Down the Water Spout, and Other Thoughts on Spider Season

The spider’s web: She finds an innocuous corner in which to spin her web. The longer the web takes, the more fabulous its construction. She has no need to chase. She sits quietly, her patience a consummate force; she waits for her prey to come to her on their own, and then she ensnares them, injects them with venom, rendering them unable to escape. Spiders – so needed and yet so misunderstood.
― Donna Lynn Hope

In the early dark morning I make coffee, pouring cold filtered water into the waiting reservoir, spooning rich brown beans into the grinder. Scent rises as the beans pulverize; I sift the fragrant fragments into the basket, trying to scrape every little flavorful bit into my future cup of joe.

I clean the grinder and its lid over the sink.

Then the sink needs cleaning. I rinse out last night’s dishcloth—the one I will toss into the laundry in just moments—and I wipe down the left-hand sink, mopping up the dark gritty coffee residue.

There’s a little round glob of something in the right-hand sink. But when I turn with my dishcloth to send it down the drain, it moves. Legs stiletto out, and the glob scurries.

I should get a piece of paper and lift that spider outside.

But even as I am thinking this, I grab the sprayer, strengthen the stream, and the spider flails once, then swooshes down the drain.

Another dead spider.

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What if, when it’s time to meet my maker, I am faced with the kinds of deaths I have meted?

What if I have to walk across a shiny tiled floor, scuttling quickly, thinking, Yes! I am almost there! when a horrible shadow looms over me, and SPLAT! I am residue on the bottom of a giant sole?

What if I am wandering around, looking for something to eat, minding my own damned business, when an oversized hand blocks out my sunshine and smooshes me inside a giant wad of Kleenex?

What if, yes, I am scaling smooth porcelain walls, feeling like I’m making progress, nearing safety, when a giant blast of steaming water washes me down into a dank black drain?

Oh, karma: what a son of a gun that would be.

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But still.

If I see another spider, almost before I have time for conscious thought, I am pretty sure I’ll squish it.

As the song-maker says, I don’t like spiders and snakes.

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Spiders. Arachnids, named for Arachne, the beauty who, because she challenged Athena in Greek myth, sprouted eight legs and became a creature some call ugly. I am in that group: spiders give me the shivers.

(“Even tarantulas?” asks my son Jim. “They’re furry! They’re cute! They’d make great pets.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Not in my house. Not ever.”

Bad enough dealing with the spiders that nature provides; we don’t have to import them in jumbo, hairy sizes.)

National Geographic tells me that there over 45,000 varieties of spider, all over the world, in all kinds of shapes and sizes. They all have eight legs; they all have six or eight eyes, although that doesn’t make most of them keen see-ers. (Hence the easy squishing, I guess.)

All spiders are venomous to some degree, the site tells me. (When I was a child, I had a bug bite that swelled angrily and wept. “Ah,” my mother said; “I don’t think that’s a mosquito bite. I think a spider got you.”

She made a paste of baking soda and water and caked it thickly onto the achy red lump. By morning, the paste had dried and flaked onto my bedsheets, but the swelling and redness had calmed.

It took days for the lump to disappear, though, and the experience confirmed what I already knew, young though I was: I didn’t like spiders.)

Only a few spiders have venom that poses real threat to humans, though. Two of those, the brown recluse and the black widow, are US citizens.

And National Geographic reminds me of the essential service those carnivorous spiders provide as they lure prey to their webs or go out actively hunting. They’re unable to munch on their crunchy catches; they inject them, instead, with their own body fluids, and they liquefy themselves some innards. Then the spiders drink their dinners.

Scientists posit that, without spiders, our crop fields would be overrun by insect pests, and our food supply would be irrevocably harmed.

We NEED spiders.

But: eeeuw.

I don’t like spiders.

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And it is spider season.

The spider that was web-spinning in the carport has packed its bags and moved on, but the spider that lives on the garage, the one that spun a thick sticky web right by the garbage can, seems entrenched. And that sucker is big. She displaces air when she scuttles; I can feel it.

When I meander out to deposit my brimming, corn-plastic, biodegradable bag into the bin, she rushes up the web. She lodges on a ledge between the gutter and the eave.

She watches me.

She is furry, fat, and malevolent.

I am glad she’s keeping the bug population down, but I wish I didn’t have to see her do it.

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I’m wondering why. Why are spiders Hallowe’en symbols?

I type ‘spiders and Hallowe’en’ into a search engine.

My search yields 167,000,000 hits. The first thousand or so don’t tell me why spiders are a Hallowe’en icon. They tell me where to buy all kinds of plastic, paper, and metallic spiders. They tell me how to make cute spider cookies out of chocolate-dipped Oreos and pretzel sticks and sugar eyes. They suggest all kinds of spider-themed decorations—fake webby stuff you can hang on your trees, creepily lifelike giant spiders that will hang, quivering, in those webs. (Did I tell you that National Geographic said there’s one spider, the Goliath birdeater, that’s almost a foot wide from toe to toe? It’s a tarantula, and I don’t hope to see one in my lifetime. Why on earth would I hang an even bigger replica from my nice sweet gum tree?)

I give up searching for the reason spiders and Hallowe’en mesh so well. I know why: Hallowe’en celebrates creepy things.

Spiders are creepy.

In case I didn’t mention it, I really don’t like spiders.

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Mark and I head out to walk in the morning coolth, and I walk right into a long sticky strand of web, long enough to stretch from tall tree limb to damp, cold ground. Ack. I wipe it off; it touched my FACE; it’s on my hand.

As we walk, I feel invisible stiletto legs tracing a chilly path up my spine.

ACK!

They’re everywhere.

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And we celebrate them! We write books about them! We put them in movies!

Think of Frodo, sedated to a zombie-like state in Shelob’s horrible den. (Sam! Where are you????)

Think of that trickster Anansi.

Think of Spiderman.

And, oh, of course, think of Charlotte.

All right: I cried the first time I read Charlotte’s Web and the damned spider died. She was a good friend to Wilbur, I’ll give her that. But Wilbur, nice, mammal-y Wilbur, was still my favorite character.

Maureen Corrigan, on NPRcom, relates that E.B. White was inspired to write Charlotte’s Web by a spider he encountered in his barn. He watched that spider for a month, until he realized she had disappeared, leaving behind a sac of eggs. So White, the story goes, took that egg sac and put it in a warm, safe place: on top of his wardrobe.

And the eggs hatched, and the babies roamed his bedroom, spinning their baby webs on his dresser top, from drawer handle to door handle, in his hairbrush.

The housekeeper didn’t like it, but the hatching babies hatched the story of Charlotte and Wilbur, too.

It’s a wonderful story, of course. But I’m with the housekeeper.

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We walk in the morning. We don’t know if the haze we walk in is fog, or if it’s smoke blowing across the country from the vicious fires that haunt the west coast. It makes visibility difficult, and we walk carefully.

But the spider webs on the bushes stand out in bold relief, their fine fibers outlined in dense dew. Each thick web (they look like chapel veils; they are on bushes and on the ground; they are shards of sticky lace, randomly dropped) has a funnel in the middle. Mark goes and blows into the mysterious hole, and sometimes angry spiders scuttle out to challenge him.

I know those spiders eat flies and mosquitoes. I know they are allies.

They are probably, as people are wont to say, more frightened of me than I am of them. (Maybe.)

But they are so…. different. They have EIGHT legs! They have six eyes, or they have eight eyes. Their bodies are bulbous. They sport malevolent markings or weird looking fur. They wrap up their prey and liquefy them.

They are venomous, and they are other, and someone told me once that they crawl into my mouth when I am sleeping.

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Ah, it’s spider season: a window into otherness.

If you don’t mind, though, I’d just as lief not look.

The Venn of Dining

I type, this gray morning, with the heavy doors open. Cool air wafts in through the screens. Laundry chugs in the washer and fa-lumps in the dryer. The boyos are off on a tooth-cleaning expedition fifty miles away; they will stop for a nosh. I have butter softening for sour cream Bundt cake: a weekend treat.

And it’s a perfect day to bake something, and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a good week.

The Bundt cake is a fairly new addition to our family repertoire of ‘favorites.’ This recipe came from the Internet, from a very focused search. One day I realized we had sour cream in the fridge, and I remembered a cake I’d had at a meeting or an event. It was unadorned. The crust crackled like a sugar cookie. The inside was buttery, melting-tender.

If I’d remembered where I’d eaten that treat, I might have emailed a friend and begged the recipe. I could still hear the angels that sang as I ate that slice, but I couldn’t see where they did that singing. So I did a search and came up with many, many sour cream Bundt-style recipes.

Now we have sour cream Bundt coffee cake recipes that we have for special brunches, but this recipe—just a simple yellow Bundt cake that we don’t enhance with frosting or whipped cream or even a sprinkling of powdered sugar—has become an all-time, any time, favorite.

I think about that, and about the foods that come to be loved…by a person, by a family, by another kind of group. Those recipes slide into the personal cuisine, expanding, enhancing. I am thinking about where those recipes come from.

I am thinking that developing a personal cuisine (something we all do, no matter our circumstances) is a matter of Venn diagramming. The things that matter to us, foodwise, overlap.

In the intersect of people and circumstances dwell the foods we eat. If we are lucky enough that economics give us choices, it is an adventure to explore the places where our food loves overlap.

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When I lived alone, the Venn intersects were time and effort and save-ability. I remember making big pots of chili and freezing servings. I remember making a big, beautiful bowl of tuna salad and throwing most of it away. Cuisine for one morphs recipe size, (having grown up doubling, halving was a tough concept to grasp), and sometimes it morphs efforts.

How often do solitary persons, for instance, cook themselves a mashed potatoes and gravy dinner? Such Sunday dinner treats are often reserved for company; they’re not part of the everyday Venn.

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When you live in any kind of family, related or created, the Venn becomes an intersect of the personal tastes of those persons involved. For us, stir fries and fajitas and bubbling pots of macaroni and cheese, some stews and certain soups, reside firmly in the sweet spot. There are cookies in the intersect, and snacks, and fussy, delicious desserts.

Some personal favorites don’t make the cut. There are days when I long to make a big, cheesy, pea-studded tuna casserole, for instance, and I know Mark often yearns after a lovely gray dish of spaghetti and clam sauce.

I have not roasted up a big pot of pork and sauerkraut since Mark and I threw in together.

I have never fixed tripe.

James’ autism comes with definite food sensitivities, a hyper-sensitive sniffer, and a gag reflex; there are seemingly innocuous foods, like cucumber salad, that we avoid making when the boyo is around.

So we work within the intersect, and we find that leaves a lot of room.

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There are other intersects that affect the way we eat. There are history, geography, and capability, for instance.

The history can be personal. Kids believe the food they get at home is cooked the RIGHT way; everyone else’s food is suspect. Mark cooked a lot when he and very young Matthew were Two Guys Together; Matthew, when visiting his grandparents, would point out that they made meatloaf wrong. It was nothing like his father’s, and therefore, not regular meat loaf.

My mother would tell stories about my father’s young stepmother, Catherine,who’d never learned to cook. Catherine would throw a loaf of bread and packages of cold cuts on the table and call it dinner. Dad loved Mom’s cooking (which she, of course, Venn-ed to his meat and potatoes taste), but every once in a while, he purely loved a cold cut sandwich. It’s a treat for me, too, especially deli cold cuts on the kind of hard rolls so crusty they explode when you break them open. I remember those sandwiches from childhood.

That’s a culinary predilection that spans generations.

Mark’s parents, Pat and Ang, made the most extraordinary spaghetti sauce. His dad learned from his grandma, a famed cook; Pat and Ang cooked big pots of sauce together so often that they built on that fragrant base and developed a shared personal style.

When Mark and I first were together, we learned to make sauce from [canned] scratch, taking big cans of tomatoes and puree, tomato sauce and tomato paste, and simmering them together all day long. Often, meat went in there, too: we still use Angelo’s meatball recipe, and pork, Italian sausage, and chicken are all wonderful in long-simmered sauce.

But as canned and jarred spaghetti sauce became better and more available, Ang and Pat changed their methods. They would not—Pat would not, I’m sure, to this day—open a jar of Ragu and call it dinner. But they used a few cans of spaghetti sauce as a base, adding to it tomato paste and basil and oregano grown in the backyard, maybe some pureed fresh tomatoes, water, a handful of sugar, a  bay leaf, some onion…the actual concoction can vary from time to time, although the core remains.

There’s a history to that spaghetti sauce that flavors its creation. There’s a history to yeast-dough coffee cake on Easter morning, and to Grandma Kirst’s Christmas fudge.

Our personal pasts inform the food we eat today.

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But broader history and geography have their impacts, too. Take coffee, for instance (which I am often happy to do). Coffee drinking is pervasive in United States culture, as Marcus (at Marcus’s Tea Blog) points out in “Why Most Americans Drink Coffee Not Tea.” That, he ruminates, is due in large part to Revolutionary history; after the infamous Boston Tea Party, John Adams urged colonists to boycott tea. He called tea “a traitor’s drink,” and he started a movement. People in the budding United States pledged to drink coffee instead of tea, and those roots cemented java into U.S. culture.

In “Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?” Gracy Olmstead notes that coffee-drinking has become a community activity in the United States. She offers soldiers as an example; a lot of vets, she says, picked up their coffee-drinking habits in the service, where drinking coffee was a kind of daily ritual.

She herself, writes Olmstead, became a confirmed coffee drinker as a college student, when her roommates were very serious and very intense about the wonderful coffee they brewed.

So, I wait eagerly for my monthly coffee parcel to arrive; every morning, I grind my decaffeinated beans and revel in the rich and splendid scent. I might trace my coffee-enjoyment to growing up n my parents’ house, where the battered metal percolator stood always on the stove top; my mother would brew a pot at 9 pm or so to heat up in the morning, but it would smell so good she and my father would drink it, helped by whichever children were flitting through the house that evening.

Coffee is a part of my personal history, although not of Mark’s; we do not Venn there.

But coffee is a part of my national history and geography, too; my coffee predilection is made more likely by an act of rebellion that took place almost 300 years ago.

And coffee and tea both take conscious decision-making; they do not come from locally grown plants; they must be mindfully, sometimes expensively, imported.

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But other foods are local and abundant, and so they become part of our cuisine. We have just eaten the last of our summer’s crop of corn on the cob, for example; in Ohio, the long corn season means ears seared on the grill, boiled in a giant pot, or wrapped in wet cloth and nuked. Whichever way we choose to cook it, the ears are lambasted with butter and salt and pepper before teeth touch tender kernels.

We have corn roasts here. We learn to scrape ripe kernels from the cob and freeze them. When the season passes, we begin, already, to look forward to next year’s corn on the cob.

When I was in high school in Western New York, though, we had a Dutch exchange student. Her host family welcomed her with a corn roast. She opened the door to a rocky relationship by telling them, in very clear English and very decided terms, that corn was pig food, and she would not eat it.

The geography of that student’s cuisine told her one thing; our geography told us another. In that intersection, corn was not included in the Venn overlap.

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My mother, in so many ways a thrifty Scot, drew a line at some of the dishes her family cooked. She would talk about visiting her Aunt Barbara when that revered lady was cooking cow kidneys for steak and kidney pie. The house, Mom said, smelled exactly like pee.

She didn’t stay for Aunt Barbara’s dinner, and she never cooked kidney pie at home.  

It makes sense that a small island country like Scotland would lean toward cooking up every usable part of the cow, sheep, or pig. My mother was on board with the theory: she was a great believer in using up leftovers. But she didn’t subscribe to the practice of cooking with organ meat.

That thrift and caretaking did translate into US culture, though. We watch A Chef’s Life on PBS, a show that follows Chef Vivian Howard, who learned her trade in New York City, but went back (reluctantly at first) to her native North Carolina to ply it. She determined to honor the cuisine of her part of the country. When she travels to cook for august gatherings, she will often bring Tom Thumb sausage.

Tom Thumb sausage is made from pig parts, ground up and cooked in that poor pig’s appendix. The flavor, Howard says, is very distinctive.

In fact, we watched a show where she cooked for a hip New York City group; a food critic-type person, thrilled to be talking with her, said he loved the “gutty” flavor of the Tom Thumb sausage. Howard agreed that “gutty” was a good word for it.

Mark and I looked at each and shook our heads. Sausage stuffed into appendix is not in our Venn diagram, not by family or history, and not by geography either. We’ll pass, we agree, on trying Tom Thumbs.

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This week, though, paging through my big black binder of recipes I’ve saved to try someday, I came across one from a cookbook put together by Jim’s school when he was in second grade. It told how to cook a dessert that involved covering an Oreo cookie crumb crust with a cream cheese-peanut butter layer, a pudding layer, a Cool whip layer, and more ground cookie.

I just happened to have everything on hand that recipe called for. On a whim, I made it for a Monday night dessert.

You know what? That 23-year-old recipe yielded results that were mighty good. Mark and I immediately began thinking about Venn intersects.

The pasta club would love this, we agreed.

My extended family would enjoy it, I thought. Mark allowed that his would too.

We thought of several friends to whom we’d serve it, confident they’d approve.

We pondered that all week long, as we whittled away at that tasty dessert, which seem to settle in and become richer as time passed. Someday, the pandemic will be over, and we’ll be able to test our theories on the groups we think would like this newly discovered dessert.

Until then, though, it enters into that Venn slice, that intersect of Things We All Like.

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The boyos are home. James, who finished his math homework and started on some video game adventures in his downstairs man-cave, just came upstairs, wooed by the scent of sour cream coffee cake baking. When, he inquired, did I predict it might be done?

I shared the sad truth that this particular cake takes almost two hours to bake.

Ah, said Jim. Resigned, he trudged back downstairs.

I took Jim shopping yesterday, and he filled a small cart with things he loves—with frozen meals and a variety of chicken, with snacks, and drinks, and an ice cream treat or two. He bought a package of windmill cookies, not something easily found these days, for Mark; Jim doesn’t like those cookies but he enjoys treating his dad. And there are days when our dinner menu doesn’t appeal to him. Then Jim will happily fix his own dinner.

That Venn intersect shifts and changes, and that’s as it should be: the times dictate some likes and dislikes. Growth and discovery influence others.

But some things stay firmly in that intersect. Right now, sour cream coffee cake is one.

Quarantine and ‘Omenclature’

Someone pounded on the front door.

I opened it to see a young uniformed peace officer scurry down the walk toward his patrol car. He pointed at an envelope and a brown paper bag he’d left on the front step.

“Does Mark have to open this in front of you?” I asked.

“Nah,” he called. “As long as I see you pick it up, I’m good.”

So I picked up the envelope and the bag.

“Thanks,” I said.

He nodded and got in his car and drove off.

And just like that, we were officially quarantined.

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Well, James and I weren’t officially quarantined. But clearly we had been exposed to Mark, who had spent considerable time in close quarters—masked, mind you, and distancing and accessing hand sanitizer—with a colleague who’d developed COVID.

And since James and I share pretty close quarters with Mark, we thought it best that all of us stay close to home for ten days—to make sure we didn’t inadvertently share the virus with anyone else.

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I felt like a heavy metal door had lifted enough, this summer, for us to see some warm rays of sun. We enjoyed a little flexing of the freedom muscles. We were still very cautious, and we realized the pandemic shutdown had insured we’ve changed some practices forever.

But we did allow ourselves careful, socially distanced visits, for instance, to the library and to our favorite bookstore.

I was going to the office, where our small staff and roomy quarters made distancing quite possible.

We allowed ourselves to mask up and hit the corner store if we ran out of milk.

Now that weighty door came crashing back down.

The letter told Mark that he was officially quarantined until Wednesday the 2nd at midnight. The brown paper bag held several masks, a jar of liquid soap, and some hand sanitizer.

Mark made a call to the Health Department.

“I am grounded,” he said when he ended the call, “but I can still go for walks in the neighborhood if I bring a mask and keep that six-foot barrier.”

And so our morning walks became the highlight of the days. It was nice that this quarantine corresponded with a shift in the weather. The mornings turned cool, and a couple of days we zipped up fleecy jackets before we strode off into the pale morning sun.

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We talked desultorily on that first morning walk of quarantine. I mean, what was there, really to say?

“What are you going to do today?

“Hmm; thought I might stay home.”

But the air was fresh, and it felt good to walk. We didn’t see too many people; when we did, we masked up and walked in the street, greeting but not engaging. We waved at people driving by on their way to work or workouts.

Mark joked that he should get a T-shirt that said, “I’m allowed to take a walk!” because a couple of drivers double-took when they saw him out walking.

But we swung our arms and the breeze felt good and we strode along, mostly in companionable silence.

Where the sidewalk ends, we turned right into a pretty, established development, and we meandered.

“It’s so QUIET,” Mark said. There was no one about. The squirrels weren’t cavorting in the big grassy lawn as they often do. The birds were mostly silent.

We walked up and around, and we heard music. And there, sitting on a chair on a front lawn was a man in a hat playing a guitar. He nodded at us as he strummed; then he closed his eyes and nodded in a different way, nodded to the music he was sending out, and to the enhanced music I am sure he was hearing in his head.

Never in our many walks to that neighborhood had we encountered this troubadour, and we stood and listened for a moment.

And then we went up around the hill and heading home.

After a while, “That was something different,” Mark said, and I agreed that it sure was.

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I looked up guitars when I got home, just for the heck of it. Weknowyourdreams.com told me this: “A guitar represents melody, contentment, happiness, peace, self-realization, attunement, spiritualistic attributes and positivity in life.”

Harmony, attunement, peace…I liked the sound of every one of those things.

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We started noticing things on our walks.

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One morning the street was full of deer. In the middle of the pack, there was a tall, calm buck. On either side were a mama deer and two skittery babies, their spots fading but still clearly there. As we came down the driveway and headed toward them, the deer stopped.

We stopped, too; when we encounter a buck that stares us down and stamps his hoof, we figure it’s worth a change in direction.

But all of these deer were relaxed, curious, unafraid. They stared at us for a little while, and then some silent signal was exchanged. The mamas gently nosed the young ones through our neighbor Jeanie’s backyard and down the ravine. The buck gave us one long last look, and ambled after them.

We walked through the space they’d inhabited, feeling a kind of vacuum.

We’ve seen deer before, of course, but never quite so many quite so close.

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LJ Innes, in “The Meaning of a Deer Sighting,” writes this: “When you have a deer sighting, it’s as though the Universe wants you to stop what you’re doing and just be in the moment—quiet, contemplative, and thankful. The deer is first and foremost a reminder that you need to listen to your intuition.”

A quarantine is a perfect time for quiet, contemplation, and gratitude. As the days slipped by, and no one developed symptoms, that sense of gratitude intensified.

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It was Saturday morning, sunny and cool, when Mark saw the eagle in the tree over the Helen Purcell home. It was perched, golden and regal, on the very top branch—a dead branch on which no leaves grew.

It scree-ed, over and over. When it turned its shaggy head, you could see the shadows of crags over its eyes—dark recesses from which you could feel the strong stare of its mighty eyes. The hair on my forearms stood up.

An EAGLE!

“Oh, that’s COOL,” said Jim, and the three of us stood outside and just ogled it. Finally, though, Jim and I had to visit the drive-through at the pharmacy. When we came back, the eagle was gone, and Mark had gone inside.

He came and opened the door for me.

“Didn’t that seem like a sign?” Mark, a man who rarely looks for portents, asked.

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Eagles.org tells me this, “Both Bald and Golden Eagles (and their feathers) are highly revered and considered sacred within American Indian traditions, culture and religion. They are honored with great care and shown the deepest respect. They represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom. As they roam the sky, they are believed to have a special connection to God.”

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One afternoon we decided, Mark and I, to take a walk over to Mission Oaks, the park that wends it way through the back of backyards, through gullies and over hills, right close by in the middle of town. It is an amazing place, but we seldom think to visit.

Mark was getting to the point where he needed to feel he had left the house, if only for a little while, so we masked up and walked the half mile to the park entrance. As we walked, we passed a spot where Jim had once encountered a small turtle edging perilously close to the street. He nudged it into a safer spot and came home to get us. But by the time we came back, the turtle was gone.

We had agonized then over where it went, rolling scenarios—some catastrophic—over in our minds.

Now, we pondered where it had come from. Where, in the neighborhood, would a wet, woodsy environment be that called to turtle friends?

Could they come all the way from the river?

We mulled that, tossing out probably improbable solutions until we came to the Mission Oaks entrance. There were just a couple of cars in the lot, so we knew we could really practice social distancing.

We chose to turn right, to go into the conifer gardens. In that part of the park, there’s a big pond with a splashing waterfall. There are broad sunny areas and pockets of deep shade. That afternoon was a hot one, and the shade and the pond sounded pretty good.

We made a wide circuit around the only couple we passed, and then we explored. We discovered a new rhododendron garden, and we marveled at an evergreen tree whose roots protrude from the ground like multitudinous knobby knees.

Then we went down to the pond. Giant lily pads floated and bobbed and stood tall and waved; we circled around to where the waterfall plashed over tumbled rocks into the pond proper, the humming of the pump a steady thrum under the rustling of leaves in the late afternoon sun.

There was a plump splash as a fat frog pummeled itself into the water, and then, “Hey!” Mark said, and he hurried over to a clump of lily pads on the other side of the pond. He pointed, and a small turtle turned and heaved itself into the water. It circled back under the pads; we could just see its odd, flat nose poking up in the greeny shade for air.

Sharing a lily pad in the sun

And then we realized that he was just the smallest of the turtles; the pond was rife with them. Two companions sunned themselves on a lily pad supported by a long, strong, stalk. Another big ‘un trolled the middle of the pond, floating, then lazily flapping just a bit.

They didn’t so much pick up their heads to look at us as they unfurled them. We stared into bold, old eyes.

Later we walked through the children’s garden with its archways laced through with morning glory and hung with bobbing dried gourds painted fancy. We admired the garden of smells and the butterfly garden, and we said we really needed to gather up some good kids’ books for the Little Free Library, which was almost empty.

But those turtles defined the visit for us.

“So,” said Mark as we headed home, “maybe THAT’S where our little buddy came from.”

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Avia Venefica, on whatsyoursign.com, tells me that turtles represent “persistence, determination, endurance, and more.” Turtles are survivors, she points out (which gives me hope for the little guy who disappeared); they can protect themselves from attacks. They teach us about security and steadiness. They are totems, Venefica writes, for people who need protection, and they have an innocence about them because few hunters prey on turtles. Turtles have been on earth for millions of years; they are a symbol of long life and stamina.

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“Careful,” said Mark as we set out for our walk the next morning. There, wedged into the carport entrance, on the middle support, was a big web. In the middle, a fat spider was trussing up a victim.

Mark watches the spider wrap her prey in sticky strands

“Tenacious, isn’t he?” Mark asked. He had swept to the web down two days running. The spider waited until we were gone and set patiently back to work.

We walked down the driveway; thick webs, with funnels in the middle, dotted the hedges like chapel veils. Mark went over and puffed air down a funnel; no one came running.

“Makes me think,” he said, jerking his head toward the carport and its web, with the spider busily wrapping up some night’s dinner, “of Frodo.”

I nodded. I remembered that part, too. And the dew had beaded on little sections of the expansive web, outlining an ‘o’ and a ‘d.’ I thought of Charlotte writing her praises of Wilbur.

Our spider just didn’t give me warm fuzzies, though. I shivered as we set off down Yale Avenue.

**********************************************

TheBigDeer.com tells me that spiders symbolize mystery, creativity, and patience. They have eight legs; mystics believe that eight is the number for infinity.Most ancient civilizations believed that spiders were the weavers of life and death because of this,” the Big Deer says.

If one dreams of spiders, the site suggests, success and fulfillment are ahead.

***************************************************

“The one thing we haven’t seen,” I mention to Mark as we set off the next morning, “is a rabbit friend.” Earlier in the summer, we had lots of bunny visitors, furry little guests who froze when they saw us, believing, we guessed, that we couldn’t see them if they didn’t move.

“I hope,” said Mark, “that’s not because of the neighborhood cats,” and then, of course, as we moved out of the carport, there was a rabbit, munching on clover. It froze and looked balefully at us from one big liquid eye.

“Carry on,” we told it. “We come in peace.”

But it waited until we were out of range before resuming its munching.

We haven’t seen another bunny since.

****************************************************

Rabbits, according to symbolicmeanings.com, are not icons of the weak or timid. Instead, they speak to us of important things—of “family, community, awareness, caution, and curiosity.”

All of those seem like just the right considerations to be pondering during a pandemic, and especially during the perilous times that have us clinging close to home.

******************************************************

On Wednesday night at midnight, Mark was officially released from quarantine. The next morning, we exhaled with true relief that none of us had developed symptoms. One of Mark’s young coworkers wasn’t so lucky, and two others await test results. The disease is random and capricious; we do the best we can to protect ourselves and others.

We are lucky that, to date, our house is not one that COVID has selected as a place to nest.

There was no fanfare to the end of quarantine; we took our walk and came home to breakfast. Then I went to work on my computer, and Mark went to a webinar on his. Jim went downstairs and logged into his math class via Zoom.

We stopped for lunch, and then finished up our separate projects.

And then we took a ride to Columbus where, masked and careful, we spent a quiet hour in a Half Price bookstore. We came home with books and DVD’s, feeling as though we’d had a grand adventure.

**************************************************

I don’t think that the eagle or the spider or any of our woodland buddies came to us specially during quarantine.

I don’t think that young guy with his guitar played his plaintive songs just for us.

But we couldn’t avoid slowing down. We couldn’t help but notice.

Here is the gift of a quarantine: the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to ponder what nature has always been telling us.

****************************************************

Life will pick up in time; the pace will quicken. That heavy metal door will lift once again, and sun and fresh breezes will comes whispering through. I hope it will open all the way, and I hope that, once I am able to walk boldly through that doorway, I carry out into the world all the lessons I should have learned during a closed-in time.

**********************************************************

Resources:

https://journeyintodreams.com/guitar/

https://www.californiapsychics.com/blog/animal-sightings-symbolism/meaning-deer-sighting.html)

Rabbits

Pardon Me; Don’t I Know You?

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out
And show ourselves when everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we’d love to try them on

Billy Joel, “The Stranger”

*******************************

When Mark and I first got married, Matthew, who was six, had a great friend who lived just a few houses up the street. That little guy—call him Scott—was a year or two younger than Matt, and adorable: freckled, chubby-cheeked, with the kind of expressive, mobile face that revealed every random thought that flitted through his agile young mind.

They were a winsome, mischievous pair, Matt and Scott, and they often got into trouble. Matt was more adept at displaying wide-eyed innocence, but Scott—well, all Mark had to do was look at him sternly, and the whole sordid tale would come tumbling out.

Matt would slap his forehead, Scott would collapse in remorse, and Mark would point at his son triumphantly: another plot foiled, young man!

Nothing the boys did was ever so very terrible, but nothing they did was ever secret for very long, either.

Scott’s parents, Vera and Vince, were warm people. They’d drop anything to make us welcome, and food and drink would flow. Vera was a hometown beauty; Vince was a New York City guy, the Bronx tumbling in his voice. He had a wry, sly sense of humor.

They were originals: they loved their sweet dog, for instance, who’d died the year before I met them. They had the pup stuffed and mounted and put on a wheeled wooden base. They kept him in a closet, and they brought him out when they missed his canine presence.

“Want to see?” Scott once asked me eagerly, and, “Uh, no thanks,” I hastily replied.

Vince usually had a great idea he was working on, a way to earn big stacks of money. Often, he’d want to involve us in the current scheme, and, not wanting to sell pizzas in addition to my day job, I grew to give those warm neighbors a kind of smiling wide berth.

And then, quite suddenly, not even a year after Mark and I married, Scott and his parents moved to a town about sixty miles away. Matt was devastated at the loss of his good buddy, and it happened so quickly, we were all a little stunned.

News floated back. Vera and Vince had hit a really bumpy patch.

Vera and Vince had split, and Scott was taking it really hard.

And then, finally, a longtime friend of Vera’s told us a shocking truth that she’d only just discovered: Vince wasn’t the person we thought he was. He was in a witness protection program; he was a recreated man, one with a new name and a totally new personality that he’d inhabited ably for over ten years. But finally, he went back, against all advice, to his troubled old stomping ground. He was never heard from again

My God, we thought; my GOD. How could a person live like that, comfortable in a certain, seemingly authentic persona, and, all the while, truly be someone else entirely?

And why didn’t we sense something off?

How could we not know?

************************

“Hey,” said Jim, “want to check out this show? It’s called Defending Jacob.”

Mark and I watched with him: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaedan Martell played the closely knit Barber family. Andy Barber was an assistant DA; Laurie worked at a school for children with special needs. And Jacob was just kind of a geeky 14-year-old kid…until he was charged with the murder of a classmate.

The series wraps itself around this question: did Jacob do it?

And, even more disturbing, could you live with someone—could you RAISE someone—for 14 years, and not know they were completely capable of vicious killing?

I’m not saying whether Jacob did it; I’m just saying those are the questions the series raised for me.

We watched one episode a night for several days; the show was really well-done, and each episode was gripping. And then finally, we came to Friday night, and, “Oh for heaven’s SAKE,” we said. “Let’s just watch it and find out.”

So we power-watched the remaining three episodes, white knuckled. When it was over, we looked like characters from a Saturday Night Live skit: our eyes were rimmed in white, and our hair was blown straight back from our faces. Our jaws hung slack.

We’d been through an emotional wringer.

“Wow,” one of us said. “Wow.” And then we all tottered away from the TV room. The next morning, we compared notes and discovered we’d each dreamt of the characters in Defending Jacob. The show had wormed into our psyches.

**************************************

The idea of hidden selves is fascinating and coldly compelling and thoroughly terrifying. It is, I think, why so many people hate clowns: who wants to think that a smiling face can hide a much darker reality?

***************************************                                                    

“Having a secret life,” writes Sakil King in “What Causes People to Live Double Lives,” “is not as unusual or abnormal as you may think. According to latest research, seventy percent of all men and fifty percent of all women are going to have an adulterous event at some point in their life. This implies that the vast majority of all people will live a double life at some point.”

I’m chilled by that statement, and I am doubtful about the statistics. Can you, after all, get reliable figures from a group of people who happily admit to lying? I think of my friends and my family and my colleagues, and I just cannot believe that so many people really cheat and lie.

But I take King’s point. Everyone has dreams and fantasies that they hold close, that they don’t share. So the really quiet person may picture herself as a head-banging rocker, bringing a raucous crowd to its feet. The slow, measured person might, when they are eyes-closed alone, see themselves, lean and mean, legs pumping, leading the pack in a fast-paced marathon. The always-agreeable nurturer might have a fantasy of standing at a podium, shouting out strong opinions, while an audience pumps fists in the air and roars agreement.

Worry enters, says King, when the hidden side of the personality leads into risk and danger.

Benedict Carey, in “The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody,” agrees. Most adults he says, are quite capable of having a vivid fantasy life, one that doesn’t interfere with their social functioning at all. Carey points out that, by the age of 6 or 7, children can keep positive secrets: they won’t tell Mom what Dad bought for her birthday, for instance. Keeping secrets can be a healthy, positive skill.

You might work with someone and never know that they’re an enthusiastic clog dancer, or that they love themselves a mighty poker game. And unless that activity becomes an obsession, what’s wrong with that?

But sometimes, the secret life IS wrong. Some rare people are, writes Carey, ‘pathologically remorseless.’ Those people don’t care if the secret they keep has negative and disastrous impacts on others.

Those people might have a separate family tucked away, or an obsession that costs so much it causes real hardship for the people they live with.

And then there are repressors. Carey reports that they make up ten to fifteen per cent of the population, and they are people “who are adept at ignoring or suppressing information that is embarrassing to them and thus well equipped to keep secrets…” Although psychologists don’t have a definite explanation as to why repressors develop, they could be people with painful, terrifying memories. Rather than remember the bad stuff, they pull up happy thoughts, cheerful memories.

They refuse to deal with the reality of their pasts.

But Carey, too, writes that there can be healthy, enriching benefits to having a vivid inner life, one that may be different than our public personas. He quotes psychologist Jay S. Kwawer as saying, “Contrary to what many people assume, quite often a secret life can bring a more lively, more intimate, more energized part of themselves out of the dark.”

**************************************************

“Did you know,” I ask Mark, “that Charles Lindbergh had a double life?”

“WHAT?” says Mark, and I drag him over to the computer. Carey mentioned Lindbergh as a famous person who led a double life, and, a longtime fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s writing, I was shocked. I followed the internet trail, and found an article called “Lindbergh’s Double Life.” Mark and I scroll through; we learn that Lindbergh had a separate family with a woman named Brigitte Hesshaimer. He met Brigitte when he was 55 and she was 31. He would visit her in Germany two or three times a year; their children thought he was Mr. Careu Kent.

Even after Lindbergh’s death in 1974, Brigitte maintained secrecy. The story only emerged in 2003, when the children came forth with the story. They didn’t claim any of Lindbergh’s estate; they only wanted to be honest about the relationship before their book, Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh (The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh), hit print in 2005.

Lindbergh, it turns out, had two other mistresses, and four other children.

That’s a little different than dreaming of being a rock star.

That kind of secrecy affects other people in large and serious ways.

***********************************

I can see the healthy escape a vivid fantasy life provides. But the idea of living with someone for ten, or fifteen, or forty years, and never knowing a huge and relevant secret: well, that’s a frightening thing.

That’s the thread nightmares are woven from.

Jim tells me that the book Defending Jacob has a different ending than the limited series. And so I request it from the library. It’s sitting on my TBR stack, waiting for me to finish Wolf Hall, so I can torment myself with the thought that the people closest to us may be people we don’t really know at all.

*********************************

Resources:

https://yourstory.com/mystory/0efcebf888-what-causes-people-to-live-double-lives

https://www.mnhs.org/lindbergh/learn/family/double-life

Awwwww, NUTS.

One day, when I was maybe three or so, my father took me with him on a mission. He dropped the car, which I think was a sage-y green, tank-like creature with fins, off at a dealership (Fancher’s Buick, I believe it was called) to get some kind of repair work done. Then he grabbed my hand and we walked a block or two to Hunter’s Snack Bar & Soda Shop.

I had never been to Hunter’s, although my older brothers sometimes told tales of giant ice cream cones, so big they could take an HOUR to eat. These were rewards they got after winning Little League games. Too bad, they’d say to me, YOU can’t go and get one of THOSE.

And I would feel a sad yearning to be big, and to eat big ice cream cones, even though I knew that girls could never play Little League.

Ah, but that day. THAT day, my father was taking ME. We stepped up the one cement step, and my father pushed the big door open, and in we went.

The door closed behind us and I stood there in some kind of bliss. I closed my eyes, and I breathed in through my nose.

The smell of that place! The smell!

Hunter’s had a roasted nut counter. I had never smelled such a smell before: it was hot and rich, oily, roasty, and dense. The glass case was filled with peanuts and cashews and almonds and pecans, with Brazil nuts and macadamias. They tumbled up against each other, salty and deliciously scented.

The scent reached for me; it twined around my legs and it edged under my PF Flyer knockoffs. It insinuated itself around my waist, it drifted up my nose, and it pulled me off the floor. I shut my eyes and floated.

I had never, in all my going-on-four years, smelled anything quite so wonderful.

I felt my father wrap his big calloused hand around my chubby ankle. He held me there, floating halfway between floor and ceiling, while Mr. Hunter, in his paper hat and white apron, poured Dad scorched black coffee in a thick white cup. Dad added cream from a little silver pitcher with a lid; he scooped sugar from a cut glass bowl and stirred it round and round.

Then there was a thunking sound. Mr. Hunter was opening the ice cream bin.

I opened one eye to watch. Mr. Hunter got a little metal dish, one that was shaped kind of like a flower, from a shelf, and he sculpted a softball of ice cream into it. Then he walked to a big metal box at the back of the counter, and he lifted the lid. Steam rose. The aroma of chocolate tweaked the nutty smell, and Mr. Hunter took a long metal scoop and he dipped it into that box, and he dug out thick, hot fudge sauce, and he poured it—a HUGE ladle-full—onto that ice cream ball. Then he went behind the nut counter and came back with a scoopful of roasted mixed nuts, and he sprinkled those on the hot fudge.

He put that beautiful dish in front of the empty stool next to my father, and he laid down a thick white napkin, and a long, thin spoon. He put ice cubes and water in a real glass glass, and he lined it up right behind the napkin.

Mr. Hunter nodded at my father, who smiled and pulled firmly on my ankle. I slid down onto that little spinning stool—slithery, magically, vinyl—and I looked at my Dad, who nodded at me.

I picked up the spoon and I plunged it into the bowl and spooned out warm fudge and melting ice cream and salty nuts. And I took my first bite of a hot fudge sundae, my first taste of freshly roasted nuts.

Oh.

I ate the whole dense concoction; I wouldn’t have to worry about floating away again. I was tethered to the earth with strong strands of hot fudge sauce.

After I scraped the last bit of goodness out of the frosty little bowl, Dad put money on the counter and said goodbye to Mr. Hunter, who was smiling at me, pleased I’d liked my treat. We went and picked up the car.

And ever since that day, the smell of freshly roasted nuts has transported me.

********************************

I am pretty sure that everything happened just exactly as I’ve reported here.

*********************************

One day last week, I came home from work and made granola. I poured the oatmeal into the bowl and I got coconut from the freezer and stirred some in, and I reached into the cupboard for the almonds and pecans. There were just enough nuts in each bag—just enough supermarket nuts—to make one last batch.

And I suddenly thought: wouldn’t it be nice to have fresh roasted nuts? Imagine what granola would taste like with nuts from, say, a place like Hunter’s.

I got online and researched. There are nutteries in Columbus, not so far away. The first nuttery page I landed on hooked me; I swear I could almost smell those nuts through the monitor. I ordered fresh-roasted almonds, and I ordered fresh-roasted pecans.

And then, because they were having a sale, I ordered a couple of bags of cashews (buy one, get one), too.

That was a Thursday night. I pushed OK on my PayPal tab, and the order wormed quickly through cyberspace.

I wondered if there was any way they’d arrive by Saturday.

***************************************

The did not arrive on Saturday, but on Monday, when I came home from work, there was a big square box on the dining room table, and inside, I found my beautiful bags of nuts. Tomorrow, I’ll finish off last week’s batch of granola. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll make more, and this time, I’ll mix fresh roasted pecans and fresh roasted almonds in with the oats and the coconut flake and the cinnamon, and I’ll stir warm honey and coconut oil and vanilla into the mix.

And I’ll roast it all, low and slow, until the oats are golden brown all through when I stir them. Then I will take the granola out of the oven and let it cool. I’ll store it in the old plastic ice cream tub, and every morning, I’ll have granola with fresh roasted nuts.

It’s enough to make me want to crawl out of bed before light dawns, to lace up my deep toe-boxed sneakers and walk for two and a half miles, knowing, when I come home, that fresh-roasted decaf and roasted-nut-studded granola are waiting for me.

And the cashews! I might use some of THOSE in a chicken stir fry. But mostly I will pour them into a tiny cup and savor them during my late afternoon reading hour, letting the salt light up my taste buds, chewing them slowly, and making myself read and digest a whole page before I’m allowed to pop another cashew into my mouth.

They’re STILL magical. Why did I let myself live so long without fresh roasted nuts?

**************************************

Mark takes Jim, one day last week, to see a nutritionist for help with some digestive issues. Jim comes home bleakly resigned to needed changes.

The nutritionist, he says, suggested he eat nuts for a snack.

Yes! I think. Nuts are GOOD for us.

I show Jim the packages I got in the mail.

“She said no cashews,” he says glumly.

No cashews?

Are cashews bad?

I go looking online for nut wisdom, to find out whether nuts equal good nutrition.

***********************************

And guess what?

Yes, they do.

Nuts have fat and fiber and protein. The fat is mostly monounsaturated (good); it has omega 6’s and omega 3’s in it, which we want. Nuts have vitamins, especially E, and minerals, including magnesium.

This quote from healthline.com warmed my cockles: “…many studies have shown that people who eat nuts live longer than those who don’t.”  

And nuts, those wonderful treats, may reduce our risk for high blood pressure and for high BAD cholesterol; they may improve our blood sugars, and they may even, this learned site informs me, reduce the risk of some cancers.

And they don’t affect a person’s weight: eating nuts won’t be the thing that makes me shed pounds…but eating nuts won’t pack them on, either.

************************************

So which nuts are good nuts? The site has a top ten list, and YAY! Almonds are number one!

And DOUBLE YAY! Cashews are number four! (What was that nutritionist talkin’ about???) Studies, the experts tell me, show that a diet high in cashews can reduce blood pressure and increase ‘good’ cholesterol; eating cashews adds antioxidants to the diet too.

And PECANS make the top ten, as well, with the same healthy properties.

I open the cupboard and gaze at the packages of fresh roasted dietary friends.

“Nuts,” says my new favorite website, “are one of the healthiest snacks you can eat, as they contain a whole range of essential ingredients” (“The Health Benefits of Eating Nuts”).

**************************************

And then I get to wondering where they came from, these savory, life-enhancing treats, so I go looking for that kind of information.

I find that almonds have been celebrated since biblical times, and probably even before. Moses’s brother, Aaron, had a wondrous staff; that staff blossomed and bore almonds.

Ancient Romans gave newlyweds gifts of almonds; the nuts were believed to boost fertility.

Servants in ancient Egypt served almonds to the pharaohs.

Later, European explorers ventured to Asia, and, on the Silk Road, they discovered almonds. They discovered them, and they loved them, and they brought them back to Europe.

Almonds grew especially well in Italy and Spain, and later, hundreds of years later, Franciscan priests planted almonds in California. They found that almonds did better inland, and by 1870 or so, they had bred the type of almond we enjoy today.

By 1900, the almond industry was a pretty big deal in the USA; it’s still a big deal today.

(https://www.waterfordnut.com/history.html)

****************************************

Cashews, on the other hand, hail from Brazil. The name comes from a Tupi-Indian word: Acaju. Instead of growing like a conventional nut, cashews grow out of the base of what are called cashew apples. They’re always sold unshelled, because the shells contain a resin that irritates skin.

European explorers were introduced to cashews circa 1558 in Brazil, where Capuchin monkeys used rough tools to break the irritating shells and eat the cashews (smart little creatures). The Tupi-Indians showed their guests how to roast cashews; their guests liked that very much.

Portuguese traders took cashews to Goa in 1560; they were believed to contain healing properties and they were prized. Cashews were transplanted to India, where a great many people discovered they liked those nuts very, very much. The cultivation of cashews spread to southeast Asia and to Africa.

In the mid-1920’s, the General Food Corporation shipped cashews to the U.S. and to Europe. By 1941, according towholenutsnaddriefruit.com, India was exporting 20,000 tons of cashews per year.

I don’t think that has slowed down one bit.

(https://wholesalenutsanddriedfruit.com/history-of-the-cashew/)

**********************************************

Pecans…now, THOSE are the United States’ hometown nut-kid. Pecans are “…the only major tree nut that grows naturally in North America,” atasteofthesouth.com tells me. Pecans grew naturally in central and eastern North America; they were used as a winter food by native Americans. Those folks may have made a fermented drink (“Powcohicora”—the root of the word, ‘hickory’) from pecans.

Farmers planted pecan trees in southern United States and along the Gulf Coast. The nut became an important trade product, especially so in New Orleans. Commercial propagation began in the 1880’s, and production doesn’t seem to have slowed down.

Just think: turtle sundaes.

Just think: pecan pie.

************************************************

The roasted nuts in my cupboard not only have a rich and wonderful taste, but a rich and wonderful history, too.

**************************************************

Over dinner one night, Mark says to me, truly interested, “Why didn’t you go to Tom’s to get nuts?”

I put down my fork and look at him. Then I take the heel of my right hand and smack it into my forehead.

We have a nut-roastery type place right here in town: Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl. It’s a famous place, and a historic one: established in 1948, the restaurant still makes their own delicious ice cream. (Mitt Romney enjoyed ice cream there on the campaign trail; that may be ONE sweet memory for him.) Tom’s sells Heggy chocolates, too, and  pubby-food type dishes…burgers, sloppy joes, fresh cut fries.

And they have freshly roasted nuts.

So this afternoon I take Jim down to Tom’s to see about getting him some fresh roasted peanuts, which his nutritionist says are okay.

(Peanuts, I note to Jim, after my dive into nutty research, are actually legumes.

Jim shrugs.

“Okay,” he says.)

And there’s that smell again, wafting through happy people, seated at least six feet apart, digging into tulip-dished sundaes, laughing, enjoying a rare day out. A young man, his long hair neatly pony-tailed, dapper in a black vest and bow tie, deftly scoops up peanuts and pours them into a paper bag. His scoop, no fooling, is one blanched peanut from perfect.

The young man adds the missing peanut, acknowledges that he might have scooped a pound of peanuts a time or two before, and rings us out with a smile.

***************************************

Jim is thinking he might mix peanuts with dark chocolate morsels, make himself a kind of trail mix snack for when he needs a sweet and savory treat.

I’m thinking of that smell: Tom’s takes me right back to Hunter’s. (No danger, these days, of me floating off the ground, however.) And how good to know there’s a place, just five minutes away, where I can go; I can buy my fresh roasted nuts bagged up in environmentally friendly paper sacks. I can bring them home and open the bag and savor that wonderful scent.

 I can mix those nuts up into my morning granola; I can take a little cupful for a snack at work or during reading hour.

These are difficult, challenging days; they are days of uncertainty and days when we need to fight hard not to fall victim to lassitude or despair.

Food can’t solve the problems we face; of course it can’t.

But.

************************************************

Ah, friends. My feet, these days, sport leaden brakes instead of gossamer wings. I am earthbound, well and truly.

And, yet,–somewhere, in deepest chambers of the bony mind cavern, a memory angel, a flying three-year-old, stirs and smiles.

I smile too.

And all because of roasted nuts.

*************************************************************

References–

“The Health Benefits of Eating Nuts”

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-healthy-nuts#section1

“The History of Almonds”

https://www.waterfordnut.com/history.html

“History of the Cashew”

History Of The Cashew

“The History of the Pecan”

https://atasteofthesouth.com/pecan-history/

A Regular Week

“In extraordinary times, the ordinary takes on a glow and wonder all of its own.”
― Mike A. Lancaster, Human.4

Sometimes, weeks usher in momentous change, unexpected glories, shocking news. Some weeks are game-changers and life-changers.

Some weeks, we look back at the day it started and think, “Unbelievable. I am not the same person I was when this week started.”

Some weeks are monumental.

This week was not one of those weeks.

****************************

This week, we’ve noticed a skunk has been visiting, turning on the motion-activated garage light several nights in a row.

There was no rain this week, so we walked each morning. And we had a string of hot, hot days, so the morning air was fresh but not chill. This week, we got used to setting the alarm and dragging our butts out of bed before the sun comes up.

One morning, as we got ready to walk, Mark stepped out on the back slab, and he called me.

“Come and see,” he said, kind of urgent but whispery.

I thought one of the deer mamas was back there with twins or triplets, so I started over. But then Mark started throwing smack talk out into the yard.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I see you, Pepe’ LePew. I see you in my yard. You need to move on now. That’s right: you go somewhere else!”

“Are you welling at a SKUNK?” I asked, and I turned around and headed quickly back to the dining room.

Mark stepped back into the house. Well, he strutted a little.

“Yeah,” he said. “I sent that polecat packing.”

I thought it might be a good idea to wait a minute or two before we started our walk. We headed out just as dawn was getting serious. We saw a runner in fancy clothes, a comfortable couple around our age in safety reflective gear, a no-nonsense walker with headphones on who was pumping her arms up and down. We saw an old black dog with a white, white muzzle sniffing at the sidewalk. When we got close, he put down his head and turned, tail tucked, to head back to his house.

We saw Jay, the friendly realty guy, walking his playful blue-eyed musky-dog. We saw a mama deer and a baby deer poised warily next to a lawn where dogs often romp, reined in by an electric fence.

We did NOT see the skunk.

***************************

On Tuesday, Jim and I drove out past the classic Denny’s, out to Old Wheeling Road, and we found the headquarters of RHDD. We were meeting Jim’s wonderful case-worker, Rachael, and she was going to introduce us to the Lauras.

The Lauras handle transportation for their organization. They showed Jim the bus and the van. One of the Lauras and one of the vehicles would arrive at the house to pick him up each morning, from the 24th on, and take him to class.

We met outside, social distancing, but a Laura offered to show Jim the bus and the van. They were baking inside, but Jim gamely climbed on the bus and checked out the seating, poked his head in the van. He learned what doors he’d use, allowing for safe distances between drivers and riders, and he and the Lauras agreed on a pickup time for the first week.

This was exciting: Jim starts back to college on the 24th, and he will not have to rely on Mom and Dad for transportation. He’ll have his own ride, thank you very much, and he’ll see us when he gets home.

He was strutting a little, too, when he thanked everyone and climbed back into the car. Rachael pulled out and we followed her back to Zanesville, where she and Jim met in a picnic pavilion behind her office while I got some steps in.

“That was a great meeting,” said Jim.

*****************************

On Wednesday, I came home from work, and thought about dinner. I thought about chopped and slicing, and stirring and simmering, and what I thought was this: I don’t want to do that.

So for dinner Wednesday night, Mark went out and got a loaf of bread, and we grilled cheese sandwiches, with American cheese and gouda, or Havarti, or Colby-jack. And we had soup: Tuscan sausage and white bean soup for Mark and me, which involved lifting a container from the freezer and reheating. Jim had a bowl of Lipton’s chicken noodle soup with his grilled cheese.

Jim’s father and I both told him what a treat that was when we were growing up—how Lipton was an exotic break from Campbell’s chicken noodle.

It was one of those nights when the sandwiches grilled up perfectly—brown and crusty, oozing cheese,—and the steaming soups tasted wonderful.

“Yum,” said Mark, and, “That was a great dinner,” Jim said.

***********************************

On Thursday, though, the college announced that it was moving classes to an on-line format. No rides would be needed.

“Oh, well,” said Jim. He seemed to be an odd combination of disappointed and relieved, which is, maybe, status quo for pandemic days. We’ll call his advisor, we decided, on Monday, talk about tutoring, and see whether that will be on-line, or via Zoom, or safely distanced face to face.

And then he’ll call and change his arrangements with Rachael and the Lauras.

***************************************

This week, I stopped at the library and picked up Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold, so I could learn a little more about this woman making history. I went to the last session of a racism discussion (went, via Zoom) at our public library. It was a ‘Where do we go from here?’ session, and I left with ideas and paths to explore. This week I learned to write a press release in a template format, and to include ‘boilerplate’ language below, and, under excellent tutelage, I expanded my technology knowledge to navigate a little more effectively in the on-line world.

*********************************************

We all had Friday off this week, and Mark finished painting the basement walls, and I dust-mopped and vacuumed. Jim unrolled a new area rug in the family room, and laid two by fours on the edges to get it to lay down flat. Then he walked on it, barefoot.

This is a nice rug,” he said.

This week I ordered soft, velvety navy-blue throws to go on the new recliners we ordered last week. The throws will arrive long before the recliners do, but we think that’s okay. I ordered a single set of navy-blue curtains, too,–curtains to coordinate with the drapes on the bay window, and which can be pulled to block the sun that glares in at 7 p.m., shining on the big screen TV and erasing the picture.

This week I ordered groceries on-line in the morning and went to pick them up in the evening. And I looked forward to meeting friends for coffee. We’d meet in a park pavilion, and we would each bring our own drink and nosh. But I was excited to return to a certain degree of normalcy,—not saying that COVID is no longer here, but saying maybe we can navigate it differently. Maybe the things that enrich life—Saturday morning coffee with friends, touching base with loved ones, being there to share things,—are things we can still have. We just have to re-imagine their delivery.

***************************************

This week was about process, not outcome; it was a week when things continued, or groundwork got laid, or learning took place. There were no fireworks and no stunning surprises. It was a hard-working week with nice little breaks. We even, I think, all snuck a little nap in on Friday.

But, “This was a nice week,” said Jim, and his words make me spread it out, look back over it, pick up the week’s fabric and run it between my rough and gnarled fingers. I have to agree.

Shifting

It is Friday, it is early, and it has rained most of the night. The clouds are pale gray and silver-edged where the sun shyly peeks through. We lace up our sneakers, I push ‘go’ on the coffee maker, and Mark and I head out for our morning walk.

We walk in cool fresh breezes; we see a few other morning walkers; we make a brisk, long circuit; then we head home.

After breakfast—that fresh, hot coffee; a bowl of the new batch of granola—I check grades one last time, add ‘last date of attendance’ for each student, and hit ‘send’ for three classes. I compose a farewell/your grades are posted/best of luck email and send it off.

I log out of the college website, and Mark and Jim get their shoes on. They are going to help me move some furniture, take down some pictures, hang a couple of certificates.

They are going to help me move into my new office.

***************************

By noon, we’re done. The TV brackets are removed from the wall that my desk, now angled, faces at a slant. A seascape, a painting by a locally renowned artist, covers the spaces where the brackets were hung. We’ve taken other pictures down and stacked them in the unused office at the end of the hall.

We have hung my fancy certificate from the Leadership Academy, and my ‘different drummer’ inspiration piece.

We have discovered that the couch, which is handsome but very hard to eject oneself from, is uncooperative: it does not readily fit through the door; it does not slide nicely down the hallway to be hidden away.

The couch will stay, temporarily tucked against the back wall. We’ll figure that out next week, Scarlett.

But couch or not, the office is ready for occupancy on Monday.

We put our masks back on. Susan comes down to look and gives the furniture arrangement a thumbs up. I have a list of things to buy and a list of things to bring on Monday.  We gather up tool bags, vacuum up a little dust, and head out to start the weekend.

*****************************

It is a catch-up weekend: I do the vacuuming that languished while I was grading final papers, mop the hard floors, shag down cobwebs entrenched in corners. We do a little shopping. Mark works on the basement window he’s replacing. I mow some grass.

Jim, who has gotten his math textbook for Fall semester, does 80 practice problems, just, he says, to get back into the math mind.

On Sunday, I take a pork roast out to thaw, and we head out, under skies that threaten to rumble and then clear for a good bit before reverting.

“Now, WHERE are we going?” asks Mark, and I direct him to the college campus where I have been teaching, thirty miles away. When we get there, we head out for a long rambling walk. I point out landmarks.

“I taught in THAT building,” I say.

“Huh,” says Mark.

“I remember,” says Jim, who would sometimes come to campus, set up in a lounge, and type the morning away while I taught. It was a break from the four walls of home while he waited on job search results. He liked the campus, where the people were friendly and welcoming.

And then COVID crept close, crawled in, entrenched, and neither of us returned to campus again.

Until today.

“I taught in THAT building…” I point.

“I sat with Ben Franklin,” says Mark, walking past a statue on a bench.

Mark and Ben shared a moment on an earlier trip to campus…

“It’s RAINING,” says Jim, and he’s right.

We dash back to the car, not too much damage done.

***********************************

The campus visit was my goodbye lap, my way of recognizing and honoring this transition. We go home then; I rub the pork with olive oil and crust it with herbs. We roast it, and then we eat it with a creamy pasta side dish and crisp, pretty salads. For dessert, I have tried a new recipe for frosted brownies; we eat them with scoops of chocolate chip ice cream.

It is a celebration meal.

The meal, and the trip to the college, are my attempts at a kind of rite of passage.

********************************************

We get up early on Monday; we get a good, stretching walk in through cool and dewy paths. I drink my coffee and eat my granola, and I do the word puzzles in the morning paper.

And then I go upstairs and wash and don dress pants and a scoop-necked, flowered top. I pull on soft black dress sandals and head downstairs again.

I pack up my black bag with my new work laptop and my folders full of notes and reminders. I peel a big carrot and chop it into sticks. I put that in a lidded glass container. I fill a tiny container with mixed nuts, too, and I put a water glass in my lunch bag. I fill a go-cup with the remaining coffee and make sure I have my phone and pens. I kiss Mark and hug Jim. I drive to the supermarket, put my mask on, and run in to buy a clutch of flowers. And I go, for the first time since March 5th, to work.

************************************

My new job is at a family foundation, where I am the program officer. Foundation funds were amassed through the hard work of the founders, a brilliant and foresighted couple; the funds grew because of their shrewd and savvy investing.

They lived wonderful long lives, those benefactors. He died this spring, two years after his wife passed; he was 98 and had, until his final brief illness, gone into the Foundation office at least twice a week. He tracked the stock market; he traded and bought and sold.

My friend Susan is their daughter, and now my boss; she is president and executive director of the foundation. Her siblings and their children and hers sit on the board of trustees.

Foundation funds are to support community growth, education, the arts and sciences. Part of my job is to get worthy leaders to request support for their worthy projects.

For a year or two after retirement I wrote grants, but I am on the other side of grant-writing now. I may do some teaching about the process, the organization, the scope. I will figure out ways to meet with people, socially distant but still personally, and discuss collaborations. It is, really, a kind of a dream job: helping people committed to making change in firm and positive ways.

I unlock the door of the Foundation office, take my bags to my office, and carry the flowers and two mason jars to the break room. I trim and snip and pull off foliage. I have two beautiful bouquets—purple and gold, red and blue, nestled in lush greens.

I put the mason jar bouquets on a crocheted doily on my new desk, plug in my laptop and pull out my to do list. By the time I meet with Susan at 11:00, the day and the week have taken shape.

This is a place to settle into.

***************************************

I am home a little after one, and the boyos are just eating lunch, so I sit down with them. Mark mentions that he was telling his boss about my new role.

“I told him I think you’re really going to like it, and that you’ve retired from teaching,” he says. He waits—buh dum BUMP—then adds, “For the 78th time.”

It is true, as Jim remarked the other day, that I have had a lot of jobs.

It is true, too, that I have often left teaching and then returned.

***************************************

I look at my college email, just in case, and find that the students can’t see their grades. I check my process, which looks correct, and then I send a message to the guru of the student management system.

That guru is always right on top of things. I find her reply early the next morning; there was a glitch. It’s been fixed.

And with that, the teaching is really done. I send a final note to the guru, telling her, truly, that she’s been a joy to work with.

****************************************

And the week rolls by with early walks and mornings in the office. On alternate days, another Pam, the office manager, is there; she shows me the files and makes me a list of past projects.

Terry, our brilliant tech support coach, comes in and guides us gently, never once rolling her eyes.

Susan and I have a Zoom meeting with brilliant, inspired people.

I learn the history of the Foundation and compile the trustees list and touch base with our web developer. Pam gives me fat files that document projects: a nature refuge for wounded warriors, a Habitat building, educational efforts.  

I figure out the phone system and record a new message. I crunch carrots sticks and read documents that help me begin to see that past and the vision for the future.

********************************************

Thursday comes, and the end of this particular work week. Mark has been to his office to pick things up; he reports that, because of this and because of that, he’ll be working from WORK on Monday. He’ll be back in the office for the first time since March, too.

Jim’s classes start, in person as far as he knows, on August 24th.

Suddenly, the fluid days are structured days, days with walls and bridges.

I think to check my college email, just in case there are any crises or calamities. There are not, but two special students have taken the time to write thank you notes, wishing me well on my new adventure. One of the students I know from a previous real time class. I know her face, and I have seen the faces of her precious children proudly displayed on the broad, flat screen of her phone.

I feel a pang knowing I will not teach her again; this is a young woman who has traveled a long way in life, from a country with another language, from a country where her religion was the predominant one, from a place where she knew the social cues and the shops on the corner and the holidays and  rhythms. She learns like fire burns: voracious, undaunted. Take me out of the classroom and throw me into an online universe? I will make it work, she vows.

It has been almost eerie to watch how much and how quickly she has mastered English writing; she has moved from writing determined, halting paragraphs to crafting seven-page papers with references in less than a year.

I do not know the other student’s face; we are virtual entities to each other. I know that she is a hard worker, someone who asks questions when she needs to understand better. I know that she is determined, too, and that her goals for herself and her family drive her hard.

Their emails remind me how satisfying teaching is, and what good, good work it can be.

*************************************

And yet.

The new job unfolds, its creative possibilities compounding. We talk about logos and I research mission and vision statements, and I open folders and see sincere notes of appreciation. We served X number of children this year, the writer says, and we could not have done that without your support.

“This is my inheritance,” Susan says of the Foundation. It is an amazing legacy; it is an exciting honor to be part of this team.

And now it is Friday afternoon, and there are no papers to grade. No student waits for me to open next week’s work in the virtual classroom; no one has written to say their assignment is delayed because of sick kids or to ask if they can rewrite the paper on which they received a grade they were disappointed in.

There is no planning to do for next week’s class; instead, the weekend looms, unstructured, with time for painting basement walls and mooching around the farmers’ market, masked and distancing. There will be time for walks, for mowing and mopping, and for settling into the reading chair with my current book.

I feel odd; I feel almost guilty not to be creating a rubric or writing feedback to a student paper. It will be good to submerge into this kind of free time.

My five-months’ wardrobe of t-shirts and capris gives way to slacks and tops; I think about coordinating necklaces and which purse to carry. I open the new bottle of perfume I’d placed behind the closet door in the bathroom.

The flow has quickened.

There are right times for passages; I will always, I think, be a teacher, but I am other things, too, and this job now in this place feels like just the right thing. I feel tangles un-knotting, and I say goodbye to the teaching life.

The 78th time, I think, is the charm, and I end the week with no regrets about leaving what was before and with excitement for what’s to come.

Rite Passages (2)

A long time ago, I spent a hard-working day with the kinds of friends who are, really, found family. One of us (we’ll call her Missy), the sweetest and kindest one of us all, was moving into a new apartment.

The rest of us were picking up and driving, toting and sorting, unpacking and washing, and hammering and hanging, and Missy was running around, angling to carry the heaviest things herself, apologizing that people were working too hard, and trying to make the whole experience light and pleasant for everyone but herself.

It was a passage time for Missy; she had lived with an aging relative for a very long time, using all her skills of empathy and compassion to make those last years rich and meaningful.

The death of the family member also meant the loss of her home.

But Missy was not a complainer. She packed up her meager belongings, found a big, light-filled second floor flat closer to her work, and she prepared to move.

She didn’t ask for help, because Missy just doesn’t do that. But one of the women in our little group got wind of what was going on. She called us and she organized us.

So we were all on hand to move Missy.

And it was fun. It is always more fun to work hard at someone else’s house, to do their dishes and vacuum their floors and organize their cabinets (which Missy probably rearranged to her own satisfaction the next day).

And when it was all done, when Missy had a freshly made bed to sleep on and clothes folded neatly in drawers, when her cereal was safely stashed in the kitchen cupboard, and there was a new carton of milk in the newly-chilled refrigerator, when we had wrestled stubborn windows open, and lit candles to eliminate the lingering scent of cigarettes smoked long, long, ago—well, then the pizza arrived.

The pizza arrived, and maybe, along with it, came some icy cold beers.

************************************

We pulled random chairs up to Missy’s newly scrubbed kitchen table, and Missy apologized for her charmingly mismatched dishes, and someone mentioned bridal showers.

Bridal showers, that person said, are often wasted on brides.

And that (and that icy cold beer, perhaps) set us off.

There should be showers for people when, like Missy, they have a major life change, not just when they get married. Right? someone demanded.

Why not divorce showers? someone suggested.

How about, My last kid is gone to college showers? someone else put in.

Or wait, someone said, why not a shower when it’s been thirty years since you’ve bought new anything, and you can see through your dishcloths and bath towels, they’re so worn down?

We ate pizza, we thought about all the sadly un-showered events of adulthood, and we drank beer, and we got silly; our suggestions grew more and more outrageous.

But now I look back and I think, why not? Why didn’t we have a shower for Missy when her life changed radically, and when she was bravely setting up a whole new home?

********************************

I wish we had coming of age rituals for kids beginning to stare down that tunnel where the light at the other end is adulthood.

I wish we had rites for all those important passages we make after we emerge from the tunnel, too.

**********************************

Peter Prevos (https://prevos.net/humanities/sociology/ritual/) writes, “According to the psychological approach, all people have a psychological need to have the support of ritual in their lives.”

The Akoma Unity Center says, “Rites of passage foster a sense of renewal, since they mark the beginning of a new phase in our lives.” (https://akomaunitycenter.org/what-are-rites-of-passage-and-why-are-they-so-important/)

I think of Missy, at 38 or so, beginning a new life on her own, alone, once her noisy, beery friends rolled down her back stairs and raucously departed. I imagine her awake until deep into the night, trying to imagine what the future looked like, jumping at unfamiliar creaks, feeling bereft and unguided.

Think of the challenges (welcome and unwelcome) we face as adults: new roles, new family members, divorce and dissolution of relationships, other separations, economic challenges, career changes, relocation, daunting diagnoses for ourselves or folks we love, unexpected opportunities, retirement, redesign.

***************************

Once I sat with three good friends; all of us had been through job changes and job losses. We were warm and intelligent women, with families, friends, and interests; we were passionate about varied causes, eager to make meaningful marks on our places in the world. We sat together in a little cafe for three hours; we ate, and we signaled for endless cups of coffee.

And we talked about work: not the work ahead, but the work that was gone. We circled it, round and round; we spun that topic so hard it drilled a deep hole in the ground. We plunged, and we sat at the bottom of the hole, and we talked about the pain and the lack of recognition; we pulled out unjust incident after unjust incident. We battered ourselves, dwelling on the unfairness of it all.

The hole we’d drilled was so deep, we had trouble pulling ourselves out.

********************************

But what if we’d done something else?

What if, say, after the tearing separations from jobs we had invested so heavily in, what if we had each taken some time to ourselves? What if each of us had poured the loss out onto pages, writing down the pain and the injustice,–what if we wrote it down and then set it aside, and spent time, just by ourselves, reading a favorite book, watching a favorite movie, listening to the music that always moved us? What if we cleared a big block of time and spent it honoring ourselves, respecting ourselves, by indulging in things that made us happy?

And then, having deliberately spent that painful/healing time, say we gathered at a beautiful state park on a clear late afternoon, greeting each other with hugs and joy at reconnecting and tears. Someone brought charcoal, and someone else brought lighter fluid. We poured the fire-making matter into a venerable metal barbecue grill, the kind that’s cemented into the ground on a sturdy metal pole, and we each produced the pages we’d written, the papers filled with the pain and loss and shock of those endings.

We took turns placing the papers on top of the charcoal, and the lighter fluid wielder splashed on some more.

A match flared; the paper caught.

We stood and watched the records of our pain blacken and burn and turn to smoke; and we let it go.

And when the papers were ash and the charcoal glowed, we put boneless chicken and aluminum foil packets of summer squash, new potatoes, green onions, carrots sliced sliver thin–fresh tender veggies basted in olive oil and christened with herbs—on the grill. And someone poured drinks, and someone pulled out plates and silverware and a beautiful pan of frosted brownies, and we sat down at a table covered with a lovely linen cloth, and we ate and we talked.

We talked for three hours, but this time, the topic was, “What’s next?”

And we dreamed together: now that the fetters are off, what can I do that I’ve always wanted to do?

The sun set, the coals turned to embers, the embers to cold ash, and we hugged once more and packed things up, and we headed off into the new lives we were just about to create.

We promised to meet again in a month and celebrate the changes we’d begun to live.

******************************

Our needs for comfort and reassurance might have been better met if we’d done THAT instead of drilling ourselves into that hole over coffee.

*****************************

Prevos invokes Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), a French anthropologist who coined the term and the concept, ‘rite of passage.’ Gennep suggested that a successful ritual for adults navigating important transitions includes three stages:

  • Separation
  • Transition
  • Reincorporation

Think of what usually happens. We enter a major life change by flinging ourselves at it, running pell mell toward it, grappling it and wrestling it to the ground.

Or we stand off to the side, refusing to enter the change that is going to happen anyway. We damn and blast the change. We decline to take part. Instead, we worry the change’s cause like a dog with a rat, shaking it viciously, repeatedly, by the neck.

Not believing that passage is truly dead, we have a hard time letting it go.

A time of separation gives us the space to grieve or celebrate—some passages are wonderful, after all,—to turn backward and let things go, to wheel around and eyeball what looks like it lies ahead.

A time of transition gifts us with people who care about us, who encourage us, who offer great ideas, and maybe even wield a paint roller or bring a cold drink when we’re exhausted from the efforts of getting ready. We gear up. We stock up. We rest up.

We begin to believe it’s quite possible this whole new venture will work.

And then we launch back in, reincorporating, eager to know how we’ll fit into this new tabletop puzzle now that the colors have changed and the pattern has shifted just a bit.

**************************************

Oh, think of the things we grown-ups go through: major moves. New relationships, or changes in old ones. The loss of friends, the loss of dreams, the loss of parents and siblings and children.

The growth of new dreams. The gift of new people in our lives.

We change jobs. We change titles. We get fired. We get hired. We retire.

We take trainings; we earn degrees.

We move into bigger digs.

We downsize.

We navigate new cities and towns.

We move back home.

The damned dog dies, and an era ends.

We lose weight or we gain it.

Children arrive and grow and go away.

Children arrive and grow and go away and COME BACK.

Once we turn 21, the changes don’t end. The passages continue.

*******************************************

I like the idea of renewal, of some sort of a meaningful marking that allows us to contemplate the change, to decide how we’ll traverse it, and to shape the new life the change engenders. And, like coming of age rituals, I think each successful rite of passage should end with a celebration—even in COVID days, when the party might only have three attendees, or the trip may be to a cottage by the lake instead of to a bustling city’s museums and restaurants and theaters.

Maybe the celebration is a book or shirt or painting we give ourselves.

But the change has happened, and we mark it.

***********************************************

I bet it’s been thirty years since we moved Missy into her first solitary apartment. I’m thinking it might be time for an “I can see through my dishcloths” shower.

Rite Passages (1)

          How might it have been different for you, if on your first menstrual day, your mother had given you a bouquet of flowers and taken you to lunch, and then the two of you had gone to meet your father at the jeweler, where your ears were pierced, and your father bought you your first pair of earrings, and then you went with a few of your friends and your mother’s friends to get your first lip colouring;

          and then you went,

                   for the very first time,

                             to the Women’s Lodge

                                      to learn

                                                the wisdom of the women?

          How might your life be different?

                             —Judith Duerk, Circle of Stones

I have been thinking about rites of passage for a while now, and especially about coming of age rituals.

************************************

It was kind of serendipitous. I wanted to give my Comp II class a practice topic for writing a comparative analysis; the actual assignment was ready to go, but I like to give students a run-through activity. So I went browsing on the Web for one website that would offer a choice of comparisons.

I found a site much like this: a site that summarized 13 coming of age rituals from around the planet.

https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/13-amazing-coming-of-age-traditions-from-around-th/

I asked the students to pick two of the rituals, do a little more research, and write up a comparative analysis.

They wrote with horror and glee and a dawning respect about exotic, community-building, frightening, risky, and painful rituals. That was our practice assignment.

When they got the actual assignment, they told me they wished the coming of age activity had been their REAL paper.

******************************************

One of the rites that fascinated my students was the Bullet Ant Ritual, practiced by the Satere’-Mawe’ tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. This tribe has been isolated from the outside world for thousands of years; the qualities they prize in their warriors are strength and courage.

So the bullet ant ordeal aims to teach the tribe’s 13-year-old boys how to become strong and brave.

The boys themselves go out into the jungle with a trusted elder, and they harvest bullet ants. The elder sedates the ants with an herbal infusion; the boys bring them home, where they are woven, stingers handward, into gloves.

When the ants awaken, the boy must put on the gloves and keep them on, betraying no fear or pain, for five to ten minutes.

According to “Cultures and Customs” from Penn State, “A single sting is capable of causing hours of pain.” People who’ve been shot and who’ve been bitten by a bullet ant say the pain from the ant is worse—hence their name.

The ants’ venom causes long-lasting effects, including violent shaking, paralysis, confusion, and hallucinations.

The boys put their hands in the gloves not once, but twenty times. When they are done, they are warriors.

***************************************

In their final, de-briefing essays, several students said learning about coming of age rituals was the high point of the class (which featured face-to-face sessions until March, and an abrupt, pandemic switch to on-line learning after spring break wrapped up. The students were a great group, but it was a confused and disconcerting semester.)

I decided to take that activity and incorporate it into this summer’s class as the REAL comparative analysis assignment. And then I thought, well, we could segue from that into the proposal activity: the students could choose a young person or group of young people they felt would benefit, and propose a coming of age ritual for them.

I went looking for examples of current, safe, sensible coming of age rites on the Internet, and I came across Ron Fritz’s wonderful TEDX talk. (https://tedxbend.com/presenters/ron-fritz/)

Fritz and his wife designed coming of age rituals for each of their three kids. The rituals included lessons to teach important values the Fritzes chose; they included a challenge geared toward the child; and they offered up a group of caring, loving elders who, in addition to the child’s parents, promised to be there in certain ways and at certain times.

Lessons about values. A personal challenge. The gift of a supportive community of elders.

I thought about what Fritz had done, and what I was asking my students to design, and I started to wish we had given our boys coming of age experiences.

I started to wish I’d had one, too.

***************************

To echo Judith Duerk, how WOULD our lives be different if that entry into the lobby of the land of adulthood had been celebrated with a ritual designed just for each of us? 

I entered my teens feeling like I’d been shoved into a dark room with a flickering flashlight and commanded to find something. The light was weird and wavery, and I had no idea what I was looking for.

I stumbled, a LOT, and the longer I was in there, the worse the stumbling grew. Oh, I emerged eventually, with some new ideas, a battery of bruises, and several scars, but mostly intact. But I can’t help thinking that a coming of age ritual might have given me something like a search light instead of that damp flicker.

******************************

I was a bookish, creative kid, with very little self-confidence and lots of apprehension. What if a kid like that had been challenged to do something she’d never dream of doing…say, talk to one person she’d never spoken to before each day for a week? She might keep a journal of the conversations that ensued, and at the end of the week, she might share it with one of her mentors, a grown-up person who was gifted at connection. Together, they’d sift through the seven people that child had spoken to and find someone the child found interesting and would like to know better. The next week’s challenge might be to invite the new person for coffee.

And maybe the person wouldn’t go because they didn’t want to, or wouldn’t go because their schedule disallowed. But maybe they WOULD go, and maybe the shy, awkward child would meet a new friend.

That would be just one kind of challenge tailor-made for just one kind of kid.

*************************************

Fritz had his kids build things, make things, and push themselves physically. They all came through the experience, it seems, successfully, and probably with a dawning surprise at what they themselves could actually do if they pushed the limits of their beliefs about their own abilities.

I love the idea of a ritual that makes us do that sort of stretching.

*******************************************

Another ritual that captivated my students was the practice of land diving. This takes place on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, according to ABCNews.go.com. To prove their manliness, boys dive from 100-foot-tall towers of wood.  Not only are participants proven to be fearless, but, the tribe believes, the successful completion of the challenge insures their crops will grow.

The tower is built of freshly cut wood, tied together with fresh vines; the freshness insures flexibility. Brittleness could mean disaster for the participants, who choose a vine that will get them as close to the earth as they can fall without crashing.

The vine’s ends are shredded and tied around the young man’s ankle, and he scrambles to the top of the tower. While her boy makes his jump, the mother grips a favorite token from his childhood.

When the boy completes his jump successfully, the mother throws the childhood token away. Her boy needs it no more; he now is a man.

************************************************

For each of his children, Fritz and his wife gathered a community of adults who cared about their kid, who would continue to care, and who could be relied on to be there later on and down the road. The elders might share stories that inspired or that implied, “Don’t worry: we’re all a mess at one time when we’re growing!” They might write down words of wisdom. They might share all together in a group, or the young person might walk from elder to elder, from mentor to mentor, receiving a glimmer and a strand of a lifeline from each.

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I think of my son Jim, and other autistic young adults.

The statistics for this group of people are disheartening. College degree completion is low, unemployment is high. A lot of very talented people spend their 20’s playing videogames.

Would, I wonder, a coming of age ritual have helped Jim and folks like Jim?

What if we had posed Jim three challenges that took him outside his comfort zone, but not so far he couldn’t see dry land? Imagine he had, over a course of weeks, navigated those challenges. Then say we had, one at a time, provided him with a group of adults who said things like, “I love movies, too. Once a month, you can call me and we’ll talk about movies,” or, “I was awkward with other kids when I was a teenager. If you get frustrated dealing with the other kids at school, call me, and we’ll talk about it,” or, “When I was your age, my parents drove me CRAZY! When yours are driving you crazy, shoot me an email, and I’ll reply asap.”

An autistic kid might not pick up the phone or sit down at the keyboard and make the connection offered by those compassionate adults.

But then again, they might.

And the individual caring mentors might have become a network, and they might have inculcated the belief that, Hey. I CAN nurture relationships with people outside my family. I CAN make and be a friend.

Hmmm. How might Jim’s life have been different?

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There are other, less brutal rites, too, of course.

Amish groups observe Rumspringa, the time before a young person is engaged. During these days, which can last many years, the Amish youth, both boys and girls, can experiment with ‘English’ clothing and equipment. They might drive; they might go to movies. They might drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.

At the end of Rumspringa, they must choose: marriage into an Amish family, or a life forever outside the community that raised them.

Bar mitzvahs challenge Jewish boys to enter the life of their religion as a full adult. The boy has prepared, studying and reading, and, at 13, is required to present a spiritual reading to the members of his Temple; his ascendance to adulthood is celebrated, often with an elaborate gathering.

Jewish girls may make their bat mitzvah at 12; they demonstrate their learning of their Jewish heritage, too. They may be expected to do some kind of bat mitzvah project, as well, which benefits others. (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1918218/jewish/Bat-Mitzvah-What-It-Is-and-How-to-Celebrate.htm)

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The last thing Fritz said was an essential component in a coming of age ritual is a party, a celebration, and the ones they offered, again, were geared toward each kid, toward what they saw as an amazing time.

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My students found that the remnants of coming of age rites in the United States often skipped over the values lessons and the challenges, bypassed the sharing from caring elders, and went right to the party.

In the Quinceanera, a ritual for girls turning 15 in Latina and Hispanic US cultures, the emphasis is on the reception after a religious ceremony. My students were fascinated to learn that a family with a modest income might pay as much as $10,000 for the honoree’s dress.

The reception would be in a fancy hall, and the guests would challenge its capacity. Food would be lavish.

Another rite that fascinated my students, who are mostly hard-working folks juggling jobs and classes, was the all-American Sweet 16. There, the party’s the focus, too, and in wealthy families, or at least in families wealthier than the ones we rub noses with, the highlight of the party is when the 16-year-old gets the keys to her spanking new car.

Pretty heady stuff.

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But so many US kids go on to less than glittering success…to drug use and addiction, to failed attempts at college, to early and unwed parenting (which is, of course, not exactly a failure, but often a deviation from long-held dreams.) Suicide is a real issue among US adults, as is incarceration, shared parenting, divorce, and disillusion.

Lessons that teach values, challenges that push a kid to discover what they’re capable of…could such simple things be part of a web that catches people in a downward spiral?

Could coming of age rituals at least be part of a package that offers help and hope to confused and floundering young people, to kids who feel like no one gets them, that there’s no one there to talk to?

I like Fritz’s model—lessons, challenge, supportive elders. If we—as families, as communities, as school, or as churches—could offer a positive, value-infused coming of age ritual to young people…well, as Judith Duerk asks, how might their lives be different?

And even if there’s no entity to give that child—the 13-year-old, the fifteen year old, the seventeen year old—a formal rite of passage, maybe we can each reach out in appropriate, caring ways to the one kid in our life. Maybe we can share a shred or a shard of wisdom. Maybe we can encourage the child who feels alone to make a catalog of wise elders they can call on when need arises. Maybe, in some small way, we can help that budding person realize and celebrate the wonder of who they are: someone who is essential to the whole.

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Of course, there are other rites of passage besides coming of age rituals. I’ve been thinking about them, too.

What I Take for Granted

Once, several years ago, our petite but mighty friend Wendy came for a visit. In the hatch of her sporty compact car, she had a gift for Jim: an apartment-sized refrigerator.

Wendy had wrestled that fridge out of her basement, shoved it in her car, and brought it 300 miles to Jim to use in ours. He was putting together a kind of man-cave. With a refrigerator and a microwave, he could even make his own meals downstairs.

“That is COOL,” said Jim, and he and his dad maneuvered that little fridge down the stairs, barking and yelping—never stopping to think how Wendy had done that, in reverse, all by her own diminutive self. They set it up and plugged it in; we wiped it down, and it immediately became the drinks fridge and the overflow freezer.

It settled into its new home, and it has plugged away for years, reliable and largely unnoticed.

Then, three weeks ago, our kitchen refrigerator, which wasn’t very old (maybe a day or two older than its four-year warranty) began to wheeze and moan, to get steamy, and to give up.

A helpful repair guy came to look, shook his head, and said he couldn’t gouge us for the kind of money it would take to fix that sad machine.

So we went out appliance shopping. The burners were slowly dying on the stove; we needed matches to light all but one. And we’d replaced the thing in the oven that regulates the temp (the regulator?) more than once.

It was time to buy a new stove and a new refrigerator. May as well get a pair that matches, we agreed. We looked; we conferred; we ordered.

The only problem was this: it would take two weeks for them to get here.

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And so, while we waited, we used the little basement fridge to salvage what we could from the defunct one. Because of that little, unassuming machine, we could keep milk and cheese and eggs on hand; we could have crisp lettuce and carrots.

It was a long two weeks, but you are imagining, I bet, that each day, as I ran up and downstairs, grabbing chilled ingredients for grating or chopping, for the putting together of lunch and dinner chow, I was feeling grateful. You can picture me saying to myself, “How lucky we are! If we didn’t have this little fridge, we’d be in a whole lot of misery.”

Right?

Well, that’s not exactly how I perceived the situation. In fact, I stomped up and down those stairs, glaring at people, and saying things like, “I am so SICK of stomping up and down these stairs!”

But the new refrigerator arrived and hummed into life, and the next day we loaded it up with a whole new batch of chilly Kroger groceries.

Now I can just dance from countertop to refrigerator, grab an egg or a stick of butter, find some ham or celery to chop, pull some ice cubes from the freezer.

Now I can say to myself, Let’s never, ever take having an upstairs refrigerator for granted again.

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It’s easy to take mechanical things for granted, to feel like, Well, of course, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do! That’s their job: to make MY life easier.

Only their absence makes me appreciate them.

For instance. When James and I moved to Ohio to join Mark (after his first year of law school and a year of distance familying that was just NO fun), we thought it would be really smart to buy a used mobile home. We would get it for next to nothing; we would revamp it inside and out, and we’d have a private place to live, with a lawn and a little porch and with no one pounding around or playing bad music overhead or below us.

We found the perfect situation. There was a tidy little trailer park right at the edge of town. And the first trailer on the backside was for sale. Our front yard would look out on the street; the back of the trailer bordered on an endless cornfield. We’d have one neighboring trailer, and in that lived the nicest young couple with a sweet baby girl.

The trailer had a dishwasher and it had central air, two things we did NOT have back home. It needed some work, but we were up for it. In fact, we were excited. We’d move in July; my new Ohio job didn’t start until the end of August, right about when law school started for Mark and fifth grade kicked in for Jim. We’d have over a month to get things in shape.

We signed on the dotted line and went back to our New York State home to start packing.

(Just a side note: one of Mark’s classmates liked our idea so much that he bought a trailer there too. He and Mark decided they would not refer to our new neighborhood as a ‘trailer park.’ No. At law school, they called where we lived a ‘planned living community’ instead.)

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It is no exaggeration to say we moved on the hottest day of that summer. When we drove up to the trailer in our convoy—Mark and Jim in the U-Haul, the dog and me in the car—it was about 2 p.m., and the thermometer said 96 degrees.

We had huge heavy things to unload; we had a boy and a dog to acclimate to their new home.

We grabbed essentials and unlocked the metal door of the metal house which had been waiting for us, baking in the sun, and we trundled our armloads inside.

I started putting refrigerator stuff away. Mark went to turn the AC on.

We held our breath until we heard the wonderful whoosh and whir of the system kicking in. A blast of cold air thundered out of the vent by my feet.

And then the air conditioning just died.

Nothing Mark could do would revive it. We found, finally, a repair guy who would come after dinner.

Being in a trailer baking in the sun is sort of like living in an empty tin can you left out on the driveway. We opened windows; we turned on fans, but it was HOT.

And we had to carry heavy stuff, and we were tired and anxious. That was not a fun day.

It got even less fun when the repair guy came,–late, after all retail was closed—and did a thorough examination and told us the central air was certainly dead. He wouldn’t, he said, even look at another central system for a building the size of ours; he’d buy economical wall units and save ourselves the cost.

We agreed that was a fine plan, but by then it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, and nothing within thirty miles was open. And none of us felt like getting in the car and driving anywhere anyway.

We took turns taking showers—a momentary relief—and then we flopped onto mattresses on the living room floor—putting beds together was a TOMORROW thing. Mark noted that the temperature was only down to 88 degrees; I barked at him that it was so REASSURING to know that, and then the three of us fell into disgruntled, sweaty, muttering sleeps.

The next day we followed the repair guy’s advice and went out and got four AC window units. They worked perfectly to cool that little abode, and we settled in and made the place comfortable—a kind of funny, loveable, temporary home.

But I swear to you that, since that day, I have never taken my central air for granted. In the heat dome we’re currently under, I come home from my early walk to hear the AC shoooshing on, and I say thank you to the gods of chillers.

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There are machines—like refrigerators, like AC units, like cars and washers and my trusty Kitchenaid mixer—that make our lives so much BETTER. I love what those machines make possible. I try not to take them for granted.

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A big, big difference between OUR pandemic and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 is technology. Imagine what life would have been like, sequestered at home with no phone, no Internet, no TV, and no computer.

But we are so lucky. Mark and I get up each morning, take our meandering walk, then come home to hot coffee and a good breakfast.

Then, “Goodbye, dear,” Mark will say. “I am off to work.”

“Will you be home for lunch?” I inquire.

“Oh yes,” he says. “Yes, I WILL.”

And he walks to the door of what we grandly call the Florida room (and is more truthfully known as ‘the side porch’), opens the door, and sits down at his desk. He fires up his laptop, pulls out his phone, and goes to work.

On the other side of the wall, I boot up my desktop, check my college email, and go to work myself, planning, responding to emails, and grading papers.

Because of technology, we’ve had no disruption in our jobs.

Because of technology, I have virtual coffee with friends I miss via Zoom.

Because of technology, we have weekly touch-base calls with friends and family.

It’s hard to remember life when we didn’t have this kind of efficient technology.

It’s hard, isn’t it, not to take it for granted?

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But machines, technology…those things make our lives so much easier, but they are not the big guys. PEOPLE are the big guys, and, oh, how hard it is to not take people for granted, to think that they will always just BE there.

I think back to that trailer, for instance, to a July phone call from my brother Dennis. We hadn’t talked in a while, and he was worried that our law school move would create a wedge, a distance, in our relationship.

“That will never happen,” I assured him, and he allowed that we would have to work hard not to let it.

And then (enough introspection), he started telling me about a job fair he’d orchestrated that spring, an event that was a huge and unexpected success.

Before he hung up, Dennis asked me if there was a campground nearby; maybe in September, he and Judy, his wife, would bring the camper and stay for a long weekend or even, if they could work the time out, longer.

I gave him the name of a little park I passed on my way to work every day, and he said he’d check it out online.

And then we signed off and plunged back into our separate busy lives, and the thought of calling Dennis tomorrow buzzed around the back of my head.

Less than a month later, he was dead.

There are still days when I think, “Oh, I should call Dennis!” It’s a knee jerk-y kind of thing.

I took it for granted that he’d always be around, that we’d sit around a campfire and laugh and compare notes over cold beers, solving, between the two of us, all the world’s ills.

The people we think will always be there for us…well, I remind myself every day not to take that companionship, those relationships, for granted.

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I stumbled on a website about coming of age experiences six months ago; the rites, from around the world and from cultures within the US, were fascinating.

And meaningful.

I used the website as the basis for a practice comparative analysis activity in Comp II; last semester’s students liked the concept so much that I built it into the curriculum this summer. Then I had the students write their first proposal paper on the topic, too; they had to suggest a coming of age ritual for a group of children, who could be their own kids or any kids they felt could benefit.

One mom wrote about a ritual for her own children, who are boys, and who are also Black. “I’d like to create a positive ritual,” she wrote. “Their father and I have already had to tell them about being a Black male today. We have taught them what situations to stay away from. We have taught them how to extract themselves from dangerous situations. We have taught them when to keep their mouths shut and when it’s best to just give up and run like hell.”

The boys, I think, are 5, 7, and 10 years old.

The mom went on to describe a beautiful coming of age ritual for each of her boys, but those introductory words just kicked my butt. She wrote, that student, so matter-of-factly about the danger her boys needed to learn to avoid. I am the mother of sons; I cannot imagine having had to train my boys the way she has to train hers.

I take that safety, that privilege, for granted, and it is time for me to stop.

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The pandemic has slowed things down, allowed time for mindfulness to take up residence in my days. I have had time for pondering, and I have had time to realize how much I take for granted.