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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Ringing: A Prompt

Sometimes we sit down to write and can’t think of anything to write about. The blank page can be intimidating…

                             Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Ideas flit through my stainless steel-trap mind all day, and I toss and tumble them, consider and discard, until finally, the frew-fraw of the day settles down and I settle down, too, at the computer. I open a document. It gleams, clear and fresh and expectant, and I lift my hands over the keyboard.

I play with some thoughts about time and some thoughts about change; I tilt my head to make the ideas tumble out more easily. I type a sentence or two.

I delete a sentence or two.

Connie the Fitbit tells me I only have 114 steps to make my hourly goal of 250. I jump up, glad of the righteous interruption, and I stalk about the house, circling, waiting for the perfect topic to come tumbling down into that bony room.

Sometimes that happens, but tonight is not one of those times.

Tonight, I got nothing.

Tonight, I go to the prompt jar.

I shake it and I stick a finger in to stir things up. I shake again, urging the universe to give me just the perfect topic; pick me a good ‘un, I urge those unseen forces.

I dive a finger into the slips of lined yellow paper and pull out what I think must be the middle-most slip.

Here’s what it says:

Ringing.

Ringing????

I take another walk.

I think about ringing in the new year, and I think ringing does have a time-connection. This weekend, we’ll be ringing in daylight savings time: we’ll be springing forward. The alarm clock, on Sunday, will ring an hour earlier than usual. That will bring us more sun-soaked hours, I am sure, but it will drag my butt out of bed an hour early, too. I’m not loving the thought of that future ringing.

But it’s funny. The word ringing mostly has me thinking of things long past.

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

I think of one of my first chores: cleaning, with Comet cleanser, the grit ringing the bathtub. The method was simple: I took a washcloth and wet the tub, bottom and sides. Then I peeled away the paper sticker covering up the cleanser can’s holes, and I sprinkled. The white powder landed, turning blueish green as it got wet, and I reached in with a nubby cleaning cloth and scrubbed and scrubbed.

The scrubbing was important—ridding the tub of its family-supported ring.

The rinsing was important, too: an ill-rinsed tub was a gritty, annoying thing. A well-rinsed one was a shining temple of cleanth.

Comet worked well then, and still does. After years of trying sprays and bubbles, highly-touted cleaners in mostly plastic bottles, I am back to trusty Comet and my time-worn method. My tub is bright white and ring-free…and Comet has no plastic in its packaging.

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

At lunch today, seven of us sat at a long table, bending and peering so we could talk, sharing tidbits of news, tasty little chunks of gossip; accepting steaming plates of food and sliding them so they’d fit underneath the flow of the conversation—the talk as rich and savory as the treats the waiter set before us.

And then someone’s cell phone, slapped upside down on the table next to the silverware, rang, and the ring tone sounded just like an old-fashioned telephone ringing.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember that: to remember when the one phone in the house was a black one, one that cradled the receiver, which attached to the base with a not-overly long wire.

In those days, the phone rang and we ran—ran from wherever we were in the house, up in the bedrooms, making beds, reading, dreaming; out in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, lifting hot, hot cookies from hot, battered cookie sheets; down in the basement, wrestling wet sheets from washer to basket, and then out to the clothesline in the back yard.

But wherever,–Phone!!! we would yell, and we’d drop the chore at hand and go running.

Phone calls could be very important. We didn’t ignore the ringing phone.

The cradle phone was in the dining room, maybe; and then the dining room was where we talked, because the cord reached only a couple of feet.

And then…improvements and enhancements. Some houses added an extension phone; the same number as the original phone, but you could pick up either receiver and talk. So you might have an upstairs phone. If there was a night-time emergency—if you had the kind of job where you might get called out in an emergency—there’d be no danger of sleeping through the ringing. The extension was inches away from your bed; the roiling, raucous ring would wake you. Eyes drily sleep-rimmed, thoughts all fuzzed at the edges, you’d still get up. You’d get up and stumble to the bathroom, pull on clothes, splash water, and go out, no matter the hour, to do the thing that needed doing, summoned by the ringing of the phone.

The phone might ring out in the night with sorrow: Helen is gone, the voice at the other end might say; she passed at 3:17. We thought you’d want to know.

The ringing might toll in great joy: The baby’s here! Nine pounds and perfect. Congratulations, Grandma!

Extensions might foment a little sibling rivalry. “MOM!” the younger sister might wail, her heart throat-high in the hope that that boy really WOULD call tonight: “MOM! Julie is still on the phone!”

For at-home wives and moms, the phone was lifeline and connection. Life was richer when cords grew longer and the at-home woman could clutch the receiver between shoulder and ear and navigate a nice circumference, moving from the counter, where she’d just finished peeling the last of a big pot of potatoes (this family sure does love mashed potatoes!), to the stove where a pot roast simmered, talking all the while.

She could conduct PTA business with that long cord. She could check in with good friends, finding out what was going on in their lives, sharing little triumphs and simmering resentments, gathering opinions, triumphing, occasionally, in some terribly juicy gossip.

She could call her mom.

For a stay-at-home lady, one with no car in the drive and no store or library within an easy walk, the ring of that long-corded phone carried promise and potential and a break from the solitude and boredom of a hard-working day.

And then: cordless phones added to that freedom, although they had their limits. There were only so many feet you could stray from the mother-ship without losing your connection. But still–-no cord! Receiver cradled, hands free to reach up to top shelves, pull down the big mixing bowl, crouch down and pluck out the flour, the sugar, the baking soda. Cracking the eggs, sprinkling the cinnamon, pulling the little hand mixer from its cupboard hiding place, and all the while talking, talking, talking. There IS a world out there, and I’m connected to it!

Cordless phones got us ready for cell phones, bit by little bit.

Hard to even remember, now, when a drive in the car meant being unavailable; we oohed and ahh-ed at Maxwell Smart’s car phone (How cool!) , but kind of liked detachment from demand whenever we went riding.

And a vacation—well that was a vacation from being reachable, except perhaps by postcard or note, or maybe, by arrangement, at the pay phone down by the lamp-post near the camp office. (Oh, THAT call was a wonder: ten minutes of pure magic, as the sun slid down into the trees, and your reluctant, cranky brother, prodded by your anxious mother, came looking for you.)

Vacation meant freedom from the day-to-day; you could wait till you got home to get your messages, find out the news. If something horrifically happy or horrendously sad occurred, you’d learn by the slamming of a car door outside the cabin, the manager’s hand pounding brusquely on the door. Sorry to bother you, the voice boomed; there’s a message…

Cell phones are safety and convenience and all kinds of connection. But still. Somewhere between the hard to reach black cradle phone and the constant nudge of the omnipresent smart phone—somewhere in that middle ground, there’s a sweet spot. There is balance.

That vintage ring tone—it makes me think of days when we reached that balance a little more readily.

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

And I think of ringing’s sound twin, too. Ring-the-verb, Webster tells me, comes from the Middle English, evolved from the Old English: from ringen, meaning [no surprise] to ring.

Wring is a verb too, and like its twin, it has crept down through time, from Middle English, back further from murky Old English, back when the word was wrygan: to strangle.

Somehow, those words marched through time drawing, sound-wise, closer and closer together, until only that soundless w tacked to the one’s beginning make them easily distinguishable.

Wring is a time traveler, too: it takes me back to pre-dryer, pre-wash and wear days. Then, every dress shirt was plucked damp from the washer; the mom wrung it out, thoroughly and ruthlessly; she wrung out that shirt and then flattened it out just so, and she rolled that shirt into a tight, damp little log.

The shirt went into a bushel basket constructed of thin, pliable wooden slats. And then she plucked another and wrung, and wrung.

Girls needed to learn this skill. I started on hankies; they were cotton back then. My father had hardy bandannas to take to work, and finer white handkerchiefs for less gritty events. Women had their own hankies, frilled and colorful, often embroidered, delicate and largely useless compared to the male’s sturdy versions. (Women, so refined, were not expected to have snuffly noses or seasonal allergies.)

I wrung out the damp hankies; I rolled them into little logs. I huddled them together in a smaller basket.

I was fascinated by the heavy metal iron, which hissed and sizzled. I waited to be old enough to wield it.

It didn’t take long, it seemed, for that day to arrive: age eight was the magic year. While my brothers learned to mow a lawn without leaving high, whiskery ‘hair’ along the edges, I learned to sprinkle, roll, unroll and flatten, to apply that hot metal nose to the fragile lady’s hanky. I learned what was too hot, and when the cloth was not damp enough.

I ironed hankies, and the romance of the job sizzled away with the dampness in the handkerchiefs.

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

We wring our hands.

I’d like, we mutter, to wring her neck!

We wring every last drop of savor from a bone or a book or a long-anticipated day.

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

We waken to the ringing of alarm clocks (although it’s more like brazen buzzing, now.)

We worship at the bidding of church bells (although they’re often electronic and rung out from the pedals of a high-tech organ these days.)

We wait for the bell that ends the round and sag in relief as the final bell ends the match.

And kids still wait for the ringing of the bell—which is, probably, not a bell at all,–that frees them from their enforced stay at school.

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

And one word, on a slip of paper, one word rings bells from deep down cavernous, dusty, time passages, reminding us of the excitement engendered by the call of old black phones and the smell of cotton, freshly hit with the metallic sizz of a hot iron, of the satisfaction of scrubbing, and the magic of the right caller at just the right magical time.

Ringing: a simple prompt that rings in a relieved recognition: maybe that echoing, bony cavern isn’t completely empty, after all.

Wednesdays Without Plastic: Coffee Quest

“I’ll just give up single-use plastic packaging for Lent,” I said, blithely. And publicly, which was a good thing, because, faced with some very real challenges, I might otherwise have been tempted to quit.

Coffee, for instance, is a challenge. The coffee I like comes in plasticky packaging, and I’m not at all reconciled to giving up my brew. I had me a moment considering what I was going to do about that.

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

Here, by the way, is a warning about aging for you young ones: as we season, doctors glibly adjust our habits, never mind how much we liked the old ones. So I sat on the stupid paper-covered table in my stupid stiff paper johnny, freezing and in shock (I am not bitter), while the doctor told me my blood pressure was high.

“My blood pressure’s NEVER been high,” I argued. “I’ve always had low blood pressure.”

“Hey, things change as we age,” he said. I don’t know what that ‘we’ business was all about; he looked like a new age Doogie Howser.

Then he asked me about my daily coffee consumption.

I did some quick calculations: where was the sweet spot between ‘doctor needs to know’ and ‘truth’?

“Mmmmm,” I said. “Maybe eight or nine cups?”

“Oh, no,” said New Age Doogie. “No, no, no. You’re going to have to cut that out. Completely.”

I looked at him hard. Was he KIDDING?

“Stop drinking coffee,” I said, slowly and distinctly, just to clarify.

He shrugged. Not only was he not an aging person, he was clearly not a caffeine person, either.

“Drink decaf,” he said. 

Like that was no big deal.

I left his office with a prescription and an attitude, but I did take his advice to heart. I began a structured weaning-off process, and, within a month, I was living in Decaf Land.

After a lot of experimentation, I found two decafs I could live with: a dark roast from Starbucks, and a medium roast from Seattle’s Best.

Both of them come packed in plastic-coated bags.

And I’ve given up the caffeine, but not the coffee. I need that brisk, hot drink to start and gird my day.

So I’m going to need a plastic-free source.

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

I look up coffee roasters in our area. I find one that looks very promising, a grassroots kind of place that started with coffee lovers roasting their own beans in the back room of an entirely different business altogether. They offer two kinds of decaffeinated beans. They do not have a coffee shop, but they market their beans at all kinds of interesting places.

And it looks as though their beans come in brown paper packaging.

This will be fun, I think. We’ll take a road trip and pick up some beans. I decide to stop at a little market in a Columbus suburb where the beans above are sold, and I locate two other coffee specialists in the same funky, getting-gentrified-but-still-edgy, little town.

The boyos are on board for a Saturday afternoon coffee cruise. I call the little market to insure they have the decaf beans from the grassroots roasters. I talk to Stephe (pronounced Steve), who staffs the wine bar; he goes to look.

Moments later, he picks up again, a little out of breath. There is only one bag of those decaf beans left, he says, and he’ll hold it at the wine bar for me. I give him my name and my thanks.

Then I call a place I’ll call the Rich Dark Cup of Java. Their coffee beans, pictured on-line, look as though they come in a plastic bag. Ian, a young manager, answers the phone at Cup of Java, and I ask him about the packaging.

“Yeah, well,” he says, “the bags we use are kind of plasticky.”

“Okay,” I say. “Well, thanks.”

“Wait!” says Ian. “Wait! We do have brown paper bags we use when we run out of the regular bags. I could put your beans in that.”

I picture the boy opening up a plastic bag of beans and pouring them into a brown bag. I picture him throwing out the plastic bag, and I see myself contributing to plastic waste. I tell him that, and Ian says, oh, no. They get their beans in BIG bags and package them on site. He could do up a brown bag for me and leave it at the counter.

I agree that will work.

I try to pull up the website for the third interesting place, a shop called Yeah Me Too, but it doesn’t have one. The shop’s tiny, if the photos are true; I’m not clear if they only sell hot beverages or if they sell beans, too. One scathing review complains that there’s no place to SIT. But a breakfast blogger says it is the best coffee in Columbus, period.

There’s no phone number. The picture of the shop makes it look a little cramped.

But it’s right down the street from the market where they’re holding my beans, so I put it on the list, and we pack up and pile into the car and head toward Columbus.

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

The market where I am to meet Stephe is a funky place, with all kinds of imported foods—figs and olives, hard sausages rimed in white mold, and salted fish in tins that peel with a key. There is a whole section of olive oils; there’s a variety of vinegars. There are long refrigerated cases filled with cheeses from Ireland and Israel and darkest Wisconsin. There is a lovely supply of chocolate. And everywhere, there is the shiny gleam of plastic packaging, even in a place with a sensibility carefully balanced between global and locally sourced.

I stop to look at the coffee section before I head to the wine bar. The market offers a healthy variety of beans, most of them of the regionally roasted, artisan variety. As Stephe reported, there’s no decaf in the brand I’m searching for on the shelf.

Mark and Jim go to peer through the shiny glass cases at piles of beautifully fresh meat and fish; a friendly clerk gives them kind of a virtual tour. I head to the wine bar, where I find Stephe, identified by name tag. Stephe has a long and shiny brow; his graying hair starts in the mid-scalp area and sweeps back to curl below his ears. He wears a red vest and a red bow tie and a black and white striped shirt, and he reminds me for all the world of a ringmaster at a very exclusive circus.

And he is gracious and kind. He likes my single-use plastic fast idea, but he thinks I’m going to find it more difficult than I realize. He tells me a little about the people who roasted the beans I gather up; good people, he says, who give back to the community. He hands me the coffee; it is packaged, cheerful and humble, in stiff brown paper.

I collect Mark and Jim and pay for the beans and a few things the boys have gathered.

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

Yeah Me Too Coffee, the little no-website, no phone number place, is just a few blocks down the street, so we drive there next. It’s a tiny storefront. I push open the door; there’s no one, it seems, inside.

Then a man unfolds himself from behind the counter. He’s tall and thin and it seems like he does a lot of unfolding. He has a distinguished coxcomb of graying hair; he is dressed colorfully, and he is very interested to hear about my plastic-free quest.

They only use, he tells me, one hundred per cent biodegradable packaging.

He swivels to show me the decaf beans. They are in a transparent bin next to a big roaster. The back part of the shop is very clean and very crowded.

Mark and Jim look around. There’s nothing here but coffee. There are two chairs to sit in, but they’re low to the floor, kind of like toddler seats. The boyos wave to me and head out for a walk around the eclectic neighborhood.

The coffee guy tells me the decaf beans are old; he roasted them Tuesday, and here it is Saturday. He’ll give me some as a sample, but he won’t charge me full price, if anything. I ask if I can smell the beans; I take a deep whiff and they smell wonderful. He grinds some for me, fills up a bag, and we settle on five dollars. He tells me he can mail beans to Zanesville, and he writes his email address on the organic, biodegradable, packaging.

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

The boyos discovered we were parked in spaces reserved for a dry cleaner’s customers. A mean looking woman came out, scowling, they tell me later, so they got in the car and peeled away. I emerge from the store, and they roar around the corner. I hop in and we make a clean get away. We’re off to Big Rich Cup of Java.

BRCJ is a bustling place, with old hipsters, young urban professionals, young hipsters, some distinguished looking elderly women—all tables are filled. There are cases of muffins and cookies and biscotti, which are not made on site; they are tightly, plastically, wrapped.

I slip off to use the bathroom while Mark orders us drinks and picks up my decaf. When I come back, I find he and Jim have opted for drinks to go, and there are two bags of decaf, two shiny plastic bags, on the counter in front of Mark, who has already paid.

Wait, I say. MY decaf is supposed to be in a brown paper bag.

Mark looks puzzled, and I ask the clerk if he knows about some decaf that Ian left for Pam.

He is cloudy for a minute, but then he clears. The DECAF! In the paper bag! Ian left it for me!

He hands me a paper bag of beans. I thank him and nudge Mark. We need to give back the other decafs and get the total adjusted.

The clerk looks bewildered, and a manager comes over, apologizes for the confusion, and takes the receipt and rings up a new one. Mark thanks him and we wait for our drinks.

I get a steaming black decaf. It has a plastic lid. Jim gets a frozen hot chocolate in a sleek plastic cup with a sleek plastic dome and a thick red plastic straw. We step outside, into the pale sun of a winter afternoon, while Mark waits for his tea to steep.

We’ll take all this plastic home, I say to Jim, and recycle it. He nods solemnly.

But NOW, I say, let me just smell these beans. I am hopeful; my cup of decaf is rich and smoky. I undo the tabs and open up the paper bag.

Its insides are coated with plastic.

I cross Big Rich Cup of Java off my list, and Mark comes out with his tea and we head home.

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

I decide I will taste test the coffee from the market and the coffee from Yeah Me Too over the next couple of days, and decide which coffee to order.

The next morning, Sunday, I make the Yeah Me Too coffee. The beans may have been roasted on Tuesday, but they brew up a rich and delicious pot.

A definite contender, I realize happily.

On Monday, I open the brown paper package I bought at the market. I discover it, too, is lined with plastic. So I grind the beans, brew my morning coffee, and find my decision made. For lovely beans, in non-plastic packaging, it’s all Yeah Me Too.

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

So…coffee is sorted. And we have moved on to cloth napkins—to dishcloths really. I stole that idea from an eclectic little diner where we ate a while back; the nubby dishcloths were fun and functional. James and I went to the discount store and bought four packages of eight in a rainbow of colors that complement our Fiestaware.

I bought eighteen cloth hankies, which we’ll put in baskets in the bathrooms when the kleenex run out.

The bulk food store has agreed to package baking supplies for me in the containers I dropped off. We are not quite at plastic-free yet; there are things we need to use up and dilemmas I still need to solve.

But we are on our way.

**********

And one thing I’m finding is that the quest involves a conversation and, sometimes, a connection. Like with the woman at the supermarket who was doing inventory when I was shopping for glass containers. I told her about my plastic fast plans, and she said, “Well, THAT’S got to be good for the environment.” Then she gently nudged the container I was holding from my hand.

“I’m marking these down, anyway,” she said. “I may as well do it now.”

So I went home with bargain glassware. The checkout lady gave me an exasperated grin when I showed up with my greens, newly misted and dripping, not in plastic. I explained, and she rolled her eyes, looking tolerant, and said to the bagger, “No plastic for HER.”

The bagger was unhappy. He held up the glass containers. “Do I have to DOUBLE bags these?” he asked, and the cashier, sighing, said that he did.

Some people are supportive, some people look at me a little cock-eyed, and some people find the whole plastic-free concept to be just a little over the top. But I have milk in a cardboard carton, soft white hankies on which to blow my nose, a lidded container for my egg shells and coffee grounds—composting: that’s a project coming up—, and the feeling that life is shifting, just a bit.

Consumer Monster and a Plastic Fast

I am sitting at an endless table. The table stretches on and on in a long, long room. There are others across from me, others to either side of me.

I don’t care who else is there. I am waiting for Max the Manufacturer.

There is a low grumble of anticipation; the others are waiting, too.

I tap my fingers on the table, and I gasp. My fingers are FURRY! Muppet furry! I pat my face: there’s a broad flat mouth! My hair is crazy! (Well, that and the glasses: those are normal, anyway.)

A chant begins. I join in,—join in emulating my heroes, Animal and Oscar and Cookie Monster:

Me want food! Me want food! ME WANT FOOD!

We pound, too, and the noise crescendos, and then….then the big double doors swing open. Our chanting turns to cheers.

It is Max! Max the Manufacturer!

Max has food for us. 

He rapidly wheels a deep cart, filled with packages. At each Muppet’s place, he tosses a container onto the table.

I pick mine up. It is meat!

It is luncheon meat that is wrapped in plastic, and then encased in a lidded plastic container, which is sealed with…more plastic!

I join the chorus, which is now singing, “Me love MEAT! Meat good enough for me!”

And I tear at the container.

I rip off the plastic seal and throw it behind me.

“Raaaaah!” I roar.

I open the plastic top, and I throw that behind me. Now I begin to pant and salivate.The inner plastic is tough. I use my Muppet teeth to tear it apart, and I give a victorious, guttural crow. I toss the juicy inner plastic away, and I take the pile of meat slices and I shove them into my mouth.

“Num!” I blart, mouth full. “Num! Num! Num!”

My furry hands sweep the remaining plastic behind me, and I wonder what Max will bring me next.

Maybe some miniature Oreos in individual-sized plastic serving containers.

Maybe he’ll bring me two, or three. Me HUNGRY!!!

The pounding begins again, and I push my chair out a little to get more room.

But the pile of plastic behind me is so deep and so tall I can barely budge.

I have become, I realize, Consumer Monster.

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

I was driving to northwestern Ohio and listening to NPR when I heard the story about the sea turtle with the plastic drinking straw stuck in its nostril. It picked up that straw, minding its own business, swimming in the ocean—swimming through plastic waste blithely ejected by humans.

The creature had to be hauled into a medical facility to have surgery; someone took a video of the procedure, which was, the commentator said, pretty gruesome to watch and to listen to.

An expert chipped in with a discussion of how plastic straws alone pollute our beaches and oceans. Pounds and pounds, TONS, of plastic straws go into the trash, get processed, wind up, somehow, in the ocean.

If one sea turtle was discovered, dying, from humans’ plastic waste, how many more creatures suffer and die without notice?

The next day I met my friend Terri for coffee at a funky little college town coffee shop. There, by the register, was a cupful of stainless-steel straws. I bought three to take home.

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

My Comp II students write a proposal to solve a national or international problem as their capstone project. Last semester, five of the 24 papers dealt with the floating plastic dumps in our oceans. The students had done their research; their definition of the problem was stark, grotesque, unavoidable.

They proposed some interesting solutions too (things like what’s going at 4oceans.com), but I was just staggered by the magnitude of what we have, unthinkingly, done.

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

I tore the plastic from a package of paper napkins and trotted over to the cabinet where I keep the kitchen trash. The wrapper was printed in bright blue ink, and I thought, idly, that if I knew how to make flowers from plastic wrapping, this would make a pretty, deep blue rose. I opened the louvered doors and shoved the wrapper into the trash can, which was lined with a white plastic garbage bag….and filled with plastic waste.

And since then, I can’t help continually noticing. My God, it’s everywhere, woven firmly into the lives we lead. The things we buy to prepare and eat. The wraps I keep in the cupboard—plastic wrap and baggies and quart and gallon storage bags—things I may wash out after one use and then re-use a time or two, but things that eventually wind up in my trash.

I have no idea where they end up after that.

So I’ve been thinking about the poor sick turtle and the floating acres of plastic and the plastic in my household. Why don’t manufacturers DO something? I wonder. Why don’t they stop using plastic in every damn thing?

I think that, and then I go out and buy what they’re offering.

And I applaud the heroic efforts that some people are making to contain, control, and eliminate the plastic dumped into our seas and landfills. But I’m wondering, too, if a first step wouldn’t be not to add to it. Some are busy cleaning up the mess, but I keep making more.

Maybe a beginning would be not to contribute any more plastic to an already rife and burdensome mess.

Maybe I need to see if I can live without plastic.

I mention that to my son and he says, Hey! You could do that for Lent! Go without plastic instead of giving up candy or something.

He’s brilliant. A commitment–heck, a crusade–is born.

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

I get on line to do some research. I find that there’s a whole zero-waste movement out there—that there are people who throw out only tiny amounts—enough trash to fill a small mason jar, for instance,–every three months or so. I discover that there are environmentally friendly products and methods to explore. There are discussions about biodegradable, organically-based plastics. I find out a very dear friend has a son whose family tries very hard not to consume single-use plastic.

And I start making plans.

I order paper baggies and plant-based plastic garbage bags, guaranteed to decompose in landfills. I am excited when they arrive…until I see that they have been packed with those little plastic air pillows. I sigh, and I pierce the pillows, flattening them, and I put them with the plastic bags to be recycled.

There are a couple of meat counters, locally, that wrap their meat in waxed paper and butcher paper. Maybe I can buy chunk cheese at those counters, too. I talk to a clerk at Kroger about bringing my own paper bags to package and buy bulk items.

“Why not?” she says. “It’s fine.

I take an un-bagged cabbage to the self-check out and bring it home without wrapping it in plastic.

We think creatively. Jim has acquired a real hankering for cranberry lemonade, a product from Ocean Spray…which comes, of course, in a sturdy plastic bottle. But we can buy frozen cranberry juice concentrate and frozen lemonade too; their containers are paper, mostly, with metal end caps.

We polish off two plastic bottles of juice and save the sanitized bottles. The next shopping trip, I buy the concentrate. I pull down the giant bowl, glump in the frozen base and add water. I stir up our own cran-lemon mix, and scoop it into clean bottles. Mark and Jim try it at lunch, and they are surprised.

“This is really GOOD,” Mark says, and I think Score! Mixing my own is a good deal cheaper than buying bottled….which is, of course, not true of all non-plastic packaged goods. We’ll take our victories, and our economies, where we can find them.

We can refill our olive oil bottles at an organic foods store not far away. I think about using powdered cleansers instead of sprays in plastic bottles, about using brillo pads instead of plastic scrubbies, and about grating my own cole slaw instead of buying bagged mix.

I start to believe maybe this is doable, living life without single-use plastic, and then I run into things like my fully plastic deodorant dispenser.

Huh. Deodorant is kind of non-negotiable. What viable alternatives are out there?

But we are forging ahead…or I am, anyway, to the support and sometimes dismay of the boyos. Lent starts this Wednesday, March 6. For the six weeks that follow, I am going to see if I can live without plastic packaging. And I’ll see how life changes, and I’ll see what I do, and what I don’t, really, truly need.

And of course, I’m going to have to write about it.

So I’m adding a weekly plastic-post to my blog. I think I’ll call it ‘Wednesdays Without Plastic.’ I’ll document stuff like my upcoming attempt to make my own liquid dish detergent and my quest for freshly ground decaf in paper packaging. I’m hoping to talk to local folks who live without single-use plastic packaging, and I’ll be exploring some websites and blogs from people who do their best to contribute NO waste to our ailing environment.

I understand if this discussion is not your cup of tea, so I’m warning you ahead of time, and then you can ignore those Wednesday ramblings.

I’m hoping to transform from a Consumer Monster to a Zero Waste Zelda.

And I suspect there will be surprises along the way.

Stepping In

Snow and frigid temperatures, sun and balmy days, rain and wind and sleet…all of those kinds of weather crammed into the last three weeks. And Connie, the Fitbit on my wrist, blithely ignores all of it. The temperature, the weather, what’s falling from the heavens: these things mean nothing to her relentless little self.

If I sit too long, snuggled in the chair by the fire, she buzzes me out of rapt reading. She wants me to take at least 250 steps every sixty minutes; at about a quarter till the hour, my wrist will tingle and a message will scroll on Connie’s flat visage. “Only 113 steps left!” she’ll remind me.

And I’ll finish the paragraph and sigh, put down the book, and step it up.

And every other week, Connie challenges me to add 500 steps to my daily total. My walks get longer and more well-planned. I don’t like the thought of ending the day shy of my goal.

Most of the time, if it’s not raining too hard, if the walks aren’t icy, and if the temps are above ten degrees, I walk outside. I like that best: taking long strides, swinging my arms, the fresh air rubbing my cheeks. I have a regular walk; most days I walk a long walk; sometimes, on days I have to step in other ways, I take a short walk; and on changeable days, when I need a diversion, I go for an other-way walk. Those days I dodge around different corners, pace the trails at what we blithely call the old folks’ home (where folks right around our age live quite happily, although most of them are, to say the truth, a good bit older.)

When I walk outside, there’s a sense of mission, of forward marching, and there is the possibility of lots of unexpected things happening. There’s, Hey, look, Misty’s waving in her black SUV, and there’s a chat with a cute young couple carrying pizza boxes, leaking fragrant steam, up the steep steps of their porch, and there’s the chance to see how people’s decorations change, from Christmas to Valentines Day to St. Paddy’s green, and just now starting to speak up, a few hopeful pastel hues of springtime. I might stop and chat with neighbors on my walk. I get to see houses with for sale signs just about the minute those signs go up. Quite often, when I walk early or at dusk, I’ll have conversations with unimpressed deer.

I like my outdoor walks.

But many days lately, the weather has sent me scurrying to walk indoors.

Sometimes I drop James off at the campus library and drive around the back of the college road and go to the rec center. If I walk twelve times around their indoor track, I rack up a mile. Often, it’s crowded, and walking is more like weaving: friendly groups of gal pals in all kinds of togs, from the trendiest and gym-iest, to cotton shirts, denim capris, and Crocs, stride along in all three lanes, chatting and laughing. I veer off to the way-outside; they smile and pat my arm and wave me on and go back to their discussion of this one’s kids and that one’s stubborn husband. Some folks stand in the edge area, between the track and the tall bank of windows, and stretch. One rangy, aging gent wrapped his arms around a thin pole, a pole as long as he was tall, and whipped around from side to side. I ducked and flinched when I walked by; that pole looked like it was flying mighty close to my head, and he dropped the thing and gave me an exaggerated arm wave—a kind of, ‘After you, MADAME!’

I was glad when that guy went inside the equipment room and started bouncing on some odd round floor fixtures and I was removed from his flailing and sarcasm.

One young woman worked out on the machines in the middle floor, but periodically bolted across the track to press her hands against the wall, to stretch and squat, and to puff out her cheeks. She wasn’t always careful about watching for walkers. When she nearly ran me over, she glared at me as if I should have been more careful.

The day Jim came with me, the day his work was cancelled, he tried to walk the track. I took off before him as he screwed his ear buds in and tightened up his laces, and I found him, white-faced by the chairs, flinching as the chatty silver sneakers scurried past.

“It’s too CROWDED,” he said, and that day we went home early.

The next day, a day of relentless cold rain, we drove to the mall and walked there. The floors gleamed, the crowds were diffuse, and the stores offered interesting possibilities. Jim went one direction (“You walk too fast,” he grumbled) and I went the other; we high-fived each time we met in the middle, and I found him, finally, in the food court, where he munched on an Aunt Annie’s pretzel as he waited for me to complete my final circuit. Jim likes walking at the mall, where the other walkers don’t press so close, but I find the floors there very slick, and I am glad when my half hour’s walking is done.

I like to walk outdoors, but it’s nice to have indoor alternatives.

But Wednesday, it snowed, then rained, then cooled down again, and the slush froze into hurtful hard points. The streets were clogged with snow that squawked and crunched. I went out to clear the front walk for the mail carrier, and I slipped and slid and leaned on the push broom for a crutch. I broadcast eco-friendly snow melt from the stairs to the street and then hobbled slowly up the walk and around the house to the back door.

Wednesday I realized there’d be no walking outside, and there’d be no driving to another indoor venue to walk, either.

Wednesday I realized that, if I wanted to walk for half an hour, I was going to be walking inside my house.

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

Mark had slipped out to work in that half hour between the snow and the rain; Jim was still upstairs at 9:00, my walking time. I opened the door to the glassed in side porch, the space we grandly call our Florida room, and I started mapping a track through the house.

I started at the big window in the kitchen, and I noticed that the floor really needed to be swept. I stopped and did that; sweeping the tiled floor, like sweeping the front walk, is just another kind of walking. I swept up a big pile of crumbs, and I pushed them into the dust-catcher, and I dumped that into the garbage can. I did another circuit of our little kitchen, and I noticed the new toaster, a long sleek silver thing. Instead of four slots, it has two extra-long ones. We can do two slices of normal-sized bread in each one, and we can also carve slices from large artisan loaves and toast them without cutting them in half.

It’s nice. I took Jim shopping after our old toaster—which had moved to this house with us, so it was at least seven years old, and not an expensive purchase in the first place—stopped popping up the toast on the right side. We went to Kohl’s with a small credit and a coupon for 30% off, and Jim chose this toaster.

It’s an Oster.

So, it’s an Oster toaster.

And when Jim was telling Mark what a great toaster it was, we said he was an Oster toaster boaster.

And since we were being snarky, I guess that made us Oster toaster boaster roasters.

But: time to walk on.

*******

In the family room, I walked the perimeter, behind the backs of furniture, and noticed the knit throws and fuzzy blankets were all puddled and lumped on the love seat. I stopped and fluffed and folded, and I gave each sitting spot its own snuggly blankie. I straightened up stacks of DVD’s, and I moved a laptop lap-desk from the walkway.

I noticed that the TV was a little fuzzed with dust and I turned round and got the Swiffer duster from the cabinet. I am too cheap to buy Swiffer duster refills, so it is armed with clean white sock rags, and they work just fine, thank you very much, to wipe the dust from TV screen and stand. I walked back and put the duster away and then headed out onto the sunporch. There was evidence of my early winter’s project: two boxes of documents to shred, left after I cleaned out files and divested them of anything we do not need to keep. I made a mental note to ask Jim if he’d like to make some extra cash; I’ve been meaning to shred those papers, but it seems that something always interferes.

I circled the sunporch twice, and I thought we need to think about furnishings. We ordered new curtains; Mark mounted industrial pipe for rods, and we hung bright, thick curtains so the little three season room is private and quiet. This spring we’ll move the daybed downstairs from the tiny bedroom and create a new guest space…and a new napping space, too.

We’ll take the old, wine-colored flowered furniture and contribute them to Jim’s man cave downstairs, if he wants them. We’ll need to think about what else should go in the Florida room once the little bed is added.

But walking, it was cold out there, and I completed the circuit and shut the door behind me.

I swung around into the living room, where the waiting fireplace beckoned me. I calmed it down. Not right NOW, I told it; not at 9:10 in the morning. But it was tempting, and as I straightened the books and magazines, napkins, emery board, IPad, and old letters that have piled up around my reading space, I thought about that. Who SAYS, really, that I can’t light a fire and take a reading break, mid-morning? Who SAYS?

Well, Connie does, for one. I sighed, circled the living room a couple of times, and forged on.

In each room, I stopped and straightened, noting things that needed to be dusted or moved. I thought wryly to myself that, if the track at the gym requires twelve circuits to make a mile, here at home, I must need something like fifty.

I walked, and I stopped to neatly put shoes into their spaces in the back hall and I straightened books on the shelves and I moved a stack of recipes to the bookshelves where the recipes to be sorted live.

With each pass through, the clutter became a little more controlled.

By 9:30, I had stepped a lot of steps and straightened up my house.

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

Later that sloppy, indoor day, I ran the vacuum and mopped tile floors, two different ways of getting steps in.

By late afternoon, it had cleared enough that driving to teach my night class was no problem, although I sighed at the thought that I could have had a snow day. And, at class, just as I started to talk about the night’s adventures into writing, Connie exploded on my wrist. I’d achieved my daily step goal.

Whoo hooo, said my students.

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

The weather is clearing. Today is a much nicer day, and I laced up my black Nikes, twice, and stretched out into the outdoor world, and I enjoyed that stretch. But it’s nice to know that, even if stuck at home, I can get my steps in.

I can get my steps in and wind up with a cleaner, neater house because of it.

I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but there’s something to be said for stepping in.

A Big Dose of Valiant, Every Day

I have this idea I really want to write about. I grab my notebook and sketch out an outline. I pull a sheet from my morning pages—a sheet where ideas started forming. I sit down at the computer and open up Firefox and type in some search terms…and I start to think.

I think about talking with a dear friend on Wednesday—oh, what a treat to talk for an hour and fifteen minutes: our first conversation since her catastrophic diagnosis, since the round of specialists began, since chemo didn’t work, since the people at the university medical center said no, clinical trials aren’t for you, and talked about something called ‘comfort care.’

A devastating whirl of events, but she is not giving up. “I want,” she said, “to be there as my grandchildren group up. Does that sound crazy?”

Nah, I said, in my best tough-girl voice. Nah. That doesn’t sound crazy at all. I squished some sodden kleenex onto the table next to the chair where I sat, talking with my dear sweet friend, who sounded strong and upbeat and filled with hope. I’m glad we were not face-timing; I’m glad she couldn’t see my red eyes.

I wasn’t sad, exactly, although I hate this stupid illness and the discomfort and the pain that she has hit head-on. I was more blown away by the courage she’s showing, by her strong, firm, voice, by her strong support system, and by the plan they’re putting together: a holistic, well-researched, hopeful plan.

“Just because science can’t do it,” said my friend’s sweet daughter, “it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

And it hits me again, the courage people show, that quiet courage that lifts up some everyday lives.

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

For instance.

I know a woman whose son is developmentally disabled; he has graduated from his traditional schooling program, and he struggles, each day, to fit himself into the programs that are available. He gets discouraged. It is hard for him to start new things, to meet new people.

He has a great placement; it is a happy six weeks, and then it is time to move on to something new.

He is scared. He is tired of change. He wants to stay home.

His mother bucks him up. “It will be,” she tells him, “okay. You can do this. They’re nice people. Remember we went and met them last week?”

He hangs his head. She helps him pick out his clothes for the day. She feeds him a special breakfast. She packs a lunch that he can look forward to, and when the van arrives, she walks him cheerfully to the door.

He treads, slowly, reluctantly to the van; the driver shifts the door open and the boy grabs a handle and heaves himself in. He plops in a seat and flicks a hand at his mother, who waits, thumbs up, smiling an encouraging smile, in the front door.

It is not until the van is well and truly away that she lets the tears fall. Will her boy be okay?

And yet, she finds the courage every day, to cheer him on, to buck him up, to assure him that a valid, meaningful life is out there waiting for him. They just have to find it, to find the right thing.

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

I have a friend who has had an unimaginable loss, a loss that blindsides her several times a day. It is not the kind of loss you get over; it is not a pain that lessens.

And yet, there she is at lunch, a warm smile on her face. She listens quietly to the swirling talk; she asks people questions about their lives and kids and friends and pets.

And I know that she is aching and gob-smacked, and but she shows up and takes part, showing interest, being a friend.

What does that kind of bravery cost?

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

I have a friend whose child has the disease of addiction and who has, finally, opened her arms to treatment. It is not the first time she’s tried to stop; there have been disappointments and there have been false starts. That girl’s addiction has trampled relationships; she has started ten jobs and lost them. She has lied and she has stolen.

Her mother has sought out support groups and counseling; she has gone with her daughter, and she has gone without her. She has cradled that grown-up, raddled child in her arms and they have cried together. She has told that grown-up child no, and she has stuck to her word, even though the daughter screams and accuses and pleads and threatens.

She has even called the police and watched them take her baby away in a squad car.

She has done all of these things, but she has never given up. It often, she tells me, takes six or eight times at rehab before a recovery program works.

And this, she says now, this is the time that going to work. She goes to the family counseling sessions. She calls friends from her support groups on nights that are dark and scary. She prays; she prays morning, noon, and night.

She believes it is possible, and she believes that this time that magic doorway will swing open.

And if it doesn’t—well, we’ll start all over again, she says grimly. But really; I have a feeling. This is THE time.

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

It stops you, doesn’t it? It brings you up short. The people who get up every day and plunge on anyway, who carry that illness, that loss, that addiction, that disability, that diagnosis, like a bagged-up burden; they march ahead and they balance the weight of that burden with a heavy satchel full of hope.

What was I going to write about again? Ah, well. I’ll get to that tomorrow. Today all that courage—that everyday courage—sits front and center, occupies my mind.

The Bad Thing and the Thing With Feathers

Definition of hope (Entry 2 of 6)

2a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment

***********

She came stomping into the house; she didn’t pause to look at us. I have the sense-memory that I was playing on the floor, maybe building something with blocks, and I jumped up to follow my mother, who hadn’t even said hello to us, upstairs.

“Leave your mother BE,” my father said gruffly, and he grabbed me by the arm. “Her best friend just died.”

Upstairs the bedroom door slammed, and the house hushed.

Now, with hindsight sharpening vision, I realize it wasn’t the first time the Bad Thing happened for my mother.

So it was hard for her to teach us how to hope.

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

In the photo, my mother is three years old, held tightly in the arms of her impossibly handsome brother, Jim. They are with their sister Annie, whose cloche hat shadows her eyes. Annie holds a sheaf of flowers. My mother, dark-haired and taut and leggy, scowls into the camera.

It is 1925. They are standing at the graveside of their mother.

The Bad Thing has happened. Life for these children, and for their four siblings, will never, ever be the same.

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

Another picture; another graveside. My mother stands, face washed of color, in a dark coat, a trowel dangling loosely from her hand. It is, maybe, 1944; her beloved baby, her firstborn, Sharon, lies beneath the flowers she’s just planted.

My mother is twenty-two, and she knows this: if you are not careful, if you abandon caution for joy, the Bad Thing is going to happen. And there is nothing then, she thinks, with a sickening, dread-filled knowledge, that I can do to stop it.

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

It was only slowly that she learned to trust again, to hope, to reach out and make a forever friend.

Who loved her back.

And died.

As if the Bad Thing waited to pop out, taunting, every twenty years.

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

I was a dreamer. I would do something wonderful, something amazing, I thought; I would live a thoroughly unconventional life. I would…. paint pictures. Write books. I would read words, and find words, that changed everything. I would go away to school and I would learn to travel by myself, and I would see the Eiffel Tower and the sun setting on African fields, and poems would well up in me. I would stand in the setting sun with my watercolors and I would capture that exact glow of amber sky, capture it on paper, capture it in words; take it home to keep forever.

I would experience a million daring things and chronicle them. Teachers fed my dreams. My hopes were like living things. I could feel them fluttering, in my chest, in my mind…anxious, growing, forming, getting ready to emerge and take flight.

My mother snorted. She sat on a different side of the fence, teetering in a rickety chair on a slope that gave her a crystal view of dashed and dying hopes. She could hear the groans.

“You can’t afford to go away to school,” she’d say. “Be happy you can walk to the branch. And get a trade. Have something to fall back on. You’ll need it.”

I’d need it, she meant, when, as she knew it would, the Bad Thing happened. Steady work, she said often, with benefits. Wouldn’t, she said, taking tolls on the Thruway be a grand job? When no one was there, you could read. Just sit in your booth and read.

She was so sure, so implacably sure, of what I needed to do.

I grew frightened. I went to the branch. I learned to work at jobs I hated, and I became proud of my ability to adapt.

Hope stopped fluttering so much, and finally settled, mostly still.

I think my mother must have relaxed a little then, glad that I wasn’t standing, hope-filled and unknowing, on some precipice where the Bad Thing lurked in wait.

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. I’ve been trying to pin it down, to define it, to figure out just exactly what hope is, and to decide whether it’s a foolish thing that ought to, as my mother taught me, be replaced with practicality.

Right now, I want badly to open the door wide to hope, but I am afraid of what will come in with it.

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

Hope, the Merriam Webster Dictionary tells me, is “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”

   Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is “the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul…”

Another poet, Langston Hughes, talks about hope in terms of dreams, and echoes Dickinson. Without dreams, he says,–without HOPE—“..life is a broken-winged bird/
That cannot fly.”

Hope, then, is not just a fantasy or a day dream; it’s an expectation. It is not just envisioning what I want to happen but believing that it will happen.

Hope has feathers: given the right conditions, it can lift off, can soar and arc and careen. People on the ground below will shade their eyes, pointing and marveling. Hope is alive and waiting, filled with potential; hope is ready to launch and fly.

Or, it can crash, wings broken, aching and grounded.

Hope is alive. It’s a choice.

It’s incredibly, fearfully dangerous.

And yet I think hoping is what I am called to do.

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

“I wonder,” my brother Dennis said to me, a few years after my parents died, “what Jim and Jean would think.” We were talking about Mark being in law school, about our little family giving up great jobs and a steady school system to pursue a long-pulsing dream.

I was perched on the kitchen counter of our mobile home in Ada, Ohio, a cramped but homey abode where we’d live for Mark’s law school years, talking to Dennis on a curly-corded phone. We had rented out our hometown house and moved three hundred miles away; we had signed on the dotted line for law school loans.

I had found a job with benefits; Jim had valiantly made the switch to a new school.

Law school had always been Mark’s hope…not just a dream, but an expectation, a living thing that never stopped touching him with its feathery fluttering. The time had finally come, when Matt was safely settled, when Jim was old enough, when I had my master’s degree, when we could grab hands and take that Indiana Jones kind of leap of faith.

“Oh, I think they’d have loved it,” I said to Dennis, “don’t you?”

I said that glibly then, but now I wonder. My mother, I think, would have been horrified.

What about health insurance? she’d have asked. What about your house?

What if something happens? What about Jim?

But that hope was such a force for Mark, and the expectation of fulfillment lived deep and strong in all of us. Once freed, it was almost as if there was no choice. We had to follow where hope soared.

And it’s true that there were no givens. Mark could have had to leave school without a degree for some reason—health or finances or something unseen; Jim could have had a terrible time at his new school; I could have failed to find a job that gave us the insurance and the money we needed to muddle through.

We were taking chances, but, as we always said to Mark when he had his doubtful moments, “You can be fifty with a law degree. Or you can just be fifty.”

He turned fifty the week he got the notice that he passed the Bar.

We all were stunned, for a while, by the power of hope fulfilled. And then that just weaves into life, and we begin to wonder, What else…? What next…?

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

We use the word ‘hope’ for lots of things.

Hope you have a great day.

Hope you have a good trip.

Hope you feel better.

Hope the weather holds off.

We’re not really meaning hope, then, though.

We’re meaning, It will be nice if…

Hope is a bigger, more muscular thing than that kind of simple, daily stuff.

Hope is a beast.

And hope is a choice.

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

And what if, what if, WHAT IF, I hope—what if I put my energy and my being into that expectation, what if I let that living thing free, invest in it, feed it, fly with it—what if I do all that, and The Bad Thing happens anyway?

How in the name of God, then, will I be able to pick up the pieces and survive?

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks.

But the choices are stark, and the choice against hope is to settle for The Bad Thing before it comes to call.

I believe that hope is a living thing. I believe it has feathers and wings and muscles and soaring power, and that I must unleash it in the expectation that the thing I dearly, dearly want is going to happen. It may not match, exactly, the set picture I carry in my mind; hope may trundle in on tired feet, with dirty hands, and have to sit on the edge of the cot a minute before it catches its breath. It may be days or weeks or even years after hope shambles in that I think, startled, My God. My hope came true!

But if I refuse to hope, if I don’t release that power into that crystal air, then I can be sure the expectation will never be fulfilled.

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks. And yet I don’t really see a choice. It’s hope, or it’s despair.

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

I have another picture of my mother, in her fifties, wrapped in a fuzzy blue bathrobe, the ever-present cigarette hanging from her lips. She sits at the kitchen table, with a steaming coffee mug and a stack of prayer cards and a handwritten list.

After the flurry of the day’s borning settled, she sat at the table, drank cup after cup of coffee, and she prayed. It was a daily ritual, one she’d kept since my earliest remembering.

She prayed that people she loved who had died were safely in heaven.

She prayed that those who were sick would find healing.

She prayed that money woes would dissipate, and she prayed that her foolish, reckless children would be safe.

She prayed for her grandchildren and she prayed for her friends, and she prayed for her brothers and sister, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews; she prayed for people she’d once shared a hospital room with, for companions at part-time jobs, and for people who’d coached her kids. She prayed for people who annoyed her and people who had hurt her. She prayed for beloved pets.

She prayed, and in that praying, she channeled her hopes.

She may have thought she had closed the door; she may have tried to teach us to be safe instead of daring. But in her morning ritual, she revealed a belief that maybe she did not even know she held.  There’s hope, her prayers said; I know the Bad Thing happens, but there’s hope that the Good Thing will follow.

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

Today I am reaching for that feathered companion. Today I am going to set it a-soar.