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Pluto, from nasa.gov

nasa.gov

I sat in the Seahorse Bakery Café on Ocean Street, like always on a Thursday afternoon after teaching English Literature (Chaucer to Pope). I generally celebrate the weekend by having a late lunch at the Seahorse followed by one of their exquisite tiny cupcakes, each one a masterpiece of Swiss buttercream, chocolate curls, mango curd filling, or perhaps golden raspberries dusted with confectioner’s sugar—but not all at the same time, of course.

On this final day of classes for the year, I had claimed my usual table at a window overlooking the boardwalk, as far away as possible from the wedding-cake display. My table has a water view. Not of the sea, but of one of the public showers at the top of the dunes. The shower is situated conveniently near the top of the stairs that come off the beach, and when in use there is a nice spray of sparkling water that lifts my spirits.

The fly in my waterview soup is this homeless guy. His Thursday schedule is nearly identical to mine; he often begins his shower at 2:30 or so, about the time I’m finishing my delicious cupcake. I believe he is homeless because he is always dirty and mostly unshaven and his clothes are a mess and most significantly he’s taking a shower at a public beach facility in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Like me, he has a routine. He arrives at the shower, removes his shirt and terrible boots, digs around the roots of the sea oats that crowd the stairway to the beach, pulls up a buried Publix bag, removes a bar of dark soap, and proceeds to wash himself with it. He begins by removing his shirt and rinsing it in the flow, then he carefully hangs the shirt on the banister to the stairs. He soaps his head and face and neck and arms and torso and even his pants and finally his feet and toes. He always gives his toes a little extra attention, which used to give me serious creeps before I got used to it. Then he puts the soap back in the Publix bag, buries it in the sand beside the stairway, rinses the sand off his hands, picks up his wet shirt, slings it over his shoulder, and swaggers off like a new man. He actually holds his head up higher and looks around with more confidence. The first time or two that I saw him I was appalled, but by this time I had come to admire his attitude.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Seahorse Bakery Café. I love their tiny cupcakes, of course, but the main reason for my devoted patronage is that I am eating off a $150 wedding cake deposit. My fiancé, Charles, changed his mind a month before our wedding and then took our honeymoon to Jamaica by himself. The Seahorse doesn’t do refunds, but they are allowing me to eat the balance.

I didn’t want a credit at the Seahorse. I want to be clear about that. I wanted my damn money back. I really felt after the Charles blow-up that the only thing that could possibly make me feel better would be a whole lot of money flowing back into my bank account. I was fortunately able to get back my entire catering deposit, and I sold my wedding dress on Craig’s List for a profit, if you can believe that. But the Seahorse remained adamant that “no refunds,” which was printed clearly on every flat surface in the place, meant no refunds. As it happens, “no refunds” did not necessarily mean no in-store credit, but I did have to threaten to bring my attorney sister in to negotiate before I got it. They made me sign a one-page contract stating the deal was null and void if I told anyone about the credit; it also stressed the fact that a 20% gratuity would be added to each meal. Fine. I signed it. Did it make me popular at the Seahorse? It did not. But at this point popularity wasn’t a thing I cared very much about. I was more intent on winning battles.

As I finished my curry chicken salad and my ginger-almond cupcake with apricot cream, two ladies scraped back the chairs directly behind mine. I heard Christine, the owner of the Seahorse, say, “I’ll get the tasting samples. In the meantime, you can look at some of our designs.” Her heavy binder of cake photographs hit the table top, and soon the special language of Wedding Cake filled the air with a sticky fog, turning the sweet apricot cream to dust in my mouth.

I despise wedding cake. I know what you’re thinking, but there is a very big difference between a tiny two-bite cupcake and a wedding cake—which is nothing more nor less than a fraudulent tower of spun-sugar that implies a fairy-tale fantasy is about to unfold. Don’t get me started. It was all enough to make me consider forfeiting my remaining $72.62 in credit and never coming near the Seahorse again.

With remarkable strength of character, I sat silently through the royal icing, the rolled fondant, and even the bittersweet chocolate faux bois. But when the discussion turned to hand-tinted gum-paste flowers (orchids, roses, lilies—in any delicate hue the bride desired), I could stand it no more. I tipped my chair back on two legs and intruded my head into the personal space between the bride and her mother. “Gum-paste flowers are foul luck,” I said. “Don’t even think about ordering gum-paste flowers.”

I couldn’t see Christine’s reaction to this comment, but a long, cold silence raised the hair on my arms. “Gotta go,” I said, striving for a cheery tone. My chair legs hit the floor, hard.

As I hurried out the door, I saw that the homeless shower guy was heading down the sidewalk, too, in his jaunty, post-shower attitude. Albert, who runs the Italian water ice stand on the boardwalk, yelled as he walked by, “Dave! What’s up, man?”

“Hey,” the shower guy said. “Not too much. Just takin’ it easy.”

Odd that a homeless guy should have a name and acquaintances. As Dave continued up the sidewalk, I lingered at Albert’s stand. “You know him?” I asked casually, tilting my head toward Dave’s retreating and scrupulously clean figure.

“Sure,” Albert said. “It’s Dave.”

I waited, but further information would have to be requested. “Is he okay?” I asked carefully.

“I guess,” Albert shrugged. “Looked okay to me. What did you hear? Did he fall out of a palm tree and damage his skull?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Does he climb palm trees?”

“What are we talking about here?” Albert was certainly touchy. “Dave trims palm trees; it’s possible he could fall out of a palm tree. And by the way, are you going to order anything?”

“I wasn’t planning to,” I said. “I’m not hungry—I just had lunch with a cupcake for dessert.”

“Then move along, girlie,” Albert said. “You’re blocking my sign and costing me business.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Only if you’re walking away while you’re askin’.”

I began to back away from the stand. “How do I get in touch with Dave to trim my palm trees?”

Albert shook his head in disgust. “How do you ever find a guy to trim your palm trees? You look in the classifieds of the Beaches Leader.”

I picked up a copy of the Leader and drove home, where I spread the paper out on my tiny kitchen table and turned straight to the classifieds. And there he was! “Palm trees trimmed, brush cleared. Call Dave.”

I can’t explain why I called him. But I had a couple of months free before classes began again, and there was a sort of tangled mini-jungle at the side of my house that did need to be cleared out. I couldn’t do it, because it looked spidery and scary. Charles had promised that he would take care of it for me, but Charles obviously found the solitary true jungles of Jamaica more alluring.

Dave showed up pretty close to the time he’d said he would, and in half a day my little jungle was gone and I had a strip of cleared land between my house and the neighbor’s fence for the first time ever. As Dave drove off in his tiny gray pick-up truck with my jungle debris packed into the bed, I contemplated the amazing ease of hiring a man to do hard work.

“I’m better off than I was,” I mused. “I have found a guy to do the yard stuff when I need it done, without any contractual commitment. That’s all I need a guy for! Plus, I have weekly lunches lined up for the entire summer, at least, at no charge. This is going to be perfect. I’m really happy about the way things turned out. I’m very, very happy.”

I was so happy that I spent the rest of my afternoon lying on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV and sightlessly channeling around. PBS had a beautiful gardening show on, and I supposed I should try to figure out something to do with my new side yard, but that seemed like an impossible task. Instead I hit Mute and fell asleep.

When I woke, the room was dark and PBS was receiving photos from a satellite that was hurtling into outer space. Space is so beautiful. I turned up the volume. The narrator was talking about Pluto. The photos of space were replaced by a graphic that showed chunks of space rock being pulled together to form the tiny planet (or whatever it is considered now). Poor Pluto. Stripped of planet status. I thought I could understand how Pluto must feel—desolate, barren, unwanted. It was especially touching because for a period of time it had been a part of something grand and beautiful, only to be cast off and left spinning in terrible, limitless darkness.

I tried to pick up the narrative of the program: Where did that debris come from? Was that what had happened after the Big Bang—chunks of stuff began whirling around, and some of it started attracting smaller chunks and they began to stick together? I liked this idea, and in my personal world it made sense. Something blows apart into a million pieces, and some of the bits find others and make connections.

Then it hit me: This is what happens when your heart is hit by the Big Bang of a failed relationship. At first it breaks apart and seems as if it will never be fixed, but then it begins to clump back together like those chunks of gray space rock that were still on the screen, turning into Pluto. All I had to do was wait until the chunks began to orbit back around and started clumping together again. Once it was back in one piece, it would be harder, and stronger, and cold.

* * *

I hired Dave to help me plant the side yard. Over the course of several weeks, we planted three climbing roses and a variety of annuals. Dave devised a trellis, then cleaned the gutters. When all that was done, he insisted that it was long past time for my two palm trees to be trimmed. “Fine,” I said.

I can’t say that all this togetherness furthered my knowledge of Dave much. I still had no idea why he showered at the beach and where (if anywhere) he went afterward. But that was what I wanted—a cold, businesslike contractual relationship where we both knew exactly where we stood. It seemed to me the perfect—perhaps the only possible—male/female relationship.

On the other hand, I sometimes felt that it was not too smart to get tangled up in Dave’s world. What if, once the weather turned cooler, he started turning up on my back porch to sleep? It could happen. I was probably his most consistent employer, and I was pretty sure that he knew I kept a spare key in the mailbox. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be winter, either—the rainy season was upon us, and during a bad storm he could easily show up seeking shelter. I looked at him now. He was tightening the laces of his hideous boots in preparation for going into my front-yard palm tree.

“What are your plans for this weekend?” I asked. “I think they’re calling for rain.”

Dave looked up at me. “I’m going fishing with my buddy,” he said. “If you ever want fresh snapper or whiting, I can set you up.”

“Thank you.” To be set up with snapper or whiting—this was what my life had come to.

Dave summoned up the rags and tags of some nearly forgotten social graces and said, “You?”

I waved a hand. “Oh, nothing planned. My life is in a holding pattern. My wedding had to be canceled, and now I’m taking time to re-evaluate and see what new connections develop.” It was the most I had shared with him to date.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Must have been tough.”

“Actually, I got most of the money back.”

He said, “I meant it must have been tough on your heart.”

“I’m recovering,” I said brightly. “I have a heart like Pluto.” I explained about how tiny, icy Pluto had been a wreck before it formed into an almost-planet. It just took time and solar magic. “Anyway,” I finished, proud of my powers of Pluto-like recovery, “I sold the dress, and got my deposits back for the catering and flowers and photographer. The only thing left to recoup is my wedding-cake deposit, and the bakery is letting me eat on credit until it’s used up.”

Dave gazed at me as I talked. He said, “For God’s sake, let it go. You’re staying stuck by going back there every week. Walk away.” He was silent for a beat, then added, “Who wants a heart like Pluto? An icy slab of rock? Give me a heart like the sun.”

“Why?” I asked. “I mean here we are, unloved and unwanted. Much better to have a heart like Pluto, right?”

“Speak for yourself,” Dave said curtly. “I have a mother, a brother, a girlfriend, and a six-year-old son. I’m not unloved, or unwanted.”

He seemed to emphasize the “I’m,” and that annoyed me. “Oh, I see. Well, lucky you. My mistake. I’ve noticed you taking showers down at the beach, and you know, it made it look as if you might not have a place to go. I thought you were homeless, frankly.”

“You thought wrong. I’m not homeless, and I’m certainly not heartless.”

“I’m not heartless, either!” I said. “I’m like Pluto. And PBS says that Pluto is not just a lump of ice and rock—it’s a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. I’m having a dramatic atmospheric change, too, but once it passes, I’ll be warm-hearted again. I know I will.” I stopped, then I added, more calmly, “I haven’t always been like Pluto.”

He wouldn’t look at me. He shimmied up the palm tree. Two minutes later, a browning palm frond slapped the ground near my feet. I went inside so I wouldn’t get hurt. Spiders are fond of palm fronds.

I wondered how in the world it had happened that a guy I had seen bathing at the public beach shower was in my yard, trimming my palm trees, taking my money, and criticizing my heart. There was something very wrong with this picture.

That reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle I had gotten for my 13th birthday. Unlike normal jigsaw puzzles, the box didn’t have a picture on the front that showed what the completed puzzle would look like. It had a vague, surreal outline of a landscape and a large black question mark in the middle. At the top right corner was this message: “Can you complete this 750-piece Mystery Puzzle? Unveil a beautiful garden with a mystical fountain at its heart.” I had worked really hard on that puzzle, but in the end I had to refer to the color photo that was tucked inside the box for emergencies.

Life was like that now. I had imagined a picture on my personal Life Puzzle Box that was simple and distinct—a wedding, a marriage, a life with Charles. A dog. Now that Charles was out of the picture, so to speak, the entire puzzle was a mystery. I didn’t have a husband at all; I had a yard man who wanted a heart like the sun.

I took a bottle of water out to Dave, but he was still up the tree and now there was a pile of brown fronds beneath it. I waited, and soon he scuttled down the tree backward. He used the cold water bottle to wipe his forehead, then uncapped it and drank the entire thing. “Nice job,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to pick ’em up and haul ’em away,” he said.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic. I think the tree looks great.”

Actually, the tree looked weird. It only had three green fronds sticking out of the top now. I thought perhaps he had overdone the trimming by quite a lot, but just then one of the neighbors passed by on his bike and said, “Wow, great tree, dude. Can you do mine?” He and Dave made arrangements for a future trimming, then Dave turned back to me.

“I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon to do your other tree,” he said. It was only 2:00, but I remembered that he had a strict shower schedule.

“All right,” I said, and he left. The palm fronds remained behind. I wondered if he would come back and get them, or if once again I had been jilted and left to pick up the pieces. That idea caused another dramatic atmospheric change. I started crying and couldn’t seem to stop. Pluto was in for a bout of heavy weather.

On Monday, I went to the Seahorse Bakery. When I walked in, Christine came over and opened her mouth, probably to yell at me.

“Wait!” I pre-empted her hissy fit by holding up my contract for the wedding-cake credit. Then I tore it into six pieces, and handed them to her. “I’m done,” I said. “Thank you for your patience, if not exactly your kindness, during what has been a difficult period in my life.”

I could tell Christine was moved. “Listen,” she said, “I promise I’ll create a magnificent wedding cake for you when you do get married. The next guy will be the right one, I’m sure of it. You know what I think you should do? I think you should have a cake made up of our mini cupcakes.”

I stared at her. “That’s brilliant!” I said. “I adore your mini cupcakes, and I could have every flavor!” I pictured my future cake coming together like Pluto, with mini cupcakes spinning through space and glomming together.

“I’ve got a birthday in October,” I said. “Maybe I’ll order a cupcake cake for that.” Christine beamed at me in a really nice way, and I think a chunk of my messed-up heart fell back into its proper place.

I walked out of the bakery feeling freer and anticipatory. I stopped at the water ice stand and bought a mango ice from grumpy old Albert. I ate it right there on the boardwalk, looking out over the beach and the tourists and the skateboarders and all the terrible color and confusion of a typical beach community. It’s a fragile world, as easily broken as a coral reef and constantly under threat of hurricane, nor’easter, simple erosion, and a steady onslaught of fat tourists and their trash. Frightening things are hurtling toward this world, with no warning of sudden atmospheric changes.

For now, though, the sun shone upon us all. I squinted up at it, and tried to imagine my heart as a bright, burning sun instead of a cold and lonely planet. It felt pretty good. Maybe there was some life left in it yet.

I stopped at Big Lots on my way home and bought a pair of spider-proof gloves. I had palm fronds to pick up, and there was no earthly reason why I couldn’t take care of them myself.

END

Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review in Spring 2011.

Sunday Goat Post

Rose's closeup

Rose is ready for her close-up.

 

I believe that it’s nearly spring, because the goats have been behaving as if it is. On a warm afternoon last week we strolled out for a long visit; they love the attention. As soon as we walked into the pasture Rose and Iris began running in circles at top speed. In my family we call this ripping. Usually it pertains to dogs, but evidently goats can rip, too.

Rose is built like a deer, very graceful and spry. While ripping, she leaps into the air like a dancer, giving her entire body a joyful little twist. Iris, being fatter and having shorter legs, is unable to twist and leap like Rose does, but she rips as best she can, and occasionally all four feet leave the ground. I can tell by her expression that, at least in her mind, she is leaping as high as the clouds.

Goat Parade 035

Iris, in a noble and very earth-bound pose.

 

 

Lumina

Lumina/No Diving

I

My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water…. I can’t sit beside a brook without falling into a deep reverie, without seeing once again my happiness…. The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring. – Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, as quoted in Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

II

When I was eight years old, I used to spend a lot of time in the woods behind our house, especially after a snow. The snow never lasted long, and as it melted it flowed down to where the landscape leveled off to its lowest point. There the snowmelt gathered and began to forge a path, as best it could, toward the proper creek on the far border of our property. There were many impediments to its flow. The path it took was littered with leaves, fallen branches, tree roots, rocks. So I would act as an engineer, following the flow until it reached a block and pooled. I moved branches, dug out leaves that clogged the passage, whatever it took to relieve the pressure and send the water forward. It was mesmerizing to watch as a small gout of cold, pearly water was freed from some hindrance and rushed forward, with more speed, until it was thwarted again and needed my assistance.

Like Gaston Bachelard, I am happy whenever I see water moving forward.

III

In February 2008, we got 6″ of snow overnight in St. Louis. After a day spent inside, we decided to go to Forest Park on Saturday afternoon and watch the sledding down the big hill in front of the art museum. We had heard that this was a popular place to go when it snowed, as there was a wide, sweeping hill descending in front of the statue of King Louis IX on horseback, who gave silent encouragement to those taking the plunge. People slid downhill using every sort of conveyance—plastic trays, curved-front toboggans, slices of cardboard, Flexible Flyers, and snowboards. One group had replaced the wheels on a bicycle with skis; this contraption flew downhill smoothly and with great speed. Three girls stacked themselves on one toboggan like a sandwich and rode down. On another, the dad was stretched out on his belly and a little boy sat upright on his back. Several small boys built up humps of snow that sent them airborne when hit at precisely the right angle. There was an area filled with abandoned sledding vehicles, including a pretty good-sized kid’s swimming pool and an ironing board with no legs. A lost and found area had been created, where bright hats, scarves, and mittens hung on the branches of trees and shrubs, dripping and adding to a cobweb of rivulets that flowed downward toward the foot of the hill, where they were absorbed by a row of hay bales meant to prevent the sledders from sailing into the road.

IV

Sir Walter Raleigh did not believe in following the natural flow of water. Simon Schama describes Raleigh’s ill-fated voyages up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado, during which Raleigh concluded that to follow the flow of a river was to head toward civilization, while the attempt to navigate upstream was an attempt to return to Eden. He must have believed that if he could have mastered the Orinoco, if he’d been able to proceed past the cascade that thundered over steep, black rock, he would have reached the throne of God. Schama concludes: “To fight a way upstream, [Raleigh] now realized, was to pursue a sacred mystery.”

Anymore all of life seems to be a fight upstream, through various hazards and perils. Yet I seldom get the sense that I’m approaching closer to a sacred mystery.

V

My friend Ruby’s daughter was baptized at the age of 7 in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ—a full-immersion denomination. This was probably in the 1970s. “She said she wanted to be the first person baptized that day,” Ruby told me, “and I thought how nice it was that at least one of my children was so devout. Then she told me why—said she didn’t want those other people’s sins washing off on her.”

VI

Ernesto told me that scientists have confirmed that there was once water on the moon. “Do you know what would be good made with water from the moon?” he asked.

“Moonshine!” I said, quite pleased with myself.

“No. Moon water would be good for washing down moon pies.”

VII

On Mother’s Day Sunday we carried a table down by the pond and spent the afternoon there, fishing and eating dessert and sailing my dad’s remote-control sailboat. (The Christmas that my dad got the sailboat, he tried it out while maintaining security in the event of a malfunction: He tied a fishing line to the boat and had one of the grandchildren work the fishing pole, feeding out line and then reeling it back as needed while the sailboat circumnavigated the pond.) That Mother’s Day I caught two fish and got a tick, so I won the impromptu fishing tournament. My nephew Clark was the runner-up. He caught two fish but didn’t have a tick. It was the tick that put me over the top.

VIII

May 2013 was a drizmal month. The early weeks were gray, cloudy, spitting rain, and no more than 57 degrees. One week we had a particularly violent rainstorm, during which our friend Wanda left her umbrella on the front porch, and it blew away. Wanda fretted about her umbrella, and even ventured outside to look for it as soon as the rain eased off. She didn’t find it in the front yard, or the back or side yards, so she gave it up as lost. It was probably wedged half-open in the ditch, which roared with rainwater. Having given up on the umbrella, she fretted about their American flag, which she feared would be torn to shreds as it popped in the wind and driving rain. She sent her husband, Marvin, out to get the flag and bring it inside. To Wanda’s surprise and delight, Marvin returned with both the flag and her umbrella. “I don’t know why in the hell you didn’t see that umbrella,” Marvin said. Usually he’s mild-mannered and polite, but he was feeling stressed that day. “Maybe because I didn’t go to hell to look for it,” Wanda replied.

IX

One night at 7:30 there was a tapping at the back door. Kent and Brenda were there, and they invited us to go fishing. So we put on our shoes and mosquito repellant and went. Kent and Ernesto sat on the tailgate of Brenda’s truck, and we bumped our way around the corner to the pond. The three white geese thought that we were there for their benefit, and they paraded in front of us as we fished, using night crawlers from WalMart. As soon as we threw a line in the water, a fish bit. We filled a bucket with small bream that Kent wanted to clear out of the pond, but none of us ever caught one of the big ones. Kent did pull in a good-sized bass, and Brenda did, too. I hooked a large fish that ultimately broke my line, and Kent had to tie a new hook on for me. As he did so, he said, “A year ago I couldn’t have seen well enough to tie this hook. That cataract surgery is a great thing. Wish they had something like it for ears.” When the bucket was so full that fish were able to leave it at will, we put the rods away.

X

…[A] giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, [watched] over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside, there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars.

…knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, José Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

XI

A bulletin board near the door of the Wolf River Outdoor Center held layers of announcements about whitewater rafting trips on rivers all over the country. One big blue flyer described a run down a river in West Virginia that was recommended for advanced kayakers because of all the holes, and standing waves, and whirlpools and other things that I’d never heard of. The last line of the flyer read: “Plug up your orifices and join us!”

It was about a twenty-minute ride by van from the Outdoor Center to the drop-off point. When we got there, we strapped on lifejackets and helmets, and listened to Eddie’s safety speech.

“This is not virtual reality, guys,” he said. “This is real reality, and the river can be dangerous. Of course, that’s what makes it so much fun, right? But bad things can happen, so listen up.

“First of all, in the event of an out-of-boat experience—also known as swimming—pick your feet up and float on your back until you get to a place where you can safely reach the bank. Keeping your feet up makes it harder for one of them to get wedged in the rocks, and your helmet will protect your fragile noggin.”

He gave us pointers on how to sit in the raft, and paddling, then he made us all sign a paper that I think promised we wouldn’t sue the Wolf River Outdoor Center if we died in the river. Then he described the course of the river, letting everyone know what to expect. “There’s a Class III rapid at the end of our run, just below the Center, called Washing Machine Falls. It’s called that because if you get trapped in the hole you’ll go through three cycles: agitate, rinse, and spin—not necessarily in that order. But never fear—before we get there, we’ll hit the bank and reconnoiter. There’s a good space, river right, to pull up the rafts, and we’ll all walk up the trail to get a look at the Falls so you’ll know what to expect before you go through them. At that point, if anybody doesn’t feel comfortable about proceeding, you can call it a day and walk down river to the final take-out point. That’s where we’ll meet the vans that will bring us back up here to the Center. If you elect to risk it, your picture will be taken by a trained professional with a clear view of the Falls, and you’ll have an oppor­tunity to purchase your photo when we return to the Center. So be sure and smile pretty.”

The ride started off tamely enough. We pushed off from shore, what Eddie called a “put-in.” Mine was the fourth raft to go in a group of six. Our goal was to keep the raft positioned in the smoothest part of the river at all times, so we had to stay alert and watch for rough spots, rocks, and debris. But there were stretches where the water was fairly uniform, and there weren’t many rocks. As we floated through those places, we could lift up our paddles and look around at the scenery, and I had time to be amazed at where I was, and what I was doing.

There was never much time to relax, though. And the rough sections were a lot of fun, with everybody in our raft yelling at everybody else to watch out and row left or right to avoid something scary. Eddie could be heard even above the noise of the river, shouting, “Flow with the river, children! Flow with the river!”

In spite of this excellent advice, our raft came to rest on top of a large pointy rock. The rock ended up smack in the middle of the underside of the raft, which formed four pockets hanging down around the rock. The girl in the outside rear corner floated almost nonchalantly out of her pocket. The rest of us watched, laughing like crazy, as she assumed a perfect man overboard position, with her feet sticking up. The expression on her face as she floated past was one of complete and utter disgust.

Eddie came up behind us in his raft, and talked us off the rock. Then we paddled downstream as fast as we could to where our castaway waited for us. She was standing in knee-deep water with her hands on her hips. When she climbed back in the raft, she splattered as much cold water on us as possible.

Later, we walked up the hill to the Outdoor Center, where I bought the photo of my group’s final descent through Washing Machine Falls. There we were, our raft bouncing up over the cascades of churning, vicious water. Four of our six paddles were in the air, everybody poised to row like crazy as soon as we hit water again. The camera caught me in my position at the front of the raft, looking straight downriver, with my mouth open and white sparks of water flying all around.

– Me, excerpt from a manuscript that lives in a drawer

XII

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi

 

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC.

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition of Moravian landscapes at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC (www.mesda.org).

Katherine Mansfield once said something very mean about one of my favorite writers: “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” she said. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”*

I think that’s a terrible thing to say about a fellow writer, and Katherine should be ashamed of herself. But I do think it’s a pretty good quote, and it helped me recognize a terrible truth: it’s a quote that applies to me, especially at Christmas. I can warm up the pot, but my fire goes out long before the tea is brewed. Back in mid-December, I had a wreath on the front of the house, and I had hung the stockings (because how hard is that?) but there was no tree up then and there was not one up on Christmas Eve, either. I produced several batches of fudge and spiced nuts, but I never got around to making my usual cream cheese cookie-press wreaths with tedious little maraschino cherry bows.

As E. M. Forster himself once said: “I do like Christmas on the whole…. In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.”

It certainly feels clumsier every year, and on top of that my Christmas skills are weak. I spent 45 minutes on December 14th trying to wrap the top and bottom of a shoebox separately in nice paper, like you see all the time in magazines. The box was meant to hold a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread. Well, I finally got the wrapping paper on both parts, but it looked like hell. Ernesto shrugged it off. “At night and walking fast, no one will notice,” he said. That was a comfort, since the loaf was being shipped to his mother.

I’ll tell you who knows how to do Christmas (besides Martha Stewart): the Moravians. I grew up near Winston-Salem, where Moravians settled at Bethabra and Salem and then spread out from there, and the holidays were greatly enriched by Moravian traditions like the candle tea and the Moravian star, Moravian cookies and sugar cake. It’s a high-calorie religion.

I remember multiple school field trips to the historic village of Old Salem. A large tin coffee pot stands at its boundary, and rumor had it that a soldier once hid inside the coffee pot during some war or another. My classmates and I trooped through the village, visiting shops and homes and the doctor’s office and even the cemetery. We saw beeswax candles being made and sampled paper-thin ginger cookies from the bakery. Everything smelled divine.

The Moravians also excel at Christmas carols, sweet coffee, and lovefeast buns. My family once attended a Moravian holiday service in Winston-Salem, and I could not have been happier: I got my very own beeswax candle in a red paper frill, I drank a cup of sweet coffee, we sang carols, and I ate my first lovefeast bun. Later my mom bought us an entire bag of them for non-festival use. They look a bit like hamburger buns, but they are faintly sweet and make the best fish sandwich you ever ate. I believe that I prayed for several years that I would turn into a Moravian, but I never did.

How I yearned for lovefeast buns during the 23 years that I lived in the wilderness outside North Carolina! By 2007, when we had migrated west to St. Louis, the stars and the Internet and someone’s treasured family recipe aligned, and I found instructions for making my own lovefeast buns online.

I gathered the ingredients and waited for a day with no other distractions. Lovefeast buns are a project: They start with a batch of mashed potatoes and they must rise for two hours before being divided into little balls and then they have to rise again until doubled in size. But a terrible hunger for lovefeast buns drove me, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I rolled up my sleeves and commenced to make a mess.

I made the mashed potatoes—dry, unseasoned, plain potatoes. I mashed them for long minutes to avoid lumps in the bread. Then I creamed the butter and sugar, and added the yeast and warm water. When I stirred the potatoes into the mixture, a Christmas miracle occurred. The dough became silky-smooth, and glossy. It was beautiful.

I added nutmeg, mace, orange and lemon peels, and flour while singing a silent fa-la-la-la-la inside my head.

It was a cool day of dark rain-clouds, not an encouraging environment for bread dough. I circled the house trying to find a warm spot for it to rise.  Finally I warmed the oven up a bit, turned it off, and stuck the bowl inside.

By the end of the second hour, Ernesto had taken over the kitchen to cook a ham hock in the pressure cooker. “Look at the size of this hock!” he said, holding it up before it went into the pot.

“How much does it weigh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it cost $5. It came from a huge pork.” He left me with very little counter space, and I needed to preheat the oven for my final baking, so I removed the pan of dough from the oven and set the proper temperature for the baking.

I formed my little rolls and placed them on a large pan, covered with a dishcloth. By now a tiny, uncertain sunbeam fell on the center of the dining room table, so I left the pan there for the final rising.

Ernesto’s pressure cooker was singing and sputtering, a fog of steam hung near the ceiling, and he had a large pan filled with potatoes, tomato sauce, onions, and garlic simmering on the stove. I left the area to do something else, and when I came back into the kitchen 30 minutes later to check on my rolls, I found both windows next to the dining room table wide open.

“Why are these windows up?” I asked, running to close them. Ernesto ran to open them again. “They need to be up,” he explained, “because of the steam and food smells.” The temperature inside the house dropped.

My buns never did double in size. But I baked them, anyway, and they came out looking like rather large, smooth biscuits.

We ate our love biscuits with Ernesto’s $5 ham-hock-and-potatoes dish.

“This is real soul food,” he said. I had to agree. They weren’t exactly right, but those far-from-home lovefeast buns fed my soul.

Now that we’re back in North Carolina, my friend Sara keeps me supplied with actual lovefeast buns. Sara is a true Moravian. She dressed in a Moravian costume and presided over an open house at the Leaksville Moravian Church in Eden last month, as part of a holiday tour of homes. “I always tell a little about the history of the Moravians in America, and the history of our church,” she explained. “And we have beeswax candles in all the windows and of course the putz is always on display.”

“Of course. The what?”

“It’s spelled p-u-t-z, but it’s pronounced to rhyme with foots.” It’s German, meaning decoration or adornment. A Moravian putz is a Christmas village, usually with a nativity scene incorporated into it. Sara told me that her household putz includes twelve scenes from the Christmas story, beginning with Isaiah prophesying the birth of Jesus. “We have a small figure of Saint Thomas representing Isaiah,” she said. “He sits in an abalone shell.”

She asked me if I hadn’t seen the putz on display at the Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem, and it turns out that I had. One of my clearest memories from those long-ago field trips was standing in front of a large table with a miniature version of Salem village on it. I just didn’t know it was called a putz.

My one Christmas success this year was a sort-of putz. I put fake snow and tiny fake evergreen trees into vintage jars. It’s not Isaiah on the half-shell, but they were still rather nice. In fact, now that Christmas is well and truly behind us, I have them gathered on the mantel as a wintery accent thing.

I’m sure that Katherine Mansfield would argue that my quasi-putz are, like most of my attempts at holiday cheer and home-making, a mere warming of the teapot, and not a brewing of good, strong tea. But they are a simple adornment, so they do qualify. They also feed my soul, just as E. M. Forster does. Like Ernesto, he always has something comforting to say when things go clumsy. Forster put it this way: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

That’s right. And Katherine Mansfield is a schmuck.

 

*Zadie Smith, “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

 

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.

 

 

 

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