Decluttering

The bed in our guest room serves as the staging area for items destined for rummage sales and Purple Heart pick-ups. The ten-year-old sweater that’s sprung a hole, the electric can opener that only works on Mondays when there’s a full moon, the pants that alas, have become too tight in the waist. (mine, never my husband’s.) I love the British tradition of Boxing Day when that which was replaced by Christmas gifts is boxed up and donated to those in need. Sometimes I think of January as Boxing Month. Once the halls are no longer decked, I look around my home and take stock. Things that have been quietly minding their own business gathering dust on shelves or hiding discreetly in closets for years are vulnerable to my annual New Year’s purging.

I am of the when-in-doubt-throw-it-out persuasion and of course, my husband is of the opposite school of thought, but that’s a topic for another post. Where I get stuck is with those items that remain in a sort of purgatory, with “yes, buts” attached to them. The twenty boxes of family slides that there is no point in digitizing, but might I need them as fodder for my writing? Same with a collection of teenaged diaries. Can I really send them to the landfill? Or picture albums from my first wedding, but they contain the last photographs ever taken of my mother. A dingy army footlocker in the basement belonging to a beloved uncle who served in World War II. Orioles stuff, oh, so much Orioles stuff from Wheaties boxes featuring Jim Palmer to a carrier of full classic coke bottles emblazoned with Cal Ripken’s number 8 jersey. Maybe if we keep it long enough, it will bring their mojo back?

Kitchen shelf 2

 

Yes, I know it’s called E-bay or contacting a reputable antique dealer and moving on. There are certain things I’m ready to do that with—the Norman Rockwell collectible plates from the 80’s and 90’s, the pressed glass tumblers belonging to my grandmother that I will never, ever use, those old wooden skis that simply moved from leaning against the basement wall of my husband’s family home to the same position in our basement.

I am not a proponent of the Marie Kondo method where you touch each item and examine its relationship with your inner child before deciding its fate, (I mean, who does that?) but it’s hard, sometimes, knowing when to let go. And yet, there’s only so much room in our homes and in our lives. Becoming a little less encumbered with stuff, allows us to see things we’ve missed, clears our heads as well as our spaces, and gives us breathing room.

Sometimes we find another way to bring an item back to purposeful life. My husband has happily taken possession of the tablet I had to have which sat on my desk, unused, ever since I got a smart phone. The diamond from my mother-in-law’s engagement ring now rests in a beautiful pendant worn by my godchild. And at the extreme end, the proceeds from the sale of my father’s massive collection of railroad memorabilia helped to restore a classic steam locomotive which will, after nearly twelve years, finally make its debut in Colorado this summer.

But those instances are the exceptions. More often, we’ve got to figure out for ourselves when something no longer tells our story or the connection’s been lost to whatever made us cling to that book, vase, or set of candlesticks in the first place. At the same time, we are allowed to say, “I must keep this item because it’s important to me no matter how it’s seen or valued by others.”

I was reminded of this when a friend recently described moving her elderly father-in-law’s new wife from her tiny apartment into his home. My friend and another family member filled plastic tubs with the contents of jam-packed kitchen cupboards, while the older woman sat alone in another room, patiently sorting through hundreds of recipe cards for the meals she’d cooked over the years, deciding which she would take with her and which she would leave behind.

Tiny Stars

Outside the beautiful church where we sang one of our Christmas concerts lies a sad mound of raggedy sleeping bags and blankets that serves as a bedroom for those who have no home. There is a tendency to avert your eyes as you drive by, to use that “if-I-don’t-see-it, it-doesn’t-exist” mentality which is so easy for those of us who are blessed with more than we need. And yet, a chorale member saw to it that one of our recordings was included in a fund-raiser CD which to date has raised $20,000 to combat homelessness in this city. Not as much impact as being out there with coffee and sandwiches every night, but it was something. It was a step.

Today, for the first time, someone invited us to talk about an issue that has upset us greatly for almost a year. I don’t know that all of our questions were answered or that the situation was resolved, but it was a kind and gracious gesture coming from a person on whom I have hurled anger and blame. In the wall of frustration and bitterness that I’ve erected, a sincere apology and a willingness to listen cracked open a door.

In the midst of the terrible war of words coming from the mouths of our leaders, someone from a totally unexpected place stepped out and said, “This is wrong, and no political gain is worth this behavior. This is not who we are or how we treat each other, regardless of our beliefs.” What he wrote may not change anything, but it was a powerful and courageous symbol of hope.

On a much smaller scale, after a nightmare customer service experience with an online company, I reached a lovely woman who went to extraordinary lengths to resolve my problem. When we finally ended the call, we were on a first-name basis and I thought she was going to invite me to her mid-western home for hot-dish. I shuddered when I saw the line at Kohl’s spiraling back the aisle, but the smiling cashiers were working as quickly as they could, I had a nice chat with the gentleman in front of me, and no one held up the line trying to use counterfeit Kohl’s cash or outdated coupons.

I don’t know that any of us will ever see a star in the East or have enough oil to keep our lamps miraculously lit for eight days. But when a tiny star pierces the darkness in an unexpected place, it still sheds light, perhaps all the more brilliantly because it’s singular and catches us unaware. I think many of us feel blanketed by darkness for so many reasons—some terrible and life-changing, some because of the burdens we carry, and some simply because of the world we live in right now. If you’re lucky enough to glimpse one of those tiny stars, cherish its light, see what it illuminates, and maybe take the occasional poke at the darkness yourself.

Wishing everyone a season filled with love, celebration, and tiny stars.

 

 

 

 

Quiet Season

This weekend I have been reminded of the beauty and peace to be found in quiet. In dialing back and dialing down from the hype and the shouting and the constant bombardment of, well, almost everything these days.

A good friend joined us for a lovely and simple Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by the view of the creek and wildlife outside our Ocean Pines home. We are at the stage in our lives where holidays don’t always involve complicated meals planned and prepped for days for a crowd around a dining room table laden with china and crystal glassware. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy hosting meals like that, but I’ve discovered  turkey tastes just as good eaten from Corningware plates using unmatched kitchen silverware.

Assateague pony (2)Ocean City, minus the crazed summer vacationers, gratefully sets aside all the trappings of a resort and reverts back to its charming small-town self. Walking the pathways and beaches of the nearly deserted Assateague Island looking for ponies feels far more productive than rushing to spend money on more stuff we don’t need. Sitting in a nearly empty theater watching Tom Hanks work his magic in the movie about the life of Mr. Rogers was a profound testimonial to the power of gentleness and remaining quiet, of taking the time to listen and really hear what others are saying. There is a scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers asks the troubled man with him to “close your eyes for a full minute and think about all the people whose love brought you into being.” I suspect everyone in the theater did the same thing.

st Paul's by the sea (2)On Sunday, we attended our home-away-from-home church a block from the boardwalk. It is a small church with a dwindling congregation and yet there is always a moving and powerful message from the rector and a warm welcome from the parishioners who know us as “the singers.” I am grateful to be part of a denomination which cherishes the quiet anticipation of Advent instead of rushing headlong into Christmas. Our sanctuaries are unadorned with greenery until that final Sunday before Christmas, and we sing beautiful Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. I love my over-the-top Christmas trees and the excitement of the season as much as anyone, and yet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of expectation, of saving the best for last.

We’ve been coming to the beach at Thanksgiving for years. When we were both teaching, it was a brief respite from the crazy schedule of concerts and school obligations that filled our Decembers. The days when we decorated Christmas trees late at night and tried to cram in pre-internet shopping whenever we could. Our lives are considerably less frenzied now and yet, perhaps more than ever, given the social and political climate in which we live, I need to watch the ducks floating by on Manklin Creek while a heron soars into the sky on its majestic wings. To see the rough-coated ponies of Assateague meandering down the road, stopping to nibble some grass, flicking their tails in the late afternoon sunlight. To hear the eternal sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore as a hardy and brave surfer emerges from the icy cold water in his wetsuit. To curl up on the sofa and read the stories of Wendell Berry for the first time.

Tomorrow, we go home to rehearsals and appointments and getting the Christmas tree and stressing about everything we read and hear on the news. We go back to texts and emails and to-do lists. In the midst of this over-commercialized time of year, in the midst of angry words coming at us from all directions, in the midst of unrealistic expectations of Hallmark-movie-perfect holidays, I remind myself to hold fast to quiet season at the beach—to the beauty of nature undisturbed and being still long enough to hear the voices around us.

Assateague ocean

She Who Must Be Obeyed

She sits there in the middle of the kitchen island, resplendent in her trendy stainless-steel garments. She is the Queen, without whom no one is fed, and she expects to be treated with adulation and reverence or else she’ll turn on you at a moment’s notice. Like her mother before her, she is demanding and requires high maintenance at the most inopportune times.

“Put in a downdraft oven,” they told us when we built our home in the late 90’s. “Such a clean look with no more ugly vent hoods,” they said, but no one mentioned the feeble ventilation that would leave our upstairs bedroom smelling of sautéed garlic and onions. For days.

This one comes by it honestly. Her mother was a Jenn-Air, an appliance family known for its crankiness, and she demanded constant attention from the day she arrived. “I want a new motherboard, I want a new fan, I want another motherboard, I want a new control panel, and you will recut the damn granite before I go back in that slot to cook Christmas dinner.” Three months later she sighed and said, “That’s it. I’m done. Find someone else to slog away in this hell hole.”

The appliance gurus told us we had only two options because they’re not making  many downdraft ovens anymore. (Duh…I wonder why?)  The coronation of Queen Kitchenaid required the granite to be cut yet again to meet her just slightly different dimensions. “Here’s what I expect,” she told us upon arrival. “I will take as long as I want to preheat and if you complain, I will take even longer. My skin is delicate, so don’t you dare splatter me with that dreadful acidic tomato sauce or nick me with one of those horrid cast iron pots you insist on using or I will be scarred for life. My burners have two options—scorching high or non-existent. I don’t believe in a slow simmer. You will cut a new hole in the floor to align my fan with the vent because I don’t have the same plumbing as my mother, thank God. And as far as cleaning, I require a spa-like water bath for several hours and then I want to see you on your hands and knees with a scrunge. Mom put up with that abusive high-heat cleaning business, but I will have no parts of that. We’re now environmentally correct, you know.”

The other appliances, sigh and roll their eyes. They are ever faithful servants, working without the slightest complaint since 1997. They’re not fancy, still clad in their black plastic coats, trendy at the time. The dishwasher has a dial instead of digital controls and can be rather noisy but never asks for anything. The frig is equally loyal, partly because he knows that when he dies, there will be no unit now available to fit in his space. They feel sorry for us because of having to deal with the Queen.

We’ve had about four years of peaceful coexistence. I tend to her as she wishes to the best of my ability. But recently, I’ve been hearing pre-heating complaints. An odd screech here and there and then it disappears. Ah, just like that strange noise in the car—turn up the radio so you don’t hear it. Perhaps something’s loose, I tell myself. If it was anything major, it wouldn’t go away, right? Until this afternoon when the occasional screech turned into a full on she’s-going-to-blow-Captain Kirk-rattle which didn’t stop until I turned off the oven. Of course, her timing is perfect—right before bake sale and holiday cooking season.

Google informed me that it was probably some kind of bearing in one of the fans that had worked loose or broken. Are you kidding me? After barely four years of playing by all her rules, she pulls this kind of crap? I gave her a time out to think about her choices for a few minutes and then hit the preheat button again, bracing for a return of that horrible grating noise. This time she complied, and grudgingly allowed me to finish my baking project. “OK,” she said, “Since you already have the chocolate melted, you may finish for today, but nothing else. I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately, and I think I need to see a specialist, preferably soon. Or else you can just forget about Thanksgiving.”

The Road to Paradise

This fall, the Strasburg Railroad’s Facebook page has been filled with pictures of the Norfolk and Western’s locomotive 611. This glorious engine, in service in the 1950’s and the last of its kind, has been in temporary residence at Strasburg for several weeks and has generated much excitement among rail-fans along with some truly spectacular photography. If my Dad were alive, he would have been camped there for the duration. Seeing the almost daily posts brought back fond memories of my years working at Strasburg.

My father was obsessed with trains, so when I was looking for a summer job in college (one stint as a restaurant dishwasher was enough) he got me a job at Strasburg. I started as the “information desk girl” handing out brochures and giving directions to tourists in those pre-Google maps days, but eventually became the railroad’s first female ticket agent. I learned to sell tickets efficiently, count money, and deal with people on vacation. I loved it all and stayed for twenty years.

Harry Myers SburgIn those days, most of our transactions were in cash. If I worked the late shift, I often walked to my car carrying bags containing five-figure amounts of money which I dropped off at the night depository at the bank on the square. One of my co-workers, a crusty old codger named Harry Myers, would always sit on his front stoop in the evening, smoking a cigarette, waiting for my car to go by so he knew I had gotten the money safely to the bank. Of course, Harry was also famous for telling little boys who anxiously rushed to the ticket window in search of the bathroom, “Here, kid, put a rubber band around it.”

Many of my co-workers were teachers and other professionals, some of whom came from miles away, just to work around steam trains on the weekend. We called ourselves the most highly educated minimum wage work force in Lancaster County. Although I did not share my father’s passion for trains, I could appreciate it. At one time, the lockbox holding the change bags for the weekend was located in a hidden corner of the engine house. Walking in there in the early morning quiet and hearing the locomotive that had been running the day before gradually cooling down was almost like being around a live creature resting in its stall, a gentle giant made of steel and powered by a heart of coal.

Gregg, Bill, SburgThe men I worked with were characters. One of them frequently told kids fascinated by the fly-encrusted strips hanging in the station that that’s what was used to make shoo-fly pies. A gentleman who worked as a brakeman well into his 90’s, would come off the train, and with a deadpan expression say, “You know, it’s snowing hard down in Paradise.” One of the conductors would linger by the ticket window and glance at people’s wallets and driver’s licenses as they paid. Then he’d get them on the train and “guess” their name and where they were from. Occasionally after a customer had left the window, one of my fellow ticket agents would sniff the air with a pained look on his face, shake his head in disgust and say, “Campers.”

After my dad retired, he volunteered at the State Railroad Museum across the street.  He would come over to the grill for lunch and always stopped by the ticket window just to say hello, or if we were swamped, he’d bring me food. He loved that we were both working together around steam trains.

 

 

These days I’m sure very little cash changes hands since most tickets are probably purchased online.  A new generation of train crew, ticket agents, and administrative staff keeps the trains running on time. But the wooden station is still there as I suspect are the pot-bellied stove and hanging fly strips. The same locomotives that were in service when I was there are still making those daily 45-minute round trips because no digital experience can ever replicate the wide-eyed wonder of a small child staring up at a locomotive for the first time. No amusement park thrill ride can touch scrambling up the coach steps clutching your grandpa’s hand, plopping down on the velvet seats and sticking your head out the window, breathing in the coal smoke and listening for the sound of the whistle on the road to Paradise.

Me on Strasburg train

 

 

 

Touching the Liberty Bell

A former teaching colleague posted a picture on Facebook recently that simply took my breath away. I am not reproducing it here, although I did share it on my Facebook page. My friend was chaperoning a group of middle schoolers on a trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the students was blind and also had significant hearing impairment. The park ranger lifted the ropes around the Liberty Bell, so the young man could touch it, while he explained its meaning and history away from the noise of the crowded hall. My friend said it was a moving and powerful moment in a day filled with the general chaos of taking young adolescents who are too cool for their clothes on a field trip.

What the ranger did was beyond kindness. He broke the rules for all the right reasons. This picture symbolized the good in us; it represented what I always believed we are called to be as citizens of this country and as decent human beings.

When I started this blog, I was determined to stay out of politics, religion, and other inflammatory topics. There is way, way too much of that on social media, and I didn’t need to go there to flex my writing muscles. But I am in utter disbelief at what we are allowing to happen. I am not talking about specific issues—our country has had bitter political disagreements for its entire history. The fact that we have the freedom to argue and disagree with each other is part of why we’ve survived for as long as we have.

But we are now deep into uncharted territory and quite frankly, I’m frightened. Lies are being told and laws are being broken with few, if any, repercussions, and we seem to have become blithely accepting of that. For the life of me, I cannot understand how our leaders can continue to condone and rationalize behavior that is not only illegal but downright evil all in the name of retaining power. Those people who say this is how Hitler got the job done have a valid point. And just when I think it can’t get any worse—OK, so this time a line’s been crossed and they’re going to have to do something—it does, and the voices of support roar ever louder.

What would happen if we all stepped away from the chaos and shouting for a few minutes, slipped past the ropes of our individual agendas and placed our hands on the Liberty Bell to remind us of who we are, how we got here and where we’re going?

 

 

Southern Snapshot

We just returned from a pleasure trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful town filled with stunning architecture, history, and restaurants with some of the best chefs on the East Coast. We enjoyed it all—from our charming hotel in the historic district to the incredible food to walking the sacred grounds of history. Nothing on our screens can ever replace travel and being there in person.

We took the first ferry of the day to Fort Sumter so we could see the flag-raising. A group of students, probably early high school age, were on the boat with us. They quieted as they lined up on either side of the flag, carefully unfolding it according to the ranger’s directions. Another student pulled the ropes to raise it into the stiff breeze blowing over the harbor. The students represented many different races and nationalities and seeing their hands working together on the flag in that particular place at this particular time in history gave me at least a whisper of hope.

We took a day trip to Beaufort because I wanted to visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Pat Conroy was writing creative nonfiction in the form of popular novels long before it was recognized as a genre, and Beaufort is the place he called home. The quintessential southern town, Beaufort is filled with stately mansions, waterfront cottages and streets lined with live oaks dripping with moss. Scenes from  The Big Chill, Forest Gump, and Conroy’s own Prince of Tides were all filmed here.  (Barbra Streisand was stopped by the local police who did not recognize her when she sped down the highway in the white Mustang from Prince of Tides, without a driver’s license or registration.)

Beaufort scene

When we arrived, we asked two gentlemen lounging in hammocks with a case of Coors between them, if they knew anything about the Pat Conroy tours advertised online. One of them said, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill.  Lemme’ see if I have his number.” Bill re-arranged his day so he could take us on the tour. He couldn’t have been more gracious and knowledgeable and incorporated scenes from the movies on a screen in his van with what we were seeing outside the windows. He took us to Pat Conroy’s grave which is in a Gullah cemetery. Conroy spent a year teaching the Gullah children on Daufuskie Island (the basis for his book, The Water is Wide) and felt a deep connection to its people. Conroy is the only white person buried in that cemetery, and according to Bill, the decision by the church council to allow it was not unanimous. The grave itself is covered with pine cones and all kinds of random items—pens and pencils because he wrote all his books by hand, flowers, shells, and buttons and even a few miniature bottles of Jack Daniels.

Conroy grave

When you visit this part of the country, race is the elephant in the room. As you listen to the stories, you realize how much of our country’s growth and prosperity was built on the backs of slaves. I kept wondering if the tour narratives have evolved over the years. Everything is explained in accurate, but carefully chosen language. Nowhere did we see a confederate flag, even in the  trinket stalls of the City Market. And has that changed even more since the terrible shooting in 2015?

I felt almost uncomfortable with the deferential service offered by the African American men and women who served us breakfast in the hotel each morning.  Do the women who weave sweet-grass baskets in the markets and along the roadside do it out of pride for their heritage or because it’s an incredible money-maker with the tourists? Probably a little of both, I suppose. I couldn’t help but see the irony as a black security guard stood outside the museum with “Daughters of the Confederacy” inscribed in the archway above the door.

One of our last visits was to Boone Hall Plantation, located a few miles outside Charleston. (More irony – the cotton dock of the plantation, where slaves were once unloaded, is now an upscale event venue where the actress Blake Lively was married.) In front of one of the slave cabins, a gifted black actress and singer gave a presentation on the Gullah culture. She interwove her narrative with spirituals and reflections on the life of the slaves on that plantation. At the end she said the Lord’s Prayer in the Gullah dialect and then sang about how beautiful all of the faces seated in front of her were. I didn’t understand all of her words, but I didn’t need to, because she looked every single one of us in the eye as she kept singing over and over, “…and you, and you and you.”

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