track and sniff my mouth and hands. She tried a protest yip. She even tried flashing her teeth. I nudged her away with a fingertap. Nothing daunted, she vaulted off the sofa to rummage among some toys. She vaulted right back at me with a little slice of bone. Cuddling right up, she nestled the bone slice in my palm, then tipped her head and gazed sweetly in my eyes. “That’s a trade,” Angelina explained. “Fork over that chocolate, and you can gnaw my favorite bone.” For the rest of the visit Super Pup plied me with ploys to get at that candy. Finally we leashed her and Bingo so Angelina could walk me home. Only then did the standoff end.

None of this even mentions Our Lord and Christmas. That story comes tomorrow. Silent Night!!

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12/18/22-12/20/22: Joy?

This pond image looks fuzzy with TV static. But the white dots are a sunshower of Rimed Graupel, raindrops cooled down to round soft snow puffs. As precipitation types go (and from what I saw of Kansas weather, some are pretty scary) a minute of graupel shower is benign and cute, like standing under confetti when you’ve won a spelling bee.

Among today’s duck flock there were a matched pair with large pompadour crests, one in gray and one in black and white. Their showy look inspired me to search the internet for “ducks with black and white heads.” The remarkable “All About Birds” website at CornellLabs showed just the right portrait to match this endearing bird, calling it a male Hooded Merganser. To respect the copyright and the hard work of the photographer, here is a link instead of a picture.


In other news, on Sunday nights at church there is a series of sermons about the spirit of Christmas — to be exact, the role of the Holy Spirit as the creative power behind the many incidents and connections which culminated in the Christmas story. Now those Gospel accounts have been familiar over a lifetime of repetition and fond cultural associations, and that can lead to a default habit of imagining ahead to the finale of the story. But this month, when popular culture is flinging holiday-themed distractions at us, the church up the street is a welcome sensible oasis to ponder the holy day at the heart of it all. Pastor takes this very familiar story, walks us through the verses, and then thin-slices the moments and discusses the details for a fresh deeper look.

One point involved First Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice evermore.” The idea is that joy is not the same as being happy about every life condition. Instead, joy is something that we can affirm in every circumstance. (Famous Christian example: Corrie and Betsy ten Boom in The Hiding Place were not happy about the blanket of fleas in their bunk in the labor camp. But they thanked God in the circumstance of even those fleas. Later they discovered that they were able to pray, preach, and sing hymns in peace with their fellow prisoners without punishment, only because the prison guards refused to enter the cell block because of the fleas.)

Anyway, Pastor made the point that “Rejoice evermore” sheds light on the point three verses after in 5:19, “Quench not the Spirit.” So one way to align our lives with the Holy Spirit, at Christmas and every day, is by rejoicing. Joy is after all one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. It would stand to reason that we can work more closely with the Spirit by affirming joy.

Christianity has a custom of describing spiritual experiences using the vocabulary of worldly experiences. That’s a fine start, but it assumes that listeners have had the worldly experiences to begin with, and are bringing that to the table. Describing God as an unconditionally loving Father may not help a person with no background experience of love from a human father. What does Psalm 23 mean to people who have no idea what it is to see and feel the calming effect of a green pasture and running water, or natural beauty at all? What did “Peace be with you!” mean to my college roommate’s devout father? He was afflicted with hysterically violent outbursts of temper until the family appealed to his doctor. The care team conducted a thorough physical with lab tests, and then the doctor (as a reluctant ethically controversial last resort) prescribed “blood pressure” pills that were really an anti-depressant. After a few weeks on medication, Dad woke up in tears, exclaiming “Peace!! I’m finally at peace! I’ve never felt it before in my life. Now I know what people are talking about.” He healed his relationship with his family, and might well have found more comfort in his King James Bible, where “Peace” is used 420 times (thank you Google search).

The idea of rejoicing in the Spirit was in mind all week. In fact, day and night, it wouldn’t go away. Focusing on joy over happiness, and centering that joy on God, is a good solid idea. The only issue is that I don’t know how joy feels to begin with. I simply don’t know what people are talking about. Unable to puzzle out the sermon from last week, I grew so discouraged that I didn’t even try going to church for Sunday evening service.

Part of the issue is that popular culture seems to kick these words around without much agreement or deep thought about what they mean. In the news today, a sincere reverent reader responded to an online article with the comment, “It is only through suffering that we can know what the opposite, true joy, really is.” (So “joy” equals the absence of suffering? Here I thought joy was a lot more rugged and deep somehow.) One error is to label “joy” to what is really just natural (or artificially induced) elation, implied in, say, ads on our city buses showing paid models screaming over their good times at some casino. Yesterday’s winter reading at the library was a Marie Kondo picture book with gorgeously arranged photographs of her home, advising on how to choose objects and arrangements which spark our inner joy. For example, she described her daily uplifting ritual of wiping and polishing her entryway to her home, and also cleaning the soles of her shoes before arranging them neatly, each in its place all ready for use. Ms. Kondo’s focus and dedication have given me some practical tips and enjoyable images. Inanimate household items matter; I’m grateful for kimchi rice, a nap in soft bedding, my new Water-Pik flosser, and the new toilet seat from building management that doesn’t wobble and threaten to tip me onto the floor. But an inanimate belonging doesn’t spark anything joyward unless it’s a symbol of a personal relationship.

Instead of church, I went over to Angelina’s to hear her ideas about joy. She was just finishing a batch of chicken cacciatore and fresh pizzelle anise waffle Christmas cookies hot from the pizzelle press. She shared with me a lot of good examples of the joyful moments in her life, including the company of her wonderful children, play with her dogs, and the privilege of cooking and sharing delicious foods. (Then again, is that kind of uplift and harmony what we would call “happiness”? See, I wouldn’t even know.) After our visit, Angelina packed up goodies for me to take home. “Why don’t you think of some step that will bring you closer to what looks like joy. Then we can go out in my car and explore that together.” That sounded like a generous and sensible idea from a caring warm-hearted person.

People have suggested that maybe I’m expecting “Joy” to be something very dramatic? But my problem seems to be that I simply don’t have an emotion set, to match what other people mean. (I don’t have an emotion set for a whole range of other feelings either. The idea of “insatiable lust” or “avarice” or “relentless athletic competitiveness to the point of physical self-damage” are far over my head too.) A friend of mine is red-green color blind. People have dangled really really bright reds and greens at him saying “You must be able to see that. It’s really bright!” Like, maybe you were expecting red and green to be dramatic, but in fact they are in the little everyday details around us and you’re just not paying attention or appreciating them.

Talking with Angelina I looked far back over the years to think of times in life when I felt joy. For me, the closest approximation must be warm human connections. That’s why I take walks in the cemetery; the engravings are a reminder, carved in stone, that people love one another. That’s why the Russian TV show Zhdi meniá (Wait for Me) is a favorite Friday tradition for my mirror neurons; the show tracks down and matches up long-lost relatives and friends, and brings them together in the studio to share life stories and hugs and kisses and expressions of clearly recognizable joy. “Maybe the closest thing,” I told Angelina, “was times in life when things were difficult or impossible for people that I love, but then there was an opportunity to do what God would want, or that person had a truly remarkable change of heart, and that created an even better connection.” Closer connection with God and other people — to me that looks like spiritual consolation and grace, something which sustains and guides and inspires us through any circumstance, like the many wonderful stories of Corrie ten Boom. For now, that is my best definition of joy.

Just today, Angelina took us on our first adventure: to the doctor for a followup check for me, through rain with warnings of a winter storm front. Rushing to meet Angelina, waiting downstairs with the car, I hopped around in one snow boot, tugged and struggled with the sliding doors of my dark closet, rummaged wildly through footwear for my other snow boot, and exclaimed “This NEVER happens to Marie Kondo!” The medical checkup all turned out just fine, and Angelina’s good company and humor and skill at navigating in very cold rain turning to snow fills me with gratitude. Afterwards we brainstormed ideas for future adventures: Kashmir? Machu Picchu? Then it was off to rest in thankfulness with the great privilege of some kimchi rice and soft bedding.

In conclusion, a picture of ornate lacelike pizzelle belongs here. But on Sunday night I ate them all in the 5 minute walk home.

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12/3/2022: Dressing for the weather

Autumn trailed away with some nice parting views.

This house had a dainty planter at the front gate, holding miniature succulents.

Here are some implausibly tall cottonwood trees (the picture can’t do justice to their towering height or the glorious sunshine), losing their leaves in a high ray of light from the setting sun.

Some implausibly tall cottonwood trees are shaking off their leaves for the year, lit up by the last ray of high sun.

Here below is a sturdy wooden fence with a genteel tempering of lichen. A random side glance through a space in the frame revealed this glimpse of the garden inside.

On a cold morning of intermittent freezing rain I was nested in perfect comfort on the bus to work, eyes closed, head bowed, arms folded, breath long and gentle. In that profoundly restorative interlude, thoughts of worry and regret drifted past and misted away, leaving only a clear inner mirror of calm and interested sensations: feet on ridged non-skid floor feeling the surfaces of the road, balance gently shifting as the bus changed directions and speeds, supportive plastic-leather seat, soft surrounding cell-phone chat in nearby seats, alternating heated and chilled drafts of air. Thoughts and impressions passed by that clear mirror in peace, leaving only good wishes and warmth for this group of strangers heading into their day.


My head and spine snapped upright; the words seemed to be right inside my sweatshirt hood, but were in fact about six inches from my face. A genteel and sweet looking lady had bowed right in close and raised her voice a bit. She was holding out a pair of nice little gloves. “I have an extra pair at home. Please, it’s fine.”

I gave her a smile and showed her my hands. “Thank you so much! My joints are too bent for gloves. That is why they are folded into this kangaroo pocket, all snug. But that is very kind of you.”

“Is that rheumatoid arthritis? I am so sorry. Well all right then. See you next time!” We waved goodbye as she got off the bus.

It was very kind of her to just offer that way. It’s not too rare for people see me hiking around in freezing rain and assume that I’m very poor. But in fact for rheumatoid hand circulation, nothing beats a lined sweatshirt with hood and a kangaroo pocket for comfort and warmth. Nothing beats a jumbo rain tarp either, or clownie men’s shoes with cleats and a high toe box (the feet are rheumatoid too) or a fluorescent vest for safety, or a sturdy beat-up shoulder bag with broken zipper bought ten years ago for a dollar at the Lutheran church charity sale, the perfect size for my triple-filtered water green tea and the best organic produce money can buy cooked up fresh into neat glass jars and some Pimsleur language learning tapes and a library book and eye drops and tissues and a flashlight. This caring lovely lady wouldn’t know that I’d just invested $366 for the incredible luxury of a followup CT scan of last year’s gum abscess. (Rheumatism comes with gum disease. But it’s all fine; there is even new bone growth, which was wonderful news.) That’s putting my money where my mouth is, not wearing it on my sleeve.

That calls to mind our Greek Orthodox church, where the youth group assembled bags with bottled water and protein bars and hygiene toiletries and clean socks for distribution to community members experiencing homelessness. On bag assembly day I was standing in the purchase line at the church bookstore waiting my turn with other customers. A congregation member spotted me with the clown shoes and rain tarp slung over one arm and the Lutheran duffle with provisions for my post-Liturgy prayer hike. She hurried into the bookstore singling me out with a raised voice. At first glance, her eyes, tone, and assertive approach looked as if she thought I was shoplifting. It took a dim gaping moment to figure out what she meant by “You NEED a BAG?!” But in fact I was just lost in enchantment, surrounded by beautiful devotional items, eagerly waiting to purchase two books on monasticism and an icon and cross. I was also happy that day to be dressed not to tote file boxes at work, but for church in my nicest dusky-rose blouse and long rose dress with matching rose & silver Pashmina shawl. Well, that’s what humility is for, and it’s good to know that we have generous people afoot.

This week saw the start of a new winter season. Last night at bedtime there was soft steady rain. But before dawn, there was a wake-up surprise: at eye level right outside through the screen at the open balcony door, a foot away from the bedroll and pillow, there were inches of snow! It all melted with sunrise, and the day turned clear and brisk with an early moon (84.7% full, waxing gibbous). In the garden, here was some of my frozen flowering kale in the early sunshine.

And here is a new winter crop. On an afternoon of sleet and freezing rain with gusts of wind, the Wing Family harvested their bumper crop of sunchokes (the first three quarts of chokes are now in my fridge) and brought in fresh black topsoil and giant turnip plants. They planted a row of white turnips, and a row of Chinese Red turnips. The plants thrive in snow, and will grow all winter as a source of edible roots and leaves. Mrs. Wing explained that she will also use them as one ingredient to compound her herbal medicine cough syrup elixir. It does the heart good to see this hard-working family constantly tending every available bit of space and improving our quality of life and garden enjoyment.

Well, the sprouted chickpeas are all cooked up, and this week’s batch of kimchi is mixed and seasoned and in the weighted press. Time to go soak some rice and cook greens for tomorrow. Maybe we will have a thaw for that hike in the woods….

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11/20/2022: Stolen Tree

Just for the record: this plant is not stolen. Our building management said I could dig up a geranium from their planter and take it indoors out of the frost. Here is how it looks now.

That night I was last and late leaving work in the basement stock room. I locked up the office and stepped outside into six inches of water. The wind took my breath away and threw me back against the door. My rain slicker somersaulted up and off; I yanked it back on and pinned it down with one arm, shielding my head with the other from the horizontal rain.

The main street was empty; not a soul or car in sight.

A shopping cart raced over the curb and spun out in the road. Metal trash cans flipped end to end, spilling and splitting their bags of garbage. Some window behind me broke in a shower of glass. Up on a half-finished building, Tyvek wrap was all booming shreds. Streetlights jolted like hanging effigies with their lights spelling empty black.

Taking off my steamed and streaming glasses I peered through my fingers to slide along a drug store wall and cower in the doorway for the next hour, waiting for a bus that came an hour later. I’d always been afraid of bad weather, and ashamed for feeling that way. But even for me, all this blowing debris seemed extra scary. There were no pay phones in the area to call the house. Maybe I should go sleep in the stock room at work? But that would mean walking all the way back through those dark streets to the empty building. Some sense told me to just stand right there in my little nook at the drug store, and shelter in place.

Next I was hit in the chest by a potted plant. It was a hefty armful of leafy tree in a planter, bounding down the street. On some impulse I picked it up, and then saw the bus headlights. Wait, how would the driver see me in the dark? I ran out to the stop, hopping up and down and waving the tree. The driver swerved and pulled in. I fell breathless up the bus steps.

   “Gwan gwan move IN,” the driver ordered as I fumbled for the fare. “Get back.”

The bus was jammed with delayed commuters. I wedged in, holding the tree sideways out of their way. Potting mulch and rain streamed down me and on to the floor, already a trampled sludge of fallen leaves and newsprint. A young man in a good suit and London Fog coat gave me an indignant glare. “That is a stolen tree. That tree and planter were stolen right out of my house.”

Passengers turned and stared at me. I thought fast. “And now, here it is! I didn’t know where the tree came from. I was getting on the bus and it flew right at me. Here you are, Sir.”

He waved me away. “Whoa no. I don’t want it back. That was all my tenant’s idea. The plant was all dried out at the curb on trash day, and he dragged it home. He got it all blooming again. White flowers and little oranges.”

An orange tree! The passengers and I took a more appreciative look at the five gallon bronze colored planter with scalloped edges. The tree was about four feet tall, covered with jet black leathery leaves. “It’s frost-bit some is all,” I said. “I can re-pot it and care for it a while. Then your tenant can have it back as a surprise.”

   “No,” he said. “That is… no but thanks. He died last year.” The passengers turned and stared at him. “He named it Clara.”

   “Clara it is, then. She can stay with me, and be his memory tree. He must have cared about plants. Did he work in a plant nursery?”

   “He worked in two restaurants. But he moved here from Delaware to stage ‘The Nutcracker.’ That was his whole big dream. He rented my ground floor. Every spare minute he was building sets and models in his rooms downstairs, like a whole little stage world. Playing the music, learning the score, walking through choreography, drawing costumes and decorations, moving panels and curtains around. He was all excited over this dead plant. He always said if the tree makes it then he’ll make it too. Like, ‘It’s you and me, Clara. All the way. Together.’ And when the tree grew back, he was so happy.”

   “And ‘The Nutcracker’? Did anybody see his stage set?” I asked.

   “Couple of guys came over and looked at the plans and talked with him. Then he caught a cold and didn’t get better. In and out of the hospital. At home he lay in bed looking around at his stage and playing the music, making little Christmas ornaments to hang on the tree. When he died his parents came and picked up all his things.”

   “They took the stage set to Delaware?”

   “They took it to the dumpster in pieces. I found it there that night after they left.”

   “The tree too?”

   “They didn’t get the tree. After he died…” He stopped and cleared his throat, looking around. We all waited for him to go on. “I had this dream about a group of men. They were whispering this little song, like chanting. They joined hands and walked in a circle all around the tree. And I woke up and jumped out of bed thinking ‘My God, those men are inside the house!’ And I ran downstairs. But no, the place was all quiet and locked. Then I saw an orange blossom by the front door. I opened up his room. Everything there was right the way he left it, but the tree was gone.”

Passengers took a long collective breath. Then they stirred, looking around.

   “Where are we?” A couple sitting nearby wiped the steam off the windows and bobbed their heads to see past the rain. “We missed Washington Street. Six blocks ago.”

   “We missed Maple before that,” said another.

   “I just missed Rutherford,” said the young man.

The driver stopped the bus. “Jeez, you coulda rang the bell. Folks, this is bad out there. I’ll have to circle back to Maple, let ya’s all off at your stops. And you, Miss. Young lady with the tree. Where ya headed?”

   “Center Square, Sir. Last stop.”

   “Stay put while I loop around.”

The bus emptied out. At Rutherford the young man left the bus. “Good luck with that.”

Clara and I took a seat near the driver. I dropped my coins in the fare box. Center Square was the last stop. I stood up to leave.

   “How far you going, Miss?” The driver turned around. “Top of the hill? No, you can’t lug that thing. Sit down and point out the way I’ll drive you.” That night our residential neighborhood, all soaring sycamores and pines and three-story family houses built in 1900, had an off-duty Metro bus ease along the flooded street and right to my door. “Get in safe, Hon. Take care of yourself. And your little tree there.” I thanked him and waved goodbye, and rushed for the house.

The rain roared down on roofs and tall rocking trees. I groped my way over fallen sycamore limbs and up the porch steps. Unlocking the front door and sliding along the wall I eased sideways up to our apartment on the second floor. I carried the pot down the hall to the bathroom off the kitchen, and set it down in the bathtub along with my shoes and socks. Then I sat down on the edge of the tub and realized that I’d forgotten for a while to be scared of the storm, because now there was something important to care for, a tree with a story and a name. What if it really did start to grow again? It would look so pretty in my room, and make a nice story for our guests. Best of all, maybe that young man’s spirit would feel pleased that Clara was doing well and in good hands.

On the first floor, all the lights were out; our neighbors were away for the weekend. In our household upstairs the four other guys and gals were all at home, but not for long. The gal headed over to her boyfriend’s for the night. The guys were heading to the pub with their friend Trigg to shoot pool and play darts. The fellows urged me to join them. “It’s a gloomy evening for sitting home alone,” Jared pointed out, tuning his guitar on the sofa; “They’ve got a Trivia Night. Maybe the bonus topic will be Russian Grammar, and you’ll win.” But I was too wary of heading out again for a late night in rough weather. I wanted to tend to the orange tree, then warm up and get to sleep.

First I grabbed my rain tarp and rubber sandals, and ran down to the garden. I emptied an extra five-gallon clay pot, rinsing it well under the rain spout. Then I picked up and threw in a quart of rocks, and hauled it all back upstairs. I was cooking the rocks over the stove in my laundry-boiling pot when Trigg strolled in to the kitchen for a hello and a hug, and took a look in the pot. “Short ’til payday, Love?”

   “Hi, Trigg! I’m sterilizing these stones to transplant an orange tree. It flew along and hit me at the bus stop.”

   “Full-blown gale, trash flying all over hell. This one has to drag it into the house.”

   “Can you have a look and tell me what it needs? It’s right there in the bathroom.”

   “Sure… Wait, that sorry ragmop in the tub?”

   “What’s it mean when the leaves turn black?”

   “Means ‘plant death.’ Let it go, Dear. Could have mites or who knows what. I can walk it to the bin for you.”

   “Oh, it used to be dead to begin with. But a young man from Delaware was staging ‘The Nutcracker,’ and he nursed it back to health and named it Clara. I’m at least the third owner.”

   “You’re likely the last. You got all that from what, the note in the foundling basket?”

   “Owner’s landlord was on my very bus. Somebody stole the tree from his house, but he didn’t want it back. Let’s see if it perks up in a few days. I think these rocks are done.”

   “Why not give it up and come with us.” Trigg ruffled my hair. “I’ll have the van at the door in ten. And look, I’ve got a houseful of plants and trees, Pet. I’ll bring you something healthy with a fightin’ chance.”

Jared on the sofa left off practicing his guitar and put his boots on, and the men got ready to go. “I enjoy watching Mary do her life,” said Trigg to the fellows as he left to bring the van. “She’s all hero’s journey. Like a kitten fighting its way out of a sandwich bag.” The sound of their voices trailed off, and their bootsteps creaked through the ceiling as I grabbed the clay pot of rocks and headed down to the basement.

There was a van horn and the flash of Trigg’s headlights. “Is that the downstairs lights you’ve left on?” he yelled up to the house. “Aw Jaysus, no — that’s your girl down cellar coddling that roadkill in a planter. What’s wrong with you lot, letting her catch her death of damp and mold! She’ll be haunting the house next. Go get her out of that and into the van and I’ll buy her a pint.” After some calling back and forth and slamming doors, the men drove off.

The project took a chill drafty hour or more. There was a trip four flights up to the kitchen bin for newspapers to spread on the floor, a trowel, scissors to cut open some construction sand to spread over the hot rocks, then a wrestle with the large bag of potting soil, then another trip to the kitchen for an old platter to put underneath, then later another trip for a jug of distilled water and fertilizer liquid and paper towels. Finally the planting and sweeping and cleanup were done. I locked up the cellar, turned out all the lights, hoisted up the pot, and began to struggled up the four flights of back steps. The wet clay pot and rocks and watered earth and mulch were so heavy that halfway up I nearly fell, and had to half-drop it on the stairs.

And with that final jolt, all but one black leather leaf fell off the tree in a heap. I sank down to the steps, head in hands. Maybe this whole Saving Orange Clara fantasy was all about me wanting to reach out and connect and do something helpful and feel all special. Huddled on the steps I just felt crestfallen and chagrined. The emotion felt familiar. Where had that feeling come from before? Then, the memory came to mind:

It was a hospital room, with a young friend on a lot of monitors and machines sitting up in bed and me perched in the doorway being quiet, just to keep him company. He’d been there for weeks, and for some reason that day it felt important to go get on the bus and visit him. When I tapped on the door frame with a soft hello he didn’t look at or speak to me. But he seemed acutely sensitive and aware of everything around him. He knew exactly who I was; it’s just that now his energy was fixed on a smaller more focused circle of rapt attention. He was staring hard at the wall, working to keep his head upright while watching some vast epic that I couldn’t see, playing out all across the white painted surface. His vigilance was so tense that at one point I stood up with some murmur of reassurance, and slowly reached over to touch his hair. His head snapped back. He flashed his eyes at me like some captive bird of prey. Clearly my intervention had disrupted his epic, and possibly its entire outcome. I backed away on tiptoe to sit down again. Two nurses rushed in to the room and hurried me out. He died the next day.

   “Clara? I was wrong this time too.” I picked up a black leaf. “I rushed in and intervened in your epic. I wanted you to get well and to stay with me! But you just want to be an orange tree in heaven, don’t you? You just want to see your young man again.” I took a deep breath. “Here you go then, just like he said: ‘All the way, together.’ Goodbye.” I wrenched the tree roots out of the pot.

When I did that, an immense wave of grief and despair, something more than any wind or weather, swept from basement upwards, straight up and out of the house. I cowered down as the cloud passed over. Then, to my immense relief, loud men’s voices rang out loudly upstairs. The fellows! They must have turned back to spend the evening at home! I leaped up to call out to the four of them and join their good company. But then I realized that the voices were strange men, in our house. At first I froze. Was it the police with news of an accident? Were they people breaking in? Should I run upstairs two flights, and out the back door? What if there were more men outside?

It took a long moment of fear and a musical commercial break to tell me that the voices came from the television. Creeping up the stairs, I peered into the living room. Sure enough, the television showed a basketball game, with commentators hollering about the score. But why hadn’t I heard it, trudging up and down to the kitchen for the past hour? And why would the guys turn it on before going out? We housemates almost never watched TV at all. That black and white set was left from some long past generation of tenants. It was a large wooden console with sound panels of scratchy gold fabric, and an old-fashioned on/off button — push in hard to turn on, push in hard again to turn off. I pushed the button.

And at that, the set turned on.

It wasn’t basketball. It was white snow static and no reception at all. I crawled behind the console and yanked the plug out of the wall outlet, using both wrists because my hands were shaking so hard. Then for some reason that I can not explain, I ran down the back stairs and grabbed the clay pot, ran right up two flights, and put the orange tree right out of our home. The 1900 house had a closed pantry porch at the back. It led to a closed yard with a tall chain link fence. The porch floor boards were so warped and loose that we never used that door ourselves, so I settled the tree there. Then I slammed and bolted the porch door and house door, charged up the two flights to our back kitchen, and locked the stair door and the kitchen door. Still shaking hard I changed into dry clothes.

My bedroom was all windows, and the wind and rain were pounding on the house. So I settled on the living room sofa in a Jared-shaped space in the cushions, and fell asleep next to his guitar with my rosary. At least it was a comfort to think about the unexpected fellow-feeling on that city bus, and the kindness of that driver. By looping around and driving us home, he might have kept us safe from walking around with flying branches or downed wires. Here it seemed like I was out saving an orange tree, when maybe the tree saved us.

That was the weekend of All Saints/All Souls, 1991. Later on we found out that those wind gusts reached 75 miles an hour. The nameless hurricane that people in the city still call The Perfect Storm passed over us. Thirteen people lost their lives. The Andrea Gail sank off the coast.

In the morning I woke up and ran downstairs to place the tree in our compost. I searched the porch, the chain-link yard, the steps, the basement, and even asked my housemates whether they had moved it. But the tree had vanished, pot and all, leaving one black leaf by the door.

We were fortunate that night. Everyone got home safely. At 2:00 am Jared woke me up and marched me back to my room. I was mainly walking in my sleep, but happy to see him. “How was Trivia Night? Was it Russian Grammar?”

“That’s right. We all lost. What were you doing sleeping with my guitar, Mare? I think this rosary is yours, not mine.”

“Is the TV off?” I worried, getting into bed right in my street clothes and too sleepy to care.

“TV? What?” He just smiled, sitting down at the foot of my bed. “Sure it’s off. We weren’t watching it, and neither were you.” He tucked me in, then stopped in the doorway on his way out. “Mare? I won’t quote his exact words, but Trigg says your orange tree isn’t gonna make it. Tomorrow he’s bringing you a Peace Lily from his sun room. Sweet dreams.”

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11/17/22: Family Notion

This week a friendly enthusiastic kind and caring young woman asked, “So do you have big plans for Thanksgiving?” I said “Well, Thanksgiving is for families at home, and I don’t have family at mine.”

She lit up with a radiant smile, and said “Then WE will be your Thanksgiving family!!” It was very dear of her to volunteer herself and all her associates on their behalf, so I thanked her. Here all I’d expected her to do was ring up my dental floss on the pharmacy cash register and then say “Next customer, hello.”

When people say that to me, and they do, what picture are they carrying in their dear heads? Are they really thinking “We’ll be closed for the holiday, so sure she can totally spend it here in the Dental Care aisle”? Somewhere over the years, did the term “family” wander off its little dictionary page and take a tumble right into the Sunday funny papers?

Or, maybe my view of kindred connection was wrong to begin with, some cotton-candy notion about coming home at the end of any ordinary day, and people there say “There’s chicken soup. It’s on the stove.” And they share the sofa, and the kitchen, and the real stories about their life. They stay around, maybe for years, maybe a lifetime, maybe generations, saying “Let’s pray about this,” or “Let’s move to the same town,” or “Let’s buy a house,” or “Let’s raise my kid / restore some land and grow potatoes / take a road trip through 10 endless states / start a band and play music on the street.”

Pondering all this on the commute home last night, I reached for my bus reading (Pema Chödrön, How We Live is How We Die), but the book had slipped under my groceries. To keep from rummaging and fussing I just sat back and worked with deep long breaths for the 40 minutes home. Soon on an out breath the thought occurred, “This breath now is the most at-home that you Mary can ever be. For you, that’s all there is.” There was really nowhere else than to be in this breath now, on this bus now, and my home group was this random assortment of phone-swiping strangers. It was not my favorite choice of possible thoughts. But I just kept floating down into it and kept breathing out and out in this one way to live and die.

In pleasant contrast, at church there is the most beautiful lovable couple, married for lots of years. They reflect a steady state of deft thoughtfulness and sweetness and uplift and understated humor, generated by their deft thoughtfulness toward one another. Well, this week out of the blue they had a distressing misfortune. But they teamed up and got right through it and for Wednesday mid-week service they even managed to bake and bring us pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Of course with a glorious dessert like that, the bananas that I brought for the refreshment table didn’t vanish, and there were plenty left after. So our dear Mrs. asked me “Mary, may I possibly take two of your bananas home?” She explained that dear Mr. is fond of a banana every morning with his breakfast, but with their circumstances this week, they’d had no time to go shop for produce. I said “Please take them all! And I have another bunch right here.” But oh no, just two was fine thank you very much. They offered me a ride home, and left the church hall marveling in pleased voices about my astounding generosity. “The Lord has provided,” dear Mr. proclaimed in wonder. “Through Mary,” dear Mrs. pointed out to him, with a thoughtfully procured banana in each hand. Their distressing mishap week was drawing to a close — and now he could look forward to his favorite breakfast tomorrow and the day after. But she sounded happier still, at the chance to serve it and then sit with him while he ate it. They kindly dropped me at my door. Then they headed home together.

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11/14/22: Holiday Thought

There’s an ideal that I’ve been pondering for years about “holiday spirit” and all its associations.

This is all just an anthropologist on or from Mars talking, who has never set up a holiday for a houseful of people or put up a tree full of lights or cooked a turkey or plum pudding with brandied hard sauce. But here on the outside looking in, it appears that everyone could save a little stress if they spread out the festivities and socials over time, rather than herding it all into one day here and there to fit the Gregorian Calendar and the store sales.

That can work in a more interdependent society where people check in with one another more often. “Who has time for that?” Well, people who share their cares and chores in everyday ways.

On Sunday at our small church up the road, one of the women brought delicious chickpea hummus. She and I were swapping hummus recipes and methods, and she talked about her sourdough baking, which led to a talk about pickling and fermenting, and then she mentioned kimchi. Kimchi? I never would have bet the ranch that the demographic of this church would be chatting with me about shopping at H Mart for gochugaru versus gochujang. (Then again, those Baptist folks are so energetic and enterprising that they do get up and out and living around the world.) “Me too!” I hollered at her, flapping my hands and jumping up and down. “There’s always a weighted crock in progress on the counter.” Then we talked about our favorite kimchi styles. (Later on her spouse remarked “It’s interesting to sit across a room and observe the conversations, and to see which people in the room light up at the word ‘kimchi.'”)

Well, wouldn’t it be a better world if we routinely swapped the weekly sourdough or pickling or what have you? Then everybody would have more friendly bacteria and more leisure.

Sometimes people shoehorn a whole bunch of celebrating into just a day here and there because, they explain, cleaning a full size family house with kids and a dog is such an exhausting hat trick that they can only carry it off every so often. That’s absolutely understandable to me, someone living in one room with nothing to tend but a salvaged geranium in a pot. So I tell them “Let’s set a timer for 30 minutes, and I’ll walk across the street and help you declutter until the timer goes off. Then you come over and we’ll set a timer for another 30, and you keep me company while I file paperwork. If we do that every week for an hour we’ll get way ahead and have fun.” But so far that idea has fizzled the conversation pretty quickly. “I can’t do that,” people say. “I’m too ashamed.” (Ashamed of what? You’re a paramedic who works crazy hours rescuing people and also raising three kiddos! And standing in the way of our quality time is a dust bunny trying to stare us down?)

What I’d like in my stocking this year, along with my foot, is a life where people are engaged with each other more often, sharing more holiday spirit (= generosity, engagement, and appreciation for our blessings) all year round. This holiday season I’ll practice more of that in my interactions day by day, and talk up the idea on how we can carry that over right into January.

Ok, got to stir the kimchi. Added some Nappa cabbage last night, so the mix might need more anchovy sauce.

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11/3/22: ASL Slipped Through My Fingers

American Sign Language (ASL) is not a language of mine, and I have no background or proficiency in Deaf communities or cultures. This account is sure to contain mistakes in terminology and perceptions. I apologize and will correct this account if any error seems disrespectful. It is certainly not meant to be.

In 1997 or so the Adult Ed school downtown had a class in ASL. Naturally, I had to hurry on down and sign up for that. Who wouldn’t?

Fascination with the possibilities of manual language started as a kid. At one point I got in some trouble, or at least in some consternation, by learning a fingerspelling alphabet from the back of a book about Helen Keller. I walked around the house spelling to myself until the grownups got worried that I was losing my hearing or common sense or both. They weren’t far wrong. As it happens, New York was quite a loud place with loud speech. People’s voices and words startled me so much that I did secretly pray to God to take my hearing away, thinking how restful it would be to get some peace and quiet. Alternative language modes, from Morse code light flashes to Boy Scout flag wigwagging, seemed very appealing.

In those school days, the WNET educational television channel had a show called “What’s New?” One of the features was “The Quiet Man,” starring Bernard Bragg telling pantomime stories. To me the miming seemed scary, and I always had to leave the room until it was over. But some years after that I was at the library, flipping through the card catalogue looking for some Paul Bragg health book, and noticed a Bernard Bragg memoir called Lessons in Laughter. What a revelation, to learn about The Quiet Man’s lifetime achievements, as a famous actor of Deaf theater! It came as an absolute wonder, to read that book and learn that ASL is not a letter by letter transcription from English, but that it exists as a vastly expressive nuanced language, the medium of historically rich cultural communities and art forms.

In the 1970s When I taught Russian as a graduate assistant, half the grade in drill class was based on recitation. Every student had to stand up before the class each week, to recite a memorized dialogue. One very quiet student was too shy to speak in front of a group. Finally I had to advise her to disenroll from the class before the end of the add-drop period to avoid an F on her report card. She sat in tears at the news, with her fingers writhing in her lap. This was not ordinary fidgeting. Her gestures seemed to anticipate her speech; they looked so complex that at last I said “What are you spelling here?” She explained that she had transitioned to living and interacting in the Deaf community, and was far more comfortable with ASL. “Next week,” I told her, “Stand up in your turn. But let’s have the whole class recite the dialogue together to YOU — and you Sign it back to them.” The idea was a triumph. Her peers were so impressed to discover her remarkable skill that she became the class star, happily teaching Sign to the others. After that she was comfortable Signing while reciting in Russian. (And yes, it would have been more accurate to express Russian using Russian Sign, a completely different language. But to make our class a safer more welcoming place, ASL was just the bridge we needed.) Years later I saw her out and about, a radiant young woman with a group of laughing Signing friends. She stopped and Signed them some story about me. The group enjoyed her story, beamed at me, and applauded her. As they rushed off again she turned back to Sign “Mary I love you.”

There’s been so much to learn, about social and cultural connections beyond hearing, from a whole spectrum of experiences and communication styles. One was Deaf Like Me by Thomas Spradley, about his family suffering and struggling with their daughter Lynn through the “Oral Method” exercises insisted upon by well-meaning teachers, until the parents discovered the power of ASL to communicate with their perfectly bright little girl who was raring to connect with others. There was Joanne Greenberg’s novel Of Such Small Differences, and the main character’s acute awareness, fortitude, and resourceful coping skills — in contrast with the Seeing / Hearing people around him, and their counterintuitive impulses and agendas from pitying to predatory. There was In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World, a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir by Ruth Sidransky about her warm-hearted Deaf parents and the rich East European Jewish Deaf community of New York in the early 20th century. (At her father Benny’s deathbed, the family walked in to his room and found his arms placed in restraints as a fall prevention. In those final moments, the restraints kept this passionately eloquent loving husband from saying his goodbye to his beloved wife and daughter. At the burial, as Ruth’s mother watched his coffin lowered into the ground, she leaned over to sign “Benny? Can you hear now?”)

In 1997 when ASL class started up, I bucked into that room staring so hard at our teacher’s every hand gesture that he would say and Sign “Hey LADY! Back off. You make me nervous.” Our instructor opened a whole world of Signing humor, irony, mimicry, innuendo, allusion, regional dialect, and social register.

[Wee editorial break, 11/21/22: just yesterday I noticed a Koko the Gorilla program note that dear Koko was “fluent in ASL.” What? Koko and her human associates accomplished something unprecedented and wonderful, but… ASL as language and culture is a complete higher realm. End of editorial. -mg]

Before each class I ambushed our teacher with questions, which he then incorporated into his lesson for the evening. Between classes I would walk around Signing words all day. One night after an all-absorbing session, I stepped out to the street still gesturing ideas to myself — and for a moment was startled by the tide of passing humans trying to communicate by pushing their mouth parts at one another, using inefficient clicking and buzzing noises like insects.

One night at the main library, I passed a conference filled with patrons happily Signing with their snack plates and cups on the floor. (One beautiful young woman came with a pretty red foxlike dog. The dog lit up with joy at the good fortune of a floor covered with treats, and glanced up at his owner for cues. She snapped her fingers together to form the letter N for “No!” The dog lowered his head and sighed, and simply skirted around the plates at heel.) I slipped in and noticed a young man who was both speaking and Signing. He turned out to be a hearing storyteller with what appeared to be effortless ASL fluency. I confided to him my concern, that by learning ASL with no background in Deaf culture, I would only be offending members of those communities. This friendly welcoming man could have launched into an account of his own experiences approaching the culture as a hearing outsider. But instead, he thoughtfully interpreted my misgivings to his friends, eliciting their range of opinions so that they could answer for themselves. His friends gave me friendly smiles, and after a rapid spirited discussion suggested an answer. As one of them Signed back, “It would help if more people would learn ASL. At the grocery store I could ask where the eggs are!” They agreed that of course there was a full diversity of opinions and sensibilities in the Deaf communities about the use of ASL; but much depended on an outsider’s attitude, motive, and manners.

At work it was a thrill to receive a first teletypewriter phone call from Mr. Engels, who was interested in purchasing a book. I was so anxious to help that before the operator could ascertain or upgrade my TTY skills, and drawing perhaps upon the wartime telegraphy in Bugs Bunny cartoons, I hollered in monotone “QUOTATION MARK HELLO COMMA CAPITAL MISTER CAPITAL ENGELS PERIOD CAPITAL THIS IS CAPITAL MARY PERIOD CAPITAL WHAT BOOK WOULD YOU LIKE TODAY QUESTION MARK QUOTATION MARK OPERATOR GO AHEAD.” The operator gently clued me in that, in effect, everyone could have a nice day if I would calm down and speak like a humanoid.

By then I’d already worked as a Russian hospital interpreter. In those days before video interpreting, there were always a need for hearing in-person ASL interpreters. Deaf patients were routinely turned away when they showed up for complex appointments, or were given a shrug and a pad and pen. (Our state committee for the rights of people with disabilities had to muscle in at our hospital, when some administrative genius decided to cut costs. He heard that a secretary knew how to sign, so he would call her away from her desk to go interpret medical appointments for the Deaf patients. She interpreted at many appointments until at last one patient stormed out and went right to the State. It turned out that the secretary was using homemade hand signs devised by her family fifty years before to communicate with a sibling — in Greece.) Given the serious shortage of interpreters, it dawned on me: What if one day I could study and advance well enough to be of use to patients?

In the end, I got to serve exactly once as a hospital interpreter for a patient who had lost his hearing. Our dispatcher got a desperate call for a native English speaker with rapid typing skills. All the interpreters in the office at that moment were native speakers of other languages, self-conscious about their English typing. They sent me for the job. The patient was a lovely gentleman who knew no Sign, and whose hearing loss began decades before during military service. The doctors had to reveal grave news, and walk him through the prospects of interventional, palliative, and end of life care. The appointment lasted for a couple of hours. The patient sat beside me, intently reading the computer monitor while I speed-typed every word of the doctors’ instructions in 20 point font. At one point a doctor raised his voice and snapped at the unsuspecting patient. “LOOK at me when I speak to you!” The patient, naturally, did not turn around. I pointed to the monitor and said “Doctor? Mr. X__ is paying full attention to every word you say.” The doctor came over to look, and was fascinated by our transcription workaround — especially when I printed up the entire session for the patient to take home, with the answers to all his questions. (Some time later for the same patient this doctor called the dispatcher and said “Would you send us that English-English interpreter again?” But by then they’d already laid me off to hire interpreters for Iraqi Arabic and Somali.)

Nowadays I keep up with the ever-flourishing talents and achievements of Marlee Matlin in film and Mandy Harvey in music. I watch features like Steve Hartman’s report from CBS Evening News “On the Road,” with the title “Community learns sign language to engage with 2-year-old girl.” But by the end of that first short night course in 1997, rheumatoid arthritis began setting in. Over time, the most basic fingerspelled letters became impossible to form. I was afraid that my mashup gestures would only cause confusion and offense. For example, to suggest the letter “R” (= cross your fingers as if wishing for good luck), I have to reach with the other hand and gently push the middle fingertip toward the first fingertip in a 10% approximation. Fortunately it’s just enough for my gracious Deaf-Blind neighbor, who easily recognizes my deformed hands and is just happy that I pause at his bus stop to say good morning. But the language and the alphabet have slipped through my fingers and are gone.

ASL is one more of my buried dreams, with its potential for connection with the varied and remarkable Deaf language communities. What’s lost isn’t only cartilage and joints. It’s a door closed to relationships and insights on the world.

Late one night on the subway, a teenager 17 years old or so sat alone. As each person boarded the train, the young man glanced up, searching for eye contact, and furtively fingerspelled “Hi.” Nobody engaged with him. My subway stop was coming up next, and I’d have to run to catch the hourly bus to reach my suburb. But I leaned over and Signed “Hello!” He sat bolt upright with a fierce stare of attention, and signed “You Deaf?” From that night class I remembered just enough to Sign back in painful and stiff fashion “No. Hearing. Took class long ago. Don’t know. Sorry.” He launched into the seat next to me and signed “You Deaf?” I signed “No, Hearing. Hands hurt ouch. Signing finished sad.” Obviously it must have seemed illogical to Sign that I don’t Sign, so he tried again: “YOU! DEAF??” As we pulled in to my stop he Signed some urgent message, Signed it again, shook me by the shoulders, and finally in a quick rapid gesture tapped on my teeth. I had to tell him “Sorry late home bye Sorry” before running for that bus.

He had something to tell me. It was something that mattered. What was it? I will never know.

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10/28/2022: She Moved Through the Fair

Note: As always, any character details have to be pastiched around with great care for everybody’s sake. A white Spitz might be borrowed from Chekhov, and might really be a red Pomeranian. Who knows? That sort of thing. If any beautiful woman of distinction in her seventies or eighties should read this now — please rest assured. There’s good reason why it’s not about you.

She was one more face in the crowd at the publishers’ media show.

The expo center was acres of jostle and hubbub, wares and swag, raised voices and microphone feedback, motorcarts beeping around. Warren and Jancie and Glimm and I staffed our booth with publications, posters and banners, sign-up sheets, cash box and coin rolls, receipt pads and pens, catalogues, business cards, logo fridge magnets and pins, first aid kit, and hot Schlegel’s Bagels with cream cheeses and lox. For Friday’s display I brought autumn leaves, toffee in gem-tone wrappers, and appealing stuffed animals (wolf, hedgehog, bunny, hawk). At first, the men put up a fuss over those plush huggies. But they were impressed when time and again some customer or other with evasive manners and a cat-got tongue would step up to pet the animals, jiggle them around to make it look like they’re walking, and then sign up for our mailing list and take a catalogue. Seeing that would attract more people to come ask for a band-aid or tissues or a toffee or change for the pay phone, or for the rest rooms, water fountain, elevator, parking garage; then they’d sign up too.

Plenty of convention visitors just needed to talk. Hearing their stories in a welcoming way was my job, while minding the inventory and receipts. That way the men could work in peace. Warren consulted with business owners who wanted our services: tape and dictaphone transcription, proofreading, typesetting, advertising layout, list fulfillment, mass mailing, book packaging and binding. Glimm and Jancie toted merchandise, moved the van, made bank and coffee runs, assembled the display and broke it down, and caught a smoke break now and then. On Friday an hour before closing, we were working away when something new made us stop and look around.

In the house of merchandise, a shadowed hush came rippling in our direction. The hush materialized as deferential space around one young woman in motion. Everywhere she set foot, people looked twice and turned away, silent as she floated past booth after booth. Their riveted attention did not extend to giving her a single neighborly word or nod of acknowledgment.

I was all smiles at sight of her. She was altogether lovely. She was years older than I was, perhaps thirty or so, or even more; but I couldn’t tell. What other image of timeless beauty might compare? Possibly heroine Elise McKenna from “Somewhere In Time,” strolling Mackinac Island with pompadoured hair and a parasol. Here in this venue with no animals allowed, the lady had two snowy Spitz dogs, perfectly matched and groomed, in step at her heels and gazing up for orders. Her style was flowing and modest from high collar to cuffs to hem. She wore a long creme dress with a wide shawl in tints from lavender to sea green, and turquoise jewelry. She had long fair hair piled high, pale cameo features, languid eyes lashing off into some middle distance. They looked remote or weary, or perhaps weighed down by the press of the crowd. 

But her expression flickered with a hint of animation at sight of our plush menagerie. Pausing at our table she arced a turquoised hand at the catalogues in her reach. She asked me for one in a cultured whisper, beckoning with palm up and grasping the shawl high as if to warm her throat and protect her voice. Eager to assist, I pounced on a catalogue and offered it with both hands. She took the copy and skimmed right past the men as if they were nobody and nothing. Her silence trailed after with the two white shadows gliding at her heels. The men just stood there, looking uncharacteristically subdued and at a loss for words.

“Isn’t she beautiful,” I said with a sigh. Any appearance of fresh wholesome old-fashioned purity always earned my respect and admiration. I sighed again, looking down at my layers of sturdy denim and sneakers for a day of loading cartons in rough weather. “I hope that she’s all right. She looks delicate and shy.”

Glimm spluttered into a coughing fit. Warren gave him an amiable pounding on the back.

   “What is She doing? Here in town?” Jancie burst out, then backed off and examined the floor.

   “Bank run.” Warren announced. He counted the cash, filled out a deposit slip, and handed the envelope to Glimm. “And load up these three boxes. We’ll make do with the rest for an hour.”

   “It’s only an hour. We could all just go then,” Jancie reasoned.

   “Or you could just go now.” Warren handed Jancie another twenty. “Put some gas in the van. Have a cigarette. Have two. Freight dock at five.”

Glimm pocketed the envelope, hanging his head. “I kinda figured she’d be taller,” he said softly.

   “It’s in the contract,” Warren explained. “No men over five foot six.”

   “Whoa. What?” Jancie looked from one of them to the other. “What else is in the contract?” 

Warren threw the van keys at his chest.

The crowd was thinning out. I packed up the plush animals and toffee, and in the relative quiet heard a rush and drumming up on the glass roof. “Gee, it’s pouring! The fellas will get soaked!”

   “It’ll do them good,” Warren handed me the thermos of tea. “We’ll let ’em have their guy talk.”

   “Do you think she’ll be back tomorrow?” Her regal poignant fragile look haunted my sympathy and spirits.

   “I don’t.” He swallowed some cold thermos coffee. “Pumpernickel, sesame, onion, or raisin?”

   “Sesame. Oh Warren. She’s everything I’m not. I’m just one of the guys, huh? Men don’t notice me like that. Like ever.”

Warren put down his pumpernickel bagel and lox, and took a deep breath. Then he quietly explained that our guest was a movie star.

“Wow! In anything I’ve –?”

Warren shook his head and started over. He explained in brief tasteful terms about films in a parallel universe. Listening to him called to mind our video store, and a dim awareness of seeing a back alcove where customers could step in, like a confessional, and browse a rack of videos displayed behind a curtain. I listened in awe, about our guest’s formidable acting charisma, but also her astute knack for finance and negotiation and promotion and self-maintenance. In fact, that might explain her appearance at the media fair. Like the rest of us she’d probably heard about modem communications from one mainframe computer to another. Not many of us pictured ourselves accessing these capabilities, on small computers right in the home. It’s possible that she saw far ahead of the curve how this might have implications for her own industry.

I sat there with my sesame bagel, looking at the wilting autumn leaves on the table, trying dimly to imagine being so attractive, and also having all that awareness and influence over one’s profession and career (and in an industry by and for men! That had to be difficult.). So she really was everything that I was not, after all. Still, what was it like for her, that day, to walk among so many fans and see no sign of outright welcome from anybody? That sounded a little lonesome. And though she was older, it made me want to do something friendly and motherly and comforting for her. I should have given her my hedgehog, toffees, magnets for her fridge. I still wish it now when she walks through my memory; I always ask God to please protect and keep her safe and well.

   “Warren?” We were folding up the chairs. “She didn’t have an umbrella or little coats for the dogs. I sure hope somebody was planning to pick her up at the freight dock.”

Outside my apartment, Glimm and Jancie gave me grippy shoulder pats while I hopped out of the van. Warren saluted goodbye. “Rest up, Mare. And in the morning, we’ll be right here for you.”

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10/23/22: Best Intentions, Best-Laid Plans

This weekend a major self-cheering campaign was in order. Where to start?? Well, there is always some task worth doing, and always some person worth reaching out to for company.

Well, there’s our good senior neighbor who makes her careful way home every evening from the bus. She crosses two busy multi-lane intersections and comes down a dark street. There to avoid a broken sidewalk she steps off the curb, walks into the road around the parked cars against the traffic, and then back up on the curb. Whenever I catch sight of her I run to walk her home, and we stroll together chatting in a comic hash from three languages. It’s really been a nice ritual, women sticking together like a couple of wise pilgrims sharing the path and the lights to get home safe. Days are getting shorter fast and rain season is here, so a couple of weeks ago I had fun going to the work gear store and buying her a flashy reflective vest. It’s a copy of the one I always wear outdoors after sunset. I set up my new carry lantern too, with fresh batteries, to be ready for our dark evenings. Then for Friday night’s rain storm I surprised her at the bus stop, holding out the new vest so she could put it on. “Now we’ll match,” I joked with her. “We can start our own railroad crew.” The plan was, at her door I was going to give her a hug and say “Merry Early Christmas! It’s yours!” But she waved away the vest firmly. She also let me know that Honestly, it was really not necessary for me to walk with her this way. “I can walk it my Self.” And she means it, too. Maybe she felt beholden, or I was only in her way with my fussy safety ideas. I can certainly stay out of it. But I’ll miss our little walks.

Seemed like a pretty good idea at the time

On Saturday morning I stopped by the farmers’ market, to my favorite most informative entertaining display of all. The vendor is Ace at explaining his crops and his harvest, and how to grow and cook the roots and greens. He’s a few years older than I am, a super-fit handsome wholesome dynamo of energy and good nature. For about twelve years I’ve stopped to listen with avid admiration while he tosses advice and banter at passersby (with jokes to the ladies that he is single and earnestly looking). Between shoppers he and I have good talks about diet and health and social wellbeing. I photograph the vegetables, and one time printed up the best pictures and dropped them off with a thank you note (he hung them at the cash box). I read and keep all the bulletins that he sends to his customer list, about seasonal produce and recipes. A couple of times I’ve made up my own recipes with his produce, and dropped them off at the stall for him and the customers. Our neighborhood is right on his way home, so this time I loitered around until he had some down time with no one stopping by. Then after all these years I worked up the moxie to suggest that he stop by and see our raised bed before it’s tucked away for the winter. I was ready to bring a bite of lunch down to our picnic table. Then he could meet the Wings, people who truly know their stuff when it comes to plants, and we could all have a little visit.

Wellsir. In few words he indicated that I was not, shall we say, a going concern. He arrowed off into his produce truck and out of sight. He sounded upset and frustrated. Perhaps he wished that one of the younger customers had asked him instead. After a dumb gaping moment I backed away and left. At home I sat for a long time, pondering an email message to apologize and explain and to make sure that he was okay. (Luckily I did not write or send anything. There’s no need. He didn’t ask what I thought or felt. If he wanted to know he’d get in touch.) It’s a huge market, vendors everywhere with good turnip tops and beets. Now I would rather go shop with any of them instead. It’s sad though. Over the years, that was such a nice little sunbreak in the social fabric of a weekend.

This morning there was a pre-Hallowe’en community event for children over at the park. A Russian-speaking family from Canada was in town for the weekend, for some medical followup. A neighbor invited them to the event, and asked me to come interpret for the family so they would feel more comfortable. I had other things to do, and was shy of going to watch young couples with little ones interact with other young couples with little ones. But here’s the thing: when I go to a strange town, what’s the best most important memory? It’s not the architecture or the public events or scenery; it’s always when someone in that town goes out of their way to be friendly. Wouldn’t I enjoy meeting someone who speaks my language? Sure. So I dressed up and hauled on over to the park. There were the Russians, who smiled cordially when I said hello. But they absolutely froze when I kept talking, about sights worth seeing in our neighborhood when traveling with kiddos, and the logistics of getting around. Mom and Dad nodded politely and took the children away to mingle with the real Americans. I lingered around, looking pleasant, but the families talked to families and the Russians stayed out of my way. Finally I backed off and headed home. By the way, their behavior was perfectly appropriate for them. (I will get the same reception if I walk into a Russian Orthodox church anywhere and try chatting people up in their own language.) In a perfect world, our mutual acquaintance would have alerted them that I was coming, explained who I was, and introduced us. This statement goes out on a limb a bit, but in my experience Russian culture has a strong precedent for respecting privacy, leaving the neighbors in peace, and being careful of strangers. They’re not Midwest Americans, who have their own precedent of saying hello to everybody and bringing hot pie to their door.

Well, what to try next? There’s a nice recipe from “Off Grid with Doug and Stacy” for crispy homemade baked potato chips and beet chips. That would be something good to bring to church. So I thin-sliced some baking potatoes and beets, mixed a big batch with a little coconut oil and Redmond salt and and ginger (with black pepper for the taters, and cinnamon for the beets), spread them in baking pans on parchment paper, and baked them at 350 degrees. Those chips baked the whole afternoon. The centers stayed soft and didn’t crisp up no matter what, though with the first test bite a hard baked potato skin cut my gums. A teething Malamute would have fun tossing them around, but I can’t serve these to anybody.

Okay, next plan. Maybe clear out the garden? The sweet potatoes didn’t get enough sun this summer to produce any roots (well, two potatoes turned up today; they look like “pinkies” — the hairless newborn mice you buy frozen at the pet store to feed your snake). We had our first chilly morning, and frost will kill off sweet potatoes. So I pulled up half the vines and cooked a batch of leaves for lunch. (Safety alert: Don’t eat leaves from real potatoes. Those are toxic nightshade leaves, not fit for human consumption.) I’ve munched on sweet potato leaves all summer, but it’s easy to see why they are not a commercial commodity. They wilt the minute they are picked, shrink down instantly to nothing when dropped into simmering water, and have a mucilaginous mouth feel and blander-than-spinach taste. This time I added some goat cheese and garlic oil, and resolutely munched them down.

That still left several long thriving vines. In jars of water on all the windowsills, the vines can grow indefinitely for use over several meals.

In the afternoon we had a fleeting sunny break, so I decided to pull up the whole bed. From now on, it will be dark and raining after work. More important, bedding the garden now will save Mrs. Wing the work of clearing my stray sweet potatoes vines out of her own patch. So I pulled them all, brought a much bigger pile of leaves upstairs, and washed them thoroughly. When gathered in such a large quantity, they gave off a very bitter fragrance. A careful inspection of the leaves showed that yes, all the leaves were heart-shaped with a rich green color. All in order there. Still, was something wrong with the vines, to give them that sharp creosote smell? As an extreme plant amateur, my rule is “When in doubt, throw it out.” To be safe and cautious I stuffed the leaves in batches into the Cuisinart, ground them up for the compost bucket, then scrubbed the Cuisinart three times with soap and baking soda. Downstairs, I spread the summer’s worth of ground leaf pulp over the patch.

Mrs. Wing, who sees all, rushed right outside with a pleasant smile and wave. With a little trowel she quickly but gently began turning over the newly cleared soil. “Looking for roots,” she cheerfully explained. With tender care she combed through each spoonful of soil, extracting fine white fibers about six inches long, and laid each one aside. When she had a handful of them and found no more roots, she showed them to me. “These are our medicine.” She waved goodbye and went inside.

Then, it dawned on me. Whoa dearness. Last spring, Mrs. Wing brought home a tiny plant. She set it in their patch, and kept a fond watchful daily eye on its welfare and growth. She was so happy when her plant put out its delicate white blossoms. Captain Wing explained that this plant is prized in the Chinese materia medica for its roots, a valuable wintertime cough medicine. Mrs. Wing cared for this rare little plant all summer as an investment in her family’s good health.

By summer’s end, the lovely white blossoms had died, leaving only greenery. Meanwhile my happy sweet potato vines spread everywhere, a ground cover of root suckers and vines all along our raised bed. Now while clearing those vines, in one stroke I had disturbed the precious white roots growing under the plant’s leaves — which just happen to be heart-shaped and rich green. The beautiful website “China South of the Clouds” at this link


calls it Fish Mint, or “fish-smell herb”(鱼腥草; “yúxīng cǎo”). In Yunnan cuisine, the heart-shaped leaves are a salad green, and the roots are a prized delicacy for their piercing saponin-bitter taste. So that astringent flavor would have done me good. It posed no health hazard in my kitchen. The only hazard today was me, ransacking the wrong plant.

(Update, 10/29: that sharp bitter smell was really nasturtium leaves. I’d thrown in a handful, because the round leaves are edible, and taste milder than the flowers. Still, a bit goes a long way or longer.)

Mrs. Wing’s treasured plant, until today

Here’s a little fan video of film scenes with a song. Is it viewable here? Let’s find out. If not, the YT title is “Scott Krippayne (While the days are young).” The film is “Old Fashioned” with Rik Swartzwelder. Among the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes movie site this film earned a remarkable 17% out of 100 on charges of being sexist and saccharine, but I’m fond of it and even fond of the lighting. Finding this little clip cheered me up. I’ve been playing it on repeat, singing my heart out for the past hour while typing all this up.

Okay, time to give up and let this whole weekend go. Clean the roots out of the sink. Take out the compost. Do the dishes. Pack some sweet potato leaves and root jerky for work tomorrow. Monday’s a new day. Night.


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10/19/22: AQI 251

That was Wednesday’s alert on airnow.gov for the atmospheric presence of Fine Particulate Matter.

For the day, the local news said we had the worst air quality of any city in the world.

To be fair, it’s not yet winter. That’s when the balance shifts, when we have soft rain while folks in some other countries have to burn coal to keep themselves warm. We were terribly lucky here. Our smoke lasted only a few days. The towns closer to the wildfires had it worse, and for much longer. Compare that to Ukraine or Haiti or half the world, and this is nothing.

Still. AQI 100 and up means nausea and indigestion and eyestrain and fitful sleep and ominous dreams and a creeping sense of dread. It meant no Wednesday church with its 14 minute walk there and back. Early that morning it meant hopping the bus to work, because a great big building has more air than a little studio, right? Except their HVAC detected smoke in the system and went into overdrive like a wind tunnel in the elevators and halls, to blast the smoke out. That of course blasted more smoke back in. So then it made sense to just give up and leave early.

On the bus commute home, it was broad daylight with over an hour to go until sunset. Here was the sky where the sun was supposed to be.

It’s up there someplace

Outside the bus window the sun is even more not there when eyeglasses steam up from the safety mask (fine particulate matter model PM2.5) worn under my cloth mask and over my knitted cap from the Muslim women’s shop all tucked under a long wrapped head scarf to hold everything together. The bus reading is Доктор Живаго (Dóktor Zhivágo) from the Little Free Library. It flips right open to some apocalyptic Russian wartime winter where characters are trying to cobble a chimney and stove so the smoke doesn’t kill everybody before the cold does.

At home everything is silent. It’s like late evening on a snow day, but not fun and without the sledding. The library up the road has to close on smoke days and in hot weather because they don’t have AC and it isn’t safe for the staff. No pedestrians or neighbors or dogs or birds or cars. Any other day at sunset there’d be whole flocks of mouthy crows rivering over in a racket. Today there’s only a few of them, sitting on the lawn with their beaks open. Crows are not somebody to mess with, so I always back up and nod to them and point away to show them where I’m going, and I walk the long way around them. Then there’s a chammering little squeak that I’ve never heard before. It’s squirrels, creeping close and staring at me like they’re in a trance. Some tenants hand feed them, but I think that’s not a good idea. “Hi guys,” I tell them, backing away. “I don’t have any food.” But they chammer at me and close in like they’re going to climb my pants leg. Finally I pull out my rain slicker and let it float open like a curtain, and that makes them uneasy enough to stop and let me walk away. Late that night I wake up in a sweat in the closed room and realize: oh gosh, they must have been thirsty. I should have run and got them some water.

This smoke drill is new to us. It’s only happened the past five years or so, and absolutely never this late in the year. But we know enough to batten the hatches and seal the doors and windows and leave off the kitchen and bathroom vents and fans. Whatever air you start with is the air you will have until the alert is over. That means fast cool dipper baths, and no hand laundry; clothes on the rack outside will smell like burned tires and need another washing. If clothing dries indoors, that is more condensation and humid air, and that’s not ideal. (Some other units have mold, and one had mushrooms turn up in the bedroom closet.) Same goes for cooking. The Brussels sprouts and collards and onions in the fridge need to stay there, not to bother the neighbors up and down the hall. No point in setting up a crock of kimchi either. Even cooking potatoes just leaves more steam. So it’s defrosted beans and salads and pre-soaked flash-boiled oatmeal and fruit and nuts and Ezekiel bread and goat cheese. Which is fine really. Except at one point when I masked up and went to the supermarket just to see people and breathe a while, and bought some pudding and chips. Taking walks and gardening and returning library books are all off limits. So is toting water from the triple-filter machine down the street. By yesterday the water supply on the counter tasted like what might be pond scum. 

But late last night, Thursday, I could pour those bottles out and scrub them with salt water and then suit up in fluorescent gear and go bring home a couple of days’ worth. That’s because all of a sudden the wind shifted around and brought in a breath of fresh air and real honest mist. This morning Friday brought this whole new AQI score too. Cause to leap up and throw the windows open again, and fix some collards and eggs.

And with the morning I stepped out for a look at the garden and found this bouquet. The Wings could tell the smoke was getting to me. So they went out and gathered my tomatoes and cleared away the bushes. And then Mrs. Wing worried that I’d come back out and miss my tomato patch. So out there in the AQI 251 she went outside and cut down some of her very last dahlias of the year and left this.

Captain Wing was out early with the garden hose.

“If Mrs. Wing left these flowers last night — and no other candidate comes to mind — then it’s a good thing I was not around to see it.”

“How come?” he asked. “What’s up?”

“Because I was told at a culture seminar that it is not polite to run up and hug Chinese people. Is that true?”




“Oh, okay. What did I do in my past life that your family is so kind to me?”

“Your “past life”??? WHAT are you talking about! It’s for this life here now. Go get that bag: she left you some cucumbers and avocadoes for your breakfast.”

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10/18/22: Autumn, curious and fleeting

After work I should have walked home all the way. Instead I felt sluggish and heavy somehow, and couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to schlep along for 66 blocks with the usual assortment of Mason jars, library books, and everything else. At first I chalked it up to this morning’s building fire alarm malfunction at 2:30 am. Thank God, there was nobody hurt and no sign of fire. After the initial fright of it all, we neighbors stood outside for an hour in our jammies with cat carriers and dogs, happy to chat and call greetings under the moon, until the all-clear sent us back to bed. At 6:00 I was still awake and thinking when the alarm clock rang for work.

But no, this draggy energy level had an even better reason. I discovered it later at home, during a routine look at the weather. My! No wonder the bus was pleasantly empty, and so were the streets.

And more on the way for tomorrow.

But first I caught a bus to cover all but the last 25 blocks home and sat unsuspecting at the window, marveling at the particularly pleasant amber glow of the late afternoon light. Our professional news photographers are sure to come up with wonderful scenes to post on line tomorrow.

Near the hilltop I hopped off and started walking the rest of the way.

A look through the tall iron cemetery fence showed no promise of nice photographs. Nothing was in bloom. Summer has been almost completely dry, lingering on and on with no sign of our usual heavy September rains; they’re a good six weeks late. Leaves this year are not showing their usual fall color; they are only crisping up and falling to crunch into powder underfoot. On the flowering cemetery ornamentals there was not a bloom in sight. The manicured lawn had shrunk into separate brown blocks of matted turf, curling at the edges like worn linoleum.

Still, I ventured in the gates hoping that a little stillness and attention might lead to something good.

The sun was setting so fast that I chased it west all the way down the hill to view the light in the lower plots first. One small tree did show a few bright leaves against the rapidly dimming sky.

Very lucky shot; a minute later, that angle of light was gone.

At the bottom of the hill, I trudged back up toward the entrance, turning every few steps to try more pictures, gaining altitude to keep the sun in view.

Here was a pumpkin offering, set on the headstone for a beloved husband. The right side of his stone beside his name is smooth and clear of lettering; perhaps it was his wife who came to bring him this little gift. From this elevation, the sun was a larger pumpkin radiating from the top of that tall building.

A memory gift.

Here’s a look back as light runs away in the distant wildfire haze.

That T-square propping up the sun is a far tall construction crane.

The haze was silent. Not a leaf rustled; there was no breath of breeze. The usual rush hour pedestrians and traffic were nowhere. Over the valley to the west, the only sound was a pleasant shimmering scarf of musical chords plaiting in together; the bright hard tones sounded like the flashes of glare striking the granite and marble all around. It took a while to place the sound as some major ensemble of brass instruments, rehearsing across the valley at the campus stadium. Up the hill to the east, just as I was heading home a different sound filtered from the trees; white-crowned sparrows were calling back and forth, checking in.

It was dark when I got home and checked the weather and air quality. Then, here was a text from the Wing Family, asking me to stop by. They handed me a whole basket of my own tomatoes, wrapping up the harvest for the summer. This afternoon the squirrels were so busy in my garden square that Mrs. Wing ran out and gathered every last tomato remaining on the bushes, right down to the smallest greenest ones. Then she dug up my bushes and put them in the compost. Captain Wing is out there right now with his miner’s lamp and tweezers, removing slugs from my sweet potatoes. The slugs are really small; I don’t find them under my sweet potato leaves even in broad daylight. Does he listen for them? At any rate, he told me to get right indoors and out of the smoke. These industrious people! There must be something tasty I can make for them out of all these tomatoes. Will have to research this.

Here’s the whole ensemble; old urban cemetery, with a farewell flash of reflected granite light.

Strange times, but a good visual souvenir for winter

In three days, we’ll get a cold front with high winds and two inches of rain. A great blessing for the firefighters. Goodbye to a curiously long summer-without-fall.

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10/9/22: The Loneliness Sermon, This Time Around

This gift Aloe Vera and Tiger’s Eye Sanseveria were looking as lonely as I felt. So I walked over to the garden center for proper cactus soil, and real clay pots.
Here they are in their new home on the kitchen shelf, pruned in the right soil with a good watering.

There was nothing wrong with The Loneliness Sermon two weeks ago at the strong Bible-based church up the road. It’s just that I figured that The Sermon was a specialty for the Catholic and Orthodox instead. In this church I didn’t see it coming.

That night I was especially content to be there. I greeted and waved all round at folks and settled in a comfy pew with knapsack, duffle bag, bowed psaltery, reflective vest, hymnal, Bible, and the snack for fellowship hour — organic blue corn chips in crinkly cellophane in a big-ol’ ungainly bag like a plush panda prize from some fun house at Rye Beach.

The loneliness topic was necessary for the perfect reason, to illuminate a Scripture reading about St. Paul. The Pastor is always excellent at preaching, really holding the room for that full hour of learning. The sermon was clear and succinct and balanced and well paced, with a touch of gentle self-effacing humor. He began in humility and honesty, with a full disclosure: while he understands loneliness is a problem for many, he in his life has not really experienced loneliness himself.

(That sure got my attention. Really? What’s that like?)

As the first point of the sermon, our speaker affirmed loneliness as a socal problem, sharing with us some data from the U.S. Surgeon General.

(Oh gosh. Here come the Surgeons General and and their parade of warnings. Familiar ground. Loneliness heightens the risk for medical and emotional ailments and life outcomes. It’s like, say, consuming two packs of cigarettes a day in a fluffernutter sandwich. One Surgeon General concluded a loneliness podcast interview with this advice: First, we lonely people must start making relationships a priority, and dedicate quality time to our spouses and loved ones. Second, we should act confident. Then, we will appear more attractive; people will respect us and want to spend time with us.)

Back to the sermon. Its next point was that loneliness was never God’s intention for us. Adam had life in Paradise and communion with God; but God still made it a priority to give him Eve as his spouse, so we know that God wants us to have love too. 

The Scripture lesson was a detailed thorough context for the story of St. Paul in prison at the end of his life, writing to Timothy about the status of members of the Christian community. Paul is waiting to be executed, forsaken by his trusted associates in Gospel work. The takeaway was that if we ever feel alone, we can reflect on Paul’s example. Can we make the claim that we have been forsaken by everybody? Compared to Paul, can we really say that our loneliness is that bad?

The next point is that we can never be truly alone anyway, because Jesus walks at our side. His is the second set of tracks described in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints in the sand, those are the times when Jesus picked us up and carried us.

(Luckily I caught myself cringing over gripping my head with clenched teeth, and had the presence of mind to sit up straight and stay that way. Still, my eyes were misting over. Jesus blessed me with two feet for walking, and I greatly appreciate being able to use them for things like trips to the garden center. It should not be His job to haul me around in a fireman’s hold. But I sure beg Him every day for a beach with some people going my way.)

The sermon conclusion is that Jesus is the answer to our loneliness. He stands by us — IF we stand by Him. First, we need to confess our sins, ask His help, turn our lives over to Him, and follow His commandments. Can we really say that we have done that?

In some instant instinctive reflex I scooped up knapsack, duffle, reflective vest, musical instrument, Bible (but not hymnal — that’s theirs), and the really loud chips. The plan was to slip down the back stairs and leave the loud chips in the parish hall before departing. But wait — that won’t work; the door down there makes a dramatic sheering creaky noise, audible throughout the building. Instead I bolted out the nearby front door, cellophane crackling with maximum ruckus, and into the cool night air.

The walk calmed me down a little bit. At home I immediately emailed the church to apologize and say that running out was not meant as disrespect or a decision against Jesus or His salvation. (It was a relief next day to see a very gracious message from Pastor. He reassured me that no disrespect was assumed, affirmed that the topic can be delicate for many people, and welcomed me to come back to church soon.)

Then after sending the email I walked to the store and for the first time sprang for a package of Lily’s brand sugar-free erythritol stevia dark chocolate drops, which is pretty much like opening your wallet and eating the money. Then back at home while rocking back and forth and staring at the wall I ate half of the chocolate drops before calming down enough to get ready for bed. 

After the sermon it took a few days to cheer up some. It always does. I haven’t been ready to show up for more sermons. But for next time, just in case, the backup plan B is to come early and drop off the refreshments downstairs, then go upstairs and sit out of sight and listen to the lesson quietly from the vestibule near the exit.

It’s a fine church. Advanced Bible knowledge, excellent preaching, solid close-knit families, good music and hymns, warm-hearted hospitality. These folks are all ready to go whatever extra mile it takes, to take care of people and transform lives with the Gospel. What sent me out into the darkness was not the Loneliness Sermon at all. It was the Loneliness Sermon over and over, as steady water drops on my head and heart since Catholic grammar school. A core teaching in traditional Christian churches, in the pulpit, at coffee hour, and in interactions extending beyond the church walls (especially among women, especially women my age) is handling loneliness in a mature faith-based graceful manner. In the churches I’ve attended, after a while folks tune in to how grieved I am not having a family circle at home. Then in all good conscience and good faith they have to gently confront me about whether I am really saved at all, or saved enough. It’s a good question, too. Maybe some day I will have their faith, to find that the cure for loneliness is Jesus as our best and closest companion and true family, who cares for all of our needs. 

Until then, to anyone who feels lonely tonight and was hoping for some advice from me, here it is. Lily’s does a very nice job with their chocolate. But the erythritol can upset your tummy. Just rip open that loud bag of blue chips and make some snackety racket instead.

Peace and all good comfort to you.

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9/26/22: Fruit & Folks

To the management at our treasured open air produce store, the folks matter more than the fruit.

The art gallery with new exhibits daily

At Fruit & Folks, that greengrocer façade is just the axis for a harmonic convergence of interesting people who come together to explore produce and talk about the meaning of life. For a thoughtful observant shopper, it’s a money-saving gem. There are always unique bargains and offerings to be found. The resourceful owners research and work with contacts to anticipate and access seasonal finds that might otherwise be thrown away. For those who adapt their cooking to benefit from the latest offerings, and who rotate their fridge produce, this store is the next best thing to shopping in Paris. It’s a Son & Pop business where Marcus Senior runs the back of the house and Marcus Junior runs the front. How many fathers have a son who follow their vocation, who take on and shoulder the family business side by side? It must be a gratifying experience for both of them.

Marcus & Marcus never seem undone over the zany outbursts of the American customer. One woman lit into Marcus the Younger, about a specific vegetable exotic to this clime: isn’t this a pretty meager selection, and hasn’t the price gone up? “Why yes, Ma’am, that it has,” he respectfully sympathized. “For this year, [international crime cartel] got it. See the United States imports the whole supply from only two plantations, and They got almost all of it.” Her expression faded down from outrage to bewilderment to contrite dawning awareness: She would just have to take it up with Them. Ma’am.

One day a man with a pronounced New York accent lost his Zen at my favorite lovely cashier over the price of some fruit. She and Marcus the Elder de-escalated and consoled the customer, who finished yelling and stampeded off into the darkness. I expressed sympathies to Favorite Cashier and Marcus the Elder, and explained to them both that back East we Anglo New Yorkers have a historic precedent for over-the-top hyperbole. “Ay-uh,” Dad agreed in unruffled calm, proceeding with his inventory, “My career was on Wall Street.” (Fun fact: That was Favorite Cashier’s last day on the job. She then invited me to her wedding. This Christmas, she and her dear husband bought me a Russian movie subscription. She texted me just today from her new city. Hello, Precious Heart!)

The store closes for one week each year, so the staff can have a vacation. Last time, I was the last customer on the night before closing. I stocked up on as much food as I could carry home. Marcus Jr. patiently waited for me to load it all on the register belt, then let me know that all of it would be free of charge, with the logic, “It will only spoil this week, Mary. Just take it.” In no time he whisked the food into my bags for me. That generosity was such a thrilling surprise; only at home did I realize that (Doh!) half the bonanza was glass jars of tomato paste from Lebanon! After their vacation when the store re-opened I marched in and surprised Marcus Sr. with the greeting “Your son played a trick on me!” He refused payment for the glass jars, but fortunately he saw the humor in my accusation, as he does in most situations. (He even composes a light-hearted monthly Produce Jingle, with featured edibles exchanging philosophical quips. I’ve threatened to submit my own ditty, with better puns, to compete for top billing on the register tape.)

The rest of the staff share the same inspired ethic of good will and kindness. They haul carts and sweep up and staff the register under the roofed open-air space in all weather year round, and in December work late hours hauling and selling a rush of holiday trees. They draw our attention to the sky during special sunsets and rainbows. They make humorous signs, and maintain the decor. (There’s a stuffed baby gorilla in the banana section, a sparkly disco dance ball overhead, Christmas lights year round, and souvenir Fruit & Folks swag). One cashier sprinted two blocks and surprised me at the bus stop, handing me back the library book that I’d left on the counter; he was not only fast and conscientious, but guessed which customer in a crowded store just might have been reading the life of Mother Angelica. Another telephoned me at home to see whether the umbrella left at closing time was mine (no, but gosh thanks). The staff welcome dogs, and keep a jar full of treats on the counter. Dogs on the sidewalk drag in their amused owners, who naturally make some purchase during their treat stop. The cashiers’ taste in store music is eclectic and knowledgeable; many of them are musicians, happy to enlighten me about the genre wafting over the sound system. One cashier heard me humming to the store music, and offered to record my singing for free, for her course in studio operations; she did a beautiful job of fine-tuning the sound and harmony tracks, and after a two hour session I came home with a vocal CD. Others are artists and writers, pleased to share updates about their current exhibits or manuscript drafts. One taught me about practical irrigation systems devised by African farmers, then moved to Africa herself to study faming there. These young people are so engaging and good-humored that back when I lived across the street I invited them all to come over after closing time for refreshments. (When they arrived I asked where they were all from, and then said “Oh wait! Sorry. Was that a creepy stalking question?” “Mary?” they pointed out. “It’s not stalking if YOU invited US into your home.”)

The pandemic shut down many family businesses in town. But Marcus & Marcus masked up, put up safety posters, adjusted to the times, and sailed through. When hand sanitizers were out of stock for weeks on end, Marcus Jr. researched hand sanitizer formulas and made up large batches with the optimal amount of alcohol plus wholesome skin-soothing herbal ingredients. He put giant dispenser pumps on the counter for customers to use as they entered the store. Business flourished. The idea of shopping in open fresh air appealed to new customers as well as old. At the time many people were stepping outside the house only to walk the dog. They quickly realized the value of a dog-friendly business for those precious daily outings.

On today’s visit, the bargain bin (50 cents a pound) yielded good quality jumbo carrots, ripe single bananas, artichokes, and limes. More important, the visit provided another missing piece in my ignorance of popular culture in these modern times. Marcus Jr. discovered that I knew nothing, absolute zero, about the world of animé; he kindly clued me in to the basic concept while trimming lettuces with a box cutter and wrapping them in twisty ties, then suggested two of the best titles for a beginner to explore. A delightful new cashier endorsed Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I promised to complete my homework report back to both of them on the next adventure with fruit and folks.

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9/24/22: Salutary Bitterness: St. Theophan and the Melon of Mystery

The big excitement around here today was a tour of a very unique international garden of food and medicinal herbs. The prettiest of them all were these scarlet runner beans.

scarlet runner beans

The inner prompting for this trip (Guardian angel? Maybe!) was, “Look sharp, and pay attention! There will be cultural riches, and also many people all around you with distressed lives.”

This tour was going to be a challenging situation anyway. The lifelong plot has been aspiring to put a best foot forward with other people, then discovering that the best foot (or either foot, best or not) can underwhelm or even annoy others. This time with this group I resolved to keep quiet, stop asking questions, stay out of everybody’s way, and give this activity one more venturesome try.

As moral support, especially afterwards for the train and bus ride home, there was a brand new purchase that I was eager to read. It’s the Russian classic The Spiritual Life with letters of wise counsel written by St. Theophan[es] the Recluse (Феофан Затворник), Bishop of Tambov, 1815-1894.

St. Theophan

The book came along with a Mason jar of water and some lunch for after the tour. Bringing provisions seemed wise. The neighborhood doesn’t have public rest rooms, so before setting out for the day it was necessary to abstain from eating or drinking. (That’s a good way to tune in to St. Theophan, who would have gone without food and water from Saturday sunset until after Sunday Liturgy every week of his life.)

So. The neighborhood. Historically, an exciting high-density area near the waterfront, of immigrants from a number of countries, packed with tourists and musicians and festivals and parades and little family food carts and window-in-the-wall eateries and tiny popup garden produce markets and blankets on the sidewalk with handcrafts on display and wholesale warehouses selling Sunday vegetables at markdown to the restaurant trade. It was always an educational place to purchase new types of produce and plants, to read and listen to different languages.

But that was then. Now it’s all suffered badly from the two years of lockdown and pandemic and heartbreaking incidents of xenophobic violence It was a real surprise to step off the train at 9:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning and see that every person on the central square, every one in sight, was experiencing distress to the point of being out of commission. There were only one or two frail elderly immigrant women from various countries struggling along with little shopping carts. The rest were young White men lying on the ground or searching in trash cans or pacing about shouting in turmoil. Everyone looked dissociated from everyone else. The exception was one very pleasant looking young man (20?) who held up what might have been a vaping unit, and asked very politely whether I could loan him a portable charger. I apologized sincerely to him, and he gave me good wishes and a lovely smile. As a chronic dental patient, I was sorry and concerned to see that his poor teeth were all worn down.

Around all this suffering there was splendid old architecture, faded murals and frescoes, ornamental wrought iron, beveled glass, decorative beadwork inlays in the pavement, boarded shops with bay windows and green copper roofing, broken statues and abandoned flower beds. The last 200 years brought in concentrated cultural riches from all over the world. Now many shops and residents are gone. There were no tourists in sight. It’s a credit to the remaining business owners that they are still soldiering along in such a valiant manner.

The members of our tour began climbing up to the old heritage garden, a true grassroots organization handed down for generations on a high steep hillside overlooking the water. The location and waterfront vistas are superb. The land was always much too steep for construction, so immigrants terraced many small steps of land and turned it all into an amazing variety of crops.

In our other city-governed community gardens, each gardener is required to weed and clean the bed, or it will be taken away; the composite beds form an eye-catching patchwork of color and textures spread out like a quilt. But this hillside was grandfathered in before the rules. It was understood that gardeners from other parts of the world might value weeds and thickets and brambles as sources of food or medicine, and they could raise what they liked. There was no pleasant open quilt landscape here; each gardener built high fences and cages from salvaged materials (or castoff junk) to keep out theft, and to keep the beds private. There was no clear view of any bed or its contents. Only rarely did a sudden turn or change in elevation allow a glance through a chink in a garden fence.

This was no casual stroll. For local people doing their best to cope out of doors and get some rest with their belongings on the benches, our traipsing through the park must have been a real intrusion. It seemed insensitive to be discussing among ourselves while standing in what was essentially their living quarters. And the keepers of these private gardens, unlike the usual run of garden folk, looked wary of our presence; these were not plantings to show off, but protection against food insecurity. The hill was steep, paths were narrow, and one had to pick the best footing around strategically placed cinder blocks and turkey wire and stakes and boards and roots and thorn branches and rat traps and garbage of all kinds. Despite the fresh lovely weather, there were heavy vapors hanging over some of the beds. Our guide explained that the traditional fertilizers include human products. (Wait, doesn’t that have to be seasoned first? For a long time?) Judging by the harsh smell, there might have been meat scraps or blood too. Whatever it was, the method must be working; the few plants we could see were large and lush.

The main takeaway was how many fascinating plants we could see and admire, items we would not find anywhere else. To save space, the emphasis was ingenious vertical gardening, with high cages holding interesting gourds and beans. They grew right out of their plots, to twine overhead. Edible and medicinal weeds flourished right through the fences and all along the paths. Our guide explained in detail their origins, optimal growing conditions, and uses.

After the tour I went to an Asian market and bought four bitter melons, also called bitter gourds (kû guā). The cheerful young Anglo folks staffing the register asked me “How do those taste?” “Like gunpowder,” I assured them. “But it’s not like uh-oh pesticide bitter; it’s fresh green ice-bucket-challenge salutary bitter. The goal is to try saving the seeds to grow next year.” It’s true that they taste something like gallbladder bile. They also have a fine reputation for health benefits. I slice them lengthwise, scoop out the pulp, slice thin, drop them in simmering water for a couple of minutes, drink the broth, and eat the slices cold. For some reason, including them in a meal makes my system feel more content. (One website praised the vitamins in a “one cup serving.” It’s adorably optimistic to think that people would be munching down a whole cup of this stuff.) One sensible Chinese recipe is to soak them in brine, rinse, then saute with tender pork, spicy black beans, and pickled mustard greens with garlic and ginger.

On the way to the train, outside a cafe with a menu in Chinese characters, there were two older Asian ladies selling all kinds of unfamiliar green squashes. “Dù bu qî, qîng wèn,” I asked them. “Dzhège shì kû guā ma? Excuse me, please tell me: is this bitter melon?” That’s about all I can cobble together from my year of Mandarin in 2016. The two women were completely taken aback. Probably the quality of my Mandarin is a culture-appropriating insult, and they are likely to speak Cantonese instead. Their reaction though suggested that I must have accidentally demanded their business license. To smoothe over their astonishment I picked out a small melon, paid the two dollars, gave them a hearty thanks, and left them in peace.

What did I just buy??

Here’s the little creature. On the train I thought “What is this doodad? Am I about to cook and eat a loofah?” Hopefully these are not for bathtime use; those spines are really sharp. Holding it carefully by the stem end, I washed it several times in Bronner’s soap and baking soda and rinsed very well.

Here it is again, with the four Chinese bitter melons.

4 Chinese bitter melons plus our mystery guest

I got back on the train and was happy to take refuge with my travel companion St. Theophan. But I must not have capped the little Mason jar tightly enough. The drinking water was gone, and the new book was soaked. The book is warped but drying in the sun now.

The trip involved some additional encounters of pathos and bewilderment, though the main impression was those young men in the main square. The day also brought new customs to see and learn. It was a relief to get off the bus and home for some water and beans and rice, then go clear out the zucchini vines.

Incidentally, that fresh red-orange Gerbera Daisy in the picture above? That wasn’t there this morning when I left the house. There’s no telling who planted that in my patch. But there is a usual round of suspects, and all of them are named Wing. In fact, I’ll go give them some melons right now. They will know how to turn gunpowder into something delicious.

Update! Mrs. Wing recognized the melon right away. She very kindly pronounced the name several times. It sounded like “Foshou Gua” or Foshou Melon. But I couldn’t identify the tones or figure out what that meant. Then a loyal reader of this blog suggested in the comments section that I use a Google Lens function in my cellphone to identify the image. Hm… That gave me an idea. A Google search for “Chinese Gourds” turned up many many images, so I picked the closest one. That was called a Chayote, but it didn’t have prickles on it. So I did another search for “Prickly Chayote” (just making up a term out of thin air), and… Eureka. There really is such a thing. So in Google translate I entered “Chayote” on the English side, which gave me Mandarin fóshôu guā. Now to figure out what a Chayote is, and why people eat it… Live & learn. Thank you, Dear Reader, for the good idea.

Update 2: Captain Wing just told me that fóshôu translates as Buddha’s Hand. He explained that one seed can yield 400 fruits on one plant. I reasoned that just because he is a 1:400 gardener, that does not predict such success for anybody else.

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9/23/22: Farm Tour. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy

A local research farm sponsored a short community tour.

The farm was a mention on the radar here and there, but I’d never paid it any mind. As farms go it’s pretty small, under two acres, smack in the city across from a shopping mall. “Research farm” sounded like locked greenhouses with murky windows and hydroponic leafage under fluorescent lights with dubious chemical drums standing around and everything wrapped in loose plastic. Still, sometimes it’s good to peek out and go see the world.

Well. What a place. Lush, thriving, groomed, neatly arranged in pie order. A radiant joyful student guide greeted us, and to start off invited us to help ourselves to the Little Free Library of plant seeds to take home (people can bring and donate seeds too). The group went off for the tour. But I just stood there under the sky gazing around at the fields. It did the heart good. Here is the kale row (2 varieties), collards, beans, and pumpkin vines.

Kale assortment.
High Towering Beans
Pumpkin Patch

I marveled over the selection of seeds, picked out a little packet of heirloom beets for next year, and texted Captain Wing about the farm. He decided to go donate his own stock of collected seeds to their library, and he’s taking his family there tomorrow to see it for themselves. I want to go back this week. The team needs extra hands for the harvest. Maybe there are tasks where I can help.

In other news, the Baptist church up the street had their midweek evening service on Wednesday, and I headed over to listen. It was a wrap up of Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. Even in my Giant Print Bible, that’s only 5 pages. Apparently the church has spent almost a year (48 midweeks, 48 hours of sermons) mining through those 4 chapters. Each sermon unpacks and opens out and clarifies one single verse, putting it all in linguistic and historical and spiritual context and then applying it to everyday life. Then after the service over coffee and homemade goodies, they have a lively followup discussion about the Bible text. These Baptists are the closest I’ll get to life at a Yeshiva.

Concluding the series, this sermon described Paul facing imminent death. What was on his mind in his final days? In these verses, he showed five qualities: 1. friendship, 2. forgiveness, 3. focus on ministry, 4. value for learning (he asks Timothy to bring him his parchments, for some extra study time), and 5. caring for the spiritual welfare of other people. Paul had always wanted to be a prestigious prosperous Pharisee. Instead he’s in prison facing death, able to do not much but write letters. God had another plan for his life dream. God’s plan meant disaster for Paul at the time, but his account of travels and trials also left us with much of the New Testament that we read today.

Applying that to our daily lives, the sermon question was, “What did you want to be when you grew up, that you aren’t now? Let’s see how the detours in our lives can reveal God’s plan.” The fun part was that when called upon, the congregation members admitted that they’d spent their lives doing exactly what they dreamed of doing! Fortunately, I happened to be there as a useful sabot in the machine: “I always wanted to marry my husband at age 18 and have six children of our own and six adopted, and have a big farm with alpacas.” Pastor said “Well that’s fine, Miss Mary. You are right on course. Well, except for the age 18 part.” That was a funny and cheering thought. The point was, no matter how our lives end up, when we contemplate our own end we can still benefit from Paul’s perspective and his five priorities.

Downstairs one of our hostesses served up her homemade apple cake with whipped cream and smiles for all. One member brought us back some North Dakota specialty chocolate-dipped potato chips. They were a real hit. Others brought mixed nuts and chips and other snacks. A good intuition (my guardian angel? maybe) ordered me to “Sit right there at the women’s table and listen to everyone around you. There are stories right here that will make a profound impression.” It was true. Just in that one chair, tuning in to everyone else and their threads of stories weaving around, it was a revelation to hear how much wisdom and courage and faith was witnessed by these close families. There were hard times in that gathering, and it was all buoyed up by people swapping support. They all managed kind words and some humor, and made sure that everybody got enough cake with cream on top, with wrapped goodies to take home.

That was food for thought, walking home in the early fall dark with Jupiter or is it Neptune afoot and following on the rise in the southeast sky.

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9/22/22: Tomato Hijinks and Women at Supper

In our last episode, the goal was to save tomato seeds for next year.

To review: one can cut tomatoes lengthwise, and then squeeze or scrape the tomato seeds and their juice and gel into a glass jar, top up with filtered (not chlorinated) water, cover with a paper towel and Mason jar ring, and store in a dark place for 3-4 days until a mold forms on top and eats up the gel coat covering the seeds. (That gel coat is a sprouting inhibitor. It protects the seeds from sprouting until next spring.) Ideally, once the mold munches away the gel coat, the naturally cleaned seeds can then be rinsed, dried, labeled, and stored. (The whole venture was a source of good humor for Captain Wing. “You could just dig a hole next year, and drop in some tomato slices,” he pointed out.) He’s right. But at least this way I could preserve two desirable control groups: one batch of especially tasty Sungold cherry tomatoes from some dear co-workers, and one batch from truly beautiful heirloom tomatoes donated by Neighbor Bill. 

Results are in. The first batch of dried seeds below is the Sungold cherry tomatoes; the second is Mr. Bill’s heirlooms. The heirloom seeds appear larger and more robust, but to be fair they are also just bigger tomatoes. A good safe place to dry these was a plastic bakery cookie container from church. It has a protective lid to keep the seeds from blowing around, but enough ventilation so they can dry out.

Cherry tomato seeds, cleaned rinsed and dried
Heirloom tomato seeds, cleaned rinside and dried

My own Roman tomatoes are still growing outdoors. But saving the Roman seeds doesn’t seem worthwhile. Romans are compact and narrow like plum tomatoes, but with a more blocky high-shouldered shape. My guess is that they were bred for shipment and display. They are excellent producers, with big clusters growing and ripening every day. Their color and gloss are attractive. They keep for a long time, hold their shape, and are durable for transport, with thick skins and plenty of that frosty/sparkly mealy outer layer that doesn’t have much taste. They would travel well and display well in a store, but don’t pack a lot of flavor. Of course, that might be all my fault; perhaps they didn’t get the nutrients that they needed. 

Roman tomatoes from the raised bed outdoors

In any case, the Roman tomatoes weren’t very good for eating out of hand. So I tried the fermented probiotic raw-sauce recipe from Off Grid with Doug and Stacy, the episode called “You Have Never Seen Tomato Sauce Made Like This!” I hope it is okay to give away the plot here. Stacy puts 4 tsp. of Redmond salt in a quart jar, adds some garlic and basil sprigs, then chops in some super ripe tomatoes with the top core cut out. She gives the jar a hard vigorous shaking, then stores it away from the sun. At least once a day, one has to gently loosen the lid (don’t remove it) just enough to release any fermentation bubbles, then shake the jar a bit more. 

The Roman tomatoes did not yield much juice. In fact, the skin shell and bland meaty part made up a good 60%, with only 40% juice and gel and seeds that had to be scraped out with a spoon. (In contrast, the Sungolds needed only a gentle squeeze to burst into the jar, leaving only empty skin.) I blended the 60% to make a blandish puree for raw soup. The 40% went in the Mason jar with garlic and salt for a good shaking, then went under the sink for 4 days before going in the fridge. My mistake was adding the full 4 tsp. of salt, then discovering that the jar filled up only 40%. That made a heavily salty solution. Still, the sauce had good flavor. I’ll add a dash of Bragg’s cider vinegar, and keep it in the fridge as brine for the pickle crock for amateur kimchi. 

For most of the year, instead of buying store tomatoes it makes more sense to buy tomato puree in glass jars in bulk. But for a few short summer weeks, home grown tomatoes are good to grow and to share. If these cherry and heirloom seeds store and then sprout indoors next spring, that could give a real head start to the season. The best outcome would be early seedlings to give away as gifts.

Women at Supper

In other news, Angelina and I planned a potluck, and let the other womenfolk know. One invited us to use her gorgeous garden and patio furniture; she joined us outdoors, bringing comfy flower pillows and a lovely platter of fruit and fancy cheeses. Angelina made delicious dip and raw vegetables and supplied all the serving utensils and place settings, and brought Super Pup and Bingo. I brought my latest pickle crock of amateur kimchi with daikon, cabbage, and apples. To go with that, there was a batch of brown jasmine rice and wild rice tossed with a little coconut oil and anchovy sauce. 

I also baked a protein casserole:

Glass pan, greased with coconut oil. I mashed a leftover russet potato with a little plain almond milk to make a patted crust to line the bottom.

Celery and cabbage, ground up in the Cuisinart.

Mushrooms, stewed in a little water with lentils defrosted from the freezer; when they’re done, add the celery and cabbage and cook them lightly.

Cottage cheese, beaten with eggs and some almond flour.

Strain and keep the tasty broth out of the vegetables and lentils. Drain and press the vegetables, and beat in the cottage cheese and eggs and the almond flour. Pour into the potato-lined pan and bake until the eggs are set. 

This was tasty and filling. It could use some rubbed sage, salt, black pepper, and some minced onion and garlic. For somebody like me who still misses Thanksgiving stuffing, this would make a good low-carb substitute.

On to the women’s supper. The garden spot faces a garbage dumpster cage, so as other women took out their trash they kept saying hello to us and we kept calling them over to share, and the food kept expanding to fit and feed more people. As it got dark, the sun-powered lanterns and candles in the garden switched on and the dogs frisked around mooching for pets and bites and the conversations were soulful and profound. Kip from next door ran outside to feed us sugar-free lollipops from Mexico, and her mom came out too and ate with us and we talked about Korean movies.

The especially interesting part was the dynamic. In the dark by glass candlelight, the women exchanged deeper accounts about their ancestors and family origins. These were profound stories of interest to everyone. What puzzled me at first was this: every time a new woman came along with a bag of trash, the ladies would stop the story cold right in mid-sentence. They would holler a whole big hello and ask the new arrival about her life and family and how-all she was doing. Each time, my linear mind thought Wait wait, what about your grandfather traveling to America in steerage all alone at age 12? Then what? This was interesting! 

Finally, it dawned on me. This was not a logical progression of facts or feelings to be remembered word for word. Instead, the women fostered a living expanding molecule of connections. Then like a blob of happy protoplasm the whole molecule kept engulfing the energy of each new member, taking in her mood and the colors of her day. Then the molecule would select and generate a whole new origin story to fit the new expanded consciousness of the larger group. Once I caught on to that, I just sat back and took it all in.

Finally we untangled the leashes and sorted out our dishes, and dispersed for home. I hope we have another women’s supper very soon. 

Thank you, Dear Hostess; your gardenette is gorgeous. Got your serving spoon, Angelina. I’ll put it in the shoe basket outside your door. Night night.

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9/10/22: Smoke Day

A braver person would be outside, taking pictures of the smoke

Saturday was going to be a whole garden day, prepping for winter and spring.

Then on Thursday the weather service forecast warm temperatures and 48 hours of wildfire smoke seeping in over the mountains, Friday through Sunday. On Thursday night I texted a warning to some neighbors, and made 5 trips to the store to fill 5 gallons of drinking water bottles at the filtration machine. Then I prepped a daikon radish for the pickling crock. Then to get the cooking done ahead of time I ran out and harvested the zucchini, kale, and tomatoes before the smoke got to them. The zucchini made 3 quarts of soup with ripe plantains, onion, garlic, celery, and a couple of pitted dates instead of the usual apple. The puree went right into the fridge and freezer for cold meals.

On Friday at dawn I sealed up the windows and balcony door, hung damp sheets over them all, then ran through the building closing hall windows on every floor. For the bus commute to work, I put on a lined particulate mask as a second face covering; it did seem to help. All of Friday had a romantic goldish light, like the last scene in some spaghetti Western film, then a blissful rosy sunset. There were no birds making a peep, and things were oddly quiet without neighborhood dogs or traffic. With everything sealed up and everyone indoors, it was a silent evening.

One amusing side note was that without circulating air, the pickle crock aroma kept waking me up. Finally at 1:00 am I dragged up off the floor, bumbled to the kitchen, took apart the pickle crock and weights, packed the daikon radish into jars in the fridge, washed the gear, then fell back into bed.

On early Saturday morning, the AQI site at airnow.gov registered a yellow code “Moderate,” or 99 out of 400. That’s less than 1/4 the pollution from years past when in some summer weeks we had the worst air quality in the world. (If this were winter, we’d have more competition. That’s when other cities burn coal and wood.) By noon the air was an orange code, “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” 125 out of 400.

We were amazingly lucky that it wasn’t much worse. (In two past years we were smoked in for two solid weeks each, with smoke levels approaching that top number of 400.) People in neighboring states are really suffering, and some 5,000 firefighters are out in this region working on fires. There is nothing to complain about here.

It seemed self-centered to stay sealed up in the studio when the front-line workers are out there same as usual. But if “Sensitive Groups” includes a senior citizen with asthma in remission, then it’s a good idea to stay put and mind my own business so the front-line workers don’t have to do it for me.

Okay then, it’s a weekend right in this room. What would Ma and Pa Ingalls say, if prairie smoke kept the girls home from school? They’d put them to work first thing, is what. To bolster morale, thanks to their prairie inspiration the bathroom here got a good scrub & shine with vinegar and baking soda. Then the cabinets were all aired out and lined with fresh paper. All the stuff inside is decluttered in labeled boxes and jars and repacked. There were plastic prescription containers of dental antibiotics, so I peeled off the labels and mounted them in page protectors for my Hospital binder in case providers want to see the drug history. The little plastic bottles are washed and dried to store harvested seeds. The laundry is scrubbed and hanging over the bathtub instead of outdoors. The ironing is all caught up.

Well, I’m not front line, but there are always people at my job clamoring for customer services. So for Saturday and Sunday I spent the days on the work computer ticking through requests.

Here are two views of the sky. That moonrise was a few days ago half an hour after sunset. The other is the same view last night an hour earlier — half an hour before sunset in broad daylight. (In the upper left quadrant there is a tiny jet plane soldiering along. What was the view like from up there?)

September 4, half an hour after sunset
September 10, same view in broad daylight, half an hour before sunset

By mid-afternoon the outdoors smelled something like a burning tire. According to the news, by 5:00 pm Saturday the peak was 190, a “Generally Unhealthy” code red. There was a red flag fire condition warning too, through Sunday night, with evacuations in other parts of the state and rolling blackouts in neighboring states and ash falling north of our city. Even the fastest trips outside with a surgical mask left me pretty queasy with sore eyes and congestion. I charged the cell phone to 100%, washed up, and changed into clean street clothes for the night just in case. By then the air was best in the sealed bathroom and in the coat closet. I moved the bedding to the closet with a philosophical attitude that a full night of deep sleep was not going to be today’s luxury privilege. Sure enough, at 1:00 am I was up again in a sweat with eerie dreams, to get a drink of water and some eye drops and to read National Weather Service alerts and AQI data while listening to “Tears” by The Chameleons. What better way to calm down and cheer up, than to move everything out of the kitchen and give the floor a nice scrubbing. Then everything was dusted and put into place. Then it was time for another closet nap. At 3:00 am I got up again for more water and eye drops and news updates, and this time tackled the kitchen cabinets. Then back to bed. Then up at 5:00 to sort books to take to the Little Free Library later. Then back to bed until 9:00.

It was a great relief to feel the air improve today. At least we’re down to yellow “Moderate” 98. I got to crack open the south window for some coastal air, cook a pot of soaked beans for the freezer, carry buckets of dishwater down to the garden, and wash some laundry and hang it on the rack in the bathtub.

About those cherry tomatoes in the picture above. They were a bargain at 50 cents for the lot; full of flavor but overripe, with the skin beginning to grow loose and a few starting to split. Before munching on them I squeezed the juice and seeds into a jar, put a paper towel on top to let it breathe, screwed on a Mason metal ring, and put the jar of slurry under the sink with a label showing tomato variety and the date. In about 4 days it’s supposed to grow a thick coat of fungus (or is it mold) with an obtrusive smell. The fungus eats away the gelatinous coat of germination inhibitor around each seed. Then apparently one can skim and toss the scum outdoors, then strain and wash the seeds well, spread them out on wax paper, separate them after they dry, and pack them away for spring in a labeled container in the fridge. Yesterday with the windows sealed up it didn’t seem a good idea to start in with home-grown obtrusive scum, but now I look forward to seeing how the method works.

I also pulled up a sweet potato vine to see whether any potatoes are down there. (If there are potatoes, they’ll need to cure in my room, to air out during warm weather for two weeks. That needs to happen before the cold rain season sets in.) There weren’t any potatoes. It was a late cold spring and sweet potatoes need about 110 days. At least the vine was lush and healthy. The vines can root in water and make good winter indoor plants. Sweet potatoes are not nightshades, and the youtube farmers say the greens are edible. But there’s a zillion sweet potato varieties out there. I wouldn’t know which ones we can eat. Don’t go trusting some language major for your foraging habits.

Meanwhile, here’s something we can eat for sure.

Recipe: Daikon Radish 1:00 am Alarm Clock

If you sleep on the floor 2 steps away from the kitchen, then open the windows unless you want the radish aroma to wake you up in the wee hours.

Sterilize the pickle crock and weight (mine is a quart Mason jar of water, with a Russian kettle bell on top).

Peel about two fists of daikon radish. Save the peels to simmer in your next batch of potassium broth.

Grate the daikon. Strain out the juice so it doesn’t overflow out of the crock. The juice has good health benefits, so I drink it down before my taste buds know what hit them. (Or gently simmer the juice in rice milk with honey and ginger for a very soothing winter pick-me-up.)

Put the grated radish in a bowl. Sprinkle in a little Redmond Real Salt (or other mineral-rich salt) so that the taste is mildly pleasantly salty but not overbearing, and scrub that in well with your hands. Pack the salted radish firmly into the crock, and tamp it down the sides. Set the Mason jar in the crock (mine fits perfectly), and set the kettle bell on top.

Next day, remove the kettle bell. Pull out the Mason jar, and stand it upside down on its lid so it stays clean. Drain out the excess salt brine. Fork over and mix the radish pulp so it ferments evenly. Add some a couple of raw garlic cloves to the crock, a couple of raw slices of ginger, a sprinkle of cayenne, and a dash of Red Boat anchovy sauce. You could toss in a few thin slices of cabbage too. Stir again. Put the jar back in the crock and the weight on top.

Next day, peel and grate in a crispy zippy flavorful apple or two, something like a Gaia or Honey Crisp. (Captain Wing says grated Asian Pear is even better.) A nice mix is 60% pressed daikon, 40% fresh apple. Stir well. Let it sit out a few hours. Then pack it all in a jar in the fridge, and wash the crock and jar.

A good fermented condiment for zucchini soup, eggs, or brown rice.

Time for sunset, but there’s no sunlight. Oh no — that tiny misty noise, is it falling ash? No, it’s a mist of precipitation. Wonderful. The sky here at the east window is flat blank gray — but wait, over in the west there’s a flaming cherry pink sunset. It’s a pity a cell phone camera doesn’t capture magnificent sunsets. Maybe this one will be in the news headlines tomorrow?

The air right now is Yellow Code 97/400. Time to tote down some dishwater and take out the trash…. Look, somebody put a cheap plastic dresser with drawers in the dumpster cage. It fits right in the bathtub for a good washing tomorrow. Even if the dresser is broken, the plastic drawers are perfect for holding flats of seedlings this winter. What a find.

Off to bed.

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8/31/22: Squorsh Exchange

‘Tis the season, gardeners!

A dear Small Family at church set up a whole row of Patty Pan Squash next to the coffee pot, a formation of golden bonnets on parade. I just thought they were there as a successful centerpiece decoration. But Small Family Mother eagerly invited me to adopt as many as I wished, and take them home. I was happy to comply and took one, not wanting to be all grabby so others could have their share. Toward the end of fellowship hour, Small Family Father asked me to do him a favor and help myself to more. It was endearing to think that one could do the family a favor by making off with their vegetables! It sounded as if they’d been dining on Patty Pans at home, perhaps for days, so I very happily obliged by taking another. Today at sunrise as the light came in I took a picture of them, with some sprigs of wild rosemary.

It’s something to thank God for, the fact that we are so fortunate to have enough squash to share and pass around, to be in peacetime with dirt space for our use. Yes, in August we’re getting our harvests of Squorsh, the proper name in a state where I once lived. My three plants are turning up a large zucchini every day, and the Wing Family kitchen garden (and Wing circle of friends) keep me supplied with more squash and bright smiles.

Zucchini Bread is of course a universal favorite. But this standby weekly recipe comes in handy at a simpler level. Often I add an apple or two to this, but the harvest isn’t in yet and apples are a little expensive. Besides, yesterday at the open-air fruit stand the bargain bin held fresh local corn on the cob, a good apple substitute for yesterday’s soup batch.

Five yellow and green summer squash, medium-small.
Five ears of corn, cut off the cob.
Five large carrots.
Six inches of leek. Two celery stalks. Handful of green fennel stems.

This simmered up until soft, and went into the blender with seasonings:

Ginger juice, 2 tbsp; Mixed-nut butter, 1 heaping tbsp; Allspice, 1 tsp.

Plus enough rice milk to puree it all.

This tastes like pumpkin spice soup. I’ll bring some to church tonight and see whether our Small Family would like to take it home.

PS – They took it home! I hope that they like it.

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8/28/22: Minding the House

She didn’t need to bring me presents, but she did.

Sunny was a joy for the whole class. He was an eager student with a kind appreciative heart and sweet hilarious sense of humor. One day as he had us all laughing as usual, I said in admiration “Oh, Sunny. You are a regular riot.” This was just a reflex old-school New Yorkism from seeing The Honeymooners as a kid on TV. At this new compliment, Sunny beamed. With great anticipation he whipped open his English-Chinese dictionary to the letter R, and spotted Miss Mary’s new name for him. Fortunately I was standing right there as his merry face fell in dismay.  “Wait, I can explain!” I intervened. “‘Riot’ has two meanings!” With my royal apology and impromptu vocabulary lesson, we all enjoyed a big joke on the teacher. 

One day, Sunny showed up so sad and worried that he could not follow the lesson. In deep woe he looked at me over his glasses, his eyes misting over with tears. “Sunny! Sunny!” we cried. “What happened!” It took a while for this good soul to choke out some mention of civil unrest in his home village. He was too upset to say more. At the end of the period, we gathered around as he finally confided in us. Then it was clear: Sunny’s upset was all caused by me, and my exotic housesitting lifestyle.

The whole housesitting saga of 40 years ago came to mind this month. A dear building neighbor going on vacation asked me to spend 10 days watering her balcony plants. Each day I texted her pictures and status reports of her lush flowers. But her trip took place during the longest heat wave in local history (trivial by world standards, but news to us). Every evening I doused her fuchsias in water. But the poor creatures baked in the sun and finally succumbed, covering her balcony in a layer of cornflake-crisp leaves. Before her return I cut back the dead stems and swept up the mess. Then I texted the news that she would need all new fuchsias. Return from world travel is a sensitive transition time, and it seemed important to prepare her feelings. Happily, she is a calm resilient gardener who concluded that next year she would simply buy full-sun plants. She also had the remarkable thoughtfulness to bring me perfectly selected gifts: a long gorgeous silk headscarf for church, and an Orthodox Christian icon (doubles as a needed fridge magnet), and $40 for the time and trouble. I have never been bankrolled before for killing off plants.

The week brought back nostalgic memories as a housesitter, starting in 1980. That was in my new cozy college town, an area of low population density and high reliance on good neighbors. I still miss those social ties. In our close-knit Slavic Department, the new moms juggled studies and family by sharing infants at the classroom door, passing their secure contented kidlets from arm to arm to swap breastfeeding and naptime. Students and faculty lived in easy walking distance, often in group houses, swapping textbooks and typewriters and casseroles and bartered chores. With no internet, no cell phones, and no social media, we kept in touch by taking a walk or hopping on a bicycle to halloo at one another’s windows.

Our university community members often sublet their rooms to travel on a language scholarship, or give birth closer to family, or help Grandad with the harvest. The landlords valued personal contacts through word of mouth, and were reassured when they got to know me as a fill-in who collected the mail and defrosted the freezer and scrubbed the clawfoot tub before departure. Over time, faculty and staff began thinking of me when they needed someone to watch the house. They knew I had no family or pets to care for. If someone with a car was available to drive me, I could move my belongings out of one dwelling to the curb in only an hour, and in another hour unload and set up in the next set of digs. That was just as well with the local Victorian wood houses and extreme climate. A quaint roof or gabled window could flood or fall in at any time. Hail and snow could knock live wires down into the yard. Rattlesnakes or raccoons or rats or brown recluse spider hatchlings made surprise appearances. In one basement near the river, massive tree roots warped our living room wall; to avoid strong electrical shocks we roommates had to leap off the floor and use a rolled-up newspaper to whack the light switch until we finished moved out. All in all, it seemed wise to have backup housing, a symbiotic system of places to stay and the skills to be useful there.

Soon there was a waiting list of people asking me into their homes. I opened a post office box and set up shop in spare rooms in three houses, storing items in this attic and that sun porch. My students began calling the food coop to leave homework questions for me; the amused cashiers would pass on the message on my daily shopping trips. The frequent housing hosts gave me copies of their key. I put them all on a large ring and wore it around my neck on a thick jute rope. 

Invitations came in all shapes and sizes. People even asked for a housesitter when they were right there, sitting in the house. One was a rent-free week, to walk the dog and water and eat the zucchini. One request was to come next Friday to let the plumber in, for rights to windfall plums in the yard. Or to camp out Tuesday evenings with a faculty member and her kids, while her husband worked late at the lab. Or a standing invitation to supper and company when severe weather was on the way, for a colleague afraid of severe weather. (That always suited me. I was more scared of it than anybody). Or a week with a wise wonderful droll teenage lad while parents cared for Grandma out of state. Or summer on my teaching supervisor’s lovely little farm, fixing dinner for the family and helping to milk the goats. One year was even rent-free; the housesitting requests formed a solid mosaic of places to stay, in a life rich with new acquaintance and experience. 

Naturally, there were quirky incidents here and there. Three houses triggered instant asthma attacks (was it the daily sage smudging? the eight cats? the vintage taxidermy collection?). A faculty member asked me to come clean house for her elderly neighbor in the hospital from heart surgery — but neglected to alert the patient. The neighbor came home while I was scrubbing the floor and nearly had a cardiac relapse, thinking she’d been evicted. Campus Housing alerted me to a neighbor 87 years young who had a free upper floor while his wife was in the hospital; I stopped by, but soon departed when he showed an interest in other personal services. One lady was upset to find that I had used and not replaced some paper grocery bags. (At that time, paper bags were free. And yes, she counted them.) One fellow graduate teaching assistant had an injury and needed me to come in and clean, but was afraid that her friends would judge her for utilizing domestic help; when company called, my orders were to hide the mop and pretend that I was only there for tea, then resume mopping after the guests left. One couple with a bouncy hound dog was departing for a month. Over the phone they let me know they’d fumigated for ants. I showed up to a house full of pesticide fumes and everything sealed in plastic trash bags, from dishware to bedding to towels. All flat surfaces were sticky with chemical residue and dead insects. I kept the hound in the garage to keep him out of the fumes, giving him visits and walks to calm his baying lamentations. It took three days to scrub everything clean, scoop out the bugs, liberate the dog, and find out which bag held the spoons so I could stop pouring cold cereal from box to mouth.

One radiant beautiful accomplished graduate wrapped up a degree in her second language. She introduced me to her friendly doglike cat and the goldfish who had shared her life for years. Then she headed to the airport for her wedding day, leaving me to hold down the fort during her honeymoon. As her taxi pulled away, both goldfish leaped out of the aquarium. I rushed them back into the tank with towels and wooden spatula, but they leaped out again and died on impact. Just then, the phone rang. “Hello?? Lindsey’s housesitter? Uh, your cat just committed suicide. He watched her taxi pull away, then ate some toadstools in my yard and died. Can you come get him?” Meanwhile, Lindsey arrived in her bridegroom’s city to find that he no longer wanted to get married and wasn’t ready to talk. Lindsey went back to the airport with wedding dress in her arms, flew home, and found that her fish and cat companions were dead. She got busy applying for jobs in the safe beautiful prosperous country of her second language. She moved there, met a man who treated her like gold, and they were happily married. 

For a month in one upper-class home, every night at the same time I sat on the floor for an hour with back to the sofa, softly tapping a little pocket comb against the floor. There were two purebred Persian cats somewhere under that sofa. The owner was afraid to handle them, and described them to me as aggressive with their teeth and claws. Each time I sat down, the cats would hiss and spit. When the comb started tapping they would lapse into silence. When the hour was up, I’d walk away and go off to bed. One night, one of the cats leaned out and swiped a paw at the comb. I kept my back to him and went on tapping. In a few more days they were slipping out to sniff the comb. Then they groomed their whiskers on it. Then I held a scissor in the other hand, and when they played with the comb I’d snip off felted fur; their coats were all matted. The owner came home to find two smaller motheaten cats missing hunks of fur. They were rolling all over me, demanding their daily combing & smooch.

Still, there came a time to take a break. One evening I was strolling home, and suddenly could not remember where I was going. Who in town was counting on me to sleep over that night? For clues I sat down ticking through the keys on my rope ring. Then I pictured that day as a film running backwards, back to breakfast and the house where I’d woken up that morning. That solved the puzzle. But for that year in grad school, it was time to stop the multi-bedsitter routine, to rent one room and stay put.

Within days, it was Sunny who clinched the decision to settle down. Why was he so upset that day in class? Because back in his home country there was a new gang of thieves on mopeds. The thieves yanked off the wedding rings of elderly women walking to market on village roads. For tight rings, the thieves would steal the gold by slicing off the victim’s finger. That was what alarmed him. “Oh Miss!” Sunny cried, looking at my neck rope. “What if the robber wants your KEYS?” Right away I removed the rope and looped it at my belt to pocket the keys out of sight. I apologized to Sunny for frightening him, thanked him for his good thinking and concern, and promised him never to display keys and never to wear a neck rope again. That promise holds true to this day. 

After Sunny told us his story, I went to visit my favorite landlord. He was happy to rent me a little room with shared bath. There were still plenty of opportunities to swap food and activities with the neighbors. But during thesis research and grad school, it made just the right home.

What would drive someone into the pathos and busyness of other people’s lives? Sure, it saved money. It brought in surplus vegetables and windfall fruit. But maybe it was distraction, to fill in for the lack of my own home circle. Maybe it was wanting multiple backup plans and places to run. Maybe it was a wish to feel welcome and useful. Maybe it was the fresh customs and adventures. Maybe it was magical moments like keying in to a house while a napping German Shepherd thumps his tail and goes on sleeping.

But really, it was the hosts and their generous hospitality. Some were reluctant to ask for help, but were pleasantly surprised to find that they enjoyed having a new person around to help out. I certainly liked being there. It was a big step up in emotional maturity to discover that even successful people with good families can sometimes feel lonesome in their nice houses, and are happy to share some everyday experiences. At home, we formed social connections at a deeper more personal level. That’s why those dear people and their houses and support are still a warm vivid memory. We learned how to pool resources, get along, and enrich our lives and our community. Housesitting is a great idea. I plan to do a lot more in the future.

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8/24/22: Scrambled

Heirloom vegetables. A work of art cultivated by a talented and generous gardener couple up the road

Strolling home from work yesterday, I spotted a beautifully inviting well-watered garden. It was outlined with staked vines in orderly green curtains growing up to the second floor, as an amazing use of growing space for beans, cucumbers, squashes, and much more. In all this lush greenery, there was the gardener at work. He was harvesting vegetables in a flat round basket. I asked for permission to photograph the lovely purple and yellow flowers growing over and around the metal lattice patio chairs. He graciously agreed, and even answered my questions about his garden.

“This was all raised from seed by my grandchildren,” he let me know. As it turns out, he was a middle school teacher who taught children about saving seeds, raising food, and developing a connection with the seasons and the earth. He introduced his wonderful heirloom vegetable varieties, and talked about the importance of curating and preserving our seed supply.

That was the moment to hand him my current reading from the Little Free Library. It’s an appealing and informative account called The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, by Janisse Ray on her farm in Georgia. The gardener and I swapped a story or two about plants and community building. Then the lady of the house looked out and greeted me. They thanked me for the book, offered to read and return it, and invited me to come back up on to their porch to pick it up soon. They also took their flat round basket of vegetables, and tipped the whole contents into my carrying bag to take home. There is a sample of these treasures up in the picture. I hope to talk to them again.

(History retraction for the story below: The enchiladas actually appeared in a separate food swap, with the spinach ice cream caper. We apologize for any inconvenience.)

In other news, over at Angelina’s house, where energetic people have a life and go places, everybody was planning a big week of work or travel on Saturday. (For one thing, Angelina took a new step in her front-line career of saving and helping people all day.) I figured they could all use a fortifying high-protein healthy-fat snack to tide them over while rushing to and fro — something they could eat hot tonight for supper or cold tomorrow for breakfast. At 5:30 pm I texted the house. They agreed on a delivery of a breakfast-style goody at 7:00. I headed to the kitchen and looked around.

Maybe scrambled eggs? I took 8 mobile-pasture-raised egg yolks, and beat in some tomato paste, goat cheese, fresh spinach, fluffy celery puree, ginger, and garlic oil. The cast iron pan warmed up with a little coconut oil while 8 egg whites beat up all fluffy, and folded right in to the yolks. Then on no-reason impulse I rummaged for a can of salmon, didn’t find any, and mashed in some sardines instead. When it was all cooked and puffed to a perfect high golden dome with red and green touches, I texted the house to alert them. In the biggest jumbo kneading bowl I laid out paper bags and heavy baking mitts for insulation, covered the skillet, packed it all up, wrapped the whole affair in a super thick thermal blanket, and headed out.

That was a heavier and more ungainly armful than one might imagine, down 42 steps, outside, up 20 or so more steps up an incline, then over to the house. I pounded on the door, waiting for a happy outburst from within. Usually at the sound of approaching steps, the dogs would be inside flinging themselves against the door in full voice. Hark! A visitor is here to play with us!

Nothing. Not a sound. Hm. Perhaps the “breakfast” offer suggested that I’d be by at 7:00 am as in tomorrow. They must have taken the dogs out for a run or something. Well, this bowl is sure heavy. And hot, too. Better sit outside here and wait. La di da, la di da.

Neighbor after neighbor stops by. Hey Mary, are you just hanging out holding a big ol’ blanket bundle? Were you feeling chilled today or something? All of a sudden I’m the toast of the town. It’s irresistible. People gravitate right over to sit down and chat. We’re got a little conversation line going on. But, no sign of a returning party with dogs. Maybe I should feed these people? We could use our hands maybe.

But finally I ease on upright and trudge back home, schlepping breakfast down the walkway and up the 42 steps and in the door. Check cell phone for message. There is none. Of course. These are busy people! Bothering them on such a hectic weekend was a terrible idea. A normal American would prepare a moderate portion of brownie mix, cut them in neat squares in tidy Tupperware, and drop it off on the windowsill with a nice card without bothering the family and causing a hubbub.

Wait, I can’t sit here fretting and overheating my lap. For food safety, this has to go in the fridge or freezer pronto! Except I don’t own Tupperware, and my fridge and freezer don’t have room, and hot food on a hot day will heat them up, so it needs to cool first in little slices. But then it won’t be sizzling and pretty at all. Nobody will want to eat it then. Quick peek. Oh no; it’s not a puffy dome any more! It’s all flat, like my spirits. Maybe it’s just as well. They wouldn’t like eating this. Who wants to eat out of something wrapped in baking mitts and a blanket? Who puts mashed sardines into other people’s food anyway? Someone with no social skills, is who.

My life does not work. I’m a dork.

Cell phone text. Who is it? Angelina! After a hard intense week she sat down for a rest and fell asleep bless her, and her two trusty Baskervilles fell asleep too. Now the three of them are hurrying to my house and will meet me out back. I grab the bundle and lock up and rush for the back stairs. Then from the top floor I get a glimpse of her little figure way down on the ground. She’s actually watching for my little figure to first appear in the window. She’s waving with both arms while Super Pup and Bingo wag their tails. Being practical souls, the dogs are staring not up at the windows, but at the back of the building. They just know that something exciting is about to burst out of that door. What could it be?

“Maryyy!” Angelina is hollering apologies from ground level. And here’s dainty Juliet on the balcony, laughing while lumbering down the stairs with the still-hot bindle swag.

Outside, the dogs are overjoyed. Super Pup is all bounce, like a tiny velvet black hand puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show. Bingo is usually wistful and bemused, like the tenured Ivy League professors I used to step and fetch for with their elbow patches and pipe tobacco looking helplessly for the Copy button on the Xerox. His name is not really Bingo, but his trim frame and features look half Beagle and half Dingo, so it’s close enough. The two are amazed. It’s Mary! And she has really stepped up and improved her smell. Mm. Fish essence. What’s in the bundle, Mare? Food? It is! She brought LOTS of food, and it’s ALL FOR US!

I was sad to disappoint the troops, but this skillet mess would have done their little tummies no good. Instead Angelina loops the leashes and hoists the bundle herself, and we head back for her house.

“Look at you with those flexible feet of yours,” I marvel at her. “All comfy and barefoot on rocks and bare ground!” It is endearing that she did not even stop to put on shoes.

“No, it just means I was raised by wolves.”

“I wish my feet could do that. They’re pretty arthritic.”

“You know,” she reasons, “you NEVER complain about that. But you could, with me. You can like gnash your teeth at the world.”

“If I were a better Christian, I’d know how. What is a Gnash even? It’s in Scripture.”

“Oh, it’s… oh you know. Like, ‘Though they come for my skin, yet will I gnash at them.’ I think it’s Leviticus.” She took the skillet upstairs, and brought down all the packaging, plus a big helping of Avocado Enchiladas and a grape ice in return. “I have never seen anyone wrap a skillet with so much effort,” she noted.

Next day a cooking review appeared in my texts, sent by a courteous family member. “Hello Mary! I enjoyed the snack. It was like a florentine omelette with a fishy twist. Thank you! Blessings to you and your garden!” The feedback came as quite a relief. I texted back that I’d come get the pan later, and meanwhile they could set it down on the floor for The Usual Suspects (ooh, new name for a pop group). I can go serenade their house window too. To the tune of “I’ll Bring You Home Again, Kathleen”:

It took some homecooking bravado / Your Enchiladas Avocado.

Who knew how tasty they can be? I should have shown more grateful glee.

You didn’t have to, thanks a bunch / They really made an awesome lunch.

If you should start your own café / We neighbors will eat there every day.

Instead of fulltime forks and knives / You’re on the frontline, saving lives.

Though Angelina’s Trattoria would be big / Guess the world needs you, to stay at your day gig.

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8/22/22: Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Nice Cream: Fan Tribute

The way it is supposed to look, elegantly crafted by a medical doctor and his team of culinary artisans.

“Mint Nice Cream” was the recent Featured Recipe at the website drfuhrman.com (Check it out. His books are good too.) It blends frozen bananas, raw spinach, pitted dates, nut butter, a dash of almond milk, mint leaves, and a sprinkle of 100% dark chocolate chips. Uploading the recipe here seems forward and possibly unethical. But maybe it is ok to use this little slice of screen shot above, because it certainly looks more tempting than the fan version turned out by me.

It’s the thought that counts.

When bananas on the countertop are fully ripe, I peel them and wrap in waxed paper and old bread bags, pressing out the air and sealing them up for the freezer. Then they’re ready to slice as needed. 

Spinach: For my third practice run with this recipe I hand-picked only the freshest driest leaves. The rest of the spinach was getting wilty and a little dark around the edges, so I cooked that up for tomorrow’s egg scramble. This bag of spinach was a very kind gift from the neighbor downstairs. A more practical less perishable substitute would be… maybe blending in celery juice pulp, or fennel greens, or baby kale, or jicama, or raw zucchini, or pureed sweet potato? Food for thought.

In the Vitamix I blended the spinach with just enough almond milk first, then added the pitted date pieces. Then in the Cuisinart, the hard-frozen banana slices spun around for a minute or so. They clumped up and had to be mashed with a fork. When they were well whipped and frosty, I dropped in some fresh peeled peach chunks, then a drizzle of coconut oil instead of the nut butter, then added the spinach mixture. (Our garden mint has a very strong taste, so I didn’t add any.)

Doesn’t it sound more sensible to put the spinach mixture in the Cuisinart first and swirl it around, then add frozen banana slices?

Yes it does. But in the Cuisinart the spinach mixture by itself (even with my hand pressed down firmly on the spout) went all over the kitchen wall and my hair. So just start by pureeing the bananas first.

I packaged up tonight’s batch and walked it outside to Dog Play Hour at the neighbors’ patio. Because it was too dark to actually see the dessert, two brave neighbors agreed to taste it. Angelina pronounced it “Totally edible. A kid would eat this!” I left her some for tomorrow, and she sent me home with some vegetarian enchiladas, a pretty good deal all round.

This dessert needs to be eaten as fresh-frozen as possible so the bananas don’t get melty. When frozen overnight, the texture is more scrap-y like an Italian ice than it is creamy. This opens the possibility of freezing in advance, then walking it over to the church freezer until fellowship time in the parish hall. The point after all is fellowshipping, not toting in equipment and making a racket and then washing spinach off the walls.

To me this is just as good as ice cream from the store, and no, you can’t taste the spinach. But even without the refined white sugar, this is still a whole hit of fructose. Next time I’ll omit the dates and chocolate chips and add healthy fat like avocado or nut butter.

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8/15/22: Things to Do in August

A mess of sunflowers

On Friday night after supper we stopped by church for 40 Hours Devotion. Then Dad drove us to buy groceries at Food Fair and let me ride the machine horse there for 25 cents. Then he drove us to Carvel for frozen custard. I got a Brown Bonnet flat cone, tall swirly vanilla ice cream dipped in melted milk chocolate and frozen again so the chocolate is crunchy.

On Saturday morning Dad went to Tony the Barber for a haircut and to hear all the news. Tony patted my head and said “Why Hello Sweetheart, are you here for a haircut too?” and all the men laughed and thought it was cute, a girl at a barber shop. Tony let me get on a chair and he pumped it higher and let me spin it around. He gave me a bubble gum with a Bazooka Joe carton wrapped inside and comics to read with ads for x-ray spectacles and sea monkeys.

On Sunday we went to earliest Mass before Church heated up through the windows. The candles had ripply heat over the flames. The Sisters had red lines on their foreheads where their wimples and veils were too hot and our mantilla veils and stockings felt scratchy and we fanned ourselves with the bulletin. Bees wandered in for the flowers on the altar. At the door the sponge in the font got dry and ran out of holy water. After Mass we went to Mondello’s bakery for Italian bread shaped like a crown. Dad picked out a peach pie too, and then Mr. Mondello packed it in a white box with red and white string in a bow. I looked at the display case of different bread shapes and licked my finger and picked up sesame seeds from under the racks to crunch on.   

On Monday Mom took us to Jones Beach. The night before, she set out our bathing suits and towels and suntanning lotion and sunglasses and beach hats and shovels and pails and thongs. In the morning other families on our street left the house at like 9:00. Not Mom. No, she just had to get up way early to squeeze lemons and fill the big yellow jug with lemonade, and boil eggs and make baloney sandwiches in wax paper and cut up carrots and wash grapes. She loaded the car with the big wicker picnic hamper. She woke us up while it was still shiver cold out and the sun wasn’t even over the trees. We put on our bathing suits with clothes over them. She got us in the car, and drove the 30 miles. At 8:00 or so we were in our favorite spot by the Pen & Pencil Tower and the lifeguard chair, covered with suntanning lotion and eating breakfast with the whole beach to ourselves. I was always scared of the ocean but she picked me up and said “Look, a big wave! Let’s catch it before it breaks,” and swam us out fast so the wave picked us high up and carried us right in and then we did it again. The lifeguards had white zinc cream on their noses because they were outside all day, and they let me climb the chair for a look around. We looked at sand crabs and sandpipers and planes dragging banners or writing on the sky. We picked up stones and shells and made castles and popped the bubbles in the seaweed. Then at 11:00 Mom made us shake out everything and pack up and get going. Then the whole parkway to the beach was bumper to bumper traffic on the other side. But we cruised along going the the other way past sea gulls on the wooden street poles. The hot asphalt was melty in spots and smelled like Necco Wafers and had mirages way up ahead like ripply water until we got up close and then the water disappeared. At home Mom made us go take cold showers and change clothes and put on cocoa butter so our skin didn’t sunburn. She washed our beach things and hung them on the line and unpacked everything and washed off the seashells and aired out the lemonade jug and the hamper. Then they were ready for next time.

On Tuesday we helped Mom hang laundry out on the lines. It whipped around in the wind, and to get cool we ran our faces right into the sheets. Mom hung one line low and let us make a tent out of the wet sheets and lie in the shade. She even brought us Hawaiian Punch popsicles in Dixie cups out of the freezer.

On Wednesday we kids on the block all put on our bathing suits and ran in the sprinkler. That’s ok on Wednesday except not on Sundays, because Sunday is too holy for girls to walk around in a bathing suit right on the street. Then we went to Ridder’s Pond to slide down the sliding pond and go on the swings and feed ducks.

On Thursday it was too hot to cook in the kitchen. So Dad put a lot of charcoal on the barbecue and made a fire. He made hamburgers and hot dogs and corn on the cob and onions and potatoes and toasted buns, and Mom opened some Schweppe’s Bitter Lemon seltzer and made hot tea with ice cubes and spearmint leaves. She peeled and sliced up cucumbers and salted them and then squeezed out all the salt and mixed them with sour cream and dill. She picked tomatoes and basil. She cut up watermelon into cubes and we spit the pits into the grass. We cut up Navel Oranges with no pits at all, except girls can’t call them Navel because it’s not polite so we have to call them seedless oranges. Mom made butter sugar flour crust in a big pan and cut up peaches and plums in pretty designs and baked them on top for sheet cake. After supper Mom toasted marshmallows on the fire and ate them all black and crunchy. When the charcoal got cool we took pieces and drew black pictures on the driveway.

Then there were things to do for every day. We helped water the garden and pull the weeds. We checked all the tomato bushes to take off the tomato hornworms, and checked the roses to chase away beetles. When vegetables look ripe or big enough we picked them and brought them in.

We had steel roller skates with leather straps but we weren’t allowed to skate in the street. The boys drew circles on the ground and set out glass marbles and then flicked their marbles with their fingers to knock the other marbles away. We had Mexican Jumping Bean races. We had paddles with red balls on an elastic string. We had puzzles with number pieces to move around inside a little frame. We had waxy cardboard drawing boards that you could draw on a clear top sheet with a plastic stick and then lift the clear sheet and the gray sheet underneath, and the drawing disappears. We had boards full of metal powder with a dog face picture under a plastic cover, and we could take a magnet stick and move the powder through the cover to give the dog long ears or long fur. We had Etch-a-Sketch boards to draw pictures by wiggling the round knobs and then erase it by shaking it upside down. We took wire coat hangers and twisted one half into a loop, and stretched an old stocking over it to make a net for catching bugs. We had soap bottles with wands to blow bubbles. We carved bar soap into shapes, and then our mothers took the scraps and saved them in crocheted bags for washing the clothes. We drew hopscotch squares on the sidewalk with chalk and tossed rocks to use as the potsy piece, and hopped around yelling “Butterfingers!” We took Mom’s wash line for jump rope games. We tied a lot of rubber bands together and made a Chinese jump rope too, a big loop that two girls held open with their shoes and the rest of us jumped in and jumped with one line crossed over the other with our feet in between and then jumped and turned and jumped out again. Dad showed us how to play tinikling with mop sticks that you tap on the ground and then tap together, and you jump in between them like the girls over in Philippines. Mom showed us how to play ball & jacks. She took Hawaiian Punch cans and punched triangle holes in the top and ran rope through the holes and tied the ends to make a loop. Then we could stand on the cans and lift the loops and have stilts to walk on.

We played checkers and Parcheesi and Scrabble and Old Maid and Go Fish. We made houses out of cards and blew them down. We played dominoes, and pickup sticks. Somebody at work gave Dad a fancy roulette wheel and board and poker chips all in a leather briefcase, and Mom said we do not gamble in this house but it’s fine to play with poker chips and build towers with them. One time our cousin brought a really big jigsaw puzzle with like 1000 pieces and a picture of just flat sand and far away a tiny little runner. So we took turns all week putting together one piece of runner and 999 pieces of sand. We played Monopoly with house and hotel pieces getting in and out of jail and Boardwalk and Park Place. Mom and I played together as one player with her helping me against the others; she planned a lot of real estate deals in her head and won a lot, but I just liked to play with the Scotty dog piece and match the colors on the cards and look hard at the pattern on the dollar until it looked like lines were spinning around. 

After supper it was ok to go back outside because in summer it’s not a school night. We caught lightning bugs in a jar and watched them flash around a while. The boys took a pinkie rubber ball and played stick ball against the stoop. The girls picked white clover flowers and we tied them into ropes and crowns. We used Dad’s flashlight making animal shapes with our hands. We climbed on the car and lay there looking for the first star. Then when the street lights came on we ran races. But then Dad told me to quit with the racing because I was getting too big and beating some of the boys and that isn’t polite. So I rode my bicycle instead. It’s really a bike but girls can’t say that word because if they do it’s not polite at all. Girl bicycles don’t have a bar in front for in case we wear dresses, and girls can’t ride a boy’s bicycle because everybody will laugh at her. I rode mine all through the streets in the dark and raced all over Park Circle, jumping the curbs. The boys called their bicycles just bikes. Some boys had extras like a banana seat or high handlebars or tag with their name or a tiger tail on the back. They took wood clothespins and clipped baseball cards to the wheels so the spokes ticked like a clock. When it got later Mom called us in and put rubbing alcohol on our bug bites, and we washed up and went to bed.

Sometimes it was way too hot to sleep upstairs. Then Mom and Dad let us stay up later. Some nights for our TV snack Mom got the iron fry pan and made a lot of popcorn with butter and salt. Or Dad made leftover fried pizza. Or we had blender malteds with ice cream and Bosco milk and eggs. Dad rigged the TV cord out the Dutch door to the sun porch and we watched with the breeze through the screens. Sometimes there were crickets chirping in the corner, and we let them stay inside because they are good luck. One time Mom let us stay up for the Alan Burke Show. A father and son came on the show to talk about their adventure with Martians. They showed a film as proof. In the film they were running away all scared, looking over their shoulders in a panic. But Alan Burke waved his big cigar and said “Who’s holding the camera — the Martians?” Then the guests explained that the film was a dramatic re-enactment. Then Alan Burke said “Cut their mike!” and “Get off my show and don’t waste my time.” After that Dad had this joke. All he had to do was hold on to his glasses and look over his shoulder and pretend to run away in panic, and then we yelled “Hey who’s holding the CAMERA?”

Nights always got cool again. Then it was time to go upstairs. Mom sat with me to hear my prayers. Then she tucked me in with my glow in the dark rosary and turned on the angel night light and said “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” 

Outside the older high school boys stood under the street light listening to the transistor or working on a car or maybe smoking a cigarette if their parents were in bed and didn’t see them. Next door the TV was turned down low, with a high pitch signal and blue flicker light. All along the street, Norway Maple leaves flickered and shushed in the breeze. Click bugs ticked back and forth in the branches. Every little while a propellor plane flew over. With all the windows open, the little thrummy noise went from curtain and screen to curtain and screen all across the attic, over the house and away to Idlewild. 

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8/8: Neighborhood Update: Real Furniture, Fruit Treats, and Causing Confusion

On Saturday the grapevine on our street sent word that my neighbor’s son Jaeger was looking for me. Jaeger had been out driving in his car, and saw a table in the trash. Jaeger recalled hearing (on said grapevine) that Neighbor Mary was looking for a bookshelf. Would this table fill the bill?

Mary was in fact looking for a bookshelf. This room holds a collection of Orthodox and Catholic textbooks inside various mismatched plastic drawers swiped and scrubbed from furniture thrown in the dumpster. It would be nice to have a steady piece of furniture so the books don’t spill and hit my toes. I contacted Jaeger right away, asking him where I could go find the table. But in the 90-something degree heat, he devised his own strategy: he would drive me to the table, see whether it passed muster, and if so he would drive it back.

In the hot sun, Jaeger opened the car hatchback, rearranged a few items, then inspected the table with me. “Does it seem to you,” he asked, “that this glass pane is detachable, or is it all in one piece?” I tapped on the glass top and attempted to jiggle it around, but found that it remained firmly in place. With confidence I assured him that the glass pane was attached, and could be moved easily as one piece with the table.

Jaeger contemplated the table from several angles. Gently and carefully he lifted the glass pane right out of its niche, and set it far forward in the hatchback on some soft material. This is why the glass ended up nested comfortably in his car and then in my home instead of in a zillion fragments all over the street. Then he hoisted and turned the table just so, to fit. He drove it to my building, and took it out of the trunk. I prepared to lift and swing it by one corner after another to inch it up the walk and all the way down the hall. But Jaeger parked, took out the table, replaced the glass, and carried it all the way up to my studio. That’s a whole lot of upstanding behavior, and I was very grateful for his help. As at least a token of thanks I sent him home with a jarful of red beans and brown rice. Then on the off chance of bedbug activity I set the glass in the sink, got the table right into the bathtub, scrubbed it down, doused every inch and crevice on all sides with pot after pot of scalding water, buffed it dry, set it out to bake hard in the sun, and then brought it in. I soaped and rinsed the glass top, gave it a good polishing, and set it into place.

Here’s the table tonight, looking all elegant like an instant heirloom. Maybe it’s too nice to be loaded with books? That’s a 25-cent crocheted doily from the needle exchange thrift shop, a glass bowl from the garbage cage, and Captain Wing’s last two gladiolas of the year, which of course he cut off and gave away. That table really lights up the whole studio. Thanks to Jaeger!

A new piece of actual nice furniture

In other news, yesterday a lovely gracious young woman wearing an N-95 mask met me on our street and thanked me for the donation of daehwong, the Chinese medicinal preparation in a jar. I stood there with a friendly but clueless smile listening to her very warm thanks and appreciation. After our conversation I stood there, hand on forehead. That’s life with prosopagnosia! Who was this lovely lady? What kind of food was I passing out around the neighborhood? What was daehwong again?

This is why I don’t drink.

Walking home, I remembered what daehwong was. Eureka! Of course. I’d made a big batch of rhubarb, carried some to a co-worker and some to an old friend, and went to share some with Angelina. But Angelina was leaving on a trip. So I slapped a note on the jar with its English name and Chinese botanical name and the note “Add SUGAR!” and gave it to Angelina’s neighbors instead. That family and I were on a hello-wave basis as we met in passing now and then while I took out my compost. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen the mom out of context, away from her family, and wearing an N-95 mask. So the mystery gift was stewed rhubarb!

“So that Chinese medicine,” I told Captain Wing, “was what we Anglo Americans just call an ingredient for pie.”

“Mary!” Captain Wing adjusted his glasses and gave me a serious look. “Rhubarb IS Chinese medicine.” He explained how to compound the roots, and how they are used.

Captain talked to me while inspecting the plants with a flashlight, watering in the dark and checking for slugs. I was out there to bring a treat for the Wing family. That day at our open air market, there were fresh apricots just over the hill of ripeness for 50 cents a pound. I blanched them, and blended them with tahini, rice milk, banana, and a dash of organic sugar. It really tasted good, an attractive orange creamy fruit sauce with a light bright taste. I explained to Captain that the fruit sauce was to celebrate the eighth day of the eighth month. My impression was that in China the number eight is good luck, two eights are better, and that their double-eight holiday called for a treat.

Then I brought it to their kitchen entrance and knocked. Mrs. Wing opened and lit up with a happy smile. I handed over the fruit treat. “Bā Bā Kuài Le!” I hollered at her, waving my arms in enthusiasm. “Happy Eight Eight!”

Mrs. Wing looked at the apricot puree, gazed at me, blinked, and called a soft question over to Captain. In a short conversation, he apparently explained to her my line of reasoning. She thanked me kindly, and wished me a good night.

As I headed back to my building, Captain Wing took the flashlight and followed behind me, lighting up every step as I walked up the garden path. “Psalm 119 says that God’s word is a lamp unto my feet,” I told him. “That is why I appreciate your flashlight help.”

I came upstairs to check the internet and learn more about August 8 and its significance. As it turns out, I was a tiny bit right. In China, August 8 really is a big important family holiday. The phrase “Eight Eight” (Bā Bā) sounds a little like “Dad” (Bà Bā), so when it came to assigning a holiday to that date the choice was simple:

I had just wished Mrs. Wing “Happy Father’s Day!”

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8/6: Awake Stick

Sunset through our neighbor’s lilies

On Sundays at 1:00 am, the monks hit the highway.

Each week they’d drive around town and beyond, to pick up anyone who called by 1:00 to ask for a ride to Sunday morning services. On one occasion their truck pulled up in my alley too, through the trumpet vines and towering pokeweed. I had some serious church burn going on then, and was much too discouraged to venture out and find another church. While pining away for some spiritual practice and fellowship, I went and spent a quiet night meditating with the monks. It was good to see them pull up with a friendly greeting in their denim jackets and farming feed caps. In companionable quiet we headed out past starlit fields of wheat and corn, in the summer breeze with the nighthawks buzzing overhead. After picking up a last passenger the monks drove us back to town, to their little rented house. There our hosts put on graceful gray robes and brown aprons while we visitors took off our shoes and picked out hand-sewn black sitting cushions. We tiptoed across the polished wood floor, and settled down in the soft dim light. 

Sunday service began at 3:00. There were long long chants in Korean, with written translations in English. One was probably the Heart Sutra, about release and freedom from one’s Self-centered sensations and perceptions. Here is an excerpt from the Center’s website. “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.”

(Editorial opinion here. Yes, these words have been beloved worldwide for centuries. They have proved a great comfort for people gripped and driven by suffering. Some of those people tell me how much it’s helped. But those words might not be a remedy for people dissociated from their own bodies, who don’t know what hurts, don’t know how to talk about it, don’t sense that they even have a Self, or were taught that their thoughts and feelings don’t matter and their perceptions of reality are wrong. End of digression.)

With the chanting that night, there was also bowing with prostrations. That means standing with hands folded palm to palm. Then it’s a deep knee bend with straight posture, sinking down to kneel with forehead and tops of feet against the floor, and then sitting back and tucking the toes up under, and then springing straight up as lightly as a heron. The monks led 108 of these floor prostrations, in a very fleet manner. I can not imagine how they kept count. Typing this just now, for the sake of interest, let me go find out whether my ankles and toes are still limber enough to manage a knee bend all the way down to the floor. 


During the session, there were intervals when we sat in silence. I seem to recall that at times we turned around and knelt facing the white wall, that sitting up straight was hard, and that several times the silence was so absolute and lengthy that I was sure the monks had forgotten all about us and taken themselves off to bed. During those vast expanses of stillness, the meditation leader floated from corner to corner, tuning in to the energy of the room, balancing a stick which might have been bamboo. As the wee hours wore on, waves of drowsiness would roll in and drag the marrow in my bones straight toward the center of the earth. We’d been told that at those times, any one of us could place hands palm together and give the leader a nod. Several times I did just that. Then he would come over with the stick and carefully rest a hand on me to feel and shield my spine. Then on the soft part of the back inside the shoulder blades he would give me two hearty glancing thwacks on the left, and two thwacks on the right. This Awake Stick treatment was voluntary and reviving, like dunking one’s face in ice water. It certainly helped with remaining focused and wakeful.

Apparently, in traditional mentorship the Awake Stick was also applied when a Zen teacher sensed that a student was about to reach some next step of spiritual advancement. Then the teacher would give a few spontaneous thwacks to help the student snap out of everyday thinking and into the higher level of experience. (It sounds like Cesar Millan guiding a dog with a tap from the top of his shoe Tch! — but to snap the brain into a state of being, not out of it.) That night, the possibility dawned on me: What if one of the monks with Awake Stick at the ready discerned that I was about to reach some epiphany? Wouldn’t it be an amazing experience to feel an unexpected thwack to push me over the right edge? Of course, at a Zen Center, the great goal is not the thought “How am I doing here? Am I advancing toward spiritual insight? Is anyone important noticing my progress?” Still, as night crawled on (and on), that thought did captivate my imagination. So did thousands and thousands of other thoughts, including the complete jingle to the Bonomo Turkish Taffy theme from childhood TV.

Between silent sessions, there were also rounds of walking meditation. We would all slip our shoes on and step outdoors in silent single file, walking with palms together. The idea was to meditate while taking one small soft mindful step at a time, keeping the focus on the breath while letting the body be gently grounded point to point through space. 

That was a tiring and laborious night. Still, this despondent temperament found benefit with silence in a household of minimal deliberate actions, thoughtfully arranged consistent ritual, meaningful well-intentioned speech, social synchronicity, and plain aesthetically uplifting surroundings. 

By 6:00, Sunday morning service concluded with a short reading and lesson. The monks hung up their gray robes. Two put on their feed caps and drove us home. But first, they even treated us to breakfast and tea at the diner. These were industrious enterprising young men. They worked long hard hours in construction and farming and baking and industrial sewing by day, then by night devoted themselves to meditation practice and receiving visitors to the Center. They operated with open hospitality, humility, philosophical conversation, and gentle straight-faced self-effacing humor. In their kind company we all enjoyed a good sunrise conversation with our meal. One of the men gave me his tasseled prayer beads, unvarnished golden wood with a wonderful sandalwood fragrance.

Just today, 35 years later, I looked up their community back in that modest-sized town. At a time when the news holds so much polarized bombardment, when social connections are fraying at the seams, I expected that the group was broken up and the Center long gone. To my surprise, those sittings caught on and grew. Two of the original founding members are still right there leading the Center. (A third one now leads his own center back East.) The community has bought and renovated a house on the quiet edge of town out toward those corn and wheat fields. On their website, the premises show meticulous cleanliness and care. There are services in person and over Zoom, with open drop-in meditation hours, and frequent day retreats. It would be wonderful if more Christian denominations had a house and community of this kind, open for public worship and day events. (Over the years as congregations have discussed strategies for community outreach, I’ve told them to hold services at 3:00 am.)

Back to our story. That night we circled around the block in three walking meditation breaks, palms together, in unison, step by step. We eased our footfalls over brick sidewalks and tree roots and lacy leaf-shapes under the streetlights and once a strolling daddy-long-legs with a huge shadow. We walked to the sound of a questioning dog bark somewhere in the dark houses, a distant siren down Main Street, lawn sprinklers and the rustling walnut trees and katydids and crickets and a mockingbird and freight trains and the summer breeze over the river and one slow cruising car with a radio playing “In My Dreams” by REO Speedwagon.


A hearty bracing blow hit me square on the back. I looked up from the ground, catching my breath. Gee! Did one of the monks bring along the Awake Stick, and decide that I was on the brink of deeper awareness? Oh, but… wait, the monks were at the head of the line. I was last. The street behind me was dark and empty; just crickets and me. As I stopped and looked back my foot hit something softish but firm like a sandbag, a wrapped bundle weighing a pound or two. I leaned over for a closer look.

And we climb, and climb, and at the top we fly / Let the world go on without us! We are lost in time…

The appealing lyrics and tune trailed off down the street. All along his route, the driver of that cruising car tossed thick hefty Sunday newspapers. Most hit the doorsteps. One hit me, for my closest brush with Zen enlightenment.

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8/4/22: 3 Summers Long Ago

Not the same lilies.

Market Day

In Novgorod the sun was rising on an ancient village square, all onion-dome silhouettes and ravens. A woman in a black head scarf and black work dress was opening her kiosk. She was a strong fierce-looking elder, like some wise warrior from a folk tale. Arranging cut flowers in shining metal pails of water, she looked me over with an adversarial glance. It was normal for shopkeepers to think “Oh, a Kapstránka, a capitalist-country-female. She came to look down at us, to scoff at our consumer goods.” But I just stood there spellbound, staring at the lilies. “That — those — they’re — the most beautiful lilies I’ve ever seen,” I stammered. Each one was perfect, the size of a soup bowl, blood red. Her eyes narrowed, sizing me up again. Then she raised a branch of three flowers, and handed them to me. I caught my breath, turning them over and over, and reached for my purse. But with a proud toss of her head, she waved me away from her stall. “Run along,” she said, with a trace of a smile.

Mild-Mannered Reference Guy

Back at the graduate school, the reference desk librarian spoke English English. I don’t know from English accents, but it sounded high class to me. Still, judging by his conversations in the back room or on the phone he was a lot more at ease speaking French. He was very handsome and scholarly looking with his sleek longish black hair and silver glasses and very calm thoughtful dark-lashed eyes. He was impeccably courteous and helpful about tracking down and handing over books, then would head straight back to his office. Over time though, when I stood around at the front desk thinking it too pushy to ring the bell for assistance, it made him smile. We developed an in-joke where I’d loiter at the counter, and when he finally looked up from his window in the back room I’d hold the bell up and point to it, and he’d laugh behind the glass and then come help. He finally made an observation about how many books I needed for my research, and then we talked about books in general. One day he suggested that we meet for tea at the coffee shop by the park downtown, and then he’d drive me home. I was absolutely thrilled.

That evening over baklava and tea we talked books and film and poetry for hours, and a little bit about ourselves, gazing out the picture window at the pocket park and passing traffic lights. He paid for our tea, and held the door. Then I held the door for three young men from the next table, and gave them a friendly nod. They did not smile or nod back.

My companion led me to a strikingly small silver car, all streamlining and gleam. As I took my seat, one of the three young men came up to my side and said “You sleeping with this Arab here? Well unlike him we served our country. And Jeez, Girl, you’re ugly; you must be bisexual or something. I oughta punch your face in.” I offered him our regrets. “Oh, Sir. Please excuse us; but we need to be going now.” This break in sequential logic left him completely taken aback for a moment. Finally he said “You smartassing me?” I said “No, Sir! Not at all; just telling you the truth. We do need to leave.” He grabbed the door handle, but the small car spun around and shot out into traffic. The three young men revved up their pickup truck. Our librarian leaned back at ease, maneuvering the wheel with his fingertips, skimming through four lanes and right over a concrete median in a hairpin turn that left the pickup stuck in traffic going the other way, lost from view. The silver bullet purred along in some Harry Potter space continuum, gliding gently lane to lane as the other cars melted away behind us. After a circuitous series of loops, still with all clear in the rearview mirror, he finally downshifted for our trip across campus.

Behind my house, in the moonlit alley under the trumpet vines, it took my shaking hands several tries to unhook the seat belt. I felt heartsick at the thought that by accepting his invitation to tea I could have endangered his life. And what if those troubled men were on the lookout now for a silver sports car?

“Are you still thinking about the other guys back there?” my companion asked, adjusting his glasses to scan my subdued and crestfallen aura. He seemed embarrassed for me, disappointed in my performance under pressure, unlike this little gem with its underfoot purr. He shook his head and shifted gears, and drove away.

After that day, there was a change in Reference Reserves. Two new friendly work-study students took over the front and brought me my books. The librarian stayed behind the window cataloguing acquisitions, leaning back at ease and clicking typewriter keys at blazing speed. It took many visits to clue me in that he wasn’t going to speak to me again. They promoted him upstairs. He probably had a successful fine career.

I wouldn’t assume such a bright future for those three young men. It would be good to talk to them today, to hear what-all was going on for them. Probably a lot. Over our chat, I could tell them that despite their first umbraged assumption about public decency I was not sleeping with anyone from anywhere. Despite their second assumption, my companion was a veteran too. It dawns on me just now that at one point, before coming to the States to library school, he might have fought the same army they did. That brings us to their last jumped conclusion: he was in fact a poet from Iran. As a teenager back at home his other keen affinity was rigging up and racing cars.

Wee Hour Surprise

I was fast asleep when Dad sat me up in bed. Mom was grabbing her coat to put on me. “It’s a surprise. Hurry and come look,” they said.

We heard a low hum droning along in the dark, and then Wow — right over the porch roof there were bright lights and letters running through the sky all by themselves! Like a lit up ribbon of wiggly bulbs running back and forth on a movie theater, but in bright colors. “What IS that?” I yelled. Dad explained it all. The Wikipedia version goes like this:

“Skytacular: In the mid-1960s, the GZ-19 Mayflower (N4A) was fitted with over 3,000 incandescent lamps of red, yellow, blue and green on both sides that for the first time featured animation. Usually moving stick figures, ticker messages or colorful patterns. A small gas turbine had to be attached to the car in order to power the Skytacular night sign.

“That is the GOODYEAR BLIMP,” Dad said. “It’s going off to visit the New York World’s Fair. And guess what? Next week, WE are going to visit the Fair too!”

Well that was a lot of amazement for the middle of a night. “Like skywriting, but from God,” I told them, as they tucked me back in bed. But I sat up for a last look out through the screen of the open window.

Colors and flashes hummed along and headed west, spelling beautiful news across the sky.

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8/2/22: “I Tell You My Joy”

Captain Wing’s gladiolas, at dusk on this lovely August evening

Mayday, or Not

That’s a Killdeer in distress, a plaintive note of discord on a lovely August evening. The setting is a Little Free Library, generously stocked with donations by a “retired” superstar librarian. (She is so well loved that there is an Action Figure with her name, so that little girls can have a superhero doll who fights for library budgets.) The library is set across from the Catholic church right at a sidewalk cafe, with chalkboard art full of appealing specials of the day and little tables with bowls of water set out for dogs. Some nights the cafe walls even open out for a live ensemble playing smooth jazz. At sunset the baked goods are half price, so during their strolls in the cool of the evening, people stop in for little bags of bagels and crumpetry to take home.

But back to that Killdeer. In danger. She’s not kidding.

I stop browsing library books and snap to attention, looking around. (I’m fond of Killdeers. They’re so cute with their pretty markings, on their teetery legs. It’s sweet to wake up at night as they fly over with their timid pure notes lilting down through the darkness.) Now, it’s natural for a Killdeer mom to cry all kinds of woe while dragging a wing along the ground, and as interlopers chase after and get ready to pounce she’ll rocket into the air and head back to the ground nest that she just tricked us away from. Still, some critter must be really bothering her. So I go running up the street to intervene, tracking down the sound just as the poor thing seems to choke and fall silent. This time, she lost the game and her little ones are doomed.

The sound led me to a traffic circle planted with orange lilies. All along this pleasant street of tall trees, little wooden family houses and gardens on one side were bulldozed out to make room for new multi-story luxury townhouses, all professionally landscaped with boxed bushes and mulch.

The street is dead stillness for the next three minutes. Then, right around the corner, it’s a Flicker crying out for help help help help HELP Arrrrrgh! and then strangling to death. I dash around the corner to the alley, but too late. It’s over. Not a bird call anywhere.

Now it’s a Stellar Jay up in the trees, for a minute of outrage and panic coughing into quiet. Three minutes later the mysterious super-predator is taking out a Robin, to an S.O.S.! S.O.S! retching into silence again. Three minutes after that, it’s a Goldfinch. I’m circling hither and yon, craning my neck, checking the rooftops and trees and phone wires, following one distress call after another.

Finally, after enough scampering and gaping, reality dawns on Bumpkin. The bird calls are recordings. They come from those luxury townhouses, from black transmitters placed among the rooftop corners. They’re on a timer, so that different types of birds cry out from different locations all along the block. (Now it’s one thing to play distress recordings of, say, seagulls or geese at an airport. That’s a safety measure to clear the way for the planes. But even a phone app of random birdcalls during a nature walk drives the local birds nuts. How can the neighbors possibly stand the sound of animals being throttled? Do they even notice?) Somebody paid tip-top dollar to live in these new dwellings. Apparently the structures will stay in pristine shape so long as they are kept safe from the pesky little toes and nests of those darn fluffy colorful songbirds. I’ve always enjoyed walking down this street. It must be time to pick a different way to go. Judging by the eerie silence, the birds already have.

Pain Relief

The medical bill came in for that night in the ER in May. The exams, observation, blood tests, and the ultrasound came to about $5,000. (Separate charges are still drifting in for lab fees and more.) To my extreme good fortune, insurance paid for 90%, and I paid the $500 and thanked my luckiest stars. But the bill showed that $700 was doses of anesthesia, administered throughout the night. What? No one gave me opioids or other painkillers that night; I wasn’t in pain. I called the insurance company. While sitting on hold with merry Muzak playing along, I breathed deeply and pictured my blood pressure lowering by about 20 points. Then an extraordinarily calm dulcet voice came on the line. I greeted her and pointed out the issue with the bill. The operator explained that on that night, all provider consultation minutes were described as ANESTHESIA by the software. “The charges are all correct; the medical codes are correct in the permanent record, but the description for all was “Anesthesia” on the printout mailed to you.” How about that. “That’s very good to know! I was worried that someone else had accessed my account,” I told her. “Yes, that is an understandable concern. That is what every caller today has been wondering.” We ended up having a good laugh about it. “This medical insurance call has been more fun than I expected,” I told her. “In fact, this is hilarious. Would you kindly connect me to your supervisor? I’d like to report that you’ve been very helpful today.” The supervisor and I had a nice talk. “At a time when people’s lives are falling apart, that upset is going to carry over to their medical insurance phone calls. You must hear plenty of that. You’re helping to hold the whole system together out there. Thank you for your presence and help.” We had a nice talk before signing off.

National Night Out

Today, the first Tuesday in August, is National Night Out. That used to be when neighbors on the different streets registered their blocks for outdoor gatherings. They put their street on a precinct map, got special permits and barricades, closed off the road to traffic, set out tables, and had food and music and friendly milling around. Then from the local precinct the police would stop by and introduce themselves.

Several years ago I downloaded and printed out the city notices in the Mandarin version, and knocked on the doors of all our neighbors from the People’s Republic of China. I was taking a Mandarin class that year, and even got our teacher to come to the event with her family. (At first the Night Out concept of having fun with police didn’t make a lot of sense to them. Finally I just explained that it’s the American Moon Festival, and that answer made them happy.) To prepare, I studied hard to learn useful Chinese phrases, like “Come over! We’ll have snacks!” and “Does your child have food allergies?” and learned how to sing a beautiful Chinese TV show theme song for their entertainment. I scrubbed the picnic table and bought treats, and the Chinese families brought food, and they all started talking and exchanged Weibo and social media coordinates so they could all keep in touch, and then like magic a real moon rose. That was a wonderful evening.

But life changed a lot. The pandemic happened, and people weren’t gathering, not even outdoors. They lost the habit of in-person communication. (Many still mask up outdoors, and cross the street away from one another to keep up that social distance.) The Chinese students and faculty went home and stayed there. The Chinese language program was discontinued; I loved our class, and was sad to see our teacher leave. The police were defunded; some were discouraged and quit. The others are far too stressed by rising crime to walk around and chat with folks on the beat. This year I was too late to register our block, but I went out in search of other parties to thank and encourage people. There was only one little party, a few blocks away. I stopped by, but people were too hunkered in with their own spouses and kids to talk to anyone new. So I just circled slowly around the event looking for a way to strike up a conversation, and then slowly drifted away again.

But just then, several houses down, a tiny little girl in a tiny little sundress and sandals burst out of a house and came sprinting down the sidewalk. Being a total stranger, I didn’t want to frighten anyone so small; so I stepped aside out of her way. “I’M GOING TO THAT PARTY!” she cried, beaming up at me. “Yay!” I cried back, giving her a round of applause. “It’s a GREAT party. You are gonna love it! Good for you!” A busy looking mom ran outside, maneuvering a casserole and house keys. “That was one fast-moving enthusiastic party-goer,” I told her. The mom laughed, heading up the street in hot pursuit.

Not Just The Sorrow

One of our local entrepreneurs called and waved from across the street. Clearly he had exciting news. What’s up? “My SON,” he cried. “Arrived to America last night.” Our businessman arrived in the States years ago. He started with a job sorting garbage on a fast-moving outdoor factory chute in all weather, then signed on for dangerous winter work on a fishing vessel, then began cleaning office buildings while also working nights at a gas station and also fixing used cars for resale. He’s done the work of three men in one for years, sending every spare dollar home to support his relatives. Ten years ago he applied for visas for his son and daughter. (He brought his daughter here five years ago. On her way from the airport, she had him drive her to our community college, to enroll in nursing school prerequisites.) Two years ago, on the very day of his son’s interview with the American Embassy overseas, pandemic lockdown began all over the country. The Embassy closed its doors. Since then, news of natural disasters and drought and famine and civil war have burdened the heart of this kind father in America, who just kept soldiering on. But last night, Father and Son met at the airport. They posed as someone in the crowd took their picture. They looked radiant, arm in arm. (At a time when generations can easily feel misunderstood and disillusioned with one another, it must be amazing for two young adults to know that their Old Man crossed the world alone without a word of English, and wielded all his physical strength and character and wits to make this whole dramatic epic come true.) My eyes misted over at sight of the flowers that Dad brought to the airport for his son. It was so like him, to think of that little bouquet. He and I stood shoulder to shoulder marveling at that picture, and gave each other a big hug. “Over years,” he explained. “Many times I tell you about sorrows in my country. Today, I come to tell you my joy.”

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7/30/22: Dog Days

According to almanac.com, “the phrase ‘Dog Days’ conjures up the hottest, most sultry days of summer. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional timing of the Dog Days: the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, coinciding with the heliacal (at sunrise) rising of the Dog Star, Sirius.”

Here’s a wisteria vine, in a second hot-weather blooming season

We have a heat wave this week. Compared with the suffering all around the globe our experience isn’t bad, but for us it breaks all the records and already at least six people have died. I have no right in the world to complain ever, what with a roof and running water and an excellent system of public transportation and an indoor desk job. But this does take extra safety planning and responsibility, and some checking up on our senior citizens, especially if they live alone.

At Baptist church up the street, on days like this the men and boys (always looking handsome and poised in their dark suits with jacket and tie) set up enormous industrial fans in the invitingly dark cool basement and carry all the hymn books and Bibles downstairs for evening services. During the sermon they turn off all but the small cooler fan. After the service this Wednesday, Pastor announced “We have the usual cold drinks in the fridge. But on this circuit we can run either the main wind-tunnel fan, or the coffee machine. Take your pick. Those of you who wish for coffee tonight, you can enjoy your hot beverage while watching the rest of us swelter.” (They’ll spend all day today like every Saturday, setting out in the church van to neighboring towns to hand out surprisingly thoughtful Gospel leaflets and strike up conversations with anyone they can find. An intrepid lot in all seasons.)

The computer can’t take the heat up here at the top of the building, so remote work is out. For commuting this week it’s wise to be out at the bus stop by 6:30 and at work by 7:00. Then I can leave after 3:00 to shower and nap at home. This week though there was a terrible Hazmat truck fire on the highway at 1:00; it’s a real wonder that no one was injured. The interstate was closed in both lanes for about six hours. At 4:00, knowing nothing, I stepped out of the office and was baffled to find bumper to bumper traffic gridlocked in all directions. One trucker was sitting in lotus position on the sidewalk, meditating in the shadow of his rig. The streets were silent. Because we’re not back East, there was not a car horn or inventive invective to be heard. I wove along between cars for block after block, past stalled buses on my bus route. Finally I walked 45 blocks homeward in easy stages, from one spot of shade to the next. The route was straight west, and I had my Solumbra/Sun Precautions UV-blocking sombrero, the next best thing to walking around with a manhole cover on your head. Otherwise I would never have ventured it; I would have gone back and spent the evening at the office. In the end the side streets away from the highway were starting to ease up, and I caught an air conditioned bus for the last 20 blocks. During the wait at the stop in the shade the atmosphere felt light-headed and queasy; since the walk was unexpected I didn’t pack water, but will pack it from now on.

Naps in hot weather are important, at least three a day. Lying on any floor will work in about two minutes for instant deep sleep. I need to tape a big sign to the bottom of my desk saying Hey Mary, it’s okay. You just woke up with no idea where you are, but this is the office. You crawled under here half an hour ago and were out like a light. Some day my boss can find it there after I retire.

It’s helpful to stay active during the cool hours; this morning at 6:00 I walked down the street to photograph the sun rising over a dewy field of grass under the tall trees. Then before sunrise and after sundown, there’s drinking water to buy 2.5 blocks away at the triple-filtering machine in the grocery parking lot. It’s the best water available for only 40 cents a gallon, five trips a week at 22 minutes per trip. Then I’ve been hauling every bucket of wash water down 42 steps from the fourth floor and around the corner to the garden, about 16 pounds for two gallons at 8 minutes per trip. The leafy greens and sweet potatoes are in peak good health and good looks; watering them takes at least 10 buckets, a total of 80 minutes or one hour 20 minutes of stairs in a day. Food prep is at 5:00 am or 11:00 pm, so that means toting wash water downstairs at all hours. (Even at midnight it’s a lively neighborhood. Teenagers hang out at the picnic table, dogs need walking, the smokers are on night watch in a companionable klatch, and there is always some Wing Family paragon out gardening with a flashlight.)

This week’s menu has been green juice from the leaves in the garden, raw beets and jicama and carrots and cabbage, pickled daikon radish, mobile-pasture egg, brown rice with coconut oil, kimchi, banana for potassium, bread (Ezekiel 4:9, made with no flour or oil or sugar), and dark chocolate with roasted peanuts and raisins. Also quarts of water with stuff added to it, not listed here because nobody needs dietary tips from some teacher of Russian language. That’s a really privileged diet, not that anyone I know would want to share it.

After rolling straight out of bed in my surgical scrubs, I run right out to get the water hauling done early. Neighbors and their dogs have the same idea, starting off their dog days early for any breath of coolness. Gentle agreeable sensitive women gravitate to high-energy alpha male working breed dogs. These muscle-bound buckos belong at West Point, hauling carts of provisions to the cadets and walking the perimeter on night duty. Instead they are losing their minds at sight of a squirrel, barking in random meaningless ways, dragging their owners all over, and blocking the sidewalk. All these familiar animals mean no harm, so I always straighten up, shoulders back, hands on hips, feet planted solid, engage the owners in friendly fashion, and obey Cesar Millan’s rules: No touch, No talk, No eye contact. Then the dog will ratchet down the drama and beeline for the nearest fire hydrant. But this week, all the dogs find me mesmerizing. They approach with head low, ears back, tail dropped in a slow wag. They give me a long sniffing over (sniffing is excellent dog manners), give my ankles and hands rapturous licks, then curve against my leg waiting for a pet, gazing up with soft eyes. I’m YOUR DOG. Take me home! This across-the-board response was a pleasant puzzlement. Neighbor S. said “They’re not responding to you. They are just in a good mood because at 5:30 in the morning the air is cooler. They would react that way to anyone.” But I suspect it might be because this week I’m up & out for water first, without clean clothes or a shower. Thanks to kimchi and sweated salt, I’m canine catnip.

Last October, 9 months ago, someone with idle time on their hands rang the fire alarm box for the building. In the milling crowd outside I noticed an unfamiliar new neighbor. She stood apart from the conversation groups on the lawn, so I went over and introduced myself. She told me her name and apartment number. But she seemed preoccupied, so I gently backed off and left her in peace. I didn’t know that during the alarm while everyone stampeded down from upper floors she fell headlong down the stairs, and hit her head. (The fire department checked the building, turned off the alarm, and then talked to her and tested her for a head injury. She was shaken up, but not injured.) In these nine months I didn’t see her again.

Last winter, six months ago or so, during some spell of bad weather I took half a dozen travel postcards (25 cents per pack at the thrift shop, all mixed destinations), wrote messages, and slipped the postcards under the apartment doors of all our elder neighbors. I added my phone number and urged them to call if they needed anything. No one called, so I could only assume that they were doing okay.

Yesterday an unfamiliar number showed up on my cell phone. I frowned at it, planning to let it go to voicemail, but for some reason answered the call. A cultured animated voice greeted me warmly by name, saying “I got your travel postcard from Scotland! Thank you so much! Somehow my house sitter placed it in a big stack of sales catalogues and magazines. Finally I’m going through that old stack, and here was the card from you! So kind!” She talked with enthusiasm about how thoughtful and touching it was, and how much she appreciated it.

I stood there holding the phone, tuning in to the features of her speech as my mind raced around, trying to match it to any voice I’d heard before. I’ve read that Jack Benny sent some 50 postcards a week, with greetings or thanks to anyone who crossed his path. I was certainly not in his league. But clearly my fondness for mailing postcards and slipping them under doors must have come home to roost: I had no idea who was talking to me. Scotland? Who in the world did I write to with a Scottish postcard?

This dear lady treated me to a good conversation for 15 minutes while I prayed “Holy Father in Heaven, please help me figure out who this is.” Then, bingo — she mentioned the neighborhood. That was a possible grasping straw. I made a few general observations about my building, she shared a few of her own that showed that she lived here too. Score! Surveying the apartments up and down the halls and floors, I figured out who this was. She asked me, “You do have a proper air conditioner and fans, don’t you?” I didn’t in fact. “Our heat spells are so short,” I explained, “that I just nap in the closet. If it’s bad I’ll go sleep in the bath tub. Is there anything I can get you right now?” Well, all she needed was laundry quarters. When I knocked on her door with my quarters, she insisted on my taking home a truly beautiful tall cooling fan with fancy attachments, and that I come in and take a break in her air conditioned room. I sat on the floor to cool down for an hour. She told me about her life in public health, starting with the early front lines right in the Castro District for the terrifying emergence of GRID (today we call it AIDS), her fight to get health providers to accept and treat gay male patients. That was an exciting story, and a delightful visit. The heat wave brought a whole new connection.

Now it’s 9:00 am, much too warm for this computer. Time to log out until next time.

A field of grass at 6:30 am, still sparkling with dew, though not for long.
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7/13/22: Rabbit Mochi Moon

It really was red-orange. Really!

Small culture note: Mochi is made from short-grain glutinous (vs. glutenous) brown rice, also called “sticky” rice. It has a naturally sweet taste and substantial chewy texture. One can cook it soft, then pound it in a large mortar and pestle for a very long time (perhaps while sharing the work with others, ideally while singing traditional mochi-pounding songs). Eventually this crushes the rice grains to form a thick adhesive dough. It can be sliced or patted thin, then baked. It puffs up to form a cake, crunchy on the outside and taffy-chewy on the inside, often served with a drop of tamari soy sauce and fresh ginger. (It has to be eaten hot and fresh before it turns hard and dry.) Mochi is fortifying and delicious. You can also buy it pre-packaged, now even in fancy flavors like cinnamon-raisin for the American palate. When I studied traditional Asian cooking we classmates used to pound mochi together. It was a big treat.) Anyway…

Wednesday’s weather report promised a July Buck Moon, rising at 9:50 pm.

A mile up the road, the country club has an eastern view. It’s a closed neighborhood with entry gate and security guard booth. To stroll there I always say hello to the guards and walk just to the trees for the view, and so far nobody has asked me to leave. So I texted some neighbors to suggest a moon junket. We could meet at 9:25 and walk over. 

Angelina texted right back. She is my new neighbor and peep. Just this week for the lowest tide of the year, she went to the beach to look at things wobbling around in tidal pools. So to her this notion made sense, even when the other invited adventurers needed to cancel. Finally only the two of us planned on going. So I put on a fluorescent vest and at 9:25 showed up at Angelina’s, texting and waving at her window upstairs.

The hardworking family downstairs were planting flowers in the dirt strip at their door. Their daughter Kip was a big help. She is smart as a whip and deferentially courteous and happily bilingual and studious in school and a fun-loving gold nugget of energy and cheer. Her neat limber Grandmother was settled on a low crouching foldable bench seat, neatening the soil and stones. I approached and greeted her, asking whether Kip would enjoy going with us for an hour to view the moon. Grandmother was friendly but seemed shy about speaking English, so Kip interpreted the question. After a short family council indoors, Kip let us know in English that she could come with Grandmother.

Sweet! Our enrollment had just doubled. Angelina put a leash on Super Pup, her tiny jet-black fawnlike doglet. I put the fluorescent vest on Kip. That turned out to be a good thing, because she is so nimble and fleet. This way we could see her well in the dark, and so could any passing drivers at the crosswalks. We impressed upon Kip that the club has coyotes, so she and Super Pup had to stay close to us. We walked past streets of flowering lavender and wisteria and bigcone pines. “Good Evening, Officers!” I called to the security guards at their booth. “May we come in long enough to see the moon?” The guards laughed and waved us in. We passed multi-storied private houses with soaring glass sunrooms on every floor, rock gardens, stone fountain waterfalls, and potted palms. We reached the edge of the golf course with its soaring conifer trees and view of manicured plush lawn and a little glimpse of lake and twinkling lights on its farther shore and the mountains like ghostly shadows on the sky.

Then, we had a problem. The clubhouse and facilities outbuilding to the southeast were brightly lit. Those buildings were going to block the dramatic moonrise, and their lights would drain the promised coppery glory from the supermoon. Nevertheless, our valiant band stood at attention, trusting my idea even though its feasibility looked dimmer by the minute.

Grandmother had brought along her gardening seat. Now she set it on the grass and settled down. Kip stood beside her in poised stillness with folded hands, waiting in perfect courtesy for my promise to come true.

At the end of her leash, Super Pup’s wee black form was only a vector of motion as she explored (and rolled in) interesting smells. At one point she snapped to battle attention, rising on hind legs, staring at the tall trees down by the water. “Are there coyotes down there?” asked Kip. “Would they hurt a girl?” I reasoned that coyotes prefer to avoid people, “but for them, Super Pup would be a tiny bite of coyote candy. We’ll just stay together. That way any coyotes will see that we are all one pack.”

With a sharp yip Super Pup tried to charge down there like a bite-size Light Brigade. I crouched down to talk to her. “Pup? At this time of night there is nothing in those lake trees that is good news for somebody your size.” So Super Pup expressed her fighting spirit by spinning around Kip, winding her leash in tight and tighter circles. Angelina had to do some fancy lariat work, unwinding the leash in circles around her head. First Pup chased Kip with high squeals of hilarious glee. Then Kip chased Pup with equally high squeals and more glee. They were perfect playmates, yipping and dodging in the dark. Pup moved so fast that twice she splashed right up against my shinlike a soft velvety misfiring bat, flipped over, and darted off.

Grandmother gazed at the sky and overhead at the tall trees. My moonwalk was a total bust, and she must have known that. But she and Kip were too well-bred to let on. Instead, they were making the best of the evening, just as it was.

With uneasy chagrin I was about to call it a halt and take these dear people back home. With a heavy sigh I turned my back on the disappointing sight of those bright outbuildings. And then, straight due east, there was a hot red-orange eyelash like lava floating among the mountains. “Hey,” I said. “What’s that?” Then everybody turned and looked.

The hot red eyelash melted out as a brightening horizontal crescent. Before our very eyes, the blood-orange shape peered up over the mountains and began to bloom. Kip clapped her hands, and cried “IT LOOKS JUST LIKE ANCIENT TIMES!” It was heartwarming to hear such a young person express enthusiasm for ancient times, or ancient anything. “You have an excellent point,” I told her. “It’s true. In ancient times, people were very aware of nature. They watched and talked and painted and wrote about the moon more often than we do now.”

The moon bloomed open as an impossibly deep red-orange globe. We’re familiar with “moon,” and with “red-orange,” but I’d never seen the two in one shape before. Grandmother and Kip exchanged a murmured observation. Kip explained to us that Grandmother had never seen a moon of this color. “Neither have we,” we said. “Is there a term in your language for a moon like this?” Kip didn’t have to think twice: “We call it ‘Rabbit Makes Mochi in the Moon.'” Angelina and I burst out “Mochi! Yum!” Grandmother pointed to one star after another as they appeared, giving them soft names.

In Chinese I sang them the moon song “Quiet Night Thought,” the 8th century poem by Li Bai: Before my bed, a pool of light / like frost upon the ground. / Raise head, I see the bright moon. / Lower head, I long for home. After the song and a moment of respectful silence, Kip asked a wonderful question. “Is that your CULTURE?” I explained that it came from Mandarin class from years ago. 

The evening grew cold and late. We headed back past the tall houses with their murmuring fountains and glass sunrooms. “Good Night, Rich People,” I said very softly to the houses. “Thank you.”

Kip was skipping up ahead, telling Angelina with enthusiasm all about her schoolwork and her love of reading. Walking beside me, Grandmother asked “How… old… are… you?” For her, back at home, this is a polite interested question between new acquaintances, letting them shift smoothly into the most gracious social register and style of speech. When I told her, holding up fingers, she looked surprised. In return, observing her slim lithe light-footed manner and thick healthy hair, I said, “And YOU look much younger.” Then I realized — I had just minimized the age of someone from a country where seniority is social capital for status and respect! Well, I’ll just have to explain to the family next time.

Kip’s mom opened the door, happy to see us. Kip ran in to tell about her new adventure.

Epilogue: Today, Kip practiced skateboarding tricks on the sidewalk. I stopped to watch her. Kip’s Grandmother came outside and handed me a wrapped plate of piping-hot chicken, vegetables, and glass noodles to take home for my dinner, plus a heaping side plate of hot-spiced fermented vegetables.

It will be fun thinking up some nice recipe to make for these new friends.

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7.8.22: Sweet Potato Slips

On March 17, I put a sweet potato in a jar of water. Here is the potato two months and a bit later, as of May 21.

Sweet potato on my balcony, growing roots and “slip” stems

The potato idea came from the YouTube show “Off Grid with Doug and Stacy,” the episode “Start your Potatoes Now No Matter Where You Are.” People in my life are starting to glaze over and zone out whenever I go on and on about Doug and Stacy, so maybe it’s time to stop talking and just write about them instead. Their website https://offgridwithdougandstacy.com is action packed with good ideas.

(Hey Mary, if they are off grid, how did they film their show? It’s a cell phone camera charged up with their truck battery. Doug explained the whole setup.) Ok, on with the potatoes.

When Stacy talks, I listen up.

In this video, Stacy’s instructions start at minute 10:45 or so. Here’s the libretto: While you can plant white potatoes early, around St. Patrick’s Day, the sweet potatoes are different; they don’t like cold weather, so they need to be planted later, when the soil temp is about 65 F or higher. Orange sweet potatoes take longer to sprout, and purple Molokai potatoes sprout more quickly. Use organic potatoes, because many commercial ones are sprayed to keep them from sprouting. Use wide-mouthed jars, and fill them with filtered water (tap water generally has chlorine). No need to submerge the potato; place just the bottom 2″ or so of the rounded bottom part of the tater in the jar of water. Hold it in place by driving in 3 toothpicks; the pointy end of the tater should face up. Set the jar in the sun. Change the water every week or so. Watch for tiny roots to form out the bottom, and green stems and leaves to grow out the top. Those stems are your slips. When a slip is about 6″ long, you can pinch it off right at the bottom closest to the potato. Place the slip stem in a glass of water. When the roots on the slip grow to 6″ long or so, plant the slip in a pot of dirt. Here is a happy little slip that grew in water just this week. The weather is warm now, so the slips and roots are growing much faster.

Intrepid stem, turning itself into a plant in water on the counter.

When the weather is warm enough, transplant the tater from the pot to the earth, or give it to your gardening friends as a somewhat unique present. I’ve never seen sweet potato plants for sale at a nursery, and maybe the friends haven’t either. One tater can grow even up to 15 slips, and each slip when full grown can grow up to 5 lbs. of potatoes. Not a bad return on an investment.

My original potato in water is still growing little slips. It makes a nice leafy house plant, and while it grows I’ll just keep growing and planting and giving the little ones away. Our produce market had a couple of reject-bin sweet potatoes starting to sprout, so I snapped those up and put them in water too.

When you eat your sweet potato, eat it with the peel and all. Also add a little fat — like avocado, or nut butter. Stacy says that if you do, the glycemic levels will stay steadier. Thank you Stacy!

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7/4/22: ER — The Circling Night

The Big Disclaimer: Dear Ones, the takeaway for this little story is not “Jesus is really nice, and He took away my problems because of my faith.” No no. The takeaway is “I was a big sluggard fool who did not attend to her symptoms, and through sheer undeserved stupid luck stumbled across good people who did.” If the trouble passed by, that is no credit to me. Someday the outcome will not be good. That is human life. Jesus is Jesus no matter. On with the show.


My ankles have an extra-Soviet look.

The lower legs have a thick stocky appearance. Back in Leningrad the older Russian ladies all had it; their ankles looked stiff and heavy under their woolly leggings. Retired women in black dresses and kerchiefs kept the infrastructure going; they swept boulevards with little twig brooms, and scrubbed steps, and hauled barrels of building scrap up stairs (and if you stopped to grab a side handle they’d bash you with an elbow). The women were on their feet all day working their abacus at white marble shop counters and impaling little paper receipts on to a metal spike. They stood in packed trams, and bread lines. They stood boiling bed sheets in communal kitchens. On holy days they stood at attention for hours in churches with no pews. These were not flabby sedentary people. So over the years when my ankles got that stocky look, it brought back fond memories of those Leningrad women, who spent their teen years taking apart wrecked trams and rails in dead winter and putting them back together and operating the system themselves after a three year famine with bombs falling all over. 

Unlike the Russians, my ankle situation did not come through honest labor. It came from a lifetime of computer editing in a chair. Then a while back, a basic Jack LaLanne deep-knee bend became impossible. Then at our neighborhood hopscotch meet, the hops didn’t feel like a fun lymphatic workout; they felt jarring and wooden. Then, it was hard getting off the floor gracefully. When you visit a masjid and sit on the carpet to chat with the ladies after the service and then go to stand up — those women of all ages just float to their feet like effervescent bubbles in clear mineral water, while my double-handed inverted roll draws wide looks of concern.

That didn’t slow me down on vacation in Eagle. Those stocky ankles hiked all over town all day. But after the trip back, the 13 hours of car / plane / plane / train / bus, away from a Christian culture and all its friendliness, I felt let down and discouraged. Being home in the city itself was fine, and so was being at work. But over the next couple of weeks, every day before dawn I woke up feeling down-hearted, with a sinking sense of foreboding and fatigue. After a good night’s sleep all I wanted was a good night’s sleep. 

It felt tiresome to get off the floor and out of my blankie roll, to get down on the floor to said blankie roll at night, to get out of a chair, or to walk down stairs or jump down from the back door of the bus (exit from the rear). When ankles don’t flex or pivot or pronate fully it throws off cushioning and balance. The lower legs cramped easily, and got so restless at work that I’d go lie down and prop them up against the wall. The ankles were looking red and chafed and chapped. (Maybe there were pesticides in the grass, where I walked at the cemetery and golf course to photograph the view?) Then they grew so itchy that to feel comfortable I’d have to run them under hot water. 

One Friday at the office we had a big eventful customer service day. People needed direction and help. I ran intereference with scheduling, rooms, deliveries, visitors, and redirecting messages. By 5:00 a silent thought rose to mind: “For Christ’s SAKE, why can’t you people get it together?” That surprising attitude was a sure tip that something was wrong. It was good to take the weekend off and just get some rest.

But on Monday morning, the prospect of hauling up off the floor, let alone facing a work day, was too much. I stared at the ceiling and heard myself say “Oh God. What’s the point? I just want to die in my sleep.” 

Then, a threadbare little waltz came to mind. It sawed along over and over, refusing to go away. After a while, the lyrics floated to memory: a hymn sung by sweet Mrs. Kirkland, on an episode of “Tiny Notes from Home”:

I must tell Jesus all of my trials;
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me;
He ever loves and cares for His own.

That old chestnut was not even a favorite of mine. The message seemed a forlorn last resort for people alone in little studio rooms, sleeping on the floor in a blankie. Just how did Jesus plan to bear my burden of getting up and going to work today? That thought provoked a lot of annoyance while I tried to languish in peace, forcing myself to not scratch my itching fidgety ankles while that tiresome ditty inchwormed right along:

I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.

Next an interrupting thought flashed to mind, like a news bulletin: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.” A really good Christian would know the chapter and verse. A minimally better Christian would have gotten up and tracked down the quote, but I was too tired to care. Still, this verse and tune did make me wonder. What if I did tell Jesus? Which slice of this whole fatigue pie would I even talk about? 

An instant idea dawned: I could tell Jesus through a reliable proxy. I could share the burden now, by walking in to the Urgent Care Clinic and saying “My ankles itch like mad.”

“Golf Course Allergy” seemed a petty reason to trouble the providers down at Urgent Care. But I double-hand rolled off the floor, emailed the office for a sick day, and called the clinic. They booked me a 15 minute slot for 6:30 that evening. A same day appointment! That was a very meaningful stroke of luck. Feeling lighter and more hopeful, I soaked my ankles and went right back to sleep.

For medical appointments it’s a good idea to check in at least an hour early in case somebody else cancels. For a 5:15 arrival, by 4:00 I was standing on a city street packed with commuters, at a busy intersection serving several lines of buses. The scene felt too loud and glaring. It was hard to balance, to turn, to walk a straight line. It was harder to predict and to merge with the rhythm of the crowd. Before I could scramble out of the way, a jogger body-slammed right into me, stammered an apology, and sped onward.

Urgent Care runs on triage. People like me with our own reserved appointments are the privileged ones. We have symptoms stable enough for advanced planning, we speak some English or arranged for an interpreter, we have the technology and skills to make a phone call or navigate to the website for online booking. Any appointment comes with an understanding: anyone who feels worse than I do can walk right in and jump the line. That’s exactly what happened. People with complex medical issues arrived at 6:30, 6:40, 6:41, 6:50, on and on. In the waiting room, each time the name MARY crept up the list to the top of the electronic screen, with estimated wait as 0 minutes, suddenly other names would appear above mine and other patients and their families were whisked in to see the doctors. The wait crept on with a rising level of suspense. Closing time was 8:00. Sometimes patients had to be sent home to try again next day. But in another ray of good fortune, the valiant clinic staff called me in at 8:15 for a last encounter with a hard-worked but resolute vigilant physician.

The doctor scrubbed and gloved up, examining the ankles with care. He shook his head and entered a prescription for ten days of oral and topical antibiotics, and a whole panel of blood tests. “Edema; could be any of several causes. Lab’s closed for the night. Get the blood work in the morning; we’ll take the results, and plan from there.”

   “Could this be an underlying chronic venous insufficiency?” I asked him. 

   “Yes.” He looked regretful as he scrubbed up and left the room. 

Well, that could account for the downhearted sinking feeling. Something really was sinking — in this case, my blood supply. What a relief to catch the two buses home, email work for another sick day, and go to sleep. 

Bright and early in the morning, a text pinged my phone: prescriptions were ready at the grocery across the street. I picked up the order, drew up a schedule of times for doses, considered heading to the lab right away, lay down first for a little rest, and didn’t wake up until 2:00. That was an interesting sleep pattern that week or so. I would lie down for little breaks with some nice song playing as background. Invariably I’d wake up with a start when the 3 minutes was up and some strident commercial came on. That 3 minutes sounds like a pretty rapid cycle from wakefulness to deep sleep.

At this point, our Orthodox Christian readers might be wondering. Could this have been a spiritual attack? Well, who knows. It would seem that a customized attack would target someone of more spiritual stature. But for the lowest level of attack, maybe a pretty effective message would be “There’s no point in struggling. Stay in bed, and sleep all your problems away.”

Instead, at about 2:00 a very no-nonsense silent intuition demanded that I get up NOW and out to the lab for bloodwork! On the double! Somehow I got myself together, took the next dose of meds, limped off to the bus, and reached the lab for a 4:30 blood test. I limped home, took the next dose, and pitched into bed for blessed comfort and rest.

Usually in the evening I turn off and charge up my cell phone. But instead at 8:00 I was all tucked in, dozing off to a Pimsleur Ukrainian language CD. Once the CD finished, I planned to turn off the player, charge the phone, and go to sleep.

At 8:15, the cell phone (should have been plugged in, mind you, but was not) started ringing. I looked at the number. It was unfamiliar. Probably a robot call. I had no intention of answering. I answered anyway.

A cordial hearty voice wished me a good evening. It was a doctor from Urgent Care. “Someone did call you about your blood work. Right?” she asked.

(Uh… called me? How could results be done already? No, Doctor.)

   “Your D-Dimer level is elevated,” she said, with cheerful upbeat calm. “A normal reading is 0 to 0.50. Yours is 0.63. Which is your hospital? Oh — campus? Good. Go now. Report to the ER. Given your other symptoms, the lab result indicates that this might be a deep vein thrombosis. A DVT, or blood clot. People do live, if we catch it right away.” With kind cheerful firmness, she let me know in tactful fashion that if I lay here, and remained alone, I could die in my sleep.

Wasn’t that the goal? said the first thought in mind. In the next split second I looked around the studio room. There were boxes of filing and books stacked all over, because for days I didn’t have the energy or agility to keep the space clear. But I didn’t want people to find me lying here three weeks from now and say “Gee, not only that, but her place looks pretty cluttered.”

More important, here was this doctor, who was not my provider. I was not her patient. At 8:00, she was off the clock. She could be on her way home! But she stayed on anyway, reading all the lab reports. Then, she took further interest in wondering whether the handoff had happened: whether anyone picked up the phone with my results. If she thought it was worth all that trouble, the least I could do was anything she told me. I thanked her over and over, from the heart. She made me promise to get going. 

That promise to her got me upright and washed up and changed. I grabbed my insurance card, two forms of state-issued photo ID, the new antibiotics, credit card and checkbook, drinking water (no snacks; some testing needs an empty stomach), cell phone charger, notebook and pen, reading material, rain gear, fluorescent vest, and a flashlight for the trip home again. In 23 minutes flat I was at the bus stop one block away. In 20 minutes more I was checking in at the ER as a Suspected DVT.

On that Tuesday night, the ER was full. All chairs were taken. Just as well; with a DVT risk, sitting around may not be the best idea. So standing in the corner, I opened my Bible for the daily Psalm reading. The book flipped open to Psalm 55:22: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.” That was an eye opener. After the Psalm reading I opened my other book, a large anthology of writings by Reverend Billy Graham. It opened to a line from I Peter 5: “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because he cares for you.”

I pondered those two Bible quotes, with Mrs. Kirkland’s hymn rolling along in mind as it had all day. Reading Mr. Graham’s anthology, I set out on a very slow walking meditation all around the back wall of the ER. With occasional breaks for testing in the back rooms with various providers, the walk became a private little Camino de Santiago, lasting for the next 10 hours.

That day, nobody triaged past me. The reception team outdid themselves being thoughtful and kind. Even the security guard was outstanding. This alert patient man monitored the waiting room, and the condition of the patients. He gave parking advice, instructions on finding other clinics, directions to the vending machines. He rounded up stray wheelchairs and offered them to new arrivals who needed them. Gently and patiently he coached a departing Somali family on how to find the rest room, repeating the instructions step by step three times, orienting himself in space and pantomiming the process until finally the family felt confident and comfortable making the trip.

   “But sir, we are completely full,” explained the valiant Reception team to a gentleman at their counter. “There simply are no beds. We will call you as soon as we possibly can.”

   “This is the kidney stones!” exclaimed the visitor in a Russian accent, pointing to an older man using a wheelchair. “Do you understand how painful he is? We came even with ambulance!” To American ears, this might seem like an overbearing behavior. But in a Russian medical facility, getting the attention of overworked staff could require an assertive and even vehement demand for special or urgent care.

   “Absolutely, Sir,” said the receptionist. “It’s written right here in the intake. They are aware of the problem. We will call you as soon as we can.”

The two men, who later turned out to be father and son, conferred in tense whispers. My old-war-horse instinct was to rush over and help. But their help was on the way, and my interpreting days were over. I was here in my new role as patient myself. Mind your business for once, I thought. Give these people some privacy. Pay attention for when the nurse calls you. And yet, me being me, after internal see-sawing pro and con, I finally approached the Russian father at a respectful distance with a contrite bow, hand over heart. “Proshú proshchénia. I beg your forgiveness. I apologize in advance, just in case they call me in first.”

The two men blinked at me. The son leaped up, trying to persuade me to take his seat. “What are you in for?”

   “It’s…” The Russian word escaped me. I showed them my angry-looking ankle. “The blood sometimes clots up in a spontaneous manner, forming a blockage in the vein.”

   “Tromb!” they exclaimed, making the sign of the cross with a reflexive prayerful whisper. “No! No, if they call us, we will demand that they take you first.” The son sprinted to the vending machine and bought me candy.

As if on cue, the triage staff whisked me right in, ahead of everybody else. Each provider that night was absolutely responsive, attentive, cheering, and gentle. They gave me lots of face to face eye contact, speaking in a clear and calming manner, keeping up pleasant conversation while they monitored my physical and cognitive status. In response to my determination to be pleasant and good-humored, they responded with great good will and humor themselves. There were lots of questions, some over and over (family history, any smoking habits, alcohol, any BREATHING PROBLEMS at the moment?) There were also extra blood draws for whatever lab tests might be called for. 

   “Sorry,” the lab tech smiled. “Taking a lot of samples.”

   “Fine,” I said. “I’ve got another 13 pints. Do I get a cute cartoon-character band-aid?”

   “Any recent plane trips?” asked a luminously kind ER resident. “Any extended time in a car?”

   “Four plane trips,” I told him. “Two 13-hour journeys, to and from vacation.”

   “Ah, I see.” He smiled a little wider, and smoothly racewalked away to consult with the ER attending physician. The ER attending physician came right in. She apologized that the vascular imaging team would not be available until 7:00 am. For a precise diagnosis we would have to wait until then, and meanwhile keep observing my symptoms through the night.

They let me back to the waiting room. By then the Russians had been called in to the back rooms. In my notebook I updated a running record of each provider’s name and title, and what they did and said. Then I kept strolling with Mr. Graham’s book.

A new receptionist came on duty. Seen from the patients’ vantage point over the counter, she wore a neat professional hospital uniform. But at one point when she crossed to the back room, one could see that she wore wonderful elaborate high-heeled cowboy boots. They were a pinto horse pattern in black and white, with lavish feathering fringe and shining buckles. 

   “In those boots, you are ready for any work emergency,” I told her. “They are simply resplendent.”

   “Helps lighten the mood,” she laughed.

At their plexiglass booth office in the corner, there was a changing of the guard. The new guard, like his predecessor, was attentive and deft and unobtrusive, guiding patients and giving instructions. He looked like an interesting young man, someone with genuine caring and presence of mind. He had the cleancut vigor one sees among the LDS missionaries, young men with classic Biblical names who stroll the campus in pairs in nice black suits in all weather. I stepped away from the plexiglass booth, not wanting to distract his vigil. But while pacing in the fresh air near the open doors at the entrance, I thought it would be nice to have some pretext for striking up a conversation with him. There wasn’t long to wait.

   “Ma’am, excuse me?” There was the guard, out of his plexiglass and right behind me. “We need to keep that entrance clear at all times. Is there anything I can do, to ask you to step away from those doors?”

   “There is everything you can do,” I answered, stepping away from the doors. Then in dismay I realized that my reply sounded very forward. And here I was, old enough to be his grandmother! “That is — no, I meant — you’ve done it all already. I will stand in this corner instead. Thank you, Sir.”

   “Thank you, Ma’am. Appreciate it.” He strode back to his post.

The team called me in every hour. Blood pressure, questions about BREATHING (checking for pulmonary embolism?), eye contact and friendly chat (checking for signs of stroke?). After midnight the team measured my height and weight, calculated a dose of short-acting anticoagulant, and administered the blood thinner with a horse-sized staple gun to a generous pinch of my abdomen. This of course led to the rueful thought that if the abdomen were less generously pinchy, I might be in better condition and not in the ER to begin with. “You can administer this injection to yourself,” they explained. “Every day for the next few weeks.”

   “Me? To MYSELF? Uh, how far does that needle have to go in?”

   “All the way. Or, do you have a partner or family member who can administer it for you? Trusted friend?”

I could just see me knocking at the Wing family next door. “Uh…”

   “We can talk about it later,” they reassured me. “The Vascular team will be here at 7:00 am to take an ultrasound. We can let you go home for a while. Get some sleep. Just be back by 7:00.”

It was now 2:10. I went out to talk to the reception staff. “Hello! I’m to report back here by 7:00 sharp later this morning for the Vascular team. Now, I’m a little scared about going home. Urgent Care told me that I must not fall asleep, or be left alone. I understand that for security and confidentiality reasons you are not running a B&B here — but is there an empty corner anywhere in this hospital where I can wait for the next five hours?”

   “You can certainly ask Security,” the reception staff volunteered. “That is entirely their decision.”

I approached the plexiglass booth. “Hello? Officer?” I explained my situation. “Is there any place in the hospital where I can stay out of everybody’s way? My check-in here at the ER will be in a little less than 5 hours.”

   “Ma’am, I regret to say that our hospitality accommodations are not of the highest order. We are lacking in the usual amenities.” He shook his head. “But you are most welcome to any chair in this waiting room.” By then the whole room was empty.

   “Oh! Thank you, Sir! I promise to not block the door.” I looked around. “Would any of you like anything from the cafeteria? I could run down and bring it back.”

   “Cafeteria’s closed,” said the team member in resplendent boots. “It opens in the morning.”

   “Oh. Vending machines then?”

   “We’re good,” said the guard. “Thank you though.”

With five hours down and five to go I sat down to raise both ankles, rotating the feet as a change of pace. Switching books I opened the Bible to the Revelation of St. John. Its surrealistic tone seemed to fit nicely for 2:00 am at an ER.

At 2:30, three new patients checked in. All of them came to tell their life story. One talked to the receptionists. One headed for the security guard for a monologue outside the plexiglass cube. One crossed the empty room to sit right next to the lady in the long dress and head scarf with the jumbo typeface Bible and the rotating ankles. From my seat I could hear the other two narratives (it would add colorful interest to relate the details here, but would not be ethical) while the senior gentleman beside me described the Slain Lamb Upon the Throne and encouraged me to receive laying on of hands with the ever-healing power of the Most Precious Blood. At no point did I feel afraid, but it came as a relief when he simply wandered out the door. The other two men were called in by the triage nurse. To restore some equanimity I got up and stood closer to the plexiglass cube.

   “Your gentleman there had an interesting story,” said the guard.

   “I had Revelation open on my lap to the Blood of the Lamb, and even was getting scared,” I admitted. “But you all have so much going on, I wanted to listen nicely and keep him talking, out of your hair and away from the receptionists.”

   “You did? I appreciate that,” he said.

Here’s the upshot. Diagnosis: Cellulitis and a lively staph leg infection, plus the chronic venous insufficiency. At 7:00 am, the Vascular Imaging team took a full top to bottom ultrasound of the blood vessels in both legs. “No sign of a clot,” they beamed. “Blood vessels clean as a whistle.” All the lab blood work turned out normal and good; they explained that the D-Dimer rate might simply indicate systemic inflammation. (That is still an important concern to work on). But for the time being the main alarm passed over. For that morning I got to go home, leave the Russians’ gracious candy bar on the giveaway shelf in our building, take my meds, and crash into bed. Later that day I took the notebook and typed out the names of all the providers and staff.

The underlying problem is still there, hobbling some on stiff ankles and a general feeling of being alone and worn down. But two days later, another Urgent Care exam found that the chafing and heat were cleared up, thanks to the antibiotics. Ten days from now, it’s back to Urgent Care for an annual physical; one of their doctors has room to be primary care provider to a new patient. There’s a referral for support stockings and physical therapy. I have to take walk breaks as much as possible, and stand up often. Maybe I’ll write to Mrs. Kirkland and thank her for posting that hymn. A lot of thanks are certainly due to the whole care team.

But, back to our story. Before my ultrasound, before dawn, the Russians came out to the waiting room and joined me near the plexiglass cube. One was treated and resting much more comfortably, both were much calmed and cheered, and they were waiting for family members to come pick them up. They were eager to give me their phone number, and invite me to their Orthodox church. (I did text them next day, but didn’t hear back. I will however attend their church one of these Sundays.) We all shared favorite stories about the Orthodox faith. When their relative appeared, we exchanged best wishes and a friendly goodbye.

I sat down to read some more of Revelation.

A courteous voice came through the plexiglass. “Izviníte. Kák Vy znáete rússkii iazyk? Excuse me. How is it that you speak Russian?” The guard spoke with meticulous pronounciation and textbook grammar.

I jumped up and stepped closer to the plexiglass. The guard and I had a very nice Russian conversation. We introduced ourselves, exchanging our classic Biblical names.

Then to give him time and space I began pacing again in slow drifting circles, memorizing Psalm 23. (Why have I not memorized it before? It’s only 6 verses!) As the night wore on I began murmuring the psalm under my breath over and over like beads in a rosary. 

   “Here come those ducks. They’re back again,” said the receptionist in the beautiful boots.

I looked up. Outside the open ER doors, in that black hour before dawn, as robins wove a thread of warbling songs in the woods on campus, a family of adult Mallards stood in a half circle. They were listening with interest to Psalm 23. And to think that only yesterday (or no, wait — it was the day before) I was too tired to stand up. Now after a whole circling night of pacing wall to wall, the lack of sleep made me so light-headed that I seemed to be floating along borne on birdsong and time melting along in an eddying steam and the kindness and fellowship and cheer everywhere in this ER.

   “THIS place is GREAT,” I exclaimed to the receptionists and guard.

They smiled.

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6/19/22: Home from Eagle

Road to the airport

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.

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6/19/22: The Gem of Eagle

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:

Christmas time; just one corner of a remarkably well-appointed home

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. 

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6/1/22: Eagle, House and Home

“Like to come in and look around?”

Would I? You bet! Even if it’s groping down stone stairs like these.

Historic basement. Watch your step!

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.

From one granddaughter generations ago: pearl buttons on velvet
Clock 1

Clock 2

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.

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5/29/22: Trees and the Eagle Archive

Landmark, windbreak, and a touch of grace: a farmhouse tree outside town

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.

Sycamore. Or is it a Sweet Gum? Either way, my phone camera could not manage to capture its height.

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:

A town plaque

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.

Someone with a vision for beauty lined this street with fruit trees.
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Eagle Thrift Store

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.

Transparency: the business statement for public view

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.

Now I can pray for them too.

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Eagle, Sunday Morning

Pond and tree and stripy clouds

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.

There’s plenty of parking left.

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.

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Trip to Eagle: 3 Scenic Views

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.

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Trip to Eagle, Day Two

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.

This side street picture was taken next day, when the sky cleared up.

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.

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Trip to Eagle, Day One

Airport Sunrise, Dallas Forth Worth

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 confirmation

flight receipt

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

unplug appliances

check windows

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!

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