Paradise Unhinged

Against proper judgment but tacitly supported by their spouses, two of the sons and the oldest, a daughter, drove into the heart of Amish country. On the surface they were checking on the condition of their parents’ vacant house, euphemistically referred to as “The Farm.” In reality, it was voyeuristic reconnaissance, and this year the daughter had upped the stakes. She aimed to remove a photograph from the third floor bedroom wall.

It was a picture of her mother holding her as a baby, something her mother might give her if she asked. But she hadn’t asked and hoped not to get caught. All but the oldest son moved away decades ago and once a year the daughter came to visit. In previous years, they had left everything exactly as they found it, out of respect tinged with childhood fear.

At eighty-five and ninety-one, their parents were beyond navigating the narrow pathways and stairs. Ten years ago, a bone-crushing car accident put the woman in a nursing home. When she regained the use of her legs, the kids helped her move to an apartment in town without stairs, near the bus line and the church. The man remained alone at the farm for another seven years. Without his wife to temper his hoarding habit, the trails inside the house had filled in so he moved to town, too.

With the sun low in the sky and their blood pumping, the three grown children parked on the rocky lane some distance from the house. “I don’t want to scratch the paint on my van,” explained the oldest son. The younger son grabbed a bag of work gloves and they climbed up the rocky driveway through a tunnel of encroaching undergrowth.

At the top, the youngest pointed out two tall trees and told their stories, how they came into possession of the seedlings and planted them forty years ago. Back then they had repainted the house, turning the faded green shutters to red. The mother had always wanted a white house with red shutters.

Not long ago, the man had siding put on the house and it still looked pretty good. But the barn has since gone to ground, the garden buried in weeds, and a legacy of cars rust into the landscape. There is the first car the daughter ever drove, forty-seven years earlier, sinking under half a ton of books. Their father was an English professor.

Twenty feet from the front door, they noticed a light on in the living room. They imagined a squatter with a shotgun. But they could see that the front door was still blocked by its wall of clutter. They stalked the perimeter, high stepping through brambles and poison ivy. The daughter tied back her long grey hair, her spinal cord tightening with each step. All they found were broken windows and animal trails. No fresh trash, no path worn by human weight.

They returned to the front porch and pawed through the rubble like badgers, handing stuff back bucket-brigade style. Hedge shears, a scoop shovel, weed trimmer, an axe. “That might come in handy,” the daughter remarked. The youngest chuckled, breaking the tension. “This is insane,” they thought.

Eventually they were able to pull the storm door open several inches. The daughter knocked and called, “Hello! Anyone home?” Hearing nothing, they pushed at the inside door until they could get an arm through. Things must have shifted. “We used to call it ‘the shifting sands'” said the younger son, “Put something down and it disappears.”

Despite the trouble with his back, the older son knelt and snatched at the avalanche of debris, getting ahold of one piece at a time and tossing it further inside the kitchen. They tested the door every couple of minutes until it gave, wide enough to squeeze through, breath held. It was growing dark and they’d left the flashlight in the car. The youngest used his phone to light the way. Dread closed upon their hearts but they forged ahead.

They slid across a morass of plastic bags and magazines, through the kitchen to the narrow stairs, willing them to hold their weight. Without incident, they made it to the second floor, pausing to behold the ruins of three bedrooms. Outside, the sun had set. The photograph in the attic beckoned.

Another steep flight of stairs, and they were standing in a room barely big enough for the queen-sized bed, the same bed the parents used to conceive all six children.

Beyond the bed, on the wall next to a broken window was the picture. The daughter stepped towards it and something squished beneath her feet. Her brother raised his cell phone flashlight to find the floor was covered in animal scat. “Animals,” said the older son, “You know they’re in here hiding,” and stepping around his sister, he removed the picture from the wall.

She returned to the hotel exhausted, clutching her prize. Her husband’s balmy voice brought her into the present, a place from which to shake the past. She felt dirty, buried, bruised. She went through half a bar of soap in the shower, felt as if she were swimming towards the surface, towards the light. She joined him in bed and slept like the dead.

Bridging the Gap

As he does every year, Bob rents a car and drives us to DC, our first stop on an annual trek to see my parents and four of my five brothers. We spend the night at our friend Ned’s and pick up my brother Joe at Dulles in the morning. He’d nearly missed his flight. “It’s not a vacation unless you’re running through the airport!” He says this every year.

We decide to make a vacation bingo card. If Jim says “You know, it’s funny,” we’ll mark off a square. If John suggests we taste the honey locust blossoms, if we sneak out to the farm, if Dad loses his temper, if the great grands run up and down the wheelchair ramp and piss off the old folks.

The three of us, me, Bob, and Joe make our rounds. We have a two night layover at Jim and Kathryn’s lake house before heading west. They’ll catch up to us in a couple of days. I know we’re getting close to Shippensburg when the scent of suburbia gives way to liquid shit. Cow manure is the smell of Amish country in the spring.

We’re staying in the fourth floor turret room at Shippen Place. Just like last year. Entering the lobby I’m hurled into 1970. Heavy metal head banger riffs, and plump teenagers hoisting trays for pocket money. They haven’t changed the tape in years. The heart thumping music makes me edgy. I choose the back stairs for my escape and find myself in an alley named Apple Avenue. Someone has stuck a bleached white washcloth between the door and frame so they can get back in without going through the lobby. I hesitate for a moment before wedging it back in place.

Outside, the streets are refreshingly warm but soon turn steamy as I trudge across a memory landscape. I clip past the Methodist Church with the loudspeakers that ring the quarter hour from seven until ten. I pretend not to see a man smoking on his back steps in a dingy beater tee. We kids used to call them “grandpa overalls shirts.” I pass another church and another, parking lot after parking lot.

My fact pattern begins to blur. I’m not seeing things as they are but rather as they were. I first hear that phrase from Kathryn. “It’s lawyer speak for ‘the story.'” I return to our room where Bob’s earnest smile brings me back to the present. Thank god I met this man, I think.

I wonder how my brother John can live here. Like me, he left as a teenager, but he and Darla moved back after they had their three kids. Unlike us, Darla grew up here. Her parents and grandparents are buried here. Their ten grandchildren have never known any place else. They play in the same parks she played in as a child.

The morning after Jim and Kathryn arrive in Shippensburg we go for a wander. Kathryn and I follow Jim to a patch of lawn where he peers across the street trying to picture a house that’s no longer there. It seems significant, so Kathryn and I obligingly squint toward the object of his mind’s eye. He shows us a hill where he lost control of his bike and crashed into the back of someone’s leg. He got yelled at, he says. Jim was only five years old when we moved here from his first home in New Jersey. It was my eighth move. I was sixteen with one foot out the door.

We cross the tracks near where the Harpers used to live. Those afroed twins everyone called “the Harper girls” were my closest friends during that year and a half. We were a triad of trouble. Together we mourned when Jimi Hendrix, and then Janis died. Once we decided we’d had it and ran away to their older brother’s place in Harrisburg. A day or two later we were arrested while sitting at a dimly lit bar reaching for three open bottles of Rolling Rock.

We walk past what used to be Julia’s house, a handsome Victorian that dominates the corner of Orange and Prince. Julia took me in when I was seventeen, after my parents and I mutually agreed to split. Pointing, I say “I lived in that room up the stairs behind the little window.”

We cut through Grace United Church of Christ’s parking lot where I remember waking up with the mother of all hangovers, grateful to have blacked out most of the night before. I had made the mistake of going out with a nice looking guy from school. He showed up with a friend and a bottle of rum. After that I stayed away from the clean cut guys and stuck to freaks, geeks, and blacks.

Walking past a Victorian home with a pointy-roofed turret Jim says, “You know, it’s funny – I used to be afraid of this house.” Kathryn says she loves the house, even its unnaturally pointed hanging baskets and hollow-eyed tower. Nothing about that house is lurking in her past. But I’m looking at it through Jim’s eyes and feel his shudder, his urge to run. We turn back towards the hotel. It’s close to ninety degrees and I’m spent, sticky and soiled.

The next day, I climb into my brother John’s van for a trip to North Mountain. The honey locust in his yard has mostly dropped its blossoms and they are drifting like snow on his driveway. “These are old” he says, shoving at them with his boot toe, “They taste better when they first come out.” A block away we pass another tree just coming into bloom. “Grab a bunch of those, youngster,” he drawls. I reach out my window and bend back a branch. I pop some in my mouth and smack my lips for emphasis, like a giraffe. They are good, kind of chewy with a hint of vanilla. John is laughing.

John and I hike a shaded trail to an old dam and look across a valley that used to be a lake. On the way down, he dives into the undergrowth and retrieves a green canvas camp chair. I test it for comfort while he leans back on a log. We talk about everything. After we’ve rested he returns the chair to its hiding place.

On the way home John stops in front of a small house with two barns and a “For Sale By Owner” sign. He and Darla are thinking of selling their two-story home, planning ahead for their golden years. I dream along with him for a while before he pulls the van into gear and drives through a 130-year old covered bridge. I imagine the sound of horse and buggy echoing off the timber sides. Livestock doesn’t spook at the water below while crossing a bridge like this. Some people call them kissing bridges.

Out here amid the orderly farms, away from that little asphalt town with its forty-eight churches I see so much more than that old fact packet of teenaged angst. I feel a sense of place and see generations of family when I look through my brother’s eyes.

Windows

I can’t abide clutter and yet I do it to myself every morning. After I’ve brushed my hair and teeth, after plopping down on the carpet beside the bed for some speed yoga, after boiling water for cocoa, I boot up the laptop and sit in front of double south-facing windows.

I straighten my desk. To Do list on the right, mug and mouse on the left. Turn on the phone or maybe not yet. I push my work folders and notebooks into a drawer and square up my personal notebooks, the ones that are allowed to live on my desktop. Let the game begin.

Within minutes, I’ve opened six tabs and eight windows. Email, Quickbooks, Word, Explorer, Photoscape, spreadsheets, calendar, news, and weather – all clamoring for attention. I study the grackles and the morning post-rain shine of the willow oak leaves.

A window smudge reminds me that I’ve been putting off cleaning the windows for two months. My stomach winces. So much to do, so much left undone, I can’t decide which horse to let out of the gate first and now there are six of them galloping across my mind.

When this happens, I usually get up and start a load of laundry. Fill the bird feeders. Grab the weed trimmer. Scrub a toilet.

It’ll be a miracle if I get my mother’s memoir registered and printed to proof by May 12th. Meanwhile I’ve been avoiding a pile of letters from State Workers Insurance Fund, my living will, and other equally important, but not urgent projects. I’ve already decided I won’t get the windows washed until June.

Then there’s that second April post I’ve been stabbing at. Well, there’s one thing I can do, I think, I can write about windows and pass it off as a blog post. One thing done!

Kill Chicken, Start World War III

“Kill chicken, show monkey,” the Chinese doorman at the Tianjin Hyatt shrugged in reference to a geopolitical news story. This was in 1998 when Bob and I were working in northern China, living in a hotel, absorbing all the nuances of the Far East. I pictured emboldened macaques terrorizing a barnyard flock, the farmer stomping out ax in hand, grabbing a hen and wham, “Squawk!” Monkeys disperse, point taken.

After the great swearing in a couple of months ago, I diligently read news from all sources searching for patterns, hoping to get a handle on the unwieldy new normal. As the new administration gaffed and blustered its way into life, I saw an army of new hires elbowing each other for position amid the DC old guard. At center, a boyish man sharpie in hand, showing off his signature, ignoring intelligence in favor of TV’s talking heads, the trophy wife flown in for photo ops.

Shooting from the hip, the big fish fired off a travel ban. When a federal judge reversed the order it must have dawned on him that he was swimming in a big pond now, magnitudes bigger than his real estate, global-golf-course pond. I eased back into headline scanning mode, relieved to see checks and balances at work.

And then this week, Syria happened. I plunged back in, unable to resist this headline:

When China’s Dinner Partner Went to War – Evan Osnos 4/7/17
The first face-to-face encounter between the American President and his Chinese counterpart was expected to follow a predictable arc—the plutocrat and the Communist, the blowhard and the sphinx, the weary protectionist and the reluctant globalist. But, just after eight o’clock on Thursday, as the two leaders were polishing off their New York strip and Dover sole, Trump informed Xi that he’d launched cruise missiles against Syrian armed forces.

In the medium and long term, China now has a larger concern: if the emerging Trump doctrine permits him to attack at will—even between the appetizer and dessert—putting some pressure on North Korea might be Beijing’s more desirable option. But it must now also prepare for four years of an American President whose strategy and doctrine can change from one week to the next. In the field of national security, unpredictability is usually the favored tactic of small powers, not large ones.

As noted by Steve Coll in another irresistible story “Trump’s Confusing Strike on Syria

In the modern Presidency, firing off missiles has become a rite of passage.  …
Last Thursday, his seventy-seventh day in office, President Donald Trump pressed the cruise-missile button, sending fifty-nine Tomahawks to strike an airbase in Syria.  …
The President’s decision was familiar for being both spontaneous and confusing. As has happened before, he was apparently inspired to act by what he saw on TV.

Well, you just can’t make this stuff up. Especially the part about eating dinner with the Chinese president, getting up to push the button on Syria, then sitting back down for dessert. It was a classic “Show Monkey” move if I ever heard of one whether he meant it that way or not. Quite likely, the timing was accidental (maybe he had the TV on in the corner of the room.) Probably he’d never heard of Kill Chicken, Show Monkey. Even more delicious, the air strike didn’t sit well with Syria’s ally, Russia.

The other day I was walking with a friend, talking each other’s ears off when a moment of silence between us revealed an unnaturally quiet world. No birds, crickets, planes, traffic, or frogs. Total silence. “Wow,” I said.
“I wonder if something has happened?”
“I know, right?! Well, I guess we don’t have to worry until we see the mushroom cloud.”

I suppose I shouldn’t make fun of a dire situation. I guess I should be afraid. But I don’t know how to fear something I have no control over. There’s no point in obsessing over stuff I can’t do anything about. So, for now at least, I’m reading the news, morbidly fascinated and keeping my eye on the horizon.

My Big Brother Johnny

My brother John shows his greatness in small ways. Often it’s the unkind word that fails to leave his lips. His patience with our aging parents is immeasurable. Ninety and eighty-four, they cling stubbornly to their illusion of independence. If not for John’s tireless support they would be paying for assisted care. Dad lives with John and his wife Darla, and John shuttles him across town to Mom’s apartment before driving to work.

My marks are not high when given the chance to test my caretaking endurance. Twenty minutes outside the Giant Eagle rest rooms, melting ice cream in the car outside pushed me over the edge last May. The shopping trip had taken an hour and a half longer than planned, the second stop announced after we’d paid for the ice cream at the first, after I thought we were headed home on an eighty degree day. By the time I got my mother back to her apartment, (“It’s alright dear,” she’d said, “I like my ice cream when it’s soft”) I lost control and let fly regrettable words. We’ll see how I do this year.

My brother works with developmentally challenged people, a source of great amusement to him. His clients are unapologetically candid, he says, crude and refreshingly unfiltered. He likes people, it’s as simple as that.

John is deeply talented but has put his creative career aside in favor of enriching our parents’ sunset years. Although his photography should be legendary, he never toots his own horn. He understands light like no one else. His creative eye unerringly homes in on the essence of a scene. He’s done a lot of studio portraits, many of them pro bono and has an uncanny way of teasing out his subject’s inner beauty.

You would never know that John suffers from migraines and back pain. At family events he works the room with tripod and cameras, mining for gold. Looking over photographs from our youngest brother’s wedding, we’re captured in candid enjoyment at round tables laden with food. John is missing. He’s behind the camera and I realize, has been on his feet the entire time. It’s all right, he tells me, it’s the editing not the standing that bothers his back.

John has a gaggle of grandkids and they crawl all over him, loving his attention, stealing his glasses. They call him Grandpa Basil. They make movies together, sophisticated ones with plots and multiple camera angles. The kids are great, flawlessly in character but I know how much behind-the-scenes patience it takes to pull this off. How John does this after a full time job and running our parents around, is beyond me. Surely he must pick the days between headaches, although I can’t imagine they are easily scheduled.

I was a pampered only child, regarded as miracle incarnate by my parents, until their next miracle appeared. Like many first-borns I felt dethroned, but quickly shifted gears after realizing I now owned a real-life doll baby.

We were the perfect two child family for three years. There’s a lovely photo of us, sitting on the stone steps outside our home in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, my mother beaming, my father slightly distracted by the camera timer, Johnny and I unaccustomed to sitting still.

Dad immortalized our relationship in another photograph. Johnny and I are in our Easter best, he in a jaunty sailboat shirt and me clutching my hatbox. I’ve got a firm grip on my little brother with my other hand. My attitude is doting and overbearing, his response unabashedly trusting. Johnny bought into my wisdom until he was old enough to question my authority, after which he was wise enough make it appear he still trusted my judgement.

Once we were playing on ice and it began to break. I watched in horror as Johnny began floating out into Hudson Bay. “Jump!” I shrieked and he stepped off into the knee-deep water without hesitation. Another time we were playing with friends, rolling around on their lawn, when the younger girl picked up a huge rock and dropped it on Johnny’s forehead. Her big sister fetched her mother, and I ran all the way home to tell mine. Mom flew out the door leaving me in charge. Terrified he was dying, I prayed the rosary again and again until she brought him home, alive.

John jokes about the incident, “I think she was trying to impress me.” he says. He is one of those guys who sees the funny in everything. John is a gifted mimic, too easily assuming personas to illustrate a joke. Even his complaints turn into jokes. We talk on the phone after dinner sometimes, laughing until tears flow and my jaw muscles seize up. “Remember that kid,” he’ll begin and I know I’m in for a good one.

In our thirties, John and I visited our grandmother’s home. “Let’s pretend we’re little kids again,” he suggested, picking up my hand. “We would walk like this” he said, taking a tiny little step towards the terrace above the vegetable garden. Off we went, climbing the concrete steps, navigating an enormous world and we small as toddlers. My eyes shone.

Life without John would be boring and burdensome, yet I take his presence for granted. It seems like he’s always been there, shouldering the hard work while making me feel big, picking up the pieces and joking about it. He touches many lives in profound ways without making anyone feel indebted. My little brother is bigger than me and has been for a long time. But don’t let him catch you saying that because he’ll defend his big sister’s honor with unabashed fervor to the end.

A Village of G-Pop Refugees – reinventing ourselves at The Bend

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” – Joel Barker

I’ve been hearing “It takes a village” for years and frankly, it failed to give me the warm and fuzzies the first couple hundred times. Usually uttered by frazzled mothers, the phrase seemed born of a loose parenting style heavily reliant on others. I favored the word tribe, a word that to me meant multi-generational, place-based cooperation. When my neighbors began comparing our relationships to a village, I tried substituting the word village for tribe and it dawned on me that a village was exactly what I needed as I grew greyer and more frail. It might take a village to ease me into my golden years.

A few mornings ago twenty of my neighbors met to envision the future of our community, a place affectionately referred to as “The Bend in the Road.” There’s been a lot of activity in our neck of the woods lately and it seemed like a good idea to proceed mindfully. As one person put it, “We are standing on the precipice of a world we’re all dreaming into life.”

We sat comfortably in a warm windowed room, sipping hot drinks and leaving muffin crumbs on the radiant heated tiled floor. Among us were visionaries, spiritual leaders, chefs, a building contractor, a permaculturist, farmers, parents, homeowners, true believers, and elders. Our host Lyle opened with the story of what these fields and woods looked like before the rest of us arrived. Back then trouble lights obscured the night sky, and daytime views were marred by cars on blocks, single-wides, chained dogs, and midden heaps.

Generations of people hauled their trash into the woods before landfills came into being. Lyle made us all laugh with the image of a field strewn with Kotex applicators, blaming his bad back on years of stooping to pick them up, one by one. Although I still run into an occasional midden heap, the rest of these eyesores are gone. The ‘hood has come a long way in twenty-five years.

The group discussed a balanced menu of projects including a farm, apiary, school, spiritual learning center, and cemetery. “All we need is a birthing room,” someone quipped, “and we can go from cradle to grave.” The room thrummed with energy as one project after another was explained and discussed.

Many of us felt we’d been drawn here by the strands of an invisible web. Stephen King’s “The Stand” came to mind, the story of a global epidemic and the survivors who dreamed of an old women urging them to trudge onward until they all found themselves in Boulder, Colorado. Our experience was similar, only it was Tami and Lyle who drew us to The Bend with their dynamic personalities and dreams of a post peak oil utopia nearly ten years ago. We knew coming in that this was more community than neighborhood, and now it was becoming a village.

One of us had grown up in a real village, in Kenya. In this country we don’t know what that is. We play at village-making knowing we can hop in our cars and drive off any time we want. “Every village is unique, yet all have invisible energy,” he explained. “They are infinite because they will go on in perpetuity. Living outside a village these twenty years – it’s a crazy unsustainable way of living.” I’ve been there and know of that frightening, soul-sucking existence disconnected from family and friends. But not since moving to The Bend. His thoughts moved on to the village we seek to create. “I’m not it, you’re not it – the village is it.”

I laughed out loud when the first person used the term “the G-pop.” “Is that G-pop for General Population?” Bob asked. We used to call it mainstream. One person observed, “Where I came from people are working, but toward what?”

A village requires infrastructure and living skills. We were here to visualize the transformation. Another neighbor observed, “This work is why I’m on this planet. I don’t know what I’d be doing if not this.” One of the elders brought up the importance of faith, of giving our hearts fully to the enterprise. “There is magic in the right mix – visionaries, strong backs, growers of food,” he continued, “I’m not a joiner but I’m throwing in. These young people really have a lot of juice so I’m building my home here. The real juice in this community, this vocational community – we’re living it, doing it, being it – so much juice here.” The younger people in the room, the strong backs, beamed.

“I love the kids,” a bright young woman said, “It’s not just about the adults.” Perpetuity. We build future and the next generation continues the work. Villages never die.

Lest you think we are all on meds, the challenges were also discussed. “There’s a whole lot of fear in what we’re doing and these wounds are very deep. I think everyone has them,” observed one. Another brought up the importance of communication. “Asking is important.”

Bob took on the weighty topic of gossip. “Not everyone will participate in the same way. Diversity breeds resilience. Talking about others, fact finding, blowing off steam are all okay up to a point. But not well-poisoning. We have to find ways to talk about the hard things. You have to be willing to take out the garbage and it’s going to be messy, the bag might break.” Another person said, “Blame and Shame – we’re steeped and marinated in that shit.”

“Out there in the G-Pop, there’s an insane search for meaning. Learning to play the instrument you all handed me is what I’m meant for. I’m living in a dream I didn’t make possible. You made me possible.”

The Fort

I ran into Noah and Demetrius in the woods last weekend, both wearing knit hats on a 72-degree day and digging like badgers in their new fort. They were in perfect sync, the hats a badge of solidarity. I had been out walking our annual Trail Crawl route with Jay and Giovanna when we reached the fort.

When she was at my house last, Eden told me they were making a fort as part of their schooling. During our walk Jay told me more.

“It has rooms!” he’d said.
“Maybe you can live there.”
“No,” chuckling, “It’s too small for me.”

Jay is a tall drink of water. When I saw the fort, I realized what he meant. It was more of a burrow than a fort. A rabbit warren. An expanse of sticks and leaves on a flat area next to Stinking Creek which could easily be mistaken for evidence of a heavy rain.

When Jay told me where it was I’d remarked, “On the floodplain? That won’t last long.” “No problem,” Jay replied, “They have short attention spans. As soon as they finish one fort, they start building another. They aren’t meant to be permanent.”

This delighted me. I recall reading years ago about indigenous structures, wattle and thatch and how they held up to storm damage compared to our version of “permanent” housing. In my culture, hurricanes send roofs flying, causing much damage and requiring massive reconstruction efforts. But a hut just blows away and is easily rebuilt from materials at hand.

Permanence is an illusion. The kids had tapped into primal values with their series of temporary forts. “Each one is better than the last,” Jay pointed out. What a great way to learn teamwork and common sense!

I scoffed inwardly when Eden told me their home school teacher Sarah was leading them down to the creek four days a week. What can they be learning down by the creek? Now I knew. This was experiential learning. In addition to math and other conventional subjects, they were learning to work together far from screens and mindless entertainment.

The boys stopped tinkering and scrambled into the openings on their elbows to demonstrate their fort’s functionality. I walked around the perimeter, stalking their voices and rustlings. “This is the sitting room.” An unusual choice of words for a little boy. Jay pointed out his “lashing demo” four feet up a tree, made from a nearby vine, an attempt to steer the kids towards loftier goals. But they had chosen to keep it small.

I crouched, peering through the painstakingly layered sticks making up the short walls. Fingers and then a hand snaked out of an opening. I reached down, wondering which boy was on the other end, a hand nearly as big as my own. I grasped it, realizing it must be Noah. Alisa, taller than all the other women in the ‘hood doesn’t know where Noah gets his size. I looked up at her and laughed when she said that. Chris wasn’t that tall, she continued, and neither are her parents. Must be her grandparents, we decided, the same people who made her 5′ 10″.

Our neighbor Whitney is shocked that Noah wears her husband Ben’s size 10 1/2 shoes. She’s also impressed by the kids’ appetites. At times there are a dozen running around these woods; Whitney’s son Jack, Amie, Noah, and Eden, Brooksie’s kids, Amy’s, and Hope’s. Whitney is a chef by trade and when she catches sight of the pack, she calls them inside and feeds them. She said they chewed through a loaf of bread and a block of cheese in no time the other day. “I kept making sandwiches,” she said moving her hands in a blur, “It was like dealing cards!”

Noah’s hand felt calloused and grown up. We let go of each other and the image of Amie flashed through my mind. I remembered Alisa’s story of little Amie crawling into a red wolf den to retrieve pups and how frightening it was to see her daughter disappear into the ground, how Chris held onto one of Amie’s heels and dragged her back out after she was finished passing pups behind her.

That night I lay in bed and savored my golden moments from the day. Whitney’s stories, the brisk pace through the woods, Noah’s hand reaching through the twig window. I wondered why they chose to make it so small and low to the ground.
And then it struck me. They had made a wolf den!

June 4, 2024

I’ve been mired in dread since last Friday, so I thought it would benefit me to dream a little. Let’s fast forward to my seventieth birthday.

“Happy Birthday!” my friends cry gleefully as I manage to gather the corners of my lips into an “Oh” and extinguish the candles on my vegan death-by-chocolate layer cake.

Bob takes my hand and leads me next door to the property we purchased last year. I think I know what’s coming because we’ve been building fence, but nothing prepares me for my first glimpse of the gorgeous pair of middle-aged, languid-eyed bays. Their heads hang eagerly over the new wooden fence, obviously spoiled and looking for treats. I run my hand along their glossy necks, inhaling their horsiness.

Everyone gasps and claps their hands. Looks like my dream of a retirement riding stable has just come true. No wonder Lyle’s been putting extra work into the trails. The neighborhood kids run for the fence, reaching up to feel the velvet muzzles and turn to me expectantly. “Riding lessons for everyone!” I laugh, “Starting tomorrow!”

Chatham Park had been a game-changer when it roared into action with the development of nearly eight thousand acres in our back yards. Like many others, we rode the crest of that bow wave right into retirement. We begin drawing social security payments later this year, and plan on keeping our hands in neighborhood business. It comforts us to know that when we’re too old to totter from bedroom to kitchen, we can sell our land and move to that lovely retirement community in town.

Bob and I stand on our back porch, fireflies twinkling in the woods, calling out good night to our neighbors as they wander off towards their homes. “They’re a great bunch,” I say, rounding up stray dishes. “We’ve made a good life for ourselves,” Bob notes, balling up tablecloths and folding our potluck tables. We light our bedside lamps, close the shades, fire up a stick of incense. “Yeah, well – I’m afraid I’m going after another piece of cake.” “Me too, I want one too!”

Sitting at my desk with my indulgence, I think back to that dark day January 20th, 2017 when the swearing in of the 45th president of the United States brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t seen then how his taking a sledge hammer to the asphalted-in policies of capitalism would shake things up to the point that real change could grow up between the cracks.

Now, with our first woman president and VP Bernie Saunders, policies are geared towards preservation of our abundant natural resources, humanity toward man and beast, and equal rights for all. It’s been dreamy watching them dismantle the military-industrial machine, pouring dollars into education and health care. Global trade has dwindled, shrinking our world to human-scale. Local government has shrunk, giving counties and towns more sovereignty, and even here in podunk-ville, USA we’ve legalized marijuana and banned GMO’s.

We are rich and have been for a long time, thanks to our sweet circle of friends. Chocolate melting on my tongue, I close my eyes and see our future glowing ahead. It is everything I ever hoped for and much, much more

Going Retro

“Here’s your radio!” Lyle beamed, fishing out his phone with a flourish. I knew he was right but that’s not what I wanted to hear. “I want a real radio,” I whined, “with dials and maybe a hand crank. A solar panel even.” I pictured myself hunched over a garden bed listening to talk radio or classical music. Oldies. Radio Lab. I want something smaller than a bread box and bigger than a brick. Something in Bakelite perhaps.

I can still smell my parent’s Bakelite radio after it warmed up, the plastic casing heated by the glowing tubes inside. Bakelite was the tip of the plastic iceberg, a hard-as-rock substance made of petroleum, and the best thing since sliced bread.

When the tubes burned out my Mother would send me to the five and dime on the other end of the Island. I’d offer up the expired bulb, and the clerk behind the high counter would reach into the glass case for a replacement. I felt awfully important carrying my fragile prize home in its thin box, careful not to trip over the root-humped sidewalk.

The inside of the radio looked like an inventor’s brain. I carefully plugged in the new tube, and our living room was soon zinging with big band music. Back then, a few tubes and some wires were all we needed to produce all-day entertainment.

My retro radio craving started when I found myself becalmed in Christine outside the Post Office, catching the last minutes of the Diane Rehm Show. Days later my car radio announced that Tami was going to be on “The State of Things” – the same time I’d be weeding with a volunteer. Dang.

Toward Lyle’s point, if I got myself a smart phone I’d never miss a beat. But I’m stubborn. And nerdy. I’m sticking with my dumb phone and I want a radio.

My ears perked up when eighteen-year old tech-savvy Arlo said he was hoping Santa would bring him a film camera. “A film camera?” I asked, unsure I’d heard right. Heck, I didn’t even know they still made those things! Going retro was suddenly a whole lot cooler. Maybe the radio wasn’t so far-fetched.

It was Christmas Eve and Bob and I were draped over our living room furniture with our homies. The conversation was earnest and relaxed – not a screen in sight. I felt twelve years old, exactly how I used to feel at my Nana’s playing with my brothers, cousins, and friends.

Tami, Lyle, and Arlo were planning Christmas at home with Uncle Michael. This is their first Christmas without Zafer, another painful celebration in their year of firsts. Arlo plans on taking a gap year, brush up on his Spanish, and do some WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Costa Rica with his (fingers crossed) film camera. Bob and I are right here, happily immersed in our dotage.

A card caught Tami’s eye. She reached out and pulled it off the mantle. “You’re the anonymous friend!” I cried, and she nodded sheepishly. Everyone looked up and I urged her to read it:

Dear Bob and Camille
A gift for you from an anonymous friend –
“Love Letters from a Small Town”
Each month you will be receiving a letter containing stories about life in Bynum, N.C…

What a great idea, I thought when the card arrived. I love hand-written letters! I immediately looked it up and subscribed on behalf of our snail-mail loving friend, Shirley.

And with that, going retro officially became a trend because Tami lives on the cutting edge and she had gone there, too. My heart leapt to see the technology pendulum swing towards center, the needle pull away from the red zone. I’m not proposing we go completely retro, let’s just rein that horse in a little. Let’s make 2017 something we can hear, taste, smell, and feel!

Taking Stock and Keeping Track – Three new habits for 2017

It’s that time of year again. Time to take stock, reflect, and strategize. Last year I set five goals for myself and did a pretty good job. I orientated myself with the woods behind my house, re-connected with my father, played with some horses, and tried new recipes but I didn’t do so well with Two Brauds Abroad book sales. This year I’m simplifying. I’m only going for three.

First, to my chagrin I kept a lot of people waiting in 2016. So this year I resolve to:

Get there on time

Sounds easy, but there’s obviously something holding me back, and I think I’ve identified the sticky wicket. It’s a transition problem. Happily immersed in my own little world, I’m slow to shift gears. I’m in my zone and can always think of one more thing to do before I walk out the door.

So I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I can be retrained, I assure myself. I’ve got discipline and don’t want the world to wait on me any longer. If I can just get excited about the task ahead, it will be easier to transition. Before I need to leave, I’ll start thinking about where I’m going next and what I’ll do when I get there. As a bonus incentive, I’ll add a dot on the calendar when I’m on time and an X for when I’m late. I love keeping track of things!

Second, it’ll be easier to anticipate my next appointment if I seed my calendar with exciting activities so I resolve to:

Try new things

Bob and I love our routines. The other day he said we’ve settled into our dotage. But I keep hearing how it’s important to try new things, so this year I’ll schedule one out-of-the-ordinary activity per month. Again, I’ll keep track because last year I promised to try one new recipe a month and have no idea what they were!

Third, my friends are sick of hearing me grouse about finding time to write so I pledge to:

Write at least 300 words a day

I just finished reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” her hilarious writing primer from 1994 and was inspired by her advice to write at least 300 words a day. On those days I don’t write anything, I can always get in bed and write in my journal. I’ll make a check on my calendar for each day I meet my goal.

I’ve already practicing, giving myself credit for things I wouldn’t have claimed before I started measuring my success. If I say I’m going to get to a party at a certain time and make it, I get to put a dot on the calendar even if no one is expecting me. If I write an exceptional email or a couple of pages in my journal, I get a check mark. The checks are proof that I’m a serious writer. The dots make me feel like the kind of person who gets there on time. And the X’s remind me I’ve got room for improvement.

Well, there you have it. Five hundred and thirty-one words and three goals to make 2017 my best year ever.