Considering What to Write on the First Cold Day of Autumn

First, I thought I’d write about history.

I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.

And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.

They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.

But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.

There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep  receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.

Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.

Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?

Is it always better to know?

I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.

And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.

The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”

We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.

I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.

I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’

And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.

So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.

I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.

It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.

By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.

The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.

I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.

We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.

I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings.  I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.

I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.

And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some  water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.

The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.

I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.

The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.

Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.

And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.

The wind blew.  I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks.  Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.

And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.

Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.

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Season of Change

acorn-on-the-strett

In the early mornings, the little dog Greta goes outside, and she skitters and twitches. Acorns dead-fall from the trees; they land on the street with a pocka pocka. Their hard berets snap off and roll. The dropping acorns make the dog dance.

Some mornings there is fog, too. As Greta steps forward, into the street, out of the driveway, a deer might loom up out of the mist. The dog will turn and bolt for home.

Dark begins to spread at 7:30 PM now; the dog goes outside then, and there are whole families of deer grazing in the gloaming. Greta stands and sniffs, wary. Up on the hill, up by the Helen Purcell home, six deer stop, silhouetted. Two are mature, watchful mamas; two are tiny, leggy, still spotted. One of the inbetweeners has antlers just beginning to sprout. Their heads turn; they gaze at the dog. Their ears rotate like radar panels.

Then they turn and lollop down the wooded hill.

Squirrels dart and scrabble up trunks, clutching acorns in their teeth.  Greta cautiously feels her way in the teeming early dark.

It is autumn, and things are changing.

Jim sets up a work space in the bay window of the dining room; he has a new tall table that just fits into that nook. He plugs in a new laptop, and, once it’s up and running, loads it with new software. He borrows a bedside table from the little guest room and sets up the printer-scanner when it arrives. He has successfully written a grant for this equipment; the local disability services program has funded his purchases.

In the afternoons, from 2:00 until 5:00, he sorts recipes, types them neatly onto pages with headers and footers, creates tables of contents and indexes. He prints and punches and puts things into binders, creating order out of chaos and creating family cookbooks from shoeboxes full of long-kept recipes.

A local advocacy group asks Jim if he might be able to write a skit for them. He attends a meeting, listens as a group of gentle people brainstorm how to demonstrate what it’s like to be an adult with a disability. How can they show children how bad it feels when people are mean and cruel, and also how nice it is when people are kind and welcoming? They percolate a scenario: a boy on a beach, a careening kid smashing into his sand castle. Two possible outcomes.

Jim types it up, adds a strong narrative voice, sculpts the two endings, a sad one and a happy. He emails it to Missy, the group’s facilitator, and her feedback is warmly enthusiastic. They will take this skit on the road.

Jim has his own small business, a daily purpose, and a skit in production. He walks a little taller.

It is autumn, a time when things are changing.

Things are changing for some very dear people.

A lifetime friend texts on her way home from chemo–her second to last session. Done by Thanksgiving: let’s hope there’ll be reasons for her to give deep, fervent thanks. Her illness has forever transformed her life, but surely this treatment will bring change for the better.

A talented friend who has devoted herself to scholarship, juggling family and job and graduate school, pushing, pushing, gets a call with an offer of a dream job. Her hard work has opened doors. How nice, how just and nice: people who deserve to snatch the golden ring sometimes get to do that. She is open, welcoming change.

I have coffee with a friend and colleague. We talk, and I remember what it was like to be young and hurt, bereft and deeply betrayed. I remember what it’s like, first, to learn to trust, and then, to learn to dare. She is going on a date, and this carefully thought-through outing could truly be a game-changer, the first step on a path to new richness.

It’s autumn, when people dare to take chances. They dare to change.

On a cool September Saturday morning, Wendy and I park on the grass beyond a school in a lovely suburban community, and we follow the crowd to the commons. A band plays and an announcer’s voice blares from a dais. Our official numbered tags, with the computer chips glued to the back, are safety-pinned to our t-shirts.  We mill in the crowd; we bounce on the balls of our feet, neither of us entirely sure about our new sneakers. We find our corral, in the back, with the other 10K walkers who are participating, not competing.

Others have long sleeves and layers in the morning cool; we rub our arms and hop up and down, and we are glad when we begin to move.

We’re glad, too, NOT to have layers to peel as the sun burns off the mist and we walk by a sapphire man-made lake, by wooden bridges leading from walkways to golf courses, by sprawling, lavish, pink-bricked houses. And by a violinist serenading us from atop a hill.

We chose the 10K over the half-marathon this time–a challenge still, but not one that required focused, manic training all summer long. We chose to walk just for the sake of walking and not to be timed or ranked. It’s a good push, a worthy walk, and we gather up our bling at the finish line, eat a quartered Asiago bagel each, accept plastic cups of organic chocolate milk, and then we find the car and head back to Zanesville.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

Mark and Jim go to the used book store and come home with three stout boxes of beautiful note-cards, discovered on the clearance rack. They hand them to me, grinning. I open up a pack that night and write a letter to a friend.

At work, one day, I find a basket twined with scarlet and gold silky leaves on my office table; it is filled with squash and gourds and sweet potatoes and apples, all nestled around a round pie pumpkin. There is a little basket of ripe pears.  I think of a home-baked pie, slices of apple and pear, the warm scent of cinnamon, a sugary, flaky crust.

autumn-basket

The next day, outside my office door, two burlap bags heavy with golden and red skinned potatoes wait for me. That night, I coat a chunk of boneless pork with olive oil; I roll it in a thick coating of herbs and spices, and I surround it, in the heavy glass baking pan, with neatly cubed potatoes. I crumble herbs, dash salt and pepper.

They roast for two hours, the potatoes and the pork, perfuming the house with their sizzle, crisping and browning. We sauté up a panful of veggies, the last of the summer squash, onions, carrots, peppers, all fresh from a friend’s bountiful farm. And we feast, that night, on things grown in the dirt of this place we call home.

At a meeting, Terry hands out bags of homemade party mix, salty and sweet and crunchy, and coated in a butterscotch-y glaze. I bring it home to share, but it’s so good, I rue the generous impulse. Mark and I race each other to get to the bag.

I’m glad Terry included the recipe.

It’s a time of gifts and plenty.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

The days are warm still, but not nearly so humid.  The morning word puzzle tells me this: Summer’s heat ripens the apples; autumn’s heat turns them into cider.

On Friday nights, the blare of the announcer–as bland and opaque as the voice of a Charlie Brown grownup–floats up the hill from the football field.

Some mornings it’s too cool to sit outside with my coffee.

My work hours shift.

Fall meetings begin, and Saturday mornings become busy times. The yards need tending; rain has persuaded the grass to grow. Bushes need to be trimmed and flowering plants, their leaf tips browning now as the growing season winds down, need to be clipped for their winter’s dormancy.

We read, over and over, that the Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be a harsh one. Plenty of snow, deep levels of cold.  We clean the coats that go safely in the washer; we take the coats we cannot wash to the dry cleaner’s. We pick them up, soft and fresh in their plastic, bag-tied coverings. We hang them, ready, in the front hall closet.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

And the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores bulge with fat bags of candy sheathed in oranges and browns, candy glitzy in golden wrappers. The frozen custard stand has pumpkin milkshakes.  Panera offers sugared pumpkin muffins. The Riesbeck flyer highlights pumpkin roll, freshly made in their bakery.

Campaign rhetoric grows more rapid and more rancorous. I carve out campaign free zones, places of civility, but there is no doubt that the elections are coming.

It’s autumn, and there WILL be change.

In person and on FaceBook and in letters, many people say this: Autumn is my favorite season. There is a sense of both motion and comfort.

There is a drawing in, as daylight shortens and the growing time ends. The freezers are full. There are gleaming jars, filled by other industrious people’s hard work, of jewel-toned jams and jellies and salsa on my pantry shelves. The long push of summer is done; classes are back in session. Energy seems to lift and settle.

At night, I have the urge to knit.
I begin to plan for holidays.
I turn from the light and frothy books of summer and I settle in with some serious reading.

There is a looking forward to a season of tournaments and holidays and families and friends reuniting.

There is a sense of calm urgency: time to bundle things in, time to clean things up. Time to get ready for the winter.

It’s autumn. It is time for change.