Tea and Thatch

When you have your ten-year-old great niece staying for a week, you think about what activities might be fun. On Wednesday we drove to the Science Museum in Richmond especially to see its “Animals Inside Out” exhibit. Kaileena said the best part of that outing was, you guessed it, the tightrope!

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I asked her what else she liked that day and she did not hesitate in the least: the cartwheels on the back deck that she did when we got home! This reminds me of a family I knew who took their two daughters on a special trip to Disney World, and the thing the girls liked best was – yup – the pool at the hotel!

You do what you can. You hope for the best.

On Thursday we drove west. The destination was Beverley’s summer home where Kaileena got to slide down a natural water slide in a rushing mountain stream (a highlight of the week, to be sure). On the way we stopped for lunch at the Anne Hathaway Cottage Tea Room in Staunton. The interior was elegant in an old-world way – stone floor, dark wood fireplace, fine old china decorating the walls – utterly charming. My beet and strawberry salad, with feta cheese and a creamy balsamic dressing, was divine. Mom’s and Kaileena’s sandwiches were equally impressive and delicious: cream cheese and sliced strawberries on one, and ham salad with pineapple on the other. If you want sugar in your tea, you use the small tongs to pinch a lump and drop it in. You can see the tongs hanging off the sugar bowl on the table.

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Set back from a fairly main road, almost hidden, the cottage itself looks as authentic as it is. That roof is thatch. In addition to being the most common roofing material worldwide, thatch is apparently making a comeback in higher-end circles on account of being lightweight, versatile and waterproof. A great variety of wild and cultivated grains, including wheat and rye, can be used. The wheat that makes the straw that was historically used for making roofs is the same wheat that gave grain for making bread.

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The owner proudly told me that the roof of this cottage in Staunton is likely to last 30+ years.

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When I was a child in grade school, we got a little Scholastic Books catalog every now and then, and Mom allowed me to make some choices. One of the books I picked out, which probably cost 25 cents, had a story that included a thatched roof. I could not help but think of that story when I saw this thatched roof. Lines of dialog were etched in my mind. The story affected me hugely and I remember it well, though its title escaped me.  Its message undoubtedly helped shape the way I think about wisdom and age to this day.

The book itself did not survive my childhood. As I had children of my own, and they got a little bigger, I reflected often on the part that story had played in my life. Finally, sometime in my thirties, I wrote to the Library of Congress to see if they could help me find it. This was back when you wrote longhand letters on real paper and waited weeks for a reply. This was way before search engines.

I wrote to them what I remembered from the story, a summary as well as some lines of dialog. In less than a month, they sent me a photocopy of the story from an anthology of folk tales. How thrilling it was for me to read the story again, twenty or so years later. Some of the lines I had remembered verbatim.

This is how I remember the story. Maybe it will be as powerful for you as it was for me.

Long ago and far away, there was a rural village where the people had always done things a certain way. They followed their traditions strictly and kept close tabs on each other. For the most part their way of life worked very well.

One of the expectations of life in this village was that you must be productive and useful. When you got too old or feeble to be able to contribute your share of the work, you were put on a sled and brought to the woods in the middle of the winter and left there to die.

In one family, the grandfather was no longer able to work. His legs hurt and he was not strong. His son knew the day had come to follow the tradition of the village, even though he didn’t like the idea. He put his father on the sled and strapped him in. The grandfather said nothing because he knew and accepted the custom. But all the while, the grandson was watching.

“Daddy,” said the little boy. “Are you taking Grandfather out to the woods?”

“Yes, son.”

“Don’t forget to bring the sled back.”

“Why?”

“Because someday I need it to take you to the woods.”

This gave the man pause. The idea of his father – or himself – freezing to death in the cold, dark woods made him want to defy the custom. But he knew that if he did not take him, someone else in the village would do it. The only other choice was to hide the old man.

From that day forward the old grandfather lived in the attic. He could not risk being caught, so he did not make a sound and he could no longer take walks in the street or sit in the full sun. But he lived. His grandson brought him food and drink.

This went on for several years. One spring, the boy began to bring less and less food. When his grandfather asked him why, the boy said, “The crops were so bad. We have only a little food left and we have no seed grain for the next crop. It’s terrible. We all will starve.”

“Something like this happened when I was a little boy too,” the old man said. “Tell your father to take the thatch off the roof and thresh it again. There will be seed in it yet, and that seed will produce a crop.”

The father did what the grandfather suggested, and sure enough, there was seed for the next crop! When his neighbors saw what he did and saw his success, they said, “How did you know there would be seed yet in the thatch?”

The man knew he had to confess. “I didn’t know, but my old father did. How fortunate for all of us that he is still alive. His memory and his wisdom have saved us all.”

After that, the people changed their ways. They did not take their old people out to the woods any more. Instead, they cherished them, honored them and took care of them because now they knew that “useful” is not just about how much you can work.

The little boy was especially proud of his grandfather. Sometimes they would sit together and enjoy the full sun.

Unboring defined

I walked out to feed the chickens yesterday morning and ended up with a clearer understanding of my unboring path.

There are now eleven chickens. We lost three when I started to feel sorry for them being cooped up in the coop all the time, nice as the coop is — even (one has to think) from a chicken’s point of view. Oh, let them out, voices said. Let them scratch in the dirt and find bugs and dust themselves in the sun if they want to. Give them The Life of a Chicken to Beat All. But place (any place) has its perils, as we may recall from the last post. I don’t know what got the first three, but let us assume a wandering fox or raccoon got lucky and slept that night on a very full stomach.

The fourth chicken may have met the same end, but I blame her demise on Bridget, my anomaly of a golden retriever. Whoever heard of a golden retriever that was anything but nice? Certainly she is mostly nice, but there are moments when she forgets her breed, when something else in her brain kicks in, and we have to bring her back to the norm, which is to say nice, which is apparently too much to ask on a consistent basis of this old rescue dog who endured in her earlier life only God knows what. Someday I hope I will again have a dog that is unequivocally nice. In the meantime it’s an imperfect world.

Bridget decided a few days after the now-twelve chickens were once more cooped that she wanted the hunk of bread that had been given to them, and pawed and gnawed at a weak area of the fencing and made a hole. How a bird got through that I cannot imagine, but clearly one did.

The now-eleven chickens of mine are the best-fed chickens in town. I bring scrap from the kitchen at work — leftover tomatoes and toast, carrot peels, squash seeds, etc. — and provide a frequent feast. Chickens, like most creatures, are seemingly oblivious to how good they have it, and carry on as if I am the average chicken keeper. As I deliver the pickle bucket full of goodies, they act like it’s run of the mill. Fine. I do not depend on their appreciation. We must just know we do good and keep on doing it regardless.

Ordinarily in the mornings I feed my [ungrateful] flock and put the now-empty bucket into my car and rinse it out when I get to work. But this time I chose to walk to the garden and use the water pump that Bradley and Beth thoughtfully put in the middle. It was a cool morning for late June in Virginia. Rain was in the air. I could not help but take a moment to look around at the various raised beds proliferating. I have to think whether I would describe them as proliferating beautifully or proliferating wildly. Either descriptor will do.

The lettuce catches my eye. Spectacular lettuce! We have been feasting on it for weeks and it just keeps coming. If you have not had lettuce fresh picked from a garden lately, you will have to remember how tender and tasty such lettuce is, though I served a salad to my friend Vernon the other night and his comments focused on the maple dressing instead. I was pleased just the same.

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There is not much else in the garden I would call spectacular right now. The sugar snap peas and this planting of spinach are past. The catnip is ridiculously tall but I don’t need it. The cabbage, beets, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and cukes are on their way. The onions failed. There is one volunteer squash of an unknown variety that has taken over the compost. Whatever it is (and I expect we will soon know), it loves its bed. These leaves might be called spectacular.

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The beets need weeding. Some of the weeds have been food for Japanese beetles, some of whom are still munching. As I pull the unwanted plants out, I considered leaving them in. What if, after I remove the obviously favored weeds, the beetles go after the untouched beet greens instead? But the weeds make it a mess and my sense of order triumphs. Out they go, regardless of my not having garden gloves on, because of course I came to the garden not to pull weeds or admire the lettuce or assess the glorious (if wild) results of rain + sun + healthy plants.

This half hour — this sequence of feeding chickens (because I will continue to curry their favor with goodies even if they never acknowledge me) to cleaning buckets (because it was Saturday and I didn’t want them sitting in the shed until Monday) to admiring lettuce (because there is nothing else you could do with that, other than pick and eat it, which came later) to weeding the beet bed (because of my need for ducks in a row) to muddy hands (because of recent rain and my unwillingness to go get gloves) — might strike the reader as a lot of boring tasks and a lot of justifying boring tasks, but in fact this half hour represents a portion of my unboring path.

It occurred to me that I call this site “an unboring path” and presumed that would be self-explanatory, but maybe it isn’t. Using a somewhat unorthodox word, I mean just what you think. I mean the opposite of boring, the opposite of uninteresting (I suppose we could follow the pattern here and say un-uninteresting?), the opposite of dull. 

Tasks themselves are of course sometimes boring. Some people find baseball boring, or ironing, or reading technical manuals. I’m not talking about any one thing here as being boring or not. I’m talking about an enjoyable path, a richness, a fullness, a continuously evolving forward movement that you are joyfully and willingly engaged in through task, purpose, circumstance, feeling and decision. An unboring path is interesting, yes, but it’s interesting because you decide to be — wherever you are and as best as you are able — a part of what’s going on, involved. Interesting moments, ideas and experiences happen only sometimes by chance. They are also sought out or, when presented to you, chosen. They can lead to something new or something familiar. What matters is that you embrace your world, using what you have — your brain, your body, your hands, your heart, your time, your surroundings, your circumstances — to get the most out of life. What you have is partly of your choosing and partly not, an ever-unique, ever-evolving combination of factors that you help shape.  An unboring path is not about passing time or sitting on the sidelines. It is not about lamenting what you don’t have. It is embracing what you do have and getting in there and doing the best you can with that and enjoying every minute.

I barely began contemplating this idea when a large, stinging-type insect appeared on the screen of my window — on the inside — unsure how and unable (though valiantly trying) to get to the other side of the screen. The word for him is doomed. Soon he was, first by my hand feebly, then by Samuel’s more definitively, dead as a door-nail as they say. Why do we say dead as a door-nail? he asks when the deed is done. What’s a door-nail?

I have slowly acclimated to the ease of using a search engine to answer questions, though I still often forget how easy and handy this is. This time I did not think twice, but instantly googled door-nailThe first benefit of this search came in the form of the passage often associated with this word, the introduction of Marley at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

An unboring path includes the unexpected. It’s June, not Christmas, but here you have it, a most famous passage about a door-nail. I am very familiar with it. Our local Shakespeare theater http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/ performs A Christmas Carol every year, and every year I go there to see it if I can. George C. Scott in the film version is outstanding as well. I have heard this door-nail passage many times, and every time I do, I marvel at it. If you don’t find yourself marveling, read it again, slowly. Marveling will come. This short passage plainly and unexpectedly gives us the mastery of Charles Dickens: his cadence, word choice, imagery,  humor. Truly marvelous. Even in June.

An unboring path includes things you didn’t know before. We have now found out that door-nails were/are a specific kind of nail that 1. need to be hit hard on their heads repeatedly to get through the wood and naturally end up “dead,” and 2. were historically longer than the thickness of wood they penetrated and therefore had to be hit from the other side to knock the point into the wood so that there would be nothing sticking out to hurt anyone, rendering the nail permanently lodged in said door and henceforth unable to ever move (even if it were animate in the first place), or to ever be retrieved, or to ever be useful again (on account of its point being bent) even if it were somehow taken out, and therefore in these ways also “dead.”

In the search that produced the door-nail passage, Shakespeare was mentioned as not being the origin of the door-nail idiom, but the Bonus Facts part of the article included several other Shakespeare facts, including this one about his use of un- words.

Shakespeare is, in fact, the first known user of many words that start with un-. He was a fan of the prefix and attached it to words that previously hadn’t used un-. Examples include unhelpful, uneducated, undress, and unreal, plus some 300 other un-words.

After the chickens and after the garden, the stinging insect came unbidden, producing the door-nail question that unleashed Dickens and Shakespeare. I feel quite certain that Shakespeare would approve of “unboring.”