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tree jar(2)What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. – Plutarch

A winter storm bore down hard on the Persimmon Tree Lodge Bed and Breakfast overnight, surprising even the meteorologists. They had assured us hours before that we would get something festive and superficial—the lightest sprinkling of powdered sugar to freshen the ski slopes. Instead, shrieking harpy winds and a curtain of wet snow swept over the county, blotting out the electricity from time to time and leaving my night manager, Raul, and me trapped in the lodge overnight.

Raul napped at the front desk, confident that no one would attempt to check in on this mad night. But I was fearful of leaving my three sleeping guests to the possibility of no lights and no heat. So instead of walking to the owner’s cottage 20 yards away, I napped on the sofa in the main lodge and fed the fire in case the power went out for good. I’d felt mildly claustrophobic for the month and a half since the Lodge’s grand opening. After the initial flurry of transforming a defunct Girl Scout camp into a bed-and-breakfast lodge, the magic was gone. This freak snowstorm had buried the last of it in heavy, icy snow.

At dawn, the wind subsided. I prepared breakfast for my guests, who were excited about the snow and hungry for cranberry nut pancakes and gallons of hot coffee. As they left the dining area tables and gathered in front of the fire, I cleaned up quickly. I wanted very much to go lock myself inside my cabin, but I could hardly abandon Raul. He should have been able to clock out and leave at 7:00 a.m., but he was stuck here until the snow plow came through and cleared the road.

I also knew I should work harder to amuse my guests until the snow plow passed by. If they were too miserable, they might cut their visit short and check out. Pleasant as it was to imagine them gone, bills must be paid. I gritted my teeth and left the kitchen to join them.

Sylvia Lang, a 20-something who seemed charged with more energy than she could safely handle, and the Colliers, a couple in their mid-60s, chatted in front of the fireplace. So far they still saw the snowstorm as a fun adventure. Since they were occupied I decided to plan lunch.

The one bright spot in this dismal day was that I would have to feed everyone until the snow plow reached us. I was apparently a washout as an innkeeper, but I still loved to cook.

I pulled on my parka and high-stepped through the snow to my cottage. Phillip, my morose maintenance man, had cleared the walks twice since 7:00 in the morning, so it could have been worse. I raided my personal freezer and pantry for non-breakfast foods and lugged the box of provisions to the back door of the lodge kitchen. Naturally it was locked.

I shuffled through snow to the front walk, and entered in the main lobby. “Food for lunch,” I explained to Sylvia, Raul, and the Colliers. Mr. Collier perked up.

I pushed my way rear-end first through the swinging door to the kitchen. I had a loaf of homemade bread from the freezer and several cheeses, plus I had scored four gallon-sized freezer bags of Brunswick stew. I peeled the frozen stew out of the bags and into a stock pot and set it over low heat. I would serve the soup with grilled four-cheese sandwiches.

It was tempting to stay in the kitchen, but I forced myself back to the lobby. All was still serene. Phillip had been in, tracking dirty snow and bark as he brought in firewood. I fetched a Swiffer and wet cloth and mopped up his tracks.

I had never intended for people to stay inside the lodge for this long. Persimmon Tree Lodge was meant to be a cozy refuge between bouts of casual winter sports and shopping excursions to the town of Blowing Rock. My role was to provide lovely guest rooms, a delicious breakfast, and hot tea with fresh cookies in front of the fireplace in the late afternoon as guests drifted in from hiking, shopping, or skiing. They were to sit in front of the fire and enjoy a snack before showering and changing for dinner in town. That was my vision. Not this.

After our soup-and-sandwich lunch, the guests moved back to the sofas in front of the fireplace, and I kept them supplied with hot drinks between cleaning up the kitchen and trying to plot out a more substantial dinner. Mr. Collier checked the depth of the snow every hour and reported the results with tedious regularity. Sylvia told the Colliers that she was making a fresh start, having abandoned a boyfriend and a job as a horticulturist at a botanical garden in Memphis. “I want to tend a smaller garden, something shaggy and natural and a little wild,” she said. She had come to Blowing Rock to clear her head and ski until she figured out her next move. I made a mental note to check that Ms. Lang’s credit card payment had gone through safely.

Mrs. Collier explained they were here to add to her collection of dried-apple dolls and look at antiques and quilts and folk art. I could tell that the ladies were nearly at an end to the possible avenues of conversation, but the mere thought that I should be organizing fun activities sapped me of strength.

Sylvia mentioned the possibility of bundling up and taking a short hike up the path to St. Agnes-in-the-Woods Church, which looked down on the lodge from its loftier height and was picture-postcard adorable—one of the reasons I’d chosen the old Girl Scout camp property. I was desperate for them to go do something, so I lied.

“Legend says the church is haunted.” I tried to dredge up a convincing detail, and remembered an actual fact. “On Christmas Eve, the Christ child disappeared from the church nativity scene and has never been found.”

“Never found,” Raul repeated mournfully from behind the front desk. “A Baby Jesus that fits the manger will cost my church $210. Plus taxes and shipping.”

Mrs. Collier clucked, though it was Mr. Collier who was small and birdlike. Mrs. Collier reminded me of an iceberg, with her twirl of white Dairy Queen hair in a peak representing the visible and her voluminous wraps—soft skirts, tunics, and shawls—concealing the more massive real estate below.

“Your church should have a bake sale,” Sylvia suggested. “You’d raise the money in no time. Grace could make some of her wonderful tea cakes or scones and donate them to sell!”

I could?  Raul looked doubtful, too—over the bake sale in general, or in the role I would potentially play, I’m not sure which. “I didn’t know you went to St. Agnes,” I said to Raul, hoping to divert the conversation.

Sylvia Lang said, “We should always help each other when we can. I feel all givey and Christmassy right now. Don’t you think it feels like Christmas Eve?”

It was mid-January, for God’s sake.  

“It does!” Mrs. Collier agreed heartily. She is a hearty iceberg, the type that could sink even a sturdy, triple-steel-plated ship.

“Let’s draw names for a gift exchange!” Sylvia’s lethargy seemed cured. Her eyes shone maniacally in the firelight. I wondered if her new life involved running from a criminal past.

Mrs. Collier turned her head to consider this idea, then clapped her hands once. “Let’s do!” she said. “Raul, can we borrow some paper and a pen?”

Raul had been gazing dejectedly at the snow falling. He snapped out of his reverie and pulled out two sheets of Persimmon Tree Lodge stationery and pens.

“We can’t just draw names with three people,” Sylvia said. “Raul, you and Grace will have to draw, too!”

Like Phillip, Raul always looks gloomy, and now he appeared as unenthused as I was. But these were my precious few paying guests, and I did need to make an effort to keep them happy until the final feeding of the day, so I said, “That might be fun.” I looked meaningfully at Raul, and he nodded.

Sylvia and Mrs. Collier wrote names down on torn slips of paper. Phillip came in to tend the fire again, and Mrs. Collier said, “Oh, our good fire keeper must play, too. What’s your name, dear?”

Phillip looked at me. “This is Phillip,” I said. “Phillip, our guests are pretending that it’s Christmas, and we’re going to draw names and give each other presents.” It sounded remarkably stupid when explained, so I half-expected the scheme to fall apart right then. It did not.

“How are we going to shop?” Phillip asked, glancing toward the window. “I cleared the driveway, but the road to town isn’t cleared yet.”

“Fourteen and one-third inches!” Mr. Collier announced.  

“Oh, we’re not going to shop,” Sylvia said. She was fired up over this Christmas idea. The tips of her spiky dark hair trembled, glistening with some exotic gel. She seemed electrified. “We’re going to find things around the lodge to give each other. We’ll use imagination and creativity.”

“Great fun,” Mrs. Collier said determinedly.

“You find something for me to give, Eunice,” Mr. Collier said.  

I snorted. It had suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Collier was a penguin, and when threatened by a predator he leapt nimbly, comically, onto his iceberg wife. I had seen penguins do that on the Nature channel, and it tickled me every time to see them pop straight up out of the water and onto the ice.

Sylvia held all our names protectively in her long, white hands. Raul, in a fit of creativity of his own that I would not have expected, handed her a canoe-shaped basket that I kept on the front desk. Sylvia dumped the slips of paper in and mixed them with delicate flicks of her fingertips.

“Okay,” she said, “be sure you don’t get your own name, but don’t tell whose name you draw! It should be a surprise.”

I picked last. Sylvia. Great.

Sylvia made up the rules: “The gift must be something here in the lodge or around it. Wrap it as best you can, and meet back here at the fireplace at 4:00.”

Four o’clock was tea and cookies time. It was 1:55 now, and I still had to come up with a suitable dinner for six people. I crushed the Sylvia paper in my hand and tossed it into the fire.

The guests left. Even Mr. Collier disappeared. I looked at Raul and Phillip. “Here are my rules,” I told them. “No lodge property may be given away. No office supplies, no complimentary mini-toiletries, no food from the kitchen. Got it?”

They nodded. Phillip went back outside. Perhaps he would present his giftee with a special piece of firewood. Raul stared thoughtfully into the fire, then went behind the front desk. Sighing, he poked through the trash can with a pencil. I left him to figure it out and went into the kitchen to devise a dinner menu.

My anxiety and irritability began to melt as I peeled and diced sweet potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water, marinated a semi-frozen pork tenderloin in white wine and fresh garlic, and rinsed turnip greens. I had brought over several jars of homemade applesauce from the cottage; they would be perfect with the pork. As I prepared the food, lulled into serenity by the combination of humming refrigerators and a breath of cloves and cinnamon, my shoulders unknotted and I grew happy again—until I completed my tasks and began to think about the need to conjure a not-Christmas present for Sylvia. I put on my parka and nodded to Raul, still sitting glumly behind the front desk.

“I’m going outside,” I said. “You can look outside for something free, too. Pine cones or whatnot.”

“It is fine,” Raul said. “I am thinking.”

The snow had finally stopped. Something about the complete stillness, the stark whiteness, the feeling of being cut off from everyone and everything in the world, made me want to scream. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so deeply dissatisfied.

I followed Phillip’s boot-tracks to the lean-to that protected our firewood. Phillip himself was nowhere to be seen, but he had his own hideaways on the property. He was probably in the old barn, with his tools and equipment. It had a little woodstove, and I could see a thin line of smoke coming from the vent pipe.

I looked at the firewood. What the hell was I doing? Taking inventory? All right then. I noted that Phillip had arranged lovely rows of cut oak and pine from deadfall, there was a large stash of purchased cordwood, and tucked in a far corner, an ancient rotting bushel basket held kindling. It was so orderly and abundant that it lifted my spirits, until I realized I had forgotten my mittens. I yearned for them passionately.

A slender, nearly straight offshoot angled down from one of the oak logs, interrupting the symmetry of Phillip’s stack. I took the base of the offshoot in my hand and wrenched it, twisting it around until it broke loose. Freed, it became a magic wand. I closed my eyes and wished fervently, like Sylvia, for a new life. I closed my eyes and waved my oak wand in the air.

Nothing changed. I clambered through the snow back to the lodge and found Sylvia in my kitchen. “I’m snagging some of the leftover coffee,” she explained. She took away the entire half pot of strong, stone-cold morning brew.

I sat on a wooden stool in front of the food prep island and contemplated my oak stick. I felt as if were the only thing I had to hold onto—a sort of handle for the world.

The stick was about 15 inches long, and slightly thicker than my thumb at its base. I peeled the bark away, at first idly, then with more purpose. Like the sudden yearning I’d felt outside for my mittens, I now felt the lack of a magic wand in my life. I was determined to make a real one. I went to the barn and filched wire clippers and sand paper. There was no sign of Phillip.

Back in the kitchen, I put the pork tenderloin in the microwave to finish defrosting. At first I could hear noise from the guest rooms, which I supposed were the sounds of everyone seeking out and preparing their gifts. I thought I heard a distant blow-dryer. Then I became too absorbed in my project to hear anything.

I clipped the handle end of my wand to even it, then sanded it smooth. I whittled a bluntish point at the other end with a paring knife. Even with the sand paper, I couldn’t get all the bark off, but what was left gave the wand character. I had a marker in a drawer that was meant for touching up scratches on the cherry kitchen cabinets, and I used it to stain the unbarked parts a deeper golden brown. I had not felt this sort of deep happiness since the day I had placed the last vintage mixing bowl on the shelves in my dear kitchen, and had looked at it all from the height of my step-stool and felt a surge of pride in all I had accomplished.

I threw my parka back on, ran home—Phillip had cleared the walks again—and dug out a bottle of gold nail polish. It had been a mistake as nail polish, but it was perfection for adding metallic details to the wand: a ring of gold near the handle end, a dot of gold at the tip. I held the finished piece in front of me. It was brilliant.

While the polish dried I preheated the oven for the afternoon batch of cookies and put the kettle on the stove for 4:00 tea. I was humming. Until it occurred to me that I was preparing 4:00 tea and that meant my not-Christmas deadline was an hour and a half away, and I still had no gift for Sylvia.

I ran out to the front desk. Raul still sat there. “Did you find something?” I demanded. “Whose name did you draw?”

“I cannot reveal this. It is secret.”

“What am I going to do?”

But Raul’s dark eyes held no answers, and I realized that I was going to have to make a terrible sacrifice.  “Hand me the stapler,” I said. “Please. And the hole punch.”

Raul lifted the Swingline and with an expert, one-handed gesture he opened it to check the magazine. “It is full,” he said.

I took the stapler, then stopped and looked at him directly. “Dang, Raul, I’m lucky to have you working here. Phillip, too. You both do nice work. He is a wizard with the firewood, and frankly I appreciate the fact that you keep the printer full of paper, and the stapler fully loaded, and you never complain even when you probably should. Thank you. You’re wonderful.”

“De nada.” But Raul almost smiled.

“Why don’t you open up the East Room and get some rest in there? You don’t have to work tonight, of course. I’ll stay in the lodge, and if you like you can stay all night in the East Room. But I’ll pay you for overtime.” He flashed a real smile and took the key.

Back in the kitchen I made an envelope to hold the wand, using two lengths of parchment paper stapled shut along the sides. The back piece of paper was several inches longer than the front. Maybe Sylvia will leave it when she checks out, I thought, as I punched holes in the long end, then corresponding holes in the short end.  I folded the long piece until the holes matched up, and threaded a bit of kitchen twine through to close it with a bow. I used more nail polish to decorate the envelope with what I considered to be magic swirls. I was ready for not-Christmas.

Just before 4:00, I took a plate of dark chocolate walnut cookies and the tea tray to the lobby. By the time I returned with tea cups, my three guests had gathered in front of the fire. Sylvia’s hair looked more electric than ever. She had changed into a long-sleeved red t-shirt with a giant snowflake on front. Mrs. Collier had also changed. She wore an odd purple knitted shrug over a black turtleneck. The noise of everyone gathering in the lobby brought Raul out of the East Room to join us.

Before I could change my mind and run away with my lovely magic wand, I handed the parchment envelope to Sylvia. Her eyes grew large and dark as she pulled the wand from its wrapping. “How did you know?” she breathed. “This is magnificent! Gosh, Grace, I had you pegged as a Muggle. How could I be so wrong?”  Sylvia flicked the wand toward the fireplace, and as if in response the bottom log shifted and broke apart in a fury of red sparks.

“Ohhhhh.” Everyone laughed. Even me. It was impossible not to share Sylvia’s delight.

“My turn.” Sylvia handed Mr. Collier a soft package wrapped round and round with the high-quality toilet paper I stocked in the guest rooms.

As he unwound the wrapping, we were all amused to see Mr. Collier tuck it incrementally into his right pants pocket. “Well, you never know,” he winked. Finally he pulled an exotic silky scarf with an interesting tan pattern. It reminded me of Indian batiks, or the henna patterns on Indian women’s hands. Sylvia explained that she had tie-dyed her white muffler using leftover coffee, then blew it dry with her hair dryer. “It might have shrunk a little in the process,” she admitted. “But I wanted a masculine look. And see? It’s even got your initial. Sort of.”  Sure enough, she had managed a rather crooked Gothic “C” on one end. “I think that’s where I used my barrette on it,” she said. “I ran out of rubber bands. A happy accident.”

“Look at that!” Mr. Collier exclaimed. “Now that’s a neckerchief that will keep me warm and won’t show the dirt.” He wrapped the scarf around his jowls and grinned. We all grinned back.

Phillip came through the front door with two chunks of firewood and a misshapen bundle, a little bigger than a breadbox.  He handed the package to Raul. “Merry Christmas,” he said, in all seriousness. 

“Muchacho,” Raul said awkwardly. He turned the bundle over in his hands, giving it a judicious squeeze. Phillip had wrapped the gift in a piece of newspaper fastened with silver duct tape.

“Well, open it!” Mrs. Collier said.

Raul did, and we were all stunned mute.

“Where did you find it?” I asked Phillip.

“Resting in the cedar tree above the pump house. I walk under that tree a hundred times a day, but I didn’t see it until about an hour ago. I walked to the pump house to try to find a gift, and a clump of snow fell right on my head. I looked up, and there it was. I guess the wind blew it down this way.”

The Christ child, missing from the St. Agnes-in-the-Woods manger scene since real-Christmas Eve, gazed up at Raul with disconcerting knowingness. “We’ll give it back to the church, of course,” Phillip said. “But it was the only thing I could find.” He gave me a sideways glance.

Raul wrapped the Christ child, whose composition swaddling clothes did not seem sufficient cover for a January snowstorm, in the newspaper up to the neck like a homeless guy’s bottle of booze and laid him gently on the hearth. “You have saved my church $210,” he told Phillip. “It is truly a wonderful gift.”

Raul straightened and looked at me solemnly. “This is an auspicious occasion,” he said, “and so I seek a favor from you, Grace. Would you allow my niece, she who is to be married in April, to have her wedding reception here at the lodge?”

“She’s getting married at St. Agnes?”

“Yes. St. Agnes does not have the room for gatherings—a hall. There is no hall. But if my niece Miranda could get married at St. Agnes, then the wedding party could come down the path to the lodge and meet here for the cake. There does not need to be dancing.”

I pictured the wedding party, led by a bride in a floating white veil, coming down the path through the trees to the lodge. “How many should the cake serve?” I asked.

Raul dazzled us all with a smile. “You will make the cake!” he exulted. “This is auspicious, so auspicious. I will be the greatest uncle.” He cleared his throat. “Now I have my gift for Mrs. Collier,” he announced.

Mrs. Collier gasped and leaned forward.

Raul held nothing in his hands; he didn’t reach into a pocket. “I have composed a couplet,” he said gravely.

Mrs. Collier appeared as if she might levitate. “You did?” she whispered.

Raul nodded. “Allow me to recite.”

Raul’s Couplet

I am hoping very much that your Christmas is merry,
With gifts piled high—too many to carry.

Mrs. Collier made him repeat the couplet twice more while she wrote it down on lodge stationery. Like Sylvia with her oak wand, she was nearly beside herself with delight.

“Look at you,” I said to Raul.

When she finished the transcription and had hugged Raul savagely, Mrs. Collier handed a bulging, fuzzy striped sock to Phillip.

“It’s a clean sock,” she said anxiously. “The mate had a hole in the heel, but I’ve always loved those socks so I packed them for this trip anyway. And it turns out that was auspicious, too, because you see I unraveled the sock with the hole, and added yarn from this sweater, and made you a pair of mittens to fit into the good sock, like a stocking. I noticed you weren’t wearing any gloves when you brought the wood in, so I thought they might come in handy. I guess they look a little silly.”

“Thank you,” Phillip said. And then he surprised me very much by stroking the sock as if she had given him something uniquely valuable. He fished the mittens out of the sock and held them up. They were an interesting mix of striped sock yarn and Mrs. Collier’s purple sweater – explaining why it was now an ill-fitting shrug.

“You sacrificed your sweater!” Sylvia exclaimed. “That is so ‘Gift of the Magi.'”

“I hear the snow plow,” I said.

Through the large front window, we saw the headlights of a county snow plow churning up the road past the lodge. “You should be able to get out of here now,” I said. “I expect you all have cabin fever.”

“Hey, now, don’t forget about your gift!” Mr. Collier handed me a small package wrapped in smoothed-out newsprint. Inside it was a paperback book about gardening: Cottage Garden Magic.

“Picked it up in town yesterday at Reread Books,” he said. “I just thought the cover was mighty pretty. But the funny thing is, it has your name on it! Look at those first coupla pages. It’s on one of them.” 

I found the quote on the title page.

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. ~ May Sarton

“Oh, Grace is crying!” Mrs. Collier said in her hearty way. “It is nice, isn’t it, dear?”

“I’m not crying,” I said. But in fact the firelight blurred into starry suns when I looked at it. I said, “I have a pork tenderloin in the oven, so everyone is invited to stay for dinner here, if you like.”

“Dinner here!” Sylvia yelled, waving my wand madly. “It’s Christmas! We want to be home for Christmas! ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly….'”

“’Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!” the Colliers sang.

“Stop waving that stick around,” I told Sylvia. “It’s wreaking havoc.”

I watched my wand wistfully, as Sylvia ignored my request and darted about the lobby, continuing to confer magic.

“Sylvia, I wonder if you would like a job here?” I heard a voice say. It was my voice. “You could be my activities director during the winter, and garden beginning in the spring. I’d been thinking about putting in some herbs and flowers, and organic vegetables.” I held up my new book. “A cottage garden.”

Sylvia stopped spinning. “And plan garden activities all summer long—not just for guests, but for anyone in town, with a small fee paid for snacks or something? And in winter we could do pinecone crafts and make natural Christmas decorations for a gigantic tree!”

And we would need to decorate the lobby and arrange tables for Raul’s niece’s wedding reception. The lodge could become the unofficial fellowship hall for the church.

As if she had read my mind, Sylvia lightly tapped my head with her magic wand. “Grace, it will be fabulous! You are a goddess.”

And in that precise moment, I was.

END

Note: Originally published in January 2013. Sometimes re-runs are fun.

Yves Klein: October 1960

Yves Klein: October 1960

That’s the artist Yves Klein jumping off a building in the photograph above. Taken on October 19, 1960, the photograph is titled The Leap into the Void.  The first time Klein leapt, he broke an ankle. It’s my understanding that he considered that first jump—taken months before the October leap—the one that really counted. He jumped again to document the performance, and the second time there were people below holding a tarpaulin in which to catch him. He later created (or his photographers created) a photo montage that made him appear to fly.

I once tried to learn how to fake-levitate. I studied the Balducci method, which involves balancing on the toes of one foot, while the other foot, the one closest to your small, carefully positioned audience, is raised two or so inches off the floor. What the audience sees is a person who is no longer standing on the ground, and you must come down quickly so that they don’t have a chance to look too closely. I had understood that levitation was an illusion, but I was still disappointed, because I was the audience I wanted to convince. I couldn’t quite master the technique, anyway—I don’t have solid control over my toes.

I believe that a little low-level flying or floating would make up for a lot, and Yves Klein did, too. He was obsessed with levitation and floating. In fact, Rebecca Solnit writes about this in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She says that Klein was obsessed with “flight, levitation, and immateriality as well as the sky and the color blue….”

Solnit adds, “[H]e seems never to have stopped being a child in some ways, spoiled, petulant, impatient with restrictions, but also festive, generous, playful, and imaginative.” I think it’s nice of her to include some of the positive characteristics of being a brat.

On his obsession with the color blue, Solnit writes: “In 1957, Yves Klein painted a globe his deep electric blue, and with this gesture it became a world without divisions between countries, between land and water, as though the earth itself had become sky….”

My favorite books feature characters who spend a lot of time alone (or nearly so) with the sea and sky: The Old Man and the Sea, The Life of Pi, Diary of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Ahab’s Wife. Again, it’s about floating.

Ernesto and I spent a lot of time floating in the Gulf of Mexico during our August vacation, even after his mother sent us a message warning of the possible presence of a deadly bacteria in the Gulf. The water was equal parts blue and gray, sometimes rough. We tried very hard to recreate the sound of the waves, but we always ended up sounding like windstorms or shushing librarians or static.

We were working on our surf-noises when the most amazing thing happened. At the same time, we both spotted a reddish, gold-tipped cylinder bobbing in the waves, heading toward us. “What’s that?” Ernesto asked, and I knew at once what it was, because I had been waiting for it my whole life. “It’s a cork in a bottle!” I said, and I raised my arms and danced toward it through the water as fast as I could, hoping that the message inside the bottle would still be legible.

It was not a cork in a bottle. It wasn’t even a cork without a bottle. It was an empty shotgun shell.

Klein died two years after The Leap into the Void, at the age of 34. “Though he was tragically young,” Solnit writes, “His life looks like a meteor, a shooting star, a complete trajectory across the sky, a finished work of art.”

I will never be compared to a streak of light across the sky; I have always been more moon than star. The proof is in my own Leap into the Void­-style photograph from the very same month and year as Klein’s: October 1960. Face, belly, matching knees: it’s as if milk-white moons aligned to create a child.

Daddy and me, October 1960.

Daddy and me:  October 1960.

Still, I believe that even at age one I was contemplating my own possible leap into the void. Certainly I was already floating—rather too close to the power lines, but still. And like the bottle I have always wanted to find in a deep blue sea, I carried a message that I am still trying to figure out how to deliver. Maybe all I need to do is gather my courage, bunch up my shirt, and fly.

IMG_1683

This is how I see it: All the barns, grains bins, and corncribs of Dorchester County broke faith with the red clay, hoisted up their porches, and sailed. The barns made their way cross-country, timbers creaking, drifted to this place where, once arrived, they stood shoulder to shoulder, stern, empty, and blind. Now they are settled on a warm counterpane of pine.

The writer John Simmons has said, “[C]onstraints can liberate your writing. They’re a creative stimulus.” He invented a constraint of his own, the sestude, a 62-word poem or prose piece. I needed a creative stimulus to come up with some sort of text for the photographs that I took of the Indian Field Campground in Dorchester County, South Carolina. There is no good way to describe the place, which was like nothing I had ever seen before. 

 I decided to try to write one sestude, and ended up with two. They don’t do justice to the campground, where 99 wooden structures encircle an open-sided worship pavilion called the Tabernacle. The camp meeting season is in October, when members live at the campground for a week, eat good Southern food cooked on wood stoves, visit with family and friends, and attend (or avoid) the frequent worship services in the Tabernacle. The gathering began in the 19th century as a way to celebrate the end of harvest and revive the faithful.

IMG_1684

Here’s the remainder of my own small harvest:

I watch clouds snap across the sky
Like white prayer flags
While some jackleg preacher,
Claiming to know what’s in my heart,
Reveals an awful lot about
His personal shortcomings,
And the limits of his own goodness.
Anyway.
We’ll sing a hymn, then disperse;
Return to campsites, none the worse,
And enjoy a bite of dinner.
I’m here for the fried chicken.

 

 

 

chicken (2)

Photo credit: My niece, Anna Singleton.

In May 2002, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies hosted a conference about chickens:

The Program in Agrarian Studies is pleased to announce the international conference entitled The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets. The three-day conference will bring together over 75 scholars, agronomists, public intellectuals, chicken growers, workers, industry representatives and activists from the labor, farm, animal welfare, environmental, and public health movements, whose work has helped to define and to change what we know about chickens and their production and consumption.

o   Over 15 diverse panels and plenary sessions!
o   Food, films and documentaries!
o   Advocacy information and book tables!
o   Concurrent chicken-related exhibits at Sterling Memorial Library and
the Yale Art Gallery!

Isn’t that a charming description? It’s presented with such enthusiasm and so many exclamation points that I know it was a great success. I was proud to see North Carolina well-represented at the Chicken Conference, with experts from East Carolina University and NC State University making presentations. I didn’t read far enough to know who was speaking on the subject of the chicken in myth and literature, but I do know that Chanticleer and the Little Red Hen were on the agenda. And isn’t the idea of concurrent chicken-related exhibits interesting? That’s what inspired me to collect some exhibits of my own, because I have a fairly long history with chickens, myself.

In fact, I made my acting debut in first grade as the Little Red Hen, wearing a full-head mask made from a large brown-paper grocery sack. That was my earliest experience with chickens in literature, and it is nice that the Little Red Hen held the moral high ground in that story, because in general chickens don’t. A year earlier, as I helped my grandmother gather eggs from her little coop, I had tried to imitate her confidence and reach beneath a hen to extract her eggs. But before I could get my hand in position, the gimlet-eyed chicken in the nesting box coolly leaned forward and pecked me—hard!—on the upper lip.

I wasn’t permanently scarred by that experience, and when I was about 20 years old I got a summer job in a commercial hen house, collecting eggs for pay. I was better prepared this time around, with a tobacco stick that I could use to knock the roosters down if they became too confrontational, and an athletic sock with the toes cut out to wear on my arm for protection against henpecks. I went up one side, and then down the other of the long, low metal building, placing the eggs in large plastic flats that stacked on a sort of trolley that hung from an overhead track and could be pushed along as I went. It was a wonderful job. One morning I found a passel of newborn kittens in a nest. Then the weather got really hot, and the Grim Reaper reaped him a bunch of hens and not long after that the egg season was over.

Those commercial hens were large and white, and they pecked my athletic sock with a vicious little twist of their beaks when I reached under them to get their eggs. Our hens (as in the photo above) are approximately the color and size of footballs. They aren’t aggressive or angry, but they do sometimes raise their wings and hunker down, as if they are about to do something drastic and painful. It appears to be only a pose.

At the moment my chickens can do no wrong, because they have begun to lay eggs! The eggs are mostly small, although a few have been full-sized (and usually double-yolked). Because of this bounty, I am in a mood to salute the chicken—in literature and on the nest—with some odds and ends I scratched together.

1.  “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams. It is as simple and pure as a hard-boiled egg:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

2.  M.F.K. Fisher once said: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” If you want to risk invading the privacy of an egg in a violent way, there is a trick that you can try. Place an egg in your hand and, holding your arm out straight, squeeze as hard as you possibly can. The physics of it is that as long as you keep your arm perfectly straight, you can squeeze until you’re red in the face and the egg won’t break. But if your elbow bends, even the slightest bit, the egg will explode and a great deal of egg yolk will go all over everything, including in places where you won’t find it for years. So if you want to try that particular trick my advice is to go outside and do it several yards away from the house.

3.  Speaking of tricks, here’s Flannery O’Connor: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathe News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

4.  Apparently E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Once and Future King, had as much trouble with his flock as he had writing fiction: “I don’t know which is more discouraging,” he once said, “literature or chickens.”

I vote for literature, since at the moment I am happy with my chickens.

5.  And here is the pearl of my collection, from Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse:

…I feel as if I should never move again. I have run faster and farther than I have done since I was at school. You have no conception of the difficulty of rounding up fowls and getting them safely to bed. Having no proper place to put them, we were obliged to stow some of them inside soap boxes and the rest in the basement. It has only just occurred to me that they ought to have had perches to roost on. It didn’t strike me before. I shall not mention it to Ukridge, or that indomitable man will start making some, and drag me into it, too. After all, a hen can rough it for one night, and if I did a stroke more work I should collapse. My idea was to do the thing on the slow but sure principle. That is to say, take each bird singly and carry it to bed. It would have taken some time, but there would have been no confusion. But you can imagine that that sort of thing would not appeal to Ukridge. There is a touch of the Napoleon about him. He likes his maneuvers to be daring and on a large scale. He said: ‘Open the yard gate and let the fowls come out into the open, then sail in and drive them in a mass through the back door into the basement.’ It was a great idea, but there was one fatal flaw in it. It didn’t allow for the hens scattering. We opened the gate, and out they all came like an audience coming out of a theater. Then we closed in on them to bring off the big drive. For about three seconds it looked as if we might do it. Then Bob, the hired man’s dog, an animal who likes to be in whatever’s going on, rushed out of the house into the middle of them, barking. There was a perfect stampede, and Heaven only knows where some of those fowls are now. There was one in particular, a large yellow bird, which, I should imagine, is nearing London by this time. The last I saw of it, it was navigating at the rate of knots, so to speak, in that direction, with Bob after it barking his hardest. Presently Bob came back, panting, having evidently given up the job. We, in the meantime, were chasing the rest of the birds all over the garden. The thing had now resolved itself into the course of action I had suggested originally, except that instead of collecting them quietly and at our leisure, we had to run miles for each one we captured. After a time we introduced some sort of system into it. Mrs. Ukridge (fancy him married; did you know?) stood at the door. We chased the hens and brought them in. Then as we put each through into the basement, she shut the door on it. We also arranged Ukridge’s soap-box coops in a row, and when we caught a fowl we put it into the coop and stuck a board in front of it. By these strenuous means we gathered in about two thirds of the lot. The rest are all over England. A few may be in Dorsetshire, but I should not like to bet on it.

So you see things are being managed on the up-to-date chicken farm on good, sound, Ukridge principles. This is only the beginning. I look with confidence for further exciting events. I believe, if Ukridge kept white mice, he would manage to knock some feverish excitement out of it. He is at present lying on the sofa, smoking one of his infernal brand of cigars.

From the basement I can hear faintly the murmur of innumerable fowls. We are a happy family; we are, we are, we ARE!

P. S. Have you ever caught a fowl and carried it to roost? You take it under the wings, and the feel of it sets one’s teeth on edge. It is a grisly experience. All the time you are carrying it, it makes faint protesting noises and struggles feebly to escape.

P. P. S. You know the opinion of Pythagoras respecting fowls. That ‘the soul of our granddam might haply inhabit a bird.’ I hope that yellow hen which Bob chased into the purple night is not the grandmamma of any friend of mine.

____________________________________

Note: I am deeply indebted to Chickens in Literature, my source for the Wodehouse excerpt and the Flannery O’Connor quote. The site also has amazing chicken illustrations. Go look for yourself, and enjoy a truly fabulous chicken-related exhibit.

In the meantime, here’s a peaceful picture of our very first eggs. Don’t they seem to glow?

Redbud eggs

Yes, it isn't pretty, but the crust is homemade.

Yes, it isn’t pretty, but the crust is homemade.

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

Lily

Lily

If we didn’t live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I’ve no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged. – Virginia Woolf

I take this quote to mean that living dangerously and teasing wild goats keeps you young. I have to take issue with that opinion, and would add that clearly V. Woolf has never known an actual goat. Because to pluck a wild goat by the beard would, it seems to me, be one of the more fatalistic moves one could make. I mean, there is living dangerously, and then there is plucking goats’ beards.

My parents’ next-door neighbor has been keeping small goats to eat underbrush at his place. The most recent candidate was a bit wild; he had a genius for escape and enjoyed roaming free between his home and my parents’ farm. The first time Ernesto and I saw him, he was grazing in a small field between the two properties. As we drove slowly past, I made a comment along the lines of, “There’s Bobby’s new goat, isn’t he cute?” The goat raised his head, and we both were both stunned. He was a little fellow, shaggy and white, but he had enormous horns and a black, stringy beard about a yard long. Ernesto said he was such a cartoon-character of a goat that he should be called Capricorn.

Several weeks later we had Easter lunch at the farm. My sister, Holli, and her crew had not yet arrived, but it was 2:00 and folks were getting restless and one nephew had to drive back to Chapel Hill to work, so we sat down at the dining-room table to get started. We sat in front of long windows that look out over the front of the house—the pond, the driveway, the field between the farm and the neighbors.

“Look, there’s a goat,” Robin said. It was Capricorn, heading up the driveway at a determined trot as if he were going home. We all watched and laughed as he trotted along, wondering what had riled him up.

About that time, Holli’s van pulled into the main driveway and began ambling toward the house. As we watched them bump slowly up the drive, the goat cut in front of their van, and veered right.

The van stopped. Then, instead of continuing to the farm, it turned left into the neighbor’s driveway.

“What are they doing?” I asked the table.

“Maybe they want to tell Bobby that his goat’s loose.” We all laughed again—the goat was never anything but loose.

A couple of minutes passed, and then the van came out of Bobby’s driveway and turned back onto the main road toward the house. It followed the winding drive, and just about the time it was in the home stretch, here came Capricorn, galloping toward the house as if racing the van.

He won, too—but of course the goat had taken the short cut across the front yard. He pulled up and stood stiff and trembling, glaring with yellow-eyed hatred at the van as four people and two dogs disembarked.

“Wow, he’s really giving them the stink-eye,” Robin said. He was. He looked as if he might attack the van, the dogs, the people, indiscriminately, but he only stood there, upper lip curled, until they had all disappeared through the garage and were safely inside the house.

We laughed so hard at that goat—but only because we were inside the house. He really didn’t look like a goat to be trifled with.

A week ago, Ernesto went to the livestock auction in Liberty and purchased three nanny goats of our own. He and my dad drove them from the trailer into the corral, where they stood around looking hyper. When approached, they melted through the corral fence like it wasn’t even there.

Catching a goat is no joke, and for some time the three of us tried to herd them gently back through the slats of the fence and into the enclosure. Things were not looking good, especially at the point when they went around to the front of the house and discovered how tasty the rhododendrons were.

Eventually we did get back them into the corral, and then we backed way off so they wouldn’t feel threatened and bolt back out. My dad offered to go back home and get a reel of barbed wire to string between the slats of the fence, and he left.

Ernesto and I stood around in the back yard, looking at the goats from a distance. There is an older white goat with brown spots that looks a bit like Mamie Eisenhower, a young cute goat who looks something like the older goat and may in fact be kin, and a brown goat that from a distance could be mistaken for a small deer. We’ve named them Iris, Lily, and Rose, respectively. They don’t look dangerous, but they aren’t exactly cozy to be with, either.

While my dad was fetching the wire and the goats were corralled, if not exactly secured, we received company. Two neighborhood dogs, Australian shepherds, arrived to help with the herding. They streaked across the back of the property and into the corral, causing the goats to run to Ernesto for protection. Behind the two dogs came three small boys, who somehow collected the dogs, took them back to their own pen, and returned to the corral in about fifteen seconds. The boys gathered at the fence to watch the goats. They were constantly in motion, climbing the fence to sit on top, going between the slats and then back out again, standing on the bottom rail to get a better view.

“You got some new goats,” the 8-year-old told me.

“We did.”

“Can we pet them?” the 6-year-old asked.

“Not today. They’re feeling sort of nervous. Let’s give them time to settle down.”

The boys accepted this and observed the goats quietly for several minutes before scampering back homeward. “We’ll come back tomorrow!” they promised.

Ernesto went into the house to fortify himself with food. I believe he had forgotten to eat lunch in the excitement of buying goats. Meanwhile, I put some cracked corn into a bucket and went into the corral with it. The goats came toward me, and I managed to lure them into a stable and latch the door shut. When my dad came back, he and Ernesto were able to reinforce the fence without fear that the goats would flee again.

Now the goats are feeling a little more at home, I think, and they each have a nice new collar and Ernesto even took Iris, the tamest of the three, for a walk on a leash. Neither of them seemed to enjoy the outing, though. Still, the collars are useful for holding onto the goats when they need medicine to cure their diarrhea (Iris).

I can tell you one thing: We won’t be plucking their beards or messing with them in any such impertinent way. You look at a goat’s eyes—they are amber and glassy as ice, with a disconcerting black slash of a pupil. They do not look at you. They look right through you, and from their expressions what they see is not pretty.

Anyway, I’d like to see Virginia Woolf pluck a goat’s beard. I don’t believe she could do it.

 

Iris and Rose

Iris and Rose

Mules 004

May 2014: Mule-A-Rama, a sort of rodeo held in the tick-infested woods of Kimesville, NC.

I thought that it was too early for ticks–surely they should wait until June to become a nuisance– but I have now had my first of the season. And it was fierce.

My father says that the way to remove ticks safely and easily is to coat them with Vaseline, wait 10 minutes, and then pull them off. “It makes them slick, though,” he added.

I guess it does. But as I said to him, I am unwilling to share space with a tick for an additional 10 minutes, even to wait for it to be smothered in petroleum by-products—a just and fitting end, if ever there was one. But I need the tick gone at once.

That was the problem in this case, because evidently while I was pulling savagely at his hind parts, the tick was clinging to my flesh for dear life and, no doubt from anxiety, pumping more of his toxins into my blood. So while I won the battle, I am afraid that the tick has won the war. I have a large red welt that itches, burns, and rubs against clothing in a way that is difficult to bear. It’s a constant reminder of the diseases that ticks carry, and how loathsome they are even if they are free of taint.

I sulked for most of one whole day about my bite, but as the day grew later I knew that I needed to sit down and write a letter to my friend, Ruby. So I sat down, and tried to think of some interesting news so as not to fill two pages with details about my tick bite.

Unfortunately, my tick bite was dominating my entire world. In my misery, I thrashed around trying to think of something to say, and my thrashings loosened a scrap of paper. I had torn it in half to use as a grocery list, and on the non-grocery list side I had printed out a poem by Mary Oliver, called “Praying.” Here.

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones, just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

And then I remembered that I was writing a letter to Ruby, my friend, and all I needed to do was patch a few words together and open the door between us. Prayer is about connection, and so is letter-writing. It really isn’t a contest; it’s a patchwork of words to express gratitude for someone’s presence in your life.

This made me feel more cheerful.

But my tick bite still itches like the devil.

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