That nip in the air

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I’ve been feeling that jittery itch, that scratching between my shoulder blades and nipping at my nose. Cold weather is on its way. Rain, freeze, maybe snow, definitely slush, all coming. Wind that snatches your breath before you can inhale, yanks your foot before you can step. It makes the horses knock-you-down crazy.

One minute it was August. The next, it’s September – supposed to be a mellow month, but today we woke to unexpected and heavy rain. I’ve spent much of the day fidgeting, making lists. I’m suddenly aware that time is running out, and there is much to do before winter. If we fail to do it, we’ll stumble into spring, crash into summer before we’re ready, and lose yet another year of production, growth and beauty.

We’ve done that too often. This has been a painful year of loss and disruption … Last year was eaten by ill-health  … The year before it was something else; recovery from burnout, I think … Enough.

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Some good things happened this summer. Like, our swallows came back, for the fourth year in a row, and raised two families of five babies each all crammed into their tiny nest. It’s so much fun when the whole flock of them flies around the house, snatching flies out of the air and gobbling them down.

We’ve entrusted our lives to this place – in this small piece of land in the crook of the Columbia River. What we have here we made out of an empty and untidy field, and wishes and dreams. But then we ran aground – we poured ourselves into rescuing dogs (and sometimes people) and the work gulped us right down, along with our wishes and dreams, and the strength of our bodies and determination of our minds.

At the beginning of this year, I named it my Year of Reclamation. (I told you that already, didn’t I?) And quite apart from all the sad and hurtful things that have happened this year, it’s been a year of taking stock. Considering options. Choosing priorities. Making lists.

Now it’s September, and I’m fidgety with the need to Get Things Done, and frustrated by the slow, painful inefficiency of my unwieldy body.

Oh well. I guess that makes my body, yet again, the first priority. After a year of try-fail-try-again I have quit trying to ease gracefully into health and wellness via intelligent eating, and am currently ramming myself into ketosis by means of a three-day fat fast. Oh my word, it’s horrid! Start the day with a gigantic strong bulletproof coffee, listen to my heart race until lunchtime, chow down on cream cheese and just a little salami, remember remember remember to drink plenty water, nibble a few macadamia nuts in the evening. Think about food all damn day. Huddle under a blanket feeling cold and shitty and try to distract self with a book.

That was yesterday and most of today … and then there was this … tremor. My synapses blinked and took a peek at the world. I took a pee, and … yep, that unmistakable ketone smell. (TMI, I know, but it made me so dang happy!) My toes wiggled and demanded a walk, so I took a couple of the lunatics out into a pasture and threw a ball until they lost it.

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Sweet summer days down at the river. Argos has finally learned to swim!

And then I came back inside and … I feel so good! I’m making lists!

Things to do before winter:

  • Finish building the raised beds in the veggie garden, fill them up with horse/cow/chicken poop and weeds and some old tree branches and yes, of course, also some dirt. Snuggle them under a good, thick layer of straw. Yank the weeds out of the existing beds, repair as needed, and give them a nice straw duvet as well.
  • Prune the grape vines and the apricot/plum/nectarine/pear trees – but only after the pears are done. The pear tree is inside the chicken run, and every evening when I put the chickens away I pick up the windfalls they haven’t eaten and throw them over the fence for the horses. Vos eats with calm authority, but Pal gobbles and foams pear-drool in his effort to get his before Vos takes it.
  • Transplant the asparagus, and fill the old asparagus bed up with berry bushes.
  • Clean the hen house and give the girls a nice deep bed of fresh hay.
  • Pick up and burn the pile of trash wood that the Hubbit insisted on keeping “because it’s useful” – only now it isn’t, it’s just nasty, and – happy day – he agrees it’s time to let it go.
  • Clear and plow and seed the front yard. Let there be grass!
  • Plow and seed the six or so acre field our neighbor has offered us for winter pasture. I wish we’d managed to do that earlier in the year – we’d have grass there now and would be able to use it in January. Well, no matter. If we do it now, we’ll be able to use it for a little while in summer, and give our pasture a rest.
  • Put up hot wire to subdivide the north pasture.
  • Protect what’s left of the weeping birch from the cattle.
  • Repair the divider the bull broke in the horse stalls.
  • Cattle-proof the fence around the pond-to-be.

So that’s my list. Most of it I can do alone. Some requires the Hubbit’s help. But less all the time! Yesterday, for instance, he taught me to drive the tractor, thinking to set himself free from plowing. It was so much fun … until I killed it. I have no idea what I did, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out. Poor guy! I’m lucky he’s so forbearing.

Do you get antsy when the seasons change? What’s big on your to-do list right now?

 

 

Some truths about American exceptionalism

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I’ve been wanting to write about “American exceptionalism” ever since I learned it was a thing … but I could never quite do it without foaming at the mouth and ranting. Now one of my favorite bloggers has done the job – and far better than I could have done.

This is worth reading, folks. It’s important stuff – especially if you’re someone who gets to help choose whom to put in a frighteningly important position in only a few weeks time.

Just wanted to mention: I support Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party. Because yes, we actually do have options, and if half the people who are wandering around saying “I don’t trust Clinton and Trump scares the heck out of me and I really like Johnson but I don’t want to waste my vote” had the courage of their convictions and voted for him, he’d win by a landslide. Yes, actually, he would!

Deb, the author of this wonderful bit of thinkology, supports the Green Party’s Jill Stein. I like her, you might too … I wish Bernie had endorsed her rather than Hillary, because then she’d actually stand a chance. If you vote for her, in my opinion, you’ll be Making A Statement (which neither Clinton nor Trump will care about) but I think her chances of actually winning this time around are slim at best. On the other hand, you won’t have any reason to feel ashamed the day after election day.

So that’s enough of what I think. I may say more in a future post (soon!) … for now, over to Deb. Because if you think America’s in good shape … think again, friends. Think again.

On Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke to an Ohio crowd about U.S. exceptionalism.* One of the ways the U.S. most excels is in weapon sales. In 2014, it was the world’s #1 arms exporter, beating the next in line–Russia–by a very, very long shot. This isn’t a Republican thing, either; arms sales have […]

via Saturday Soliloquy: American Exceptionalism — The Monster in Your Closet

The Olde Buzzard and the Easter bunny

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After my mother died we put my father in a home.

Funny how that sounds like a confession! It sounds like abandonment, like kids who don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with a dotty, demanding old man.

In fact it was the best we could do for him. The home – actually two houses on adjoining suburban lots – was a little shabby, but the lawn was green and mowed smooth enough for walkers and wheelchairs, and the tree between the houses was huge, with comfortable chairs set out in the shade. The caregivers were kind. The food was delicious and plentiful. It didn’t feel like an institution, but it was safe, staffed by people who understood how to care for people with his condition.

He had a little room to himself that opened out onto a grassy area. Outside the sliding glass door we put potted plants that used to stand on their stoep – his and Marmeee’s – and a small clay garden gnome that my sister the Kat had given them. The room itself was very small, but we made it big with the framed photographs from their trips to America, and the life-size photograph of the first (and last) trout Marmeee ever fished for, the intensely colorful blanket she had crocheted on the bed, a few books that we hoped he might still be able to read. You know … the random odds and ends that one hopes, against all odds, will make a place home.

Lindt Easter bunny

Oh, and a chocolate Easter bunny. That was a housewarming gift from me; of all his children, I’m the one who has inherited his chocaholic genes in their most potent form. He loved plain chocolate with licorice shoelaces, and as a child I gave him some in a brown paper bag every birthday – and then demanded my share, which he would eke out with a stingy hand. You haven’t been able to get licorice shoelaces for years, but he was happy with chocolate on its own – always plain; he didn’t want any potential chocolate space in the slab taken up by nuts or raisins or other junk.

But that was for everyday munching. Everyone knows Easter chocolate is better – a special treat, guaranteed to make any situation more bearable! (Actually, in the US Easter chocolate mostly sucks. But this was in South Africa, and anyway it was a Lindt bunny.)

I put it right next to his bed where he couldn’t miss it, and imagined him nibbling on it on his first night in his new bed. But when I visited him the next day it was still there, untouched.

I picked it up and brandished it at him. “Oy! You didn’t eat your bunny!” I said.

He blinked at it bemusedly. “Is that mine?”

“Yes, you silly nit! That’s why it’s next to your bed!”

He looked down at the bed he was sitting on (there was space for only one chair in his room) and fingered the crocheted blanket. “Oh! Is this my bed? This looks like the blanket Mom made.”

“Yes, Dad,” I replied gently. “This is your bed. You live here now. And this -” I brandished the bunny at him – “is your own chocolate Easter bunny! You must eat it before it gets old and yucky.”

“It’s an Easter bunny? Well, when is Easter then?” he asked.

“It was a few weeks ago. Never mind about Easter – we’ve already celebrated that. But the store had a bunch of leftover chocolate bunnies on special so I got you one.”

He took it, stroked the ribbon with his forefinger. Said, “I think I’d better save this for Easter. It’s so pretty… It wouldn’t be right to eat it on an ordinary day.”

The next time I visited I took a slab of plain Cadbury milk chocolate, which I put into the top drawer of his bedside table, where he had no difficulty finding it. The bunny was still there … and it was still there a week later when I went to say goodbye before flying back home to Washington. I wonder whether he ever ate it? I like to think that someone eventually slipped off the red ribbon, peeled away the gold paper, and shared it with him. I like to think the taste of good chocolate melting on his tongue brought him a moment of simple pleasure.

But if my sister the Egg found it when she went to clear out his room, and either ate it or gave it away … well, that’s okay too. At least it didn’t sit there long enough to get stale.

Going postal

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USPS-Exam-3D-Cover-with-text (2)So it looks as though the US Postal Service has a clever new scheme going: tell people you’re hiring, then when they go to your website to apply, don’t let them do so unless they fork over $29.95, in return for which some helpful people will send you a “well written Guide with NO MEMORIZATION required”, including test-taking strategies and tips from “subject matter experts”.

What’s particularly cool about these people is that they don’t expect you to waste time waiting for snail mail – because, as it’s important to understand if you’re going to apply for a job at the post office, actually physically posting anything is pretty old hat. No one who has a clue does that any more. So they will provide a link to a 98-page PDF document that you can download within three seconds of making payment, and print out using your very own personal printer ink and paper.

Alternatively, for only $10 more you can get essentially the same thing from another source, only what they promise to send is a “Postal Exam Package” containing exam registration materials, “eCareer Profile Creation Tutorials”, a bunch of practice tests, and a “Postal Interview Recommendation”.

It’s not entirely clear how they send this, but to me the word “package” denotes physical substance – something with heft. I imagine brown paper and string, the knots liberally coated with sealing wax … Dang, those were the days! I remember helping my mother make up parcels like that! Sometimes she’d let me hold the stick of sealing wax. I remember the smell of burning string and hot wax, and how quickly the drops of wax hardened, and how satisfying it was to scratch the hard accidental drips off the paper, and how important it was not to put my face so close to the flame that I burned off my eyebrows.

Hand made leather man wallet and  package on wooden background

Searching for this illustration made me feel so old! Everything I found was essentially an artistically staged picture. Take this one – what’s the relevance of the man wallet? I also found a still life in shades of brown, featuring a stamped seal, a watch on a chain and a cigar, arranged like relics of a forgotten era. Also, there are lots of pictures of scrolls, apparently made of papyrus, tied with hemp, and sealed with a perfect dab of red wax. Seriously, Adobe, WTF? Real people living today actually used this stuff, you know – and it had a purpose. It wasn’t just bloody decorative, okay? It was messy and it dripped and blobbed, and if you let your kid do it they probably illustrated the package with artistic extra drips and blobs, but – and this was important – YOU DRIPPED THE WAX ONTO THE KNOT IN THE STRING, okay? It was there to discourage postal workers from opening your parcel, because that was back in the day when it was reasonable to expect the South African Post Office to deliver parcels rather than dumping them in a ditch, losing them, or selling them to the highest bidder. Because, of course, back then we hadn’t invented scissors yet, so sealed and unbroken string was impenetrable.

Well, I digress … A modern parcel would have tape, not string, and it would likely come in one of those standard red, white and blue USPS boxes. Unless they sent it UPS or Fedex, those being the faster and more reliable options since the Pony Express closed down. But either way, there wouldn’t be string.

Sorry, that was another digression, because in fact I resisted the temptation to order a Postal Exam Success Guide. The only reason I was googling post office jobs was a sudden panic over money, for crying out loud! If I was going to spend $39.95 on something, it wouldn’t be on an unartistically presented package, which I wouldn’t receive because we don’t get mail delivery at our house due to an argument over post box location with our local post office about eight years ago, which culminated in the Hubbit declaring his independence from delivery services by renting a PO box (from USPS) instead. (That’s a whole blog post in its own right, but not one I feel like writing today.) Anyway, the $39.95 option didn’t include space for a PO box address, so I couldn’t choose it. As for the other option, the convenience of receiving a PDF document is offset by the fact that I still haven’t figured out how to get our wireless printer to connect to my computer, and I am fundamentally fed up with having to forward every bloody thing to the Hubbit for printing. In any case, if I had random bits of money to be scattering to the four winds I wouldn’t be contemplating a job at the post office, now would I?

Sometimes I feel as though my life is spiraling out of control. There are too many damn buttons to push, and you have to push them in the right order, and … GAH! It’s just too  complicated.

I couldn’t help wondering what my $29.95 would get me – I mean, in the sense of what career opportunities would open up if I accepted their Success Guide. So I went back and took another look at what popped up when I googled USPS jobs, and I realized that the sites I’d found the first time I tried this weren’t actually part of the official US Postal Service. They’re very cleverly dressed up to look that way, complete with bald eagles and flags, but if you click on the actual USPS website you can go straight to the online job application, easy-peasy.

USPS stamps

Turns out they have a new stamp design, called “summer harvest”. Click on the picture on the USPS website, and it’ll take you to a fantastic array of gorgeous stamps. Some of them are so pretty I just want to rush out and … I don’t know … start mailing letters again? Probably not – back in the day (before email) I was notorious for writing long, wonderful, newsy letters, putting them in an envelope, sticking on the prettiest stamps I could find … and then forgetting to put them in the mailbox. Actually physically going to a post office to post a letter was one of those things I invariably put off, so letters would go onto the pile of un-dealt-with paperwork I have kept on every desk I’ve ever owned, and there they would slowly sift to the bottom, to be found years later when I packed up to move house.

So anyway … I looked, and apparently the main post office in our area is looking for rural mail carriers. Only to get hired you have to pass a test, which takes about two hours to complete. I don’t have two hours right now, having already invested a substantial portion of today in writing this post. Also, I really hate writing tests, because failure, rejection, feelings of inferiority – AAHHHHH! I mean, how would I feel if I failed a test that was directed specifically at school leavers and other people with no prior experience, skills or training? Plus, apparently the test includes a section called “Summary of Accomplishments”, and the advice to applicants is  to “write about how your skill set, education and training matches the posting”. Seriously, should someone who can’t mail letters be responsible for delivering same?

Still, I have to admit I’m tempted. The thought of working in a post office, dealing with the Great Unwashed every day, fills me with dismay. Yes, I know, you don’t actually have to be nice to anyone – that’s one of the perks of working for the post office. But … ugh … you’re perpetually at the end of a queue, and every single day is just one piece of mail after another. Could that get monotonous, do you think?

Driving around delivering letters, on the other hand … now that could be fun. Lots of time to think, and – thanks to the invention of GPS – I wouldn’t get lost. Probably wouldn’t. Not very lost, anyway, and probably not permanently. It would be different if they were still using ponies – I like ponies way too much to sit on one – but these days you get to ride around in one of those cute little vans with the driver on the sidewalk side. You know, I can see myself doing that, while simultaneously dictating a Great Work (or, at least, a blog post) into a little hand-held recorder thingummy. I already have one of those. I just need to figure out how it works.

So what’s your dream job? What do you do when you suddenly realize you’re down to your last $50 and there’s still a week to go to the end of the month?

 

 

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

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Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

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Things Marmeee loved: Me