Pearls to Pay Forward

Consciousness felt its way through the weave of the screens with the crow cries. Nana’s bare feet plucked at the linoleum downstairs, moving toward the kitchen door where the dogs stood, fanning the air. I lay still, eyes closed. There was something else, an image, a niggling whisper.

Remembering how I had wrapped my final baby tooth in tissue, I slid my hand beneath the pillow. Usually, it was a coin, occasionally a dollar bill, and once a bar of halvah. I pulled out my prize, sat up and looked at a string of perfect pearls, exquisitely round and unabashedly grown up.

I hurried downstairs and found my Nana. She patted my bed hair, handed me a cup of honeyed coffee and cream, and told me how an oyster takes an intruding bit of grit and surrounds it with soft smoothness to make a pearl. And that it can take years.

Barbara Lorie died on Monday at age 93. I didn’t know her well, but we swam in the same circles, occasionally crossing paths. I would turn a corner and feel the hum, a hive-like buzz that signaled Barbara’s presence. She was charismatic, outspoken, and prone to profanity. Barbara’s “Who are you?” had the disconcerting effect of pushing you off balance while putting you at ease. She was a teacher, a mother, an idealist, a civil rights advocate, and a fundamental force behind the creation of Blue Heron Farm Community.

I stayed up late the night before Barbara’s funeral reading the first chapter of her autobiography. She described her early childhood in an upper-middle-class household supported by nannies, cooks, and gardeners. She loved watching her mother prepare for an evening out by spraying cologne into her handkerchief and draping a strand of pearls around her elegant neck. When Barbara was ten her father died and his funeral drew thousands.

The next morning I pulled on a black dress and noticed Nana’s pearls on top of my dresser. I had dug them out because I’m going to give them to my oldest grandniece. Alanna reminds me of myself in the way she takes responsibility for her younger siblings. Rather than take those pearls to my grave, I want to acknowledge my niece’s sacrifice. I will show her how to scrape her teeth lightly over one. “Does it feel slightly gritty?” I’ll ask, “Like sandpaper?” That’s how you know they are real.

Pearls go great with little black dresses. I would wear them one last time.

Nickolas was directing traffic when I arrived at Blue Heron. Mary drove up at the same time so, we parked and walked into the farm together, past a stunning stained glass blue heron. We joined a stream of people carrying food, some in black, many in bright colors. Who I didn’t know, Mary did. By the time we put our cookie plates in the food tent, we had hugged dozens.

Barbara wanted a raucous send-off, and that is what she got. She rested in her cardboard casket atop a colorful wooden cart while we held hands in a big circle, and then, in her cart, she led the procession to the burial site. The Bulltown Strutters came next, all drums and horns, brassy and Mardi Gras-loud. They were followed by hundreds of mourner-celebrants, some carrying giant Paperhand Puppets, billowy silk banners, and orange and black butterflies. Mary and I waved our butterflies to make their wings open and close.

Our destination was a large meadow with chairs facing a steep-sided red clay hole. A woman handed out programs, someone had put out drinking water, and a big pile of dirt waited on the far edge of the field. I chose a seat close to Lyle, David came and sat on my left, and Arlo—Tami and Lyle’s son—joined us a little later.

Longtime Blue Heron affiliate, Gary, kicked off a parade of tributes with some well-chosen words. Stacey made us laugh with, “I was Barbara’s favorite neighbor.” Tami spoke of their long friendship and said that Barbara was looking forward to seeing Zafer—Tami and Lyle’s other son who we buried with a similar ceremony three years ago. Many spoke about Barbara’s indelible influence, about how her unabashed and forthright manner encouraged them to be themselves. Several young people testified to her profound impact on their lives and one vowed to honor Barbara’s memory by paying it forward.

When it was time to lower Barbara into her grave, I reached for Arlo’s hand and let the tears flow. Home burial is raw and real. There are no buffers. Cemetery staff doesn’t finish the dirty work; it’s up to friends and families with shovels and hoes, in sandals and tennis shoes. As I watched people drop handfuls of peony petals and red clay into that straight-sided hole, I saw her legacy in action.

Here are my takeaways from Barbara’s funeral: Legacies are what happen when we inspire others by being ourselves. All our words and actions leave impressions on those around us. Best be aware of what kinds of seeds you plant. Keep a lid on the weeds. Take your pearls and pay them forward.

Making Our Mark

I thread the Outback between two posts and bring it to rest in the shade. I’m listening to NPR, a story about social media gone awry. Shelley’s black and white cat, Lucy, has reached the car by the time my feet touch the ground and is twitching her rear end at one of the tires. “What are you doing? Marking your territory?” I say in a sing-song voice, leaning down to stroke her shiny black coat. “Let’s go see what those chickens are up to,” I say, walking towards the chicken coop. Shelley is in Canada, and I’m in charge of feeding Lucy and the yard birds.

It’s nice to have Lucy’s company, but it comes with a price. She is not shy about telling me all about her last 24-hours in a language I cannot understand. The chickens also have a lot to say. But I welcome the sound of other animals. Much of what I do is done alone these days. I am the invisible hand that shapes the world around me, and that is as it should be. No one needs to see me struggling to free a limb saw from a branch that has bitten back and clamped on. I don’t want anyone watching me shove the vacuum cleaner against the nap of our bedroom carpet. And writer’s block, like constipation, is best suffered in private.

At the end of the day, after a shower and a change of clothes, I walk around the yard with Bob admiring the mulch around our fruit trees and our pristine gardens. After I’ve coughed up some words and rearranged them into a second draft, I punt them over to Bob for editing. He doesn’t have to see the first draft. That’s for no one but me to see. I present a finished meal every evening, plate ready—potato peels and nicked fingers omitted. I’ve heard it said that no one wants to hear about the labor; they just want to see the baby.

And yet, I opened an Instagram account not so long ago and began to crow about my accomplishments in their unvarnished state. I got into the Instagram game right about the time it began trending away from glitzy, staged photo art. I figured out how to put my laptop in smartphone mode and posted bowls of harvested peppers, laundry piles, seed orders, and Bob and I smiling in front our new Chevy Volt before driving it home from the dealer. Maybe I’m not so into private life as I pretend to be.

Like Lucy, I also mark my territory. In Africa, I impaled a muddy baby doll head on a spike atop our razor-wired gate. Bob was horrified, but I thought it was funny. Twenty years ago, before Facebook, before Instagram, he created a platform for our online presence, a site we named Troutsfarm after the little horse farm we sold in 1997. We used our farm’s logo, a hand-drawn yin yang blend of horse and trout, to brand our website.

Last week Bob dressed up our new car by adding a front plate with the Troutsfarm logo. And yesterday he drilled a hole in the belly of a plastic dinosaur—Toy Story’s Rex—and stuck it atop one of the metal pipes that define our property line. Whether it’s an Instagram post, a personal website, a vanity plate, or Dino-Boy on a survey pin, we all need to make our mark upon the world.

Easy Street

If I close my eyes, I can see the hectic days: the corner drifts of unbegun projects, the laundry mound, the on-the-fly meals. Twenty-five years ago, Bob and I were enmeshed in traditional 40-hour work weeks onto which we piled childrearing and animal husbandry. Life was an upward slog toward financial solvency and retirement. We buoyed ourselves with images of life on the other side of the rainbow.

I’d had my eye on Easy Street from the moment I joined the workforce in 1972. Pulling beer for lunchtime linemen in a basement pub on Denver’s Larimer Square, I dreamed of freedom from the wage game. I was 18-years-old, and like most other ’70’s teens, I knew that humans were designed to feed off nature’s bounty. Working for money seemed wrong. We felt it in our bones, yet few of us were lucky (or well-adjusted) enough to live off the land in a cooperative communal environment.

I don’t believe I was good community-building material back then, and the opportunity to test myself never occurred. Suffering from residual teenage angst, beholden to no one, I saw myself as a rugged individualist. So, instead of joining a commune, I plunged into the deep waters of the country’s labor pool. Wanderlust, Canadian Club, and hard-earned cash became my boon companions.

Years of 9-to-5 slavery changed my dream from cooperative homesteading to a life of opulent nothingness. I nurtured images of splendidly idle days, picturing myself snuggled into the curve of a bay-windowed nook reading a gothic novel. I envisioned languid shadows unfurling across butter pecan sand followed by the last peachy rays of the day. My vision of Easy Street morphed into the complete release from responsibility.

Bob took me on my first-ever real vacation when we honeymooned on Cozumel. Here was the white-sand beach; the effortless swoosh of sea on shore. We reclined on lounge chairs, traded cash for Pina Coladas, and listened to time evaporate. Towards the end of the week, we were mesmerized by an old man with a wheelbarrow. He stopped at each seedling in a line of sprouting coconut palms and watered it from a bucket. We realized that we were jealous of this old man. He had something to nurture while we sat on the sidelines, posing as pampered voyeurs. He had a purpose.

I got my Medicare card in the mail yesterday, and our Credit Union stands by in open-mouthed anticipation of my first Social Security payment. I have reached the other side of the rainbow, a bittersweet milestone with Bob still slogging away from his home office desk. The funny thing is, my new life doesn’t feel so much different than the old one. My transition has been so benign, so negligible that I feel a little cheated.

Retirement: those splendidly idle days yawning off into forever, are not so idle after all. Although I now have ample time for day-reading, I spend much of my day devoted to physical labor. I drag my tool bucket around the yard pulling weeds. I sweep and shovel. I chop vegetables and roll out pie dough. I buy groceries and wash the cars. I dutifully read the news and peck out essays. I do my yoga, call family, get up with friends, and go for walks. But, in all of this, I never have to hurry, and there is no activity so urgent that I can’t put it off until tomorrow.

As it turns out Easy Street is a blend of both dreams: a pleasant mix of homesteading and freedom from responsibility. These days, you’re as likely to find me swinging in the hammock as between the wooden shafts of our wheelbarrow.

Soaring Capitalism and Boeing’s Max 8

I’ve long felt that the United States’ economic model is leading us to ruin. The grab-all approach to business and wealth strengthens the strong while shutting doors to the rest of us. Capitalism encourages greed and monopoly.
This graph clearly illustrates the rise of corporate profits (the blue line) and the decline of employee wages (the red line) over a sixty-three-year span. The reality I was born into is no more, thanks to Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan.

The Boeing story is a good example of how the pursuit of corporate profits can affect we commoners. Boeing is just another American company, churning out aircraft and doing their best to make a profit. They aren’t looking to hurt anyone. They do not want their planes to crash any more than their passengers do.

Boeing’s 737 Max planes are fitted out with larger engines placed farther forward on its wings, which tends to push the plane’s nose up. So Boeing installs an automated system designed to make the adjustments necessary to push the nose back down. The new model is approved by the FAA in 2017 and sales began to flow. Boeing is so happy about this they crow about it on their Website: “The 737 MAX is the fastest-selling airplane in Boeing history with about 5,000 orders from more than 100 customers worldwide.”

This is Boeing’s latest victory in their race against rival Airbus. There are really only two passenger plane manufacturers on the playing field. Boeing has done everything they can to make these planes attractive to airlines around the world. One big selling point is that the 737 Max is so similar to the older 737’s that airlines don’t have to spend money training their pilots to fly them. Although now the world is beginning to think some training would have been a good idea because these planes are not just like their predecessors.

Last October Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 went down within minutes of leaving the airport, killing all 189 people on board. A couple of weeks ago Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 had a nearly identical crash resulting in the death of all 157 passengers and crew. Both pilots were flying 737 Max 8s. We learned from the Lion Air flight data that the automated system pushed the plane’s nose down and the pilot responded by aiming the nose higher twenty-six times before hitting the water. Twenty-six times! In other words, the pilot and the computer were locked in a deadly battle for control of the plane. Experts believe the system was taking in a faulty sensor reading.

This morning The New York Times took the story one step further with Doomed Boeing Jets Lacked 2 Safety Features That Company Sold Only as Extras. The article explains how the two fatal Max 8 might have been avoided if the planes had come equipped with two (optional) safety features. Buzz! This does not look good for Boeing, I must say.

Although Boeing declined to disclose the price of the two safety features, The Times did some digging and learned that “Gol Airlines, a Brazilian carrier, paid $6,700 extra for oxygen masks for its crew, and $11,900 for an advanced weather radar system control panel” for a previous version of the 737. So these special features can be pretty pricey.

Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.

In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft, according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, a consultancy in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.

To save money and because the two, potentially life-saving, features were billed as “optional” by Boeing, both Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines declined to purchase Boeing’s “angle of attack indicator” and “disagree light.” Had the planes been equipped with these two features, the pilots might have stood a fighting chance.

But U.S. Airlines all opted for the optional safety features, didn’t they? Not exactly.

The three American airlines that bought the 737 Max each took a different approach to outfitting the cockpits.

American Airlines, which ordered 100 of the planes and has 24 in its fleet, bought both the angle of attack indicator and the disagree light, the company said.

Southwest Airlines, which ordered 280 of the planes and counts 36 in its fleet so far, had already purchased the disagree alert option, and it also installed an angle of attack indicator in a display mounted above the pilots’ heads. After the Lion Air crash, Southwest said it would modify its 737 Max fleet to place the angle of attack indicator on the pilots’ main computer screens.

United Airlines, which ordered 137 of the planes and has received 14, did not select the indicators or the disagree light. A United spokesman said the airline does not include the features because its pilots use other data to fly the plane.

At this point in time, all U.S. 737 Max aircraft have been grounded pending further investigation. As you may know, the United States waited until dozens of other countries grounded their 737 Maxes before following suit. Canada dragged its feet, too. I have to admit, the delay had me biting my nails.

How to tell if you are about to board a 737 Max: Look for the split winglets.

A few years ago this story would have gone right over my head, but with Bob’s busy flight schedule, I am fixated. I hear that Boeing is going to make this right by elevating both sensors from optional to standard. I hope they also recommend some kind of pilot training for this next generation of planes. 737 or not, this is not the same beast and pilots all over the world deserve to know what they are dealing with.

It makes me uneasy to think that a big company like Boeing will squeeze their buyers to the point of declaring essential safety equipment “optional.” Sadly, this is just one example of how capitalism has run amok. The larger the corporation, the more they get caught up in the competition game. It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you have your sights set on a goal, but that doesn’t excuse Boeing.

Meanwhile, we simple wage earners read the news and shake our heads. We poke away at our consumer debt, plant gardens, stretch the leftovers into second meals, and hope the FAA keeps the Max 8 on the ground until Boeing makes them safe for everyone to fly.

Bye Bye Baby

The first time I saw her she was standing idle at the curb, shining like Pegasus in a sea-colored cloak. She looked like freedom incarnate. It had been eight months since Bob and I sold our tattooed silver TDI Beetle and we were ready for a new set of wheels.

We hadn’t needed a car in Nicaragua. In fact, cars were forbidden on Little Corn Island, and although having a car would have come in handy in Alaska, we hadn’t stayed there long enough to invest in a vehicle.

I believe every American can recall their first car in great detail. The specifics of their successors blur as the years speed by, with precious few worth bringing up in conversation. My first was a robin’s egg blue Rambler wagon that I acquired for $125. I named her Susi and slid around Denver in overdrive until I wore out the gear. Other notables were the hulking, solid steel 1950 Ford sedan that I drove out of a farmer’s field for $175 (never did get the brakes fixed); the 1972 Mercury Montego in arrest-me red with the sporty black vinyl top, and fantastic stereo system; and Christine.

We picked Christine up for a song—a mere $1200 for a ten-year-old Ford Escort with five-on-the-floor and 65,000 miles—and drove home to Berthoud, Colorado. Just like that, we were independent. One minute we were not totally American and the next we were, confidently down-shifting at stop signs and pushing her into fifth to blow past the pack lumbering up I-25.

After finding her lights on for the third time, we named her Christine after Stephen King’s novel about a possessed car. Our Christine was configured in a way that made it easy to bump the light switch when sliding out from under the steering wheel and she had long lost the ability to ping us in alarm. We bought a pair of jumper cables to keep in her ample trunk and grew accustomed to the tentative approach of helpful souls coming to let us know our car was sitting in the lot with her lights on.

Christine was our only transport for four years and for that alone she stands out. I think every couple should share a car for some period of time. It kept us from becoming too autonomous and enhanced our scheduling and communication skills. Sharing Christine helped us point our lives in the same direction.

We became a two-car family with Blanche, a 1987 white Mercedes turbo touring wagon who sometimes depended on the kindness of strangers. Blanche was joined by Oliver, an olive green Outback gifted to us by beloved neighbors Jason and Haruka, and most recently Val, a “Kinetic Blue” 2017 Chevy Volt.

Now, fourteen years after buying Christine, there were four cars milling about our yard and it was time to thin the herd. I moved Christine from her place beneath the sweet gums to a sunny patch of lawn in front of the house. Bob handed me a razor blade and I scraped off the trash sticker and the rasta baby decal. I removed my hair ties from the glove box and reached into the trunk to pull out the catch-all milk crate.

When the day came, a nice young couple arrived to collect our old friend. Bob and I stood together on our soggy lawn and watched Christine’s tail lights as her new owners drove away. She paused, blinking at us with her turn signal before turning south towards the highway, and I’m pretty sure she flashed her headlights one last time.

On the Alerts

My Google Alerts serve me well. For example, on the day the news story broke, I learned that Timothy Cox was sentenced for 2nd-degree murder. That’s the driver who recently widowed one of our friends. I understand some might think it odd to stalk stories in this manner, but I prefer to be in the know.

My friend Shelley wished someone had informed her that one of her “Grannys” had passed. How unsettling to walk into her nursing home room and find a different face. Although it would be nice if a family reached out to their loved one’s caregivers, I imagine this is low on their priority list when faced with funeral arrangements and estate management. An emailed obituary notice would have given Shelley some warning.

In a similar situation, I was able to help my mother search for a childhood friend. She hadn’t heard from Ann in months and was worried, so I set up an alert and eventually Ann’s story was revealed.

It’s easy to set up an alert. Type your search into Google, and click on the “News” tab. Refine your search to your liking, then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Create alert.”

One of my 2019 goals is to increase comprehension and retention, particularly in regards to current events. I took out a subscription to The New York Times, signed up for some of their newsletter with links to dozens of stories, and began taking their Friday News Quiz. I also get newsletters from the The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The New Yorker. I had a lot of catching up to do, but the big picture of world news is finally coming into focus. No more getting left behind in adult conversation.

However, I’m definitely ready for something innocent after immersing myself in the top news stories. This is where my google alert on Pittsboro steps in and provides relief.

 

Small town news is a refreshing break from deposed cardinals, economic disparity, global warming, nuclear armament, despots, war, and hunger. In fact, I’ll go it one further. I’ll keep the good news flowing with an alert on some of my favorite things, beginning with:

I would love to hear what topics bring a smile to your face. Which news stories make you happy?

Blue Valentine

I learned early on that you’ve got to pay the price. The lesson so touched one of my little brothers, that Mom recalls him sitting on the potty, legs dangling, chanting, “Pay price, pay price.” Apparently, Bob’s family stamped him with a similar meme. “No pain, No gain” has served us both well. He and I have made many hard decisions and taken immediate action; changing the way we eat, perhaps, or pulling up roots to reinvent ourselves in another part of the world. It’s one thing to say, “I’m gonna,” and quite another to accept the burden involved with making it happen.

I am super proud of Bob for biting the bullet and taking on a job that would make my head explode: reams of documentation, many-paged questionnaires, air travel, hotel rooms, driving into a Fargo-esque polar vortex after dark in an unfamiliar vehicle, and a skyrocketing learning curve that would make NASA proud. Bob has taken on every bit of this and more in order to cushion our golden years. This past week he was in training with the administration team at SBS Global Services in Emeryville, California and will continue stuffing his brain with new information next week. In the evenings he squeezes in sales tax reporting, payroll, and bookkeeping for a second, part-time job. Not many 60-year olds would accept this challenge or willingly take on this level of mental punishment. Few are made of the stuff Bob is made of.

Meanwhile, I’m home, humming Christmas songs like I do, and shoveling compost into buckets. I’m dumping them into nine empty totes that Bob Sawzall-ed in half for container gardens. After adding peat moss and vermiculite, I stir vigorously with a spade shovel. Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas is on repeat and I think I know why. Bob won’t be home for Valentine’s Day this year. First time ever. Later, I light the flame beneath a pan and find myself humming,”The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too WIDE” from Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man.

I deposited Bob at RDU’s Terminal 2 well before dawn a week ago Saturday and watched him walk away. When I got home and saw his coffee cup in the dish drainer, tears stung my eyes. I knew I wouldn’t see it on his desk for nearly three weeks.

Yes, we Skype every evening and that certainly helps. “I’m getting more quality Bob time on Skype than I would if you were here,” I quip. We laugh but we both know this isn’t true. It’s just one of those things people say, like “Oh, I’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry about me, I’ve got this.”

The truth is my home feels strange without my Bob. Little things make me jump when my lover isn’t home. Last night I heard a couple dozen rounds echo through the woods, and jumped up to lock the door. As if anyone with a boot couldn’t kick that flimsy lock apart. I think of how lame that lock is every evening before I click it shut on my way to the shower. I have a lot more bravado before the sun goes down. After it gets dark, our home’s chirps and pings take on a sinister hue.

Even my laundry routine is upset. I peer into our hamper and shake my head, “Not today.” Finally I have enough for a load, and when I dump the clean clothes onto the bed for a solo laundry party (Bob calls it a laundry party when we fold our clothes together) I realize that not even one sock in this pile belongs to Bob.

On Valentine’s Day, my valentine will be 2,806 miles west. We will get up and go to bed at different times. We will text each other during the day and Skype in the evening. We’ll say, “I love you” just like we do every day. We’ll say “I miss you,” and “This is the last time we’ll be apart for this long,” and congratulate ourselves on being grown up enough to bite the bullet and do what it takes to steer our lifeboat toward solvent harbor. We’ll go to bed alone and wake up alone. It’ll be alright. This is the last time.

Drama Management

Drama Junkie Gladys Kravitz from “Bewitched”

January has been a real test. I’m settling into a new job and I won’t lie—the learning curve momentarily took my moxie away. A new operating system, new software, a new type of business, and a tiny keyboard had me wondering if there was something wrong with my brain. But I rallied and have recovered my stride.

So far there is no drama associated with my new gig and I aim to keep it that way. When I mentioned this at the Country Farm and Home counter the other day, paying for bird seed and wheat straw, a customer behind me snickered. I turned and we both laughed. “As if!” she said. “Yeah, right?!” I blurted, enjoying the moment, and then in my signature off-the-cuff way I said, “Drama happens everywhere if you stick around long enough. It builds up like plaque!”

It occurs to me I’m not even sure what the word drama means so I start asking around. One bright young woman defines it as “Things that make you suck in your breath real quick.” The dictionary defines drama as: Any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.” Armed with two workable, albeit broad interpretations, I got to work categorizing situations that fit the mold.

First off, there is my own personal drama. Although this type of drama might seem unavoidable, I actually do have control over how much drama I solicit and how heartily I react. One woman told me she was much more into drama when she was younger and I realized this was also true for me. We have both learned to keep ourselves out of trouble and to temper our responses to the unavoidable.

I’m no longer a catastrophizer, my own word that means someone who takes a little bit of drama and cooks it up into something big. My mother used to call this “Making mountains out of molehills.”

Next, there’s the type of drama we experience vicariously. You can’t build intimate friendships without sharing a little of your own inner workings but it’s essential to know how much to share, and when to turn it off—how to toe the line between venting and obsessing.

Our outer circle of friends is where I need to watch my step. Here I’m learning to strike a balance between interest and involvement. Sometimes it’s alright to dismiss a situation with, “Well, it’s their life, their marriage, their children…” and other times I have to reach out and weigh in. Especially when I can see that whatever just happened is horribly unjust or unfair. Either way, it’s a good idea not to do too much thinking about what’s going on in the lives of people I don’t know terribly well.

And then there is the drama of unmet actors on the world stage. For me, this is the safest kind of drama, a cathartic exercise that helps me calibrate my moral compass. This kind of drama is the story of how human minds work. News stories evoke responses like, Don’t that beat all?” and “How does something like this happen?” Voyeuristic drama feeds the creative juices my writing head requires without risking contamination.

A few days after my Country Farm and Home encounter, I marched into Chatham Marketplace for Brussels sprouts and was stopped short by a bank of yawning shelves. Craig, busy as ever, twinkle in his eye, quipped over his shoulder, “Drama!” Hmm, I thought, I guess non-human breakdowns can be classified as drama, too.

Like salt, drama spices up my life. And like salt, a pinch brings out the flavor, while too much renders food inedible. Unlike salt, I don’t have to add drama to my life. Drama happens when things break down, when I receive a letter from a friend, when the car leaves me stranded, when politics goes my way, when the heat pump fails, or when deer eat our broccoli. Drama is joy and loss, birth and death—unavoidable, and essential to a full and interesting life.

Stuff happens all the time to rock our little worlds. All the planning in the world won’t prevent software changes from messing up my mojo, or grocery stores from running out of Brussels sprouts. Be cautious about adding outside drama. One day you may be blindsided by an indigestible tsunami of grief: a loved one snatched by death, a cancer diagnosis, a slip and a fall. Err on the side of boring. Savor those stretches of bland. Add a pinch of drama when necessary. Season to taste.

2019 Intentions – Quality over Quantity

The curtain opens on 2019 with Bob and I settling into new jobs, and with enough dry and above-freezing weather to weed, mulch, and plan this year’s garden. We’ve added eight raised beds and gone over the seed catalogs. In addition to what we grew last year (potatoes, leeks, peppers, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cherry tomatoes, husk cherries, lettuce, fall greens, and broccoli) we’ll add spinach, edamame, carrots, beets, and crook-necked pumpkins. And we’ll push the envelope of our comfort zone with Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe.

My personal garden, the traits and habits I cultivate with intention, will also look a lot like last year. Although I have to admit I was tempted to skip making resolutions after reading an article about the down side of striving for perfection. The people we compare ourselves to, those who have made it to the holy grail of success, sometimes surprise us by ending up dead by their own hand. At some point we need to reach complacent self-acceptance. But then I listened to a podcast that recommended we trust ourselves to know which aspects of our lives were good enough and which ones need work. There is nothing wrong with coasting and likewise, nothing wrong with stepping on the gas.

When I asked Bob if he will set some goals this year he said he is always working on something and that January has no more significance than any other month. “Every day is a new year if you’re Bob; every day is your birthday, every day is Christmas,” he said. A banner above the shop floor of a manufacturing company we both worked at flashed into my mind. The banner read, “Continuous Improvement,” which is a good approach to both life and gardening.

But I love the clean-slate feel of a new year. I like the idea of a hard stop with its opportunity to look back, take a reckoning, and re-calibrate. So I will take a few moments to do both.

2019’s theme is “Quality over Quantity” and my goals are:

Reading – Slow down, read for fun, comprehension, and retention.

Conversation – Again, slow down, pay attention, damp down my inner dialogue and absorb what others are saying.

Everybody needs more pot pie!

Writing – Slow down, write for fun, play with ideas in my journals, and write at least one old fashioned letter per month.

Sweets – Ramp up the savory with new pot pie recipes while damping down the sweets. All those sugar bombs are not doing me one bit of good. Sure, there will be cookies in the chest freezer, but those are there to make my life easier, not sicker. And it isn’t just the cookies; it’s the chocolate and other candy treats I drag home from the grocery store. The added benefit of my “Pot Pie of the Month” plan will be an increase in my pie dough expertise.

My self-improvement theme for 2018 was “Focus” and my goals were:

Bake more cookies – success!
I baked nearly a thousand cookies last year! I learned to keep the freezer stocked with grab-and-go goodness, turning cookies into my new go-to potluck offering. No more scratching my head over what to bring, life is simpler with cookies in the chest freezer.

Focus on the good – success!
Because my job as property manager required I focus on problems a.k.a. things that aren’t working, I hung up my hat and found a less-demanding job, one in which I didn’t have to be in charge.

Focus on my friends – success!
I shrunk my circle of friends to a dense core, and found I had more time for family during a challenging year.

Mind my own business – success!
I didn’t even have to work at this one. I naturally lost interest in other people’s problems after the employment change and social focusing. Less drama meant more solitary time, and more energy for my life with Bob.

Reading List – success!
I read thirty-four books, exceeding my goal of twenty-five and more than doubling the fifteen books I read in 2017.

Snitch Pad – success!
I now travel with a notebook where I jot down ideas and interesting catch phrases that I can turn to when I need writing inspiration.

Submissions – some improvement!
I submitted eighteen essays, missing my goal of twenty-four submissions, but exceeding 2017’s eleven. I also got better at teeing up the next project after turning in a story, but I had a lot of trouble launching into writing mode.

And there you have it, my goals for 2019 and a reckoning of last year’s intentions. For me, happiness is both acceptance of where I am now, a settling in with comfortable habits that work, and the challenge of reaching towards a better me. It takes wisdom to know which aspects of my life qualify for status quo and which need a little more work. This year I choose to take my foot off the gas, savor the good life, and harvest the rewards.

Christmas Time

On Christmas Eve, time hits a warp and bumps me into unexpected glimpses of Christmas past. Taking out the compost after dinner I’m transported to three years ago when the fence was still open to the farm, a path crunchy with fallen leaves worn between our house and Haruka and Jason’s. I squint into the darkness, searching for the soft glow of their porch light, remembering how we’d already have planned, and been cooking towards, a mostly home-grown Christmas meal.

Pulling our fake turkey roast from the freezer I have a sudden longing for winter-less Maui, where I never had to pull on jacket, hat, and gloves to make it to the compost pile. Back then my skin never chapped and my hair occasionally smelled of salt water. Fifteen years ago, we would have been planning a vegan Christmas feast with Pam and Shaun, the folks who showed us how to enjoy not eating animals.

Twenty-three years ago we would have decorated a tree, and wrapped presents would be spilling from its base across the living room floor of an old Colorado farm house. The next day the girls would arrive and fill the house with jewels of laughter. Emily would have been eight, Amy six, and Molly three. That was the last time we set up a tree – the lights, ornaments, bulbs, and painstakingly crayoned paper garlands long gone from our peripatetic lives.

This Christmas morning, I squint into a layer of frost, imagining Nana’s painted plywood reindeer and Santa sleigh racing across her snowy lawn. Fifty years ago my five brothers and I would make Christmas wrapping fly around the living room like a scene from Edward Scissorhands. We would still be living in an old New Jersey neighborhood lousy with kids, there for so long (six years) that we imagined we’d never move again.

In those days Nana was in charge of pulling together the family dinner. We’d head over there after mass to find her stone fireplace flocked with fake snow, more presents underneath her tree for us and our cousins, a turkey in the oven, and pies cooling on racks. Oh, to have a time machine and go back to this idyllic moment!

Back then it was almost always a white Christmas and we kids didn’t hate winter. We burrowed through the drifts to make caves and Dad wowed us by making candy sugar snow cones. We sang carols, there were candles, and no babies ever cried.

Back then everything was perfect. The spirit of Christmas illuminated all our hearts. Peace on Earth reigned. No one languished for want. America was great, no crimes were committed, and all was calm and bright.

I think.

Maybe I don’t really want a time machine after all. I’d hate to find out that those times were ordinary times just like these times. I’d hate to find out we were fighting wars and going hungry, that there were people being robbed or raped or killed on one of those stellar Christmases past.

So, forget about that old time machine. Instead I’m going to sit down with the seed catalogs to envision a succulent future. I’ll plan peppers and cantaloupe and maybe even artichokes.

Much love and fond memories for all who have shared Christmas cheer in years gone by!