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Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.

 

Christmas Memory

I’ve been reading the collected works of Elizabeth von Arnim, mainly because I was able to buy 11 of her novels for $1.99 via Kindle. I came across her when reading about British author Barbara Pym, who was heavily influenced by von Arnim. Pym is one of my favorites for low-key humor, so I collected the 11 works and set to reading.

First, about the author: She was a mess. Elizabeth was born (under about three different names, none of which matter for our purposes) in Australia, grew up in England, married a Prussian aristocrat and lived in Germany, married the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, split with him, carried on with H. G. Wells for about three years, had a lengthy relationship with a British publisher who was 30 years (thirty years!) younger, and died in Charleston, SC in 1941 at age 74. I expect she was exhausted.

But I enjoy her writing immensely. I started with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and then read The Pastor’s Wife and Enchanted April. Elizabeth is, besides being a mess, a hoot. There is one passage in German Garden (which is autobiographical) in which her small daughters attempt to tell her the story of Moses in the bulrushes, using a mix of German and English:

“He wasn’t a cat,” [the April baby said.]

“A cat?”

“Yes, he wasn’t a cat, that Moses—a boy was he.”

“But of course he wasn’t a cat,” I said with some severity, “no one ever supposed he was.”

“Yes, but mummy,” she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand-action, “the cook’s Moses is a cat.”

“Oh, I see. Well?”

“And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim.” [There follows a bit of back-and-forth about how the Konigstochter and her ladies discovered the basket.]

“And then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so”—here both babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook—“and see! It is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn’t go.”

That is the most entertaining retelling of the Moses story that I have read, though I have seen a modern e-mail circulate that featured children’s views of various Bible stories. My favorite was: “Jesus also had twelve opossums. The worst one was Judas Asparagus.”

Another von Arnim book, In the Mountains, contains no children or Bible stories. In it, the main character returns to her family’s summer home after five years away and finds that the books have shifted about on the shelves during her absence:

There is the oddest lot of books in this house, pitchforked together by circumstances, and sometimes their accidental rearrangement by Antoine after cleaning their shelves each spring… would make their writers, if they could know, curdle between their own covers. Some are standing on their heads—Antoine has no prejudices about the right side up of an author—most of those in sets have their volumes wrong, and yesterday I found a Henry James, lost from the rest of him, lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight. I pulled him out, a little damaged, and restored him, ruffled in spite of my careful smoothing, to his proper place. It was the Son and Brother, and there he had been for months, perhaps years, being hugged. Dreadful.

But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending up by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading. The coffee grows cold and the egg repulsive, but still I read. … Perhaps I had better not get arranging books before breakfast.

(Later in the book, she has this to say about breakfast: “There is a great virtue in a hard boiled egg. It holds one down, yet not too heavily. It satisfies without inflaming.”)

The description of books being jammed together inappropriately on the shelves reminded me of the book-spine poems I had so much fun writing. But they are not as easy as you may think, and I tore up several rooms looking for a good combination. I’m not as happy with it as with my earlier efforts, which were satisfyingly sing-songy, but it is appropriate for the season:

A Christmas Memory
Refiner’s Fire
Celestial Navigation
A Lovely Light

Now I sit in the middle of a great untidiness, with books scattered all over and stacked in threes and fours across two rooms. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, before a satisfying (but not inflaming) breakfast.

And further it doesn’t go.

 

 

A November Bear Story

Pilot Mtn

View from Pilot Mountain 11/6/15

Back on February 9th I made a note in my journal:

I am working on my bear story, which grows more complex and then slims down again. I think that the gain/loss cycle is healthy for a story, though, even if it’s bad news for people.

Today my bear story (which in fact did end up quite slim) has been posted in Deep South Magazine, an online publication.  It has actually been finished since August, but they have held onto it because it is set in November. If you have time, head over there and read “The Last Bear,” then let me know what you think.

Here’s an excerpt, a small taste of what can happen when a beloved member of a Southern community passes away:  

Granddaddy Sloane’s refrigerator was full to bursting. The table and counters held all that they could. Extra tea, lemonade, orange juice, soft drinks, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of milk were stashed in two large coolers outside the back door. Apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies were stacked on top of the refrigerator. A pound cake, a chocolate pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, cornbread, and a dozen doughnuts were in the living room.

Anything that could be frozen for later consumption went straight to the chest freezer in the laundry room, and we piled more food on top of the washer and dryer. Finally, Graham and Scott emptied four bags of ice into the bathtub, and now a flotilla of cream- and meringue-topped pies sailed on the surface. It made a pretty sight.

That’s just straight-up bragging. I am excessively proud of having written those cream pies into the bathtub.

(The photograph has nothing to do with the story, of course. But it is a nice memento of my early-November visit to Pilot Mountain.)

Beauty

A review of Beauty as a State of Being: Mastering Mind and the Spiritual Path
Dr. Solomon Katz
Deeper Currents Press (2013)

Who doesn’t need a treasure map to inner peace? Beauty as a State of Being, which won a Silver Medal from the 2014 Nautilus Book Awards, is a 21st-century treasure map for pilgrims, showing us a way out of our mental Slough of Despond and onto a more serene path to the Heavenly City.

The author, Dr. Solomon Katz—the child of Holocaust survivors and a former Buddhist monk—called upon his study of meditation, world religions, and clinical psychology to create this guidebook to a richer spiritual life. It mixes prose, delivered in carefully presented, concise packages, with poetry. The prose itself is remarkably poetic, written with a direct simplicity and a light, sometimes whimsical, touch.

(At one point I found myself so captivated by the writing that it reminded me of an image from some other book. The writer of that book had described small packets of grape leaves that, when unwrapped, revealed delicious, fragrant raisins in the center. When I couldn’t shake that image, I tried to track down the book. A full-house search followed. I looked in the office bookshelves, and then I looked in the guest room because that’s where I thought it should be, but it wasn’t. I looked in the bedroom and living room, and never did find it and felt rather forlorn. Then, as if by magic, last night I remembered that it wasn’t in that book, it was in a completely different book! Which I found! But it turned out that it wasn’t grape leaves, it was lemon leaves.)

And that, my friends, is not only a serious detour from the book I was enjoying, but is also a pretty good analogy for what Katz’s book is about: Our minds are remarkable and dangerous. Our minds follow noisy, crowded paths that were learned over the years and are too comfortable to desert. Our thoughts get stuck in relentless traffic circles. They are easily hijacked. We try to concentrate on one thing, but before long we are off on a twisting side road, or following multiple lines of thought at once (doing none of them justice), or are fixated on thoughts of the many, many ways that we are deficient. Oh, aren’t we good at dwelling on the ways that we are imperfect!

Or am I the only one who feels this way?

Katz describes the mind as a chainsaw—capable of great power when used for its proper purpose, and capable of absolute havoc when it is not. We must find the proper balance in how we use our buzzing, energetic minds to avoid mental disarray and anxiety. 

I will sometimes tell patients to listen not to the voice of doom and catastrophe but to the inner voice of compassion. Find a kinder voice within to counter the clamoring of fear. (p. 69)

You are like a painter facing a blank canvas. Your life is the canvas. You can paint any picture or series of pictures. How do you want to picture your life? What would you want your life to look like? The canvas is blank, awaiting your creativity. Try to paint heaven on earth. (p. 75)

Katz weaves together simple exercises for finding the mental balance we all need with examples of patients whose lives were improved as they used meditation, prayer, and repetitive affirmations to change self-defeating thought patterns. These are some of the passages that I would like tattooed on my forearms for easy reference:

If you can work yourself up, you can work yourself down. If you can generate panic by imagining catastrophe, you can generate bliss by imagining heaven. (p. 98)

The secret of peace of mind is:
Don’t talk, Listen. (p. 148)

If you are not peaceful and wish to be peaceful, abandon whatever story you are embedded in and return to listening, to stillness. Be still. (p. 149)

After reading Beauty as a State of Being, I came across a snippet from the poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” by W. B. Yeats. It reminded me of what I had learned:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything.
Everything we look upon is blest.

And so it is.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received my copy of Beauty as a State of Being free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Peace No Parts (2)

Proof that I did not make this place up.

Some time back we went to lunch in Edenton, NC with my Uncle Jimmy. He suggested that we eat at a place called the Nothing Fancy Café. It was an excellent choice, because not only was the food good, but it was also right next door to the Shalom International Church. The awning of its storefront location read: “The Place of Peace, Contentment, Fulfillment, and No Parts Missing.” So much peace, contentment, and fulfillment are available there that it has run over into the Nothing Fancy Café. We had a wonderful time there, and left both content and fulfilled—in fact, stuffed. Uncle Jimmy entertained us with stories about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He was 24 years old and on the strength of his college education received a top-secret clearance. He then spent most of his time in Japan locked in a cage with a revolver, acting as a librarian in charge of receiving and giving out classified documents.

But I am here to talk not about war, but peace—and the inspiring nature of stillness.

There was once a book about artist Joan Miró called Miró: I Work Like a Gardener, which is no longer in print but may be available in your local library (it’s not in mine). I only know about this book through the amazing website Brainpickings. Blogger Maria Popova chose some passages from the book to highlight. This is one quote from Miró:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble.

I know what he means. Last spring we arrived in Pine Knoll Shores, NC in late afternoon, happy to have a long weekend ahead of us. We went straight out to the beach for a walk, and right away I found some pretty, smooth beach pebbles. At first I picked up a few, thrilled to find them glistening in the sun on the wet sand. Pretty soon I realized that pebbles were scattered along the high-tide mark for nearly the entire length of the beach, though some areas were more fruitful than others. Finding them less rare made them no less valuable to me, and Ernesto helped me collect them for three days. It was pure joy. Most were white or a sort of milky translucent material, probably quartz. Others were shades of tranquil gray. They made me intensely happy.

At one point, as I walked along with my head down, I nearly collided with a woman coming from the opposite direction, with her head down, too.

“I’m collecting pebbles,” I said, showing her a few in my palm. I was anxious that we might be in competition, fearful she would think I was taking more than my share.

She opened her hand and showed me a scattering of tiny angel-wing shells. “I collected pebbles yesterday,” she said, “so now I’m collecting angel-wings.” What a relief.

I now have two full jars of pebbles in the house. They are as peaceful to contemplate as a still pool of water, but they are also, curiously, alive. They still make me happy. Miró considered objects to be alive, in the way that they “set loose great movements” in his mind. All that liveliness, translated into his art, required careful husbandry:

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.

Yes. When I’m trying to write, a great deal of ripening is necessary in my mind, too. In fact, sometimes I require entire seasons of ripening and pruning and grafting and watering and mulching and uprooting before anything at all happens—punctuated by long spells of stillness (okay, staring into space). This process does not usually fill me with peace, but with an anxious casting about—where are the pebbles on the beach? Why are my plants not growing? When will the right word, a better simile, a more interesting plot come to fruition? Is that alarming woman snatching up my pebbles and putting them into her pocket? Are all the most wonderful ideas locked inside a cage and guarded by a young soldier with a revolver?

On the other hand, if I could walk into a storefront and purchase a measure of peace, contentment, and fulfillment to replace the angst, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful. Maybe there have to be a few parts missing, a little bit of something lacking, to force myself to think differently, weave a connection, bridge the divide, and write something fresh.

 

peach ice cream.43.45

So much depends upon the peach ice cream, tucked with a spoon in a blue willow bowl

I have been too busy making frozen summer treats to write. Some weeks ago we bought a peck of peaches from Roland’s farm up the way. There were 22 peaches in our peck, and I made a peach cobbler and two batches of peach ice cream.

Ernesto admired Roland’s tomatoes, which were large and picture-perfect. The day after we bought the peaches I was talking peaches at church with Margie. Margie had purchased some of Roland’s peaches, too. “Did you get any tomatoes?” I asked her. “We didn’t buy any, but Ernesto said his tomatoes were beautiful.”

Margie sniffed. “Roland didn’t grow those tomatoes,” she said. I went straight home and told Ernesto this news, and he nodded as if he were not surprised. “He probably doesn’t grow the peaches, either,” he said, which seemed unfair because Roland has about five acres of peach trees.

And in fact, later that afternoon we witnessed Roland crossing the road in his four-wheeler, hauling several half-bushels of peaches from the orchard to his house. So unless Roland is so devious that he places California peaches from Food Lion in his orchard then carts them around to make it appear as if he has picked them from his own trees, we can be sure that we had been eating fresh local peaches. I have to say, Roland doesn’t look one bit devious.

There’s nothing devious about this ice cream recipe, either: It’s simple and delicious. I had forgotten how much I loved peach ice cream.

Peach Ice Cream

Peel, pit, and slice 2 pounds of very ripe peaches (6-8 medium peaches).
Puree the peaches in a blender, then pour into a large bowl. Stir in:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Stir thoroughly until the sugar has dissolved. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, stir 1/3 cup of sugar into 3 cups of light cream. When the peach mixture and the cream mixture are both free of sugary grit, pour the cream into the peaches and mix thoroughly. Some people who are more patient than I am suggest that you must chill the mixture in the refrigerator until ready to proceed. I am always ready to proceed right away, and if you follow my instructions and stir thoroughly, you’ll be ready, too. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Once the ice cream is ready, spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer.

Once the peaches were gone, we moved on to cantaloupes. Our garden produced about seven excellent cantaloupes this year, and I found a nice recipe for a sorbet which I am tampering with, adding various herbs from our patch.

Herbed Cantaloupe Sorbet

First, make a sugar syrup by mixing one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small pot over medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring the mixture to a boil. Throw in a handful of mint or basil and allow the syrup to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, pour into a jar or bowl. Cover and chill. Yes, you heard me: This time you really do have to wait for the stuff to chill.

When the syrup is chilled, strain out the herbs and pour the syrup over 4 cups of cubed cantaloupe. Add the juice of one small lemon. Place the cantaloupe mixture in a blender and purée until smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker, then spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer. This is smooth and silky on the first day; later it will become icier and won’t scoop quite so prettily, but it will still be good. You don’t have to include any herbs if you prefer not to.

Even though I haven’t been writing much while in the middle of turning fruit into frozen desserts, I have been reading quite a bit on the side. First, I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. It’s hard to explain why I loved it so much, except that I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses, playing house, nests, shells,  and daydreaming–all of which Bachelard discusses at length. Then he wins my heart by saying:

Words–I often imagine this–are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down in the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life.

Enchanted, I immediately tried to find every other book G. B. had ever written. I came across a different title in the Kindle Store, and glanced at the reviews before buying it. One reviewer gave the book four stars, but wrote: “I’ve been reading all of Bachelard. No reason to. Read Poetics of Space. Then he repeats a lot.”

While the Kindle Store sent me a list of Bachelard books, it also spat out a book by e.e. cummings: The Enormous Room, a memoir about his time as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I. I don’t know why in the world it came up—it was a miracle, plus it was free or maybe only 99 cents on Kindle, so I got it. I’ve always liked cummings’ strange modern poetry, but I really love his prose. For example, one of his fellow inmates (cummings is in a French prison, more or less by mistake) is a man he calls the Schoolmaster, a thin man in too-large clothes, who is “quietly writing at a three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand.” 

I might have something more to say about the cummings book when I’ve had a chance to finish it, but in the meantime here is a snippet of an e.e. cummings poem, one that fits rather well with August and summer:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

No, I have to give the last poetic word to William Carlos Williams, as we wait for our fruits and sugar syrups to chill:

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

 

IMG_2392 IMG_2393 IMG_2394

When I ran into Roosevelt in the housewares aisle of Goodwill, he was grieving over a small box. “Why would someone get rid of this?” he asked, showing me the box, which held a pewter-colored cross with “On Your Graduation” engraved at the top and various other words following, which I was unable to read before he had pulled it back to gaze at it again, sadly. “It’s brand new!” he said, shaking his head. He pointed out that the cross was still fastened to the bottom of the box with its original plastic ties. “Now, you know that someone meant to give that to a graduate and for them to keep it, and here it is in the Goodwill. I imagine there’s a story behind that.”

Roosevelt introduced himself, and within seconds we were fast friends, imagining the stories behind some of the other offerings that cluttered the metal shelves of housewares. He showed me a gadget that puzzled him. It was a red and white plastic thing, with a mechanism that allowed it to be clamped to a table or countertop. While he and I were able to figure that much out, we were not able to understand what the gadget actually did. There was a crank, and when you turned it two spool-like pieces rotated and scratched each other’s backs, as it were. It was similar to an apple peeler, but with no place to put an apple and no blade.

“Could it be to make pasta?” Roosevelt wondered, and it was possible to imagine strips of dough curling gently through the spools. He urged me to buy it—at 99 cents, it was certainly affordable—but at that moment I didn’t have the good sense to snap it up, and when I returned to Goodwill the next week, after failing to get it out of my head, I couldn’t find it. I had tarried too long. Someone who knew what it was or who was quicker to grasp its possibilities had beaten me to it. Just as well—I only wanted it as a curiosity, and as a reminder of Roosevelt.

Not that I’m likely to forget him, because bumping into Roosevelt at the Goodwill was a rich experience. While he bemoaned the pitifulness of a discarded graduation gift, I picked up a set of four dessert plates, each with a different fruit in the center. He admired them, saying, “Wouldn’t those look pretty on a table? I love a nice table setting.” He told me that he does most of his family’s cooking, and that at Thanksgiving one of his sons had begged him to carve the turkey and serve the side dishes early, since he had to move on to a gathering at his in-laws’ house. This, to Roosevelt, was an outrage. “We had 12 more people coming!” he said. “I told him I wasn’t going to take spoonfuls out of the dressing, or the squash casserole, and then put the dishes on the table later with mouseholes in them!”

I interrupted him to dig a pen and pad of paper from the bottom of my purse and write “mouseholes in the dressing and squash casserole” so I wouldn’t forget it.

“Here’s something you won’t forget,” he said, and he pulled out his phone and thumbed through the photos it held. “That’s my granddaughter,” he said, pausing at a shot of a cute 16-year-old in a high school basketball jersey, “and here’s what I want you to see.” He held out the phone, and I saw a close-up of a bee stuck on a barbed-wire fence.

“Can you believe that?” Roosevelt asked. “He flew straight into that fence, head first, and impaled himself with his wings still spread!”

“He bumbled,” I said, mesmerized.

Lately I’ve been running into all sorts of interesting people and stories. I came across a post on Maria Popova’s amazing site, brainpickings.org, that mentioned Luke Howard, an amateur scientist (and Quaker!) who created the names of clouds. The true focus of the piece was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and lover of clouds who was thrilled almost beyond all reason at the cloud classification system Howard developed. It inspired Goethe to write poems about each type of cloud. My favorite of the poems is “Nimbus.”

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

That would make an interesting hymn.

I had never heard of Luke Howard, so I went looking for more of his story. This led me, in turn, to the Cloudman. The Cloudman is (or was) the late Dr. John A. Day, a professor of meteorology and cloud-lover whose website includes information on Howard, photographs of clouds by classification, and tips on how to photograph the Near Sky. “Look up and see!” the Cloudman urged, and still urges through the power of the Internet, several years after his death at age 95.

While considering clouds, I came across a silly play by Aristophanes called The Clouds. The entire thing is online, but I refuse to link to it because I couldn’t believe what I was reading—surely it was a joke? Socrates is a main character, and he is treated with shabby disrespect. But no, the play is real: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and was glad to learn that it was unpopular when first performed. That was satisfying. I did like Wikipedia’s description of the play’s Chorus: “…a parade of the Clouds, the patron goddesses of thinkers and other layabouts.”

It is pleasant to layabout and look up at the clouds, watching them shift and change before our eyes, whether we’re doing any actual thinking or not. It is equally pleasant to layabout and remember folks like Roosevelt, Luke Howard, and the Cloudman, who drift into view and then drift out again. Sometimes it isn’t even a whole person who floats past; sometimes it’s the merest wisp of a personality. While shopping online recently, I read a review of a cotton matelassé coverlet. The reviewer gave the coverlet four stars, adding: The delivery was on time except for the shams; they came a few days later, due to the tornado.

I imagine there’s a story behind that.

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