Archive for November, 2011

Christmas Eve 2010

Thanksgiving is behind us, but Ernesto and I are still recovering from some of the effects of our travel to North Carolina. I came home with a nasty case of poison ivy from digging fishing worms. He evidently caught a nasty cold from one of the many sniffly children on our return flight. Ernesto thinks that our ailments are actually physical manifestations of  North Carolina withdrawal, plain and simple, and he may be right. We had such a great time with family, and we ate so much wonderful food like Hursey’s barbecue, Nixon’s fried perch, Zooland Special pizza from Liberty, and oh my goodness banana cake with caramel frosting and pumpkin pie and pork roast and turkey and ham and sweet potato casserole and the food at the Carolina Inn and breakfast at Foster’s and link sausages from Layden’s Country Store in Belvidere. Oh, and Mama’s German chocolate pie—I snagged the last piece.

Then there are the happy memories of sloshing pumpkin pie filling into the floor while trying to get the pans into the oven and Holli ‘s “My name’s Chubby” routine, where she mashes her face between her hands to make herself look very much like a Sharpei while making up things for Chubby to say that always end with the most hilarious little Chubby smile. 

So of course getting poison ivy (on my face) was a small price to pay for so much joy.

Now we are keeping cheerful by reliving our visit and taking medications and watching the Christmas lights go up on all the houses around ours. I am partial to the gazebo lights on the house two doors down, which I have a clear view of from the kitchen window. It makes me very happy when those particular lights come on. For one thing, it signals that I will soon have a whole week off while the university is closed for the holidays, and that means time to slow down, read a lot, and try to write. For another thing, it reminds me that writing itself is a way of turning on a light—not for any practical purpose, but simply for the charm of the light itself.

Two years ago I read several memorable books over the Christmas break. One was Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin. The title character is a nun in late 19th-century Russia with a gift for solving mysteries. Her bishop asks that she visit his aunt, whose prized bulldogs are being poisoned.

(As he tells Sr. Pelagia about the aunt and her dogs, the bishop peppers his story with random bulldog details as he thinks of them: The bulldogs are being bred to be all white with one brown ear, which is supposed to resemble the helmets worn by a noble order of gentlemen; they are bred to have pink noses with black spots; they are also bred to have particularly loose, slobbery mouths. Later, as she walks to the aunt’s house to investigate the dogs’ deaths, Sr. Pelagia passes an area near the river where a crowd is gathered to watch the police recover three beheaded bodies. She pauses there, thinking, “Some people had fearful mysteries to untangle, and others had to investigate how an old woman’s slack-lipped darling had died.”) 

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Sr. Pelagia sits down to dinner with the family and a few guests that first evening. They talk about art, and the difference between talent and genius. One guest says talent and genius mean nothing—you must simply do the task before you diligently. Then the guests ask Pelagia what the church has to say on the subject of talent and genius. She replies:

I think that there is genius hidden in everyone, a little hole through which God is visible. But it is rare for anyone to discover this opening in themselves. Everybody gropes for it like blind kittens, but they keep missing. If a miracle occurs, then someone realizes straightaway that this is what he came into the world for, and after that he lives with a calm confidence and cannot be distracted by anybody else, and that is genius. But talents are encountered far more frequently. They are people who have not found that little magic window, but are close to it and are nourished by the reflected glow of its miraculous light.

During that same Christmas break I read Jill Jepson’s Writing as a Sacred Path, and she echoed Akunin’s idea that writing draws the writer closer to God. She quoted Thomas Merton, who said that writing helped him pray because it made the “mirror inside” very clear: “God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if he had come close to me while I was writing, and I had not observed his coming.”

Of course Thomas Merton is a genius, and I am not. But it is the trying that matters. If I look for the light in the little magic window I know I will at least sense a reflected glow, and sometimes that  is miracle enough.


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I was going to do a load of laundry, but I thought that if I did that I would have to put them in the dryer and once they were dry I would have to fold them all. I decided to sit down and write you a note instead.

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Instead of blue, I ended up painting the back room yellow. I am second-guessing my choice of shades: Summer Sunshine appeared to be a lovely pale creamy yellow in the can, but it turned into a screaming bright yellow when applied to the walls…. By the way, I loved your description of the garden party. I first read, “She lives in a very modest house, but has a large backyard,” as “She lives in a very modest house, but has a large background.” After learning she had devised a fountain in her son’s wading pool, I decided I was right. That is a woman with a large background.

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Background music during dinner consisted of Anna banging on the piano and being told, repeatedly, to stop. After dinner we sang songs, because for some reason that’s what we do, mostly stuff like “You Are My Sunshine,” “You Get a Line and I’ll Get a Pole,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”  We got louder and louder, until Holli called out, “Sit down flat in the wagon, children!” as we swung into my favorite bluegrass song, “Rain and Snow.”

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Snow fell overnight; it was just a dusting, but enough to cancel church, so Daddy took us on a hike. He’s been clearing brush to create walking trails that loop around through the wooded areas that border two large cleared fields on the other side of the creek. He’s doing that because he likes cutting brush better than walking on the treadmill. That evening we drove to Chapel Hill and had dinner at Robin’s, then on Monday evening we all got together at Holli’s for Brunswick stew. At dinner Clark told us that he had some sort of homework assignment due—an essay.  I was bored by the idea of an essay, so I advised him to write it in verse and then posed a question to the entire table: “What rhymes with ‘essay’?” Robin immediately responded, “Dessay.”

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I daresay you miss seeing the exciting news reports that come frequently out of the rural South, so I am enclosing a recent article from the Raleigh paper about a spate of rabid fox attacks. I liked the way the Animal Control officer described one particularly diseased fox as looking like Marty Feldman. He added, “That’s a furious form of rabies.” The piece goes on to describe how onlookers applauded (“Woo-hoo!” they cheered) when Animal Control finally trapped the fox.

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Fox4 News reported yesterday as breaking news that it had gone five hours without raining since Sunday. We feel like we’re living in a big green sponge. By the way, we thought of FOUR words that start with “dw,” if you’ll count “dweeb,” which is the first one both Susan and Nancy thought of. The others are dwindle, dwell, and dwarf.

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My dwarf rose-bush survived the move from Florida to St. Louis! In fact, we are all thriving. I went to the Quaker church for the first time this Sunday. The church is small, with pews arranged in concentric circles that face an empty middle area. The meeting is unprogrammed, so we sit in silent meditation unless/until someone feels inspired by God to say something illuminating. And may I just say, most Quakers still do not understand this concept, and they share all sorts of thoughts that could not possibly have been inspired by The Most High. I keep my mouth shut. Anyway, a member named Eleanor had died recently, so several of the other members stood up and shared memories of her. They talked about how she was so energetic—doing exercises up until the time of her stroke, at the age of 84. They said that she was very well-respected in the community; in fact, when the Pope visited, Eleanor was chosen to be one of a group of community spiritual leaders who met with him. Finally, a woman with a lovely British accent stood up and said, “Eleanor was such an inspiration to me. She had the ability to really cut through the bullshit. It was wonderful, wonderful.”

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…wonderful crop of tomatoes this year, and we’ve got squash coming out of our ears. The cucumber vine went absolutely berserk, possibly due to an over-application of Miracle-Gro.  The vine is climbing up the side of the garage, onto the rain barrels, and will soon be reaching for the nearest passing cloud. The vine is so dense that it’s difficult to see into it, but we did find two deathly pale, huge, bloated cucumbers. They appear inedible, although I believe we could use them to make dugout canoes.

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Dugout canoes have interested me since the fourth grade. Our class studied early American history, which included a section on native Americans. We wove simple baskets, read about Pocahontas, and learned how to make a dugout canoe. Filled with knowledge, I held forth at the family dinner table. Evidently my excitement was contagious, because that Saturday your granddaddy found a select piece of wood in the firewood stack and we commenced to make a small model dugout. He used a blowtorch, and we painstakingly burned and scraped and picked at the charred wood until we had a nice interior. He shaped the ends into canoeish points, and I proudly took my model dugout to school on Monday morning. Now it sits on my desk and holds my pens.

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My pen is threatening to run out of ink but let me tell you about Holli’s solo Sunday night. She was doing the verses of the song and the choir sang the chorus. She was singing as the choir came down the center aisle. She got through the 1st verse and completely forgot the 2nd—it was dark—but then she finally remembered it. Everybody thought that she was waiting on purpose to give the choir time to get down the aisle but NO! She just blanked out! They weren’t using music or she would have given the pianist a terrible time.

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Time for me to get dinner going, so I’ll sign off now. Oh, I forgot to tell you that Delia is in County Hospital and not expected to live much longer. She is not eating or even getting glucose (some people say glo-coat).


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Photo: Alamance County Historical Museum

One time, long ago, I had a friend who lived west of Charlotte, North Carolina. The rest of her family lived in New York. Her uncle telephoned, seeking directions to come visit. She told him, “You’ll be on I-85 south all the way through Charlotte. Now, go past Pharr Yarns and you’ll see the exit for Elm Street. Take that exit and turn left….”

Pharr Yarns was a textile mill in McAdenville, clearly visible from the interstate.

When my friend’s uncle finally arrived, he laughed and told her, “I thought you had picked up some kinda Southern expression, you know?  Go past far yarns, like keep driving and driving…. It kinda made sense.”

It kinda does. North Carolina has a lot of textile mills, and I’m surprised no one ever did come up with the expression go past far yarns.

In April we were visiting my parents near Burlington, and Ernesto wished to visit some local sites of historic interest. So my dad, Ernesto, and I drove over to the cotton mill town of Alamance to check out the battleground and historic museum. The weather was gusty and rainy, and the temperature was cool, so the conditions were terrible for a trip to a battleground. In fact, most of the state was under a tornado watch, but we did not realize that. We felt deeply fortunate; no one else was at the battlefield, so we got a personal tour.

The Battle of Alamance was pre-American Revolution, and had to do with farmers who were ill about the high taxes they were forced to pay to the royal governor. The farmers  traveled to Alamance and got stomped by the royal governor’s men, mainly because they showed up unarmed—they thought they were attending a protest, not a battle.

We checked out a log cabin on the property that was moved there in 1966 as a completely unrelated exhibit.  It was a lovely little cabin, and my dad was particularly impressed with the large fireplace inside. Ernesto noticed there were several extremely precise holes in a few of the logs on the front porch. Our guide explained that the 10 children who grew up in the cabin used their father’s hand drill to make the holes. Ernesto thought that was funny. “You kids!” he said, pretending to be the father, “Stop playing with the house!”

From the battleground we drove two miles to the Alamance County Historical Museum, established in a pre-Civil War home called Oak Grove. It was the birthplace of Edwin M. Holt, who founded one of the earliest textile mills in the area. If I understood correctly – and goodness knows I may not have – Holt’s mill invented a new method of dyeing plaid fabrics.

The house contained an abundance of original furnishings, including a formal mahogany-veneer table built by Washington Holt, one of the household slaves known for his woodworking skills. Again, we had a private tour as everyone else in North Carolina was apparently huddled beneath a mattress in a basement with a NOAA radio. At one point when we were on the 2nd floor of the house I remarked, “Wow, it’s pretty windy,” and everyone else agreed before we went downstairs to check out the gardens and detached kitchen.

The kitchen had its own table for casual dining, surrounded by maple chairs that were also made by Washington Holt. How did they survive? They are simple rush-bottomed, ladder-backed chairs! The slats on the ladder backs include little mountain peaks, a hallmark of Washington’s work. A rocking chair in the room adjacent to the kitchen had the same feature.  The photo above shows the chairs as seen on the museum’s Web site. I love their simplicity.

Now, I realize that Pharr Yarns is not even loosely connected by the slenderest of threads to the Battle of Alamance and the craftsmanship of Washington Holt, but somehow all of this seemed to go together as if it were cut from the same cloth. You just have to go past far yarns to see the connections.

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To accompany a photograph of our Burning Bush (also known as Winged Euonymus or Spindle Tree), I give you a poem by Robert Frost called “Gathering Leaves.”

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who’s to say where
The harvest shall stop?

~ Robert Frost

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