A Feeble Flapping at the Edge of the Quagmire

I stop to talk with a few of my students—the older ones, the ones who are not quite so sure they’re going to explode with guaranteed success on some future scene —and then I walk across campus to my car. I toss my book bag onto the floor on the passenger’s side; I snug my water cup into the drink holder. I take my phone from its purse pocket and put it in the crook of the arm rest, and then I start up the engine.

I listen for a minute, appreciating—it is good, this responsive power—and then I turn on NPR and pull out of the parking lot on this chill gray day.

And, from the radio, I hear this:

Rant rant venom

Rant rant venom

The impeachment trial has begun. An august senator is almost spitting in his rage at the other team.

I give it a minute, but he doesn’t waiver from his course. He doesn’t talk about the facts of the case or try to counter what’s been presented; he simply sticks his hand into a bucket of hot tar and smears, smears, smears.

I am sickened, and I turn off the radio. I get on the four lane and wend through the edges of this small gray city. It is quiet. I miss the interesting afternoon chatter of NPR, the only station that reliably comes through where I’m driving.

I think I should remember to get a book on CD to listen to while I’m driving.

I think it might also be worth looking into subscribing to a radio service.

Cityscape quickly melts into broad country fields and farms, and the silence gets to me. I turn the radio back on.

The other team has the field now, and this is what I hear:

Accuse whine whine

Accuse whine whine

So much for that. I turn it off in disgust., thinking there is no one here to be proud of, no dignity on display, and no compassion for the people these folks are pledged to represent.

I imagine the floor of the Senate opening, kind of like the dancing scene in It’s A Wonderful Life; I imagine all the senators falling into a swimming pool and flailing away.

I picture the floor closing back up and new people coming in. These people—there’s a rainbow of tones and gender and ages and accents here—shake hands and sit down together at long tables. They share information that often makes them frown and sigh, but they struggle together, trying to understand the truth, the right, the meaning. They are sitting at these tables until they can figure out the best way forward.

That fragile daydream pops softly and disappears as I pull off the four lane onto familiar home town streets. It’s replaced by a feeling of sickness, by this thought: There is nothing good here.

I am by nature a foolish optimist. I don’t want to believe in the absence of good.

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

I make the short trek from carport to house, and I see a scuttle of bugs zipping and flying. Bugs in Ohio in January. This is outlandish.

This is because it hasn’t gotten cold enough to send those bugs away.

This is because of global climate change.

My stomach clutches, and I climb up the two steps to the back door and wield my key.

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

I ponder, as I wash out my lunch dishes, what to do. Nothing is surely not an option, but what option will make a difference?

I can write letters; I am good at writing letters., and I think I will do that—write to my senators, one on either team,–and tell them of my distress.

I realize the letters will be read by some team member and never make it to the senator’s view. But I’ll do this, even if it’s only symbolic.

What else? What else? What action can make a true difference? If a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can lead to a hurricane in China, how can I flap my wings? How can I direct my energy toward a more specific spot—toward Washington, where contention simmers and the work of the people—for the people—doesn’t seem to happen?

I can’t think of one single thing that might make a difference. I go downstairs to poke around in the freezer, think about dinner.

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

Jim is at home, at loose ends. He started this young year with high hopes for a great-fit job; but the organization interested in him opted, finally, to adopt a software solution instead of a human one, and Jim didn’t quite know how to process that, his filters tentative and undeveloped. It took him a week to work it through…to struggle from disappointment and anger to a realistic acceptance. There is grief in the emotional mix; there is a blow to confidence and self-esteem.

But he is back at it now, considering different kinds of jobs; his high hopes have fluttered down to a hard-nosed reality.

“I just want to WORK,” he says grimly, and he and his job coach scour the postings for anything remotely suitable.

And the days at home, waiting, are long. Jim creates projects and organization plans and tries to keep himself busy. By the time I come home, he is pacing, the walls of the house closing in.

Fuel to my malaise: why are so many disabled people sitting in front of flat screens, pushing the buttons on their game controllers, when they could be out there contributing?

HR Magazine tells me that 66 per cent of adults with autism are not employed…and that the 34 per cent with jobs are subject to a rising workplace bullying culture. And, the article adds, 500,000 more young people with autism will launch into the job market this year.

These are quirky people with varying levels of challenge, but people with considerable computer and organizational and other skills—people who could be enjoying detail-driven repetitive jobs that neurotypical folks abhor. To hire autistic adults, though, means shifting workplace attitudes and rules and culture.

While this is happening in some places, those places are all too rare.

What world is this I live in? I wonder, and I am angry and sad, and deeply, deeply frightened when I imagine the future.

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

I bag up the garbage and take it out to the bin, and I toss in the bag—made of compostable plant products. The week is half over, and there is just one other bag inside; since we started being plastic-aware, we have reduced the amount of trash we create by more than half. That at least is a hopeful sign, I think. We’re doing better, and we’ll keep figuring out how to do more.

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

“Do we have any outing-and-abouting to do?” Jim asks hopefully, and I consider quickly. This was buy-a-new-dishwasher week; there is not much disposable cash to be spent. But we could go to the library. And, I remember, Mark found a Panera gift card in the thing basket. There’s fifteen dollars on that, and I think I have another one in my wallet, with a buck or two left to spend.

We decided to take a trip to the library and then stop at Panera. We’ll buy a little treat for a gray afternoon, and we’ll get us each a bagel or two for tomorrow’s breakfast: something for now, and something to look forward to.

In the car, Jim gets music ready on his phone, and says, “Hey. There’s an email.”

It’s from Kelly, a creative job coach in the program that works with Jim. She wonders if he can send along his resume and a letter of recommendation from his supervisor at the college library.

His eyes light up.

“Why do you think she wants that, Mom?” he asks, and I tell him what I believe: that Kelly and her team have some possibilities in mind, that they are exploring new routes and different employers with the potential to become Jim’s workplace.

“But, remember,” I say, “this can take some time.”

“I know!” he says, but there’s a flicker there, like the pilot light has come back on. He picks a sprightly Abba song to play; we bop along to the library, while Jim talks about the Mama Mia movies, which, despite his penchant for fantasy and horror, he really enjoys.

At the library, he fills a bag with manga and DVD’s. On top of the stack is that wonderful redemption film, Chef, with Jon Favreau.

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

At Panera, the young cashier checks the gift card from my wallet. It has $1.45 left on it.

We choose carefully. Everyone likes an Asiago bagel; we get three of those. Then we choose an everything bagel for me and cinnamon crunch bagels for Mark and Jim. We ask the cashier to throw in a little tub of cream cheese. That takes care of breakfast.

For a sweet afternoon treat, Jim opts for a frosted cinnamon bun. I order M&M cookies, one each for Mark and me.

The cashier rings us up, and grins.

“That’s $16.45,” she says.

And that’s exactly, to the penny, the amount on the gift cards.

“What are the odds?” I say to Jim, and he shrugs and rolls his eyes, offers to get the bag, and we shlepp home the spoils, where Jim gets out a video game, and I light the fire and take my cookie and a book to the reading chair.

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

This is not to say the world still doesn’t stink. Free bagels and vague possibilities don’t add up to serious solutions to big problems. There is evil and there is tragedy and there is a huge and sucking quagmire of self-interest and power-craziness and the absolute pressing need to be acknowledged right at all cost. Children die and people are mistreated, and instead of howling in grief, we howl in blame.

I cannot hide my head and avert my eyes; I have to do something. I need to face each thing I encounter and think it through, find a way to act that contributes to healing instead of chasms.

It makes my stomach churn; it keeps me awake at night.

There is a heavy, pressing bank of clouds. There’s a dirty, pouring rain.

But there is, too, a tiny crack in the cloud bank, an infinitesimal suggestion that hope is still possible. Light pours through that crack, and, at certain angles, I’m pretty sure a small, bold rainbow shimmers.

Tonight I am writing letters,—a tiny wing flap. But I’ll know I’m adding to a greater flapping—to the actions of caring, concerned, and committed people, people who stand at many vantage points and have many different views of the situations we face. People, these are, whose hearts are good and whose concern is real.

They are people who can band together for the good of all.

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

There is work to do; I know that, and I know that what I have to offer is not very much. But hope tells me to offer it anyway.

And evil, I believe, triumphs only when hope is hidden away.

A Change in the Menu

What to eat: that’s the whole point here (eventually).

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This is the year, by gum, that I stick to my New Year’s intentions. And one of those is to be much more organized.  The first thing I did, on New Year’s Day itself, was to clean out the pantry shelves.

Those cluttered shelves, lodged in a tall, skinny, little closet-type cabinet next to the cellar doorway in the kitchen, have been making me antsy. I always save things like paper bags that can carry a lunch and plastic bags that can hold a loaf of home-made bread. (We don’t bring home as many of the plastic bags these days, as we make most of our bread at home. But there are some weeks where Jim gets a craving for CWB—Cheap White Bread—and we indulge. When that store-bought loaf is gone, I shake out the bag, and stuff it into the second-from-the top pantry shelf, against the day.)

But these are habits from a different life.

Mark comes home, now, almost every day for lunch; he doesn’t need a paper lunch bag. I carry my lunch on teaching days, but I use an insulated carry-all. The ranks of our unused, lunch-sized, paper bags have swelled, swallowing up shelved boxes of aluminum foil and wax paper, rolls of compostable, plant-based garbage bags, and a very long tube of parchment paper.

The plastic bags were doing the same to bottles and jars of sauces and condiments on the shelves below.

I needed to clean, but the shelves are high, and I dislike clambering on a chair to reach the tippy-top, to see to wipe things down, to remove long forgotten treasures, and to decide what to do with the flotsam.

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

That reality led me to the thought that one needs the right tools for the job. Jim was thinking along the same lines; he had acquired a lot of books and many DVD’s at Christmas. He has shelves downstairs with his collections organized by genre, and his new stuff mandated that he take things off shelves and reorganize.

Jim likes reorganizing; it’s one of his joys, but even the most joyful reorganizer gets weary.

So he clears off, say, five shelves, towering books on his desk and chairs, and then he works diligently to incorporate the new tomes. He considers and he places, and shelves slowly fill up, and Jim slowly slows down. After an hour or two, he will trudge up the stairs.

“Time for a break,” he will mutter, and go off to, perhaps, play a video game.

Meanwhile, there are still book towers on his desk, hovering over and thwarting his attempts to sit at his desktop and write reviews.

“You need,” I said to him one day in late December, “a rolling cart.”

Jim turned, three books in hand, and his face was illuminated. “Yes!” he said. “Like at the library! Then if I don’t finish, I can just roll the cart out of the way!”

That weekend, I went with the boyos on their regular Saturday excursion. We recycled, and we went to the ReStore and mooched around. (I bought sweet little fancy dishes to hold some wonderful, handmade soaps a wonderful friend sent as a complete surprise.) Then we went to the farm supply store.

James bought a sturdy cart, kind of like a three-tiered red metal wagon, to sort stuff on. I bought a sturdy step-stool, which doubles as a seat in the kitchen.

That weekend, I cleared off the shelf over the microwave and stove—a shelf that is just a pain in the neck to reach on a dining room chair. And then, on New Year’s Day, I cleaned the little pantry. (That little step-stool makes a big, big difference.)

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

I cleaned, and I found amazing stuff. I cleared shelves off, putting everything into a big basket, and I sorted the stuff on the counter. I found three boxes of matches; I crossed ‘matches’ off the shopping list. I found boxes of taco shells, rices for risottos, and three bags of egg noodles. Way in the back, I found some Chiavetta’s barbecue sauce (a local delicacy from our childhood hometown) we’d forgotten all about. That was exciting until Mark noticed the use-by date, which was 2014.

Glug, glug, glug.

James, who loves to watch Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, went through an exotic sauce-buying stage a while back. Among the bottles and jars and boxes, I found Tandoori sauce, Shawarma marinade, and Peanut Bangkok sauce. Those sauces were all still healthy, and Jim’s eyes lit up.

I wiped down the shelves and put everything back neatly. Then, Mark and I went through the shelves leading down the stairs to the cellar, and we put all the bottles of sauce in the pantry, and the canned veggies in the cellarway, and stood back and took a look.

The canned goods and other staples were beautifully arranged and easy to grab. That was when I decided I needed to go back to my old, old habit: creating weekly menus.

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

I sat down on Friday to make a meal plan. I checked through the freezers to be sure I knew what meat was on hand; I looked at the calendar, seeing who would be where when. I flipped through some recipes, made out a shopping list, and I wrote down menus for the next seven days.

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

For Friday night dinner, I thought we’d have sloppy joes. But I forgot that Mark was traveling that day to New York State; he’d stay until Sunday and spend his mom’s birthday with her. Jim doesn’t like sloppy joes; it was silly to make them for just me. So Jim and I heated up a frozen pizza; I made a side salad, and we ate and watched Big Bang—a nice little break in the routine.

The next day, Saturday, Jim and I drove to Westerville, where we had the six-buck lunch at Dairy Queen. We mooched around the library and walked around downtown. We were hungry by the time we got home.

The menu read ‘cubed steaks.’ Perfect, I thought; I pulled the package of steak from the freezer. There were six in the package, separated by squares of butcher paper. I only needed three.

I’ll pry them apart, I thought, with a steak knife, and put the other three back in the freezer.

I smacked the meat down on the chopping board and stabbed the knife between the top two steaks. They were bricklike; my stab sent the meat shooting one way and the knife shooting into my finger.

“Bleaaaahhhhh!” I yelled, and ran, dripping blood, to the powder room for band-aids and antiseptic ointment.

“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll just have a ham sandwich.” I re-wrapped the cubed steaks and put them back into the freezer. I crossed the Saturday menu suggestion off the list, too.

On Sunday, I took a chuck roast from the freezer. Beef stew: that was the plan. Mark would be arriving home sometime in the late afternoon; a simmering pot of stew would be ready whenever he was hungry.

But then I felt bad. Jim doesn’t eat stew, and I hadn’t fed him very well that weekend. I’ll switch, I thought, to oven-baked pot roast, roasted with potatoes until they soak up the beefy juices and brown crisply around the edges.

Mark arrived home just before the roast was done, which was perfect.

I crossed ‘Sunday: beef stew’ off the weekly menu, too.

On Monday, Jim excitedly sauced his boneless chicken with Tandoori sauce. I doused two leg quarters with barbecue sauce and baked them for Mark and me. When they were done, we carried our plates to the kitchen table, and Jim went off happily to the family room with his meal.

“Oh muh GUG!” he yelled a moment later. Turns out his Tandoori was hot, hot, hot. He had a ham sandwich instead, and I packed up the rest of his boneless chicken.

On Tuesday, the literacy association was having a fund-raiser at Freddy’s. Support reading? Well, YEAH. Ignoring the menu, we drove to Freddy’s, where we not only had a splendid dinner, we sampled the frozen custard, too.

I just wasn’t feeling it on Wednesday; I crossed that night’s plan from the menu, and we had breakfast for dinner: crisp-edged French toast, sizzling brown sausages.

The way of things was clear. On Thursday I threw the menu away. I took out the Tandoori chicken, rinsed off most of the sauce, and made a big, bubbling pot of chicken tortilla soup. Jim put a Devour meal in the microwave.

The soup, recipe gleaned from a close, close friend, was hot and tangy and delicious. It was even better for lunch the next day. And that night, we ate those cubed steaks, which I had wisely taken out to defrost quite early.

I did not write out a menu for the week to come.

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

There was a time, when kids were young, and budgets were tight, and schedules were outlandish, that a menu was the only way to ensure that a hearty dinner made it to the family table each night.

Those days, with all of their action and frustrations and delight, glow far back on the timeline.

THESE days call for a different way of planning things entirely.

It’s not that I’m not organized; it’s that this time of life calls for a different kind of organization. So this week, I’m cleaning out the hall closet and sorting the bed linens, donating the neglected and never-used blankets and sheets to a local homeless shelter. I have my teaching days. I have my days for recycling and for food shopping. I have my appointments on the calendar.

But I don’t have a menu. These days, I have the luxury of rolling ideas around in my head, considering what’s in the refrigerator and what’s in the freezer, and deciding, finally, what to fix that night for supper. Sometimes, we might even opt to eat out or order in.

I love the structure of my week, and I love that dinner isn’t mandated by a menu; instead, it’s a little spot of adventure, a little element of surprise, in otherwise ordered and sedate days.

Across the Dark Lake

Little by little, Christmas disappears.

The day after New Year’s, I clean off the mantel-piece, pack away little holiday figures—Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his pink flannel bunny-jamas, the ornamental Luci squishing grapes, the roly poly little BB1 orna-bot. I wrap glass bells in newspaper and slide little holiday houses into the box.

The mantel looks bare.

The next day I pack up all the nutcrackers from the mail table in the dining room, and all the Santas from the shelves in the family room.

I dust and polish the newly empty surfaces. They are sleek and clean and stark.

That night, snow falls for the first time since mid-December. The outside world looks festive and Christmassy.

I feel a little blue.

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I spend some time each day planning classes. Suddenly, I see a new angle: the analysis assignment could be based on a painting or a song. Since the course theme is ‘An American Experience,’ I pull up an image of “American Gothic.”  And for the song, we’ll deconstruct “This Land is Your Land.”

I find authoritative on-line bios of Grant Wood and Woody Guthrie. I make a worksheet with the painting’s image and a link to a history of the work. I find a site that talks about different types of music, and some articles about the historical context of Woody Guthrie’s song.

My class will be a diverse one—it includes high school students and retirees, military veterans, a mom of six. There are people who grew up and spent their lives within ten miles of the college and people who relocated to the United States as young adults. There is, in other words, room for many interpretations of what an American experience means, and I look forward to what these students will derive from these two pieces of United States art.

In spite of myself, almost, I’m getting excited about a new semester.

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

There are just a few cookies left in the tins; they are rock hard and unappealing. I tumble them into the waste basket, and wash the tins, put them away in the basement. I can’t believe there is fudge left over: Mark takes a plate to work, and I squirrel the rest away, tupperwared, in the freezer.

Then I take the leftover Christmas chicken from the freezer and chop it up to make chicken salad, which Mark and I eat for lunch.

We celebrated our anniversary at a pretty inn the day after Christmas. I brought a box with a meaty shank of lamb and some parmesan risotto home. I ate the risotto for lunch the next day but put away the lamb bone.

Now I pull the meat from it and put the bone in a pan with an onion and some fading celery, two chopped up carrots, and a garlic bulb. I sprinkle in dried rosemary and crumble up some Greek oregano from the garden. I toss it all in olive oil, shake in some salt and pepper, and roast those bones and veggies in the oven. That afternoon, I simmer broth that is rich and aromatic, and the whole house feels warm and comforting.

The next day, I take the ‘twice-baked mashed potatoes,’ also leftover from Christmas dinner, from the freezer, and I pull out Joy of Cooking. I follow directions, chopping and sautéing, sprinkling flour, mixing in the rich broth. I spread the potatoes over the top of the thick concoction in the cast iron pan, and I put it into a hot oven.

We have shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. It is good, good, good.

So holiday food is pretty much gone, and Jim says, “Could we make some regular cookies one of these days? Like Snickerdoodles or something?”

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

After I mix up the cookie dough, I lace up my sneakers, pull on my tomato-soup colored jacket and my new fuzzy white gloves, and I head out for a walk. The snow is gone from all but the deepest, shadiest places. The sidewalks are dry, and the traffic is light.

At the big, half-timbered house, Santa, riding in his wagon, and the life-sized sleek brown horse that pulls him, have disappeared from the front yard. They’re headed back, no doubt, to the North Pole.

It is 4:30 in the afternoon, but still full light, and I realize that the days are truly getting longer.

When I get home, we put bacon in the cast iron griddle, gather ingredients for BLT’s or bacon salads for dinner, and, after we eat, I make the Snickerdoodles.

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It rains on Saturday, so we wait until Sunday to take down the outdoor decorations. Then James and I carefully pull the ornaments from the tree, and Mark brings up the big box. We unspool lights, wrap them around cardboard, and then dismember the tree. We turn it upside down to flatten it, and we wrestle the pieces into the box.

Mark ties up the box with heavy cord while James and I lean on either end, and then the boyos drag the tree down to its most-of-the-year resting spot.

I pull out the vacuum and suck up any evidence of fake needles.

The spot in front of the living room window is weirdly bare, and even with the fire crackling, I miss the soft twinkle of the tree lights. I feel one-sided when I read.

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I wash the new sheet set, and that night, I make the bed with crisp new sheets and a puffy comforter—Mark’s cozy present for Christmas Eve. A new year, a fresh new bed, I think.

I realize there are balances on some of the gift cards I used to shop for Christmas. I order mundane necessities—ice melt and potholders and measuring cups.

The measuring cups, while infinitely practical, are not completely work-a-day, though; they are shaped like Russian nesting dolls that break apart into six measures. The doll’s tops hold 1/3, 2/3, and 1 full cups; their sturdy bottoms offer up ¼, ½, and ¾ of a cup.

A little bit of whimsy—why not???—to lighten the late winter months.

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I am a grown-up; of course, I am. But on January 5th, I nudge the wise men and their camels toward ceramic Baby Jesus.

The next morning, Epiphany day, the accommodating shepherds move around to the other side of the manger, nestle in with the ox and the lambs, so the Magi can get close. Mary stares adoringly at the Baby.

Joseph hovers, arms folded, wary and protective.

The kings lean in, offering their gifts, and the stable animals ignore the flamboyant camels.

That night, after everyone has gone upstairs, I pack up the ceramic figures and put the box into the closet.

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

On Wednesday, James and I take a road trip. We drive to a campus where I won’t be teaching this term and drop off an office key. Then we swing over roads we haven’t traveled in years, taking the back way in to a favorite butcher shop.

Boneless chicken breasts are on sale. I buy two ten-pound bags, and the butcher wraps up cubed steaks and English roasts, pork chops and ground chuck. We find a package of ham salad for Mark; we throw in some cheese curds, too.

As we head over the hills for home, Jim talks about marinated chicken breasts; he’ll resume his Wednesday cooking duties now that we’re back in ordinary time. I think about stir-fries and stews, sizzling fajitas, and cheese melting on sandwiches: everyday food that is hearty and comforting.

At home, I make tea and eat Snickerdoodles, and sit down to plan my classes.

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

It’s like this, I think: the year’s end draws close, and we find ourselves trudging more and more slowly,—walking, because we have no choice, into the darkness. It’s an inky darkness, cold and still, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if our companions are nearby, or if we are alone.

And then: a weak flicker of light, a glint, and we realize we are at the edge of a vast lake. Coming towards us, there is some sort of boat.

The light it brings brightens, for the sturdy wooden boat, round and high-riding, has holders on its rails for thick, glowing candles.

The boat glides silently to the sand where we wait. It lowers a landing plank, and we all—I see now my companions are truly close by—we all climb on.

The landing plank pulls up, silent and sleek, and the boat steers away from the beach and heads out into the inky unknown.

But here is the thing: I am gathered here with people I care about, and, for each one of us, there is a glowing candle in its niche. We ride through the darkest of the nights together, huddled close, knowing we’ll be safe, believing there’s another shore.

In the darkest of the dark, we hold the candles aloft and we sing our faith. The boat moves smoothly on.

We sleep, we eat, we talk; we enjoy the fellowship of this midnight time, the vibrant light our candles, shared together, makes in the depths of the year’s night.

And then one day, there’s an almost imperceptible lightening, and a gentle voomph as the boat slides up, again, onto a shore.

There is a pause; there is pondering, and then the boldest of us takes her candle and gently kicks the landing plank.

We watch her candle flicker as she heads off to explore.

And suddenly, the thought of leaving the closeness of this little ship is irresistible; I wrestle my candle from its wooden holder, and get in line, for all my companions are suddenly eager to put their feet on dry land.

I step out onto the dark sand, and, above a line of dense trees far ahead, I see a glow that promises daylight is coming. I head toward the glow.

The sand turns into hard dirt; in the new, dusky light, I see a pathway forward and a low stone wall. Lined up, flaring, on that wall are the candles of the people who started before me.

I follow that glow until I see where the wall ends, and I see that the road curves into unknown space…but there is light now, enough to see my way.

I put my candle on the stone wall, leaving a light for those who still come forward, and I find my people, and, together, we head off into this new place.

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The holidays, I think, are just like that: the warmly lit vessel that carries us through the darkness and into the new year. And despite the darkness, despite the losses, the pain, the heartbreak and disillusionment we carry like bruises on our hides and in our hearts, that moment of debarking swells with promise.

A new year, an unknown adventure—time to engage, to hone my kindness tools…time to link arms with fellow travelers and walk out to explore.

A Mindful Kind of Kindness

Its bitty, beady eyes demand a serious response…

The sidewalk sheens with midnight rain that passed through; neighbors’ holiday lights, and our holiday lights, glow in the darkness. The air is warm and fresh.

I lace up my sneaks and go out, in the dark of very early morning, to get the newspaper. It is teetering on the tip of the step before the street.

The lights, the pierced darkness, the freshness breathing: all these remind me of the Christmas vigil we attended at the church of friends. I was standing in that service, soaking in haunting violin music, when a thought rolled in and opened up.

“This year,” the thought said, “you must work harder to be kind.”

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My much-missed friend Terri had a practice of choosing a word each year. She would try to live that word, to put it into action. So one year, for example, her word was ‘joy,’ and throughout that year, she sought joy in everything she did, and in everything that happened.

I love this idea, and so I adopted it, too. Sitting next to this computer is an oval rock Terri painted for me two years ago. “Transformation,” it says, and it came to me in the year of retirement.

This year, I’ll search out another flat, smooth stone and paint the word ‘kindness’ on it. And I’ll think of Terri as I do it. (Who knows? She may have sent that thought spinning toward me on Christmas Eve.)

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I keep seeing the quote from Jennifer Duke Lee’s blog (https://jenniferdukeslee.com/world-can-anything-kind/) that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It is a lovely thought, and it is a blog worth reading.

And, I think, I really need to define for myself what being kind means.

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I start looking for a definition online, and the Oxford dictionary tells me that kindness is the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. It offers a long list of synonyms, and the ones that jump out to me are altruism and decency.

The definition does not say ‘sweetness.’ Nor does it say ‘honesty at all costs.’

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I know, and I bet you do, too, people who wield kindness like a crazy shillelagh. They swing kindness in a high arc over their sweet-faced heads, and they bring it down, crashing, onto our skulls.

They are so pleasant, so concerned, so awfully, terribly giving, that they get away with the unkindest things.

They are the brutally honest friends who tell us, for example, about the blatant infidelities of a partner long lost to the past…and they tell us in a time when our life is settled, when our relationship is healthy, when that painful time is long over.

Their words heave up the pain like deadly rocks in a psychic earthquake. They transport us back there, back to where we hurt, where we were vulnerable. We learn, maybe, that he did it with our BEST FRIEND at the time. The day he was taking us out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary, he came, freshly showered and shaved, from that woman’s arms.

The bitter juice of betrayal wells up again, even though that relationship has long been put to rest, even though he is someone we haven’t thought about in decades.

“Well,” our kind friend says gently, her face a smooth mask of compassion, “I just thought you ought to know.” And she pats our hand and walks away, leaving us to digest this new, unnecessary gall.

Or they critique our wardrobes; they comment on our new furniture, and pass judgment on the accomplishments of our children.

They tell us unflattering stories their parents told THEM about our parents, who are long dead, just, you know, in the interest of honesty.

And when they do something egregious, something hurtful or betraying that we may never learn about (they lose or break the perfect gift we spent months searching and saving for; they share the secret we abjured them never to tell; they go to our ex’s party and then lie to us about it) they feel compelled to call us and to let us know.

They transfer the burden. They wound and they walk away, healed themselves, and happy in their righteousness.

And they may be righteous, but they are not kind.

It is not always kindness to be honest to a fault.

And that kind of painful honesty’s a club, I realize, that I have sometimes raised myself.

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So there’s an essential decision in practicing kindness, I realize: do we share or do we shut up?

Shutting up is the right thing to do, I think, when the truth won’t change anything. What good does it do to rake up past infidelities, for instance (and do we really think the person doesn’t, on some clear and lucid level, know those bitter truths anyway)? Even current infidelities should be considered very, very deeply before sharing.

Maybe the deciding question should be this: Does telling benefit the person to whom we want to be kind?

Or—does telling just put points in our column, raise our own sense of self-esteem, clear us of a guilty burden we’d rather not bear?

Just because a thing is true does not mean it should be shared.

Sometimes kindness tells us to clamp our teeth together and stop the words from flowing.

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At other times, though, there are hard things that need to be said. I’m thinking, for instance, of gifted people who’ve been fired from places that I’ve worked.

Those people were hired because of their gifts; they continued to be employed because their gifts advanced the purposes of the organization. But there was something…something…that was off-kilter enough about their actions to make others pause.

Maybe, for instance, the gifted person always felt compelled to play devil’s advocate, to comment on the negatives in any proposed plan. She was, maybe, trying to be helpful, or maybe, she just had developed the bad habit of being the pointer-outer of potential catastrophes. Her words bothered people and discouraged people; they made people unwilling to meet with her.

Those people complained to her supervisor, but that boss just couldn’t figure out a way to address the issue without being confrontational. And so, they let it go on.

Or maybe the gifted employee said inappropriate things at company meetings, speaking up when criticism was not welcomed or called for. Someone, say, gives a presentation on an exciting new project, and our gifted one talks about another place she worked where THAT didn’t work. (This might, actually, be useful information, but it might also be best shared in a more private venue.) Or a recent gathering is discussed and our gifted one feels compelled to talk about how much better it would have been if Jo had remembered to plug the coffee in.

The assembled roll their eyes and grumble.

Again, someone approaches the supervisor, and again, the supervisor just can’t think how to best address this contentious behavior.

But then one day the bothersome behavior crosses the line. The negative reaction appears to be generated by an unacceptable bias, even though our gifted one is truly an equal opportunity pooh-pooher. Or the shared-in-a-group criticism falls firmly, heavily onto the shoulders of the boss, who is humiliated and angry.

And our gifted one is suddenly clutching a briefcase and her favorite picture, standing on the sidewalk peering through the blank, unfriendly windows of the place she used to work. She is wondering what just happened.

The unchecked behavior has finally reached catastrophe level. The kind thing would have been to have a conversation when the behavior was merely irksome.

And this, again, is something I have sometimes failed to do.

Some things are hard to talk about, but kindness tells us to talk about them anyway.

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It’s the difference, I think, between commenting to someone on a too-tight shirt or on a shirt that’s partially untucked.  The person wearing the tight apparel already knows, clearly, that the garb doesn’t fit. They’re probably feeling frustrated about a recent weight gain and hoping no one notices those gaping buttonholes.

And they’re stuck, for the time; they can’t run off and change. Pointing out the misfit will only make them feel even more awkward and uncomfortable. This is a time to shut right up.

But if the person’s shirt is partially untucked, a quiet word will save embarrassment, allowing them to quickly amend the situation, no one else the wiser. This is the time for me to speak.

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Then  there are the everyday acts of kindness—letting the harried young dad with the sobbing toddler jump ahead of us in the checkout line, for instance. And telling the staff at the post office how much we appreciate, on crowded, cranky days, their unfailing pleasantness. And holding the door, at that post office, for an elderly man so burdened with packages he can barely see through the peephole he’s made.

That kind of kindness should be hard-wired into me; when it’s not, I need to update my programing. I need to raise my eyes from the mucky mire of my own concerns and notice.

My son James, conscious of the need to be courteous and kind, and conscious that his autism does NOT make this second nature, works hard at this. He says thank you and you’re welcome, always; he tries to address people by name. He offers his place in line, he helps people carry heavy items, and he holds doors open.

One day, leaving the library, he saw a woman who was headed toward the door but still quite far away. So he stood and patiently held the door open for her.

She was a short, head-down kind of person, and when she finally got to the door, instead of thanking Jim, she glared at him and stomped off.

He was thrown by this, and we talked about it in the car. And what we settled on was this: when kindness requires a response, it becomes reciprocity and maybe is not so kind. So Jim’s standing there and holding the door made this woman, who was clearly frazzled and rushing anyway, rush even more, so HE would not be kept waiting. Instead of being kind, his courtesy became a burden.

Kindness should never be a quid pro quo. And it should never take away from one to give to the other.

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I am even considering my ‘organizational’ kindnesses…time spent in meetings and working for causes, the donation of goods, the contributions of money. If I do these only to promote my sense of how wonderful I am, they are not kind.

If I give my time outside the home and short-change my family, I am not being kind.

And if I leave myself with no time to read, to write, to ponder and to dream, I am being unkind to myself, generating internal resentment at the very acts that should be selfless and fulfilling.

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Being kind is not quite so simple as it at first appears.

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So now, I scoop up the newspaper and wheel back toward the house. The ceramic penguin on the steps glares at me, its bold, bitty eyes ablaze with yellow light. Its piercing gaze demands response.

“This year,” I think, “I must work harder to be kind.” And to do that, I know, I need to explore the boundaries wherein kindness lives.

The penguin seems, for now, satisfied, and its bold stare is a reminder of a promise made.

The Oh-So-Patient Baker

Patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you’re waiting.

                                                —Joyce Meyer

Mark and I agreed, finally, that a loaf of home-baked  bread would be a good thing for him to bring to an office-type holiday potluck. The hosts took care of meats and cheeses. Usually, Mark said, several people brought crock-pot meatballs, and others brought steaming pots of cheesy potatoes. Someone had signed up to bring a veggie pizza, another person was bringing a big tossed salad, and someone else was bringing a hot dip and chips. There was always, he sighed, such wonderful food, and so much of it.

So we decided that an apple streusel loaf would be a good thing, with a little tub of whipped-up butter; if there was leftover bread, Mark could take it back to his office for the next day’s breakfast.

The potluck was on Monday, so I set Saturday, which felt like the first full day of Christmas break, aside for baking. We got up and had a leisurely breakfast; we did the dishes and neatened up the house. Then the boyos loaded recycling baskets and bins into Mark’s car and headed off for haircuts and a tour of the Re-Store and maybe Home Depot, a visit to the recycling trailer, and the five-buck lunch at DQ.

I polished off my email and got ready to start baking.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 176735-i-wish-i-was-as-thin-as-my-patience.jpg
Image uploaded by Timfly

The apple streusel bread is what I’d call a picky recipe. First, I took the butter out to soften. I peeled and cored apples; I chopped them fine and tossed them, with a couple of tablespoons of flour, into a bowl. I measured out pecans and chopped those, too. They needed to be divided: two-thirds go in the bread itself. The rest goes into the topping.

I measured out milk and added lemon juice to sour it.

I got more measuring cups and scooped out flour and sugars; I gently nudged two eggs up against the meat slicer, far from the counter’s edge. I plucked spices from their cabinet. Finally, everything was lined up neatly, just like on a cooking show, and the milk had curdled and the apple had synthesized with its flour, and it was time to cook.

It took five or six minutes to cream the butter and sugar. I cracked the eggs and beat them in.  When that was fluffy, I started adding, alternately, the flour mixture and the curdled milk (How many alternations? I always wonder. The recipes never say, so I fall back on three, which seems like the perfect number; two would be abrupt. Four would have me adding pretty small amounts. But a little doubt always worms. Would the end result be better batter if I did alternate four times?)

When the batter was well mixed, I stirred in apple chunks and chopped pecans and spread it in the greased loaf pan.

Then I melted more butter (a nice, light treat, this is NOT) and mixed in cinnamon and brown sugar and more nuts and made a streusel to sprinkle over the top.

And at last, it was ready for the oven, where it would bake, long and slow, for at least 50 minutes.

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While it was baking, I took my book to the chair. The fire was snapping.

I was happy to read and wait.

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In 45 minutes, I started testing the bread, every five minutes or so, with a toothpick. It took a long time for the little wooden pick to emerge batter free.  When the bread was finally done, I took it out and let it rest for five minutes on the cooling rack.

There was a time when I could not have waited those five minutes, when I would have had to pull that bread from the loaf pan and make sure all was unburned, perfectly formed, well baked. I have learned a little restraint over the years, and I have learned that manipulating freshly baked bread can be to manhandle and deform it.

So I listened to the recipe’s voice, and I waited the requisite time.

There was a time, too, when—if the bread hadn’t been baked as a dish to pass in the first place—I would have grabbed a hefty cleaver and whacked off a big, hot slice, unable to wait to taste it. This recipe cautions me not to do that. This recipe says to wrap the cooled loaf and let it rest a day before slicing.

This recipe wants me to be patient.

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We have our traditional Christmas recipes…Italian chocolate balls (the kind with cloves and cinnamon and chocolatey glaze; I use a healthier recipe than the one that calls for a tub of pure lard, even though the flavor’s probably not quite on the mark); shortbread cut-outs; Grandma Kirst’s famous fudge. And every year we try something new to see if that unknown, cutting-edge recipe might become a keeper, too.

This fall, I kept seeing recipes for a Twix-like cookie; I downloaded one from Pinterest and showed it to the boyos. There’s a shortbread crust that we’d cut into rounds. That’s topped with melted caramel, and THAT is topped with melted chocolate.

Maybe, said Mark, we could make the shortbread in bars rather than circles…

I stocked up on the necessary ingredients, and Saturday, after the bread was cooling, I began.

If I thought the bread begged my patience, I wasn’t quite prepared for the patience needed for the Twix bar cookies. I started them early in the afternoon, softening butter once again.

When the butter was ready to play nicely with the flour and confectioner’s sugar, I put them all into the Mixmaster bowl and blended them together. I pulled the mat from the drawer, floured it, and clumped out half the shortbread dough on top. I rolled it out, and sliced it into rows, and then cut across, making approximately Twix-sized pieces. Some of the pieces, of course, were ragged and edgy.

I used the long metal flipper and arranged the cookies on a baking sheet while the oven was heating.

Then: roll out the rest of the dough and repeat.

While the cookies baked, I washed up dishes and pulled out big flat platters. As the sheets came out of the oven with their golden-brown cargo, I relayed the baked cookies to the trays.

Boyos wandered out to the kitchen, drawn by the buttery, bakery smells. I limited them to the ragged edgy pieces. They did not complain.

Let the cookies cool completely, the recipe says, and so I reluctantly found some housework to do while I waited.

Later, James and I drizzled caramel, melted slowly over a medium flame, onto the bars. And then we waited yet again for that oozey caramel to set, and then, finally, we could pour melted milk chocolate over the top.

I finished the last step of those constructed cookies at about ten on Saturday night, and then (although some people would ignore this injunction), I had to let them sit overnight so they’d be ready to eat. (DO NOT, the recipe tells me, put these cookies in the fridge. The chocolate will discolor.)

I washed up the chocolatey bowl and spoon and spreading knife, looking longingly at the cookies, but pulled patience into play. I grabbed my book and headed to bed.

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Patience. Images of saintly, glowing faces, touched by beams of golden ethereal light, waiting.  Those saintly folk–well, their waiting is not ragged or fragmented by furious longing. It’s serene and uncluttered, a long, slow, melting process. They do not become agitated or frustrated. They’re patient.

Their patience and my patience are very, very different.

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“Do you really DO that?” I remember an old friend asking. I was reading a recipe that said I should chill the dough before baking the cookies. I might have been 25, and NO, I did not do that.

I added a little flour if the dough was too sticky, and I baked those cookies, right then.

But later, when years had passed, I discovered there was recompense in following the directions. The cookies, once made, had a better texture if chilled instead of flour-added.

And during the waiting period, I got all the mixing clean-up done. The work area, for the actual scooping and baking portion of the exercise, sparkled like a cooking show kitchen.

The act of baking wasn’t a fast endurance test; it was a progressive event, with breaks and books and visits thrown in between.

That kind of patience, I can cook with.

There are other things to cook, though, that cannot be broken into segments to be parceled out.

I have a friend, for instance, who cannot make fudge or candy—the kind where the recipe says to bring the mixture to a hard boil, and then boil for five minutes exactly, or boil until the sweet syrupy concoction reaches the hard ball stage or until it reaches a certain number of degrees Fahrenheit. My friend just cannot wait. She will turn up the heat and boil the sticky mess FASTER; she will bring a glass of cold water to the stove, drizzle syrup into it, and convince herself that the result,  a soft, dissolving mush, is in reality a hard ball.

And then she’ll pour the bubbling mess into a buttered pan where it will never, ever set. (It will become, though, a delicious ice cream topping.)

And she’ll bemoan the fact. “I did exactly what the recipe said!” she’ll wail, although, no, of course, she did not.

I can hear one of my elders’ voices, smug and starched and wafering up from a stern childhood memory: You left out the most important ingredient. You left out PATIENCE.

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Why does it seem so many people are in a fiery hurry to just get finished? I wonder if there’s some atavistic urging in us, sense memories from our long-ago pasts, that push against patient waiting.

I ponder, for instance, two theories I read about how dogs and humans came to be domestically intertwined. The first theory,–the one we humans like best, I think,–says that dogs began to follow tribes of man in prehistory, and that, when man left the remnants of a meaty dinner, dogs would swarm in and gnaw on the leftover meat and bones. And then they’d fight to protect their benefactors.

The other theory is just the opposite…that hungry little knots of people followed herds of dogs and grabbed up the leftovers from the DOGS’ feast. I have a shivering little picture of this, of fragile, vulnerable, pock-fleshed humans creeping out to the bone pile while the dogs snored. I see those people pinching away bones that had shreds of meat left clinging. But other carnivores may have followed that dog pack, too, so those starving people were always glancing behind, ready to scarper.

“Hurry up! Hurry UP!” I imagine them thinking. “Let’s get out of here before the big cats come back…”

An argument, for sure, for getting in there, taking care of business, and disappearing. Who CARED that the cooking process wasn’t started, much less finished? Eat and run, baby; eat and run.

If that kind of experience was true for our ancestors, it wouldn’t make for much hard-wired patience.

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I had a friend once who lived in trying straits. Everything that adds up to balance in a life—love and family, job and material well-being, spirit and hope and bodily health, all those things of hers—had tatters and rends in them. She could not cut a break, could not reach a place where she could say, “Well, at least I have a warm place to stay,” because that was the week the landlord let her know the kids were moving back to town, and, so sorry, but could she be out by February?

And this dear friend would pray for patience.

And more awful things would happen, stretching the boundaries of her already taut-enough-to-snap endurance to its very, very edges.

Finally, she went to a trusted spiritual advisor and said, What the hell?

And he had her explain what she was doing and what kinds of things were happening, and when he understood the whole situation, he said to her, “Well this is easy. Stop praying for patience.”

My friend told me she sputtered and ranted. She NEEDED to learn patience she said, because all these trying things kept happening.

And her advisor begged to differ. She needed to stop asking to learn because otherwise, she’d keep getting sent opportunities for the learning to take place.

Oh, she said.

She started praying for wisdom instead, and the patience-threatening events slowed down to a manageable trickle.

And she never, she admitted freely, acquired that golden, saintly, waiting glow. She endured the things that bid her be patient; she smoked and cussed and sometimes poured herself a big glass of scotch, forget the rocks. She complained, but she got through.

My kind of patience, I’m afraid, is a lot like THAT kind, with a little more whining thrown in.

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It’s good to have the value of the virtue demonstrated in sweetly tangible ways…in the delicious course of a recipe, for instance. If only I can truly embrace the metaphor: clamp my mouth shut when I’m anxious to finish someone’s sentence; take my time when a scattered driver changes his mind about turning and forges on ahead, upsetting my personal driving plans (I often wonder what’s on that person’s mind. He might just NOT be an eejit; he might have just gotten bad news, for instance, and wouldn’t I feel terrible if I added to that with a thoughtless gesture?); ignore the cranky shopper who shoves ahead of me triumphantly at the check-out. LISTEN, really listen, when someone is talking.

Let’s hope that, in human interactions, too, I have learned a little restraint over the years, learned that manipulating words and responses too quickly in relationship can be to manhandle and deform them.

But you know, I don’t always remember my own injunctions. And sometimes, I have to be patient with MYSELF.

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It is a season, this Advent time, this Christmastide, with lessons in patience built in. Remember the sleepless nights of sugar plum childhood? Remember the sleepless nights of founding the feast? Remember the sleepless nights of loss and yearning?

All of them, all of those hard-to-make-it-through scenarios, are magnified in the anticipation of a special holiday.

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

So I bake. And I chill the dough and wait for the loaf to cool and remember that three people don’t need twelve dozen cookies; I don’t need to turn the kitchen into a frantic, frenetic, flour-dappled Keebler tree.

And, I hope that, even at this advanced age, I learn; I hope that, even if the golden light sluicing down reveals my knotted eyebrows and a grimace, I am acquiring patience, one cookie, one Christmas, and one circumstance, at a time.

Beginnings and Endings

The student’s email reads, in part, “I am just checking, because I know grades have to be posted by 5:00 p.m. today…”

I laugh, a little smug; it is 2:30 on Thursday, and grades, of course, are not due until TOMORROW afternoon. But something niggles, and, just to be sure, I pull up the announcement from the registrar’s office. And by gum, here’s a shock: the student is right. There WAS a Friday due date, but it was LAST Friday…and that was just for grades for graduating seniors in this winter term.

All the rest of the grades are due TODAY.

It is a good thing all my late papers are in and graded.

I quickly scroll through each class record, through each discrete assignment; I make sure I haven’t missed grading a paper or neglected to record a bit of homework. Then, thanking my lucky stars for helpful tabulating technology,–and for that nudging student email– I post my grades.

Then I bundle up my class paraphernalia, put it all away in my sturdy school bag, and run upstairs to get ready for my meeting.

It doesn’t sink in until I am driving home through dark streets, through weary neighborhoods where, still, tree lights shine through windows and jolly inflatables bob on bare, tiny, front lawn patches. Headlights blare at me as swift cars careen around curves, and I turn the wheel, slow and sure, and I think, sudden realization blooming: This semester is OVER.

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I signed myself up for way too much to do this Fall…for too many classes, too many obligations, too many commitments. They ate up my time, all those ‘yeses’ that I said. They sucked the leisure out of the days like a vacuum sucks up M&M’s dropped heedlessly on a carpet…the opportunity for sweetness and fun tarnished and then vanished.

By the time I realized that, it was too late to renege, to say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t think I’d be THIS busy. Never mind!”

But I gave myself the sternest talking to. Things, I admitted, have got to change. Just let me get through this semester intact, I vowed, and then we’ll make a new plan.

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For my Comp I final, I ask my students to imagine they are writing to a person contemplating enrolling in the class but unsure if they’re ready for the challenge. I ask the students to reflect on each facet of the course, to think about what we did and why we did it, and to think about how—or whether—they have grown as writers.

One of my best and brightest students decided to go a step farther and to wax poetic about the instructor. This is what, in part, that student wrote:

I will use this chance to tell you about my English Composition teacher. Her name is Ms. Pam. She is a very nice teacher. The funny thing is, the first time I saw her, I thought she was an elderly woman so she will get tired easily. But oh my goodness!

I read that and thought, Wait—what? An elderly woman??

And then I realized, damme, she’s right: I qualify for that description…even if I am what some call a “junior senior”…even if I retired early and haven’t quite reached the full, platform-shifting, age of 65.

I remember those bright young faces—not all 18, mind you (some a great deal older, several meaningful years younger)—looking at me warily on day one, and I realize that, behind one of them at least, thoughts like this were running: “Man, she’s OLD. Will she have enough energy to teach me what I need to learn? Will she stay awake long enough to do that???”

I am glad I earned that “…oh, my goodness!” But I have to admit the writer had some insight: I did get tired. I have to admit, too, that my Superwoman days, if indeed they ever existed, are firmly and decidedly over.

It is time to recalibrate. This old barge can’t plow along in the same way it’s been used to doing.

Which doesn’t mean we’re docking; oh, no, far from it. It just means that some time in port is needed to spread out the maps and adjust the journey.

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If someone asked me to create a cutesy plaque for the newly retired, I think I’d write these words on it: Don’t say yes to everything.

By saying yes to too many things, I wound up saying no, partly, to all of them.

No, I don’t have time to give this my full attention.

Yes, I will be there, but no, I won’t be entirely focused.

No, I won’t be able to give my home and my family the energy I want to expend on them if I commit to all these good causes.

There are so many good causes, but I can’t give them all my due diligence. It is hard to accept that I can only be effective by focusing and selecting.

Even junior seniors still have things to learn.

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The Christmas tree is up. We got that done last Sunday, squeezed the traditional festooning in between a hearty ham dinner and grading papers. I did a quick clean-up with the vacuum and duster; the boyos carried the heavy white bookshelf away from the window, and put it, at least temporarily, against the bare wall in the dining room. They lugged the long heavy box up from the basement, and we pulled out tree sections, and we assembled and fluffed.

Then Jim and I decorated while Mark added lights to the outdoors display.

“Aww,” Jim would say. “I forgot about this!” or, “Is this the one Aunt Dot gave me?” He would hold up a handmade pine cone Santa, one google eye missing, or a Hallmark ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ globe from 1990. We would talk about origins and debate just the right place to hang such a treasure.

Jim had Christmas tunes playing in the background.

I was thinking, When this is done, I’ll do five more papers.

I was thinking, Christmas cards will have to wait till next weekend.

We finished the tree, and I moved on to the next thing on the list.

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Last night, turning out the lights, extinguishing the fire, Mark said, “You know, that’s a pretty nice tree.”

And I looked at, really looked at, it for the first time.

It’s a beautiful tree.

This morning, I woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. I crept downstairs and lit the fire, and I turned the tree lights on. I put coffee on to drip and picked up a wonderfully frothy book—about a young English woman in dire straits who loses her London flat and whose only recourse is to travel to the wilds of Scotland with her sweet, mute son. On the shores of Loch Ness, she’ll work in a bookstore, and she’ll struggle to make a difference in the lives of three sullen, unloved children, and, of course, she will fall in love. Dusty drapes will be pulled aside, light will stream in, and miracles will happen in a warm, braw, heathery, British Isles kind of way.

I take a break when Mark comes down, and together, we chop ham and whisk eggs, make toast and pour juice, and, before 6 a.m., we eat a hearty breakfast. Mark is headed to the city, off to a conference lousy with lawyers; he needs fortification. He needs to go out into the cold morning protein-fueled.

I wash up the dishes and wipe down the counters, and, after Mark has sped out into the still-dark, I grab that book and slip back to the reading chair. Sandwiched between glow of tree and fire, I read the story, read until I reach the end; I know what will happen, but there are twists and turns along the way, and getting to that endpoint is a perfectly satisfying accomplishment.

I need these times, I realize: an hour spent inside a cozy, homey book with no pressing must-dos bobbing, like the smiling reminders on a newborn’s mobile, around my head.

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Somehow, in the last weeks, we have cleaned surfaces and set up the nativity scene, with its choir of mismatched angels cheering on the baby. We have hefted boxes of Christmas dishes from their shelves in the basement, made room in the cupboards and china cabinet, filled the sink with hot suds, and scrubbed down plates and bowls and mugs. The wreath on the front door sports a plush penguin, and a large ceramic penguin sits grinning on the brick step below. At dusk, Mark turns on the lights, and that ceramic penguin’s eyes gleam maniacally in the dark December night. Lights festoon a tiny tree that snuggles behind the maniac penguin, and lights encircle the big holly bush, and lights drape along the carport wall.

I don’t remember quite how we got all this done (some if it happened while I was squinting at a computer screen, typing notes on student papers), but the house is happily holiday-settled.

Today, we will unpack the Santas and put them throughout the house. After our trip to Columbus for Jim’s appointment, after dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant, we’ll come home and turn the lights on, light the fire once again, and enjoy the flickering warmth.

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There are things to be done, even while the happy, homey, holy holiday season beckons. There are Spring syllabi to be created, though for only half as many courses. There is shopping and baking. There are those cards to spread out, so fresh and new and inviting, and there are messages to write on them.

There are people to remember, people who cannot be with us this year. There are voices that are stilled and laughter that has stopped, and I must think of ways to honor those that are dearly missed.

Some night soon I must get my a calendar out and take a hard, long realistic look at it, and at plans and dreams and fripperies and must-do’s—spread time and tasks all out  like puzzle pieces, and see what fits into the picture, and what must be discarded. I must open up my journal and write down what I’ve learned, write stern messages to future self, reminding me to balance.

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But, in the nooks and crannies of now, I celebrate the ending to a busy time, and teeter on the brink of this year’s holiday season. I’ll cling, for today or a couple of hours, to this fulcrum, to this time of clarity and insight.

And then I’ll forge ahead, elderly, yes; worn a bit, maybe; but not too tired to be excited about what comes next and how to pare the layers down to reveal the shining nugget of possibility, just waiting to be nurtured.

Dollars Buy Doughnuts (But Don’t Tell My Doctor)

Maybe it was because the youngest college student I’ve ever taught, 13-year old Jasmine, gave me one of her inaugural business cards on Wednesday. Jasmine bakes, and her business card has a cake doughnut emblazoned in the upper left corner. There’s pink frosting with chocolate drizzle on that doughnut image, and there’s a big bite missing.

Mmmmmmmm, I thought. Doughnut.

That afternoon, I went for my annual physical, where my wonderful doctor was delighted with what she called a ‘significant’ weight loss (I call it a ‘start’) and wrote me up scripts for a blood draw and an X-ray.

I had to fast for the blood draw, and I had to give final exams the next day, so I decided I’d get up early Friday morning and get the work done when the lab doors opened at 6:30.

And another thought came running along behind that decision. Here it is: After the lab work, I’ll go get Donald’s Doughnuts.

And that is what I did.

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

Donald’s is a bit of a legend around these parts. (Actually, its legendary status goes even beyond these parts. I have a former student, Jason, who lives in Pittsburgh. Jason is an amazing poet, and so is his wife, Jenny. When they travel deep into the Midwest to visit Jenny’s parents, they sometimes break up the trip at Zanesville, just to visit Donald’s Doughnuts.)

Donald’s staff bakes up fresh doughnuts daily; they open up early (5:00 a.m.) and their Facebook page says they close at 6:00 p.m. But, if they sell out of that day’s doughnuts, they don’t dilly-dally. They hang a sign in the window that says, “Closed. Sold out,” and they darken the lights and head on out of there.

Donald’s is the kind of place where they have a wrap-around, formica-topped bar with stools that spin. There are a couple of booths in the window. In the mornings, those stools and booths are filled with retirees, mostly men; I’m guessing the cushions and seats are molded to the dimensions of specific bottom quarters that have sat there, in the same places, so often. When I go in to purchase my dozen, the regulars glance up from their thick, white, never-empty mugs of steaming diner coffee with wry looks.

“Amateur,” I hear them thinking, and they shrug and go back to their breakfasts and their gossip.

The doughnuts are amazing. They’re light and perfect, iced or plain, and the variety hits that sweet spot between “That’s it?” and too many choices.

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

I’m at the lab door when it opens at 6:30 a.m., and the staff is so efficient that I get to Donald’s by 7:10. Already, though, on this Friday morning, the stools and the booths are packed, and the shelves sport empty spaces where, especially, the glazed doughnuts have gone missing. I text Mark that I’m bringing doughnuts so he doesn’t fill up on breakfast.

I select three Long Johns for Jim and three cinnamon swirls, because, in a box of doughnuts, there needs to be a cinnamon presence, and I fill out the dozen with chocolate-iced cake doughnuts. I have been in Donald’s before when the card reader wasn’t working, so I ask the efficient young man who waits on me, “Can I use plastic?”

He frowns. “You want this in a plastic sack?” he asks, puzzled.

No, no, I say, as he runs the card, answering the question. Never mind.

If Jim were with me, he’d explain that we don’t use plastic bags much anymore, and he’d talk about the floating garbage dump tainting our oceans. But I just smile and put my card in my wallet and pick up the pretty white box and head home.

Mark is waiting for me at the door. Doughnuts make one popular.

I grind the coffee and turn the machine on to drip, and while I’m waiting, Mark and I each eat an iced cake doughnut.

Don’t tell my doctor, though. And anyway, doughnuts aren’t an everyday thing (I suppose you’d get sick even of doughnuts); they are a once-in-a-while, splendiferous treat.

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

There was a doughnut shop, Mark muses, when we were kids, on West Main in Fredonia.

“Remember?” he says, and he explains that it had been in a store front that would have been kind of across the street and kitty-corner to the old white farmhouse we rented after we sold our home in Mayville. (Mark remembers the rooster that lived across the street, too, right next door to where he remembers the doughnut shop was. That fowl bird cock-a-doodled ALL the time, sunrise be damned, and it took the Markmeister a few months to learn to sleep through the morning crows that started at 4:30 a.m. He has yet to forgive the rooster. Even now, a cock-a-doodle sounds on TV, and Mark will mutter, “I should have EATEN that damned bird.”)

I don’t remember the doughnut shop, but I do remember that, once in a very great while, certainly less than once a year, my father would come home in the morning with a white baker’s box of doughnuts. They probably came, fresh and hot, from that shop that Mark remembers; there would be quick kitchen carnage while everyone staked their claim. Glazed doughnuts: those were my favorites in those old days. The frosting melted and then crystallized and stuck to my fingers as I chomped down the fluffy pastry.

And there WERE everyday doughnuts, of course. My mother bought them from the Day-Old rack in the Acme Supermarket, skinny rectangular boxes of twelve, often half plain and half coated with powdered sugar.

THOSE doughnuts were hard and melted into pasty mush in my mouth. My parents dipped theirs in their coffee.

THOSE doughnuts were pale, commercial imitations of the real thing.

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

Sometimes, too, my mother would make doughnuts. This would be when we had a super-abundance of bacon fat. She would mix up a batter from a recipe in one of her old cookbooks, and then she’d melt great gobs of bacon fat in the deep old cast iron skillet.

She would roll out snakes of dough and connect the ends. When the fat was hissing and snapping, she’d float the dough in it, hovering, tending, carefully flipping the pastries, exposing a crisp, baked side and letting the pale, raw side catch up.  

She’d pile the cooked doughnuts on a big tray, and, when they had cooled sufficiently, she’d pour powdered sugar into a big old paper grocery bag. She’d shovel the waiting doughnuts into the bag and shake, shake, shake.

The powdered sugar melted into almost a glaze. The resulting sweet was not like a bakery doughnut. It was hard and crusty and tasted like bacon, and the thick sugar coating dribbled down the front of my t-shirt. We ate them anyway, cleaned the platter.

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

When I was in college, I discovered something called a Persian at the cafeteria in the Campus Center. That was a white frosted pastry with a thick layer of cinnamon sprinkled on the icing; I heard angels sing when I tasted my first one. I would buy boxes full and take them home to share. I interrogated the cafeteria staff about those Persians; they weren’t made on site, and no one seemed to know just where they came from. If I had found the bakery where they originated, I would have made weekly pilgrimages. As it was, I had to graduate and leave those Persians behind.

When Mark and I were newly married, we’d take the dog out for early morning weekend walks, and smell the warm cinnamon scent of doughnuts baking at the little Quality Market. One of us would get in the car and drive the three blocks to pack up a white box of doughnuts treats, as obediently trained as those dogs of Pavlov’s. The doughnuts would still be warm and yeasty when they hit the kitchen table.

They’re part of our history, our tradition, our culture, our personal pathways, doughnuts are.

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

David Shayt, in an article on Smithsonian.com, tells me that doughnuts have been evolving since just about forever. Edible, doughnut-shaped artifacts were found in prehistoric Native American burial sites, for instance. But it wasn’t until the Dutch brought their ‘oily cakes’ to New Amsterdam that the breakfast treat really took hold in our brave new world.

And, in the mid-1800’s, New England’s Elizabeth Gregory used her sea captain son’s spicey cargo—cinnamon, nutmeg, zest of lemons—to develop a yeasty, sweet, round pastry, which she deep-fried. Because the middle seemed to cook less quickly, Gregory filled that area with nuts, and thus she coined the name.

Decades later, her son, Captain Hanson Gregory, would recall that he had taken a small round top from a metal pepper canister and cut out the middle of his doughnut. He created, he claimed in the Boston Post, “…the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes” (Shayt).

Doughnut machines, writes Shayt, were perfected in the 1920’s. By 1934, Clark Gable was teaching Claudette Colbert how to dunk ‘em in It Happened One Night, and doughnuts were the hit of the Chicago World’s Fair.

They were what soldiers looked forward to at USO’s, too; when transport trains stopped, the boys were greeted by “Doughnut Dollies,” who doled out doughnuts to the troops. And, by the end of the 1950’s, Krispy Kreme had franchises in twelve states, and the organization was just starting to grow.

Robert McCloskey immortalized a rogue, diamond bracelet-eating doughnut machine in Homer Price… a story that takes place, by the way, in Centerburg, Ohio, which is not very far at all from where I type this. And risk-takers still do “doughnuts” in their vehicles in empty parking lots, and gamblers talk about betting “dollars to doughnuts”—an American update of an old English phrase, “A pound to a penny.”

We Americans, we like our doughnuts.

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

In my house, we like them, too. Jim meanders downstairs as I’m typing, and his eyes light up when he sees the white box. He pulls a small plate down from the cupboard.

“Mind if I…?” he starts, and then says, “Oh, BEAR CLAWS. I LOVE those.”

Then he stops talking. I do hear a few satisfied, “MMMMMMMMMMMM….” sounds drifting from the dining room, however.

And he’s right. They are delicious, and, as long as we keep them a once-in-a-while treat, I rationalize that they’ll do us no harm. But I think of my doctor, and I drain my coffee, and I lace on my sneakers. Time to do my penance and take a brisk, long, calorie-burning walk.

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

I wish you, this weekend, time to sip from a steaming mug and nosh on something delicious.

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

I found doughnut details at…

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/dollars-to-donuts.html

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-history-of-the-doughnut-150405177/

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.