Shells of glass to shield from winter
Leaf and flower, root and seed
Give the tender lives inside them
Shelter that they crave and need
In the warming arms of friendship
We in kind find safety, grace,
Shelter from the world’s hard trials
Isn’t it intriguing how easily we have (supposed) conversations without actually interacting at all? I confess that I have refined these abominable skills as much as anyone: listening without hearing, talking without saying anything, being in a room full of people yet in my self-centeredness, remaining utterly alone. This, I fear, is a nearly universal art among the human denizens of earth, something we began to create and cultivate as soon as we first attempted to interact, no doubt. We may want to do better, to mean something and be of value in ourselves to the rest of the world, but it’s hard to rise above the urge to feel more important and focus on self for long enough to accomplish any such thing.
Our only hope, I suppose, is to do what little we can, each of us, in the tiny moments when we are sufficiently distracted from our narcissistic whims to stop staring, if only for the blink of an eye, at self and realize the beauty and value of the rest of the company. What was a faint whisper at the remotest edge of consciousness could indeed prove to be a word of great and precious wisdom from a true sage. That little wink of light over there on the far, far horizon might actually be a flash of beauty or the light of kindness or even the warming blaze of a loving heart somewhere not entirely out of my reach if I’d only open my heart to it. I’ve fallen short of reading these signs and responding in proper ways so many times over the years.
But perhaps it’s not too much to say I’ll try, and try again. I know in reality I am not at all alone.
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.
What does it take to make us civil? A good upbringing helps, but it’s not enough. The law contributes its part, but that’s a pretty small piece of the puzzle–those who are unlikely to be civil are unlikely to care all that much about the law either. Education and experience are necessary to making us capable of civility, let alone willing to exercise it.The flip side of this is the darker compulsion within that drags us into rudeness, insults, argumentative attacks and other such ugliness. Sometimes the wonders of the cyber-world convince us that we live in a moral vacuum where anything goes and we can think, speak and live completely unfiltered realities as we invent them, but it’s no more (and perhaps far less) true in the ether, where we don’t even know the people with whom we interact long-distance, that it’s permissible to tread heavily like that.
One Good Thing by Jillee is the marvelous namesake blog of a woman who is exceedingly creative and thoughtful and consistently gives us readers masses of useful ideas that we can use every day in the operation of our homes and lives. Want to consider making your own detergents and skin treatments? Find out how to do DIY projects to make and fix things all around the house and garden? Learn a new recipe or two? Our Ms. Jill is here to help. More than anything, her posts always get me thinking up further ways to make, do and use all of the delightful things she’s introducing, and how to tweak the things that I like but can’t use as-is–say, one of the lovely creams and potions she likes to make with lavender essence, which I agree smells nice, but I’m sensitive to it and can’t be around it for long. Even though this excellent blogger rightly touts the various medicinal qualities, aromatherapeutic uses and topical applications the fabled lavender blossom can offer, none of it’s right for me when I can’t tolerate any kind of significant presence of the stuff, so I have to use these posts as inspiration, a jumping-off point, rather than as carved in stone. I know when I arrive to read her posts that I may or may not find what she presents entirely applicable to my situation or taste every time even if it were practically infallible, nor does she ever claim such a thing.
So I was more than a little taken aback to see the comments that came in response to her recent post about reducing the calorie load in various recipes and foods by substituting alternate fats, sweeteners and the like. My own preference in my eating is to try to eat less processed foods rather than lower calorie foods, so if I wish to use any of the suggestions from this particular post, it will be because I think they’ll make the foods taste better rather than that I expect them to improve my health. But when I came to the comments made by other readers, there were a number of those correspondents who not only criticized her suggestions as though she were publishing them in a medical journal but, in some cases, got rather mean-spirited and began verbal fisticuffs amongst themselves. It struck me as not only exceedingly ill-mannered but was about as far from germane as possible, given the forum of that blog. All quite uncivil, if you ask me.But of course, you didn’t ask me, so it’s not only not incumbent upon me to express my opinion in this matter, it might in fact be just a little bit uncivilized to take any other readers to task. Tricky business, this etiquette stuff. It’s certainly not up to me to ‘fix’ what I think is not ideal in others. I am not the law or the arbiter of good taste for anyone else, to be sure. I just hope that I don’t forget myself how to be at least as civil as my parents, teachers and betters have worked so hard to help me grow to be. I’ve got enough to keep me busy just remembering how to write a semi-civilized daily blog of my own and mind my own life’s business. But I don’t mind sending you over to the Good Thing blog so you can also have the benefit of its excellence–and perhaps skew the tenor of the comments back to more fittingly responsive–since I happen to know my readers have such gracious manners!
Thanks to my handsome and perspicacious canine pal Rumpy over at rumpydog.com I was reminded again when I last visited his site of the complicated and, when it’s well-managed, fantastic relationships between animals of the human and non-human kinds.
The notion of animal rights and their humane treatment was enough of a fledgling concept in the broad public sense when I was a mere hatchling myself that it was represented in all of its wimpy glory almost exclusively by the catchphrase Be Kind to Animals. It’s not that no one had given a single thought to the necessary deeper commitment to conservation or species protection or rehabilitation or research or any of those other lofty and positive things, but they weren’t as widely recognized and commonly discussed as they are now. Does that mean we’re good at this stuff these days? Hardly. Progress is slow. Still, any progress is better than none, and gives me hope that we can continue to learn from each step forward.
I myself make no pretense of being an animal rights lobbyist or animal care practitioner of even the most minimal sort. I haven’t been a biologist, nor have I ever farmed or been a veterinarian, or even, save in very brief intervals with housemates’ companions, shared my home with pets. My entire personal contact with animals beyond any local wild critters has been limited to meetings with so-called ‘domesticated’ animals–those whose lives and well-being are dependent upon the other humans who house and keep them in homes, on farms, and in zoos. And I must admit that I have always relished these times of interaction. Most of all I enjoy it when the animals, whatever their sort, are appropriately respected and properly cared for so that they, in turn, are healthy and content to do what comes naturally without being aggressive, destructive or self-destructive, because they don’t need to be in order to get along in life.
I wouldn’t have the remotest chance of saving a species, even a single needy animal, other than by means of supporting others in that work. I am, in fact, an omnivore, far from being a vegetarian or vegan; I don’t lobby actively for animal rights (or anything, being far from a political animal myself) and have no skills whatsoever in caring for animals. All I can say in my defense is that I think I understand pretty clearly the animal participation in this world of ours that makes the life of even a human like me with my exceedingly limited contact not only so much better but, frankly, possible. And I am beyond grateful for it.
This other bit of useful wisdom with which I credit my uninformed self could be simply translated as a recognition that the phrase Animal Rescue, commonly used to describe the magnanimous salvation of non-humans by humans, is more aptly applicable when used to describe the opposite. They save us.
The green earth that provides for our survival could never do so without the animals that keep its lovely recycling services operational. Animals, even those domestic beasts treated the most kindly, account for a large slice of the labor force that keeps our world operating on a practical basis. Animals act as medical and physical guardians and assist persons with sensory deficits or health challenges to let them live in a world that’s not otherwise adjusted to meet their needs. Animals have been and are part of police forces, search and rescue teams, security operations, transportation teams and more; they contribute to all kinds of research and behavioral studies and provide wool, fur and hair used for a wide variety of woven, filled or lined coverings, many of them over long productive lives.
Top of the list, if you ask me is companionship and comfort. These are the characteristics that we admire most in our fellow Homo sapiens. We look for warmth and unconditional acceptance from friends and loved ones and even from acquaintances and colleagues, and many kinds of animals willingly give us these in return for very little demand on their part as well. This gift alone makes me grateful for animals as much as all the other great treasures with which they grace our lives.
For all that I’ve had little animal presence in my life–or possibly, because of that limitation–I learned very early that each happy time spent in the company of contented, healthy animals makes me feel immediately new-and-improved. I don’t know if other folk would confirm that I am any better than I was before, but I feel better inside. It’s as though every five-minute increment in company with animals makes my blood pressure drop, my spine straighten up and my mind clear of unhappy junk and fill with peaceful, more meaningful, more creative things. Suddenly, thanks to having a goat come up to me in a field and beg for a good head-scratching, I’m thinking the sun got brighter and my lifespan just got extended, stretched another two days’ length or so; because a dog lay quietly by my feet while I was taking care of the day’s correspondence I gained not only the direct warmth of him against my shins but also, the warm glow of his trust and calm confidence in being around me makes me feel more trustworthy and confident myself and strengthens me to get my task wrapped up well and swiftly.
What I take away from this contemplation is twofold: I sincerely believe that I must do any and every small thing I can to improve the lives of animals by avoiding thoughtless approaches to them and simply by treating them appropriately whenever the opportunity arises. And I need to learn from them as well. I know I can benefit from being more, if you will, ‘beastly’ in this way–by approaching life a little less cynically, not thinking of the rewards I expect or desire in return for my actions but rather of the pleasures that being kind, just, helpful, hopeful or appropriate can give me in and of themselves. If the very act of making others happier can make me happier, how could I not love that? Seems to me like we can all benefit from ‘behaving like animals’ in this sense.
A wonderful daily photography blog, PhotoBotos, just published the spectacular photo that won the prestigious National Geographic contest in 2012, and besides being a truly distinctive and powerful photograph of a gorgeous tiger, the image marks a significant story (included in the post and comments) regarding people’s contentious attitudes toward others of the human animal when it comes to how we treat non-human ones. I find it sad, surprising, maddening and poignant that sometimes those who are sincerely motivated by a desire to protect and conserve wildlife are so unwilling or unable to see a need to extend the same courtesies to their fellow human creatures and the animals whose lives intertwine in less wild circumstances with theirs. It’s just possible that we ought to be learning better–as creatures with the ability to consider the needs of others in a supposedly rational way–to rescue ourselves and our fellow humans before we can more truly accomplish the care of and respect for other animals. They enrich our existence without any particular expectation in return. Imagine the possibilities when we do the same.
We love to gossip and tell tales behind each other’s backs, don’t we. Of course, the public attitude is generally to decry such inhumane and ungracious behavior and to vilify those who allow themselves to be caught acting on it. Even those of us who shamelessly mock others for being unlike us don’t really like to admit we engage in such naughtiness. In fact, many of us are quite adept at picking on people for being precisely like we are and doing exactly the same sort of, well, picking.
It may just be that we need to reevaluate the whole way we approach such things. Being in conversation and community doesn’t mean we have to spend our energies on acting like those stereotypical meddlers we like to decry, which is of course precisely what we’re doing in decrying them. How much better to spend our energies and attentions together on positive and good things, like finding common ground, sharing what we admire and respect about each other and learning fine and meaningful and joyful things from and with each other. That leaves little room for interfering with other people’s ways of doing, being and living. We can sit around chattering and nattering with impunity when the intent is to be kind and thoughtful, and without worry when we’re not creating any sort of reasons for anyone else to be critiquing us either.
Improbable as it all may seem, we all know from experience that there are good and happy and positive things to be discussed and done and that there can be just as much pleasure in them as in exercising our Schadenfreude instead.
Rebels, radicals and reformers of the human superhero type are rare enough that we need to remember them and recognize the astounding things that they have accomplished despite their mortality. In those who–whether born to the task, having climbed to it willfully, or even having pretty much fallen backward into it–manage to effect positive change in the world, we are not only given an example but the encouragement to believe that we can and should attempt our own reforms and renewal, however small. Remembering today the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are in turn reminded of the activist for whom he was eventually made namesake, Martin Luther, and of all the other agents of change who have marked our history by following, or better yet, setting, such grand examples.That Dr. King’s life in some surprising ways echoed that of his historic predecessor, from his questioning of not only social norms and civil authority but also the very early challenge he made as an astute youth to the principles of the very faith that later helped shape his determination to work for reforms. This should perhaps be true of each of us in some small degree: that we take it as our birthright and perhaps even our very nature to challenge any sort of thing, small or large, that smacks of injustice, of cruelty, of greed, or any other of the constant failings of humanity, and that we dare to speak out on it, if not act. To do so is best made possible when we know that we tread in the footprints of many who seem to us far mightier than ourselves, but who in their own turns very likely sought out the same comfort and encouragement from their own forebears, as we all must.I, for one, am deeply thankful that there have been, and are, so many exemplars whom we can name our guides and helpers in this, because the need is never-ending. Peacemakers and healers and all of those who in their ways both magnificent and minute seek to better the lives of those around them will always be in high demand. May we all show our gratitude by heeding the same call as well as we are able.
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.
We’re really vacationing. It’s a true holiday. Okay, we’ve got to do our regular ‘exercises’ of keeping up with online correspondence, blogging and business, but are limiting the time spent at those tasks daily for the duration of our few days here in central Texas. So I’m savoring the rustic charms of small-town and Hill Country and riverside and tourist-friendly parts of the state while crossing the bridge between 2012 and 2013.
It seemed, then, utterly apropos that during our New Year’s Day brunch today I looked up at the cafe’s lovely wood rafters and saw a fittingly old-fashioned, Texan pseudo-firework to get me in the mood for the occasion: I was sitting at precisely the right angle for the joist joinery to overlap in a nice Texan Lone Star. I highlighted it here for those of you who might not spot it immediately, and to fire off my own modest firecracker in celebration of the flip of the calendar, and to wish all of you a genuinely joyful and prosperous and fruitful year in 2013. Peace, love and happiness in abundance!
Ebenezer Scrooge was far from alone. And the holidays are certainly not the only time when Scrooge and his ilk get wound up. Still, big events and celebrations are and always have been pretty predictable catalysts and triggers for bad moods and attitudes of any sort. If we aren’t happy, we’re remarkably good at being as far opposite to it as we can figure out how to make ourselves. High horses are not so high that people don’t try to climb aboard them mighty often. High dudgeons are terribly popular dwellings with the general citizenry, who move into them and dig in our heels as though to that manor born.
Add to this our natural gifts for finding clouds obliterating every one of our silver linings, and t’s not much of a stretch to think that many of us are in a cynical competition to see who can be the snarliest, gnarliest meanie in existence. We’re always looking for the way to shoehorn yet more nasty junk and grim excuses for hideous horripilation into the darkest corners of ourselves and the universe. And when one looks for something hard enough, one almost always finds it. We may be a crotchety breed but we’re still good at some things. The latest news reports are always brimming over with greed and violence and hate. We make the news and we eat it up, too. More’s the pity.
Why even mention it? Because we have choices. And now, in the shadow of the latest awful tales of murder and depravity and betrayal and any sort of human ugliness you can (or maybe can’t) imagine, it’s holiday time once again. Christmas, yes, and Hanukkah, Ramadan, the New Year (westerners and the Chinese, for example, celebrating it in full gear), Kwanzaa, Tet, a birthday or two zillion. So many opportunities for blow-ups and melt-downs and general cussedness. And we don’t have to succumb to any of them. We can be better than that.
And we should. We should, most of all, when it’s time for all that holiday innocence-wisdom-love-light-and-warmth, stuff that can both exacerbate and offset darker things, choose to enhance it rather than the opposite. The greatest possible gift we can give to others and ourselves for any celebration is to be agents of innocence, wisdom, love, light and warmth instead of any passing urge to give in to crass or cranky behavior. Hugs and kisses are the order of the day. Make peace; be nice–it’s a holiday. Give in to it!