11.29.21: View from the Bridge

Here is a bridge over water during tonight’s sunset, against a tangerine sky. It’s a different bridge from the one in this post.

On the day after Thanksgiving I stopped to change buses at our little student neighborhood right on the water. It has quaint old houses and gardens and charming unique family businesses and shops and open cafes and fanciful public art. At holiday season the stores put up lights, and play holiday music. Young shoppers flock around with cinnamon rolls and cocoa. Musicians play in costume. Dogs wear reindeer hats and sleigh bells and blinky-light collars. Our magical music store keeps an open door with live or recorded music playing, and a lobby stocked with flyers for upcoming events — like their public open house the first Sunday in December every year where everybody brings a plate of cookies and has fun in jam sessions and playing the different instruments. (I once spent a happy afternoon there in the back classroom, playing all the hammer dulcimers.)

To recover from Thanksgiving I had my heart set on a cheering little stroll on the waterfront street to take in the people and the sights. This year, my hopeful idea did not work as planned. At 4:45 pm, on American peak-retail “Black Friday” and the kickoff to the winter holidays, our delightful mini-downtown was empty. The businesses were closed up. The streets were not full of shoppers or tourists. Even the music store was silent; their bulletin board had no upcoming event flyers, and they’ve called off this year’s open house.

The scene called to mind “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with George Bailey’s daymare vision of the Georgeless wasteland in Potterville. Darkness fell. It was starting to rain. Crossing the footbridge I was all alone. There were only three men around; they were conversing quietly beside the bridge, sitting on the ground outside a makeshift tent. A teenager crossed by on the other side, weighed down by a black trash bag on his shoulder. I forged ahead at a brisk clip, without even stopping to pull out the phone for photographs. I took only a glance overshoulder at the downtown lights, gold and silver on black velvet water.

Then, right in the middle of the bridge, there was a new sign:

No Jumping From The Bridge! Consequences are fatal and tragic.

Wait. What? The logic and sentiment of that public service message stopped me in my tracks. Not only the “fatal” part, but the appeal to reason pointing out that the outcome would be considered tragic to those left behind. It is rare for anyone (outside the world of advertising) to give urgent heartfelt personal counsel to anybody. In this pensive setting, the warning sign struck a caring philosophical tone, like a bedtime story moral read out loud by the little plush animals at Pooh Corner. It was heartening to marvel at the people who designed that municipal sign, processed the metal work, and set it on the bridge in anticipation that someone would need that very message, standing right on this very spot, and that the sign might help. Because you just never know.

That reverie led to four realizations.

Realization 1 of 4: It’s time to give up popular-culture holidays, or at least to give up the appearance that I can transform them into something fun. Secular society in general (and the world of advertising in particular) lays out the expectation that we should all have the supplies and organizational management and social skills to make these days a time of consumption and entertainment. For too many people that’s a heavy yoke to carry, one that leaves too many behind.

This cavalcade of assumptions gives single people a special task: please make being alone look like a great time, so that the rest of us don’t have to feel uneasy around you. The idea is that if single people are mature self-actualized adults, we should not have time to be lonely; we should be too busy on the El Camino de Santiago, whale watch, Vipassana retreat, and of course lots of volunteering. Well, I’ve worked a whole array of meaningful solo activities over the years (including the natural history museum feeding venomous snakes, but that’s another story.) Yet still, the hardest part of any holiday is the crash of sadness afterwards and when eager people ask “How was your holiday? Do anything fun?” And still my default answer is to burst into tears. Then people usually laugh in bewilderment and walk away, and that’s the end of the conversation and/or the relationship.

Well, it’s time to admit it. I have no idea how to be single, and no idea how to thrive at secular celebrations. Because to me, the essence of celebration is coming home at last to the person or people who I’m allowed to love, and who love me. That’s the holiday I’ve always yearned for, because celebrations outside the context of family don’t make any sense.

However, that said — no matter how one feels about holidays, it is still right and good and essential to support other people who celebrate theirs. (In fact, I just baked cookies and want to bring some to Neighbor Livie. Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.) Okay, I’m back. Livie liked her cookie sample. Anyway, it is important to write out and mail cards to those who like cards, bring them flowers, bake them treats, make snow angels and chalk drawings with the neighborhood kids, visit the nursing home, check in on folks who live alone, and whatever else one can do to lighten this time of year for other people. But it’s high time to put to rest the charade that holidays are in any way about me, or about having fun. My dream of love and family may happen only in heaven. So from now on when people ask the holiday fun question I can just say “Thank you, my holiday will be in heaven.” That ought to work just as well as standing there dumbfounded and tearful. All this led to Realization Two.

Realization 2 of 4: Celebrate real holidays from now on instead. That idea led to Realization Three.

Realization 3 of 4: If the most endearing moment in days came from gazing fondly at a Don’t You Even! placard in the rain, then that’s not good. It was time to get off the bridge and get to church.

This is a small picture of the Panagia Portaitissa icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The original is kept at the Georgian Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos. There is also a battery candle, and a bowl of pink incense tablets scented with rose oil.

Since then I’ve been studying articles in pravmir.ru, all about Orthodox Advent. Their calendar year round is a cornucopia of fasts and feasts and Scripture readings and lessons and prayers and hymns and saints to inspire, with something uplifting and beneficial to commemorate every day.

On Sunday, at the Greek church two buses away, the bookstore ladies gave me a warm joyful welcome. I hope that they forget my last visit two years ago, when they inquired kindly about my Christmas and I broke down and wept while blocking the icon aisle. Among the many works of art, household items, and reading materials there were two excellent new books to buy and take home. The store also had incense, all different scents. I gravitated right over to the rose oil, not to burn but just to keep in the prayer corner. It comes in pink nuggets with the sweetest fragrance.

Realization 4 of 4: Now that flower season is about over for the winter, why not start photographing and even drawing pictures of bridges? Bridges are good transition symbols for leaving one place in life and entering another. Maybe these pictures can be nice enough to cheer up someone else.

Because, you just never know.

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11/10/21: Параскева Пятница (Paraskeva Piatnitsa, or Paraskeva Friday)

New neighbor T. would like a little help with a simple sewing alteration. She asked whether I knew someone in our complex with a sewing machine. Sure, we have lots of handy-crafty people here, so I made some inquiries. I was eager to help Neighbor T., introduce her to some other wonderful neighbor, and so set another good stitch seam in our network of residents. But, my inquiries led nowhere. The fruitless search was a disappointment, and was puzzling until I opened a favorite website pravmir.ru and found an article about the saint of the day. Aha! No wonder our sewing effort came to naught on November 10th, today of all days.

This is a picture of an icon of Saint Paraskeva Friday. The icon background says “Saint Paraskeva” on the left, and on the right the title “Great Martyr.” In her hand she is holding a cross, and the Creed written in Church Slavonic: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth…”

The Feast of Saint-Martyr Paraskeva Friday is November 10th. What a great name for a courageous girl hero. There she is fighting for the cause of justice, while her mom calls from the window: “O Paraskeva Friday! Dinner!” Well, Paraskeva Friday really was a genuine girl hero. Here is her tradition, taken mostly from these two articles:

  1. Pravmir.ru, “Почему не Параскева Пятница, или Как святые становятся нам близкими

2. Alla Mekhontseva in Argumenty i Fakty, St. Petersburg, November 9, 2021


Here is an icon of Paraskeva Friday as a beautiful girl looking brave and stern. The scroll in her hand begins with the words “O Lord God…” in Church Slavonic. She is dressed in red as a symbol of martyrdom. The background of the icon is black, representing prison.

This year, the feast day of Paraskeva Friday falls on a Wednesday. But “Paraskeva” is Greek for Friday, to honor the day of the Passion of Our Lord. Legend has it that this saint lived in the 3rd century in Iconium, Asia Minor. Her devout Christian parents spent their Fridays in fasting and prayer and almsgiving. After many childless years, they joyfully greeted the birth of their daughter on a Friday, and named her accordingly. The child was raised as a devout Christian. Orphaned early in life, she kept to her childhood faith and gave away her considerable fortune by feeding and clothing the poor. She was martyred under the Diocletian persecution, adamantly refusing the offers and threats of men in power who demanded that she renounce her heavenly spouse and marry one of them. Even in prison awaiting death, she showed such unearthly radiance that her captors were unnerved by her presence. As a well-born girl of striking beauty, she inspired many people toward the Christian faith through her life of devotion to Jesus Christ, her courage, and her charity to the poor.

This picture shows a Paraskeva depiction on oak wood. She is holding a scroll with the Creed, “I believe in one God…” Honored as the patroness of agricultural fields, she is shown here with woods and fields in the background.

Paraskeva Friday is honored as the patron saint of happy courtship and marriages, healing from illnesses, comfort from frightening dreams, and blessings upon cattle and fields. To this day, in the Russian countryside one can find little roadside chapels known as “Fridays” in fond memory of this saint — prayer point landmarks for friends to meet and to part on their journeys, and for young couples to socialize.

To observe Paraskeva Friday’s feast, everyone was to pay special heed to the commandments, to give alms, to assist the poor, and to refrain from harsh speech — arguments, scandal, and gossip, as well as idle or derisive laughter. As on Fridays year round, this was also a fast day with all-vegan fare. Men had to give the land a rest from agricultural labor, and they could not do any work with iron tools. Women were required to refrain from all womanly household chores. This meant that young girls were not to dress or style or ornament their hair. It also meant a day of no sewing, no knitting, no embroidery, and no washing clothes. (Interesting: canonical icon depictions show Paraskeva as a grave ascetic in red with unbound hair, sometimes with a black background to represent prison. But an image search also turns up many delightful stuffed Paraskeva dolls with flowing hair, beautifully dressed with fine stitching, knitting, and embroidery, and with no facial features — like the dolls one can find among the Amish.) And her icons with their frames show a full range of metalsmithing and tool work as well, probably done on the other 364 days of the year.

This Paraskeva icon has an elaborate metal frame. She is holding a scroll with the opening words of the Creed in Slavonic. In this icon she is not shown with flowing hair; instead, two angels are giving her a crown, possibly a crown of martyrdom.

According to Ms. Mekhontseva’s article, the only feminine craft permitted on this day was a Russian term new to me. According to Google Translate, to “trepat’” means fluttering or rattling, in this case for rendering flax into linen. Now with Paraskeva’s blessing I want to go find out how to rattle flax, to prepare for next November 10th.

But the main way to observe the feast was by visiting church with the congregation, and at home praying with petitions like these:

O saintly blessed Martyr Paraskeva, O beauty of virginity, O wisdom: Send down blessings upon our womanly lot in life. May the chalice run full in this house. May the family be happy and strong. May the ones in love find good sturdy husbands. Amen.

Amen indeed!

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11.4.2021: Leaf Quest

A cozy blue house has a red door and red Japanese Maple tree. There is a wonderful hilltop view, with very steep stairs.

4:02 Text from Captain Wing, at Wing Family Central: Are you at work?

4:05 Text from Mary: Yes. Do you need something photocopied or filed?

4:07 CWWFC: No. When you are near home, please text me. We have Swiss Chard for you and Neighbor S. Don’t rush.

ETA 5:30. Leaving the office.

But… outside on the wall, the creeper vine was losing all its leaves. A wind storm was stripping our colorful trees bare. Say! Miss Rose would love those leaves. She decorates her room at any excuse for a holiday. For years, I’ve brought her installments of colorful autumn leaves for her centerpieces. Now an intuition was prompting me: “Go now! It’s on your way home. In a year you might be living somewhere else, and she is thinking of a transfer to another neighborhood. Bring her lots. Hurry up.”

Well, one leaf led to another. Look at that tree up that street! And that one there!

(By the way, behold the ergonomic setup of that truly charming campus cottage above, on a steep hilltop with a back staircase. The staircase has no external barrier. The doorway has no connecting handrail or steps. Sure, if I were stepping outside I could grab the inner handrail against the house wall, but I’d have to lie on my face to reach around for it. Wow. Who lives there — Cirque du Soleil?)

Leaves flew everywhere. I chased them through the gusts, forsaking the main streets for the brilliant fall foliage behind stately old fraternity houses with immense trees and dramatic hilltop lake mountain views. I took the old shortcuts too from street to street all the way down: flight after flight of steep old stone stairs weaving past orchards and gardens and inviting little kitchen windows and porches. The steps were thick with wet leaves like slippery cornflakes; I had to pick my way gripping low makeshift pipe rails. On lower flights there was no way to tell what was leafy muck, and what was level ground. There really was cause to be thankful that I’d left work a little early, before the dark and rain set in.

One of a series of stone stairs down the hillside, covered with wet leaves.

That back way cost an extra half hour, but made the walk a glorious ramble. At the bottom the wind was left behind, blustering overhead, as the trees opened out on the park. As I walked through the field, a last sunbeam turned a distant tree (maple?) bright gold.

Here are six cottonwood trees above a park building. In the background there is a flash of gold maple.

Hold on to your hats!

In the wind and gathering dusk, storm clouds massed together. With steep altitudes and high wind and cloud cover, there was real drama in the passing changes in lighting and mood. Sometimes within minutes the landscape advanced deeper into darkness toward winter, then sprang back toward daylight and autumn. These rocking pines stood at the edge of darkening woods. This park service men’s room looked like an appealing port in a storm with its little light and green door. (My favorite art is landscapes by Maxfield Parrish, and Ivan Bilibin. This picture looks a bit like both.)

Here in pine trees is a public men’s room with a little light over a green door.

It was tricky finding the path out of the woods; it was buried under fallen leaves. I hurried as carefully as possible. There was a huge fallen log, with the stump so wide its width came up higher than my waist. I stopped to admire its deep carpet of moss and ferns before realizing that this log was once a ponderous tree toppled — by wind! At that thought I got a move on, grateful for the good counsel in the Gospel of John, 12:35: Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.

That’s for sure. What a relief to see the woods end with the footbridge over the ravine. The sun came out! That elevation over the creek far below allowed a free view of the open sky. That drop is a whole lot deeper than the picture shows; I always stay well back from that railing.

Here is a little footbridge with low rail, over a ravine of trees.

From there the way was easy going — level pavement and familiar map grid and streetlights switching on.

At The House I sanitized my hands, took my temperature, took a pen from the Clean cup, filled in the visitors’ intake form and Covid attestation, dropped the pen in the Used cup, and sanitized my hands again. The wonderful front-line staff behind the clear plastic barrier have been running interference for 21 months now, delivering messages and packages and meals 24/7 to and from residents who last year were on lockdown confined to their bedrooms. The staff greeted me warmly while disinfecting everything in sight. They made pleasant jokes about my weekly delivery of fresh foliage — which, now that I think of it, are steeped in Mother Nature’s microbes and germs. “After today,” I told them, “autumn leaves will be one more household commodity affected by shortages in our national supply distribution system.”

Miss Rose was just folding her laundry, so I texted Captain Wing with an ETA update. (“If you are outside, look up,” he texted back. “The cloud is beautiful.” Alas, the laundry room had no windows or clouds.) Then, Miss Rose maneuvered her shiny ultra-modern firetruck-red electric wheelchair into the elevator with the laundry, me, my knapsack, and my rainwear and fluorescent jacket and duffle bag of leaves. Back at her room she protested mildly at my extravagance; Miss Rose is a thrifty sort, even with free stuff picked up in an alley. “So many! I won’t have space to display them all! You ought to take some of these for yourself.”

I pointed out that there were still oodle-googles of leaves whirling around outdoors, and that now she could pick and choose the ones she liked best for her decor.

We sat and visited for just a breath-catch, and then I was on my way. Only 20 blocks to go, but now the wind was strong again and it was really dark, and half the way was straight uphill. Fortunately, I chased and caught a bus east for 10 blocks. Then I chased and caught another for the 10 blocks north, texting Captain along the way, and hopped off at our corner.

He was waiting in the dark garden with a picnic basket. We walked next door to visit Neighbor S. There she and I marveled at Mrs. Wing’s harvest gift, picked that afternoon for the two of us to share: several plants of vivid magenta-red Swiss Chard, a dozen Jerusalem Artichokes apiece, and two bowls of more ‘chokes sautéed and seasoned, still warm and fragrant. While S. and I divided the bounty, Captain headed straight for the balcony, saying “Now to fix that drainage problem.” Neighbor S’s outdoor herbs are getting too much rain. So, Captain picked up every single potted plant, placed coins to surround and prop up the drainage holes, set them back in their planters, and then for each plant he took heavy foil and molded little coverlets for the stem base as a canopy. “Less water in, more drainage out,” he explained. “And here is a supply of foil in case you need more.” Now S. can enjoy her outdoor herbs well into the winter.

As Captain and I headed downstairs I told him about Miss Rose’s red firetruck. “The scooter chair is so large and so heavy that it can’t be lifted into a passenger car. That means she can’t visit children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren for the holidays.”

“No visit from Grandma?!” he exclaimed. “No way. What make and model of wheelchair?”

“Ooh, sorry. I wouldn’t know from one wheelchair to another if it ran over my foot.”

“Could the chair be folded up?”

“No, that’s the problem. It’s powered with little stick controls and weighs hundreds of pounds.”

“If I were her child, I would just buy an old schoolbus and fix it up with a lift.”

(He means it. His buddy salvaged a vintage ambulance, and the two men turned it into a dream of a recreational vehicle for the friend’s whole family.)

“If you were all of our children,” I told him, “this would be a different world.”

“I didn’t know you were visiting The House today! Next time, introduce me to your friend. I want to meet her and see this chair for myself.”

He took the empty chard basket and adjusted his glasses with a headshake and determined look, probably contemplating another engineering adventure.

The chard was fantastic cooked, then tossed with a puree of sardines, tomato paste, lime juice, and ginger. The sunchokes were perfect over brown rice. (Hm… maybe this weekend I can bake some kale chips with anchovy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder. The family might like those.)

A few scarlet oak leaves ended up at the bottom of my bag. They’re pressing now thanks to Neighbor S’s leaf-pressing kit. In a day or so they will look pretty downstairs on our lobby table.

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10/11/2021: A Fellowship Call

This picture shows white hydrangea flowers outside a church window of red and yellow stained glass shining out into dusk.

“Good Morning!” said the hearty warm voice of Colleague T. when I answered the phone. “In a few minutes I’ll be at Friends Bench. Can’t wait to see you!”

I sat with phone in hand, blinking stupidly at my computer screen, where a cascading chain of misunderstandings at work called for immediate attention and assistance. Of course, the logical Yankee Anglo etiquette would be to cancel our lunch and explain to T. that something came up at the office.

Friends Bench is a garden seat at the Society of Friends Meeting House. For years, Colleague T. and I have met there to lunch and chat. Colleague T. is a resilient, generous, caring, upbeat woman of faith committed to family, church, and charities. In retirement she is busier than ever with worthwhile well-organized activities. Her aura is radiant and poised, with fabulous taste in earrings and accessories. She has faced life’s adversities with a positive outlook of charity and hope, and always has good energy and uplifting words to share.

One week in advance, Colleague T. texted me suggesting a Friends Lunchfest for October 11th. Great! I happily added her to my calendar for November 11th. In anticipation, I thought how nice it would be to meet on Veterans’ Day, so we could spend our work holiday in good fellowship without either of us hurrying back to the office.

But at that moment, on the right day wrong month, the truth was that I felt shy about seeing anyone at all. And Colleague T. was especially discerning and insightful. It would be hard to keep up appearances for a whole hour, and to hide from her how discouraged I was feeling about life.

On the phone, with a heavy heart, I confessed to her that I was held up working at home, and was not actually near our meeting place. To my surprise, she said “Well, would you like to meet somewhere else? I’ll drive right over!”

I suggested meeting outside my apartment to begin with. That idea came with some real trepidation; what if T. thought my hospitality was disrespectfully slapdash and half-hearted? After all, I had no refreshments prepared, my studio was in no shape for guests and neither was I, and the clouds were about to pour rain. But she cheerfully agreed to come right over. Fortunately, that gave me exactly enough time to tackle the email chain and set the communication issues to rest. Then T. and I met downstairs, I found a couple of lawn chairs near the garden, and we carried them under the trees.

And then, somehow the whole picture changed.

In a flash, Captain Wing materialized out of thin air with plushy towel in hand, and wiped down the chairs before vanishing back in the house. In another flash, Mrs. Wing sprinted outside to hand me a big bag of her fresh picked garden vegetables. As if on cue, one endearing neighbor after another and a cat or two headed past on their errands, and every one stopped with friendly greetings in a community-wide demonstration of good will. It was better than watching a Sunday promenade from a café in Paris. The storm clouds parted in dramatic manner, and tremulous autumn sunshine burst out on the nasturtiums, calendula, marigolds, geraniums, and Mrs. Wing’s fuchsias and flowering ginger. Goldfinches gathered in the pines overhead in a sweet warbly chorus, and hummingbirds zizzed around.

In this magically charming setting I confessed my calendaring mistake. Because our jobs depended upon accurate calendar scheduling for ourselves and others, we had a good laugh. Then somehow I went right on confessing, about how discouraged and useless I felt, as a person with not much function or meaning in anybody else’s life. Colleague T. caught my drift right away. After listening and hearing me out she responded with honesty and clarity. She talked about her own search for meaning after her hardworking career, and now that her grandchildren were virtually grown up with busy accomplished lives of their own. She was pursuing and exploring plenty of service opportunities, but was still searching for God’s calling for this stage of her life now. In particular, how could she really live the Gospel to witness to others who needed it most?

It was such an all-absorbing talk that I braved a suggestion that she come upstairs to my place — as the first guest to set foot in the door since the Age of Covid. We went upstairs. “This studio is clean enough and tidy,” I pointed out. “But — time was, I always had soup on the stove and bread in the oven ready for anyone to stop by. Now look. Half of it’s file boxes and a laundry rack and cartons of pandemic canned goods. It’s not a home; it’s a room with someone who has given up on her own life. Sure, there’s customer service work all day long, and church, and always neighbors with errands and chores and messages to share. But after a whole day of interaction I come up to this room and think ‘Is that it? I don’t really belong to anybody. What’s the point of my life?'”

Well, T. must have been inspired then. She shared the best and soundest Bible teaching for anyone who feels isolated and alone. All of it reminded me that here from the earthly view we can’t grasp what a difference we make in the lives of others, or how much meaning our lives really have, or what treasures are stored up in heaven. “And as for the room,” she added at one point, “arrange it for your self. It matters!”

That simple idea was hard to grasp. The room? For myself?

But one thing was clear. “God sent you a month early,” I told her. “And you certainly brought Bible teaching to me. This was a real fellowship call on someone who needs it.”

As we said goodbye and she drove away, I realized I’d forgotten to give T. some of Mrs. Wing’s vegetables to take home!

Ever since that talk with T., life has felt different in a good way. It’s still grief every day. But praying, working, falling asleep, waking up, all of it is 10% better. These dear neighbors and community members look even more dear. Friendship with T. is even deeper and warmer for the future. There are even new little changes in this living space, but that’s a story for a later day.

That night, it was heartening to discover this verse. It went right in my Bible notebook as a memento of our visit:

Exhort one another daily, while it is still called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end. — Hebrews 3:13-14

Looks as if Colleague T. has that new ministry she was praying about. She certainly ministered to me.

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10/10/2021: Adventure with Acorns

Big disclaimer again: There are plenty of ways to safely and efficiently process acorns. Consult the experts. Don’t imitate somebody who is just bumbling around. 

In our earlier episode, I gathered about 2 cups of perfectly fresh sound fallen acorns from a white-oak tree. They dried in the sunshine while I studied up on library books and websites about acorn foraging and preparation.

Exhibit A: Whole shells

This picture shows acorns from a white oak tree, still whole in their shells, in a bowl on the windowsill.

One source said that putting acorns in a dehydrator will help the kernels shrink in from the shells for easier removal. Ten days in the sun on the windowsill might have helped with that. I placed them in a plastic bag three at a time. I figured out how hard to tap each one with a Russian kettle bell weight: not enough to shatter the acorn, but just enough to get one clear dry splitting sound. That creates a crack in the shell. Then one can pry apart two shell halves with a half kernel in each, gently bending the flexible shell to pry out the kernels with a thumbnail. The shells went into the compost pail.

Exhibit B: Kernels and inner skin

This photo shows white-oak acorns, shelled but with their papery inner skin remaining.

That left these shelled kernels still with the “testa,” the papery brown inner skin, still attached. The kernels need to be peeled and have the testa removed. Testa has extra tannin, and a papery mouth feel. With chestnuts, it’s simpler; one can oven-roast the nuts, and generally the testa cracks right off with the shell. Or, with raw almonds, just dunk them in simmering water for a minute, then into icy water, and the inner skins should slip right off. (Even easier, I just soak the raw almonds overnight, then slip the skins off next day. No cooking needed.)

Blanching these acorns was more of a challenge. Even after blanching and cold water, the testa did not just slip off. So I simmered them for several minutes, then used cold water again. Even after several blanchings, I still had to chip away with fingernails to scrape the testa away from each kernel. Many kernels needed additional carving with a sharp knife to remove blemishes; I wanted only completely sound kernels.

Even after multiple simmerings in several changes of water, a taste test kernel had a crunchy texture. The flavor was pleasantly nutlike for about 10 seconds until the tannin taste kicked in. I had to throw away the kernel and brush my teeth to get rid of the bitterness. That double handful of kernels cost 90 minutes of slopping around with pots and bowls and strainer, a sore back, and two split fingernails. I felt like an inept loser up past her bedtime.

Exhibit C: Peeled kernels

This photograph shows white-oak acorns. These were shelled, blanched, and then peeled.

Next I pureed the kernels with lots of water in the Vita Mix blender. This made a murky liquid with floating particles of sediment. Before putting the jar in the refrigerator, I took one very cautious lick. The solution tasted like runoff from a storm sewer. That discouraging moment brought to a close an evening of bother and fuss.

Exhibit D: Flour-water solution

This photograph shows acorns blended with water to form a murky tan solution in a jar.

Next day the acorn flour had settled to the bottom of the jar, leaving the water with a murky color and very bitter taste. I poured off and refilled the water, then shook up the jar and put it back in the fridge. After five days and dozens of rinses & refills, the solution looked clear with a well defined layer of flour at the bottom. The water and the flour had a neutral taste with no bitterness, and no astringent mouth feel. I poured off and discarded the water, drained the flour, and heated it a bit to make a soft more cohesive dough. It had a plain starch taste, like eating plain millet or white corn grits.

It’s impressive to imagine our ancestors devising and sharing tasks like this as part of their social bonding rituals. A project like this must have been much more efficient and enjoyable when a whole group worked on the harvest together.

Exhibit E: Starch dough

This photograph shows a ball of acorn starch dough in a white bowl.

It seemed that this starch dough with its plain taste might lend itself as an ingredient in a highly spiced sweet like German pfefferneusse or Russian prianik cookies. So I mixed the acorn dough in the Cuisinart with dates, tahini, coconut, bitter cocoa, allspice, and a dash of xylitol. That made a soft halvah candy, rolled into small balls for the freezer. 

Exhibit F: Voilá

Straight from the freezer, this made a delicious candy. Here is a sample below, on fresh edible nasturtium leaves from the garden. This confection would benefit from some ginger, and more festive flavorings such as cinnamon and cloves and orange zest. To me the acorns gave a very subtle note of centered calming autumn-woodsy flavor, like the smell of rain on freshly fallen leaves.  

When more fresh sound acorns come along, I will try this venture again.

This photograph shows rolled candy balls on a bed of edible nasturtium leaves.


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10/9/20: Fennel. Or, Keeping Up With the Wings

Big safety warning here, about fennel and everything else: This is an entertainment blog by a writer who rarely leaves the sidewalk and can only identify two kinds of lettuce. There are plenty of competent plant books out there. Study as many as you can, and go on plant walks with a competent guide whenever possible, before you pick anything. For example, one book warned that people might see life-threatening poison hemlock seeds and think they are fennel when they are not! What’s more, even plain edible fennel from the grocery store comes with medical warnings from the Mayo Clinic. So again, study up all you can and don’t take it from me.

There is a very popular Keeping Up With show on the television set nowadays, about a family with a lot of home businesses who are very good looking and wear nice clothes. I haven’t seen the show, but can guess that any family would have an interesting time keeping up with the Wings. Judging by the daily activities in our courtyard, the Family Wing (which must come from an ancient Chinese character meaning “Cavalcade of ingenuity and friendly helpfulness”) needs a reality show of their own. Which is pretty funny, since Captain Wing has been editing and making copies of Neighbor G’s memorial service video, the real reality show from last Sunday.

In this exciting episode of our neighborhood saga, I found a tall thick plant of feral fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) with a broken main stem. The flower heads had already bloomed, and were full of tender green seeds. The whole plant had toppled over and onto the sidewalk, but looked completely fresh and untrampled. The strong licorice scent from the broken bruised stems was heavenly.

Exhibit A

This picture shows a fennel plant broken on the ground, showing the flower heads with seeds.

There’s nursery fennel in my garden, and I’ve often snapped off and chewed on the green seeds. Unlike the hard pointy fennel seeds purchased as a seasoning, the fresh seeds are tender and sweet. But with this plant, uncultivated and close to the road, I didn’t eat anything without washing. (There is research proposing connections between microbes, and illnesses including gum disease and Alzheimer’s. It pays to be careful.)

Still, I took out a bag and filled it with dozens of flower heads.

Passersby and drivers paid me no mind. Anyone in that building could have pounded on the window and said “What’s the big idea? That plant was standing in the front yard of this apartment complex!” And if they did, I would hand over the bag right away with some recipe tips. But in general, people hurry past my foraging activities looking embarrassed for me. Once in a rare while, some older person might flash me a smile. Perhaps they are picturing the earwigs that will soon be running up my kitchen wall? Maybe all of them know that fennel is classified as a noxious weed by the extension service, and that getting rid of it is just being patriotic.

At home I swished and rinsed the flower heads very well in three changes of baking soda water with a final rinse, pouring all the rinse water into the garden bucket to throw outdoors; it would not be a good idea to start fennel growing from raw seeds down in the kitchen plumbing. Flower arrangers might enjoy working with these fragrant nest-like flower heads; they are curved up like an upside down umbrella, and cling together so well that by dropping flowers on top of each other you can easily build a whole pyramid of them in a tall stack.

Exhibit B

This picture shows a stack of washed fennel flower heads with green seeds.

Maybe if the seeds were mature and dry, they would have rubbed right off the stems. But these green seeds did not. I trimmed them off, then simmered the stems to make soup stock and set aside the stems for compost. The seeds stayed in clusters with tiny spidery stem bases. Some people might have the patience to pick off each seed, but they don’t live here. Because the seeds grew right on the street and not in my garden, I simmered them in the stock for about five minutes. While waiting, I rearranged some counter items to form a comfy hiding place to a panicking earwig. Then I drained and spread the seeds on a tray to dry. Their texture was fun to work with, fluffy and light, like a woolly green fennel fleece. The seed flavor was excellent; sweet and fragrant at first, then a hint of saltiness.

This raw seed idea appeals to me, and might appeal to others. I knew a woman who couldn’t stand any food made with fennel, but it turned out that she was fine with the taste. What she couldn’t stand was the mouth feel of unexpected tiny sharp points. Well, chewy tender raw seeds might be a better option. In Indian restaurants, it’s nice when after a meal the waiter brings a little dish of fennel seeds to chew on; they help ease digestion. But raw seeds would be even nicer to chew on if one can get them.

Exhibit C

This picture shows green fennel seeds, separated from their main stems.

Finally the seed fleece went in a container in the freezer. It will be easy to pinch off fluffy pieces and add them to cooking. Today for lunch I prepared a spoonful of kimchi with almond flour and nutritional yeast in a bowl. Then I blended several stalks of celery, drank the celery juice, then mixed the celery pulp with two beaten eggs and some rice milk and paprika and a drop of Red Boat anchovy sauce. When the cooking eggs had set solid, I sprinkled on some fresh fennel seeds. The omelette finished cooking until it puffed up, then went in with the kimchi. The fresh seeds were a nice contrasting touch.

But, we were trying to keep up with the Wings.

Arriving home after foraging, I found the Captain inspecting his tomato patch. He was already strategizing improvements in his tomato seedling cultivation techniques for next year, having selected the five (5) varieties that he will raise, planning which neighbors will receive which seedling type based upon their garden spaces, and arranging his south wall and black pots for optimal heating units of sunshine. That’s just how he thinks about things all day long.

I showed him my batch of fresh green seeds. This time, thought I, this will be something nice and novel for him to see. But, what did I know.

“I’m ahead of you,” he said.

“We all know that,” I told him.

“No, I meant my fennel seeds. I have a whole batch in my dehydrator now. They’re almost ready. See, before harvesting these you should have waited until the seeds turned black, on a dried plant; then they’ll fall right off.”

Well, when it comes to stuff lying on a public sidewalk, for the sake of cleanliness I wanted to harvest immediately. But his harvest method certainly sounds more efficient.

Later today when I return a bunch of kitchen dishes from Mrs. Wing’s cooking triumphs, we’re all going to have a fennel showdown, a taste test of the two batches to see which method has the best flavor and fragrance. I like my tender chewable seeds. But it’s easy to predict that for long-term pantry storage, his dried method will yield a superior professional result.

So as it turns out, the family had their whole winter supply of fennel seeds almost ready before I even went out foraging. There is just no keeping up with these folks. But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em — join ’em.” On our street their work ethic, industrious ingenuity, lovely tended garden, and eagerness to share information and goodies with everyone else is the best entertainment value around.

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10/3/2021: Memorial Service, Neighborhood Style

This picture shows our local cemetery just today with sunshine, clouds, and tall trees.

The Memorial Service for Neighbor G. was on Sunday.

At the local grocery I bought the universally popular party pack of choco-chip cookies, then put on Neighbor D’s sleek black classic dress and headed uphill to the barbecue area. It was a worry wondering whether people would turn up, since it looked about to pour down rain. Would a few people show up and just dawdle around a bit for the sake of appearances, looking depressed and ill at ease? Was anybody else bringing food? If not, it would be conspicuous to show up with a party pack of cookies. But I decided that in case of questions, knowing the faith-based inclinations of our loved one of honor, I could claim that as citizen clergy I’d brought communion.

Well, no worry needed. The affair was a smash.

The men got there early and set up picnic tables. Captain Wing brought about 30 chairs and then served as video historian with two cameras at once. There was a true feast of home cooked potluck dishes. The women laid out tablecloths and decorated everything beautifully. They’d cleaned Neighbor G’s apartment and set up a big display of his favorite personal belongings to give away. There was his hat collection, his decorated walking sticks, stuffed animals, many small framed pictures (he was a talented photographer) and his famed red feather boa. There were even party costume accessories. Everyone was invited to take home (and/or dress up with) a keepsake of their choice.

Then everybody stood up and shared a funny or heartwarming story of the larger than life personality who was Neighbor G, alternating with lovely poetic readings and inspirational quotes. It was a revelation to witness that during his many years in the building, G. had reached out to so very many neighbors and local business people and employees, and picked out a great many as permanent friends. Over the years, they had teamed up on his health care, finances, living situation, social connections, and wellbeing. In this day and age, and in a city known for its courteous reluctance to talk to strangers, it was amazing to see such a large heartfelt turnout and hear the stories. There were some shared tears, but a steady wave of shared happy laughter.

Finally everyone converged on the tables, piled high with delicious things to eat.

At that point I slipped out through a back patio and went home and changed into regular clothes. As a memorial practice I listened to a recording of the Akathist to St. Nicholas read by Sergei Merkur’ev, praying along with it in my Slavonic prayer book. I also curled up with my current bedtime devotional, which happens to be Facing Death — and the Life After by Billy Graham. I am enjoying this book very much. It came from the Little Free Library located right by Neighbor G’s daily powder-blue smoking bench, where he held court for many years. Every time I came home from work, passing by the Little Free Library on the way, Neighbor G would call me over eagerly to his smoking bench and ask “Whatcha reading now? Anything new and good?” Well, he sure would have had some quotable bon mot to offer over this particular LFL choice, and he would have swapped out the photo on this post with something more scintillating. But he would have liked the cookies and the black dress.

Captain Wing saved for me a lion’s share of Neighbor R’s homemade molasses-bacony-spiced baked beans, the best I’ve ever tasted.

The men are going to re-paint the smoking bench in fresh powder blue. They’ll add a little G. plaque too while they are at it.

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Neighbors, 9.27.21

Yesterday I ironed a clean shirt for Neighbor D. She saw me wearing it recently and said “Ooh, nice shirt. Can I have it?” She was joking, but I washed and ironed and wrapped it with a note on her porch. Soon after that she called me over, delighted and dismayed. “I was kidding! You don’t have to do this!” But then she had an idea: with my encouragement, she’ll keep the shirt on condition that I take a gift in return. She ran indoors and brought out a very long sleek knitted black turtleneck dress that she wasn’t wearing; it’s the basic black classy number that ladies are supposed to have on hand for unexpected award ceremonies and the like. “It comes with cat hair,” she apologized. I asked whether if I assemble the hair, that would create a whole new cat? “No, but that little feral calico living over in those bushes? She needs a good home, and I intend to catch her for you.”

Then Mr. Wing flagged me down and presented me with a new hand crank food mill strainer for my future adventures with windfall fruit. Next Mrs. Wing insisted that Mr. Wing deliver to my door a hot plate of Chinese noodles with special sauce, scrambled eggs, grated cucumber, and some of her candylike homegrown cherry tomatoes. Both of them offered abject apologies that the tomatoes detracted from the pure Beijing-style authenticity of this dish. I had to promise not to expect or add tomatoes when visiting Beijing.

Then I slopped around, pitting and blanching the skin from three quarts of windfall Italian prune plums. Thanks to the food mill, this finally yielded a batch of sweet rose-gold puree. So I ladled out a jarful for the Wings, and popped the jar into the fridge in an empty oatmeal container for easier delivery.

Today between drenching downpours and before sunset we had a sunny break, with a fresh wind and towering rain clouds chasing brilliant blue patches across the sky.

That was a good time to leave the plum sauce at the Wings’ door. Then I planted some flowering kale and some rooting scallions, and picked a few young leaves of collards, kale, and purslane, and also some scented geranium for the icon altar. A tiny gold potato turned up in the dirt (it’s in the soup pot now). The storm knocked down a zucchini blossom, and a couple of late windfall yellow apples on the street.

That made today’s memorial picture for Neighbor G.

This picture shows a bowl of garden greens on a wooden chair with a lighted battery candle, a yellow zucchini flower, and two yellow apples.

For many years Neighbor G. presided over the smokers’ bench out on the street. He wore knitted hats and looked very thin and seemed to store up energy by soaking in the sun on even the hottest days. He and his cigarette and his little talk radio and earpiece braved all weather at all hours. He stuck with that bench, reflecting moment to moment upon the meaning of the cosmos and saying philosophical or witty things to any person or dog passing by.

Judging by his pithy observations about organized religion, his path was as much Buddhist as anything. It seemed not sensitive at all to put the St. Nicholas icon or other Christian pieces in his memorial picture. But somehow it seemed okay to set out these leaves and fruit instead.

The neighbors report that G’s stay in the hospital was short and peaceful. When he was admitted, two young women neighbors went to his apartment and made some accommodations and purchases for his comfort, in hopes that he would come back home. Meanwhile a whole group of the men took turns driving over to the hospital to take turns at his bedside. One of our dear maintenance engineers, who doesn’t even work here any more, kept vigil like everybody else.

The memorial service will be held Sunday, behind the smokers’ bench. A neighbor from G’s building gave me the news in the garden.

My first thought seemed inappropriate, but I said it anyway: “For a service, he would probably prefer something highly irreverent.”

Luckily the neighbor took this in stride. “He’ll want us all in drag.”

Huh. Well, there’s that sleek black dress…

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White Oak Acorns 9.25.21

This photograph shows brown acorns from a White Oak tree. They’re in a white bowl with some yellow oak leaves, in morning sunshine. In the bowl there is also an oak-leaf pin from the thrift shop.

Warning: this post is for entertainment purposes only. There are plenty of published experts out there if you want to read up on working with acorns. Do not stake your health or pantry on the adventures of a foreign language major.

Along the way home from work there is an old green grass median strip between two main roads busy with traffic. It’s an untended space with a few very mature trees. I was crossing the strip lost in thought and suddenly felt crunchy but slippery traction underfoot. What a discovery: three tall old White Oak trees, and acorns underfoot in a solid carpet inches thick. There’s a truckload of fresh acorns in perfect condition. This must be what the farmers would call a “mast year,” when the fruiting trees of a species team up and all produce nuts at once.

Back at home, in the last warm amber rays of sunset I hurried to take a picture of the acorns and leaves. The last light beam was just hitting the window sill. The timing was perfect, the last beam came and went, the picture was a success. But it revealed a line of soot inside the track of the double window pane. I’d never even noticed that before.

Fortunately, the sun this morning hit the window too. This time a scarf made a nice drape for the window track. Only trouble was that during the night, the attractive green-gold acorns had slipped out of their little hats. It took some Elmer’s Glue and a bit of patience to fit them back in. Then we were good to go. This acorn picture is about the upper limit of my cell phone photo taking skills. There are sure to be more artistic ways to portray flotsam that piles up and crunches underfoot, but it is beyond me.

For weeks I’ve been looking around for White Oak trees. For years I’ve wondered about exploring homemade acorn flour. The trick is that acorns have so much mouth-puckering tannic acid that they aren’t edible or healthy until the tannins are leached out. Tannin is after all what manufacturers have used to turn soft skin into leather. Not a target nutrient.Way back in Russian language major days I gathered Red Oak acorns and patiently leached (vs. leeched) them in many changes of water for weeks. One tiny tongue lick of the result was enough to end that science junket and incur plenty of hilarity from the roommates and their suitors.

Later, a library book pointed out that White Oak acorns are a better starting point; they’re lower in tannic acid. Another library book specified that you have to crack open the acorns. The goal isn’t to try leaching tannin out of whole shells. The goal is to get those shells open and harvest the little kernels, and that is your real square one for the leaching process.

Well, how hard can it be to crack open an acorn? Talk amongst yourselves while I go find out.

Back again. It took 3 minutes to split open one acorn using a 5 pound weightlifting Russian kettle bell. The acorn was so smooth and polished that any blow sent it ricocheting off the kitchen walls. So this took several rounds of searching for the acorn under the Bible table and stove and then putting it back on the cutting board. Placing the acorn in a wide jar lid helped to keep it in one place. At last, the acorn split in half, sending pieces everywhere. A quick crawl around recovered the two main pieces. It took a minute to pry out the kernels, tender white nut fragments. These tasted surprisingly pleasant, chewy and starchy and nutlike-ish. Then, the bitterness kicked in for real. Gah! It took another three minutes of tooth brushing with Bronner’s lavender soap to get rid of the taste. So. One acorn, seven minutes.

Next I’ll try putting an acorn in a bag and cracking it that way. Give me a second here.

Ok, progress. Putting five acorns in a clear plastic bag was a step forward. Three good kettle bell whacks apiece made ten acorn halves. The shells are thin and somewhat pliable, and the kernels are soft and waxy-crumbly, so working with an acorn is much easier than dealing with a walnut. But this really calls for a nut pick instead of thumbnails. At least the kernel halves are out, soaking under cold water in a Mason jar in the fridge.

Next question is the inner brown paperlike covering wrapping the kernel pieces. Are we supposed to remove that? Blanching might loosen it, but that would still mean buffing it away from a lot of fragments and halves. The optimistic view would be that when the kernels are ground into silt and soaking in their leaching water bath, the brown paper material will precipitate out.

Update: that brown papery stuff inside the shell is called “testa,” according to Alan Bergo at his https://foragerchef.com blog. He reports that testa is high in tannin; it needs to come off the kernels. For White Oak, once the acorns have dried one can rub the kernels and brush off that layer.

As usual, Captain Wing had a better idea. “No need to stand out there picking up each acorn off the ground. I have just the right short-handled rake. You can rake up all the acorns you want, and we’ll sort them in the garden on trays. And don’t try peeling off each shell. Twelve hours in the dehydrator, and the kernels will shrink down and shells will become brittle and breakable. Put down that kettle bell. Don’t be tasting that water; we have litmus paper. That what it’s for.” Alan Bergo’s blog agreed that dehydrating makes the shells easier and safer to open. The rake idea sounds good, but I still want to inspect each acorn for pinholes first before bringing it home; no point in surprising the neighbors with a knapsack full of emerging grubs.

Will go gather some more acorns and give this a try.

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9.12.21: Grapes

Red table grapes, sweet as honey and shining with health, grow ten blocks away.

They’re growing up the garage fence at my favorite house. It’s a little bungalow built in 1925. The owner died many years ago. The house is deserted ever since, with the lights on 24/7 and security cameras over the doors. It’s a poignantly appealing whitewashed cottage like a villa in Tuscany, fifteen paces by fifteen paces in size, with a crumbling chimney and porch with rounded arches and charming tiny medieval windows. In my dreams I want to buy and restore it. But the entire structure, roof to windows to steps, needs replacement and probably a wrecking ball. According to the internet it’s appraised at $840,000 (up $90,000 over last year). Restoring it would cost a fortune. Besides, it’s not for sale. In this affluent all-white residential neighborhood these old houses fall every day, replaced by tall personal castles of artificial stone or cubist condominium blocks. It seems possible that the house is somebody’s good investment and nobody’s home.

Anyway. The grapes have been growing over the sidewalk for weeks.

I stop to look at them every day. Surprisingly, nobody else walking past looks twice. Finally this morning I put on a nice Sunday dress and bonnet for a more respectable air, brought scissors and paper bags, and spent half an hour very openly and conspicuously snipping grape bunches in everyone’s full view. Families with baby carriages and cell phones and dogs kept walking past. For each one I nodded and smiled, waiting for them to stop and say “Who the hell are you? Are those grapes yours?” Where I’m from, any neighbor would have marched right out and challenged me, as they should. So I was all ready to say “Take some grapes!” and to explain that autumn rainy season is forecast for this week, these grapes are perfectly ripe and about to fall, grapes on pavement create mold and a slippery fall hazard, and they attract coyotes, raccoons, rats, and wasps. I was hoping that some kiddo would be excited to learn that grapes come from vines, and that some lifelong resident would enjoy telling me stories about the house and taking some grapes home for jam. Maybe I could find out the late owner’s relatives, and could drop off a thank you note and some grape juice and offer to prune and feed the vines for next year.

For 45 minutes I stood there in plain sight, cutting down the entire 2021 bounty hanging over the property line. Not one person glanced at the lady with scissors standing in shrubbery in the drizzle. Finally I took my triple-layered paper shopping bag full of grapes and leaves and vines, and headed home.

Here is just one half of the harvest. The other half wouldn’t fit on this chair.

Home is when the real work begins. Always plan for a much bigger mess and bigger time expenditure than expected.

I put the bunches in a baking soda water bath, then swished and lifted them into plain water baths several times. I set aside five of the most attractive compact small bunches to give to a neighbor. He doesn’t even know me, but on Friday he saw me admiring his plum tree, and he rushed out to hand me a whole shopping bag of gorgeous blue-black silver-bloom Italian prune plums, perfectly ripe and sweet. 

For the loose grapes I picked off and inspected every one, checking for any traces of mold or bugs or bird droppings. Fortunately, the grapes were perfectly clean and just at the peak of ripeness. One bucketful of the wash water will go on the garden (maybe the seeds will sprout!).

Next I poured the loose grapes in a pot and began to heat them. Fruit sugars will scorch in a jiffy and ruin a pot, so I watched carefully in case they needed water. But the grapes sweated juice right away and melted down to half pulp, half juice. With reluctance I brought them to a boil, and simmered for five minutes. It would have been nice to consume them raw, but who knows what critters (and their parasites) might have been in those vines. Here are the six cups of cooked pulp with seeds and juice.

6 cups of pulp, seeds, and juice

Then the pulp went into a strainer. Here was a source of unexpected fuss. Grape skins completely block the strainer, so I had to both press with a potato masher, and at each stroke also scrape the skins away with a wooden ladle. (A Foley hand-crank food mill sieve would have been the perfect help.) I set the pulp aside, and strained the strained juice several times. Even that was extra bother; the strained juice is hard to strain. It’s high in… pulp? gel? pectin? and doesn’t go through mesh easily at all. To strain it several times, I had to massage it through with my fingertips. The pulp, leaves, and vines went into the garden compost, but first I simmered them to make sour soup stock for Russian borscht.

The six cups of pulp strained down to this three cups of juice below. The juice has a wonderful taste. It’s clearly very high in sugar, but it’s nothing like commercial juice; it has a strong kick and complex chimes of flavor.

Two cups of juice will go to Mr. and Mrs. Wing; they both take fruit juices and Chinese herbs, and make craft tinctures and liqueurs. One cup of juice will make a good flavoring for my windfall apples and plums and Oregon grapes. Those fruit sauces will stock the freezer this winter. More important, they’re a good gift and point of connection with neighbors who take an interest in raising and cooking with plants.

One harvest = 3 cups of grape juice

This certainly gives a new appreciation for our ancestors and how hard they worked, to put a little taste of sweetness in their lives.

Update, 2 hours later:

The neighbor who gave me the plums was at home just now. I knocked on his door and handed him a bag of grapes. He seemed fine with the discovery of a fruit-bearing total stranger alighting on his doorstep, and he gave me a whole tour of his little garden. He then sent me home with a shopping bag of plums, and he even climbed a ladder to shake down some gorgeous jumbo apples. Now on the counter I have his shopping bag of apples, plus six quarts of his plums from Friday and today. We’re going to keep visiting and swapping our grown and forage fruit, and he’s going to walk over and tour our garden strip.

Then on the way home with my apples and plums I met still another neighbor, who was planting and harvesting a rotating crop of what turned out to be buckwheat to improve the woebegone soil at our apartment complex. Naturally I gave him some apples and plums, and asked permission to come back and photograph the buckwheat, a handsome plant with pretty white flowers.

Then Mrs. Wing came outside and sent me home with more plums (just in time for the next batch of fruit stewing), cherry tomatoes, and two giant zucchini. It would serve them right if I baked some zucchini into bread and left it at their door. Hm…

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8.11.21: The Great Dracaena Caper

Mrs. Wing is a wonderful cook. She brought out a plateful of paper-thin, super-crisp hot seasoned fried potatoes when I was hoeing the garden. I ate up the rest before taking the picture.

Scene 1. Internal morning monologue, Mary’s mind:

Off to work. 

It’s a hot and sunny day. We’re in for a three day heat wave, clear sky and soaring temperatures. Better get to the office and settle in good and early.

Here’s the garden, with the raised bed and the row of potted…

Say, what’s this here? It’s a whole new houseplant. 

This wasn’t here late last night when I did the watering.

Did somebody drop it off for the garden? 

People drop off stuff all of the time — plants dead & alive, planters all sizes, birdbaths, tools, statues, planks, on and on. It’s really generous, but… I wish they’d talk to us first. Usually they’re moving out and they just dump things and leave. Often I need to scrub the stuff and then tote it to the thrift shop on the bus or out to the recycle or dumpster bin.

But this, wow. A supersize gorgeous Dracaena.

Elegant pot too. Right up on a display pedestal where the full sun will hit it all day long.

Except Dracaenas are understory tropical plants. They can not stand direct sun.

And this is one very expensive decorator statement. In New York City this would cost a couple hundred dollars.

What to do, what to do… must catch bus… 

Whose plant is this? Is it really for us? It’s way early. Who’s around to ask?

Well, somebody has to rescue this plant right now, and find the owner later.

Neighbor D. is great with plants, and she has a deep shade covered porch 30 steps away. I’ll bring it there.

Gak, this thing is heavy. Struggle struggle struggle. 

There! Now it’s safe at Neighbor D’s, tucked way back behind her prize-worthy wall of potted Hosta plants.

Now to text her and explain that… Oh… I don’t have her number in my cell phone.

Well ok, texting Captain Wing instead. Captain! If anybody asks you — the Dracaena is at Neighbor D’s! I’ll bring it back later!

Anybody who’s anybody, if they want to know the neighborhood news they’ll go ask Captain. He’ll let them know.


Scene 2. Internal morning monologue, Neighbor P:

Nice news — my family brought me a beautiful Dracaena last night as a gift.

Spent the evening clearing and arranging the perfect space for it in my room.

I can’t wait to see how nice it looks.

Dracaenas can’t stand direct sun. But they brought the plant late last night. We knew that for those few hours in the dark, the plant would be safe and well. But itt’s sunup now. So I’ll go out and —  


Where is my gift? It was right here just hours ago. Now it’s gone!

Who was it? Who was lurking around at midnight watching our house and running off with a Dracaena?

Who could have done such a thing? In our neighborhood! This is so sad!


Scene 3. After work.

Mary is cadoodling home from work for a pleasant evening of garden putter.

Wait, what are these handwritten signs?

“PLEASE bring back my Fortune Plant!”

Oh no. So it wasn’t a donation for sure.

Gosh — what if somebody sees it at Neighbor D.’s? They’ll think she took it!

Hurry hurry. Here’s her porch.

Thank goodness. The Dracaena is still right here!

Gak, this thing is heavy. Struggle struggle struggle. 

Ok, it’s back on its pedestal.

Text from Captain Wing: Mary? I have no information about this plant. Will have to find out and get back to you later. 

Text back to Captain Wing: Not to worry! Situation under control.


Scene 4: All Together Now

Neighbor P, appearing outdoors: My plant! It’s back! 

Mary: Yes! This morning I saw it in the sun and didn’t want it to bake. I figured the relationships could be mended, but the plant would be Dracaena jerky if it stayed where it was.

Neighbor P: No, I was going to come out and get it super early! 

Mary: I am so sorry! This caused you a day of needless distress.

Captain Wing: Hello! What’s this about a plant? Was it missing?

P: Yes! I said to my family “How could this happen? It was only outside for a few hours!” They said “Please don’t be sad. We can always buy you another.” But I said “No no, it’s not just the plant. What kind of person could have done such a thing?”

Captain Wing: Mary could.

Neighbor P: Then I said a prayer about it at my altar to the saints, that the person who took it would decide to bring it back.

Mary: You have an altar? I have an altar too! 

P: Yes, I’m a Catholic.

Mary: So am I!

P: I’m an usher at St. Mary’s.

Mary: St. Mary’s? Father N. used to visit our building here to visit dear Mr. and Mrs. H. every single Sunday those last years to bring them Communion, when they couldn’t get out to church any more. 

P: Wow, Father N. did all that??

Captain: Who’s Father N.?

P: Father is home in Ireland for vacation right now.

Mary: With his 11 siblings. Or wait, maybe it’s 11 kids and only 10 siblings.

Captain: 11 kids??

Mary: Which saint did you pray to? It must have been Anthony, patron of lost things. Except — you didn’t lose it. More like it was swiped. You could have prayed to St. Dismas the Thief.

Neighbor D: Mary! Here you are. I figured you would know how that plant ended up on my porch and where it came from.

Captain: Mary took it for her altar to St. Anthony. Or something. But she gave it back.

Mary: Yes, when St. Anthony says jump, I say how high.

Neighbor L, arriving from work: Hey guys? There are signs posted around: Somebody stole a plant last night! Right from the garden! We should report this to Management. 

Everybody: It’s ok. That’s just Mary.

Neighbor D: She was looking out for people. And their plants.

Neighbor S: You know Mary, all this confusion wouldn’t happen if… Have you ever tried minding your own business? Except then I guess your life wouldn’t be very interesting.

Mary: No, it’s a pretty nowhere place. By interfering in the lives of others, you get to meet the nicest people.

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8/5/21: A Distinguished Guest from Moscow (Почётный гость из Москвы), 1998

The ladies were coming to tea.

My new neighbors were highly educated cultured women 70 years of age or so, with eventful lives and wonderful stories to tell. Lydia was from New England. Aliona came from Moscow. Both were staunch parishioners at my new church, both residents at Senior Home across the alley, and both eager to view and housewarm my new studio room.

The new studio was ready, scrubbed to a minimalist gleam. In the clutter and ruckus of the city, I desperately needed this sensory refuge, calming and clear with the fewest possible belongings, and everything in its place. I loved the Shaker simplicity of the wood floor, bare windows open to every ray of winter light, tiny bathroom with its buckled floor of six-sided black and white tiles, kitchenette alcove with its neat clear counter and the little open shelves (two bowls, two spoons, cooking knives, matching Mason jars). From the dumpster there were sturdy wood apple crates, well scrubbed in boiling water and Bronner’s soap. One upended crate was set for our tea. The other was a little corner altar with pine boughs and icons.

Over in the kitchenette, supper was ready. There was hearty Russian borscht, deep ruby with beets and studded with root vegetables, fresh parsley and green onions and dill. There was potato salad with mushrooms, and savory corn muffins. There was stewed fruit kompót, roasted nuts and seeds with cheese and black olives, and homemade halvah to go with our tea.

The ladies arrived to a fanfare of welcome. It was a joyful occasion to see these devout loving womenfolk in my pretty room. I sat them down on the bed with apple crates, paper towel napkins, and spoons. In a row of Mason jars I dished up borscht, tea bags and hot water, honey, lemon, and stewed fruit. It was a beautiful meal with the afternoon sunshine glowing on the clean windows, plain plaster walls, and wood floor. Setting sunlight illuminated the glass jars, kindling the gem tones of borscht and fruit.

Aliona had a lifetime of experience administering art museums, curating exhibits of traditional art, and creating painted and textile handicrafts. She was a deeply astute observer with a keen eye and heart for beauty. She stood still, taking in windows, walls, floor, and tea things.

   “It was quite a surprise for Aliona,” Lydia explained, “to find an American apartment building four stories tall — with no elevator.”

   “Ah, izviníte — zdánie stároe. Sorry! Building’s old,” I apologized ruefully. 

Aliona was busy catching her breath and eyeing the Mason jars. She glanced down at the bed, delicately probed the heft of the mattress and yarnwork of the afghan. Then she stepped into the open bathroom door and sat down on top of the closed toilet seat, bolt upright with gracefully folded hands and a tactful neutral expression, staring straight ahead. I rushed to bring a jar of tea to her bathroom perch. But she graciously declined tea, borscht, dinner, and conversation. For twenty minutes, Lydia and I tried to lighten the moment by making pleasant small talk while I included Aliona by paraphrasing from English to Russian and back. Lydia and I exchanged our favorable impressions of the clear weather, Sunday’s Liturgy, and an upcoming winter social at Senior Home.

Aliona stood up and walked with restrained dignity straight to the door. She thanked me for my hospitality. She adamantly refused my Russian-style insistence on accompanying her to the street. Lydia hastily cleared her barely-tasted tea to the kitchen before rushing after Aliona, calling a hurried goodbye to me before closing the door behind them.

I sank to the bed, dismayed. Why did my guests run away in 20 minutes flat? Aliona was upset, but why? What could have done it?

Hm. Was it the borscht? Perhaps one glance told her that there was something amateurish and inauthentic about my staple soup recipe.

Maybe it was the tea. Tea played a crucial role in Russian socializing. The ladies at church prized their various Chinese blends, poured piping hot and super strong (with real twigs swirling at the bottom) from a real tea pot to real tea glasses with silver handled holders. They certainly didn’t use cardboard boxes of tea bags with this and that herb thrown in.

Maybe the muffins? Mine were made with corn. And say — in Russia, corn was traditionally a rock-hard toothlike forage kernel fed only to pigs. Hm.

Or the icons! According to some sincere outspoken members of our own congregation, Catholics as heretics were not even authorized to own icons. A devout believer was supposed to hang up icons in a permanent prayer corner, icons blessed by an Orthodox priest who had dedicated the room in a special house ceremony. My paper printout icons with little dumpster frames must have struck Aliona as a flagrant cultural appropriation. Perhaps I should have wrapped them reverently in towels and hidden them for her visit? And oh goodness — my Virgin of the bathroom! I always kept a little Mary over the sink in there for company. Would that strike Aliona as disrespectful and irreverent?

Too late, I remembered that cultured Russians of Aliona’s age (she confirmed this for me later) do not sit on beds! I thought back on the hotel staff member in the Soviet Union who reacted with horror when we Americans sat down right on our bedspreads and beds. She rushed into the room with shouted warnings that sitting on a bed caused uneven wear and tear on the State-issued mattresses and box springs entrusted to her care. And to make everything worse, what if Aliona thought this seating arrangement gave even the appearance of some improper exotic American tryst?

At that thought I burst into tears.

It took a good cry before I could hoist my heavy discouraged heart to the kitchen and clear away the untouched women’s fellowship feast. It looked as if I’d have to find a new church, if my new friends were so upset that they couldn’t even stay in the same room with me.

In the long term, Lydia and I visited back and forth for years. She finally moved to a lovely little town to be with her relatives and a wonderful new church family. (First she joined the Peace Corps at age 88 and had the time of her life on the other side of the world.)

Aliona did not visit me again, and resolved never to climb four floors for me or anybody else. But at least when I apologized for scandalizing her with my bedsitter seating, she only rolled her eyes and waved away my baroque American scruples. And until Aliona passed away years later, may her bright memory be eternal, she invited me to her apartment instead. There at least once a week she shared real tea and real china, prayer, art books, classical music on Russian radio, and wonderful stories. Her thrifty room was perfectly appointed. Before moving or adding any piece of furniture, she would sit with floor plans drawn on graph paper and labeled to scale; she would move paper furniture models like chess pieces to preview and choose the most harmonious final arrangement. She knitted matching slipcovers and pillow covers for her own sofa. She unraveled old cashmere sweaters to crochet soft wall hangings. She embroidered linen towel frames for her lovely old icons. She fished wooden spoons and cutting boards and scraps from the trash, painted them with Palekh-style fairytale motifs, and hung them on the walls. She braided area rugs, and crocheted lacy window treatments. And soon we were close enough that she could give me a piece of her mind, since my mind was clearly lacking in pieces of its own. “What were you thinking, living in that kennel? You’re an educated American, for the love of God! Buy a chair! Buy cups! Get some curtains and floor rugs! Hang up a painting!”

But that night, Aliona struggled down those four floors to the street. As Lydia told me later, Aliona sank to a low wall and doubled over, wailing in dismay. “So sad,” she wept. “I did not see such poor even in village! I think, Americans have the money, all goods and best style. But no, NO! Mary’s is nothing. Not chair, plate, lamp. Nothing for window and floor. Nothing for LIFE!” She made a twisting lid motion to indicate my Mason jars. (In the American South, a Mason jar is considered a charming homelike touch for serving tea. But Aliona explained that drinking out of a pickling jar goes along with drinking pickle brine straight up, a hangover remedy among alcoholics.) Sitting on that wall, Aliona gripped her aching heart and wept. “No wonder she is single! What man wants to come home to that?” (To be fair, I had not set up my room to serve as home for a man. I believed that a man was out there preparing a home for me and our future kids instead, and would marry and bring me there.)

But even as she sat on that low wall, Aliona was making plans for me.

Next day, small white-haired dignified Aliona buttonholed dozens of good folk at the church and Senior Home. She called in a battalion of Russian elders within a radius of twenty miles. They ransacked their homes, their children’s homes, garage sales, and rummage basements (Russian word tolkúchka, from “to push,” as in jabbing through a crowd with one’s elbows). 

Two weeks later, after Liturgy, the women in the parish hall unveiled a surprise for me: a carload of merchandise, ready for delivery to my home. Someone’s strapping taciturn grandsons drove it around the corner, and unloaded cartons and bundles outside my walkup room. Once it was locked inside, they hurried me back to church for supper.

Later that afternoon, I got to go home and peek at the cartons and unpack. The Russians had rustled up metal chairs, a folding card table, and six sturdy boxes of utensils and decorations. There were floor mats, place mats, potholders, tablecloths, vases, a macrame wall hanging, doorstop dachshunds stuffed with sand to keep out drafts, dishes and glasses galore, more galores of cutlery, a melon ball scooper, Bambi salt and pepper shakers, a boiled-egg slicer, toucan wall clock, shish-kebab skewers, corncob grippy holders, a Carmen Miranda cookie jar with fruit hat lid, and a knitted clown tea cosie.

I spent one year in that studio. It took all that time to gently smuggle all that loot out the door. Obviously it wouldn’t do, to tote it on the subway to the various thrift stores. Chances were 11 out of 10 that some member of the bargain battalion would feel hurt by the reappearance of Carmen or Cosie the Clown, and word would get out all over the grapevine. Whenever my American friends planned a car trip out of town, I would plead with them to take a box along and drop it off at some good cause. Otherwise, my daily household chores meant moving cartons out of my way and then back again, shoving and stacking them along the wall and shelves, stowing them in the bathroom and kitchenette. All year, people at the church would ask “How are those lobster tongs working for you? I may need to borrow them some time.” All year, things with smiley faces or sharp edges fell on my head from upper shelves or tripped me at night. All year I carried this dark secret from the church, not inviting anyone to visit, afraid someone would show up to see the new furnishings. That’s what a caring community can be: people to shower you with support and help, and also to say (as so many guests have said over the years) “What a dump! Do you call this living? Let us show you how to fill your space like a real grownup.”

But on Trousseau Day, back in the parish hall, the women demanded that I pay Aliona on the spot: seventy five cents in exact change for a large carload of goods. “Because of the silverware,” they explained. “Three knives, three quarters.” The women supported their argument and enlightened my bewilderment by citing President Putin as an example on his visit to an artisan foundry. As broadcast on Russian TV, the artists gifted the President with a commemorative knife. He dutifully fished out and handed over his coin. That’s where I learned that when a Russian gives you a knife as a gift, you have to fork over the equivalent legal tender of twenty five cents. Otherwise the energy of the knife might cut the energy of the friendship, resulting in a quarrel. The token payment will even that out and keep the peace. 

Of course I paid right up, three quarters for Aliona. 

Aliona pocketed the offering. Then she passed me a civilized dinner plate, and a broad smile.

Father led the prayers. The church sat down to eat.

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7/29: Carry a Tune for Us

Oral surgeons know all about these things, and before letting me out of the chair last Thursday mine really laid down an extra rule for me: “NO singing! For two weeks at LEAST.”

Oh gee.

It’s been discouraging. But times like this we have to let other people carry a tune for us.

Shouldering that burden here is Mrs. Lindsay Kirkland with music ensemble Sounds Like Reign, where all the musicians look alike. Maybe it’s because they’re all Mr. Brackin Kirkland. Anyway, here they are in their home studio in the mountains with two songs.

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7/22: Meditation with Chime Audio and Peas

It’s 4:00.

They’re done. Two hours of care, teamwork, tools, technology, bright lights, kindness, humor, and exalted privilege unfathomed and unattainable by most of humanity from Eden til today.

Goggles off. Stand up in a light cloud of endorphins and automatic pilot. Gather stuff. Thank everyone. Receive their shower of good wishes plus two pain pills with glass of water (tilt head to swallow; do not swish). Weave along in gingerly fashion to bus stop, climb aboard, sit still, get off at home corner. Take stairs one at a time. Open door. Ease shoes off with toes and kick them into closet; there’s no reaching up or bending over or lifting allowed. 

4:30. Unpack Excel spreadsheet schedule in clear page protector, antibiotics, pain medication, antibacterial mouth rinse, instructions, gauze, styptic black tea bags. Set cell phone timer for every fifteen minutes from now to midnight, with orchestra triangle noise. Ting!

Open balcony door — or not. Dowel is on the floor holding it shut. Hm. My toes can’t budge it. Maybe the kitchen broom can sweep it out of the track? Nope. Wait, the broom handle works… there. Open door.

Get bag of peas from freezer. Wrap in washcloth. Hold cold side against face. 

4:45. Pleasant tiny orchestra triangle sound. (Ting!) Cold compress interlude is up. Put peas in freezer. Stack bedding on chair to sleep with head elevated. Go fetch hassock and… uh. No stooping. Well, ok. Tilt head way back, and kneel on floor. Lean back against hassock. Inch hassock across floor to chair. Sit with feet up. 

5:00 (Ting!) Fetch peas out of freezer. Put on face. Set up little card table with paper towels, bowl, water, and Bible.

5:15 (Ting!) Peas to freezer. Change to night clothes. Spread out sheets and pillow on chair. Sit. Fall fast asleep.

5:30 (Ting!) Get peas. Put on face. Fall asleep.

5:45 (Ting!) Peas to freezer.

Read antibiotics label. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Where can I find a clever six year old? Oh say: this outer lip is flexible and bendy. What if I press it down while turning cap, then firmly flip cap up? Agh! Where did they go? Here’s one on the floor. Here’s two on the stove. Lift up stovetop; any here under the burners? Gotcha! Spread out pills on paper. Count up. Thank heavens — all here. We’re good for 6:00. Put pills back in bottle. 

Sit. Fall asleep.

6:00 (Church bells sound effect.)

Church? What? Oh. Bells = antibiotic dose 1. 

Tilt head. Swallow antibiotic dose 1 with large glass of water. Do not swish. Jot down the time in the correct Excel column. Spoon some bone broth back along tongue on right side of mouth. Do not swish. Take out peas. Sit. Fall asleep.

6:15 (Ting!) Drink some water. Drop pea package in bowl. Fall asleep.

6:30 (Ting!) Wake up. Forget all about peas. Back to sleep.

6:45 (Ting!) Hey where are the peas? Are they coming or going? Oh look, they’re here in this bowl still nice and frozen. No need to get up even. Put on face. Open Bible to John 14. Fall asleep.

7:00 (Ting!) Hey where’s the Bible? It was right here. No, really. I was just reading it.

Peas are getting slushy. Back to freezer. Oh, there’s the Bible. It fell under the chair. Well, in a couple of days I can bend over and pick it up.

7:15 peas on 7:30 peas off 7:45 peas on 8:00 peas off 8:15 peas on 8:30 peas off 8:45 peas on

9:00 Wind chime alert. That means 9:00/3:00 pain pills. Wiggle up out of blankets. Lumber to kitchen. Peas to freezer. Grope for stove light. 

Take out pain pills. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Wait, the cap shows a very tiny picture: a numeral 1 and two tiny triangles facing each other, and then numeral 2 and a twisty arrow. OH and there’s a tiny triangle on the lid, and a matching tiny triangle on the bottle. Then when they’re lined up, press down and twist and… thank goodness. Go me! Tilt head. Swallow pills with water. Do not swish. Jot down time in correct Excel column. Spoon some plain yogurt back along tongue on right side. 

9:15 Sit down with peas. Think of the words for Orthodox evening prayer. (No hymns or chanting; no singing allowed for at least the next two weeks.) Concentrate on words for about a minute. Watch words swap around and unravel and float away. Fall asleep.

“Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” 

Wake up. Where did that quote come from?? Oh, it was one of the Desert Fathers. Well, this makes a pretty good cell right here. Wall, table, chair arms, hassock, blankets, triangles and bells and chimes. There’s no place else to go. It’s all here: me, sins and fears, aches and pains, remaining teeth, sterile membrane, sutures, a new graft made of bone from somebody’s dear deceased loved one. It’s all me and all yours, Dear Jesus, to direct any way you will, with tonight and tomorrow and after. 

9:30 peas off 9:45 peas on 10:00 peas off 10:15 peas on 10:30 off 10:45 on 11:00 off 11:15 on 11:30 off 11:45 on.

12:00 (Ting!) Midnight. Eight hours of cold packs is over; peas back to freezer.

Just 3:00 am pain pills left tonight plus water and snack plus antibiotic dose 2 at 6:00 in the morning plus water and snack. Oh, and first dose of this antibacterial mouthwash here, that I can’t get the cap to turn for. How do you open this? Any instructions? Well, tomorrow’s another day to figure it out.

Stove light off.


Cover up.

Yours, Jesus. 


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7/20/21: Garden Update

Here are tonight’s big happenings in the dirt outside the window.

Captain Wing has persuaded the smokers at the smoking bench to donate their cigarette ends for a good cause, as one of the ingredients in a batch of tobacco slug repellent. He’s going to spray it only on the outside wall of the raised bed, because crawling up the wall is the preferred slug method for entering the garden. My own vote for safety’s sake would be that soaked nicotine solution sounds pretty potent, and we amateurs should not spray it on slugs or anybody else. But Captain reads up on this sort of thing and knows how to handle it safely, so that will be his research & development department. He just hand-picked 15 slugs from the roses at sunrise, so he is all motivated and qualified for this.

In related developments, I roped Mr. I. into roping the lavender. The lavender plants are doing so well that one of them is now six feet wide and splitting down the middle. So Mr. I. volunteered to hold up a triple armful of flowers while I skittered around with a bunch of old shoelaces tied together and managed to brace the whole cloud of it up to a bamboo post. This was very nice of him because the lavender was full of bumblebees, but they were too tranquilized with lavender fragrance to even care.

After watching all that, Mr. I’s cat decided that I might be a safe person, or at least a fragrant one, and for the first time ventured closer. While I crouched down in the lavender and pretended to ignore him, Kitty gave me a good sniffing over. Maybe some day we will be friends.

Last night I chopped up and cultivated three fresh new strips and planted a heap of calendula and marigold and collard seeds from the Goodwill thrift shop seed sale. Today the squirrels saw all that fresh soft dirt. They figured that someone must have buried acorns there, so they charged right over to search for them. That was actually pretty clever on their part.

Mr. G. decided to crush up a bunch of eggshells for his tomato plants, so we are all waiting to see how the tomatoes like that.

Mr. P’s potted lilies are a wild success this year. At sunset they have a wonderful romantic show-stoppy scent that stops people right in their tracks on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room.

The lilies are here!

Celery & leek harvest is done. Every time I buy celery or leeks I cut off the bottom few inches and root them in water and plant them outside. The celery has tiny white baby’s-breath type flowers, and the leeks have nice puffball flowers on leggy stalks that last a very long time. Anyway they got so tall that they toppled over, so now they are on the balcony drying out for soup stock.

Neighbor M. taught us that honeybees really enjoy having access to both fresh and salted water. So she has set out lots of little dishes of water, some plain and some with salt, all around the garden wall. Each dish has a stick or stone so the honeybees can enjoy their sip & dip and then get themselves back out and fly away safely.

Mr. N. came over to ask whether I ever practice my Russian any more. I said “Sure, I’m practicing Russian right now,” and reached in my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, which happened to be playing Akathist chants by the monks at the Valaam Monastery. He liked the sound of the monks very much, and freely credited organized religion for at least coming up with some nice ritual music.

Back in Research & Development, Mr. Wing has tracked down the perfect organic compost, and finished spraying all of our plots. His stringent testing on two sets of ginger plants indicate that after 10 days the treated ginger will grow 50% taller, so what’s not to like about that. Maybe we will get bigger slugs, and they will be easier to see sooner. The formula for this organic garden mix sounds supremely healthy, so I told Mr. Wing that I will take a pinch of it to add to my next batch of daikon radish kimchi. Mr. Wing was deeply concerned by this until I explained New Yorkers and our sense of humor, and then he found it pretty funny.

Last autumn Mr. Wing loaned me his flower planter and nasturtium vine to keep in my studio. On Christmas it actually had a little flower on it. This year after months of experimenting with optimal nasturtium growing conditions here & there, Mr. Wing found that the nasturtium in the pot grows much better than all the other nasturtia that are just roving free with their little feet in the dirt. So now he is fighting off squirrels, bunnies, and of course slugs from the planter, and is going to loan it to me again for this Christmas. This week the sunset imparted a nice backlighting, so I slid along the dirt on my stomach through the tomato plants and succeeded in snapping this picture below. Whether the vine grows this Christmas or not, we’ll still have the photograph.

There is something significant about this wacky garden. It’s not the flowers, and certainly not the harvest; we’d save plenty of time and money buying our carrots at the grocery store across the street like normal Americans do. No, the remarkable part is that these are people with major family responsibilities and jobs and pandemic stress and health issues and relatives in distant countries to care and worry about, plus a blogger who wakes up every day feeling discouraged and despondent. But folks still show up daily at sunset to talk over bags of laundry and garbage and to crush egg shells and tie stuff up with shoelaces and sniff lilies and pet cats and donate cigarette butts and hear Russian monks sing their hearts out to the Virgin Mary. It’s just the way it is.

planning ahead for Christmas

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7/11/21: Sunday

On Friday there was unexpected discouraging news, out of nowhere. It was a whole new burden of anxiety about the future.

So that night I came home and thought Well, what pieces of the future can I tend to right now? And there were lots of small right-now things. Watering the garden, making green-leaf juice, simmering soup stock, washing the floors, and making a special plan to go right to sleep at sunset and just work on chores all day Saturday.

Then this morning, it seemed a nice idea to hide from the sunrise and avoid all that anxiety by just going back for a long Sunday sleep. But it seemed wiser to get up and walk straight to the park and just sit on a bench by the creek and watch the water.

Then on the way back I got lost in a cul-de-sac street. There on this new unfamiliar corner was a tall fence with a handwritten letter signed by the members of the family who lived in the house in that yard. The note invited passersby to eat the raspberries growing on the fence, to help ourselves and pick all that we liked. “We love to share! Please enjoy!” I took two berries and a picture of their fence, and wrote down the names and the address, to leave them a thank you note this week.

the great raspberry giveaway

Tonight at Dollar Tree bargain store. In the parking lot between the car wash and the nail salon, some wonderful violin music was ringing out of the sky with an orchestra background. It took a while to recognize it as a melody sung by Andrea Bocelli, the Italian track of “Perfect Symphony” with Ed Sheeran. People hurried past, probably figuring it was some car stereo somewhere. But I walked all around the parking lot trying to figure out where this music came from. Finally after enough circling around I ended up near two young men hanging out with some sound equipment at a car hatchback. One was playing an electric violin of some kind. When he finished the song I dropped my donation in the basket and said “Dollar Tree has an orchestra? And do all of these people even realize that the music is you?”

The men were all smiles, but they didn’t follow my English kidding around.

“From Italy, one month in America,” said the violinist’s companion. “This my brother. Two kids, no green cards.”

“Say, that sounded just wonderful,” a driver called out, holding some bills out his car window. “You know what you do with talent of that quality? You thank God for it, is what.”

“It sounded straight from heaven,” I told him, pointing at the sky.

“That’s exactly where it’s from,” the driver said. He started talking to the men while I headed home.

Tomorrow it’s up early to make phone calls and start dealing with this new future problem. But this was a good Sunday.

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7/10: Fourth of July in the old neighborhood

What were they called again — caps?

It’s a roll of pink and white paper. Set one on the curb away from the grass. Take a toy cowboy gun (the kind with the handle made of fake mother-of-pearl), hold the barrel, and whack the handle down on the cap paper so it makes a loud pop. Our parents thought those were safe enough even for small girls. Small girls were also allowed, when the adults were standing right there alongside, to hold very still with their arms straight out and hold up a sparkler. It was scary but it felt like a magic trick, to handle something beautiful like fire, and all we had to do was hold still and not be afraid. 

(Safety interjection: Be afraid! Sparklers burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. 900 is hot enough to melt glass. That’s according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Sparklers account for roughly one-quarter of emergency room fireworks injuries.” The Commission recommends handing the kiddos a glow stick instead.)

We girls didn’t set off firecrackers or any of that. That was only for the boys and dads, and we didn’t like the noise anyway. Besides, in the daytime we all had something bigger going on: Fourth of July was the Republican Day Picnic.

We kids were excited about the picnic, when the car with the loudspeaker and the flags drove through town the day before inviting everybody. We didn’t know what a Republican was, but maybe it’s from the Bible, like the Publican and the sinful man praying in the Temple, but you add Re- meaning “all over again” to show that these aren’t ancient publicans, they are modern day publicans. How do people know that they are Republicans? Dad said it is never polite to ask, because with that kind of talk people can feel hurt and upset. But the neighbors said right out loud that you can tell who are Republicans by looking at their sidewalk. They said the N. family up the street were the only Democrats around. We all liked the N. family, nice people with a good garden and the same American flag out front as anyone. But when the town made the sidewalks the workmen checked a list, stopped their wheelbarrow and cement roller at the N. family property line, and left the N.’s with an old sidewalk with moss and grass and tree roots growing through it so on a bicycle you have to be careful. But for all the other houses they made smooth white sidewalks cut into concrete squares like glittery fudge. So anyway, as far as we could tell, Republicans gave away sidewalks, and gave away food at free picnics. 

The picnic was always the big news of the day. Before the picnic, Mom always got us up and out early before the sun was warm, to arrive before the traffic. The picnic was huge! Hundreds of people drove their cars in from everywhere to the beach park. (Was that Salisbury Park? They call it Eisenhower now. But our park was on the shore, and the map says that Salisbury doesn’t have a shore. There’s a text out to one of the relatives for editorial comment. Waiting to hear back. -m)

The picnic was a grand sight, with blocks and blocks of folding tables and umbrellas and transistor radios and volleyball nets and barbecue equipment and ice chests. 

One year, the older boys waded out in the water and spread out a long net. Then they walked in holding up the net, to show us that it was full of tiny little silver fishes. It was amazing to find out that the water was full of little animals. We all ran up to look at the fishes and then the boys put down the net in the water and let them go again.

For the potato sack race, Dad pulled up a potato sack over his right leg and my left leg and held it up, and explained that we had to hop together. The parents and kids had fun trying to skip and hop together, but it was a lot of trouble for just a way to run a race. Then the men and boys played tug of war with a rope, and the boys and girl played volleyball. Then there were running races. The men went first and tried running, and their wives clapped and made jokes at them. Then the bigger boys had some fast races. Then there was a race for all the children. The adults lined us all up, and showed us that up ahead the boys were holding up a cord. “First one to reach the cord is the winner. On your mark, get set, go!” I ran and ran and ran and beat all the children, and stopped exactly right at the cord, and the whole pack of kids trampled right past me and past the cord, so I got knocked over and came in very last. People shouted at me “Why did you just stop and stand there? What were you thinking!” Well, I was thinking “Hey, I won at something!” 

The men barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers on toasted buns, and corn on the cob wrapped in tinfoil. All the housewives brought food for a dozen people — watermelon and potato chips and pretzels and ice chests of lemonade with gnats falling in and chocolate cake with frosting and popsicles colored red white and blue but no devil eggs because they have maynaze mixed in and if they sit in the sun and you eat one, you are asking for trouble.

After lunch, everybody drove home. At home it felt unusual to have a holiday with no church at all, but on the 4th we really were allowed to just run around and have fun. The boys looked for ways to blow things up. They started with a special kind of paper; they could put it in the sun and aim a magnifying glass at it, and the paper started to smoke and then ashes crawled up out of it, twisting around like a live snake. Then they set off pink and blue firecrackers in the middle of the street. We girls went to the grass strip down by the corner and picked a lot of white clover flowers and wove garlands and ropes to decorate our houses for the day.

tiger lily, purely decorative
July 4th tiger-lily, a safer sparkler alternative

During the afternoon all the neighbors walked over to German Delicatessen for special foods for their celebration. That was one time when Mom said I could have chicken loaf. To her, chicken loaf didn’t make sense when we had real chicken in the fridge. But I liked chicken loaf; it was soft white loaf all ground up and pressed into pretty round slices with seasonings, and at German Deli I always put my nose on the display glass to look in at the chicken loaf. So every 4th of July Mom said okay already, she bought me my own little batch in waxed paper to nibble on under the cherry tree out back. And every year I read the Eleanor Estes story about the Moffats, and how Jane went to the beach on the 4th of July and the kids collected treasures to put in a cigarette-pack pirate chest, and they got Jane to give them her favorite blue ring, and when the kids buried the chest the tide came in and her ring was washed away and she missed it and wished she had it back.

At sunset the older boys took out their bigger fireworks, and they traded and swapped with each other and planned who sets off what when. At dark the families sat up on our steps and watched, and they set off their fireworks in the street. Most were firecrackers. Some were cherry bombs, and one of the guys set a cherry bomb in his family’s metal garbage can to make it sound louder, but he got in trouble with his Dad for denting the can and for making a ruckus. One time there was even a Roman candle that flew up into the sky like flowers. Maybe the people on planes to Idlewild Airport looked down and saw the colors too.

Finally our big day was over. But even lying in bed the kids could keep watch out the window. There were always sparks and lights from other people’s fireworks. The colors and flowers were beautiful even in dreams with snakes of ash and fishes of silver and Jane’s blue ring washing in, treasure safe and found again.

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7/4/21: Summer Garden

July Fourth

Around the United States this holiday kicks off summer. Around here, it ends rainy season and begins two months of stainless blue skies and dry 75 F degree days. According to our local plant expert, in summer we have the same plant growing climate as Rome, Italy.

Zucchini with potential

True, the last few years for at least part of the season those summers have heated up, and those stainless blue skies can be dimmed by wildfires from as far away as Siberia. This year the ground is dry enough that even the official city display will be virtual with no spectators allowed, and all personal fireworks are illegal. Many of us are hoping that everybody shows some sense and finds other ways to celebrate. Two neighbors have already come to me to report that they are leaving their doors unlocked tonight, so I can come wake them up if need be. They have a touching trust that I will be more alert than they will.

Those neighbors don’t know that every year on the Fourth, at bedtime I wash up and change clothes, and take promenades every few hours during the night inside the building, and to check out the windows and off the balcony. That calls to mind Thomas Merton’s description of firewatcher duty at his monastery (The Sign of Jonas, epilogue), roving upstairs and downstairs and all around the grounds to make sure the night was safe. “Now is the time to get up and go to the tower…. where the night is wonderful, where the roof is almost without substance under my feet, where all the mysterious junk in the belfry considers the proximate coming of the three new bells, where the forest opens out under the moon and the living things sing terribly that only the present is eternal….”

But this morning brought a welcome cool breeze, so most of the day was reworking the garden for the summer. That meant grubbing out the spent California poppies and snapdragons and calendula. It meant cultivating and weeding, trimming the mint, and planting 10 new additions from the garden nursery holiday sale: six crimson sweet melons, two tomatoes, and two marigolds. It’s also gathering leaves from carrot, turnip, mint, spring onion, celery, and sorrel plants; those make green juice, and the pulp goes right back on the garden as mulch. There were new potatoes to gather. And of course a 40-foot raised bed always needs water, most of it carried down four floors in buckets from dishes and hand laundry. I have no gardening knowledge of my own, no idea what plants to buy or how to raise them. I just made up a few rules: buy more topsoil than it seems you will ever need, every February; pour on green juice pulp and plain vegan dishwater; and devote 20 minutes a day or more all season long.

Tomato newcomers

It’s a blessing that this patch is not off in some specialty community garden elsewhere. The real benefit is having it grace our own environment, steps away from the kitchen and right outside the windows. Besides, the real crop is conversation among people who live side by side. Stick a trowel in the ground, and neighbors come right over one by one on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room or smoking bench, or they call down from the balconies, with lots of cheerful commentary and questions. These neighbors were the real reason for putting in a garden at all. It serves as a conversation piece, and in these two pandemic summers the community has paid twice as much attention. It’s touching that they show such an interest, stepping outside every day to see what is new and to call my attention to this or that new blossom or sprout. If only more of them would feel free to try their hand at gardening. If they did, we could renovate the grounds of this whole complex and make it a real oasis. 

Red potatoes with flowering leek

But at least there’s this patch. On this garden day there was plenty of time to think back on gardens created in the past, in other cities, and how they transformed rapport among the neighbors. Today that inspired my resolve to garden again, on an even larger scale God willing, no matter where my future home might be.

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7/2/2021: Kimchi

Kimchi was the special seasoning touch in some wonderful rice fried up by our dear neighbor; she handed out packages of this ambrosia to us fellow tenants. She also used to play us classical violin on the street, baked a cake for a family mourning the loss of their mom, and stealthily delivered a carful of topsoil and packs of seeds to my vegetable patch. But now we miss her company; she became a nurse, and works 12-hour shifts on Covid care for elders living with Alzheimer’s. That gives her Walking National Treasure status, if anything does for anyone. At the store in the refrigerated section there was something called Firefly Kimchi (7 ingredients — no additives), so I bought a jar for her. At this version of “sweets for the sweet” her thanks were so heartfelt that the other day I left her another jar, and this time bought a second jar for myself. 

It was a bold move. Sure, I always add a little naturally fermented sauerkraut when making cole slaw. But for the most part I could never stand salty or sour or bitter tastes, or hot spices of any kind, or raw garlic, or more than a drop of ginger. But fermented kimchi has such a good health profile. At worst I could try a little bit and then take the rest to my neighbor. So for breakfast I dished up some hot sprouted boiled chickpeas with coconut oil and poached egg and turmeric, put the kimchi on top, and took a daring taste. 

Gosh! All those strong flavors balanced out perfectly. The meal felt sustaining and solid but light. Since then, kimchi starts the morning off right. It goes with all kinds of breakfast foods — sprouted lentil vegetable soup, jasmine brown rice, leeks in bone broth, bitter melon (kû guā). A few days of kimchi even calmed down my cravings and stress-eating of sweets. That settled it: now I wanted to learn how to make my own.

I couldn’t wait to share this adventure with our Korean and Chinese neighbors. My telling them “This kimchi is great stuff” is of course comical, as if one of them ran up to me to say “Cookies and milk — a natural go-together!” But all of them were happy for me, and ready to share ideas. 

For a first summer-weather attempt at kimchi making, one neighbor recommended the video “Quick-fermenting radish water kimchi with apple broth (Dongchimi),” with capable and sympathetic hostess Ms. Emily Kim, (“Work hard, stay humble”) on her Maangchi cooking channel.

First off, this venture was going to call for some proper fermented fish sauce. I consulted with two especially tech-savvy food-informed young ladies, one with strong roots in Korean culture, the other with encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cooking. “What brand of fish sauce can you advise me to buy?” I asked them. “Without your help I might come home with glop that is all MSG and sugar.”

The two gave me a serious philosophical look.

“Mary,” said one. “MSG makes the WORLD go round.”

“Sugar too,” said the other.

The Wing family were happy to weigh in on my fish sauce quest as we shared the daily chore of watering the vegetable patch. (As I explain to the neighbors, in our garden enterprise Captain Wing is the brains of the outfit and I’m the brawn. He finds this hilarious.) Anyway, Mr. Wing was delighted by my new discovery of fermented vegetables, a staple of billions of people for thousands of years. He shared the tip that to round out the taste, I should add thin slices of a sweet juicy Asian pear. He also decided that on the next family trip north of town to the real Chinese grocery, they would buy me some real fish sauce. 

Then a quick search on line found a Bloomberg.com writeup of Mr. Cuong Pham and his amazing success story crafting artisan Red Boat brand sauce, made only of black anchovies and salt fermented for one year, sold at specialty stores. At the peak of our staggering heat wave I did my grocery shopping at 11:00 one night, and started browsing the various fish sauces. Say! There was Red Boat, way off on a tippy top shelf. I bought two bottles, then texted the Wing Family. “Hello! It’s very late, but if you are available I have something to hand through your door.” 

It was nice to walk home in the dark and see a bright rectangle of kitchen door light pop open beside the garden, and the Wing Family inside waving hello. They looked pleased by their Red Boat doorstep delivery, and the news that it turned up at our regular grocery store. 

I watched Ms. Maangchi’s water kimchi video. Then I made a much less elegant tiny test batch. I sliced a cup of daikon radish, and shook it up in a Mason jar with a little fish sauce and salt to ferment on the counter all night. Then I simmered and blended and strained two apples and a sweet onion to make the stock. In the morning I poured the cold stock over the daikon, added raw garlic cloves, raw ginger, spring onions from the garden, paprika, and cayenne, then covered with a very light loose plastic lid. It’s been fermenting in the fridge ever since. It’s only an elementary first attempt, but to me it tastes fine. Dongchimi is bracing and light as a hot-weather flavoring for meals. 

But best of all, it’s a real conversation starter with the neighbors. Now they go to every kind of trouble to send videos and to greet me with instructions, recipes, stories about Grandma back home and her pickled vegetable expertise, and encouragement. After my little fish sauce gift, the Wing Family swiftly retaliated by bringing me bitter melons from the real Chinese grocery, along with a special treat to go with that breakfast dongchimi — six pí dàn, preserved duck eggs. 

I hope to learn and practice, work-hard-stay-humble, and treat the neighbors to a fermented vegetable product that will taste good to them. They are certainly good to me.

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6.30.21 Cat

Neighbor took a well earned vacation. Very first time away, leaving Cat.

Cat is almost a year old. Born in the woods, raised by feral mom, no socialization to people. Cat adores his owner, but any sign of any other human will send Cat vanishing under the furniture. That means any opening or closing door in the building, any voice or footstep indoors or out, any sudden sound like a car door or basketball. Poof, gone.

Spoiler Alert for Day 4

My three day mission: ignore Cat. As Cesar Millan would say, No touch, no talk, no eye contact. Scoop litter in bathroom. Wash and refill water dish in side hall. Go to kitchen, and pour dry kibble. In living room, fill treat mouse with treats. Then, sit on the floor and curl up for a 20 minute nap. Repeat every 3 hours. That way Cat would get a good leaving alone, but would also know that someone was still paying attention to his various little needs.

Day One, four visits. No sign of cat. I didn’t even look around for him, but did hum the whole time so he’d know I wasn’t sneaking up. Took nap each time. Left.

Day Two, visit 1. During food dish top-up, a speeding blur streaked past my heels. I could only hope it was Cat. Took nap. Left.

Day Two, visit 2. Scooped litter, left bathroom and started other chores. During nap, caught the sound of scuffly noises in litter pan, testing my craftsmanship.

Day Two, visit 3. Scooped litter. Moved on to water dish while scuffly noises came from litter pan. Put down fresh water. Proceeded to kitchen. Heard tiny lapping noises coming from direction of water bowl. Topped up kibble, left kitchen. Took nap while crunchy noises came from kitchen. Clearly, Cat is seeing this as a dialogue. Finished nap. Left.

Day Two, visit 4. Started routine, with sounds of Cat kicking litter around and lapping water. In kitchen, topping up kibble, suddenly found Cat peering his nose and one eye around door frame. Ignored him. Faced the wall. Held cell phone behind back. Took a photo of Cat. Texted to neighbor as poltergeist proof. Took nap while treat mouse jingling noises came from under furniture. Left.

Day Three, visit 1. Finished chores. Cat stepped into view to stare into kitchen. Filmed stare. Texted video to owner. Took nap. Cat stared from behind sofa. Ignored him. Left.

Day Three, visit 2. Finished routine. Settled down on floor for nap. At the sound of a door down the hall, Cat took an impressive flying leap right over my feet. Did not catch on video. Napped. Left.

Day Three, visit 3. Routine. Nap while using feet to block path to litter and water. Cat stared from behind furniture. Finally crept closer, stepped over feet.

Day Three, visit 4. Routine. Nap. Cat stared from behind furniture. Crept closer. Spent five minutes sniffing and batting at shoe soles, then batted treat mouse around three feet away until someone downstairs honked a horn. Vanished.

Day Four, visit 1. Routine. Nap, while holding Cat’s treat mouse. Cat inspected shoe soles. Batted treat mouse. Nuzzled hand.

Day Four, visit 2. Cat met me at the door, talking a blue streak. Talked back at him. Routine. Pretended to nap during shoe sole inspection, while holding both treat mouse and comb. Cat batted at mouse, nuzzled and groomed comb, then nuzzled my hand. Filmed with other hand. Texted video to owner.

Day Four, visit 3. Cat met me at the door, chatting away. Routine. Pretended to nap while holding a soft bristle brush. Cat groomed himself, then jumped in my lap to nuzzle cell phone during filming.

Day Four, owner returned.

Yesterday I came home and found a gift at my door, a favorite movie on DVD. It turns out that Cat has an Amazon Prime account and can write thank you notes and sign his name.

On a weekend next fall during Neighbor’s ideal camping season, word on the street is that Cat and I will get together again. We plan to ignore each other and catch up on our naps.

Update: Just paid a little visit to Neighbor, because he has a new set of popsicle molds, and invited me over for frozen pops made of Greek yogurt blended with blueberries. So we sat around licking our treats, and finally Cat emerged from hiding. I held a brush out, and Cat did the rest. It was very nice to see that he seemed fine with having me around, and prefers to sit right between the two of us. Apparently he has decided that being part of a pack of two test-driven humans feels even safer than a pack of just one.

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6/29/2021: Unusual Weather

This week, before 6:00 am the air has been pretty pleasant. With protective sunhat and the right clothing, one could walk right into the sun for half an hour or so, then loop back home and hide out for the day after taking a picture or two.

This is record breaking weather, totally unprecedented. Yesterday afternoon in a nearby town the temperature rose to 119 F (that’s 48.333 C, for the rest of you), and ours got to 111 F, or 43.888 C. It was too hot for me to walk, or even hang out at the bus stop and commute to work, so that meant taking a vacation day. That may sound comical to the rest of the country, and certainly the rest of the world. But around these parts we are are not used to that sort of thing. 

I had all these good intentions of arranging with one of our local churches or public cooling centers, and to volunteer handing out cold drinks or helping people to settle in. But the heat knocked me all off kilter. It took some concentration even to walk a straight line down the street for those dawn strolls. My pulse was rapid enough that I kept lying down in the dark bathroom to time the beats for 60 seconds, then falling asleep before the minute was up and waking up an hour later. Towns around us were losing power, and cars were breaking down on melting highways; that made staying home seem wise. In all humility, it seemed a fair goal to just stay out of the emergency room myself and not cause some overworked paramedic extra fuss. 

Few people here have an air conditioner or even a fan. So for three days I turned on the computer only for a bit before dawn and after dark. It was a good time to wash down and shine up the kitchen, go through closets, and declutter old paper. Every 30 minutes I drank water, soaked my head and feet, and took a quick basin bath and put on wet clothes. For meals, the best menu idea was kimchi with grated raw vegetables and some cold beans. At one point I hand washed all my bedding after 4:00 pm, then sat on the balcony in the shade in a tent fashioned from wet sheets, with a pillow streaming water on my head. That made for a wholesome interlude. So were naps with rice milk cartons full of ice. 

As usual, I kept toting all my wash water down four flights to pour on the vegetable garden. But this time I hauled the buckets after dark. Turns out, Bucket Lady is by now a recognizable fixture around the complex. On Day 2 those neighbors who own air conditioners, even people who don’t even know me, were leaning outside to holler at me to get into their homes for a cooldown break. So before each visit I washed up and brought my bowed psaltery and a clean bedsheet and sat on various floors playing medieval tunes, to the amazement of various household pets. One sturdy protective 60-pound cattle dog has always barked at me; but he was deeply impressed when his owner ushered me right indoors. The dog seemed to see this as instant VIP status; he approached courteously with lowered head for a sniff, then every few minutes sidled over for a back rub. 

There’s still wildfire season to contend with, but now the temperature is lower and the wind is blowing in from the water. That is a lot to be grateful for. Last night, leaving the last pilgrim stop, I told my host “It’s been wonderful meeting and visiting with neighbors. This has turned out to be a delightful Sunday after all.” He looked at me with compassion and said “Mary? It’s Monday. Soak your head some more.”  

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6/27/21: Ghosted

My old friend ghosted me.

A few years ago he stopped writing back; not answering his home email, or the email at his business. Not answering the phone. Not returning calls. He didn’t even return the message I left in his second language; I wrote out the script, got a couple of native speakers to coach me until it sounded just right to them, left the voicemail, and waited eagerly for his reply. 

It’s not unusual. People are busy, they start families, they move away and move on. His temperament and mine were implausibly different. He had a large creative life in broad brushstrokes, and it’s a wonder that he bothered to keep in touch with me at all. But since we parted ways in 1992 he reported his whereabouts, making sure I always knew where to find him. Even his sweet warm-hearted devout Catholic mom sent me a Christmas card and a family letter every year. Naturally, life being life, he weathered some exhausting setbacks and losses. But always he landed on his feet, and with resilience and a positive outlook would re-chart his course, make new plans, and charge ahead. He started his own company, designing high-quality products for a niche customer base who needed his services and could not pay market rate. For 20 years he worked day and night. His clients adored him. I got to witness him in action, working hard while engaging their hailstorm of banter in two languages at once. Next, he called to let me know he was moving again, teaming up with a large established organization with the resources to sponsor his idea and make him manager. Their collaboration sounded ideal, with a real financial incentive for all his hard work.

Last time I called him, he told me a detailed story about upper management, and how it took over and mass-produced his ideas with disappointing results, and left him and his guidance on the sidelines. The top brass, it seemed to me, failed to grasp that the unreproducible ingredient in the method was the intuition, charisma, and rapport of its founder. In one sense I was an unqualified listener, someone with no ideas worth stealing who had never been courted by any organization. But I recognized an established precedent: pioneering founders are too often rejected by their own good cause (even St. Francis was sidelined by the Franciscans, and John of the Cross imprisoned by his own Carmelites). During that call I listened hard, scanning around for the wellbeing of other areas of his life. I was sorry to hear that an important relationship was over, and very concerned to hear that his mother, who he cherished and revered, had passed away after a long illness. For the first time, he sounded weary and disillusioned. Fortunately, a trip to his town was in the works the following summer, and I looked forward to extended time with him. But by then, I somehow wasn’t able to track him down. 

Every few months I look him up. He’s right there on Linkedin, and on his business website, and in listings here and there of accomplishments and achievements, even rocking with his band on You Tube in 2016. Then, a search last Sunday turned up a poignant discovery. It was a lovely Catholic memorial notice for his father, back in the old hometown. The obituary listed the whole rich dynasty of descendants. It mentioned that Dad was pre-deceased by his late wife and by his late son.

Late son?

Memories have surfaced ever since. He was 24 when we first met, 31 years ago in the fall of 1990. Our group house placed a newspaper ad, looking for a roommate. His was the last interview appointment. The doorbell rang after supper. I answered to find a tall fit extremely handsome young man in a leather jacket with long thick curly hair and glowing blue-green eyes. 

   “Scarf trick,” were his first words to me. He whipped off a gray cashmere scarf and made knots appear and disappear again while holding both ends the whole time. Then from his knapsack he handed over a double pan of still-warm homemade brownies, and the five of us talked until midnight. It felt as if he’d always lived there.   

The new roommate had a good Biblical name starting with Z. But to his friends he was simply Z, or Zorro, Zuzu, Zagnut, Zippy the Pinhead, Zeppo, or Zooropa. Z was a recent music institute graduate. He was always in motion and talked a great deal about an eclectic range of topics, particularly his projects and plans. He worked at two jobs, some contract landscaping, glass engraving at a studio, splendid calligraphy in three languages, artisan micro-brewing, crafting traditional musical instruments out of culturally authentic hardwoods, and of course music theory and practice.

But Z was not joking the time he picked me up at a Catholic church after a social mixer. The parish hall was rented out that night by a Christian language and culture group promoting international friendship. When I got into his van he sat a while, silently studying the organizers getting into their cars. I wondered what he was waiting for. “If I start a world service non-profit,” he asked the thin air, “Can I buy a car like that too?” He then spelled out for me the make of the founder’s vehicle, its optional luxury features, and the price range of such an optimized model. “Thaaat’s niiice,” he concluded in a robotic vocal-fry bass voice that probably came from some space alien movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “That’s nice” was a catch phrase used among his friends, when they encountered some form of malicious ignorance or hypocrisy.

I felt hurt and embarrassed that he seemed so unimpressed by my new group, and disappointed a week later, right before my group’s next party, when Z showed up at my bedroom door and said “It’s your life, but I hope you don’t go back to that group.”

   “What!” I’d been looking forward to that social. “Do you think I’m stupid or something?”

“I believe you know the answer to that question,” he replied. “I can only repeat that I hope you stay in the house tonight, and that you are here when I get home.” He headed out to his weekend music gig. I stayed home.

Two weeks later, he sat me down quietly to explain. During that time, he and his musicians had driven by the parish hall, done some observing, researched the group. The group was not at all the international Christian friendship project that it professed to be. In fact, they soon moved their operations out of the parish hall for parts unknown. His intuition had been right.

Those protective instincts extended to my faith. He didn’t seem to pay attention to religion himself, but after life with his devout mother he recognized the similar trait in me. He believed that I had some special spiritual connection with God, one that earned his absolute respect. By association, even his drinking buddies from home picked up this protective behavior. One night a group of them were on the balcony below my bedroom window enjoying some beers and swapping recollections of high school days and their high-spirited youthful pranks. Getting into bed, I turned out the light and overheard one of them saying “Hey, that’s her window. We got to break this up; she’s probably praying the rosary.” In a flash they were down the steps and gone, taking the beers with them. 

The friends were equally serious about protecting me when he briefed them before taking me along to a “Yes” rock concert at a packed stadium. “You can not take your eyes off Mary tonight,” he warned them. “She’s never done this before. She’ll be pretty overwhelmed.” No wonder: this was long before cell phones, and if we were separated I couldn’t have found them. For a moment I froze at the first sight of 14,000 excited spectators and first sound of a rock concert sound system. For the opening notes of “Rhythm of Love,” the four men linked arms around me and rushed me up and up the stairs through the crowd to settle me safely in our row.

On quieter nights, when he had no music gigs and no date, Z would play me selections of music while explaining the finer points of each musician’s technique and style. One night the topic was Joe Walsh; but the nuances of guitar licks went over my head, and my tutor could see that it was time to call it a halt. I had to go to bed to catch an early plane flight, so he headed out to a night of practice at his studio. At 3:00 am I was getting up when he was getting home. He washed up and changed and grabbed a mug of coffee, and we hit the road. It was 4:00 am, summer solstice in a northern city. A first firestreak of dawn sparkled on the river, fragmented into rubies in a skyline full of metal and glass. The streets were deserted as he cut through downtown. 

   “Here’s one,” he remarked, and punching some buttons on the stereo system he picked out a Joe Walsh song for me.

The song swept me in right away. It was poignant and reflective, with wonderful shifting key changes and harmonies. The city of rubies arranged itself to fit the song like a music video with us in the middle; a perfect moment of shimmering chords in shimmering light. 

Tonight it’s summer solstice in another northern city. The sunset is flaming in the windows, announcing a heat wave tomorrow. Cleaning out some files I found a diary note about a valentine he engraved and sent me from overseas. The original was lost when I moved away. But in memory it’s beautiful; a red heart motif with hand-drawn calligraphy, ending with wishes for “…All the love that you deserve. It will come. Your friend forever, Z.”

Typing this, I sat and wondered: What could that song have been, that he picked out for me in the car? My mind reeled around, rummaging the archives of memory, and suggested that the lyrics mentioned a second hand store.

A quick look turned up a Joe Walsh song called, in fact, “Second Hand Store.” For the first time in 30 years I sat back to listen, and the lyrics wrung my heart. 

Maybe somehow I can track down someone from Z’s family? There are dozens of stories to write down and share with them, nice ones; maybe his nieces and nephews would like a letter like that as a keepsake. And there’s a whole address book of people left to care for and check on while we are here, living our lives. And there’s prayer. He believed in mine, and he believed in me.

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Tuesday 6/8/21: The Grass is Greener from Inside the Window

Now and then from the windows of our city bus system, the eager curious passenger can catch swiftly fleeting flashes of waterfront. What a view! Mountains, water, tall trees, bridges and boats. It must be nice to stand right there and take it all in at ground level.

So today at the office I took a lunch expedition, forging a new route to some nearby waterfront. There were lush patches of beach roses in pink and white, feathery wild fennel just blooming with its gold compound flowers, wild blue rosemary and lavender, California gold poppies, and right here some sweetpeas and skyline.

Trouble was, this charming scene was a thicket on broken unstable concrete, all of 12 inches away from speeding cars on a service road to the interstate. There was no time for a proper camera angle, so it was nice that the picture caught anything at all before I scrambled out of there.

It was like reading Heidi, where our heroine is exiled to the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. Yearning for a view of her beloved Alps, and being too small to see out the windows, she sets out from the house determined to keep marching along until she gets to some scenery. But she finds that life on the city streets is not the sweetness and light that she expected.

That was like the waterfront today. There was none. It’s all cranes and jackhammers tearing the hillside apart. Cars scream past in acceleration lanes every which way. There’s no sidewalk or traffic lights. There were only crumbling rusted steps leading up and down and around through weeds with blowing trash and graffiti. At one time, this waterfront with its breathtaking mountain view must have been paradise. In the 1930s, it held a lot of tiny wooden family homes and little gardens. Those are all plowed under now. Maybe when all the construction has gouged out the shoreline they will build a park with a bicycle trail? But today it’s all stanchions and underpasses to a huge bridge with deafening noise, and people underneath trying their best to get some sleep without some tourist traipsing through. One of them called out to ask very politely whether he could buy a cigarette. I called back a heartfelt apology, explaining that I don’t smoke.

“That’s all right, Miss,” he assured me. “Actually, you don’t look like a smoker. You look like a… I think a gardener. That right?”

“Right you are,” I waved. Gardening with a camera for the time being.

It took a while to beat around the bushes to pick out the most likely looking old stone staircases, and bushwhack under and over and around and back to the main avenue far up the hill. It was a good lesson on where not to walk again. Good workout, too, even for the hippocampus — to get a little lost for a while and figure out the best way back.

And, there’s a view of sweetpeas to remember it by.

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Sunday 6/6/21: Keep Sharp

   “Hello! May I please borrow a copy of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Stay Sharp?

Our lovely pandemic front-line librarian beamed at me through her mask and 10 feet of distance and a layer of protective plexiglass. “Would that be… Keep Sharp?

   “Oh. Okay. Maybe after reading the book, I’ll be sharp enough to remember the title.”

The title is Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. It’s a nice positive book of upbeat common sense, drawing on lots of research studies. Eat right, exercise. Sleep well. All fine.

Then here was Chapter 8, “Connection for Protection.” 

Here, Dr. Gupta delivers a strong argument citing data and research about us lonely people. It hammers home the crucial medical and cognitive protection of having a spouse, a family, a close nourishing social circle — and how the lack of intimate connection carries “dire physical, mental, and emotional consequences” for longevity, happiness — and memory. The chapter quotes a TED talk by researcher Robert Waldinger that married couples who “bicker with each other day in and day out” were still better protected from dementia than someone with no spouse at all. (I thought back then at guys who had really enjoyed bickering at me. So I’d have been medically better off marrying one instead of sitting here alone reading this book?) That chimes right in with the media headlines every day in this Covid year. National Public Radio presented solutions to loneliness, interviewing U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In the NPR transcript, Dr. Murthy urged us outlanders to 1. Make close relationships a priority; and 2. Project a confident self-image so that other people will find us interesting and worth getting to know. In a recent Forbes interview he added, 3. Serve by volunteering in an area of our professional expertise.  

Concluding Chapter 8, Dr. Gupta urges us to “spend more time with loved ones”; “make new friends”; find connection by making good use of social media; adopt a pet; and if we still feel lonely, to reach out to a therapist, religious organization, or telephone hotline.

And here’s the conclusion:

“Finally, don’t underestimate the power of appropriate touch. Hand holding has been found to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A friendly touch can also be calming. In other words, the simple act of touching another human is a way of connecting with others to protect ourselves — and them.”

Here I’ve been, moving myself away from that native New Yorker habit of bursting into Anglo Saxon. But this !@#$%^ book nearly bounced off the opposite wall. This is not to criticize the loneliness experts and all their hard work and expertise, if it’s their job to deliver this terrible news. But once again, it felt as if the world were handing down a familiar message, now upgraded for age bracket: “Your failing at the life game of Musical Chairs has not only meant decades of sadness and regret; just watch: your consequences are about to get a lot worse.” What if feeling extra lonely means extra vulnerability to falling apart? What if wanting to throw books at the wall is detrimental to our brain health?

It all upset me so much that on impulse I put the book down and seized upon My Life in Christ by Father John of Kronstadt. Flipping it open at random led to page 162:

Everything that constitutes me (the soul) lives solely by God, and only in union with Him, whilst when the soul separates itself from God, then it experiences extreme distress. But the life of my soul consists in the peace of my spiritual powers, and this peace proceeds exclusively from God…. The absence of peace in the soul is spiritual death and the sign of the action of the enemy of our salvation in our hearts.

That helped me to get a grip, and also raised an interesting thought. What if ANY part of the whole equation of loneliness = doom on the way was really a spiritual attack? The enemy of salvation doesn’t even have to bother arranging the usual temptations for me. He can just sprinkle on this specific condiment of pain, and then sit back and watch the fun fair. It’s probably pretty entertaining.

Well, doom on the way or not, there was no time to fret. It was time to hurry out for volunteer shift at church, greeting folks at the door and checking them in on the pre-registration list. Then after evening Mass, I set out on the three mile walk home as the light started to fade and a mist of rain began to fall. 

Near church, a young man came along looking wan and worn out, dragging his feet. In one hand he held a thick hand-rolled cigarette and a jumbo sized can of some beverage. Maybe beer. Maybe caffeinated energy drink. Is there a caffeinated beer? 

As when meeting anyone on a sidewalk I stepped aside and gave him a bow and nod. Most people don’t notice and don’t care. But this one did.

“Ayadoin,’” he murmured, heading one way.

   “Evening,” I replied, heading the other.

He snapped to attention, whipping around to look me over. Then he held out the cigarette. “Smoke?”

   “Thank you. But no, I’m all set.”

   “Why — You don’t smoke at all do you? And you never did,” he concluded. “And, you ain’t never been married. You are some kinda nun, sorta.”

Yes, that’s how it works: Any guy on the street can feel like it’s fine to size up a woman and assess what he thinks. The nun comment comes up a lot.

“Do you go to church?” he asked.

   “Yup. Just cleaned some pews too.”

   “Cleaning?! Oh then that is different. Then you are more like… like angels or something.” He lunged over and briefly grabbed my hand, touching the back of it to his forehead. “Now I will have some good luck. You got to pray for me!”

My own inner angel nudged me to step lively and mind my own business and hurry home before dark. The stranger and I said good night and went our separate ways. But as the wind rose and clouds rushed in, from down the street and then the street after that he hollered back three more times. 

“Praaay! Don’t forget!”

   “Okaaay! I won’t!”

At the library, I dropped Keep Sharp in the book return slot just as the downpour set in. 

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5/24/21: Dominican Examples

It’s a blessing to have our Dominican priests and friars over at the Priory.

This young generation of the Order of Preachers is one dedicated crew. They walk a good balance of traditional reverence and strong principles, along with energetic adaptable good nature.

First, it’s nice to see that they wear full habits. Naturally, there are outstanding people in holy orders who show up in whatever work clothes will get the job done, no question. Some of them need to dress for an inconspicuous fit with the people that they serve. But around our church, it’s heartening to see the men work hard and beeline around in all weather, maintaining all those layers of white vestments and scapulars and cowling and hoods, with their rosary at their belt.

When I was growing up, families and altar boys and housewives rang the Rectory doorbell calling on priests for all kinds of parish business, and families invited the priests over for little picnics or barbecues, or just iced tea and a slice of pie. Those were special occasions, and great excitement for the kids. But here at our church when I tried to bring our Dominicans a plate of homemade cookies after Mass, one Father gave me his heartfelt thanks, but explained that due to the nationwide priest shortage, this Priory team pledged to keep up their health by not indulging in any sweets or treat foods or beverages. The Priory has a guest parlor for religious education, but it’s a locked cloister. For celebrations they’ll invite the parish and open their enclosed garden; the priests and brothers stand inside the second story windows calling greetings and pleasantries while volunteers on the lawn cook up hot dogs and scoop ice cream for all. Otherwise, the community simply don’t set foot off the grounds to socialize with the parishioners. One exception is the two who lead theology discussions for the campus ministry on Sunday afternoons at the student pub. Another exception was one young priest who would bring his guitar out to the park to sing a few hymns and talk with the young teens there, who would end up coming to church; when he died so many people grieved that his family took him to two funerals in two states and two languages.

Naturally, the priests are around for confessions and counseling. They’ll visit if a parish member is in the hospital or nursing home and needs the sacraments. And you can stop one of ours to talk after Mass; but he will start (and end) by suggesting that you both dedicate that talk to Our Blessed Mother by reciting a Hail Mary out loud together. That’s a good way to uplift a social interaction before it even starts, especially when someone waylays the Fathers while feeling discouraged or upset. 

On Friday nights they’re praying in the church until 11:00 pm for Adoration. With the pandemic the church started live streaming the devotion over You Tube. It’s a good start for the weekend: finish the Friday night chores, and then tune in for a few prayers before bedtime, safe at home, seeing that the priests are there taking turns at the altar in silent vigil.

Last week I was late logging in to the computer, and so decided to get my blanket roll and pillow all ready on the floor, and to stay awake for the end of vigil and to pray until the close of devotions. That made for a peaceful rosary hour. It was very edifying to tune in and see our serious young pastor facing away toward the altar, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, completely rapt in prayer. At the end of my rosary hour he still had not stirred at all. What a moving experience to see someone so devoted, absolutely motionless, as if he had forgotten the world (and that leather kneeler, which had to be getting uncomfortable). With a heartfelt sigh, I asked God whether I too would some day attain such a state of profound recollection.

While struggling to keep either eye open, I was slow to realize that by 10:45 Father should be starting the Latin closing hymn. Finally it dawned on me that the candle flames were perfectly still, not flickering at all. Was that even possible?

Sure, because the live stream on my computer reception was frozen. It was 11:35. I’d been staring at the same visual frame this whole time. In 3-D earthly reality, Father had long finished chanting and put the Host back in its tabernacle and blown out the candles and turned out the camera and locked the church and walked home next door, and was hopefully getting some rest. Yet here I sat, stupefied with sleepiness, deeply moved by a stalled video image. (One of our priests has an unusually light sweet sense of humor. If he read this he might say “Sounds like this dear lady has a frozen image of us all the time!”)

I shut down for the night and turned in. It did my heart good to fall asleep laughing away at my own state of pious confusion.

The Order of Saint Dominic. Since 1216 AD, still showing up as an edifying public example, long after they’ve left the building!

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5/21/21: WWJD?

Down at the hospital years ago, a Russian elder was rushed to the Emergency Room and prepared for surgery for that very night. She and her daughter remain in memory as remarkably gracious and grateful women, appreciative of all that the providers could do.

The patient’s daughter, a young mother with small children of her own at home, remained with me in the waiting room as anxious hours wore on. Her English was fairly good, but she was glad to have help as we processed the intake paperwork together. “Mama became ill so suddenly this afternoon,” she explained. “One minute she was there beside me in the kitchen, we were talking and laughing and fixing dinner and helping the children. The next moment she collapsed. The ambulance arrived. I waited with the children just until my husband could rush home. The doctors say her chance of surviving this surgery tonight is 50 percent. We will know nothing until morning.”

We continued with our clipboard of informed consent and questionnaires. To verify one medical term, I hauled out my heavy English-Russian dictionary. (This was back before cell phone apps, so useful to our new generation of interpreters.) From my bag, the dictionary also dislodged a small paperback book, one with this cover print here of Jesus — portrayed not as the Orthodox icon Pantokrator, the Almighty, but as a heart’s friend beckoning the reader to come close and follow along by paths unknown:

“What’s that book?” asked the young woman, snapping to attention. Despite her tiring wait, there was a fresh eagerness in her voice. “Something religious?”

“Oh… just an old title from the dollar shelf today at the used bookstore.” I pounced on the book and stuffed it back in my bag, musing with a sigh that although there are no photographs of Jesus of Nazareth, a wide range of portrait renditions still strike a chord for so many people, from so many cultures. But I felt self-conscious about showing the book here while on duty. Most of our Russian patients were old-school Moscow and Petersburg intellectuals. Many were deeply wary of any American provider who might have a religious bias in their practice of medicine. Several Russian patients had already quizzed me to find out my favorite books, and were appalled by my bucolic tastes in even secular literature. And even by my standards, today’s bargain purchase pushed the needle toward the cloying zone. (Though Wikipedia lists it as one of the top selling religious fiction books of all time at some 50 million copies, thanks to an improperly registered copyright.)

“Is it a Christian book?” Her kindly eyes grew even wider and softer. “Something good?”

“It’s not especially well written,” I confessed. I got up and walked to the reception desk to hand the paperwork clipboard back to the staff, then sat down again.

“What is the story?”

“Fiction from 1896. About a town of people who decide that for one year they will do everything as Jesus would do it.”

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon? The question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’! Mama and I just love that movie!” she exclaimed. “May I possibly borrow your book for the night? I promise to hand it directly to your supervisor at the interpreting office tomorrow. Better still, would you consider selling it to our family? When my husband joins me with the children in the morning, he will gladly pay whatever price you wish.”

“Oh goodness! I couldn’t think of charging you. It cost a quarter! And… your leaving it with my supervisor! No, no need for that.”

That was my real reason for denying my Savior in book form three times.

This medical facility was a State institution. There was absolutely no religious proselytizing permitted. If this dear family member told my supervisor, I would lose the trust of this administration, and perhaps my job. My supervisor was a passionate secular humanist. Her lifetime of refugee care had shown her bitter examples of lives lost when faith-based conventions caused patients and families to refuse medical intervention. She would be very concerned at my revealing this book in the clinics.

“This hospital,” I explained, “provides the best care we can to patients of every faith equally. If I give out a Christian book to one patient, that will be promoting my religious belief, perhaps pressuring a patient to my way of thinking. Besides, the other patients may well think that I will care more about Christians than about anyone else. My supervisor knows that I’m a believer. But she trusts me to separate religion and medical care. I have to honor her trust in me.”

“When the ambulance left with Mama today,” my companion confided, “I hurried soon after her. There was no time even to take money for some tea or small snack, no time to bring warm night clothes for sitting up in this chair tonight. I just was thinking… while waiting for the surgeon’s news, how nice it would be to have some Godly book. I apologize. I would never want to cause a difficulty for you, after all your goodness to Mama.”

Who knew what news awaited this daughter in the morning? I pulled out the book. She and I sat side by side, gazing at the figure on the cover. What would Jesus do? He’d hand her the book. So I did.

She beamed at me, cradling that twenty five cent paperback to her heart.

My pager alarm went off. Time to run.

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5/20/21: A Word from Mr. K.

A necessary big disclaimer: Covid can strike anybody, at any age, any level of fitness or religious faith. This little moment on the street is just appreciation for a friendly neighbor and his cheerful personal philosophy. -m

Our neighbor Mr. K. was getting out of his car after a long work day delivering pizza. It was the first I’d seen him all year. I stepped back and started to pull up my mask.

   “No no, you’re good,” he assured me. 

   “Mask on or mask off,” I told him, “People masked and unmasked are giving me upset looks all up and down the street.”

   “Oh, you will never succeed in pleasing everybody,” he assured me.

   “Not while trying to navigating this brave new world.”

   “Delivery customers ask me all day, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ But it’s not like we are spending the day indoors caring for people who are truly ill. No, anybody waiting for me outside on the street with a smile — handing them a pizza does not worry me.”

   “My immediate worry this year has been eyeglasses fogging up. All winter, and with dusk and rain, often I couldn’t see my own feet and was scared of taking a fall; off a bus step or off the curb.”

   “Now that scares me: all the pedestrians night and day, they avoid one another on the sidewalk by leaping into the street into my lane. Just today, two elderly ladies trying to get away from one another, both ran into traffic and one almost got hit by an SUV! No, we all have to think and make our choices. My sons, we made the decision as a family to let them go back to jujitsu class.” 

   “That’s great. They are such good respectful kids.”

   “Well, they are at home or walking with their mother and me, or they are at the table doing homework, or they are in jujitsu lessons. We decided that was reasonable. The foundation is, we put our trust in one source, and that is God.”

   “Sick or well, that is the place to trust.”

   “See, when Jesus told us ‘The Father and I are one’ — well, if we live in Jesus, then the Father’s energy will be in us too as we go through our lives. Like you, for instance: you’re walking everywhere. Driving around, I see you and think ‘I do hope that she is not afraid this year.’ Because the way you are outdoors all the time, always so smiling and pleasant — why, you would make a terrible host for a virus!”

   “God willing. That’s a great thing to hear. Clearly this was the conversation I was meant to wake up for today.”

   “We can go through our lives being a curse, or a blessing to everyone we meet.”

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5/9/21: Paving the Day

“…[G]et out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, eat your breakfast, go outside, and talk to people. Even if you feel miserable, smile and pretend you’re happy. Your emotions will conform to your actions, at least somewhat.” Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies, page 56, Chapter 2, “Can You Afford to be Nice?” 

Mother’s Day. It’s important, to a lot of lot of people.

And it made the morning look even more like an imitation life filled with air and made of papier-mâché (no idea how to spell that; had to look it up). A good reason to avoid everybody and spend the morning munching snacks and watching classic Russian movies.

But last week after reading Arthur C. Brooks I signed up for today’s shift as a registration greeter at church for the noon services, and to clean the pews after. A volunteer commitment greatly increases the probability of Mass attendance (superior to the Wake Up and Wonder Am I in the Mood Today? decision tree). It’s a new experiment in giving the weekend some social structure and a positive shared purpose — dress up, show up, work on the team like everybody else.

Greeting table duty looked pretty daunting. In order to check off the parishioners plus their kith & kin, or to write in the folks who didn’t register, one has to hear unfamiliar names pronounced and spelled through masks in a small crowd. Finally it dawned on me: turn the registration clipboard around, and let people point out who they are. Or hand them the pen so they can sign their own names in the Walk In section. That method left breathing room to pay attention to each person at a time. So with the Polish worshipper I got to practice some Polish. With the support pal dachshund (who announced himself by getting under the table and putting his cold wet little nose down my ankle sock) I got to play a little. With a young friend who got married and lost touch years ago, I got to see why — she and her husband showed up with three active hearty little kiddos. Giving everybody a big welcome to our church turned out to be a nice mood lift; one feels less alien when helping everybody else feel more at ease.

The high Mass was beautiful with its Latin chanting. The sermon had a lot of good to say about the very real sacrifices and effort it takes to be a mom of any age in any circumstances.

Cleaning and disinfecting the pews went like clockwork. The volunteers (our church has over a hundred of them) are a squadron of reverent millennials, a very different breed from the Woodstock folk mass slackers of my generation. These young Catholics have kind caring attentive natures and exquisite manners; one of them is preparing to enter a contemplative monastery. Even their attire is attractive and modest. (The girls’ long flowing dresses with vests or shawls or scarves are so lovely and becoming that they might just be handmade.) All of them are a sign of real hope for the future of the Church. Being in their company is good for the spirit.

Then there was a good long walk home, with a stop at the open air fruit stand for root vegetables.

All the while it felt as if small activities like these, no matter how one feels inside, still add at least a positive paving stone to the path of the day. It was a good plan for a Sabbath, worth trying again next week. 

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4/17/21: Chapel Appreciation Day

All was quiet at the Fatima shrine on Monastery Hill in Brighton.

Soon a procession of the faithful would gather here to conclude the monthly rosary rally. But first, they were assembling at St. Gabriel’s up the hill for evening prayers and a sermon by some illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker. 

Before the service I stopped by the shrine, sitting still in the dusk.

An elderly priest in a plain black suit and clerical collar walked in. He stood contemplating the statue of our Blessed Mother. Lost in thought, he tidied up a few devotional brochures, patting them into a neater stack. He removed a crumpled dollar bill from the brochure basket, and placed it gently in a collection box. He picked up a dropped rosary chaplet from the carpet, and placed it back on the table. 

   “Good evening, Father,” I stood up with a deferential bow. “Lovely chapel you’ve got here.”

Father blinked at me.

   “It’s such a nice place.” I came closer. “Really. The chapel is such a gem. A real treasure right in the city.”

Father looked around at the sentimental statues and pictures, silk flowers, heartfelt prayer intentions jotted down on slips of paper. As with so many of our older parish priests, including the retired clergy in the parish house next door, this poor man looked amazed at hearing any word of appreciation. 

Well, it was his turn to be appreciated today.

   “Too often,” I monitored his blank reaction, “we worshippers step in for a prayer and we move on — with no thought of the devotion and care it takes to maintain a place like this. Electricity, snow shoveling, cleaning the leaders and gutters. But it matters — on a visual level, and on a spiritual level. For now, only God sees how it has helped: the answered prayers, the consolation, the fellowship.” I gave his hand a quick light shake. “Thank you, Father.”

Father looked carefully neutral, making no sudden motions; in fact, registering no real response at all. Only much later did the pieces of the social context fill in for me; I’d picked a poor time in church history to ambush a member of the clergy that way.

At a moment like this, many of our other Boston priests would have resorted to rugged self-effacing humor. They would have asked my name and home parish and spiritual director, and made sure that I was active in church and receiving the sacraments. They would have introduced themselves. Then they would remember me at all future events like this, with some teasing each time. “Here comes Inspector MARY. Mary, my wee Colleen — did you give our chapel the white glove test today? How am I doing, polishing those doorknobs?”

We were interrupted by a group of petite ladies in plastic folding chapel caps, speaking excitedly in what sounded like Tagalog. They rushed at the priest and fell upon their knees. Bursting into tears, they grabbed his sleeves. More women rushed in exclaiming in Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese. They gripped Father’s arm, touching their rosaries to his hands to bless them, all of them genuflecting to kiss his ring.  

Catholics kneeling down? To kiss a priest’s ring? What? I backed out the door in mortified retreat, gathering dimly by the reactions of everybody else that I had must have failed to recognize a member of our hierarchical gentry, with no clue on what title or greeting to use anyway. (In retrospect it’s interesting that in all that pack of reverence and elation, only one person got his undivided riveted attention; that was the person who didn’t know him at all.)

In church that night he was our illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker, 70 years old but by no means bent on retirement. He preached about the intercession of our Blessed Mother in our lives. The sermon did not mention his future promotion to an important post at the Vatican.

Ah goodness; to him, a friendly intention wrapped in social cuelessness must have come across as derisive sarcasm! An interloper in an empty chapel accosted Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, Archbishop of the Diocese of Boston, raving away at him about the spiritual meaning in building maintenance of clean windows and driven snow.

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4/11/21: A Harvick Social Call

Needless to say, I made up the names and swapped around obvious details. The visit really happened though. A secret to this day.

Our publisher sent me bicycling over to the glam edge of town, to courier an important floppy disk of ad copy back to a customer. Soon I delivered the disk, and was pedalling back to the office.

   “Go see Harvick,” a silent but clear voice demanded.

“He’s at work,” I talked back. “He is always at work. And so am I, on the clock.”

“Next left turn,” the voice nudged me.

   “He’s not home!” I argued. This was life before cell phones. There was no way to even call and check. 

   “Get going,” the voice replied.

So I pumped uphill to a posh cul-de-sac with turfy lawns and widely spaced faux castles and faux moats dressed with artificial concrete stone. 

The doorbell rang its Big Ben chimes. No answer. A glance through the garage window showed that the car was of course gone. With a sigh I hopped on the bike again.

   “Backyard,” the voice commanded. “Hurry up already.”

I hurried around to the backyard fence. Out by the pool, a very beautiful young woman was sobbing with head in hands. Now, Harvick’s yard had seen a range of guests and sophisticated props — for filming the time lapsed path of some comet, or solar-cooking mass batches of turkey jerky, or hanging up salvaged organ pipes as novel improvised percussion for touring musicians. What I did not expect to find there was a lovely young lady, or any lady.

   “Why hello, Miss,” I said. “Are you all right?”

She leaped to her feet, flinging back her hair. “No English,” she sobbed, hands up. 

   “Oh. What language do you speak?”

She named three languages. For some reason, people with zero English can all understand that one question.

   “Oh, okay.” One of her second languages was one of mine. “Hello. I’m Mary, an old friend of Harvick’s.”

Her panic turned to amazement. “I’m Edieta.” She opened the gate. We settled on chaise lounge chairs, and soon our languages warmed right up (her “No English” really meant “A fair amount, but I was too scared to talk”) for a nice bilingual girl chat.

Edieta lived with her large family on another continent and hemisphere. One Sunday they were picnicking at the beach. Harvick on one of his conference and research trips stopped by the waterfront. Soon he was entertaining the four-generation dynasty with his childlike enthusiasm, acute scientific curiosity, and improvised magic tricks using local props. The family was so won over that they invited him for dinner. He visited several times, extended his stay for a week at their house, sent gifts upon his return home, visited again for Christmas, and finally wrote her and her parents with an offer: Would she like to come to the States as his house guest? She could see what the country had to offer, and then consider staying and marrying him. He set aside a floor of his castle with bedroom and bath for her separate use and comfort, offering to take her anywhere she wished to go, to help her explore options for her future, and to buy her anything she fancied. 

(Disclaimer: This is not to suggest leaving the protection of one’s people and go stay with a new acquaintance in an arrangement of this kind. One can’t predict character from a hemisphere away on short acquaintance. It can work safely and well if the man is like Harvick. The arrangement with Edieta was very much to his credit and said a lot about him.)

Now, her six week American vacation was over. Did she like him enough to consider marriage? Or, would she head back home to her family? That morning she had waited for him to leave for work, and sat down outside for a spell of abject weeping.

   “Such a good man and respecting perfect gentleman. And so handsome!” Edieta exclaimed. “And works very hard — day and night.”

   “He is,” I agreed. “And he does.”

   “Even at home he has ideas, and hurries to write them. Or call the men and talk about it.”

   “Harvick loves and lives his profession. Always asking questions and learning.”

   “He says here I can study and work what I want, and he will help with college, career, buy a car, anything!”

   “Harvick respects women and supports their independent ideas. He pushed me to interview for my publishing job; he insisted that I could learn the work, and he was right.”

   “It’s just… he’s away a lot. Working, conferences, lectures.”

   “Yes; he has many invitations to speak and teach.”

   “And I’m here.” She looked around. “What life is this for family? Nobody visits or calls. Not one child or even dog or cat playing, no shops or place to walk. Neighbors drive by, don’t wave. Because I’m foreign?”

   “No no; because this is a ‘bedroom community,’” I tried to explain. “Young faculty establishing their careers. They just come home to sleep. Their social world is campus. In this neighborhood they need cars to get everywhere, so they are not out walking. And no, they are not avoiding you; it’s just that they don’t know Harvick. He lives here only because it is quiet and private for work. He does not take time to meet these neighbors. If you are on campus you will meet his colleagues, their wives, their students.”

   “Does he go to church? Our village goes to church three times a week. We all walk together.”

   “Well… he says that nature is like a church to him.”

   “He did not introduce me to his family! Why?” She threw her hands out. “They don’t visit or call me.”

   “Oh, they… live far apart, and are really busy.” Harvick was an only child. His folks divorced when he was two. The whole family had drifted out of touch years before. 

   “Back at home, families eat together every night, and big Sunday dinner. Sure, they work hard and not much money. But we shop at the bazaar together, cook together, stroll and chat and sing songs, play music, even dance on the plaza.”     

   “Your family sounds wonderful.” Harvick would pay happily for overseas calls and plane visits for Edieta. But he didn’t have a ready-made family or community to offer a new wife or new mother.

   “Mary?” Edieta leaned close, whispering. “He’s got GUNS. Why?? He can buy meat at the store!” 

   “Right. He’s all licensed, and they’re registered. The guns and the cabinet have combination locks. He’s a really safe responsible gun owner. It’s only a hobby to relax from work. He and the guys go out to… like an academy where they practice shooting at… oh, I don’t know; bottles or cans or whatever. It’s common here.”

   “Shooting the bottles?” She gripped her head. “At home they will call it a strange guy. And that snake. This terrifying thing in glass. Just stares at me.”

   “The boa constrictor? That’s Bilbo.” Bilbo was only four feet long. For a boa that’s shoelace size, but he wasn’t going to get any smaller. “That tank is locked. And he’s pretty chill. I’ve cleaned his cage and given him baths. Just scrub your arms real well with anti-bacterial soap before and after.”

   “No way. We can’t stand snakes at home that they are falling right out of the trees. Put one in the home? Why? By the way, he does not eat.”

   “Sure he does, every month or so. Just mice.”

   “WHAT? No no no, not Blobbo. No, I meant Harvick. Even I am cooking all day, make the table nice and dress up? He can eat in two minutes reading a magazine, say thank you off he goes. Did not help and chat over the dishes. Did not notice food or me.”

   “He noticed. He notices everything.” I sighed. Harvick always read books at the table, and didn’t really notice food. He didn’t chat over dishes either; he washed them at high speed as soon as the sink was full or every single plastic dish in the kitchen needed washing. “He appreciates what people do. He just might not mention it.” 

She looked at me with new interest. “You know him pretty well. How did you meet?”

   “We were students years ago, and then we lived next door in student housing. At the publishing job I edit his magazine articles. I was his secretary on campus. I house sit when he’s away.”

   “Then why didn’t he marry you?”

   “Well…” Right at the start, Harvick had explained his checklist for a future spouse. Criteria included slender, petite, optimally proportioned, adventurous, vivacious, upbeat, appreciative of French wines and hot spices and jazz and direct sunshine and tennis, secular or agnostic a plus. “Because he needs someone like me who he can telephone at two o’clock in the morning to talk about his research! Just so you know.”

   “But no dates?” She sounded incredulous.

   “One. Years ago he saw me read a poster on campus about a dance party. He joked that he’d take me.”

   “Really? What happened next? Did you say yes??”

   “Absolutely! I bought a party dress and got all ready. I waited outside for an hour. Then I waited inside for two more hours. I understood perfectly: he was out in the field with his research and forgot.”

   “No. What did you say to him?”

   “I never said a thing. He was working. It was an innocent mistake.”

   “But all that time together, did he ever try to… well…”

   “No.” My spirits fell a bit at thought of my own legion of Harvicks: brilliant, super-achieving, breadwinning, handsome, cultured, generous, loyal, eager to seek me out to discuss their achievements and dating adventures with me as a good listener and all-round pal. They marched through my life like the Terracotta Army warriors of Shaanxi. Some are still good friends. Some found spouses and moved on.

Edieta shook her head, gripping my hands. “Please don’t think too bad of me! But really — just I like to go back home. Is it all right?”

   “Have you called your family about this, Edieta?” I was very touched that she cared what I thought, some accidental visitor who she’d known for all of twenty minutes. It sounded wise for her to take more time to think, perhaps make an extra trip or two, than to rush into a wedding. And right now she needed her family’s shared view and support more than anything.

   “No, we didn’t talk! No phone in our house. Only my uncle has a phone, but he’s an hour of walk away.”

I felt sorry about missing these six weeks with Edieta. If only that intuitive voice had come along 40 days sooner! I could have borrowed a bicycle for her. I would have taken her with me to church and the farmers’ markets and music events. There were other language speakers among the faculty and their wives and students. She could have been happier then. Would that have helped? Why didn’t Harvick tell me! A friendly sociable guest with hesitant English — was leaving her alone in suburbia the best courtship approach? Maybe it was his adamant respect for women and their right to make up their own minds. Perhaps he was showing her a realistic slice of his life as it was. 

Harvick never did mention Edieta. Neither did I.  

Soon afterwards, at a conference, a high-tech software entrepreneur spotted him at the podium as a keynote speaker. She read about him in the printed program, then sent her business card to his hotel room with a bottle of French wine and two tickets to dinner at a jazz club. After that weekend, she spelled out for him exactly when and where and how he was going to marry her, and it didn’t take him any six weeks to make up his mind. After the honeymoon his new wife moved to town and invited us friends and the neighbors home for a torchlit Indian feast with all the spices. She was lithe, soft-spoken, gorgeous, poised as a lion tamer. With a single up and down glance she approved of me and Harvick’s wee-hour phone calls; I guess she got more rest that way. Soon she coordinated his career and tenure promotion and invitation calendar, his patents and grants and interviews with the media. She found a home for Bilbo and the organ pipes, sold the castle, bought a Mediterranean villa with vineyard and beach for their early retirement. Last we heard, they do a little remote consulting for fun, bottle their own wine, take the boat out, cycle around, play tennis. They’re doing fine.

It is remarkable that both young women probably had the same opinion of Harvick’s well customized single lifestyle. One of them was like me; she tried to cope by being patient and gentle and deferential and good with a dish towel and frying pan. The second one serenely ignored the traits that weren’t going to change (like her partner’s dismay whenever a pub beer menu was missing the umlauts), and then she tackled everything else. It is remarkable what excellent prospects are out there, for a woman who takes initiative and lets a man know that she has chosen him, and that his life is about to change to suit her vision of their future together. That approach doesn’t appear in the Elisabeth Elliot books on my shelf, but it sure looks successful and makes for some solid happy couples.

But meanwhile, Edieta began to weep again. “Of course he is so kind and share everything,” she cried. “But… Mother of God, I am lonely! Really this house alone with snake looking at me and town of the dead will make me off my mind. Back home, I did not even know how happy we are together. I miss them to break my heart!” 

She walked me to the gate. We hugged goodbye. “Please Mary, don’t tell him what I said?”

   “I won’t even tell him I came here and found you.”

   “When you came here and found me,” she confided, “I was praying to my mother and my grandma. Mommy? Grammy? Come here I am so scared! Come help me now! Wait — You knew he was at work today. What are you doing here?”

   “No idea,” I had to admit. “Just a feeling.”

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Good Friday, 2021: Message in the Bin

One of the brothers was wronged by another. He came to Abba Sisoes, saying “My brother has hurt me, and I want to avenge myself.” Abba Sisoes pleaded with him in vain to leave vengeance to God. Finally, Abba said “Brother, let us pray…. God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.” Hearing these words, the brother fell at the Abba’s feet, asking for forgiveness. — The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG. Cistercian Publications, Abbey of Gethsemani, KY 1975.


What a scene.

It’s a peak moving out day in our complex. Household belongings, from pillows to pots, are heaped up in the dark in the garbage cage. Once again I’m dragging debris out of bins and re-sorting because once again, people didn’t heed the signs. They threw glass bottles a-smash in the landfill dumpster, disposable diapers in the food compost, and even a plastic infant crib/dresser in the recycle bin, leaving the lid jammed open to the rain — as if plastic furniture is ground up into plastic atoms to clone a fresh new crib. Before moving out these people should have planned ahead, maybe posted this to a giveaway website so some other family could use it.

The open crib drawer has a torn envelope and a note with official agency letterhead, a date several months old. Pounce! As Helen Mirren said (film role Mrs. Porter, “Door to Door,” 2002) “Now I have proof!” A glittering shard of crafty cleverness worms its way to mind, insinuating sweetly that I should take this note to Management, so they can have a parting word with these carefree sorting scofflaws. One triumphant righteous glance at the address, and… it’s a message to this effect. Now that we have taken your baby away to foster care, we have discontinued your medical and maternal benefits. Last year, your child’s father sent you child support for a total of [fillable field] $39.17. 

She was our neighbor. She needed help, and now she’s gone. And I’m in a cage with windblown debris under a yellow floodlight. Cradling a letter in hand and rocking back and forth, pulling up the inside of the sweatshirt to wipe my eyes. One baby with no idea where Mom is now. One Mom needing all the maternal benefits and support and care in the world. 

Soon the letter is smoothed out, refolded, tucked inside the envelope, put in the closed crib drawer. After some careful dragging around, now the recycling lid will close and shelter the crib as it waits for the truck. Like an emptied fish tank or hamster wheel, but with purple ponies with big eyes frisking around. They look full of fun and ready to play.

Along the path back to the house up the steps and through the trees, the cage floodlight grows fainter and fades out. The rain turns into snow.

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3/11/21: Calling Security (or, You Really Oughta Be in Pictures)

Being detained by Security was only one small part of a day that was not going well.

The guard (strong build, square jaw, sharp gaze, raised voice, military air of authority) kept me for 20 minutes of rapid-fire inquiry before letting me go. And, no wonder: security personnel are trained to pick up on erratic and evasive behavior, even in a crowd.

The whole fracas came from Dean’s photo shoot idea. Dean (not his real name) was a new graduate teaching assistant in the doctoral program of a neighboring department. He had good prospects, affluent background, showy good looks, and a sunny disposition. All day every day, at the hourly rush from lecture to lecture, he and his friends jostled past me and my friends in the halls, calling hellos and good-natured jokes. Dean’s teasing was erudite, witty, cheerful, and deeply observant of me and my appearance. Now according to the culture where I grew up, any demonstration of attention whatsoever from a man toward a woman must be appreciated as flattery and answered with a smile. So I smiled through Dean’s hazing during department receptions and parties, and when Dean and his buddies invited me and my roommates out for pizza. One night he gave us a ride home in his car. Next, he decided that I ought to be in pictures.

Dean’s creative Muse stipulated a photo session alone at his apartment, without his friends or mine, and a glass or two of wine to enhance the mood. He offered to pick me up at my house, and to drive me right back to my door. And, he instructed me to first go out and buy a flattering feminine blouse, and apply some makeup. “Let’s find out who you are when you’re not running away with your girlfriends or hiding under those turtlenecks and head scarves and glasses and hair.”

Any English ballad would say that all you fair maids should beware of guys who hold out a promise of greater glory, cut us out of the herd, take us off our familiar turf, lay down rules, and pay lots of attention that we didn’t think to ask for. The ballad would add that with facial recognition technology, you don’t know where that picture will go or why. What’s the rush? 

But my roommates were thrilled. My parents were thankful that I was meeting nice college men. My graduate advisor, who hailed from Dean’s same Alma Mater, pointed out my admirer’s advantageous connections. At our university, people were expected to network all the time, positioning ourselves with strategic key figures in government, law, the economy, international relations, and the media. My social circle recognized right away that an hour with Dean was a good piece of luck for me.

I listened to everybody’s pep talk about taking on some glamor and coming out of my shell. Still, I wondered: When shelled animals unshell themselves, doesn’t that generally indicate a state of death? And “glamor” was originally an accusation that a woman was casting fairy stardust into men’s eyes, inciting them to lose their sense of reason. To call a woman glamorous, charming, fascinating, enchanting, intriguing, beguiling, alluring, tempting, bewitching — those used to be fighting words, shouted by villagers gathering with torches or stones in hand. Why a new picture of me, when other pictures of me looked bewildered and constrained? Why not meet on campus, for a scenic backdrop? Why bring in alcohol? Why not invite the girlfriends, who were all beautiful, dressed the part, and were eager to be seen. For that matter, why not photograph them?

My roommates objected to all this existential hand-wringing. Would you rather sit alone at home for the rest of your life? Go out for an hour to a man’s apartment! Drink a glass of wine! He’s FACULTY, for pete’s sake; what can go wrong? Dean himself cut off my questions, spelling it out in basic English: Show up for the portrait this Saturday night, or he and his social set would never speak to me again.

Wait, Saturday night? That meant no sacrament of confession, no evening Mass, no weekend stroll to the Cathedral to sit in the winter garden at sunset and watch the red-tailed hawks sail in figure eights around the bell tower. It meant missing weekend dinner with the roommates and our piling up on the couch with quilts in our jammies and robes, with pasta and ice cream sundaes for girltalk and TV. 

Instead, on Saturday I had to set out on Dean’s homework assignment to go buy a new blouse with some style to it. That ruled out my cherished one-stop wardrobe solution,  Zed’s Army Navy. Zed’s industrial loft had nice dim lights and a ripply wood floor and laconic retired veterans on staff who took a shine to me, and would point me toward surplus bargains that they could tell would make me feel comfortable and protected. 

But no, this mission called for a trip to the department store. There in Women’s Fashions I stood gaping amid fluorescent lights, ceiling announcements and bells and boings, disco muzak, echoing toddlers, aromas of cinnamon buns and popcorn butter and fabric dye, and the touch of static-cling textiles in counter-intuitive indigestible colors. The store security guard tracked me at a distance while I rummaged along with rising anxiety, speed-reading through the racks. Then, in Last Chance clearance, there was a burlappish corduroy the color of tan M&Ms with a high wrap-around collar. The $14.99 made me wince (for that money you can go to Zed’s and get two rugged turtlenecks.) But it was hands down the ugliest ragmop imaginable, which was exactly my hidden agenda.

Now to beeline for the cash register and pay up. Or… was I supposed to go in the dressing room and take off half my clothes and try this contraption on? I gripped the shirt, looking for the exit. Pay and run? Try it on? Try then pay? Drop it and flee? Unable to act or think, I zoned out for a moment and fixated on a mirror display of silk flowers and felted wool songbirds. The stuffed birds made me smile. They looked like the tiny felted partridges in Grandma’s Christmas decorations from childhood. I wished that I could take a bird home for my room. 

Another shy customer materialized at a side mirror panel, looking as miserable as I felt, drawn close by the same felted fauna. He was a tall cowering young man with long hair and abjectly blanched complexion. Reaching out to pet a bird, I threw him a sympathetic glance. He glanced right back. It took a moment to figure out that the shrinking youth was my reflection. By then the security guard had seen enough, and marched me to the back room. 

After the security guard had checked on my story and let me go, I bought the blouse and trudged home from the department store in the cold, worn out and shivering and increasingly apprehensive. It felt as if Dean’s camera shutter was going to take away a piece of my soul, and forever after I would have even more trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. To avoid being alone with him in his car, I called Dean and told him I’d get there myself on the bus. (“I’ll drive you home,” he quipped. “Tonight or tomorrow — your choice.”) I hung up the phone feeling desperate for some hot cocoa and a long nap and early bedtime with a good book. But, to keep from making everybody angry at me and then sitting alone the rest of my life, I laundered and ironed the tan M&M burlap shirt, showered up, and washed my hair. I packed a turtleneck and head scarf in my knapsack. I added a hot loaf of my fresh baked Anadama molasses bread as a gift. I dressed up and sat, feeling like a sheep at a 4-H judging show, while my roommates applied my makeup. They brushed back the curly thatch of bangs that sheltered my eyes from the world and the world from me, and pinned my hair up tight with a mist of hair mousse. They clipped on earrings, sprayed on perfume, and hollered advice as I headed out for two buses and a long walk. 

At Dean’s, the adventure fizzled out in about seven minutes. My host was seriously miffed that over his strenuous objections I sweetly held my knapsack and coat on my lap, instead of letting him take them away to the bedroom. He was appalled by the shirt. He was offended that I took only one sip of wine and no more, and that I clearly wouldn’t appreciate an excellent vintage if I fell in the oaken vat. He insisted that I pose with a lighted cigarette, which was not part of our original agreement; so I resorted to Fool of Gotham mode and clasped it like sidewalk chalk, breaking the filter. Then under the tan burlap collar he spotted a gold cross, Mom’s gift for high school graduation. That was the last straw. Urgent as he’d been to get me into his apartment, he was practically frantic to get me out of it again.

And that was fine, because we found out that the photo shoot was a practical joke. Dean figured that the image of me trying to look sophisticated would make for a hilarious pinup girl at the honors fraternity house. But the guys there were indignant at his choice of a sporting target. Word through the grapevine reached my graduate advisor, who took a very dim view of such shenanigans from a fellow Bearcat or Trojan or however the men at the old school fancy themselves. My girlfriends were furious, and rallied to my defense and support. Later one roommate reported that my name came up at a beer keg bash, and Dean ventured cautiously that I seemed like a nice girl. He remained a successful man about town, but somehow his presence didn’t really cross my radar; I just didn’t seem to notice him any more. 

That night outside his apartment I shook my hair down and took off the earrings. I pulled the turtleneck and head scarf out of my knapsack, and bundled up. Instead of waiting around alone on a corner downtown for the hourly transfer bus home, I decided to catch the student shuttle by heading down to the waterfront and over the interstate bridge and up to campus. Halfway across the river I stood munching my Anadama and admiring the city skyline, and the lights of our Cathedral miles away, up on our hilltop.

Still, there must be some shared ancestral vision that delights in discovering unexpected glory in unlikely places. We thrill to fashion makeover magazines, or antiques on appraisal in TV shows, or ancient gold coins plowed up in a cornfield. Maybe that’s what Dean was looking for. That’s certainly what I dreamed of, on that stone bench in the winter garden, and that’s what my girlfriends wanted for me: to be seen in the eye of the right beholder — by someone perceiving genuine beauty without, because that someone carries genuine beauty within themselves.

Happily, genuine beauty in the right beholder is how this English ballad ends. Because that’s what she had and that’s what she was, with her strong build and square jaw and sharp gaze and raised voice and military air of authority, when she muscled in to my reverie of flowers and birds.

   “Come with me,” the security guard ordered. “In that door. Sit down. Whatta you got?” 

   “Shirt, Officer. Ma’am.” I held up the price tags. “Just going to pay for it.”

   “I did not ask what that is, Miss. I asked what you GOT,” she demanded. “I was talking to you out there, and you didn’t even notice. You got diabetes? Pregnant, faint, or what? You are white as a sheet. Need a doctor? Husband or boyfriend here? Parents? Somebody I can call?”

   “Why… no, Ma’am. I must be coming down with something. It’s okay. I can walk home. It isn’t far. I’ve got four roommates right there.”

   “Hold on.” She stepped out to a vending machine and bought orange soda and cheese crackers. “You are not leaving this room for twenty minutes. You sit here, and eat those.”

If only I had acted with more presence of mind than any other scrap of wildlife fished from an oil slick and thrown free. If only I’d been able to think straight, get her name, tell store management what she did for me, go back with that hot loaf and give it to her instead. But with that dissociated mind and dislocated conscience I have no memory of eating those crackers or thanking her or leaving that back room.

Over the years other Deans, bigger smarter ones, came and went; they are all around, common as rocks. And every time one showed up, with every decision correct or incorrect, I thought about that guard and wondered what she’d say. If only I could let her know that. “Security” was the right name for her calling, because security is what she gave to me. God willing, maybe I can give some to someone else one day.

Next morning, Sunday at sunrise, I threw the M&M shirt in the garbage can and headed out for early Mass and on to the Cathedral and the winter garden. 

Up over the bell tower the red-tailed hawks still soared in circles, free as ever.

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3/2/2021: Lent with Father Seraphim

Father Seraphim Aldea out in the Hebrides is preparing for Orthodox Lent by taking a walk to the shore, and is bringing the camera along. (I don’t know who held the camera while he hopped the fence and approached the water, but it made for some pretty scenery.)

Twice a week he posts these very small talks about monasticism. An endearing theme in each talk is his response and self-effacing humor to the technical details that pop up in filming: mud underfoot, a migraine, a storm, criticism from the readers, struggling to get used to new eyeglasses, waiting for the tea to boil. (My favorite was the time a goat stood behind him during filming and quietly started to eat his cassock.) For me in this pandemic year, living and working in solitude, his small clips have always brought something good to hear and see and to think about during the day.

Today Father talked about how for Lent we can set aside a little secret place between our hearts and the heart of God.

“How to Go Deeper During Lent. A Heart’s Secret with God & the Courses of our Thoughts”


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2/22/21: Why Not Serenade The Neighbors

Taking out the recycling one night, down at the apartment complex garbage bin cage I saw our two delightful neighbors from Iran.

After friendly remarks about the weather and our pandemic, as a conversation pleasantry I said “Why don’t I go learn an Iranian song, and sing it for you?” Whatever they were expecting to hear coming from a figure in the dark emerging from a garbage cage, they responded with gracious good humor. “A song? Sure!”

So I got to work learning “Jan-e Maryam,” because it’s a glorious song and who wouldn’t want to learn it? especially after hearing beloved singer Mr. Mohammad Noori:

Jane Maryam- جان مریم https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7DbEmNukh8

The next week as promised I sang that at the garbage cage. Our two neighbors rained down appreciation upon my head. That was a good life lesson. Namely, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans whether we can sing or not, we can still pick a musical tribute and just go surprise somebody.

Next, our two neighbors enthusiastically suggested a new Iranian song to learn, from the classic film “Soltan-e Ghalbhaa,” or “King of Hearts.” In this finale below, the song interrupts a wedding and reunites the prospective bridegroom with his long-lost wife who had lost her eyesight and so couldn’t find him but he finds her because of her singing voice, and as the credits roll the reunited characters join hands and sing their song together. How sweet and appealing is that??

Iran’فردين در سلطان قلبها Fardin in Soltane Ghalbha’_low.mp4


“King of Hearts” was a big hit down at the garbage cage, so our good neighbors assigned “Cheshme Man (My Eyes)” by Dariush. In this clip, whenever Dariush starts the refrain, he can just turn the microphone and point it at the audience, because they are leaping to their feet singing it themselves.

Dariush Eghbali – Cheshme Man (My Eyes) – English Subs


Meanwhile, the dear wife of my old friend expressed a fondness for “Ay Que Noche Tan Preciosa,” which is the “Happy Birthday” song as it is done up properly in Venezuela, composed by Mr. Luis Cruz. Here is Mr. Cruz himself at a party, with his friends singing away at minute 5:21.


So I studied up and sang it to the two of them over the phone. That inspired my old friend to sing us a real treat: “Happy Birthday” as sung for generations in his family with a lovely childhood poem, to the refrain at minute 3:05 of this “Merry Widow” waltz by Franz Lehár.


So I practiced that at work today while filing papers. By the time his birthday rolls around it would be nice to try singing it to him.

Yesterday I sang the Venezuelan birthday song to a friend during a long-distance phone call. It wasn’t her birthday, and she’s from Guatemala not Venezuela, but she was happy anyway and asked me to send her the words and music.

Now out of the blue two old friends invited me to join their virtual choir! They went and talked to their musical director and put in the paperwork and paid the membership fee! That’s five new pieces to learn and a whole new experience of singing just one track and just one exact set of notes as written, and learning how to videotape too.

After recording those, who knows what song requests will come up. But one for sure will be learning “Cheshme Man,” just like all those people in the audience did because it meant so much to them. It would be nice to learn more birthday songs too.

Now this is just one vote in a blog whose readers live mostly in Kyrgyzstan and China. (What do they sing for birthdays there?) But if we can’t touch people or eat with them or visit their house or nursing home or invite them over or go somewhere in the car or bus —

Why not go serenade the neighbors?

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1/7/21: An Ethiopian Merry Christmas

Orthodox Christians in much of the world observe Christmas by the Julian Calendar on January 7th. My dear co-worker on the facilities crew is from Ethiopia. He prepared for Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas throughout their Advent fast: 43 days with no animal products whatsoever, no oils or fats, and no food (or water?) before or after his one small everyday meal at 3:30 in the afternoon. But all through the fast he kept working, charging ahead through the same laborious heavy tasks as always, on his feet from 6:30 to 3:30 every day. During fasting seasons year round, like his 50 days before Paskha, I like to bring fasting food to work. We sit and share our lunches; beans, vegetables, injira teff bread. He tells me wonderful stories about the culture and customs back at home.

Christmas festivities, church at Lalibela

On Christmas Eve, after a strict fast all day long, everyone enters church holding a lighted candle at 6:00 pm. There they stand chanting until 3:00 am — the hour of the birth of Jesus, when families go home for their Christmas feast. Here is a small glimpse of the festive celebration. (The churches of Lalibela are made of one solid block of stone, created by hand-carving down from ground level.)

On January 8th my colleague came looking for me, to wish me a Merry Christmas. In these pandemic times his own church was closed down, and he couldn’t travel to visit any of his relatives or friends in other cities. We couldn’t even share our lunch breaks; I had to leave his lunch in a labeled bag in the company fridge. All he and I could do to celebrate was stand with our masks on 15 feet apart, shouting greetings in Amharic and exchanging air hugs. But he was radiant with the joy of the season, and eager to leave a Christmas treat for me: the beautiful card shown above, and my own home-baked slice of fragrant honey cardamom whole wheat bread.

And to think that until this kind generous man came to work several years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia or its beautiful culture. Every day, there are people who live and work around us, carrying inside themselves the most amazing worlds of wisdom and beauty. Sitting in my cubicle and eating my bread, it was a blessing to think how human connections like these are a real treasure of life.

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12/20/20: The Play House

(The house in this picture is not the same dwelling as the one in this story, for reasons which will be clear soon. It is added here only for ambient nostalgia value.)

On Day 1, Mom was kneeling in the back room. Planks and wood pieces were stacked on the floor. On graph paper she was marking measurements and angles, and penciling the wood using a tape measure and yardstick. 

   “Mom?” I was back from the bus after my half day at school. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Never you mind,” she said with a smile, and went on working on her latest project.

Mom was always working, doing everything perfectly and fast. She could make anything out of anything. She thought things up, then made them with her own two hands. She scrubbed and painted and polished, cooked and baked. In spare time she sewed clothes,  knitted sweaters and scarves, and crocheted afghan quilts. She painted rooms and hung wallpaper. She got bricks and concrete and built steps and a garden wall. She raised fruit and vegetables. She made glass pendants and silk flowers and stuffed animals and tartan wool plaid covers for my schoolbooks. One time she traced my feet on a piece of thick cork and cut it into soles and crocheted snug sandals out of cord with wool tops. I was excited about trying them on, but she threw them away because they weren’t as good as the ones that she imagined. 

On Day 3, the back room was all cleared and swept.

   “Where is the wood?” I asked.

   “Go out back and look,” she said, mixing up a meat loaf in the kitchen.

I ran outside. There in the backyard under the neighbor’s dogwood tree was a brand new little house, just the right size for someone like me. The light solid wood shone palomino color in the sun. The house had a step, and a plank floor, and a door and window, and a peaked roof with a scalloped strip all around, like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale.

I ran in to the kitchen. “Mom! A play house? For me??”

   “For you.” She patted the meat loaf into shape and lit the gas oven.

   “Can I invite my friends for tea parties, and take the doll dishes outside?”

   “Yes. It’s your play house. You can play any way you want.” She scrubbed the potatoes.

   “Can I put my blackboard there and play school?”

   “Yes! It’s your play house. Go ahead.” She wrapped the potatoes in foil.

   “Can I grow flowers in the window and put crumbs there for the birds?”

   “YES,” she laughed. “It’s YOUR play house! Wash hands for supper.”

That night I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the play house. We can have tea parties with the doll tea set. We can put up the blackboard and run a school for the little kids on the street. In the window we can hang flowers. Like, red geraniums or something bright. If I put out bread pieces and stay still, the birds can come and feel safe there with me.

On Day 4 I ran home from school. At our house there was wood at the curb. They were light lumber pieces broken here and there with the nails torn out, and strips of scalloping all next to the trash can waiting for the garbage truck.

I ran into the kitchen. “My play house! What happened?”

   “Oh I don’t know.” Mom was working hard, scouring the stove. “Some boys came through the yard and acted up. They wrote on the wall, or something. Don’t breathe in here, I sprayed oven cleaner. Go play outside!”

I went out under the dogwood tree and stood in the rectangle of flat grass. It was a wrong time to talk to Mom. She needed everybody to leave her alone and let her work. And even later, there was no point in asking. She moved on right away to her next project, designing and supervising every step when a construction crew put on a new second floor and new bathroom. Then she sanded down the floors, and got a team to put down varnish. She braided rag rugs for the doorways. She sewed upholstery covers and bolsters for the old sofa to make it look nice. She started running a Scout troop, and the church education program, and the school drama club. 

Now it’s miles and years away, in a town full of fine woodcraft construction. Older homes and yards come with toy houses, child sized. Some are in branches with rope ladders. Some are on boulders in rock gardens. Some have little box hedges and tiny gates. Some have shutters, flower boxes and curtains, or tables and chairs. There are name signs, ceramic lawn animals, bright colors softened down by weather and moss. All of them look well scuffed and played in, by people grown and gone. 

Passing by, I always stop and admire, and think back to a story with another ending that says “Sweetheart, sometimes when you build something beautiful, the world will come and try to hurt it. For us, it was boys who maybe don’t have a play house, or parents to build it. But you and I can scrub off what they threw at the walls, or paint over what they wrote there. Maybe the house won’t ever be as good as new. But we can still care for it. It can still be ours.” 

Little houses in older-fashioned yards have a cozy sentimental appeal. But they don’t shine like mine did, the night I jumped out of bed to look at its window and door and scalloped roof. In my dreams it’s gleaming there still, moonlit palomino wood and trim angles and fresh smell. It’s spilling over with red flowers and eager birds. The lady of the house is caring for them all, serving bread bits and tea for everybody. 

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Salve Regina

Tonight at the shopping center bus stop it was getting dark and cold.

I hopped around foot to foot singing “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen” — not the zippy number in the film “Sister Act,” but the chant at Catholic evening prayers.

We Catholics are fond of our Hail, Holy Queen; no rosary is complete without that prayer at the end. Thomas Merton writes about it in The Seven Storey Mountain, in part III chapter 3, “The Sleeping Volcano.” At that point in the memoir, after agonizing for ages over whether he has a vocation to the priesthood, he takes a long night walk at St. Bonaventure’s Monastery, and prays for help:

“Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani [Monastery] ringing in the night — the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill.The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in my imagination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline. The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged — as if it were calling me home.”

Like Thomas Merton I was headed home too in a more ordinary sense, after a trip to the Goodwill Store to replace a pair of everyday trousers. The managers at Goodwill, God bless them with health & safety, came up with fine precautions. They’ve cleared out half the merchandise, widened the aisles, shut down the fitting rooms, mandated face masks for entry, put up hand sanitizer stations, and reduced the number of shoppers allowed in. That should have kept things in pie order. But then I got in line to pay for my purchases. All of a sudden, between me and the exit, ahead and behind and to the right and left, the cash-registers-&-donations corner suddenly turned into some post-holiday flash mob superspreader gleefest. I should have dropped the shopping basket and bolted for the door. But my first reflex for that last five minutes was to yank my sweatshirt up over my cloth mask, shielding my head toward a display of tutti-fruity gummy worms, with the judgmental thought “Is it so hard to count up to a social distance of six feet?”

Soon, outside under clearing but dark storm clouds in the falling dusk, while taking huge breaths of open air, I realized with repentance that anyone vaguely in touch with modern living would have realized that this was Black Friday Weekend (!), a sub-optimal choice for social distance shopping. Was I now just a walking viral vector? Resolving sadly to stay even farther away and barricaded off from absolutely everyone for their protection, my discouraged mind latched on to the evening prayer “Salve Regina.” In the wind and headlight glare I belted out the Latin words over and over until the bus appeared.

Upon arrival at home, sitting down with a nice bowl of oatmeal, it was slightly disconcerting to see my internet feed algorithm immediately serve up “Salve Regina.” But at least it was a sweet version of 450 voices in a virtual pandemic recording by Canto Católico.

The visual film calls to mind the gradual individual-to-group unifying theme that one would see from The Piano Guys, that is if devout Latter Day Saints went around singing to Mary at the bus stop. The video shows little clips of the contributing singers praying the rosary with their families. The thought of having a family to pray with had me bursting into tears right away.

Bedtime. Clouds are gone; we’re due for heavy fog and frost in the morning. The moon out this window is 98.7% full, waxing and rising. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Holy Queen.

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