Raking Leaves

On Monday, after work, I pull on a light T-shirt and capris, and I go out to rake one-half of the front lawn. It is seventy degrees out, and sunny, and I am hot by the time I’ve raked a good part of the lawn half. The leaf are crisp, and little white midges—or SOME kind of bug—swirl up from the grass where the rake upsets them.

I rake the leaves down over the little retaining wall, and then I run down the two steps to the street. I use the rake like a shovel, heaping leaf piles, making sure they are, at least for a moment, all piled up on the hell strip.

Tuesday’s weather is much the same. My cheeks feel a little sun-toasted. I notice the leaf-sucker has been by; all the leaves from the right side of the front yard have been snuffled up, carried away.

I use the rake to wiggle leaves out from under bushes and up and over the rocks between my yard and Sandy’s. I clean out a column of yard, pushing leaves into a wavery line; then I go around on the other side and do the same thing.

When there’s pretty green space all along that wavering line of leaves, I start at the top—up close to the house,–and I push and rake and bulldoze those leaves down to the curb.

These are neighbor-leaves, the bounty of a beautiful neighborhood filled with shade trees. When they splay onto the concrete, they make a lovely collage—oak leaves and maple leaves; little yellow oval leaves with pointy tips. Sweet gum leaves.

Some leaves crisp and flake as I rake them. Others are as tough as vintage leather.

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On Wednesday, I run the mower in the backyard, chewing up pine needles that spread, golden, everywhere. Piney scent hangs in the air, dense and Christmassy.

Once again, out front, the leaf sucker has made away with the piles at the curb.

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When I go out to rake on Thursday afternoon, I wear my jacket. A little rain has scampered through town, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. But the sun shines pale when I start, again, to clear those wandering leaves nestled on my lawn. This year, I vow, I am going to keep on top of the leaf situation; this year, I’m going to get them to the curb to be sucked away before the wind takes them and scatters them in yards that are innocent of trees.

These particular leaves may not originate in my yards, but my sweet gum is waiting, still mostly green, breath held. It will let Sandy’s trees shed completely; it will let the neighborhood clean itself up. It will wait until the leaf sucker has decided, “I don’t need to make any more runs!”

And then the sweet gum will start, sassy and lazy, to drop its leaves. And the wind will pick them up and sprinkle them, judiciously dividing them up among neighboring yards.

That can go on until Christmas; the sweet gum is big and it’s loaded with leaves and it is slow—so slow—to let them go.

So I build a daily practice, do penance beforehand for my messy tree, send as many leaves as I can off to Leaf Sucker Land.

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In other years, more recent ones, I have not raked this much. I pulled the mower out and mulched leaves into great piles, and breezes ruffled that mulchiness gleefully and scattered it, but the mulch didn’t deface lawns like big chunky leaves do. Sometimes I would get the rake out and Mark would plug the leaf blower in, and we would tag team the front yard, working quickly, our minds set on just getting ‘er done.

Now I am leaf-raking-mindful. After the rain, when the temps drop, the scents of fall change. There is a musty leaf smell, and the rich earthy tones of the dirt. The sun breaks through the cloud bank, and I am immediately cheered.

The clouds close ranks again, the sky darkens ominously, and worry wiggles around the back of my neck.

“Powerful thunderstorms” the weather app warns.

I want those clear green patches—even knowing that, by this time tomorrow, more merry little leaf-pranksters will have raced to fill the vacuum that nature abhors. A person riding by wouldn’t say, “Gosh, she’s keeping up with raking, isn’t she?”

No, they’d say, “The leaves are really coming down now,” instead.

But I don’t care. I am driven to rake this year, and I am finding out a surprising truth-for-me: raking leaves makes the whole adventure of autumn more intense.

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The act of raking calls up memories.

I am three and dressed in flannel-lined blue jeans, folded up at the cuff, and a long sleeved, striped T-shirt. All of those are hand-me-downs from older brothers, but the Red Riding Hood cape is all mine. It has a hood I keep perched on my head, covering the tightly wrought French braids, but not obscuring the short, short bangs on my forehead.

(Once, after she died, I found a cache of special cards my mother saved. Among them was a Hallmark card I gave her, probably in my young twenties. The cover said something like, “Happy birthday, Mom! I appreciate all the great things you do…”

And when I opened it, I read this, “…and I forgive you for all the times you cut my bangs too short.”)

At three, I like jumping and crunching through piles of leaves in my Red Riding Hood cape, pretending I’m on my way to Grandma’s, pretending that I, personally, will vanquish that dreadful wolf. Someone takes my picture on the sidewalk next to the school I will attend. Great piles of leaves have blown off the retaining wall, and I am buried up to my shoulders in leaves, only my red-hooded head sticking out. I am grinning.

I have the picture in an album. It is hard for me to sort the memory from the knowledge of the black and white photo, with its date stamp and crinkled white edges.

Do I remember this time in the leaves, or does the picture give me the knowledge I wish I could claim as memory?

A little bit of both maybe. And a little reminder, to me, how important leaves are to fall.

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I remember ‘helping’ rake the leaves at home. I remember jumping in the leaf piles; I remember when the work had to be done all over again.

Later, I remember being at the mercy of the leaf sucker schedule at several homes where we lived along the way…and my neighbor Rosie pounding on the back door in Mount Vernon.

“They’re up the street!” she yelled, and I ran out and grabbed the rake; Rosie wielded hers, and we both raked energetically, shooting great piles of leaves toward the street.

Rosie was eighty-something at the time, and I was hard-pressed to keep up. We cleared an amazing number of leaves before the hungry machine lumbered to my curb and snuffled up the fresh foliage dunes we’d created—the leaves still quivering and settling.

And I remember Rosie shrugging off my thank you’s with a grin and a wave.

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The weather cools after a long, warm fall. The furnace kicks on one night.

I cook pots of chili and minestrone. We peel apples and chop them into the crockpot with butter and brown sugar and cinnamon and come home to a house scented with hot applesauce. This is part of Fall, too: the urge to turn the harvest into food for now, and food that will last..food that will nourish us through the winter.

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We check outdoor clothes. A new pair of ankle boots with furry cuffs arrives in a smiling box. Coats hang ready in the back hall closet, plastic peeled away. I wash and dry the gloves and hats and knitted scarves and bring them all upstairs.

Some mornings now, I pull thin gloves on my hands before I take my walk.

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But the walking gets later and later. Now the sun rises at 7:45 a.m.; now if I take a morning walk in the light, I am rushing to be at work at 9:00.

One day I bow to the inevitable and go to the gym and re-up our memberships.

Now I can creep out to the car in the early dark morning and drive to the gym. I can walk on the indoor track, then pump my arms and legs on the elliptical, moving the day forward, walking into the light.

It grows light later; night falls earlier.

Is that why we call this season ‘fall,’ I wonder. And Dictionary.com tells me it is for the obvious reason—that leaves, in autumn, fall from deciduous trees—just as, in spring, shoots and stems and furry, fuzzy-eyed babies spring forth.

In autumn, night falls earlier. Rain falls more often. And leaves fall, fall and bluster, playing with the wind, sheltering in the nooks and crannies of my yard.

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I think about the inventions whose creators we’ll never know about. What genius carved the first spoon? Who perfected shoe laces? And who invented the rake, for heaven’s sake?

I picture someone, in a cultivated field, maybe, trying to move leaves and debris left by a storm. She opens her hand, splays her fingers, and rakes the clutter away from her food plants that way.

She cuts her flesh and her fingernails tear, and she develops a picture in her mind—a big hand-like tool, but made, maybe, of strong wood.

When she has cleared the space she needs to clear, she cleans her poor battered hands and goes back to the hearth. And she talks about the big, wooden hand to her mate, a person who makes things. Together, they gather limbs from a hardwood tree and vines to tie them together, and they experiment, and they work, and they revise until they create an effective rake.

Maybe it happened something like that, the process lost to history. And once the rake was developed, generation after generation improved the design.

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I remember the thin metal tines of the rakes I used as a young person. I hated the shrekking sound they made, scraping across concrete or pavement; that sound made my teeth hurt. Now, my rake’s tines are sturdy plastic; they don’t bend, or fall off, and they don’t make they awful sound.

Now I rake the leaves from the cement floor of the car port, and from the black-topped driveway, and it’s an easy process that doesn’t jangle. The only jangling note is that, next day, there are more leaves where I’ve cleared. It all needs to be done again.

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It is a season of falling things, but not all falls are negative. There is falling in love, after all, and there is another wonderful kind of falling—falling into a reverie, one that transports and refreshes. These cool, gray days are perfect for fascinating reveries, for long descents into deep thoughts.

I want to feel the pulse and the meaning of this season, to participate in all of its preparations and rituals.

I want to be aware of the changes, to be there as they happen.

So this year, this fall, I am raking leaves.

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https://www.dictionary.com/e/fall/

The Case of the So-Called Conker: Mundane Mysteries #1

Dirk Zane leaned an elbow against the door frame.

“Hey, doll,” he said.

Patsy looked up from the carrot she was chopping, halting the gleaming blade in mid- air. There he stood, as if guarding the basement doorway. The dark stubble on his jaw was shot through with silver. He arched one eyebrow sardonically.

“What’s up there, big guy?” she asked nonchalantly.

He let out a long breath. “My bun feet,” he said, “are missing.”

Involuntarily, her eyes shot down to his battered sneakers.

“Very funny, Toots,” he said. “You know what I mean.”

He lifted his chin and jerked it toward the basement. She put down her gleaming blade and followed him downstairs.

All the cabinet doors were open; boxes were moved, their contents spread across the floor. He’d obviously been searching.

“I had a bag of wooden bun feet,” he rasped. “I want to take these cupboards off the wall, put the bun feet on the bottom, and make them into freestanding bookshelves.” There was a long, pregnant pause, and he added, “But the bun feet are nowhere to be found.”

For the next half hour, they searched the dark recesses of the house’s lowest floor. They didn’t find the bun feet.

“Maybe,” she said, “they’re out in your garage workshop.”

“Yeah. That’d be a good resolution.” He bent his head toward her, one eyebrow quirked. “But I’m afraid there’s more than simple misplacing going on here. To be thorough, though, I will have to go check.”

He swaggered up the steps, one hand patting his shirt pocket. Empty.

Then he remembered that he didn’t smoke, and never had. He dropped his hand to his side, coughed lightly, and headed out the door.

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

She watched him go, confident he’d find those bun feet. He was the best private dick she knew; they made a good team.

She bent down to pull out the drawer that held her food containers. The carrots were chopped and needed to be put away.

But something was strange. She found two small glass containers of just the right size.

But the tops were nowhere to be found.

She found three lids to just-the-right-size plastic containers.

The containers were gone.

She got down on her hands and knees and pulled out drawers. Perhaps containers and lids had fallen behind. Perhaps they were in the dishwasher.

Maybe the boy had left them in a bedroom.

She searched everywhere.

When Dirk came back into the house, she was sitting on the stepstool, shaking her head.

“The containers,” she told him. “They’re missing, too.

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It was a desperate afternoon. Dirk and Patsy spread papers out on the dining room table. They listed where the missing objects had been last seen.

They plotted all possible scenarios.

They interrogated the boy, who was no help whatsoever.

They went outside, separately, and struck up innocent conversations with unsuspecting neighbors.

But as Dirk noted, at the end of the day, they were no closer to finding the bun feet or the containers. If anyone knew anything, they were good. They were VERY good. There wasn’t a hint or a whiff in their comments that could lead Dirk and Patsy to the missing stuff.

“Doll,” he said, “something’s rotten in Denmark.”

She nodded.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said.

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

She set off, striding, tensed, but, as the sunlight filtered through the falling leaves, she found her shoulders relaxing. Finding things: it was what they did.

She knew that she and Dirk would uncover the missing items.

Eventually.

Her foot struck a chestnut and sent it spinning into the street, its brown skin gleaming, its off-white belly a dull contrast. A memory jiggled, and then surfaced.

They had watched an episode of Escape to the Chateau the night before. The UK ex-pats had called the chestnuts “conkers.”

“Huh,” she had thought then, and now she stopped and looked at the chestnuts spread out on the sidewalk before her.

Growing up, they’d called these horse chestnuts.

Now, they lived in buckeye land.

But across the ocean: conkers.

Where did all these names come from?

THIS was a mystery she could solve. She headed home to her computer.

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She started with the oldest term, and found that chestnut trees were brought to the United Kingdom in the 1500’s. The first game of conkers, though,–a game played with the chestnuts–wasn’t officially recorded until one was played on the Isle of Wight in 1848.

The author of the article she read speculates that there might be three reasons Brits call chestnuts ‘conkers’:

  • The term MIGHT come from an archaic colloquialism meaning “hard nut.” (Chestnut really AREN’T a hard nut; they are a soft one. But they are hard enough to sting like the dickens, she thought, if someone whips one at your noggin. “Hard nut,” she mused. Maybe she’ll start calling Dirk, “Conker.”)
  • The players of the game may have morphed the term ‘conquer’ to show what they were planning to do to their opponents.
  • And it just might be, the author speculates, that ‘conker’ is what a chestnut sounds like, when it hits a hard surface—including someone’s rocky skull.

So, in the UK, the name of the game came also to be the name of the nut.

“Conkers,” Patsy murmured.

https://www.rotary-ribi.org/clubs/page.php?PgID=443301&ClubID=1826
“The History of Conkers”

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She moved on to the name she knew the nut by as a child.

Here again, she found there could be two reasons for the term ‘horse chestnut.’ When the chestnut breaks away from the twig it grows on, the loss of its stem leaves a scar on the tree. And that scar, she was surprised to find, is horseshoe shaped. If one looks closely, the article told her, one can even see tiny nail marks.

The other thing is this: In the days before modern veterinary medicine, horse-handlers ground up chestnuts and fed them to their horses when those horses had bad coughs. There were medicinal properties in the resulting brew that actually did cure those horse-coughs.

But the ground chestnuts were not for everyone. Huge horses could digest them. To other creatures, though, the chestnut was pure poison.

“Those are two good reasons,” Patsy thought, “ for the name ‘horse chestnut.’”

https://www.countryliving.com/uk/homes-interiors/gardens/news/a659/why-called-horse-chestnut-tree/

She moved on to learning how chestnuts in the Midwest came to be called ‘buckeyes.’

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The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jeff Seuss writes that native peoples called the nut a buck eye (hetuck in the native tongue) because it does indeed resemble the eye of a deer.

But outsiders used it as a term of derision for Ohioans. The buckeye, they said, was a soft, native-born nut…just like the people who live in Ohio.

But Ohioans appropriated the term, making it mean what they wanted it to. THEY said that buckeyes were good to look at. They were tough to kill. They were a valuable resource. Being a buckeye, then, was a very good thing.

This all came to a boil when William Henry Harrison (who was born in Virginia but claimed Ohio as home) ran against Martin Van Buren for president in 1840. Van Buren-ites said Harrison was “…better suited to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider.”

Again, Harrison’s supporters turned the insult into an accolade. They created a kind of logo for Harrison; in it he was depicted near a log cabin (made from buckeye logs.) On the walls, one could see strings of buckeyes. There was a barrel of good hard likker close by.

When Harrison supporters marched in parades, they carried buckeye canes and rolled whiskey barrels. They proudly claimed the name, “Buckeye.”

Seuss tells us that Ohio State made the buckeye its mascot in 1950, and Ohio adopted the buckeye as its state tree in 1953.

https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2021/09/26/ohio-known-the-buckeye-state-first-use-nickname-dr-daniel-drake/5804161001/

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Patsy spun her chair away from the computer and went to share her findings with Dirk. He listened thoughtfully, then reached a gnarled hand to rub her shoulder.

“Nice work, Doll,” he said. “That’s why all the different names for a chestnut. That’s one mystery solved.”

They splashed some hard liquor into highball glasses and clinked. Then they gulped down the rotgut, and they went to watch Ted Lasso with the boy.

Solving the other mysteries, they agreed, would wait until another day.

Good Stuff

The little boy (hair, cut in a shiny bowl haircut, so dark it’s almost black. Eyes, glinty and intense: chocolate M&M’s. A long-sleeved striped shirt. Jeans, cuffs folded up once. Scuffed but fancy sneakers) and his grandpa (short and slim, shiny pate surrounded by gray fringe. Those same M&M eyes. A tan cloth zipper jacket with a knit waistband and cuffs. The hand that holds his grandson’s is gnarled from years of demanding factory work, with evidence of breaks and bruises and harsh encounters with hard metal) walk to the old Buick hand in hand. It is 1981, and they are going to the dump.

The dump! To the little guy, Matthew, Grandpa’s buddy, the dump is a magical place. People come to that place all week long, and at the edges—not in the middle, where dumped items have been bulldozed into great broken piles—they leave wonderful things. And every time, when Grandpa and Matthew go, there is something different to examine and explore.

There might be a table that needs just a little elbow grease; then it would be something a person could put in his bedroom and keep Legos on, and no one would ever know it wasn’t new.

Someone might have toted a sturdy wooden chair from their truck, settling it carefully on the dirt at the edge of the dump. It’s a good chair, but it’s missing one leg and a piece that holds the armrest. If you have a grandpa, though, with lathes and sanders and all kinds of magical tools that can shape a block of wood into something that looks JUST LIKE the other legs on this chair, and the spindle supports that hold up that armrest, this is not a problem.

That chair is something you bring home.

There might be a broken appliance, a toaster or blender, that just needs a Grandpa-style tweak. Lawn mowers, garden rakes, lady’s wobbly shoes, blankets, stinky old mattresses. Clothes.

Not everything, of course, is a treasure; you have to LOOK, which is part of the point, part of what makes the magic.

On good days Matthew and his grandpa find a piece of furniture, replacement parts for Grandpa’s stockpile, perfectly good tomato cages, a pretty little clock in a wooden casement.

On GREAT days, though, they find Tonka trucks.

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A 1981 Tonka truck (REAL metal); image from Ebay

Matthew has a dirt pile at Grandpa’s house. He drives his Tonkas there, sturdy metal vehicles that he and Grandpa rescued from the dump.

There is a workhorse dump truck, their first find. They brought it home and washed it with the garden hose. When it was dry, Grandpa brought out sandpaper, and together they rubbed at the rusty spots, smoothing them almost all the way down.

Then they painted that truck with shiny yellow Tonka paint.

Finally, Grandpa rummaged in his parts bin until he crowed triumphantly. He pulled out a fat little black tire—exactly the same size as the missing wheel on the dump truck.

Together, when the paint was dried hard, Matthew and Grandpa attached that wheel. The truck, pristine, beautiful, was ready to haul some dirt, and Matthew grabbed it and stomped up the broad stone steps from the old basement, out to the dirt pile next to the driveway. The truck careened and raced. Matthew tamped down roads and packed truck ramps, and he built up hills and mountains.

His Tonka truck fleet fleet was begun.

They add a red metal firetruck; Grandpa carefully winds string onto tiny winches after the sanding and painting is done. Parts move and the red siren-light sparkles.

There is a crane, and that was a complex job to restore. Things had to be unbent before they could wind and turn. Somebody, maybe, had driven right over the bucket; Grandpa patiently pulled and pried until it was opened back up, just like it should have been. Some of the crane’s parts were white, and others they painted shiny silver, and when that was all done, Grandpa could wind the string in this one too.

Another dump truck surfaced, and that was a good thing, because the dirt pile had enough hauling for two dump trucks and MORE.

“What do you think you’d have paid for those new?” Grandpa, proud and frugal, asks Matthew’s dad.

Matthew’s friend David, squinches up his chubby face when Matthew talks excitedly about going to the dump.

“The DUMP,” says David, “is full of junk.”

Matthew begs to differ.

“The DUMP,” he retorts, “has GOOD STUFF.”

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We are watching the new season of Escape to the Chateau, when the Strawbridges’—Dick and Angel’s—event season is sunk by the pandemic. And now they have time to concentrate on projects around their 45-room chateau, and the acres and acres that surround it, on the outbuildings, and on the grounds.

Dick and Angel are not deterred by dust, or bugs, mice or bats, not even by flies thick on a turret floor, requiring, even as they twitch with life, a thick heavy sweeping with a push broom. The detritus of another family’s long history in the chateau fills many loft-like spaces. And tonight they rummage in the loft of a building that will become Dick’s expanded workroom.

Angel finds an old book with beautiful illustrations of birds, the colors still vivid and charming. She blows off dust. Delighted, she draws Dick in to look at it; to the camera she says, “This is so me!”

And it IS her…her love for birds (and taxidermy) reflected in the chateau’s quirky decorating, her love for repurposing and for honoring the history of her home evident everywhere the camera turns.

Angel is the decorator; Dick is the engineer. She is the spark, and he is the implementer. She envisions; he translates.

We watch Dick turn old doors into workbenches and shelves in his workshop domain. Meanwhile, Angel and the kids build him a workshop-warming gift—a tape dispenser crafted from Legos. Angel rummages in her workroom supplies and comes up with the blade of a saw; they glue that to the edge of the Lego dispenser, and now the tape cuts, quick and easy.

Angel finds a metal band that once held a barrel together; Dick shows her the copper hardware from an old light fixture. Between the two of them, they craft a chandelier for their family sitting room; Dick sands the barrel-band until it is clean and smooth; Angel uses one of Dick’s tools to create wooden beads…which she, finally bested by the sheer amount of work needed, supplements with store-bought. Together they create a worthy, weighty, wooden-beaded chandelier.

It is hung after Angel renews the ceiling with luster paint and brings the plaster pendant that anchors the light source back to life, and after Dick rewires the whole affair.

Angel and Dick Strawbridge live a life of renewing old things.

I watched their show, and I was reminded of Matthew and Grandpa and the good stuff they renewed.

The Strawbridges, from an article in House Beautiful about a new series they started about fixing and repurposing

(https://thechateau.tv/)

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It seemed to me the dump was almost a character in United States literature: a place where those people who, not having a lot, could find what they needed, until they worked hard to make life better.

I remember the narrator in a James Dickey poem crawling through the rump-sprung seats of old cars, dust motes dancing in harsh sunlight, as he looked for a place to be together with his love: with his love in the dump!

And was there a dump in SE Hinton’s The Outsider? Or in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls?

Maybe not. I can’t quite remember, so I go searching for dumps, for their history, their romance, their literature, on the internet.

I find only one hit that meshes with what I was searching for: the history of the dump in north Omaha, and the generations of people it supported, the pickers who gleaned its treasures (https://northomahahistory.com/2019/12/15/a-history-of-dumps-in-north-omaha/).

The rest of the hits are about landfills and data dumps and the “Dump Song” (ta da dump, ta da dump, ta da dump dump dump) on SpongeBob Squarepants.

The dump as a curious place of charity and delight and inspiration is not reflected here.

But maybe the idea of the dump has morphed into our culture, leeched into our lives, in other ways.

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I have a friend who once lived in a college town. The college was a costly place, attended by students whose families, many of them, had considerable wealth. On the last day of the spring semester, before the students rioted off to wherever their summers led them, they would clear out their rooms and apartments and dump things by the garbage cans and dust bins.

So many perfectly good things, just too hard to transport, were left by the road. When the last of the wheels bearing those students away had crunched the dust of that small town, the folks who lived there would go ‘shopping.’ They salvaged furniture, appliances, and technology students had left behind.

I was at my friend’s house when her sons came home bearing a big screen TV. Flat screens had not yet emerged; this TV screen was mounted in front of a foot and a half or so of hard-black-plastic-covered mysterious innards that made it work.

It was an expensive throwaway. The boys plugged it in, and pictures, sharp and true, flared onto the screen with no hesitation.

Cutting edge entertainment technology of the day: theirs for the taking. An impersonal kind of donation—kind of like the dump.

Remember these monsters? This is the kind of large-screen TV left behind by college students heading home, back in the day…image from Thingsforsale.com

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Another friend lives in a town that holds “Big Trash Days” three or four times a year. Big Trash Days have almost a festival atmosphere: people walk the shady streets, browsing. Here’s a house with a full set of wicker outdoor furniture at the curb; the settee’s leg needs some attention, but the chairs will be fine with just a good scrub.

Around the corner, three boxes of brand-new laminate tiles nestle next to the detritus left from a remodel.

A homeowner sets out a brand new instapot in its packaging. She got two for Christmas; setting the extra out on Big Trash Day is easier than donating it.

After shopping the curbs, the walkers go home and get their vehicles; they drive back to the treasures they have pinpointed, and they take home the ones that are, gladly, still there when their SUV pulls up.

Good stuff: there’s good stuff on those curbs. Sometimes it’s new and sometimes it’s vintage; it is good stuff, all the same.

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We have a cabinet in the carport that our-across-the-street neighbor left out front when he moved. We dragged it across the street, cleaned it up and painted it. It fits perfectly in its little niche, and it holds garden tools, rope, and other outdoor things that need just a little protection. It’s good stuff.

I have a sweet little side table, base of black metal with nicely crafted metal leaves, that was discovered curbside, too. A good scrubbing, some sanding, patient applications of Rustoleum black lacquer… That’s good stuff, too.

Back in the day, “Hey, look at THAT,” I might say, driving by One Person’s Trash, and slowing down.

Noooooooo! MOM!” Jim would plead, slouching low in his seat, covering his face with one hand. “Isn’t this STEALING?”

“It’s recycling,” I’d say. “We’re saving the Earth, one treasure at a time.”

And sometimes, the ‘treasure’ would find its way into my trunk, and sometimes it would stay, for a while at least, at the curbside.

But I had to say, there was stuff there for the taking—good stuff, too.

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One person’s trash, right? In our basement, there was a set of old cabinets, moved down from the kitchen, no doubt, when renovations that preceded us happened. The doors stuck, the old wood molded, and Mark wanted the whole thing gone. He pried off the cabinet top, prized out the heavy old sink, and chopped everything else up.

We made trips upstairs, carrying chopped up cupboard pieces and a countertop reduced to two-foot chunks.

Then Mark started calling around about the sink. To his surprise, no one wanted it—not scrap metal folks, or Re-Stores, or charities–none of the usual places that can make good use of household artifacts.

We already have one herb garden thriving in an old kitchen sink; we didn’t think we could be too creative with another.

We had a few other things that needed to go, too—a tired lounge chair, a vacuum cleaner that wasn’t pretty, though it still worked.

“Well,” said Mark,” we’ll drag them to the curb and hope the sanitation guys will take them.”

Just before supper one Monday night, he wrestled the sink, then the bulky chair, down the driveway to the curb. I followed, rolling the old vacuum.

Then we went inside and washed up; we dished up dinner and sat down at the table. Mark was facing the bay window.

He hadn’t put a forkful of food to his lips when, “No way,” he said. And he was up and out the front door. He ran to the curb, which was empty.

In the time it took us to get back in the house, wash up, and serve our food, someone had come and taken the sink, the vacuum, and the chair.

To someone, that was a Big Trash Day score.

To someone, the things we couldn’t wait to get rid of were good stuff.

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

COVID has robbed me of a little of the excitement of uncovering perfectly good old things that can fill a perfectly new role. We have loved, in the past, watching Salvage Dawgs, those masters of gleaning and repurposing (https://blackdogsalvage.com/). They’ve inspired us to see ‘junk’ with a contemplative new eye.

There was one day, deep into quarantine, when we saw the cutest cabinet relegated to the curb. I knew a place where that little pleaser would have worked perfectly…but we drove on by.

“We can’t,” I said to Mark, “bring unknown people’s stuff into our house.”

We did not know, then, that surface contact wasn’t a spreader. We stopped eying treasures left at the curb. We stopped mooching through fascinating secondhand shops. We did not visit Columbus Salvage for repurposing inspiration.

It was not, we believed, a good time to trifle with used or vintage goods.

And so we learned the art of internet shopping, the ease of Amazon, the wonders of Wayfair.

I forgot, for a long time, the pleasure of repurposing.

And then the Strawbridges reminded me of Matt and Grandpa and the Tonkas from the dump. And then, the gates creaking open, memories of the pleasure of bringing something back to its purpose, of re-making an aged thing and giving it new life, came flooding back in.

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

The bowl-haired boy is forty-something now, a man with his own basement workshop. His eyes still snap and glow, and he still practices the lessons his grandpa taught him.

Matthew can take an aging dresser and turn it into a showpiece; he can re-imagine a purpose for a curious chunk of metal. He can build what he needs from a store of repurposed wood. He can make a tired old canned-ham trailer into an exciting holiday adventure vehicle.

He can see the potential in a diamond in the rough.

“It’s good stuff,” he’ll tell you.

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

And I should think more about that, about saving worthy things, about reviving good stuff.

Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie

All year long folks wait for their favorite coffee shops to fill with the aroma of pumpkin spice lattes. It’s the season when grocery stores stock their shelves with limited edition pumpkin cookies and ice cream…It seems that no food symbolizes the blustery fall season quite like pumpkins.”

—-“History of Pumpkins and Recipe Round-up,” by Torey Avey

The coffee shop, deep into pumpkin

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

“Hey,” Mark says. “Hey. THAT looks good. What is that?”

I am looking through a glossy cookery magazine, and the current page has a picture of a Bundt cake.  Its perfect surface is a roasty brown. Thick, creamy white icing drizzles up and down its sides. There’s a steaming cup of joe next to it, along with a rustic cake cutter and a stack of ceramic dishes.

The whole scene is enticing. And the cake DOES look tasty.

“That,” I read, “is a pumpkin spice Bundt cake.”

“Oh, dear lord,” Mark groans. “ANOTHER pumpkin recipe?”

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

We don’t much care for pumpkin, at our house.

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

The days have shortened; it is dark by early in the evening now. The sun doesn’t rise until 7:15 a.m. When the sky’s finally bright enough for my morning walk, I pull on my thin knit gloves; the temps are, often, in the forties.

And then I walk and note, each day, the trees and bushes shivering into reds and golds and oranges, and those blushing leaves wafting down to the ground in soft, lazy, cradling movements.

Big pots of mums, with flowers packed so densely they look like vivid yellow and magenta Muppet fur, pop up on porches. There are gourds and pumpkins in window boxes.

Store shelves are packed with Hallowe’en candy.

It is autumn, cool and crisp, invigorating.

It is autumn, scented, everywhere, with pumpkin spice.

Where, I wonder, did all this pumpkin hoopla come from? And why do I not feel involved in it?

Darkness falls like a curtain at 7:30 one night, and I fire up the desktop to go searching.

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

Torey Avey tells me that pumpkins grew 7,500 years ago in Central America. And early in colonial days, settlers were making pumpkins into pies. Native North Americans cooked with pumpkins. European settlers learned from them.

“The English, who are fond of tasty food, like pumpkins very much and use them also in pies and know how to make a beverage from them.” I read this quote from a Dutch traveler, circa 1665, on MSN.com’s “What Are the Historical Origins of the ‘Pumpkin-Spiced Everything’ Craze?”

That beverage the English made probably wasn’t a pumpkin spice latte, but I am illumined to learn that pumpkin drinks didn’t spring into life in the late 20th century.

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

On Tuesday afternoons, I run errands. Sometimes I hit the library, and other times I take things to the post office. I shop for birthdays and necessities. I take the car to the dealership for check-ups. I pick up things at the hardware store.

Often, now, no longer in school, James comes with me.

This week, we go to Squiggly’s, where hardworking young people clean my car, inside and out.

Afterwards, I take James to a coffee shop. He has a notepad; I have a mystery novel, one slender enough to slide into my stretchy tan purse. The cafe has only one other customer.

We browse the goodie counter. One whole shelf is devoted to pumpkin treats. There are pumpkin muffins and pumpkin cookies; there are glazed scones flavored with pumpkin. There are pumpkin bars and pumpkin cake pops.

There are varieties of pumpkin-spice lattes.

“Too. Much. Pumpkin,” grits James.

He orders a caramel latte. I carry a decaf Americano to our table.

We feel pursued by pumpkin.

We are stubborn. We will not yield. But I’m not sure why.

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

Almost as important as the pumpkin itself is the spice that we flavor it with. There’s a formula there, and nutmeg is vital to it. In fact, nutmeg was the reason the Dutch sold the island of Manhattan to the British. They used the proceeds from that sale to buy an Indonesian island where nutmeg abounded. The spice, by then, had been in common use for at least 2,000 years.

Nutmeg was treasured. In the 1300’s, a pound of nutmeg was more valuable than an equal weight of gold. (To buy a pound of nutmeg then, one had to offer riches equivalent to the value of “seven fatted oxen.”)

Nowadays, nutmeg is essential to pumpkin pie spice. But we are lucky; we can get a full pound of nutmeg for a mere $18.00 (what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/).

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

I read fascinating pumpkin facts on the Internet, and something I read there flits into the boney mind chamber and pries a memory loose, dislodges it from its firmly tucked space in one wall. I remember that, the year I turned ten, we planted pumpkins in the little field behind the old brown barn.

It was like the beginning of something, growing those pumpkins. The little field had always been a kind of play yard, and a place where old furniture or equipment might be temporarily stashed before their eventual disposal. But now it was a garden, and this was the first time we had grown anything besides flowers—grown something to actually eat.

I think, now, that we planted both pumpkins and watermelons that year, and we watched the blossoming of both with a kind of inhaled interest. My mother was deeply involved with this garden. I have a image of her, early in the morning, slogging through rain-muddied rows in a pink house dress and someone’s old, black, too-big, ladder-buckled, boots.

We watched the amazing evolution, from sprouts to vine, from blossoms to hard little fruits.

I can almost remember picking and eating watermelons; in hazy memory that treat, not one I normally enjoyed very much, was nectar.

But the pumpkins took longer, grew harder, demanded my intense attention. I surely remember both the look and feel of those brazen gold blossoms, and the tiny miracle of infinitesimal, hard, green pumpkins emerging. And I remember how those baby pumpkins grew and grew.

There were dozens of them. In those days, pumpkins were for carving, not for eating. I envisioned piles of jack o’ lanterns, enough for everyone to put their distinctive mark on two, or more.

I walked the rows and I watched the growth and there was magic in the process.

And then August came, and quite suddenly, abruptly, we moved to a new house, to a rambling, winterized cottage near the shore of Lake Erie, a house in the clutches of the small city that abutted our former town.

That place had a temporary magic of its own (we weren’t to stay there long), a mischievous magic that buzzed and simmered close to the surface. But that move ripped open a door that had valiantly kept family turmoil contained. My naivete was shocked by the resulting discord…a discord which did, eventually, repair itself, but not before I’d learned how to be wary.

I learned too, that nothing was permanent. Some of my tethers frayed as that summer eased into fall.

And once—a bright, impossibly blue-skied day—my father drove us back to see the pumpkins. He pulled up that driveway, drove all the way back to the little field, and we stayed in the car and looked.

The pumpkins were glorious, huge and orange and ready to be picked.

And of course, we asked to do that. “NO,” my father said, gruff and low. “They belong to the other people now.”

And he turned the old Buick around in the space where the driveway veered to enter the old brown barn, a turn he’d probably undertaken two thousand times before.

I don’t remember if my mother was in the car.

I never, of course, went back, and I don’t remember any further joy in pumpkin carving until my own kids delighted in jack o’ lantern creation (but not in the clammy cleaning out of pumpkin guts, a job relegated to parents.) We bought fancy pumpkin carving kits, and each year we made more and more complex creations.

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

The memory of the lost magic of those pumpkins we planted goes with me, a hopeful vision of a kind of golden time before some things fell apart. Maybe the shock of that move has something to do with my later resistance to the treats of the season.

Pumpkins grow golden on the edge of my innocence: a metaphor. And I’ve never since been tempted to cook with them.

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

In a 1796 recipe book, American Cookery, there’s a recipe for fixing ‘pompkin’ with molasses, allspice, and ginger. The English and French were enamored of the pumpkin, too; they also experimented with different kinds of dishes and different combinations of tastes.

Finally, a basic mixture of spices emerged: that nutmeg, of course; ginger and allspice; cloves; and certainly, there had to cinnamon. Those five spices remain the essential basic flavorings; they are the pumpkin spice we celebrate.

The New England states refined the concept of pumpkin pie, and, because pumpkin was almost certainly a part of that first, hopeful, celebratory meal, the pies became locked into United States Thanksgiving celebrations.

Libby’s started offering canned pumpkin in the 1920’s, and now cooks could create lovely, lavish pies without the long processes of roasting, stewing, and straining that turned fresh pumpkins into pie-ready puree. Libby’s canned pumpkin came to define the kind of pumpkin pies Americans crave to this day.

And in 1934, McCormick released its “pumpkin pie spice”; its name was changed, in the 1960’s, to simply “pumpkin spice.” But the formula did not change, hadn’t changed in the many years before McCormick put it together and packaged it: those five basic spices stayed, and still stay, the same.

People experimented with pumpkin; they made spice cakes and pumpkin rolls, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Home Roast Coffee in Tampa, Florida, put pumpkin spice in its coffee drinks. That spark ignited a trend across the country; now hot, pumpkin-spiced beverages are an anticipated autumn treat.

By the 2000’s, retailers were offering pumpkin-flavored menu items. Pumpkin doughnuts and cookies proliferated; even breweries started injecting pumpkin flavoring and its spices into their concoctions.

The trend hasn’t crested yet.

(https://www.msn.com/en-us/foodanddrink/foodnews/what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/ss-BB12GxFK#:~:text=%22Pumpkin%20became%20recognized%20as%20part%20of%20the%20comfort,2008%2C%22%20said%20Suzy%20Badaracco%2C%20a%20food%20trend%20analyst.)

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

Thursday was one of those impossibly perfect autumn days: a cloudless blue sky, lazy falling leaves, temps that peaked in the low seventies. That day, several of us sat on Susan’s beautiful patio. We ate our brown-bag lunches, and interesting talk flowed.

And then Susan brought out dessert—a pumpkin dessert with a crunchy streusel topping.

Of course, I took a piece to be polite, and of course, I discovered it was wonderful. I joined the clamor for the recipe.

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

“Our family isn’t good at math,” we say, or, “We’ve never been big dancers.” We believe those statements as woven truth, and we seldom have the chance to examine where they came from.

This fall, I’m remembering an abandoned pumpkin patch, and I’m exploring this oft-repeated statement: We don’t much care for pumpkin, at our house.

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

https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-pumpkins-recipes/

https://www.msn.com/en-us/foodanddrink/foodnews/what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/ss-BB12GxFK#:~:text=%22Pumpkin%20became%20recognized%20as%20part%20of%20the%20comfort,2008%2C%22%20said%20Suzy%20Badaracco%2C%20a%20food%20trend%20analyst.

Fall comes

Squirrels

Chitter and chase

the neighborhood

manic as Batman’s villain.

Fall comes, sometimes,

With tears and whispers.

Plump tomatoes

Shiver on woody branches

Begging to be plucked.

Pocka pocka pocka

Thing fall from trees.

Freezing rain sluices

Then a brilliant sky gleams blue.

Deer cluster

And pick their cautious ways

Through the yards.

Fall comes 

With loss and promise.

Some dreams die in fall

And some go dormant

And we won’t know,

Till then,

Which ones are which.

Growth in Autumn

Mark goes out early in the morning to check the tomatoes, which are on the back steps that we DON’T use, barricaded behind every stick of outdoor furniture we own. He waters the tomatoes; he nips off brown, crisped leaves. Occasionally, he feeds the plants a little fertilizer.

          And the tomatoes are burgeoning, heavy with fruit. Even the Roma plant, which the deer, or raccoons, or squirrels, or whomever, decimated last month, eating all the hard green immature tomatoes AND all of the tender yellow blossoms—even THAT plant has come back.

          The Roma plant was elsewhere-started and store-bought, and the cherry tomato was too. But the others—those glorious, four-foot-high Cordell tomato bushes—were started from seed in egg carton potting soil early in January in my dining room.

          We started them, really, without much hope. The seeds were old; we’d forgotten them for a year. And we’d never had much luck, anyway, growing things from seed.

          But these seeds had a will to grow, I guess, and we spent late winter and early spring gingerly moving plants to bigger pots as they outgrew the egg carton, the two-inch pots, and then the four-inch containers. They sat on the old painted dresser by the living room window, those plants, and they thrived. They brushed their leaves against the cool glass, longing to feel the sun on their greenness with no pane-d interruption.

          Finally, they were too big for the house. We moved them, in their new, large pots, to the carport roof, away from ravenous deer. Storm after storm, gale after gale, blew through and knocked the pots over, spilling the soil, baring the roots.

          Mark would be out first thing the morning after, up on the ladder, scooping dirt and righting pots, saying, “Sorry! You’ll be okay!” until it happened one time too many, and we acknowledged that the tomatoes had to come back to earth. Down they came, down to the back steps, where we bedecked them with jingle bells, baptized them with garlic powder, and surrounded them with yard furniture.

          Those plants have had Mark’s tender care. They basked in a summer that was hot, but not TOO hot, and wet, but not TOO wet. They survived the depredations of deer, and we circled the lawn chairs more tightly, doubling the garlic douse.

          Now we eye the plump, heavy green fruits just beginning to blush on the tomato plants’ sturdy branches. We dream spaghetti sauce dreams.

          And the tomatoes aren’t the only things growing in my yards this mid-September.

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

          There is the hanging plant that suddenly, toward the end of July and despite tender ministrations, crisped up and turned a deadly brown. I took the planter down and examined the plants inside, wielding my handy new garden clippers. I discovered, as I clipped away deadness, that moist green growth struggled underneath, along the very surface of the dirt. I thought about what Sandee told us—that commercial hanging plants have peaked when you buy them, that the flowers are crammed unhealthily into too small a space.

          I remembered Sandee’s wisdom, and I cut away all the brownness, and pulled out some dead plants that clearly could not be saved. I threw away crisp leaves that littered the planter; I watered and fertilized the fragile green growth that was left.

          I hoped for the best.

          And now the best has happened: that plant is a glory of white blossoms—blossoms we didn’t even see in the busyness of the planter when we first bought it.

The comeback planter kid

          The herbs in the kitchen sink garden—rosemary and basil—are getting their autumn growth on, too. The basil, like some of the tomatoes, is grown from seed, another little wonder. And a small pot of rosemary marched its growing minions off, staking out expanded space.

          With the oregano that swarms two flower beds, we have the ingredients for fall cooking–pasta sauce and chili and tomato pie.

Herbs grow in an old kitchen sink

          The coleus in the window boxes obscure half the windows.

          The little seedling Matt gave us is growing strong; now I can see the lemon tree emerging.

          Then there’s my Weed, grown from a tender little sprout I decided to preserve. I noticed a bunch like it throughout the backyard as I mowed. They had stems and leaves that reminded me of day lilies.

I wondered what one would look like, grown. So I chose the most pugnacious plant, and I mowed around it. It grew tall and strong. I protected it all summer.

Now it’s five feet tall or so, tough and woody. In the last two weeks, it’s sprouted kind of a topknot, and the topknot has birthed tiny pink blossoms. It’s a weed, for sure, but kind of an amazing one—and one that likes mid-September, too.

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

Labor Day, unbelievably, is in the rear-view mirror. The calendar says summer still is with us…and I am a great believer in not rushing the seasons, in letting summer stay as long as it will, no matter what day school starts again.

But even I have to admit to the season’s changes.

It is dark now by 8 p.m.

It’s cool when I walk in the morning. Yesterday, Mark said to me, “You might want to take some gloves.”

I said, tough and haughty, “I will be FINE,” and then walked off, wishing I had some thin little knit gloves on my cold, cold hands.  

The lawn doesn’t need mowing quite so much anymore.

Today, I took down the flowery summer wreath from the front door. In its place, I hung one that has spears of wheat, and golden and orange berries, and silken leaves of amber, red, and brown.

The calendar is reluctant to concede, but here’s the truth: autumn is here.

And still, things grow.

***********************************
We think of autumn as the ‘wrap things up’ time, the time when things die or go dormant. It’s a time of harvest, for sure, but it’s the waning season…the one leading up to the cold winter.

And yet, I look around and realize: autumn is a time of growth.

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

We use autumn, too, as a metaphor for a certain time of life—for, in fact, MY time of life. We call the years after 65 “golden,” like the rich tones of some leaves that are just beginning to fall.

It sounds beautiful, but, in reality, I think our society looks at these years with pity, with a little disgust, certainly with condescension. Aging, it seems, is a kind of shameful thing.

Am I being too cynical, unnecessarily negative? I ask myself that.  And just to see what happens, I type, “What to expect when aging U.S.A” into my search engine. Here are the first things I find:

  • AARP’s Parents caregiving guide. In this ad, there are articles that discuss the future of health service for older adults, caregiver stress, and COVID in care homes.
  • Caring.com talks about how to find assisted living and how much it will cost.
  • Healthprep.com offers “10 Ways to Age Successfully.” (Wouldn’t to age UNsuccessfully be to die???) “Sure,” says the writer, “you cannot avoid the aging process, but you do have some level of control when it comes to how you age.” Ten tips to graceful aging include
  • Stay positive;
  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink moderately;
  • Watch your weight;
  • Keep active;
  • Eat a healthy diet;
  • Stay connected to other people;
  • Laugh; see the humor;
  • Set goals and dream.

SOME level of control: huh. It’s funny to read this article; it’s illustrated with pictures of people in their twenties and thirties—sleek, sexy women; loveably geeky young business-type men (lots of man buns on those heads without a hint of gray.) There are buff athletes. There’s a young family with kids still small enough to carry. How old a person is the illustrator thinking about when they think, “Aging”?

                   In contrast, though, are the ads. Most feature soft, dumpling-like white torsos with livers floating high up beneath a floppy man-breast. The ads are all about fatty livers, and what old people with the condition can hope to do about it.

          Then there’s an article called, “Aging: What to Expect,” from the Mayo Clinic. It starts off like this: “You know that aging will likely cause wrinkles and gray hair. But do you know how aging will affect your teeth, heart, and sexuality?”

          If I thought the news was bad before, just wait till I read what the golden years are going to do to my bodily systems. My blood vessels are a-stiffening, and my bones are a-shrinking. I can expect growing constipation, more and more pee-ing, memory challenges…and here, I stopped reading. I didn’t even start the next article, which promised seven signs of aging, mentioning liver spots and incontinence as the first two.

          There were discussions of dementia and medical issues, the adverse effects of an aging population on the rest of the world, and somber treatises on end-of-life issues. These articles paint aging as a shutting-down time…a time when people slowly, surely, become burdens.

          Where are the articles on the glory of THIS autumn? Where are the stories of growth?

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

I’m thinking of a brave friend of mine who retired and got in her car and set off in quest of a whole new way of life, leaving behind the dysfunction she had tried for years to mend, to knit together, to salvage. Her own life, and all of her wonderful talents, were often submerged in those heroic efforts.

          Now though, at age 65, she’s a travelling woman, not sure where she’ll wind up, but on the road and finding out.

          Now, she is still growing.

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

          I’m thinking of another friend, also in her “golden years,” who used the isolation of the pandemic to do some drawing. She discovered a wonderful talent she had never explored, and now she draws every day, her mastery growing in amazing ways. Her other quarantine activity was to walk, and she set about discovering the trails and hiking paths in her area, and what she discovered on those hikes shows up in her sketch pad.

          Now she’s been asked to show her work. Now she’s setting up an art room in an unused bedroom. Now she is growing into a new understanding of herself and her gifts.

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

          I’m thinking of another friend, a quiet, thoughtful, introverted friend, who in her sixties, is learning to dance. She is pushing herself physically, and she is pushing herself emotionally. Performing doesn’t come naturally, but she is growing.

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

          I know people who’ve carved out entire new careers after they retired—and stayed in those new careers for twenty years or more. They just kept, in the autumn of their lives, on growing.

I know people who retired and wrote their first books, got them published, and started on others.

I know people, ‘golden year’ people, who are gleefully tackling their bucket lists–challenging themselves, traveling, exploring…

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

          You can think of many examples, too, I bet. I wish THOSE stories were what I found when I searched ‘aging’ on the internet.

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

Christopher MacDougall tells this story in “Secrets of the Tarahumara.” In 1993, there was a Leadville Trail ultramarathon. The course was through the Colorado Rockies—rough and mountainous terrain. Experienced runners from all over participated. They wore the latest shoes, had the best technology, donned the fabric most likely to wick away sweat.

          But some other runners participated, too. These were Tarahumara tribespeople from the mountains of Mexico. They wore junkyard-scavenged sandals.  They smoked and drank and ate very little red meat. When the gun sounded and the runners moved off, the Tarahumara faded off into the middle of the pack.

          Toward the end of the grueling race, though, MacDougall wrote, “…sandalled feet were pattering hard behind the leaders.”

          Victoriano Churro, a 55-year old Tarahumaran, won the race. Another Tarahumaran, Corrildo Chacarito, came in second. The tribe took fifth place, too.

          It was not a fluke. Since then, the Tarahumara have repeated their performances in race after race.

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

Here’s the thing about the Tarahumara, writes Matthew Kerster in “Running With Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians.” The tribe retreated from society, protecting themselves from violent masters. Kerster quotes McDougall as writing, “For hundreds of years they remained isolated from the outside world, growing their own corn, potatoes, and beans, while living in caves.”

          The people learned to run swiftly through the mountains to reach each other, to carry messages. And because, no one told them that they would slow down as they aged, they did not. They thought that the longer they ran, the better they got.

          And some of their very best runners—the best among champions—were in their 60’s.

Or older.

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

What would I do, in my own autumn, if no one had told me I was too old to do it? How would I keep growing?

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

Perhaps we need to take back the meaning of these years, to insist on the wonder of them—to forget about the omnipresent threat of adult diapers. These are the days we worked hard to achieve…and I know many people, more deserving, who didn’t get to appreciate their autumns.

          These are years to celebrate, not dread; we have packed up all the wisdom of the struggle and brought it here to guide us. And now we have the choice: what will we do with these blessed years?

          Perhaps we need to treat this time as tenderly as Mark tends his tomatoes: protecting and nurturing, fertilizing and feeding, giving the days lots of water, balancing the shade and the sun.

          Perhaps, I think, looking at my hanging plant, there are dead leaves I can trim back in order to let new green shoots emerge.

          What will blossom? What amazing fruits will grow?

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

We make bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches on a Wednesday night. Mark slices up a good-sized tomato from the pots outside the door. He puts big tomato slabs on his bread, and he eats the whole thing and goes back for more.

          “So good,” he says. “SO good.”

          We’re savoring those things that grow in autumn.

Chili Today…

So the weather got cooler this past week and Mark came home from work one day to say they’d been discussing chili in the break room.

“I told them,” he said, “that we make spaghetti sauce, and that then, often, we’ll use the leftover sauce as a base for our chili. And they were like, ‘Seriously? Spaghetti sauce?’

“And I said, yes. It’s so good; you should try it.”

But he said they were not entirely convinced. Someday, some cold fall day when the wind is howling and everyone in Mark’s office is feeling tired and overworked, I thought, we will mix up a big batch of chili, pour it in the crockpot, and send it into work with him. And Mark’s colleagues can see what they think: does spaghetti sauce make the best chili or what?

And there’s so much to look at in just that little snippet of conversation Mark reported, so many connections. Because yes, when the temps drop and the tomatoes ripen, making chili is definitely on the table—although I’ll eat chili any time, any temp.

And the talk about using spaghetti sauce,—well, that makes me think of my brother Dennis, and that makes me think that chili is not just a dish you sauté up, stir things into, simmer, and serve.

Chili is a complicated dish with a complicated history, and it is one of my favorite things to eat.

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

My mother started with onions minced in the old metal grinder she clamped to the table (some among us could not tolerate the texture of chopped onion). She sauteed that mush in the big pot while she chopped up the hamburger with the butcher’s knife that my step-grandmother, dead before I was born, had given her.

That knife was old, but my father kept it sharpened; it still sliced and diced with ease.

Usually, the burger was frozen. We were not always, in my growing up years, good about advance-planning details like, “Defrost the ground beef.”

But Mom was undeterred. She’d put the frozen slab of meat on the chopping board, and she would whale at it, two-handed, with that butcher’s knife. Whack! Whack!

Shards of frozen meat would splinter off from the mother ship. Mom would grab them and throw them in the pot with the simmering onion gruel.

The slab diminished. Now, it was a cube. Whack! Whack!

I thought of the farmer’s wife, and the tails of the unfortunate mice, and at this point, I often discreetly left the kitchen.

Whack! Whack!

A good time to watch TV for a while…

When the cube became a nubbin, Mom would throw it into the pot, small enough now to thaw quickly and quickly brown with the rest of the simmering meat and the soft, fragrant onion.

Then it was safe to come back and see what that base was going to become.

My mother would add tomato sauce and seasonings, and we would watch expectantly.

Some of us rooted for spaghetti sauce.

Some preferred sloppy joes.

Still others liked what we called goulash then. I know better now, having moved closer to the capital, the source, of the dish made with burger and tomato and elbow macaroni. That was a staple dish from Marzetti’s restaurant in Columbus during the Great Depression, when it would fill the bellies of hungry workers who didn’t have much money to spend.

Not goulash, at all; that’s a whole other dish. The elbow mac and burger and tomato sauce dish: that, I now know, is called Johnny Marzetti. (Just please look in Joy of Cooking if, for some odd reason, you’re tending to doubt me.)

Those were all good dishes, tasty dinners. But the one I rooted for most was chili.

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

My mother’s chili was mild and pleasant, and it always had dark red kidney beans in it. I loved those beans; I think, to me, they were like the chocolate chips I loved to find in my cookies—kind of a reward.

(And here’s one of the ways chili gets so complicated: There are those, especially those from Texas, where most say chili originated, who maintain that beans have no place in real chili. They have even written songs to get that point across like this one by William Clark Green and company called “Don’t You Put No Beans in My Chili”: https://youtu.be/Df0FmkQKQCg 

Mark, I have to tell you, would tend to agree, but to me this is a non-negotiable point. I like the song, but MY chili has to have beans.)

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

Sometimes, to stretch the chili further, Mom would serve it on pasta. I liked that too, although I wouldn’t learn until I became an Ohioan that Cincinnati had made pasta part of their chili equation long before.

We have watched a chef make Cincinnati chili on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and I about jumped out of the little gray loveseat when I saw him throw a whole lotta of raw burger into a boiling red sauce. WHAT???!!!!

But, according to simplyrecipes.com, the no-browning, no sauté-ing, method is part and parcel of what makes a chili Cincinnati chili. And once again, there are no beans IN the stew. But if you have it served five-way (two-way is the chili served on spaghetti noodles, and additions rise from there), that means you’re having warmed up kidney beans, chopped onions, and melting shredded cheddar on the top of your dish.

The Cincinnati chili was invented by a couple of Macedonian immigrants, brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff, in 1922. They chili-ed up a kind of stew they grew up eating, maybe making theirs the first trendy fusion restaurant.  And they added another layer to the chili controversy. To some people, Cincinnati chili isn’t “real” chili. And to some Cincinnatians, nothing ELSE is real chili.

As I mentioned, chili is complicated.

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

So, in my own personal chili history, I liked my mother’s chili, and I liked Campbell’s Chili Beef soup. And that was all I thought about chili until, in college, I went to visit my friends Mary Jane and Maryellen at the University of Buffalo. The whole weekend was pretty interesting, but the relevant memory here is that we went to a restaurant called Gatsby’s, and I ordered the chili.

It was probably the cheapest thing on the menu, and I probably ordered it because I was perpetually broke in those days, but I am so glad I did. The waiter gingerly brought the dish—the kind of thick, ceramic, handled bowl one could stick under a salamander— on a tray, and he warned me that it was hot.

I looked down and saw a bubbling crust of oozing cheddar cheese. That was almost half an inch thick, and, when my spoon plunged through it, I scooped up a red stew, rich in meat and tomato and hot, spicy peppers, chunks of onion, and hallelujah, beans.

There was a frosty glass of beer. There was a bowl of impossibly fresh corn chips. I ate, and I put down my spoon to rest my hand on my chest and close my eyes. That was so I could better hear the angels singing.

That bowl of chili from Gatsby’s—well, it taught me that eating chili could be darned near a religious experience.

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

And now, as I research chili and its roots and its legends, I find that chili as religious experience is not such a stretch. Maybe, the recipe for chili was a celestial gift.

According to whatscookingAmerica.net, in the 1600’s, there was a Catholic nun in Spain called Sister Mary Agreda. Sister Agreda never physically left Spain, but she was known to go deep into meditation, and then her SPIRIT would leave her body and do the traveling she must have longed to do.

She was known to the natives of what is now the southwestern United States as “la Dama de Azul”—the Lady in Blue. She must have visited more than once because they seemed to have known her pretty well, but on one visit, she gave the southwesterners a recipe involving chili peppers, venison, tomatoes, and onions…the first written recipe, in other words, for chili.

Other people maintain that some Canary Island immigrants brought a chili recipe to San Antonio, Texas, in the early 1700’s. Whichever is true—immigrants or apparition, and I’ll tell you, my jury is out,—chili became a San Antonio dish. It was a favorite thing to serve on long trail journeys—cowboys and pioneers loved it; they could make big pots of it from ingredients that could mostly be dried and carried along and then reconstituted. And, by the 1880’s, there were chili queens in San Antonio, lady street vendors serving what aficionados dubbed ‘bowls of red’.

San Antonio set up its Chili Stand at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then chili’s fame spread throughout the United States. Just to be sure people remembered where it originated, though, Texans made chili their state dish in 1977.

Oh, and I should mention Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, California, where, from 1936 to the year 2000, the chili was legendary. Studio people, chauffeurs to actors to executives, would line up at Chasen’s back door at night to buy big buckets of the chili. Legend has it that Clark Gable ate Chasen’s chili the night before he passed, and he died the happier for it. Legend also says that, when she was filming Cleopatra in Rome, Elizabeth Taylor had quantities of Chasen’s chili shipped to her.

Chasen’s declined to share the recipe, which slipped out of common culture when the restaurant closed.

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

And let me make an important distinction here: chili is United States food, not Mexican food. Mexicans will tell you that. In fact, in the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, a 1959 publication, the authors emphatically reject chili as a Mexican dish. Here is a rough translation of what they wrote:

Chili is “…a detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the United States from Texas to New York.”

So, just in case anybody’s wondering, chili is U.S. food. But I don’t think it’s detestable at all.

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

I started using spaghetti sauce as the red in my chili the year after my brother Dennis died. Dennis’s idea of a great meal to feed guests was a huge pot of long-simmered chili and casing hot dogs—preferably Sahlen’s hot dogs—grilled over hot coals. It WAS a great meal, and Dennis’s chili was always really, really good.

And then he died much too young, and then we put together, that next year, a family calendar with a special recipe on each page. So we had my mother’s Fudge Delight recipe on the December page, and the recipe for Holiday Sweet Dough (which made up the sweet rolls she made and frosted every Easter) in April.

Dennis’s chili recipe was the October recipe, because it was the month of cooling weather and also, by chance, because it was Dennis’s birthday month. My niece Shayne transcribed the recipe from her father’s crabbed handwriting and from her memories of talking with him about it. She wrote, “You have to use spaghetti sauce. Dennis insists that that is essential.”

And so I started doing that. We’d make a big pot of pasta sauce, and the next day, I would use some of it to simmer up a big pot of meaty, bean-studded chili. Dennis was right. Spaghetti sauce makes it GOOD.

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

Chili is a dish that contains chili peppers and a meat base (I always thought “chili con carne” meant chili with corn, but I was silly and misinformed.  Con carne means with meat, although there can be many vegetarian interpretations of chili, too), Sho Spaeth tells me in “Divided States of Chili: A Guide to America’s most Contentious Stew (https://www.seriouseats.com/guide-to-chili-styles-types-of-chili-recipes).

By Spaeth’s definition, white bean and chicken chili is chili, and so is chili verde. Illinois has its ‘chilli,’ and Springfield, Illinois, proclaims itself “Chilli Capital of the World.” Because ‘Chilli’ has meat and peppers, it is chili, too.  

People will argue about what real chili is, and where real chili comes from, but I think one of the best things about chili is that it can be so very different, so uniquely personal.

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

The last time we made chili, a week or two ago, we used a rich red sauce made from homegrown tomatoes (thank you, Terry and Paul, for the seeds!) that we had over pasta the night before. Great gardeners left goodies on the break room table at Mark’s office, and he brought home banana peppers and jalapenos, and those went into the chili we made, too, along with farmer’s market onions. And I think carrots add a certain sweetness to a dish, so when I was saute-ing up the veggie base, I added two carrots, finely chopped.

We did throw a little ground beef in, but the real ‘carne’ presence came from a chunk of pork shoulder, cooked all day in the crockpot. We shredded that up and stirred it into the chili pot, and then we let that pot of goodness simmer for an hour or two.

Thirty minutes before dinner, I opened up a can of dark red kidney beans and stirred them in. And we served that simmering stew up with grated extra sharp cheddar melting on top.

And, oh, that chili was good. We scraped our bowls clean, and still had enough left that I could freeze two little containers to take with me to work.

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

The next time—who knows?—our chili might have chunks of slow-simmered beef brisket, or tender chicken, or ground pork. And some people might look at it perplexed and say, “Chili made from spaghetti sauce? Chili with zucchini in it? That’s not REAL chili.”

But the charm and the wonder and the controversy of chili can carne is this: if you have the meat and you have the peppers, the rest, my friend, is up to you.

The Box, Left Open

In the White Sky

by William Stafford

Many things in the world have
already happened. You can
go back and tell about them.
They are part of what we
own as we speed along
through the white sky.

But many things in the world,
haven’t yet happened. You help
them by thinking and writing and acting.
Where they begin, you greet them
or stop them. You come along
and sustain the new things.

Once in the white sky there was
a beginning, and I happened to notice
and almost glimpsed what to do.
But now I have come far
to here, and it is away back there.
Some days, I think about it.

–found on The Writer’s Almanac, 9/3/21

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

It is Monday night, a home-night after a weekend away, and I am doing something I have not done for 30 years or more. I am looking through the high school yearbook from my senior year.

This weekend we went to see Terri’s family in Findlay. Her younger sister Julie was there, visiting from Florida, and two of Julie’s dearest friends from our hometown came to meet her.

I am looking them up now—looking in the index to find Susie and Mary Beth and Julie. I flip to their photos…they are freshmen, cheerleaders, athletes, part of the 1972 Marauders’ homecoming court. Their faces are ridiculously, impossibly young.

And yet. All of that was there, in the faces I saw this weekend, almost fifty years later—youth and hope and laughter and mischief.

I do not read the inked notes that line the pages of the yearbook. I do not turn to the senior section to look at my classmates’ cherished faces. I close the book and slide it back on the shelf in the living room, under the three other bound chronicles of my high school years.

Off kilter memories riffle… not the big things; not the most glorious, or the saddest, or the times that made me grip my sides with unexpressed, impotent anger. Just the simple ones. Hallway conversations. Crisp fall air at roaring football games. Laughter in the locker room after gym class.

The little things, the everyday times: they’re stacked there, waiting.

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

We went to the Lavender Hour, Terri’s daughters’ yoga studio and store, on Saturday. Julie was there, and we hugged and talked, and then she pointed me toward her long-life friends.

I went over and introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” said Mary Beth, and she startled me. “I recognized your voice.”

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

Memories can be like rock foundations. Some are pulverized, and some are pea gravel, and some—the big ones—are boulders. If those boulders have been sitting in the sun, they warm my bare feet when I step, tentatively, onto their smooth, flat surface.

But if they’ve been in the cold shadow: then, my. Those rocks will burn my soles like ice.

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

It was a memory weekend. We stayed in Ada, on the ONU campus, at the university where Mark did his law degree. We stayed in an inn that hadn’t been there when Mark was a student. We had a lovely, two-bedroom suite with a spacious living area. The beds were crisply dressed and comfy. Each room had a big screen TV. There were reading chairs and writing desks, and a fireplace that we didn’t, on that warm weekend, much need. But it was a lovely facet.

I remembered the first weekend we visited the campus. We drove from western New York, and, because it was January, we were concerned about weather and driving.

Mark’s admissions counselor, Grant, laughed.

“You’re thinking BUFFALO snow,” he said. “It doesn’t snow like that in ADA.”

But, of course, it did: that weekend Ada suffered an unprecedented blizzard.

That weekend, we could have used that fireplace in the inn.

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

On Saturday night, back from the Lavender Hour,—from seeing Julie, Mary Beth, and Susie, from talking with sweet Kate, Terri’s daughter, and with Ott, Terri’s husband,—Mark and I went out for a walk after dinner. James was settled in with his laptop and a movie, so we laced up our sneakers and walked across campus, over to the law school.

We had walked these paths before. For three intense years, Mark walked them every day, and James and I walked them many times a week. The scenery scrolled past us like the predictable, repetitive background scroll of an old-fashioned movie.

Back then, we’d have said, the pathways, the surroundings, had imprinted on our consciousnesses.

“We could,” we might have said, “walk this walk, eyes closed.”

Now, we found much to be familiar and much to be foreign. The law school building is there, of course, but a new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., stands in front of the rock displaying a plaque in Reverend King’s honor. The ONU campus was the last college campus where Reverend King spoke.

And were the services offices, IT and Maintenance and Security—were they always in those long low structures? I think I remember those buildings. Mark thinks he does not.

We walk to Lincoln Street to see the apartment building where Mark lived during his first year.

But we aren’t sure we can find it. Buildings have been sided; buildings have slid softly into decay.

Is it the brown one? (It doesn’t look big enough!) Is it the ramshackle white one next to it?

We can’t decide. Unsettled, we head back to the inn.

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

Memories are like forests. They seem firmly planted, permanent. But seasons sprout new leaves, thicken trunks, and tug those leaves off branches. There’s a dormant season, when the memories don’t seem to live at all.

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

The next day, we drive past Ada’s one little supermarket. Now, it is the Community Market; then, it was Dave’s.

And there is a memory we share, all three of us. The first time we went to Dave’s, slowly wandering the aisles, picking out our purchases, learning the lay, the menu, of that grocery store, we pushed a cart bulging with supplies to the checkout. The cashier, ample and motherly, hon-ed us, asked if we were new in town, clucked when she learned that a gent of Mark’s age was in law school.

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “Hon, good for you!” And as she took my plastic payment, a young man came from nowhere, grabbed our cart full of groceries, and pushed it quickly away.

“Holy…” said Mark, and he squirmed around me to chase the young man down.

“NO!” said the cashier, reaching out a restraining hand. “It’s okay! He’s taking the cart to your CAR.”

We looked at her in shock, grabbed the receipt, and hurried outside. The stock boy was waiting at our turquoise Escort wagon, the only car in the lot with New York State plates. When we unlocked the hatch, he stowed all our groceries inside and, horrified, refused a tip. All part of the job, he said, and wished us a good night.

Looking back, I have thought many times, that that was the first firm step on our journey to becoming Ohioans.

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

On Sunday, we meet Ott for lunch. We wait in the restaurant, and we see him walk, jaunty, across the parking lot.

He brings two CD’s for Jim, our music aficionado, and as we wait for the food, Ott tells us stories connected with the recordings.

Ott is a storyteller as well as a musician. He has us all laughing and rolling our eyes—he tells about times he and Terri avoiding Traveling With Ferrets, for instance, and the story of the cover shoot, and how he and Terri dodged the increasing drunkenness of the rest of the band by staying in a different hotel.

“That made an interesting album,” he says. “You’ll see.”

We eat and we talk and, as lunch is winding down, I ask about Miss Sadie, the little black rescue dog that walked with Terri on her last journey, that drew Ott out of the house for walks after Terri was gone.

Ott’s face changes.

“Sadie died last month,” he says. “Her heart gave out.”

He says that the vets could never agree on just how old Sadie was. One of them thought maybe she’d lived 18 years.

“She did her job, though,” says Ott.

Jim looks up from his phone and says, “Sadie’s with Terri now.”

We pick the conversation up, put it back on the track, but somehow, little Sadie’s death is the thing that stays with me.

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

And Mark drives us all the way home, all three and a half hours, and we groan ourselves out of the car, stretching and complaining, and we drag our bags back in to resume whatever everyday life means in these different times.

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

And on Monday, I pull out the yearbook.

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

In the dark wee hours of that night, I wake up, assailed. Memories are flying at me, furious fast. And I am wide awake.

What should I do? I think, and I contemplate taking my book and heading down to the reading chair, reading away the torrent.

But then I rest my head back on my piled pillows, and I let the torrent flow. And there are a few memories that fly like rocks, that hurt when they land, but most are gentle, and some are wondrous.

I let them wash by, and I realize that, firmly grounded in now, the memories have power only to provoke a kind of marveling. They do not, any longer, have the depth and breadth and immediacy to wound.

Memories of lost ones make me smile, and make me yearn, and make me wish, but in this dark night, I feel a kind of creeping acceptance, a sense that we are here now.

And I thank God for all the ones that walked our paths and all the things that brought us here.

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

Memory, I think, is like a stone box. The lid is heavy; it scrapes and screeches a little when I finally pull it off.

Inside, there are piles of paper—onion skin; card stock; cheap, thin loose-leaf. I reach in to grab the top sheet, but the breeze is faster than I am. It lifts those memories; it lifts them and shakes them and sends them spinning.

One lands smack on my face and I peel it off to read it.

Others settle on my lap or gentle down around my feet.

And some are whipped by what is now a gale force wind, borne on strong currents. They are flying away, and I could chase them, but I know it would be futile.

And I’d be leaving behind the ones that gather ’round where I sit.

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

It was a memory weekend, a gateway weekend that opened the door to things forgotten.

Memory may be a white sky, tumbled rocks, a forest. Memory may be a box that’s difficult to open, and one that’s difficult to cover up again once that lid is lifted.

Whatever. Memory is a powerful place to visit; it can be a comfort and a goad. It can bring laughter and it can provoke tears.

I am blessed this weekend to have visited memories–from high school, from law school, from great days of friendship and aching days of loss.

I will visit, I know, again, but the past is not a place that lets me stay.

All of a Sudden, After Quite a While

On Monday, Jim gets himself up early, showers, eats a hardy breakfast, and packs his bags. His transport guy shows up right around eight o’clock, and with a cheerful wave, Jim is off to his first day as a full-time student at Muskingum University.

Mark and I are left to gather up our morning threads.

Mark stops as he heads out the door off to work,.

“Our son is 31 years old,” he says, “and I feel as anxious as I did on the day he went to kindergarten.”

And then he leaves, and I am somewhere I have very seldom inhabited in recent years: I am in a house that’s empty of anyone but me.

As I do my morning word puzzles, thoughts flit and filter. And one of them is this:

How did Jim suddenly become confident and independent enough to decide on a daring plan and then to put it into motion?

All packed up and ready to roll

In the past—and not so very long in the past, either—Jim would have balked at the thought of being dropped off on a campus he didn’t know too well for an entire day. He would be among people he didn’t know, and he would have to navigate a schedule, getting himself from class to class and building to building. He would meet new instructors, find himself among much younger students, and be responsible for making meetings with his academic mentors.

Even, I think to myself, three or four years ago, this adventure would have seemed like a monumental—an insurmountable–challenge. Now, when I ask him if he’d be more comfortable if one of us drove him the thirty miles to school on the first day, he says, “Nah. I’m good.”

I tell him I’m proud of him, and I wonder at this growth, this change. It seems like it happened overnight.

But I know, even while I articulate that thought, that the change didn’t happen overnight. It percolated, instead, for a long time.

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

As a people, I think we kind of buy into the romance of unexpected, dramatic change.

“He just snapped!” we say about an easy-going friend who, after 27 years of wedded bliss, got up one morning, packed a bag, and left it all behind.

Or, more positively, “She blossomed overnight,” we remark about someone suddenly revealed as an amazing purveyor of oil paints.

But of course, the easy-going friend’s marriage had been travelling a path toward the break for long days past. And the painter had been nurturing her artistic side in many ways for many years.

The change seemed sudden because I was unaware, clueless, maybe seeing the façade and not wanting at all to look behind it.

Sudden change is often not sudden at all.

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

The term “overnight sensation” flutters down into the rocky chamber of my mind. I pick it up and examine it.

That concept—the swoop of grand, life-changing fortune in a moment of time–is weirdly comforting to believe in. We know the stories: some beautiful young woman is sipping a cherry Coke at a California snack bar. An agent walks in and sees her. He talks her into a screen test the next day.

In a week, she’s got her first starring role.

When the film comes out, it’s wildly successful, and she is a star-in-the-pavement-at-Grauman’s-Chinese-restaurant celebrity.

And if that could happen to HER, well, why couldn’t it happen to me? Why couldn’t some sharp-eyed person wander into my orbit, instantly discern that hidden genius bubbling beneath my surface, and quickly get me to a place where I can put that amazing talent to use?

Overnight, people would be lining up to bump my fist or get my autograph.

It’s a lovely story—an archetypal fairy tale—but I don’t think things really happen like that.

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

Just to be sure, though, I check. I go on-line, where I can find all the wisdom of the ages, collated and waiting for me.

In an article entitled, “Becoming an Overnight Sensation,” Lou Ludwig tells me (author’s emphasis) that “the truth of becoming an overnight sensation is . . . . It doesn’t happen overnight.”

He adds, “Becoming an overnight sensation . . . . takes an attitude of possibility thinking . . . . persistence effort . . .  hard work . . . . time . . . .and staying on purpose.” (https://activerain.com/blogsview/4754861/becoming-an-overnight-sensation)

Hah. That’s exactly what I thought (without, maybe, all the ellipses).

But then I happen on an article about ten overnight sensations, one of whom is actor Jennifer Lawrence. And I stumble on Tania Gosh’s article, “Everything You Need to Know About Jennifer Lawrence…the Smalltown Girl Who Turned Into a Celebrity Overnight!”

So maybe—it has happened—I could be wrong. And I look up Lawrence’s biography on, appropriately, Biography.com, to find out.

The editors of Biography.com spin a fascinating story of Jennifer Lawrence’s life. She was born in August 1990, in Kentucky, and she grew into an athletic young girl who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then, when she was 14, she went on a spring break trip to New York City with her family. There, a stranger asked to take her photo, invited her for a screen test, and introduced her into the acting life.

Lawrence spent that summer acting in commercials. (She also, according to Biography.com, had a part in a movie called The Devil You Know. It ran into distribution troubles, and it wasn’t released until 2013.)

The Lawrence family moved to Los Angeles, where Jennifer could pursue her career. And she did pursue acting, diligently. She landed small roles in Medium, Monk, and Cold Case. Those led her to a regular role on the Bill Engvahl Show. She also appeared in some feature films. (It sounds like Lawrence spent her teenage years continuously working.)

The Bill Engvahl Show was cancelled. In 2010, Lawrence appeared in Winter’s Bone. She earned nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a Studio Actor’s Guild award.

In 2011 she starred as Mystique in X-Men First Class. In 2012, she brought Katniss Everdeen to life in The Hunger Games. In 2013, she won an Oscar for her role in Silver Linings Playbook.

https://www.biography.com/actor/jennifer-lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence is a huge talent. But she spent long years learning and plying her craft before fame and accolades came flying in.

Lou Ludwig may be right about overnight sensations needing persistence, a roaring work ethic, and focus.

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

And then I think about blossoms—and about spring mornings when we wake up and find the lilacs, or the daffodils, suddenly in full flower.

“They blossomed—look at that!—overnight!” we say, and technically, that’s true, but the process to the blossoming was long and slow and methodical—and hidden.

The Forest Academy Faculty Manual on Trees in the Spring informs me that the buds are created in the Fall, and then, with the cold weather, they go dormant, fall into a dozey winter sleep. The springtime sun tickles the bud into opening, but its way was prepared long ago, plant processes taking place in a slow deliberate way, buds being formed and settling in months before.

That blossom might seem like an overnight miracle. It’s really been working on flowering for quite some time.

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

I like an article called, “Awareness is the First Step of Change,” by JD Meier in Sources of Insight. He says that people resist change, that they lack awareness.

Meier quotes Jeffrey Hiatt as listing five factors for being aware and awake, for letting change in, and the top of the list is this:

  1. Factor 1 — A person’s view of the current state

“A person’s view of the current state”: that’s the crux of the thing for me. Especially when change is gradual, and when I live with that gradual change daily, it’s easy for me to pretend it isn’t happening.

And then one morning, say, the porch sags into the yard, because the long, steady erosion of its necessary support finally reached the tilting point.

“Look!” I holler, indignant. “The porch just fell into the ground! Just like THAT!”

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

I picture the phenomenon like this: I am sitting on a chair, outside, in the middle of a pretty little neighborhood. I am reading a book, which is open on my lap.

Things are going on all around me, but, engrossed in a compelling story, I don’t notice.

Brightly-clad people caper and run around. Others, more serious in dress, chase them away.

Some neighbors pack things into cars and drive off. A house burns down, the flames quiet and scent-free. A huge semi pulls up and disgorges a household full of furniture rugs, dishes, and linens. It’s followed closely by a pickup truck full of people I don’t know.

The movers and the people quickly, efficiently inhabit a house that once belonged to beloved neighbors.

And clouds pull close, chudder down, and open up, the rain falls on the page I am reading, and finally I look up from the compelling story.

“Hey,” I say. “Hey! Why is everything different? What happened all of a sudden?”

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

But that gradual change can be positive, too, can be composed of small successes, of great interactions, of a gradual honing in on what’s important and what can be done. Looking back, we can see it: Oh, YEAH. All those tiny happenings. All those small steps: they’ve formed a staircase. And the stairs, we hope, lead to the goal that one young man, say, has nurtured and developed over long slow years.

If I could be more mindful, I wouldn’t be shocked at these sudden transformations.

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

Oh, that mindfulness: so elusive, and so important. And pandemic times sometimes make it even easier for me to close all the windows, pull shut the door, grab that book, and hide under a knitted throw.

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

I am thinking all this as Jim arrives home from college, waving to the retired guy who provided this afternoon’s transportation.

“The café was CLOSED!” he says, as he slams open the storm door. “I had to walk all the way downtown to get lunch. I was exhausted!”

He unpacks his bags, talking about classes and teachers, and about the merits of plexiglass face shields over masks that rubs on that tender skin behind your ears when you wear them all day.

And Mark comes in from work, and he stirs the spaghetti sauce we made from homegrown tomatoes, and carrots and onions from the farmers’ market. He tastes it and smacks his lips.

The pasta water bubbles hard, and we swing into dinner time.

It’s nice, I think, that our dinner-time ritual stays essentially the same, when so much else has changed, and so suddenly: when we are in fact, just experiencing an overnight transformation that took years to happen.

Well, Shut My Mouth

Oh, the errant power of loosely flung words! How many times have I said, “I will NEVER ______!” or “I will ALWAYS ______________!” and then marched into the future, to find those words, laughing, had run ahead and were crouched, waiting for me?

For example.

I went to college in the full flush of the second great wave of feminism, and I made myself a vow. “I will NEVER,” I declared, “teach or type for a living!”

I was working, during those undergrad years, in a supermarket deli, and one of my colleagues was a wonderful, forty-something woman, Rina, who took a real interest in all of our young clueless people’s lives.

“Now, what are you majoring in?” she’d ask me, and I would answer firmly, “English.”

“To teach it?” she’d say.

“No,” I’d answer. I stopped there, before she might expect me to explain just WHAT well-paid, practical course I planned to embark on with my English degree. I had not quite yet developed that plan.

 Rina sighed. “I think you’d be a WONDERFUL teacher,” she said.

Why? I wondered. What was it about me that said ‘teacher’ to Rina? But I shrugged and said Thanks, I guess, and we went back to slicing ham-off-the bone and grinding up the ends of cold cuts to make sandwich spread. We’d have work-fun in a light-hearted kind of a way, until the next time Rina was prompted to ask me about my career goals.

You should teach.

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Teaching, I thought, was one of the few acceptable occupations in the Oppressed Women’s Ghetto. To teach! To nurse! To type!

There were other jobs, dashing and exciting ones. I would get me one of those.

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And then I graduated from college, graduated right into an ill-fated union and an ill-fated job at a dental office. (Where else would one work with an English degree? All that spitting and numbing and scraping—it wasn’t exactly the dashing career I sought.)

The job and the marriage both ended fairly spectacularly at right about the same time.

I cobbled together a living after that. I went back to slicing bologna. I worked in quality control at a juice factory, where (this is not a joke) I had to drink shot glasses of prune juice every five minutes or so to determine sweetness. That job paid well and lasted only a few shifts. I worked at a bookstore and in a fancy lady’s lingerie department. I babysat.

I had no insurance, and I had no savings. I felt—and was—directionless.

And then one day, I got a surprising phone call.  My eighth-grade teacher was now the principal of a rough and rowdy inner-city Catholic school. And she wanted to know if I’d come and teach for her.

I had tasted enough from the odd jobs smorgasbord. I went and taught. And I have taught, in some form or another, ever since then (even after retirement, when, for a while, I adjuncted on different campuses).

I loved teaching. Rina, it seems, saw something in me that I could not see in myself.

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“I’ll never teach or type for a living.”

Hah!

It should be noted that, over the Christmas break of my first teaching year, I painstakingly typed other teacher’s exams onto those two-sheeted, purple-back-sided, ditto machine masters. That provided a little extra cash.

In the cold dark of the middle of the night, in the quiet of my blissfully private little studio apartment, I would reflect wryly.

Never say never, I’d advise myself.

But of course, I would say ‘never’ (and ‘always’), again.

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I would vow to myself—and to anyone who would listen to me—for instance, that I would NEVER use the television as a babysitter when I had a child.

It was so EASY to say that when I had no child, when I lived by myself in my sweet ivory tower over the garage of a ranch house on the edge of a corn field. In that blessed space, I didn’t even HAVE a television. I read a lot. Well, and I went out a lot, too. I knitted and drew and painted. Life of the mind, don’t you know.

Some years later I had a child, and he was a child who didn’t like many things. Top of that list: sleeping. He didn’t sleep at night and, after, oh, six months or so, he didn’t nap. (I wanted my money back for all those baby books that advised me to find an engrossing hobby. “The baby,” those books told me, “will sleep up to 14 hours a day.” Oh, I laughed at that, and oh, the laughter had a tired, hysterical edge.)

And then one day, at the local library where I was, truly, looking for BOOKS, I discovered a series of Fisher Price ‘trip’ videos. A trip to the farm! A trip on a hot air balloon! A trip to the zoo!

They were educational videos. There were two trips on one VHS cassette, and they lasted thirty minutes.

And I could put the baby in front of the TV, and he would go quiet, stop begging, crying, and demanding, lean forward, and watch.

The TV is a GREAT babysitter, I realized. I take it back, all that I said about never!

In the rafters, I heard the karma gods rolling and laughing.

I didn’t care. I had 29 minutes of quiet time.

How long does Star Wars: A New Hope run? Two hours, maybe? I wondered. Fourteen months isn’t too young for Star Wars, is it?

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The karma gods danced with me whenever I made rash, absolute statements. (Always be consistent when parenting! Always clean your coffee maker once a week! Never eat Cheetos and Nestle Crunch bars for dinner!)

I’ll NEVER make another absolute statement, I would vow.

And then. You know.

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I think of this now because my fingernails are rimmed with lovely cream paint. This weekend I painted the bathroom.

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Maybe a year and a half ago, after painting the dining room, Jim’s bedroom, and the little office, I said to Mark, “That’s it. I am too old for this, and I am sick of painting. From now on, we are paying someone else to do our painting! I’m NEVER painting another room!”

Painting is not Mark’s favorite job, so he was not dismayed at the turn the conversation was taking.

“Sounds good to me,” he said.

And to prove my firm intention, we engaged the amazing Jim Painterman, who transformed our kitchen.

That was a wonderful thing, and then COVID, right? (I bet you can quickly think of ten everyday circumstances in which you could say, That was a wonderful thing, and then COVID, right? And that would just be reflecting on everyday changes…not on the sickness and suffering and death…)

But seriously, COVID happened, didn’t it, and it affected all kinds of seemingly disconnected things, including the availability of paint, wooden stir sticks, and those wonderful people who wield them.

The karma gods joined hands and danced around me. In the upstairs bathroom, the white semi-gloss trim wore thin in spots, almost peeling away in places, and an unlovely, aging, olive green previous-color started showing through. The tired walls faded to the hue of silly putty that’s been left on an ugly carpet and walked on. The cabinet that houses the sink, once painted chocolate brown, started proudly revealing its varied paint heritage.

I cleaned. I got new towels. I thought about pictures to hang.

But there was no avoiding it: the bathroom needed a fresh new coat of paint.

It became clear that I needed to paint it.

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When I was younger, though, I would have done this: gotten up at the crack of dawn, sucked down a pot of coffee, crabbily demanded that anyone who wanted to use the shower better damned well do it NOW, because TODAY I am PAINTING.

I would have lugged ladders, brushes, paint rollers, and roller trays upstairs. I would have hefted the primer, the ceiling paint, the wall paint, and the trim paint, along with a screwdriver or one of those handy little top-tipping tools, and taken them all into the bathroom. And I would have painted.

And painted.

And painted.

It HAD to get done. It had to get done NOW. I would have painted from the wee hours into the dark night, and it would have been finished.

But I would have been finished, too—drenched and wrung out, irritable and defensive. I would have grudgingly cleaned up all the messes and then slept for 16 hours.

And woe to the person who didn’t say, “WOW! That room looks great!”

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Now, I have a different approach.

Now I set myself a painting task. I do that task. I clean up the mess, and then I am done…because there are, of course, other things besides painting that must be done…and other things that I WANT to do.

So one day I sanded and first coated the trim on the inside-the-bathroom door frame. The next day I sanded and first-coated the molding along the window wall. I second-coated the door frame.

I kept doing that, breaking big jobs into smaller ones, and pretty soon, the trim was done. One day I prepped the ceiling. Another day I did the inner walls.

I was not exhausted, and slowly, the old, tired room was transforming.

I hate to even say this, because the karma gods are wheezing smug, stale breath in my face, but that kind of painting, the slow deliberate kind, the not manic and driven kind, is actually kind of fun.

And there was a moment when we took down the tired old colonial shutters from the bathroom window and hung, instead, embroidered sheers and subtly patterned curtains, and the room just changed, breathed differently, relaxed its tense bones. The room, I swear, smiled in relief.

In that moment, when the results felt so good, I said to myself, “Did I say NEVER? I didn’t mean NEVER. I meant sometimes…”

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So that’s something, right? Evolution of a kind?

And it’s nice to be so seasoned and to still be growing and learning.

But I tell you what.

I will not say, “I’ll NEVER stop learning and growing,” because just then I would find myself moored in the doldrums, bored and thrumming through the days.

Nor will I say, “I’ll ALWAYS keep evolving,” because, sure as shooting, my personal growth would come, at that moment, to a shattering, crashing halt.

Uh uh. I know the karma gods, though quiet, are flittering around my rooftop, interestedly examining the screen that keeps most critters out of the chimney.

I do not intend to invite them in. And I do not want more words crouching in wait as I round a corner.

This is another one of the places where I need to find me some mindfulness, to think before I speak…or maybe to think about the wisdom of speaking at all.

If I have to say anything, let’s hope I say something like this: “Isn’t life interesting?”… and then leave things, quietly, at that.