12/25/22: Christmas spelled in small threads

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Night to you all!

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12/24/2022: Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12/3/2022: Dressing for the weather

Autumn trailed away with some nice parting views.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/20/2022: Stolen Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “They took the stage set to Delaware?”

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

   “The tree too?”

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

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

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

   “We missed Maple before that,” said another.

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

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

   “Center Square, Sir. Last stop.”

   “Stay put while I loop around.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at that, the set turned on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/17/22: Family Notion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/14/22: Holiday Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11/3/22: ASL Slipped Through My Fingers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10/28/2022: She Moved Through the Fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren threw the van keys at his chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow! In anything I’ve –?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seemed like a pretty good idea at the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mrs. Wing’s treasured plant, until today

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

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


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