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thanksgiving-hike-2016

A snapshot of Thanksgiving 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ate.

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

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan’s voice was husky and low. June imagined that he sounded like the state of Ohio. He seemed exotic, somehow, though he dressed the same as anybody. There was something about the light in his clear gray eyes, the life in his dark bristly hair, that reminded her of Weddlesville Road—a mystery, unknown and unknowable. She found her animosity toward him unsustainable. After their egg-dyeing and a riotous three days of hiding, finding, and sometimes crushing eggs, she had shown him her platform at the top of the tobacco barn. They were there now, having finished Easter dinner and changed into their regular clothes.

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

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

“You ever been?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good afternoon, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think we’re grinning like possums,” Ethan said. “How do possums grin? We just wanted to see Weddlesville.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END

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Easter eggs

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over inflated balloon; pop balloon when dry) and decorate a few Easter eggs. I did the two-toed thumbprint biddy, my sister did the caterpillar. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed this is why we call it icon “writing” instead of “painting.” Every “word” or element fits very concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole. – Marek Czarnecki

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over an inflated balloon and let dry, then pop the balloon) and decorate a few Easter eggs. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

One of the tricks of icons: paint it 50 times. Also: do not be realistic. Also: use gold that will shine out of shadows, and eyes that will follow you. Icons aren’t really windows. Because they aren’t representational, they are actually the presence of Heaven. It’s Catholic (Western Rome) tradition that features windows that open, beyond which is Heaven. In the Orthodox tradition, saints are sanctified by the belief of believers only, with no canonization process needed other than the devotion of repetitive layers of paint, which is a lot of devotion to be sure! Like making a pie. – Harold Rhenisch

I wanted so much to write an icon. It would be nice to find all of the right words, arrange them concisely and precisely, and wind up with a story that is haunting in its intensity and as tasty as pie. But I can’t seem to do that. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for days and days, completely unable to write anything in spite of having been so inspired by my new pie basket with its mandala lid.

I blame the whole idea of icons, which are beautiful but scary. Trying to make my ordinary writing fit into my mental image of what an icon should be brought me to a complete standstill. Then today I stumbled across an old piece I wrote about writing, in which I preached blithely that one must treat writing as an adventure, to be approached with joy! In fact, here’s exactly what I said, if you think you can stand it:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public. – Winston Churchill

A writing project is an adventure, and one of the first and most important tricks to success is to approach it as one. Gear yourself up for it by anticipating how well it is going to go and how much fun it will be. Imagine launching a kayak into a river or floating in an inner tube down a mountain stream. The words, like the water, will flow easily and take you exactly where you want to go. Don’t forget to wear a helmet.

The second trick is to maintain perspective. Remind yourself that you are good at what you do. You are intelligent, and capable, and interesting. Once you leap into your writing project, all of those characteristics—and thousands more that are unique to you—will be at your disposal to get you moving.

The third trick is to focus your attention. Your project will not be as successful if you are not giving it your full attention. This does not mean straining and forcing your mind to labor over the task; it means thinking about your topic and your purpose and then applying the first two tricks by reminding yourself: This is an adventure I am well-equipped to enjoy. If after gearing up mentally you find that you still face a blank screen or page with an equally blank mind, try this: Recall a time when you were feeling particularly creative. It can be from as far back as kindergarten, when you were happily stringing colorful beads on a piece of yarn. Writing is simply a more complex type of bead-stringing, after all. Banish your fears and concerns about it, and try to regain that spirit of calm absorption you feel while doing something relaxing and enjoyable. Isn’t it wonderful that you can bring back that peaceful feeling right now? And isn’t it much nicer to look at the blank page while feeling that way than it was to slump down and bang your forehead on the desk?

Why yes, it certainly is. But lately my writing projects have skipped the toy and amusement stages and gone straight to tyranny.

bunny jars

Another thing I did while I wasn’t writing was I put some Lindt chocolate bunnies inside little jars with Wilton candy grass (left) and paper grass (right) as nesting materials. Yeah, I don’t know why I did this, either, except that I saw it in Martha Stewart’s magazine and knew it was something that even I could manage successfully.

I did find a nice set of Rules for an Icon Painter online that I thought might be helpful, like a sort of recipe to make a pie. I borrowed the first three rules and adapted them for my own use in writing:

  1. Before starting work, pray in silence & pardon your enemies.
  2. Work with care on every detail of your ikon, as if you were working in front of the Lord Himself.
  3. During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid above all useless words and keep silence.

Do you ever read the reviews of Internet recipes? There is always at least one that says, “Really enjoyed this recipe, which I followed to the letter except that I didn’t have ground beef so I used ham, and then I added a can of black beans to the sauce and substituted crushed pretzels for the sour cream because my family is lactose intolerant.” That’s basically how I treated the Rules for an Icon Painter, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I never did end up with a digestible pie.

But I have several Easter treats to show for my trouble, and all my enemies have been pardoned.

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Kitchen window, with skunks.

Kitchen window, with skunks.

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

– Naomi Shihab Nye

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candle

Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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