Moving Ahead

movingaheadIt’s okay, I tell myself. This is real so deal with it. Surely you know how to handle unexpected upsets by now. Yeah, I usually deal by running away. Like a horse. I keep Cecilia’s words in my pocket, turning them like a stone. “I even do have land with olive trees in southern Italy…You can produce organic stuff there too and I can visit regularly. I mean it.”

But I think I’ll stay. It’s easy to stay put when you have other options.

It’s okay. The people have spoken. They said, “We want change!” And their voices were finally heard. What happens now is anyone’s guess. The guy’s a wild card, probably not even playing with a full deck. Or maybe I’ve underestimated him. Maybe he’s crazy like a fox. All that rancid rhetoric to rouse his base and get elected, and now he’ll settle down and behave like an adult. We can only hope.

I’m encouraged by the tone of his victory speech. I’m happy to hear he’s finally met Obama, the man he’s been sniping at for years and that they talked about how to hand off the bailiwick of presidential power. I try and imagine the new guy getting along with the nearly two thousand people who run things in the White House.

Why would anyone wish this on themselves? I wouldn’t wish myself into the oval office for anything. It sounds like a demanding, thankless, sleep-deprived job with little-to-no privacy. President-elects enter with a jaunty step and shuffle away four-to-eight years later, hair gone grey or just gone, weary lines permanently etched on their faces.

One thing for sure, we here on the other side, the masses, we need to behave ourselves. This looting I hear about is ridiculous. Let’s behave like adults and figure out how to move forward. We’ve had enough division for a dozen lifetimes. Enough already.

I count myself among the privileged; white, semi-educated, born in the U.S. I have the security of an incredible marriage, great health, a fulfilling job, and a tribe of caring neighbors. I’m in no position to judge the disadvantaged, disconnected, and forgotten, the angry, the fed up, discouraged, desperate people who have spoken.

I imagine many who voted Republican were saying “Let’s shake things up in the White House.” A lot of those who voted Democrat were saying, “Let’s put a woman in the White House, maybe that’ll make a difference.” Others were saying, “Nuh uh, I’m not falling for that old trick again.” And those who didn’t vote had thrown up their hands. All were hoping for change. We all want to move forward.

20160620edenHaruka reminds me that we saw this coming years ago. That we’ve been busy weaving a grassroots safety net since we threw in with our neighbors. There’s top down change and bottoms up change. She and Jason chose the latter when they decided to grow food. Lyle and Tami chose the grassroots path when they built the sustainable eco-industrial park at The Plant. Alisa is building community resilience via Sparkroot Farm. We won’t ruin ourselves looking for villains. There’s a fine line between apathy and anger right now and I intend to keep my balance.

To that end we eat together, share tools and know-how, and bury our dead in the woods. Tonight we celebrated Eden’s ninth birthday at Sparkroot, her first birthday since we buried her father in June. The house was swarming with kids. Eden’s grandparents drove in from Illinois and baked two pans of ziti. Haruka brought her famous greens bake. Brooksie made quiche. I surprised Eden with a chocolate cake. Everyone sang Happy Birthday, Eden made a wish, blew out the candles, and we roared.

In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There is another human defect which the Law of Natural Selection has yet to remedy: When people of today have full bellies, they are exactly like their ancestors of a million years ago: very slow to acknowledge any awful troubles they may be in.”
Maybe that’s what inspired me to write this. My stomach bulging with homemade, home grown food, I feel I can handle whatever comes. Maybe I won’t have to run off to that olive grove after all.

When Hate Trumped Love

I’m not often on the receiving end of condolences, but last night two expat friends surfaced to offer solace and a place to stay. They were every bit as horrified as Bob and I, watching the 2016 presidential election returns over our shoulders from Switzerland and Australia.

We watched in disbelief as the map turned red. We knew the country was torn, but to see blood run like this! My stomach clenched and I thought I’ll never eat again. My friends could plainly see the U.S. was getting their Brexit vote. The people had spoken. Thirty percent of registered voters cast their ballot for change at the hands of a smug capitalist. It was inconceivable.

I wonder when compassion, tolerance, and acceptance went out of vogue in the great United States of America. Mother liberty must be writhing beneath her iron robe. I wonder if they’ll remove the plaque at her base, the one that says,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

My neighbors soothe me by predicting things will work out. It can’t get too bad. We’ve already formed a solid grassroots community to see us through hard times. We have resilience. We’ll be strong together. All this is true. I’m happy and fulfilled. I feel secure here.

But the future is not what’s troubling me. I’m ashamed of what has already happened. I’m flustered by the fear and anger I’ve witnessed these past six months. I’m embarrassed I underestimated white middle class xenophobia, that I didn’t for a moment think it would go this far. I was blindsided.

I realized this morning that I had been clinging to hope. I thought we’d learned from history, that we’d progressed, that we were bigger than this. Fifty-three years ago I lost my innocence when a sniper blew JFK’s head blew apart. Today, I lost my faith in humanity.

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The Invisible Shoe – the elephant on the counter

stilettoheelUnbidden, my hand picked it off the cluttered thrift store shelf. It may have been the zebra stripes. Or the stiletto heel, tricked out with silver rhinestones.

I tried to put it back. This just wasn’t my type of thing. Plus, it was a whole two dollars. But when I turned it over and discovered its real purpose, I wondered how no one had snatched this treasure before I happened by. Clearly, whoever donated it thought it was too hot. I felt terribly lucky.

Clutching my prize I made my way to the register, and returned home to burst in our back door. Bob was sitting at his desk.
“Look what I found at the PTA!”
“Hmmm.”

Hoping for some enthusiasm, I pressed the tiny shoe into his hand. He turned it upside down, saw its potential and smiled. The zebra-striped rhinestone-studded shoe with the killer heel was a bottle opener.

Bob seeds our refrigerator with beer for the neighbors, same as he fills the bird feeders. If you want your friends to come over, you stock their favorite beer. Everyone knows the bottle opener lives in the drawer next to the refrigerator. We decided to put the new opener on the counter above the drawer and see what happened.
“Who do you think will be the first to use it?” I asked.
“Jason.”
“I’m betting on Tami. You know how she loves shoes.”

I knew that she and Lyle were coming over the next evening for a meeting. I naively believed the first person to walk in our house would discover the new bottle opener. It was such an unlikely object, quite out of character for our kitchen.

But neither Tami nor Lyle noticed the shoe. The next day Jason stopped in and reached in the drawer for the old opener, despite the giant exclamation point on the counter. Weeks went by and no one mentioned the glittering, zebra-striped shoe sitting beside the refrigerator. We couldn’t understand why something so extraordinary was overlooked by everyone. It was as if it were invisible, something only Bob and I could see.

invisibleshoeYears ago I listened to a presentation about reality and observation. The audience was invited to place a hand over their watch and describe it. Very few recalled the color of the bezel, face, or hands, yet they glanced at it continually through the day. The point was made. We glance at our watches for the time, and all else goes unseen. You only see what you’re looking for. Or, as my friend Hannah says. “We live in the world we manifest.”

Case in point: the presidential debates. I’m astonished at how there can be two clear winners depending on where you stand. What happened to objectivity? Everyone sees what they’re looking for and nothing more.

But, back to the shoe. Desperate, I moved it to the center of the counter. Andy was coming over for a drink and I was counting on his superior powers of observation. He walked in, put a six-pack in the fridge, pulled one out and cavalierly opened it with his wedding ring. Dang.

Lyle arrived half an hour later and went to the fridge. I sucked in my breath when he picked up the shoe.
“What is this?” He asked, turning it over.
“Oh, it’s a bottle opener!” he chortled.
I was jumping up and down, my hands drawn up in little balls under my chin.
“Do I get a point?”
“Yes! You were the first person to see the invisible shoe!”

It made my week when someone finally picked that thing up and saw it for what it was. Thank you, Lyle for noticing my little trinket. What a comfort when someone else notices the obvious. You’ve made me feel a little less crazy in these nutty pre-election times.

Dancing with Nana – Those were the days

The sun is low in the sky as my Polish Nana and I settle into her living room with our customary after-dinner wine. The enormous picture window frames the lush oak-shaded lawn beyond her rose garden. The wall on the other side of the room is stone and wood, a magnificent fireplace flanked by custom shelving populated with books, family photos, figurines, and a turntable. Nana sets the needle on the record and we dance across the carpet, giving the dogs an excuse to rip around in joyous circles.

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day

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Easter Sunday at Nana’s, 1961

We whirl until tears fill our eyes. Dancing is so cathartic! You don’t know you’re holding anything in until it leaves.

I promised Nana we’d play that tune at her memorial, a detail I failed to fulfill. By then I’d moved across the country. In 1989, I traveled from Denver to New Jersey for the funeral after my Aunt and Uncle had done all the planning. Fast forward twenty-seven years, and Nana is still very much a part of my life. She whispers in my ear when I make decisions, smiles when I tend my roses, and guides my seasoning hand when I cook.

Next month Abundance NC is celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead with Death Faire on November 5th. I think it’ll be the perfect opportunity to honor my Nana’s memory with a dance. The celebration will feature plenty of delicious music and I’m looking forward to letting loose.

How easily I forget the importance of music. It is woven into the fiber of our beings, predating the written word. Prehistoric stories were passed along through song and dance. Some think knowledge is imprinted on our genes in this way. Surely Nana’s favorite song is written in my DNA.

Día de los muertos, a three-day celebration, has been around for three thousand years, beginning in southern Mexico and spreading north. Like many indigenous holidays, it eventually found its way onto the Gregorian calendar, moving from spring to fall to coincide with All Hallows Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

In New Orleans, All Saint’s Day is a big deal involving colorfully dressed skeletons, costumes, music, feasting, and all-night dancing in the streets. When Bob and I moved from Texas to North Carolina, we spent the night in New Orleans on All Saint’s Day. The streets were filled with happy revelry, practically everyone was carrying an instrument, and the parks were pulsing with music.

Death Faire will be a typical Abundance party, the perfect celebration of life, love, food and music. Chef Bill’s menu will likely show some creole influence, and four bands will provide a range of music. There will also be workshops, children’s activities, a costume contest, and a vendor village. Nana would not miss this for the world and she won’t. She’ll be there with me and my friends, as we dance our way across the lawn.

A Pragmatist’s Guide to Hybrid Teas

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Fragrant Cloud

Bob wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses when he promised me a rose garden. Moreover, we were determined to grow hybrid teas, the most finicky of blooms, without chemical pesticides. No scentless knock-out roses for us, we wanted the sweetest of the sweet, Fragrant Cloud and others of her ilk. Yet, although our goal appeared Utopian, our approach was cautious and methodical. At this point we weren’t sure whether to take an optimistic or pessimistic view. We needed more facts.

Optimism – a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome

Pessimism – the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.

It may have seemed Bob was peering through mud-smeared glasses as he perused the internets for everything that could go wrong with organically grown roses. He soon concluded that our chances were slender but not impossible. Meanwhile, I searched for fragrant varieties renowned for their hardiness in our area. We were being realists, setting ourselves up for success by arming ourselves with information. Refusing to consider possible pitfalls would have been foolish.

Realism – interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc., the tendency to view or represent things as they really are

Pragmatism – character or conduct that emphasizes practicality

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Double Delight

We settled on a pragmatic approach, starting small and counting on Bob’s years of organic gardening to help even the odds. He followed all the rules, digging the bed to suggested specifications, applying recommended soil amendments, and buying our plants from a reputable nursery. We chose Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Chrysler Imperial, and Stainless Steel – coral, pink and cream, deep red, and lavender-white, all praised for their scent. Bob planted them in a high-profile place where we can keep an eye on them and installed an automatic watering system.

Bob and I believe in following rules, a dirty word in idealistic circles. Yet, the natural world is riddled with rules; leaves drop after the first freeze, warm soil encourages green shoots, rain breeds weeds. Rules are a fact of life and all rules involve consequences. If you hope you can get away with putting diesel in your gas car, you will find yourself stranded. Eat too much and your jeans grow tighter. Buy a load of gravel if you don’t want to get stuck in the mud. Our respect for rules effectively makes us pragmatists.

The first sign of trouble flies in on iridescent wings but we know what to do. We pick off the Japanese beetles one by one and toss them into a jar of soapy water. Crisis averted. Roses flourish. The second year Chrysler Imperial inexplicably dies. We were prepared for this, and aren’t too disappointed. A year later, our project appears to be a success.

Every time I stand at the kitchen sink, I see our beautiful rose bushes, bright and happy against the yellow south-facing wall of our garage. On my way to visit friends, I snip off blooms before climbing into the car. I pick flowers to grace our home when I walk in from the garage. They fill the yard and house with unforgettable fragrance. My rose garden is a constant reminder that I married a genius who knows how to walk the line between optimism and pessimism. I married a realist, a pragmatist who only promises what he can deliver.

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.” – H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques

Our Dream Home

shuttersThe plastic shutters riveted onto our house catch my eye as I walk across our front yard. Some are still green. Others have turned brown. They were put there purely for looks. Flimsy window-dressing on the faded yellow siding of a thirty-year-old manufactured house, the shutters are a sad testament to the folly of “form over function.”

To qualify for a loan, we paid someone to bolt the house to the ground so it wouldn’t blow away in a tornado. In order to get an appraisal, we tore out carpet, installed kitchen cabinets, and repainted half the rooms. We worked like dogs on the grounds, chopping through layers of weeds to unearth long lost gardens. The swimming pool was toast so Lyle suggested we fill it in and grow vegetables.

We celebrated our closing with champagne. The next day we bought a life-sized zebra made of Mexican milk cans, named him Spot and stood him between two clumps of Pampas grass in the front yard. We slept in the house for the first time the day after Christmas, and threw a big party a week later on the first day of 2010.

The photo album on the table inside the front door features pictures of our friends from that first New Year’s Day party. Neighbor Joe quipped that we were making it easy for the FBI. Since then, we’ve thrown countless parties and potlucks. Each time someone new shows up, we take their picture with Spot and paste it in the album. The most recent photo brought the tally to 199.

20120510spotOver the years, we’ve planted fruit trees, peonies, and roses, plugged mushroom logs, put in a fig and some scuppernongs, cut down the poplars, clawed the honeysuckle from the fence, and repainted the zebra. Inside, the new floors are already showing wear. The kitchen linoleum wears a scar from the day they installed the new gas stove, and a tiny cut for every time we’ve dropped a knife. The cupboards are well stocked, there’s home baked bread on the counter, and the smell of fried okra and cut roses mingle in the air.

Objectively this is not a pretty house, and the furnishings aren’t anything to write home about. Neither Bob nor I are very interested in home decorating beyond framed art, fresh flowers, and curtains to soften the light as it enters the house. Nearly everything here is second hand. Dana gave us her comfy couch and chair, Matt gave Bob his father’s big desk, and we bought mine at a thrift store. Scott left us tables and chairs and I found my bedroom dresser and mirror for free at the recycle center.

It keeps us cool and dry in the summer, warm in the winter, and gives us somewhere to entertain. This is where we come for a cold drink and a shower, for a lay in the hammock on the back porch. It’s where we store our clothes, where we read and write, where we come to get away from the world. Under this roof, we’ve made tough decisions and comforted each other after apocalyptic nightmares. It feels like home.

This house is not our home because we fell in love with it, or because it’s what we’ve been looking for all our lives, or because it was in the family for a generation or two. I rarely notice the shutters. I’m usually looking for flowers, or weeds, or branches to trim. Inside, I see the yard from behind windows; vinca and roses from the kitchen sink, sunsets and figs from the bedroom, the front yard with the zebra from my desk. It’s our home because of the work we’ve put into it, the meals we’ve eaten here, and the laughter and tears we’ve shared with friends. It’s our home because it’s where we sleep and dream.

Pepper Fest – Annual Celebration of Local Abundance

pepperfestfood“Wow!” I think, walking to the back of the line, “I’m doing that again.” My sinuses are infused with rosemary and roasted red pepper. A flake of pastry lingers on my lips. I snag it with my tongue and savor the perfect blend of shortening and flour. The aftertaste eludes me. Is it garlic, nutmeg, cardamom perhaps?

Fingering my Pepper Fest fork, I scan the scene. A child clutches her mother’s hand, a butterfly painted on her cheek. They are walking towards a man blowing giant soap bubbles on the lawn. It’s a splendid fall day at Briar Chapel, a beautifully landscaped community between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill. I’m surrounded by familiar faces. I start waving at friends, many of them licking their fingers. It seems practically everyone I’ve ever met has come out for this event. After all, Abundance NC’s Pepper Fest only comes around once a year.

Months ago, when the peppers were still green, the folks at Abundance NC started pulling together lists of activities, sponsors, volunteers, restaurants and farms. They met with their friends at Briar Chapel and laid out a plan. Weeks later, the ripening peppers were hanging plump, and thirty-some chefs were dreaming of special ways to feature them. The orders went out to the farmers, peppers were harvested and delivered. All had come to fruition with a thousand people getting a taste of real local food imaginatively presented by the best chefs in the area.

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Tami and Camille weathering Pepper Fest #2 – October 18, 2009

The very first Pepper Fest was no more than a variety tasting of Doug Jones’ hybrid peppers. Tami Schwerin, Abundance NC’s executive director asked her father to put up a tent and she invited some friends out to The Plant, Pittsboro’s Eco-Industrial park. Out-of-town guests from Seeds of Change were here to tour Piedmont Biofarm and see Doug Jones’ pepper breeding research. Tami saw an opportunity to welcome them, support the farm, and spread awareness about the often-overlooked sweet pepper. It seemed like a good excuse for a party. My immediate neighbors, a dozen friends who called ourselves Oilseed Community were having a potluck dinner that night so we brought our food and joined the fun.

Doug’s interns chopped peppers all afternoon and set out dozens of paper plates piled with bite-sized pieces on the tables under the tent. They came in colors; green, yellow, orange, red and chocolate. Tami and I had printed up score cards with qualities such as color, flavor, sweetness, and heat level. Each variety was assigned a number and we walked around the tables sampling peppers. The folks at Seeds of Change said a few words, and Doug spoke about the evolution of his cherished peppers. Farmer Doug had spent years developing varieties that grow well in North Carolina’s changing climate. Many of us were betting that Doug’s Sweet Jemison, the consummate yellow pepper, would merit a high score.

The next year Tami involved local chefs, booked a band, commissioned a poster, and printed tee shirts and tickets. She commissioned custom-made King and Queen crowns to honor the man and woman who sold the most tickets. The festival doubled in size every year, and by year four had outgrown the venue at The Plant and moved to Briar Chapel.

pepperfestpeoplePepper Fest has come to embody Abundance NC’s mission. They seek to “cultivate and celebrate community resilience,” a deceptively simple objective involving lofty goals. A fun, playful approach is Abundance’s secret ingredient for achieving this and Pepper Fest is the perfect recipe. It’s the consummate fall festival, designed to build awareness while supporting local economy. Pepper Fest, cleverly disguised as one glorious party, boldly asserts our independence from Big Ag while celebrating our interdependence on local community.

This week, Abundance NC and Briar Chapel are galloping down the home stretch towards Pepper Fest number nine, Sunday October 2nd. We’re looking forward to bluegrass by Front Country, and the magical transformation of eight hundred pounds of Chatham County farm-grown peppers into an unimaginable menu of chef creations. New this year, there will be a Food and Fiber Fashion Show, and as per usual, there will be the unveiling of this year’s original art crown creations and coronation of the Pepper King and Queen.

I’ve reached the counter where those incredible pastries are lined up. The band is playing a funky tune. The aroma from Chili John’s roasting drum at Angelina’s Kitchen is irresistible. I spot my husband and next door neighbors sampling the Anaheim Octoberfest at Yesteryear’s Brewery. Drooling, I choose my prize and dance on over. Another best day ever, thanks to Abundance NC.

More information and Pepper Fest tickets at: http://pepperfestnc.org/

 

Wedding Time

Emily is getting married this afternoon I think, slowly shrugging off a night’s sleep. The train whistle sounds like church bells to me this morning. I’ve never heard them this way before.

We don’t hear the train so much from our place in North Carolina, but here in Colorado their calls surround us like jays. I’ve lived in a few places where the tracks are so close it feels like they will burst through the bedroom wall. Like the drone of a propeller plane, a receding train is melancholy. Both bathe me in nostalgia, a tinge of regret as if life is passing me by. I’m often stationary when I hear them, while they move on without me, above and beyond.

Bob and I are staying in an airy room over the bustle of Rob and Sharyl’s busy home. We’ve come to regard this space as ours, we’ve stayed here so often. It’s an hour after dawn, the kids are tumbling towards the exits, headed to school. Traffic streams outside.

Bob’s three daughters, Emily, Amy, and Molly were lovely in their dresses at the rehearsal dinner last night. As the evening progressed, they became inseparable. Fifty of us mingled on a spacious deck at Mariana Butte’s Golf Course overlooking a craggy outcropping referred to locally as Devil’s Backbone. Tyler’s parents were hosting a five-course meal with designer beer pairings. Family had flown in from everywhere, more coming today for Emily and Tyler’s wedding.

I marveled at the magnificent young people, all so well put together. I might have been walking through a glam magazine. Colorado ranks high on fitness rankings so everyone was beaming with health, tanned and toned in their summer outfits. Jewelry sparkled in the evening sun, and many balanced babies on their hips, miniature manifestations of the good life. Em and Tyler’s baby Nolan was passed around, the Where’s Waldo of the evening. The older folks were aglow. Everyone loves a wedding.

I gazed into the fading sun at the sandstone cresting a ripple of geologic time. Emily would have been six years old the last time I rode my horse along the Devil’s Backbone. Now she’s a grown woman, and the horse has been dead a year.

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Molly, Amy, Emily, three angels and a Devil’s Backbone.

We arrived at Lone Hawk Farm before noon on Wedding Day and stayed until after sunset. There were little jobs for family to get involved in, nothing too demanding. We ran out of work hours before the wedding. I began to suspect Em’s good friend and wedding planner Jamie had contrived this languorous, pastoral day as opportunity for family bonding.

There was an enormous red barn, and a spacious cabin between barn and orchard where the bride and her maids were taking turns getting their hair and makeup done. A cooler of champagne slowly turned into empty bottles. We nibbled on dipped strawberries. The mood was contagiously frivolous and gay. Baby Nolan played on the carpet, attended by a bevy of love-struck maids. This room was the heart of the day.

I pick a bright, red apple and walk to the end of the driveway to prop a hand-painted sign against the rock wall at the entrance to the farm. It says, “Welcome to the wedding of Emily and Tyler.”

I hear the engine of a small plane, only this time it seems to be standing still as I stride towards the defining moment of the day. In an hour or so, everything will be a little different. This day will forever be “the day Em and Tyler got married,” and everything else either before or after. My mind begins to whirl with memories of the girls growing up, our summers abroad, painting their finger nails, teaching them to ride on Jesse the Wonder Horse.

I put the sign in place and wander back towards the rest of the family. I bite into the crispy fruit, savoring this point in time and my solitary thoughts.

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Emily and Tyler tying the knot on a perfect Colorado day. September 2, 2016

My Friend Carl

20160813CarlBenchCarl lives on a wooded promontory with a view of the flood plain. Mainstay in an ever-changing world, he’s been standing tall for decades. Yesterday I walked the half mile through the woods to spend time with him. I went in the morning before it was hot, armed with a spider stick, and prepared to retreat if accosted by too many black gnats and mosquitoes. But summer storms have reduced the spider webs to bearable, and mosquitoes and gnats were also at a minimum.

My legs are strong and sure on this familiar trail. I hit my stride about five minutes out. I’m drenched in living earth, fragrant with pine needles and leaf mulch. Generations of trees surround me, from tiny sprouts to giant sentinels. The air hums with woodpeckers and cicadas. I swing my head to the left when a squirrel rustles in the undergrowth. Sometimes deer startle me, leaping up and blasting away like gunshots. Once I came across a fox, scratching fleas. Another time, a Barred owl swooped down to take a better look and flew back to its perch to keep an eye on me.

Carl receives me in his reassuringly taciturn way, eyes forward. He reaches out with solid, steady limbs and I feel safe. Without a word, Carl and I are in our happy place once again. He is a beautiful example of his species, an American Beech. Or perhaps he is, as I often joke, a son of a beech. Nature gave Carl markings that resemble a human face on the side facing the stream. He has a jaunty mustache with a twig sprouting from the corner, like a pipe stem or cigarette. This year a praying mantis chose to build an egg case on his cigarette.

Old forest lore referred to the majestic beech as Queen of the forest. Their trunks are smooth and straight, mottled with white and gray spots. They have the peculiarity of retaining their leaves all winter, only losing them when new growth pushes them out. Their leaves provide a spark of ocher in the cold, monochromatic months. Surely this tenacity is one of the things that appeals to me as I walk towards the winter of my life.

The neighbors pooled their resources a couple of months ago to build a cedar bench for my sixty-second birthday. Lyle and Amie loaded it in the tractor bucket and carried it to Carl’s side. Jason and Doug dug holes and sunk the legs into the earth. It is sturdy and wide and smells like my mother’s cedar hope chest.

20160813CarlsFaceI climb on and sit, legs dangling. The size of Carl’s bench turns me into a youngster. I lay back and peer up through the understory at the sky. My heart swells and my eyes get moist. Time stops. I’m alone and connected. There is only this moment and this place and yet I’m aware of all the moments of my life. All the good ones, anyway.

I think about my friends who cared enough to add this bench to my favorite spot. I recall our many shared meals, the birthday candles and wishes, and remember delicious Sunday dinners at Nana’s. My thoughts wander forward to our daughter Emily’s wedding and our first glimpse of her baby boy. I think about Bob and how lucky I am to have a partner that gets my twisted sense of humor, and how relieved we both are that he is well and recovering his smile.

I caught part of the TED radio hour the other day. They were talking about aging and time. As we age we become more positive, yet joyful occasions often bring a tear to our eye. We find ourselves experiencing the past, present and future simultaneously. Surely holding our grandson for the first time will trigger a montage of feelings; all the way back to Emily as a tiny girl, and fast forwarding to imagine little Nolan as a grown man.

This is why I visit Carl in his special place. To think, remember, imagine, let go, connect, rejoice and weep. Carl seems to understand, he never questions. He just stands there with his cigarette and looks off across the ages.

In a Pickle

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Emergency Room #10 Central Carolina Hospital

Seven miles out I congratulated myself for keeping cool and making good time. My hastily scribbled Google Map notes said the hospital exit in Sanford was 12.7 miles south on Hwy 1. Which is where the ambulance was headed with Bob. The odometer said I was getting close. Under the circumstances, staying cool was a tall order. Not to mention the weather, which has been stupid hot. Driving without A/C is an exercise in sweat management.

It was when I saw New Hill (a.k.a “middle of nowhere”) up ahead that I realized I was traveling north. I wiped my forehead with a handkerchief, exited and turned around, trying not to think about the extra twenty minutes this blunder would cost. Bob was in good hands, I told myself. He’ll think I found one last thing to do at home, the dishes perhaps, rather than worry I’d gotten into a car wreck as frantic wives often do when chasing ambulances.

An hour earlier, Bob was drinking coffee at his desk when he noticed an odd sensation on the right side of his tongue. It felt like Novocaine. Moments later, the numbness spread to his right eye. He considered going out to get me.

I was speed-hanging laundry, wondering how I was going to process twenty-four pounds of pickles, bake a cake, and clean the house for Jason’s birthday potluck. Most of the time, pickles just sit. Until day fifteen when you slice the brined cucumbers, soak them in alum for six hours, then replace the liquid with heated vinegar. Today was pickle day.

Back inside, Bob swiveled towards me and announced, “Somethings not right.” He told me about the Novocaine. He felt dizzy. We had a short discussion. The expense was giving us pause. I phoned urgent care. They recommended I call 911, so I did.

Bob put on clean underwear like his mother taught him. While shaving he realized he’d lost the ability to puff out the left side of his face. His lips were leaking air. He positioned himself in the rosewood chair on the front porch and waited for sirens. We laughed to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into Evelyn and Jimmy’s across the street. I ran onto the lawn barefoot and waved until they saw me, got back into their vehicles and came over to our place.

Cracking jokes, a woman in navy blue EMT garb pulled out a razor and began carving a smiley face into Bob’s chest hair. The Emergency Medical Services team attached wires to Bob’s chest and asked him questions while the fire fighters looked on. They, took his blood pressure, saw it was 199 over 110 and wheeled out the gurney. “Wait!” Bob said and they paused so I could give him a kiss.

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Three Musketeers to the rescue

The hospital staff was real kind, trying to procure meatless meals for Bob, and failing twice. I spent the rest of Saturday driving back and forth from home, bringing sandwiches to Sanford, and dealing with those pickles. I called upon the Three Musketeers, Buffy, Zoila, and Doug to help me get the pickles sliced and Haruka and Jason showed at 10pm to do the vinegar thing so I could spend the night on a fold-out chair by Bob’s side.

We canceled Jason’s birthday potluck. A disturbing trend, the last three birthdays were overshadowed by catastrophe. We learned of Zafer’s death on Haruka’s birthday, Chris died on mine, and we were crossing our fingers that Bob made it through Jason’s. Buffy’s promised to break the cycle with her birthday August 4th.

Towards dinner time the next day, Bob was released with a clean bill of health. He’d had a CAT scan, an MRI, ultrasounds, and blood tests. When the doctor announced that Bob had not had a stroke, our relief was audible.  How lucky for us to have dodged that bullet! Even better, the doctor pronounced Bob’s heart and carotid artery fully-functional. The likelihood of stroke or heart attack was slim, he said and even allowed that Bob’s unresponsive eyelid and Dick Cheney smile could be Bell’s Palsy as Bob suspected. His blood pressure was back to normal. He’d had a shot of B-12, something to lower cholesterol and with the help of our neighbors, we’d saved the pickles.