The Joy of Baking

Sharing baked goods with your friends and neighbors is a great way to feel connected or make new connections.

(Pamela Honsberger, a family doctor and director of physician engagement and leadership development at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California)

Thankfully, Thanksgiving is past. Don’t get me wrong. Dinner was awesome. Turkey. Gravy. Buttered Green Beans. Creamed Spinach. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Jellied Cranberry Sauce. Cranberry Sauce in Grand Marnier with Ground Ginger and Candied Ginger. Homemade Dinner Rolls. Pecan Pie. Pumpkin Pie. Cherry Pie.

Far more important than the dinner, though, were my guests. Friends chose to give up Thanksgiving in their own home to spend the day with me in my mountain home. And they brought a new friend who also chose to spend the day with us rather than in his own home. I was truly honored by their company. (Thank you, Frank, Barb, and James!) And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Being with friends and loved ones in a communal celebration not only of good food but also of life’s beyond-measure blessings. How incredibly important it is to slow down on at least one day of the year to give heartfelt thanks.

But now that it’s past, I’ll return to my regular baking once again. The Jamaican Black Cake that I’ve been working on for weeks will take center-stage. The dried fruits–prunes, dark raisins, golden raisins and cherries–have been soaking in 140 proof rum and port (equal amounts of each) for several weeks now. I may very well undertake the bake this weekend. I have never baked a Jamaican Black Cake before, but last year my Strasburg (Virginia, not Austria) correspondent shared a New York Times article with me about Jamaican Black Cakes. This year, I am filled with joyful anticipation of the soon-to-happen bake.

I have been an incredibly busy baker this entire year. Muffins. Scones. Bread. Fruitcakes.

What prompted my baking frenzy was simple. I resurrected my love of sourdough, and I created a culture of my own using nothing more than flour, well water, mountain spores, time, and patience. No doubt you remember my “Oh, No! Sourdough!” (If not, this would be the perfect time to read it, right after you finish reading this post.)

I’ve had lots of fun with the sourdough muffins. I like big ones, and mine are bakery-style jumbo muffins. The Morning Glory Muffins proved, perhaps, the most popular, followed by the Triple Chocolate Muffins. But the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Muffins were favored by many people. So were the Lemon Blueberry Muffins and the Banana Blueberry Muffins. Several muffin aficionados even claimed that my Banana Blueberry Muffins were the best they had ever had during their extensive world travels. (Being a suck-up will get you more muffins every time!) Most recently the Pumpkin Muffins have been winners, only to be outdistanced by the Triple Ginger Gingerbread Muffins.

I’ve baked about 43 dozen or so of those jumbo jewels, and I’ve shared them with students, colleagues, and neighbors.

The Sourdough Scones were a huge success, too: Banana. Banana Blueberry. Apple.

I baked about 7 dozen or so in small batches, shared exclusively with friends and neighbors.

Sourdough Bread is up next! You just can’t go wrong with regular Sourdough Bread, that is until you try Multi-Grain Sourdough. But, then, Parmesan Black Pepper Sourdough is a fierce flavor contender.

I baked about 34 loaves of Sourdough Bread, and I shared them with colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even strangers who became fast friends.

As for sourdough cakes, I baked one: a Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake.

It was so delicious that I ate the whole cake all by myself without sharing. I suppose, however, that I am sharing simply by mentioning it here and by declaring its deliciousness.

But I baked lots and lots of fruitcakes. No, not Sourdough Fruitcakes. I’ll be foolin’ around with those next year. I’ve found a few recipes.

This year I stuck with my mom’s fruitcake recipe that she perfected during 70 years or so of baking. Her fruitcakes were legendary and the best, ever. You may remember my “In Praise of Fruitcake.” (If not, this might be the perfect time to read it, but not until you finish reading this post.)

One year my mother baked 34 fruitcakes and shipped them to her friends all across America.

I didn’t bake that many, but I am super proud of the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

Let me tell you a little bit about them. I know–and you do, too–that I teach English. But when it comes to math, I know all the numbers (plus the secret ingredient) for the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

This is when I need a drum roll. (Great! Someone heard my plea and reached out. That might very well have been the most melodious drum roll that I have never heard. Thank you!)

So, with no further ado, here’s the moment you’ve been salivating for. Here’s what went into those 16 fruitcakes: 24 pounds of candied cherries; 16 pounds of candied pineapple; 16 pounds of golden raisins; 16 pounds of pecans; 16 pounds of butter; 16 pounds of flour; 9 pounds of sugar; 98 eggs; and 1 gallon of peach brandy.

All right. That’s as much as I am willing to divulge. The special proprietary blend of spices is staying right here with me in my kitchen.

I will tell you, though, that most of the 16 cakes are bespoke. Most of them are gifts. However, I have set aside a few to share with people who don’t even know they need a fruitcake yet. Won’t they be surprised!

I imagine that you’re thinking that I must be exhausted from all this baking. I’m not. The various joys of my bakes far outweigh the weight of their ingredients.

Here’s why. So many other things go into baking. Planning. (I sometimes plan my bakes weeks and months in advance.) Research. (I love the research angle and find myself running culinary reference just as my mother ran Biblical reference. Right now, I am researching Sourdough Stollen and running reference on all the various recipes.) Anticipation. (As I pitted cherries last week for a pie that one of my Thanksgiving guests requested–halfing one half of the cherries; quartering the other half; that was not his request; that was simply part of my perfect-cherry-pie recipe–I stood at the kitchen counter joyed beyond the tedium, simply anticipating Frank’s first-sight and first-bite reactions.) Performance against Plan. (Do the bakes measure up? Most times, thumbs up. Sometimes, thumbs down. Sometimes, a trash can is a baker’s best friend: it accepts and never tells. Trust me. I know.)

But at the end of the day and at the end of the bake, the greatest joy of all the many joys of baking–the joy that always rises to the top, for me–is simple. I can share it with you in four words:

The joy of sharing.

Actually, I can share it with you in one word:

Sharing.

Hor(r)o(r)scopic Contemplations

Frankly, anything I say to you is useless and probably more deceiving than revealing. I tell so much truth in my poetry that I’m a fool if I say more. To really get at the truth of something is the poem, not the poet.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974; American poet known for her confessional verse. “Interview with Patricia Marx,” The Hudson Review, Winter, 1965-66, Vol. 18, No. 4)

Ask my siblings what they think of first when they think of me, and they will probably say, “Turkey.” Mind you: they don’t think that I’m a turkey as in inept, stupid, or naïve. In fact, they are proud of their baby brother. (When you’re the youngest in any family, you’re always the baby, even when you are a Septuagenarian.) And my oldest sister Audrey, an Octogenarian, is especially proud of my blog. She’s patient enough to let me read my post to her by phone each week, the night before I publish. It’s become part of our cherished routine.

But here’s why my five siblings think of turkey first when they think of me.

They were born at home. I, on the other hand, was born in a hospital on November 20. By the time my mother and I made the trip back home–via an ambulance, no less! What an auspicious beginning, especially for a coal-camp baby!–she was not up to preparing the usual dinner for the occasion. It’s a Thanksgiving they will never forget. I won’t either. They won’t let me. The horror of it all.

Obviously, since I celebrated my 75th birthday yesterday and since Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday, the connection between the two events is nearly as strong as it was the year that I was born and knocked my family out of a turkey.

Somehow that connection has set me to thinking about other major world, national, state or local events that took place the year that I was born. Maybe everything was majorly horrific.

Indeed, some say that things are rather horrific these days. Just last week I heard someone talking about how high grocery prices are and that it’s getting harder and harder to bring home the bacon and eggs.

I don’t eat a lot of bacon, so I haven’t paid close attention to those prices, rising or otherwise.

But I’m always interested in what things cost. So I did some quick-and-dirty research. Right now, bacon costs about $7.22 per pound.

I know more about eggs than I do bacon. I bake a lot, and I buy lots and lots of eggs. Believe me: they are pricey at $3.95 a dozen.

Just for the sake of comparison, when I was born in 1947, bacon was 64 cents per pound. But don’t start salivating for the olden days. Adjusted for inflation, that pound of bacon comes to $7.76. As for the eggs, in 1947, you’d pay 70 cents for a dozen. Adjusted for inflation $8.16.

But since it’s Thanksgiving week, what about the turkey dinner? This year, it seems that a traditional, classic Thanksgiving feast is more expensive not only because of inflation but also because of supply chain interruptions and the avian flu. But just how horrific is it? The average cost of this year’s holiday meal for 10 is $64.05.

In 1947, the same meal for a family of ten cost $5.68. Again, don’t start drooling over the olden days. Adjusted for inflation, it would be $48.16.

Viewed from those inflation-adjusted perspectives, maybe it’s not that much harder to bring home the Thanksgiving dinner, the bacon, and the eggs than it was 75 years ago.

But I have to share something else with you. (Thanksgiving, after all, is all about sharing.) While I was researching my birth-year food prices, I stumbled upon my horroroscope for 1947. Oops! I meant horoscope. Somehow mine always seem so horrible that the misspelling comes naturally.

Yet let me share something utterly amazing. Even when they seem horrible–and sometimes downright insulting–I still enjoy reading them. But, hey. Don’t worry. I’m a savvy horrorscope reader. Here’s the trick that I use to always end up with the best scopes! I keep browsing until I find the one that I like. Then I grab hold and refuse to let go. Be forewarned. I am Scorpio. I never let go. Proceed at your own risk.

Still with me? You are a Brave Soul, Dear Reader! Read on.

When I stumbled upon my 1947 horrorscope, I was so intrigued that I saved it in my virtual Horrorscope Folder, along with the thousands upon thousands of others that I have saved. Do the math. Start with the age of accountability. (For me, that was four; I was remarkably precocious and precociously remarkable. And, let me assure you: I was as modest then as I am now.) Continue from that age forward with daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly horrorscopes. I am appalled not by the numbers–I just did my own math–but by the fact that I just revealed so much to the entire world. Trying to cover it up now, though, will do no good whatsoever.

So I’ll just keep right on with my reveal, picking right up with my 1947 horrorscope.

“Fierce, Intense, Ambitious, and Loyal. Scorpios question everything, and work hard to understand all things. Are very intense, loyal and kind. Jovial, Honest, Perfectionist, Protective, Inventive.”

OMG! That is so me. I’ll put this one in my Virtual Folder. KEEP.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll UNKEEP it, especially the next part that I just now saw:

“But do not take their easy going attitude for weakness. This element is known to be one of the most ferocious and powerful of them all. Be extensively cautious when they’re in an off mood and don’t force them into an unfavorable situation they don’t want to be in.”

Hmpff. I don’t like that at all. It’s not me. Well, I have an easy fix. UNKEEP. Better still, I’ll just redact it. There. I did it. You’ll probably forget the horrific assassination upon my character. I hope so. Sadly, I won’t. The insult will linger, long. And I will hang on to it, long. And I will get even.

Well, that ended up being an unexpected downer. Maybe I will recover by reviewing what my horoscope happened to be at the start of this year. I kept it, so it must have captured my fancy in one way or three:

“A brand-new Scorpio is emerging!  Welcome reinvention vibes. The year ahead evokes an important process that only happens a few times in your life. But first, you must shed layers of yourself that are no longer ‘you,’ parts of your identity that were constructed from pain or past experiences rather than forged from an authentic sense of ‘This is who I am.’ [ … ] A heart-fluttering new romance to artistic projects to buzzworthy fame […]  drawn to someone wildly different than your usual ‘type’  […] Take charge of your erotic desires, even if that exploration takes you off the beaten path.”

OMG. This is so good. Now I remember why I kept it. Thirst. KEEP. Yes. KEEP.

And what about November 19, the last day of my 74th year?

“You’ve experienced a tragic ending or two, and it’s made you distrustful of the world. But, the truth is, things are happening for and not to you. […] Embrace the transformation process […]  You’re going to meet a new version of you on the other side of this storm!”

Bring it on! I am ready! KEEP.

Better still, what about my horoscope yesterday when I turned 75?

“You’ve breathed new life into romance today […]  You […] get into an esteemed institution. […] You’ll be starting a daily connection with a new romantic interest who may actually live far away from you. Despite the practical difficulties, you are curious as to what this might develop into.”

Damms. Romance? Far away? Be still, my beating heart. That’s so good that I’m tempted to call it quits right here and now. And I’m about to wrap things up, but first things first. KEEP.

Since I started this post with food–turkey and Thanksgiving and such–I suppose it would be fitting and seemly for me to stuff a little more food into the post. Horrorscopic food, that is.

“Scorpios tend to love extremes, and they can get bored with some of the typical tastes of the Thanksgiving table, since it’s the same year after year. But with its bright flavor and candy-colored appearance, cranberry sauce keeps things interesting. From its blood-red color to its intensely sweet and tangy flavor, it adds a complex yet satisfying zing to a Thanksgiving meal. No canned cranberry sauce on Scorpio’s Thanksgiving menu, please!”

KEEP. UNKEEP.

UNKEEP because my good friend Fr–k and his good wife B–b and their good friend J—s are joining me for Thanksgiving dinner, and Fr–k specifically requested canned, jellied cranberry sauce. And he shall have it. (And he shall never know that when I reached for the canned, jellied cranberry sauce, I had to use my smelling salts to keep from passing out right there in the grocery store.)

But to be faithful to my wild and exotic Scorpionic side, I will also offer up a second cranberry sauce, with fresh cranberries popping in Grand Marnier, along with orange zest, and ground ginger. I will add candied ginger after it’s cooked, just to take it over the top. When I’m complex, I’m complex. When I take it up a notch or five, I’m better. (Thank you, Mae West.)

Maybe our hor(r)o(r)scopic contemplations aren’t so horrible after all. Maybe we can control our narratives by making inflationary adjustments, literally and metaphorically. Maybe we can make judicious decisions about our narratives: what to put in (and what to leave out). Then, with a little luck and a smidgen of stardust, maybe our narratives–our self-fulfilling prophecies–won’t be horrific after all.

Celebrating the Gateway to Who I Am

“I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore”

(Rallying cry shouted by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network)

For decades, I have gifted myself with special birthday gifts. I always buy the gifts months in advance. I always enclose a special note, reminding myself of how special I am. I always wrap the gifts in extravagant, over-the-top gift wrap. And, then, I hide them. With any luck, when my birthday rolls around, I’ll remember not only the gifts that I bought myself but also where I hid them.

This year, though, I decided that one gift to myself would come a few days before my birthday and that I would share it with the world, right here in my blog.

Actually, on November 20, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. (Cards. Chocolates. A Viking Cruise. Any or all of those gifts are welcome. I used to include a 4-door Jeep as an option after the Chocolates, but these days I feel like a gladiator in the Jeep Gladiator that I drive. So I tossed in a Viking Cruise as a gift option. Just saying.)

So let me tell you about my birthday gift. I mean, after all, my life in general is so public that talking about one of this year’s gifts shouldn’t be a big deal. Right? Wrong. I had to think long and hard before deciding whether to go public.

Now, I’m betting that you’re scorching to know what my gift is. I certainly hope so. I promise you that the big reveal shall come in just another candle or two. After all, 75 candles make quite a virtual glow, and I hate to blow them out too quickly. Oh, what the hell. I’ll go ahead and blow them out. No doubt, they’ll all light up again.

All right. The candles are out, so let me get glowing with my gift before they flame up again and distract me.

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “How are you, Sweetie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Can I help you, Dearie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Did you find what you were looking for, Honey?”

Let me pause to reassure you. I do not think, not even for one nanosecond, that the people who greet me with those terms of endearment are being mean-spirited or rude. They have good intentions.

And let me pause to give you another reassurance. Greetings such as those often have strong regional ties, especially in the South. I grew up there. It’s my home. I know.

Others who grew up in the South know, too. For example, one of my students in the Virginia community college where I teach had this to say when my class and I had a rich and robust conversation recently about Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey:

“I work in a grocery store, and I greet everyone that way.”

“Even customers in their twenties or thirties?” I queried.

“Hmmm. No.”

“How about forties or fifties?” I pursued.

“Fifties, maybe. It depends on how old they look.”

So there. We have it. “Depends on how old they look.”

As for me, I was born old, and I’ve always looked old. But it wasn’t until my sixties and seventies that others started calling me Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is a regional, hard-to-break custom or not.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is well-intentioned or not.

Such greetings fall into a category of their own–side by side with Racism and Sexism. The category has a name. Ageism.

All three–Racism, Sexism, and Ageism–diminish our humanity and push us toward being “lesser-thans.”

Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey are especially diminishing in settings where the name is right there in front of the person who isn’t calling you by your name.

Here’s a perfect example. A few years ago, I had to have a CT scan at a nearby medical center. Obviously, I was feeling more than a little anxious. I needed to feel that regardless of the outcome, the person I was when I walked in would be the same person when I walked out. I needed to feel that regardless of the diagnosis, I would still be me. I needed to feel that I would still have my identity.

The diagnosis was a good one. But, sadly, during the short time that it took for the CT scan, I was called “Sweetie” two times, all the while that I was asked each time to verify my date of birth and my full name. Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The check-in specialist as well as the radiographer were looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

More recently, the same thing happened when I went to my local pharmacy for my annual flu shot, the same pharmacy where I’ve been vaccinated for the last 24 years. I know everyone who works there. They know me, too. I’ve had many of them in one or more of my classes. The pharmacy technician approached me with the syringe and band-aid mid air.

“Name and birth date, please” was followed with, “Which arm Sweetie?”

Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The technician was looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

Quite frankly, I’ve been identity-diminished and identity-robbed one time too many. And like anchorman Howard Beale in Network (1976), “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”

Here’s why I’m mad as hell. And here’s why I’m not going to take this any more.

At this point in my life–as I approach my 75th birthday–my father is dead, my mother is dead, my oldest brother is dead, many of my closest friends and colleagues are dead, and my partner is dead.

One of the few things that I have left to remind me of my humanity is my name. My name is the gateway to my identity. My name is the gateway to who I am.

Without my name, I’m just another Sweetie.

Without my name, I’m just another Dearie.

Without my name, I’m just another Honey.

So here’s my birthday gift to myself this year.

I will no longer allow others to call me Sweetie, Dearie, or Honey. I will no longer allow others to diminish my identity.

Whenever those well-intentioned terms of endearment grate my ears and pierce my being, I will rise up to the full height of my politest best, and I will do my utmost to turn those ageist moments into learning moments.

My come-back might be as simple as:

“Why, thank you, Elliot. I’d love it if you called me by my name: Brent.”

Or maybe I’ll try something like this:

“Thanks, Skyler. Do you know the most beautiful word in any language?”

“In any language? No idea. What is it?”

“A person’s name.”

“Really.”

“Yep. Isn’t that amazing. By the way. I’m Brent. Next time we meet, feel free to call me by my name.”

Now that I’ve unwrapped my gift in this blog–right here in public–I’m thinking that this might just be the best birthday gift that I’ve given myself in a long, long time. I can’t think of anything better than celebrating the gateway to who I am. Who knows. It might just be a gift that keeps on giving.

The Other Side

Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling an emptiness we didn’t ever know we had. 

–Thom Jones (1945-2016; American writer, primarily of short stories)

What can I say about the dogs in my life? Well, for starters, I’ve had quite a few. Now, stop it already. I’m not talking about those dogs. I’m talking about real dogs, the four-legged ones. You know. Our pets. Our best friends. Our confidantes.

The first dog in my life was Brownie. All that I remember about him–tapping into nothing more than my own memory–is his curly brown hair and his wonderfully large, black, wet nose. I was hardly more than a toddler, and he was my mother’s dog. Anything else that I might know about Brownie, I learned from my mother. Dog memories run deep. My mother saw Brownie through.

My dad brought the next dog into my life. Spotty was a coal-mine foundling. All mine. He had the spotted coat of a brown-and-white Beagle, but his stocky frame, unusually large ears, large paws, and short-but-wavy hair barked Collie. Spotty lived outdoors and slept in a doghouse that my dad and I built, outfitted with a bed that my mother made. Since I was a grade-schooler, he spent more time with my mother than with me. He followed her around all day, especially when she was outdoors, hanging laundry on the clothesline. My mother taught Spotty to sing, and she enjoyed mimicking his operatic accomplishments. I never heard Spotty sing, but I learned that love is not diminished when shared. My mother saw Spotty through.

My next dog, Lassie, leaped into my life right out of the popular television series Lassie. Both Lassies were Collies. Somewhere I have a Polaroid of me, summer-sun-bleached hair, holding my prize-winning sunflower. Lassie was surely nearby, but she’s not in the photo. I discovered quickly after one short season that she would be far happier running the wide open farm fields that became her new home. Sometimes love means letting go. I wonder who saw Lassie through.

After that summer of 1959, I didn’t have another dog in my life for many, many years. Actually, I was a graduate student, and the name Brecca caught my fancy as I studied Beowulf. I decided to buy myself a dog associated with water and swimming. A Saddleback English Springer Spaniel seemed perfect. Brecca was my first pedigree dog, and he was the first dog in my life to live with me indoors. Brecca watched over me through thousands of hours of graduate work–the endless cycle: Reading. Research. Writing. Repeat.–and never grew weary. When I completed my doctoral work and returned to DC, I was the winter caregiver for my mom and dad for a decade. Brecca followed my dad up and down the hall as he walked to regain strength after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. And when my niece/goddaughter, Janet, came along, Brecca followed her as she crawled all around the house and up and down the stairs, always positioning himself to ensure her safety. When his ear cancer proved untreatable after a first surgery, he would patiently lie on his side as I applied homeopathic compresses. His follower-trust triumphed to the end. I saw Brecca through.

Sparky–a Dalmatian–came next, followed by Maggie–a Blue Tick Coonhound. Grief can be sudden as I came to learn and as the speaker in Robert Frost’s “One More Brevity” had learned long before:

I was to taste in little the grief
That comes of dogs’ lives being so brief,
Only a fraction of ours at most.

My family veterinarian saw Sparky through.

I saw Maggie through.

After those two doors closed, Hazel entered through an open one. My late partner, Allen, and I decided to adopt a dog. Since we both worked and were away from home during the day, we planned to adopt two dogs so that they would be company for one another.

As we started the adoption process, “Must play well with other dogs” topped our list of requirements. The animal shelter assured us that Hazel loved other dogs, so we brought her home. She was a mature, nine-months-old puppy. She was house trained within a week. She jogged right past her chewing stage. She never jumped up on chairs, sofas, or beds. She was well behaved, even off leash. Then came the day when she ventured to a neighbor’s house and started a fight with a dog twice her size.

At that point, we knew that we would not adopt another dog to keep Hazel company. She adjusted beautifully to our mountain home and to our professional schedules. We found ourselves molding our lives around hers, taking more and more vacations at dog-friendly VRBO destinations. Though calm and serene, Hazel always looked like the reddish blonde Husky-Lab puppy that we first fell in love with. She played the part flawlessly right up until the night of her last day. Allen and I saw Hazel through.

We both knew that we would bring another dog into our life. But we were both quiet. For some reason–inexplicable to me, even now–I wanted Allen to take the lead in finding our new best friend, so I waited for him to initiate the conversation. When he did, he agreed to do the solo search, even agreeing to my single stipulation: no black dog. He understood why after I explained that one of my sisters had a black dog that died tragically.

After a week or two, Allen came home and gave me his angelic, twinkly-eyed smile.

“I’ve found the perfect puppy for us!”

“What kind?”

“I’m not sure. She’s a mix, about seven months old, and she’s been spayed.”

“Photo?”

“No. But I met her today. You’ll really like her.”

As I found out, “Perfect Puppy” belonged to one of the hospital surgeons with whom Allen worked. Allen had arranged a visit for both of us the next afternoon.

When Dr. Stevens opened the door to greet us, a black puppy–yes, black, all black except for a small, white brushstroke on her chest that an artist might have forgotten to color over–made her escape and raced down the walkway. I sat down on the stoop and watched. The puppy turned, saw me sitting there, and came charging back–a whirlwind of short-haired, shiny waves–and sat down, smack dab on my feet.

The black puppy won my heart then and there.

I beamed Allen my widest smile. “She’s going home with us.”

We worked out the details with Dr. Stevens. Allen wanted to bring our new best friend home in his Toyota Tacoma. I headed on home in my Jeep.

When they arrived, I was sitting in my reading chair in the living room. As if she knew exactly where to find me, the black puppy ran to where I was and sat down, smack dab on my feet, just as she had done at Dr. Stevens.

Allen sat across from us on the sofa, and the three of us stayed in position for the next several hours.

Finally, Allen got up. Without invitation, the black puppy jumped on the dark brown, leather sofa and put her head on a ruby-colored throw. The color contrast was striking, and, in an instant, I knew.

“Husband, I’ve got a name for our puppy.”

“Yeah? What do you have in mind?”

“Ruby.”

He came back into the living room, looked at her, then at the throw, and, finally, at the sofa. He knew, too. Ruby became our Valentine’s Day gift, one to the other, each to the other two.

Ruby has the general build and gentleness of a Labrador Retriever; the face and solo-bonding bent of a Boxer, and the strong-willed temperament of a Beagle.

Whatever she is–and she’s all of those things and more–she’s the perfect dog that Allen sized her up to be when she was just a perfect puppy.

From the start, she knew how to show each of us equal love. She was always with Allen while he sipped his morning coffee and perused his various digital newspapers. She was always with me while I pondered evening academics online. She was always with both of us when we watched Star Trek or, her favorite, the Great British Bake Off. When Allen and I cooked, she always watched from the dining room door where she stayed until we finished our meal and Allen put his last bite in her dish. When we gardened, she ran back and forth between the two of us.

To Allen, the joy of feeding Ruby. To me, the joy of having Ruby smack dab on top of my feet whenever I sat down, or, as time went on, on my lap. To me, the joy of brushing her.

I usually brushed her in my office after finishing my evening academics, the two of us sprawled out on an Oriental rug. As I brushed, she would give me knowing looks from a far-off, far-away land. Invariably I felt the need to talk with her.

“I don’t know who you are, Ruby, but I know that you are an old, old soul come back to see me through. Who are you?”

Ruby never seemed to mind my one-sided conversation. In fact, she seemed to nod in knowing affirmation. And I became more and more convinced of what I felt from the start. How can it be that I don’t know who she is? And, yet, I have known her. And, yet, I know her.

The three of us continued our daily routines and rituals from February 14, 2018–when Ruby entered our lives–until January 28, 2021, when Allen lost his life, after a short, three-month, lung-cancer battle. I saw Allen through.

The rituals and routines, though not the same, go on and on and on. Ruby still likes to sit on the deck of an afternoon around 4:00, fully confident that once more she will see her other “daddy” driving up our mountain road in his Toyota Tacoma. Some days, I wait and watch with her.

What the three of us once did together, Ruby and I now do as the inseparable Dynamic Duo that we have become. She is always at my side, always by my feet, always within earshot. Listening. Watching. Waiting.

I hope that the rest of our journey–Ruby’s and mine–lasts for a long, long time. With every passing day, I am more and more convinced: Ruby is an old, old soul come back to see me through to the other side.

A Halloween Obsession

The roldengod and the soneyhuckle
the sack eyed blusan and the wistle theed
are all tangled with the oison pivy
the fallen nine peedles and the wumbleteed.

–MAY SWENSON (1919-1989); “A NOSTY FRIGHT”

I know. I know. It’s Halloween. BOO! That’s as far as I’m going to go. Don’t expect any tricks in this post. You won’t find any. With a little luck, though, you might find a treat. Perhaps two. I found a big one, and I was not even expecting it.

But before I tell you about my big treat, I must tell you that I am spooked. Truly and positively spooked. Yep. I am.

I cannot believe the batty thing that I have done.

Somehow, I have allowed myself to be spirited into the notion that just because October 31 this year happens to fall on a Monday–the day that I publish my blog–I somehow have to make this post fit the hobgoblin occasion.

To spooked, let me now add phooey. So, phooey. It’s all a bunch of hocus pocus.

Since when have I ever written anything for an occasion? Sure, I write from time to time, as in occasionally. But an occasional writer is one who writes for specific occasions, with or without the benefit of a patron who supports the arts.  

Two Colonial Americans  known for writing on specific occasions come to mind when I think of occasional writers.

One is Anne Bradstreet, the first writer in our Colonies to be published. Her volume of poetry The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) sounds rather sprightly. Indeed, Bradstreet knew fully well how to cast occasional poetic spells, especially on her husband and on the Royal Family.  Here’s a perfect example, with the occasion revealed by the poem’s title: “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment.” And here’s another where the occasion that prompted the poem is equally evident in the title: “In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory.” Parts of the poem no doubt left Colonial men feeling jittery and unbalanced:

Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long,

But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong,

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,

Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

Into the mix we must add Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), the Sable Muse of the American Revolution and author of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Her poem  “His Excellency General Washington,” written in 1775 during the American Revolution, is a perfect example of occasional poetry. Far better, though, is her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

No doubt the ending of her poem left Colonial Christians feeling jittery and unbalanced. If they didn’t feel that way, they should have. Wheatley saw the truth that they may have been too blind to see.

But since Wheatley and Bradstreet were both poets, I started wondering whether occasional writers are always poets.

A quick google search chilled me to the bone because I had to read what I uncovered several times.  Even then I was not certain that I could break the spell of what it really meant.

Read an excerpt for yourself and then we can compare our fright notes.

[…]the key concept of occasional literature and its specific position between writer and patron, fiction and reality. The latter is defined in terms of two kinds of referentiality: on the one hand, the text’s connection to the occasion (pretext/performance); on the other, its (literary/potentially fictive) representation of a ‘reality’ that is relevant to that occasion.

All right. I get it, but only because I bring to the reading of the paragraph prior knowledge of occasional literature. Without that prior knowledge, would I get it? I don’t think so.

I suppose that I could rewrite the passage in plain English, but since the original was written in academic English, it might lose something in translation. And what if the author heard about my translation and decided to translate it back to academic English. That version might be even more frightful.

Wouldn’t that be a hoot!

I had not thought of it until now, but that scenario is incredibly similar to what happened to Mark Twain and his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain wrote the story in English with lots of dialect. Then it was pirated and translated into French–literally, word for word– with no attempt to capture the many colorful nuances of dialect. Twain found out about the French version and translated it back into English. The intriguing literary menage de trois was exposed to the entire world in 1903 as The Jumping Frog : In English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.

While my google search for occasional writers thrilled me because it prompted me to conjure up how Mark Twain clawed his famed story back into civilized English, it spooked me away from digging further into the catacombs of occasional writers.

Nonetheless, my goblinesque spell was not broken.

Somehow, I remained cauldron-bent that this post would ride along on some sort of literary broom.

I soon came up with what I thought was a perfect slant: famous writers who died on Halloween. Wouldn’t that be fun! Indeed, a number of famous people died on Halloween, including Henri Houdini (1874-1926) who made a career out of defying all odds, but in the end could not out-magician the Grim Reaper. However, I found only one writer who died on Halloween: Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016), writer and illustrator of children’s books. In her best-known work, Tuck Everlasting, a family discovers life everlasting.

Obviously, that angle handed me no real treats. How about the flip side: writers who were born on Halloween?

Lest I be accused of being a trickster, let me tell you up front that I know already of one writer whose birthday is October 31. (But I will swear on a stack of pumpkins that I had forgotten all about it until I started writing this part of the post.) She, however, will follow John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet, whose poem “‘Tis the Witching Time of Night” is fitting, perhaps, for Halloween:

‘Tis ” the witching time of night”,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen —
For what listen they?

The opening line of Keat’s poem is, of course, a play on the Soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to the woman writer who shares her birthday with Halloween. She is none other than my lady, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930). I say “my lady” because she has bewitched me into spending five decades digging up her life and letters, and I am still not finished. At the turn of the twentieth century, she and Mark Twain were America’s most beloved writers. And when Twain was celebrated with lavish abandon on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Freeman was his guest, and he escorted her into Delmonico’s where she dined at his table. Anyway, I just perused my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman to see whether she had written any letters on any of her birthdays. I found two, but neither mentioned her birthday or Halloween.

But in one letter written late in her life, she reflects on the October 4, 1869, flood, which was among the most disastrous floods in the history of Brattleboro (VT) where she lived at the time:

I remember the Flood with a capital F, when Whetstone brook went on a rampage, and Brattleboro was cut in twain by a raging torrent, in which lives were lost, and–a minor tragedy, savoring of comedy to all save the chief actor–a rooster went sailing past on a rolling pumpkin into the furious Connecticut river. [Letter 461]

Maybe Freeman was always out trick-or-treating. I doubt it. More likely than not she was at home, working on one of her own spooky supernatural stories for which she is well known, most notably her The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903). If you like stories about body-snatchers–of sorts–you might enjoy her “Luella Miller,” one of her most critically acclaimed supernatural stories with Luella cast as a New England vampire:

Weak heart; weak fiddlesticks! There ain’t nothin’ weak about that woman. She’s got strength enough to hang onto other folks till she kills ’em.

Actually, talking about Freeman’s stories of the supernatural requires a brief nod to two of her literary ancestors.

If you’re thinking Edgar Allan Poe, you’re right. Although Freeman claimed that she read nothing which she thought might influence her, in the same letter she acknowledges that she read Poe. [Letter 441] Without doubt, the madness in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” are kin, with both stories calling into question the sanity of their respective narrators.

And if you are thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne in addition to Poe, good for you. Freeman read him as well. Just as Hawthorne was heir to a Puritan tradition, think of Freeman as heiress to the same Puritan tradition but with a far greater emphasis on psychological probing and on characters with such warped wills they border on the grotesque. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called Freeman’s novel Pembroke “the greatest piece of fiction in America since [Hawthorne’s] The Scarlet Letter” (The Infant Sphinx, 2-3). A good Hawthorne story to read on Halloween might be his “Young Goodman Brown“:

“Welcome, my children,” said the dark figure, “to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!” They turned; and flashing forth, as it were, in a sheet of flame, the fiend-worshippers
were seen; the smile of welcome gleamed darkly on every visage.

And we can’t look back at Freeman’s literary ancestors without noting several of her literary offspring. Freeman’s exploration of grotesque characters–village types with strong-wills, walking blindly the warped paths of their own existence–made heads turn in her own time and paved the way for future writers who were equally fixated on unearthing their own grotesque characters.

It’s not too great a stretch of the imaginative web of literary influence to say that without Freeman, we wouldn’t have Sherwood Anderson’s tales of grotesque village types memorialized in his Winesburg, Ohio. Don’t be fearful. Open the book and read “The Book of the Grotesque” or “Hands.” Or go beyond Winesburg and read one of Anderson’s later stories “The Man Who Became a Woman.”

The web grows larger with another writer known for his Southern Gothicism. Who does not recall the macabre ending to William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”?

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

And somewhere in the web we might even find Toni Morrison. Though she denied it, she was heavily influenced by Faulkner. (She had to have been influenced by him. After all, she did her master’s thesis on Faulkner.) Therefore, Morrison could have been indirectly influenced by Freeman as well, at least by Freeman’s significant role in the American Gothic literary tradition. In fact, in Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun,” the grandmother’s decision to murder her granddaughter Lily to save her from a fate worse than death is not too unlike Sethe’s decision in Morrison’s Beloved to murder her daughter rather than have her face the horrors of slavery.

Well, one thing is not up for conjecture. This post has taken twists and turns that I never expected. Go figure.

Now the challenge is how to bring the post to its logical conclusion. Initially, I had every intention to end with the last few lines of “A Nosty Fright”:

Will it ever be morning, Nofember virst,

skue bly and the sappy hun, our friend?

With light breaves of wall by the fayside?

I sope ho, so that this oem can pend.

But now another ending is required.

I am shrieking with laughter. To think that I started this post by protesting that I was not an occasional writer–one who writes on special occasions. Yet look at what I’ve gone and done. I’ve managed to dig up a lot of literary supernatural greats and, without any original intent whatsoever, I’ve managed to explain how they’re all connected in one way or another to my lady, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, known to her closest friends (and to me) as Dolly.

How twisted is that? And just think. I did it all quite by accident on the occasion of her Halloween birthday! That makes it even more bizarre!

I believe fully that I am bewitched! No, I believe fully that I am possessed. Either way, I have a solid defense: the goblins made me do it.

Bewitched and possessed, let me mount my broom, summit my mountain, and screech in a voice sufficiently loud to wake the living and the dead:

Happy 150th Halloween Birthday, Dear Dolly!

My Gardening Attire

Anyone can get dressed up and glamorous, but it is how people dress on their days off [that’s] the most intriguing.

Alexander Wang (b. 1983; American fashion designer known for his urban designs and his use of black)

It’s no secret. I love to garden. Actually, I talk about gardening a lot in my posts. Three focused exclusively on gardening. You may recall Two, Together and Less Is Not More Until It Is. And if you don’t recall those posts, you may remember The Joy of Weeding.

But unless you are a gardener yourself, you may be wondering why on earth I’m writing about gardening when we’re reaching the end of October.

Of course, you’re wondering. I understand. Spring, which ushered in the end, is so far behind us that it’s nothing more than memories of sudden and energetic growth spurts, filled with verdant hope and promise, poised on the threshold of new life.

Then came summer ushering in such fulsome lushness that it transformed the world into a landscape of sensational, razzle-dazzle impressions, but its memory, too, is on the wane.

Now, fall. Here we are midst October mist, with decadent decay exposing bony branches beneath blooms and leaves still clinging, sighing the song of letting go, rustling ghostly memories right before our eyes.

Soon and very soon, winter will bring freezings, earth-heavings, and dead stillness, with roots connecting underground, communing in generative darkness.

The seasons come. The seasons go. And then they start all over again. (But only when publishers see fit to send out new gardening catalogs.)

But my goodness! Here I’ve gone and let me and you get snowed by reveries of the gardening seasons.

Sadly, putting in the seed is not the thrust of this post.

Instead, it’s all about putting on my gardening ?

Threads? As in the slang word going all the way back to 1926? Let me unearth its origins and see what I can find. Threads was first recorded in Wise-Crack Dictionary: More than 1,000 Phrases and Words in Every-Day Use Collected from 10,000 Communications Received during a Newspaper Prize Contest and Other Sources (eds. George H. Maines and Bruce Grant, vol. 1).

Well, it’s doubtful that I will don any gardening threads, although it was fun trying the word on for size today.

Maybe, instead, I will put on my gardening costume. Sometimes–and this really is true–sometimes I think about what I happen to be wearing–whether in the garden or out of the garden–as my costume. I’m chuckling to myself right now because that usage puts me in the good company of Samuel Johnson who used it in his A Journey to the Western Island of Scotland: “Dr. Johnson in his Hebridean Costume” (1775).

But for this post it’s a Greenthumb down for costume and another Greenthumb down for threads.

How about Clothes? It has an interesting origin as well, going all the way back to c888 when it appeared in Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’ De Consol. Philos.: “Wæpnu, and mete, and ealo, and claþas” (xvii).

I had to dig really deep for that Old English origin. But come on: I can’t even pronounce the words in the sentence where clothes appeared. Let me edge up to the surface a bit to 1484 Middle English when clothes as we know them appeared in Caxton’s translation of G. de la Tour-Landry’s Book of the Knight of the Tower: “She … arayed her with clothes of gold, and flouryshynge of ryche ermyns.”

There. That’s much better. I like being able to pronounce the names of whatever it is that I might be wearing when I garden.

Since I seem to be tilling in the right direction, perhaps I will narrow my definition of clothes, especially since mine are certainly not of gold and furs. I would look perfectly silly in clothes like that, and, besides, I couldn’t afford them anyway since I teach at a c-mm–ity college.

Let’s see. Ah, yes. Dress clothes might work since I have a few. Dress clothes goes all the way back to 1838 when it first appeared in Lady Charlotte Maria Bury’s Diary: “All the gentlemen … looked beautiful in their dress clothes.”

For my dress clothes I have things like suits and sports jackets. But I rarely wear them when I’m teaching, unless it’s a special event. On normal days, I wear Oxford dress shirts–usually blue or purple (Those are the only colors, right?)–with button-down collars; Windsor double-knotted ties; double-pleated, cuffed pants; and wingtip, lace-up shoes with real leather soles. (Please tell me that they do not make dress shoes that do not have leather soles. If you must tell me otherwise, break it to me gently and have some smelling salts handy.)

Ironically, my colleagues and my students think that I wear my dress clothes when I garden. They even think that I wear my dress clothes when I split wood.

Sure. Right. Dress shoes. Dress pants. Dress Shirt. Windsor double-knotted tie. Genuine leather shoes. Imagine. They really think that’s how I dress when I garden. They have even told me so. Right to my face. The nerve.

But let’s move on. Someone’s trying to tell me something.

“Say what? I object vehemently. They do NOT call me a stick-in-the-mud.”

Well, I don’t think they would call me that, but let me see what my trusted friend Mx Oxford has to say. “Look at the old stick-in-the-mud!” (Satirist, or, Censor of the Times, 1832) (I was hoping, with great verdancy, that mud in stick-in-the mud would have something to do with garden soil. Was I ever wrong!)

Now I’m hearing someone else whispering in my ear.

“Stop goading me! They don’t call me a dandy, either.”

Hmmm…dandy might actually be better than stick-in-the-mud. Mx Oxford will know. “A Dandy is a Clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes” (Thomas Carlyle, Sarto Resartus, 1834).

Isn’t that just dandy? I admit, though, that the usage of dandy in the quoted sentence seems as contorted as a willow.

Now that I think of it, however, twelfth Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin was sometimes seen as a DANdy. Well. Yes. Of course. He always wore his signature bow tie. Bow tie Dan.

While I’m not sure that I like having people perceive me as a dandy, I don’t mind it at all if it puts me in Dr. Boorstin’s company. Who knows. His bow tie made him stand out in the world of learning and librarianship. Maybe my clothes will make me stand out in the world of education, and, when it comes to gardening, maybe my clothes will make me outstanding in the field.

But let me get back to the word attire that’s part of this post’s title. I struggled with that word choice. I’ve never thought of using attire to refer to what I wear, on any occasion. “And do you now put on your best attyre?” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1623).

However, since I do put on my best attire for my students and my colleagues, it seems appropriate to include the word in the title. All of my protestations notwithstanding, they are certain that’s what I wear when I garden.

Maybe this post will convince them otherwise. I have taken off my threads. I have taken off my costume. I have taken off my clothes. And I have taken off my attire which I never had on in the first place.

Now look at me. Well, on the other hand, don’t.

Give me time, at least, to get dressed in the sad clothes that I actually wear when I garden. As will be evident, even a wordster like me lacks the ability to gussy up clothes like mine that are pitifully mundane.

When I garden on my days off, I wear an old, tattered baseball cap–faded burgundy–brim forward.

When I garden on my days off, I wear the oldest, grungiest t-shirt that I own. I own several. I like grunge options.

When I garden on my days off, I wear blue jeans so faded, so wholly holey, so fringed, and worn so bare in all the right places that they would fetch a fortune on all the wrong fashion racks.

When I garden on my days off, I wear steel-toed, unstylish, waterproof work boots that allow me to be comfortable and confident in all the tough places where I tend to go.

That’s it. That’s what I wear when I garden on my days off.

It goes without saying that I am thrilled beyond thrills that my students and my colleagues see my attire, my clothes, my costume, and my threads through a lens that commands such respect.

If they could only see me on my days off–especially on my gardening days–they would be intrigued by my ability to reinvent not only myself but also my attire.

It’s Not a Corset. Don’t Force It.

Is it a corset
or primal wave?
Don’t try to force it.

–from Elaine Mitchell’s “Form”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. I have no doubt that it’s because I’ve been writing these posts faithfully every week for nearly an entire year. And I have no doubt that it’s also because I’m teaching Creative Writing this semester. Naturally, I spend lots of my time talking with aspiring writers about writing.

In fact, when I met with my students last week, we did two, one-minute reflections.

For the first, we reflected on the joy of writing. Let me share some of their responses:

● Creating my own world.

● Finding words that describe my own feelings.

● Gaining an understanding of my own life.

● Discovering something about my own identity.

● Daydreaming.

● Letting my thoughts spew out.

● Getting it done–the rhythm, the music, the wish, the dream, and the fear.

For the second reflection, we tackled the challenges of writing. Again, let me share:

● Getting started.

● Finding an interesting topic.

● Putting myself into my writing.

● Encouraging my paragraphs to talk to one another.

● Choosing which idea to explore.

● Connecting the beginning, the middle, and the end.

● Accepting my writing as it is.

I had planned a third reflection, but we ran out of time. Here’s what it would have been: discoveries about writing.

For this one, I’ll take the lead, sharing my own ideas, based largely on what I’ve discovered about writing as I wrote my weekly blog posts this year.

By and large, what I’ve discovered has been by way of reminders. To start, writing isn’t easy. It isn’t spontaneous. And it isn’t magical.

Here’s something else that I have rediscovered. Writing is work. It’s hard work. It’s lots of hard work.

Work. Hard work. Lots of hard work. That’s my mantra these days when I’m working with other aspiring writers. I front-load the conversation: get ready for rich, robust, and heavy mental lifting.

At the same time, over the last year I’ve reminded myself–and others–that even though the hard art of writing isn’t magical, it is filled with magical moments.

Let me share some of mine.

Magical Moment. Getting hooked on an idea that makes my world fade away.

Magical Moment.  Letting an idea explode in my mind as magically as Pop Rocks explode in my mouth.

Magical Moment. Focusing on old-soul insights that have come back to me from far, far away and from long, long ago.

Magical Moment. Fooling around with organizing what I’m writing until I get comfy with one structure that pulls me in close and whispers, “Yes. Let’s do it.”

Don’t get too excited by these moments. They are magical. But let me remind you: they are not magic.

And trust me. The next part–the actual writing–has no magic at all. Sometimes, it might not even have magical moments. The actual writing can be grueling, if not downright defeating, especially since first drafts never hit the mark. Never. Mine don’t, at any rate. Sometimes, even my 13th draft doesn’t seem quite right. How’s this for a confession? Sometimes, I’ve gone as high as 22 drafts. Admittedly, the differences between any two drafts are sometimes majorly minor, and the changes will be unknown forever to all except me. Nonetheless, the work of writing–of revising–goes on and on and on.

And writers keep at it. I keep at it, knowing that what I write will never be perfect, but knowing, too, that at some point it’s as good as it’s going to get.

What I have discovered as well is the simple fact that my scholarly writing is in many ways far easier than writing my personal essays like today’s post. My own scholarly work on The Humourist as well as on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, for example, has singleness of purpose and focus. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

On the other hand, writing my weekly blog is more challenging, mainly because I don’t focus on the same topic every week. My topics change. As reluctant as I am to admit it, I’ll admit it anyway: I’m never sure from one week to the next exactly what topic will bubble up.

That’s not to say that I don’t have lots of ideas for my posts. I do. I have plenty. In fact, whenever I have an idea for a post, I immediately start a WordPress draft. I give it a working title, and I include as many notes as possible so that when I return, I can glide back into my thinking and writing groove.

Right now, for example, I have 25 drafts in various stages of completion, ranging from “The Power of Showing Up” to “Dating after Twenty-Two” to “Mishaps Make Memories.” I suppose I could also mention “Working Out a Plan” or “A Horrorscopic Week” or “What My Father Saw.” Or I could mention that I might have “My Gardening Attire” finished by next week. I might. But, on the other hand, I might not.

I’m not trying to generate future blog traffic by teasing you with alluring and inviting titles that may or may not morph into posts. Simply put, I have come to the realization that my ideas must germinate in the dark caverns of mindfulness and mindlessness. They must sprout and pop up whenever they are ready for the light of day. No sooner. No later.

All of my tentative topics and all of their accompanying draft notes are simply placeholders. Nothing more.

Yet it occurs to me that maybe they are far more than mere placeholders.

They are talismans. Not to bring me power. Not to bring me luck. But rather to bring me back to the illuminated intensity of the split second when an idea sought refuge within me and pleaded for a some-day home.

What I have discovered, then, is that I need lots and lots of talismans. They are my antidote to the numbness and paralysis that I know fully well will set in if I have no writing options. I don’t write well when my storehouse of options is empty. When that happens, I feel that I have forced myself into the all-too-tight corset of being compelled to write on one topic and one topic only.

On the other hand, when I have many, many topics, one of them might be precisely the one that captures my fancy precisely when my fancy needs to be captured.

It won’t have anything to do with talismanic luck. And it won’t have anything to do with magic.

It will have everything to do with my willingness to let my ideas take their own shape, whatever those shapes might be, without being corseted, without being laced up, and without being forced.

I want my ideas:

● to leave themselves ample space to move around in.

● to do what they want to do.

● to be what they want to be.

It’s really straightforward. My greatest discovery about my own writing is my everlasting need to unlace the corset that constricts my thoughts. It’s my everlasting need to let my ideas breathe and expand freely, whenever and however they wish.

A Wardrobe of My Own

Love sacrifices all things to bless the thing it loves.

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803 -1873; English writer and politician)

Somehow, as my 75th birthday gets closer and closer, I rarely think about myself as the baby of the family.

But I am. And trust me: the youngest in the family–at least in mine–is always the baby.

Aside from the dubious distinction of being the baby, I’m not sure that the status ever included many other benefits.

Well, maybe one. When I was born, my oldest brother and sister became rocking rivals:

“It’s my turn to rock Brentford Lee tonight.”

“No, it’s not. You rocked him last night.”

I was rocked a lot. My oldest sister still reminds me.

And, on reflection, maybe being the baby came with a second benefit. My middle sister pretended that she was my mother. I had double doses of motherly affection. She still reminds me.

What sweetened my baby-of-the-family deal, though, was the simple fact that I was born smiling. “Little Mister Sunshine” became my nickname.

Naturally, the twofer combination–baby and smile–came to mean one thing and one thing only: Brentford Lee could do no wrong.

I am certain that I was capable of doing lots of wrong. More, I could have done so and gotten away with it easily. But, by and large, during my childhood–and continuing thereafter–I tried my best to do no wrong. When I did, I tried my best to right the wrong as soon as I could, especially if the wrong had been prompted by anger. My mother taught me and my siblings to not let the sun go down on our wrath.

Once as a teenager, however, my anger caused a great hurt–to others and to me–and I did not make amends before the sun went down.

I remember that fall day as vividly as if it were yesterday.

It was at the start of my freshman year, and something happened in school that ticked me off. Whatever it was had to have been of no real consequence. I can’t remember the details at all, not even one.

But I do remember that the short walk from the bus stop to my home was not long enough to soften the sharp edge of my anger.

As I approached the house, I saw on the front porch a brand new, light brown, faux-wood, metal cabinet. It had two doors that opened out from the middle, and it was about four feet wide and six feet or so tall.

I went right past it, deliberately banging the screen door against the wooden frame as I walked inside. My mother was standing at the kitchen stove with a big smile on her face, not to be undone as I slammed my books on the kitchen table.

“What is that ugly thing on the porch?”

My mother looked at me and started to respond, but my ongoing rant gave her no chance. She kept on cooking dinner.

“It’s hideous, just hideous.”

My mother remained silent, as I marched back out to have a second look, banging the screen door, going out and coming back in again.

“Who’s it for?” I asked, showing an unbecoming attitude that still makes me cringe.

My mother’s “It’s for you” hung in the air, echoing against itself over and over in my mind. “It’s for you. It’s for you. It’s …”

She smiled softly as she kept on cooking.

“Your dad and I thought that you might like to have a wardrobe of your own to keep all your new school clothes in.”

I had always loved clothes, and now that I was in high school, I loved them even more. Sweaters. Slacks. Socks. Always matching. Always the best that my summer yard mowing jobs could buy. Always bought on lay-away at the best men’s store in a small city nearby. My mother took great pride in how I dressed, and she took even greater pride in knowing that I was known as the best dressed kid in school.

“For me? I don’t want it. That wardrobe is so ugly. I’ll never use it. Never.”

My mother looked away and didn’t say another word about the wardrobe. Her face was still. Her smile, broken. Her joy, gone.

And that ended it. My dad put the wardrobe downstairs. I don’t remember who used it. It didn’t matter to me that it was a wardrobe of my own. What mattered to me was that I thought it was ugly. What mattered to me was that I vowed to never use it. What mattered to me was that I never did.

The wardrobe was still downstairs when I graduated from high school with honors and went away to college.

It was still downstairs when I graduated from college with honors and moved to our Nation’s Capital.

The wardrobe was still downstairs when I started working at the Library of Congress.

When I came back home for visits during those late teenage and early adult years, neither my mother, my father, nor I ever mentioned my wardrobe. It was as if it had never entered our home. Yet it had entered, and it remained.

And then the day came when the wardrobe of my own rose up from afar, right in front of me, right before my very eyes.

I was struggling with my monthly budget. My handsome salary as an editor at the Library of Congress had an equally handsome competitor: the high cost of living in D.C., combined with paying off student loans. As I did my math, I suddenly realized that I just couldn’t have everything that I wanted. I had to make hard choices. I had to make painful sacrifices just to make ends meet.

In a flash, I realized that when my parents chose to buy me a wardrobe of my own, they chose to make sacrifices. My mom chose to do without her new dress. My dad chose to do without his new shoes. My siblings who were still at home had no choice. This time my parents chose to sacrifice for me as they had chosen to sacrifice for all of us, all down through the years.

Immediately, I picked up the phone and called my mom and dad. We had a long, long conversation about a wardrobe of my own.

I don’t know when “I’m sorry” brought forth such joyful tears.

The tears could not undo that teenage day when I was so lacking in gratitude. But my mom and dad let me unburden my sorrow, and across the miles and across the great expanse of time, they washed it away with their unconditional love.

Seven years had passed, but, finally, the evening sun went down on a wardrobe of my own.

In Bed with Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers

“I’m going to bed,” really means, “I’m going to lie in bed and … write.” 

Brent L. Kendrick (aka “The Wired Researcher”)

Chances are good that you did a double take when you saw the title of today’s post. You may have exclaimed, “No way! I’ve read this already.”

Nope. You haven’t. If the title seems familiar, you’re probably thinking of “Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers.” But don’t worry. I’ve changed things up: this post has a brand-new set of linen sheets.

And if you aren’t thinking that you’ve read this post before, you are probably asking yourself, “What’s going on with the Good Professor’s seeming propensity for being in bed?”

Excellent question! I won’t try to pull the sheets over your eyes. It’s simple. “In Bed” makes the title catchy. It certainly makes me lie down and take notice. You’ll take notice, too, when I tell you that, on average, we spend 33 years of our life in bed: 26 years, sleeping; 7 years, trying to doze off.

If the “In Bed” part didn’t grab your attention, “with writers” surely did!

And I’ll bet I know what you’re thinking right now. Come on. Fess up. You’re wondering what they’re doing in bed. And now you’ve got me wondering, too. I’ll be right back.

Thanks for your patience. I had to do a little research. If you were wondering whether they were having…you know...sex, you won’t be impressed by the answer that I just discovered. On average, having…you know…takes up only about one third of a year (117 days) in the course of our entire life. Ironically, people think about having…you know...nearly 19 times a day. I guess we spend far more time thinking about having…you know…than we do enjoying…having you know.

Sadly, I suspect that the 117 days of romance is substantially lower with writers, particularly those who write in bed. I doubt that they would want to be interrupted with their word play. Maybe that’s why William Byrd II (Colonial Virginia aristocrat and man of letters; member of the Governor’s Council; and founder of Richmond, VA) had a fondness for romantic interludes on the billiard table. “He what?” someone gasped in disbelief. Yep. I tease you not. For your own in-bed reading, check out The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover (1709-1712). The content of his diary remained a secret until the 1940s when it was decoded. Now I know that I have whetted your literary appetite. Here, let me tease you more with an excerpt from his diary:

“in the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. It is to be observed that the flourish was on the billiard table.”

Now you know why he wrote his diary in code. Check it out, but not now. Or, if you must, please come back and finish this post.

But let’s get our writers back in bed where we found them to begin with.

For what it’s worth, I was in bed already, and I intend to stay there, smackdab in the middle. After all, it’s my bed, and in bed is where I write my blog posts. But I’m the not-so-famous writer mentioned in the title, so enough about me. Let’s snuggle up with some famous writers who wrote in bed, and, for the time being they can join me in mine.

Surprisingly, not many writers actually write in bed. That suits me just fine. Although my bed is big–fit for a queen–I still need to be able to pull up the sheets and get comfy.

Little chance of my doing that any time soon. Long-legged Mark Twain has jumped in already. What a bed hog: writing and smoking at the same time. He’s got some nerve! “Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down” (New York Times, “How Mark Twain Writes in Bed,” April 12, 1902).

Joining Twain is Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence. (Well, maybe, innocent, but, after all, she is in bed with Twain even if I am the one who put the two side by side.) Wharton liked to write in bed because it freed her from wearing her corset, thereby liberating her thoughts. Now, at least, we all know where she kept her mind.

And I suppose we have to invite Truman Capote to hop in. He’s often quoted as saying: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

On the other side of the bed–to my right–let’s put some European writers. For bed-balance, we’ll add three only, arranged in the same gender order as the Americans: Boy. Girl. Boy.

To my right, William Wordsworth. He wrote his poems in bed in complete darkness, and, if he lost a sheet of paper in bed, he started over. It was easier than rummaging around under the sheets. Thank God for small mercies.

On his right is Dame Edith Sitwell who slept in a coffin from time to time. Without a doubt, she’ll enjoy being in bed for a change, especially since she once commented, “All women should have a day a week in bed.” That’s all fine and dandy as long as they’re not in my bed.

To Sitwell’s right is Marcel Proust, right on the edge of the bed. Writing in bed was not a quirk for him. It was a requirement. Age and illness forced him to stay in bed, and it was in bed where he completed Remembrance of Things Past as well as In Search of Lost Time. On the edge of the bed seemed perfect so that he could get in and out with greater ease.

OMG! I just heard a loud thud. Did you? Let me take a look. Sure enough. The not-so-famous American writer who thought up these shenanigans in the first place is at it again. He has pushed the European writers right out of the bed onto the floor.

Oh, no. I just heard another thud, though not quite as loud. Let me lean across the bed and have a look-see. As I live and breathe! Capote, Wharton, and Twain are all piled up on the Oriental rug. Twain is still smoking his pipe. Wharton is suddenly looking for her corset. And Capote is leaning back, still smoking his cigarette. Maybe he and Twain can blow smoke at one another while Wharton laces up her corset.

Well, at least the Americans landed softly. I really meant no harm, but I had no choice other than to kick the three of them out, too. Seven in my bed was six too many.

I don’t know about you, but it’s perfectly clear to me that writers–whether famous or not-so-famous–make strange bedfellows.

Two, Together

I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon earth.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948; Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer; embraced nonviolent resistance; inspired movements for civil rights and freedom around the world)

The blacksnake and I friended the moment we first laid eyes on one another.

The early, dew-pearled spring morning remains as fresh in my memory as if it were yesterday. I had gone to my towering compost heap, bucket in hand, to retrieve some black gold. As I knelt at the base of its old, sweet-smelling richness, I suddenly sensed eyes. Someone or something was scrutinizing me. I was being watched. I could feel it deep in my bones. I looked all around me and saw no one. Then I lifted my eyes, and there on top of the compost heap was an incredibly beautiful, brilliantly glossy blacksnake, leaning over, looking down at me with its small eyes, its tongue darting, in red contrast to its white under chin, mellowing into soft yellow. I felt neither chill nor threat. I continued my task, all the while the two of us kept returning glances as if to make certain that we did not snap our nanosecond bond, perhaps never to connect again.

Surprisingly, the bond stretched and sunned itself over the summer. Even though I was always hoping to see my blacksnake–so much so that I often went looking for him–our encounters were sudden, unexpected ones.

Not long after our initial meeting, I was hard at work, planting a new specimen tree in the upper yard. The curly, contorted willow was already a large tree with a root ball that seemed far more immense when delivered than when purchased. By the time I dug the hole and positioned the tree, I was exhausted, but I still faced watering, backfilling, watering again, and mulching. Edging near tiredom, I walked a few steps to the nearby waterhose. Reaching down, I lifted with an intent to pull. In an instant, I realized that what I had in hand had no drag. I looked. There I stood holding in midair my blacksnake friend whom I had mistaken for my black water hose. It was my second one-on-one experience. Once again our eyes locked. But this meeting was more special than the first. Now we knew one another’s touch–warmth against cold, cold against warmth. I put the blacksnake down as casually as I had picked him up, and we each continued what we were doing. I could not see him, but I sensed that he watched from somewhere nearby as I finished planting the willow.

On another occasion, I had spent the better part of my day laying stone pavers for a short walkway through the garden bed outside my kitchen and building a low stone wall along the walkway’s meandering edge. The sunny day bordered on scorch. I sat on the walkway, leaned back into the flower garden, admiring my handiwork. As I gloated, a cold black stream soft-bellied itself across my sweaty outstretched arm. I looked back and my eyes met the eyes of my friend, the blacksnake. I remained motionless, holding my breath, hoping that the snake would stop, linger, and perhaps even explore. Instead he slithered on his way, calmly and unhurriedly.

My next visitation was perhaps my most unexpected and the most short lived. One summer evening, I had gone for a walk in the yard. When I went out, I didn’t consider turning on the outdoor lights. But darkness had fallen by the time I started back. I could see my way easily enough because the indoor lights were on, including those in the foyer. Even if the lights had not been on, I could have footed along without really looking. And that’s exactly what I did, that is until my hand clutched for the storm door and instead of an iron handle I felt a cold, smooth, muscular surface, pulsing to my touch. Only then did I look. The foyer light dimly illuminated my blacksnake friend, partially coiled around the door handle, upper body stretching toward the door top and lower body draping downward. I opened the door and went inside. My friend remained outside, leaving me to wonder whether he had hoped, for once, to be visitor in my world as I had been so often in his.

That rendezvous was the most fleeting. My fifth was the most lasting. As autumn started, my late partner Allen and I grew weary of removing fallen leaves from our Koi pond and cascading waterfalls. To make our task easier, we covered both with invisible black netting.

Our solution was perfect. The leaves floated on top of the netting instead of on top of the water. But the day came when our hearts sank as we discovered a scarlet red, black-faced cardinal struggling to escape the black netting’s grab. We lifted the netting to winged flight.

“So much for that brilliant solution,” we sighed simultaneously.

I rolled the netting into a ball, left it on the small patio beside the pond, and went back indoors to help Allen with dinner.

After dinner, I went back out to throw the netting away. Reaching down, I saw my blacksnake inextricably interwined in the ball.

Allen came out to see what I was doing.

“Look at what we’ve done. This is all our fault,” I lamented. “We have to get the snake out of the netting.”

“And just how do you plan to do that without getting bitten?”

“Go get some scissors, and I’ll show you what I have in mind.”

Allen came back out with a pair of surgical scissors that he was so skilled in using.

“I’ll get a hold of the snake just behind his head so that he can’t bite me, and you cut away and remove the netting.”

Ever so cautiously, I knelt and took gentle hold of the blacksnake behind his head. Allen starting cutting away at the netting, gradually freeing the snake’s tail.

As he snipped away more and more netting, the blacksnake began coiling his emerging body ever so slowly and calmly around my arm.

As Allen snipped, I gently rubbed my other hand against the snake’s skin, making certain that no black netting had been left behind.

Finally, the moment came when Allen finished. I remained kneeling on the patio with my blacksnake friend coiled entirely around my arm.

What was I to do now? I had not planned for this moment of release, this moment of letting go.

I stood up slowly, all the while watching my blacksnake friend watching me. It was as if he knew that Allen and I had rescued him. It was as if I knew that my friend would do me no harm.

I walked up to the bank beside the waterfalls, gently lowered my snake-coiled arm to the ground, and let go my grasp around the snake’s head.

Two, together, frozen in spirit and frozen in time, just for one second and one second only. In the next, our eternity melted. My blacksnake friend started uncoiling himself from around my arm, pausing to look back. Our eyes locked one last time before he slithered his way back into our world.