Wake-up Call

The day before Mother’s Day, I’m dreaming the usual stuff, probably trying to set a table for twenty with five water glasses, or squeezing underneath a car in the parking garage, or maybe stepping from a floating dock to a boat bound for Belize, when two big thuds that don’t fit into the dream bring me to the surface. “That’s a wreck,” I mumble. Bob rolls over and says, “Guess I should go see.”

Outside he finds a shiny blue sedan parked on Fred and Reda’s giant prickly pear cactus. A young man paces their yard, cell phone pressed to his ear. “I fell asleep,” he tells Bob. The car is totaled and his family is on the way. With surprising composure, he says he nodded off on his way to work because he was up too late. “I needed a wake-up call,” he says. Bob considers the irony in his statement but decides not to point it out.

I ring the house next door, waking Reda.
“There’s a car in your front yard.”
“What?”
“There’s a car in your front yard.”
“I’ll tell Fred.”

Bob comes in for coffee, and when I see Fred through the window, I wander out with my cocoa. Fred is chit chatting with the driver’s aunt and uncle in our driveway. “Morning Fred,” I say, and turning to our guests, “Neighbors used to get together for weddings and birthdays, but nowadays we mainly see each other at car wrecks.” We smile.

Statistics back up my little joke. Earlier this month NPR’s 1A explored the trend towards isolation with The Universal Solitude of Americans: Loneliness on the Rise.

More than half of survey respondents – fifty-four percent – said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And two in five felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful,” and that they “are isolated from others.”

And what’s more, younger generations feel lonelier.

Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, had an overall loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials, just a little bit older, scored 45.3. By comparison, baby boomers scored 42.4. The Greatest Generation, people ages 72 and above, had a score of 38.6 on the loneliness scale.

Fred and I indulge in the litany of Moncure Pittsboro Road Wrecks. He tells us about the car that crossed their yard and nearly crashed into their bedroom. I recall the day my friend got rear ended trying to turn into our driveway, and left an ambulance. The aunt chimes in with her own horror story. Just months after their wedding, her husband ended up in ICU sharing a room with a passenger from the other car, and the driver downstairs in the morgue.

We replay this morning’s mishap by reading the scars across our ditch and driveway, one reflector gone, the other standing untouched. “He was airborne over here.” Fred says, looking from the ditch to the split branches of our juniper where the car touched down before coming to a stop on his cactus. “I’m glad he took out that cactus. It was sitting on a big fire ant pile.”

We are amazed that this young man is alive. “A perfect Mother’s Day gift,” says the woman, thinking of her sister. We embrace and hold on. “This is our wake up call to savor every moment.” The sun is coming on strong now. I walk up the driveway with an empty mug and a full heart.

Christmas in April

I watch the big truck backing towards me, standing under the red tips in our back yard, trying to ignore the disturbing scent of its flowers. Like Christmas in April, black magic spills off the end of the truck, filling the air with earthy musk. Mulch is a wonderful thing! Like furniture polish or a coat of fresh paint, it hides all sins and makes everything sparkling new.

A few wheelbarrow loads later, one bed done and one halfway beautified, I think, just one more, and my back groans. I’m in a race with time to get the mulch deployed as quickly as possible. If I’m quick about it, the weeds won’t get the upper hand and the summer will be easy. This is the time of year for pushing through, mind over matter. It’s the season of ibuprofen, liniment, and extra yoga.

I see why the tourists who stayed with us in Belize and Nicaragua said they couldn’t live there because they had to have their seasons. At the time, we didn’t get it. Bob and I chewed on it a lot and decided they were only talking about one season, spring. We figured they loved spring because it followed winter, that abysmal stretch of cold, dead months so familiar to northerners. Now, after the winter we just had, I see their point.

I have to admit, spring in North Carolina is glorious. It’s sleeping with the windows open time. Everything’s coming to life in the yard, peonies popping. Birds going ape shit, singing their hearts out. Especially the whacked out mocking birds, who evidently are the last to find mates and settle down. If they would just shut up for a few minutes, or at least stop repeating themselves and pretend to listen, the she-birds would flock to their sides.

But every penny has its backside, and the downside of spring is this: my writing life takes a huge hit. Spring is a gut punch to anything desk-related.

I did sit at my desk the other day long enough to put together my summer schedule. In an effort to encourage myself to write without adding undue pressure, I changed the word “write” to “Create!” If this doesn’t get my creative juices flowing, nothing will, I thought. Less than a week later, I pitched that schedule out the window.

I had the whole day to myself on Thursday, no social commitments, and could have spent hours crafting some great piece of writing. As it turned out I spent most of the day working outside. We had a long, crappy winter, and now I can finally get outside and pretty up the place. That $165 load of mulch is going to keep me happy for weeks.

After two (or four) wheelbarrow loads, I come inside, fish a couple of stray pieces of bark from my tank top, and wash my hair. I dry it with a clean, sun-kissed towel I just pulled off the line along with our pillows and bed sheets. It’s burrito night, and we are halfway through a good movie. Clean hair, towel, and sheets. I’ve hit the simple pleasure trifecta. Christmas in April, spring is the best!
 
 

Happy Mother Earth Day!

It is Earth Day Weekend. I open a new tab on my browser and find Jane Goodall’s 2018 Earth Day message:

Nature's Healing Spirit on AmazonInspired by my idol, I grab my copy of Sheri McGregor’s recently-published collection of essays, Nature’s Healing Spirit – Real Life Essays to Nurture the Soul and head outdoors. Written by an eclectic group of men and women, these essays celebrate the natural world while affirming our place in it. I am proud to be among the book’s authors, tickled pink that Sheri chose to include “My Friend Carl” in her beautiful book.

I soon find myself sitting in the tree house I named Sweetwater, a play place built at the edge of the woods behind our house before we arrived on the scene. Tacked between four sweet gum trees, this platform is perfect for creative introspection, something I need from time to time. A cardinal drowns out the swish of traffic out front and the drone of a propeller plane overhead. I am bathed in the jasmine scent of autumn olive, and can see the last of this season’s dogwood blooms. I settle into my lawn chair and pick a chapter.

Halfway through Kathleen Hayes Phillips’ Loving Stones, it occurs to me that Natures Healing Spirit is the perfect Mother’s Day gift, a lovely read for nature lovers of all ages, from active to house-bound. Each essay opens a portal between the man made world and mother earth, the equivalent of airing out the house on a spring day. Every story a reminder that, no matter what is going on inside, Mother Earth’s comforting arms are waiting just beyond the back door.

 

Wyoming Soap

On your way to John’s Italian Pizza, your heart begins skipping around in your chest. You try not to panic. You know it is not right to blame the jelly beans, but you keep returning to them as the culprit. You hope you can make it to the finish line. If your luck holds out, you will soon sink into the cushy recliner you paid $15 for at Habitat twelve years ago and watch another episode of Longmire with dinner.

You have been thinking about jelly beans since Easter Sunday. You retrace your childhood steps downstairs to find a chocolate bunny sitting upright in a sea of cellophane grass. You admire the marshmallow peeps, aware that many jelly beans are hiding beneath the glossy, green, waves. It never crosses your mind what those colorful pellets might represent.

Finally, you give in. You pull into the drug store parking lot and score a bag of half-priced jelly beans. And now you are feeling sick on your way to pick up a pizza, a special treat for a difficult week. You try not to heap stress on top of your general unease. You turn on the radio, searching for the perfect song. Stay between the lines. You are probably just thirsty. Sugar does that.

You do not know why you like Longmire so much. Soap operas are not your style. You think of what Bob told you about his grandparents, about how their soap operas took priority over their grandkids, and how you used to think they were using TV to escape reality.

The show is set in a fictional county in Wyoming. Walt Longmire, the local Sherriff, is nothing to write home about. The plot elements are predictable and full of holes. There is always a body, multiple suspects, a splash of sexual tension, a measure of distrust, somebody spends time in the jail cell that sits in the middle of the sheriff’s office, and someone always ends up confessing everything to Walt.

No one warned you that Walt, Vic, Ruby, Ferg, Branch, Cady, Henry Standing Bear, Matthias, Travis, and even Jacob Nighthorse, grow on you. No matter how bad the dialogue, or how deep the plot holes, you want to know what the characters will do next. You had no idea it would be so addictive, as irresistible as the sugar in those jelly beans.

You realize that you are using the show as mental floss. Washing away the cares of the day by immersing yourself in a story that does not even faintly resemble your own reality. It would be counter-productive if you were able to place yourself in their shoes. The more improbable, the better. You are self-medicating with sugar and TV.

Finally, you make it home with the pizza. Bob has pulled down the movie screen and hooked the laptop to the projector. Your heart has calmed down. “What will it be tonight?” Bob asks as you carry your plates to the living room. “Oh, I don’t know. A bear mauling? Maybe a drug overdose? Arrows?” You cannot wait to find out.

The Middle of the Horse

You might not notice to look at me that I’ve got a lot going on. Or then again, you might. You might catch me losing my balance. Or I may seem less compassionate, somewhat detached, distracted, and a little less patient.

And for good reason. My Mom and Dad are at a cross roads in their transition from independent to dependent. Opinions about what to do or what not to do are flying over the Ethernet, from IP to IP, bouncing off modems and cell phone towers. I’m on the phone a lot with my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law, the nursing home staff, and retirement communities. Bob bought me a fancy fifty dollar blue tooth to pair with my little dumb phone. It fits perfectly in either ear so I can talk while driving, pulling weeds, folding laundry, and making scalloped potatoes.

Bob has been great, always willing to listen to the latest blow-by-blow in the Mom and Dad Dance, a dysfunction we brothers and sisters have been battling since Mom’s car accident eleven years ago. Mom was 75 and Dad, 86 when I implored them to put their affairs in order, draft living wills, assign their Power of Attorneys, and choose a retirement community.

My father made it known to all six of his children that his fiscal responsibility ended the day we turned eighteen and we were to move out and find our own way. No college for us. Most of us left home when we were seventeen rather than wait for the ax. In this way, he said, he would prevent us from shouldering the burden of their elder care. And although over the past eleven years my mother has been in need of appropriate housing and care, she has refused to ask for it, and Dad has not volunteered to open his wallet. They are still saving for their old age.

Like as not, I look the same as always. Strong and full of purpose, chopping greens at my kitchen counter, walking the neighborhood trails, showing up at community events, cracking lame jokes, and cranking along with my wheelbarrow.

You might not notice that I’m struggling to stay in the saddle, but I can tell. I’m not sleeping well. I’m having trouble getting started. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. My mind doesn’t want to stay on topic. Thank god for my To Do list or I’d just sit and stare at that bluebird on the pear tree, bright against the tiny white blossoms.

Dad and Mom, 2016

Dad and Mom, 2016

Stay in the middle of the horse, I tell myself over and over. Don’t lose your balance. Stay in the middle. It’s that easy. I feel the same as when I used to train green colts. Scared I won’t be fast enough to catch him before he blows up and throws me to the ground, and scared I won’t be able to get back up, that this time the damage will be permanent. You’ve got to lie with your seat, a trainer once told me and I never forgot it. Sit with all your muscles relaxed to reassure the horse that everything is gonna be alright. Nothing to worry about. Breathe easy with me, son, long deep breaths in and out. Lie with my seat. Every muscle so ready to spring into action that the synapses are already pulsing, yet relaxed.

It’s easy to be off-balance as my parents teeter from stable to unstable, from healthy to sick, from alive to barely hanging on. There are at least ten of us, the people I love most in this world, trying to ride this beast, all twisting this way and that, all doing our best to stay in the middle, not sure whether to ride hard or soft.

My biggest fear is not that my parents will continue making it hard for us to help them, or that my mother will die a painful death, because we siblings and in-laws have little control over how Mom and Dad decide to live out their the rest of their lives. All the hand-wringing in the world won’t suddenly take their fate out of their hands. They are both still cognitively alert and fully in charge of their finances and medical decisions. No, my biggest fear is that one bad wobble will lead to a fall and my relationship with my brothers and sisters or their relationships with each other will suffer irreparable harm.

So, despite feeling a little less “here” than usual, despite my desire to self-exile from everything, despite my fears that the Mom and Dad Dance will set off an avalanche that leaves my family buried in hard feelings, I need to keep on making those calls, answering emails, and showing up for everyday life. I need to behave as if all is well, lie with my seat, convey a false sense of calm to the beast I’m riding and usher us both, unharmed, into calmer terrain. No matter what happens ahead, I need to stay in the middle of the horse.

Ice Cream and Oven Mitts

Mom and her oven mitts

Two clean but tattered oven mitts follow my mother wherever she goes. She was using them to keep her hands warm in her apartment and took them along to the hospital and then into the nursing home. Fortunately, the nursing staff graciously accepts Mom’s worn oven mitts as part of the package. They take the time to explain the mitts to their shift replacements, and use them whenever possible as pillows and props. They laugh and say, “Whatever keeps her happy,” and “We’ve seen worse!”

Ice cream is my mother’s other obsession. When she was at home, my brother John ground up her vitamins so she could stir them into a bowl of ice cream at the end of the day. I’d call her in the evening, and ask what she was doing. “I’m eating my ice cream,” she would say.

Thursday, February 22nd was a tumultuous day. My mother’s doctor sent the order for her to go to the hospital. My brother, John, scrambled to arrange transport and finesse Mom out of her apartment. Calls, texts, and emails flew between the brothers, and sisters-in-laws, and Mom’s sixth son, Bob. We were all relieved she was finally getting professional care after seeing a drastic decline in her condition over the winter. We worried it might be too late until John’s wife, Darla, let us know Mom was asking for ice cream.

I think we all have something we need in our life, something that gives us comfort. For me, it’s lip balm and a pocket knife that I can open with one hand. I never leave the house without a tube of lip balm in my left pocket and my tiny Spyderco lock-back in the right. I don’t use lip balm when I’m in the tropics but this far above the equator it is a necessity. I tell Bob I carry the knife because I might have to cut a horse loose, but I mostly use it to open boxes and clean my nails.

For my 91-year-old father, it’s cookies and tissues. I was in Mom’s apartment a couple of weeks ago when my brother, John, told Dad he was going shopping. “I need tissues,” Dad said from his perch on the sofa. John stepped back and reached down beside an arm chair. “We’ve got plenty of tissues,” he said, bringing a dozen shrink-wrapped boxes into Dad’s field of vision. John pulled out a box and set it carefully on the table next to a bag of cookies.

Tate’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, my mother tells me one night on the phone, are nearly as good as Nana’s legendary chocolate chips. My father’s mother only baked one cookie, a crispy, buttery, disk. I go out the next day, scouting the area stores for Tate’s and I find them. She’s right! They are as close to Nana’s as anything I’ve ever tasted. I order six bags online and have them sent to Shippensburg.

Nana with a tissue in her hand

Like Dad, I’ve got the tissue thing going on, too. His mother, my Nana, nearly always had a tissue in her hand. She’d stow them up her sleeve and fish them out of her pockets. It was finally warm enough for shorts today, and after I pulled them on, I found a half-used tissue in the left pocket from when it was warm last month. Here’s the thing: my nose runs a little a lot of the time. I’ve got a dog’s nose, Bob likes to say. A wet nose like a dog. It runs in cold weather or when I eat something hot, or just in general. But not enough to blow, just enough to wipe at it and put the tissue in a pocket for another wipe on down the line. It looks like Dad inherited Nana’s dog nose, too.

I think Dad’s fixation on tissues and cookies are more than a sweet tooth and a wet nose. I think tissues and cookies are how he keeps his mother’s memory alive. I think my lip balm and pocket knife represent my preoccupation with horses and the tropics. And I think my mother’s ice cream cravings have more to do with growing up without milk than simply liking ice cream. This realization comes to me when I’m in the final editing phase of her memoir, Honey Sandwiches. Ice Cream figures so prominently that it earned its own section heading. While there is nothing about oven mitts in the book, my mother does talk about how cold her hands got when walking to school with her friend, Ann:

“The Howes were a little better off than we were financially. They didn’t have much to spare, but they were able to get Ann a pair of sheepskin mittens. Ann [Howe] would swap mittens with me until her hands got cold and she would say, “My hands are getting cold now.” “Oh, just a minute longer,” I would plead before trading mittens.”

We cling to things from childhood that we hold dear or didn’t get enough of. The Great Depression deprived my mother of warm winter clothes, milk, and ice cream. She suffered from early childhood malnutrition and struggled with health issues all her life. Unlike my mother, I was lucky to receive enough good nutrition to form strong, healthy bones. And if my luck holds out, no one will need to explain my pocket knife to the nursing home staff.

Camille in Nicaragua with a horse named Fat Bunky

The Getaway

Camille and James 16 years ago on Maui

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a chilly Monday evening and I’ve joined James and Mom on a little road trip. Mom is riding shotgun and I’m between them, or maybe all around them, floating on bluetooth air waves while speaking into my cell phone 400 miles away.

Mom and James had waited an hour and a half for the ambulance before taking matters into their own hands. Apparently, general transport takes a back seat to emergencies. The nurses didn’t think it was a good idea to remove Mom from the hospital before the ambulance arrived, but luckily an angel of a nurse’s aide named Mary stepped up and liberated Mom. Mary, a woman of German descent, rounded up a doctor who gave James permission to use his car as transport. “I tell you, sometimes the lowest on the totem pole are the best,” James observes.

We have a 30 minute drive from the hospital to Mom’s new bed at the rehab facility. John is at the other end, getting things set up for her arrival. Bob and I are just finishing up the dinner dishes when James calls. “I’m taking route 11 instead of 81 because I think its smoother,” he says, “Is it smooth, Mom?” Mom chirps a couple of syllables. James translates, “She says it’s real smooth.”

He tells me about the aide who helped engineer the getaway and how he was surprised to find out she was two years younger than him. James usually assumes the people he meets are older than he, a leftover from being the youngest of six. “It’s funny,” he says, “I was surprised when I realized that Christina (James’ step-daughter) is younger than Brandon (John’s youngest son). In my mind, Brandon is always the youngest.”

I’ve taken the call to the back bedroom, and when I hear that they are on a dark stretch of road, I switch off the light so I can sit in the dark, too. I look out the window for the moon, but it hasn’t come up yet. I picture James zipping down the yellow line with Mom at his side and say, “You’re having a Thelma and Louise moment.” Then, wondering why that popped into my mind, I recall that Mom and I share the same middle name: Louise. I picture James and Mom as clearly as if I really were in the car and not just a voice over a speaker.

“Did Bob come?” Mom asks, and James explains that I’m still in North Carolina, that I’m only a voice on the phone. “Bob and I are coming on Thursday”, I say. Mom’s answer is muffled but cheery, like music from a radio wrapped in cotton bunting.

Poor Mom. James tells me she’s been sitting up since dinner hours ago, and went for two long walks today. “You must be exhausted,” I say, and she chirps back. The three of us barrel down the smooth old highway in the dark, talking about Shippensburg things I can’t recall, about the grandkids and the nieces and the nephews.

We talk about what we had for dinner, I stir-fried onions and cabbage over noodles with fake chicken breasts, and James, the better half of a stale bagel and some apple cobbler with whipped cream; all he could round up in the hospital cafeteria before they closed for the evening. The salad, he says, was already getting crusty, on the verge of being put away or thrown out. And besides, he’d already eaten an expired salad for lunch and was regretting it. “Best by 3/2, it said, and it wasn’t good.”

And then there are lights. James names them all, the lights of the hotel that sits behind the little house where that guy (remember?) sold fish. When you walked in the door it would trip an alarm and he’d come downstairs to sell you whatever you wanted. Now it’s dwarfed by a giant building. We turn on to Conestoga drive and there are the lights of Lowe’s and then the Walmart. We’re almost there.

When James stops the car in front of the nursing home, I sense both of them leaning forward, peering over the dashboard. “I don’t see John,” he says, “Maybe he’s inside, getting things ready,” I say. “I think that’s his van,” he says, “Isn’t that his van, Mom?” and Mom chirps. She must be more than ready to be done with this day.

Camille and Mom in their red dresses, circa 2002

“I’m going to leave you and Mom in the car,” James says and goes into the building. I tell Mom about my chat with our friend Carolyn Lemon, and she responds with pleasure. “I mailed her a copy of Honey Sandwiches,” I say, and I can feel Mom’s smile in the dark.

Now there’s another voice, a woman’s. I can’t believe I’m still on the line. I feel like part of the car, I’m in the air, in the moment. It’s magic. I think about the times I’d be on the phone with Nana and she’d get up to let one of the dogs in or out and forget I was on the line, and how I’d be perfectly content to stay on the phone for another thirty minutes, listening to the rhythms of her house, the patter of the dogs, her muffled, motherly tones.

I’m flattered to tears that James brought me along for the ride, me the big sister who moved out when he was only seven. I hear the woman instructing Mom to swing her legs to the side. “Now give me a big hug,” she says, in a voice as calm and patient, as strong and capable as any voice I’ve ever heard. “Let’s stand up on three,” she says, “One, two, three…” and I practically stand up myself.

The voices drift away and I sit in the dark car for a few minutes, straining to follow their footsteps. I feel included and forgotten, loved and abandoned. This is how it will feel when we take Mom to her final home, I think. And I start to cry.

Super Bowl Sunday

The Trooper and our staff, los tres amigos

It took us half the day to get there. We waited in line for the ferry, trying to ignore the malodorous canine carcass a few feet from our Trooper. The Belize River was high that day, making the process of getting our vehicle aboard the barge even more challenging than usual. When it was our turn, we drove across the partially submerged ramp to the deck. The distributor got wet and we had to push the wagon into its place in line. Panting, we settled in to watch the driver hand-crank the ferry up the cable that stretched across the turbulent water.

Our friends in Banana Bank had invited us to watch Super Bowl 32 and stay the night. We hadn’t listened to a radio or seen a TV since moving to Belize 8 months before, and we were looking forward to a taste of the 20th century.

It was a good game, lots of back and forth, and our team, the Denver Broncos, won. The ads were ingeniously witty as per usual, and the snacks gloriously indulgent. We had brought a big pan of Bob’s famous teriyaki chicken wings. I drank too many beers.

Our hosts were a good ten years older than me and Bob. I don’t know how the conversation got started, but at one point, they snorted and remarked that, after fifty, things don’t work like they used to. Of course we laughed, and shook our heads in appreciation of this sage comment, thinking to ourselves that it wouldn’t happen to us, that our plumbing would never go awry, and none of the things one associates with bad plumbing would ever happen to us.

And yet, here we are, in the same post-fifty boat, sitting on the other side of the river with bad plumbing.

Super Bowl 52 airs this Sunday and we’ve been invited to a party. We’re bringing a big pan of teriyaki tofu and plan on watching the game with a group of people who are mostly younger than us. This is my opportunity to snort and make snide comments about the ravages of time, saying, “You don’t know the half of it,” and “You’ll see.”

Camille’s mother 2012

More likely, I’ll keep it to myself, because I realize I’m not old compared to my parents who were as old as I am now back when I was watching the Broncos eviscerate the Green Bay Packers. My mother’s plumbing fell apart ages ago, so long ago I was practically in diapers myself. And now it’s her heart and lungs.

Yesterday my mother, who has relied on her doctors for every birth and tooth extraction, infection, ache, and pain, said no to further testing after a visit to a heart specialist. Struggling to breathe, pulse surging well above 100 beats per minute, she told my brother she just wants peace in her old age. I never would have predicted this, despite the absolute predictability of it. She’ll be turning 86 this year and has struggled with health issues all her life. Everyone calls it a day at some point.

A couple of weeks ago, I called my Mom and listened to her pant like a dog for a few seconds before she disconnected. She called back shortly to say she was getting her hair washed and couldn’t talk on the phone. A few nights later, she told me about how she sits in her chair all day watching the people outside her window. They are all walking with their eyes on their cell phones, she said, oblivious to everything else. She noticed there weren’t any cell phones on her wall of Christmas cards, only old timey things like horses and carts. Then she had a coughing fit, and after she recovered, she told me the story again, in the pretty much same words.

After Bob’s mother died, on Valentine’s Day of all things, he carried on stoically. But when his father died a few years later he told me, “I’m an orphan, now.” I casually considered how I would feel when my parents orphaned me. Reality was still outside my grasp.
I had my existential moment while I was at work yesterday, a bit of pre-game grief. I had been talking with one of my brothers after his conversation with what may be Mom’s last doctor. He wished my mother’s boiler-plate living will had concrete directives. For the first time, the terms palliative care and hospice entered our sphere of reality.

After speaking with my brother, I watered the kitchen plants, had a conversation with Malcolm, and called Bob to say I was done with my day at The Plant. He said he hadn’t gotten over to the farmer’s market and suggested I stop on my way home. I was reluctant. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel fit to talk to anyone. I wanted to just stop everything, sit down, and stare at the sun sinking behind the trees.

I felt heavier than usual and was reminded of Tami’s terrible grief after her son died. I went over to her house every day for weeks after that unimaginable and unforeseen event, and one day as I came to her door, Tami got up slowly from her sofa and said, “I..feel..so…heavy…”

But, I did keep on moving. I did stop by the farmer’s market and talked with four bright-faced people I’ve spoken with many times before. I did come home and embrace my husband, make dinner, call my brothers, shower and go to bed. Just like normal. And I will go to that Super Bowl party, and laugh and joke and eat with my friends. It remains to be seen whether I mention plumbing, or hospice, or end of life directives.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

My friend Linda of Cook for Good fame drove down from Raleigh last week to give me some 150-year-old sourdough starter. Linda is a food activist, cooking instructor, author, and a cherished friend, so this wasn’t going to be any old starter; this is going to be “The One.” I fed my new starter three times, and baked all but 50 grams into a loaf of bread. This morning, Bob and I got the big pay-off: (fake) bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches!

I’ve heard Bob say that BLTs are the perfect food so often, that I’ve come to believe it. The health benefits of lettuce and tomatoes are obvious, but news stories about mayonnaise are a pleasant surprise. I remember one about a plane wreck survivor who stayed alive by eating mayonnaise snow cones, and another about Creme Puff, a cat who lived to be 38 on a diet of broccoli, asparagus, bacon, and mayonnaise.

BLTs on sourdough bread bump Bob’s theory into sacred territory. This morning Bob made himself two sandwiches, one on sourdough, and one on the last two slices of ordinary bread. The toasted sourdough made the better sandwich, he said, because it was “more interesting; tangy!”

Bob’s history with the ultimate sandwich goes back to his childhood years in Ghana, when the family cook pampered him with BLTs. We celebrated our first three or four years together with frequent servings of his perfect food. I remember the can of bacon grease beside the stove. I kept it because I’d heard that bacon grease would heal any equine wound, but I don’t recall ever using it on our horses. We’ve since replaced the bacon with tofu, tempeh, and Morningstar Farm bacon strips.

Bread is so fundamental to our diet that we’ve been baking our own since forever. Bob has such a preference for sandwiches, that I’ve nicknamed him “Sandwich Man”. He will find a way to turn nearly any meal into a sandwich. When faced with a bowl of beans and tortillas, he makes burritos. Tofu scramble and toast become “egg” sandwiches. I love the ease of a sandwich, and so we have them for dinner two or three times a week: Cheezsteaks, Sloppy Joes, Grilled Cheez, Cheezburgers, and Rubenz.

We’re especially attracted to sourdough because it tastes so darned good. As an added bonus, its leavening we don’t have to buy. I love the idea that such an essential ingredient makes itself. Sourdough tastes like independence.

More than a flavorful way to rise bread, starters are heirlooms, cherished pets that won’t die until you stop feeding them. Many bakers name their starters. I love that idea, and I’m leaning towards Stinky, or Homer (as in Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”).

It had been at least six years since I baked a loaf of sourdough bread, and I was a little nervous about test driving Linda’s starter. But, with the rich flavor of that BLT lingering in my mouth, I’m happy I plunged in. If we keep eating the perfect food, I may be feeding our new pet for another thirty years. And after that? Well, don’t be surprised if I leave Homer to you in my will!

 

Here’s my sourdough bread recipe:

Day 1 morning: Feed 50 grams of starter 50 grams each of water and flour.
Day 1 evening: Feed what is now 150 grams of starter with 150 grams each of water and flour. Split off 50 grams and refrigerate until time to feed again in a week. Add 1 tablespoon salt and 1 1/2 cups of water to the remaining starter. Mix well, and add about three cups of flour, enough to make a very wet dough. Let the dough rise in a covered bowl on the counter overnight. Note: you can rise it in the refrigerator for another day or two if you don’t have time to bake the next day, but it will take longer for it to warm up and start rising.

Day 2 morning: Knead another cup or two of flour into the risen dough and let rise until double.
Day 2 afternoon: Knead briefly and put into a proofing bowl until nearly doubled in size
Day 2 evening: Bake at 410 degrees Fahrenheit in a covered Dutch oven for 25 minutes, uncover and bake another 15. Note: make sure the Dutch oven has been heating in the oven since you turned it on. Cool the loaf on a rack. After the bread has cooled, wrap it in plastic to make the crust easier to slice. If you prefer crusty bread, leave it unwrapped.

Day 3 morning: Slice and eat!

Tunnel Vision, Cookies, and Snitch Pads

My chosen theme for self-improvement this year is “Focus”. Like a photographer narrowing their depth of field, I’m going to highlight three important things: writing, friendship, and cookies.

I got a taste of tunnel vision in the last quarter of 2017. Up against a self-imposed Christmas deadline, I was able to ignore distractions and finish editing my mother’s memoir. Now that I know it can be done, I’d like to keep that momentum.

To support my writing habit, I plan on submitting two essays for publication a month, double last year’s goal and I’m off to a good start. I’ve submitted two essays already this month, and gotten my guest blog about a Mayan wedding published on Pink Pangea.

A good writer reads, so I’ve doubled the number of books on my reading list. This month I finished reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” and have begun reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” For fun, I’m reading Martha Conway’s “The Underground River.” Martha is Maggie’s sister, and Maggie is married to my cousin Brian. I highly recommend this book, especially if you like the notion of a floating theater, are curious about how slaves found their way to freedom in the 1830’s, or are handy with a sewing machine.

I’ve also started a “Snitch Pad,” a notebook I carry with me for jotting down thoughts and observations. I got this idea from “Steal Like an Artist”, a nifty little book that Shelley lent me. If you are looking for ways to boost your creativity, this book is a must.

As for friends, well, I’m fortunate to have a lot of great friends and oodles of opportunities for fun. But, if I’m going to do more reading and writing, I need to get choosy about what makes it to my calendar. This year, I’m focusing on quality over quantity.

Last, but not least: cookies. My Nana’s pet name for me was Cookie, and she baked the most incredible chocolate chip cookies. Ask any one of my brothers or cousins. To honor both my nickname, and Nana’s legacy, Cookies will be my new go-to potluck and party dish in 2018. No more fretting over what to bring, or how to keep it warm, or cold, or whatever. Cookies are easy, and everyone likes them.

Tunnel vision gets a bad rap, but I see it as a way to achieve my goals. If I can stay on track, my life will be productive, nourishing, and fun, and hopefully distract me from the political shit storm we all seek to weather this year. So happy tunneling, or whatever strategy you’ve chosen to make your new year shine!

My Experience at a Mayan Wedding (or, Why I Travel)

The Underground River

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative