Maybe, Another Way

The mail truck is parked at the foot of the front walk. I hurry over and discover, relieved, that it’s our favorite mail guy.

“Do you have a heavy package for us today?” I ask.

“Uh, YEAH,” he says. “What IS that?”

I talk about ordering five-gallon tubs of dish detergent and laundry soap, and he gets very interested. He tells me he’s been working on ways to save money, and one of them is by ordering in bulk.

“I know,” he says, “this’ll sound crazy, but I bought a case of deodorant. It doesn’t go bad, and hey: I saved twenty dollars.”

I explain about our plastic fast; he gets really interested in that, too. He talks about the floating plastic dump in the ocean. I tell him about our misadventures in homemade dish soap, and our compromise by buying the biggest containers of commercial product we can find.

While we talk, he hefts the box off the truck and manhandles it up the steps and to the door, which Jim swings open.

“I’ll just put that inside for you,” the mail guy says. He looks at the box he’s just delivered.

“Amazon?” he says. “You got it from Amazon?”

I confirm that, and he rubs his chin, thoughtfully.

“Something to think about,” he says. “I tell my kids—they’re in college now—that there are ways to save money. They think I’m nuts, but I figure they’ll come around.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “Wait till they’re on their own, paying for apartments…they might decide dad’s a little smarter than they realized. There’s got to be a different way to live.”

He gives me the thumb’s up and we thank him again, warning him that the laundry detergent vat is arriving the next day.

“No worries,” he yells as he starts up the truck. “I’m off on Wednesdays!”

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

Last Tuesday, I finally added another 500 steps to Connie the Fitbit’s daily log. I had been avoiding it, eking out my daily steps in short walks here and there throughout the day. Some nights I came home from class and had to take a walk around the block at 8:30 to get my steps in.

I was making my goal, but it was kind outside the point; I should be taking long, stretching walks—good for me in so many ways. But I avoided that thought and let my step goal linger at an uninspiring, mediocre level, until finally, the thought caught up with me. I got up that Tuesday morning and decided I’d take my walk BEFORE I made my coffee. I tapped the boosted goal into my phone’s Fitbit app and took off.

Birds were raucously celebrating the bright, chill morning, and a brisk little breeze riffled the daffodils, rampant throughout the neighborhood. I felt good walking, and I decided, that morning, to make it a real walk. I doubled my usual route, and discovered I felt fine.

The next morning, I stretched it even further, circling around to the mail box and dropping off some letters before heading out to my longer route. That day, having walked and shopped and vacuumed, I hit my step goal early, before mid-afternoon.

I was surprised at how good that felt.

The long, early morning walk quickly became part of my morning routine, and I found I was not stretching to meet my step goal. Instead, every day, I was besting it without effort by at least 500 steps.

And in the late afternoon, when the day’s obligations were wrapping up, the time when I’d often check my email, I would find that sadness waited for me. It was the time when I used to read Terri’s emails and fire off long replies.

Instead of opening emails then, I’d take myself off for another walk. And in that week, spring unfolded. First, nubbins of buds, just nudging out. Then tiny green fists, waiting to punch the air. Finally, on the scrubby, hardscrabble trees by the rocky trail down into the gulley, impossibly green infant leaves. And the flowering trees budded and bloomed, all in the course of three days—snowy white and magenta and pale, delicate pink.

The sadness, of course, lingers. Terri loved the growing things; how impossible it is to think she’s not here to see this spring.

I walk a slender path, balanced between beauty and sorrow, and I think about the gift that life is, and how we tend to squander that gift, asleep and ignorant, unmindful of our time and place.

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

We went to a library book sale in Newark this weekend. We paid five bucks for a sturdy paper bag and thought, among the three of us, we could manage to make it worth our while, to put enough books in that bag to satisfy our reading needs for a month or two. We split up to shop our own particular aisles, and after five minutes, the first bag was almost filled, and I went back and bought another.

We filled them both and celebrated with a nice pub lunch and came home and sorted and stacked our wonderful finds. I finalized my TBR stack, and I swore nothing would sway me from that reading.

And then I took James to the library so he could return and refresh his DVD loans. And I just LOOKED at the new books—just looked to see what was there.

I brought home Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Despite the promises I made to my stack of books, I read Inheritance this week.

It is a compelling story. At age 54, kind of on a lark, Shapiro gets her DNA analyzed. And, in the results, she sees a shocking truth: the father she adored was not her father at all.

Shapiro embarks on a journey of research and self-discovery; she finds her biological father and she grapples with home truths, with feelings of loss, with the thought she’s been betrayed by the people she trusted most. Her husband and son sustain her, and so does her strong belief in things spiritual. She mentions the three big questions—questions she probably thought she had already wrestled with to define her hard-won answers.

Now, she had to examine those answers and recalibrate.

The questions, she said, were these:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How am I to live my life?

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

How am I to live my life?

I think about that as I walk, about living blindly and by rote and about the alternative. The earth warms into life, and I feel something stirring in response.

It is time to fully appreciate, time to be alive.

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

Yesterday two pounds of freshly roasted decaf beans arrived in the mail, express delivery from Yeah Me Too in Clintonville. Our favorite mail guy walked the package to the house, and he held it up to his nose and breathed in the aroma before he handed it to me.

“It smells so good in the truck,” he says, “driving that package around.” I gather up that package, and a smaller one addressed to Jim, and the magazines and envelopes he proffers.

Before I can thank him, he says, “Hey, I ordered myself five-gallons of dish detergent. I think I probably saved fifty bucks! It’ll last me all year, I bet, me being alone. And I like thinking I’m not putting all that plastic into the landfill.”

I tell him that’s great, and he gives me a thumbs up.

“I think you’re right,” he says. “There maybe IS another way to live.”

I take the mail inside to the table, and I roll that thought around, and I vow, again, to do my best to stay awake and aware, to appreciate the gifts of today, to keep the question always centered: How am I to live my life?

I need, I know, to turn down the volume on the outside voices and attend to my inner voice. I unpack the coffee beans; I open a bag, and hold it to my nose, and I breathe that rich and smoky goodness. Then I lace on my sneakers and go for a walk, and I listen.

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Thinking Outside the Bag: Wednesdays Without Plastic

Sometimes we have to look for creative solutions.

I like to call it ‘thinking outside the plastic bag.’

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

Mark came sidling into the kitchen with a confession as I washed some baking dishes.

“I don’t LIKE that homemade dish detergent,” he said. “Nothing feels CLEAN.”

I was scrubbing a pan in which I’d cooked pork chops. The glass pan, no matter how hard I scrubbed, felt greasy. I attacked it with a Brillo pad—probably not the best thing for the glass—and it got some better.

I got Mark’s point.

How do we balance plastic-freedom and cleanliness?

So I researched other homemade cleaners, unsuccessfully. I searched and searched for companies that offer non-plastic packaging. (I found only one, after hours of looking. And that one required that I sign up to receive a whole array of cleaning supplies every month. That is a commitment I don’t want to make. I just want my dish detergent.)

I did, however, find the mop I wanted on Amazon: it comes with a yarn-y kind of moppy part, but once that’s being laundered, I can replace it with anything I like. Soft clean strips of old t-shirts will do nicely, I think. (Old t-shirts are rapidly becoming my very good friends.)

When the yarn stuff is dirty, I can make my own refill…

I thought about a bucket for the mop, and then suddenly I discovered that I can order dish detergent in five-gallon buckets.

(“No!” many Internet zero-waste folks cried. “Don’t get plastic buckets!”)

We ordered the bucket. We got ourselves a funnel. We’ll load our own dish detergent into spare bottles, and when it’s finally done, we’ll have a new mop bucket. I think the five gallons of suds will last us for several months.

It is not a perfect solution. But it will buy us some time…time in which to further research the dish detergent issue.

And in that time, I won’t be recycling dish detergent containers.

I went ahead and ordered five gallons of laundry detergent, too.

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

Jim came home from work and said, “Guess what? Janelle says the Campbell’s in Duncan Falls wraps everything in paper!”

I was surprised that James takes our plastic-free quest to work with him…surprised and gratified. I think. (I hope he’s not bemoaning the lack of cheese wrapped in plastic or the dearth of bony chicken… I hope he’s saying to his bosses, “Isn’t this cool, what we’re doing?” But I am not quite sure.)

So we took a ride yesterday.

I thought it was auspicious that the little market and gas station complex were called ‘The Redhead.’  We went in and found semi-sweet baking chocolate, in card paper sleeves, on sale. That made it worth the 17-minute drive, already.

Still red. Ish.

And then we met a tiny, sweet-natured, meat counter clerk. She processed my paper only request, nodded, and packed me up two packages of ground chuck (on sale! 2.79 a pound! And it looks so good…) and six lean pork chops.

When I asked for sliced American and a chunk of super sharp cheese, though, she reached for the plastic.

“May I have the cheese in paper, too?” I asked.

“You want your CHEESE in paper?” she blurted. Then she re-arranged her face.

“Of course,” she said. “Of course!”

She rallied quickly, though…

When we got to the checkout, the cashier picked up the cheese and scoffed.

“Who wrapped THIS?” she asked. When I told her I asked for it that way, she rolled her eyes and shrugged.

She snorted when, having forgotten to bring my canvas bags, I asked to have the groceries put in paper.

But we can brave a little skepticism for plastic-free meat and cheese.

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

And then, one night, I thought, “College town.”

There is a little town, Granville, the site of Dennison University, not far from here. It has a library and a couple of chocolatiers that we love, and it has, too, a little IGA. There are gentle, fun, funky folks in this town…the kind that talk about recycling issues at town council meetings.

Surely, in a town like that, the plastic-free request would not seem weird.

I dragged Jim on a road trip to Granville. We hit the library and spent a happy 45 minutes browsing there, and then we went to the IGA.

The butcher there, a tall, spare, youngish man, didn’t flinch.

The answer from the butcher in a little college town…

“Of course,” he said. “I can put whatever you want in paper. I can’t guarantee you we didn’t receive it in a big plastic container, but I can package it for you in paper.”

Again, not perfect. But we’re getting there.

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

So the mop and the dishes and the laundry and the cheeses…sorted for the time being. Tomorrow I’ll try baking with my new gluten-free flour mix. Compromises and creative thinking, I hope.

Still looking for a make-up solution, though…

Feeding Emily

Her crinkly slip scratched, and the elastic on the puffy sleeves of her dress cut into the soft skin of her upper arms. Emily closed her eyes and folded her hands together and offered it up as a sacrifice.

All around her, on this Easter Sunday, dressed up families were smiling, all shiny and clean and pretty. Emily’s dress wasn’t new; it was last year’s ‘good’ hand-me-down from Ellen. And her family never went to Mass all together, not even on big holy days. Somewhere else in this crowded church, her brother Andy was squirming in his pew, probably close to the door so he could dart out before Father Hamson, who wanted Andy to sign up to be an altar boy, could catch him by the collar. If indeed Andy was actually there, and hadn’t ripped open his collection envelope (sometimes Emily found the pieces scattered as she walked home) and kept the quarter.

Andy said ten was too old to start as an altar boy, and he said Father Hamson’s breath smelled like a dead fish, and he said if he wanted to find God, he’d look outside in the woods God made and not in some stupid, smelly church. So sometimes he skipped, Emily was pretty sure. She was afraid for his mortal soul, of course; Sister Angela had explained what happened to children who died with mortal sins on their souls, and skipping Mass was certainly a mortal sin. But she was more afraid of what would happen at home if she told. Andy would exact some kind of retribution, but worse, their mother would beat him, maybe with the broomstick like she’d done once when she caught him mixing wine with the grape juice.

Emily had hid in the back closet that time, on top of the empty burlap potato sacks and behind the winter coats, and covered her ears. Later Andy saw her there and laughed at her.

“What are YOU worried about?” he said. And added jauntily, “She can’t hurt me. But this is a doozy of a bruise. Wait till I show Donnie.”

Donnie was a wild boy, Andy’s best friend. He went to public school, and the nuns said parochial school kids should only make friends among their own classmates. But Andy was bold and fast and he didn’t care.

He’d make up a story about falling out of a tree or ramming into something with his bike, and then he’d pick up his shirt and show Donnie the bruise on his back, and Donnie would say, “Wicked!”

Emily had seen this happen before.

Her sister Ellen and brother Frank got up and went to 8 am Mass. They both preferred dragging their butts out of bed to waiting for High Mass to be over to eat their Easter goodies. The family rule was that no one could touch their Easter baskets until they’d gone to communion, and the 10 o’clock Mass was a High one, so it went on and on. Ellen had an alarm clock, so she got herself up and dressed and pounded on Frank’s door but never waited for him.

When Emily was ten, she could get working papers and pick strawberries and grapes when they were in season, and she’d save the money she earned for an alarm clock. But until then, no one thought to wake her.

Her brother Joey was only four, and he didn’t have to go to Mass yet; his mortal soul wasn’t old enough to be in danger. Her mother got up early and went to 7 a.m. Mass, and her father usually worked on Sundays. When your work supports a family, Mom always said, you get special dispensation from going to church.

**********

The Gospel was so long on Easter, and Father Hamson droned on and on, and Emily knew she should try to listen. But she was thinking about her Easter basket and the one, solid, chocolate Easter bunny that waited for her. It was about as big as her hand. They got the same thing each year: that bunny, some foil wrapped eggs, a marshmallow peep and some jelly beans that rolled through the plastic grass and onto the bottom of the basket. Emily didn’t like the peep or the jelly beans—she always put them in the dish on the dining room table, and someone else grabbed them pretty fast, but she loved the chocolate.

Her friends got the most amazing things in their baskets. Once, Nancy C had gotten a hollow chocolate bunny two feet high. Even though it was hollow, the chocolate was really thick, and she brought chunks of it to school to share. Emily thanked her so much, but Nancy C waved it away.

“I’m not that crazy about chocolate, anyway,” she said airily. Which confirmed Emily’s opinion that Nancy C was just not right.

Her friends Abby and Mary Sue McCloskey, who were Irish twins and in the same grade, got solid white chocolate bunnies and little chocolates shaped like animals. They shared, too, and Emily especially liked the little chocolate ducks that, if you turned them a certain way, suddenly became bunnies instead. What was once a bill became bunny ears: a little bit of Easter magic.

And there wasn’t, she thought, too much magic about Easter. She didn’t remember ever believing that there was an actual Easter bunny. It was too obvious that her parents pulled the baskets out of the attic every year, and the chocolates often had price tags on them from the Nu-Way store where her mother shopped. But the having of chocolate all to yourself was a treat, for sure, and Joey did believe, so she kept her mouth shut.

**********

When Mass was finally over, she slipped out the side door, so she didn’t have to shake Father Hamson’s hand; he terrified her, and besides, there was a big clump of people surrounding him. She ran home; their big old house was on the same road, not all that far from the church. When she got there, she ran upstairs and hung up the scratchy dress (maybe this would be the last time she ever had to wear it!), and put on her play clothes, a soft striped t-shirt and an old pair of dungarees. The jeans had been Andy’s, and they were a little too long, but they were just right across the belly. Because, as her brothers often reminded her, she was fat. Emily folded up the cuffs as neatly as she could and ran downstairs in her sock feet.

Her Easter basket was sitting on the dining room table, and the chocolate bunny was gone. Disbelieving, she checked all over the table, under the basket, and under the table, even on the end tables, the chair seats, the shelves. Her bunny was nowhere to be found.

“Mom!” she yelled, and her mother snapped “What???” from the kitchen. Emily pushed through the swinging door. She felt drawn with loss.

“My chocolate bunny’s gone.”

There was a silence. Her mother turned from where she was peeling potatoes; her hair was all crazy and she had on an old housedress. Frank, who had been out working on his bike, turned from the sink, lifted a glass of water to his lips, and smirked. Ellen had the long phone cord wrapped around her wrist, and she rolled her eyes and took the phone into the back hall.

It could have been either of them, Emily thought. It could have been Joey, who had recently taken to climbing on a chair and helping himself to things on the table. (But if it was Joey, there would be wrappers to be found. Joey wouldn’t think to hide the evidence.) She was bereft and shaking and angry. “Mom,” she said, imploring.

“What?” snapped her mother. “You shouldn’t have left your basket on the table. That means everyone can help themselves. You know that.”

Emily stared at her. It had always been the rule that they left their baskets on the table so Monkey, the dog, didn’t eat their chocolate. It never meant someone could just take your bunny.

Mom tsk-ed at her. “If you got your lard butt out of bed and went to early Mass you could have eaten that bunny by now.” She swung back to the potatoes, her back an unassailable divide.

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

Emily took all her foil eggs up to her room, even though they weren’t allowed. No food in rooms was a big rule, but Emily thought bitterly that rules seemed to change without warning. Her room was tiny, maybe a maid’s room once when rich people lived in this house, and she squeezed in between the bed and the closet door and sat on the floor. She peeled the foil from the eggs—there were seven, but there might have been more: maybe someone stole those, too. She lined them up on her blue-jeaned legs, and slowly, carefully, ate them one by one.

There was no use in crying, she knew that: often she got whacked just for crying. (Her mother would say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” which was terrifying, and also made no sense. And of course then she couldn’t stop. Better just not to start.) But she also knew that she had been wronged: it WAS a big deal, taking that bunny. It was something she waited for all year. It was something she loved. Stealing the bunny was mean.

But if you whined and carried on, things did not get any better. You had to act like the martyrs: strong and brave, even if you were jelly inside. Emily knew the martyrs had horrible ends, but at least they went with dignity and were remembered forever because of it.

She wouldn’t become a saint over the loss of a chocolate bunny—even an eight-year-old knew THAT—but she could do the strong thing and rise above it. She would be cheerful and kind, and she would not give her mother a reason to say, “You’d better wipe that puss off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”

Somewhere in her, she felt being strong would be noble, and somewhere else, in a deeper, more devious spot, she also knew that it would drive someone crazy.

Her doorknob rattled and she bunched together the foil from the eggs and slid the little ball into her pocket.

“I hear you lost your chocolate bunny,” Andy said, and he wasn’t being friendly.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Emily said, practicing. She smiled at him. “I don’t really care that much.”

He stared at her or a moment.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “Of course, you do.”

**********

Dad was home in time for dinner, which was ham and mashed potatoes, canned peas, and a chocolate layer cake for dessert. Emily didn’t really like mashed potatoes with no gravy, but she took a spoonful and made a ditch for the butter, which melted and made a gravy-like pool. She ate them without complaint, along with a spoon of the pasty peas. The ham had baked a long time; it was hard to cut with her knife and fork and finally, she just picked up her slice and chewed on it. But it was salty and good.

Mom cut everyone pieces of cake and Dad sat back and relaxed. He didn’t eat the cake, but he had a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette, and he looked around at all the kids and said, “So? Eat all the candy yet?”

There was a babble of replies, and then Mom looked pointedly at her. Emily made herself smile.

Mine’s all gone!” she said, and she scooped up a big piece of chocolate cake. She loved it with white frosting. Mom narrowed her eyes suspiciously, waiting for a follow-up, and Frank and Ellen swiveled their heads to stare at her. Andy snorted, Joey babbled, and Emily took another bite of cake.

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

That night she dreamt that she had an invisible friend who walked with her for hours in the woods out behind the backyard. Just before she had to go in, the friend said to her, “We’ll feed you.” Emily wasn’t sure why that made her feel so good, but she had that hazy happy feeling when she woke up, the kind of feeling when you don’t want your dream to end.

They had the whole week off, and she went to the library by herself, because eight was old enough to have your own card. She got four books, three biographies and one story to read with Joey. When she didn’t have chores, she read. She liked to read in the scratchy red chair in the living room, but sometimes her mother would say, “Get outside!” and Emily would take her book and go sit behind the old garage in a spot she’d made. There was a broken chair and an old sheet stuck between a short tree and the back garage wall; she’d wrap the sheet around her if it was windy or cold, and usually no one bothered her for hours.

She read about George Washington Carver one day and thought she probably wouldn’t be a farmer. She read about Jane Addams and Hull House, and she thought maybe she would like to work at a mission in a big city and teach poor people to read and cook and shop for groceries. She read about Helen Keller and plugged her ears and closed her eyes and tried to figure out how a deaf and blind person could learn to talk.

On Thursday morning, when she woke up, there was a Hershey bar next to the lamp on her nightstand. She hid it in her underwear drawer and tried to figure out who left it there. But nobody said anything, and she couldn’t see any clues on their faces. She broke off a row each day and ate it before she took her bath and brushed her teeth; it was a little secret waiting for her at the end of each day, a reward for being strong and good. It was gone by the time she started school again on Monday.

On Wednesday, Andy’s teacher, Mrs. McLean, saw her in the hall after school and asked her to come to the fifth-grade classroom. She said she didn’t have any fifth graders who were interested in washing the boards and clapping the erasers, and she wondered if Emily would do it. Emily lit up; she had looked forward to the day she’d be old enough to do these chores. Mrs. McLean showed her how to wash the board, and she went with her to the side door by the playground and put a wedge in the door so Emily could get back in after the erasers were clean.

When she came back, Mrs. McLean inspected the erasers very seriously and smiled. “Good job,” she said. She was a short teacher, and fat, and she looked jolly. “Especially for your first time. I knew you’d be a good worker.”

Mrs. McLean went to her big old wooden desk and pulled open a drawer. She winked at Emily. “Now, I’m not going to pay you every time you do this, but I just happened to have this left over from the Easter party, and I thought you might like it.” Mrs. McLean’s husband ran a pharmacy that sold candy, and her class always got the best and biggest treats.

It was a solid white chocolate lamb, a big one. Emily’s eyes got wide; she couldn’t believe it. It was way too big to eat at once, so she and Mrs. McLean decided she could work on it each day after the boards were clean; she’d leave it wrapped up in cellophane in a bag in the teacher’s desk.

On the way home, Emily, skipping, stopped as a thought occurred to her. Had Andy told Mrs. McLean about her rabbit? That would mean he felt bad about it, and it would also mean Mrs. McLean felt sorry for her.

But then she realized she was EARNING that chocolate, doing work no fifth grader would do, and so she started skipping again.

A few weeks later, after the white chocolate lamb disappeared, the lady at the library checked out her books and commented on what an interested reader Emily was. She told her that the rule was only four books at a time, but that they were going to change the rule for Emily: she could take six.

“But don’t tell your friends,” the lady laughed, and then she invited Emily back to the room where librarians take their breaks, a room like a kitchen. She poured Emily a glass of milk and gave her three chocolate chip cookies. “I baked those for my grandson,” the lady said, “but he got braces and isn’t supposed to have many sweet things.”

Emily bit into the cookie; it was crispy and chewy and loaded with chocolate chips—chocolate chips in every bite! Her mother’s cookies were soft and plump and usually one cookie only had two or three chocolate morsels. She ate all three cookies, trying not to wolf them down, to be polite. And then she thanked the lady so much and took home six books.

She savored every treat. It seemed that something special would happen, and that would give her a little happy boost for days or a week, and just as the glow wore off, something else would take its place. The man at the five and dime stopped her one day and asked if she liked chocolate covered peanuts, which she did of course. He gave her a little white bag full; they were all that was left, he said, and he wanted to clean the bin. Another time she found a dollar on the sidewalk; she asked her teacher what to do with it, and the teacher said it wasn’t enough money to report and she could keep it. She bought candy at the drugstore and took it home to share.

At first she wondered if someone felt sorry for her because of the missing Easter bunny, if someone in her family had told a teacher or someone else, who went around to all their friends and said, “Here’s something very sad which happened to this little girl.” And she started watching, a little breathless, for the good things to happen. Eventually, something always did.

And surprising things kept happening even after her family moved in fourth grade, to a smaller house that was closer to her dad’s work, and she went to a different school, where nobody could possibly know about the missing bunny when she was eight. She remembered what the invisible friend had told her in that dream,–“We’ll feed you!”– and gradually she came to accept this: that life can be very, very hard, but that sometimes good things can happen, especially if you don’t whine, and if you are brave and strong.

Chasing Chicken and Other Obvious Revelations

Mark sidled over with his iPad.

“Look at this,” he said.

It was one of those cooking videos. Six plump boneless chicken breasts went through transmogrifications at the snap of a well-manicured set of fingers. The unseen chef touched each piece of chicken; magically, slits appeared down their middles. The chicken bathed in flour, dipped in egg wash, and coated themselves in Panko bread crumbs. Then they went to rest on a shiny sheet pan.

Those magic fingers appeared again. This time, they inserted a slice of ham and a wedge of Swiss cheese into each slot; then the fingers went away and rushed back with a bechamel sauce in a little beaker.

And this was the best part. The fingers drew forth a Corningware pan full of unpeeled potatoes.

SNAP!

The potatoes were peeled and cubed and waiting to be of service. (“I want to be able to DO that,” said Mark.)

The fingers laid each chicken breast on the lovely bed of potatoes. When they were nestled, they poured the bechamel over all, and popped that richly laden pan in the oven.

SNAP!

The chicken breasts were done, browned and oozing with rich cheesy sauces. The potatoes were browned and crispy.

“Hey,” I said to Mark. “THAT looks wonderful.”

He sighed.

“I showed it to Jim,” he said. “And Jim said, ‘That would be great. IF we can ever buy CHICKEN again.’ ”

Mark wandered off, glumly, and I wondered if he was displacing his own sad frustration onto a quote from our son.

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

The boyos are right: buying chicken in a plastic-free way is frustrating. Because, I’m sure, of the juiciness of the tender birds, retailers want to pack it in plastic. Most don’t even discuss it; there’s little chicken offered in the fresh meat counter. Instead, it’s prepackaged, shiny in its plastic, and stacked proudly in the refrigerated meat case.

And it’s frozen, too: I can buy bags of quiescently frozen boneless chicken breasts or thighs, usually at a pretty reasonable price. I wonder, though, about the conditions those hens lived in,–whether they had to have their beaks cut off to keep them from cannibalizing some of the thousands of other chicks crowded into their holding pen, the place where they ate and pooped and waited for butchering.

I tried to buy plastic-free chicken at a couple of meat shops; one couldn’t help me. The other was happy to wrap my bird in paper…but when I got home, I discovered that they had popped it into a plastic sack FIRST.

But clearly, I need to solve the chicken dilemma for the boyos, who are hankering for some chicken cordon bleu.

So I get online and search meat cutters in the area. Most of them proudly show gleaming cases filled with gleaming plastic packages. Several of them don’t mess with chicken at all.

And the prices on some of the sites make me choke a little, my Scottish bile stirring right up.

And then I think, “Wait a minute.”

I pull up the number of that market that wrapped first in plastic, then in paper. I explain my quest to be plastic-free, and the clerk to whom I talk says, “Of course! We usually wrap in plastic first to avoid the mess factor, but if you can deal with that, we can package your chicken in paper.”

We discuss minor logistics, and I sign off. Today, I’ll go buy boneless chicken breast, plastic-free…on my end, at least.

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

Meanwhile, we use the last of the old plastic kitchen trash bags, and we switch to the special ones I ordered. (They are plastic, too, of a sort, but they’re made from organic materials—mostly corn, I am afraid—that biodegrade in landfills. If everything we put in them biodegrades, too, we won’t be contributing as much to toxic waste.)

Mark shakes one out and we groan in realization. They are about half the size of the traditional plastic bags…much too small for our kitchen trash can.

Later that day, the boyos do a shopping run and come home, proudly, with a new, smaller trash can.

Made of plastic.

But, okay. I will use that little trash can for ten years. Maybe more, even. I’ll reuse, reuse, reuse it.

I line the little thing with my green organic waste bag, gauzy as gossamer, and I pull shut the louvered pantry door.

I can live with this.

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

My other frustration, in the week just past, was flour. Oh, not regular flour: all the wheat flour I could want, in every imaginable variety, comes packaged in paper. But oat flour, rice flour, amaranth flour…all the things I mix together to make up my AP flour substitute…all of THOSE are plastic wrapped. It always startles me when organic, intentional, environmentally-conscious products present themselves in plastic.

I email Bob’s Red Mill and express my frustration, and I get a swift reply. They are looking at the situation, the reply tells me. Many of the flours spoil if stored in paper for long spells. The company experimented with a better kind of plastic, a number 7 kind, but it’s not recyclable in most areas. Their research team is working on it, but most solutions they have found would significantly increase the price of the product.

I sigh. I appreciate the fast and courteous response. And I understand the constrictions of the business of food.

But I don’t want to buy my gluten free flours in plastic bags.

The bulk food store where I am hoping to get glass containers filled with flours hasn’t had a shipment yet: they don’t get shipments all that often, the manager told me.

I am out of my gluten-free AP substitute, and the tiny box I bought in the store is not only maddeningly pricey, it has a plastic liner.

I find a possible answer on Amazon, a paper-packaged five-pound bag of AP substitute mix, gluten free, that will arrive on my doorstep tomorrow. If we like this, I can order much larger quantities—a 25-pound sack, for instance.

I’ll think about that. (Storage?) But in the short term, we’ll see how this new mix tastes, and how it works in recipes.

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

This morning I mixed up a batch of home-made dish detergent, and I baked a Bundt cake with the last of the sour cream. I have a little stash of T-shirt squares tucked into my towel drawer: what to use when a paper towel is needed. One of those did a great job of greasing the fluted innards of my Bundt pan, and then I rinsed it out and tossed it in the wash.

I mixed the cake ingredients together in the KitchenAid, while the dish soap cooled and the oven heated, and I poured the batter into the pan and set it in the oven to bake for an hour and twenty minutes. And in the meantime, I paid bills and answered emails, graded papers, and did dishes. The mail came, and I sorted it, sitting down to marvel at a wonderful card that came from a friend. It was a quiet, productive, but not hectic, kind of morning.

I’m having more of those lately. The plastic-fast contributes to this in a big way, I think.

I was naïve when I thought, at the beginning of Lent, “I’ll just give up single-use plastic.” There is much to explore in pursuing that kind of lifestyle. There are frustrations, often, and I get irritated with people who get irritated with me (“Lady, just take the plastic!”) But part of the message I’m getting here is this: Slow down.

My plastic consumption has drastically improved. There are still things to figure out; there are still, perhaps, some compromises to be made. I need to pick up the phone, write out the emails, pen letters to manufacturers. But a thoughtful, intentional life, I see now, is the eventual result.

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

I am feeling up to tackling this week’s challenges:

Finding makeup in zero waste packing,

and

what to do about a mop.

Being the Things

I pulled out of the driveway to take Jim to work. He synced up his playlist and flooded the car with “Let It Be,” and I swung around the corner to see a cherry red pick-up truck charging up the hill and heading up the driveway of the Helen Purcell home.

And I gasped involuntarily. The woman driving the truck was short enough to be peering over the steering wheel, and I could see her shining blonde hair and the determined set of a high-cheek-boned face.

I gasped because Automatic Mind told me, “That’s TERRI.”

But Reasonable Mind said, “Terri doesn’t have a cherry red pick-up truck, and she wouldn’t be in Zanesville, anyway.”

And Grieving Mind demolished the whole thing. It said, “Terri died on Saturday.”

Jim turned at my gasp.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, Buddy,” I answered. “We’re good. Case of mistaken identity.”

But Grieving Mind whispered, “What’s wrong is that Terri died on Saturday.”

**********

When Terri got her shocking diagnosis early in January, her daughters started a special Share and Care for Terri Facebook page. It became a busy place, with people posting pictures and inspirational thoughts and words of encouragement. Early this week, after news of Terri’s death had filtered out, someone posted this: Be the things you loved most about the person who is gone.

It was on a pretty background and attributed to something called Bohemian Quotes, and I looked at it for a minute before I thought, “Whatever THAT means.” It struck me as glib, and in the raw, angry aftermath of a dear friend’s death, I didn’t want any suggestion that, “Here! Just do THIS, and it’ll all be good,” although I realized, deep down, that the person who posted it hadn’t meant that at all.

So I dismissed that little saying, but, like an ear-worm, it burrowed.

Image borrowed from Pinterest

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

When Ott called to tell us about Terri’s death, he talked about the beautiful 48 hours that led up to it.

They watched her favorite movie.

She got up and into her wheelchair, and sat at the back door, where she told Ott exactly what he needed to do, and when he needed to do it, to maintain the beautiful garden she’d created.

She read, or someone read to her, her favorite children’s lit.

And deep into the night before she died, her beloved family gathered with guitars and voices, and they sang Terri’s favorite songs, a caring, loving chorus.Then, I think, she fell into her final sleep. I like to think that she started her journey on a wave of well-loved song sung by best-loved voices.

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

Be the things.

A lot of Terri’s things were about nurture.

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

She nurtured her garden, which was a magical place, with a medley of thoughtful, beautiful plantings. Terri tuned in to nature and the change of seasons. And she would write, sometimes, in her emails, about what was happening in her garden.

She had art in her garden, too, pieces that expressed something very special to her.

I am not a gardener, but last year, Mark noticed the resemblance of the hedge in the front yard to a sinuous caterpillar. We made it some eyes and a mouth and deedly-boppers; we painted a paver to look like Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I found and read a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I painted a brick to look like that cover, and I nestled that brick in the marigolds, which are one of the few flowers the deer won’t eat. I thought I could paint the old three-wheeled grown-up bicycle in the garage black, plant its capacious basket with more deer-repugnant flowers, and paint a paver to look like the cover of The Wizard of Oz.

I had more ideas, too. Terri was excited. She and Ott were going to come, this summer, and see how far we’d gotten with the storybook garden.

On Monday, not even 48 hours after Terri died, the first drowsy daffodil in my front patch opened its sleepy, bell-shaped blossom.

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

Terri nurtured the people she worked for, and with. She came up with wonderful events. She facilitated art and music therapy activities for grown-ups and kids. At many of these happenings, the kids walked away with a blanket and a book. It was important to Terri that we encourage kids to read, and thus to dream, and just maybe, then, to be carried forward on the strength of that dreaming.

She hosted teas with gardening themes and crafting themes and themes of magical stories like Harry Potter’s. She conceived and created Women’s Enrichment events. She masterminded a yearly fund-raiser for her organization, the Soul Shine Blues Festival.

Terri listened to people. And she took the things she loved best and rubbed them to powder in her hands and distilled them into the work of everyday life. In the doing, she helped and fortified others.

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

I cannot cook in my kitchen without using something that came from Terri—my ceramic flour scoop that arrived in a surprise package one day; the metal mixing bowls, and the spices and sauces, that were part of the Soulshine basket that we won.

I have a drawer full of notes from Terri because she was the kind of person who wrote thinking of you notes and thank you notes in her bold and happy, artistic hand.

Our friend Debbie got a thank you note from Terri in the mail on the day that Terri died. In her last days, she was grabbing a pen and writing her thoughts and nurturing far-off friends.

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

Terri nurtured her home. She changed the decorations by season. In her last Christmas, sick and in pain and not knowing why, she would email daily about her progress in getting the trees up, setting out the children’s Christmas books she loved, putting her cherished decorations on the shelves. I have no doubt Terri’s last Christmas house was a magical thing to see.

The house and the garden and even the work activities, many of which drew her husband or her children into their mesh, were all about family, which was the thing Terri nurtured most fiercely. She loved her husband and kids and daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and her parents and sister and brother and her nieces and nephews and in-laws and extended family and special friends, her family-of-the heart, with the kind of unconditional love that we should all experience just once in our lifetime.

We talked in February when there was still some semblance of hope. We talked about the possibility of nurturing the body so it can set healing processes in play. We talked about the maybe of one last chance at chemo. And Terri said, “I think my grandkids need me here. Does that sound crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy. It sounded right and true and heart-breaking. Of course those children need that kind of buoying, believing, visioning love.

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

Terri loved music, and her family reverberated with that. Ott plays professionally and Terri would go, almost weekly sometimes, to hear him. He played, too, in church, and he passed his musical gifts on to his kids. As a family, they can make a damn fine noise. Terri often posted video on Facebook.

In her last year, Terri got herself a dulcimer, and she was teaching herself to play it, to add a new and traditional dimension to the family chorus.

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

Terri had felt sick a long time before she was diagnosed. She called for appointments; she asked for tests. For whatever reason, her medical folks didn’t listen to her. It’s a pulled muscle, one told her. They recommended things to reduce stress.

I don’t know if it would have made a difference, in the long run, had she been diagnosed in August instead of January. But it tears my heart that no one listened to her.

There were other disappointments, too, in the days after her diagnosis.

I dealt with her illness by stewing in a broth of anger and resentment on, I thought, her behalf.

But it was clear, in that last weekend, in that last precious visit, that Terri had faced those hurts head on, and synthesized them. She had jettisoned her anger and come to acceptance. She forgave. She let it go, and she found, it was clear, the joy in every last day.

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

Each year, Terri picked a word that was kind of a token or a talisman for her. This year her word was ‘shine,’ and she did, in those three short months she had left. And she does, in a legacy too rich and lasting to let the glow diminish.

She inspired me to choose a word, too. My word this year is ‘courage.’ I was thinking about making bold changes and striking out bravely on new paths. I didn’t think I’d be calling courage into play to deal with my dear friend’s death.

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

Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

I have two regrets: I wish I had told Terri more often how important and wonderful her special qualities were. I wish I had tried harder to emulate them when she was here.

And I know this: no one, none of us, can try to do the things she did the way that Terri did them. She is irreplaceable, and the world is changed because she’s gone.

But we can—I can—carry forth the spirit of the things that Terri loved.

I can build that garden.

I can put a stack of CD’s in the car and pick one out to play when I drive to teach my night class. I will crank up the windows and bellow along, in my flat, hoarse voice that no one else should be subjected to, just loving the music.

I can see my house with new eyes and hang things and display things that say beauty to me, that speak to me of seasons and time and what’s important.

I can write a note to a friend.

I can give a book to a child.

I can remember, everyday, to tell the precious people in my family that I love them.

I can face my hurts and resentments head on, and let them go, taking the long, hard slog to forgiveness.

I can, as Terri did, appreciate and marvel at each and every day.

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

And I can let those regrets change the way I do the business of life. I can see, wide-eyed and mindful, the wonderful things that those I love put into play daily.

I see, I can say to them, your humor, your steadfastness. Your devoutness and devotion. Your imagination and artistry. Your gift of love and your gift of perseverance.

I see those things, and I can never do them the same way that you do. But I can appreciate them and I can emulate them, in my own way, through my own lens. Because you, and the things you do, are essential. The world needs those things.

And one day, this train is going to stop, and you and I are going to have to get off. Someone, though, will try to carry on.

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

So.

Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

Musing on Reusing: Wednesdays Without Plastic


There are lots of resources, and especially, there are lots of inspiring blogs, about living a plastic-free life. And on one blog I visited this week, I found a photo of the inside of the author’s refrigerator.

Those refrigerator innards were so pretty, they made me gasp. Piles of fresh, colorful produce—green and yellow squash and carrots and, I think, sweet potatoes,–tumbled, in a kind of organized way, on the bottom shelf. The other shelves held glass bottles and glass containers (I could see a big block of cheese under a glass dome, for instance). There was some crockery, mysteriously concealing its contents, on the shelves, too.

It was neat and pretty and completely plastic-free.

I open my own refrigerator, and it does not resemble that plastic-free wonder at all.

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

At the deli this week, we bought stacks of sliced yellow and white American cheese and sliced mozzarella. We bought a towering pile of sliced ham, which was on sale. Although that deli/meat counter normally bags deli items in plastic, the clerk cheerfully wrapped all of my stuff in big, lumpy paper packages.

I brought the packages home and unwrapped them. I folded the paper, smoothing it into the leanest, least space-taking shapes I could manage, and put those in the non-food trash. Then I took a variety of plastic containers from the Tupperware shelf and packaged up the meat and cheese.

When I open my refrigerator, I see tidy stacks of mostly plastic containers.

This probably will not change very soon. Rather than putting my plastics in the recycling—one blogger wrote this week that recycling plastic delays, but does not deter, that plastic from winding up in a landfill,—I figure I might as well use them, over and over again.

When the plastic storage containers spring leaks or throw out cracks or just get too worn and food-stained to use again, I’ll be faced with a dilemma. I THINK what I will do is find other uses…maybe starting seeds in them or using them as bases for flowerpots outside. I will very, very reluctantly dispose of them in recycling bins.

It’s here, this plastic: I have to deal with it. And only when it’s beyond use will I replace it with glass or stiff cardboard or ceramic.

Likewise, the bread bags. I have a stash of them in the pantry cupboard. I debated taking them to the supermarket, where they collect and recycle plastic bags. But I need to do my research and see what happens to those plastic bags. Melted down, can they be morphed into more plastic bags? Are they spun into thread? Are some of them rejected, to wind up in a landfill?

While I find out, I make bread, so I don’t have to buy more in plastic packaging.

The bread machine I bought for five dollars at last year’s yard sale is my baking buddy. Two or three times a week, I put the ingredients for French bread in the pan, set it to the dough cycle, and let the little machine do its work. The process takes an hour and a half or so; then I decant the dough and put it on a greased pan and let it rise, again, until it’s doubled. In terms of my own work, the bread takes less time to make than it takes me to go to the supermarket.

Mark and Jim are fans of that bread, hot from the oven with butter, or dipped into a simmering pot of homemade spaghetti sauce. Jim mentioned, though, very politely, that the French bread made kind of skinny sandwiches. So yesterday I dug out a white bread recipe for the bread machine, and I ran, it, too, on the dough cycle. (We find, when we let the bread bake in the machine, we have to contend with the paddle hole in the middle, and the edges are crunchier than we like.) I made a one-batch test recipe and slid it into a greased pan, and baked that, too, when it was risen.

Jim circled and circled after the baked bread was tumbled out onto the old bamboo chopping board. He didn’t want to cut it too soon and squash the bread, but he was hungry, and the fresh, hot bread smelled so good. When it was finally cool enough to cut, he dug in, made a sandwich, and deemed it good.

When we bake our own bread, we don’t bring in any more plastic bread bags. But I use the old ones to keep that fresh-baked bread fresh.

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

I have directions for making plarn—plastic yarn—saved on Pinterest. It’s an interesting process; I knitted up one bag with the result and it seems sturdy and usable. But I have a back-load of hand-craft projects to do: a quilt to piece, curtains to hem, cloth bags to make to store holiday decorations. I have to struggle with reality: will I actually sit down, make the plarn, which takes a while, and then knit it up into something wonderful? And while I am clearing the decks to do that, where will I store the burgeoning sack full of the blue and orange plastic sleeves the newspaper arrives in?

A first attempt at knitting with plarn…

Is there some other way I could use that plastic?

I ponder. The switch to a plastic-free lifestyle, I find, is not one made overnight.

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

Shopping without plastic:

This week, I used the last little bit of the cover-up product that tones down the effect of the age spot on my cheek. I don’t want to hide it completely, I tell myself, but I don’t want that age spot to be the thing people focus on.

The old dispenser is completely and thoroughly plastic, and I wonder how I am going to replace my cosmetics as they run out. I go searching and find this blog: https://greenindyblog.com/zero-waste-makeup-brands/

I’ll be exploring the possibilities and sending out an order.

***********

I find, too, that living plastic-free creates some conflicts in diet. This week, I ran out of my non-wheat flour mixture. Our doctor wants us living wheat-free; we try to reach a realistic and healthy compromise. But it’s surprisingly difficult to do in a plastic-free way.

My bulk-food store packages everything in plastic bags. I bought glass containers and took them to the store. They promised, when the next shipment comes in, that they will pack up my brown and white rice flour, my oat flour, and my chocolate chips, in glass containers.

Their shipments don’t come in too often, though, and, as I am waiting, my supplies run out.

At the supermarket, I stroll through the organic baking aisle. All the flours I need are there…and they are all bundled in plastic packaging. I add Bob’s Red Mill to the list of companies I am writing to, asking them to re-think their plastic philosophy. I buy a small cardboard box of gluten free AP-flour substitute. It costs almost five dollars and weighs about a pound. This won’t last me too long.

There are no flours in the bulk section. I am just a little stymied. Wheat-free or plastic-free? I know there must be an answer, so that I don’t have to choose. Further exploration needed…

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

Meanwhile, I sip, as I type, rich, dark, locally roasted decaf, which arrives in the mail in its biodegradable paper packaging. It’s possible, I think, to live well plastic-free. It’s just a bit of a challenge.

My mama always told me that nothing worthwhile is ever easy. That might not be true for everything, but it sure seems to apply here.

Dark Thoughts Afoot in the Deep of the Night

Last night, things came crawling into bed with me in the dark—worries and sadnesses, fear and forebodings. I could not make them leave, not even after my husband slid under the blankets, his warm body usually a barrier to Dark Things.

I tossed and I turned, and finally, after 90 minutes or so, I got up, grabbed my books from the side table, and went downstairs to turn on the lamp, sit in its warm amber light, and read.

I wrapped my legs in the gold knit blanket, but no matter how I snugged and tucked, my feet were freezing.

“I have cold feet,” I thought, and then my thoughts went rabbiting down that hole.

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

There wasn’t a commitment I was about to undertake—like a wedding or a parachute jump, for instance—that I was having second thoughts about. That’s what getting cold feet means, of course: to come right up to the time of an event and decide that maybe, in reality, that’s not something I want to do at all.

I went to the computer, and I looked it up.

Bloomsbury.international.com tells me that the origins of ‘having cold feet’ are obscure, but that it may have come from military days. Soldiers, way back in the day, if they were frightened to go into battle, might complain of frozen feet.

But Wikipedia—which you should never, ever use as a source in an academic paper—says that the use is often attributed to Stephen Crane, who penned the term in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In that novel, Crane writes, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”

But Crane, Wikipedia says, may be getting unearned credit. The site notes that Fritz Reuter used the term in “Seed Time and Harvest,” which was published in 1862. And long before that, scholars say, Ben Jonson used the term in his play Volpone in 1605.

Origins may be lost in the fog of time, but the soldier’s lament makes sense to me.

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

And on the subject of feet, how about, I thought, scrabbling around the words at the bottom of the rabbit hole, HOW about, “To put one’s foot in one’s mouth?” That phrase has never made sense to me; it’s all about saying something that embarrasses me and the person to whom I’m speaking. I would have been better off, actually, if my foot had BEEN in my mouth; it would have been harder to talk around it.

Given my history of tact and blundering, there have been many times I’ve wished I was chewing on my toes instead of choking on my words. But it’s certainly a vivid term. I went looking for its origins, and I came away frustrated.

Jon Pennington, on Quora.com, thinks that the phrase morphed from the concept of ‘foot-and-mouth’ disease, a deadly thing that afflicted cattle. Somehow, he says, the term came to mean people who had said something so egregiously embarrassing or offensive that they just couldn’t recover.

There’s a leap in that theory that I can’t make; I keep tumbling into the abyss when I try.

Phrases.org.uk says that an expression for saying something stupid, back in the dawn of the eighteenth century, was “I put my foot in it.” It’s easier to see where that phrase came from; and I bet there was a lot if ‘it’ back in those days to step in. But then the site jumps to the mid-twentieth century, when it says, “….it was a popular joke to say, ‘every time I open my mouth I put my foot in it.’ This became so commonplace that people took to speaking of ‘putting one’s foot in one’s mouth’ and a tactless person as ‘having foot-in-mouth disease’.”

There are some unfilled crevices in that theory, too.

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

Frustrated, I wonder why I bother to put my best foot forward, and then I go chasing that phrase.

The Free Dictionary says that the phrase means to act as an ideal version of myself, struggling mightily to make a good impression. Phrases.org.uk puts the first published use of ‘best foot forward” in 1613, in a poem by Thomas Overbury called “The Wife.”

“Hee is still setting the best foot forward,” the site quotes Overbury as writing.

The site takes exception with the imagery. It might make sense, it argues, for a four-legged creature to put its best foot forward; but the best a human can do, only having TWO feet, is to put her better foot forward.

In fact, Phrases.org.uk says, Shakespeare uses the term in just that way, in King John (1595). He writes:

“Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.”

It makes sense to me that, if we’re not sure where a phrase comes from, we give the credit to Shakespeare.

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

And then I started thinking about ‘footing the bill,’ and the more I thought of THAT image, the more ridiculous it seemed. I imagine footballs full of money flying over goal posts, and I went looking for the sensible origins of the term. And I found an explanation on zippyfacts.com, that submerges ‘footing the bill’ deep into a sexist quagmire.

The term, the site posits, dates back to a time when women had to bring a dowry to their marriages. “Footing up” back then meant totaling the bill…with the ‘foot’ of the bill being what we’d call today the bottom line. So the costs of the wedding, and the cost of the dowry, were footed up.

And the bride’s family had better cough up the cash.

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

By the time I finished looking up ‘footing the bill,’ I realize my feet were no longer cold, my thoughts had settled into calm, grim rows, and my brain was not functioning at a learning level. It was time to sleep.

So I turned off the lamp, and I hotfooted it back to bed (etymonline: “hastily,” c.1300.)

Winning Some, Losing Some, and Ramping Up the Effort

I am late for my walk this morning, having slept in until 7:10. It’s a crisp, clear morning; I bundle up and head out.

At the corner, I meet the mail carrier. He is pulling packages from the truck and stashing them in his bag. I wave at him and prepare to keep walking, but he flags me down.

“You got COFFEE,” he said, “and it smells good.”

I take a minute to process, and then light cracks through my darkness.

“The coffee!” I say. “It’s here already?”

“Yeah,” says the mail carrier. “And it smells so good.”

Jovan at Yeah Me Too roasted decaf Peruvian beans yesterday and packed up two pounds to send me. (I hope my check arrived as quickly as his beans did.)

I walk what we call the big block and hurry home, where the package waits, snugged between the storm and inside doors. The mail carrier is right: it smells wonderful. I cradle it, grab a book-shaped package addressed to Jim, and head around to the back.

Inside, I put the mail on the table and unpack the coffee. There is no plastic in its packaging; two brown paper bags of coffee are wrapped in strong white paper. I open one bag and breathe deep. The smell is dark and rich and roasty.

And I realize that the mailman knows who I am, knows my face and my name, and knows, now, that I love good coffee. I don’t know his name (yet), but now I know that he loves at least the smell of good coffee, too.

And Jovan, the coffee roaster, has become a kind of friend, as well, invested in my plastic free project. He lets me know when the beans are roasted; do I still want some?

I email back an emphatic yes, and a flurry of correspondence ensues: I ask how much for a pound of fresh-roasted beans, where to send the check. He doesn’t wait to receive the payment before sending the beans, and he sends me a picture of the package the day it goes out. It’s sitting on a countertop, surrounded by letters and correspondence. I notice one letter has that John Lennon stamp that I love to use…a little ping of appreciation.

And it occurs to me that I am meeting people in a different way because of the whole plastic-fast thing: I have a coffee-roaster guy! I know my mail carrier!

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

Before I left for the walk, I put French bread ingredients into the bread machine. We discovered that, if we mix the ingredients up on the dough cycle, then shape the dough into a round loaf on a scarred old pizza pan, we get a wonderful result.

It takes about five minutes to batch up the simple ingredients. I add least an extra quarter of a cup of water; when the mix cycle starts, I check the dough. If it looks stiff, I add even more. When it’s mixed and risen, I decant it onto the pan and let it rise. I heat the oven to 400; I mix up some salt water and glaze the round loaf, then bake it for 20 minutes or so.

A wonderfully fragrant, yeasty loaf results.

Mark and I are still wheat-abstaining (although sometimes we can’t resist hacking off a heel of freshly baked bread and eating it, butter melting on its soft, white surface), but James survives on sandwiches, and this is homemade bread he can live with.

I am happy that it has no preservatives; all its ingredients are fresh.

And it does not arrive at my home wrapped in plastic.

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

It occurs to me that ‘plastic’ and ‘plastic-free’ might be metaphors for certain kinds of living.

Plastic is fast and separate; contents don’t touch other foods. I don’t need to talk with anyone. I just grab and go.

Plastic-free slows me down and requires interaction. I have to search and find the right shops; I have to talk with the shopkeepers. I arrange delivery, which, again, involves some kind of human discourse.

I take time to mix ingredients in my kitchen, cooking from scratch. I shave soap and mix it with borax, stir in boiling water and making my own dish soap. It does not foam like Dawn, I’ve found, but the dishes seem squeaky clean.

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

Gauze bags arrived in the mail this week.

This week, a package arrived from Amazon; inside, I found a clutch of gauzy washable bags. These are perfect for shopping. I can take them to the produce section and package up lettuce, zucchini, greens, or onions. When I empty the bag, it can go into the washing machine with a load of white, and then, next week, I’ll use it again.

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

I feel an uplift of possibility: a plastic-free life is possible. Then Mark and I go to a luncheon, where proud young students in a disabilities services program serve our food. There are plastic bottles of water. There are sandwiches wrapped in foil and nestled in a Styrofoam go-box, with a plastic bag of chips and a plastic cup of fruit cocktail, hermetically sealed with—of course—more plastic. There is a knotted plastic baggie holding two cookies, mixed and baked by those student cooks.

I look at the beaming faces of the young people who put this meal together for us. And I take my Styrofoam box back to our table, and I eat my sandwich.

Beth, an outreach librarian who shares our table, leans over and tells me about visiting Greece last year with her husband. They would never have used all this disposable, non-degradable packaging, she says.

“They’d be appalled,” she said quietly.

The waste containers fill up with Styrofoam, and I wince.

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

I wince because I have been seeing more and more about the results of plastic disposal. My friend Kimberly posted two links on Facebook this week that rocked me to the core.

One was about a dead whale; when scientists performed an autopsy, they found its belly was full of waste plastic. (https://www.livescience.com/64139-sperm-whale-full-of-plastic.html?fbclid=IwAR2ZzlCxffSdClL28JBq1BS14E_L4tGvX_IOm5O7SausYYY9YaPldvaDLWg)

The other was a video that illustrates, graphically, what plastic use adds up to. (https://www.facebook.com/Thepopularist/videos/304263600250867/UzpfSTEzMTI3MTM4Mjg6MTAyMTk1NjUyNzc5MDUyMDM/?notif_id=1552962565746926&notif_t=mention)

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This week, I am going to add two actions. I am going to write letters…to grocers and retailers, and to politicians, too, and I am going to ask why we don’t start looking for different packaging solutions. Maybe they’ll laugh and toss my letter in the circular file; maybe they’ll make some snarky remark about that crazy ol’ Birkenstock lady who wants us to do away with plastic.

But maybe I’ll connect with a person who shares my concern, and then we’ll square our efforts. I know I’m compelled to try.

I might call a friend who works with those proud chefs, too, and see if there are packaging solutions we can share with those eager young people before the next banquet date arrives.

And I am going to look for ways to use the plastic I have. Instead of recycling, which seems to have a pretty unhappy result, maybe I can take waste plastic and turn it into something useful, or into something attractive and uplifting.

I’m looking for ideas; if you have them, I hope you’ll share.

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More and more, it seems like time is running out.

More and more, it seems like we need to find solutions now.

Safe Passages

This hasn’t been my favorite week.

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This week a metaphor keeps spooling out in the echoing caverns of my mind. Life is a train, I think, a vast, fast-moving, passenger train.

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When we’re born, if we’re lucky, we arrive in a car with a welcoming family—a parent or two and maybe some siblings. It’s a warm, contained space, and there’s access to food and love and books, and it’s a good place—even hurtling along at however-many miles an hour. Even knowing that we each have a ticket that only takes us so many miles.

When we’re kids, happy on the journey, we never give a thought to what our ticket says.

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This week was a turn-the-corner, irrevocable week. This week one kind of hope drained quickly into salty sand. The wind picked up and blew that sand around, like it was laughing, like it was aiming for our eyes.

If there’s another kind of hope ready to arrive,–well, this week, I cannot see it.

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So. The train. We grow to a certain age, and, if we’re lucky, a kind teacher comes by our car, and reaches out a hand and invites us to come to school. We are excited; we have seen the big kids go. We have been exploring the wonders that books offer. Those mysterious black squiggles have come to have meaning.

We can count to 100.

It is time to join the throng.

Our parent gets us ready, shoes shined, or hair braided; we wear our very best clothes for the first official day of school.

We flap a negligent wave to the parent who sends us off, beaming; we follow that teacher down the line of moving cars, and we don’t look back.

We don’t see the parent’s shiny eyes, or hear her whisper, “Safe passages.”

It is a first parting and a temporary one. But it’s a monumental parting all the same.

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

This week, I walk. I walk feeling like a loaded wagon is clamped to my back, and I don’t like the load it carries.

And I know that load is minuscule compared to the load my friend is bearing, and the load her family tries, still in shock, to lift.

And as I walk, I notice the most disgusting things. There is trash everywhere: Subway bags and McDonalds’ juice bottles crushed on the sidewalk. There are flattened metal silo beer cans—‘Natty Lite’ and ‘Ice House.’ And cigarette butts line the path I stomp along, and I scowl, and the border between my sadness and my anger blurs like wet watercolors do on impatient painting days.

Every 600 feet or so, there’s an old black banana peel; I conjure up an image of a merry gorilla, walking the streets by night, enjoying a banana and flipping the peel as it walks along. It’s a whimsical image, and that makes me angry, too. I think I’m being unfair to the gorilla.

In two places, the hairy, squashed remains of some furry little rodent adhere to the sidewalk. I think that at least the poor dead squirrels and the banana peels are biodegradable, and I walk past a shredded plastic straw that will be here 1,000 years from now, unless somebody moves it to another place where it won’t erode.

This week I am sad and distracted and I send out email after email with obscure messages and flagrant typos. The typos just add to the sinking feeling.

I am angry at myself, and at people; I am impatient with myself, and with people, this week.

But it’s really cancer that feeds my rage.

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And the train chugs along, until suddenly, one day it stops.

It stops so that a grandparent can get off. Confused, never having seen this before, we hang around the open door.

We look to the parent for a clue: how do we react to this?

Our parent’s cheeks are wet.

“Safe passages,” she whispers, and we turn and look at the departing elder, and a little glimmer of realization comes.

This beloved person may not be coming back.

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I walk along, cursing the litter, and I slow down when I approach a gleaming white step van, its butt end halfway into the sidewalk. It is filled with heavy, harsh looking tools; it is almost touching a digging machine ahead of it in the driveway. A small crew of men in acid green t-shirts swarms.

The step van is chuddering, and I detour way around it. But as I do, I notice there’s a heavy, gleaming chain hooked around the open back. And someone has tucked a purple rhododendron blossom into the chain.

In the very next yard, the yard next to the house that burned down a couple of years ago, crocuses—their buds a brassy orange—push proudly up.

A little touch of something that is neither anger nor sadness stirs, and I push it, guiltily, down.

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The train charges along, and we find work: there are things to be done on a train, and when we are old enough and ready, we must contribute. And as we branch out, we meet new people. We find friends who are not family. We find, sometimes, great loves.

And we leave that first, cozy car, which now feels too small. We move to a newer car a little bit closer to the end of the train. Sometimes, we grow a little family of our own.

And we learn, more and more, about leave-taking.

We think people we love and need will be there forever, but they won’t. All the grandparents go, and then the parents and the aunts and uncles begin to depart…. It seems the train stops with more and more regularity.

Sometimes it even stops for someone our age.

Sometimes it stops for someone even younger.

We learn to say, “Safe passages,” through our tears.

Occasionally, but not very often, someone who gets off will get back on at a later station. But usually the departers are just gone.

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I think, this week, about the last conversation I had with my friend on the phone.

I watch Facebook and check text messages for updates.

I talk to old friends who love her, too, and I feel a settling of the weight. It doesn’t get any lighter, but we all are lifting the same load, and that, somehow, makes the heaviness a little easier to accept.

I talk to a man who cannot speak because tears choke his words.

I spend a lot of time in the bathroom this week, touching up mascara.

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There comes a point, on the train, where we realize our ticket has only so many miles on it, and we start requesting some information. Just how far, we demand, can I expect to go?

There’s no answer, usually; there’s just cold silence.

There’s just, maybe, a disconnected whisper: You’d best not take anything for granted. Everyone gets off this train.

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This week, I pack a bag, honored to be invited, torn by the need to go.

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Oh, that train ride. It takes us places we never imagined were out there. It flings us through dangerous passages, up steep hillsides where snow tumbles dangerously, into flooded valleys where we wonder if the train will chug through…and if we’ll still be with it when it does. It takes us into sunny meadows and dappled forests. It shows us worlds.

And it gives us companions…companions who, selfishly, we never want to let go of. It gives us lovers and children and siblings and family. It gifts us, when, again, we are very, very lucky, with wonderful lifelong friends.

“Let’s just all stay like this,” we say, and it seems like that might work.

But then, unexpectedly, we feel the wheels beneath us slowing down.

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This week I feel the train slowing one more time. I want to say, “Don’t go.”

I want to say, “We all need you here.”

I want to be that selfish: I really, really want to.

But this week I have to face hard facts, face them head-on with no pretensions.

The time for struggle is over.

And the time to say, “Safe passages, sweet friend,” is not so far away.

Of Buying Meat, and What Plastic Does, and Trying to Make Do

By the end of the day on Sunday, I was discouraged. This was my weekend to shop for meat.

On Saturday, we went to the indoor farmers’ market at Weasel Boys, a craft brewery in my town. Weasel Boys is in a bank of long, low brick buildings, which clever, creative people have rescued from industrial abandonment. The buildings have become condos and restaurants, a repurposing shop, and, of course, Weasel Boys, which offers pizza and music and trivia nights in addition to well-crafted beer.

And on Saturdays now, they offer their spacious indoor setting as a place for local farmers and vendors to meet the public.

This week, we didn’t buy much. I was interested to meet some local coffee roasters who, sadly, do not roast decaf. But I think my coffee’s sorted anyway.

I did, though, buy a beef soup bone from Jessica at Hope Farms, even though the bone was shrink-wrapped in plastic. It is locally raised, grass-fed beef. I talked with Jessica, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of local initiatives, about buying beef in paper wrappings.

She is on the same wave-length, and she’s going to talk with her butcher to see if a different kind of wrapping is possible.

Jessica is a deacon in the Methodist church, and one of her ministries is helping people grow responsibly in relationship to nature. She and the people she works with have done some remarkable things. They’ve gotten the local schools to stop using Styrofoam at lunch time, for instance.

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So that was a promising trip, although I did bring plastic home. The next day, Sunday, we drove to an organic foods store about 45 minutes away. They were advertising boneless chicken breast; I had all the other ingredients for pasta rustica, which I thought I’d make on Sunday evening, if we could get some plastic-free chicken.

I asked for the chicken at the meat counter and a really nice clerk directed me toward the pre-wrapped meats. I explained to him we were trying to eat without plastics, and his eyes, I swear, lit up.

“I’ll see if we have some unpackaged out back,” he said, and I rocked happily in my sneakers while I waited. But he came back dragging.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “It COMES in the plastic.”

Rats, I thought, but I felt bad for the guy: he was so crestfallen.

“Okay,” I said. “Well. That’s a bummer. But how about I buy some bacon?”

He looked like he might cry.

“Ma’am,” he said, “that comes in plastic, too.”

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

I did bring some paper lunch bags, and I consoled myself by buying some bulk food products—including some extremely delicious salted caramel drops—and packaging them in paper. But then we wandered through the store, and I was overwhelmed, again, by the plastic packaging. Even in a store devoted to organic, locally sourced foods—in a store that has water in brown paper cartons instead of plastic bottles—even THERE, I could not do a full shopping without buying plastic.

I realized this, and an acid rage bubbled up in me. I felt like someone else was forcing choices on me.

Why shouldn’t I be able to live a plastic free life?

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We stopped, heading home, at a funky store not so very far from my house that has a meat counter. Their boneless chicken looked amazing, although it was two dollars more a pound than the plastic wrapped poultry at the organic chain store. But I am lucky enough to be able to pay that, so I asked the very nice clerk if he’d wrap me up three pounds or so, and if I could have it in paper.

“Yeah!” he said. “Oh, absolutely. I can put it in freezer paper for you for sure.”

And he offered to wrap it up and have it at the register for me when the rest of my shopping was done.

So I went and found the boyos…they were browsing an aisle of single malt whiskeys from Celtic countries; this reminded Jim of scenes from James Bond movies, and he was regaling his dad by re-telling one. I herded them a little—it was getting late—and stopped at the register and picked up a fat package of boneless chicken, neatly wrapped in white butcher paper.

I took it home and unwrapped it, and I discovered why there was no seepage. The considerate clerk had put the chicken in a plastic bag before he wrapped it in paper.

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So…my two meat purchases this weekend involved plastic: FAIL.

I think I will order my meat from a local butcher, who offers freezer packs. I can pick my freezer pack up once a month, or however often I need to buy meat. I will find it boxed and waiting for me, wrapped in white paper.

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It seems to me that each of us is born with a notebook and a pen. The notebook is called, “How I Think I Should Live My Life,” and our job is to use the pen and continually fill those pages, continually revising what we have written. By the time I reach that last page, I hope, I’ll have a crisp, clear description of what I can really say in an authentic and meaningful life.

One of the things I want to write in there, indelibly, is this: “I will use as little plastic as possible.”

But it seems to me large concerns—manufacturers, marketers, retailers, —are invested in grabbing those books out of our baby hands, and writing in them for us.

“Here’s how you should live,” they say, and they put down delicious descriptions with seductive pictures.

“Oh, YEAH,” I think. “Okay! That looks good!”

What a pretty plastic-wrapped life they present.

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It occurs to me to wonder where our plastic trash goes, so I type that question into a search engine. I pull up a National Geographic site, and I find that a whole lot of our global mismanaged plastic trash is floating down tributaries to rivers, down rivers into oceans, and floating across the ocean to a little place called Henderson Island. Henderson is an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, and more than 19 tons of plastic waste litter its once pristine beaches. More floats in every day.

I read the National Geographic article, which was beautifully, and heartbreakingly, illustrated with pictures.

And it made me more determined than ever not to contribute any more to unthinking plastic disposal.

Here’s the link: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/the-journey-of-plastic-around-the-globe/

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Looking for a little good news, I found an article on plastic recycling, and discovered that kind of recycling is not as easy as I’d thought. Not all plastic plays well together; 1’s and 2’s, for instance, can’t be blithely melted together and used to create new bottles. (Don’t even get me started on 6’s.) And even when the plastics are rigorously sorted, there’s danger of contamination. It appears that more plastic is ‘downgraded’—a term which means that’s the last time it can be recycled—into thread than is repurposed into new bottles. The thread is used to created garments like t-shirts and, possibly, cute handbags.

The video I watched (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zO3jFKiqmHo) did introduce me to a PBS series called The Reinventors, about intrepid people in the US northwest who are pushing the envelope to figure out how to re-use plastic, and other, waste. Here’s a link to that interesting series:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzZRoStdiqWxauQT2RGW1Lg

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This plastic fast is a bigger challenge than I realized, but I’m not getting discouraged, and my hackles are up: I’m not giving up either. I made a batch of homemade dish soap this week after finding directions on a wonderful blog called DIY Natural. Here’s that link, too:

https://www.diynatural.com/homemade-dish-soap/

I haven’t tried this yet, but I am going to keep experimenting until the results are just what I want them to be.

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And Kirsten Pfeiffer, who is a wonderful new friend I met through my also-wonderful nephew Brian, wrote this on one of my Facebook posts:

I eat at this one place all the time, and their to-go containers are plastic. I hated using them only one time, so today I went to the place and asked if I could bring in my old ones for them to refill instead of giving me a new one every day and they were cool w/ it!!

What a smart and simple thing. I’m going to put the beautiful quilted bag Terry made me in the backseat of my car, and I’m going to keep clean plastic containers in it. And when we go out to eat and have leftovers, I’m going to take them home in containers I can store and wash and re-use.

Like Kirsten, I’ve found that, if I ask and I’m clear, retailers try really hard to help me get what I want. Now, I’m learning what to ask for and how to ask so I’m not misunderstood.

Oh, my friends. I wish you a wholesome, delightful, locally sourced, week.