12/3/2022: Dressing for the weather

Autumn trailed away with some nice parting views.

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you LIKE A PAIR OF GLOVES?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/20/2022: Stolen Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “They took the stage set to Delaware?”

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

   “The tree too?”

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

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

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

   “We missed Maple before that,” said another.

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

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

   “Center Square, Sir. Last stop.”

   “Stay put while I loop around.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at that, the set turned on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/17/22: Family Notion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/14/22: Holiday Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/3/22: ASL Slipped Through My Fingers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10/28/2022: She Moved Through the Fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren threw the van keys at his chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow! In anything I’ve –?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seemed like a pretty good idea at the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://chinasouthoftheclouds.com/articles/in-the-yunnan-kitchen-fish-mint-root/

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

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

Mrs. Wing’s treasured plant, until today

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

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

 

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10/19/22: AQI 251

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

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

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

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

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

It’s up there someplace

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Wing was out early with the garden hose.

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

“How come?” he asked. “What’s up?”

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

“No.”

“Really?”

“Depends.”

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

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

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10/18/22: Autumn, curious and fleeting

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

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

And more on the way for tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A memory gift.

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

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

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

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

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

Strange times, but a good visual souvenir for winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and all good comfort to you.

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9/26/22: Fruit & Folks

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

The art gallery with new exhibits daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scarlet runner beans

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

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

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

St. Theophan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did I just buy??

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

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

4 Chinese bitter melons plus our mystery guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

A local research farm sponsored a short community tour.

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

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

Kale assortment.
Collards
High Towering Beans
Pumpkin Patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman tomatoes from the raised bed outdoors

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

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

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

Women at Supper

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

I also baked a protein casserole:

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

Celery and cabbage, ground up in the Cuisinart.

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

Cottage cheese, beaten with eggs and some almond flour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9/10/22: Smoke Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe: Daikon Radish 1:00 am Alarm Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to bed.

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8/31/22: Squorsh Exchange

‘Tis the season, gardeners!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus enough rice milk to puree it all.

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

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

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8/28/22: Minding the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8/24/22: Scrambled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My life does not work. I’m a dork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took some homecooking bravado / Your Enchiladas Avocado.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the thought that counts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8/15/22: Things to Do in August

A mess of sunflowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new piece of actual nice furniture

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

This is why I don’t drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8/6: Awake Stick

Sunset through our neighbor’s lilies

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

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

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

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

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

No. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KABONG!

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

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

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

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8/4/22: 3 Summers Long Ago

Not the same lilies.

Market Day

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

Mild-Mannered Reference Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wee Hour Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8/2/22: “I Tell You My Joy”

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

Mayday, or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain Relief

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

National Night Out

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

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

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

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

Not Just The Sorrow

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

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7/30/22: Dog Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really was red-orange. Really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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7.8.22: Sweet Potato Slips

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

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

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

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

When Stacy talks, I listen up.

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

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

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

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

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

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7/4/22: ER — The Circling Night

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

___________________________________

My ankles have an extra-Soviet look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Helps lighten the mood,” she laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Oh. Vending machines then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sat down to read some more of Revelation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They smiled.

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6/19/22: Home from Eagle

Road to the airport

That Monday, Dear Host (DH) drove me all the way back to the airport with the cheerful alacrity that residents display toward long driving distances in all weather. There I briefly panicked, fearing that I had somehow left my keys back with Host Family. With the same cheerful alacrity, DH offered to drive back to the house to bring them for me. But thank goodness, they were with my metal items all wrapped in clear plastic for the TSA inspection. I was sad to say goodbye to him. Moving as fast as possible through the checkpoint (plastic bins, shoes, bags, then all of it in reverse), I turned back for long enthusiastic arm waves. But to my dismay I saw that people past the checkpoint are out of visual range. Perhaps the intent is that those who pass security can’t be given secret hand signals by the ones left behind? To DH my departure must have looked coldly abrupt, without even a look back.

I landed in Dallas, where the usual army of elders at volunteer posts cheerfully greeted me whenever I stopped to gaze around in bewilderment. At a CPR skills practice station, a boy 8 or so years old was chest compressing an animated model while the machine provided feedback. The boy’s father stood at his side with respectful moral support. It was a heartening scene of father-son learning, and I paused for a moment. “I hope this young man is on my plane,” I told the father. He and his son laughed as we waved in passing. And that was my last civil encounter of the day.

On the flight back to the city the other passengers in my row ignored one another in silence, communing with their blue screens. It felt dissociated to share the row for hours with not a single person asking “So where ya from? Visiting family?” We arrived at 10:00 in the evening. Other passengers dispersed to baggage claim. I was alone in an empty airport. No army of volunteers was waiting around. I hadn’t flown in years, and the airport was no longer familiar. For 45 minutes I hiked around looking for the ground transportation wing. Finally I waylaid an employee working hard to stack some ungainly bags of trash. He pointed over toward a sign for the airport terminal train; then I remembered that while ground transportation leads to Departures, from Arrivals I had to take the train.

At midnight I arrived home, dropped my clothes at the door, put them right in a punch bowl, and jumped in the shower after 13 hours by car and two planes and train and bus. I boiled the clothes on the stove, hung them to dry on the balcony, and went to bed.

Just before sunrise I half woke up from a vivid dream, believing I was still back in Eagle. Lying there I saw a black cross against the sky. That makes sense. The town of Eagle has Christian symbols everywhere. It stands to reason they’d put up a cross outside. Good. But where am I? Which Eagle neighbor let me sleep here? Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s such a hospitable town, even a new acquaintance would let me stay on the sleeping porch for the night. Besides, we’ve got to get up now. The whole town is heading out to the fields to start the search.

Except that — was that really a cross? I sat up for a better look. No, that was my own shirt twisted by the breeze, with outstretched sleeves on a laundry rack. This was my own balcony back here in the city, hung with boiled laundry. This was not a sleeping porch in Eagle at all. The trip was over.

But what a vivid dream! Back in Eagle, I was about to join a search party after an airplane explosion. The night before, a plane went down in a fireball over the sunflower fields. There was no chance of any survivors. The fire department rushed to put out the fire, and the whole town made a plan to run there at first light and start searching in the tall sunflowers for bodies, to bring them back.

What caused a dream like that? Well, part was flying out hours ahead of a Texas storm front with lightning and chance of tornadoes. Part of it was news from Ukraine. But another piece came from joining a search party for one day 40 years ago, when I lived 80 miles from Eagle. A World War II veteran believed that the Nazis were coming to take him prisoner. In late October he ran away and covered quite a lot of ground, finding hiding places in the fields. Investigators and bloodhounds followed his trail, and volunteers from all over town showed up at dawn to help. We searched culverts and barns and woods until dark in the rain. The townspeople kept at it for many shifts until they finally found his last hiding place. Volunteers didn’t need to be asked; they simply showed up. Grandfather’s lost? Then he’s everybody’s grandfather now; we’re going.

Wide awake, looking up through laundry to the drizzling sky, it came as a great wash of relief that nobody’s plane crashed. But there was also a profound letdown. Today was just a day off work in a big city. There was no great cause to join, and no one to join with.

Next night the dream was about Eagle again, where some of my new acquaintances were restoring steps on one of the local historic old houses. One of the ladies fell and got scratched up. She wasn’t injured, but her poor forehead was bleeding. The team decided to finish the steps while one of them drove her and me to her farm. There I was going to bandage her head for her and put her to bed and fix her tea and supper and keep her company. So in the dream I teleported to my own room at home (dreamtime logic) and got my favorite head scarf out of the closet to put over her bandage, thinking it would be a nice surprise for her. I was just rushing out for the trip back to Eagle when the alarm clock rang for work.

People here back home have asked warmly “How was your week off? Go anywhere special?” And for once, yes I did. Two listeners sounded charmed hearing about Eagle as a destination. But most have a guarded or humorous reaction. “They do eye contact there? They say hello and ask where you’re from? Eek.” They also expressed kind concern for my safety in a small town, strolling in some Twilight Zone dystopia of MAGA hats, meth labs, feral dogs, guns, religious fanaticism, and malicious character-assassinating gossip and shunning. Just for the record, I didn’t see any of those features. Granted, one popular Eagleite with a grand sense of humor has a sign on the door reading “Did you not know I own a gun, or are you just stupid?” But a comparison of our police reports and theirs would indicate that the guns in their town are in more capable hands and used for saner reasons.

The dreams about Eagle lasted for weeks. In each one, everybody needed to pitch in for some important intervention, and I was one of the team. In the last dream I was working the registration table at the annual women’s retreat at Eagle Christian Church. Women flocked in, all banter and hugs. One of them brought her knitting and offered to teach me how to knit too. Then I woke up. Who’s working registration? Where did the women go? (That dream felt so real that I got out of bed and looked up the church website. Who knew: They have a women’s retreat. It’s in September.) So, every morning I’d wake up all ready to be part of the group. Then I’d remember that nobody was around. It felt discouraging to face the day knowing that if not for my job, no one would notice whether I got up or not for the next three weeks. And it wouldn’t take a skyful of October fields to hide in; this studio room would work pretty well.

In the end, the difficulty getting up in the morning had a correctable health condition, possibly brought on by all that travel. That’s the next story.

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6/19/22: The Gem of Eagle

On the main street of Eagle there was a tall stately stone house with wood detail in bright clean pastel tones. Signs outside indicated that the building was a historic landmark. Hoping this was not some unsuspecting family’s private home, I ventured up the stairs under the veranda with its lacy ornate woodwork trim, gave a timid knock, and tried the door. It opened, and I peered in. 

   “Would you care for a TOUR?” asked a gentleman inside, greeting me right at the entrance.

   “Uh… yes. Thank you, I would love a tour.” After the full noon sun I stood blinking in the soft light, looking around.

The unique room looked to be a museum, restaurant, visitors’ center, lending library, and book shop all in one. This blog is anonymous, so it did not feel respectful to take identifying pictures of the house. But they posted this picture themselves on their website:

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

The host, Mr. M., was a trim distinguished-looking gentleman with silver hair and neat beard, keen bright eyes and expectant smile. He had the confident courtly air of a sailing vessel sea captain.

   “Why, that author is Mr. S.!” I exclaimed, seeing a display of several memoirs. I recognized the author’s name as our local ornithologist, a man I’d hoped to meet personally to talk about birds. His memoirs looked full of life experiences, including his service in both the Second World War and the Korean War. “Imagine the adventures he has had since 1919. And now he is 103!”

   “104,” my host volunteered with a smile. For over an hour this gentleman demonstrated a level of verbal fluency that I can not recall hearing since Tom Lehrer sang “The Elements” on TV (and even he used ready-made words, written by Dmitri Mendeleev). That command of language, as it unfolded the history of the house, had me spellbound. First, our host whipped open and spread across a table a series of laminated photographs and drawings showing phases of this remarkable building over two centuries, and its role in the history of White settlers crossing the continent. The story was in the details — 19th century engineering solutions, sections removed for one purpose, sections added on for another, transitions in uses, styles fortunate and unfortunate, owners changing hands, and finally the spiral of neglect and abandonment poised to condemn the building as obsolete and in the way. 

The house owed its existence to Mr. and Mrs. M., the volunteers who saved and renovated the building. After their long illustrious careers, they deserved a shady porch and a lemonade apiece. Instead, they went to war. The couple fought for the house, inspired by its historic value and potential. What if (they asked each other) they could somehow find the funding, focus the stamina and know-how, gut the historically discordant modern “improvements,” track down the best version of the house as it was in its golden age, and build it all back again? What if they could search the countryside for authentic building details, furnishings, fabrics, handicrafts, adornment and artwork? Then, what if they could research and devise a whole menu of historically informed recipes to reflect and honor the unique diversity of ancestors from First Nation, German, Swedish, Utopian Vegans, and the other groups that settled this part of the country? What if they could then track down locally sourced sustainable livestock and fresh produce, direct from the farmers? What if they could open this place as a museum bookstore and library and cafe, and cook the meals themselves for whomever walked in through the door on their way across America? What if this labor of love could stand as a testimony to their faith in the Lord?

Over the years, they made it all come true. Now the house was a showpiece, lavished with creativity and care. The atmosphere was soft and contemplative. It was a hallowed place outside of modern mindless static and clutter, a haven for echoes from our ancestors’ lives. It brought to mind the reverent history house museums back in Leningrad, where visitors donned felt overshoes and talked in whispers to admire roped off rooms and furnishings, in a palpable vibration of the past and its historic characters and stories. 

Mr. M. with deft agility sprang up and down steps and passageways on three levels, narrating stories with a crystalline recall for details. In an upstairs bedroom he pointed out some 19th century wainscoting made of beadboard — lined paneling punctuated with rows of round raised beadlike detailing. A piece of the beadboard had been lost, so Mr. M. set out in hopes of gleaning just the right match. Armed with a clear vision of the type of beadboard needed, he was able to spot the exact piece in an unlikely salvage source. The search made for a real detective story. Now he could point with pleasure to the panel, showing how the found piece matched the other panels to form a well-knit painted wall, seamless to the eye. “And that,” he concluded, “Was Miracle Number 204 in our renovation story. There have been so many miracles! This is why we keep a portrait of Jesus Christ in every room, and tell these stories as a tribute to Him.”

The house was a treasury of antique pieces. Some were elegant, like a tiny tea set and a case of little girl dolls in their colonial dresses.  Some were homespun, like the little velveteen bunny peeking from the mantelpiece in that week before Easter, waiting for his new child to come find him.

Back on the ground floor across from the entrance, there was a recessed wall with steps leading down to the sunken kitchen. The kitchen passage held the rarest find of all. 

Mr. M. stooped down to show me some scuffs on the wall. I looked right at and past those scratch marks; to my unaware uninformed eye, they looked like pen knife marks from a small child. But for some twenty minutes in all patience he drew my attention to every angle and side marking in the wood. It reminded me of reading Tom Brown, Jr., puzzling over some photo of a footprint in sand with a caption deciphering all the story of the person in that shoe. Mr. M. pored over those scratches with me. He told me how they discovered the markings during renovation, how Mrs. M. and her empathetic intuition sensed that the scratchwork had a story to tell, about their research, about their consulting with First Nation people in the area, about the collaboration that revealed the message: a pictograph memorial tribute to a White man who had distinguished himself by his cooperative respectful relations with the original holders of the land.    

After our tour through time, I came back to the present with an even deeper appreciation for this community. Thanking Mr. M., I headed back out to the full noon sun. The only regret was the prospect of leaving town without a chance to meet Mrs. M., who was working at their home that day. Still, that evening I told Host Family all about the house, urging them to come and experience it for themselves.

Dear Host decided to take us all to the stone house the following Saturday, and treat all of us to lunch: the family, a good neighbor, and me. Mr. M. was happy to see us. He showed the family the house before heading to the kitchen to fix our meal. (I went for the toasted cheese on fresh-baked bread. It was perfect — delicious subtly sweet toast, and richly flavorful cheese, melted but crisp at the edges.) 

While the family toured the house and I browsed the books, a visitor came in. She looked weary and out of sorts, and glanced around at the unique interior with a puzzled guarded look. In hopes of improving this customer’s spirits for Mr. M.’s sake, I went right over to greet her. We had to exchange the required “Are you from around here?” Then she confided that she and her husband had driven in from the countryside; he had a long tiring medical appointment here in town. As a break from waiting at the hospital, she’d decided to venture in to the stone house in hopes of a cool drink and a rest. Soon we were poring over Mr. M.’s laminated photos of the house. Taking an interest, she began talking about her own renovation projects on the farm. Mr. M. appeared with greetings and a menu. His gentle hospitality sooned cheered her mood as the two of them looked through the selections. She decided on an iced tea. Soon she was settled comfortably with her tea, admiring the room and exchanging cordial greetings with my party at the next table before she went her way looking refreshed. 

Then there was a group photo session on the bright pastel porch. It’s a beautiful picture to gaze at now, those dear people on a happy day together, laughing over some friendly joke and beaming up at the big sky.

The only shadow over the outing was that once again, I had missed seeing Mrs. M. There was only more day to spend in Eagle, and I was sorry to leave without hearing her side of the shared vision of this house. 

Next morning at church, after an uplifting worship service, I stood up and turned to leave the pew. The worshipper right behind me wished me a good morning. To my surprise and delight, he was a trim distinguished-looking gentleman with silver hair and neat beard, keen bright eyes and expectant smile — wishing to introduce me to his spouse! 

Mrs. M. was an ethereally fair slender lady, looking lovely in turquoise jewelry and hand-sewn period clothing in lapidary colors. It was impressive to think of the construction skills she must have wielded on the house project. In photographs she stands before the house with her husband, and with keen eyes telegraphs the message “I will not step aside for your bulldozer.” But in person the impression was more of a violet aura of sensitivity and extreme fine tuning. During the conversation she mentioned her age; on hearing that number I could only shake my head in stupid wonder, unable to reconcile it with the radiant energy before me. Mrs. M. shared her own account of the inspiration and intuition that led the two of them to save the house, part and parcel of their faith in God and in one another. I offered to come help her in the kitchen on my next trip to Eagle. She offered me a volunteer job on the spot, working in and on the house; she even offered to advise me on the grants available for historic houses like this one. 

That was a wonderful meeting. I came away with the fondest memory of the House of 204 (plus how many more of them?) Miracles, the gem of Eagle. Its facets are the labor of love, shared vision, and mutual devotion of Mr. and Mrs. M, and faith in their Lord Jesus Christ, portrayed with honor in every room. 

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6/1/22: Eagle, House and Home

“Like to come in and look around?”

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

Historic basement. Watch your step!

In Eagle, that spontaneous invitation and a wave in the door seemed to be normal hospitality. For me it was always a pleasant surprise. (Cultural contrast: When I moved to my city here years ago, the local postmaster jokingly welcomed me with, “We might smile and make nice, but we ain’t letting you in to our houses.” These city folk are courteous, and enjoy going out to meet at a coffee shop or book reading or jogging trail. But here the residents don’t invite friends or neighbors into the home.)

In Eagle, house visits and tours are a favorite local entertainment. Upon my arrival, Host Family showed me around the house, narrating warm memories of the friends and helpers who assisted with the various features of home improvement. To them even the kitchen floor was not just a floor, but a happy souvenir of visits and good collaboration and bonding.

Another house tour was narrated by a good solid homeowner met during a walk in the center of town. (We’ll call him Augustine Johanson, a good solid homeowner name.) Next day I called a hello while passing the open door at the Johanson residence. Well! Augustine surprised me by waving me in for a tour of his immaculate house. That made an enlightening visit. He had gutted and renovated and masterminded and handcrafted that house for ultimate function in form, practical comfort, ease of use, and a clean clear trim pleasant appearance. Then Augustine revealed the story of his house renovation. After he retired from his long challenging career, life dealt him three misfortunes, any of which could have defeated any of us. He described with matter-of-fact logic how he weathered and forged through these adversities — by buying a fixer-upper as a new challenge! He showed me before and after photos of himself and the house. I stared at the pictures in awe. “Excuse me, but… is this the same house? And is this the same YOU?” Augustine’s method had worked wonders. His campaign of hard manual labor, salvaging needed parts, problem solving, and aesthetic creativity had left him looking years younger!

Listen up and remember, some instinct prompted me. When tribulations come in the future, you will look back and learn from this man’s example. I listened in rapt attention to my host with his renewed fresh appearance and eager eyes, looking happy in his comfortable welcoming home, now envisioning new projects and useful work. What a worthwhile hour and memorable story!

Visiting with Augustine tuned me in to an important theme in Eagle interactions. In the most casual conversation, passersby and business owners and neighbors would volunteer the history or construction or development of this storefront, or stone wall, or light fixture, or window treatment. This was their friendly way to orient and anchor me in a shared sense of the familiar. Town residents would greet one another with news of house or farm projects; the typical response was advice, and a decision to bring tools and to come help. (Opinion: We have many wonderful men here in my city. They are fine people whose work and rest and entertainment is sequestering up all alone with their computers day and night, with a few breaks for movie streaming services and takeout food delivered to the door in a styrofoam clamshell. In contrast, in Eagle it must be so rewarding for a guy to spend leisure time with other guys, talk shop, pick up a sledgehammer, knock stuff to smithereens in the fresh air, and then build something better shoulder to shoulder that they can point to with pride. In the UK they’ve put up shared “man sheds” stocked with tools, as outreach for mental health and wellbeing. In Eagle it’s just called Doing Life. No wonder a town 200 years old is in such good shape, and the men of all ages look so secure and content.)

A grand highlight of the trip came on Saturday — thanks to Mr. Jones, one of the pillars of the community, who had helped me earlier with the visit to the history society archive. Mr. Jones contacted Host Family with an offer to devote his Saturday free time to give us all a morning house tour! When we showed up in the center of town, Mr. Jones met us with a real treat in store: an excursion to three beautifully preserved and furnished historic houses. As a volunteer, he had the keys and a treasury of stories and facts. From cellars to garrets, we spent hours learning about the ingenious construction solutions and dedicated craftsmanship of early town residents.

We marveled at rooms stocked with furnishings and textiles and painstaking artwork. (The photographs below, cropped off center, did not capture their real beauty. For one thing, I had to hold the phone camera at crooked angles to dodge the morning glare.) Generations of residents had used materials at hand to produce poignantly lovely pieces to record their family history, convictions, and aspirations of beauty. This image, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” is the top detail of a memorial frame. The inscription below it named the babies born to one family, and the number of months each little one had lived.

A dedicated team of town volunteers preserve these houses in order and cleanliness in a hard climate. From other houses and antique shops and auctions they have collected and gathered numerous period pieces, and arranged them in these spaces to best advantage.

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

Clock 2

The tour of houses with Mr. Jones, generously sharing with us his knowledge and time, is an unforgettable memory. It was such a good way to round out the week. There was so much beauty and precious ancestral wisdom held in those buildings.

In Eagle, walls have ears and houses have a voice. They have caring guardians too, to unlock the doors and show what makes and keeps a house a home: shared community work, resourcefulness and skills, attention and care, stories in the sticks and stones.

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5/29/22: Trees and the Eagle Archive

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

The junket to the archive started with a question that seemed simple at the time.

“Where can I learn about the trees here?” I asked Dear Host (DH), when we arrived at the house from the airport. “Back at home we’ve got a tree expert; maybe Eagle has one too. And while we’re at it, who knows the names of these birds singing away?”

While I unpacked, DH sensibly whipped out his phone, and set the local grapevine humming: Who can talk to our guest here, about birds and trees? In no time, answers were rolling in. One nature enthusiast sent an actual apology! That week she was needed at home, and could not show me around. However, everyone had two suggestions: For serious birding, I should call on Mr. S. (“But we don’t know what field trips he leads these days; he’s 103.”) Then for trees, I should try for an appointment at the archives of the county historical society. Then DH decided to compose an email describing my interest in nature and in all things Eagle. With characteristic optimism he applied the old adage that to get a job done, just aim for the top and contact the busiest guy around. He sent that message to Mr. Jones, one of the most influential public figures in town, to ask how to arrange for a viewing of the local archive.

I didn’t count on an appointment to that archive. Some overworked librarian would have to set aside her tasks, hunt down the key, open the closet, and wait patiently for me to fumble around in a carton of folders for the file with the tree news clipping in it. Instead I made plans to just go out on my own and observe what I could. So early on Wednesday, after a truly refreshing sleep, I got up early in the cold clear dawn to a whole symphony of bird calls. These birds were not the shy crepuscular types like the ones back home, who fall silent by 7:00 am; this lot were out loud and proud all day long. Their happy ruckus gave me extra motivation to go explore the landscape.

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

After a long ramble in the 19th century cemetery and the riverfront with its blue heron and carpet of purple dead-nettle flowers, I headed back toward the house. Then an email pinged my phone. Mr. Jones himself was thoughtfully letting us know that the archive had public viewing every Wednesday at 1:00. The time was 12:45, so I hurried over to the building. A cheerful librarian was just unlocking the door, and gave me a warm welcome. I masked up, and she waved me right in.

This was no closet with a banker box of folders. This was a spacious lower floor with an extensive collection, and historic artifacts on display. Two additional archivists were already at work on the digital collections. The very mention of key word “trees” lit up quite a bit of interest and discussion among them. Then the cavalcade of holdings began. The women began piling materials on my viewing table. There were vintage photograph albums of the town trees, tree maps of the area, heights and diameters, longitudinal census counts of native and imported species, calculated sprouting dates from the 1600s on, dendrochronological data, casualties of fire and storm, historic events and accounts centered on the role of trees, economic value of trees and their harvested products, arbor-themed tales and poems and festivals and social clubs and school projects. These collections were beautifully organized and well preserved. With permission, I took cell phone pictures of artifacts and displays.

And so my simple initial question was more like a Matroshka doll of many growth rings.

The tall trees (burr oak, sawtooth oak, walnut, sycamore, sweet gum, on and on) were not just standing around looking majestic; they played a central figure in history. Many of our frontier towns of the America heartland have disappeared. But trees are part of the reason for Eagle’s unique identity and economic endurance, its microclimate and handsome natural setting.

Kindred souls in the Federation of Women’s Societies had done the footwork and writing, the documentation and preservation, for many years. They had preserved portions of felled trunks here in the archive for further study, and even designed handsome engraved metal plaques to place beside the trees around town. Here is a fragment of one of them:

A town plaque

Along with the written history, there were lively reminiscences of the ladies themselves, recounting their memories of notable trees in the community life of the town. I shared with them what a pleasant surprise it was, to walk down their streets and have passing residents greet me as a stranger and volunteer to point out this or that notable tree.

Soon another caller stopped by: Mr. Jones! He was dropping in with a cordial handshake to check on the out of town guest. We all had a lively visit. At one point, our archivist asked what I do for a job. I explained that I was, well, an archivist. “Girl!’ she exclaimed, with her bright eyes and appealing smile. “How soon can you move here?” Without thinking twice I leaped over and hugged her. That was a happy hour, to feel so welcome anywhere, or so at home with a group of people. Finally to let everyone carry on with their work, I packed up and thanked them for the visit.

As I headed out, they gave me some parting advice: I should go visit with Mrs. Dorcas. (That isn’t her real name. That’s a seamstress from the Bible.) Word was, that Mrs. Dorcas is accomplished at sewing her own pioneer outfits and bonnets; she also designs menus and cooks up historically informed cuisine based on the area cultural traditions of the 1800s, and works in antique house restoration. The ladies didn’t have to work hard to persuade me; meeting a town historian like that sounded like my next worthwhile adventure.

It was heartening to learn that an eye for trees made me not an eccentric outsider, but an observer in very good company with other members of the community down through the years.

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

Over the weekend in Eagle, Dear Host (DH) and Our Hostess (OH) decided to buy a small furniture item at the local thrift store. The business is situated near Main Street in a trim white building with this poster at the door.

Transparency: the business statement for public view

Absorbed in jotting down some trip notes in the next room, I was only a casual listener to this plan. My expectations of the shop were modest. Based on many garage sales, and the large warehouse stores back at home, I expected harassed staff deluged with lockdown-era rejects fit for the landfill, with some poignant castoff bric-a-brac and perhaps some new cheaply manufactured imports. For me this expedition was just a part of my commitment to experience and observe as much of Eagle as possible.

Over the phone DH greeted the thrift shop owner and acknowledged that yes, he understood that the shop was closed Sundays for the Sabbath. Then he agreed that, fine, our assigned shopping reservation would be from 2:00 to 2:30. Then, in answer to an apparent question from someone at the shop, he added that his guest, Mary ____, would be coming along. Answering the next question, he agreeably spelled out my last name. Answering still another question, he volunteered “Why, she comes from ______ City. She is visiting us this week.” The call ended with sociable pleasantries. He signed off.

By now I was eavesdropping with wide eyes. A thrift shop that takes reservations? And imagine a generic “When are you open?” phone call — where the business asks the name, spelling, city of origin, and leisure plans of a household guest who is not even the customer. Even for Middle American social engagement, this seemed unusual.

DH explained. The store is of compact square footage and in great demand. During the pandemic, management began keeping a guest book to log in and distribute the traffic flow fairly among 30 minute slots. This maintains order, and safeguards the health and comfort of seniors and other shoppers who need to take special care of their health. When DH put it that way, the arrangement sounded like resourceful management. Besides, now that Eagle Thrift had included me in a time slot, and knew my name and which family in town was hosting me, the least I could do was pay the respect of showing up and summoning some genuine interest in our 2:00 visit.

We crunched up the gravel side street to the building. At sight of the Ten Commandments I flinched a bit, imagining how distressed my city friends would be at the sight. For those friends, the Commandments had been exploited by the adults in their childhood, to cause serious harm. In my city this billboard would have gotten an immediate response, perhaps with a can of spray paint. But to me they were an impressive sight; a clear transparent business statement that spoke for itself.

Opening the door, I was completely disarmed by the warm greeting of a tall strong-looking gentleman who sang out “Why hellooo, Darlin’!” and ushered me right in. He hailed each shopper wth the same greeting, making a welcoming fuss as if he had been waiting all day for the sight of our bright faces. This endearment surprised one no-nonsense man with a rancher/farmer appearance, who took a step back and asked “Why are you calling me that, Sir?” The greeter graciously replied “Young Man, at my age I don’t even try to keep track of alla your names. You are all Darlin’s to me.” Greatly mollified, with a slow smile the customer quipped, “Then ‘Let me call you Sweetheart.'”) When one young customer grew snappish over some purchase, he found the greeter’s sizable but gentle hand on his shoulder, and a word of fatherly counsel enlightening Son that in this house, we men use constructive uplifting language. The shopper calmed right down and finished his visit in peace.

And whoa, WHAT a store! If only I’d discovered this place sooner! Abundance, assortment, variety, all neatly and ingeniously displayed for best use of every inch from floor to ceiling. Sure, there was some poignant bric-a-brac peeking out. But there were plenty of good quality items in fine shape, and plenty of appealing handcrafted heirlooms. A whole wall of free Bibles took pride of place, all editions, some new and some well worn, for anyone to help themselves. I was longing to take a Bible home. It would have been a delight to spend an afternoon browsing through the versions, reading the family trees and inscriptions and margin notes, and choosing a copy to take home. (That was in my dreams just last night. The staff welcomed me back and let me look through all the Bibles for the one with the handwritten notes and events and family history that would tell me who my ancestors are, and where I come from.)

But alas, there was no time to tarry. This store was a thriving hub of activity, with customers waiting eagerly outside for their turn. Animated conversation filled the space as customers shared their stories with smiling staff and one another. Clients had driven in from miles around. Some were new military families over at the base, setting up house on new assignments. Some were farm families enjoying a trip from the countryside. Some seemed to be forging through hard times, in immediate need of goods. The wide selection, rock-bottom prices, and warm atmosphere must be a great comfort to people like moms who had to grab the kids and leave for a safer life, or families after a wildfire or flood who had to start over. Clearly, the patrons valued their store, its social connections, and its role in the community. To make way, I devoted my time slot to a quick enjoyable browse. On the way out though I did catch sight of an oversized pair of men’s New Balance walking shoes with thick padded soles. They were virtually brand-new and a perfect fit, kind and comfy to my arthritic feet. (They’ve proved to be excellent shoes, supportive and sturdy, handsome for office wear.) And what timing — on that gravel driveway approaching the store, I’d felt sharp stones slip in to worn sole spots in both sneakers. “Shoes, Ma’am? That will be 25 cents,” said a beaming young cashier. It took me a gaping moment to compute where the decimal point lay in that sales total, but I fished out a quarter and paid up.

Then I went over to visit with our greeter. “Sir, you are having too good a time for a working man.” He was delighted to banter with me, narrating his long career in useful service work, and how much he enjoyed volunteering now and greeting all of his many Darlin’s. “And with that, you’re quoting straight from Psalm 22,” I pointed out. “‘Save my Darling from the power of the dog.'” He agreed, and whispered a special tip: “The lovely girl behind the counter? She is a nursing assistant at the care home. Would you like to see a real angel? There she is!” He and I had such a hearty visit that 2:30 came all too soon. I was sad to leave, and could not help giving him a goodbye hug. “Your presence here today is a blessing,” he assured me.

Eagle Thrift called to mind the image from Matthew 13, and “a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” The name says “thrift,” but the experience felt rich, and not only in the material realm where rust and moth consume.

The owner helped DH and OH with their new end table and a lovely mirror, a combined purchase of $3. I expressed to her my appreciation for the greeter and his courtesy and good spirits. She said “He is in constant prayer. He prayed for you, and for everyone who came through that door.”

So that was the secret. No wonder the staff preside over such a cheering and peaceable place, a true asset to the town.

Now I can pray for them too.

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Eagle, Sunday Morning

Pond and tree and stripy clouds

To give dear Host Family a little peaceful time on Sunday morning, I left the house extra-early to look around for a church.

All week the weather was windy, with blue skies and sunshine by day and frost by night. On Saturday and Sunday the stiff sturdy wind had died down completely. That let the farmers charge ahead with their controlled burning plans, starting and managing very small fires on rotated parcels of land. That explained the common sight of highways bordered by a broad strip, a good 20 feet wide, of jet black ash in sharp contrast to the spring fields. It’s essential for healthy prairie, native plants, and topsoil. What’s more, it lowers the risk of wildfires. (If only it were safe to do that here; our highways are choked with highly flammable thickets of gorse, Scotch Broom, and other invasives; the city can’t possibly clear it all out. But with this population density, burning it would be too dangerous.) Anyway, on those two still windless days, the skies were lightly hazy instead of clear. At times one could catch the scent of smoke from out of town. That made the early morning weather feel soft and wistful.

The Dallas airport halfway home was expecting severe thunderstorms, large hail, and possible tornadoes (as well as wildfires around the state) on Tuesday, my departure day. That meant changing the flight to leave on Monday. I was sad to leave Eagle, but at least there was all of Sunday still left.

So I strolled from one end of town to the other, looking at the churches and admiring the neat clean town. Main Street is handsome but homelike with its vintage storefronts and 19th century architecture and ornamental lamp posts. There are flower containers everywhere, waiting for spring weather and planting. The street was almost perfectly quiet. A number of the independent family shops are closed on Sundays, and there are no national chain or fast food stores. (The town has a Pizza Hut down by the river, but they’ve kept out Walmart and everybody else). No one was out walking. Virtually no one was driving; perhaps many were getting ready for church.

There’s plenty of parking left.

Right by this Coca Cola sign, the silence was sweetened by some soft music lilting from a storefront, a strikingly well arranged country western song. It fit perfectly with the atmosphere. A van of horses drove by. From inside, a ringing neigh was a glorious evocative sound.

One of the larger mainstream denomination churches seemed a good choice. First, I headed back to the house for some breakfast. I hardly noticed the signboard of the smaller Eagle Christian Church. Even that one glance was just curious puzzlement. “Christian Church”? That’s like calling an eatery “Food Restaurant.” In a town of churches, why would they distinguish theirs with a name like that?

Just then, a family car pulled up to Eagle Christian. A woman stepped out and called over to me. “Good Morning! Would you like to come in, and attend our church with us today?” She and her family looked so friendly, welcoming, and even hopeful that I stopped in my tracks, completely disarmed.
My conventional mind felt some chagrin; I had never heard of this denomination at all, and did not know what they preached. What if, like many perfectly good Christians, they taught the Doctrine of Total Depravity? I’m accustomed to and comfortable with sermons and books stating that if left entirely to my own devices I am bound for hell and need to repent in the Blood of the Lamb, because in my case that seems a reasonable assumption. But what if the family at home offered to come to church with me and was surprised by a message like that?
But while my conventional mind hesitated, my voice spoke right out. “Yes,” it said. “Thank you, I’ll be there!”
They eagerly invited me to 9:30 Sunday School, and we waved goodbye.

Well, here was a fine how-do-you-do. I didn’t have the heart to just not show up. I returned to the house and with some hesitation broke the news to the family, assuring them that they need not trouble to accompany me to a church we’d never heard of. But, surprise: Dear Host looked pleased. As it happens, “Christian Church” really has a name in this part of the country. DH’s own beloved aunt was a faithful Christian Church member in her own town. He immediately offered to meet me there after Sunday School for the service.

Back at Eagle Christian, I was instantly greeted as “Good Morning, Ma’am,” by a tall earnest young man who offered to usher me to the Sunday School. The walk to church just a little too long, and it was now 9:35. So I confided to him that perhaps I ought to skip the lesson altogether; it felt disrespectful to attend my first Sunday School several minutes late. Another greeter, quite a tall sturdy-looking gentleman, overheard me. He looked softly pained that five minutes might keep me from the benefit of Sunday School. He reached out a large strong hand, clasped my hand, then cradled my arm gently but securely in his. I was very touched by his gesture of concern. In the best and kindest sense, he seemed to be guiding a little girl through some dark and unsteady path and into safety. He walked me right over to the Sunday School in the parish hall, straight through a good crowd of attending members, right to the front and center, and seated me in the seat left behind by our speaker of the day.

Our speaker drew straight from Scripture to spell out in clear and heartfelt fashion the seven traits which are ours to claim, in a life devoted to God. (In case you were waiting for it, “total depravity” was not among them.) He made the best use of personal interactions with the group, often inviting church members to answer questions and to chime in with the relevant verses (these people really know their Bible), all with touches of humor and kind encouragement. Two of the seven traits struck home: our true identity as adopted sons and daughters of God, and life as brothers and sisters in community. For people who feel alone and lonely, these are valuable cornerstones for taking our place in the world. They called to mind a favorite chapter, Ephesians 1:3-14, and the destiny prepared for us since before time began.

Sunday School did my heart good. So did the friendliness of that table of women. One turned to me and said something that belongs in the lexicon of every church: “If you do not have someone to sit with today, please do come and sit with us. We will be in the first pew, left.” (She turned out to be the spouse of our speaker, who lost his seat when I wandered in late.)

(Editorial rant: this congregation’s social network clearly does not end after the service, and their friendliness did not hinge upon whether I had a family with me. It is absolutely normal in Catholic and other traditional Christian churches that members will speak to me provided that I have a husband on display, and preferably kids the same age as their kids. Christianity has made itself irrelevant as a shared foundation of American society. One major reason is that half the country is now single, with a wealth of older women on our own. Christian churches have no message for us from the pulpit, and no fellowship to offer. We ladies are tolerated if we volunteer our hearts out and tithe away and keep smiling. Otherwise the congregations would be more comfortable if we’d disappear to Starbucks or the yoga studio or the dog park. In my city, that’s exactly what women do.)

I went off to look for a water fountain before the service. One of the men found me wandering from pillar to post. When I asked him for a water fountain he apologized that they did not have one, but made a rapid beeline for a refrigerator and from a stockpile he brought me a generous bottle of cold water.

Dear Host found me in the vestibule. In his signature fashion he was already making friendly contacts right and left; church members were gathering around him, pleased by his reminiscences of his aunt’s branch of the Christian Church, and the role it played in her life. Before the service a radiant fair-haired small child walked up and shook my hand, introducing himself. The gracious lady who invited me from the parking lot earlier that morning turned out to be a pianist, taking her place with a small ensemble of musicians. An electronic display board showed the hymn lyrics in print so large that even I could read it, meaning I could pitch right in without getting lost in an unfamiliar hymnal or dropping it on anyone’s foot. It was reassuring to see “How Deep the Father’s Love” on the screen. I’d learned it just that week from the Sounds Like Reign channel, sung by Mrs. Kirkland, and so could join in.

This was a special Palm Sunday for the church. They were preparing for Easter in just one week. They had also lost a cherished elder quite suddenly just two days before. Clearly he had been a deeply valued member of the church. It was moving to see the church leaders step up and find words to balance mourning and tribute, with faith in the Resurrection. At different parts of the service they took turns teaching about both, backing up all of it with Scripture and the personal viewpoint of their own lives in community. One of them told a sweet family story as a parallel to the lesson of Palm Sunday; as he talked, he cradled the little fair-haired ambassador who shook my hand before the service. (This happy kiddo was so secure rocked in his father’s arms, and so delighted to find himself front and center, that to support Dad he performed fancy acrobatic tricks for the edification of all. It was a joy to see his beaming smile hanging happily upside down.) There was also an interesting slide show and talk about the church’s recent mission trip to a small mountain town in West Virginia, sharing work projects with a congregation in a small mountain town.

There was one more surprise in store. After the service, familiar faces came right over — including the very first gentleman who welcomed me to town on Day 1, the curators and restorers of the house museum café, and one gracious insurance representative who hadn’t even met me yet but came to shake hands and say “We see you all over town. You keep passing our office window!”

That was a memorable Palm Sunday. Not the Catholic service with long green palms to carry home, to keep in a safe place over the home altar and carry back to church next year (they burn the palms to make ashes for Ash Wednesday). Not the Julian Calender Greek Orthodox service that fell after my return to town, where after weeks of fasting the congregation received palms woven into intricate crosses and then shared a beautiful parish hall salmon dinner. Not the Russian Orthodox service either, where we all hold bunches lighted candles and the Russian equivalent of palms — bunches of silvery pussy willows tied with ribbon.

Christian Church was different from them all: unvarnished Bible truth, earnest sincerity, warm kindness to a random stranger, and a strong solid sense of fellowship in church and outside it during the week. Thanks to a friendly word from the church pianist to a random passerby, it was just the right way to end the week in the right place, right time, and good company.

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Trip to Eagle: 3 Scenic Views

Eagle values its historic tall trees. They’re all over town, gracing its broad streets and charming wooden houses. Even before they showed their spring leaves, they were a real crown of beauty.

Here is the town cemetery, founded in the mid-1800s, with one of its own stately trees.

And here is a riverfront bicycle and hiking path, running right beside one of our great historic national trails. As I reached the water, a Great Blue Heron soared up from some boulders right beside me, then floated on ahead. He cleverly sidestepped all attempts to fix him in the camera, but stayed nearby all along the walk. Those purple flowers are a type of Lamium, or Dead-Nettle. During this April trip, they formed thick brilliant sweeps of color all through the fields.

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Trip to Eagle, Day Two

For the destination airport, the newly remodeled little terminal is peaceful and clean. I was anxious to alert Host Family about the exact arrival gate, but they didn’t seem worried about finding me. I didn’t know there was only one other gate. All they’d have to do is step in the terminal door and look around.

It’s a relief to step outside into fresh air and take off my mask for the first time in 12 hours, to stretch out and contemplate the free open fields and sky. We’re near the center, the heart, of the country. It feels steadying and balanced to see horizon all around.

Outside the terminal, a man on a bench calls a friendly greeting. “Morning! Ya need any help?” We get to chatting. He is here to pick up his grown son. The two are teaming up to drive all the way to the East coast. It’s their chance to catch up with a long bonding road trip. His enthusiasm is contagious. So is his neighborly sensibility. Look: a human! Let’s strike up a talk!

Here comes our Dear Host in his trusty Toyota Cambry, 318,000 miles young and still sailing right along. We head out through the fields, passing one poignant austere artistically composed scene after another. At one point I have to bite my hand to keep from hollering “Stop the car! Look!” After all, it’s one lane of gravel each way, with a deep culvert running along each side, probably protection against flash floods. There is no shoulder. It would not do to start an accident with some cattle van, or that lumbering truck hauling slabs of flint the size of our car. But oh, the scenery! An abandoned farmhouse with beautifully crafted windows and a torn roof is lit by a single shaft of sterling silver light through a bank of clouds; its tall stately companion tree is charred and split, perhaps by lightning, with four circling turkey vultures. It’s straight from Jane Eyre’s art portfolio! Dear Host (DH) explains that we’ll see many Gabelán, or hawks, and eagles too. He’s right; majestic birds of prey are soaring along, or striding through the fields, the size of turkeys.

In the downtown epicenter of Eagle the side streets are spacious brickwork. Sidewalks are great slabs of uneven stone buckling from the roots of stately old trees. Bulb gardens are everywhere, with daffodils and grape hyacinths and a few tulips. Under the shade trees the houses have ornate wood and glass detailing. Some are fixer-uppers settling gently or blooming open at the roof line. Even at noon (and in fact every day all day long) there are cardinals singing away in the treetops, with songs of robins and flickers and tufted titmice, goldfinches and purple finches and ring-necked doves.

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

Host Family’s newly purchased house is trim, neat, and inviting. The roof is brand new, put on right before they bought it by a roofing team who reported to the wrong address. (Oops! Sorry, you’ve got a new roof free of charge — we can’t take it with us!) It has cozy little rooms with white walls and lots of tall narrow windows; wafting in the breeze are ruffly curtains hand-sewn by Our Lady of the home (OL). There are wood floors, fine wood molding for the window and doorframes, a pristine new wood veneer for the kitchen floor and new appliances (put in by an Amish-style workbee of relatives and friends), front veranda and back screened-in porch that will be a study for him, and a cute garage with loft that they’ll turn into a study for her. There’s a front yard, and a back yard soon to be fenced off with a corner for a family chapel shrine. The handy tornado cellar doubles as a laundry room. The decor has warm housekeeping touches, like a vintage yellow porcelain cookie jar on the kitchen table; DH keeps it filled with lemon cookies and coconut macaroons for OL, so that when she comes home from work she can always help herself to a cookie. DH shows me to the snug spare bedroom with an actual writing desk, at windows overlooking the shady veranda and the sparkling birdsongs in the trees.

My two boxes are here, delivered right to the front porch. Eagerly I open them up and get my sunglasses and sun hat. Then after a bit of lunch I head out to take in the sights.

The center of town is part of the Santa Fe Trail, one short block away. Off we go. In no time, the wind fwaps the sun hat right off my face no matter how tightly it’s tied on. I just have to pin it down with one hand. This wind is only minor, but it feels like a steady shoulder shove with a soft ocean roar.

2:00. The day is young. Here’s Main Street! And there’s… tornado sirens going off. Yike. The weather looks partly cloudy; nothing’s funneling in. Still, tornadoes move fast. Maybe it’s still a quarter mile off and spinning this way. Where to run? Here’s the Eagle Grocery store. “Should we be hiding somewhere?” I ask the staff. They give me a pleasant smile and friendly greetings. “It’s first Tuesday, 2:00,” one of them calls out. “They test the sirens. Besides, Eagle has never had a tornado in our history. We’re surrounded by hills. Any tornado gets in here has no place to go; it’ll just have to spin around and drill itself right into the ground.”

I stay and browse around the store. It’s a good asset for this community of 3,000 people. Plenty of much larger towns have no food store at all. But Eagle Grocery is a lucky gem, well kept by a staff with good spirit and morale. The produce looks fresh and varied; in the cooler there are even several kinds of sturdy leafy greens. The produce aisle carries fresh jicama and yucca (cassava) with printed leaflets on how to prepare it at home. There are other unexpected discoveries, like pink Himalayan salt and Greek yogurt. (DH says that at the Bakery counter, one staff member has chef experience and a real flair for home cooking; she told him about her ceviche and other interesting recipes. I hope to meet her one day to talk food.) At the exit, the mechanical horse for the kids brings back memories of many 25-cent rides at our own grocery store, and it’s nice to come across a welcoming rack of free brand-new Bibles for customers to help themselves. 

On Main Street, a tall hearty gentleman gives me a courteous hello in passing. When I sing out a good afternoon he stops short and comes right over to me with a look of good humor. “You’re not from here,” he laughs. “Visiting?”

I explain about the DH family. He introduces himself, explaining which business is his, where he lives, in which house, that his father came from Germany in 1916, and the meaning of their family name in German. Clearly he’s a key figure in the town. His friendly readiness to strike up a conversation is an ideal introduction to Eagle society. It turns out to be standard courtesy here that in a conversation of any length, people will explain their roles in the town, and the history of their arrival or that of their ancestors and origin. 

As a return verbal calling card, I put together my true story; that way people can fit me in to the fabric as well. “Today I live in City N. for the climate, but have always missed the people of this state. I used to live here too, just 84 miles away from Eagle; I got a graduate degree at the University there, and my classmate from 1982 kept in touch. He just bought a house here with his family. He has talked on and on about how wonderful Eagle is. Well, he did a pretty lackluster job, because it’s so much better than I could have imagined. Your town is beautiful. You’ve done a wonderful job of preserving and restoring its historic features and cultural life.” My role as a stranger from a big city is to take the initiative, to greet every person: You have my full attention and respect. So does your town. I am here to admire and be friendly. In every interaction I point out something good about Eagle: the April weather, this view, that set of trees, a historic building. In response,  the residents invariably offer to guide me over to some interesting feature, or they tell me how to find some other resident who shares my interests, or they let me know about some worthwhile resource or upcoming event. Not a single resident, all week, communes with a cell phone while walking down the street. They are alert to one another and ready to greet me, with handshakes, shoulder pats, and even “God bless you”s.

There are plenty of sights to explore here. But I already suspect that my favorite sight will be the people.

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Trip to Eagle, Day One

Airport Sunrise, Dallas Forth Worth

Disclaimer: Eagle is not the town name. It does have eagles though.

Day One: Monday

For the trip to Eagle, the plan was to make sure blizzard season was over in the Midwest, then travel in May via Dallas Fort Worth Airport with Alaska Airlines, my favorite carrier, to a smaller airport where Host Family very kindly offered to drive out 40 miles and pick me up and drive back to Eagle. It’s a 13 hour trip from door to door.

But say, Alaska doesn’t have connecting flights going on to my smaller destination airport. Instead, from Alaska it’s American Airlines contracting with a local carrier operating an even smaller local carrier. But that sub- sub-airline’s website schedule didn’t mesh at all with the incoming flight schedule at the destination airport. Hm. I wasn’t keen on flying with any other airline, especially after two years of pandemic-era disruptive fracas among passengers. So I kept plying the Alaska Airline layover options (Chicago? Denver?) with a transfer to sub- sub-local carrier. But the connections between airlines did not match up. May flight seats were pretty much gone. The only options left reached the smaller destination airport after 11:00 pm. (That meant Host Family driving 40 miles late at night on a one-lane highway. This for a family who needs to get up at 5:00 for everyone to commute to work.) And what if the 11:00 pm flight got in late? What’s more, available return flights had a 4:00 am check in time, meaning Host Family waking up by 2:00 am to leave with me by 3:00 and still be crunched for time driving 40 miles back again and then another 35 miles the other way to get to work.

After a day of fussing with websites I finally tried flights farther out — later in May, then June, then July into August. Connections and availability, still no soap. Amtrak and Greyhound don’t operate in that part of the state at all. Then a quick weather check determined that as of late March there were already170 wildfires burning in central Texas, and Dallas was just barely outside the red flag hazard area.

Was this whole trip just a bad idea? I went to bed feeling discouraged. Then at dawn, some flash of insight shook me awake: Travel NOW. Let go of Alaska Airlines. Fly the one airline system straight through. I jumped up and logged in. Lo! Flights right now were cheaper. American Airlines had convenient connections via Dallas, with plenty of seats. I nailed my trip in no time, to depart in a few days. 

My confirmation email showed the boarding pass. But say, the boarding pass showed only the first leg to Dallas, not the connection on toward Eagle. Uh-oh. That meant a call to American Airlines customer service. That could take hours on hold, maybe with mediocre cluttery recorded music, then bothering some exhausted harried representative. But… surprise, a calm young man answered immediately. He walked me through the process for correctly viewing the entire boarding pass, which did indeed show both segments of the trip. For good measure, he emailed me a new confirmation and boarding passes — then assured me that he would wait until I could open the new email and view the whole trip. He waited patiently until I not only downloaded my passes to my desktop but could call them up with their QR codes on my cell phone (the modern boarding option that seems to be all the rage). He stayed on the line to make sure that I was comfortable viewing the whole pass both as a printable pdf, and on my phone. He was methodical, precise, clear, and completely reassuring and gracious. As always after a good customer service experience, I asked to speak with his supervisor to pass on my compliments. The supervisor was pleased. Happy ending. 

Next, write and mail letters. One was to Host Family with my itinerary and emergency contact information in case of Whatever. Then a letter to my dear emergency contact, with another itinerary and Host Family’s complete contact information. 

Then off to the post office for two medium-sized Flat Rate Priority Mail boxes. I packed both with items to send on ahead, then typed up a list of the contents. For the peace of mind of guards at TSA, I mailed off my favorite paring knife. Since the nearest Trader Joe is 120 miles from Eagle, each box held some 72% chocolate chips and some nuts. A change of underclothes and cloth masks and head scarf goes in each box, with safety razor and band-aids. Between the two there were rain shoes, fluorescent vest for any strolling after sunset, sunhat, and a little souvenir or two for Host Family. Each box mails for $16 or so. That’s still cheaper than a checked bag, and a lot easier than hauling stuff around an airport. I mailed the boxes and kept the tracking numbers.

My trusty green travel binder holds documents in clear acetate page protectors. The binder includes a three-page travel template checklist useful for any trip. Before going anywhere, I can customize the template for a new destination (or the same destination, next time around) and print it out for the binder. Here is a sample of the printouts in the binder.

flight confirmation

flight receipt

flight travel insurance

plan of online check-in times 24 hrs before each flight 

all airport and airline phone numbers

Host Family contact info

priority mail box packing lists

Covid vaccine record

identity safety numbers (who to call for lost passport, credit card, etc.)

Medical directives (orders concerning emergency treatment options)

Packing lists for knapsack and waistpack.

This trip is more excitement than I’m built for, so it’s important to work through all of my checklists, including the final quiet walk-through at home with the list of things to review before heading out the door: 

confirm flight status

check weather for 3 cities

pack cell phone AND charger

check the stove

unplug appliances

check windows

check apartment door lock

After the apartment door lockup, the keys go right in a clear plastic bag for easy viewing by the guards at TSA, along with nail clipper and spoon (= metals), toothpicks for my perio-aid (= sharps) and eye drop vials (= liquids). TSA worries about food too, so the lettuce and apple and bananas and bread (sesame loaf, brand name Ezekiel 4:9) go in a clear plastic bag on their own. 

That goes in the overhead bin right in my knapsack (tied with gaudy Easter bunting, so no businessman grabs it on the way off the plane). The carry-on item is the control journal with my large-print Bible. Next trip, I’ll tie them together with an elastic cord, and slip it all in a clear plastic bag. That’s because on the flight home, the Bible flew out of the binder and whalloped the ankles of the handsome well-dressed man in front of me. When he leaned down and then realized what lay in his hands, my shoulder tap and soft apology did nothing for his look of appalled dismay.

I used to catch early bird 8:00 flights. That meant check-in at 5:00 am, meaning limousine for 3:30 but they show up whenever from 2:00 on, meaning being up & at ’em by 1:00 and trying to think straight through a three-page checklist, meaning 8:00 bedtime and waking up every 15 minutes anxious to not miss the alarm. Now I book flights at night, in this case at 1:00 am. That means leaving work, a shower and a bite of supper and a little rest at home, heading out at 8:00 for the bus and train to the airport, security check-in by 10:00, then a quiet terminal and a restful flight in soft lighting where most folks and their kiddos are asleep, then arrival bright and early in the morning for the new adventure.

Tonight the TSA checkpoint lines are a couple of blocks long. Who knew that 1:00 am flights were so popular? The guards very pleasantly request permission to have a lady colleague pat my head. That’s because my laced hand-sewn cap from the Muslim women’s art collective shop has nice reinforced seams. I offer to remove the cap for their inspection, but the TSA protocol is that everybody has to leave their clothes on and let the x-ray and pat-downs do the rest. “Is any part of your head sensitive?” asks the courteous lady guard. Then she very gently pats my head, and — all cleared and good to go. In a chair I put on my shoes, then check that every bit of everything (passport, boarding pass…) is safely back in its place.

Now to text an update to my contacts. Then check the departure schedule, head for the gate, and it’s three hours of quiet airport time to pace around and stretch. Toting the large-print Bible is a little cumbersome, and after the trip I’ll wipe down the cover with Clorox wipes. But this 13-hour journey comes with many small moments of waiting down time. Opening to the Gospels or Psalms for even a line or two is always helpful and calming. 

Long around midnight people are all camped in at our gate. An extremely tiny infant is sleeping blissfully with his grandma and mom.

   “That is one secure baby,” I tell them. “Sleeping away with announcements and people coming and going. Me, I’d start fussing.”

   “If you do, we’ll just pick you up and pat your back,” Grandma offers.

Nearby, there is a young man 9 years old or so. His parents look exhausted. They are trying to rest their eyes while their son asks them lots of insightful questions. 

   “Well someone is certainly alert and energetic at this hour,” I mention in passing. 

The parents open their eyes briefly and smile. So does the young man. He courteously asks me about my travel plan.

   “The goal is to photograph a distant bison, a buffalo. One retreating the other way,” I tell him. “Through a window. Or sturdy fence.”

Soon the gate attendants announce boarding for active military members and for VIP and Gold and other special groups.

   “You’re probably ahead of me,” I explain, stepping aside for the others. “Group 7 rides with the barnacles clinging to the wheel bay.”

Finally it’s time to board.

The flight attendant at the plane door invites our alert 9-year-old to go and take a peek at the cockpit. “Good evening,” he greets me.

   “And a good morning too!” I wish him. “Dallas?”

   “Michael,” he replies. “But I’m frequently mistaken for a large metropolitan area in Texas. Which is where we happen to be going. Dallas in particular.”

   “Me too! And here is your wee thank you note in advance, to read later during your break.” I hand Michael an envelope with this note:

Dear Valiant Flight Crew, Greetings, I’ll be the older lady in the head scarf in seat 38-C. If for any reason a passenger wants a seat change, and you don’t know where to put them, you can ask me to move. You can seat me next to the crying baby, the emotional support peacock, the person who wants prayers, or whatever change makes people happier and makes your job any easier. I also speak Russian in case anyone needs help with that. Also slow Spanish and a wee bit of Farsi. Thank you so much for all you do to keep us safe. It is a complex and honorable mission, to keep this magnificent airplane flying along while also dealing with the American public and maneuvering a crowded aisle with a cart of tiny pretzels. God bless you, happy trails, Mary

I always pick the aisle seat way in back in front of the rest rooms. 

Two very strong strapping young men pause in the aisle.

   “Scuse us, Ma’am,” says one, all muscles with a tattoo or two, in a tank top. “We’re 38 A and B. This fella here likes the window.” 

   “Certainly.” I spring to my feet. “Let me guess: and you like the middle.”

   “Not much,” says 38B beside me as the two take their seats.

   “Then you’ll get the arm rest,” I assure him. “I’ll wait until you’re buckled up before reaching for my seat belt parts. Don’t want to be grabby.”

After the safety demonstration I turn to my very imposing seat mate in 38B. “I think you should put on your own oxygen mask first, before putting mine on me.”

The two of them blink and then laugh.

We are inching down the runway at a slow walking pace.

   “Captain drives like that girl you were seeing. Amber?” says my seatmate to his companion. “19 miles an hour.”

Captain Mitch Siegelman gives a friendly warm welcome, and breaks the news that there will be significant turbulence en route. 

   “Jeez, it’s good he told us,” I observe. “Turbulence is pretty bad here on this gravel surface.”

   “That’s not turbulence,” says 38B. “That’s the poor pavement quality all over the state.”

   “Gonna crack this window open,” says our windowmate in 38A.

   “Good thinking,” I tell him. “This is smoking section, right?”

   “Hear about that guy got sucked right out of the plane?” says 38B.

   “Happens,” says 38A. “Except — no, I mean… doesn’t happen to us.”

   “Yeah, don’t talk scary,” says 38B. “There’s a little kid in front of us.”

   “And a 65 year old next to you,” I point out.

Time for water, and complimentary tiny coffee flavored oval cookies.

   “Mary?” Michael stops by my seat with the snack cart. “Mary, thank you so much for your note.”

   “Thank you, Michael. I felt apprehensive about this trip. Based on the news, I expected the plane to be like the barroom brawl in the opening credits of ‘F Troop.’ But this has been great.”

Bedtime. Cabin lights are dimmed. The guys in 38A and 38B turn on a film and watch it with headphones on. It’s not polite to watch a film on somebody else’s flight tray. But this one is gripping, alternating idyllic scenery and warm lighting with affectionate family members bonding away when they’re not reacting with horror for some mysterious reason. The subtitles don’t show much dialogue; the actors use a lot of gestures and signs. The family take turn saving each other’s lives from increasingly creepy hazards. Then clearly the mom is pregnant. That is all I’ll say, but things don’t go well for her. There’s a poignant scene where the teenage girl comes across a contraption with wires and puts it over her head, pressing it closer, and dissolves into tears of despair. What?

We 38-ers alternate trips to the rest room. 

   “What’s your film?” I ask when the guys get back.

   “‘A Quiet Place,’” he explains. 

   “Are some of the actors Deaf? Are all of them? Am I just really bad at figuring stuff out?”

   “Only the teenage girl is Deaf. The others sign with her because aliens are listening for them to kill them. They’re like the only humans left in the world. That apparatus the girl put on is a homemade hearing aid. All through the film the dad has been trying to build one for her.”

It’s unusual to see a film nowadays about a family whose motivation is expressing love and keeping each other from getting killed and using survival skills while terrified. Still, I can’t exactly recommend this film. It doesn’t seem productive to spend two hours experiencing cortisol and elevated heart rate with a sad ending. Still, I point out, “The lighting in that movie is amazing. The moods of qualities of light are like… a character. Or a soundtrack.”

After our chat the two of them go to sleep. 

Finally we’re at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. I stop and thank everyone, including the cleaning crew, and head into the terminal.

It’s a little scary to discover that the Departures board is way high up and hard to read. It is more scary to find that my connecting flight has vanished. Luckily for me, the information booths are staffed by speedy and courteous senior gentlemen watching for someone to help. Seeing my squinty neck craning, one of them comes right over and explains that this board shows only flights leaving in the next two hours.

   “Your flight will appear soon. Meanwhile…” He takes my paper boarding pass, and rests it on a scanner. Beep! Like magic, all of my flight information and my confirmation number pops up on a huge board, showing the right gate. A minute later at a different station I try scanning my own pass. Beep! Now it shows that my exact same flight has been diverted to Charlotte, NC. Which is probably a grand place, but there’s no Host Family there. I flee to the nearest volunteer with my plight. He smiles and explains, “Charlotte was for the passenger who used the scanner last. Look: you gotta touch the Close button on the screen before scanning your own boarding pass.”

Time to change terminals. I consider just walking it. But here’s a Skylink shuttle departing, and a good thing, too; even with this very fast train, it takes quite a while to get there. Turns out this airport is 27 miles long. Now we’re downstairs in a quiet tucked away part of the airport waiting for the smaller airline. 

A young man in a Navy uniform sits down to rest. Another young man pauses in passing. “Sir? Pardon me: thank you for your service.”

Passengers walk up to the ticket agents, and just start right in speaking Spanish. A bilingual airport. Cool. Flights are leaving for Guadalajara and Laredo and Tijuana and Texarkana.

Here’s the SUN! A dramatic tropical red ball in a hazy sky. 

Life is what happens after you snap the picture, and sure enough: I just miss a wonderful dramatic moment, a white plane at liftoff shooting past the sun, sparkling with fire-colored sunflashes.

Now the next flight is boarding. Night is over. Trip day one is over. On to Eagle for our excellent adventure!

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Sunflower Project, Day 10

Here are four sunflower seedlings in the kitchen this morning

This early morning dream came along about the Los Angeles River. How did that image come to mind, when this isn’t Los Angeles? Well, years ago there was a video about a dog rescue on the LA River. Now that might sound like throwing a net into some rapids, or wetsuiting up and swimming out for the dog. But no, this wasn’t a river with a slippery shore or swampy reeds or currents. It was concrete walls several stories high over a dry sun-baked concrete canyon that goes along apparently for miles. At that time and location the river was all out of water, so volunteers climbed down some dubious slap-up of laddering and ropes. They persuaded a panicked injured German Shepherd to not attack while being caged and hauled up to safety. It looked dangerous at every step. At the time it must have impressed its way into my subconscious as an Inauspicious Environment archetypal image.

So right, the dream. It was all about running through the LA River like a panicked animal looking for a way to climb out and escape. The only chance was to reach some safety flood gates up ahead and try to climb up one of them. But just as I got closer, each of the gates slammed shut one by one, and sirens started going off. Why were flood gates slamming in a dry riverbed? Because from around the bend here’s a high tsunami of burning radioactive slag rushing along the canal. After fleeing for as long and far as possible, I finally reach a glass control booth. It’s a laboratory full of men and women, scientists who manage natural disasters for the city. Behind the glass they’re completely rapt in their instruments and screens, running from station to station, snapping out commands. They have no spare time to notice that I’m pounding on the door trying to get indoors or trying to warn them. Then it dawns on me: this isn’t Los Angeles. This is Chernobyl. This the Ukrainian team keeping the reactor from blowing up even with all the other hell breaking loose this past month. Screaming at the glass wall won’t help. For one thing, I don’t know Ukrainian, let alone a term like “tsunami of radioactive slag.” I could scream in Russian; that would be comprehensible to them but not a sensitive thing to do. Then the intensity of their work makes it clear that they knew when they volunteered for this assignment what could happen out here, and they’re sparing no thought to whether they make it out of here or not. Distracting them for even a second is the wrong thing. They have something honorable to accomplish together, shoulder to shoulder, in lives full of meaning. Me, I was just bumbling around getting lost; in that much bigger picture of world importance, what happens out here in the canal really doesn’t matter. So I drop my hands and turn from the door and walk away.

Well, a dream like that was good for an early hour or two of lying paralyzed staring at the ceiling. It was really hard to get up and get going with the tasks of the day.

At that point, the most constructive recourse seemed to be tending the new sunflower seedlings. One week ago I planted 40 sprouting sunflower seeds in the garden. Not a single one has cracked the ground. That is probably because our crows are so interested and smart that they must have have fluttered down and dug them all up. It’s a good thing that as backup plan B there was another set of seeds planted indoors in a flat of dirt away from them rascally crows.

Plot review: March 17, put seeds in water. March 18, put seeds in a strainer with frequent rinsing. Then on March 20, when the seeds sprouted little roots, I planted them in seedling flats with potting soil and frequent water misting until March 27.

Note to self: From now on, when the pointy seed tips crack open and show a tiny white shoot, plant the seed with pointy seed tip DOWN and the rounder flatter side on top. That white shoot is a root — not future leaves! (Oops. I planted them all upside down at first. Next day I was puzzled to see no sprouts peeking out. Instead, each sunflower seed hull had somehow risen up out of the soil. Then gradually little leaves unfolded inside the seed hull and finally shed the hull.) Fortunately the seeds knew which end was up. Every one of the sprout roots turned itself top down, digging in and pushing the hull backwards out of the dirt.

Experience also shows that on Day 10 these guys belong in the ground. By then they are two inches tall and ravenous for light. Despite frequent rotation they will twist around to follow the sun and will get gangly stems. Plus they already have a tap root and side roots the same size as the seedling or more. So today I took the dozen largest, and planted them outdoors. Then to let the neighbors know that these are plants and not weeds, I picked out lighter-colored stones from the rock bed, and made little crop circles around each seedling. (It was nice that the sun lit up the inside of that little scallop shell.)

Sunflower seedling in the ground with protective circle of rocks and one shell.

In other neighborhood news, last night neighbor D. and I decided to draw a hopscotch board outside the garbage cage because why not? So we swept the space really well and swiped the big floor mat from the front of our building as a template, and got to work. Here it is, cropped here and there to slice out views of the garbage cage and other peripheral clutter.

Hopscotch Board

Other adults, some of them total strangers walking by, grabbed chalk and helped. Then for the hopscotch game we got some flat rocks to toss on the board, and tried to remember and figure out how to play while making up any rules as needed. My contribution was remembering that the flat rock is called a potsy, and on the way back to square one when we land on the potsy square we have to bend over on one foot to pick it up, calling out “Butterfingers!” Of course, those are New York rules, and the honorable opponent from Mexico had a different set of rules, which was different from Vancouver and Ohio rules. Then as more total strangers walked by we asked them to referee rules for us. Then as various unsuspecting grownups came to take out their garbage, Neighbor D. explained to them that from now on, the rule is that to access the garbage cage, you have to at least walk over the board. The surprise was that nobody turned us down; everybody tried at least walking or hopping, and some even threw in fancy backwards hopping and other tricks. Even when suppertime came and it started raining we big people stayed out for 90 minutes throwing potsies and making up rules and taking turns with the chalk. Between turns, on the far side of the hopscotch board people added big chalk flowers and hearts and smiles and frills and Peace and Love and Understanding. Finally it was getting dark and chilly, and we put the floor mat back where it belonged and headed indoors.

“Gee,” said one of our reigning champions, “and I just came out for a smoke.”

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3/20 Sunflower Project

For several years I planted sunflowers in our raised bed. But my gardening skills weren’t equal to the task, and the plants didn’t grow at all. Nevertheless, sunflowers came to mind again with an episode of “Off Grid with Doug and Stacy.” In this episode below, Stacy shows us how to plant sunflower seeds in a snowbank. (Snowbank? Yes, apparently the seeds are fine sprouting under snow. Besides, that way the crows won’t get them all.) Stacy adds in minute 6:16 that the leaves are edible for various uses. The clip adds that the plants condition the soil; then after the flowers grow, the stems can be dried and used next year as tomato stakes.

(Here’s Stacy! And her sunflowers!

Well, that sounded like a good reason for giving this another try. Sunflowers grow fast and are very showy. That is what the neighbors like to watch, and neighbors are the whole point of having a garden.

So last week I went to our neighbor who feeds goldfinches. She very kindly donated a whole cupful of seeds for the garden. They soaked in a bowl of water overnight. Then the seeds spent four days in a covered strainer with frequent gentle misting with water. After four days there was no sign of life. It was disappointing to conclude that they must have been specially treated to keep them from sprouting.

But on Day 5, the first day of spring, all of the seeds showed white shoots:

Sunflower seeds, sprouting and on the march

Then yesterday, Safeway supermarket observed the first day of spring with an especially pretty bright display — a whole wall of sunflowers. Here is just one little snippet.

The local grocery store has a real gift with sunflower displays

The Safeway flower display grew a whole new idea. One news story mentioned that in Ukraine there are now 10 million displaced people. Well, what if any of those people come to our town, and even to our own apartment complex? What if they see sunflowers growing, and it makes this new home look even a tiny bit more welcoming?

Well, that alone would make it worthwhile to try and learn how to grow these flowers. So yesterday in a nice healthy rain I took 40 of those sprouts and planted them in a row all along the whole bed. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, I noticed a quart of special succulent/cactus potting soil, donated by Miss Rose, and a large seedling flat donated by Captain Wing. So the next 40 sprouts went into those flats, covered with misted paper towels. If they grow, I’ll take them around to the neighbors and offer to plant them outside their doors. What if they actually grow? What if we could have sunflowers all around the apartments?

We’ll see. Day at a time. That’s what gardening is all about.

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3/12/22: Operation Topsoil

For the big soil purchase, and to beat the rain, Captain Wing texted me exact details of where to meet him in the parking lot. I brought along my trusty weed raker (a 2012 Christmas gift from the guys in Maintenance, but that’s another story), metal bucket, scissors so I don’t have to open the bags by pounding with a pointed rock this year, and exact change because we were getting there at opening time, and who knows whether their register has enough pennies.

Now one car looks just like another to some of us. But what a surprise to see Captain pull up and leap out and whisk open the back door (“Good Morning, Miss Daisy”) to a stretch-length car so distinctive that we won’t describe it here because he probably has enough fans asking for his autograph on the street. Suffice it to say, it was very shiny and the seats were super soft leather and there was enough foot room in the back to set up a cribbage table and hibachi. The wheels made the pavement a Silk Road melting along like butter.

“There has got to be a story to this car,” I told him, knowing his hobby of fixing up overlooked salvage things and renovating them into better things. “Let me guess: You bought this second hand at a mere fraction of the price and did all the work yourself?” That proved to be a great guess. He really did.

“It’s practical for taking the whole family on trips with camping gear,” he assured me from the chauffeur seat. “And, it will carry as much topsoil as you need.” At the nursery we pulled up in style. He loaded up the bags while I paid and counted out the correct number of pennies. At home he backed up to the garden, then toted the bags to the raised bed while I gathered my bucket and rake from the back seat.

We shook and smoothed out the topsoil. Here is just a little snip of the long bed. I cropped out the view of all the little houses alongside.

Here is a raised bed strip of fresh and fluffy dirt with a celery plant or two.

We transplanted and grouped together the plants that lasted through the winter: calendula, Neighbor Mac’s gladiolus bulbs, Canna lilies, and my celery plants that rooted upstairs. Then the real work was over until summer, when we’ll have plenty of watering to do every day. Potatoes and nasturtiums do well, so we’ll plant more of those. I’d like to get some sunflower seeds from Neighbor C’s bird feeder, and plant those along the whole bed. Coach will grow tomatoes again. Neighbor Lana would like to try lettuce. The Wings have lots of tulips coming up, with garlic leeks and California Gold poppies and raspberries. We’ll just fill in whatever seedlings and seeds are at hand until the whole bed is planted and growing.

I went to the garbage cage to clear away some pruned shrubbery to the compost bin. When I got back, Neighbor Mac was outside to check up on what’s new and to tell Captain “I just saw Mary getting out of a gangster car.” We explained that it was really a farm vehicle with extra buffing.

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3/10/22: Wrapping up Winter

Tomorrow afternoon a big rain front is coming in, but in the morning we’re going out for topsoil. This is the big end-of-winter garden event of the year, and the neighbors are already taking an interest. I sent out some mild broad hints that it would be fun to see them standing around when we unload the sacks and break them open and start spreading it on the 40 foot bed. Many hands will make light work, or at least we’ll get some entertaining remarks from the kibbitzers watching it happen.

Last year good neighbor C. offered to drive me, so we two women went and got the topsoil. Earlier this year Captain Wing offered, but it didn’t seem right taking his time away from the family. So I asked neighbor C. instead.

Well, neighbor C. ran into Captain Wing, which is hard to avoid because he is everywhere all of the time, and they got talking topsoil the way people do, and she asked him to send me profound apologies for not being available this weekend to go buy the dirt. This came as a little surprise to Captain, who was under the impression that he’d be buying the soil himself. He got on the phone right away.

I was making a batch of kimchi when the cell phone rang with the Wing family phone number. When I picked up, Captain said “You do realize, of course…?”

I didn’t realize. I was supposed to chime back with the correct ending for that English sentence. The correct ending comes from any Bugs Bunny film, and is “this means war.” I don’t know anything about Bugs. I need research scientists from China to call me on the phone and explain that line, and to clue me in about my own popular culture of yesteryear. That’s pretty funny in itself.

“You are in trouble now,” he affirmed.

“Again? For which reason?” I asked. I figured he meant for spading the patch with Aziz’s shovel.

But no, he’d been talking to neighbor C. and learned that I’d gone right past him in my topsoil quest. So over the phone we confirmed our plans to go hit pay dirt tomorrow morning.

What about the egg?

That new bed sheet has been such a hit, and is moreover such an attractive pattern, that it seemed a natural match for one of Mrs. Wing’s pickled duck eggs. I added ground punkin seeds for texture, and put them all together in a shaft of wintry late-afternoon light. The result made me happy. It reminds me of some modern art poster from a warehouse loft museum with hardwood floors and stark white walls and soaring industrial ceilings and exposed copper pipes. But it’s really just my floor with a sheet on it and a bowl with an egg.

Off to call the garden store and see what time they open in the morning…

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3/5: A Borrower and a Lender Be

It was high time to have the garden all spaded up for spring.

My leisurely but persistent practice is to start nibbling on the job starting in January, just chopping and turning for 20 minutes a day. One essential element was the use of Captain Wing’s very nice pointed spade, a small light ergonomically handy garden tool. One day I borrowed it for a bit, did some work, then shined it up and set it back in its place on his porch. So far so good.

But for the long term, Captain had a plan to spare me further labor by spading the whole strip himself for me in one efficient upcoming fell swoop, just as soon as he had a little minute to spare.

Well, it didn’t seem fair to trouble him or any of his little minutes, nor to keep borrowing his elegant spade. So on Friday under cover of darkness and in stealthlike manner I passed by the lighted kitchen windows where the Wings were innocently eating their dinner, walked around the block, and dropped in on Neighbor Aziz.

“I’d really appreciate the loan of a shovel,” I explained to him. “And would appreciate more if you didn’t tell Captain.”

“He’d probably do it for you,” pointed out sensible Aziz, waving me to a chair and plying me with refreshments. “I am sure he will be happy if you just ask.”

“Yes, that’s the point. I’d like it done this weekend, but don’t want to trouble him or hurt his feelings. This way I can just sort of turf around a bit. He doesn’t even have to notice that the job is done.” Then the humor of the situation occurred to us both. “Our neighborhood is like a sitcom, isn’t it? Like ‘I Love Lucy,’ but ‘Everybody Loves Wing.'”

Then I headed home the long way, around the block, with shovel on my shoulder.

“Did you lose Snow White?” asked one of our smoking bench neighbors. I explained the whole shenanigan, securing their promise of secrecy and their high amusement. Upstairs, I parked the shovel in the bathroom and set an alarm for 6:00 a.m.

By 6:15 next morning I was standing on the raised bed, getting a feel for the shovel and realizing just how much potential racket a spading job can create. It was important to work quietly so as not to disturb the windows of sleepers all along the strip. This meant leaning carefully on the shovel instead of hopping on it, and shaking dirt off the blade instead of whacking it on the ground, and moving stones by stacking them on the wall instead of just casting them off to the stone drainage area nearby. As a computer potato unaccustomed to real work, I had to stop with every half-shovelful and squat and stretch out the spine first before carefully easing the clump of soil over and off. Then every few spadefuls it seemed wise to very gently float to an upright stretch, take deep breaths, and admire the early morning. There were gulls high overhead chuckling along, crows rivering past, and in the Scotch pines just overhead a tag team of chickadees and dark-eyed juncoes and squirrels. The building Golden Retriever appeared across the yard. At sight of me, he snapped to attention with ears up and jaw dropping in amazement. (Is that Mary up on that raised bed? How do I get there? Can I sniff her? Can I get her to pet me?) He had to figure out his way around the garden wall before bounding over and leaping half up on the raised bed with wiggles of ecstasy.

It was arduous, but a lovely way to greet the morning. That very easeful slow approach, visualizing the energy of the earth peacefully digging itself, yielded an unexpected safety advantage. The shovel kept bottoming out on something hard. Each time it did, I backed up a few inches and tried tapping at it, clearing the clods on either side, but to no avail. It turned out to be a tough orange Scotch Pine root as thick as my wrist, running parallel all along the bed six inches under. A vigorous attack might have broken the shovel, or jammed my boot underneath and sent me falling off the strip. With an attitude of peaceful coexistence I could just let the root be.

At 8:15, the first pass was done. I crouched down and gripped the wall, lowering one foot firmly to solid ground, then the other. Wiping my hands on some pine needles I put the shovel in my bucket to keep it from shedding dirt on the way upstairs. I carried the shovel and bucket to the front door, took off the boots, put them in the bucket, and carried it all upstairs in sock feet being very careful to keep the shovel handle level on the stairwell so it wouldn’t bash the light bulbs. The shovel and boots went in the bathroom to dry. Then I lay down, aligning my back flat against the floor under warm blankets, doing gentle posture stretches, and took a deep nap.

After chores and lunch I got back on the raised bed again. The second pass was more tricky. It meant standing precariously on top of unstable clods a foot or two above the raised bed, with uneven balance on one leg or the other as the clods kept sinking and shifting underfoot. Crouching on firm flat ground to lift and turn little slices of thatch takes some energy, but so does standing on shifting soil whacking the thatch into pieces. But finally that was done. Upstairs I cleaned off the shovel and give it a nice polish with some damp and then dry paper towels. I carried the shovel back to Neighbor Aziz.

Aziz was out in front of his house, tending his prized fruit trees growing along the street. Last year he fashioned polite little signs and tied them to the bottom of each trunk. But our neighborhood dogs did not stop to read the signs, so now he was putting up little white picket fences all along the strip as a helpful hint to the dogs or at least their owners. To my chagrin, Captain Wing was right there helping to brace the fences in their post holes. Busted! I was afraid that at sight of the shovel he would feel hurt. But the two men just had a friendly laugh about my clandestine tippy-toeing around.

Later in his kitchen, plying me with yet more refreshments, Aziz explained “I had a talk with him. I said ‘Just leave Mary be, with all her digging ideas with dirt. It is not only for gardening; it is helpful for her mental state.‘”

Aziz was so right. It sure made for a good night’s sleep too.

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2/23: A Winter Household Purchase

In 2006 I found some perfectly good navy blue sheets at the Methodist church needle-exchange thrift shop for about a dollar each. They remained perfectly good with only an alternating quick boil and hand wash on alternating weeks, and time in fresh air to dry the same day. In the last year they needed mending here and there. Then last week while sleeping I accidentally put my arm through one and it tore in half.

So, for the President’s Day holiday, it was off to the Goodwill store. The bed linen aisle was a bewildering array of odd sizes of folded fabric. Luckily, for one section some industrious staff member added tags: T, Q, K. That looked like twin and queen and king sizes, priced at $4.99, $5.99, and $6.99. What to buy? Well, I sleep on three stacked yoga mats, and they’re pretty narrow, so that seemed like a T size. The purchase quandary was that with a yoga mat there is no efficient way to tuck in the sheets. So by morning they can migrate off and roll up in a ball and the whole arrangement is all undone.

But then, here was a whole entirely new idea. The best fabric, in a sturdy cotton, was labeled Q. For only an extra dollar I could buy something roomy that was wide enough to accommodate even tossing and turning, and it would not scrunch up and wander off by itself! Why not?? Not only that, the Q had the most practical and pleasant pattern, flowers in mixed colors of cozy gray-brown-sage.

A flower pattern bed sheet

After some boiling and washing it draped out over all my furniture, and 24 hours later it was dry. The test run was last night. What a big difference. How nice to stretch out without the top sheet wandering off. It certainly is sturdy. The fabric won’t be wearing out any time soon. Now the only interesting complication was that the old top sheet was worn and chintzy enough that it draped right in, while the new sheet is sturdy enough to hold its shape, like a boat sail. That made it harder to tuck it in warmly. Still, this made a significant and welcome comfort upgrade.

On the way home from the Goodwill Store, I got off the bus to visit the local park, and then to walk the last 35 blocks home for exercise and fresh air. The park was very pretty, a clear sky with just one ethereal vapor cloud, shown below. Usually it would be nice to sit at the pond in the sun and watch for interesting animals and birds. But for some reason I soon felt anxious to get home, walking fast to try to warm up, racing the sunset and counting the blocks uphill all the way. With nothing else to do but hurry and feel stiff and cold, it was a good time to lean on my favorite prayers to ease the journey.

As it turns out, that vapory white cloud was a cold front rushing in, nicely combed and fluffed by high altitude winds. The precipitation that night looked like a sleetstorm, but was really rimed graupel, a weather pattern that forms tiny perfect spheres of soft snow!

The new sheet adventure, and getting back indoors, made two special reasons to be very thankful.

This pond is enjoying some sunshine, but the waters are choppy and the cloud is a cold front.

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2/20/22: Garden Dreams

Gardens are possible with one daily bit at a time, each day all season long. The first and heaviest task is digging up the 40 foot raised bed. Captain Wing was kind enough to leave his spade outside upon request. (I was very sneaky, and did not explain just why the spade was needed.) To keep from feeling daunted by the task, I set a timer for just 90 minutes. Then I climbed up on the bed and started turning over hunks of soil, chopping them into smaller pieces. The soil is rich but heavy, so I only finished spading about 40% of the bed. Luckily, last year Captain Wing had the forethought to concoct a special mix of shredded plants, wood chips, and mulch in a 20-gallon compost bin. This year he’ll add that to the soil to lighten it up.

Part of today’s spading job was clearing and harvesting the winter greens. They date from last October, when I took some expired seed packets and tossed them all around. Some took root and grew right through our winter as a fresh menu supplement. They are still growing, but it seemed a good idea to clear them all. That way we can have a neat-looking bed, and can rotate in new vegetables. (Yesterday I first pulled and cleaned all the scallions and leeks and a few potatoes. A sample of each made a good dinner with a butter pat on top.)

A pot of winter greens, cleared from a small patch of turned earth.

Here is a sample of today’s harvest: Kale, baby collards, celery, and turnip greens attached to a jumbo turnip. Because our building garden hose is turned off for the winter, I carried the greens up to the fourth floor and washed them several times in bucket after bucket of water, carrying the full buckets back downstairs to pour outside to keep the grit out of the kitchen plumbing.

Here are some of the greens, in Captain’s flower pot.

The trimmed outer leaves below got a final scrub and rinse. Now they are wrapped in brown paper in the fridge. The tough cores and stems were trimmed away; they will go in the stock pot with vegetable peels and seaweed to make potassium broth.

One neighbor stopped by the garden patch and expressed an interest in the spading project. Afterwards I hung a gift bag on his doorknob with a sample of triple-washed leaves wrapped in brown paper with a greeting card. As it turned out, his household was fresh out of greens, and they were pleased to have them for dinner.

Then the 90 minutes was up. An hour later all the washing and toting were done and the greens were put away. Last I washed Captain Wing’s shovel, dried and polished it well, and put it back at his door. Then I lay down on the floor to stretch and straighten my back. Captain telephoned a minute later to express his concern and dismay that 1). I had washed and shined up a common garden spade, and 2). had used it to do all that spading. He laid down the law that tomorrow he will take over the spading project himself.

Next perhaps one of the neighbors can drive me to buy more topsoil.

It’s an amazing piece of good fortune to have that raised bed right outside our building. The whole garden dream is not about food really. It’s about something hopeful and pleasant for the neighbors to look at and talk about. This year it would be nice to plant sweet peas. They grow well in the cold, the sprouts are edible, and children find it fun to watch them grow. Sunflowers would be a cheerful touch too. We’ll see. One bit one day at a time.

Today up on that raised bed toward the end of that 90 minutes there was a peaceful interlude. In the east, fluffy towers of clouds turned bright gold in the declining sun. From the west a little charcoal-gray storm front rushed overhead, full of ice crystals. The falling crystals made a white gauzy veil with soft white noise around me and the winter greens underfoot, with the robins and house finches and juncoes bursting into song.

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2/2/2022: Presentation Day

The feast of the Presentation of the Christ Child is February 2nd.

That’s in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-39, when Mary and Joseph dedicate Jesus in the Temple, 40 days after his birth. The prophet Simeon recognizes the long-awaited Messiah, and sings the Canticle of Simeon or Nunc dimittis. He adds a mysterious prophesy about Mary as well: that in this child’s destiny, a sword is waiting that will pierce her soul. 

In any ordinary year, day means attending Presentation Day Mass. But in 2012, it meant the presentation of me by me to the Temple of the cancer center downtown. A routine annual mammography triggered an urgent letter, referring me to the center for additional imaging. They booked me for February 2nd, at 3:00 pm. 

The prospect seemed a little daunting; so for company I packed my bowed psaltery, and the Mary Frances Coady book With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany, a biography of Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945). The book made a good waiting room read. It was cheering to discover that its hero found profound meaning in feast days of Jesus and Mary, days like this one.

Father Delp was a German priest, forging through the required 15-year formation period before final vows to the Society of Jesus. His superiors were sometimes surprised by his restless headlong physical energy, impulsive argumentative nature, booming voice, loud hymn singing unhampered by musical pitch, witty quips, flashing grin, cigars. He also had a gift for social connections, especially with the older women who made up his congregation; he took a warm kindly interest in their family news, troubles, and household cares.

Father Alfred Delp, S.J. From maryfrancescoady.com. Photo credit: Jesuit Archive, Munich

The war brought out the best of the young priest’s colorful personality. His extensive social network collaborated to help Jewish refugees flee to Switzerland. After bombing raids, before the all-clear signal, he would charge from the shelter into rubble and flames, shouting to victims trapped underneath, digging them out while ordering the firefighters around. In the pulpit his sermons were so heartfelt and so outspoken that listeners jotted them down in shorthand for discreet circulation. But with only two weeks remaining of his 15-year discernment period, he was arrested. (That timing was a cause of particular grief to him. It haunted him to think that God must have found him unworthy of final vows.)

The official charge was involvement in a plot to kill Hitler; he was a suspect because he knew so much about so many people. But the arrest was part of a larger plan to undermine the German Jesuit order; this outspoken preacher made a prominent target. At the prison, rounds of torture reduced him to what he described in one letter as “a bleeding whimper,” but did not get him to name names or incriminate anyone. He was promised freedom on condition that he give up final vows. Meanwhile, for six months his gregarious energy sat in solitary confinement under glaring lights, handcuffed and chained to a table.   

At Tegel Prison, clothing was commonly laundered by the prisoners’ families. This is where Delp’s legacy was salvaged and preserved, thanks to his rapport with his female parishioners. The women began showing up to demand his blood-stained laundry. The women also checked the clothing seams, extracted tiny tightly rolled strips of paper in microscopic penmanship, and copied out his Advent sermons, prayers, and letters — including a request for medicine for the head prison guard and his child. Then the women would return the clean clothes to the prison, where the same head guard somehow didn’t notice that the laundry contained discreet enclosures of paper, ink, food, and Communion wafers. 

In a Radiology waiting room 67 years later, it was heartening to think of these courageous Catholic women in wartime, smuggling these letters. It was just the right uplift for that 3:00 appointment.

At 2:55, Radiology Technologist Sarah welcomed me to a changing room. I locked up my things, and put on an ample comfy robe. In the imaging room next door, Sarah marked my skin with inked arrows and adhesive stickers. As a calm gentle medical provider (and a ukulele player herself) she encouraged me to talk about my psaltery while she adjusted the equipment. After our mammography, she forwarded the images to the radiology team for viewing. She brought me to my cubicle to wait while she worked with her other patients.

At 3:15, the radiologists sent Sarah back to me. They directed her to start all over, reworking views from this and that angle. For this second round of images, Sarah stayed positive and calm, cradling our attention moment by moment on only the next indicated task. 

At 3:40, I waited in the cubicle while the doctors summoned Sarah for a conference. They ordered her to start again, same images, now with two more angle views.

At 4:00, Sarah finished imaging round three. 

Then the radiologists conferred for a much longer time. Sarah walked with me back to the changing cubicle and stayed for five minutes. The center saw so many patients that it’s unlikely she had five minutes to spare. But it still remains a golden memory that this radiology technologist sat right beside me and asked me to play her a song.

Then, she explained the next step. The room had two doors. The outer door faced the waiting room. The inner door faced the imaging suite. If I heard a knock on the outer door, that would be Sarah. It would mean that the radiologists decided that my topography looked benign, and I was free to go. A knock on the inner door would be a radiologist, calling me in for an ultrasound. After the ultrasound, the team would tell me the results and options for treatment. It was like the two doors in the Frank Stockton story about the lady or the tiger; but in this version, any tiger would be waiting inside me. 

I sat in the cubicle, practicing my psaltery; that way, if a radiologist had to find me, it might make a nice change for them to be greeted by some music. But the minutes unraveled along and along. It was 5:00, then 5:10, then 5:20. In that soundproof booth the psaltery sounded plaintive, like a whistle in the dark or the music box in a scary movie. I put the instrument away and listened. In the hall, footsteps and voices had disappeared. Did they forget that I was in here?

I huddled up in the corner with my book and went on reading.

In 1944, Father Delp hoped that December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, would bring some sign that God still had some plan for him. The day brought a visit from fellow Jesuit Franz von Tattenbach, holding a page of Latin text. Delp recognized it as the rite of final vows for the Society of Jesus. To him, it meant that God had accepted his vows after all. It also meant that the Jesuits suspected he would not be leaving the prison alive. To be valid and binding, the vow had to be spoken out loud — in front of a guard who was very wary about this meeting between priests. Fortunately, Delp burst into wracking sobs, rendering his Latin words completely incomprehensible to the alarmed guard. That veil of spontaneous tears gave the priests a moment of space and time to conclude the ordination.  

Thinking about the prisoner calmed me down. He waited and waited too, alone in a little room for a verdict. And not for an hour, but for six months. And not in a thick soft cotton robe, but in handcuffs and shackles. And not for people trained to come and help, but for people trained to damage him and break his spirit. If he were here now, I’d play him a hymn. He’d pray for us both, and from what we know he’d think of something humorous and cheerful to say. What cheerful message might that be?

Knock knock. The waiting-room door! 

I threw it open. There was lovely Sarah, all beaming.  

I tackled a big hug around her. And just in case she needed me to babble at her, I said “Sarah! Sarah! If your news were complex I would be still more huggy and more grateful for all your kindness today. But it is this news instead. So God must have some other ending for me. Maybe it’s a harder ending. Maybe not. Who knows what or when that is? But today, my walking out of here — it does not mean He likes me any better than He likes any of your other patients.”

   “Well, look,” Sarah said. “I don’t get to give good news every day. So I say just run with it. Keep playing that psaltery! Go out there and do wonderful things for yourself.”

I rode the bus back uptown, and got out at my transfer stop. It was getting colder. The wind was picking up. It was too late for Mass. I sat on the bench for the next bus home, took out the psaltery, and played some hymns. One was the Nunc dimittis of Simeon the prophet, with words and melody composed in 1524 by Martin Luther. As someone who started out Lutheran himself, Delp would have known it too:

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, in Gott’s Wille… In peace and joy I now depart, by the will of God…

People at the bus stop came closer and listened. A little kiddo dropped 35 cents in my music case.

Home at last, a seven hour round trip. What a great relief and a comfort to pull off my adrenalin-soaked clothes and put my compressed magic-markered shape in a hot shower and to peel off the imaging stickers. I fixed some miso soup and tucked in to my blankie roll on the floor. While the wind rocked the trees outside I curled up to read With Bound Hands, all eager to learn the ending.

In 1945, the end of the war was only weeks away. There was a dramatic filmed trial (where is that footage today?). The judge, considered notoriously inhumane by his fellow Nazis, screamed at the accused so loudly that his voice kept wrecking the sound equipment. The prisoner was sentenced to death by hanging. The body was never recovered or returned; Heinrich Himmler issued special orders that it be burned, and the ashes poured down a sewer.

Without a grave, and so no place for pilgrims to visit and pray, no grassroots movement began for his canonization. After the war the remaining German Jesuits were too exhausted to gather the resources to promote and defend his case for sainthood. What’s more, by then questions were emerging about the stance and role of the Vatican and the Catholic Church toward the Third Reich, so the whole affair was quietly set aside. For the name Alfred Delp there is no place in a calendar of saints, or devotional litanies, or on icons. But it’s popular as a name for German grade schools, streets, care homes, and even a postage stamp.

An Alfred Delp postage stamp.

Father Delp wrote farewells to his friends, signing one letter to his mother “Your Big Troublemaker.” To a parishioner, he wrote “Do not let my mother tell ‘pious legends’ about me. I was a brat.” Before the execution, the Catholic chaplain Peter Buchholz visited his colleague to comfort him with the hope of heaven. Delp smiled and said, “In thirty minutes, I’ll know more than you.” 

On the feast day favored by German Jesuits for renewing their vows, Alfred Delp was hanged at 3:00 in the afternoon on the 2nd of February, the feast of a mother who walked up the steps to the waiting Temple, carrying her son all the way.

From “Figures of Advent,” December 1944:
The world is more than its burden, and life is more than the sum of its gray days. The golden threads of the genuine reality are already shining through everywhere. Let us know this, and let us, ourselves, be comforting messengers. Hope grows through the one who is himself a person of the hope and the promise.

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Theotoke Parthene, Khere! (Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, χαίρε)

At the Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday there was a fortunate find on the used book / goodwill offering shelf: a 1962 booklet of all the favorite Orthodox prayers. The book showed Greek text, phonetic spelling, and translation into English. Nice!

Last night after work I was strolling to the library cradling my new book, glancing down every few steps to start learning the Hail Mary, or Theotoke Parthene, Khere! — God-Bearer Virgin, Hail!

Then, running right across 6 lanes of traffic from the gas station convenience store, a young man began staggering and reeling all over the sidewalk.
A deep-level instinct alerted me that he did not have any negative intentions; but he had been drinking a great deal, and his actions and words were not balanced with wheels on the rails. Clearly he himself had no idea how to manage on the street, or how to react when he spotted me. My instinct advised that this encounter could take any of several outcomes. The instinct further directed me not to try walking or running out of the way, but to stop and stand square and balanced, hang on to the little book, and keep that Greek phrase of prayer firmly in mind no matter what.

He got in my face too fast and too close, with an excited monologue about having an item to sell. As he turned away to rummage in his bag, that gave me a moment to reach for some money and hand it over.

He was so amazed at ending up with both some cash and also his belongings that he launched himself at me with a huge hug.

Standing still I gave his shoulder a solid pat, but then drew his attention to the book. For a moment we stood under the street light reading the Hail Mary. He examined the Greek and English in surprise and interest. On hearing my explanation that this very same Blessed Virgin had wanted him to have this money, he went rejoicing, sprinting toward the gas station.

A good outcome, considering. It certainly reinforced the memorization of prayer for me.

Would you like to hear how “Hail Mary” sounds in Greek? Here it is, as the very opening of the prayer chanted here by Mr. Meletios Kashinda.

Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, χαίρε κεχαριτωμένη Μαρία.

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1/9/2022: Treetop

The sun came out on Sunday morning. After our wintry weather spell, that was a wakeup surprise. I ran right out and down the road for a picture of the trees on the hilltop catching the sun.

Two tall conifer trees, from the base looking up at the sky.

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1/9/2022: Granamere’s Children (rewrite)

Jordan in Produce asked me out on a date.

His invitation was a cherished high point in my time as morning cashier for our natural-foods grocery, where each day I’d show up half an hour early to learn the produce and how much it cost. Then I could ring up merchandise from memory instead of flipping through the price binder while the upscale customers fumed at me to hurry.

The produce aisle is where Jordan first noticed me. Soon he started telling how he chose and grew vegetables, citing research from his education at agricultural college. I was all avid ears and admiration; Jordan was living my secret dream of life on a family farm. Meanwhile, our co-workers noticed the two of us in rapt discussion in the break room. They decided that he and I shared a family resemblance: tall, fair, with red-brown curly hair and blue eyes. By then he and I were swapping mannerisms as well, being soft-spoken and attentive with a slow but ready smile. Soon, team members were calling out “Mary! Your cousin needs labels for the produce scale,” or  “Jordie! Your sister needs you to tote bags to some lady’s car.” When they heard of our picnic plan, they said “The Twinsters on a date? How cute is that! Oh wait — is that legal?”

All that week, my spirits soared in anticipation of our outing. I resolved to make it a great day for Jordan. I figured that on a picnic a man would expect a healthy ample smorgasbord of home cooking, as a courtship display to show how a girl will treat him once they are married. For most of the night before, I cooked and packed enough food for six people, so that Jordan could choose the foods he liked best. The forecast called for rain, so for our uphill hike to the picnic grounds I chose a no-nonsense heavy lumberjack shirt; sole-slappy sneakers that would look no worse soaking wet; voluminous combat “gas attack” army trousers with drawstring; vinyl chaps tied at the thigh; and to conceal it all, a long hooded capelike slicker. To save Jordan the effort of getting out of his car, I stood outside under the eaves half an hour in advance, holding our food. By then the rain was an Atlantic northeaster with high winds. When my punctual escort drove up on time, I was soaked to the skin. In the plastic satchel, the multiple paper wrappings were so sodden that I feared we’d be foraging our chicken legs off the floor of his car. 

   “Would you stop at Unity Church?” I asked. “I have Tupperware left there from a potluck. I’ll run in for it, then repack all this.”

   “Church?” Jordan checked his rearview mirror, signaled right, pulled over, downshifted, braked, and turned to me with unease and regret in those blue eyes. “I… don’t do church.”

   “Oh no, they won’t have services today,” I explained. “Saturday is just Course in Miracles book club upstairs. I’ll duck into the basement, and grab my containers.”

   “But… no, you see… I… I really don’t do church,” he repeated. “At all. No church.”

   “Sure. You can stay put here. I’ll just be a sec,” I promised.

At the parking lot, we saw that Course in Miracles Club had a remarkable turnout. Cars were everywhere. We had to park a block away for my dash in the driving rain. Tense yet still chivalrous, Jordan accompanied me to the dark basement. With fogged rain-sluicing eyeglasses and sopping hair, I groped through the meeting rooms to the kitchen and grabbed my jumbo punchbowl piled high with plastic containers.

A side door opened. Lights clicked on. A child six years old or so peered in, looking intently at Jordan, at me, at Jordan, at me. “Excuse me. Are you both…” The sight of us perplexed him. “Are you two relatives?

No wonder this observant African-American child thought two tall lanky auburn/blue Whites might just be related; our team certainly did. If this had been a grownup, I’d have said “Nah, we’re just people picking up our Tupperware. Enjoy your book group! Bye!” But because every young person deserves respectful validation, I said “People often ask us that. We do look like relatives, don’t we?”

   “Elijah!” A young African-American man looked in the door. “The young lady just told you that she and the gentleman are relatives. Who are we, to ask questions?”

   “Yes, Dada.” Elijah turned to me. “Miss, I’ll show you the way; you can come with me.”

   “Thank you!” Relieved to follow Elijah’s short cut, I rushed up the dark stairs. I was so eager to start our big date that I did not wonder why these members wore matching black suits and black ties with black polished shoes just for a New Age book club.

Elijah held the door. While stepping through I turned back to smile and nod at him. Then, still mopping my hair out of my eyes, I faced front and saw a coffin. The coffin proceeded step by step straight toward Jordan and me, borne up by pallbearers.

Clearly, our guide Elijah, reprimanded for asking whether Jordan and I were related to him, had ushered us to the sanctuary for family seating — front and center, facing the congregation.

The pews were packed. Everyone looked resplendent, in suits and dresses, gloves, scarves, pearls, pocket watches, brooches, corsages, dotted veils, and trimmed hats. Not so the two storm-tossed Caucasians. The hapless sidekick had turned whiter than usual as he plastered his back to the wall. The Clem Kaddidlehopper minstrel figure stood frozen, punchbowl in arms. To stop drenching the carpet I struggled out of my slicker, then recalled too late that the poncho was a vast improvement over the rest of my getup.

One of the gentlemen seated by the podium rose, and with kind hands on my shoulders gave me his own seat. He stepped to the microphone and opened a profound prayer of blessing on the assembly and his parishioner. He raised a touching tribute to the courage and sweetness and humor of this loved one and her wonderful influence on generations of family. Then other congregation members began standing to contribute their own recollections of their beloved matriarch, their Granamere. They told stories of gratitude and sorrow and joy.

At the edge of the minister’s seat I waited on tenterhooks, begging God for help in easing us out of here and leaving this family in peace. But meanwhile, with their testimony the open hearts of Granamere’s children opened my own heart. They tapped in to the loss of my two grandmothers years before. In this sacred space, a state of true mourning set in, moving me to copious tears. 

   “And now, Dear Family and Friends.” The minister turned to Jordan and me. “See how this young couple came to pay their respects. What a gift! Sister, come up here. Tell us how you met Granamere, and your memories.”

At that I wept so hard that I could no longer breathe, let alone share anything coherent about anyone. With Jordan hard at my heels I bowed to all, and ran sobbing out the door.

In the car, on our drive to the park, Jordan and I watched the road in delicate restrained stillness. His silence looked like inert shock. My silence was remorse. My sensitive companion had trusted me to understand that he did not do church — yet was dragged in to needless distress by my buffoon-caliber foolishness. His tactful restraint, with no word of reproach, should have earned a retroactive merit badge for the Eagle Scout sash he’d earned back in school.

We hiked up to the park shelter and shivered in a gale force horizontal rain, eating a cold drumstick apiece. We squelched back to the car for the trip to my group house. After a chastened and subdued parting I waved goodbye with the sinking sense that Jordan might never ask me out again.

Next day, our store manager invited me to turn in my apron and try some other career. Jordan joined a self-awareness training program called The Forum, and moved off to new friends and new interests.

Tonight an online search by his real name and hometown and alma mater turned up no trace of him at all. All I know of Jordan now is that after me, his dating life could have gone nowhere but up. My better-looking Doppelganger deserved happier times with the right person.

To the family from Unity Church: I am so sorry for disrupting your beautiful memorial. Your mercy toward me was a splendid tribute to your Granamere. To this day, in customer service work, it inspires me with patience when distraught implausible people burst across my path from the northeasters of life.

And you, Granamere: God grant we meet one day. Bright Memory to you!

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One New Year’s Eve

Moving Day!

Bill and Sarah pulled up with my boxes and me, to move in my stuff and then take me shopping for groceries and household goods. But then the downpouring rain turned to sleet. So with hugs and assurances of speedy return they leaped in the van for an arduous trek back to their seaside home. 

In an off-season housing market, just to stand here with bag and baggage waving goodbye in the freezing rain was a fantastic stroke of good fortune. It came about when a tenant moved out of a studio apartment, leaving a pile of trash and thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. Frank in Maintenance alerted Ella in Management. While Ella talked to Frank I walked in to her office, heard her half of the call, and wrote a check for first & last month and security deposit. Ella asked me for a one-month advance for phone and electricity, showed me the unit, and handed over the keys.

The apartment had small narrow rooms all in one line: kitchenette, bathroom, central room, alcove closet. Their windows faced west. Across a little courtyard, there was a close view up at six floors of windows full of neighbors with their TV and meals. In winter, the studio had shadowed daylight from 10:00 to 3:00. The other 19 hours, there were timed floodlights giving our courtyard an evocative Stalag Newsreel look.

I dedicated the apartment as a refuge of prayer and introspection, naming it Little Beje after Corrie ten Boom’s wartime sanctuary for refugees. I moved the boxes indoors, opened Bill & Sarah’s housewarming present, and laughed. They’d given me their mascot! Mr. Snakey was an inflatable nine-foot boa constrictor from the Museum of Science. Set up on my sleeping bag, he looked impressively lifelike.

Next I flicked on the light switches one at a time, then plugged in the refrigerator. Nothing happened. The landline phone, plugged in to its jack, had no dial tone. But thanks to Frank, the floors gleamed with fresh polyurethane varnish. The walls were slathered with fresh paint. So were the windows; they were sealed shut. The oil radiators had no off valve. They poured out dry heat and the roasted rancid-blood essence that hinted at cockroaches lurking in the pipes. The whole floor was crunchy with grout bits or paint chips. I grabbed a box lid as a broom and cleared the center room at a walking squat, moving each box at a time. Opening the hall door for light and air showed that the bits and chips were fumigated cockroaches — not lurking in pipes, but lying on their backs with folded multiple arms. That was great incentive to sweep the place corner to corner. Wrapping my hands with soggy advertising circulars from the lobby I scooped the whole rout into a garbage bag, then slipped and skidded across the courtyard to the dumpster. 

The gas stove worked like a charm. So did the faucets, but the water smelled like paradichlorobenzene mothballs. After running the kitchen taps for twenty minutes I made tea, took a sip, and gagged it into the sink. Then I slipped and skidded to the Store 24 on Beacon Street, and was thrilled to find distilled water, crackers, spongy grapefruit, and figs on the nearly empty shelves. With the Sunday blue laws, the store could not sell liquor. But the men in the long line snapped up soda, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, scratch tickets, and magazines in brown paper from behind the counter. Unlike me, they had spent their weekend not packing, but monitoring the weather service. 

Whiteout snow hit on the way home. There I stored the grapefruit on the cold bathroom windowsill. In the radiator heat I had to lock the door and drop all my clothes on a chair. To protect the pipes from freezing I turned on all the taps to a trickle. I washed up, and fixed oatmeal and tea while snow hurtled past the Stalag lights. Then for good air I put some clothes on, opened the hallway door, and set up for the night in the doorway with sleeping bag and Bible.

We had three blizzards in five days. The streets were silent; no people, no traffic noise but sirens, no trolleys on the Green Line. From a pay phone, a 40 minute round trip clamber away, I called my boss; he’d had to close up shop, and told me to stay home until after New Year’s. Other businesses were closed too. The drifts were 5 feet high. On side streets the plows could clear only one central lane both ways for cars and pedestrians to share, with blackening snow walls that lingered until April. Frank worked all hours on the roof chopping ice, or fixing burst pipes for tenants with no heat, or plowing snow from the doors. He promised to get my windows open soon.  

Every morning it was time to break camp, roll up the sleeping bag, and lock the door. Then I dropped all my clothes. (Naturism was soon a necessary automatic reflex, if naturists vacation all alone in small dark rooms.) With the cardboard lid I’d sweep up the cockroaches, re-robe, drop the garbage in the dumpster, and gather some pine twigs on the way back. The pine twigs went into a stock pot of water boiling all day with grapefruit peels and cinnamon to improve and moisten the atmosphere. There was always pease porridge to tend on the stove too, with legumes and seaweeds and grain from my boxes. Then after a dip in the trickling bathtub I’d wash the laundry and dry it on the radiator in minutes. With a pickle crock weight as a hammer I’d tap a wooden spoon all around the window frames, in hopes of a paint gap for fresh air. When the fumes and heat made my head spin, I’d get dressed and stroll a bit on the snow drifts. Then with the Bible and sometimes Mr. Snakey for company, and a bath towel over my head for the draft, I sat in my doorway to study, read, write, and meet the neighbors. 

But where was everybody? There was plenty of bustle in the building across the courtyard, but our floor had no one. Perhaps the other renters were students, at home for winter break? Only a couple of men traipsed through now and then, kicking the advertising circulars into a junkmail-mâché across the floor. I always said hello. They took one look at my setup and kept walking. 

By Christmas the dizziness from the fumes wasn’t going away, even outdoors. The trip over drifts to the dumpster needed a sitting rest halfway through. The cold in the hall felt shivery even with extra bundling up. The heat with the radiators felt feverish even with bathtub dips and clothing-optional living. It was fortunate that I didn’t have to go out, because then a sore throat came along with laryngitis, a cough, and shortness of breath. One night I was resting in the doorway with head wrapped in towels, with a fold tucked down to cover my eyes; the fluorescents had a painful glare, and my stomach queased up at sight of the mâché slush on the floor. It was stained by melted rock salt from the snowplows in two city-issue colors (cotton-candy pink, and inauspicious pea green). 

At about 3:00 am a rustling noise shook me out of a fitful reverie. Peeling back the bath towels I looked around blinking, and caught sight of Mr. Snakey. He was across the hall in the opposite doorway. While stumbling around feeling sick, I must have fallen asleep in the open door of the wrong apartment! In a panic I flailed around to an upright position against the door frame. “Oh no,” I tried to say. But this was my first human conversation in days; my voice was only a whisper.

To my delirious dismay, Mr. Snakey seemed to come alive. He yanked back his head, as would any sensible snake (a nine-foot python, as it turned out) when confronting a chill draft. A man appeared from inside, looming over us in the open doorway. With a few choice words he grabbed the moving snake and slammed the door. I wobbled up to my hands and feet, locked up, crept to the alcove closet, and verified that my boa was right where he belonged. (Yes, an inflatable boa is nothing like a live python, but don’t ask me how at 3:00 am in a fever.) Then, a breakthrough revelation occurred to me: because the bathroom was all tiled walls and floor, Frank hadn’t painted or varnished it! So that night I pulled my sleeping bag into the bathroom, closed the door, and had a restful sleep breathing well beside the trickling tub under a reassuring view of sky slice with star.

That day or next, a cheerful cricket noise rang out in the alcove. Phone service! The first call was from Bill and Sarah. All during the blizzard they’d been telephoning my inactive phone line, wishing they could pick me up to stay with them, or at least drop off some fresh produce; but by the sea the roads were still hazardous, and they’d had flu themselves. 

From then on, people called every day for long insightful conversations. “You are SUCH a wonderful listener,” said one girlfriend. “Nobody pays attention like you.”   
“Perfect conditions for attention,” I explained. “Snowed in. Very little voice. In the dark. No clothes.” 

The phone gave me a new daily ritual: calling the electric company.
   “Mrs. Washington here,” a customer service associate snapped. “Name and address?”
   “Hello Mrs. Washington.” I cleared my throat and croaked at her. “It’s Mary —”
   “Speak UP!” she barked. “How do you spell that?”
   “It’s M –“
   “Is that M as in ‘Mary’?”
   “Why… yes. Here is my address and unit number.”
   “What is the nature of this call?”
   “I paid Management on December 1 for the first month, but…”
   “EXCUSE me! We are under a SNOW EMERGENCY!”
   “Yes Ma’am, I see it out the windows. Just wondering, in a case like this —-”
   “Hold the line.”
After 25 minutes of Muzak, the call disconnected.

So did the other calls. I kept on dialing, night and day.
Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Jefferson, Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. Madison, Mrs. Buchanan all looked up my address and unit, then put me on hold until the call cut off. 

Finally, Mrs. Roosevelt let me know that the guy living here in Unit 3 before me had cheated thousands of dollars out of the electric company, and now they were in no scramble to light up my life. For all they knew, he was hiding behind a curtain and had put me on the phone. Now I would have to prove that I was me, prove that I was not him, prove that I was not in his cahoots, and that I was hereby renouncing all his vain pomps and works. “Only a supervisor makes exceptions. And they are all out with the repair trucks. To speak with one, you’ll have to call back.”

Mrs. Coolidge wanted a letter faxed to her with my previous addresses, signature, date of birth, and social security number.
Mrs. Eisenhower said I’d have to fax her a postmarked envelope showing my name and address. (Not that I had any; all my mail went to my post office box downtown. And I was too sick to walk to the mailbox and mail a letter from me to me.)
Mrs. Cleveland said that the fax needed to show a copy of the cancelled deposit check. (Not that I had one; the month wasn’t over, and the bank statement with cancelled check was going downtown to the same post office box.)
Mrs. Wilson wanted the fax to show a money order with a future deposit of $500. (Not that I could get myself to my own bank, which was probably still closed.)
Mrs. Harding wanted a past bill from some other utility company.
a copy of my lease.
Mrs. Truman wanted a government-issue ID with photograph, and a copy of my lease.

At least waiting on hold made a good meditation and stretching practice. Soon I could hum along to the different classical Muzak pieces while eating dinner or napping with the receiver tucked nearby.

On New Year’s Eve day I called again.
   “Ms. Jackson. State your name & address.”
   “Lo, Ms. Jackson.” I told it to her.
   “What do you want?”
   “Not a thing, Ms. Jackson. I’ve been calling about this account for a couple weeks. This is just to say that any day now it will stop snowing and I won’t always be sick, and then I’ll go out and find an open business with a fax machine and send you all the documents that you would like.”
   “What is the nature of your call?”
   “To say thank you. You have a high-stress job, and you’re saving lives in this terrible weather. And your Muzak! It’s all I have to listen here at home in the dark, and it’s LOVELY.” I started getting tearful. “So thank you. Happy New Year.”
   “Unh.” Pause. “Right. Bye.”

For dinner that day I made split pea soup. An empty potato chip bag turned up in one of my boxes; the crumbs gave a delicious seasoning accent to the meal. 

Eating dinner, I was longing for a church, a place with electric lights and people.

So I wrapped up warm with a bath towel around my neck and ventured out for the first time in days, down Beacon Street. Eureka! A large community church was open. In an upper floor all the lights were on. I hurried over snow drifts and up to the parish hall. About a hundred people were gathered for the service.

   “You’re here!” The organizers rushed to greet me at the door. “Thank goodness! Wait — aren’t you…? Well, the invited speaker couldn’t make it. Can you lead the meeting anyway?”
   “Meeting?” I looked around and saw the 12-Step slogan banners all over the walls. “Oh sure.” I was expecting a prayer service, but this was fine; I’d led many Anonymous group meetings before, including the mixed-program share-a-thons on holidays. “No problem.” Walking up to the microphone I greeted everyone, and suggested a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.
   “We welcome you, to this meeting of –” I opened the speakers’ binder. “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.” I stopped and looked up at the audience.
They looked back at me.
These hundred people came through snow and ice, who knows how far, for my story of experience, strength, and hope with this addiction.

First, in keeping with Program standards of complete honesty, I let them know precisely how qualified I was to serve as their speaker.
Well now.
Then we had us a moment of silence for sure.
Then, they laughed.
Soon laughter rolled through the hall in waves.
People would start to calm down, take another look at me, and start laughing all over again. They laughed until they were weeping, slapping their sides or waving their hands in surrender.
   “Were you gonna walk into just ANY meeting?” one man called out in friendly fashion.
   “Meeting?” I said. “I thought this was Vespers!”

That set everybody off laughing all over again. While they did, I thought: Come Holy Spirit; this would be a fine time to give me an idea of what to tell these good folk. Finally I said “But aren’t we all here for the same reason? Isn’t it just human, to want to find safety and comfort, and also connection with other people? Isn’t that how we got here? Isn’t that how we can come together right now, this evening? We’re not alone; we made it here. We are in good company. We have wisdom and stories to share, and that starts now.”

So people shared their stories and treatment plans and recovery. There was a lot of adversity and courage and wisdom and cooperation in that room. It was a great meeting. And then people joined hands and said the Serenity Prayer, and gathered around with coffee and cookies and punch before saying goodbye. The gathering did my heart good.

That week, my flu got better.
Frank fixed the radiator valves and got the windows open.
Bill and Sarah took me to my favorite thrift stores and then to the Food Coop.
As the snow began to melt, neighbors showed up out of nowhere.
Here I’d been feeling down, thinking everybody else was off on vacation. But no. Some were hiding in their units all scared and wanting their Social Security checks, pain meds, baby formula, chemotheraphy. There must have been some way to help them. If only I’d put up posters in the hallways, or asked Frank to give out my phone number!
After that big snow, one lovely frail couple had to be taken to a nursing home. They’d survived World War II together in Belarus, and were so overjoyed to find a Russian speaker that they begged me to come for a goodbye visit, to have tea and view their photo albums.
What a life lesson for me! There is always more that one can do, to get out and meet and check on our neighbors.

But meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, the walk home from that SLAA meeting was beautiful. The air was cold and clear. In some places the snow still had some glitter to it. At Store 24, they had bananas and yogurt and lettuce for sale!

Locking my door at home I dropped all my clothes in the dark, put the groceries on the windowsill, fixed some mint tea, and sat watching six floors of neighbors together enjoying their TV shows and parties.

The sound of early fireworks sent me running to the bank of windows. I stretched up against the glass, peering at the scrap of sky in hopes of color and flash. 

Instead, at midnight, the electric company made a judgment call. The First Ladies — Martha, Dolley, Mamie, Lady Bird, et al. — turned on my lights. All of the lights. Happy 1993!

I hit the floor out of public view. I shimmied into my sleeping bag, zipped it up to my chin, teetered upright against the wall, and hopped around in the bag long enough to turn off all the light switches with my chin. Then crawling out of the bag again I moved my yogurt and lettuce from the windowsill to the humming refrigerator. Then I drank a tea toast to the electric company, humming their best piece of Muzak.

You can hum it too. It’s the Intermezzo instrumental interlude from “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni.

Happy and Blessed New Year to Everybody!

Mary

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New Year’s Eve, 12/31/21

This picture shows a snow scene on water with a clear sky, and tall evergreen trees.

Here was the Eastern sky today at sunset. When choosing one song out of many to fit this scenery on a reflective New Year’s Eve, I gave up and chose two instead. Here they are.

Song 1: “ИНОК” духовный стих

Artists: Лазурно-золотой Берег Запредельного “Azure-Gold Shore of Beyond”

“ИНОК” (Inok, the Monk) is an Old Believer folk song from the Altai region. My Russian isn’t good enough to catch most of the words. But apparently a monk is walking through a green field of flax, weeping and sobbing over his fate. In the refrain, “Cherno-Rizyi” means “O Monk (literally, O Black-Cassock).” The song ends with a prayer to the Theotokos, Queen of Heaven.

The Siberian music group Azure-Gold Shore of Beyond are proficient in many traditional instruments and songs. They also study the teachings of Sri Chinmoy.

Song 2: “Wintergatan Soundtrack 01 – MUSIC BOX, HARP & HACKBRETT”

Artist: Martin Molin

Martin Molin invents his own music boxes and other instruments, then composes music to fit. He and the Wintergatan music collaborative then post the music on their channel.

Off to work on a New Year’s story to post here…

Best wishes and blessings to all of you in 2022! – Mary

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