I ran into Noah and Demetrius in the woods last weekend, both wearing knit hats on a 72-degree day and digging like badgers in their new fort. They were in perfect sync, the hats a badge of solidarity. I had been out walking our annual Trail Crawl route with Jay and Giovanna when we reached the fort.
When she was at my house last, Eden told me they were making a fort as part of their schooling. During our walk Jay told me more.
“It has rooms!” he’d said.
“Maybe you can live there.”
“No,” chuckling, “It’s too small for me.”
Jay is a tall drink of water. When I saw the fort, I realized what he meant. It was more of a burrow than a fort. A rabbit warren. An expanse of sticks and leaves on a flat area next to Stinking Creek which could easily be mistaken for evidence of a heavy rain.
When Jay told me where it was I’d remarked, “On the floodplain? That won’t last long.” “No problem,” Jay replied, “They have short attention spans. As soon as they finish one fort, they start building another. They aren’t meant to be permanent.”
This delighted me. I recall reading years ago about indigenous structures, wattle and thatch and how they held up to storm damage compared to our version of “permanent” housing. In my culture, hurricanes send roofs flying, causing much damage and requiring massive reconstruction efforts. But a hut just blows away and is easily rebuilt from materials at hand.
Permanence is an illusion. The kids had tapped into primal values with their series of temporary forts. “Each one is better than the last,” Jay pointed out. What a great way to learn teamwork and common sense!
I scoffed inwardly when Eden told me their home school teacher Sarah was leading them down to the creek four days a week. What can they be learning down by the creek? Now I knew. This was experiential learning. In addition to math and other conventional subjects, they were learning to work together far from screens and mindless entertainment.
The boys stopped tinkering and scrambled into the openings on their elbows to demonstrate their fort’s functionality. I walked around the perimeter, stalking their voices and rustlings. “This is the sitting room.” An unusual choice of words for a little boy. Jay pointed out his “lashing demo” four feet up a tree, made from a nearby vine, an attempt to steer the kids towards loftier goals. But they had chosen to keep it small.
I crouched, peering through the painstakingly layered sticks making up the short walls. Fingers and then a hand snaked out of an opening. I reached down, wondering which boy was on the other end, a hand nearly as big as my own. I grasped it, realizing it must be Noah. Alisa, taller than all the other women in the ‘hood doesn’t know where Noah gets his size. I looked up at her and laughed when she said that. Chris wasn’t that tall, she continued, and neither are her parents. Must be her grandparents, we decided, the same people who made her 5′ 10″.
Our neighbor Whitney is shocked that Noah wears her husband Ben’s size 10 1/2 shoes. She’s also impressed by the kids’ appetites. At times there are a dozen running around these woods; Whitney’s son Jack, Amie, Noah, and Eden, Brooksie’s kids, Amy’s, and Hope’s. Whitney is a chef by trade and when she catches sight of the pack, she calls them inside and feeds them. She said they chewed through a loaf of bread and a block of cheese in no time the other day. “I kept making sandwiches,” she said moving her hands in a blur, “It was like dealing cards!”
Noah’s hand felt calloused and grown up. We let go of each other and the image of Amie flashed through my mind. I remembered Alisa’s story of little Amie crawling into a red wolf den to retrieve pups and how frightening it was to see her daughter disappear into the ground, how Chris held onto one of Amie’s heels and dragged her back out after she was finished passing pups behind her.
That night I lay in bed and savored my golden moments from the day. Whitney’s stories, the brisk pace through the woods, Noah’s hand reaching through the twig window. I wondered why they chose to make it so small and low to the ground.
And then it struck me. They had made a wolf den!
“Here’s your radio!” Lyle beamed, fishing out his phone with a flourish. I knew he was right but that’s not what I wanted to hear. “I want a real radio,” I whined, “with dials and maybe a hand crank. A solar panel even.” I pictured myself hunched over a garden bed listening to talk radio or classical music. Oldies. Radio Lab. I want something smaller than a bread box and bigger than a brick. Something in Bakelite perhaps.
I can still smell my parent’s Bakelite radio after it warmed up, the plastic casing heated by the glowing tubes inside. Bakelite was the tip of the plastic iceberg, a hard-as-rock substance made of petroleum, and the best thing since sliced bread.
When the tubes burned out my Mother would send me to the five and dime on the other end of the Island. I’d offer up the expired bulb, and the clerk behind the high counter would reach into the glass case for a replacement. I felt awfully important carrying my fragile prize home in its thin box, careful not to trip over the root-humped sidewalk.
The inside of the radio looked like an inventor’s brain. I carefully plugged in the new tube, and our living room was soon zinging with big band music. Back then, a few tubes and some wires were all we needed to produce all-day entertainment.
My retro radio craving started when I found myself becalmed in Christine outside the Post Office, catching the last minutes of the Diane Rehm Show. Days later my car radio announced that Tami was going to be on “The State of Things” – the same time I’d be weeding with a volunteer. Dang.
Toward Lyle’s point, if I got myself a smart phone I’d never miss a beat. But I’m stubborn. And nerdy. I’m sticking with my dumb phone and I want a radio.
My ears perked up when eighteen-year old tech-savvy Arlo said he was hoping Santa would bring him a film camera. “A film camera?” I asked, unsure I’d heard right. Heck, I didn’t even know they still made those things! Going retro was suddenly a whole lot cooler. Maybe the radio wasn’t so far-fetched.
It was Christmas Eve and Bob and I were draped over our living room furniture with our homies. The conversation was earnest and relaxed – not a screen in sight. I felt twelve years old, exactly how I used to feel at my Nana’s playing with my brothers, cousins, and friends.
Tami, Lyle, and Arlo were planning Christmas at home with Uncle Michael. This is their first Christmas without Zafer, another painful celebration in their year of firsts. Arlo plans on taking a gap year, brush up on his Spanish, and do some WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Costa Rica with his (fingers crossed) film camera. Bob and I are right here, happily immersed in our dotage.
A card caught Tami’s eye. She reached out and pulled it off the mantle. “You’re the anonymous friend!” I cried, and she nodded sheepishly. Everyone looked up and I urged her to read it:
Dear Bob and Camille
A gift for you from an anonymous friend –
“Love Letters from a Small Town”
Each month you will be receiving a letter containing stories about life in Bynum, N.C…
What a great idea, I thought when the card arrived. I love hand-written letters! I immediately looked it up and subscribed on behalf of our snail-mail loving friend, Shirley.
And with that, going retro officially became a trend because Tami lives on the cutting edge and she had gone there, too. My heart leapt to see the technology pendulum swing towards center, the needle pull away from the red zone. I’m not proposing we go completely retro, let’s just rein that horse in a little. Let’s make 2017 something we can hear, taste, smell, and feel!
It’s that time of year again. Time to take stock, reflect, and strategize. Last year I set five goals for myself and did a pretty good job. I orientated myself with the woods behind my house, re-connected with my father, played with some horses, and tried new recipes but I didn’t do so well with Two Brauds Abroad book sales. This year I’m simplifying. I’m only going for three.
First, to my chagrin I kept a lot of people waiting in 2016. So this year I resolve to:
Get there on time
Sounds easy, but there’s obviously something holding me back, and I think I’ve identified the sticky wicket. It’s a transition problem. Happily immersed in my own little world, I’m slow to shift gears. I’m in my zone and can always think of one more thing to do before I walk out the door.
So I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I can be retrained, I assure myself. I’ve got discipline and don’t want the world to wait on me any longer. If I can just get excited about the task ahead, it will be easier to transition. Before I need to leave, I’ll start thinking about where I’m going next and what I’ll do when I get there. As a bonus incentive, I’ll add a dot on the calendar when I’m on time and an X for when I’m late. I love keeping track of things!
Second, it’ll be easier to anticipate my next appointment if I seed my calendar with exciting activities so I resolve to:
Try new things
Bob and I love our routines. The other day he said we’ve settled into our dotage. But I keep hearing how it’s important to try new things, so this year I’ll schedule one out-of-the-ordinary activity per month. Again, I’ll keep track because last year I promised to try one new recipe a month and have no idea what they were!
Third, my friends are sick of hearing me grouse about finding time to write so I pledge to:
Write at least 300 words a day
I just finished reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” her hilarious writing primer from 1994 and was inspired by her advice to write at least 300 words a day. On those days I don’t write anything, I can always get in bed and write in my journal. I’ll make a check on my calendar for each day I meet my goal.
I’ve already practicing, giving myself credit for things I wouldn’t have claimed before I started measuring my success. If I say I’m going to get to a party at a certain time and make it, I get to put a dot on the calendar even if no one is expecting me. If I write an exceptional email or a couple of pages in my journal, I get a check mark. The checks are proof that I’m a serious writer. The dots make me feel like the kind of person who gets there on time. And the X’s remind me I’ve got room for improvement.
Well, there you have it. Five hundred and thirty-one words and three goals to make 2017 my best year ever.
John and Camille, still innocent in 1960
As many of you know, my mother and I are working on a memoir. I’ve recently begun adding some of my own stories. Here’s what I remember from the year John F. Kennedy died:
I was nine the day JFK died. My brother Michael would make his entrance five days later. It was a pivotal year in many ways. My parents had moved me and my three brothers from City Island in the Bronx to New Jersey, but something went wrong and they weren’t able to move us into our new home. So they rented a nice big house within smelling distance of the Atlantic and kept looking. Avon by the Sea was a resort town, buzzing with vacationers in the summer, and reduced to its core population during the school year. We had a new house, new school, new town, and new friends.
Everyone idolized President Kennedy for his good looks, charming accent, and perfect wife and kids. When our teachers asked us who we most admired it was him, the youngest president ever and perhaps the most powerful person alive. If the world needed saving, he alone was the man for the job. Our future was safe in his capable hands.
We kids spent our year in Avon growing our moxie muscles, running at large in the quiet streets and squirming through boarded up windows in the massive hotels on Ocean Avenue. We took turns jumping off the boardwalk seven feet above the deep beach sand. Or we’d huddle beneath the drawbridge and watch the counter balance, a piece of concrete the size of a car, grind its way down the wall. After dinner we played “Who Dies the Best” on our sloping front lawn, perfect for rolling down.
None of this prepared us for our fearless leader’s death.
Friday, November 22, 1963 started out like any other day. The elementary school was only a few blocks away so Johnny and I walked. Bobby would have been in kindergarten so he probably tagged along. I pledged allegiance to the flag in my fourth-grade home room, fidgeting, distracted by the prospect of another delicious weekend.
After lunch, we were unexpectedly herded into the auditorium. My giddiness at the interruption was immediately dampened by the bleak look on my teachers’s face. When all the classes had filed in, the principle cleared his throat and said, “The president has been shot. School is dismissed. You are all to go home to your families.” No one moved for a minute, the only sound was that of a muffled newscaster backstage.
A classmate asked me to walk her home because she didn’t trust her legs. She lived further from school than I did. She was smaller than me, which made it easy to catch her each time she swooned. We were both in shock and I was glad for the company. What we had just heard made no sense. Why would anyone shoot President Kennedy?
I deposited my friend on her front steps and continued towards home. The streets were uncharacteristically quiet except for the seagulls. Everyone was inside watching TV.
I was surprised to find my father camped out in front of the television when I walked in our front door, his shoulders rigid, oblivious to anything but the news. I paused mid-step, transfixed by a single tear sliding down his cheek. The unimaginable had happened. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead. I didn’t know heroes could die or grown men cry.
The wallpaper blurred with my own tears. I’d been strong until this moment. I heard the swish of tires on asphalt, a squealing gull, the heavy step of my ultra-pregnant mother in the other room, and the ticking of our mantle clock.
I was confused and off-balance. Life as I knew it was over and yet it continued to tick along. We would eat dinner, go to bed, and on Monday return to school, yet nothing would feel the same.
Two days later, the whole family went house hunting. I remember all of us silently transfixed in a stranger’s living room as JFK’s funeral procession paraded across her TV screen, united in our grief.
His horse-drawn coffin was followed by a symbolic riderless horse. Black Jack was distractingly magnificent, picked because even at sixteen he couldn’t be ridden. He jigged down the street, fighting the man with his hand on the bridle every step of the way, a pair of tall riding boots set backwards into the stirrups. The black gelding fought his handler the same way I fought to contain my emotions as I tried to make sense of what had happened.
In the weeks to follow I aged a million years. I found myself questioning things I’d always known for certain. I caught myself pausing before jumping off the boardwalk or looking over my shoulder before climbing into forbidden places. I saw the same hesitations in my brothers and our friends.
The assassination had damaged our confidence, and in the coming years I came to know that this was the day a whole generation lost its innocence. Up to now, I’d believed in the infallible protection of our leaders, but with a single bullet I realized I was on my own.
It’s okay, I tell myself. This is real so deal with it. Surely you know how to handle unexpected upsets by now. Yeah, I usually deal by running away. Like a horse. I keep Cecilia’s words in my pocket, turning them like a stone. “I even do have land with olive trees in southern Italy…You can produce organic stuff there too and I can visit regularly. I mean it.”
But I think I’ll stay. It’s easy to stay put when you have other options.
It’s okay. The people have spoken. They said, “We want change!” And their voices were finally heard. What happens now is anyone’s guess. The guy’s a wild card, probably not even playing with a full deck. Or maybe I’ve underestimated him. Maybe he’s crazy like a fox. All that rancid rhetoric to rouse his base and get elected, and now he’ll settle down and behave like an adult. We can only hope.
I’m encouraged by the tone of his victory speech. I’m happy to hear he’s finally met Obama, the man he’s been sniping at for years and that they talked about how to hand off the bailiwick of presidential power. I try and imagine the new guy getting along with the nearly two thousand people who run things in the White House.
Why would anyone wish this on themselves? I wouldn’t wish myself into the oval office for anything. It sounds like a demanding, thankless, sleep-deprived job with little-to-no privacy. President-elects enter with a jaunty step and shuffle away four-to-eight years later, hair gone grey or just gone, weary lines permanently etched on their faces.
One thing for sure, we here on the other side, the masses, we need to behave ourselves. This looting I hear about is ridiculous. Let’s behave like adults and figure out how to move forward. We’ve had enough division for a dozen lifetimes. Enough already.
I count myself among the privileged; white, semi-educated, born in the U.S. I have the security of an incredible marriage, great health, a fulfilling job, and a tribe of caring neighbors. I’m in no position to judge the disadvantaged, disconnected, and forgotten, the angry, the fed up, discouraged, desperate people who have spoken.
I imagine many who voted Republican were saying “Let’s shake things up in the White House.” A lot of those who voted Democrat were saying, “Let’s put a woman in the White House, maybe that’ll make a difference.” Others were saying, “Nuh uh, I’m not falling for that old trick again.” And those who didn’t vote had thrown up their hands. All were hoping for change. We all want to move forward.
Haruka reminds me that we saw this coming years ago. That we’ve been busy weaving a grassroots safety net since we threw in with our neighbors. There’s top down change and bottoms up change. She and Jason chose the latter when they decided to grow food. Lyle and Tami chose the grassroots path when they built the sustainable eco-industrial park at The Plant. Alisa is building community resilience via Sparkroot Farm. We won’t ruin ourselves looking for villains. There’s a fine line between apathy and anger right now and I intend to keep my balance.
To that end we eat together, share tools and know-how, and bury our dead in the woods. Tonight we celebrated Eden’s ninth birthday at Sparkroot, her first birthday since we buried her father in June. The house was swarming with kids. Eden’s grandparents drove in from Illinois and baked two pans of ziti. Haruka brought her famous greens bake. Brooksie made quiche. I surprised Eden with a chocolate cake. Everyone sang Happy Birthday, Eden made a wish, blew out the candles, and we roared.
In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There is another human defect which the Law of Natural Selection has yet to remedy: When people of today have full bellies, they are exactly like their ancestors of a million years ago: very slow to acknowledge any awful troubles they may be in.”
Maybe that’s what inspired me to write this. My stomach bulging with homemade, home grown food, I feel I can handle whatever comes. Maybe I won’t have to run off to that olive grove after all.
I’m not often on the receiving end of condolences, but last night two expat friends surfaced to offer solace and a place to stay. They were every bit as horrified as Bob and I, watching the 2016 presidential election returns over our shoulders from Switzerland and Australia.
We watched in disbelief as the map turned red. We knew the country was torn, but to see blood run like this! My stomach clenched and I thought I’ll never eat again. My friends could plainly see the U.S. was getting their Brexit vote. The people had spoken. Thirty percent of registered voters cast their ballot for change at the hands of a smug capitalist. It was inconceivable.
I wonder when compassion, tolerance, and acceptance went out of vogue in the great United States of America. Mother liberty must be writhing beneath her iron robe. I wonder if they’ll remove the plaque at her base, the one that says,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My neighbors soothe me by predicting things will work out. It can’t get too bad. We’ve already formed a solid grassroots community to see us through hard times. We have resilience. We’ll be strong together. All this is true. I’m happy and fulfilled. I feel secure here.
But the future is not what’s troubling me. I’m ashamed of what has already happened. I’m flustered by the fear and anger I’ve witnessed these past six months. I’m embarrassed I underestimated white middle class xenophobia, that I didn’t for a moment think it would go this far. I was blindsided.
I realized this morning that I had been clinging to hope. I thought we’d learned from history, that we’d progressed, that we were bigger than this. Fifty-three years ago I lost my innocence when a sniper blew JFK’s head blew apart. Today, I lost my faith in humanity.
Bob wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses when he promised me a rose garden. Moreover, we were determined to grow hybrid teas, the most finicky of blooms, without chemical pesticides. No scentless knock-out roses for us, we wanted the sweetest of the sweet, Fragrant Cloud and others of her ilk. Yet, although our goal appeared Utopian, our approach was cautious and methodical. At this point we weren’t sure whether to take an optimistic or pessimistic view. We needed more facts.
Optimism – a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome
Pessimism – the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
It may have seemed Bob was peering through mud-smeared glasses as he perused the internets for everything that could go wrong with organically grown roses. He soon concluded that our chances were slender but not impossible. Meanwhile, I searched for fragrant varieties renowned for their hardiness in our area. We were being realists, setting ourselves up for success by arming ourselves with information. Refusing to consider possible pitfalls would have been foolish.
Realism – interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc., the tendency to view or represent things as they really are
Pragmatism – character or conduct that emphasizes practicality
We settled on a pragmatic approach, starting small and counting on Bob’s years of organic gardening to help even the odds. He followed all the rules, digging the bed to suggested specifications, applying recommended soil amendments, and buying our plants from a reputable nursery. We chose Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Chrysler Imperial, and Stainless Steel – coral, pink and cream, deep red, and lavender-white, all praised for their scent. Bob planted them in a high-profile place where we can keep an eye on them and installed an automatic watering system.
Bob and I believe in following rules, a dirty word in idealistic circles. Yet, the natural world is riddled with rules; leaves drop after the first freeze, warm soil encourages green shoots, rain breeds weeds. Rules are a fact of life and all rules involve consequences. If you hope you can get away with putting diesel in your gas car, you will find yourself stranded. Eat too much and your jeans grow tighter. Buy a load of gravel if you don’t want to get stuck in the mud. Our respect for rules effectively makes us pragmatists.
The first sign of trouble flies in on iridescent wings but we know what to do. We pick off the Japanese beetles one by one and toss them into a jar of soapy water. Crisis averted. Roses flourish. The second year Chrysler Imperial inexplicably dies. We were prepared for this, and aren’t too disappointed. A year later, our project appears to be a success.
Every time I stand at the kitchen sink, I see our beautiful rose bushes, bright and happy against the yellow south-facing wall of our garage. On my way to visit friends, I snip off blooms before climbing into the car. I pick flowers to grace our home when I walk in from the garage. They fill the yard and house with unforgettable fragrance. My rose garden is a constant reminder that I married a genius who knows how to walk the line between optimism and pessimism. I married a realist, a pragmatist who only promises what he can deliver.
“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.” – H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques