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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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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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In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

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ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. 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.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

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