“Honey, I Need a Real Dog”

Last week I was wrestling fiercely in my head and heart about two sweet, invalid pugs I had tentatively opened my home to. Here are Pimm and Polly on my couch, a favorite spot. All they wanted to do was snuggle close, which is not a bad trait if you spend a lot of time sitting. Coco clearly regarded them as aliens, choosing to keep a distance apart.

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I realized, among other things during this enlightening week, that I do not sit a lot. (My inability to post more often on anunboringpath attests to this!) I sit when I write and I sit when I am tired or eating. Sandy says I have two speeds: Off and high. Maybe he is right? Maybe this is another good reason two very inactive, nearly blind dogs are not the best choice for me?

Almost a week into my attempt to be a rescuer, Friday came around, the fiercest day of all, the day I knew I had to make the yea or nay, stay or go, here or somewhere else decision. Friday is also the day I read to Evelyn, who will be 102 in August and has been completely blind for about eight years. If anyone might be sympathetic toward these needy dogs, I thought it would be Evelyn.

Not even close. She was adamant that I should not keep them. First was the you-should-know-this declarative: “They’re dogs.” Meant, I’m sure, to assuage any lingering emotional connection I might have that would lead me to keep them for the wrong reasons. Meant, I’m sure, to suggest that they would be fine in some other place, such place being, in fact, better on account of no potentially deadly stairs that they might fall down. To top that, she – the blind lady who lives in a nursing home – said with as much vehemence as you can imagine her mustering: “They don’t need your home. They need a nursing home.” I was paying attention. She seldom has this strength of opinion.

That evening I sent the note that resulted in the pugs’ departure on Sunday, back to the foster family that bought them (and sent along to me) a suitcase full of cutesy doggie clothes. Anyone who would buy sailor suits, sundresses, raincoats and parkas for pugs, and mark them with their names in permanent marker along the lining of the collars no less, has fond affection for them. I knew Pimm and Polly would be okay. I did not have to be their savior.

Exactly a week after Evelyn told me in no uncertain terms to send the dogs back, I showed up again with To Kill a Mockingbird (our current read) in hand, and had hardly said hello when she said, “Tell me you sent those blind dogs back.” I wonder if she could have paid attention to the story if I had decided to keep them.

When Mom came for her turn to read, and to give me back Rise and Eppie who had been baking chocolate chip cookies with her during my reading hour, I decided to take a picture. Here are my little sweeties, my wonderful mom and happy, relaxed Evelyn enjoying Coco, who chose this moment to be a lizard with her tongue.

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Pimm and Polly helped me see my doggie needs differently. A week with dogs that couldn’t find their food unless you put it smack in front of them and gently positioned their flat little faces in their bowls, a week picking up dogs who couldn’t do stairs every time it was time for them to get a little outdoor time (and picking them up again after they’d had sufficient time to explore nature and do business), a week stepping over the temporary, please-God-let-them-not-take-a-tumble barriers in front of my open spiral staircase – can anyone blame me if I was right ready for a real dog?

Pre-Pimm-and-Polly, while still in the maybe-they-are-a-good-idea stage about a month or so ago, my son Bradley had said to me, “Mom, you have ten acres. Why do you want a dog that can live in an apartment? Why don’t you get a dog that can enjoy all this space?”

Around the same time, I was in Lowe’s, a store that allows you to bring in your dog(s). From a few aisles away I saw a man with a golden retriever on a leash. I am drawn like a magnet to a beautiful dog, so I approached and he gladly let me pet her. In his shopping cart was another dog, a dachshund I think, something small anyway. “She’s so beautiful,” I said about his golden as I stroked her gorgeous fur, glancing up at the other dog as well, as if some of my praise could waft in that dog’s direction. Nice little dog I’m sure. Fair’s fair after all. Well, sort of fair. I continued petting the golden.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly pleased that his gorgeous animal had been noticed and admired. Motioning to the smaller dog he said, “My wife and I always had big dogs, and then our last one passed and we were without a dog. Some friends of ours were getting one of these and there was one left in the litter and my wife and I said, Okay, sure, let’s get a small dog. About four years later I told her, Honey, I need a real dog.”

Much as Bradley’s advice and this incident might have (should have?) weighed into my initial decision to get Pimm and Polly, neither did. I did recall it all later, however, while trying to fall asleep late at night as the two of them on the floor of my bedroom groomed each other like baboons with incessant licking that sounded like wild, snorting boars foraging for truffles at the roots of giant oaks in an ancient forest.

Right after Pimm and Polly left, Lincoln and the girls had arrived. With them came Willow, their six-month-old golden. She is not exactly a lap dog, though Samuel gave it a try.

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She is however – let there be no doubt about it – a real dog. She was as cute as a golden retriever puppy can be when she was six weeks old and enduring January in Vermont.

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She even fit in their (standard size) mailbox!

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By six months old she fetches a tennis ball or a stick over and over again…

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…astonishing me with her grace, speed, energy, stamina and strength. Everything in this young body works! Her fur is soft as silk, her teeth white as snow, her eyes clear and bright and happy. She is picture-perfect and real-life-perfect.

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A dog like this doesn’t come along every day. She brings me the gooky tennis ball with that look that says You know you want to whack it down the driveway! I’ll go get it! I will! I’ll bring it back to you and you can whack it again! You know you want to! And I get to watch her run after that ball. I stare in wonder at her perfect form and perfect face. I think she’s happy to be alive, and I found myself happy to be near her and with her.

I think someday I need a dog that needs and wants to walk and run and play, a dog that follows me to the chicken coop and the garden, that learns to come, sit, stay and heel, that makes me stare in awe. We’ll see. One of these days the right dog for me will come along.

 

Man and Dog: Part Two

They say you become like the company you keep. Keeping company with good people is like being planted in good soil. You get strokes, you get laughter, you get someone who’s happy when you get home, someone to play and talk and eat with, someone to witness the little stuff of life that the rest of the world doesn’t care about.

When you get what you need, you rest easier, you feel loved, you know peace, you give back. And that’s the circle as it should be, the way of the world s.k.a. (sometimes known as) you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours. This wonderful reciprocity can also, and blessedly often does, happen between man and dog, woman and dog, child and dog. (I will let someone else speak for cats.)

Back in February I told the story of a man and a dog who finally met, who became best buddies, whose mutual devotion should be the standard upon which all man-and-dog stories are measured. I think they had been looking for each other for a long time. Max had been penned up outside (regardless of temperature or precipitation) for most of his eight years. Joe had been dogless since his last black lab had died ten years earlier. Joe took Max home from the shelter. I love how in this photo Joe is not at all interested in me holding a camera. He is completely interested in Max.

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When I suggested recently that Max was a very lucky dog, Joe said, “I was lucky as well. That’s the best part. We both won.”

Since February, every time Joe was going to come over, I’d say Bring Max if you want. And when he came I’d say Where’s Max? Max was an older dog with a rough prior life; he was not without some physical challenges. Getting from ground level into the cab of Joe’s truck was too difficult for him. “I need to build him a way to get in,” Joe would say. Fair enough, I’d hope for next time.

This story is supposed to have a happy ending. Joe and Max were supposed to be good for each other henceforth, faithfully and indefinitely. I had no doubt about the faithful part but I was shocked twelve days after the sad news about Micah, a week after the 5K race benefiting Hospice of the Piedmont, and four days after the CASA induction ceremony. I got a message from Joe: Max died today. I’m sorry I didn’t share him more.

No! That’s not okay! NO! Joe took Max in just three months ago, loved him, did everything possible to make a wonderful life for him. Max would never again spend a night alone outside when the temperature was in the single digits, never again pass a day without care and love. Max gave back, listened, played, became Joe’s buddy, made him laugh and wagged his tail happily when Joe got home from work.

It seems to have been Max’s time. Nothing dramatic happened. He was just breathing hard on the porch, Joe helped him inside, and twenty minutes later it was over. Still, c’mon, really? Max? Joe’s Max?

Within two weeks, I got four separate yanks at my heart, four separate reminders that Bad happens.

Why did Micah have to die now? Why do people get terminal illnesses? Why are children sometimes abused and neglected? Why did Max have to die now?

Yet these same yanks were coupled with reminders of so much Good in the world. Within the Bad, the crushing, devastating, heart-wrenching Bad, when we are able to see (and this does not always happen right away), we invariably find pockets of hope, rays of light, stores and stories of benevolence. We find exceptional people trying hard, being kind, showing faith. We experience surprising, heartening moments of peace.

Micah had the most loving, supportive family anyone could want or hope for. He is so dearly and deeply missed. If you really love, is there ever enough time? Thanks to Chris and Brian and everyone else in Micah’s circle for always hoping, always praying, always loving.

Anyone in my community who gets a terminal illness does not have to die alone or in pain. Thanks to Hospice of the Piedmont for giving people a way to help, for organizing care for those who would otherwise struggle much more than they need to. 

Children in my community who need an advocate have someone who will get to know them and will make recommendations on their behalf in family court regarding matters of far-reaching importance. Thanks to CASA for overseeing the efforts to make sure these children have someone looking out for their best interest.

Joe and Max found each other, even if their time together was nowhere near long enough. If you really love, is there ever enough time? Thanks to Joe for showing how very mutual love really is, for being with Max when his time came, for keeping his heart open.

How much of every 24 hours gets wasted? Beyond the necessary tasks of the day, beyond necessary sleep, how much time might we wish we could get back and spend some other way? How well are we using the gift of time that we have? How well do we show love – that’s right, show love – to those in our lives who matter the most?

I think about this often. I get 24 hours, just like everybody else. I can’t do everything, but when I look back, I want to be able to say I used my time well. I want to be able to say I did something – something important, something valuable, something wonderful. I hope everyone can say that. I hope everyone wants to. (I know they can’t and don’t. But I can wish it.)

Good Will Come

During the same week as the tragic news about Micah, I found myself both grateful and conflicted that I had something else going on. Grateful because being involved in a pre-scheduled event kept me from becoming paralyzed with What?! Oh, God, no… and Why am I so far away? and What can I do? How can I help? What should I say? And conflicted because I wanted to shut the world out, mull his death over, cry-cry-cry with and for my dear friends who lost their beloved son, sort out my own shock and frustration and grief, make some kind (any kind) of sense out of it. It felt almost disrespectful to be going about something else.

But something else was the order of the day and I could not get around it. Besides, redirecting works for me. Ultimately, the little voice inside my head says Just because I can’t do X doesn’t mean I can’t do Y. Just because I can’t do everything I want to do doesn’t mean I can’t do something that matters. That’s my twist on Edward Everett Hale’s words:

‘I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.’

I play a part every year, second Saturday in May, in a fundraising “Run and Remember” 5K event for our local, wonderful hospice organization. How’s that for timing? The shock about Micah came on Tuesday and the well-attended race was to be Saturday. I was neck-deep in last-minute stuff: Did the AV people know we need a mic at the starting line for the 12-year-old who would be singing the national anthem? Would the banners be put up on time? Did we have enough waters? Where were the coolers with the spigots for the water stations on the course? Would the rain hold off?

Over 300 runners and walkers, shown here at the starting location just above the first tee at Keswick Golf Club, would be winding their way through the gorgeous course doing what they can do to support the vision and the practicalities of Hospice of the Piedmont. To make it happen, I do my bit and so do a lot of other people. Once again, well over $100K was raised so that we can help “achieve a day when no one has to die alone or in pain.”

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I don’t ever feel like I do much – there’s practically an army of people covering the various aspects of this event. And it would be easy to think There are a lot of people who can do this or that. They don’t really need me. But I am always so glad I did. This year especially.

1. I was reminded of the many dedicated volunteers who themselves could surely find other things to do but instead show up for the meetings, the bag/swag stuffing, the registration and all the other little tasks that make for a flawless event year after year.

Among the gems in this group are Susan Quisenberry, Diane Brownlee, Lorisa Cooper and Jeannie Golub – how would we manage registration without you??

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Jeanne Chamales and Melba Campbell, stalwart and steady, give of their time and energy every year as well. And not just on race day. Everyone puts in many hours ahead of time. There are calls to be made, errands to run, emails to write, store managers to find (generous store managers who gift us fruit or power bars or prizes)….

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Melba is the heart and soul of this event. All hats are off to her for her amazing leadership and energy throughout the years. She would of course never take the credit but would always graciously redirect it to the individuals who freely share their gifts of knowledge, skill and time. Lisa Jahnke is one. She doesn’t even live nearby but still supports the effort with encouragement and advice and by keeping a sharp eye on social media. Mary Miller is another. She knows everyone in local media (and therefore gets us lots of coverage) and also takes many photos (and is therefore not in any of them!). Melba knows truly, as does everyone involved, that every little bit counts.

2. I got to see the exultant faces of the runners returning all sweaty and smiling, each with their own measure of satisfaction, each knowing that their efforts are not only helping their own bodies stay fit, but also providing care and services for those whose bodies are not so cooperative any more. Good begets good.

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3. What is it about the face of a child that comforts our souls, reminds us there is good reason to carry on? At least one adorable child stands sweetly in front of the camera every year. This one was attracted to the colorful pinwheels some people buy in honor of lost loved ones.

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4. A delightful surprise happened. After the race, in my usual spot behind the food table, as I was scooping this event’s signature homemade granola into the Fage yogurts that Keswick Club provides or suggesting that the runners get one of the chocolate covered strawberries that The Melting Pot in Charlottesville provides (before they are gone!)…

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…I saw a woman I knew, a woman I hadn’t seen for at least ten years, the wonderful mom of one of my most wonderful students ever. She was not facing me, so I went around and tapped her on the shoulder and said You’re Ellie! And we had hugs and smiles and joyful words and fond reflections galore. I love living in a small community! I am so glad to have reconnected with Ellie and Bill and Josh! This completely unexpected encounter has opened a new door, I’m sure of it. Even if I don’t yet know what’s next.

I got to thinking about the 5K event in relation to the news about Micah. Death is death. We can’t avoid it ourselves any more than we can avoid watching someone we love, at some point in our lives, endure it. But we can honor each other in how we approach it – loving and supporting as best as we can, being thoughtful and prayerful in full knowledge that thoughtfulness and prayer matter a lot, and also doing something (find something, there is always something) to help make that threshold a little easier to cross, a little easier to bear. In the doing, good will come.

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Special thanks to Mary Miller for these photographs!

Ebbing in the Aftermath

Bad is almost always coupled with Good. Bad can be crushing. But within it, when we are able to see and feel, we invariably find pockets of hope, rays of light, stores of benevolence. We find exceptional people trying hard, being kind, showing faith. We notice children smiling, oblivious and silly, bringing flashes of delight. We experience surprising, heartening moments of peace.

Four different recent events have brought to these certainties to mind. Today I will tell you the first, the most heart-wrenching. It hit me hard.

When my son Lincoln was almost a year old, the Walls moved to town. Crissie and Brian had three children then, the youngest being Lincoln’s special buddy Micah. This grainy old photo shows these two happy boys on one of our camping trips.

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Lincoln and Micah were peanut butter and jelly, always together, as dirty, happy and carefree as one-year-olds, then two-year-olds, then three-year-olds should be. The kids your kids grow up with – the ones they roast marshmallows with, build sandcastles with, share sticks with – these kids have a forever-place in your heart.

Friends like Chris Wall don’t come along every day either. Crissie made me laugh, made me think, modeled genuine kindness, gentleness, humor, respect and graciousness in ways I had never seen, ways I wanted to emulate. She made me consider my actions, my motivations, my future. Things didn’t have to be perfect (or perfectly neat and orderly) – and that was a new concept for me. Amidst mess there was beauty.  By mess I mean lots happening at the same time and therefore a few things out of place. By beauty I mean deep and abiding love for her family, a tender heart of gold, a willing and humble spirit. I was grateful to immerse in her world. She became one of the dearest friends I have.

I knew from our conversations over the last few years that Micah was having a battle with substance use addiction. I don’t use Facebook much, and missed the message the day it appeared on Crissie’s page, but Kim didn’t. Imagine the moment I got her text. “Just heard about Micah. So very heart breaking.” The outpouring of love and support evident on that page following Micah’s lost battle is both continual and astounding. Clearly the Walls are not alone. But I bet sometimes they feel it. I know they fought hard, I know they gave him all the help they possibly could. There can be nothing on earth like losing a child. I have known the loss of a sister and the loss of my father, but not the loss of a child. I cannot imagine the hole in their hearts.

Chris and Brian, Katie, Stephen and Nathan, my words feel inadequate, empty, fleeting, like a bunch of symbols suggesting a vaguely recognizable idea. But my heart bleeds with yours, my tears commingle, my prayers beseech, my hugs reach out across the miles. It’s not enough, I know it’s not enough. Nothing I or anyone can do will fill the Micah-size hole.

I don’t know what their days look like, how much they need to talk or need to be quiet, how fervently they pray, how deeply they ache. I can hope, only hope, that they will find and rest in rays of light, patchy as the light may be. I can hope that the world will be gentle in the upcoming days, that their faith remains strong, that unexpected kindness knocks on their door. I can hope they will see smiling children being oblivious and silly, and feel surprising, heartening moments of peace. I can hope they will allow themselves to be “in ebb” for a while.

Before today, I’d never heard ebb used this way but I like it. “Just chilling,” is the way I heard it. “Ebbing.” Usually ebb refers to the part of the tide cycle when the water is washing back toward the sea, the necessary receding before the inevitably rebuilt wave comes again toward its crash on the shore. You could make a case for ebb being the low point in an oscillation cycle or, more generally, the pause before the energy, the rest before the push, the passive in preparation for the active. We all need that sometimes. We all need to not push, to just be. Especially when we’ve been pushing for a long time.

How do we walk alongside people who have such a big hole in their hearts? How do we love those who are far away? How do we show we are tasting the salt of the tears they cry? Even if you do not know the answers to these questions, even if you think your way is insignificant, remember the words of Edward Everett Hale:

‘I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.’

I hope the rest of us will use the salt of tears to spur us on to do the thing we can do, even if it is only something and not everything, even if it seems minor or unrelated or unimportant, even if it is something else. Like bringing flowers to a shut-in neighbor. Like volunteering to do the harder thing. Like giving up your place for someone less mobile or sending a check to a worthwhile cause. Today I saw this poster. It’s about kids, but the ideas can apply to almost anyone.

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So simple. You have your own style, your own way. Maybe today, don’t just think about whatever it is you could do. Maybe instead, do it.

Green Turtles, Pink Boots and Blue Ears

Turtles don’t wear boots, definitely not pink ones, definitely not shiny plastic pink ones that are attached with velcro. No matter. This turtle has boots.

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Whether a fluffy green turtle named Flllfffl dons pink shiny boots, or a moth named Betty is scouting out home zone possibilities on your property, or a superhero named Iron Man is heroically facing the Big Bad named Thanos, the world is a better place because of it. (“Flllfffl” is the best I can spell it, btw – that’s what she said his name is!)

I’ve been thinking about how we suspend belief so selectively. I was all into the Marvel movies (and would watch them all again!) but Star Trek doesn’t do anything for me. Mom can enjoy Mary Poppins float in on a magic umbrella but has no interest in a superhero that can stop a speeding ballistic missile (that scene from Captain Marvel is etched in my head!). And little Piper, my granddaughter from Seattle, sees nothing irregular in a turtle wearing pink boots!

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But it works in reverse, I come to see. For reasons having to do with this little darling living in Seattle and me living in Virginia, Piper and I communicate via video more than in person. She calls me Oma but I think she sees me as the Chicken Lady. She LOVES my chickens. I have walked to the coop, phone in hand (pointing away from me and at my feathery friends of course) more times than I can remember because as soon as we get on a video chat, she says Chickens! If it’s already too late here and too dark outside, I’m sure the call is over in her mind. Check out. Done. If there’s no chickens, why bother?

Coming to see Oma included the natural excitement of seeing the chickens for real. The ride from the airport was too long, but finally we arrived at Golden Hill. No point even going into the house on a beautiful day – let’s go see the chickens!

My first clue should have been when this untimid child timidly hid behind both of her parents. Brad was amused but Beth said Oh, yeah, she has a problem when it’s a real animal. I went in and picked up Whitey anyway and brought her out to show her to Piper. See? Fluffy head, blue ears… Yes, this is a real chicken…

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and this is her real blue ear.

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The photo doesn’t capture how the blue is almost shimmery.

No can do.

Turns out there is a big difference between a real chicken and a chicken on a screen. Small shrieks of terror told this astute Oma that maybe awkward, weird, ungainly chicken movements and throaty, cacophonic, random chicken noises on a screen are one thing, and an omg-it’s-getting-too-close-to-me chicken in the hands – jerking its head randomly and slightly the way chickens do (oh, look, a little human!), a little dirty on its feet from the scratching around in search of delectable bugs (hey, it’s spring and bugs are everywhere!) – is quite another. Whoa, all too real, no thanks, can we go look at the garden now?

Ah, the garden. Oma loves her roses right now!

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I guess we all have our ways of filtering out, shutting down, blocking, or otherwise not having to deal with what’s too scarily real or too stupidly unreal. Likewise we open our arms, hearts and waking hours to what’s appealingly real or fascinatingly unreal. I think we are allowed. It’s a big, full, amazing world, but we would overload our circuits if we took it all in. We draw the lines around ourselves, redrawing them depending on where we are, who we are with, what they day feels like, what our present self can handle.  The lines are wiggly and wavering. They have gaps big and small, with ways to expand when curiosity or security define the moment and ways to tighten up when fatigue, fear and sorrow don’t let us be so open.

Piper is doing just the right thing, drawing the lines where they feel somehow, mysteriously where they should be. Those weird chickens are outside her feel-good zone right now, so, yeah, hiding behind the big people she knows she can depend on makes sense. That turtle with the pink boots – watch him prance around awhile and then rip open that Velcro and pull his boots off when you’ve had enough of that. Why does a turtle need pink boots anyway!?

Oh, but am I still the Chicken Lady? If I’m not, that’s okay. We can redraw the lines.

Avengers: Endgame Prep

I am new to the Superhero scene. On a whim Samuel and I went to see Aquaman in December and I was thoroughly entertained. Is there more like this? I asked him. Uh, yeah, there’s more. Marvel Cinematic Universe films number 22 (and supposedly there are nine more in the works) and have grossed over 20 billion in box office sales since the first one came out in 2008. I guess that’s more.

On Friday we watched Avengers: Endgame, a fantastic three-hour culmination of all the previous MCU films in the “Infinity Saga,” which we watched one by one since December.

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We did not set out to watch them all. For me it was a little like homeschooling: Sure, I can do kindergarten. How can you mess up kindergarten? We started with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Sure, I’ll like it. How can I not like a good clean super hero who fights evil? It was a baby step, and Samuel had to be thinking yeah, we’ll see how she does. I’m here to say I not only stomached this movie – even with its dramatic fighting, huge explosions, edge-of-your-seat exploits and world-annihilating evil – I asked What’s next?

There’s a lot of hype about Endgame, which since its release on April 26 (that’s eleven days ago) is the #2 highest-grossing movie ever. The question is this: If you are going to go see it, do you have to watch all the previous movies first? Does it stand alone? Does it make sense if you don’t have the back story?

Samuel and I talked about it at length. I vote for watching them all, but of course that might not be practical, especially if you want to see Endgame while it’s hot so you can join the conversations about it and not worry that someone will spoil it. We decided there are three tiers of prep.

Assuming you have not watched anything up till now,

  1. If you want Endgame to make any sense at all, at least watch Avengers: Infinity War (2018) first.
  2. If you don’t want to get carried away, or don’t have time for 22 films, at least watch The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) before watching Endgame. This will give you some of the essential back story, some understanding of the main characters, some ability to understand the call-backs, references and story arcs in the finale.
  3. If you are into it enough to watch six movies, why not watch them all? I am excluding The Incredible Hulk (2008) because neither Samuel nor I see any essential tie-ins to Endgame.

You don’t have to watch the lead-up movies in order, but it makes sense to. A case could be made that seeing them all (in whatever order) obviously just helps Endgame make more sense, and that there’s something in every movie that contributes to fuller understanding the whole massive and complex story. But you decide what’s reasonable.

We watched The Avengers (2012) after the first Captain America, then Iron Man, with me not totally yet realizing that they all do tie together (quite an incredible feat when you think about it). We watched in mostly story-order, getting some help on that point  from one or two of countless internet sites designed to guide you through the saga in a reasonable way. After the third movie we watched (the first Iron Man) I was totally hooked.

Some are, for me, simply better films or more essential to the big picture. I am putting ** next to the ones noted above as being more important to watch if you don’t want to watch them all, and ++ next to ones I particularly liked (guess what +++ means).

In order of the year they were released, these are the movies.

++Iron Man (2008) – This is Tony Stark’s (Iron Man’s) origin story. I would like to put it in the list of ones to see even if you are not going to watch them all but Samuel keeps saying Then you might as well watch them all. Tony’s brilliant, arrogant and perfectly heroic. Okay, say there’s a mid-list with a few more than the short list. Add this to the mid-list.

Iron Man 2 (2010) – As Samuel puts it, “more stuff happens” in this movie, mostly to develop Iron Man’s character.

++Thor (2011) – Brave and muscular, the crown prince of the planet Asgard finds himself in banishment on Earth and has to prove himself worthy in order to reclaim his power which, besides his strength, is his hammer. You’ll know the hammer when you see it. Thor wants to believe the best in people even when he shouldn’t. I’d add this to the mid list too.

++Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – I love this movie, Cap’s origin story. I know I’m old-fashioned, but besides everything else good that he does, I love that he shaves! Mid-list.

**Avengers (2012) – This movie introduces S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that from the get-go you want to hate. But the Avengers work for S.H.I.E.L.D., which is only a little confusing.

++Iron Man 3 (2013) – Again, “more stuff happens,” more character development, which in this movie is more consequential to Endgame.

++Thor: The Dark World (2013) – In this movie you get more of Thor’s back story, part of which is important for one callback scene in Endgame.

++Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – What happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. plays into larger story arc and for that reason you might consider adding it to the mid list. I also love that regardless of Bucky’s actions, Cap doesn’t give up on him.

+++**Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) This one is the funniest one to me – I love Chris Pratt and how he plays Quill, I love how he dances, I love the music they chose and how it ties into his origin story, I love the raccoon, I love Groot. Also this movie sets up the big bad, a.k.a. Thanos, who comes into play in Infinity Wars and Endgame, so yeah, watch this one.

**Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) I don’t remember Ultron at all but Samuel says some really important things happened, such as the creation of Vision and other characters who come into play importantly later. It also sets the stage for Civil War and is pivotal in Iron Man’s arc. You get more bang for your buck in terms of backstory as compared to some other ones.

++Ant Man (2015) – I didn’t like this one as much as Guardians, but close. Ant Man’s origin story is not essential to Endgame, but if you want to know who he is when you see him in it, if you want to understand the references to quantum realms and such things, see this. Plus he has a lovely connection with his daughter. Mid-list.

**Captain America: Civil War (2016) Internal fighting – oh, can’t we all identify with this? Strong characters choose opposing sides and cannot find middle ground so a lot of fighting happens.

++Doctor Strange (2016) – First of all, Benedict Cumberbatch. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say more. If you watch this movie you understand the stones better and you will recognize the bald woman in Endgame. Mid-list.

++Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – This is a bit more hokey than the first Guardians, but Quill still dances sometimes and you see his character develop, and you see baby Groot, which is so totally worth it all by itself.

+++Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Love, love this one too. We are introduced to the character but more importantly to his relationship with Tony Stark. Well done. Mid-list.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) A continuation of Thor’s character arc, highly entertaining. Big (I mean really big), nasty dog on bridge made me nervous and worried.

++Black Panther (2018) There’s no way to not love this movie. Courage, integrity, desperation, and a bad guy who elicits sympathy because you get how he got bad. Also you understand Wakanda and some of Endgame will make more sense, like Where did those warriors come from? Mid-list.

++Ant Man and the Wasp (2018) – The element of sweet in this movie is nicely done, but there is speed-of-light action aplenty, trust me.

**Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Don’t stop here, is all I can say. You don’t want to end on this note.

++Captain Marvel (2019) – I like Carol, her friend Maria, their friendship story and how Carol ultimately has powers beyond almost anyone’s. Some scenes in this movie look just like a comic book!

+++Avengers: Endgame (2019) When you go to a movie and people in the theater are clapping at various parts, you know it’s speaking to them where it matters. Bravo to all the filmmakers, actors and everyone who contributed to this whole thing.

Can we watch them all again?

Best Beet Salad

In our family you get to say what you want for your birthday dinner. The process starts about a week before the birthday with me saying, “So, what do you want for your birthday dinner?” A few days later, when I ask again, I get an answer and proceed. This year, along with herbed salmon (a recipe I got twenty years ago and have made countless times since) and mushroom risotto (which I have never made because I am not fond of mushrooms), he asked for beet salad.

My mom made beet salad when I was a kid. In retrospect I see it was one of those salads you can make without having anything fresh in the fridge. If you want, you can open a can of whole beets, drain and grate them, add the dressing (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, see below) and serve. But if you want it best, use fresh beets and fresh oregano.

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The ones I got were about as big as baseballs. I have not found a difference in flavor – big beets vs. small beets – so get what looks fresh. Look at the greens. If the greens look fresh, as in not wilting, the beets (which look the same regardless) are fresh. I cut the greens off (for chickens in my case, though some people would cook them separately) and put them in a pot.

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Notice how clear the water is. This does not last long. As soon as they start cooking, the water will get pink/red. Turn on the flame, bring to a boil, then turn down and let simmer. Cook the beets until you can put a knife into them easily, which could be 20 minutes and could be 40, depending on the size of the beets. Mine took 40. I was doing other things so just turned the flame off when they were done and walked away. An hour or so later, Samuel said Hey, look at the rings in the water.

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If anyone knows what that is, I’d be curious. I don’t think it’s bad. We all ate the salad yesterday and live to tell about it.

When you are ready, drain the beets and fill your pot again with cold water. If you have let some time go by, all the better because you handle these with your hands and if they are cooler, you will have an easier time of it. (If you are pressed for time and the beets are hot, you can do the job of getting the skins off while holding the beet under cold running water.)

Your thumbs are the best tool in the kitchen for this job. You can use a knife, but you will forfeit part of the beet. With your thumbs, exert pressure and push, slightly to the side. The skin should pop off. If you dunk the beet in the water now and then to give the sloughed-off skin a place to go (it likes to swim in the red water of the pot), you can see your progress more easily. You will need a knife for stubborn parts and for the end that the greens had been attached to. Beets are generally loath to give up all their skin without some resistance, a good reminder to us all, right? Don’t be a total pushover.

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Now notice that my hand is clean in the photo above. Duh, you say, of course you would work with clean hands. Yes, I work with clean hands. But this was the first beet. Remember how the water in the pot became red? So will your hands become red, which is actually kind of cool if it doesn’t gross you out.

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Which is to say – and this is a warning – do not wear that new white shirt you have, nor anything you might be sorry you splashed beet juice on. Wearing an apron when working with beets is a good idea. You could stain wood with beet juice.

Now don’t worry. Your hands will wash clean soon afterwards. The white shirt I can’t promise anything about.

When all the beets are skinless, rinse your hands and get out your grater. Here’s mine that I love (and my mother hates for reasons I will never understand). It’s a perfectly fine grater and whatever you grate ends up in the container below.

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Next, if you are fortunate to have fresh oregano in your garden…

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… go get eight to ten stems, take the leaves off and chop it up fine. That’s what I needed for the about 8 cups of beets I had for my salad. Remember it was Samuel’s birthday, meaning there would be extra people for dinner, and beet salad keeps very well in the fridge (wide-mouth mason jars are perfect for storage), so I like making a big bowlful. I had a full quart leftover.

Add the chopped up, fresh oregano to your grated beets as well as a small onion, chopped fine. It doesn’t matter if you use red onion or white onion. You will not be able to find the onion in the salad once the beet juice stains it red anyway. If you are partial to the flavor of onion, you can add more onion. No one will get in your way. In the rare, practically unthinkable instance that you don’t have any onion in the house, carry on without it. The oregano is what makes the difference in this dressing. If you don’t have fresh oregano, use dried. I would use one full teaspoon per four cups of grated beets.

The rest is simple: olive oil (extra virgin is best), apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.

The basic proportion of oil to vinegar in this salad is almost 1:1 but not quite. Use somewhat more oil than vinegar. Per four cups of grated beets, use 1/3 cup oil and ¼ cup vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. It’s yummy at room temperature or chilled. It’s yummy as a side dish or a snack. It’s yummy!

Roadside Delicacy

Sorry to say, this post is not about a new little bakery located conveniently along the side of the road, making delectable eclairs or macaroons, luring me in, tempting me. It’s about flowers. And Avengers. And coffee and bourbon. Hey, does anyone have any chocolate?

You know how dialog works. Two or more people on the same topic. All pretty focused. All engaged, curious, polite. The subject can be interesting even – maybe about the Avengers, or someone’s great uncle who left an inheritance no one saw coming, or what about this new pasta you don’t have to drain, or the accident that caused a four-mile back-up on the highway this morning.

Then suddenly something catches your eye and you get distracted. Anyone forgives you for interrupting a conversation to call attention to a burning building in the distance, or a collision about to happen, or a large insect entering your zone, or anything in your field of vision resembling a superhero or (oh, dear) Thanos. Have I been watching too many Marvel movies lately?

Something as ordinary and unimportant as roadside wildflowers should definitely not qualify as conversation-stoppers. I confess! I did it! Look at the face I got for asking him to hold both leashes so I could take a photo…roadside3.jpg

…of flowers! Yes, look – those sweet yellow flowers to the left. No one asks them to grow there. No one plants them, tends them, nurtures them. They just come. They just brighten the roadside with their sunny color and delicate form. They brighten our world unasked (oh, that we would take their example!).

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Those of you who are looking beyond Samuel’s mildly annoyed expression may notice that he is not wearing shoes. Please know that this is not because he doesn’t own shoes. He does. He just chooses to walk barefoot on the gravel of our road because… because… “Samuel, why do you still walk barefoot sometimes?”

“Why would I not?”

Need a person know more?

“I hadn’t been doing it so much recently because it was winter,” he added.

Okay.

Exploring this further, he says walking on the stones is a lot like drinking black coffee or strong bourbon, or exercising regularly and vigorously, or eating very spicy foods. All of these things are inherently unpleasant – the strong flavor or pushing yourself physically is a kind of barrier to get over or through.

The beauty and the enjoyment are in the complexity of the flavor or the exercise (or even the stones, sharp and uncomfortable as they are). Give a child a choice between sugar and black coffee, he suggests, and the child will choose sugar hands-down every time. But as you mature and can learn to appreciate the nuances, the layers, the waves of an experience like drinking black coffee or a new bourbon (which he says is really good — can’t touch the stuff myself).…

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… you partake of something much more interesting. As for myself, I choose shoes when walking on gravel roads and am happy-happy with a good piece of chocolate, which does not require any flavor, strength or conditioning barriers. You just eat it and soar.

Speaking of complex and interesting, we are heading to see the Avengers End Game tonight as part of Samuel’s birthday celebration, having just seen Captain Marvel at the Violet Crown last week. We’ve been working up to this since Christmastime, when our trip to the movies to see The Return of Mary Poppins sparked a trip to see Aquaman, which got the whole superhero thing going. We chose the Marvel series and have wrapped up all of the necessary pre-reqs for End Game and hope it is as good as people are saying. A lady in my CASA training course the other day said a big guy in a seat in front of her at the movie was blubbering at one point – blubbering as in something being tearjerkingly sad. We shall see if it is also complex and interesting…

…Oh! Look at these lovely lavender blooms, again there along the roadside with no planning or effort on anyone’s part.

Hey, can you hold this leash while I take a photo?

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I did it again. Right in the middle of Avengers talk, I had to take a picture. I don’t think I do this often (oh, no! maybe I do!), but I am quite sure it happened when it did because just the very day before, Samuel and Mom and I were talking about the verbal and nonverbal habits we all have, how we interject a certain word or phrase far more than is necessary as a kind of filler or finish people’s sentences for them or play with our hair (I don’t know anyone who does that!). Another habit is interrupting the flow of conversation with a random, non-following comment such as: you are talking about how you made your pizza and the other person looks out the window and says, “Oh, I need to remember to get Q-tips.”

Point being, I was totally guilty of the same thing that I have repeatedly observed in others and even annoys me! Am I modeling their behavior, monkey-see-monkey-do, or simply prone to the same? I catch myself, chide myself, apologize and again try to focus – but you know this world is just so complex and so interesting!! Take the lavender flowers for instance… 😊

My First Use of “an Un-boring Path”

I realize “anunboringpath” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Let me explain.

Boring = uninteresting. Therefore unboring = interesting. Right?

My life’s path has been figuratively all over the map: this, that, up, down, conventional, unconventional, never a dull moment. Throw in some great trips, some outstanding people, some unexpected challenges. Definitely unboring. Therefore an – un – boring – path.

One unconventional thing we did was homeschool. Yesterday Samuel was telling me about an article he read; apparently the number of people using the educational approach that for us was also a lifestyle has been rising steadily. It got me thinking about those years. We started before home computers were a thing, before cell phones were a thing, before house phones (at least ours) were even “cordless.” We were not pioneers in the movement, but certainly we rode the earlier wave.

Drew, Marie, Bradley, Lincoln and Samuel rode it with me and a cream-of-the-crop co-op group for fifteen wonderful years. Here is one photo from when our group performed Charlotte’s Web with an open barn door as the stage and homemade paper mache marionette puppets as some of the animals (thank you, Beth Masters, for the photo!).

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If ever a path was unboring, ours surely was. In 2005, when the three oldest were in college, I decided to write a bit about our experience, using “Un-boring” in my title (I had never seen it in use and assumed the hyphen). I sent my article to Maurice Gibbons, an eminent Canadian educator whose website is all about self-directed learning. He not only posted it, he also encouraged me in my writing more than he will ever know. (Thank you again, Maurice.) Below is the article, slightly edited from the original, and now you’ll know where my blog name comes from.

Unexpected Consequences of an Un-boring Path

The adventure we called homeschool began with the element of intrigue. What’s it about? Why would you choose it? Could it be better? Could it be fun? How do you know what to do? Who can you ask? And hmmm, did I have the guts?  Back then, I decided that if I didn’t at least open the door to an unconventional education for my children, I would regret it, so I had to try. “It’s only kindergarten,” I said to myself that first year. “How can you mess up kindergarten?” One day at a time, and one year at a time, I did the best I could for my children. Funny thing happened through the years though: they aren’t the only ones who learned a lot.

I didn’t set out to review the scope of world history (several times), skin a raccoon, study soil types, write a play, walk battlefields, debate whole language vs. phonics, start a hydro farm, or read some of the best literature in the world – let alone reshape my own views on the process of personal and intellectual growth. All I wanted was for my kids to have an education that was well above mediocre, and for them to have fun in the process. I wanted them to know what they needed to know, to be able to think, and to love learning, to hunger for it, to be forever un-bored. How hard could that be?

Very early on, one of the first pieces of advice I got was an old, familiar proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.  A well-prepared piece of fish satisfies hunger much the same way as interesting content satisfies curiosity, and it’s important to know about the world. Did you know that the son of President Calvin Coolidge died from a simple infection because they didn’t have penicillin in the 1920s, that March winds stir up lake waters to bring needed oxygen to drowsy underwater creatures, that dungeon walls were three feet thick so as to block the screams of the prisoners, and that staring at constellations has had a highly useful purpose?

But what if we got so engrossed in studying the Cherokee that we never got to the Sioux?  How much should we work at learning about the various -stans of eastern Europe and Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan…) when we actually find the mountainous regions of South America endlessly fascinating? What if we really (no matter how hard we try) do not see the purpose of diagramming sentences? Here’s a thought: Why not just focus on the fun stuff and ignore the rest? Who cares if they have their times tables down pat or can write a cohesive paragraph?

Ultimately, they care. Ultimately, little by little, each of them, individually, came to “own” their education, to fit most of the pieces together, to juggle the goals and the time constraints, to truly self-direct – and that’s when the real fun begins. The research, the questions, the people we meet, the places we explore, the discoveries we make – all these things work together and become transformative. Isolated bits of information find connections to other bits. Process kicks in and finds rhythm. Questions beget questions, learning begets more learning, the tools get sharper, and real thinking ensues. We don’t just enjoy the story – we understand the reason some books never go out of print. We don’t just know the times tables – we see them as a witness to structure and order in the natural world, indeed, as a thing of beauty.

How to fish envelops the notion of how to think, how to figure out important things like Does it matter if we spent more time on the civil war than on the revolutionary war? What is the bigger picture here? Above and beyond all the exceedingly interesting facts, what did we learn about the way things work, the trends and behaviors that define us, the hooks to watch out for? What did I learn? Bottom line is, all this time, when I thought I was helping my children to ultimately own and direct their own learning, I was in fact figuring out some important things myself.

I learned that success comes in increments, that overall progress is far more important than the minutiae of content. Are we going from simple division to long division within a reasonable period of time? Do we wake up one day and find that the child who liked to stir the pudding is now seasoning the soup? Is the one who had to be coaxed into saying hello now volunteering to shovel snow off the neighbor’s walkway?

I learned that some people learn better by seeing, some by hearing, some by being actively engaged with said subject. If digging parallel trenches in the deep snow and simulating (with snowballs) the no-man’s-land of World War I impresses on a child even one detail of the reality of that conflict, I’m all for snow trenches. If drawing birds outside on beautiful spring days leads to a career in wildlife management, I say: Draw birds.

I learned that the people who are asking questions are the ones doing more of the thinking and the learning, and that children ask fabulous questions. I’ll never forget when Samuel asked, “Mom, why can’t the strings of your tennis racket just stay in whack?”

I learned that those who worry about the social competencies of people who are not in conventional school settings are worrying about the wrong thing. When you work closely with people on projects that are important to you, when you are with them all the time, you can’t wear masks. They see your points of enthusiasm and frustration, your organization and your chaos, your good and your not-so-good, and you see theirs, and everybody had better figure out how to get along.

I learned that people progress at their own rates. I have no idea how Lincoln learned to read; one day Marie was making a paper crown for him with the letter A on it, and the next thing I knew he was reading. He was four or five at the time. Bradley didn’t read until he was nine, try as I did (and by golly, I tried!) to help him see patterns in language. But in high school he aced honors English and has since earned a master’s degree.

I learned that some people have no idea how to direct their own learning. Years ago, we had a visiting foreign exchange student who came upon Drew at age 12 reading a hefty volume about World War II. She came to me utterly perplexed, almost speechless: Why was he doing this, she asked. Because he wants to, I said. She said she never read a book in her life unless somebody told her she had to. I thought: How much you miss!

I learned that Plato was right, at least on his point about dialogue. People more likely arrive at truth and meaning, and more likely cultivate wisdom, if they talk out an issue with open minds, if they challenge each other to think past what is already understood, if active discourse is esteemed and practiced. How much better it is when the format allows for various views on the bigger questions like:  What are some concrete ways that world poverty can be addressed? Why is it a violation to read someone else’s mail? Who should be allowed to own a high-powered rifle? When does life begin?

I learned for myself, the real (sometimes hard) way, that life includes surprises, that people both delight and disappoint you, and that you usually can do things you never would have thought you could. My own path has been circuitous and downright puzzling at times, but when you give, you get something back. Likewise, you think you are teaching, but it turns out you are learning.  As time went on and my own learning took root, I “owned” the whole enterprise more and more, directed with confidence (acquired over time) and embraced our unconventionality. The spine of John Holt’s Learning All the Time stared at me through the years and boldly reminded me what learning how to fish came to mean for us: pacing ourselves individually, engaging actively, pursuing excellence, valuing process, questing for meaning, wearing no masks, keeping the fun (so much fun!), and seizing the day.

I continue to learn that good comes where good has gone before, and that being in charge of your own learning rewards you monumentally. Bradley called me from college once to ask for a recipe and related his discovery about how much soup 2 ½ pounds of beef and a full pound of barley will make. “But I only used seven carrots!” he said.  If you think I was smiling at that, just imagine how I felt when I asked him how things were going, and he said, “I’m totally unprepared for this course I’m taking, but I know where to find what I need and how to figure out the parts I don’t know. I don’t think I’d know how to do that if we hadn’t learned how. Thanks, Mom.”  He really said that.

 

Making the World More Beautiful

We get our images from all over the place – from real life, from books, television, movies, YouTube, wherever. Images stick with you sometimes, like wallpaper inside your head, a permanent part of the structure. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were small. One image, from one of those books, was this.

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The character you see, Miss Alice Rumphius, had a grandfather who had traveled to faraway places and then become an artist and lived by the sea. She told him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live by the sea.”  

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

Whenever I turned to this page, where Miss Rumphius, as a young woman now, goes into a conservatory and lets “the warm, moist air wrap itself around her and the sweet smell of jasmine fill her nose,” I was right there with her. I was in that big glass house where the beauty of gorgeous, growing things filled me too, enveloped me too, transported me too. Almost.

The way she puts it: “This is almost like a tropical isle…. But not quite.”

So she went to a real tropical isle (and I’ll tell you later how she made the world more beautiful.)

I’ll settle for a real conservatory.

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Monday was the perfect day to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia. There you get the real deal – the huge glass house, the pool with fountains, the pathways with multiple shades of green leafery hanging from stone archways…

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…the azaleas bursting with color…

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… even a turtle scurrying off under more incredible blooms.

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But in that conservatory, oh my, you are indeed transported. The wing of the building with the orchids left me speechless. This gives you some idea.

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I know you can buy orchids in the grocery store now. Yeah, yeah, flowers, you say. Look a little closer at these flowers! Their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor! Let your eyes fill up with the beauty of these blooms and tell me if you are not, even in a small way, transported to a place of wonder…

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In this same conservatory is a special room for incredibly beautiful butterflies and moths. You enter through one door into an airlock space, then through another door into a larger space where flutterings happen all around you and even on you! This weary traveler used Mom’s leg as a pit stop for a few minutes. She, post-back-surgery, wisely limiting her walking, happily hosted him. Uhhhhhh…. Is it going to fly off soon?

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He was perfect and delicate up close.

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But not quite as pretty as his fellow flutterers. They were not so easy to photograph. Orchids just sit there of course. These fellows do land here and there, but often they close up their wings so you can’t see their glorious spreads. I caught a few – some on plants, some on metal grates, some on the rotting fruit put there for them to feed off. Again note their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor!

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Whoever made this conservatory, whoever grows and maintains the orchids, whoever protects and oversees the butterfly/moth room – these people have surely done something to make the world more beautiful.

Miss Alice Rumphius, for her part, planted a few flower seeds – lupines, one of her favorites – at her house by the sea, and then fell ill for a long time. From her bed she saw out her window that the blue and purple and rose-colored flowers had come up the next year and she said, “I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.”

But she was not able to.

The next spring, when she was finally able to get around a bit, she saw a large patch of lupines on the other side of the hill! The birds and the wind had dispersed the seeds and her one small act, her few planted seeds, had made the world just a little more beautiful.

Then Miss Rumphius had a wonderful idea!

She ordered five bushels of lupine seeds from the very best seed house and sowed them everywhere she went. The next spring, and every year after that, there were more and more lupines. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!

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Now let me think… For my part, what am I doing to make the world more beautiful?…

 

___________________________

Miss Rumphius, Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney, Viking Penguin Inc., 1982