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Saying Good-bye

In memory of Hedrick Isley, with love and gratitude for sharing his tobacco barn with us kids.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. North Carolina farm boy in doorway of tobacco barn. Person County, North Carolina. North Carolina Person County, 1939. July. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017772109/. (Accessed September 17, 2017.)

It appeared to June Ellis that her Easter vacation was about to be ruined in several different directions and on sundry levels.

“It’s going to be a spectacular Easter,” her daddy declared several weeks in advance. Then he casually delivered Easter’s death-blow: “Your aunt and uncle from up Cincinnati way are coming to spend spring break and Easter weekend. You’ll get to meet your only cousin, Ethan!” He held up his palm for a victory slap, but June ignored it.

Distance had been her cousin Ethan’s single attractive quality. Four months her senior, throughout the eight years of their nearly consecutive lives he had naturally reached many important milestones before June could. He had talked, walked, and sprouted a tooth first, then he had taken up piano lessons and soccer. June was sick of hearing about his achievements.

Now he was coming here, to her part of the world, and at the season that she most loved. She knew his coming would add nothing and could only diminish the pleasure she took in egg-dyeing, egg-hunting, and having her picture taken in a new dress in front of the lilacs. Sharing these things would turn all her joy sour.

“I don’t want company at Easter,” June said. “I love Easter the way it is, by myself.”

“You’ll love Easter even more with a little company,” Daddy said. “You and Ethan can dye eggs, and have a real egg hunt. Won’t it be nice, having someone to find eggs with? A one-girl egg hunt is a mighty lonesome thing. In fact, it’s pitiful.”

“I thought I might do my egg-dyeing early this year,” June said. “Maybe this weekend.”

“You’ll wait for your cousin Ethan,” Mama said flatly. “Now finish your supper.” Where Daddy would cajole, employ sweet-talk, and tease, Mama forged iron rules and regulations that came down hard and left a mark.

After supper June climbed up the tier of logs inside the old tobacco barn at the edge of the woods. The barn had not been used in decades except to shelter the lawnmower and garden tools, but it still smelled faintly of sweet golden leaves. At the top of the tall, narrow barn was a tiny window, a fine observation post. Daddy had fastened a sturdy board across two of the upper logs to give June a platform. He knew she loved to look out that window, so it made sense to give her a more secure perch and save her from leaning over to the window from one of the side tiers. Even with this improvement June’s mother was lobbying furiously to have the barn torn down before someone got hurt.

But June relished her view over the house to Weddlesville Road. When she looked to the right, the road ran straight and true for three miles, ending at State Road 79, a mostly rural  byway that meandered from the town of Ark to the south until it reached the more bustling city of Grantham, 75 miles north.

To the east, Weddlesville Road curved into green woodlands and disappeared. Presumably, the road led to Weddlesville. June had never gone in that direction in her entire life. Church, school, commerce—everything of value was located somewhere on or near State Road 79.

State Road 79 also brought Ethan and his parents. June sized him up in a day and a half. He may have been four months older, but he was no taller than June and not one bit bossy or arrogant despite his age advantage. He did not offer to play a tune on the piano, and June got her own way during the egg-dyeing and decorating project. She kept her management low-key so as not to arouse adult displeasure, but Ethan proved agreeably compliant. He had strong lungs and turned red with blowing out the raw eggs—always a difficult task. Besides this, he revealed himself to have excellent taste.

“Now, that’s a real egg,” he said, holding up an egg that June had decorated with glued-on bits of tissue paper and metallic gold pen. “If you’ll let me have that one, I’m going to put it in a jar and keep it.”

June was flattered, and said he could have it. Her mother found him a wide-mouthed Ball jar with a two-piece lid. Ethan padded the bottom of the jar with a little grass from an Easter basket and nestled the egg inside.

“Why in a jar?” June asked. “Why not put it in your Easter basket?”

“I always want to preserve things that I like where I can see them.”

Ethan’s voice was husky and low. June imagined that he sounded like the state of Ohio. He seemed exotic, somehow, though he dressed the same as anybody. There was something about the light in his clear gray eyes, the life in his dark bristly hair, that reminded her of Weddlesville Road—a mystery, unknown and unknowable.

She found her animosity toward him unsustainable. After their egg-dyeing and a riotous three days of hiding, finding, and sometimes crushing eggs, she had shown him her platform at the top of the tobacco barn. They were there now, having finished Easter dinner and changed into their regular clothes.

“Where do you reckon that road really goes?” Ethan asked. He was crammed uncomfortably into the window with June, but she couldn’t push him out of the way without risking both their lives, since their platform was thin and a slip would take one or both down a good 25 feet into the dirt below. Not that the fall would kill them, but it would surely hurt and Mama would pitch a fit and no doubt have the barn sealed shut.

“Goes to Weddlesville, I guess. That’s why it’s called Weddlesville Road. Stop moving, Ethan. This window is too small for you to be twisting around like that.”

“You ever been?”

“No.”

“Wonder what it’s like.” He turned toward her, and she noticed again that his gray eyes had a strange light in the back, as if stars in a distant galaxy shown there. “Let’s go find it,” he said.

The minute they turned the corner and were out of sight of the house, the air felt cooler and foreign. The abundant greenness of the woods pressed at them from both sides; tendrils crept toward the asphalt and climbed the road sign posts. June chose to walk down the center line of the road.

“We’ll hear a car coming from a mile off,” she promised.

“What if it’s an electric car?” Ethan wondered. June moved toward the shoulder, and they walked on the painted line at its edge.

“We ought to build a summer camp out here,” Ethan said. “Have you ever been to camp? I’d like to run my own place. We’d have nothing but fishing and boats, swimming and horses. You could run the arts and crafts part. We might have to dig a pond.” He spotted something in a thick tangle of deadwood and weeds near the ditch, and down he went to see about it.

“It’s a balloon!” he said. “Who’d be having a birthday party out here in the woods?”

“Probably it just blew here from somewhere else,” June said. “From Weddlesville, I guess. Maybe there’s tons of kids down there that I could be playing with. Maybe I’ll go to the next birthday party they have, if I ever meet them.”

Ethan extracted the balloon from the ditch, a procedure that ate up a bit of time and required careful untangling of the long blue ribbon that was snarled among the deadwood. Finally the balloon popped up into the air, only slightly low on helium, and Ethan’s eyes glowed with triumph. The balloon bobbed and dipped on the ribbon, and then a light gust of air seemed to raise it up, and up it stayed.

June expected Ethan to release the ribbon and let the balloon fly free, as if it were a live wild thing. Instead, he tucked the end of the blue ribbon firmly into his front jeans pocket and let the balloon jerk along beside him.

“You don’t have many neighbors, do you?” he said. “I guess it’s not much fun during the summer, being all alone most days. But I’ll come back when school’s out, and we’ll get started on our camp. Don’t worry. Having a cousin is better than having a next-door neighbor, because we’ll always be kin.”

The road wound up a good-sized hill, and the cousins felt more hope with every step that at the top they would finally see their destination. But when they reached the summit, they saw only more woods and some abandoned fields further ahead.

Ethan began to generate explanations. “Maybe Weddlesville doesn’t really exist,” he said. “Maybe it got swallowed up in a sinkhole, like in Florida, or a tar pit, like in California. Maybe it got vacuumed up by a UFO. Maybe all this kudzu and mess covered it up and strangled the life out of all the people. I bet—”

June stopped walking and held up her hand. “Stop rattling, Ethan. Be quiet for two minutes.”

Ethan stood still and was quiet for thirty seconds before the silence ended.

“Good afternoon, sir!”

June and Ethan lifted their heads like bird dogs. They realized that they stood at the corner of a yard. The front lawn was nearly indiscernible for a riot of growth at the corner—periwinkle and creeping phlox; loose-limbed forsythia; thick, wild azaleas; ungroomed beds of past-blooming daffodils and hyacinths—all of it mixed in with an encroaching green-woods growth that blurred the edges and threatened the stability of a small section of driftwood-gray fence. June peeked through a gap in the waving arms of forsythia and discerned the corner of a small white house. She detected movement, heard a creak, and realized that a man must be sitting on a porch swing. 

She looked at Ethan, who stared back at her. They were entirely concealed by the shrubbery and overgrowth—how could he have known they were there?

“Hey!” Ethan said, uncertainly. He hiked up his hand and waved, causing his captive balloon to dip its broad, silvery head in a clumsy bow.

“Where you headed?” the man called.  He sounded grandfatherish and perhaps a bit deaf. “And what you got there on your face? Tattoos?”

He had mistaken the balloon for a passer-by. June sat on the ground and closed her eyes to keep from hooting. Ethan grinned but remained composed. June admired him and wondered if there might be a decided advantage to an extra four months of maturity.

“Yes, sir,” Ethan said, in his most gravelly Ohio voice. “I’m working for the circus. We’re… I’m trying to find Weddlesville. Am I about to Weddlesville?”

The porch swing stopped creaking. “Mister, you’re up to your assbone in Weddlesville! The town limits run right through there. Now, the center of town is about two miles further up, but you won’t find no circus there, nor nobody to buy ‘ary a ticket.”

June snorted wetly into her hand, and Ethan coughed, loud and hoarse, to cover it up.

“Well, reckon I’ll head on back, then,” he said. “Thank you, now.”

“Don’t you want to come up here on the porch and have a cold drink before you start?” the man asked. June imagined that the man had to hide and find his own Easter eggs, too.

The sound of a car coming up the road made Ethan and June look back. It was Daddy, with Uncle Scotty. The car slowed as it approached.

“Thank you,” Ethan said, in a hurry. “Best be getting on,” and to June’s wonder and eternal delight he pulled the ribbon from his pocket and loosed the balloon.  It drifted up slowly and bobbed drunkenly below the redbud tree. They heard the man on the porch swing exclaim, “Gah!” before the swing creaked crazily as he thumped into the house.

June and Ethan ran back to meet the car, and jumped in the back.

Daddy tried to look stony. “What in the world are the two of you doing? And why, when you’ve been caught in a flagrant act of truancy, are you grinning like possums?”

” How do possums grin?” Ethan asked. ” We just wanted to see Weddlesville.”

“Weddlesville, is it?” and Daddy kept straight, finished the two miles, and they found Weddlesville was mainly an abandoned country store and a broken-down, decrepit grist mill near a pond of thick oily water. Across the road from these features was a tangle of wild woods. A slice had been carved into the trees, a section of shoulder mowed, and within this alcove a large sign read:  “Rustic Meadows. Home lots from $30,000.”

“Oh, me, I should say it’s rustic,” Daddy remarked. “Nothing but rust and ticks for miles.” He looked at the children in the rearview mirror. “What have you all been doing? Taking laughing gas? You sure do have the sillies today. Too much Easter candy, I expect.”

Up to your assbone in Weddlesville, June mouthed at Ethan, and the two stripes of color in his cheeks turned a deeper red and his eyes closed as he surrendered to the hilarity.

* * *

Monday morning, Ethan and his family were to begin their drive back to Cincinnati. Ethan had a jar with June’s egg in it in the backseat with him, and another jar that June hadn’t seen before. “What you got in that one?” she asked, and he held it up for her to see an old Atlas mason jar with a heavy screw-on lid. Inside was a copy of the photo that Mama had taken of the two of them in their Easter clothes in front of the lilacs. June felt something strange inside her lungs, like she needed more air.

“I’m going to go to the barn to watch your car go up Weddlesville Road,” she whispered.

By the time she reached the barn window, the car had pulled out of the driveway and turned right toward State Road 79. Ethan had unsnapped his seat belt and leaned out the passenger-side window to wave.

“Bye!” he hollered, leaning out as far as he could to see her. “Didn’t we have a time?”

“Bye!” June yelled back. “We sure did!” She saw Ethan’s mama turned around in the front seat, trying to get him back inside and buckled up. Then all she saw was the back of his dark, bristly head and the gleam of a jar in his right hand.

“Bye,” she said, again. She stood alone at the tobacco barn window, and when she could no longer see the car she looked to the left, toward Weddlesville. She stood there dreaming, wishing that she had a jar that she could keep Ethan in. Maybe she would get a copy of that picture, too. But she wouldn’t put it straight into a jar, as Ethan had. No, she would cut out their figures, letting the lilacs fall. She would get a square of fresh white paper and draw her own background of greenery and flowers, a section of driftwood fence, and put in a silver balloon rising up toward a redbud. Then she would paste the June and Ethan figures in that new setting, place the picture in a jar, and preserve their trip to Weddlesville forever.

June looked toward State Road 79. It was empty now. Her tobacco barn window seemed mighty big. June rattled in it like a loose tooth, grieved and aching, and certain to end up lost.

END

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Image source unknown.

As the world prepares for the solar eclipse, I am feeling like the main character in Corduroy Mansions:

Was anybody’s life straightforward, he wondered, or did one have to go into a monastery for that? To be a monk and keep bees and make wine for the abbot and lead a life of quiet order and contemplation. Was it still possible, he wondered, or had the world become too complicated, too frantic, to allow such peace of mind? – Alexander McCall Smith

Honestly, having the moon blot out the sun isn’t exactly making an already fraught time more restful, is it? I don’t feel completely comfortable about the special glasses I ordered from Amazon, either, even though they are approved by NASA and haven’t been hastily recalled and don’t seem to be scratched—but who can say? Is staring at the sun really such a good idea?

This is only one of the reasons why peace of mind feels elusive; other reasons are obvious if you read the news. So I am doing what I can to gather about me some bits and pieces of comfort, which won’t protect my eyes but may soothe my troubled spirit. I offer them here for anyone else who needs them.

***

First, I am pursuing meditation with a whole heart. I have learned that peace of mind is always available if we will only sit still and wait for it to catch up with us. The trick is to give it half a chance by not rushing around and doing things. So when my choice appears to be to either explode or start breathing into a paper bag, I turn to meditation. It is the simplest form of prayer. All that’s required is to focus your full attention on your breath as it goes in, and goes out. Since I began meditating daily about three months ago, my blood pressure has descended into much safer territory and Blue Cross/Blue Shield is excessively proud of me, at least judging from the messages they send me every time I log my blood pressure into their Healthy Outcomes website: “Congratulations, Vicki! You’ve got this!”

Meditation is like unplugging and powering down. Remember when Eric Clapton unplugged? “Layla” was my favorite song when I was in high school. I loved it so much that I called up radio stations and requested it all the time, that’s how much I wanted to hear it. (Evidently I didn’t want to hear it badly enough to buy the album; I only bought Fleetwood Mac and Elton John.) Anyway, decades later when Clapton performed the song on an acoustic guitar for the show “Unplugged,” I was appalled. What was “Layla” without the hot electric intro? Well, it was lovely. The unplugged version was as wonderful as the more frantic original, plus I understood the lyrics clearly for the first time. Being unplugged mentally is like that, too. Things are slower, clearer, and more meaningful. It’s the difference between watching a stone skip across a lake in silver flashes of light, as opposed to letting the stone drop into a deep, clear well and following its progress all the way down down down to the bottom. In fact, those exciting silver flashes of light may just be the warning signs of high blood pressure.

Of course, there are fancier ways of meditating, using guided meditation scripts and an app that allows you to listen to recorded scripts. Some time ago I printed a meditation script for compassion and placed it in a notebook where I tuck things that I want to keep, things like ridiculous news items, recipes, and e-mails that I print to read off-screen. Last week when I decided I needed to meditate on something more than my breath, and I pulled the meditation script out of the notebook, took a deep preliminary breath to relax, and read:

“Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.”

I had pulled out a recipe for tomato butter.

Cooking is a lot like meditation, though. Follow the steps with your full attention, and in the end you will gain peaceful acceptance, a jar of delicious tomato butter, or possibly both.

Here is Mary Oliver’s excellent guidance, from her poem “Praying.”

…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.

***

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend in St. Louis:

Speaking of eclipse, how is it going to be out your way? Of course, Jefferson County and Southern IL are right in the path of the eclipse. They are expecting 300,000 people in IL and MO for it. I am taking the day off and spending it with my neighbor and Valerie at a winery that is not too far from my place. It is only 33 degrees off from being perfect. They are expecting 400 people that day and the fun will begin at 9 a.m. So now we just pray for a sunny day. 

I am praying for a sunny day and that Rachel’s special glasses are good ones and haven’t been scratched. But I can’t help being delighted to know that, as the moon travels across the sun, in the St. Louis area it will be only 33 degrees from perfect.

Speaking of eclipse glasses, which are occupying my thoughts constantly and stealing my peace of mind, my sister asked her younger son, Will, if he planned to view the eclipse in his part of the country (Denver, Colorado).

“I guess,” he said.

“Don’t look directly at the sun,” my sister warned.

“So how am I going to see it?”

I am now praying for Will, too.

***

Here is a quote that I saved and need to memorize for my own self-improvement.

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts. –Pema Chödrön

I will try in the future to wonder how other people are doing and to make sure that I’m not causing damage through my own words and actions. If we all did that and stuck to it, probably we could—slowly and with concentrated effort—move the world to about 33 degrees from perfect.

These fragments I have shored against my ruin.

Be safe out there.

Fragments of unwritten country songs seem to fall into my lap. Most of the time I end up saving them as-is, going no further than to marvel at their spirit, but once in a while I can squeeze an entire verse out of a sentence that strikes me as worthy. It’s amazing how often the people around me talk in country song language. Here are a few examples:

Pat was telling us about one Christmas in Vermont when a neighbor struck and killed a deer near her house. He came to the door and asked Pat’s husband to come help with the dressing of the meat. Pat described this to her daughter, who had called just before leaving to travel home for the holiday. Her daughter said, “Let me get this straight. We’re having roadkill for Christmas.”

This very morning Pat came to work with a picture of a creature she had passed on her way to her car. In a parking lot. In town. “Look what was in the parking lot!” she said, passing her phone for us to see. “I think I have a crawdad near my house.” You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey.

Neighbors are always a rich source of material. Talat described one of her former neighbors who led a very independent life, but who did have a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means. “They take nice vacations together, cruises….” She shrugged. “Well, he’s got the money, and she’s got the time.”

It’s a match made in heaven
Like mojitos: rum and lime.
He’s got the money, honey;
She’s got the time.

(Now that I think about it, “a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means” has rather a nice lilt to it, too.)

This spring, Jeanne helped plan and execute a lecture and small reception that featured Diane Rehm. Later, I asked her via email, “Hey, did you get to actually meet Diane Rehm?”

She responded right away. “YES!!!!  She is tiny and pretty and wore stiletto heels. She held my hand while she drank champagne. Lovely.”

She held my hand while she drank champagne
And my heart whirled up toward the sky
I might have been holding a bird in my hand
And I prayed that it would not fly.

I prayed that it would not fly away
I prayed that it would not fly,
I held her hand while she drank champagne
And prayed that she would not fly.

Lovely, indeed. Don’t you agree? You don’t have to.

Julie, too, is often involved with special events. She recently managed one that involved lunch at Point A followed by a short bus ride to Point B for a tour of a new building, after which the bus would bring everyone back to Point A. One of the guests arrived terribly late and asked that her lunch be packed in a to-go box so she could take it along. Sadly, she left the box on the bus while taking the tour, during which time the bus driver determined that he had a spot of engine trouble. He drove back to the garage and traded to a better bus to complete the trip. A minor fuss ensued when, upon getting back on the bus, the hungry guest discovered that the boxed lunch was gone. Julie shook her head. “She left her lunch on a broken-down bus!” she said.

“She Left Her Lunch on a Broken-down Bus (and the Sandwich Was Made of Ham)”

I haven’t been able to get further than a title for that one, but isn’t it a fine title?

Finally, we were enjoying a little family dinner with my nephew, recently returned from a semester abroad. We had Hursey’s barbecue and chicken with the appropriate sides, supplemented with some items from my parents’ fridge. Daddy set out a dish of dill pickles and jalapeno pickles. As we finished eating, he asked if anyone wanted the last of the jalapenos.

My sister said, “I don’t want to take your last one.”

Daddy said, “Oh, I’ve got more in the pantry. This the just the last of the ones that were in the refrigerator. I like my hot pickles cold.”

Daddy has opinions on the news;
I don’t always share my Daddy’s views.
Sometimes we come to disagreement,
And our voices start to rise,
That’s when Daddy turns the tide
With words both calm and wise.

He’ll tell me:
I may not know everything or very much at all,
The limits of my knowledge are not wide, nor are they tall;
I don’t know where we’re headed, who is wrong, and who is right—
But I know exactly what I like.

I like my iced tea good and sweet,
I like my coffee strong and bold,
I like red-eye gravy with my ham,
And I like my hot pickles cold.

I have my own opinions on the news,
And Daddy doesn’t always share my views.
Now, I am seldom calm and only very rarely wise,
But like my Daddy, I know what I like.

I like my coffee topped with cream,
I like my green tea cold, with lime,
I like to watch the nighttime sky,
And I like to play around with rhyme.

Now Mama claims no interest in the news,
And she prefers to not share all her views,
But I’ve been watching Mama all my life,
And I know pretty well what Mama likes.

Mama likes to sleep late when she can,
She likes to win the family Scrabble prize,
Mama likes Duke basketball a lot,
And Mama likes to laugh until she cries.

We all like watching baseball in the spring,
(The Braves are going to win the Series yet.)
Sometimes we like to sit around and sing,
And we like fishing every chance we get.

Well, yes, I did get carried away with that one. There are two lies in it: Daddy doesn’t drink coffee, and there are no known limits to his knowledge.

Do you ever come across naturally occurring country song fragments? Send them my way, and I’ll see what kind of mess I can make with them. You know that’s what I like.

wodehouse-love-among-chickens

Nothing is more natural than bad behavior. I only have to look outside at the chickens to understand that. Right this minute, I have one chicken who is isolated from the other 11 members of the flock. I had to stage an intervention and get her out of the large pen because her coop-mates were pecking her without mercy. I think it may be only one coop-mate who was to blame—one of the red hens who is quite large and broad-chested and full of herself. She had reduced Nunna Chicken (I call her that for family reasons that I won’t bother to explain here) to a listless heap who wouldn’t even attempt to go into the coop at night, she was so terrorized.

Finally I carried Nunna away and put her into the nursery pen with its smaller coop and much smaller enclosure, and in a few weeks she was back to her old self—plump, with a healthy red comb. She is still not laying properly, though. Every once in a while she produces a misshapen brown egg, and twice I have found nothing more than a yolk in her nest. One memorable day I checked and found that she had laid a full egg with not one speck of shell on it. The white of the egg had more or less oxidized, and had the look and feel of clear gelatin. Horrible. Anyway, once she was all better and obviously feeling well, we attempted to introduce her back into the main coop. Within seconds, she was getting her ass kicked again, so I moved her back to ICU (the Isolated Chicken Unit).

Nunna has spent part of this weekend following me around the back yard, because her tiny enclosure has been exhausted of grass and (presumably) bugs. It certainly has the appearance of a wasteland. Plus, I think she now sees me as her champion (which of course I am). I am the source of fresh water, food, toast crumbs, cracked corn, and protection from sharp pecks.

As human beings we have one simple, yet seemingly impossible, job: to love one another. But is anything more difficult? Like the chickens, apparently it feels more natural to keep peck, peck, pecking each other. I saw something once that said if a chicken has blood on it, the other chickens will peck her to death. What is wrong with chickens? What is wrong with humans? I don’t have a solution; I’m merely offering a sad observation.

Here’s another random bit of information: This very week I saw a great quote from Ursula K. LeGuin about wearing Banana Republic safari/Army surplus-style gear. She wrote, “I looked like a hen in a pillowcase.”

Come to think of it, a good name for a chicken would be “Ursula K. LeHen.”

I should start a website devoted to names for chickens, similar to the Comprehensive Bunny Name List* originally discussed on this site five years ago today. The timing is right. We were in Tractor Supply today and they have the banner up that says, “Chicks are here!” They weren’t, but Tractor Supply has the pen all set up to receive them when they arrive.

Maybe my chicken names will follow the theme begun with Ursula K. LeHen, and will all be the names of writers. Jane Austhen. J. K. Fowling. Eggatha Christie. Elizabeth Barrett Brownhen.

Send me your suggestions for chicken names, and I’ll add them to my list.

___________

* The CBNL™ is still alive and now has more than 5,000 names, plus a list of Suggested Bunny Names, one of which is Faye Bunaway.

 

 

1. The Good Samaritan

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10:25-37 (The Message)

2. My Neighbor, Brenda

We are treated most kindly by our near neighbor, Brenda. She lives at the end of Redbud Lane, up a driveway that crosses a creek and rises to the top of a hill. Her house is guarded by her dog, Tank, and several loose chickens. There are cows in the pasture behind the house, and blackberries that grow on trellises and hummingbird feeders and flowers. Brenda grows stupendous flowers. She once gave me a bouquet of the biggest, most beautiful red and yellow sunflowers I’ve ever seen.

Brenda is one of the givingest people I have ever known, and what she gives is always choice: a bag of turnip greens, a bowl of blackberries, a sack of pecans, an entire warm pound cake, a jar of homemade sauerkraut. I wish everyone had a neighbor like Brenda, because then the world would surely be a much happier and better-fed place.

There is even an element of the magical about Brenda. One afternoon she showed up on the front porch with two hand pies, apple ones like the kind my grandmother used to make. We had never discussed apple hand pies, but I had been searching that entire week for a recipe that sounded like Grandma’s. And here they were. Brenda not only gave me the pies, she gave me the recipe and a little gadget for folding and crimping them. Said she had several versions of the gadget and frankly the pie dough was bad about sticking to this one but maybe I would have better luck with it.

Another week or two, and she brought me something less familiar that I wouldn’t have dreamed of: three bags of frozen persimmon pulp. I was thrilled to have it, never having owned any and never expecting to. I try to buy a persimmon pudding at the Smithwood Church fall festival every year, but this year I had missed the festival entirely. Again, I had not said a word about any of this to Brenda. And yet, behold! Three bags of persimmon pulp! What a neighbor Brenda is.

3. An Unrelated but Somehow Necessary Side Note About Persimmon Pudding

The minute I owned that persimmon pulp, I consulted my Beth Tartan cookbook for a recipe. For purposes of this post, I should have gone straight to the Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, but I didn’t. Beth did not disappoint:

Persimmon pudding is as characteristic of North Carolina as any dish there is. … Finding a recipe on which all persimmon pudding lovers will agree is difficult. Some insist that the pudding must have eggs; other would not dream of putting an egg into it. Grated sweet potatoes are a necessity for some; others stick to plain persimmons. …

Whatever is in the pudding, it is not likely that you will jump up and down and scream with joy at the first taste. You almost have to be raised on the stuff to love it. – North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, by Beth Tartan (new and revised edition, 1992)

(Captain John Smith did not jump and down and scream with joy when he first sampled persimmons in the New World. Having tried them, he wrote in his Generall Historie (1624): “If it not be ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”)

My pudding, Mrs. Myatt’s version from Beth’s cookbook (no eggs, no sweet potatoes, certainly no coconut), came out lovely, with chewy edges. I had increased the amount of cinnamon and added in a half-teaspoon of ginger. It tasted like a toffee pudding, rich and not too sweet, dark and wintry. Something about it struck a deep chord in me. When I ate it, I heard a sound like the humming of a Tibetan singing bowl. Bliss. I shared a serving with Brenda, but I never heard back about how she liked it, though she did call this week to tell me she how much she enjoyed the cranberry butter I gave her for Christmas. We are both of us very neighborly together, although Brenda definitely has the upper hand.

4. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Someone else who understood the value of being a good neighbor was the late Fred Rogers. In fact, it’s almost impossible to say the word “neighbor” without thinking of Mister Rogers, don’t you agree? I was too old to be a regular viewer of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but I knew about the show, with all of its quirks and comforting traditions—the endless putting on of a red cardigan sweater, the constant changing of shoes.

I didn’t fully appreciate Mister Rogers until I read a story about him in Esquire magazine, called “Can You Say… Hero?” Written by Tom Junod and published in November 1998, it includes a story about why Fred Rogers saw the need for a children’s television show about goodness and neighborliness.

He was barely more than a boy himself when he learned what he would be fighting for, and fighting against, for the rest of his life. He was in college. He was a music major at a small school in Florida and planning to go to seminary upon graduation. His name was Fred Rogers. He came home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, once upon a time, and his parents, because they were wealthy, had bought something new for the corner room of their big redbrick house. It was a television. Fred turned it on, and as he says now, with plaintive distaste, “there were people throwing pies at one another.” He was the soft son of overprotective parents, but he believed, right then, that he was strong enough to enter into battle with that—that machine, that medium—and to wrestle with it until it yielded to him, until the ground touched by its blue shadow became hallowed and this thing called television came to be used “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.”

Mister Rogers broadcast plenty of grace for as long as he lived. When he signed autographs, he usually included the Greek word for grace, cariz. In return, he received grace back, in abundance:

Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

I can only imagine how happy that moment must have made him.

You don’t need me to point out that lately television is a nonstop broadcast of pie-throwing, mud-slinging, crap. But I try not to get too far up on my high horse, because I know that I may not always recognize grace myself, being at times as narrow in my views as the priest and the Levite. When I feel a spell of high-horsedness coming on, I need to remind myself to be a good neighbor, and spread a little grace, like the good Samaritan, and Brenda, and Mister Rogers.

5. A Sufi Parable

Let’s face it, there are people I pass in the course of daily life (or can’t pass, because I’m stuck behind them in traffic) who are difficult to love. And yet I walk around metaphorically wearing a t-shirt that reads: “As Far as I Know, I’m Perfectly Charming.” Well, I am perfectly charming, on a good day. On a bad day, not so much. We are all in turns charming and maddening, dark and light, Levites and Samaritans.

There is a Sufi parable that I love, and it seems to fit here:

A man was sitting at the gate of a town, a wise elder. A man on horseback stopped and asked him, “What are the people of this town like?”

“Why do you ask this?” the elder wondered.

The rider said, “The people of the town I have come from are very indecent. I was upset and disturbed by them. I had to leave that town. Now I want to become a resident of some new town. So I am asking you how the people of this town are.”

The old man said, “Brother, you had better move on. The people of this town are even more vile, more wicked, more indecent. Here you will get into trouble, go look somewhere else.”

The rider moved on. Just behind him a bullock cart came to a halt and a man looked around and said, “Grandfather, how are the people of this village? I am searching for a new residence.”

The old man asked again, “How were the people of the village you have left?”

Tears came to the eyes of the man on the cart. He said, “The people of that village were very loving and kind. I had to leave to try to find a job, but someday I will return there.”

That old man said, “You are welcome. You will find the people of this village even more loving and kind than the people of that village.”

Another resident of the village had been sitting there listening to all this. First he heard what the horse rider said and the old man’s answer. Then he heard what this man on the bullock cart said and the old man’s answer. The villager said, “You have really surprised me. You said to one man that this village is very vile and wicked, just move on. And to the other you said this village has very loving people, you have no need to go further, you are welcome!

The old man explained, “People are just the way you are.” – Adapted from http://oshostories.wordpress.com

Which village are you going to live in?

thanksgiving-hike-2016

A snapshot of Thanksgiving 2016.

Ernesto’s cousin, Pablo, and his wife, Andrea, drove down from New York for the long weekend, and this year’s holiday was like a dream of Thanksgiving: The turkey obediently turned golden brown and was finished all the way through at the appointed hour, and every side dish from Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and Liberty was heated and on the table in proper order. Robin’s sweet potato casserole was a symphony; Holli’s mashed potatoes were a poem; my oyster dressing was warmly appreciated by a discerning few.

After the clean-up it was time for the annual Thanksgiving Day Hike, and ten (out of 14) people and five out of 5 dogs headed down the path toward the creek and up into the back field.

Ernesto and Pablo had devised a scheme for the Friday after Thanksgiving: They wished to cook a leg of pork in a hole in the ground, Cuban style. Ernesto and my dad dug the hole a week before, finding the spot where, ten years earlier, Ernesto had roasted a pork shoulder. Daddy had kept all of the items we had used on that occasion—the metal lid for the hole, the grate to hold the pork, and four long-handled hooks (probably coat hangers in a previous life) to help lift the grill in and out of the hole. We were ready.

On Friday morning, Andrea and I went to Food Lion to collect a few things for the side dishes, while Ernesto and Pablo drove straight to the farm to start the fire. There was some concern that we would be cooking deep into the night if we didn’t get it going fairly quickly. They started a second fire in the wood stove in Daddy’s shop, which could provide a continuous supply of fresh coals for the pit. What with one thing and another, it was nearly noon before the pork leg, lovingly marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, emerged from its cooler and was lowered into the pit. We were already about two hours behind schedule.

Imagine the next six and a half hours, if you possibly can. Well, I know that you can’t, so I will try to give you the flavor of them. The weather was unseasonably warm, nearly 70 degrees. Ernesto and Pablo settled into chairs around the pit, sweaters and jackets came off, the two big dogs stalked around the edges of the site. We had a digital remote meat thermometer, not meant for gauging the heat of a fire pit, but it was rather nice because we could poke the metal probe through a small hole in the metal lid over the pit and let it dangle down, while the temperature gauge on the other end told us how hot it was down there. Everyone thought that the temp would shoot up to 400 degrees when we first fed it down into the hole, and we were anxious when it only registered about 275. But it was early, and we remained hopeful.

Every 40 minutes or so, Ernesto and Pablo shuttled burning coals and chunks of wood from the wood stove to the pit. When the heat didn’t rise, they devised better ways of insulating the metal lid so that heat couldn’t escape. They used hoes to beat back small grass fires that occasionally erupted around the edges of the hole. They grew progressively smokier. During one of the intervals when the pork was lifted out so that coals could be added to the pit, I measured the leg’s internal temperature. It was 65 degrees. Clearly, we had a distance to go.

As anxiety rose, the bucket loads of burning embers from the wood stove grew larger and more fiery. The guys had been sharing one pair of heavy leather gardening gloves, but soon Pablo appeared wearing a pair of stout black rubber gloves.

“Where did you find those?” Daddy asked. Pablo said he’d seen them under the shelter, so he borrowed them.

“Well, don’t touch the meat with them,” Daddy warned. “Those are my dog-washing gloves.”

Andrea decided she would take a walk around some of the trails that we had missed the day before. The next thing time I turned around, she was holding a crude map that Daddy had drawn to show where all the trails were, and how they connected. I got out the fishing gear and headed for the pond. About 30 minutes later, I caught a bass on the artificial worm, and as word of my success reached the fire pit, Pablo and Andrea and Maggie, the black lab, joined me.

Pablo hooked a bass on the fly rod, but it spit the fly out before he could bring it home. I gave Andrea the artificial worm gear, and she worked her way around the entire pond, trying to find a fish that hungry. Maggie splashed around the edges of the pond with great energy, repeatedly. Pablo returned to his duties at the fire, and I caught a bass on the fly rod he abandoned.

As Andrea completed her circuit of the pond, I went back up to the fire to check on progress. I found Pablo gingerly brushing ashes off the pork leg, which was out of the pit during one of the periodic coal-fetchings.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, we had an accident,” Ernesto said. “The leg rolled off during our maneuver.” He considered the pork thoughtfully, and added, “It was the sacramental anointing of the ashes.”

The big dogs, exhausted, lay in the cool shade by the shelter and fell asleep. Fishless, Andrea collected greens from Fred’s fall garden and snipped some of his rosemary. She spent the next hours in the kitchen, massaging kale and greens in lemon juice, then adding chopped apple and pomegranate seeds for salad; sautéing apples and onions for a compote; peeling potatoes and seasoning them with rosemary for roasting in the oven. Holli’s husband, Bobby, hung around the kitchen, no doubt wondering if he would ever be able to eat dinner and go home.

“Rosemary is my favorite herb,” Andrea told us. “It helps improve memory.”

“Really? One of my mom’s caregivers suggested that I get her a rosemary plant,” Bobby said.

“Now that’s what I call an excellent caregiver,” I said, but Bobby said she wasn’t around anymore, because he had fired the company she worked for and found a different one.

The rosemary potatoes went into the oven, and I put together a corn and cheddar casserole that was very similar to a macaroni and cheese only with corn instead of macaroni. Pablo came in periodically to instruct us on how to prepare tostones—twice-fried slices of green plantain, which between the first and second frying are smashed into round discs.

We joked that the meat might not be done until midnight (or possibly breakfast), but it came into the house around 6:30, and it was lovely. Pablo and Ernesto removed the charred and somewhat battered skin, regretting its loss. By the time the table was set and the side dishes assembled, it was ready to serve.

Holli donated her fluffy pink Jell-O salad, which had gone mostly untouched on Thanksgiving Day because it was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

We ate.

Afterwards, when the dishes were washed and the leftovers put away and the fluffy pink Jell-O stuff had been tasted and one or two slices of leftover pumpkin pie were consumed, we toasted the day, Thanksgiving, and each other with sparkling cider that Pablo and Andrea had brought as a hostess gift.

Thank goodness we had eaten a good deal of rosemary, so we can remember it all forever.

Still Life

still-life-2

The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.