No Season in Which to Hide

It is Saturday, early, the darkness still velvet, but I am awake. Something besides my bladder (although that, too, is vocal) is nagging me.

The blog post, I think. Since FaceBook has decided it is not my friend anymore when it comes to automatically posting my weekly rambling on Saturday mornings, I’ve decided I will get up at 6 a.m. and post it myself. That’s not as martyr-y as it sounds; I love the Saturday morning house, quiet and still, before anyone else awakens.

But now I look at the clock and see that it is only 4:10 a.m. Too early, surely, to get up, and I arrange myself in a comfortable sleeping position.

Then I roll over and try another.

And then I know it’s no use. I am, despite the ridiculous hour, firmly awake. I slide out of bed (“Uhhh?” says Mark, and then he rolls over and his breath settles back into its night-time pattern); I gather my book and my phone. I close the door softly behind me and I creep quietly downstairs.

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The house is very cold, the furnace slumbering, too. I am reluctant to turn up the heat, but here’s what I will do: I’ll light the fire in the fireplace.

I pad into the kitchen and fish the matchbox from the top of the fridge.

I turn the gas on with one toe, light a match, and toss it into the sham logs. Flames leap, blue, orange, comforting. I move the reading chair a little closer to the hearth. I shake out the fuzzy golden throw and wrap my bare feet just so. I settle in the chair; I open my book.

By flickering firelight and amber lamplight, I submerge into my current Jackson Brodie saga. I warm quickly, and the action-packed but soothing story spins out from the page, bidding me enter, drawing me in.

Later, I will fire up the desktop and put my post on Facebook. I will mix together a streusel coffee cake for our weekend breakfast, and I will wrestle the reluctant old vacuum from the hall closet. Later, this warm and wonderful hour will melt into a regular, ordinary Saturday.

But not now.

Now, the big clock tock-tocks loudly, a noise soon lost to me, for I am lost myself in story, lost in quiet, lost in this wonderful hour of reading.

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It is Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving; no one must work today. The alarm is off; the bed is warm and enveloping.

And still, my eyes pop open at 5:31 a.m.

I gather up my book and phone. Once again, I slide downstairs.

It is warmer today than it was on Saturday, but still the house is chilled. I tussle with myself for, oh, 45 seconds, and then I think, “Yeah, what the heck,” and I go and get the matches.

The fire leaps. Today I am reading memoir—Cassandra King Conroy’s remembrances of her life with her famous husband, Pat. I snuggle in the gold blanket, and I read the sad, funny, hopeful, tragic, magical tale. There are things here—differences—that fascinate me, everyday things in southern culture, the memories of women who grew up in the fifties and sixties in the Deep South, events that can charm or horrify or amaze. There are realizations and epiphanies that any woman of a certain age comes to that make me nod and murmur, “Oh, yes.” There are references to people—characters in Pat Conroy’s books drawn from his real-life family and friends—that shoot off that ping of recognition.

Lovely book.

Lovely fire.

Lovely quiet house.

I read and drowse, and read again until, at 8:20, Mark wanders down. His eyes are sleep-glazed, but light jumps in them when he sees the fire.

He gets his IPad to read the news; he settles in on his chair with his new John Le Carre’ book at hand.

“We don’t have anything we have to do right now,” he says, and he finds his own comfy blanket and we settle into quiet. Later we will drive an hour north to pick up our tender little free-range turkey at our favorite butcher shop; we’ll stop for lunch and do some Christmas shopping. Later I will mix up a batch of pie crust, and I will mop the kitchen floor. I will walk out into the cold, clear night and get my steps in.

But not now. Now it is time to read by the fire.

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Sometimes we sabotage ourselves. We walk into lovely pockets of unscheduled time, and before we can think what we want to do with it, someone comes along. Their eyes light up.

“You’re not busy?” they ask, and they can see, by the open book upside down on our lap, that we are not.

“Can you…?” they ask.

Can we? We often don’t think whether we truly can, don’t analyze whether it’s guilt, or needing to be essential, or maybe a fear of what all that free time will unleash up and into our lives that prompts us. Whatever the reason, our knee jerks, and “Yes,” we say; “yes, I can do that for you.”

And suddenly we find our lovely free time dissipated and our days filled with jobs and obligations, tasks and commitments.

Sometimes, we are too tired to read, even at night. We open our book and we close our eyes, and the morning comes, and we charge off into our busyness, ready to do it all again.

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But the earth spins, and the seasons change; the temperatures plummet. Days shorten, dark deepens, and the reading season comes. Maybe we know, but we flee. We say, “I can’t; I really don’t have time; I have to…” and we leave the book unread on the table by the chair and rush off to bake cookies, change a bed, fold soft washcloths into white terry squares and put them gently on a bathroom shelf.

Maybe we let shoulds muscle out the musts.

But we don’t control the seasons, and this one will come and find us. If we don’t make room on one side of day, it will wake us on the other, lead us downstairs and bid us settle in.

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It is 5 a.m. in reading season. I am snuggled by the fire.

When Times Stretches Thin

I am lucky enough, this semester, to be teaching on the grounds of Roscoe Village, a restored canal town in central Ohio. COTC, the college for whom I teach, has a history of repurposing spaces into effective, imaginative college campuses. I teach in what was once an inn; the lobbies have chairs you can sink into and, on brisk Ohio days, fires snapping on broad hearths. The classrooms are bright and friendly.

The students are bright and friendly, too, and it occurred to me that, since we are meeting in the midst of a historic space, we ought to work that into our writing. So this semester, I connected with the wonderful folks at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. It’s right next door to the COTC building, and one day my students and I walked over for a tour led by Reba Kocher, who manages the collections at the museum.

Reba took the students on an in-depth tour of the exhibits, and then she gave them a wonderful opportunity to sit and examine real artifacts up close and personal. She showed them how to handle aged items; she let the students tour the archives and see that not all museum treasures are always on view.

I tasked the students with writing a reflection paper. They could reflect on an artifact; they could reflect on the visit. They could reflect on museums themselves, and the richness and values such institutions bring to our society.

Sometimes I task myself with doing the same assignment as the students. So I wrote my own reflection on our visit, and I wove in the fact that I had worked in Roscoe many years ago as a historical interpreter.

Then I found out that the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum hosts an essay-writing contest called the Mary Harris Prize (http://jhmuseum.org/index.php/learn/adult-programs/353-mary-harris). I decided to submit my essay, even though it was more personal reflection than historic study.  I am thrilled and honored to say that it was selected as the winner. Jennifer Bush, the Museum’s director, has given me permission to share the essay here.

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We are exploring, my students and I, in a room filled with Native American artifacts. They pore over cases of arrow heads, fingers tracing the glass; they are arrested by a crinkly roll of seal intestines, and by a doll made from that same odd material. They stop to examine the miniature canoe carefully created, 100 years ago maybe, by a young boy who wanted something to play with on the creeks and rivers of Ohio. That boy was learning, too, a craft he’d need to master as a man.

I was excited by the opportunity to bring my Comp I class to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, on a visit that would build a platform for their reflection papers. I was worried, too. I thought they might feel bored or disengaged.

But now they cram into a recreated cave; they pound a deep-voiced drum. In the Farm Bureau exhibit, they light up with recognition. They talk about their own 4-H experiences.

“I love museums,” one sighs, and classmates echo agreement.

The students follow our tour guide, Reba Kocher, eagerly. Reba leads them downstairs to a room where, gathered around tables in groups of four or five, they learn to handle artifacts with respect and care and, sometimes, with gloves. She tells them the story of the museum; she brings out a fragile mummified foot for them to look at.

She takes them, in small groups, into the museum’s archives, and she lets them see the stored treasures not always on view.

They examine snuff bottles and knife holders, a samurai’s katana, beautifully woven baskets, and tin advertising trays. They talk in low murmurs, and they ask smart, engaged questions.

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Time’s membrane is usually sturdy and unrelenting, but there are places and there are times when it stretches so thin, it’s less than transparent. It’s invisible.

In those moments, I can reach right through and touch the past.

Now I watch my students make that reach; their faces are lit, and they are present, for this microcosm, in many different eras. Reba has created this time-stretching interlude for them; she has thoughtfully constructed their tour and their experiences in this room, examining, up close and personal, vestiges of lives long past.

And the place helps, too. I have always thought that there are special places where the current of time hums close to the surface.

Roscoe Village, home to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum and COTC’s Coshocton campus, is one of those places.

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I discovered Roscoe in 2003 when I was looking for work. We had moved, after my husband graduated at age 49 from an Ohio law school, to Mount Vernon, and I began to look for higher ed jobs. I updated my resume and agonized over my cover letters, and I sent out packet after packet to four-year schools and community colleges.

The silence from those colleges, as Mark settled into his first job as an attorney and our son learned to navigate a new school, was profound.

So, I went online and started looking at other working possibilities, and I discovered Roscoe Village, a restored canal town less than 50 miles away. The Village was accepting applications for historical re-enactors. I couldn’t think of a job that sounded more like fun.

I sent off my resume; I got a call. Before long, I had a long, flowered dress and a crisp, lace-trimmed collar, a thick, rectangular name tag, and a bonnet. I went searching for authentic looking shoes that would also be comfortable. And I began learning, from people like Dick Hoover, how a printer loaded and inked metal letters to run a broadside or a newspaper, how a cooper plied his froe, and what exactly it took, in an 1800’s frontier town, to put together a family dinner.

I learned, too, the history of the place,–learned, for instance, about Mary Harris and about the White Woman’s Rock; those tales are often jumbled together in tumbled memory but were not, at all, the same story. I learned about the canal, a kind of crazy visionary enterprise that opened up the frontier and made regular people’s westward moves possible. I learned about the Montgomery’s, industrialist Edward and his wife, Frances, who began, in the early 1960’s, to ensure that Roscoe would showcase the area’s canal days history (“History”).

Because of the canal, Eliza Johnson, in the late 1800’s, had real wallpaper, ordered from Europe, on the walls of her Roscoe Village parlor.

Because of the canal, Ohio farmers could ship their produce to eastern states and receive, on the return trip, manufactured essentials that made frontier life simmer and hum.

On Sundays, on the ground level of the doctor’s house, I often spun a trussed chicken over a hearth fire and cooked cornbread in a cast iron Dutch oven. Upstairs, Betty Lou might be taking visitors through the common rooms, the dining room with its glass fly catcher and fancy dishes, the parlor with its stiff-looking company chairs. Then the guests went outside and trooped down the cellar stairs to see the part of the house where the never-ending work of cooking was once done.

One early Sunday, we arrived to open up the doctor’s house. Betty Lou unlocked the front door and hurried off to put her purse in the staff room. I pulled back the bolt and opened the door to the inside stairs that would take me to the ground floor. I looked down the stairs, and as clear as I see, now, the keyboard that I type on, I saw a woman standing next to the cooking table.

Her head and shoulders were obscured by the hand-hewn wooden beam that girdered the ceiling. Her long skirt was a shiny, silky material, copper-colored with tiny stripes of white. She wore soft white leather boots that buttoned up the sides.

She was dressed for visiting, not for cooking, and I wondered why she was in the kitchen. And she was so patently from another time that I wondered why she was in the kitchen NOW.

I was not frightened, but I had a strong sense that I was intruding. I closed the cellar door, and I shook my head briskly. Betty Lou bustled back out and gave me a look.

I opened the door again and of course, no one was there. I went on down to light the fire.

Today, I can close my eyes and bring back the precise image of that skirt, the clearly etched lines of those shoes. I have no idea if, still groggy on a Sunday morning, I just had an extraordinarily lucid waking dream, or if, perhaps, for that tiny moment in time, the membrane really had peeled fully back.

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I met the most amazing people working at Roscoe. Betty Lou and Dick were among many mentors who’d retired from one career to find joy in working at the restored canal town. They were skilled and savvy; they loved and they lived the history of the place. They were generous in sharing their knowledge and skills with a newcomer.

The rest of my new worker cohort were, for the most part, college students. Those wonderful young people threw themselves into their jobs, showing up early, staying late, absorbing the lore, learning the crafts. They deftly plied spindles on the mammoth loom, hammered searing hot metal on the blacksmith’s anvil, and wielded the froe in the cooper’s shop. The history, I saw, was real for them, too.

I worked a lot in the doctor’s house. I also spent many days as the teacher in the Roscoe schoolhouse, having my students practice their printing on slates, quizzing them on their arithmetic tables, and showing them the lidded tin bucket they’d bring their tasty lard sandwiches in for lunch. If there were lefties in the group, I’d threaten to tie those left hands to the desktop, forcing them to learn to write with their right hand—the good one. Before the lesson went on so long as to get boring, a warning bell would toll, and we’d rush out the door and across the street to the water pump. There, we’d fill and pass canvas buckets, hurrying to help extinguish an imaginary fire.

It was a treat to see children in their modern clothes, some with lights that blinked on and off in the soles of their gym shoes when they ran to grab their buckets, playing the parts of children in the 1880’s.

“Don’t forget your homework!” I would holler, and, like students set free in any day, they would joyously ignore me.

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I worked at Roscoe for two years, settled in, began to feel the rhythms of the place. I bought myself a cast iron Dutch oven to use at home. On a hot summer day, we roasted a chicken over a fire in the old brick barbecue oven in my backyard while corn bread baked in the coals. We took out-of-town visitors to the Village. Awareness of canal town life settled into my bones.

And then one day, a call came from one of those schools who’d received my resume. I traded in my schoolmarm togs for jackets, slacks, and sensible shoes, and I picked up the threads of a career in higher ed.

I tried to get back to Roscoe at least once a year, but the time between visits lengthened, and my work intensified into a sort of middle manager’s role which sometimes claimed my evenings and weekends.

And then we moved again, and my trips to Roscoe stopped happening at all.

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Until retirement dawned, and the opportunity to teach as an adjunct for COTC, and sometimes at their Coshocton campus, brought me back to Roscoe Village.

Now, as I watch my students, many of them in high school, interact with Reba at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, I realize that some of them hadn’t even been born during my re-enactor days; what seems like just a bit ago to me is a lifetime for them. To my students, my Roscoe stories themselves are history.

And it comes to me that the new and the now are history in the making; that the students’ visit to the Museum will become a memory, a tale they might share with grandchildren one day, when those  little people come bursting with enthusiasm to tell Grandma or Grandpa about this wonderful place the teacher took them to…

But what a treat and a privilege to work, again, in a place where the past is always present, where the brick sidewalks and the welcoming shops nod to canal-era days, and where Roscoe’s historical re-enactors still draw visitors into history’s web. What a joy to work with students who feel the pull of that history and to whom, one day, our class will be part of that remembering.

“Who was that teacher?” they might ask each other, twenty years hence, shepherding their ten-year olds down the winding sidewalk, heading for the Roscoe Village school on a fourth grade field trip. “You know, the kind of wacky one who took us to the museum?”

They’ll feel the pull of their own histories as they weave into the present of a heritage-laden town and era, and they’ll feel a deep satisfaction, too, that their children are learning about history by living it,…by visiting a place where the membrane of time supports our todays even as it grows, just for that one reaching moment, mighty thin.

Sources.

“History.” Roscoe Village, 2019, https://roscoevillage.com/history.

Fowl Weather Ramblings

The weather turned cold and scattered snow over crisp fall leaves. I started thinking about Thanksgiving dinner, so I made a call.

“I’m looking,” I said to the nice lady at our butcher shop in Mount Vernon, “for a fresh turkey that’s about fifteen pounds…enough to feed three people.”

“Oh,” she said. “Of course. We can get you one as small as ten pounds. That’ll be a Bowman and Landes bird, then.”

We made arrangements for me to pick up that tender little guy the day before Thanksgiving. I hung up and googled Bowman and Landes and found out that the family-owned Ohio business has been raising turkeys since the 1940’s, and that the farm is committed to sustainability. They just installed, in fact, their second solar powered generator, and their turkeys are all free-range critters never fed on antibiotics.

“That,” I thought, “sounds wonderful,” and I shared that enticing turkey news with Mark.

He thought it sounded great, too, but then he started wondering if ten pounds of turkey was going to be enough. What about turkey sandwiches? What about unexpected visitors? What about sharing?

Tomorrow, when he and Jim take a spin to Westerville, they’re going to stop at Fresh Thyme and see if they can’t pick up another fresh turkey, perhaps a 15-pounder, or maybe a plump turkey breast.

We can roast it on Thanksgiving and slice it for sandwiches, and freeze some of those slices for later. We can roast the bones to make a rich, golden-bronze-y broth. We can make turkey casseroles and turkey potpies and flaming turkey surprise.

We get a little obsessed with thoughts of turkey, here in the U.S. heartland, at this time of year. (Well, turkey and pumpkin, too, but those of us in this abode are not so firmly on the pumpkin bandwagon.)

Turkeys are such goofy, awkward, unique birds. They’re woven into our literature. They populate our myths. They dominate our traditions. And they taste really, really good.

Image of turkey and poult from spruce.com

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There was a curving, woods-lined, skirt-the-lake-shore road that I used to drive around when we lived in Mayville, New York. It was a shortcut to the big road, and it was a challenge to tribes of wild turkeys. They would have to cross that thoroughfare, and they would halt traffic (not that, on that quiet country byway, there was usually tons of traffic) with their funny posturing.

I’d round a curve and there they’d be, head-pecking and bobbing their ways across the street. The car would agitate them; they would flap and backtrack, do some kind of clucky consulting, and then scurry on, awkward and flailing. One brave turkey soul would block the car, dancing and gyrating…performing a turkey version of the Funky Chicken.

The rest of the tribe would be across the street and running around the berm, no doubt yelling at him.

“Ethelbert!” they’d warble, frantically. “Ethelbert! Don’t be a martyr! Get over here NOW!”

And that goofy dancing tom would come to himself, swivel his sinuous neck around and give the car a good stare and then bawk-bawk off, loping and lolloping, to join his goombahs, who were now pecking in the grass.

I took that road slow, because the curves were a little bit blind, and the turkey crossing was a ritual that played out over and over.

“What GOOFY birds,” I would say to Mark.

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But Melissa Mayntz, at thespruce.com, says that, while turkeys “are often seen as gullible and comical, they have a noble history in their native North America as well as throughout the world.”

Turkeys have been around a LONG time, Mayntz says. They were cherished in early Aztec and Mayan societies, and as a result, turkey feathers enhanced tribal attire—those ancient cultures used turkey feathers in clothing, on headdresses, and as gaudy bauble enhancements to their jewelry.

The Navajos, says Mayntz, penned turkeys in early on, and the Mexicans were the first to actively cultivate and domesticate them.

Turkeys were first exported to Europe in 1519. European diners prized the bird for its unique flavor.

Turkeys’ popularity almost led to their extinction. By the end of the nineteenth century, wild turkeys had been overhunted. People had to quickly swing some conservation measures into effect, and the turkeys began to come back.

The wild bird got its own organization, the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) in 1973.

And myths sprang up about presidential turkey pardons.

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It’s said that Tad Lincoln was the first White House resident to coerce a president to pardon a turkey. History.Com tells me that Tad got pretty close, during his dad’s term, to the live turkey that had been delivered to the presidential mansion. The little boy led the bird around on a leash, and he named it Jack.

President Lincoln, legend has it (rumors say that the President had a really hard time saying no to his beloved boys), granted Tad’s wish and gave the bird a reprieve.  

But the tradition of pardoning birds did not become official then. And, although many sites say that the tradition DID become official in 1947, with President Harry Truman, History.com tells me that is NOT true. Far from granting clemency to his turkey visitor, Truman gleefully sent the bird off to the butcher, and reveled in its re-appearance at the dinner table.

“A president finally took pity on a gifted bird in 1963 when John F. Kennedy spared the life of a mammoth 55-pound white turkey wearing a sign around its neck—clearly not of its own volition—that read ‘Good Eating, Mr. President!’” says History.com, which quotes the young president as saying, “We’ll just let this one grow. It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”

Ronald Reagan may have been the first commander-in-chief to actually apply the word ‘pardon’ to a turkey in 1987. Reporters were asking him about granting clemency to some of his aides who were accused of complicity in the Iran-Contra scandal. The President deflected those questions, so the reporters turned to asking about the 55-pound turkey that had just been delivered.

Reagan joked, says History.com, “I’ll pardon him.”

But it was President George H.W. Bush who made turkey pardoning official in 1989. During the traditional photo op—the President accepting a fine specimen of bird from its raiser—Bush noted that the 50-pound game bird looked “understandably nervous.” Then he said, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now” (History.com).

That tradition of pardoning the turkey presented to the President has persisted for the last 25 years. The reprieved birds have enjoyed various fates. They’ve been remaindered out to the Frying Pan Farm in Herndon, Virginia, to loll into a pleasant old age. They’ve served as grand marshals at Disneyland and Disney World, during Thanksgiving Day parades. They’ve gone to live at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. This year, History.com tells me, the turkey will go to Turkey Hill Farm in Leesburg, Virginia, and be guaranteed he can spend the rest of his days as a free bird.

As I type this, coincidentally, Jim turns up the volume on his laptop. He is watching an episode of West Wing, one of his favorites: CJ comes into work one November morning to find that Josh and Toby have instructed the young turkey deliverer to install two fine turkeys in her office. It’s CJ’s job to pick the one that will NOT become Thanksgiving dinner.

Appalled at first, CJ grows fond of her two big feathered visitors, and she implores President Bartlett to pardon them both.

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There’s another famous pop culture turkey clip—the one where, as God is their witness, the administrators at WKRP in Cincinnati think that turkeys can fly. Their turkey drop is, of course, a spectacular flop. But this season, I keep seeing ads for WKRP Turkey Drop T-shirts on Facebook.

I think about buying one, too…if not for me, then for Mark.

Turkeys are, after all, a part of our cultural tradition.

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I search the bookshelves for the story Terry Turkey’s Thanksgiving. My boys grew up on that book by a local author, Wendy Woodbury. Her Terry survived by ingeniously offering to cook up the most scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner…and making all delicious vegetarian dishes.

We loved the story, enjoyed the illustrations…but we ate our turkey greedily, nonetheless.

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I look for Caddie Woodlawn, too, for the story of how Caddie’s mother refused to take the dirt-cheap prices offered in town for her prize turkeys. She marches back to her frontier farm with those fat, succulent birds, and the family is excited to think they’ll get to eat that bounty. But after a month straight of turkey dinners—even though the mama tries to be creative in the turkey’s presentation—they are all crying, “Fowl!” and wishing and hoping for a nice roast beef.

Flaming turkey surprise, indeed.

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There’s one last turkey myth I explore…the one about Ben Franklin recommending the wild turkey over the eagle as our national symbol. History.com helps me out on this, too.

It’s true, the site tells me, that Franklin was not enamored of eagles. He said, that Founding Father did, that the eagle “…was a bird of bad moral character,” that it stole fish from hard-working hawks, and that, when it couldn’t steal food, it dipped its beak into carrion banquets.

The eagle, wrote Franklin in a January 1784 letter to his daughter, Sarah, was “…too lazy to fish for himself.”

And Franklin did indeed point to the noble turkey as a contrast. The turkey, he wrote Sarah, was verily an American native. And it was “a true bird of courage,” Franklin averred. He imagined that a turkey “…would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”

But the website denies that Franklin ever suggested the turkey be a national symbol. Instead, in 1776, he offered Moses extending his hand over the Red Sea as an image of the new country: an unlikely people escaping from a powerful pharaoh.

Franklin’s image didn’t prevail, of course, and the eagle, another successful come-back-from-the brink-of-extinction bird, now symbolizes power and grace and beauty for us, no matter its dubious moral culinary habits.

But it vies, the eagle does, with the turkey for national affection. And this time of year, the weather growing colder, the calendar days chugging toward Thanksgiving on November 28th, I start looking through magazines for special recipes.

This year, we think, we might try something called Potatoes Anna instead of mashed potatoes. The Anna recipe spirals thin slices of spuds and roasts them in a buttery concoction until they are deliciously golden brown looking.

The boyos are okay with changing up the potatoes.

But some things must remain. The stuffing method’s kind of sacred. The cranberry sauce—chunky, not jellied. And the turkey, the centerpiece of the meal, just big enough to appear again as cold sandwiches, casseroles, and hot sandwiches before—oh, darn—it’s all disappeared a few days before Christmas.

And then we can start pondering who—who, himself?–will carve the roast beast.  

Listening to My Inside Voice

We were surveying the courtyard at the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Springfield, Ohio, when I felt Connie—my Fitbit—slide off my wrist.

“Damn!” I said, and I picked her up from the pavement. It looked like the wristband had come unhooked.

Mark noticed and came over to help. He tried to slide the wristband back on to no avail.

“Oh, I see,” he said, holding the slender thing up to the sky. “There’s a piece missing from the band. See there?”

And sure enough, the little grippy piece that held the band onto the command central of the Fitbit was just gone.

“Well, damn,” I said again. I slid Connie into my jacket pocket, thinking morosely that I’d be doing all this walking and not getting any credit at all.

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At home I rootled in a drawer and came up with two neon-bright rolls of duct tape. I chose the orange since it was almost Hallowe’en…It would look festive, I thought, with Connie’s sleek black exterior.

I cut thin slices of tape with my sewing shears. I held the band tightly to Connie, and I wrapped the tape where the rubber met the metal. Then I slapped two pieces down the sides, and wrapped a last piece around all the joins.

I pulled at it gently, and all seemed to hold, so I went out for a walk to make up for the steps of which, I thought, I had been robbed.

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I meant to get online and order another Fitbit band, but my duct tape solution was working just fine, and it slipped my mind. The orange tape took me right up through All Hallow’s Eve, but the next morning, I got up and showered, and put Connie back on, and the band slithered out of its duct-taped tunnel. I sighed and trundled downstairs, and peeled away the old tape, scraping off all the gooey adhesive.

I made a new temporary joint, using the green duct tape this time, and I thought to myself, “Tonight I’ll order that band.”

The green tape worked for two days, and then I had to re-tape band and Fitbit together. Then it lasted one day, and then it was just not holding together at all.

I put the Fitbit in my pocket. A thought came floating in, full-fledged and flat, like a written message through a mail slot.

“Now,” I thought, “I won’t be able to walk.”

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That night, I tracked down a Fitbit band on Amazon and, after finding furnace filters, too, I placed my order. They estimated the new band would arrive in two days.

I wondered how I’d walk until then.

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The next day was Sunday, and the morning grumbled in with gray clouds almost close enough to touch. I plugged the earbuds into my phone and headed out for a walk before it rained.

I walked my usual long route, but all the while, a little voice was nagging me. “How will you know how far you walk?” it asked me. “How will you know how many steps you take?”

And, “What’s the point of walking if no one’s counting?”

“I walk because walking is good,” I argued with me. “The counting is not the point.”

But still, as I stomped along, I felt untethered and unremarked.

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That day, I clipped Connie onto her charger and let her be. Later, I pulled her free, and her little light flashed.

“I’m ready!” she said.

“Let’s go!” she pleaded.

I put her down next to the computer tower, averting her face.

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

A funny thing happened, though. I’d be sitting at the computer, reading lovely essays written by my Comp students, and a little notification would fizzle into consciousness.

“You’ve been sitting long enough,” it would say. “Get off your duff and move.”

And I would—I’d get up and stretch and roll my neck and then I’d stride around the house, or up and down the driveway, getting my hourly 250 steps—just like I’d do when Connie was snugly on my wrist. Only now I wasn’t doing it because my little techno-friend was nudging me.

Now I was doing it because it felt good, because my BODY was sending me the message, because it was the healthy, self-savoring, right thing to do.

In the evening, I went for a walk around the block, stretching and striding, enjoying the cold air on my cheeks and the fresh air in my lungs. I didn’t have, when I got home, a step-count, but I felt like I had gotten the day’s exercise in.

I felt…right.

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

The new band arrived on schedule, and I fitted it onto to a highly charged Connie. It didn’t buckle like the old band did; it has two short metal spokes that poke through holes in the band to connect. That worried me for a short bit, but I got the hang of it.

The next morning, my friend Wendy very graciously came to my class as an interview subject. Wendy is wide open and respectful dealing with students, and soon they were asking her all kinds of things, some related to their upcoming papers and some just out of curiosity.

“Do you think college should be free?” they asked.

And,

“Why are textbooks so expensive?”

Wonderful discussion ensued.

Somehow that drifted into a conversation about high school students in college. About half of the class members actually are high schoolers taking college courses for credit in both settings. They are, to a student, diligently hard workers.

One of the traditional students,–call her Lisa—said that wouldn’t have worked for her.

“When I was in high school,” Lisa said, “I missed school every chance I got. I had terrible grades. I just didn’t care. I was only doing it because I HAD to, because somebody told me that was what I was going to do.”

Several heads nodded in agreement.

“This, though,” Lisa said, “college—I’m doing this because I want to. I’m paying for it myself, and I make sure I get to every single class unless there’s a really, really important reason for me not to.”

Wendy nodded. “It’s that intrinsic versus extrinsic thing, right?” She turned to me. “Remember when we used to teach that in freshman seminar? Internal versus external locus of control? Inner voice versus voices from the outer world?”

I nodded, vigorously, as Wendy turned back to the students, and the conversation galloped on.

But I stepped off the path and followed my own thoughts. That’s IT, I was thinking; that’s it exactly.

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

This morning, in the brisk, clear, blue-skied cold, I rounded the corner on the last leg of my walk. I had my tomato-colored winter coat and gloves on; the wind was whipping. I started to walk up the hill to the house, and I had to stop.

The big tree in front of the stone ranch house is a late holdout, clinging to its red-gold leaves, and this morning the wind was tearing them off. Amber leaves were flying like snow, and the wind ruffled leave piles snugged up against the curb.

Bob Seeger was crooning, of all things, “If I Were a Carpenter,” in my ear buds, and it was like being inside a crazy kind of musical snow globe—only it was an autumn leaf globe: a crazy, perfect, unexpected kind of setting.

Connie was snugly on my wrist, but, “THIS is why I walk,” I thought to myself.

And, “You aren’t the boss of me,” I muttered to Connie.

She didn’t say anything just then. Later, though, after a busy day, I lit the fire, and grabbed my book, and went to sit in the reading chair. I pulled up the knit blanket and opened Dutch Girl and sighed and settled in.

And Connie chirped at me.

“Ten minutes to get 184 steps!” she said.

“Fine,” I said with paltry grace. “FINE.” I slammed down the book and marched around the house until, “Rocked it!” Connie informed me sweetly.

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

The book and the fire and the chair were all there waiting for me.

Let Connie have her little victory. I’m not walking to keep score or to win prizes. I’m walking because walking makes me feel alive. A little voice—my inside voice—tells me so.

Everyone Knows It’s Windy

Also published on Oh, Rev/oir (https://pamkirst2014.wordpress.com/?p=3406)

The wind was viewed by many ancient and native peoples as the work of fickle powers and understood to be the harbinger of change — for good and ill.

Tim Hall, “The Mighty and Mysterious Gods and Goddesses of Wind”

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

It begins to rain early Thursday morning, in the opaque dark hours before dawn. We wake up to a saturated, dripping world. It is warm, though: almost seventy degrees.

This is my traveling day: an early class at a college thirty miles from here, an afternoon class 45 miles away from that. I pack up a lunch and fill my traveling water glass. I pull the hooded raincoat out of the closet, I gather up my bags and teaching paraphernalia, and I head off to the morning campus.

My students huddle in the computer lab for a working class. They complete a quiz and catch up on assignments. We hear rain patter on the building’s roof. The walls shudder as wind picks up. I sit at the instructor’s computer and open the college website, and I see a red band across the top. Branch Campus Closed Due to Water Main Burst! it reads.

I check my email. There are three messages from afternoon students. “Is class really cancelled?” they ask, hopefully.

After the morning students finish and wander off to the rest of their days, I check in with security. And I find that it’s true: my afternoon campus is closed; my afternoon class is cancelled.

I send off a group email to the students, confirming this.

I imagine jubilation on receipt.

I tote my bags back out to my car, parked in the farthest parking space, forcing me to get my steps in. The wind puffs open my raincoat and flips the hood off my head.

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

By the time I get home, the temperature has dropped and the wind is really whipping. Mark blows in from the office; Jim comes in from his meeting; we fix hot sandwiches and listen to gusts and howls.

I light the fire in the living room.

After lunch, Jim settles in with his laptop, Mark heads reluctantly back to work, and I take my book to the reading chair. My feet, on the big round ottoman, bask in the fire’s glow. I open Joanne Harris’s The Strawberry Thief, a sequel to Chocolat.

The first section is labelled “The Wind.” And in it, Harris writes, “No, the cruelest moment is always the one in which you think you might be safe; that maybe you can start building again, something that can’t be blown away. That’s the moment at which the wind is at its most insidious. That’s the moment where grief begins.”

The wind is a presence in Harris’s book, lurking and dangerous. Rosette, Viane’s strange, almost feral, daughter, might have the power to call the wind, so Viane, a woman whose sensual magic curls into the chocolates she patiently crafts, early on weaves a spell to take Rosette’s voice away.

If she cannot call the Hurakan, Viane reasons, Rosette will be safe.

But winds will blow, no matter. And people arrive, unbidden; people leave, unrepentant; secrets worm out of hard, forbidding wood, and lay, soft and vulnerable, in the day’s harsh light.

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

People have always, Tim Hall tells me on Weathersleuth, worshiped the wind. Sometimes the wind gods are gentle, warm, and welcoming; Dogoda, a Slavic god, is one of these. He rules, Hall writes, “over quiet pleasant winds and clear weather.”

But this is not a Dogoda day. This is a day when the wind blows fierce, and more gods glory in this iteration. The Chinese call their wind goddess Feng Popo; an old woman, she harnesses a wild tiger and rides that growling, jerking beast across the skies.

The Iroquois invoke Da-Jo-Ji, “the mighty panther spirit of the West Wind.”

Today’s winds are like that, like mighty, wild cats, pacing and clawing.

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

I read, and the fire murmurs, in an almost magical spot of found time. The wind wraps around the house and chudders the windows. But I am warm, warm and safe and freed from a long afternoon drive. The wind is a howling lullaby, and I fall deeply into sleep.

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

One day this summer, Jim went to the library and brought home the Mary Poppins Returns DVD. It reminded me that there was a PL Travers omnibus on my shelf; that book contains both Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back. Jim agreed to wait to view the DVD until I revisited both books. I read, that day, in all the nooks and crannies, and I took the book to bed that night and finished it.

The next evening, we watched the film; the Banks children had grown up. Michael had children and problems of his own, and Jane, an unconventionally charming woman, was there to try to help. But nothing went right at all until Mary Poppins blew in. In her lady-like way, she descended from the sky, straightened her prim little hat, and began to heal all the odd and painful breaches the Banks clan encountered.

In the books, Mary Poppins blows in with the East Wind and out with the West.

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

Some winds blow good and some winds blow ill, but there’s not much humans can do to change that…except, maybe, to care more for the Earth.

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

In California, Santa Ana winds blow, and, in the dry and crackling climate there, they spread danger. And fire. “Devil winds,” people call them. Those winds, writes Tim Arango, are “a sinister reminder that wind has the power to provoke fear and present danger in an instant.”

The winds in Ohio this dark afternoon whip through slick streets darkened early. I wake from my nap to their constant, strenuous murmuring. I go into the kitchen and pull things quickly from cupboards and cold shelves; I chop onions and garlic and slide the dice into melted butter. The chunks sizzle and gasp, releasing their wonderful scents, and the house begins to smell of warmth and sturdiness and safety.

I decant raw, frozen burger into the softened veggies and put the top on the pan. I thaw a container of stewed tomatoes in the microwave. I find the remainder of Tuesday’s spaghetti sauce in the refrigerator.

I dig out hot sauce, and I find the cayenne pepper.

When the burger is chunked and browned, I drain the fat from the pan and stir everything together—tomatoes and meat, veggies and sauce and spices and kidney beans, and put it all on a low heat to simmer. This meal needs bolstering; I fill the pasta pot with water, glorp in some olive oil, shaker in some salt. We’ll cook up some pasta and serve this chili Cincinnati style.

Mark comes barreling in; the wind reaches greedy hands around him through the open storm door. We lock that door behind him.

For dinner, we scoop up steaming bowls of chili and eat it as the wind shakes the panes in the bay window.

“This,” says Mark, “is perfect food for tonight.”

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

A plastic pumpkin full of chocolates waits on the old treadle sewing machine by the front door. But the trick-or-treaters are scarce this raggedy evening; they run, hanging onto parent hands, up the wet, slickery street, and many bypass our door, skittering off to safety.

Mark gives big handfuls of candy to the few groups that brave our front walk, and he bids them a happy Halloween. The children thank him and turn to run. Their parents wait on the curb, hands extended. They lock fingers and scurry, costumes flapping, away.

By seven o’clock the little masked adventurers are gone, but the wind is not. Wet leaves fly, glistening in the streetlights. There are old, crackled branches in the yards. We read in front of the fire. The wind buffets the house. It is still roiling when I crawl into bed and turn off the light.

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

Sometime in the night, the wind is broken. I wake to a morning that seems strangely still. The air is chill, and, as day freshens, the sun comes out. It shines on a littered, messy world, a landscape of leaves slapped harshly onto wet streets and sticks and branches shattered and crashed onto lawns and sidewalks.

But the leaves remaining on the trees are glorious, orange and red and golden. The sky is a deep clear blue, and the air is crisp and fresh.

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

What wind was THAT, last night: the panther wind, or the healer? What did it unleash—a season of comfort and warmth, or a worming thread of chaos and unrest? Do we get the astringent assistance of a Mary Poppins, or do we face the havoc of  a Huracan?

I make the coffee, and I write my pages, and I listen, wary, for some sort of clue. But I hear no answers in the quiet, and I have a morning appointment. I go upstairs to find my soft blue sweater, to fix my face and ready my demeanor, and I go out into this day: a new month, a new season, and a mystery to unravel.

Sources:

Hall, Tim. “The Mighty and Mysterious Gods and Goddesses of Wind.” The Weathersleuth, 2018, http://www.weathersleuth.com/wind_god.html

Arango, Tim. “Devil Winds drive Southern California Fires” The New York Times, 10/30/2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/us/california-fires-santa-ana-winds.html.

I Stop Awhile and Think of You…

There were two very young men in the group; both had short dark hair, deliberately tumbled looking. They were both tall and thin; they both wore long skinny jeans; and they quietly compared notes with each other throughout the tour. They looked, I thought, about 16, and my head whipped around in shock when the just slightly shorter of the two murmured, “When I bought my house…”

There was a younger couple—younger, that is, than I am—maybe 40’s, maybe 50’s. He was round and lurked in corners; she was short and wiry. She darted off to see what the guide pointed out, then darted back to whisper to him. When we all left the rooms, they would linger and explore.

There was James, of course.

And then: the rest of us, all of a certain age…one solitary man in his baseball cap and rock and roll t-shirt who sat a lot; he kept glancing around for affirmation when wonders were exposed. (Some experiences, after all, are meant to be shared. We smiled and nodded at him. Yes! we were saying. Yes! We see that too!)

The other eight or so of us were couples, comfortably aging and interested, slouching along in our grandparent jeans and soft-soled shoes. I had a moment of knowing that all eight of us were long-hairs in the seventies; knowing that back then, we would have been aggressively inhabiting the spaces, dragging tattered bellbottom hems over the hardwood floors, flicking back shining locks, breathing out, “Coooooooolllllllll…”

That moment passed, but it was the kind of veil-lifting, I’ve found, that happens when we visit places steeped in history. And we were at the Westcott House in Springfield, Ohio, a Frank Lloyd Wright home, on the road trip Mark decided he wanted to take for his 65th birthday.

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

I read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and so I knew, at least from a fictional but heavily researched point of view, about Wright’s scandalous relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, which took place, the New York Times review of the book reminds me, right about when Wright was designing his groundbreaking Oak Park house for his wife and children. It was the early 1900’s; Wright was in his thirties, establishing himself as an architect after parting ways with his mentor, Louis Sullivan.

Under Sullivan, Wright absorbed the concept of the Prairie School of Architecture. “These were single-story homes,” Biography.com tells me, “with low, pitched roofs and long rows of casement windows, employing only locally available materials and wood that was always unstained and unpainted, emphasizing its natural beauty.”

The Westcott House, designed in 1906 and built in 1908, fits snugly into that description. Although the house underwent many metamorphoses during its ample life—the most damaging to its design, perhaps, being chopped up into apartments during World War II,—the house is almost entirely restored to its glory.

We watch a short video about Wright and the Westcotts and the house’s rise, its settling into obscurity, and its triumphant return at the hands of hundreds of dedicated volunteers. Then our tour guide, Suzanne, who is also about our age, confident and knowledgeable, takes us through the ‘front’ door—which was actually, in a Lloyd-ian logical way, hidden on the side of the house,–and into the library.

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

Wright was young and not tremendously well-known when the house was completed; his scandalous leave-taking of his family had not quite yet occurred. And he hadn’t gained the iconic status he would later earn; ask someone NOW for the name of an American architect, and chances are, Wright’s name is the one that will roll, immediately, off their tongue…

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

Jim recently confided that he would love to live in a room lined with shelves that were filled with books. He looks around the library, with its vintage books stocked in glass-fronted shelves, and he whispers, “Cooolll…”

The furniture we saw artisans making on the video is here, completed; the tables and chairs are built to look like Gustav Stickley’s Arts and Crafts designs. The room is filled with the warmth of wood and washed in golden autumn light; windows ell on the outside walls, letting the sunshine surround us.

There is a picture of Mrs. Westcott (Orpha Lefler Westcott) in her turn-of-the century finery, standing proudly in this very room. She was posed in front of the windows; she had softened them with dark-colored curtains.

The curtains, Suzanne informs us, would not have met with Wright’s approval. He wanted to remove the boundaries between the outdoors and the inside…although he did understand the need for room darkening shades which should be placed so that they all but disappear when not in use. But he was maybe young enough, and maybe uncertain of his status enough, at this point in time, that he didn’t argue design with the matron of the home.

And there is no evidence, Suzanne tells us, that Wright actually ever visited the Springfield house.

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

The year after the Westcott House was built, Wright made his scandalous split from his family, and he and Mamah went to Germany. The architect, his biography tells me, put together a portfolio there that cemented his international acclaim. Ironically, his architecture, steeped in being truly United States-ian, was not as famous at home.

Wright and Mamah returned to the States in 1913, and he designed and began building them a home—Taliesin in Wisconsin, on land that his mother’s family owned. The name meant “shining brow,” and the home was intended to be a refuge and a haven, a place where Wright and Mamah could be happily together. And it might have been that for a tiny slice of time, but in 1914, one of Wright’s servants killed Mamah and her two sons, locked workmen in the dining room, and set the home on fire. As the workers tried to escape, the servant hacked at them with a hatchet. They all died.

Wright was devastated, according to his biography, but he immediately began to rebuild; he wanted, Biography.com says, to ‘wipe the scar from the hill.’

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

We move from the library to the inglenook, centered on the fireplace, with built-in banquettes,–a place where the family could gather, and where friends could bask in the warmth. We sit on the banquettes, softened by long cushions, and we listen to Suzanne tell us about the Westcott family and the quest to reclaim their treasured home.

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

In the dining room we exclaim over the low rise of the chairs, and we wonder how comfortable that might be, sitting down to a meal.

Not very, says Suzanne drily, but she asks us to please not try them out. We move off from the common rooms, leaving the slightly younger couple stealthily sliding into the pantry.

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

A year or two ago, close friends and I toured Graycliff, a Frank Lloyd Wright home built on the shores of Lake Erie in western New York. It was designed and built for Isabelle Martin, the wife of a Buffalo, New York, industrialist (Wright had designed and built a Buffalo home for the Martins between 1903 and 1905; Graycliff would serve Isabelle as a summer home.) Graycliff emerged on its cliff between 1926 and 1931. Wright WAS on site and involved for the construction of that home; when Isabelle made demands that thwarted his design plans, there were tussles. Many of the light-filled, expansive features of the Westcott house grace Graycliff, too.

By 1936, Wright had been married, again, and divorced, again, and re-married. He had built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for the Japanese emperor. The Hotel was the only building to withstand a catastrophic earthquake that rocked Tokyo the year after the hotel was built. (Wright had insisted the hotel was earthquake-proof.)

His acclaim grew exponentially. Taliesin had been destroyed, again by fire…this time sparked by faulty electrical wiring, and Wright had, again, rebuilt it. And he designed hundreds of other buildings, too. But, when the Great Depression dried up architectural commissions, he started the Taliesin Fellowship, a place where aspiring architects could learn from him, and he seemed to disappear. He would have been, at about this time, in his 60’s; retirement, a move to teaching,would have been logical and understood.

But then he came roaring back, building Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. “Shockingly original and astonishingly beautiful,” Biography.com confides, “Fallingwater is marked by a series of cantilevered balconies and terraces constructed atop a waterfall in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. It remains one of Wright’s most celebrated works, a national landmark widely considered one of the most beautiful homes ever built.”

Wright didn’t slow down; he went on to design and build many more structures. The most famous was the Guggenheim Museum, which opened its doors in 1959…six months after the death of its architect, who was 91.

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

Both Orpha and Burton Westcott had their own bedroom and private bath; their suites were adjoined by a connecting door.

Look at the closets, suggests Suzanne, and we do, our furtive friend waiting until we are on our way to the kids’ rooms to do his own exploring. In 1906, Orpha and Burton Westcott both had walk-in closets; they each had a luxurious bathroom of their own. Their son and daughter each had their own room and shared a Jack and Jill bath.

What luxury! I am reminded of watching Leave it to Beaver in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s and being amazed, not so much at Beaver’s antics, but that Beaver and Wally had their own bathroom.

What would THAT be like, child me wondered, watching the show, not to have to share a bath?

Wright was answering my question years before I was born.

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

We wend through the servant’s quarters: solid, sturdy rooms without the luxurious finishing touches of the family spaces. Floors are wood, not tiled; the tubs are ample but not capacious. We troop through, downstairs to the kitchen, an unusually large room with plenty of cupboards and countertop space. Wright seemed to have an intuitive feel for what each person in the home would need: thinking space, sharing space, working space.

We wander outside, into the broad, sheltered greenness of the courtyard, where the plantings are kept as close to Wright’s vision as possible. The tour winds down, and we end where we started, in the gift shop. Suzanne answers last questions. We browse but do not buy; we visit, just off the shop area, the pony stalls where the Westcott children sheltered their shaggy little beasts. And then it is time for us to go. Our tour mates, except for one couple still talking with Suzanne, have disappeared, too.

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

We end the day, after a fruitless search for a local eatery, someplace homegrown and funky, with sandwiches in a reputable chain restaurant. We talk about the features of the Westcott house.

“That library…” says Jim.

Mark likes the way functional stuff—heaters, for instance,–was hidden behind simply designed but beautifully symmetric screens and vents.

“A bathroom all to myself…” I murmur longingly, and, “Hey!” they both protest. “We’re not that bad to share with.

Are we???”

I let my answer slide, and I think of Frank Lloyd Wright, a force for certain, a bounder, perhaps, but a man who embraced his genius early on and then determined he’d let nothing stop him from developing it. He persevered, through a personal history fraught with peril and alarm, and he changed the way the United States lives and how we envision luxury. He took the cluttered poshness of Victorian days and he threw open the heavy, dusty drapes, cleared off the cramped tabletops, and let healthy light shine in.

We’d like, we agree, to visit Oak Park, and to check out the Frank Lloyd Wright house Suzanne told us about that’s a B and B in Chagrin Falls. The boyos have not seen Graycliff yet; we should go back there. We should all visit the Darwin Martin House.

And we should go back to East Aurora, where we once visited a wonderful old fashioned five and dime store and ate the best beef on ‘weck we’d had in years. We should go back and tour the Roycroft Campus, where furniture was once made in that arts and craft style Wright favored so highly.

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

Our visit to the Westcott house was an intersection: a time shared with strangers who became, for a moment, companions; a time of realization and reckoning for Mark as he steps into a new era; a lifting of the veil of time and feeling, so closely, the life of a man from another age.

It is important, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, to stop awhile and think on this, to maybe let the boundaries between what’s outside our brains and what’s inside them soften and melt for at least a little while, to practice, perhaps, an organic kind of Prairie School of Introspection. 

Let the outside in. Let the light illuminate our dark corners. Touch the past and embrace the future.

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

So Long Frank Lloyd Wright (third stanza)

Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view
When I run dry
I stop awhile and think of you

—Simon and Garfunkel

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

https://www.biography.com/artist/frank-lloyd-wright

https://www.westcotthouse.org

http://mentalfloss.com/article/28519/taliesin-tragedy

https://experiencegraycliff.org/

When the Furnace Comes On

I came downstairs at 6:07 a.m., and it was cold in the house.

“I’m NOT turning on the heat,” I said to myself, “not when it’s only halfway through October.” I went and got an old jacket and threw it on over my teaching togs. I made a full pot of decaf and warmed my hands on the mug.

The car, by the time I hit the interstate, was warmer than the house had been.

That night, at a meeting, we discussed the sudden chill temps.

“I refuse,” said one of the women, “to turn my furnace on in October.”

We all nodded sagely, although some of the assembled looked hastily away. Ha, I thought; your heat is on, isn’t it?

By the time I got home, just after 9:00, it was downright frosty outside. It was a-soak-in-a-hot-tub kind of a night. And when I woke up at 3 a.m., I realized that the thermostat, or one of my housemates, had undermined my firm intent. The house was warm, and the furnace was chugging.

I smiled and went back to sleep.

And in the morning the house was toasty and welcoming to early risers.

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

There’s a certain smell when the furnace first comes on,–even when someone has changed the filters and cleaned the big old machine. It’s an odor of roasted paper and friendly dust. It rises up for a morning, and just smelling it is an event. And then the scent settles down, settles in; the heat reaches into all the nooks and all the corners, and it becomes, firmly and with no nonsense, furnace season.

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

Why, oh why, oh why, I have been moaning, did I agree to teach four classes this term? And why, having done that, did I construct my syllabi so that all four had papers due—big papers, significant papers, papers that require intensely focused responses—in the second week of October?

Oh, woe, oh, woe, I have been saying, and I have been walking hunchbacked, as if tumbled over by the weight of all those papers on my back.

I’ll never get caught up, I might have lamented once or twice.

And then Wednesday, while my class of lovely, smart, and witty people were taking their midterms, I graded the last of one set of essays, and I realized I only had one more set to go. The students completed their midterms; since most of them had opted to put pen to paper, I bundled the stapled documents into the Wednesday class folder. The last student waved and left; I chatted for a moment with the instructor who teaches in the room after I do; and then I walked outside.

It was crisp—one of those blue-sky days where the air is champagne-clear. The trees, since the temps dropped, had finally started to turn, and the colors were creeping up, glorious. A breeze chuffled dry leaves around and about; every once in a while, that breeze got really playful and swirled those leaves in circles, then lifted them up and let them fall. I was smiling when I got in the car, and the almost-hour’s drive melted away, and after lunch, I put my sneakers on and went for a long, stretching walk. I wore my skinny knit gloves, and when I came home, I graded three more papers and then I took James to the library.

And suddenly I wondered what I had been so worried about. The grading was getting done. After the midterm, the semester stretches out into the final paper process, and the grading slows way down. I shifted my shoulders, and I realized they had been tight with tension, and I chided myself.

I got a couple of soup and stew cookbooks to look through while Jim browsed the DVD’s and the manga section, and I imagined the house smelling like beef stew and baking bread while leaves swirled outside, and everything clicked into place.

This is completely doable, I thought.

There’s a little bit of magic in the days when the furnace clicks on.

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

There’s magic in each season, really, but if pressed, I would have to say that autumn is the best. These are my days, I thought suddenly, and I realized that Fall is my favorite, with its outrageous colors and whimsical decorations and rolling chestnuts and skittering leaves.

Manic squirrels run across streets, daring and urgent. I look out the kitchen window and there’s one frantically tunneling in the front yard.

Hide the acorns! I imagine them chittering to each other and they scramble off in every direction, blatting at the neighborhood cats, frantic to get their pantries settled before the really cold weather settles in.

I understand how they feel. I press Jim into service, and we inventory the freezers, and I make up my shopping list. It is hunker-down season. It’s time to be sure there’s plenty on hand.

And that of course, must be some atavistic, inherited autumn impulse, because the supermarket is eight minutes away, and I could walk, if need be, to the corner store. But something impels me to bake cookies, to vacuum and mop, to sweep the back steps, and to rake the leaves out near the street, where the leaf-sucker has easy access.

And on Friday, after lunch, James gamely plays wingman for a long afternoon of errands.

We recycle ink cartridges at the office supply store and buy new pens and replace my missing ear buds.

We drive to the bins back behind the animal shelter and recycle cardboard and paper.

We shop at Kohl’s; we buy some small plates, orange and red and gold and brown, that say things like, “Thankful for Fall!” on them. As the last of the soft soap dribbles away, I am replacing the plastic dispensers with ceramic plates to hold bars of soap—bars that come in little cardboard boxes…one small way to circumvent household plastic.

We buy some birthday surprises for the dad.

And then, on this glorious afternoon, this perfect fall day, we head north to Dresden, and then we turn onto Route 16, and we drive five miles more to the apple stand. “Our own apples!” says the sign, and we pull up next to the red-painted barn and go exploring, hunting for apples to make a birthday pie and a big batch of applesauce.

The woman behind the counter, my age or older, is bundled up. She wears a knit cap, pulled down to her eyebrows (little sproings of gray hair escape) and a puffy, pale blue jacket. She looks at me through steel rimmed glasses; I am comfy in my long-sleeved knit shirt.  She says, “I think it’s warmer outside than it is in here!”

And she’s right; the big, clean-swept barn is downright chilly. She advises us, and we choose a big bag of Melrose apples for cooking and baking and a small sack of McIntosh for eating. Jim buys a package of cheesy snacks, and we chat with the chilly lady for a moment or two before heading back to town and to the little family market whose butcher shop we love.

I buy sliced ham, boneless chicken, a big chuck roast for stew, and center cut pork chops. We wander by the frozen section and choose some birthday celebration ice cream.

For dinner, we eat roasted pork chops and roasted apples.

The ice cream will go nicely with birthday apple pie.

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

It is a time for cooking and sharing. It’s a planning time, a reckoning time. It’s a time of energy and accomplishment and a funny little pulsing beat of joy and anticipation. It sneaks up on me; I feel the first curling fingers of winter cold sliding down my forearm and think, “Oh, no; not YET, you don’t.”

But the chill is here and it waits for me and it brooks no argument. And finally, we have to give in, don’t we?

We turn the heat on.

And with that capitulation, a door opens. The season opens up, opens into a time of warmth and possibility.

“Oh, yes,” I think. “If I work hard, and if I work smart, I can manage this just fine.”

These are the days when the air is clear and crisp, when the house smells like baking bread and bubbling soups…the days when the furnace first comes on and the fall draws close and wonderful mysteries push close to the membrane, waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

Hello, Back There

I wear light clothes on a late-September Thursday; it is hot,—hot and muggy. That night, I crawl into bed with the ceiling fan whirring full blast. As I nod over my book, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on again.

It’s been running hard most of the day.

I wake up sometime during the night and know that rain is pounding the roof. I sleep, deep and sound, until the morning has lightened, and I realize, before even swinging my feet out of the bed, that something has changed.

Finally, overnight, crisp fall weather has arrived.

I dress in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I spend Friday morning grading papers and running errands. In the afternoon, I rake the front yard, and my cheeks are rosy and cold by the time I come into the house. I sit at the dining room table, I check my phone for messages, and I think: SOUP.

I know just the soup I want, and I have all the ingredients. I dig out the old yellow notebook and flip back to Kathie’s recipe for chicken and wild rice soup.

I get out all the ingredients, substituting here and there. I don’t buy Velveeta these days, but I have a wonderful Vermont cheddar and some sharp, creamy, American-style cheese that Mark brought home from one Saturday expedition; those will do nicely. And I’ll use my own chicken broth in place of the five cups of water. And I don’t buy canned cream of mushroom soup any longer; instead, I make something called “Cream of Something Soup.” Those directions lodge in the same notebook as Kathie’s soup recipe.

I found “Cream of Something Soup” when we were trying to wrestle Jim’s diet into some kind of control. Before his autism diagnosis, we discovered, with the help of a book called Is This Your Child?, that Jim was sensitive to a slew of foods. He loved casseroles with meat and cheese and canned cream of chicken soup. The book cautioned against using processed foods, and especially discouraged salty processed soups. I went looking for alternatives and found “Cream of Something Soup” on line.

The recipe provided all kinds of alternatives. I could use AP flour, or I could use gluten-free AP flour substitute. I could use milk, or I could use broth. I could add mushrooms or onions, or no veggies at all. And the prep time was three minutes. I used it in one of our family favorites dishes, a chicken and rice bake, and Jim liked it BETTER than when I used cream of chicken soup from the can.

I bookmarked the recipe, and used it again and again. Finally, I printed the recipe and taped it into the notebook.

One of my students had used the yellow and black notebook for her English assignments; at the end of the semester, she did not pick it up. Most of its pages were, sadly, unmarred by academic work and, after waiting a few months to see if she’d come back for it, I ripped out the used pages and started pasting recipes inside. Her name is still emblazoned on the yellow plastic cover in black sharpie that has faded but not disappeared over the 25 years I’ve been taping and using recipes in this book.

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

While the soup simmers, I page through the yellow notebook. I have some awesome veggie recipes from a book called Black Dog: Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook. I found that at our former hometown library; the recipe for Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Salad makes one of the best bring-a-dish concoctions I’ve ever found. I copied those cookbook recipes on my printer at home; the pages were brightly colored, and my printer was not up to their vibrancy. But the words were there. I trimmed the pallid copies and pasted them on the loose-leaf pages of the book.

Some recipes I copied long-hand.

Some recipes were written out for me in someone else’s hand: Mark’s dad gave us his meatball recipe. Wendy gave me directions to make her neighbor Joan’s rhubarb cake. Terri sent me wonderful veggie-based recipes on beautiful flowered cards, written in her unmistakable flowing hand.

Kathie emailed me her recipe, and I printed it out.

And I found the other recipes in all kinds of random places—in magazines and newspapers and on-line cooking sites, on the backs of packages and boxes. I cut them out or printed them off, and I pasted them on loose-leaf pages intended for cramped, painstaking notes on some challenging academic subject, and the cast-off notebook grew fat.

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

Now I page through the book. I am thinking of making some kind of dessert—not cookies; we just had cookies. We’ve also had pie and a sort of chocolate pudding-y trifle recently.

Maybe, I think, a cake, and I flip a page over and see this in-my-face title: “Better Than Sex Cake.” Despite the title, I read through. It is a Bundt cake; with a little creativity (I’ll use Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream; I’ll pulverize chocolate chips in the food processor instead of grating German sweet chocolate), I can put this together with things in my pantry. I take the notebook to the kitchen and start to gather ingredients.

And as I gather, I begin to wonder. Who was I, and what was I thinking, when I cut out this recipe? I was probably in my late thirties or early forties; I was parenting a bright, lovable, special needs kid. I was helping my husband make his law school dream come true. I was working.

And I was clipping recipes. They were recipes I probably wouldn’t use at the time that I clipped them. In a way, I think, I was sending letters to my future self.

Someday, I was thinking, someday…we’ll be settled and life will be calmer, and I’ll have a lot more time to browse through my recipes and try new things.

Someday, I was promising, we are going to make this cake.

For a minute, I feel like I’ve connected two wires, felt the snick as they cleaved together, and now hold the completed, humming cable in my two hands. There was a moment of reaching back, of putting my hand on that younger woman’s shoulder, of telling her that there were going to be some stunningly rough spots, but that it was all going to turn out to be okay.

Young self: sending message.

Old self: making the cake.

Message received.

That recycled notebook is looking a little bit like a time capsule to me.

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

I am not the only one who does this, who clips and collects and keeps recipes I won’t use right now but might indeed use later. I know this because, when Jim was at odds and between jobs, I asked him if he’d catalog my recipes for me.

He did better than that. He took my old yellow notebook, and my mother’s wooden recipe box—the one with the strawberries painted on it,—and the shoe box full of magazine and newspaper and back-of-package clippings, and he retyped all the recipes, and he printed them off, and he organized them into binders. They are categorized and alphabetized. They comprise four volumes.

My friend Susan contracted with Jim to create a binder for her. One chilly afternoon, they met in her pretty kitchen and bent their heads over a flat, square recipe box. Susan pulled out recipes she loved and recipes she treasured and recipes she wanted to try. Just as I did, she had started, in her young womanhood, clipping and collecting.

Jim made a binder for Susan, too, organizing those missives from a younger self into a tidy, easy-to-access tome, a book that current self could browse through easily. And I knew I hadn’t been the only hopeful young soul spinning dreams of parties and gatherings and comforting meals out into the future.

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

I love my binders. But I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the old yellow notebook. Sometimes I like to bring it out and just browse. I mark recipes to try soon and I put x-es through recipes I attempted that bombed, but mostly I think about who I was back when I saved that recipe for me. I run my fingertips over the glossy magazine clipping from twenty years ago, and I feel the cloth-y softness of recipes clipped from long-ago newspapers. I stop and take in the handwriting of some loved person, now, maybe, gone.

For a minute, nowness fades and I feel the continuum, the whole roiling, circling line that is life. I think that, if only I could master the art of tessering as Meg did in A Wrinkle in Time, I cold fold the continuum neatly and step off into those other days, bringing reassurance and giving promises.

But maybe, somehow, that’s already happened.

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

The cake is good. Does it live up to its name?

I’m not even going there.

And I’m going to re-name it, anyway. One of the funny quirks of autism, I’ve found, is a sort of Puritanical streak. Jim would not find it amusing to eat “Better Than Sex” cake.

Maybe, I think, we’ll call it “Better Than Books” or “Richer Than Reading” cake. And of course, then I’ll have to dispute that title, too.

Whatever we call it, we’ll eat that cake, down to the crumbs on the platter.

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

And isn’t it funny that, years ago, younger me clipped the very recipe that I’d have wherewithal to mix together at the ripe old age of 64, when all the worries of those days, all the encompassing demands on my time, and all the pulsing questions of the time have been resolved?

I might, of course, have been able to find a very similar recipe on line, but then that current never would have been coursing. I wouldn’t have held that humming cable in my hands.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn back and say, “Hello, you. Thanks! And wait till you see how it all turns out.”

Dispatches from the Land of Old

We are at the mobile phone store, James and I are. A perky, attentive young assistant we’ll call Kimberly (she reminds me of Andie MacDowell, if Andie MacDowell were 22) finds Jim the new phone he needs—bigger, faster and with a whole lot more gigs. It takes moments for the new phone to be up and running and protected by a sturdy new case, and for the old phone to be wiped clean and readied for recycling of some sort.

Then Kimberly takes my sad phone from me. She looks at the shattered screen. The old tiny, edgy cracks were nudged recently, by a full-frontal splat on a hard floor, into full spiderwebs that flare across most of the glass.

Kimberly makes the tsk, tsk sound, and then she looks at me fondly. She will help me order a replacement phone (I have no need for more or faster, so my new phone will just be a pristine version of the same old phone). That will come to my house, and she tells me I should bring it back in and get a case and protection glass for the screen. Her fingers fly across a keyboard while she talks, and she finds that we can get a discount for setting up auto-pay and another discount if anyone in our family is a veteran of the armed services (my stepson Matt served proudly in the Navy, and even though he is not on our phone plan, his service is good enough, Kimberly thinks, to earn us a chunk of change.)

She gets the replacement folks on the line, and a new phone immediately starts wending its way to my house. It will arrive tomorrow, and a service rep will arrive at my door soon after to help me set up the new phone and disable the old one.

While Kimberly is efficiently dispatching all these necessary jobs—effortlessly clearing details that would have taken me weeks to wade through, I tell her how easy she’s making the process. She begins to smile.

“I was at my mother’s house for lunch today,” she tells me, “and her elderly neighbor came over with her cell phone. She said, ‘Kimberly, can you fix this?’ And I saw what it was—it’s a glitch a lot of older folks run into—so I was able to take care of it in a couple of seconds. She was so happy! She said, ‘I don’t know how you DO that,’ and I said, ‘Well I have these skills, and you have other ones.’”

Kimberly’s eyes are a little glazed; she is immersed in remembering, and forgetting her audience. She muses, “She was just about—” and I see her stop and realize what she’s about to say, stop and swallow the “…your age…” that was about to pop out of her mouth.

“…the sweetest thing,” she amends, a little lamely, a beat late.

“Nice save,” I think but do not say to the red-faced assistant, and James bags up all his new phone accessories and holds the door for me as I totter my elderly self out of that bastion of techie youth.

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

I had been napping, my head against the window, when the pilot came over the intercom, loud and cheerful.

“Buckle up, folks!” he crowed. “We’re almost ready to land.”

I looked out the window just as we emerged from the clouds and a whole new landscape spread out before me. It looked nice down there; it was sunny, not too crowded, and there seemed to be lots of green space.

“You’ll find,” continued the pilot, “that you won’t need your jackets—it’s a balmy 78 degrees right now! Do make sure, though, that you have your elastic-waisted pants and your sensible shoes. And don’t forget to call your kids or your friends and tell them you’ve arrived safely.

“Sit back now. We’re just about to land.”

He clicked off, and the plane swooped down. There was a little jolt as the wheels touched down, but otherwise, all was smooth.

The plane was full, and we passengers looked around and smiled at each other as we reached for our bags in the overhead bins. We were all looking forward to joining friends and family, now that we’d arrived in the land of Old.

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

There is absolutely nothing good to say about a string of ninety-degree days that leech from late September into early October. It is wrong, and it is terrifying: climate change rearing its ugly face above the horizon once again. I was so relieved when, just last night, the heat streak cracked wide open, and clear, cold air rushed in to push the muggy denseness away.

I got up this morning, and I made some coffee, and I pulled on my walking clothes—capris, a long-sleeved shirt. I laced up my sneaks over soft white socks, and I tried to pull up the music app on my new phone.

I could get Van Morrison’s scowling face on my screen, but I couldn’t conjure up the little arrow that would bid him sing. Damn, I thought: my new phone and no music.

Mark came to look, and we passed the phone back and forth, checking this, checking that. Finally, I went into Settings and realized the phone was set for our OLD wifi. I typed in the new access code, updated everything, and went back to Music.

The arrow still did not appear, and Van remained mute.  I went for a walk with just my morning thoughts for accompaniment. It was a nice walk, but I was actually cold, and I wished I had dug out a light pair of knit gloves. The chill was good, though; I walked briskly and covered a lot of territory in a shorter time.

When I get home, I took some Tylenol.  Mark came through, rubbing his hip.

“I love this weather,” he said, “but my bones are aching.”

We mixed up batter and tag-teamed some awesome French toast and ham.

Jim smelled good smells and dragged himself downstairs.

I mentioned the phone music dilemma to him.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry to hear that. Did you turn it off for ten seconds?”

I turned off the phone, ate my whole grain French toast, and turned the phone back on again. The little arrow popped up on Van Morrison’s face. When I clicked it, he began to sing.

And I thought, again, Damn. Maybe I AM the same age as Kimberly’s mother’s elderly neighbor.

I popped a couple of glucosamine and wrestled the vacuum from the hall closet.

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

Maybe it’s harder for those of us born on the younger end of large sibling groups to get the hang of aging. We are too little for so long; we watch siblings go out and do daring things we won’t be allowed to do for YEARS. They hit all the milestones—Graduation! Big travels! Jobs! Weddings!—long before we are eligible.

“I can’t wait,” we think, “until I am old enough to…”

And then suddenly we ARE old enough. Suddenly we are, say, thirty, and an older sibling says to us, “You know, you USED to be a little kid, but now we’re all the same age.”

All grownups. All those hefty milestones passed. But still, we feel like we’re on the young end of things.

Until suddenly, we’re 60, and the doctor says things like, “Arthritis,” and “High blood pressure,” and “Decaffeinated coffee.”

Damn, we think.

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

I walk by a beautiful garden display—no blooms, just foliage,–and I think to myself, “I’ve got to try some of that…what DO you call that stuff?” And as I walk, I mull names. Pachysandra? No, that’s the ground cover. Not chrysanthemums; of course not, silly. The name is right there; it’s written on a sturdy piece of card stock, and it’s sloshing back and forth in the muck on the bottom of my brain.

But I cannot reach in and pick it up.

When I get home, I look up ‘plants with colorful foliage,’ and find the word I want: coleus. I smack my forehead, and the cardstock, word emblazoned, pops up from the muck.

“A little late, aren’t you?” I mutter, and it does a little dance before sinking away again.

My memory hits sluggish spots. My shoulders and my knees creak. I read ads about clever gadgets that cure bunions without surgery, and I think seriously about sending off a check.

When I need to use technology, I look around for a twelve-year-old to help me.

It is true. My feet are planted firmly in the Land of Old.

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

It’s not, really, such a bad place to be. The company is wonderful. I may be dragging sixty-plus years’ worth of baggage down the walkways, but so are all my companions, people who know what I’m talking about when I say things like “the Troggs” or “bomb shelters” or “plaid Bermudas and woolen knee socks.”

There are a lot of experiences to sift through from this lofty vantage; there’s a lot of meaning to be made.

And there is time, now, when I remember not to over-schedule myself, to think about those meanings.

There is the sense, too, of the less important things, the frivolous, unnecessary things, falling away, and there is the opportunity to really delve into the big matters, the important matters, the thoroughly engaging matters, that remain. There are books to be read; there are words to be written; there are still new things to be explored.

But now I am choosier. Now I can’t do everything, can’t make choices willy-nilly, can’t think, “Well, if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just try something else.”

Now I need to focus on the things I really want and need to do.

And, here in the Land of Old, I find a spiritual community too,…a group of compatriots steeped in gratitude. We made it through all that and have, now, the time to ponder. Many of our best ones finished the journey way too early. I didn’t earn the right to be here, I know: I was just blindly lucky. I will appreciate that luck; I will really, mindfully, dwell here in this time, foggy mind, aching bones, and all.

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

I take my new phone back to the mobile phone store, where I buy a case and a screen protector.

“Would you like me to put those on your phone for you?” asks the efficient young clerk, whose name, her badge says, is Devon.

“Yes, I would,” I say, and I hand her my phone. In seconds she has encased my new technology in protection from my haphazard ways. There are things I gladly hand to the young, things it would not behoove me to try to learn to do.

And there are things I’ve learned that they haven’t mastered yet. I still know a couple of tricks that they can’t do. So I’ll bring my Smartphone to that technology chapel, and then I’ll go back to my land.

But, my good companions and I, we’ve been here long enough to figure out the kinds of encouragement and support those young ones need. So we’ll watch for the times of need, and when they come, we’ll float out messages in brightly colored bottles, sending thoughtful dispatches from the Land of Old.

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

Oh, and I looked up Andie MacDowell, by the way. She herself is 61.

What Can It Hurt?

It is still pleasantly warm in the late afternoon. Katherine’s attention is flagging.

“Hell,” she thinks. “I’m 75 years old. I’m ALLOWED to wander a little.”

She sits carefully back in her seat, crosses her legs neatly at the ankle, and puts on her paying attention look. Boffle Three is droning at the podium, using this occasion to drive home his political agenda. She will know when it’s time to resurface by the change in his cadence. So, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted as if ready to comment enthusiastically on the words she’s not hearing, she allows herself to drift away, to think what this 50th anniversary means.

She was 25 in 2025; she had been born on January 1, 2000. Her dad called her Y2Katy, and that was part of the charm the press found in quoting her.

She went to a town hall on climate change, on the desperate need to make change happen NOW. Katherine was a young teacher, and she thought of everything in terms of the earth her students—4th graders, mostly 10 years old—would grow up into.

The first Boffle—Boffle One—had the podium. He was a short man, a round man, and a bald man. He was not much to look at, that Boffle (because it was before Boffle Two and Boffle Three emerged, Katherine just thought of him as Blowhard Boffle), but he did have a way with words. And now he was telling the audience, many of whom were happy to be convinced, that climate change was a hoax. That all the violent storms, all the dying animals, all the forest fires and all the melting, changing landscapes, were due to natural cycles.

“Nothing we can do—we’re just people, folks!” said Boffle One, “is going to make one diddlysquat of difference. We’re at the mercy of nature. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up progress.”

Katherine looked around the town hall, and she saw people wavering. And something propelled her, although she was generally a quiet person, out of her seat.

“Mr. Boffle,” she called politely. “May I ask a question?”

The round man looked over, took her in—a tall, serious young woman, with neatly tied long hair and owl-y glasses, and he smiled.

“Of course, you can ask a question, miss,” he said kindly. And he leaned forward as if to catch her faltering words.

But Katherine, who was never much of a public speaker, didn’t falter this time.

“Well, here it is,” she said. “And I’m sorry if it’s lengthy. But it seems to me that if you’re wrong, and we DON’T pursue immediate changes, we can damage things beyond repair. We could leave the children I teach a world that they can’t live in.

“But if you’re right, and we do pursue immediate changes—well, the world will be better for it, won’t it? And those kids’ lives will still be better for what we’ve done?

“So my question is, Mr. Boffle, when it comes to treating this earth with love and respect—well, what can it hurt?”

In the sudden, sucking silence, the little man stared at her. His look clearly said, “I thought you were one of us. I thought you’d support me.” His betrayal was so abject that Katherine almost felt a pang of remorse.

But then, from the back of the auditorium, a voice rang out. “What can it hurt?”

And Katherine, still standing, turned to look. As she did, other voices took it up. “What can it hurt? WHAT CAN IT HURT?”

They chanted Boffle right off the stage. He was supplanted by a writer who had made protecting the earth his mission, and right then and there, in that middling auditorium in that middling city, they began to plot real change.

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

It happened because people happened. People said, “I’m not buying single-use plastic,” and they found other ways of living. They took up canning. They composted. They bought in bulk. They hunted down alternatives to plastic packaging.

They shared rides, and they turned off technology for big parts of their days, and they installed solar panels on their houses.

It was a grass roots movement, and each community figured out what they could do to make change happen. Shared gardens sprang up. Rapid transit improved all over, as more and more people traveled on hybrid buses. In one city, everyone pledged to turn off all but essential electricity for an hour every night, and they chalked up the amazing difference caused by that hour. A trend sprang up: blackout parties, they called ‘em.

And Katherine’s words…What can it hurt?…became the catch-call.

People crafted t-shirts that read ‘What can it hurt?’

People painted signs and stuck them in the veggie gardens that grew up in many front yards. ‘What can it hurt?’

At the grocery store, Katherine saw a woman loading her food into brown paper bags that her kids had decorated with pictures of plants and smiling animals. An owl was saying, “What can it hurt?”

The media loved it. They found her and interviewed her; they discovered the Y2Katy moniker, and they wrote about how a girl, born with the century, wanted to ensure that the earth was healthy in the centuries that followed.

She had a flurry of attention, Katherine did, and then it faded.

It faded because things really were changing. People were disconnecting from electronics, slowing down, looking at life a different way.

The amazing thing was that change bubbled from the bottom up, from the people who would be most affected, from that broad base of ordinary folks who wanted the earth to be a healthy, safe, happy place.

The movement simmered and boiled over. There was nothing for government to do, nothing for industry to do, but to get on board.

And Katherine plunged into her teaching and changed her own life.

She saved her money and bought herself a tiny house—a house she still lived in. She installed solar panels, which generated the power she needed for many things, including the air conditioning she only used on the hottest of days (fewer now than they used to be.) She used silicone storage containers and canvas shopping bags, and she mixed up vinegar and salt and a spritz of dish detergent to spray on the weeds that grew in the cracks on her old brick patio. That didn’t kill the weeds entirely, but it tempered them, made them manageable, and didn’t introduce poisons into the ground.

She mended things and she re-used things and she learned to bake and cook from scratch.

One of the best things about the whole movement, Katherine thinks now, was the social change. She began to get to know her neighbors, and they began to share their talents. Her neighbor Brian loved to can things. Rob was a skilled woodworker and his wife Sylvie could sew like a professional. Katherine shared her brownies and soups, the flowers she grew in her cutting garden, and the extra tomatoes that burgeoned despite inquisitive deer. Brian canned those tomatoes for her; Ron made her window boxes. One year, Sylvie gifted her with sturdy rugs that she had made from rags Katherine gave her.

Katherine still uses those rugs.

She still uses, too, the electric car she had bought almost 25 years ago, nurturing and babying it into a very healthy old age.

People had lived differently now for long enough that change was happening; the melt was stopping; the storms becoming less fearful; the animals becoming more healthy.

It looked, after this half a century, like they had chosen the right path.

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

But there were still Boffles. Of course there were Boffles. This one’s grandfather had left his legacy to his son, who spend a lifetime making speeches imparting wisdom that began with lines like this: “I’ll TELL you what it can hurt!”

But the movement, once begun, seemed mightily unstoppable, Boffle be damned. And ‘it’ didn’t seem to hurt anything, except maybe the bottom line of those who already had enough, away.

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

She pulls herself back as she hears the current Boffle switch gears.

“I still,” he says, “am not convinced that the change we are seeing would not have happened anyway. But I do agree that, in many ways, life is good. And a lot of that goodness came about because of the words of one woman, a brave little lady who asked my grandpa a question. That was Y2Katy, and here she is, still with us today.”

He sweeps an arm toward Katherine, and she smiles in what she hopes is a gracious way, and she stands up. She is wearing her heels, wearing them for this very reason: she walks over to the podium and she towers over Boffle Three.

“Maybe,” she says wryly, and her grimace is self-deprecating, “not such a LITTLE lady.”

The crowd laughs, and the laughter swells.

Katherine spreads out her remarks on the smooth wood of the podium. She wants to say she loves what her life has become; she loves the visits from her former students, many of who are parents, and some of whom are grandparents.

She wants to say she loves being retired and hanging her sheets out on sunny mornings, loves sleeping on those sun-baked sheets at night.  She wants to talk about the rich friendships she discovered after she put her smartphone down back when she was young and started looking into people’s faces, started slowing down to talk, starting bringing bunches of her posies to the elderly lady who lived next door and cookies to the harried young mom on the other side.

She wants to say that, when she started living a life that benefited the earth, her life did not become impoverished or laborious. Her life became richer.

But the crowd does not let her. The laughter simmers down, and a voice calls out, “What can it hurt?” And for the second time in her life, her words are chanted back to her, thrumming and uplifted.

And she realizes she doesn’t have to say a word. Grinning, she thrusts her seventy-five year-old fist into the air, and pumps it. The crowd roars.

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

She does not stay for the reception after the ceremony. She finds a bench and slips off her heels. She laces up her sneakers and walks the mile to her house, leaving the noise and celebration behind her. The movement would have swelled and happened without her, Katherine knows. But it’s fun that her question became a catch-phrase. It tickles her to be a foot-note to a grand historical happening, to a moment humanity can be proud of.

At home, she brews a small pot of herbal tea, and she wraps herself in a hand knit shawl against the evening’s cool, and takes her steaming mug out onto the little brick patio. She can hear the thumping bass of a band at the reception. And she is glad to be alone, glad to have time and health and community—glad to have a recovering earth to flourish upon—glad to be able to reflect.

She knows she did not cause the movement that led to this day, but she is proud to have been a tiny part of it. And she sips her fragrant tea and she admits that it didn’t have to wind up this way. She pulls the shawl more tightly around her, and she inhales the chilly truth: It could have been very, very different.