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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.

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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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Ginger Pig

A ginger pig from Cane Creek Farm

Some years back I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s book, Cross Creek Cookery. Rawlings is most famous for her book The Yearling, a coming-of-age story about a Florida boy and the fawn he tames. Rawlings also wrote a memoirish sort of book called Cross Creek, named for her home in central Florida (now a state park). She talked so much in that book about food, that she was compelled by her fans to follow it up with a cookbook, and that (obviously) is Cross Creek Cookery. Anyway, it included a recipe for Baked Peanut Ham with Sherry. Your first thought, like mine, may be that peanuts don’t have hams, and if they did have them they would be tiny.  Reading further, though, it seems that Rawlings was talking about a ham from a pig that had been fed peanuts. But before she got to the point of explaining how she prepared her ham with sherry, she talked about ham in general. She confessed that she is not addicted to the aged Kentucky and Virginia hams that some people love, adding:

Moreover, the choice old country hams are so valuable and valued that one feels guilty in eating as much as one wishes, and is expected to nibble daintily on wafer-thin wisps. This convention once ended a friendship of long standing. A friend had an old Kentucky ham as the pièce de résistance at a Christmas buffet supper. She was horrified to discover a respectable lawyer standing at the buffet board, hacking off half-pound wedges of the sacred ham, and eating as fast as he hacked.

“I never, ” he said fatuously, “ate such delicious ham.”

He was never invited to her house again.

Ernesto and I have had our share of delicious ham, especially choice bits that we ate during our travels in Spain and Portugal. But I must say that I don’t like wafer-thin wisps, either. I like large portions.

Recently, Ernesto—who has long wished to purchase half a hog from a local, reputable farm that he can process as he wishes—found that a class on butchering was being offered this weekend by the Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw. The notice read:

A Celebration of the Pig.

Join us for a ride all the way down the rabbit hole with a full day of hands-on butchery, curing meats, and making sausages, followed by an in-depth farm tour at Cane Creek Farm.

Because the day included breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a bonfire by the river, I was happy to sign on. Besides, if there is going to be a celebration of the pig, you can always count me in. I love pigs. Maybe it’s wrong, but I love them alive and I love to eat them, too.

But as the weekend approached, the weather turned nasty. We saw it coming, and on Thursday we got an e-mail saying that the day would go forward almost as planned, but the bonfire and riverside cookout were no longer on the agenda. Also, we should bring an extra pair of boots for the farm tour.

I don’t have the right pair of boots for a muddy farm tour, so I stopped at my mom and dad’s Friday afternoon to see if they had some I could borrow. I was in luck. Daddy said, “I think there’s a pair in the closet of the laundry room.” I went to check it out, and sure enough, there was a tidy little pair of black Totes rain boots, with fur lining. They were not only perfect, they were adorable. I tried them on, and they were just a tiny bit big. I could not have been more pleased.

“Let’s just hope they haven’t dry-rotted,” Daddy said, “or your feet will get wet.” But the boots were perfect in every way.

Yesterday morning, we packed up our boots, extra socks, rain gear, hats, and a cooler and headed to Saxapahaw. With my bonfire hopes dashed, I have to say I set off with more determination than enthusiasm, but I did look forward to wearing my super-cute little boots. And eating ham.

The day started off beautifully. We drank coffee and ate enormous sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits from the Saxapahaw General Store. Then we gathered around a half of a butchered hog (slightly more than half, since the head was still on) and Ross Flynn, our teacher, gave an overview of the day’s events and then divided us into two groups. One group of six left with Logan, the master sausage maker, to make sausage in another classroom. Ernesto, three other students, and I stayed with Ross and began to dismantle the hog. Ernesto did some sawing and cutting, but I mostly just observed and took a few photos as the others brandished their knives.

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Ross Flynn of Left Bank Butchery instructs Ernesto on sawing off a hog’s leg.

For lunch we had delicious schnitzel sandwiches and homemade pineapple coconut soda from Haw River Farmhouse Ales, then we switched, and our group made sausage with Logan while the other group dismantled the second (headless) half of the hog. (Eventually, all of us divvied up the pork chops and bacon and sausage and various other bits that we carved and took it home.)

It had been drizzling rain off and on all day, and when we arrived (stylishly booted) at Cane Creek Farm, the rain was coming down pretty steady. Eliza MacLean, the owner, gave an introduction to the farm under the shelter of her carport, where she had thoughtfully provided hot chocolate. Then we went on a walking tour of the farm, beginning with the farrowing house, where three sows and thirty piglets sent any lingering regrets over the loss of the bonfire flying off and forgotten. I would rather see piglets any day, and these were little and spotted and sweet.

Then, as Eliza described the property and how the hogs were used to clear and fertilize the land,  we walked down to see the pigs that lived among the woods, further from the house. Midway to the pig pens, I heard a flapping noise and noticed that the left sole of my Totes boot had come loose at the heel. Ernesto thought that was the funniest thing ever, as I tried to walk through the wet grass with one sole flopping. Then the right sole commenced to flap. “Oh, crap,” I said, “now they’re both loose.” About that time, the left one detached completely, so I picked it up.

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The first sole falls off.

“Give me your phone, give me your phone,” Ernesto said, and stopped laughing long enough to get a shot of me holding my left boot sole. He then insisted that I share it with my parents right away. While the rest of our group heard what I’m sure was excellent information about the humane treatment of livestock, we hung back and I sent the message. Then we walked on, and my right boot sole fell off. I was four yards away before I realized I’d left it behind. I went back and fetched it.

By then I had a reply from Daddy: “So sorry about the boot but Mom can’t stop laughing.”

I soldiered on through the farm tour, walking on cardboard insoles. They were surprisingly sturdy but naturally failed to keep my feet dry. We saw pigs, farm-stay campsites (including a yurt, where a beautiful black cat slept on the queen-sized bed), then walked through the stickiest red mud you ever saw to visit the sheep barns and the baby lambs. At one point I considered just going back to the car to get my dry socks and shoes, but I did want to see the lambs, and they were very sweet and well worth seeing.

Back at the Haw River Ballroom, Ross brought in platters of the most delicious charcuterie and bottles of wine, then we had a wonderful dinner of copa with risotto and salad, followed by a muscadine doughnut. It was such a great day, one in which the pig was well and fully celebrated as we learned more than we ever hoped to know about processing our own food and the community connections that sustain us all.

And while it was all memorable and nourishing, nothing—not ham, not doughnuts, not even wee spotted piglets—is as truly divine as dry socks when you really need them.

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Last weekend I spent some time cleaning out the guest bedroom and the three-drawer oak dresser that’s in it. Both were in bad shape, because during the holidays the guest room becomes my Christmas gift staging area, and I hide the clutter in the dresser. There was also a large plastic bin in the room that I’d been using to collect stuff to take to Goodwill, and because we’re short of shelf space there were stacks of books on the floor. I found space for the books in different places, mainly the linen closet (which has more books than linens in it). During the process, a “Loose Change” envelope from Wachovia Bank fell out of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

“Loose change” seemed like a pretty good sum-up of the stuff I discovered as I tidied the room and cleared out the dresser. I came across many long-forgotten and mildly interesting items in the drawers: a box of old letters and cards; a stained-glass star with the tip of one arm broken off; a decorative round box that held an orphaned earring, a pearl button, several red beads, and a safety pin; and a basket about the size of a baseball. Oh! I also found my two autographed baseballs! I am forever putting them away where the sun can’t fade the signatures and then forgetting where they are. It’s always a lovely surprise when I come across them. One was signed by Pee Wee Reese, and the other by Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

The letters and cards I found—from my friends Kathy and Ruby, and two from my grandmother—got me interested in seeing what I had written to them, so I checked my old computer files to re-read my side of the conversations. Here’s some of the loose change I found there (edited for clarity and loosely organized):

Fine Dining I

Jeanne and I decided we wanted to go to a lowbrow place for lunch, so we picked the Waffle House. When the waitress came over to take our orders, she looked down at her pen and clicked it a couple of times experimentally.

“There’s grits on my pen,” she said. “But I reckon it’ll still write.” 

We ordered, the pen worked fine, and while we waited for our food Jeanne took two dollar bills to play some songs on the juke box. She played “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and two of the Waffle House songs, including “Special Lady at the Waffle House.” That got all the waitresses riled up, and the oldest one—a tiny woman with a fierce expression—came to our table, brandishing a mop. She looked straight at me and said, “Hold my arm.”

I clamped my hand on her free arm. She turned to Jeanne and shook the mop at her. “You better be glad she’s holding my arm,” she said, “else I’d come after you for playing that dang Waffle House song!” 

Fine Dining II

Ernesto and I went out to dinner with my parents this weekend. We had finished our meal and paid the bill, and finally we got up to go. Ernesto and I went first, and my dad came along behind with Mama. She didn’t have her walker with her, so she was holding tight to Daddy’s arm. We made it to the door of the restaurant well before they did, and Ernesto held it open for them to come through. As they approached, Daddy noticed that Mama still had a grip on her extra-large cloth dinner napkin, which was nearly dragging the ground. He said, “Virginia, you’re about to walk out with your napkin.” At that moment, our waitress came up behind them, said, “I’ll take it,” and whisked it away. Daddy proceeded outside with Mama, and Ernesto let the restaurant door close behind them. At that point Daddy said, “Well, you’ll never get a whole set like that.”

The Church Bake Sale

I was working the church baked goods table at our annual craft fair and hot dog sale a few years back when two sisters, a short, pretty one with short dark hair, and a tall, pretty one with long red hair came at the end of the day. I had just put up a sign declaring that everything was half price. Each sister had a baby in a stroller, and as they chatted I learned that the red-haired sister was visiting the dark-haired sister for the weekend and both were concerned about having plenty of food for their combined families. They bought an apple pie, all of the muffins and sausage biscuits on the table, loaves of bread, and assorted cookies. Since they still wanted to go look at some of the craft tables, once they’d paid for the baked goods I helped them tuck it in the shade underneath the table for safekeeping.

Later, when the sisters returned, I started pulling everything out and placing it on the table. The last baked good to come up was the apple pie, with a tinfoil lid. When I put it on the white-clothed table I noticed a few tiny ants. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m afraid the ants found the pie while it was under the table.”

The tall, red-haired sister removed the foil and examined the top crust carefully. “There are only two, or maybe five,” she said. She blew lightly across the surface of that pie, sending flakes of top crust sailing onto the grass. Then she blew again, a little harder, and a larger piece of crust broke off and flew. “There,” she said. She slapped the foil back on top and started stacking muffins onto the stroller.

Spiders…

Earlier in the day, a lady came by the bake sale with a sort of dark blue medical device on her right foot, one of those cushiony things with two Velcro straps across the top of the foot.

“How’s your foot?” I asked. I figured she had sprained her ankle.

“It’s feeling pretty good,” she said, looking down at it. “I got bit by a brown recluse spider. It was hiding in the toe of the shoes I keep in my carport, so I can just slip them on when I want to run outside.” She looked up, and shook her head. “That spider bit me to the bone,” she said. “I lost a toe!”

I was horrified, but she added calmly, “You can bet that when I see a spider now, I stomp it good and hard.”

…and Snakes

My nephew, Will, has been in school in Idaho, and he came home this summer wearing a rattlesnake rattle on a leather cord around his neck. It wasn’t store-bought; he had actually killed the owner of the rattle. My sister told him that she did not wish him to tangle with rattlesnakes, and she told him about a colleague whose father was bitten by a rattlesnake while reaching into some brush to retrieve a bird he’d shot. “He nearly lost his hand!” she said. “He had to take anti-venom treatment for weeks.”

Will acknowledged the truth of this. The director of the school had already told him, “Whatever a rattlesnake bites, you should be prepared to lose.”

That same summer my dad found a black snake on the back porch steps, so he decided to relocate it. The snake attempted to flee, and slithered into a crack as if it planned to enter the crawl space (and from there the basement). Daddy was quick enough to grab the snake by the tail, but he said that a snake is surprisingly resistant to being dragged out of a crack, and he thinks he sprained the snake’s tail. He successfully relocated it to the woods, though.

Engineered Potato Salad

Daddy not only wrangles snakes when he has to, he also makes a mean potato salad. He printed the recipe in extra-large type from a site on the Internet. And because he is at heart an engineer and a craftsman, he is a stickler for precision.

“He would kill you, making potato salad,” Mama told me. “He gets his recipe out, and it calls for two pounds of potatoes. So he puts his potatoes in a bowl, and then he carries them down the hall to the bathroom. He weighs himself first, and then he gets back on the scale holding the bowl of potatoes.”

It’s good potato salad, too.

I Avoid Making a Pun (Until Now)   

Our minister has two granddaughters who were visiting this weekend. They are 4 and 3 years old, I would guess, and just as cute as they can be. They announced that they would like for the congregation to sing “Zacchaeus,” so he brought them up to the front of the church, and they led the singing. Both girls wore very pretty little butterfly clips in their hair. When I commented on the clips, their grandmother said, “The girls found them yesterday. They used to belong to their aunt.”

I started to say, “Ah, hairlooms,” but I was afraid that no one would get my joke and it really wasn’t good enough to survive a long explanation.

Adding It All Up

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem called “Ode to Things,” and I think that it is a decent sum-up of what it means when you revisit the bits and pieces that you’ve collected in your life, whether they are solid as a glass star or as light as a bake-sale memory. Here’s a fragment of his poem:

…these buttons
and wheels
and little
forgotten
treasures….

all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handles or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
lost
in the depths of forgetfulness.

O irrevocable
river
of things…

many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.

 

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I won a trophy! Well, a consolation prize. My sister found it at an antiques mall and presented it to me at Thanksgiving, soon after Ernesto and I went from married, with chickens, to empty nesters.

It was like this:

At the end of the summer we removed the fence around the chicken coop and allowed the hens to roam free. It seemed sensible, since they were able to find ways out of their pen pretty much any time they wanted, and having the fence down made it easier to mow inside the pen. Plus, I loved having the hens out and about, running with the goats or hanging out under the bird feeders. They always went back to the coop to lay eggs and sleep. Life was peaceful and good.

Until Halloween weekend. We went off to work that Friday the owners of two goats and 10 chickens. When we got home on Friday evening, I collected the eggs and noticed that one of the hens was missing. Ernesto said he had spotted a feathery pile across the road and up a bit that morning on his way to the office, and we imagined that some critter had gotten a hen and carried it away. It was a shame, but it does happen from time to time. I didn’t fret about it much.

The next morning we awoke to find that our white goat, Iris, had escaped from the corral and was standing outside the fence, looking as if she very much wanted back in. I went out to open the gate for her and found four chickens dead between the coop and the garden, and two more dead inside the coop. I report that quite calmly, don’t I? At the time, I was not calm. I didn’t scream or faint or anything, but it was a terrible shock, the kind where you walk back and forth and look at the poor limp hens and imagine that in another few seconds they will perk up and live again.

Two hens were actually still alive, though seriously rattled, and another was unaccounted for. I believe that whatever savaged the chickens had spooked poor Iris so badly that she leapt (hard to imagine) out of the corral. She has such stumpy legs, it actually cheered me up to think of her jumping.

We spent a sizable chunk of Saturday afternoon trying to catch the two surviving chickens to put them into the nursery coop, which is smaller and in a high-security pen. It used to be a dog pen, so it has a chain-link fence and the stable forms one wall. When the chickens were young, Ernesto added a layer of chicken wire across the top to discourage attacks from the air. We use it as a halfway point for new chicks. Once they’re sturdy enough to move out from beneath a heat lamp, they live in the nursery pen until they’re old enough to go free-range.

But after surviving the Night of Horror, our last two chickens would not allow us near them. They were Ameracaunas, one of them golden and the other mostly charcoal gray with touches of gold. They may have been shell-shocked, but they were still having nothing to do with us and were much spryer than Ernesto and I. That being the case, I waited for them to go into the coop for the night and then went out and reinforced the little chicken entry door with a heavy piece of wood. (Note: It was actually the sign that Ernesto had made when we had too many eggs to keep. It read “Fresh Eggs” on the first line and “Free Range” on the second line above our phone number. One afternoon a guy called to ask about the free range; he thought we were giving away an oven.)

I also took the wood-and-chicken-wire gate that used to be part of the hens’ enclosure and put that against the heavier piece of wood for extra protection.

Alas, the next morning I found both of those barricades pushed aside, and no sign of the hens. Inside the coop, a terrible struggle had caused the framing of one of the nests to be knocked completely askew. The Ameracaunas evidently fought to the bitter end.

We still don’t know what exactly went after the chickens. Possibly a fox or weasel, maybe even a coyote. Whatever it was, it took the goats several days to get over their uneasiness. The Wednesday after the massacre, Ernesto was working from home and looked up from his computer to see Iris and Rose walking up the driveway side by side. He led them back to the corral with little fuss, but we believe they were patrolling the property to make sure all was well. Either that or they were so psychologically damaged from the things they had witnessed that they were running away from home.

At about the same time that we lost our chickens and (therefore) our source of fresh eggs, I came across a bit of information about St. Swithun. It was almost as if the dear saint were reaching out to give me comfort in my chickenless and (therefore) eggless state:

He was, say the chroniclers, a diligent builder of churches in places where there were none before and a repairer of those that had been destroyed or ruined. He also built a bridge on the east side of the city and, during the work he made a practice of sitting there to watch the workmen, that his presence might stimulate their industry. One of his most edifying miracles is said to have been performed at this bridge where he restored an old woman’s basket of eggs, which the workmen had maliciously broken. David Nash Ford’s “Early British Kingdoms”

Apparently the egg miracle was St. Swithun’s greatest claim to sainthood, though the diligent building of churches probably didn’t hurt. He also gets credit for the weather during the summer, but I never did understand that part, something about if it’s raining on St. Swithun’s day it will rain for another 40 days. Moving on to more interesting tidbits, I found a charming photo of his skull, which looks rather egg-like itself, all tied up with a crimson ribbon and resting on a red cushion. St. Swithun’s bones seem to have been sent around to several different places, as his skull is in one place while his shins and various other parts are someplace else and possibly not together. Kinda like some of our chickens, poor things. It seems appropriate but sad that he is himself a broken Humpty-Dumpty of a saint, unable to put himself back together again.

 

St. Swithun’s egg-like skull

Anyway, now we have a participation trophy for chicken farming. I am trying to decide what to have engraved on it, maybe “Remembering the Eggsistential Crisis of 2017,” or “We tried.”

But perhaps leaving it blank is the best memorial to our poor hens.

Remember: May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day. It’s not too early to plan how you intend to celebrate and/or “protest the bleakness of chickens’ lives.”

 

 

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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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Fragments of unwritten country songs seem to fall into my lap. Most of the time I end up saving them as-is, going no further than to marvel at their spirit, but once in a while I can squeeze an entire verse out of a sentence that strikes me as worthy. It’s amazing how often the people around me talk in country song language. Here are a few examples:

Pat was telling us about one Christmas in Vermont when a neighbor struck and killed a deer near her house. He came to the door and asked Pat’s husband to come help with the dressing of the meat. Pat described this to her daughter, who had called just before leaving to travel home for the holiday. Her daughter said, “Let me get this straight. We’re having roadkill for Christmas.”

This very morning Pat came to work with a picture of a creature she had passed on her way to her car. In a parking lot. In town. “Look what was in the parking lot!” she said, passing her phone for us to see. “I think I have a crawdad near my house.” You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey.

Neighbors are always a rich source of material. Talat described one of her former neighbors who led a very independent life, but who did have a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means. “They take nice vacations together, cruises….” She shrugged. “Well, he’s got the money, and she’s got the time.”

It’s a match made in heaven
Like mojitos: rum and lime.
He’s got the money, honey;
She’s got the time.

(Now that I think about it, “a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means” has rather a nice lilt to it, too.)

This spring, Jeanne helped plan and execute a lecture and small reception that featured Diane Rehm. Later, I asked her via email, “Hey, did you get to actually meet Diane Rehm?”

She responded right away. “YES!!!!  She is tiny and pretty and wore stiletto heels. She held my hand while she drank champagne. Lovely.”

She held my hand while she drank champagne
And my heart whirled up toward the sky
I might have been holding a bird in my hand
And I prayed that it would not fly.

I prayed that it would not fly away
I prayed that it would not fly,
I held her hand while she drank champagne
And prayed that she would not fly.

Lovely, indeed. Don’t you agree? You don’t have to.

Julie, too, is often involved with special events. She recently managed one that involved lunch at Point A followed by a short bus ride to Point B for a tour of a new building, after which the bus would bring everyone back to Point A. One of the guests arrived terribly late and asked that her lunch be packed in a to-go box so she could take it along. Sadly, she left the box on the bus while taking the tour, during which time the bus driver determined that he had a spot of engine trouble. He drove back to the garage and traded to a better bus to complete the trip. A minor fuss ensued when, upon getting back on the bus, the hungry guest discovered that the boxed lunch was gone. Julie shook her head. “She left her lunch on a broken-down bus!” she said.

“She Left Her Lunch on a Broken-down Bus (and the Sandwich Was Made of Ham)”

I haven’t been able to get further than a title for that one, but isn’t it a fine title?

Finally, we were enjoying a little family dinner with my nephew, recently returned from a semester abroad. We had Hursey’s barbecue and chicken with the appropriate sides, supplemented with some items from my parents’ fridge. Daddy set out a dish of dill pickles and jalapeno pickles. As we finished eating, he asked if anyone wanted the last of the jalapenos.

My sister said, “I don’t want to take your last one.”

Daddy said, “Oh, I’ve got more in the pantry. This the just the last of the ones that were in the refrigerator. I like my hot pickles cold.”

Daddy has opinions on the news;
I don’t always share my Daddy’s views.
Sometimes we come to disagreement,
And our voices start to rise,
That’s when Daddy turns the tide
With words both calm and wise.

He’ll tell me:
I may not know everything or very much at all,
The limits of my knowledge are not wide, nor are they tall;
I don’t know where we’re headed, who is wrong, and who is right—
But I know exactly what I like.

I like my iced tea good and sweet,
I like my coffee strong and bold,
I like red-eye gravy with my ham,
And I like my hot pickles cold.

I have my own opinions on the news,
And Daddy doesn’t always share my views.
Now, I am seldom calm and only very rarely wise,
But like my Daddy, I know what I like.

I like my coffee topped with cream,
I like my green tea cold, with lime,
I like to watch the nighttime sky,
And I like to play around with rhyme.

Now Mama claims no interest in the news,
And she prefers to not share all her views,
But I’ve been watching Mama all my life,
And I know pretty well what Mama likes.

Mama likes to sleep late when she can,
She likes to win the family Scrabble prize,
Mama likes Duke basketball a lot,
And Mama likes to laugh until she cries.

We all like watching baseball in the spring,
(The Braves are going to win the Series yet.)
Sometimes we like to sit around and sing,
And we like fishing every chance we get.

Well, yes, I did get carried away with that one. There are two lies in it: Daddy doesn’t drink coffee, and there are no known limits to his knowledge.

Do you ever come across naturally occurring country song fragments? Send them my way, and I’ll see what kind of mess I can make with them. You know that’s what I like.

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