Standing at a Threshold

The two-headed Roman god Janus, one face looking back and the other forward, guarded thresholds and transitions, so it’s appropriate to invoke Janus as we move from 2020 to 2021.  Considering most of us sequestered in place for 2020, I don’t know about you, but I am ready for all that to be in my rearview mirror.  

Even if those past thresholds are behind us, and doors closed, memories remain.  Looking back over the most recent threshold, I see an entire year of watching a rabid corona virus seep into every nook and cranny of our world and our lives, and slip into the new year as well.  Luckily, along with that came vaccines developed with uncommon speed.  All this within an unusual presidency with an unusual president.  Back farther, in 2001 a terrorist attack leveled the twin World Trade Center towers in New York City.  Another threshold in 1986, with the explosion of a space shuttle, taking with it a teacher, a position I unsuccessfully applied for.  Earlier again, the resignation of another unusual president in 1974.  The assassination of a popular president in 1963.  Then the 1952 polio epidemic which closed the pools and killed over 3,000 kids, and disabled over 20,000, one of whom was a friend of mine.

So, close the door.  Because Janus also faced forward.  What lies ahead then?  I’m focusing on the smaller glories of life.  The snowfall, which nurtures a dry earth and muffles sounds.  When I walk in the morning now, as long as the roads remain free of ice, I hear only a few bird sounds.  The quiet and peace is a real balm.  With the gift of changing seasons, I look forward to hearing the kids squealing with excitement as they play kickball in a nearby cul-de-sac.  And to doffing the winter togs that make me look like Nanook of the North.  Also, peeling off layer by layer as the weather warms.  This does not include thinking so far ahead that I remember I’ll have to bulk up again a few months down the line.

I await the arrival of seed catalogs, some of which are already sitting on my table.  Even though my gardening does not include plotting out a garden the size of Versailles, I can dream, can’t I?  This year, I dream of buttercup squash proliferating in the little flower garden at the top of the driveway.  So what if the plot has been neglected and sparse?  This is the year!  Squash, brown sugar, butter.  I’ll put in more coneflowers too, and perhaps a wash of impatiens.  And maybe…  Part of gardening should always involve visiting the gardens that are the size of Versailles.  It’s just as pleasurable to admire the efforts of other gardeners, especially on a scale I’d never attempt.  Imagining the hard work of others is almost as good as plunging my own hands into the soil.

Travel again.  Now there’s something to look forward to.  Maybe only to the local park to picnic with the extended family.  Maybe to pack the camping gear and head out to share a campfire with friends and strangers.  Or not travel much beyond the dining room, where we can all share a meal with our children, grandchildren, friends.  Where we can laugh and talk without a thought to how far our breath is carrying microscopic organisms that may sicken or even kill those around us.  Maybe…the possibilities are endless.

If crossing this threshold has taught anything, it’s taught us to keep our eyes on the prize, whatever that prize may be.  For many, it’s the people, both far and near.  We’ve discovered many  ways of connecting, many ways of working, many ways of playing.  Though we may forget the stress and the necessity of pivoting to new ways of doing things, we retain the awareness of our flexibility, our ability to be creative.  Janus guards not only doorways, but transitions.  We’ve just survived a major one.  We’ll be forever stronger because of it.

Wooly Bears and Sundry Other Observations

Every weekday morning, I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood.  Because we live out in the country, various forms of wildlife appear.  Some of them, unfortunately, turn out to be flattened, like the squirrel who tried to beat the car while crossing the road.  I can almost hear him saying to himself, “I’ve done this a million times before”—squirrels tend to exaggerate—“I can do it again.”  Only to discover that one in a million times that it doesn’t work.  When deer try the same thing, at least they have a size advantage.  Though they often meet their demise, they take out revenge on our cars.

But this isn’t about road kill.

Most things I encounter out on the road are much more pleasant.  Take the wooly bear caterpillar, for example.  Twice I’ve stopped to watch them gallump their way toward the safety of the ditch.  Unless they’re moving, it’s impossible to tell front from rear.  Which is the point, I guess, when a bird is homing in for a snack.  A little misjudgment on the part of the bird, and the caterpillar can be off in the opposite direction.

A close look at the brown band that girdles the brown caterpillars shows wide fuzzy bands.  The story goes that, the wider the band, the worse the winter to come.  That, of course, doesn’t really make sense.  What the band does reflect is the depth of the food buffet in the previous spring and summer.  More food, healthier wooly bears, and wider brown bands.  In spite of that, I still love these old tales.  They’re everywhere, if you think about it.  Take a yard peppered with acorns.  Another instance of the sign of a coming winter that’ll blow your socks off.  Same answer as the wooly bear’s band: better spring and summer weather, more acorns.  That led me to think about rhubarb.  Bear with me; this’ll come together in a minute.  We have both acorns and rhubarb in our backyard, so it’s natural to scan and see both.  Rhubarb is a perfectly yummy plant.  It’s so yummy, the old-fashioned name is pieplant.  But don’t eat the leaves; they’re poisonous.

Who found out that rhubarb leaves are poisonous?  What early hunter-gatherer was so hungry as to try eating rhubarb leaves?  I can understand how other foods passed the taste test, but rhubarb leaves?  Some early hunters, having skewered a squirrel in preparation for roasting it over a fire, probably saw their precious dinner slip off the stick because it wasn’t run through securely enough.  The hard work entailed in getting that squirrel meant the hunters were watching dinner turn to a cinder.  They would undoubtedly rescue the meat from the fire, and then risk eating it, because who knew when the next meal would stroll by and offer itself to your spear?  Voila!  Sweet cooked meat!  And you could carry the leftovers with you without drawing every fly in the neighborhood.  Everyone benefited from the discovery.  In the future, cooking meat became the norm.  And so did avoiding rhubarb leaves!

But back to wooly bears.  With warm springs and sunny summers, a plethora of field flowers and grasses pop up.  Violets, clovers, sunflowers and asters are just some of the foods laid out on the wooly bears’ banquet tables.  With such goodies in abundance, wooly bears grow fat, and so do their fuzzy brown bands.  It’s their pasts that result in thick fur like velvet.  So, I guess we should look over our shoulders once in a while to see how what’s here now might be based on what’s already happened.  Better than trying to predict the future based on the wooly bear caterpillar.

Crabs Walk Sideways, Spiders…

A spider and I commiserated on the patio for a couple of hours this afternoon, me from my chair, she from the edge of the table.  This one was so teeny that two or three of them would fit on my littlest fingernail.  As I gently touched a back leg, she leaped onto my thumbnail.  No, I didn’t shake her off, though my abrupt twitch of surprise had her leaping back to the security of the table edge.  She had four elongated front legs and a huge bulbous abdomen.  Each leg was striped in brown, and her yellowish belly sported a few delicate spots.  I excused myself and went indoors to check out what kind of spider she was.

A crab spider.  Here she was, visiting me on my patio.  Like a crab, she displayed long front legs.  And yes, she did walk sideways.  Even more fun to watch was how she reacted to me.  Clearly, she could see me, because she maneuvered a bit every time I moved.  Unlike other spiders, this little beauty has eight distinct eyes, as opposed to most spiders who have eyes with multiple facets.  So, we played this game where I advanced to within “nose-reach,” then backed off.  Eventually, we both tired of that, and I settled in to simply observe.

Mostly, she carried those long, widely-spaced front legs tight together, two to a side.  But every so often, she stretched them out, hoisted the rear of her abdomen, and sat quite still for a long moment.  What on earth was she doing?  Finally, when the sunlight fell just right, I could see her spinning out a long silken strand, at least a foot long.  Considering these spiders don’t spin webs, my best guess was that she was searching for a toehold, as it were.  She wasn’t fishing, looking to haul in prey, because crab spiders sit and wait for prey—small insects and such—to come within reach, so they can grab with those powerful crab-like front legs, and drag it in to inject a fatal venom.  She must have been a spider-explorer, floating out filament after filament, hoping to snag the edge of a new place to visit.

A flash from the past sent me searching for a poem I remembered about a spider.  Sure enough.  Walt Whitman.  Here was his noiseless, patient spider come to visit me.  What a gift!

Here’s Whitman’s poem.  Enjoy!

A noiseless patient spider, 

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Apples of My Eye

‘Tis the season.  No, not the holiday season.  Apple season!  Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Gala, Jazz, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, and, my personal favorite, Ginger Gold.  Actually, the season itself is pretty well over, but the memories linger on.  Plus, at the times the harvest was ready, I was busy picking, peeling, pie-ing.  (Is that even a word?)

One of the best parts is going out to the orchard in my Wellies to tromp around in the wet early-morning grass with a big bucket to snag those big red globes.  Ginger Gold is a fairly recent favorite, so many orchards have minimal trees of that variety.  That means getting out early.  But I’m not really that picky.  Apple pies of mixed varieties are the best anyway.

Come along with your bucket and picture the scene.  Early morning, so early that the sun is just beginning to draw the moisture out of the earth.   Step into the mist rising along the grass paths, and disappear.  Out of sight of the barn, the parked cars, the other harvesters.  Once we get to the trees, the branches reach out to us, practically begging to be relieved of their luscious burden.  Many of the branches are low enough to pick without using a ladder.  The trees are so heavy with fruit that we can fill our bucket from only one or two trees.  But keeping in mind that the best pies need flavors from more than one type, we move along from tree to tree.

I’m lucky enough to have two old trees in our backyard, one with small apples that we leave for the deer, and one with larger, sweeter apples.  The deer get those too, unless we keep an eye open for fallen apples.  The fruit is too high on the tree for both deer and human to reach.  It’s always a race to see who can snatch up the best ones.  If only the deer would choose one apple and eat the entire thing.  Instead, they sample.  A bite here, a bite there, never the entire thing.

My favorite apple tree is down at the end of our road, on the corner of a utility property.  I took the time to ask permission to harvest the apples, which they readily gave, considering they never even knew the tree was there.  Those apples, like any wild apples, have also been sampled by insects.  Most of the time, the insects are no longer in the apples, though tiny tracks remain in the flesh.  As long as no bugs remain, it’s safe to cook with them.  Sounds too primitive for you?  Good!  More apples for me to use!  And for the deer to eat.  I haven’t picked for myself for several years now, because someone else reaps the benefits.  Well, not someone.  Something.  Two draft horses live across the street, and I pick up clean apples as a treat for them.  They know me, and the minute I come across the street, they amble over to the pasture fence and wait.  As much a treat for me as for them.

Finally, apple pies.  Yum!  Too many recipes to mention, of course.  Everyone has a favorite.  But here’s the secret:  Bake fruit pies for ninety minutes—yes, ninety—at 350 degrees.  Then don’t eat until the next day.  That’s the hardest part.  But it’s the key to having a pie that doesn’t leak all over the plate.  So…  Excuse me…there’s a pie in the kitchen calling my name.

Background Noise

Is anyone else annoyed by background noise?  I don’t mean the Muzak in the elevator, although that fits too.  I refer to the more subtle stuff.  Watching a TV drama the other day, I became aware of a single low tone in the background.  Violins, I think.  Yes, music can enhance the mood of the action and many times really ups the ante on tension or terror.  But this was simply intrusive, like tinnitus, that pervasive ringing in the ears from Lord only knows where.  That low tone behind the TV action suddenly jumped to the fore, a spot certainly not intended by the scriptwriters.  At least, I hope it wasn’t intentional.  Pretty soon, I heard The Hum behind far too many dramas.  Supposedly, it would make me clutch my armchair more tightly, bite my lip or hold my breath in response to the heightened tension.  Instead, The Hum started me shaking my head, like a dog trying to rid itself of a misplaced party hat.  That escalated to turning the volume down or changing the channel.  Neither was satisfactory, especially if the show was one I really wanted to see.  However, the only solution was to retreat and turn it off.  Sigh.

By that time, I was finely tuned, rather than habituated, to background noise.  The stuff appeared everywhere.  Elevators go without saying.  But how often am I in an elevator?  I’m a stair lady, so that avoids any problem.  But my health club ran a loop of music on the workout floor as well as in the locker rooms.  Not a problem, for the most part.  But when I heard “Piano Man” three times in a short workout, my annoyance meter notched up rapidly.  All right, I exaggerate.  But I did hear two employees discussing the pool they were running, to keep count of how many times a particular song came up in one day.  Time for a new music tape.

I’ve finally trained myself to filter out background drones on TV, in gyms and malls, around air conditioners and fans.  As long as boring conversations don’t run at those frequencies, I think I’m safe.

Lace Tablecloths and Silver Candleholders

American Players Theater is one of my favorite spots to be to experience a play.  Close, only about an hour and a half away, Spring Green, Wisconsin is home to two national gems: Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and home, and APT, founded by a small set of dreamers determined to bring plays to the woods.  For years, APT had only an outdoor theater tucked into a hillside and open to the elements.  That meant the most wonderful things happened.  Midsummer Night’s Dream after dark, when the stars shared space with whippoorwills and lightning bugs.  The twinkly lights in the trees surrounding the top of the bowl were a lovely adjunct to Mother Nature’s offerings.  Those included swooping bats.  They did their part to keep the mosquito population at bay.  Two students went with me for APT’s 10th anniversary, and 1000thperformance, celebration, where the company served up a selection of scenes from various Shakespeare plays.  The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet capped the set.  Romeo professes his love to Juliet and sealed his promise on the moon.  Juliet, leaning over the balcony, rapt in love, is dismayed.  “Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, who changes…”  She turns and gestures at the full moon, the real full moon hanging just above the trees.  Such magic!  I wasn’t there, but a friend went to see King Lear, which contains a scene where the distraught king rails, calling out for storms and rains to pour down.  At just that moment, a real thunderstorm broke overhead, thunder, lightning, rain, the whole thing.  Who needs technical special effects when Mother Nature provides the real thing?

Going to APT is an Occasion.  I bring an old lace tablecloth and my silver candlesticks, along with a bottle of wine, and the best picnic I can muster up.  I’ve recruited a number of friends to partake in the fun with me.  No caviar yet, but salads or sandwiches of the best variety.  Desserts that would give the queen’s pastry chefs a run for their money.  It turns out I’m not the only crazy one.  Some bring champagne, many have nice tablecloths for the rustic picnic tables, a few have candles or flower arrangements.  This too is outdoors, so we all pray for decent weather.  Lunch over, we traipse up the hill, through the woods, to the theater, now fitted with comfortable seats and sometimes a sunshade for the actors.  One learns very quickly never to order tickets on the right side of the bowl.  It’s beastly hot in the sun all afternoon.  Easy to spot the returning patrons.  We’re all clustered over there, on the left, sporting sunhats that won’t get in anybody’s way and brandishing sunscreen for those parts of the body still unprotected, like knees and thighs.  Once the performance is over, and the magic sifting away, we all head back down the hill to our cars.  We pack everything away, and vow to return.  Can’t wait until we can do that again.  Sigh.

One Bowl, One Spoon

Roy Nelson had the perfect system.  When his wife was gone for the day, he fixed his own meals.  But that wasn’t the perfect system.  The perfect system was his scheme for minimizing cleanup.  One bowl, one spoon, for the entire day. Breakfast: bowl of cereal with milk, and spoon.  Cereal consumed, rinse out the bowl and use it for coffee.  Rinse and set aside.  Lunch: soup.  Oh yes, that includes the spoon too.  Repeat the rinse and set aside.  Dinner: Chili?  Tuna casserole?  No problem.  Repeat the rinse, and get ready for dessert, ice cream and cookies.  Finish off the day with a thorough washup of the two utensils, and relax.

I found myself doing the same thing the other night.  Make a white sauce and dump over the cooking veggies.  Wash the pot.  Saute the chicken chunks and add to veggies.  Wash the pot.  Boil some noodles.  Wash the pot, and…  Nope, that was it.   Isn’t that sometimes the best way?  It’s kind of like the stuff we learn as kids.  Keep it simple.  Use only what you need to use.  Clean up after yourself.  Basic stuff like that.

That’s not to say a gourmet meal or an elaborate dessert, or even an over-the-top thank you letter shouldn’t happen.  Go ahead, indulge.  That cheesecake that takes seventeen steps.  The love letter to your beloved.  Things like that are fun to create, and even more fun to share.  But sometimes we need to recede, sit back, take stock.  That’s when it’s fine to simplify.  Shed all the extras and take it down to the bare bones.  Make a peanut butter sandwich.  Email or twitter a greeting that takes up only one line.  Stay in your pajamas.  Simples pleasures are what can stabilize us when life gets overwhelming. 

Take a moment to thank Roy Nelson, for showing us how to keep life simple.

Rivers? rivers and Rivers!

When I moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, people noted with pride that it was situated on the Fox River.  Where I came from, water, in the forms of lakes and rivers, was a given.  As a kid, the summer social season didn’t swing into action until we could barrel down the sand hill and run right into the lake.  That meant June, usually, after the water warmed up. From then on, it was swimming in one of the two lakes or canoeing on the river.  Now, that was a River!  Wisconsin Rapids ain’t called Wisconsin Rapids for nothin’.  The rapids below the paper mill’s dam in town were packed with boulders and non-navigable.  But the areas above the dams were dandy for water skiing or canoeing.  Bike seven miles Up River to a friend’s cottage and rush to plunge off the end of the dock to slough off the summer sweat.  The Wisconsin River works hard as it roars along from its headwaters on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula clear down the entire length of Wisconsin to the river’s marriage with the Mississippi.  This is no wimpy river.  This is a big-shouldered River!

I spent four years in Oshkosh attending college, and was introduced to another River, the Fox.  The Wisconsin Fox River meanders around a whole chunk of the south and east part of the state, coming within hollering distance of the Wisconsin River at Portage where enterprising voyageurs and Native Americans could haul goods and canoes across a…portage, what else?  The best way from Lake Michigan at Green Bay all the way over to the Mississippi.  From there, you could go anywhere, as long as your paddle arms didn’t give out.  The River! was a great highway too for giant log rafts as they made their way down to become lumber or paper.  The Fox is another brawny working River!

By the time I packed up and took off for Waukesha, I was primed for another River!  After all, it was the Fox River.  But it wasn’t The Fox River.  This one piddles along, heading south into Illinois, growing as it goes.  But the part in Waukesha doesn’t measure up to my other two Rivers!  It’s simply a river, and that’s generous.  In most spots, I can toss a pebble across and have it land well beyond the far bank.  Not possible at my other two Rivers!  Not that Waukesha’s Fox doesn’t have its charms.  A very nice paved path for bikers and pedestrians circumnavigates a widened portion in town.  Lots of places to sit and mull over the meaning of life as the water bumbles along, sometimes talking a bit louder where the channel narrows.  This river takes time to acknowledge anyone on its banks.  My other two Rivers! barely take notice of companions, being far too busy and self-centered.

What began as a bit of arrogance and disdain for the little Fox River has, over the years, turned into appreciation of it charms.  Come to think of it, my rivers and I have run in tandem for a long time.  I’ve gone from “I’m coming through, fair warning!” to “Slow down and enjoy the scenery, lady.”  Quite fitting.  I’ve gone from a River! to a river.  No exclamation point needed.  It feels good.

Giving vs. The Gift

One of my favorite books used to be Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.  It was the go-to gift for graduations, birthdays, all sorts of occasions.  No more.  I do have to keep in mind that it was written in 1964, long before the issues cropping up in it became problematic.  We simply didn’t see them as problems.

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of the little boy who approaches a tree and asks for her apples.  Later, he wants money, so she gives him her apples to sell.  He grows up and wants a house, so she gives him her branches, then later, her trunk so he can build a boat.  Nothing is left but a stump.  Soon, the boy is an old man and only wants a place to rest, so she gives him her stump to rest on.  The story ends by saying the tree is happy.  See the pattern here?  In 1964, neither the author nor the readers gave a second thought to the fact that the tree is portrayed as female, and the boy takes and takes and takes.  The tree gives and gives and gives, and gets nothing in return.  In 1964, her making the boy happy was accepted as enough.  Now, the idea of anyone giving everything to someone else has become objectionable, whether it’s a woman giving it all, or a man in the same situation.  I no longer give The Giving Tree to anyone.

It took a while, but I finally found a worthy substitute.   In Patrick McConnell’s book The Gift of Nothing, Mooch, the cat from his comic strip, is trying to come up with a birthday gift for his best friend, Mutts, the dog.  But Mutts already has everything he could possibly need.  After searching and searching, Mooch decides he doesn’t have to give Mutts some-thing.  He wraps an empty box and gives him no-thing.  It ends with the two of them sitting together, and sharing the no-thing that is their love and friendship.  Like Mutts and Mooch, we don’t need things to tell the people we love how valued they are.  We only need no-thing but the time to enjoy the stars, a meal, each other’s company.

Now’s the time to reach out to the people we love, the friends we value, the people we’ve reconnected with from our pasts.  It’s a good time to send them The Gift of Nothing.  And get a copy for yourself too.

There’s a difference between Giving and Gifting.


In these days of continued quarantine, serendipity seems to occur often.  I think of an older friend who lives alone.  Has she been walking or biking?  What’s she reading?  I go to the phone and, as my hand picks up my cell, it rings.  Guess who’s on the line?  The friend of my thoughts.  We joke about being able to communicate without the phone company. Merely thinking of the other is enough to bring on a phone call.  With so many people reaching out to one another, it’s almost inevitable that such serendipity happens more and more.  Delightful.  Serendipity.

Serendipity crops up all the time.  Probably the most dramatic surfaced when I ran into the pope.  Well, not literally, but close enough.  Heading into St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City years ago, I was accosted by a Swiss Guard.  No entry with bare shoulders.  We left in a rather un-Christian huff, but returned the next day attired as the dress code defined.  Voila!  A packed church.  The pope’s last public audience before he left for his summer villa.  Not only that, but here he came, carried aloft on his big red chair, not ten feet from where I stood.  If I’d been dressed appropriately the day before—no Pope sighting.  Serendipity.

When the weather turns a certain way, it’s criminal not to take advantage of any sunny day without wind.  At first call, I pack up and move outside to read.  On one of those days, Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu—which is a really good read, by the way—had me squirming in sympathy as he tried to sleep through a barnyard symphony of moos, clucks and an especially loud rooster.   The book apparently came with sound effects.  Into my fantasy world, the neighbor’s resident rooster added a nice layer of realism.  Serendipity.

Serendipity.  A dear friend in Indiana pops into my mind, because…  Oops!  Gotta run.  The phone’s ringing.