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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Fred and Ginger, “Follow the Fleet,” 1936

I recently came across an essay from Wilson Quarterly, the spring 1994 issue. The title is “Goodnight, Delight,” and something about it compelled me to make a copy and tuck it away (more about the tucking later).

The author, James Morris, takes about three pages to complain about how awful times are and how lacking in lightness, in humor—in delight. His launching pad was a question Barbara Walters had asked in an interview (he doesn’t mention who she was interviewing, but I think it was Bill Clinton). What sort of tree would he be, if he could be a tree?

All right, it’s not a brilliant question, but Morris takes it much too personally. From the depths of an apparently deep despair, he wonders what sort of tree would sum up the 1990s:

A lemon tree, maybe, and if not the entire tree, then its workaday fruit, which might roll to the corner of the produce department and lie unnoticed for days, sour and yellow and softening. Not unlike the times. We live in a lemon of an age, and if it came with a warranty, we’d be entitled to a refund.

Then he riffs on how horrid everything is:

The popular culture is starved for wit and lightness and ingenuity, and the society is full of groups determined to jump till every soufflé falls.

We are losing our capacity for delight.

Mr. Morris goes on to say that the 1930s, in contrast, were certainly dark times, and yet delight was still abundant! He points to one particular example, and I think it was this description that made me want to save the article (I can’t imagine what else appealed to me about it):

Perhaps the most gravely beautiful dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever performed occurs in the otherwise frivolous 1936 film Follow the Fleet. Gamblers down on their luck and close to despair, the two meet on an absurdly elegant casino rooftop, where each has come to commit suicide. They look like a million and are worth not a buck. Out of their individual gloom, to Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” they create ravishing romantic images (Ginger in a sexy dress that moves with a will of its own), and they leave together as lovers, arm in arm. Just before they exit the stage, when the dance seems done, there is a moment so surprising and audacious that it stirs the purest delight. The pair sink side by side to one knee, rise slowly, move backward, then forward several paces; suddenly they arch their backs, lift one knee high and triumphant, and lunge into the wings, the dark, the future.

Mr. Morris is a fine poet when he wants to be. But then he relapses:

[M]any of us are counting the days till our grim ghost gets the boot. Until then, goodnight, delight. Sleep well and keep your beauty. Your time will come round again.

I have saved Mr. Morris’s piece for many years, and I can tell him that in spite of everything, delight is not sleeping. You may have to look around for it, though. I found “Goodnight, Delight” in a 3-ring binder of recipes, toward the back. I often save things I like among my recipes, because it’s a guaranteed way of not losing them entirely. I’ll be frantically looking for an old page ripped from Southern Living that has a recipe for cream cheese pie crust and catch sight of something else I’d thought worth saving. “Oh, look!” I think. “There’s that thing I liked.” It slows down progress in the kitchen, but gives me a pleasant little surprise, a flash of delight.

What delights me may not delight you, so I can’t draw up a list of things that are guaranteed to sweep your grim ghosts aside. I can only share those delightful bits and pieces that I have saved, such as the following piece entitled “Bloopers from Church Bulletins.” I have no idea where it came from, so can’t give credit (or assign blame) where it’s due. I think it’s nearly as delightful as Fred and Ginger, though a tad less elegant.

Bloopers from Church Bulletins

  • Scouts are saving aluminum cans, bottles, and other items to be recycled. Proceeds will be used to cripple children.
  • The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on people who are not afflicted with any church.
  • Morning message: “Jesus Walks on Water.” Evening message: “Searching for Jesus.”
  • The Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Please use the back door.
  • The third verse of “Blessed Assurance” will be sung without musical accomplishment.
  • For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
  • Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.
  • The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.
  • The concert held in Fellowship Hall was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who labored the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.
  • 22 members were present at the church meeting held at the home of Mrs. Marsha Crutchfield last evening. Mrs. Crutchfield and Mrs. Rankin sang a duet, “The Lord Knows Why.”
  • Today’s Sermon: HOW MUCH CAN A MAN DRINK? with hymns from a full choir.
  • Hymn 43: “Great God, what do I see here?”
  • Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.
  • Pastor is on vacation. Massages can be given to church secretary.

Now go find your own delight.

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Metric Wonder Cup

Some time back I was making a honey walnut pie, and of course I used my Metric Wonder Cup to measure out the honey. I bought the Wonder Cup at one of those parties where kitchen items are demonstrated and sold. It is a plain thing, but its brash name and elegant simplicity elevate it to a true wonder. As seen in the photo from Etsy (where it’s no longer available, but where at one time it was presented very beautifully with lace and linen), the cup has a solid yellow plastic cylinder that slides into a clear plastic measuring cup to form a moveable bottom. The idea is to push the yellow core down from the top until the proper measure shows on the upper, clear part of the cup. Then you fill the open part with something sticky (peanut butter, honey, molasses) and push the yellow sliding cylinder up. As it slides, it scrapes the sides clean and pushes every molecule of honey into your mixing bowl.  

I know that in the grand scheme of things this is of little consequence. But I will take my wonders where I can get them, and lately I find myself needing them to counterbalance the unwonderful, non-delightful, far-from-enchanting issues that dominate world news. If only I could spread around some of the homey, comforting things that make life tolerable, surely the world would be a slightly better place.

Here are a few random wonders that make me cheerful:

Honey Walnut Pie

Not only is the Wonder Cup itself a wonder, the honey walnut pie that it helped me bake is fairly wonderful, too. It contains no refined sugar; it’s just honey, eggs, butter, nuts, and a little vanilla and nutmeg. Here is the recipe, which I found back in 2012 on a pretty blog called Romancing the Bee.

What makes this pie a wonder is the Miracle of the Eggs that takes place during the making of it. Once you bring the honey to a boil, you pour in the beaten eggs. This immediately causes a reaction similar to combining baking soda and vinegar (though not as violent). But the eggs don’t scramble, which to me qualifies as miraculous. A couple of times some white strands of egg remain ropy and won’t go away. When that happened I took care to strain them out before adding the other ingredients. I lost enough of the filling that my pie ended up a bit shallow.

Still, the pie was popular in my family, so I shared the recipe with a friend who wanted less sugar in her diet, too. She told me afterward that she really enjoyed it. Only then did I confess. “Sometimes I get white strands of egg that won’t incorporate into the honey,” I told her. “Did you have that problem?”

“Yeah,” she said, quite matter-of-factly, “I had a couple of ghosts.”

Now that I think of the white streaks as ghosts, I’m no longer haunted by them.

Family Recipes

My friend Kathy recently sent me a photo of an old recipe for chocolate cake that was her mother’s. We were laughing (via e-mail) about the fact that so many of the old recipes that get handed down don’t have anything like complete instructions. This one was really just a list of ingredients, and the rest she had to muddle through and figure out. She told me that her grandmother used to make a topping for angel food cake, and the recipe called for a “big tub of whipped topping” and a “39-cent Hershey bar with almonds.”

I love this description from another friend, Frieda, who wrote me about her grandmother’s miraculous biscuits: “…the best biscuits in the whole world. She used no recipe and never ever used a measuring spoon or cup. She knew just the right height for flour piles, just the right size for lard globs, and just the right number of buttermilk glugs; voila— perfect biscuits every time.”

I guess we’re all muddling through, most of the time, with only a dim idea of what we should be doing, and in what order, and what size pan we need.

The wonder is that things often do come out perfectly fine in the end. So find an old family recipe and see if you can work through its mysteries.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

I had two servings of Hursey’s barbecue this week—always a good thing. About the only barbecue that compares to it is Eddie’s. Eddie has in the past made barbecue as a fundraiser for my parents’ church, and his was so delicious that I begged a copy of the sauce recipe from him.

“When are you going to make another batch?” I asked him, since I would rather eat his barbecue than go to the trouble of making my own.

“Never,” he vowed. He then described how, after building a roaring fire in a 250-gallon drum, the flames leaped 20 feet into the air, and could be seen by cars as they turned off of Highway 49 some miles away. The heat caused the drum to turn cherry red, and the rebar Eddie had positioned inside to hold up the wood disintegrated. He also blistered his own face.

As my father would say, “Anything worthwhile is hard.” 

Grady Comes Home

Don’t think that every wonder is food-related (though many certainly are). Last winter we lost a dear friend and co-worker, Frances. Her cat, Grady, was an outside cat and it took a little while for Frances’ daughters to find him a good local home. Or really any home at all. Ultimately, Jeanne and Bill accepted Grady into their household, already stocked with two daughters, a dog, and a house cat. When I asked how Grady was settling in, Jeanne told me that he spent a lot of time being nervous, running into their basement when startled. He also crept underneath the house in general, and because he has a large, bushy tail he often emerged with things stuck in it, like moths and cobwebs and dust bunnies.

“Do you know what’s funny?” Jeanne said. “Bill’s grandfather’s name was Grady. Our house once belonged to him.” 

Ice Formations in the Bird Bath

In 2016, we had a small wonder crop up overnight in our bird bath.

Ice Spike 4

2016: Ice vase

As I wrote at the time:

One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

It was. I read about these formations (ours was what some people call an “ice vase”), which are similar and somewhat related to the crystals of ice that sometimes form in the soil. Evidently they require a certain freeze-thaw cycle and specific temperature fluctuations and soft water.

Imagine my delight when, this winter, our bird bath came through a second time, and an ice candle appeared in it one morning. I could hardly believe our great good luck. Unlike the ice vase, the ice candle was solid, but it was wonderful even so and from certain angles resembled a penguin.

ice-cande.jpg

2018: Ice candle

Brenda and Frieda

Good neighbors are the 7th wonder of my collection, and possibly the 7th wonder of the world in general. Brenda lives a quarter-mile up Redbud Lane from us, and I’ve spoken of her before, noting her nearly magical tendency to stop by the house and leave something I needed (or didn’t know I wanted) each time. Persimmon pulp, black-eyed Susans of unusual size and beauty, fried apple pies—Brenda is an inexhaustible fountain of wonders. She gave us a rose bush not long after we moved in, and it is thriving. This year she appears to have taken our front yard under her wing entirely. She has lavished us with another rose bush, two large hostas, one of her black-eyed Susans, a lavender bush, six or either blackberry plants that are just beginning to produce, and various day lilies. Twice she has come over and just planted things while we were at work, including a mystery flower that she placed in the large and sterile pot beside the garage (the squirrels kept removing my plantings from that pot and replacing them with hickory nuts). Brenda doesn’t remember the name of that one, but says it will have a purple flower. I wouldn’t be surprised if it bloomed extravagantly, opening to reveal a tiny image of Brenda’s face in the center.

Frieda is exactly like Brenda, only she lives farther away and conducts some of her magic more remotely. Knowing that Ernesto and I are without a kitchen as it undergoes a major renovation, she has been tireless in the provision of delicious things to keep us fed: poppy seed chicken casserole, squash casserole, and an aptly named Paradise Salad. Since her husband visits my parents’ house once a week for a church singing group practice, she often sends things to me via Don. I’ll get an e-mail letting me know to expect it, and all I have to do is pass by my parents’ house on my way home from work. (Don’t ask me how I got to be so richly blessed. It’s obviously not deserved, unless the level of my gratitude counts as a virtue. Maybe it does.) Frieda also shared with me this week a copy of a book called Friends at Holly Spring, about the early Quakers in North Carolina and specifically in Randolph County. It includes this tidbit of information about the early Quaker settlers: “For a hundred years and more in many communities, the living room was called “the house” to distinguish it from the kitchen area….” I felt a happy shock when I read that, because my Quaker grandparents in Perquimans County always referred to the living room as “the house.” Probably Grandma just wanted to get us all out of her kitchen when we sat too long around the table after a big meal. “Come on in the house,” she’d say, and we’d walk the six or eight steps from the table to the living room. But what perfect delight to have that memory awakened so unexpectedly.

Homework

I know you must have at least seven things of your own that qualify as wonders. Do this for me: Write them down, and see if you don’t feel miraculously uplifted. Then, while you’re still feeling uplifted, think of something special that you can share with someone else. It will help make the world a more wonderful place.

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Train 2 (3)

Engine 611

Do you believe in magic?

I didn’t see The Polar Express until I was well over 40, and the only reason I saw it then was because someone mentioned to me at a party that she and her grown son went to see it every December. They had read the book every year as he grew up, and when the movie came out watching it together became their new holiday tradition. It impressed me that it must be a very compelling movie, and I made sure that I saw it the very next chance I got.

Well, I loved it. There was something about all that cold and snow, and the wolves in the forest, and the earnestness of the children on the train, in their little pajamas and bathrobes. I found it perfectly charming and by the end, like the young hero of the story, I completely believed in the magic.

Since the film’s release an entire industry of Polar Express-style excursions has sprung up around the country during the holidays. If someone could guarantee me the snow and wolves and a cup of hot chocolate, I’d buy me a ticket. I do love a train ride.

Last spring Ernesto and I took a day-long excursion on a train pulled by a Class J steam locomotive, Norfolk and Western 611. We had to get up ridiculously early to travel from Greensboro to Roanoke, Virginia and back. For different ticket prices you were assigned to special cars and were entitled to varying levels of refreshment. We chose one of the upper-middle price points to ensure that we had access to all of the snacks we might need. We also had our pick of seats in our assigned car, a 1930s-era railcar with lovely Art Deco features. We chose to sit in a section of the car where the seats were positioned with the backs to the windows and faced a similar set of seating (and windows) across the aisle.

As we left Greensboro, we wound our way through woods and what often seemed like the backside of the real world. We had not gotten far before Ernesto—very much against my advice—fished around between the seats and pulled out an 8-year-old newspaper from somewhere in Montana.

I spent much of my time twisting around so I could see out the window behind me, and Ernesto spent much of his time talking to John Schmidt, a passenger sitting opposite us. John had logged thousands of miles on railroads around the U.S. and was amazingly knowledgeable about Engine 611 and the history of the rail line we were traveling. The ability to watch the scenery and chat with our fellow passengers in such a leisurely way—after all, we had lots of time, and nothing that we had to do—was magical.

But the most magical part of all—nearly as magical as The Polar Express—was the way that the train threaded through towns and tucked-away communities and connected us to all of the people who had come out in the misty coolness of morning to watch the train go by. At every stretch of track that crossed a road, no matter how remote, people were there waiting for us to pass. They waved from side roads and the shoulders of highways; some videotaped our passing from their cars. I loved that. It brought to mind another misty morning train ride, 37 years ago, when I was in Japan for a summer exchange program.

Julie, Dave, Jeff and I spent three weeks of that trip at a conference center in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. Mostly we worked with the kitchen staff: the thin, gentle head chef, Nakagawa; Shigeo, an expert in martial arts; Kuichi, with a heart-shaped face and brushy short hair; and Hideo, who shuffled around in black slippers as if too exhausted to pick up his feet. They and the rest of the staff assigned us innumerable simple tasks: filling salt and pepper shakers, shucking corn, dipping ice cream into small bowls, washing and refilling the square glass marmalade dishes, shredding cabbage for curry. While working, we taught each other our native languages. They taught us the Japanese phrase, “I hear, and I obey.” In retaliation, we taught them to say, “Quitting time!”

When it really was quitting time, they swept the four of us away to sushi restaurants, bars, local temples, ice cream shops, and sites of historical significance. One excursion took us to Nobeyama Station: “Japan’s highest railway station,” Nakagawa announced. Then we drove a mile or two further up, where a stone monument rose from a gray stone base beside the tracks.

Nakagawa stopped the van. “Highest point of Japanese railroad,” he said gravely. Kuichi smiled as if it were an inside joke, but they all seemed proud of the marker. We regarded it for several long minutes before driving back to the conference center for a round of ping-pong and casual vocabulary drills.

Then our days ran out, and it was time to return to Tokyo. Two Nobeyama administrators and the kitchen staff saw us off at the train station. A sad group, we huddled under a single umbrella in the spitting rain. The kitchen staff evidently decided it was too wet to hang around; they bowed their good-byes and sprinted for the parking lot. They didn’t even turn around as they jumped in the van and peeled off.

Julie watched them leave, sniffing back tears.  “We don’t know anybody in Tokyo,” she said, as the administrators settled us on the train with great care.

Soon we were chugging out of the station, moving slowly up the mountain as Julie and I cried ever harder.

Several passengers seemed concerned, so Dave tried to explain, in slow English, “They are fine. They are sad because we are leaving friends.” Julie sobbed, and I choked.

Jeff tried distraction. He pointed out the window. “Look, we’re getting close to the marker at the Highest Point,” he said in his gravel-road voice. “Remember when we came up here with the guys?” 

At first we saw only the top of the marker through the window, then it was in full view.

And there was the kitchen staff. They had driven up to the Highest Point and climbed the little hill that the marker post was on, where they waved at the train as it passed. We jumped into the aisle of the train and waved like crazy. They actually spotted us through the window—you could tell by the way their faces lit up and their mouths opened in exuberant shouts that they had seen us—and they waved with a fervor that matched ours. Then they were behind us, and gone.

Even as the train carried us away, we had never felt so deeply connected to those dear people. It was exactly that way as we traveled behind Engine 611: a feeling of peace on earth, goodwill toward men. And ladies.

I know I should try to preserve that attitude even when I’m not on a train, but it ain’t easy in this world we live in. Sometimes our train is more like the one in “The Celestial Railroad,” a strange story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is a sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress. The Celestial Railroad passes near a cavern that was occupied in Pilgrim’s Progress by two old troglodytes. Hawthorne tells us that though these vile troglodytes have moved or mouldered away:

…into their deserted cave another terrible giant has thrust himself, and makes it his business to seize upon honest travelers and fatten them for his table with plentiful meals of smoke, mist, moonshine, raw potatoes, and sawdust.

As Andy Griffith might say, “Sounds like a recipe out of the newspaper.”  

It also sounds very much like the menu we’re fed on a daily basis by our national politicians. Oh, I assume that some of them are good people who are trying to do good work. But so many don’t seem to be trying at all.

They need to stop feeding us smoke, mist, and moonshine and try harder. I’m trying! Awhile back I took a course in cultivating compassion and learned the loving-kindness meditation. Here’s the recipe for how to do it from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Or if you are into shortcuts, simply imagine that you are on a train, and everyone you pass in the course of your day—even that person you don’t much care for—is waving at you, and wishing you well. Likewise, from your comfortable seat inside the train, you are waving at every one of them, and wishing them well.

I am here to tell you: This is magical stuff.

The Center explains how it works:

Loving-kindness meditation increases happiness in part by making people feel more connected to others—to loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers. Research suggests that when people practice loving-kindness meditation regularly, they start automatically reacting more positively to others—and their social interactions and close relationships become more satisfying.

In short, it evokes those same feelings of connection and universal goodwill that I felt as I waved at the nice people who had come out to wave at Engine 611. It would do us all good if we would remember our essential connectedness. As a nation, we are, after all, on this particular train together, and whether or not we’re bound for glory we are certainly zipping along at a steady clip toward the future—and I would like for every one of us to arrive there, safe and happy.

Magical thinking? Maybe so.

But I believe.

 

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Image source unknown.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.”

I had pulled out a recipe for tomato butter.

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

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

…just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

***

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

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

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

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

“I guess,” he said.

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

“So how am I going to see it?”

I am now praying for Will, too.

***

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

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

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

These fragments I have shored against my ruin.

Be safe out there.

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wodehouse-love-among-chickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

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

 

 

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1. The Good Samaritan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. My Neighbor, Brenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. A Sufi Parable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which village are you going to live in?

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still-life-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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