Fang??

Everyone needs a job. Everyone’s got a job. Think of it this way:

“See, I think there’s a plan. There’s a design for each and every one of us. You look at nature. Bird flies somewhere, picks up a seed, shits the seed out, plant grows. Bird’s got a job, shit’s got a job, seed’s got a job. And you’ve got a job.”

So says the caring old woman Inman meets in the forest in the film version of Cold Mountain.* I recalled her words yesterday as Samuel and I walked with his ridiculous little black dog on a leash into the health care unit to visit mom.

Coco’s got a job.

We had hardly stepped off the elevator when a resident in a wheelchair noticed her as she was sniffing along the floor (imagine the assault on her senses!!), oblivious to the turning heads and sudden smiles she invokes. “Oh, look at that!” exclaimed the man, clearly enamored and delighted with the unexpected encounter. I stopped and let Coco investigate his chair and the floor around him more thoroughly so he could study her comical shape, flapping ears, short legs, tight body and smooshed face with some leisure. She’s lean for a pug, with well-defined shoulders that taper such that she could boast a waistline if she could boast. Her fur covers her frame as tight as sausage casing, her face says “what?” flatly, her brain is clearly clueless as to why the humans around her are so intrigued.

You’ve seen this silly face before, this sleek body.

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It’s ridiculous. Mom likes to say she’s ugly enough to be cute. My favorite photo is with incognito Samuel. I think it’s her best what-face.

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Jim in the wheelchair smiled big, asked her name, told us about the dog that comes special to visit him sometimes. I picked Coco up and brought her closer to him. What is it about an animal’s warm, lovely, silky fur that is so soothing? He reached for her head instantly and stroked around her velvet ears several times. Much as I wanted to give him a little more time to enjoy her softness, her silliness, her perkiness, her ridiculousness, delighted as I am to provide him these bright and pleasant moments, Samuel’s time was limited. Thinking of Mom’s recent back surgery and ongoing recovery, I closed the conversation with a well-wish. “We’re off to visit my mom. I wish you all the best in your own recovery.”

“Oh, I’m here for the rest of my life,” he said with as broad a smile as he’d had for Coco. “I knew that coming in.” Oh! How I wished protocol didn’t prohibit me from giving him a hug!

Coco’s job is to make people smile. She doesn’t even have to try. Walk her through a health care unit where some people are hurting, some are sad, some are harried, some are lonely – and a remarkable, involuntary thing happens. People smile. They stop in their tracks and smile. Coco doesn’t smile, mind you. She just sticks out her tongue. People smile. Starting with Mom.

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We prepared ourselves for a little jaunt and got on our way with Miss Princess perched on a pillow on Mom’s lap. One man we passed in the hallway on our way to the courtyard looked down, beamed, pointed, laughed and said, “Fang!” Somewhere in his memory bank lives a dog named Fang? Or she looks like she has one? (One fang?) Maybe her tongue incessantly sticking out to one side looks like a fang? We had no time for the backstory but ….  Fang??

Smiles happened every step along the way. Long hallway, elevator, lobby, mail room, corridor leading to courtyard… Every step brought smiles.

Every step except one. You know as well as I do: There’s a grump in every group. Along came Kathy, hunched and cranky. She scrunched up her nose (unknowingly imitating Coco?) and peered toward the object on Mom’s lap as if her disgust reflex had sent a red flag up the pole, the unspoken question being “What is it?” Mom volunteered, “Her name’s Coco.” Grumps are good at grunting, and that’s about all we got in return, making us eager to part company. Grumpy, Grunty, Crusty Kathy shuffled off, obvilious to the pall she took with her, and Mom and I proceeded to the courtyard.

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No one is under obligation to like this dog, pet this dog, smile at this dog. But most do. That’s what makes me think Coco has a job whether she knows it or not. Which makes me think we all have a job whether we know it or not. We might think of a job as the work we get paid to do, or got paid to do, or wish we got paid to do. But let’s hope that’s not all it is. Let’s hope that no matter how we occupy our days, we take a lesson from Coco and somehow bring what she brings – at least here and there – into the often hurting, sad, harried and lonely days of others. Who’s to say even Crusty Kathy didn’t grin as she walked away from us? I’d like to think so! Coco surely worked her magic even if we didn’t see it. 

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*Charles Frazier’s outstanding Civil War novel is one of my all-time favorites for not only its story line, but mostly for Frazier’s artful and amazing era/person/region/situation-appropriate use of English. This quote is not in the novel. The old woman, given the name Maddy in the film, says it as she mercifully slaughters one of her beloved goats to provide a meal for Inman, the main character, a soldier on the run, perhaps to lessen the blow of her sacrificial act for today’s sensitive viewers, perhaps to give him a gentle reminder, a renewed understanding of the why of his heart wrenching journey. In the book she remains nameless but infuses her time with Inman with many other thoughtful, wise and helpful words. Do get yourself a copy and slowly work your way through this exceptional book.  Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier, Random House, 1997

Yummy Yammy Cheesy Galette

When you first come home from having been away for a week, there’s not much in the fridge. But I did not feel like going shopping yesterday or today, and anyway I was playing tennis this morning, then flipping the cottage, then waiting for guests to arrive – honeymooners(!), repeat visitors Sally and Ryan – how wonderful to see them again!! I was wrapped up in Sarah’s book for many hours as well (while waiting for Sally and Ryan), so it was after 6pm by the time I thought about dinner. Earlier I had taken a chicken out of the freezer, thinking to roast it, thinking we haven’t had one with a teriyaki sauce in a while and that might be nice, but it was too late for that. Maybe tomorrow.

Hmmm, very limited choices then. I could always make mac and cheese but didn’t feel like that either. I said to Samuel, “Can you make a dough?” He is good at making dough even if he would rather amuse us by hemming Coco in with pillows and blankets on the couch, from which she did not care to move so we concluded that she liked it.

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By “dough” he knew I meant a pizza dough. I knew we didn’t have any mozzarella so a conventional pizza was out of the question, but my daughter Marie has a recipe for a savory galette that came into my mind. Only it’s been five months or so since I made it at her house and couldn’t remember it well.

I remembered her recipe started with a pizza-crust-type crust. Thus the dough I asked Samuel to make.

I remembered it had butternut squash, but I didn’t know I had one/forgot I had one/didn’t see the one I had till I was all done. But I knew I had yams. That would work.

I remembered it had fresh sage. I knew I didn’t have that, but I do (always) have dried sage.

I remembered it had fontina cheese. I knew I didn’t have that, but I did (miraculously, considering how nearly-empty my cheese bin is right now) have asiago. That would work.

I knew it didn’t have ricotta cheese on it, but I had some of that, and thought it might be good to include.

It might have been good to look up Marie’s recipe then and there but I didn’t (or I would have added more onions).

Samuel made the dough, a regular pizza dough. He grated a big chunk of asiago. I cut up two big sweet potatoes (a.k.a. yams) into small cubes and put them in my cast iron skillet in butter and a bit of water over a medium flame to roast (forgetting that Marie’s recipe calls for the squash to be oven-roasted), then remembered the half onion sitting in my fridge and something in me said Add the onion to the roasting yams. I sliced it up thinly, added it to the yams in the pan and covered the pan till the yams were soft, stirring them once or twice with a good spatula; they were done in about ten minutes.

Samuel rolled out the dough, I put olive oil on it and spread it all over the surface with my hand (just enough to cover the surface, not enough to pool). He then salted and peppered the surface. I put small dollops of ricotta cheese on next, using teaspoons to push grape-sized blobs onto the dough (you see the white blobs?), reasonably spaced. Cooked yam cubes and onion slices went on next (well distributed of course), then some dried sage, then the asiago.

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Into a hot (450F) oven the two galettes went for a good half hour until the crust was nice and brown. It was totally delicious. The combination of cheeses with yams with the sage and onion – oh, yummy! Did I need two pieces?? I enjoyed two pieces! And the crust this time! The crust was especially good. We think it might be because Sandy bought King Arthur bread flour last time I was out of flour, which has more protein, which is supposed to make a better crust. We agree it is better. If you can, buy this kind of flour for your crust.

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After we chowed down on this delicious stuff while enjoying Iron Man 2, I found Marie’s recipe, which I will happily share because 1. It has actual measurements and 2. It serves as a springboard to my altered version. You will see that the “pastry” for Marie’s Butternut Squash and Carmelized Onion Galette is not a pizza dough. I guess I forgot that too. There are various ways I veered from this recipe. But the basic idea is quite the same.

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It all goes to show that you can look and see what’s in your fridge and maybe not have to go to the store in order to make something yummy for dinner!

Girls and Aprons: Straight Out of Another Time

Two little girls. My world is more wonderful this week because Rise and Eppie are here. By the time they are six and four, there’s more they can do on their own. I do not have to accompany them to the chicken coop every time, but can suggest there might be eggs, and off they go.

If you look carefully, you can see the chickens at the door of their run waiting for Rise. Food! Food! Humans approaching! They bring food! Not this time, ladies!

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That’s my hat she’s wearing, and she loves it because it’s purple. The love of purple applies universally. In other words, if it’s purple, she loves it. This one is especially appealing because besides being purple, there’s a flower on the side. She likes it so much, she wears it indoors sometimes.

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(Yes, that’s Edward Tulane sitting on the table next to Rise on my raccoon skin. They loved reading through it with me the first two or three days they were here. Imagine, as soon as Edward was thrown overboard, Rise said, “I want him to get back to the little girl!” Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? Do you think the author anticipated that a six-year-old would want that?)

On another day, a colder day, Rise got the first 13 eggs of the day and Eppie went out later by herself to get one more. (Don’t rush me! Don’t rush me! one hen said.) Yes, another hat of mine under her hood. If you are an Oma, it is best to have a selection of hats available when the little girls come to visit.

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There’s nothing like a good Ravensburger puzzle to occupy Eppie for a few minutes. She had both 20-piece puzzles together in no time. (I have a puzzle with chickens on it. Imagine that!) I hope kids everywhere are still doing puzzles. 

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I hope they are still eating apples too. I cut up two different varieties and put them in separate bowls and suggested they might do a taste-test to see how they compared. Rise said one was tart and one was sweet. Fair enough. Looks like they each found a favorite.

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Eppie likes reading aloud whether anyone else is listening or not. My mom gave them a marvelous reprinted Dick and Jane set for Christmas, which has adorable drawings and easy story lines. Here she is reading Green Eggs and Ham without prompting. Once in a while she needs help with a word. But only once in a while.

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“Oma, I found paint downstairs…” Ah, yes, children’s paint, supposedly washes out of clothes. But let’s not take that chance. I pulled out the aprons I still had from when my own kids were little, set an old shower curtain liner on the floor and gave them gloves to wear (which did not work on Eppie at all and I had to take them off and take my chances on how well the paint would wash off skin – it did!).

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After this, they did not want to paint again but Rise wore the apron nonstop. I didn’t realize till later that she was wearing it in this photo of all of us.

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Which got me to thinking. Of course. She should have one of her own for when she goes back to her house. They both should have one. While Eppie was sleeping one day, Rise and I went into my newly reorganized fabric scrap boxes (I knew I did all that last week for a reason!) and found some pieces that would be big enough for an apron. Rise settled immediately on a pale pink calico, but we didn’t want to decide for Eppie, so we found several. Eppie chose blue over green, which was a surprise.

Today was a good day to sew. While they played quietly in another room, I got to work, modeling the new ones after the old one. The girls were right there to measure when I needed, so it was easy. Waist to knees and height and width of bib, that’s all I need. The rest was gathers and ties. The girls were a little too quiet at one point. Hmmm. I found an abandoned mess of crayons later. When I asked about it, they said, “Oh, we like to clean!” Good thing, because I’m not cleaning it up.

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They were tickled with the aprons. And I was tickled when Kim said (in response to this photo I sent her), “Oh gosh – straight out of another time.” Indeed they are, though I didn’t think about the fashion era they represent until she said that. You see, girls (these girls anyway) love twirling, and if the skirt is full, the twirl is greatly enhanced. And the ties are long enough to make a bow in the back. Rise always wants a bow.

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If you know anyone who wants one (and I don’t mean Coco!), just let me know 😊 All I need is measurements!

Foo-Foo-Fication

I learned a new word today as Samuel and I started out on a walk with Coco. I put the hyphens in the title for clarity, but probably they don’t belong, and probably foofoofication isn’t in the dictionary.

This funny new word came up because it’s a beautiful sunny day after too many cloudy days, a good day for a walk with the dog.

This dog loves the sun. She likes it indoors by herself

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and outdoors anywhere near her favorite human.

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She doesn’t care if he is paying attention to her or not. All right, maybe she cares sometimes. But in general, if there is a sunny spot, she’s going to find it. So let’s take advantage of a sunny day and get us all a little exercise.

Oh, but where’s her leash? I’ve been out of town so I don’t know. It could be hanging up on a coat hook. It could be in one of the drawers in the foyer. While we rummage around, I see the leash I got from Jerry a few weeks back when I went over there with her but without a leash (just forgot, it happens). Jerry had said, “Use this one,” and pulled a perfectly fine leash and collar (left from his dear corgi) out of a drawer in his foyer.

See what I mean: a perfectly fine leash and collar.

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No, we can’t use that, Samuel said.

Why not?

Foofoofication, he said.

Are you kidding me? What’s wrong with this leash?

Come to find out (and you learn something new every day, don’t you?) it’s not about what’s wrong with Jerry’s leash. It’s about what’s right about Coco’s leash, which by that point in the conversation he had found (hanging on a coat hook).

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This is rope, he said, with an emphasis on rope. I’m sure you can see that. Coco’s black leash is a piece of rope fashioned into a leash. The alternative, a vaguely feminine-colored purchased leash, is obviously inferior and unacceptable.

How could I not have anticipated this? How could I have assumed that the choice of which piece of equipment to use for this walk matters? Both exist exclusively for making sure you have control of a 16-pound, arguably foo-foo dog, in this case along a road which offers lots of woods on either side but only the slightest chance of seeing another human. But one choice is made with rope, not some skinny, shiny, ribbed nylon. Samuel already has Coco, whose origin story (as they say with superheroes — have I been watching too many of these movies??) was told in another post. He can’t possibly go any farther down the foo-foo road.

While I laugh inwardly at the silliness of today’s leash selection, I look down at said cutie pie, attentive and hopeful as always, surely singing (in her funny little head):

There might be food,
there might be food,
if I am cute enough,
there might be food!

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And I think about the material things that I myself have an attachment to, some for reasons I couldn’t even say, such as the cup I like best for my tea in the morning, the scarf I grab most of the time, the furnishings and artwork I’ve surrounded myself with. Maybe some people would think the stuffed lamb propped against a pink lacy pillow on my bed is foo-foo.

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All right, yeah, that probably qualifies.

Until this moment I never thought of it that way. I just like the lamb because my daughter Marie gave it to me. It seems my foo-foo line is in a different place than Samuel’s.

The subject of foofoofication makes me think about those lines, about how we all draw different lines in different places, reserving the right, of course, to redraw our lines on a whim. I think about the complexity, the hilarity, the wonder of us humans. However do we manage to get along as well as we (usually) do??

 

The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Pug Meets Pig

You have to wonder about dogs sometimes: what matters to them, why they get excited about this but not that, how they process our interactions with them. For the moment, this is the dog I’m talking about. Coco, what’s going on inside that funny-looking head of yours?

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Samuel presents her with various challenges such as putting her in a closet…

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… putting her in a box…

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…and standing her on a bookshelf.

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Does she care? Is she saying to herself (in whatever way pugs and other dogs say to themselves) What’s up with these humans? I was just trying to have a nice nap. Is there any good reason to be bothering me right now?

The questioning goes two ways. Much as I expect she is clueless about our behavior sometimes, about why or how she ends up in a closet or in a box or on a shelf, we are equally clueless about her behavior. Let’s go for a walk with her.

At this time of year my gravel road has lots and lots of fallen leaves along the sides. The cars going by, few as they are, must provide enough air movement in the right direction for the leaves to land everywhere except in the road itself. For whatever reason, these leaves are really interesting to Coco. There’s a treasure of a smell every few steps it seems.

But okay, let’s keep going because down the road a piece there are, right now, two very large and amusing pigs to visit.

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My neighbor Tracy’s very well cared for and fortunate pigs wander around their exceptionally spacious (for pigs) fenced-in area all day looking for acorns they missed or taking a snooze in a patch of sunshine. They seem to love visitors. You approach and they come. You are something to do, an attraction, a point of interest.

Hello! (I love this picture!)

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A few days ago Samuel and I took Coco with us on a walk. We were curious what would happen when the pug would meet the pig(s). Initially, what happened was exactly what you would expect to happen.

Uh, hello, what on earth are you?

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The pig approached, and they sized one another up. You have to assume more olfactory activity than we could ever imagine (especially with a nose like that!), and who knows what, besides the intense and new smells of each other, they notice. Curiosity lingered a moment, then they both decided to get a little closer and the other pig joined the party.  Hmmm, similar nose, different color, different size, different ears!

Pig 1: Hey, sister, what’s happening?…. What IS that??

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Pig 2: I don’t know. Looks like an alien. Vaguely familiar nose though.

Coco: I beg your pardon!

Pig 1: Why is it here? What does it want?

Pig 2: Doesn’t look edible.

Pig 1: What good is it if it’s not edible?

Coco: Hey, watch what you say about edible!

Pig 2: Gotta admire that nose though, smooshed flat the way a nose should be.

Pig 1: It has the nose going for it, I agree. Maybe it wants to play?

Coco: Oh, look, these leaves smell so marvelous!!

And off she went! No longer interested in pigs! Practically perfect pig pals, no less!

Pig 2: Was it something we said?

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Really, Coco?

Coco: If you knew how amazing these leaves smell, you would be on your hands and knees with me! I know that’s a pain for you, bending those ridiculous long legs so you can get to a reasonable height off the earth. The human design is so unhelpful when it comes to smelling leaves and other super important things. By the way, this is super important and I don’t mean to be rude but… busy here!

The preoccupied, party-pooping (possibly pampered) pug pursued personal priorities while these pleasingly plump, perfectly peaceful, pleasantly personable pigs at the pinnacle of their porcine pudginess pondered a plan to play! Positively perplexing!

Isn’t it the same among family and friends though? We get why the people we know or encounter do some things, many things even, but sometimes their behavior is incredible, bizarre, mysterious, absurd. Why, for example, do some people choose vanilla when chocolate is available? I will never understand!

I recently came across a marvelous, short Alain de Botton video about marriage and partnership that makes a similar point about confusing-behavior reciprocity, a.k.a. tolerating each other’s quirks. Why does my husband/ wife/ partner/ girlfriend/ boyfriend/ friend/ colleague/ neighbor/ dog (!) do [….X….]? Weird! Maddening! Crazy! Or maybe just Confusing. Inexplicable. Bizarre. Absurd…

The fact is: You see the other person’s issues much more plainly than you see your own. You have things to tolerate which do indeed get under your skin, and you forget that you (most likely) get under their skin sometimes too.

Why does Coco care more about the leaves than about the pretty pigs? Whoever knows! But she does, and from that moment forth, the pigs didn’t exist for her. Eh. Pigs. Smelled one, you’ve smelled ‘em all. So what. But these leaves!!

 

 

Inflatables, Ibises and a Swiss Cheese Plant

There are many things in this life that I will never understand. Blow-up lawn ornaments are one of them. Last week while in Lowe’s I could not help but see the selection for sale on the very high upper shelf in the – you got it – lawn care department.

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They have two dragons, one black cat looking evil (as evil as plastic can look), orange-rimmed eyes and something next to the purple dragon on the end that I cannot figure out. On another shelf they have a pumpkin carriage, a black spider (widow, no doubt), a haunted house and a green ghoula monster.

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The one that greets you – just imagine this in your neighbor’s front yard! – is this:

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Every town in America, sometimes every neighborhood, has at least one house with a variety of such “decorations.” It seems that Halloween is strongly vying for the #2 spot behind Christmas, when all manner of inflatable Santas, reindeer, snowmen, grinches, polar bears, nutcrackers, penguins and even nativity sets adorn front yards.

I have decided that I don’t have to understand or even appreciate everything. People have different eyes, different sensitivities, different preferences. Sometimes I go into a store and think: Who buys this stuff? But people do! And it’s not only what people buy. It’s the music they listen to, the foods they eat, the things that strike them as beautiful. It’s what they see, what they like, what they remember, what they want more of.

Some people will not look at Louisa’s gourds and think How beautiful! as I did when I saw them in August still hanging on their vine. Isn’t the shape magnificent? Traditionally, because a gourd’s shell will become as hard as wood, they have been used for bottles, dippers and musical instruments. People paint them, carve into them, display them. I am content and delighted to look at them hanging from a vine.

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Some people will think Coco, the little black pug I get to laugh at every day, is ugly. I did. For a long time. Curiously, I also thought she was cute. I’d say How can a dog be ugly and cute at the same time? But now I don’t think she’s ugly. She wiggled her way into my heart and now I think she’s beautiful. Yes, beautiful! And still cute. I call her Cutie Pie.

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You can put a bunch of pillows on top of her and she will still just look at you like What? Is there a problem here?

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See her in there? She doesn’t care!

You can put her on the rooftop of the chicken coop’s brooding box and she will not care!

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There are a lot of things that strike me that someone else might walk right by. I am drawn to form, pattern, color, character, authenticity and uniqueness with a curiosity that I suspect will never quite be satisfied. Last week this MO was confirmed in Galveston, Texas, at a place called Moody Gardens. Their “rainforest” is a bit imposing from the outside – a tall, glass pyramid amid lots of palm trees (this is not Virginia!).

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Inside I marveled at the patterning on this fish’s back. Do you think every one of its species has a different “fingerprint”? It’s like a maze, like the corn mazes people walk through or the ones in activity books that challenge you to get from Point A to Point B. Do you suppose there’s a way through this one?

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I don’t know what these birds are called, but there they were, right in front of us, looking as perfect as if they had been manufactured in a factory according to detailed specs.

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The shape of the one that sat so still, its distinct all-black and all-white sections so crisply divided, its unblinking eye with no shadowing, no lash, no imperfections – she’s amazing, but she doesn’t know it.

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The gorgeous color of these scarlet ibises is like something off an artist’s palette. What do you even call that color? To me, scarlet isn’t the word you want. But the birds don’t care what you call them.

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They freely walk around, seemingly oblivious to the humans observing their skinny legs, their outstanding posture, their disproportionate beaks. Why do those beaks have to be so long? Perhaps their food lives deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond?

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I have to admit that the color of the palm viper is extraordinary, but I did not stare at it for long. The coils, the gleam, the idea of what it is capable of sent me on my way even though it is behind glass. I think people must be innately repulsed for good reason!

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Onward!

I do not want to be the one who feeds the mantas, but it was quite something to watch! The man who does this has been feeding them for five years! His hand is inside the glass.

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How amazing is the patterning of this branch of the “rain tree”? It grows that way without any help from a computer program! Notice though that it’s not perfect. Some leaves are missing. If a person made this, or a program constructed it, you can bet that all the leaves would be there.

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Seen from below, with the sunlight framing it, this branch is to me even more amazing.

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The Split Leaf Philodendron or “Swiss Cheese Plant” is just plain funny! What reason could there be for the naturally-occurring holes in the leaves? To get more light to the leaves below it?

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On the sign in the lobby at Moody Gardens is a Kenyan proverb that says: Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.

To me this says more broadly: Keep your perspective. Be careful. Pay attention.

It gets me thinking about what an incredibly diverse and fascinating world we live in. All too often we get caught up in the everyday issues – bills to pay, things that break down, people who disappoint us. We forget to take notice of the miracles all around us all the time. Without our usually noticing it, there’s beauty: someone’s smile, the color of flowers, the rays of sun making speckled shadows. There’s growth: we don’t struggle quite as much with something as we used to, our work yields more satisfaction, our cooking is more delicious than ever! And there are simple and complex systems in every corner of our world that actually, consistently work! The lights go on when we flip the switch, fresh and wonderful food from around the globe is available in our stores, the mail arrives! Much as I will never understand it, even the inflatables in people’s front yards at Halloween and Christmas give (some) people something to smile about.

Besides all this and a thousand other things, there are plants in the world that look like swiss cheese! Just for fun maybe?

Take a moment today to look around and think about what you normally take for granted. You don’t need to make a list (though mine is very long!) but I think if we all spent a bit more time being grateful for what we have instead of lamenting what we don’t have, if we celebrated the good instead of bemoaning the bad, if we channeled our energies toward gratitude and service instead of anger and greed, think what the world would be.

Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange

I know there are people in the world who would feel, as I do, a twinge of sadness the day after a storm splits the gigantic chrysanthemum.

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Or who wish they could wander out to the garden to pick fresh oregano and purple basil for the homemade pizza about to go into the oven (see the basil in the box behind the rosemary?). Or who would like to make applesauce together from freshly picked heirloom Virginia apples. I suspect there are people who have some time – a few weeks or a few months – to explore a corner of the world that is surely different in some ways than their own and who wonder about my corner of Virginia.

I’m thinking this is Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange.

There’s always something going on around here: planting, harvesting, building, cooking, baking, (eating!), trying, creating, discovering, resting, marveling, playing, listening, digging, watching, learning, discussing, fixing, pondering.

There are my various gardens with herbs, vegetables and perennials. I’ve moved the azaleas in between the crape myrtles in front of the fenced garden. Turns out, the neglected bush that just got dug up in the front corner of my house was actually two bushes. This photo shows them moved, with their fresh dirt around them, but not yet trimmed, staked or mulched. I did that later in the day, after taking the photo. I had to take the photo when I did, and you see why. I did not ask little Coco to park herself there to enjoy the sunshine…

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We have got to do something about the blackberries that are going crazy inside the garden, and the tomatoes could be pulled and winter crops planted. The asparagus bed is none too tidy, begs for attention. One of the rudbeckia got smashed somehow and needs a little love. The front yard is a mess from the recent Big Dig, but soon we’ll be pouring footings and building a nice front porch.

My two custom-built chicken coops provide palatial accommodations for 29 interesting (some bordering on ridiculous) chickens. They need new mulch or straw when they’ve scratched through what we put down before, but they give lots of amazing eggs to make good food with! My lone araucana isn’t laying her greenish eggs any more though – could there be a reason? This black copper maran had a face-off with Coco yesterday. Both have curiosity, but the chicken less so. She just wants to get back to scratching in the straw. A white silkie came toward us to investigate.

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When the sun rises on a day with too much cloud cover, and it can’t quite get its rays to stream through the giant trees in my back woods, there’s always an otherworldly feeling and sometimes a glorious mist that sparkles on the leaves or in the air.

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When the wind kicks up such that those trees can’t help but engage in a wild dance, it’s a sight. The not-so-manicured trails through the woods are a pleasant walk leading to the beaver pond with its lodge and dam. The beavers keep making their pond a little bigger. I don’t get down there often enough.

When a fox trots in a wide circle around the coops, wishing (you know it!) that there was a way to get to those fat and surely delicious chickens, it doesn’t know how its red fur shines in the sun. When guests stay at my gorgeous Airbnb cottage, they just might see a mother bear and two cubs walk through the yard. A few weeks ago, someone did.

Recently I was in Seattle and met several enthusiastic, capable au pairs. I got to thinking that some people who would like to come to Virginia for a little while (but don’t necessarily have a friend here already) might prefer a household without small children, and might prefer a country setting. They might enjoy getting to know the plants that grow in this climate, or the way we lay decking boards, or the vibe of downtown Charlottesville, fifteen minutes away. It’s a vibrant university town with great restaurants and shops, exhibits and lectures, sports and music events. The Presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are all within half an hour’s drive.

Over the years I’ve had short- and long-term visitors many times and would love to share my little piece of the world with some new friends. If you are thinking it’s a good time to do such a thing and have a little interest, you can let me know.

Coco, The Pug in Our World

It is usually not the best idea to give someone a puppy. That didn’t stop me and my sisters eight years ago from giving my dad the cutest little black pug you ever saw.

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Why a pug? Growing up, we had always had German shepherds, beautiful, loyal, trainable dogs. First we had Jesse, then Adam. When Mom and Dad got a pug some years later, we thought they had gone foo-foo, but of course that was their prerogative. Foo-foo is an option. Daphne entertained them for many years. They loved her. They enjoyed her. Then she died and they said, That’s it, no more dogs.

A few years went by. Dad’s 75th birthday was approaching. One of us had the brilliant idea to give him a puppy, a pug again since they had loved Daphne so much, but a black pug this time. In retrospect I am not exactly sure how we justified this, since it is, I repeat, usually not the best idea to give someone a puppy. I think we said, Ah well, if he really doesn’t want her, one of us will take her. Not overly risky. We are not big risk-takers.

The little black pug was born in Virginia. It’s a 7+ hour drive from my home to where Mom and Dad lived in New Jersey, and at the time I had a job with crazy weekend hours. It was hard to find a time to drive up there to present her, which of course had to be a surprise. So this sweet puppy stayed with us for a few weeks. She was a neck-nuzzler. Fur like velvet. Puppy adorableness. How could he not like this gift?

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We finally arranged a time to visit, in no way hinting that we were bringing a life-changing animal. Samuel, still a teenager then, held her as we walked through the front door and greeted two very surprised people. Not only surprised, but resistant.

Dad’s exact (deadpan) words were, “You have got to be kidding.”

But she won him over quickly. Within 24 hours you couldn’t have taken that dog from him for anything (and whew! the plan worked!). They named her Coco after Coco Chanel. It warmed our hearts to see him cuddling with her and whispering silly nothings to her, though Mom had a little trouble with the new order of things. For her it was a Hey, remember me? situation. Wife of 50-some years, the one who takes care of you, the one who’s been here all along? But she let it be. His little schmoozer, his little gizmo was almost always curled up on his lap, scrunched between him and the arm of his chair, parked at his feet on the ottoman or sprawled across his chest with her head tucked into his neck. If she was not bodily next to him, she either 1. needed to go out or 2. had to be hungry.

My sister Lynn remembers that if Coco sat in front of him and stared unblinkingly at him while he was in front of the television, he would say, “She has to go out. Can someone take her out?” He said this even if she had been out five minutes before! Sometimes he himself took her out. It was hilarious to see him carrying the doggie poop bag dispenser on his wrist like a little purse. Only for this dog would he have done such a thing!

dad with Coco

My sister Joanne remembers taking Coco out one dark night, getting no farther than the driveway and hearing a growl which very well could have been a bear (not uncommon there) so she hightailed it back into the house. When she breathlessly explained what happened, she soon realized that Dad was not the least bit concerned that his firstborn daughter might have been mauled by a bear, but much more concerned that his little doggie might have met her demise. Is she ok? Is she ok?

He held her on his lap at the table while he ate. He fed her off his own fork! It didn’t even matter if friends were there. Lynn’s friend Tracy witnessed this off-the-fork thing too. Dad made sure Coco ate at 4:00pm on the dot because, I mean, look, anyone can see that dog is starving. That 22-pound dog! The vet was always telling them to put her on a diet. Mom tried, really she did, but she couldn’t stop Dad from giving her morsels of his own food or chips or peanuts or whatever snack he had at night.

This is the same man who trained our German shepherds to stay out of the dining room and living room (because those rooms had the good carpeting) and to stay in the yard without our having an electric fence. God help them if they crossed a paw over the line! Dad was an excellent trainer. He just didn’t apply it to Coco. And you know what happens when you let a dog get anything it wants. She quickly became a brat. Mom called her Brat-dog all the time. Dad didn’t care. He loved her just the way she was.

In this family photo taken three or four years ago, you can see who is closest to his heart. Let no one come between man and dog!

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And no one did. She was with him till the end. After Dad passed away in February 2016, Mom preferred not to have to worry about walking Coco in the snow. Joanne was willing to take her to her home in Arizona. But Samuel wanted her. He had had a special attachment to her since she was a puppy. And because of him, only because of him, she is not a brat anymore! Coco’s transformation began in Burlington, Vermont. I said transformation and I mean transformation.

First of all, poor little baby who didn’t want to get her paws cold in the snow, sorry, this is Vermont in February and the ground is frozen. And she had to go out in the very early morning because his job started at 6am. Also her whole Oh listen, other people in the house are up, surely it’s time to get up – not a chance.  She learned to get up on Samuel’s timetable, not her own. She learned to sleep in her own bed. She went on walks measured in miles, not in how many houses you walked past. The extra poundage, the table scraps, the continual treats – those days are over, little girl. He put her on a steady diet of high grade dog food, makes her wait for her dinner until after he has had his (and it doesn’t matter what time that is), makes her sit and wait until he says “okay” before she can go to her bowl and eat, reduced the treat frequency to “occasional” and got her down to a swole 16 pounds. (I just learned that word. Swole is the new buff.)

Interestingly, in an age when mixed breeds are often in need of homes and it is a point of pride to have adopted one (and bravo to all those who do that!), Samuel felt looked down upon as he walked this purebred through the streets of Burlington. I told him to consider her a rescue and never mind about those stares. Mom didn’t want her, and even though Joanne was willing to take her, he is the one who gladly opened his heart and his home to her. I think she knows this somehow.

Oh, the bond they share. She snuggles down in the chair with him when he’s reading. She stays out on the deck with him when he’s doing his yoga. For three months of this year, Samuel was away and Coco stayed with me. Every night, to get her to come into my room (where her bed was) at bedtime, I had to pick her up and carry her in. Her bed is in his room now, as it was before he left. He just calls “Coco!” when he wants her to come to his room at night. And off the comfy couch she goes. Trots right in there. She knows who the alpha is. My human, I go with my human.

She adores him as she did my dad, maybe especially when he makes her look super cool,

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and even when he lets little children (Piper in this photo) reach out to touch her pink tongue that doesn’t seem to fit in her mouth.

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It’s a different life with Samuel, certainly more active, possibly more amusing. Now you want me to do what?

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And these chickens? she says. Why are they here?

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And here?

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But she still finds the sun spots.

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And she still has one lap she loves more than any other. It’s a very good life for this little black pug. And we love her just the way she is.

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The Certainty of Uncertainty

At the moment it’s very quiet here. The trees are not swaying, thrashing, bending. Not a leaf moves, even flutters. The ticking of one of my clocks I can hear. Coco’s sleepy breathing I can hear.

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That’s soon to change. If you couldn’t smell it in the air, you’d hear it on the news. We are in the danger zone of Hurricane Florence, though not as dangerous a zone as some are in. Will the pelting rain and fierce wind come? Yes. This much is certain. What’s uncertain is the storm’s exact path and intensity.

Will we flood out? Probably not, as my property sits up on a hill.

Will we lose electricity? Most likely.

Will one of my giant trees fall? Let’s hope not.

“The most precious thing about life is its uncertainty.”

Thanks to Paul Sunstone, I have been introduced to Kenko, a 14th century Japanese writer who produced, in his retirement, 243 essays collected into the classic “Leisure Hour Notes,” including the line above. Paul added, “I think that was what kept him from boredom.” He’s right. Uncertainty is as certain as death and taxes! And it does keep you on your toes!

Last night a young woman who lives along the Virginia coastline booked my cottage because she has to evacuate her area. She was not planning to come here this week, but wants to keep herself and her two dogs safe. The coast will get lots of rain and wind, so will we. Will she be safe here? One thing is certain: I will do everything I can to make sure she is. Starting tomorrow and until Saturday, Miranda will be next door. She – who was unknown to me 12 hours ago – will be my neighbor.

I love thinking of my neighbor as der Nächste, German for “the one next to me.” This doesn’t have to mean a literal “next to” – you can think of co-workers as neighbors, or friends you have contact with through email or texting or blogging, or the people you rub shoulders with in your community. But in the case of Miranda it’s literal, and neighbors look out for each other. Forgive my tangent, but if all of us would truly abide the “love your neighbor as yourself” command, imagine what the world would be like.

So while the storm looms and Miranda is here, much will be – hour to hour – uncertain. Knowing that you don’t know everything is the beginning of wisdom. True, true. But…if you know that you don’t know everything, but you also know that you know some things, you stand a better chance of getting through with less trouble. While storms do sometimes change course and turn out to sea, they sometimes don’t. We will do what we can to prepare. Then ride it out.

My little house in the big woods is as solid as a house on a wooden foundation can be, the wooden part being questionable, but we are getting to that.

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The storm is still out to sea, but supposed to hit us at the end of the week. Ironically, this coming weekend had been set aside to begin “the big dig” at my house – a long-awaited project to investigate why my foundation seems to be bowing inward in one area (not a good sign) and then to do necessary repairs. I ordered the materials last week, a lot of materials because after the big dig we will replace the very old front porch. (I’m glad I ordered last week — what do you think will happen to the price of lumber after the storm?)

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The uncertainty of the storm puts us in a kind of holding pattern. Hold off on big dig projects and hold onto your hat! At the very least, cover your lumber.

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Will the bricks hold the plastic down in a strong wind? I hope so! How strong will the wind be? I am uncertain! With no wind blowing right now, that many bricks seems reasonable. Possibly I will find myself incredulous that I didn’t double this number or use cinder blocks as Sandy suggested. Maybe cinder blocks are a good idea after all….

Today, in the calm, various interpretations of battening down the hatches seem important, including making sure we have enough batteries for the flashlights and enough jugs of water in the event that my electricity goes out (in which case my water also goes out because electricity runs the pump). I have a gas cookstove in both the house and the cottage, so we will eat. And it’s a nice temperature outside so not having AC or heat will not be an issue. What am I forgetting?!

Uncertainty is part of the unboring path we walk. We can watch the news all day (you can, I won’t), we can change out the bricks for cinder blocks or go all out and just add them, we can stockpile supplies, we can put some milk in the freezer now so it’s maybe cold later if we lose power, but we can’t be certain what this coming weekend will bring.

We’re pretty smart though. We can have an idea. And we do. According to our best projections, we can fairly well know what won’t happen, what might happen and what will happen:

In my case the weekend will not include a large and loud excavating machine. Canceled that. Sadly, it will not include Joe, who will operate said machine (unless he comes around anyway, which is fine by me). We will not be

  • digging large quantities of dirt from along the front of the house
  • discovering just exactly what is the problem with the foundation and how extensive the fix needs to be
  • relocating liriope and azalea
  • mixing cement
  • setting footings
  • bracing posts.

We might be (this is the uncertain part)

  • hunkering down
  • watching the trees dance wildly (hoping that if they fall, they do so far from any structure or power line)
  • putting less-than-sensible chickens in their coop (because they are too dumb to go in by themselves!)
  • using matches to light the stove because the electric ignitor is nonfunctional
  • playing board games by lamplight as we wait out the storm. I have a couple of wonderful oil lamps that come out at times like this. Their glow, the swirly patterned shadow they make on the ceiling, their faint scent of burning lamp oil – all combine to create a scene that makes you appreciate what it was like for pioneers. We should do this on purpose now and then just to induce an extra prayer for those in the bucket trucks who keep our lights on, and this weekend in particular for those who will be out in this nasty storm getting fallen limbs off high wires as we sit inside checking our phones for notification that the power is back on.

We will be

  • taking care of one another
  • comforting the dogs who get unsettled in howling wind and torrential rain
  • keeping a close eye on trees, chickens and other outdoor things for signs of trouble
  • praying for safety for all those affected by the storm
  • staying in touch with other neighbors in case we can help in any way
  • enjoying good eggs! More on lobster yolks tomorrow! Oh, how tempted I am to give you a sneak preview, but: YOU are uncertain about lobster yolks (MY lobster yolks, at any rate) and if, to paraphrase Paul, uncertainty keeps us from boredom, I had best wait. Come what may, I aim to keep things unboring!