What the Things Were Thinking

What AM I?

Color is important, the dishcloth knows that, and it is proud of its rich hues—deep coppery red, navy blue, olive green—on a nubby, creamy background. Those colors are why the dishcloth doesn’t serve as a dishcloth. Instead, it’s been neatly folded in the drawer of the dining room cabinet, corner to corner with a dozen or so similar cloths—some patterned, some just one rich color.

Sometimes a cloth will get frayed, or a little grubby looking. Then they disappear. The dishcloth doesn’t really dwell on what that means.

It has noticed, though, that there are new additions to the drawer this week—real cloth napkins,–some navy blue, some a rich golden tan, and some bright, primary-colored checks.

But still. Twice this week, the dishcloth has appeared on the table, and then made the expected trip to the chuggers—the washing machine, with its wild, soapy wetness, the pummeling exhilaration of the hot-breathed dryer.

Today, though, the Person is caught by the colors of a dishtowel as she comes upstairs with the laundry, including the dishcloth, neatly folded. She puts the basket on the floor, picks up the dishcloth, and puts it next to the towel…the one that has coffee designs on it, in rich, true colors—the tans, the reds, the olive greens.

Apparently, she likes their synergy. She leaves the dishcloth on the kitchen counter and goes away.

The colors synergized…

This day, the dishcloth plunges into soapy water and scrubs grit off cooking pots. It’s wrung out, and it’s hung neatly over the porcelain cliff that divides one sink from the other.

It’s kind of a shock.

Then the washer happens again, and then the dish cloth is put into a different drawer, the one with the cloths and towels used for their actual purpose: to clean dirty dishes.

Now the dishcloth lives in an uncertain world. “Is THIS what I am?” it ponders. “Or—am I THIS?”

***********

Its neighbors in the kitchen drawer sit folded and silent. The life he fears is one they know. They remember a time, maybe, when they sat, pristine, on a shelf in a store, a piece of hard paper, an ID tag, kind of, firmly clipped to one corner. Maybe a person lifted them once in a while. Maybe they came unfolded a bit.

Later expert hands would smooth and soothe them, fold them back in perfect piles. Proud. New.

Until one day quick hands threw them into a plastic basket, marched them to a checkout counter.

They traveled home jumbled in a bag, and then their lives of service—hot water, harsh soap, frequent spins in the chuggers,—began.

It is a challenging life, to be sure, and so, of course, the cloths change—from those prissy, colorful, sharp-corned squares, to these softened WORKERS. Some of them are stained. Some are even fraying.

They sit, folded, accepting. They note the newcomer and feel its agitation.

“Be one of us,” they think.

And the dishcloth leans toward that sense of community.

But then, it is washed and folded and put in the dinner napkin drawer, moved, for a time at least, back to a more refined, rarified life. More dabbing, less scrubbing.

“What AM I?” mourns the dishcloth.

“Can I be BOTH?”

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Green Legs

For long years, the only time Green Legs the bench moved was when the woman cleaned behind it. And that, to be truthful, didn’t happen every week…a little cleaning-rearranging was a welcome adventure. Most days, though, it squatted in the entryway, shoe and boot cubbies beneath it.

The door would open, cold air would assault Green Legs, and then a person would sit down right on top of it, and wiggle off shoes or boots.

Green Legs was tough and strong, and the sitting was not an issue.

And that was life.

And then…a month ago happened.

Green Legs and all of its compatriots—shoe cubby, shelf, coats, closet doors, EVERYTHING, was pulled out of the entryway.

New people bustled, with hammer and jabbers. Walls came down. Pounding happened.

New walls went up.

The doors disappeared. When they returned, many days later, their woody glow was gone. They were pale, now, shiny white, and silent.

But the doors, altered as they were, were wrestled back into their places. The shelf, too, was returned to the entryway.

But the shoe cubby disappeared, out the door that lets in the cold.

And Green Legs sat in the family room, with two abandoned paintings. And wondered.

***********

Then one day, the young person dragged a box in through the front door—a long, heavy, flattish box. It was just about its own width and length, and Green Legs knew. It just knew.

“My replacement is in that box,” it realized, and its legs,  already chilly from being parked near the big back window in the TV room, grew even colder.

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

And this happened: the man and the boy manhandled Green Legs outside, into the gaping maw of the back of the man’s vehicle. They shoved in mirrors and a small, sad table that used to be the Most Important Furniture Thing in the powder room, and some building supplies in a box, some light fixtures, and the old paintings, and they bumped and jostled over to a storefront.

And they opened the gaping maw’s door, and they dragged all of the things, Green Legs last, into the store.

New hands grappled all the refugees, and they were dragged into a stuffy back room, where they were washed and evaluated. They were separated, all of them, and then Green Legs was carried out to where rows and rows of furniture rested, waiting. There were chairs and couches there, and a bench or too.

Frankly, thought Green Legs, some of the upholstered pieces had an unfortunate, musty SMELL. But the store was warm, and Green Legs rested, too.

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

And then: new people, man and woman, huggy, giggly.

“What if,” she said to him, “I painted it WHITE?”

And Green Legs rode in a car again, to a different house. She the Woman rubbed it with gritty paper, rubbed it all over, and wiped it down.

And then she covered every inch of it with sticky liquid, brushing and daubing.

The liquid dried, making it feel a little tight, but after a day or two, it wasn’t so bad.

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

And then She the Person carried it upstairs, up two flights, into the bedroom, and she put it at the end of the bed. The footboard was metal, and the bench snuggled as close as it could.

She put a soft throw over Green Legs, who realized that it needed a new name.

He the Person hugged Her, and said, “That looks great.”

“Thank you,” thought Green Legs. “And you may call me, ‘Master Bedroom Bench.’”

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

Beauty is Found in the Oddest of Places

They traveled in tandem, but in separate packing, so it wasn’t until they arrived and were unpacked that the saw each other.

The bigger one was a picture of a lake.

The smaller one was a poster for a book fair.

Their frames matched, although the sizes were just slightly different: Bookie was broader; Lake was taller.

The people peeled the protective plastic off, ooh-ahhed.

She said, “They’re bigger than I imagined they would be, but that’s GOOD.”

And the man said, “I LIKE them.”

And they stacked them in a dining room corner behind a chair, where the pictures could not fall and break their glass. There was a heat vent right there, and it was a warm and comfortable place to rest.

The prints, though, knew they were meant to be on display, and they agreed the chair area was a temporary squat. They were destined for a Wall.

Prints, especially framed prints, are well aware of their own prestige.

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

Days passed, and then one morning the People drank hot drinks and ate piles of steaming food at the table in front of the pictures, and when they had cleared things away, they lifted the pictures from where they nestled.

They carried them into a small, warm room. The scent of fresh paint wafted.

He had a tape measure and a level and a pencil. She held the pictures up against the wall; he measured and muttered, and then Bookie and Lake were lowered to lean against the wall while pounding happened.

Lake had a whole swath of wall to himself. Bookie hung a little higher, four or five inches away; underneath Bookie, a shelf floated.

“I wonder what they’ll put on the shelf?” thought Bookie.

“I wonder what this room IS,” thought Lake.

One of the people came in and admired the prints, and then closed the door firmly.

“Is that,” muttered Bookie, “a COMMODE?”

“Bookie,” said Lake, “they put us in a BATHroom.”

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

Oh, well. There are few jobs that are less than honorable, although some are certainly messier than others. And Bookie and Lake realized, as days passed and they hung proudly, that beauty can be found in the lowliest of places.

A Different Kind of Ordinary Time

The nativity is our last indoor vestige of Christmas, and, on January 7, the day after the feast of Epiphany, I bring out a stack of newspapers and the box the figures fit in so nicely.

The joyous scene is set, this year, on the broad windowsill (too broad, really, to be a windowsill; too low, though, to be a window seat) in the TV room. The figures nestle on pretty plaid flannel towels; the towels were a gift last year, and they’re just too lovely to use for wiping dishes. Baby Jesus and his mama and papa, white ceramic figures, show up nicely on the muted tartan colors.

I start with the outliers—the three wise men, just recently arrived at the manger. One of these guys has always been wobbly; he perches next to the window molding, where he can lean securely, holding up his casket—a gift, I think, of gold, frankincense, or myrrh. I bundle him up securely, and I do the same with his compatriots and their camels—one which is sitting, enjoying a nice rest; the others upright, moving on.

I wrap up the stable animals—the ox with the broken horn, the donkey, the little lambs.

I wrap the wide-eyed shepherds, young, kneeling, caught up in an Event they don’t understand.

Then I wrap up Joseph, who has been leaning, arms crossed, protective, over his wife and child. I gently enfold Mary, kneeling over the baby, exhausted and impossibly young.

And I take the little babe out of his manger, bundle him snugly, and wrap his bed.

The baby goes right at the top of the box. I cover him with an extra fold of newsprint, and I close up the box.

Then I take the whole entourage to Egypt, which, for our purposes, is a shelf in our basement.

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

My mother gave me those figures not long after I got married. She contracted with a local artist who made them.

She bought sets for my brothers, too.

That must have been in the early to mid-eighties, so my ceramic figures are somewhere around 40 years old. And they have come out every Christmas season since Mom gifted them to me, in six different houses. The ox’s broken horn is the only casualty.

They are old friends who help me welcome the holiday season.

But by January 6, I am ready to carefully pack them away and say goodbye to the festivities.

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

This Christmas—this omicron Christmas—was quiet and restful. We stayed close to home, went for long walks, and talked on the phone or via Zoom to the people we missed seeing; we took little road trips, exploring local light shows and hiking trails. Once we ventured out to a new restaurant we enjoyed very much.

That lunch out was to give the workers, Jim, Don, and Steve, who were recreating our powder room, space and quiet to work. The project bled into the hallway and kitchen, grew into a whole huge ship-lapped area, and resulted in a lovely new floor.

That job made this the Christmas when a sparkling new toilet sat in the living room, not so far from the fireplace, waiting to be installed.

Jim, Don, and Steve became trusted friends, but by January 7, we were ready to see the end of the project, to clean up the construction leftovers, and to put together our almost-finished powder room and entryway. The guys were looking ahead to their next job, too, and when they packed up on the 7th, they had only one more thing to do: rehang the hallway closet door, which they had painted white.

We were all ready, after the unexpected turns the powder room project took, and the rush and bustle of the holidays, for a little ordinary time.

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

So that night we simmered up a hearty pot of chili, ate grilled cheese sandwiches on the side, and made trips downstairs with leftover sheets of shiplap and pots of paint, brushes, rags, and tools. We ran the carpet sweeper and the vacuum, we put towels and soap in the powder room. We lit a fire and grabbed books; James turned the TV on and sat with his laptop, typing and watching.

The house settled quietly around us, back into everyday mode, happy, it seemed, to get back to normal.

We’re back, I thought, to ordinary time, and that always, after the heights and excess of the Christmas season, makes me very happy.

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

On Friday morning, I get up early; we have a special meeting downtown that day, and I need some coffee and reconnoiter time before I head out. And Mark is up for work, but he walks slowly into the dining room, still in his bathrobe, reading something on his phone.

“The Masonic building burned down last night,” he says. “It’s still burning right now.”

And much of downtown is without power, he adds, including the building where he works. Today, he doesn’t have an office to go to.

Mark’s phone rings, and he takes it to his little home office, and a very busy day begins for him.

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

We are extraordinarily lucky: the building where we’ve scheduled our morning meeting is outside the fire-effects zone. We have great attendance and great participation.

But one of the attendees first went into the Masonic building as a preschooler, went with his dad, who was a Mason. He talks about the building, and there’s a catch in his voice. He talks about a sword Paul Revere made, a sword that, it seems, George Washington may have given to General Rufus Putnam, one of Zanesville’s founders.

That sword is almost certainly destroyed in the fire, along with other treasures, centuries old.

Along with several small businesses.

Along with the work of several artists who had studios in the Masonic building.

I have to take a different route home because of traffic changes related to the fire. My route takes me past the Masonic building.

Firefighters still work with huge hoses.

Smoke still billows out the empty windows of the Masonic Building.

The one very good thing is this: no one was seriously hurt. No lives were lost.

Suddenly, though, this after-holiday time doesn’t seem so ordinary.

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

At home, James and I make lunch, and clean up the house a bit, and then drive out to do errands.

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

Mark is home again when we arrive. There is no power in his building, which is right next to the Masonic building. Many buildings downtown are shuttered. One small building, home to a computer entrepreneur, is coated with ice—ice, someone says, that’s six inches thick.

Loss ripples, rings in a pool.

Mark goes out to his little home office in the Florida room. His phone buzzes, and he answers, and he comes out again, heading off to an emergency meeting.

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

Good things happen. People step up to volunteer space to displaced offices. A church ministry can create room for an art program that served teens in the destroyed building. Art organizations set up support systems for the Temple’s displaced artists. The Community Foundation announces it will use its Community Cares fund to support the art community.

Facebook is flooded with messages of hope and prayers and sorrow and goodwill.

Some few messages on social media are angry and divisive.

But the good things move forward, anyway.

And the building still smolders. Mark goes out to tour potential office space and comes back home perplexed.

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

On Monday, when I get home from work, I discover Don and Steve have been by, have hung the hall closet doors. The construction part of the Powder Room Project is done.

Mark hangs the coat rack, and the bathroom mirror, and the new floating shelf that arrived in Monday’s mail. Suddenly, the powder room is back to normal–back to a new normal that’s better than it ever was before.

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

The downtown community steps up. A bank offers Mark’s department rooms in their upper floors, within walking distance of their old offices, with space for everyone on the team to set up temporary digs.

Mark talks to IT folks and his boss and works on agreement language.

I make stock from a turkey carcass and use leftover mashed potatoes to put together a turkey shepherd’s pie. It’s a quiet night.

In the morning, I get up early and head to the gym for my strength and core class; I come home and eat granola, then head off to work. Life rolls forward; life goes on.

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

Instead of ordinary days, these are days imbued with the knowledge of loss. People have lost work, and artifacts that can never be replaced are ashes. The community has lost a building that allowed artists to create and small businesses to operate; the building’s marble and gleaming wood, soaring ceilings and lofty windows are irreplaceable, too.

Buildings in the fire’s radius have been shut down; we hear that a small building, right next door, has taken so much damage that it, too, is condemned.

There is great discussion about how to bring down the empty skeleton of the Masonic Temple building.

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

Long after its flames are out (and that is not a speedy process), this fire spreads, its impact widening, touching life after life, seeping into the tightly woven fabric of a stunned community. “There was no loss of life,” people remind each other, and hearty, weary spirits pick up their threads and plan next steps.

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

I hope that I can remember this: that any day I think is ordinary is something very different for someone else. Someone else is grieving; someone else is hurting; someone else has lost a home, or a friend, or a livelihood. Someone has been betrayed, and someone is bereft.

“Have a blessed day,” 92-year-old Lee tells me every Tuesday after we finish our class at the Y.

A blessed day. Please, please, let me remember this: every day that is an ‘ordinary day,’ is just exactly that: a blessed one.

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https://www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com/story/news/2022/01/08/more-than-century-zanesville-history-lost-masonic-temple-fire/9129247002/

Make My Monday Meatless…and Other Family Adventures

…there are nights when you realize they’re teaching you far more than you are teaching them. Like, for instance, that you can use the word fire as an adjective. Or that Camus’s philosophy can be distilled to one sentence: “Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean you can’t give it meaning, and Mom, there’s too much mustard in this dressing.” Or this one, learned in earth science: “We could basically save the planet if we stopped eating beef.”

          —-Jenny Rosenstrach, The Weekday Vegetarians

Having at least one plant-based day a week is a fun and easy way to do something good for the planet and our future.

          Paul McCartney, https://meatfreemondays.com/

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

“Mom,” said Jim, “my news feed keeps talking about this glacier.”

Jim was reading that pieces of the glacier are cracking off, and that irreparable damage is being done to Planet Earth.

He was reading, he thought, that the end of the world is at hand.

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

A conundrum: how do I answer honestly without completely freaking Jim out? There is the every-parent dilemma of whether to be truthful when answering uncomfortable questions (“Mom, did you ever smoke pot?”), and there is the parent-of-an-autistic-person dilemma of answering with integrity while not inciting anxiety-ridden trauma.

Here is how I try to conceptualize the workings of Jim’s mind: if a neurotypical person comes across a worrisome piece of information, it plants a seed in the mind. The seed may or may not take root, depending on what it’s competing with; if it flourishes, we have to deal with that growth.

In an autistic mind (or in some autistic minds), though, it’s not like a single seed has been planted. It’s like the lawn brigade has arrived with their van, toting sloshing tanks of green goo. The brigade aims high-powered hoses at the fertile fields of the autistic brain, presses the buttons, and sprays.

The green gunk lands on every surface, every crevice. There is no question that a seed will sprout. Instead, this is a fast-growing, all-covering, seed spray; the new growth will sprout within minutes. The new growth will obscure every other thought.

The new growth is scary, rapid, and overwhelming.

I am worried about that glacier, too, but that, I don’t think, is the answer my son needs here.

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

So this is what I told Jim:

  • That the glacier’s breaking up was definitely troubling.
  • That there is still hope that we can turn things around.
  • That we should continue to find ways to ensure that our own carbon footprints don’t contribute to climate change.

That night I found an article about a glacier in the South Patagonian Ice Field of Argentina and Chile. That glacier, the Perito Moreno glacier, is growing. Scientists don’t know why, and it’s one of three glaciers in the world, according to the Christian Science Monitor, that are exhibiting this growth behavior. I sent Jim this link: https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2011/0209/Defying-climate-change-this-Argentine-glacier-grows

He read it and felt a little reassured, a little more optimistic.

But I thought, we need to be doing more, taking a more active part in reversing the environmental causes of climate change. We need to do that to calm Jim, and we need to do it to contribute toward real and positive change.

We have tried very hard to corral our single-use plastic consumption, an effort we continue to fine-tune. When my old car started to sputter, I bought myself a hybrid. We re-use whenever we can; we hope that our recycling actually pays off.

But I’m not doing enough. And I know we can find many new ways to contribute to climate health.

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

Mark, that wonderful man, got me a copy of Paul McCartney’s Lyrics for Christmas. And, in one of those nice coincidences, while searching streaming services, we discovered a series of interviews with Sir Paul called Paul McCartney 321. We’ve been watching a couple of episodes each night, and I read sections of the book each day. Either in the show or the book (I’ve lost the exact reference), McCartney talks about the impact people would have on the planet if we all went meatless one day a week, say on Mondays.

I did a little Inter-netting, and it’s easy to find Sir Paul and friends advancing the meatless Monday concept. There’s a Meat-Free Monday website, and there’s a series of YouTube videos:

And their point is strong. The care and feeding of livestock and poultry affect our environment. For instance, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 18 per cent of global greenhouse gases are produced by the livestock industry.  Eating less meat means we’ll reduce those negative effects.

Going meatless one night seems like something we can do. It would have the added benefit, possibly, of nudging Jim an inch or two closer to someday eating, perhaps, a veggie.

I broached the subject with Jim, and he loved the concept. In days gone by, the boy cooked dinner one night a week, and we’d just been talking about getting back to that. When we tossed around Meatless Monday, he actually got excited and said, “That could be my day to cook! I could learn to make mac and cheese!”

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

So that was a positive reaction. I’ll just, I thought, talk to Mark about this.

Last night, just before bed, I explained our thinking to him, and said that Paul McCartney is spearheading a Meatless Monday movement.

“Paul McCartney should shut the hell up,” Mark said, thoughtfully.

“But,” I said, “one day a week. We could do that. We HAVE done that. What do you say?”

“I say,” he replied, “that I can think of several things Paul McCartney can do with his meatless Mondays…”

Awwww. There was Mark, already thinking of meatless recipes. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he was thinking of.

And so it was decided by unanimous family concord: from now on, we’ll have meatless dinners on Mondays.

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

Let me just add here that, growing up as Catholic kids in the 1960’s, Mark and I both are intimately familiar with the concept of eating meatless one day a week. As kids, we ate the following on Friday:

…tomato soup

…grilled cheese sandwiches

…scrambled eggs

…pancakes

…fish sticks

…canned tuna sandwiches and casseroles

…salmon patties

…macaroni and cheese

..frozen crinkle-cut french fries

…and other tasty meatless Friday night meals. (Sometimes, in desperation, my mother would plunk cereal on the table, sliding the sugar bowl out next to the boxes, slamming the glass gallon bottle of skim milk down to finish the array. We would eat bowls of our favorite cereal, and later, we usually had a dish of ice cream, a little treat to finish off meatless Friday’s dismal dining.)

Not all of our childhood meals would fit neatly into the current Meat-free Monday philosophy, but we know that we can refrain from meat once a week; we’ve done it.

In the Sixties, of course, avoiding the fiery pits of hell motivated us. Now, trying to keep our Earth from imitating those fiery pits is an even stronger motivator.

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

Does the universe want me to do this?

James and I stopped at Starbucks today, and there was a sign (a real, touchable, physical sign) for the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich, which is made with plant-based sausage, free-range eggs, and cheese, on a croissant. It looks delicious, and, I think to myself, I could eat that. (Yes, there IS gluten in this meal…) The Impossible Breakfast Sandwich is served, mind you, on Meatless Mondays.

And one of my darlin’ nieces sent me a cookbook this Christmas: The Weekday Vegetarians, by Jenny Rosenstrach. There are some very attractive recipes in this book.

So these two things make me think we’re shoving off in the universe’s chosen direction, even with, perhaps, the universe’s sturdy sole prodding our reluctant butts.

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

Have you heard this one? A veggie-phobe, a carnivore, and a gluten avoider walk into a grocery store to shop for meatless Monday… 

Yeah, okay: how do I finish THAT sentence? What are some tasty meatless meals those three folks can enjoy together?

To start with, what about eggs and cheese and fish? I don’t think the founders of Meat-Free Mondays see any animal-based products in their menus, but I do think, for my family, we have to have them in there, at least to start. (I asked Jim, when we saw the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich sign in Starbucks, if he’d be inclined to try a plant-based sausage.

There was a long pause. Then Jim said, judiciously, “Maybe I will in several years. But not in the foreseeable future.”

Which was about as diplomatic a way of saying, “No frikking WAY,” as I can think of.)

So I am thinking we’ll start gently, start vegetarian, start by including eggs and cheese.

And I’m pondering what foods we all like that don’t have to include meat. Jim brought up Fettuccine Alfredo, and we agreed we’d make that this Monday, with crunchy salads for the non-veggie-phobes, and crusty bread.

Pastas are good; breads are good. Neither is good for my gluten intake, but I can eat a salad, or cut zucchini into noodles, or bake up a spaghetti squash.

Pizza and stromboli—the boyos love those.

Rice baked in broth. The Weekday Vegetarians has two recipes for veggie broth; James does not mind broth made of vegetables as long as there is no vegetable TEXTURE present.

Potatoes—baked, stuffed, boiled, fried, and mashed.

Noodle soup.

Rice soup.

Maybe even a pot pie or shepherd’s pie riff.

Despite our disparate tastes, there is common ground. We can, I believe, make Monday meals without meat for several weeks to come.

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

So this Monday, if you’re in the neighborhood, Jim is making meatless Fettuccine Alfredo. Come on down and pull up a chair.

And I found an intriguing recipe for parmesan potatoes that might do for the following week. And I really want to try Jenny Rosenstrach’s yogurt flatbread, which could be the base for a build-your-own flatbread pizza.

We can do this, I think—we can do a meatless day each week to give Jim hope and to do a little work toward saving the planet, and to, ultimately, care better for ourselves, too.

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

And if you have any meatless recipe or menu ideas, I would love, love, love to hear them.

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https://www.paulmccartney.com/causes/meat-free-monday

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6518108/

Squirrel Dreams…and a Word for 2022

If you have been all work and no play, the squirrel is here to teach you about balance.

                    Angelnumber.org “Squirrel—Dream Meaning and Symbolism”

I read about people—I even KNOW people—who have spirit animals visit them in dreams. The dreamer might be flying, for instance, on the broad, muscular back of a hawk, surveying the world from on high, soaring, power-filled.

Or they could be prowling, pad-footed, and realize that they are inhabiting the body of a tiger.

Or they are gliding, almost ripple-free, on the surface of a small, still lake: a swan, beautiful, graceful—and dangerous, if crossed.

Those are such powerful, emblematic animals, such strong message-bearers.

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

Huh. Here is my dream.

I am beginning teaching at a college, the college where I went to school, the first place I taught post-secondary classes. The campus has changed, of course, and the building I will teach in is brick, long and low. It looks like an elementary school building.

For two or three days before classes begin, I meet a mentor (a person I can almost see; a person whose voice I surely recognize. But when I try, on waking, to summon her face, it will not come) outside the building. We sit at a picnic table and talk about the class I am going to teach, about the students I will be meeting.

And each time we meet, a fat squirrel jumps, chittering, onto the picnic table. I make eye contact, and I talk to it, sweet and low and soothing. I don’t want a squirrel-friendship, though; mostly I want it to go away.

The first day of classes arrives, and I arrive, too—early, laden, trailing loose papers, going over lectures in my mind. The door of the building is locked. I stop to fumble for my keys, and, as I do, the squirrel appears. It runs across the lawn and it leaps, attaching its sharp little claws to my heathery blue sweater.

“You can’t come in!” I tell it, and it chitters at me, urgently.

To get it off, I have to drop all my class materials, and pluck it from my arm. It waves its little arms at me, begging.

I stand in a puddle of papers and coursework, arguing with a fat gray squirrel, and then I wake up.

Seriously? I think. I get a squirrel????

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

Of course, I look it up: what does dreaming of a squirrel mean?

Angelnumber.org tells me this:

“[A squirrel] is a symbol of agility, action, balance, activity, resourcefulness, responsibility, caring for the future, preparedness, awareness, adaptability, gathering, energy, playfulness, life, planning, organization, joy, happiness, socializing…

“It’s clearly seen,” the site tells me, “that the squirrel carries favorable omens.”

And then it mentions that perhaps the squirrel has arrived to teach me about balance.

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

Eric has us working with resistance bands in his core/strength classes. And as long as effort and determination are the key factors in an exercise, I feel like I can really keep up. But I dread using the short band, sliding it up above my knees.

First, we do lunges, side steps, V-steps…and that’s all fine. But then Eric says, “Okay, balance on one foot; other foot in front.”

And no amount of determination makes me succeed at this, especially at balancing on my left foot.

I lift my right foot in front of my left, toe pointed, and I wobble. I flail my arms, and I splay my left toes, looking for the sturdy, safe, balanced spot that should be, I think, provided by the pricey, roomy toe-box of my Orthofeet shoes. I do not find it.

My right foot hits the floor.

Up again: wobble. Wobble. Flail. Wobble. And I am forced to recall that my gym teacher, in high school, dubbed me ‘Amazing Grace.’

I fare a little better on my right foot, but clearly: balance is an issue.

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

Oh, and here’s a lifelong quest, one yet to be completed: the quest for a balanced diet. The holidays, I find, always wreak havoc on that concept. So this year, being fairly well homebound for the celebrations, I thought we just wouldn’t make as many goodies as we are wont to do (often, throwing them away on January 2nd.) We’d just, you know, make shortbread cookies and Grandma Kirst’s chocolate fudge delight—which are, without discussion, Christmas-time essentials.

The shortbread dough makes a lot of cookies. I divided this year’s batch into three chubs. James suggested we add sprinkles right into the dough this year, so he and I softened up one chub and put it in the Mixmaster bowl with a healthy dollop of sprinkles, and we left the machine patiently paddle it all together. Then we rolled out that buttery dough.

James selected cookie cutters and cut dough into shapes: Christmas trees, stars, Santa’s boot, a Buffalo bison. I scooped up the shapes and laid them gently on a cookie sheet. We gathered up the leftover dough and repeated.

We repeated the process three or four times. Then the last time, we rolled out what dough was left over, and Jim scored through it with a pizza cutter, creating a flock of small, square cookies. We put them on baking trays, too, and started sliding cookies into the oven.

We baked tray after tray of cookies—baked them until their edges were deliciously golden brown. There were at least four dozen cookies on the old dented pizza pan I use as a landing pad for hot-from-the-oven treats.

That night, the three of us ate every single shortbread cookie. They never made it even close to the cookie jar; much less did they survive long enough to be iced and decorated. The old pizza pan sat on the edge of the kitchen counter, by the door one must walk through to reach the TV room. Every time one of us went by, we grabbed a handful of cookies. We dribbled crumbs out to watch TV. We left Hansel-and-Gretel trails to our computer desks.

“These are SO good,” one of us would mumble, shame-facedly, and the others of us would nod. And when the cookies were gone, I saw a dear one lick his finger and gather up every buttery crumb from the pan.

So we were unbalanced by the buttery goodness, and in retribution, I tried to cook meals during the week after Christmas that were nutritious and not too indulgent. I used some of the leftover rib roast to make Jodi McKinney’s wonderful Beef and Barley Stoup recipe, which is rich in broth and veggies. Oh, I did make one special Christmas day dessert—a  red velvet bundt cake, drizzled with cream cheese frosting. That disappeared quickly, too. (“This is a legitimate BREAKFAST cake,” Mark argued. The force of his legal logic was compelling.)

And when the cake and cookies were gone, well—there was the chocolate from our Christmas Eve bookflood, and from  talented neighbor-cooks, and from wonderful dear ones who sent packages from afar. I tried to share the fudge, at least, and took a plate to work, and gave a plate away, but that recipe, also, makes a LOT.

So, several nights, after a healthy dinner, I would hear that goodness calling, and I would say, “I believe I will have the after-dinner Fudge Plate.” And I would load a saucer (just a saucer! Small! Right???) with a couple of pieces of fudge, and a homemade giftie goodie or two, and maybe a mini Reese’s cup (or three) leftover from Christmas Eve.  

I would carry that saucer to the TV room, or to my reading chair, and I would savor every sweet lick and drop, with no concern for balance or moderation.

And then, all night, the buzz of sugar fizzed in my veins, and I woke up well before dawn the next day and almost ran to the gym, hoping to burn off some of the Fudge Plate Special’s special effects.

Today we went shopping. We effected a grand replenishment that includes staples like red leaf lettuce, lowfat Greek yogurt, boneless chicken breasts, and Jasmine rice. No more rich and fattening foods—a new regimen for the new year.

Although I might use the crumbles in three potato chip bags to mix up a batch of potato chip cookies.

And I still have the shortbread cookie dough on ice…

Oh, goodness: wobble, wobble, wobble. Balance, where ARE you???


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

There are some areas—work/life balance, for example,—where I think I am doing pretty well.

There are some areas where I don’t think balance is required. For instance, I don’t believe there should exist an equal amount of skullduggery to offset a surfeit of integrity. (Imagine someone writing this about a politician, for instance: “It’s too bad she couldn’t get in touch with her bad self. She was SO one-sided!” I’m voting for HER, as soon as I find her!)

There are areas I need to explore and consider—the amount of time I spend playing computer word games, for instance. Is that leisure time or wasted time—stress-buster or thought sucker???

But there is one important area that I need to really work to find balance in, and that is my vision of this world we live in. Many, many things have happened—political things, pandemic things, environmental things—in the last few years that have blasted my rosy belief that life is, and people are, essentially good at the core. My scales have tipped me, many times, into despair, and climbing out again seems to get sloggier and harder each time.

But I found a kind of antidote in an article on forgotten English words by lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent (“From Respair to Cacklefart: the Joy of Reclaiming Long-Lost Words,” in The Guardian on 12/26. Link below.) Dent romps with us through funny, tasteless, pungent words no longer used, and ends up with one that should be. Here’s what she writes:

But one English word surely stands above all others from the corners of the dictionary. I mention it all the time, because I’m determined to bring it back. Or bring it anywhere in fact, for it never really enjoyed more than a day in the sun. “Respair” has just one record next to it in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1525, but its definition is sublime. Respair is fresh hope; a recovery from despair. May 2022 finally be its moment.

With Dent, I am entering 2022 determined to balance the sense of hopelessness with the real and present knowledge that goodness has power, thrust, and meaning. When despair creeps in, I am going to learn how to reach for respair. When reality seems too heavy, I’ll lever a matching dose of respair onto my scales.

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

New Year’s Eve is the time to decide on my word for the year, and I muddled and grizzled for many days thinking, considering, debating—not looking up, feinting when the universe, unable to reach me any other way, slapped me upside the head.

And sent me a rodent for a spirit animal.

So…

All right, all RIGHT, I groan inwardly. I hear you. BALANCE will be my word of the year for 2022.

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

Happy New Year to you, my friend. May we find in it real reasons for respair.

From respair to cacklefart – the joy of reclaiming long-lost positive words | Susie Dent
From respair to cacklefart – the joy of reclaiming long-lost positive wo…We have been bombarded with negativity recently; but the English language is a treasure trove of joyous vocabula…

Christmas Imperfect

“What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future.” – Agnes M. Pahro

From https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/news/a2544/best-christmas-quotes/

“Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle.” — Unknown

from https://parade.com/964716/marynliles/christmas-quotes/

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Jim is wrapping presents at the dining room table when I come home from work. He is working behind a merry heap of patterned papers, lumpy little packages, and brown bags with interesting bulges.

He finishes, with a flourish, wrapping one small gift, and grins at me. He jumps up to run the gift into the family room and stash it under the tree.

“I wrapped Dad’s first,” he tells me, “so you are going to have to leave the room.”

He pulls a piece of pre-cut paper, bedecked with apple green hohoho’s and dancing scarlet Santas, toward him.

“It didn’t look like there was very much Scotch tape left,” he adds, conversationally. “So I used the packing tape.” He waves a thick roll of clear strong tape, about two inches wide.

I open a drawer in the sideboard and pull out a plastic sleeve with a dozen Scotch tape refills in it. (No tape refills? Ha. That, for me, would be a lot like only having enough toilet paper to last for twenty days. Sleep would be impossible.)

“Here, Buddy,” I say. “Plenty of tape.”

“Nah,” says Jim, “I’m kind of on a roll with this. No pun intended.” He shoos me out of the room, and I go look at the gifts he’s stacked under the tree.

He has used a LOT of tape. Those gifts glisten; they will require us to have Hulk hands or a good pair of scissors to tear away the paper on Christmas.

I hear the strong rip of packing tape in the dining room; Jim is humming a song about Rasputin and thoroughly enjoying himself. He loves the mystery and drama of the Christmas holidays.

He loves thinking about what other people might like and shopping online for treasures.

The gifts he places under the tree may be slathered with packing tape; the corners may not be precise. But they are thoughtfully, eagerly chosen, and carefully wrapped by his own hands. I look at that display and think it’s practically, imperfectly, perfect.

Which is, I think, what all of Christmas should be.

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

I remember, clearly, a second-grade classmate, Alexandria, asking me, when we went back to school in January, how many Christmas presents I got.

“How MANY?” I repeated, puzzled. (Did people count their gifts?)

Alexandria was the other redhaired kid in class, but she was thin where I was plump, and her uncle, I think, was some sort of bishop, so her family had Standing in the Catholic school universe where most of us seven-year-olds spun cluelessly. At church on Christmas day, when I walked by her pew, heading for communion, Alexandria oh so casually lifted her arm so her sleeve rolled back. She ostentatiously checked the watch on her bony wrist so that I could clearly see it.

It was a Barbie watch. She met my eyes and smirked. (I had a watch that Christmas, too, which was a big hairy deal in 1962. Mine, though, had a plain face and a simple, stretchy band that pinched.)

But now, “Yes. How MANY?” Alexandria demanded.

I pondered.

“Maybe eight?” I said. “Or ten?”

“I,” said Alexandria, “got twenty-FOUR. Twenty-four presents.” She looked at me with deep satisfaction and a kind of patronizing pity, and then she flounced away.

It was the first time I had ever thought that my Christmas might be somehow meager or inadequate.

I mentioned the twenty-four presents to my older brother Michael when I got home that day.

“That’s awful,” he said. “That’s too many presents. She can’t even appreciate all that.”

I thought about that, about the startling fact that there can be such a thing as too many presents. And I felt better: I had suspected all along that our Christmas was Christmas done right, but Michael kindly confirmed it.

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

In truth, I think my father and mother both loved and hated Christmas. Both had mothers who died much too young, when my parents were just toddlers, really; and both had fathers who were not exactly adept (or even present) in the parenting department.

My father told me once that Christmas was a lot like every other day except that they hung up a plain old sock the night before. In the morning, there was an orange in the toe, and a nickel. My mother said she got practical things for Christmas—hand-knit mittens against the harsh Buffalo winters, maybe, or new socks.

But her sister and the aunts would bake shortbread cookies, and there would be a special meal, so her early Christmases were a tad more festive, maybe, than my father’s.

Often in Advent, when I was a child, as the days shrank and light waned, my father would grow quiet. He was always a pleasant man, seldom angry, but sometimes, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, he would snap at me.

Mom told me that Dad’s memories of Christmas were bleak ones, and that, some years, those memories haunted him during the lead-up time to the holiday. But the day itself, when it busted open, would shake him right out of his malaise.

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

One thing I hated about Christmas day was that my father almost always had to work. The electric company never shut down, for obvious reasons, and Dad was second in line, in his department, seniority-wise. Greater seniority, my mother explained, meant that you had first dibs on holidays.

It rankled her that the guy who was first in line, seniority-wise (call him Nick Berdowski), ALWAYS took Christmas off. And Berdowski, my mother said, only had ONE kid, compared to my father’s five. It just didn’t, she lamented, seem fair.

We didn’t think it was fair, either. In my foggiest memory, Dad would have to be at work at seven in the morning Christmas day. For a few Christmases, when I was very young, we would get up impossibly early, say at 5 a.m. or so, and open the gifts before Dad left. Then, I think, his arrival time got changed, got even earlier than 7, and so we pivoted, waiting until he came home at about 2:00 in the afternoon to unwrap gifts.

Oh, the forbearance that entailed: and oh, the creeping minutes.

“Watch TV,” my mother said, but generally there was nothing on,–just talk shows and Christmas choirs and Mass—and I had already gone to Mass, thank you very much.

My mother bustled in the kitchen. I offered to help but then she said, “NO, thank you very much,” herself, and so I wandered, scuffing, the piles of gifts beneath the tree taunting me. I got paper out and drew pictures. I read my library books.

I sighed, and I moaned.

“Take a NAP,” my mother snapped at me. I looked at her, incredulous.

She was serious.

As if, I thought. As if I could calmly roll off to sleep while mysteries wrapped in red and green tissue paper pulsed and beckoned.

Finally, finally, my father arrived home; and then he had to change clothes and get a cup of coffee. He and my mother would ensconce themselves on the old worn couch, and at last, the mayhem would begin.

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

I truly do not remember specific presents; I could not say, Oh, that was the Christmas I got the ______________________, for instance, but Alexandria notwithstanding, I never, ever felt deprived.

There were always art supplies and books, chocolates and pens in the stockings, and usually there was some sort of big toy everyone could play with…a hockey game where the flat men swung like paddles, for instance, or a football game with little cardboard players in plastic stands and a fuzzy white ball. My brothers plugged the game in, the board vibrated, and the little players shivered and whirled, often heading off in the wrong direction completely.

There were car racing games, too, and board games, blocks of all sorts, stuffed animals and dolls, and clothes, of course. I especially loved paint-by-number sets, which had to wait until after the roast beef dinner had been served so I could spread out on the dining room table.

There were chemistry sets and wood burning sets and sports equipment, and my father would get right down with us to set things up and play.

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

Now I look back with greater understanding: my parents were providing, on one salary, the kind of Christmas they’d wished they had as children. They were careful, frugal shoppers, but they must have begun early, squirreling things away. And the working on Christmas day—well, that brought my father triple over-time pay, an inducement I am sure he could not resist.

I imagine him and Nick Berdowski talking, in November, maybe, and Mr. Berdowski saying, “Jim, would you like Christmas off this year?”

“Nah,” my father would say, smacking Mr. B. on the back. “I’m good, Nick. You be home with the family.”

Triple time would pay off some of what my parents had bought on time, bought to create the vision of Christmas that had long been denied them.

The food was wonderful, too, and many of us still make the fudge recipe my mother discovered, and the braided yeast-dough coffee cakes we devoured on Christmas mornings.

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

Early holiday celebrations shape you; they can leave you, as they did my parents, yearning. Or they might instill in you the sure knowledge that, in order to be RIGHT, the holiday must be done in just this way.

Life, though, is eager to provide opportunities to question that knowledge. Parenting in particular is generous with opportunities to say, Why? Why do we do it like this, and are six dozen home baked shortbread cookies with detailed icing faces really necessary to make the joy of Christmas glow in our hearts?

Sometimes the answer is no: no, I can live just fine without shortbread cut-outs, but sometimes the answer is yes. Yes, I need to do this to feel like it’s really Christmas. And then we squeeze the baking in, in between the wrapping and the shopping and the working and the decorating, and we don’t begrudge that effort, because it fills some sort of need.

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

Parenting an autistic kid multiplies the chance to question old tropes. When your autistic child cannot—really cannot—sleep at all, knowing that presents are to be opened early the next morning—when he is miserable and restless, and what should be happy anticipation turns into true anxiety,–then, is there any point in not opening presents on Christmas Eve?

And when big parties push that child over the edge, isn’t it smarter to get a sitter and leave him happily at home playing video games? Isn’t that a moment, too, to ask yourself if the big party brings joy to your own heart, and decide whether to go or to stay home, and, say, read a book for a reclaimed hour or two?

Christmas isn’t built of ‘must’; it’s built of ‘can.’ When, “We can have a Boxing Day lunch,” turns into “We MUST have 16 people over for lunch the day after Christmas, no matter what,” it’s time to examine the meaning behind the event.

Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to open the doors in our hearts.

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

This may be the Christmas there’s a boxed toilet by the bookshelf in the living room. Our little powder room project, in the midst of supply chain issues, swells; it sends out tentacles that wrap around new people, dragging them in.

Now, we need to replace all the pipes under the upstairs tub. That’s a plumber job; the plumber is sympathetic, but swamped, and we will be happy to see him whenever he can arrive. It may be a week or two.

Meanwhile, the wonderful guys from the maintenance company are there with us, doing what they can when they can. They can’t put up the walls, or drop in the ceiling, until the plumber has plied his craft, but they can work in the hallway, where the paneling was torn down. And they can, maybe, tile the floor.

But they are busy, too; like all construction crews, the calls on their time are urgent and many. So some days, there’s an early bustle of friendly, skilled workers in the house, and some days things are quiet.

But the transformation of the little bathroom is an outcome worth waiting for. What was defective is getting fixed, and what was tired and ugly is morphing into fresh, clean, and pretty. And the process is teaching us mindfulness and gratitude. Tromping upstairs or downstairs to use a commode is not all that inconvenient.

We are lucky to have a snug house; we are blessed to have wonderful professionals to call when things must be fixed or changed. So maybe, we’ll just arrange a Christmas piggie or two on the toilet box, and on the new sink cabinet waiting next to it. Maybe I’ll remind myself that running upstairs is not an inconvenience but a sure way to placate Connie with extra steps.

And maybe Martha Stewart doesn’t have a toilet in a box in her living room. I do, and it reminds me to be grateful in a celebration season.

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

We are inundated, at this time of year, by images of the perfect holidays—the trimmings, the jingly snowfall, the steaming mugs, and especially the beaming faces gathered close—faces that would never twist in anger, or disagreement, or mockery. If you don’t have this, whisper the movies, the ads, the articles, the episodes of favorite shows, well, then, your Christmas falls short.

But life has moved us into thoughtful times—times where a delivery person puts our packages into beloved hands, times where Zooming replaces convening. The perfect, red-plaid-flannel Christmas may not happen this year. We may have to revise our definitions for, lo, these many years to come.

But, alone, in small groups, far from the loved ones we once thought we’d always see at Christmas time, wherever we pause for celebration, the meaning of the holiday still pulses, strong and bright. Light pierces the darkness, and it illuminates a vision I can embrace all year.

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

Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect. Past Christmases never were perfect, present Christmas already has beloved smudge marks, and I suspect that future Christmases won’t be perfect either.

But Christmas—rumpled, attended only by a small but mighty group, quirky and familiar,—can be, and will be, enough.

Season of Darkness, Season of Light

For now, it is enough to say that “darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me—that I want no part of—either because I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.

—Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

There is snow on the ground when I leave for the gym Wednesday morning. It is dark—just before 6 a.m.,—and there is SNOW.

This is not right, I think. The weather app on my phone said nothing about snow. In fact, I look again, and it tells me that the sky is cloudy, the sun won’t rise for another hour, and that there is NO precipitation.

A fragile flake falls gently on the screen, calling it a liar.  

There should be, my crabby morning self thinks, a consequence when the weather app gets things so wrong. I should open my cupboard later that morning and find a pound of Gouma’s sea salt caramels waiting for me, a solace for unexpected snow. Or at least a coupon should arrive in the mail—a coupon for a hot cuppa at a local coffee shop; a coupon that would warm and make better.

My crabby feet scuff off to my car and my crabby self drives off to the gym, and after an hour of cardio, I don’t feel crabby anymore.

And then I go out, and the sun is just beginning to rise, and the dusted gray of the parking lot, the black stick trees lining the horizon, are bathed in this pulsing, pinkish, emergent light, which the scattering of snow absorbs and reflects.

“Well, that’s more like it,” I think. “Maybe this is better than the chocolates.”

I try to take a cell phone picture, which, of course, does not quite capture the glory.

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

Mark is wandering in his robe, teacup clutched, when I get home, and the sunrise is full on gorgeous. We both stand on the front steps and snap photos, trying to capture the colors that won’t be corralled by words. But nothing,–neither photo nor phrase—can pin down the moment’s majesty. We just have to BE there.

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

The coming of light means so much more in this dark season.

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

Now we have the Christmas tree up in the family room, nestled in the bay window, flanked by the boyos’ huge lounge chairs. I step on the little foot-button every morning, let the white lights warm the darkness.

We leave the little tree in the front window lit all night. Across the street, Deirdre’s lights, wrapped around bushes and railings, twinkle. It’s like a neighborhood call and response, our modest displays saying to our neighbors, “Here’s a little light in the darkness!”

And theirs responding, “Here’s where we are if you need a hand in the dark!”

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

Of course, like anything, that call and response can overflow its banks, can, unchecked, send some OTHER kind of message. My friend (call him Phil) told me a story about his lights and his neighbor.

We’ll call the neighbor Burley.

Phil’s kids are grown, and he had decided, around 2018 or 2019, not to do much in the way of outside decoration any more. It was a lot of work, and he couldn’t remember why it was so important. A beautiful wreath on the door with a spotlight: that registered the warmth and love of the season.

Phil and his talented wife concentrated their considerable decorative efforts on the INSIDE of their lovely home.

Then Burley and his family moved in across from Phil and his family in the warm months of 2020. Burley had a bunch of (well, maybe three) little kids. He and Phil struck up a friendship; Burley was a hard worker, a dedicated family man, and a good and caring neighbor.

Sometime in November, Burley asked Phil about his light display.

“You know, my kids are little,” Burley said. “I’m going to put up some lights, and I think they’d really enjoy seeing lights at your place, too.”

Phil demurred for a while, but he’s a sucker for star-lit child eyes. Finally, he went to where he stored his Christmas decorations. He had a lot of outdoor lights and garland.

The first day, he draped the front door with greenery twined with fairy lights, hung the wreath, and turned on the spotlight.

Burley gave him a thumb’s up when he drove home.

The next day was a Saturday and Phil got the ladder out. He outlined the house with lights, and then he went out back and outlined the garage and the barn, too.

“Wow,” said Burley. “You put up a lot of lights.”

“Buddy,” said Phil, “I’m not done.”

The next nice day, he twined the long wooden fence that defines his driveway with greenery and lights.

“Hey,” said Burley, looking at his own modest light display, and then eying Phil’s. “Hey. It’s okay to quit now.”

Phil told me ruefully that he has a tendency to be all in or all out. He was all in on lights that year. His granddaughter loved them, and he just couldn’t stop.

Phil hoped Burley’s kids loved the display, too. But Burley, when Phil was finally done putting lights up, didn’t say too much.

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

Phil’s granddaughter liked the outdoor lights so much that he couldn’t wait to hang them again this year.

Burley hung a wreath and shined a spotlight on it.

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

Phil talked to his wife about it.

“He got me to start decorating outdoors again,” said Phil, “and now he’s just hanging a wreath.”

And Phil said his wife very tactfully reminded him that, sometimes, he had a tendency to go overboard. Maybe, she said, Burley thought he just couldn’t compete.

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

Lights in the darkness are a wonderful thing, but no one should feel their light is not adequate. No one who is making an honest effort to let their true lights glow should feel—you’ll pardon the phrasing,—outshone.

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

There is a Festival of Trees in my town, sponsored every year by the Chamber of Commerce, and organizations and businesses each decide on a theme and donate a decorated tree or a wreath or a holiday display of some sort. They add incentives—gift cards for a restaurant, say, or boxes of chocolates, or magical toys.

This year people could virtually tour the offerings the day before bidding on them.

Our Foundation donated a wreath and some incentives, and we bid on and won a pretty four-foot tree decorated with snowflakes and gingerbread people and sugarplums.

The tree is in our lobby, and I love plugging it in every morning. The light warms the entrance to the Foundation; it glows through the windows, standing up to snow and rain and gloomy gray skies.

On Wednesday, the day it snowed, those lights glowed bravely onto the white-dusted bushes. By the time we went home at 2:00, though, the winter sun beamed from an impossibly blue sky, and the tree’s lights were eclipsed just a little.

It is nice to see the sun on a cold winter day.

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

This week, Mark and I went to a concert at the art museum. We left in the early dark; light poured from the museum’s glass expanses when we arrived. And we sat in comfortable, socially distanced, brightness, and listened to talented musicians rendering classics in new ways. Two of the performers wore bright red dresses with beads and sequins; they shimmered in the lights of the tall tree behind them.

The music flowed, rich and full, and the lights shone, and people sighed and tensions eased.

It was a brave and beautiful shining in a dark, dark night.

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

Our Advent candles stand on the dresser in the dining room window. Last week, I surrounded them with evergreen fronds and with cuttings, jagged and pretty, from the holly bush outside.

And every night we lit, first one, then two, candles.

And every day I thought nervously that those drying greens would fire up fast if a flame took a random leap.

Today I cleared away all the greens, crisp and papery, and rearranged the candles so they are farther from the sheer white curtains.

Light is good; light is important. But, as when dealing with anything powerful, it’s important to use light in a safe, wise way.

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

Not all light brings comfort.

I think of friends who, this very moment, are bathed in the harsh light of emergency rooms, or the tender lights, that strive to comfort, of a funeral home.

Light can point out what’s missing and light can showcase what’s wrong.

And not all darkness is dangerous. Too much light is not good for us, interrupts our circadian rhythms, keeps us from the kind of sleep that heals and replenishes. We NEED the dark, and the rest and respite it provides.

I remember a friend insisting that it’s in the dark that we, in real, physical ways, grow. I don’t know anything about the science behind that, but I understand exactly what she meant. The dark isn’t something to rid ourselves of.

It’s only when darkness cloaks evil that we should fear the dark.

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

But, these days, at this meridian, there’s a lot of darkness. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, caused by the seasons’ changes, caused by too much darkness. The Mayo Clinic says treatments for SAD include light therapy.

December’s holidays offer us that—light therapy for a whole lot of people. I need to get my shrinking, shivering self out into the natural healing power of a cold winter day’s pale light, as well.

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

And light and dark are timeless metaphors—light is the good thing. The dark is to be feared.

In truth, we need them both, in the right sized doses.

We need to celebrate the light-filled holiday seasons, too, and, maybe, to believe in miracles of light.

The presence of light doesn’t always mean that everything is going to magically be all right, though—that sickness and death won’t happen, that evil won’t have its triumphant moment, that all the aching ills of a blemished world will be soothed away.

But light is a sort of promise, I think—a promise that there’s hope,–that maybe, this imperfect world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren will be healed, that goodness will grow, that people will leave their fears behind, and care, really care, for each other. That’s the glimmer on the horizon, and, if I never quite make it, I hope that those who come after will get that far…and then, keep going.

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

Last night, the sunset was as incredible as the sunrise on Wednesday morning. Once again, we ran outside—facing the west this time, behind the house, and tried to capture part of the splendor.

Once again, we caught a mere shard, a shred of it, on our phones. It’s enough, though, to remind us, to buoy us, as we head back inside, out of the growing dark, to the comfort and steady glow of lights on the Christmas tree.

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

(https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651).

Learning Again What I Already Learned

This week brought its own batch of lessons. If I write them down, maybe I won’t forget them (again).

Sometimes people get what they ask for.

I really like Brooke, the new nurse practitioner I see for doctoring; she’s thoughtful, interested, and not afraid to share her own opinions. So when I told her I was joining the gym again—a membership I had left behind during COVID—she thought that was a great idea.

I explained that I really liked having an early morning place to walk; I don’t think our neighborhood is dangerous, by any means, but I’m nervous walking during the dark Animals’ Hours. There is, in particular, a huge (in small city wildlife terms) white beast we think is a venerable skunk, but a neighbor says he’s sure it is a badger. That neighbor puled the cover off his grill one night, and out strolled the sturdy white beast, teeth bared.

The neighbor went inside, and his family decided take-out would be much better that evening than grilling.

Badger or skunk, I want NOT to meet that perambulating patriarch, especially in the dark. And the bucks are a little addlepated this time of year; the squirrels are just manic.

And then, the weather is changing, and the walkways may be slick soon. It’s a good season to get up early and go to the gym to walk on the indoor track.

And Brooke endorsed the idea of using the indoor track, but she suggested that, since I was at the gym anyway, I ought to look into lifting some weights—that being, she said tactfully, a very good thing for a person of my age to do.

Off I went to the gym, and I strode around the track. As I did, I watched the serious lifters putting these impossibly heavy weights onto torturous looking machines. And I saw others working with dumbbells and still others using the fitness machines, which were an island of mystery to me. As I walked, the weights crashed and people muttered low and I realized I knew nothing about the Land of Weights.

I wished I knew where to start.

And the second day I was there, a respected former colleague stopped me and invited me to join his once-a-week core/strength class…where one learns to lift weights correctly and how to use the mysterious machines.

So I did that, and it only took me three or four weeks to realize that the thing I had wished for had plummeted down from the sky and landed at my feet.

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

And that was kind of like Jim, fresh from a disappointing collegiate experience, being drawn into a wonderful group of writers and readers by his caring former supervisor. It was exactly the tribe he needed at exactly the right time.

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

And then yesterday, our whole staff (all three of us) went out in search of wonderful local goodies with which to gift some special people. Pam and I were at a lunch café-bakery, and it was just about noon, and we were waiting right by the rounded glass counter that is full of home-made cookies—cookies as big as a saucer, at least.

“Those cookies look SO GOOD,” muttered Pam, and I tried to angle myself away so I didn’t have to look at them. Fortunately, the staff there was terribly efficient, and we were quickly served and out the door, local goodies (but no cookies) in hand.

Back at the office, we all got our lunches out. Pam said, after she’d finished her healthy meal, “I DO wish I had one of those cookies.”

And then a FedEx truck pulled up, and Pam went to meet the delivery person, who greeted her cheerily and handed her a pleasingly heavy box and hurried off to continue his deliveries.

Pam brought the box into the lounge, and we got scissors to open it, and I’ll bet you know what was in it: cookies. Amazing cookies, plump and broad and studded with treasure.

We picked the toffee-chocolate cookie and put it on a dessert plate (the cookie was actually wider than the plate) and nuked it for 25 seconds. Then we split that cookie three ways and we ate our portions with forks, because the chocolate and the toffee oozed in the most wonderful way.

It was GOOD.

And Susan said to Pam, “Perhaps you should wish for something else today…”

Because sometimes, we wish for something, and we get it. Not always, but often enough. I need to notice when that happens.

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

Just because a thing is unexpected, that doesn’t make it a disaster.

The little bathroom downstairs was looking pretty dingy. Its paint was kind of a barn-red, which was dark for the tiny room, and the white of the door and woodwork was scraped and dented and dusty and yellow. The whole ambience was just depressing.

And the room is TINY. So I decided, one weekend not long ago, that I’d just scrub it down and paint it up in time for the holidays. I put on my grubby painting clothes and started prepping the room.

I took all the art down, and Mark helped me take down the cute little cabinets he’d made from desk drawers. I tossed the little basket we used for toothbrushes…its handle was frayed and sad, and: new paint job, right? Shouldn’t we have a new toothbrush basket, too?

Then Mark unscrewed the ornate hook on which that basket had hung.

The hole left by the hook was kind of puckered. I took a scraper and picked at that. To my surprise, the wall surface peeled away in long, soggy strips. The wall underneath was sodden, and there was a strong, alarming smell of mildew.

I scraped more, and more wall peeled away, and my quick little painting idea burst like a lazy bubble and suddenly the little bathroom was a BIG JOB.


I bleached the soggy wall, and I did throw a coat or two of mold-resistant white paint on it, just so the bathroom wasn’t a complete eyesore in the interim–in the time, that is, before the trusted professionals could get there to bail us out.

And I lamented, a LOT. My little job—now a big production! Woe! I said. Woe, oh woe.

So last week, the guys came in and took a good look, and they took down walls, and they realized that, from the bathroom upstairs, water was somehow leaking.

Then they took down the ceiling and discovered a big jagged hole in a significant pipe, and they fixed that, eliminating the water and the problem.

So the little bathroom is stripped down to bare bones, and soon it will get a total refresh—new vanity, new commode, even ship lap walls, which will be cottage-y and warm.

And I keep thinking about what could have happened if we hadn’t discovered that leak—the damage that could have been caused, the monumental jobs we might have had to undertake.

So yes, the project I had planned was not the project that needed to be put into play. But that little detour saved us from a whole lot of hurt down the road.

Thank goodness that plans don’t always go exactly as envisioned.

Sometimes it’s nice to shake things up a little bit.

“Where should we put the tree this year?” Mark asked.

My first impulse was to say, “In the living room window, of course.”

That’s where the Christmas tree has been every year that we’ve lived here, but suddenly I thought, well, WHY?

Is that the ONLY place for the tree to be?

So we brainstormed, the three of us, and we decided to put the tree in the bay window in the family room this year.

We found a little tree, maybe three feet high, in the storage room downstairs (I’d forgotten we even had that little guy), and we put that on the dresser in the living room window, and its candy cane lights twinkle out, into the night, at our neighbors.

This weekend, we’ll rearrange furniture in the family room, and put the big old tree up in a whole new spot. That will be kind of fun.

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

Inspired, James and I decorated the mantle. We pulled all the Christmas books—Dickens and Tolkien and a murder mystery with a festive name and a tiny recounting of the nativity and some glossy children’s tales—and displayed them above the fireplace, and then we got the Santas out and put half of them on the mantel, next to the books, and the rest on the shelf in the kitchen.

Today, I went down to the basement to find the Christmas plates and realized that—Oh, no!—we’d forgotten all about the Christmas piggies, which, you know, BELONG on the mantel.

The short end to this story is that the piggies are on the shelf (that is really a square wooden pipe from an old pipe organ) in the entry way. To get them there, I cleaned out the coats and shoes cluttering the space, and I hung up two Christmas plates on nails already in place.

Because of my forgetfulness, the piggies have a new place to chill, and they look GOOD, and the little entryway is much more festive and welcoming to folks coming in. (It almost makes one not notice the gutted powder room).

So…drum roll…Lesson, please, I say to the Universe, and It smacks me upside the head and says, Honey, you can figure this out.

And here’s what I remind myself:

  • Traditions are not mandates.
  • Doing things a little differently from time to time can help me see and appreciate life in a whole new way.
  • It’s fun to open the back door and see the little piggies hanging out on the shelf.

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

One would think—one would THINK, right?—that I’d remember these lessons, having had so many opportunities to learn them. I believe that, if there are lessons we really need to learn, the Universe keeps giving us opportunities, until we absorb them.

Smart people get it on one try. I am offered many repeat lessons.

But this year I’ve written them down, haven’t I? I can wish for this, then: that THIS year, maybe those lessons’ll stick.

Ah, Me Unbuttered Parsnips

Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.

John Taylor’s Epigrammes, 1651

 (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips.html)

Mark and I are walking, and I am telling him about The Angry Shopper at the supermarket.

“She was SO nasty,” I said, “and then she remembered she needed to go back and get something she forgot. All of a sudden she was sweet as pie, like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”

“Why wouldn’t butter melt in her mouth?” asked Mark, puzzled. “Wouldn’t that mean she was cold?”

I had to think about that. I always thought that butter expression meant that someone was saccharinely, falsely, sweet. But now I considered the words themselves, and I wasn’t so sure.

When I got home, I looked it up.

According to Phrase.org.uk, “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” didn’t mean what I thought it meant at all. Instead, it means, the site tells me, that the person so described is “prim and proper” with a “cool demeanor.”

These people, the Phrase.org expert explains, are so cool—so downright COLD—they can’t  generate enough warmth to melt a pat of butter on their tongues. As long ago as 1530, the phrase was used in print—used in a judgmental, critical, kind of way, and usually applied to women.

Although, wait: to give me credit, I discover that Charles Dicken DID use the concept to lean into a positive spin. (Maybe I can claim a literary background to my misunderstanding of the words?) Here’s what Dickens wrote, in Martin Chuzzlewit, about how kind Mr. Pecksniff was:

“It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.”

Despite Mr. Pecksniff’s churning kindness, I’ll stop using “butter wouldn’t melt” to describe overly sweet people.

Which proves, I guess, that, no matter HOW old we get, there are still things to learn.

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

And, then, of course: Thanksgiving.

I was cooking, and I kept grabbing butter from its sacred little fridge compartment—grabbed it so often, for greasing the fine tiny turkey and sautéing onions and celery and carrots for dressing and mixing into flaky dessert crusts and enriching pan drippings to make a savory gravy, that I started thinking deeply about the sweet yellow substance.

And what I thought was this: Butter is rich, special, fattening…such a noticeable luxury that it pops up, over and over, in phrases and cliches that make our language, too, rich and special.

For instance:

The contemplation of butter phrases took me way back to childhood. Some days—shopping days, to sure—my mother would drive my father to work. And that, of course, meant that she had also to pick him up when the workday ended. Often some variation of us children, for sure my younger brother Sean and me, would ride along. As we pulled into the Niagara Mohawk parking lot, barreling down the long drive toward the distinctive, three-stacked, brick monolith where my father spent his days driving the coal train, the bulldozer, and the crane, Sean would sing out:

“There’s our bread and butter!”

It was a term Dad often used in regard to the electric plant, a place that he sometimes loved and often hated, but a place that gave him his paycheck, that put food on our family table, and that provided our health insurance.

“Our bread and butter” means, according to oxfordlanguages.com, “…a person’s livelihood or main source of income, typically as earned by routine work.”

So Nimo was not just the place where dad worked so hard for all of us. It was our bread and butter, too.

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

Occasionally, too, back in those halcyon days of childhood, one of us would want something so badly, and would have tried all other means of acquisition and persuasion so thoroughly, we’d have to resort to flattery—flattery as obnoxious and insincere as Eddie Haskell’s on Leave it to Beaver.

“This is SO good,” we might say about dinner or dessert, and, “I really like that dress.”

Ah, we knew it wouldn’t work, but we were desperate: we wanted the thing, or to go to the event, so MUCH. But the results were totally predictable.

“Don’t try to butter me up,” my mother would say. And her words, sharp needles, deflated the fragile balloon of hope.

It’s fascinating, though, to think about where that phrase—butter me up—comes from. I thought it was kind of obvious—by buttering, for instance, a turkey, I’d add juiciness and flavor, making people that much more receptive to eating it. And how about, say, banana bread—the kind that is moist and studded with chocolate chips?  Slather a little butter on a thick slice of that, microwave for 35 seconds, and just see if anyone can resist…

But, Grammarly.com tells me, that’s not the etymology of the ‘butter me up’ phrase at all.

Instead, the words we speak so glibly refer to a sacred ritual from long-ago in India. True believers would toss gobs of butter at statues of their favorite gods or goddesses, hoping, by splatting them with something so decadent and valuable, to win their favor. A greasy gesture to be sure, but butter-lovers understand its merit, even if some people, like my mother, remained thoroughly unmoved.

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

I think we first heard, “Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!” on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Guy Fieri was probably, in some fine southern dining emporium, blown away by an unusual cooking method or recipe that resulted in fine, fine food, when he offered up that distinctive phrase.

The buttered up biscuit phrase is, yourdictionary.com tells me, a way to say I am thoroughly, overwhelmingly surprised. The phrase originates in the southern United States. And it’s a little bit gross and a whole lot of fun to say in the right company at just the right time.

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

How about this? If I’m contemplating a big change, a major leap, I’d better first know on which side my bread is buttered. That phrase, grammarist.com lets me know, goes all the way back to the 1500’s, and it warns me to understand my benefits and advantages, to see clearly which course of action will bring me rich results, and which will leave me dry, cold, and hungry.

“Maybe,” a person muses, “I’ll quit my job,” or, break up with my long-suffering partner, or take off for parts unknown.

“You’d better,” a sage advisor will say, sitting a person down to talk some sense, “think about which side your bread is buttered on.”

Because, once again, we love our butter; we don’t want to see it go away, do we???

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

And how about ‘buttercup’? That, symbolsage.com tells me, is a term of endearment. But it can also be used derisively. I know someone, a near and dear someone, who often tells people who are bewailing their fates to, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

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

And then there’s a term I often deserve to be called: butterfingers. Sometimes, things seem to slide out of my grip, just as if my fingers were greased. Wise-geek.com proposes that this expression may have grown out of baseball coverage, from the way announcers described fielders and catchers who couldn’t seem to hang onto a ball, even when it came right TO them.

Of course, this term, usually used in an insulting way, is totally redeemed by the wonderful candy bar named for it. One thing I will make sure NEVER to drop is a Butterfinger Blizzard…they are too darned good. The candy bar is so culturally important, by the way, that it has its own website (https://www.butterfinger.com/).

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

So, I think about the rich, delicious idioms and expressions that reveal just how important butter is to our fascinating language. Such wonderful words…

…but then, I remind myself, “Fine words butter no parsnips.” Phrases.org.uk tells me this particular phrase came into the language in the 1600’s. That was before people had discovered the potato—an import from the American continent. Before potatoes, most folks ate root veggies that were a little brisker, a bit stronger, in flavor,—root veggies like parsnips, for example.

And a mashed parsnip was no doubt nutritious, but a significant amount of melty butter made it a whole lot more palatable.

I can talk about butter all I want, but it’s what I put into action that’s really important.

But that’s not so hard. I make a new recipe for machine-churned sandwich bread, and it smells so good, we hack off thick slices while it’s still steaming…and we slather them with butter that melts and oozes.

That’s a good action, I think.

And I use up some cooked bacon and a little cup of succulent roasted turkey in a fettucine Alfredo, tossing the hot noodles in butter before adding the cream, the parm, the meats.

I save the wrappers from the sticks of butter, putting them in a bag in the freezer. When I want to grease a pan to make bread, or a sheet on which to plop cookie dough, I take a frosty butter wrapper and rub it over the cooking surface until it shines.

I may TALK butter a lot, but I fit my actions to my words…and then, with all that buttery goodness, I take myself to the gym to work some of it off.

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

I have tried parsnips before, and I have tried my best to like them, but, alas, I must confess that, when you visit my home, you will find no parsnips here.

But butter? That, my friend, is a whole different story.

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

Some ‘buttery words’ resources:

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/81900.html#:~:text=What%27s%20the%20origin%20of%20the%20phrase%20%27Butter%20wouldn%27t,in%20Jehan%20Palsgrave%27s%20Lesclarcissement%20de%20la%20langue%20fran%C3%A7oyse%3A

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/14-expressions-with-crazy-origins-that-you-would-never-have-guessed/

https://www.wise-geek.com/what-does-butterfingers-mean.htm#:~:text=The%20term%20%22butterfingers%22%20suggests%20that%20the%20fingers%20are,other%20slippery%20substance%20on%20his%20or%20her%20fingers.

Hunting and Gathering in the Time of COVID

I am rethinking how I shop.

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

There is only one lane open in the supermarket at 7:00 a.m. For small orders, the self-checkouts stand ready, but I have a good cartful of stuff to buy.

Just one other woman is ahead of me in line, plopping her groceries on the moving belt. She has a long, skinny, gray-tinged ponytail, baggy sweatpants, and thick glasses. And her cart is packed full—the basket itself, and then the child seat and the shelves under the basket…all are stacked.

She—I start to call her The Angry Shopper (not everyone is sweetly pleasant this early in the morning)—smacks things down on the belt. She has a cardboard tray full of cans of tomato sauce—probably at least a dozen cans. She picks it up out of the cart, slants it, and watches in satisfaction as all the cans tumble out, rolling every which way along the black conveyor. Then she grabs a plump spaghetti squash and holds it out, brandishing it under the pleasant young cashier’s nose.

“Is this,” demands The Angry Shopper, “1.19 for the whole squash or 1.19 a POUND?”

The cashier consults a list.

“That’s 1.19 a pound, ma’am,” she says.

“Well, never mind,” growls TAS. “Here—you have it, then. I’ll buy mine someplace else, where the prices are more reasonable.”

“No problem.” The sweet cashier smiles. A muscle jumps in her clenched jaw, though.

TAS keeps stacking, but it looks like her cart will never empty. She’s not halfway through the basket yet.

Suddenly, “Here,” she snarls at the cashier. “You can have THIS, too.” She thrusts a loaf of rye bread at the patient young woman.

“Sure,” says the cashier. I’ll just set that aside here.”

Slap.

Slap.

Slap.

Bags of carrots and trays of boneless chicken hit the runway.

Then, “Shit,” mutters TAS. Suddenly sweet, she smiles at the cashier.

“I just have to go back and get some seasoning mix,” she says, adding, “SCYOOOOZ me!” as she pushes past me and runs into the depths of the store.

The cashier meets my eyes. Hers are a little shell-shocked. Then she shrugs and goes on scanning, until suddenly, something stops. She taps buttons.

Nothing.

She POUNDS buttons.

More nothing.

She picks up the telephone receiver and pages Someone Who Can Fix It…

That person jogs over, but, uh-oh. No, he can’t.

Whatever is going on here, neither of them can fix it.

They start an efficient little tag team; she unpacks the cart; he grabs a stack of items and runs them over to a different register. He scans them and brings them back. She hands him a new stack and puts the scanned items in a bag, then wiggles around to pack them in TAS’s cart.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Would I be better off at the self-checkout?”

The cashier grimaces at me, apologetic.

“I think so,” she says. “I’ll ask Bonnie to help you.”

She runs over to the pleasant woman staffing the do-it-yourself section; that must be Bonnie. The cashier gesticulates.

Bonnie looks puzzled.

She looks at me and at my cart and waves me over to the first check out station.

I get my customer card out, swipe it, and begin.

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

I am fine until I fill the four bags the turntable allows. I unhook one of the bags and put it in my cart. The register berates me.

“Return your ITEMS to the bagging area!” it yells, in a snooty woman’s voice. “Cashier has been NOTIFIED!”

Bonnie runs over, taps at the screen, waves a card, works some magic.

“Don’t put your groceries in the CART when you need room,” she says. “Put them on the SHELF.” She pats a shiny metal shelf above the bagging area.

I fill up another bag and stow it up there. The cash register smiles on me, serene and benign.

I fill up another bag and move it, too, to the shelf.

“Return your ITEMS to the bagging area!” yells the register. “Cashier has been NOTIFIED!”

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

It took me 22 minutes to do my shopping. It takes me 45 minutes to check out.

“Bye now!” says Bonnie brightly as I wheel my finally paid-for groceries toward the door. Beyond her, The Angry Shopper shoots me a sour look. She is still unloading her cart.

I scrawk the cart around sharply and head out the door into the parking lot, where I have parked in the furthest space near a cart return. If I must shop instead of going to the gym today, I thought when I arrived, I might as well get some steps in, too.

Grimly, I stow the groceries in the hatch and head home.

Mark, in his snuggly bathrobe and running shoes, helps me unload and listens to my tale of woe. Then he charges upstairs to dress for work, and I mutter, “Something’s got to change about the way we shop.”

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

Shopping has changed just a little bit in my lifetime. I remember, when I was very, very young, walking to the grocery store with my mother. I think she pushed my baby brother in the broad, heavy stroller. (She paid for the stroller with Green Stamps from the very grocery store we narrowed in on. The other perk of shopping there was a rewards system called Dollar Doublers.)

The store was at least a mile from our house, and when we got there, we walked up and down the aisles. My mother, on a budget, compared prices and muttered. She quelled my, “Could we get—“s with a finely tuned glare. I shut my mouth and carried on.

We spent a lot of time at the meat counter, considering the merits of chicken over pork chops, debating what kinds of meals five pounds of ground beef could conjure. Finally, the week’s menus etched in her mind, Mom would make her order, then put the packages, neatly wrapped in rose-colored butcher paper, price marked with a grease pencil, on the bottom of the cart, next to a huge bag of potatoes.

Down the baking aisle, and, “No, we are NOT getting chocolate chips!” she said before I could even ask.

Flour. Sugar. Shortening.

Moving on.

She marched through the store in her cheap canvas sneakers and plaid cotton house dress, a general leading her weary troops. Sean slept. I shlepped behind, peeking sideways at all the colorful, wasteful, wonderful snack foods we would NOT be buying.

At the register, a stock boy packed our groceries in cardboard boxes that said things like, “Del Monte Green Beans” on their sides. My mother took out her change purse, counted out crumpled dollar bills and exact change. Then she gave the cashier a fifty-cent piece.

Fifty cents paid Mr. H, the man who had a grocery-delivery business. It was a time of one-car families. Lots of husbands drove off to work in the morning, leaving their better halves car-less.

And my mother, a city kid used to rapid transit options, didn’t learn to drive until she was in her later thirties.

Mr. H. catered to the crowd of car-deprived housewives. They came and shopped; the store gave them their receipts, then stacked each order in a cart, which was wheeled to a back room. Mr. H. carefully loaded his truck from there.

And after all that shopping and walking—oh, my poor weary mother—she had to walk home with two cranky kids and an empty wallet.

A few hours later, Mr. H. was at the side door, hefting boxes of canned goods, the carefully chosen meat, the enormous bag of potatoes, up the four stairs into the kitchen.

Then, my mother bemoaned, she had to give him a TIP.

It was not a bad system, though, and not a bad price to pay for groceries that arrived, crisp and fresh, on your kitchen counters.

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

Later, Mom got her license. She was never what you’d call a comfortable driver, but on grocery days, she’d make sure one of the big ones was up to watch out for the little kids, and she’d drive my father to work. Then the big event of the day was the drive to the supermarket.

First, though, was the careful assembly of the shopping list, drawn up with the four page, full-color grocery store ad spread on the table. Mom, ever thrifty, would slit open an envelope from that day’s mail with her letter opener. She’d open out the used envelope, and, on its blank, inside surface, she would carefully write her shopping list with blue ballpoint pen, in her flowing Palmer Method script.

She listed things in the order she’d find them in the store: produce; meat, canned goods; dairy; paper goods; health and hygiene; frozen stuff. Often, she’d get up and rummage through cupboards, counting cans of kidney beans, surveying the state of the peanut butter. Was there ample grape jelly in the fridge for another week?

She’d come back to the table, plop down in her chair, pick up her pen, adjust her list, and sigh.

When she was all done, we would bundle into the car, warned from the get-go not to ask for extras. Mom would sit up close to the dashboard, chin lifted and knuckles white, and we would drive to the grocery store parking lot.

Then the march through the store, the wait at the checkout, but, alas: no more Mr. H. Now, wheeled as we were, we rolled the cart out into the parking lot, stuffed the week’s stash into the commodious trunk, and drove the groceries home, where we had to struggle them into the kitchen and onto the shelves, all by our own selves.

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

And pretty much, that has been my grocery shopping routine for lo, these last fifty years: first, the painstaking assembly of a list. (I added carefully curated coupons, something which my mother never used until after we were much older.) Then a trip to the store, often accompanied by a helpful child, who was not nearly as hesitant as I was to shamelessly beg for goodies.

The crumpled bills in the change purse gave way to a magic swipe of a plastic card, but the rest of the routine was amazingly unchanged. The roll through the parking lot. The stowing, so, when we got home, we could un-stow.

Oh, there were a few anomalies, like when we moved to Ohio and the stock boy at the first tiny market we went to insisted on wheeling out cart out to the car and stashing our order snugly away for us. For a kick and a giggle once, we shopped at a supermarket about fifty miles from home. There, we wheeled up to the counter, paid the piper, and watched our groceries whisked away. We took our numbered receipt to a drive-through, where a pleasant man in a bow tie and vest took our number, opened our trunk, pulled things from a pass-through, and packed our groceries neatly in our car.

(If only, we thought, he would meet us at home and put the groceries away.)

But usually, the gathering of grocery goods followed a very routine routine.

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

And, then. You know.

COVID.

And we started to think about how we shopped for groceries, for the first time in forever.

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

At first, I fell in love with the pick-up option. There, I created my list online, selected a pickup time, and clicked a link.

Later, I would pull up in back of the store, text my arrival, and a smiling young person would come out, pulling a heavy wagon stocked with my groceries. I would hand them an envelope with a modest tip (“You are NOT supposed to tip them!” wailed a frugal friend. “You have to STOP.” But it’s hard to stop a practice once begun.)

For the first six months, this was great, but then the process began to fray. More and more items would be missing from my order. There would be odd suggestions for substitutions. No lettuce? How about a bag of cole slaw mix? Would a Mrs. Paul’s pie do instead of that half gallon of ice cream?

I would pick up the order and tow it home, but there would be essentials missing—things I needed for that week’s meals—and I’d have to go out and track them done. That chase negated much of the benefit of the pickup option.

And then came the day when I got a call just before I left to get my groceries: so sorry, but there’s been an unavoidable delay, and could I come later instead?

I did, of course; I wanted my groceries. But there were seven essential items missing from that order.

This, I thought sadly, just isn’t working any more. I guess I’ll go to the Old People’s Hour from now on: 7-8 a.m.

And that was okay for a time or two. But, in the early morning, the workers stock the shelves, so many shelves are still empty. And only one checkout line is open.

And sometimes the open line is broken.

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James, who buys one order of groceries for the family each month, and I had a serious discussion about this later today. Maybe, I suggested, there are alternatives: different stores. Different delivery methods.

James lit up.

“Amazon!” he breathed.

He is, at this moment, researching option and comparing prices.

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Because who’s to say, really, that the way we’ve always done something is the way we always will do it? If there are any benefits to dangerous times, it’s that they make us consider the status quo…and just perhaps, push against it.

I’m thinking farmer’s markets. I’m thinking of monthly road trips to our favorite butcher shops, where we stock up on meat, especially when it’s on sale.

I’m thinking of going back to Aldi for the first time since March of 2020.

I’m thinking Jim’s research into on-line ordering is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m thinking of some future when we’ll regale our eye-rolling great-grands with tales of how, back in the day, we took a cart and wheeled it up and down the aisles of these places called supermarkets.

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COVID hasn’t done us any favors, that’s for sure. But even an ill wind blows something good, incidentally, and this is a small example of that. By shutting us down, by making us distance, the pandemic has shoved our past practices right up into our faces.

And when it does that, I read, very slowly, what it’s confronting me with. And then I think about it.

And sometimes, as in the case of how I shop, I slowly begin to change.

One Week of Golden Leaves

I am raking the driveway. (Thank goodness for sturdy, plastic-tined rakes. I have always hated the sound of metal tines on the pavement.)

The leaves are thick on the driveway, which is bordered in the back (our yard) and on the side (neighbor’s yard) by tall oak trees. Those sturdy, leathery leaves fill the drive and drift up against the hedge that curves around the front yard. That yard, protected by the hedge, is relatively unlittered—by oak leaves, anyway—but the driveway has undulating oak leaf dunes.

Leaves in the driverway

It’s weird, though. We call our oak tree the Whomping Oak, after the Willow in Harry Potter. Usually—every other year we’ve lived in this house—it holds on to its leaves, which turn golden and then crisp up and turn brown.

They stick tight to that tree, those leaves, rustling and whispering in the winter winds, a presence in the backyard. Then spring comes. Buds form on all the trees, and one fine, warm, day: whomp. We walk into the backyard and find the Whomping Oak has dropped all its old leaves and is working on shooting out new ones.

Not this year, though. One day this Fall—last week, in fact, Mark was in the driveway, staring up. He had just gotten home from work; I heard the car door slam, and waited for him to come in.

When he didn’t, I stepped out onto the stoop to see where he was.

“Everything okay?” I asked, watching him stand, eyes skyward, hands on hips.

“Look at this tree,” he answered.

And then I saw what he meant. The backyard oak’s leaves were beautiful. They had turned a red-gold color. The tree was ablaze.

Leaves on the tree…

After a few days, the leaf color started mellowing more to the gold side.

After a few more days, the leaves started blowing off and into the driveway.

Why is this year different? I think about the long summer we had, with temps staying in the seventies and eighties through September and into October. I think about how trees stayed green well past the usual optimal leaf-peeping days.

I think about the snapping cold nights that then descended, saying ‘bye-bye’ to our long-lived tomatoes, and triggering whatever system makes leaves preen and glow with reds and oranges and golds. That happened late. In fact, that is still happening; James and I dropped off gently used coats at a drive this morning, and the sun chased away the clouds left from last night’s rainstorm while we drove. Bright and clear, the light shone through, from a sky the exact color of Crayola’s sky-blue, and the leaves left on the trees dazzled.

They shivered and shook in the mischievous breeze, and they golden-glowed, as if they were grasping for just one last second all the sunshine they’d sucked up and hidden away in the summer and spring.

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Yesterday—Veterans’ Day—we slept in until 7:30, and, instead of going to the gym, I took a nice ambling morning walk with Mark. We scuffed and crunched, like little kids, through drifts of leaves, kicking them up. The leaves were golden.

Because I was a child who always seemed to be hungry for something, many of my personal nature metaphors were food-related. There was brown sugar snow, for instance,–when the snow was deep in the streets of my western New York town, and the cars, pre-pollution control devices, colored it with their exhaust: a deep, rich, edible-looking-but-ickily-poisonous brown. It LOOKED just like the dark brown sugar we used in the chocolate chip cookies we made only on memorable occasions.

And I thought of leaves like the ones Mark and I crunched through yesterday as corn flake leaves. They crackled like cereal flakes, and I even convinced myself they smelled grain-y. And they were that perfect toasted-gold color.

We walked through corn flake leaves on Veterans’ Day.

The sun poured down on the fallen leaves; the leaves turned their crisp faces to the sky and reflected that glory right back.

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It’s been, for sure, a golden leaf kind of a week.

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And also this week, I met Lee, who’d been absent a couple of weeks ago, when I first started my strength/core training class.

Here is how I happened to be in that class: I went to a new doctor for the first time last month, and she was very supportive of my walking efforts. I told her I was re-upping at the gym for the winter months, and she got very interested.

“Consider doing some weight training,” she said. “I think you’d really benefit from weight training…”

[—at your age, she was diplomatic enough NOT to say. So I finished the thought for her.]

So, I got up each morning and I went to the gym, where I walked a mile around the indoor track, then got on the recumbent training machine for nine minutes (Why nine minutes? I don’t know.) Then I walked another half mile.

As I walked, I watched all the serious lifters—kids on, I think, high school or college sports teams; a doctor (I know this because he often answered calls while training, saying, “This is Dr. ____…”); four or five women of a certain younger-than-I-am age. All of those people were impossibly fit and lean.

I circled, and I watched them work with dumbbells and with those cute weights that look like plump little handbags and that come in vibrant colors.

They hefted, they heaved. They grunted. They turned red.

They had spotters.

Sometimes their weights crashed noisily to the ground.

I walked faster. THAT looked like dangerous territory.

It was certainly, for me, unknown territory. I wouldn’t, I thought, know where to even start.

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Then there were the fitness machines—not the treadmills, recumbent trainers, or stationary bikes, but the ones that target specific bodily areas. People would get on them, arrange their limbs in just the right way, take a deep breath, and then huff and press, or huff and pull; they’d cross their hands over their chests and slowly dip backward; they’d extend their arms and do a sort of hard cruise forward, then way, way back—arms still straight.

There is a machine that makes people twist. There are huge, inflated balls that people sit on and do painful-looking exercises of all kinds.

This area, too, was a mystery to me.

I kept walking.

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Then, my first week back at the gym, as I was deep into my recumbent nine minutes, a former colleague, Eric, stopped to chat as he walked around the indoor track. Turns out that Eric, in his ‘retirement,’ teaches a strength/core class on Tuesday mornings at 6 a.m.

What he does, he explained, is show us exercises, teach us a routine that uses all of our muscles, help us figure out which weights to use, and show us how to pick and navigate those machines.

If I was interested, Eric said, I could just join in next Tuesday.

And didn’t that seem pretty fortuitous? Just, in fact, what the doctor ordered.

So the following Tuesday I showed up at 6, and Eric took another student, Judy, and me through an hour-long workout using machines and the walking track and resistance bands. (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” Eric joked, “blame the bands. Not me. Not MY fault!”)

He explained that the workout used every set of muscles in the body. He showed me which weights to use (light ones) and how to set the machines for (minimal) resistance.

And so the next day, feeling I had entered a little way into the mysterious Kingdom of Barbells and Machines, I switched up my routine.

I walked half a mile. I used the machine that works on arms and shoulders, then the “abdominator,” and then the stretch-your-back machine. I walked some more. Then I got a set of light barbells and did the lifts Eric showed us.

I walked some more.

I did my nine minutes on the recumbent machine.

It felt pretty good, and I did that every day for a week.

The next Tuesday, there were three of us in class. Lee was back. He’d been on vacation.

Lee was a cheerful, energetic man. He also happened to be in his nineties.

Eric put us through a workout very similar to the previous week’s, adding in sit-ups on a fitness ball. I kept imagining the ball popping out from beneath me and hitting the wall while I splatted ignominiously on the carpeted section of gym floor, but I am thankful to report that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that we did a rotation: the ab machine, the ball, the back-stretcher. I followed Lee and let me tell you this: when he got off a machine, I had to adjust the resistance, or weight, or whatever. Lee works out at a level far beyond my capability.

Sometimes when we talk about the Venerable Old ( The Venerable Old are…older than 90? as opposed to the Regular Old, of whom I am one), we use hushed voices. We say things like, “She is still as sharp as a tack.” The implication, of course, is that, my gawd, she’s older than dirt and still knows her name and address!

Lee did not make me think ‘Venerable Old” when I saw him. He was just a regular person, enjoying a strenuous workout, who happened to have lived 90-some years.

When we finished (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” said Eric, “blame the exercise ball. Not me. Not my fault!”), I stopped to retrieve my jacket, zip it up, chat a little before leaving. I wound up walking out right after Lee. He kind of bounded down the stairs and trotted out to the car he drives, a little PT Cruiser-type mobile, with WW II Vet markings. He waved and peeled away.

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Is that what weight training can do for me? I wondered. I’m  doubling down on my weights and machines.

And it feels good.

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I’m really, really tempted to do that English teacher-y thing and stretch the metaphor—talk about the long summer leading into a long golden fall, and then apply that to Lee in his own golden autumn. Yadda yadda yadda.

That’s not really what I’m going for here, though, except, of course, that Lee is pretty freakin’ amazing, and I hope I can be like him when (if) I grow up. It was just a kind of a gift of a week—a time of golden leaves before the grim and serious winter moves in and takes over. The sheen and the glow and the crisp, corn flake leaves were invigorating.

And trying to keep up with Lee was invigorating, too.

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Every once in a while, a week comes along, and it’s crammed full of messages like, “Maybe you should try something different,” and, “Maybe you should wake up and be aware of the beauty all around you.”

That’s the kind of week this was, an unexpected, late autumn week of unanticipated beginnings, unique inspiration, golden leaves. I don’t even mind that it’s time, now, to go out again and rake them from the driveway.