The most improbable outcome
Of delirious, fanciful dreams
Is not the impossible can’t-be
That perpetually it seems—
And I can prove this conundrum,
In my personal life, is true,
For it happens that though it’s wildly unreal,
I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
That which is seen by the untrained eye of the casual observer is an older man, an elderly man, perhaps a shell of his former self. Not someone with a lot of use and life adventure left in him. Handsome, perhaps, in his latter years, with this silver hair and these pale clear eyes, with his faintly stooping posture before a window where no single thing that’s new is seen; elegant in his quiet way, and maybe wise. But not more.
What cannot be seen is the forty-two years he spent working for the postal service, learning the business from the bottom up and eventually teaching not just the next generation that would follow him but the next after that as well. There is no way to know at merely a glance that he tended a beautiful garden on Sunday afternoons where he grew too many vegetables for his own table so he shared the rest around the neighborhood. Invisible, too, is the love he keeps alive for his long-dead wife of thirty years, except for the small bouquet of flowers he picks from that garden of his and gives to their son and his wife every Monday because they were her favorite blooms. Yes, the flowers and the kids.
In the plain little vase where those flowers live for the week, there is room for all that can’t be seen in one quick look at the profile of a man who sits and meditates beside a window. Only by taking the time to appreciate the fulness of that humble bunch of flowers and all that they have to tell can anyone really know what to see when looking toward that window’s light. It takes a certain clarity to see what’s right in front of you.
We never needed to choose. Yet there’s always this foolish compulsion among us to measure attractions and, should we be so lucky, to consider ourselves superior because we successfully assure ourselves that whatever we think the best among the pretties and the old makes us seem more perfect in our own eyes. We’re our own creations in this way, our own versions of excellence, and whether we believe we fit somewhere high in the measure of greatness as beauties or as wise and wonderful elders, we spend an amazing amount of energy on fancying ourselves fantastic.We expend a large quantity of this fanciful energy, as well, on believing that youth and beauty are irrevocably tied to one another, if not outright synonymous. If one becomes convinced of that construct, then it must follow that becoming old is some sort of process of becoming plainer or uglier or, at greater extremes, less important and worthwhile. As it happens, we are not necessarily all so stupid as I’m making us sound, really. Eventually we mortals do manage to wise up. Perhaps it’s only and logically plain self-preservation that, as we get older, we realize that either we’ve ruled ourselves out of relevance or we might need to adjust our expectations and interpretations to allow that the aged can also be wise or useful or, astonishingly, even beautiful too.Slow as we are to credit our elders with such attractions and advantages, the eventual realization that we are becoming the elders may motivate us to rethink that equation if nothing else can. It’s not that I look in the mirror and see my proliferating wrinkles and expanding crop of grey hairs as evidence that I’ve suddenly or finally become important, improved, impressive. It’s that I see someone, finally, whose value has nothing particular to do with whether those marks of vintage are present or not. I am free to see myself simply and fully as myself, if I’m willing to look, and from this lesson I should–most meaningfully–learn to offer the same courtesy and impartiality to anyone I see, not only myself but anyone. No matter the years or the appearance or how either conforms to the current tastes, every face I see should seem to me the face of worth and dignity. Who knows but what it might be oftener proved true if we allow it to be so.
Even when I meet them in places of common interest I am surprised to encounter like-minded creatures. I suppose that’s part of the human psyche, to imagine ourselves so individual as to be unique in all ways. What we really are is unique combinations of characteristics, so we might be better explained as having innumerable subsets in common with others, but not all with anyone else.
And that makes for practically infinite possible serendipitous discoveries of the shared traits, ideas, bits of history, likes, dislikes and curiosities. The potential for finding ways in which we are like others is probably greater, when it comes right down to it, than for finding differences.
Of course, having desires in common means that, like siblings, we still find our shared interests a reason–if not an excuse–to compete with each other, even to fight. We might get a bit too busy comparing ourselves with each other because of our commonalities as well, and whether we think ourselves superior or inferior the imbalance in the equation can lend itself to conflict. We are contentious beings, we humans.
But all told, the advantageous delights of finding others with whom we share views and loves and hopes and pleasures far outweigh the complications. Whether we are introverts or extroverts, worldly or otherworldly, there is great happiness to be found on discovering kindred spirits. It is possible to live our own fairytales when we find the right characters with whom to share them.
Yes, it is Valentine’s Day. I can’t help–whether I buy into the modern version of the commercially enhanced holiday or not–being reminded of my many loves. And, external motivations aside, I am glad and grateful and even gleeful when I think of how much love is in my life. I have wealth and happiness beyond what anyone might think to wish for, let alone deserve, and I revel in it on Valentine’s Day and every other moment when I stop to think about my many loves.I have you to thank for it, for my life in worlds of immense happiness! I am fortunate beyond reason in being surrounded by the love of so many, and in turn, to be able to love you all right back. So I send my profound thanks and my joyful love to all of you, especially on this day of all days. To my parents and my sisters! To my sisters’ spouses and offspring. To our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. To in-laws and to those who have been adopted into our family as additional and also much-loved sisters and brothers and extended family.
I send thankful love, too, to the many friends who have populated my life with such warm affection and care and company from all the parts of my life outside of my parents’ home: my playmates and classmates, my neighbors and teachers and mentors, my roommates and housemates. To the colleagues and students who made my years of teaching so much better by your presence, and the years beyond it by your memory and continued vitality, I send love. To my gracious and hilarious and tender-hearted and wise readers and commenters here at the blog. To those far-flung friends all around the world whom I can visit only indirectly but can carry in my innermost heart easily all the time. Most of you who are among these many loves of mine may never know what an imprint you left and continue to make on my heart and mind, but you do; oh, how beautifully you do.
My good fortune in a much-loved life is crowned with spending my days and nights in the delightfully daffy and deeply caring companionship of the partner spouse who is as integral to this life of love as the air I breathe and the pulse that knocks my heart and mind into these momentary recognitions of such goodness. I love you, my sweetheart! And I send love to all of you others who have shared and continue to shine the sunlight of your kind and cheering ways on my happy life. Happy Valentine’s Day, every one, and may you be as loved as I am! The holiday ought not be the only time you say so, but it’s certainly an excellent excuse and reminder to tell the ones who love you and whom you love that they are dear to you, too. And yes, I might as well add my own thanks to yours, since those who warm us with their love teach us, and make us able in turn, to go out and love others. That is how love works best.
He’s a wacky fella, my dad. One of his finest features has always been his excellent and distinctive sense of humor, and there was never any question that having a father who’s delightfully silly is one of the finest advantages a kid could have in her upbringing. No surprise that, with Mom being the sort of hospitality genius that everyone loves and Dad providing much of the comic relief in that hospitable package, our household was always a popular place among the friends and classmates of all of their children. Both were also compassionate and reasonable and practical parents, and I don’t have to tell you what a rarity that is in general, so our home was a kind of hangout-central among the school-kid cognoscenti.
Since today is the anniversary of the birth of that Hardest Working Dad in Showbiz, I am drawn to reminisce on the many years of service that my father has given as the resident chief goofus in our family.That in itself is gift enough, but his life of service has always been so much broader and deeper than mere lightheartedness. As a pastor, as Chairman of the Board of Regents for a university, as bishop, and as president of a hospital board, among many other roles he’s filled in his life’s work, Dad has never taken his labors lightly, even when the best tool he had for doing any or all of these jobs may have most often been the humor he brought to the table. He’s just never been one for sitting around and letting the world rush on around him.
I wish I could say that I inherited a tenth of his sense of humor, let alone a hundredth of his ambition and work ethic. Instead, I guess I should thank him once again on his birthday for not only being a dandy dad but also helping to fill the requirements of the universe in these services where I may have left some gaping gaps. So thanks, Dad, from the bottom of my full heart, and may you have not only a very happy birthday but all the warmth and laughter that can be wrung out of many more years. Oh, and cake. And, since you clearly are your father’s son when it comes to all of the characteristics noted above and we all know Grandpa would have felt the cake was best completed with some, have your cake with a couple of sizable scoops of chocolate ice cream.
Along with all of the other, perfectly legitimate and obvious, reasons that I celebrate every year when I am remembering the arrival of my next-younger sister on her birthday–the first one remembered mostly anecdotally given my tender years on the occasion, and all of the subsequent ones fitting days for delighting in the gifts with which her continued presence graces me and all of her circle of influence so consistently–I rejoice in the greater sense of appreciation for nature that she has given me.She is something of a bouquet herself. Indeed, she is beautiful in the way of pretty things throughout nature, and also filled with liveliness and energy and purpose and growth that inspire me and amaze me regularly. I look on her as an enhancement of the world a little like a human bloom in its garden, unfolding each day and year with new surprises and joys that reinforce the very image of goodness in life.In a more concrete way, with her love of the outdoors and its grand presents, pleasures and promises she has taught me and continues to teach me to appreciate the natural world as well. As much as our garden-genie mother shared her love of interacting with the created spaces in nature and even getting outdoors appreciatively on day hikes, in parks and on strolls wherever we could, the number-three sister in our quartet has given me yet greater love and sympathy for the breadth and depth of possibility in all those realms of nature and more. I will never keep up with my sister’s skill and prowess when it comes to being physically ‘outdoorsy’ as athlete, gardener or explorer, but every time I step out any door into the untrammeled world, I do and will see much of it as a living bouquet paying tribute in return to one of nature’s loveliest flowers.Happy birthday, my dear sister, and I send you these little pictures and words in token of my love that spans from your first blooming in the world to the end of my seasons.
Being good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.
Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.The work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.
The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.
Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.
The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.
It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.
Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)
Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you're not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.
(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)
When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.