Prosperity Day – the view from right here

Our willow oak on Thanksgiving morning

It’s Thanksgiving, a holiday with many meanings here in the United States. Around the world, expats spend weeks sourcing ingredients for their traditional meal. For most Americans, this day remains an honored ritual of sitting down to eat with family. At some point we will pause to reflect on those things we are grateful for: our health, prosperity, progeny, and luck. Few face the holiday without a tinge of guilt for the gluttony it represents – gluttony at the expense of the original inhabitants who were swept aside to make way for our American Dream.

This morning, our lawn blushes green between patches of hoarfrost and russet leaves. The oaks have shed half their leaves and what remain are shimmering gold. Cold-weather crops dominate our garden: sturdy collards, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale. Tiny lettuces have arisen from seed in the tote behind the feathery asparagus patch. The roses are still in bloom and the azaleas have decided to join them.

It’s turned cold. North Carolina cold. 40 degrees Fahrenheit feels punishing after the coddling 65-degree days. I took advantage of the sun and harvested all 130 pounds of ginger and turmeric. I raked leaves to blanket empty garden squares, and perched on an aluminum ladder to wash windows. I took a pair of old washcloths and rubbed black mold from the daffodil siding and spinach-colored door on our back porch. I painted a weathered joist with auburn stain and seal, doing my best to rub out the black patches before immortalizing their lava lamp shapes with fat brush strokes. I lay in the hammock and talked on the phone, swept leaves from the tree house, and went walking with my friends.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I drag a bulging bag of gratitude into the sun for examination. In it, I find:

  • Bob, a man who continues to love and support me despite my age and cynicism
  • Three daughters, five brother, and two parents, alive and reasonably healthy
  • A roomy, dry home with a modest mortgage payment
  • Retirement, a long-awaited event which has turned my life into one big game
  • The mechanics who keep our three old cars on the road
  • My health, still running on all eight cylinders with minimal leakage
  • Friends old and new: loyal companions, sincere, supportive, and entertaining
  • My New York Times subscription, for painlessly putting me back in the know
  • Our deep freezer, stocked with roasted peppers, peanut butter cookies, and other delights
  • Neighbors who would drop everything and come to my aid should I fall off a ladder or choke on a cookie

Bob’s Thanksgiving Eve haul from the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market

The life Bob and I have engineered for ourselves is so spectacularly fine that we marvel at it every day. Luckily, we were born at the apex of American prosperity between the Great Depression and the slow slide into corporate rape beginning in the 70’s. Our families gave both Bob and I enough of a start to put us on our feet, but not enough to prevent us from developing a healthy work ethic. We worked steadily for forty years, for big corporations and small, family-owned businesses.

We paid our dues and lucked into a couple of corporate windfalls. At the apex of Bob’s career, we followed our hearts and jumped off the tread mill. We reinvented ourselves as serial expatriates, highly-employable for our skills and mobility. It was the things we decided not to do that set us free: to stop owning and rent instead, to not make any more children, to give away our last pet, and most of our belongings. We chose instead to value experience over security, stewardship over ownership, relationships over toys, and to live frugally, to garden and cook and eat in.

For this I am grateful. I need look no further than our yard for spiritual guidance, inspiration, and meaningful work. This morning, I have a clear vision of the world outside my window. I know where I am, how I got here, and thanks to whom.

Homegrown for the Holidays

Not to jump the gun or anything, but we have in our deep freezer the ingredients for my Nana’s dressing, what we used to call “stuffing” because it was stuffed into the turkey and baked with the roast. It features chestnuts, one of the finest foods on the planet.

My Polish Nana’s was an exceptional cook and the wizard behind my family’s annual Thanksgiving feast. Nana was raised in Brooklyn before the American Chestnut blight made this delicacy scare. By the time I arrived on the scene she was making stuffing with Italian chestnuts and paying premium prices. Leaving them out was out of the question.

This dressing is the true centerpiece of the spread, not optional in the least, and not merely a side to carboholics like myself. The crunchy nuttiness of the chestnuts and the spicy and succulent sausage compliment the seasoned bread so well that everything else on the plate is merely there to riff off its perfection.

For years I made this dressing as soon as Italian chestnuts appeared in the produce aisle. But, not lately. Thanks to decades of work by plant geneticists the blight resistant American/Asian Chestnut was developed, sparking a movement to restore chestnuts to the Appalachians. Homeowners began planting seedlings, anticipating holiday magic in the years ahead. Happily, my vegan sausage version of Nana’s dressing has recently begun featuring chestnuts grown within fifteen miles of my home instead of Italian imports. Many thanks to Tami Schwerin and Lyle Estill for sharing the fruit of their optimism. Nana would be proud!

Here is the recipe. You will also find it archived on our recipe site here.
 
 

Chestnut Sausage Dressing – Vegan

Nana’s time-tested masterpiece, veganized

Ingredients:

  • Chestnuts, roasted, removed from their shells and chopped – 2 cups, or about 1 pound
  • Gimme Lean Sausage, fried – 1 pound
  • Bread Cubes (stale preferred, previously frozen is fine) – 6 cups
  • Margarine – ¼ cup (half a stick)
  • Onion, diced – 1 cup
  • Celery, diced – 1 cup
  • Vegetable Stock – 1 1/2 cup (I use vegan chicken base or boullion)
  • Poultry Seasoning – 1 tablespoon

Directions:

  • Prepare chestnuts by roasting, removing the nut from its shell, and chopping.
  • In a large pot sauté onion and celery in margarine.
  • Add stale bread cubes and toss.
  • Combine poultry seasoning with stock and drizzle over bread, tossing to moisten.
  • Fry sausage in separate pan.
  • Fold in fried sausage and pre-cooked chestnuts. Do not over-stir. What you don’t want is a big glob of dough.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning. Resist the urge to add more stock as much as humanely possible.
  • Place in a greased casserole and cover.
  • Bake at 375 degrees, covered, for 30 minutes.
  • Uncover and bake for another 15 minutes.

Notes

  • Best to do the chestnuts and bread cubes ahead, especially if assembling this on Thanksgiving morning. You can also chop the onion and celery ahead, and fry the sausage. Heck, you can make the whole casserole several days before the big day and just slip it into the oven like a pro. Last-minute stress adds no flavor to a fine dish.
  • To roast chestnuts, score each nut with a sharp knife (this is the dangerous part!), place in a flat pan, and bake, covered, at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. I do not bother soaking the nuts or double scoring with an X. At 30 minutes, test one nut for doneness. Toss the other nuts around in the pan if returning to the oven. The chestnuts will be done when the shell peels back revealing the starchy golden nut and the nut is mealy, but not mushy. Remove from shell when warm, before the membrane no longer pulls away from the nut easily. Keep them in a covered pot to continue steaming as you peel. After peeling, you can freeze them in case harvest comes well ahead of Thanksgiving. I recommend buying 2 pounds so you can enjoy some while peeling and setting aside your 2 cups.
  • If using fresh bread, cut bread into cubes, lay on a cookie sheet and bake at 200 degrees until the cubes firm up – half an hour to an hour.
  • I do not recommend substituting corn bread for wheat bread.

High Water Apocalypse

We had strung tarps beneath the sweet gums and were living on wild mushrooms and canned food. What with the hurricane rains, the woods were lousy with them. The kids seemed fine with the arrangement, old enough to understand why we’d abandoned the comforts of our thirty-year-old manufactured home, yet still young enough to turn the situation into an adventure.

Bob set down an armload of wood and inhaled the vapors from the pot hanging over the cook fire.

“I love the smell of beans in the morning!”
“You ain’t smelled nothing yet, Mr. Man.”
“What are the girls up to? We could use a bucket of water.”
“Oh, they’re off playing hide and seek with the chanterelles. Maybe they’ll score a lion’s mane.”
“Speaking of water, turn around.”
“Uh oh. Shit.”

The predicted high water event was creeping up the meadow below our camp, spreading towards us like a disease. We would have to leave, and leave now. Twenty yards uphill, I regretted my haste.

“Dang, I should have brought shoes!”
“We aren’t going back.”
“What about the girls?”

Silence. I knew the answer. We had prepared them for this moment and had to trust they would also be heading for higher ground. Still… I stopped and yelled for them, trying out a couple of one-note pitches until I found the loudest one, and repeated it twice more. Wishing I had time to stand and wait for their answer, I ran to catch up with Bob.

We arrived at a large pavilion in the center of town and were greeted by staff. Two of the first, we chose seats on an old sofa with spotty, blue upholstery. I stretched one foot behind me and folded myself into the heavenly soft cushion, leaning against the warmth of my distracted husband. The place was filling with murmuring refugees. Second tier refugees. We’d already evacuated once.

All had mentally rehearsed this moment, this banding together, this test of our collective mettle. We all knew that our lives would never be the same. Together we would create a new, possibly nomadic reality in conjunction with other roving bands. Big government wasn’t going to save us now.

Bob got up and moved around the room. I yielded my cushy seat to a young family, a little self-conscious in my bare feet and baggy cream-colored flannel night shirt, a remnant from our online shopping days smothered in frisky ponies. I scanned the room for our kids but didn’t see them. I thought I caught a whiff of vanilla and before I could talk myself out of it, dared to hope for something sugary and fried in fat.

A kindly-faced man cleared his throat and everyone turned toward him. “It’s time to announce the election results.” I dug around my brain and remembered voting months ago for a contingency leader should rising water force us into an apocalypse. “And the winner is, Bob Armantrout!”

No one was surprised. Bob feigned a tired smile. In his heart of hearts, he would rather have dodged this bullet. I beamed, excited for the challenge. I went to his side, hoping to slide in beside him, but the green and yellow webbed lawn chair wouldn’t fit the two of us.

I re-entered consciousness beneath a down comforter in our opulent pre-fab master bedroom, and watched my dream melt away in rivulets. I listened for rain but heard none. I was comforted by Bob’s quiet breathing and noticed hints of dawn spilling around the edges of our dun-colored wooden blinds. No tarps, no apocalypse, no exodus; just another easy day in paradise.

Out of the Closet

I won’t even tell you about what didn’t make it back into the closet.

Now that I’m retired, I am finding all manner of diversions to keep me occupied. I weeded our vegetable garden, planted broccoli and cauliflower, took a pick ax to the pampas grass, baked enough cookies to feed an army, re-homed thirty-five pounds of plates, painted sealant on the back porch steps, and tore apart our hall closet.

Everything came out. All boxes exhumed and examined. Decisions were made, items pitched, a portion repackaged and returned to the closet.

This is what made it back into the closet:

  • The kid’s childhood sketch books
  • 42 rolls of toilet paper
  • Hobbles and a green halter in case we need to restrain a wandering horse
  • A vacuum cleaner and a cobweb duster
  • Letters dating back to the 70’s from friends and relatives, living and dead
  • Art, mostly mine, dating back to 1961
  • Four picture frames in case we suddenly notice a bare wall
  • Supplies for water color, candle-making, embroidery, and crochet in case we decide to get crafty
  • Christmas ornaments
  • Three soapstone chops and a tin of orangey-pink chop paste we bought in China twenty years ago

I’ve got a big plastic bag headed for the landfill with stuff I couldn’t imagine ever needing for any reason. Things that had been in our closet for eleven years, and some that were shipped from Colorado to Guam to Oahu to Maui and back to Colorado, then Texas, Oilseed, and Troutsfarm.

Hell is not other people. Hell is the stuff you shackle yourself to and haul around from place to place, carefully placing on shelves in a succession of closets in case you might one day find a use for it.

Under the Sweet Gums

I push her through the automatic doors into a blindingly beautiful day. Past the others in their wheelchairs under the shadow of the main entrance overhang. I want her all to myself. When we leave the shade, my mother forms two shelves above her eyes with her hands. “I lost my sunglasses,” she says cheerfully and I picture the three white visors I put into a box yesterday. Mom’s scalp is as pink as a newborn mouse beneath her perfect white hair.

We head around the back of the building and enter a canopy of sweet gums. I think of my mother’s own sweet gums, the three lonely teeth poking up from her lower jaw, never pulled, her uppers misplaced and gone, necessitating a pureed diet. My brother told me the other night he’d left her eating pizza with a spoon. Everything she eats goes through a blender. I park Mom beside a picnic table and lay on my back on the bench so I can admire the blue post-hurricane sky with its bright, white clouds.

Mom and I sit under the trees for a long time, not caring if we ever return to her nursing home room. We talk about whatever comes to mind, like I used to do with my school mates. A gum ball hits the ground making me jump, and Mom says, “You’re a Horton – they have that trait.” She retells the story about her mother offending a man in line at the bank after hearing a sharp noise and responding with an involuntary, “Oh my dear!” Crouching over the keys he has just dropped, the man looks up at her and says, “I am NOT your dear!”

I flew four hundred miles north this morning out of Hurricane Florence’s slippery, wet grasp to get a head start on packing my mother’s apartment. There was plenty of stuff in there when my mother went to Shippensburg State Health Care Center in February, and more than plenty now. My father spends the day at the apartment and sleeps at my brother, John’s house. He is a man who rarely throws anything away.

The knight in shining armor here is my brother, Michael. Several months ago, Michael moved out from Colorado with a plan to shepherd my parents into their twilight years using his background in Healthcare. With his patient support, my father has bought a trailer big enough for himself, Michael, and Mom and then set his mind to a State-approved transition plan for Mom’s release. No easy feat.

None of Michael’s five siblings have been able to accomplish this miracle, and not for want of trying. Michael has a special way with Dad. Maybe it’s because Michael doesn’t carry his childhood baggage the way the rest of us do. Or maybe Dad is hearing him more clearly because Michael has been away for twenty years. Maybe, as James suspects, Dad doesn’t trust his married sons because they under the influence of women. Joe, the priest, is under the influence of the Catholic Church. And I, myself, am a woman. Or, maybe Dad is finally ready to accept reality. Most likely, Dad has been pushed off dead center by all of the above.

The next day I crack open the apartment door and take a look around. Dad is asleep in the other room. I’m alarmed by the immensity of the task, every horizontal surface, including much of the floor, cloaked in a shambling collage of plastic Madonnas, torn envelopes, food, tissues, documents, photographs, and clothes. My brothers coined a term for parental sprawl. They called it the shifting sands. “We don’t dare put anything down,” they said, “Or it might disappear under the shifting sands.” On one of his recent visits, Joe lost his cell phone for half a day.

The windows are closed to protect my father from pollen. The stagnant air is revolting, and I fight the urge to bolt. Stymied, but determined, I decide to work my way in from the door. I open the hall closet door to my left, fold eight inches of hanging clothes around their hangers, and push them to the bottom of a large box. When that box is full, I tape up a smaller one for audio tapes. Two hours later, I’ve got everything out of the closet and packed in my bright yellow rented Jeep Renegade.

I’m joined by others after they get off work and Dad has been shuttled to John’s house. We are careful not to pack the things Dad will miss, things on and around the couch and the bed, and in the kitchen and bathroom. We hope to upset him as little as possible.

The cavalry arrives Saturday morning, James with a U-Haul truck, Bob with his credit card and tool kit, and John’s son, Brandon join Michael, John, Darla, and me. I dub us the Magnificent Seven. Before noon everything is out and Darla spends the rest of the day cleaning. Bob buys a file cabinet and two book shelves. Michael unloads a gift from his friend, Dave, a sturdy dining set made of real wood. Brandon is everywhere with energy and muscle. James helps Bob assemble the book shelves and populates them with books and movies. John goes back and forth to his house, helping our temporarily-displaced father with his meals. I wash bedding and towels and make the beds. Michael mows the lawn.

At 3:00 PM we take a break and go see Mom. It isn’t every day she gets to see five of her six children at once. We wheel her out to the sweet gums where she basks in our love. James shows her the picture he took of her couch in the new place and her face radiates joy. We sit under the sweet gums, drenched in team work and a sense of closure, breathing the clean air of a fresh start.

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Sixty – More Than a Number

I caught up with Bob Armantrout outside Playa Mexico the day before his sixtieth birthday He’d driven to the coastal town of Emerald Isle with his wife to celebrate at the beach. He didn’t have to point out that this is the absolutely best time of year to be dipping in the Atlantic.

I asked the soon-to-be sexagenarian if he had some words of wisdom to share with the younger generation. Sure, he said, and this is what he told me:

1. Life is too short to use crappy soap or bad toilet paper.
2. Being nice to people is easier than the alternative.
3. Keep the tools of your trade sharp.
4. Stay abreast of industry news.
5. Be a good team mate.
6. Don’t get addicted to nicotine.
7. Keep your things in order so your kids don’t have to do it for you.
8. Incrementalism works. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed by some task; do a little bit along the road so you don’t have to do something Herculean. Take it in small bites.

Enough said. And with that, we walked into the Playa and ordered up some big plates of food. And tequila…

Florence

Although it starts soggy, by mid-afternoon the day turns bright and crisp. The kind of day you can pick out individual leaves on the willow oak across the street. Hurricane Florence was already inhaling humidity from 600 miles away.

I take advantage of the pre-storm calm, washing and hanging the bed sheets and shower curtain. If Florence stays her course, we’ll get our moisture back with interest in feet, not inches, and her throaty winds will test trees and roofs. We could be without electricity for up to a week. So I vacuum, bake, and launder everything I can think of, including the shower curtain and the shear white curtains over the kitchen sink.

Earlier this week I hauled our recycling and trash to town and searched for a gas station that wasn’t already out of fuel. There are six filling stations in town, and only one did not have bags over the pump handles. I changed my mind about fueling up in town when I saw the line of anxious motorists bleeding out into the courthouse circle.

I ran into a lot of people I knew at the grocery store. Nearly everyone had a few moments to exchange hugs and chat about the coming storm. The atmosphere was celebratory with a tinge of urgency. It felt a lot like the hours before a Super Bowl. I bought tomatoes and lettuce because Bob and I are in the middle of an epic BLT jag and helped myself to a bag of kettle chips.

Among strangers there was an edgy undercurrent. The gas station line was spooky, reminiscent of fuel shortage altercations of the 70’s and I’d had an unsavory interaction at the trash collection center. A friend pulled up to the trash hopper and she and I were getting caught up as the guy in the truck behind her walked by with his trash bags. He barked at us – something about holding up the line.

We continued talking as my friend emptied her car, and he came by with another round of bags and a menacing look. This time he loudly pointed out that there was a whole parking lot right over there if we wanted to chit chat. The attendants were shaking their heads, and they told me this wasn’t the first time that man had behaved uncharitably. “He’s a preacher, you know,” one of them confided. I’m pretty sure a lot of people around here carry hand guns.

Nineteen years ago Bob and I lived on Guam, thirteen degrees north of the equator, where hurricanes are known as typhoons. We lived in an air conditioned cinder block apartment, a chilled box as long as the electricity is on, but a suffocating hell when it fails.

During one of many short power outages, our neighbor confided that he liked typhoon season because the power stayed off for a long time. He chuckled at our surprise and explained how people gather at the old style houses, the ones that look like screen porches on stilts. Everyone pulls food from their deep freezer and takes it over to grill under the shade of the house and they drink and eat and party until the power comes back on. “It’s like the old days,” he says.

Bob and I have had a good time battening down the hatches. We’ve mined our deep freezer for casseroles and replaced them with buckets of water which have frozen into ice blocks. We have a gas range for cooking hamburgers and warming up soup, but when the power is out our oven won’t light. So we dine on Eggplant Parmesan and Macaroni and Cheez confident those ice blocks will hold food for a couple days, maybe three.

We filled two 5-gallon buckets with water for cooking and drinking because when the electric goes out, so does our well pump. We can flush with water from the big blue rain barrel. I drove Christine to the front yard where she is less likely to get smashed by a falling tree, and Bob is considering using a tie down on the back porch roof.

Home from my hurricane preparedness shopping trip, I begin receiving calls, texts, and emails from family and friends near and far. They send good wishes, tips, and invites should the shit really hit the fan. The next day Florence appears to be backing off, but I’m still savoring the sense of camaraderie, hoping under my breath she really does force us to hunker down amid friends. Thank you Florence for giving us a taste of the old days, and fingers crossed we don’t lose an automobile or a roof.

Lucky

The orphan, resting comfortably in Shelley’s lap.

When Shelley returned home after two weeks away, she was confronted by a loud and needy cat. Lucy let her know, in strident tones, how much she had missed her and how devastatingly hungry she had been. She went on and on about it, while Shelley busied herself with unpacking and reacquainting herself with her very own kitchen, sofa, and bed. Just when she thought she would settle down for real, the neighbor called to say they had an emergency and could Shelley help.

It turned out a very young kitten, black and white just like Lucy, had wandered onto their doorstep. Highly allergic, they could not let it in their house and the poor thing appeared way too young to be outside fending for itself amongst the hawks and possums, and well, maybe Shelley could take it in. Shelley sighed, unable to think clearly amid the sharp mewling of the lost little waif, and took charge.

As far as Lucy was concerned, inviting this flea-bitten critter into her environs was an absolute no go. Insult to injury. And so Shelley set up a kitten holding pen in one of her outbuildings, out of earshot, and wandered back into the house hoping for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, Amy and I met at Shelley’s house at 7:30 for our first Tuesday walk in weeks, excited to see our friend and hear all about her trip. We all had plenty of new news to report, so it wasn’t until about three miles in that Shelley got around to telling us about her little problem.

Amy thought about it for a minute and ventured that maybe this wayward critter would make a good birthday present for her mom. Shelley’s face brightened. Meanwhile, I was flooded with the memory of a similar situation involving a frightened motherless kitten.

Pink water in the sink – Camille bathing Lefty on Maui in 2001

Kihei, Maui May, 2001
We stared, unbelieving, at the tiny blur of a kitten running towards us, scraggly little tail pointed straight up, kicking up puffs of dust on the hot Maui side street. She cried as loud as she could with her small sharp voice, and ran until she reached Shaun’s legs. Hooking her needle-thin claws into his skin, she continued upwards towards his friendly face. Shaun reached down and disconnected her from a thigh, and Bob and I leaned in for a closer look.

Her right eye was swollen shut, and her head dwarfed the attached bag of bones. We looked at Shaun, stunned and on his way to helplessly smitten. He had recently lost his cat and vowed not to take in another animal, something we had sworn not to do some five years earlier. Knowing we had a better chance of keeping that promise, we volunteered to take the kitten and find it a home. Relieved, Shaun fixed us up with a litter box and bowls and we stopped at the grocery store for canned cat food on the way back upcountry.

It was obvious she was going to lose that eye, so we named her Lefty. I bathed her in the sink, watched the water turn pink, then took her to a spot in our sunny garden wrapped in a towel, and with a fine-toothed comb combed out the fleas. It took three baths before the water ran clear, and the pile of fleas on our lawn probably weighed more than Lefty did. We fed her and watched her sleep.

We built a cardboard castle in the kitchen to contain her. Leftie was the first one up in the morning and let us know she was lonely with her shrill little voice. She liked to climb up our legs and curl up on Bob’s chest when he napped.

Lefty and Bob

Lefty napping with Bob, Maui 2001

Lefty was soon sturdy enough for a trip to the vet’s where we arranged for them to remove her ruined eye, de-worm, vaccinate and whatever else she needed, and find her a home. They didn’t think prospective parents would appreciate our sense of humor, so they renamed her Lucky. As in “lucky she ran into you,” they explained. As we left the clinic, we were relieved, but sad. We knew we had done the right thing for all concerned. But it had been nice sharing our little home with this tiny animal and we knew we would probably never see her again.

A month or so later, we received a card in the mail from Lucky’s new owners. In it, they thanked us for rescuing her and making it possible for them to adopt her. They wrote that she was a perky little thing and was adapting spectacularly to her new life. I read the note twice and had to put it down when my vision got bleary.

Back to Moncure, North Carolina August 2018
Shelley, Amy, and I finished our five mile walk, ending up where we began, as always, at Shelley’s house. “Would you like to see the kitten?” she asked. Amy got her phone from the car so she could send some pictures to her sister, and we trotted to the shed behind Shelley. We heard the little fella about fifty feet out, chirping like a demented bird with every bit of his lungs. Shelley picked him up and passed him around. The poor thing had the same needle-sharp claws I remember from Lucky, the same matted coat and emaciated body.

Amy snapped a couple of pictures and left, and although I was tempted to stick around and give the tiny tyke a bath, I drove off to run some errands. A few hours later, Shelley let me know that Amy had returned with a cat carrier. A minute later, Amy told me she’d brought the cat home, dunked him, fed him, and he was sleeping on her lap. Her daughter was smitten and they were tossing around names. Later her mother got to meet the little guy and got him over to the vet who de-wormed him saying that the rescue couldn’t have waited much longer or the worms would have finished him off.

This may sound like a little story, but it felt like a big one to me. First off, every neighborhood needs a Shelley, a “fixer” – someone they can call when they run into a problem. Second, there is the serendipity of this rescue. The neighbors find a cat, Shelley shoulders the burden, Amy takes him off her hands, and her mother is happy. Finally, there’s this: while our weekly walks may seem like non-essential self-indulgence, it’s not. Getting together with friends on a regular basis creates a synergy that strengthens neighborhoods. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not enough. We need real face time, with real people, to solve little problems, and make real things happen.

At Some Point

I’ve been doing more reading than writing lately. Novels, magazines, nonfiction: the usual. I usually steer away from poetry, having lost my appetite for this abstract literary form shortly after high school.

Poetry usually leaves me hungrier than when I began. I need complete thoughts. My brain is not wired to appreciate unfinished sentences. Poems are as frustrating to me as someone who leaves you dangling in conversation. “I thought I’d go grocery shopping but the cat wanted out, so.” Or, “I ran into so-and-so today and…(segue to a text on their phone)” “What?” “What?!” “So, what?” I want to say.

But, after reading The Complete Short Stories of Truman Capote, I could plainly see the poetry in his prose and it occurred to me for the hundredth time that good writing often either comes from or resembles poetry. Consider the following Capote gems:

Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs. – from House of Flowers

The coach was a relic with a decaying interior of ancient red-plush seats, bald in spots, and peeling iodine-colored woodwork. – from A Tree of Night

It was a furnished room in the East Sixties between Second and Third Avenues. Large enough for a daybed and a splintery old bureau with a mirror like a cataracted eye, it had one window, which looked out on a vast vacant lot (you could hear the tough afternoon voices of desperate running boys) and in the distance, like an exclamation point for the skyline, there was the black smokestack of a factory. – from Master Misery

If only I could write like this! I have a few friends, poets who write beautiful prose, Jenn and Mary, to name two. Time to bite the bullet, I thought. Time to give poetry another chance. I asked Mary where I should begin and she suggested I begin by reading (rather than trying to write) poetry. Good poetry. And she lent me her collection of poems that caught her ear for one reason or another. Among them I found examples of stellar writing like this:

Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.

With heavy brains balanced on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming,
from the violent birth of the universe.
Ellen Bass

And this:

This is a place where lakes are brimmed glasses all
sitting on the same water table, where one hillcrest
has first cousins and second and third, where filled silos
stand like shiny blue Indian totems of fertility and future.
Mary Barnard

Inspired, I wrote the following, not realizing it was a poem until the words were splayed across my screen:

AT SOME POINT

At some point, you stop trying to keep up with technology.
At some point, maybe, you stop trying to curb your appetite.
You stop trying to zip your lip.
You stop trying to give up coffee, or wine, or cigarettes.
At some point, you stop caring what the neighbors think.
At some point, you stop caring for your body as if it were a finely-tuned machine.
You stop flossing, exercising, and getting outside every day.
At some point you stop looking for the good in others.
And for the good in yourself.
At some point you get lazy and you stop trying.
Maybe never. Maybe tomorrow.

At some point, I might add, I will appreciate poetry. Maybe today.

Dueling Adages

Depending on the situation I’ll either say, “Opposites attract!”, or “Like attracts like!” as if that explains everything. And actually, these two statements cover just about any kind of relationship. From good friends who see eye-to-eye, to December/May romances. But when it occurred to me that these two adages are mutually exclusive, I set out to reconcile the discrepancy.

My first thought was about Bob and how we are both old hippies who share the same cultural background and values. In the early stages of my relationship with Bob my mother gave me this advice: “The most important thing is that you share the same values.” My enduring friendships are also based on common values. My friend Pam and I call each other two peas in a pod, Haruka and I both believe in supporting our husbands with clean laundry and cooked meals, and Shelley and I keep the same kind of welcoming, high-and-tidy home. This all makes sense and explains “Like attracts like”.

On the other hand, I also like to hang out with people who are not like me. They give my life a little extra zip with their spontaneous, fun-loving chaos. And to be fair, Bob and I are not so, so alike. He tends towards hedonism while I cultivate an air of self-denial. I speak mostly in the declarative, and Bob is an accomplished questioner. And you only have to look at our desks to see one other telling difference. But these are traits, not values. And therein lies the difference. When two people have different traits, they balance each other out and this is just as important as seeing the world through similar lenses.

I believe that opposites attract on a primal and more physical level. Back in our tribal era, humans were compelled to expand their gene pool by selecting mates from other tribes. Otherwise we would be an inbred mess, easy victims for a bacteria or virus targeting our particular gene sequencing. So, when puberty began tugging at our hormones we often wandered outside our familiar circles. We set our sights on people who didn’t look or act like us and threw in with them. In this way we created diversity and ensured the success of our species.

Well, that about wraps it up. We have to think enough alike to get along, and act and look different enough to mix things up. And so, both adages, “Like Attracts Like,” and “Opposites Attract” are true and not at all mutually exclusive.