Living with a Writer

Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.

Jacob Nordby –author of Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives (2016)

Writers have been the mainstay of my intellectual life since childhood.

It’s safe to say that I know more about writers than I know about anything else. I know not only the breadth and depth of their literary canons (especially those writers whose works I enjoy and teach) but also the breadth and depth of their lives (even those writers whose works I do not enjoy and do not teach).

Taken as a whole, I suppose that writers are a hard lot to live with. (Taken as a whole, I suppose that we are all a hard lot to live with.)

But writers seem to be harder to live with than most of us, and they have more quirks and more eccentricities in their lives and relationships than most of us. Or, maybe it’s simply that they are more in our faces because they have achieved literary fame, the consequence of which is having the world look at all the foibles of their lives through painstaking, unforgiving, and unforgetting research.

A few examples of writerly quirks and eccentricities will suffice. Then you can decide for yourself.

One of the first writers to pop into my mind is Oscar Wilde. He had many eccentricities, but can you imagine living with someone who once walked down the street with his pet lobster on a leash, as he supposedly did on at least one occasion?

Or what about Lord Byron who, when at school, kept a pet bear in his room, walked it around campus on a leash, and even tried to get it a fellowship.

More alarming, still, is Mary Shelley who wrote with her 23-foot boa wrapped around her shoulders. Supposedly, she would write until the boa started to squeeze, at which moment she would stop for the day. Perfect timing, no?

Shelley and Byron and Wilde make Edgar Allan Poe look rather sane if not downright boring. So what if he wrote with his Siamese cat on his shoulder as a double source of relaxation and inspiration? No big deal.

At least two writers had a thing for apples and water, separately not together–the apples and the water, not the authors. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, claiming that the smell motivated him. And to keep from falling asleep while writing, he dipped his feet into ice water. For her inspiration–a century or so later–Agathie Christie chose to eat the apples rather than let them rot. She did so while taking a bath.

At least one writer wrote wearing nothing but his ideas and his underwear (John Cheever). Another exercised naked in front of the window (Franz Kafka) and enjoyed going to nudist camps. He always stood out in the crowd. Go ahead. Guess. Nope. You’re wrong. He was the only guy wearing swimming trunks.

Some writers stand out in other ways: their writing quarters. Dylan Thomas had a writing hut on his estate. Roald Dahl visited Thomas and was so impressed by the hut that he made one for himself based on the exact same dimensions. George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut was truly unique. It was built on a turntable so that it could be rotated to let in the sun.

And let’s not leave out some really strange quirks that writers use to achieve quotas or to meet deadlines. I am most impressed by Demosthenes who shaved half of his head, knowing that his embarrassment would keep him at home and on task. Victor Hugo was far less dramatic: he met his writing quotas simply by having his valet hide his clothes.

Unrelated to the preceding examples of writers having hard-to-live-with quirks are two writerly snippets too good to not snip and include here. I must. I can. Therefore, I shall. Did you know that John Steinbeck’s dog Toby ate nearly half of the first manuscript version of his Of Mice and Men? I cannot help but wonder whether that culinary delight is the origin of the student lament that educators hear over and over again, “My dog ate my homework.”

All right. I cannot leave you or me in such intellectual limbo. I will be right back to report my findings after I consult the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

I’m back. What a fun journey, though I confess that my speculation was in error. The phrase first appeared in print in the Manchester Guardian (July 1929): “It is a long time since I have had the excuse about the dog tearing up the arithmetic homework.”

While consulting the OED, I decided to go ahead and verify the second snippet that I am about to snip and share since I was not certain of its accuracy. Did you know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the following: selfless, psychosomatic, bipolar, bisexual, and suspension of disbelief?

All right. I was wrong about selfless. It first appeared in J. Godolphin Holy Arbor (1651): “I leave this Memento with all selfless Christians.” Coleridge did not use it until 1825 in his Aids to Reflections 112: “Holy Instincts of Maternal Love, detached and in selfless purity.”

I was right about the other words. Psychomatic first appeared in Coleridge’s Shorter Wks. & Fragments (1834): “Hope and Fear..have slipt out their collars, and no longer run in couples…from the Kennel of my Psycho–somatic Ology.” Bipolar appeared in 1810 in his Friend: “Philosophy being necessarily bipolar.” Bisexual appeared in 1825 in his Aids to Reflection. 252:   “The very old Tradition of the Homo androgynusi.e. that the original Man..was bi-sexual.” And my favorite of all–suspension of disbelief–first appeared in his Biographia Literaria II. xiv. 2: “A semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (1817).

Obviously, I am fascinated by writers’ quirks and eccentricities. What is not so obvious is the fact that I would have been able to tolerate and be amused by the quirks and eccentricities if I had actually lived with a writer.

For better or for worse, I never had the opportunity.

But I have been blessed to live with one writer for most of my entire life, 24/7. Vicariously.

That’s exactly what I have done with Robert Frost since 1955 when he took up his residence with me, vicariously: heart, head, home.

It’s been easy living with him as I have done. In fact, I would say that I have had the best of all possible Frostian worlds. I have enjoyed all the good. And I have been spared all the drama–mainly a thread of depression that seems to have plagued the entire family. I have been able to read about it rather than live with it. 

I started living with Frost when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me to literature, and she started with Robert Frost. She hooked me with his poem “Birches.” I still recall reciting the entire lengthy poem–59 lines–not only before the entire class but also mid-air, alone, as I too “subdued my father’s trees / By riding them down over and over again / Until I took the stiffness out of them.” It did not matter to me then that I had not caught the deeper meanings of the poem and that I had missed the ambiguities. I simply liked the sounds, the word play, the associations. And I wanted more. My teacher obliged, not just with poems, but also with Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes.” I dare say that very little of the essay made sense to my third-grade mind, but I warmed up from the start to Frost’s notion that poetry, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, should ride along on its own melting.

From that point forward, Frost has served as my own literary touchstone, constant companion, and friend. Every day, at least once a day, sometimes more, something always seems to happen that reminds me of something in Frost’s poetry. And off I go on my poetic flight. Or perhaps it is that every day, at least once a day, something in Frost’s poetry reminds me of something else. And off I fly. Whichever way it happens, it’s a journey of constant joys and surprises and poetic feats of associations. 

On more than one occasion, Frost has been my dream companion.

It’s usually the same dream, over and over, capturing the stereotypical–and erroneous–image of Frost, the farmer poet. Frost and I are always in a garden. It’s always summer. I’ve always worked up a heavy sweat, always pushing a hand plow, always tilling the soil between rows of plants while he always sits all relaxed and all leisure-like on a stump as he recites some of his poems.

That recurring dream started when I was in grade school. I still dream the dream from time to time, and I love it because I am always young and thrilled to be laboring in the presence of my very own poet.

I try, as best I can, to forget the one spat that I had with Frost. Thank God, it was a vicarious and momentary falling out, a literary lovers’ quarrel of sorts. I remember the details vividly. They still pain my memory.

It was the morning of January 20, 1961. Robert Frost had been asked to write and read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration. For the occasion, Frost wrote “Dedication.” I watched as televised Frost entered the homes of Americans and others throughout the world. It was an historic occasion. Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected at the age of 43. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. And Frost was the first poet to be invited to read at a presidential inauguration.

It was a cold, blustery, snowy day and the sun was shining so glaringly on Frost’s manuscript that he fumbled and fumbled and fumbled. Yet he kept trying. Finally, he decided–wisely–to abandon the manuscript of the poem written for the occasion and instead to recite from memory his “The Gift Outright.” Both poems are so similar in spirit that I am not certain the shift in text mattered.

Frost was clearly embarrassed by the turn of events and his struggle, but the audience roared with approval and Frost stole their hearts.

He made my heart fall. I remember commenting to my parents, who were watching television with me, that the crowd cheered simply because they were glad that the fiasco was over and that laws should exist to keep old people from embarrassing themselves in public that way.

To this day, I cannot believe my youthful unkindness on the occasion. I have shared my reaction down through the years, hoping that open confession would lessen the pain of my thoughtlessness.

It has not.

On a more positive note, on more than one occasion, I’ve nearly brushed up against fleeting moments of Frostian fame.

As an undergraduate, I decided to prepare a concordance of Frost’s poetry. Without consulting anyone, I spent two years building the concordance on index cards. At that point, I was emboldened to propose the publication to Frost’s publisher, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston. Their reply brought a crushing blow: they had entered into a contract with Edward Connery Lathem to develop a Frost concordance. It was published several years later in 1971.

Another close brush with Frostian fame came a year or two later when I reached out to the United States Postal Service suggesting a Commemorative Postage Stamp on the one hundredth anniversary of Frost’s birth: March 26, 1974. Unfortunately, work on the commemorative stamp was underway already. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm earned me a Frost Commemorative Postage Stamp Poster, and it has graced every office that I have occupied since then. I always hang it so that it’s the first thing anyone sees when they enter my office. Measuring three feet by four feet, it is commanding, and it makes a commanding statement. To the right of the crusty old bard’s portrait–seated and writing at a makeshift desk–is a quote from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”

I value the poster not only because of my personal–albeit ever so slight–connection to the commemorative postage stamp but also because the quote captures a critically important lesson in human relationships and gives each of us an ongoing admonishment about the folly of building walls that separate us from ourselves and those around us.

Decades later, I brushed against Frost in the flesh, if you will, when I had the honor of introducing his granddaughter, Leslie Lee Francis, as part of a 2002 Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College. She spoke on “Education by Poetry.” It was a special treat for me to meet and chat extensively with Dr. Francis, daughter of Lesley Frost, the eldest child of Robert and Elinor Frost. When the evening ended, she gifted me with an inscribed copy of her book The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim (University of Missouri Press, 1994.) In the book, Dr. Francis traces the family’s adventures from their years on the Derry Farm in New Hampshire through their nearly three years in England, bringing Robert Frost to the brink of recognition as a poet. Her gift brought me to the brink of tears.

Who would have ever dreamt that a third-grade teacher in the mountainous coal fields of West Virginia would have turned me on to a poet with such fervor that he would become my constant companion for life? But she did. I have never forgotten the magic that she worked, and it’s that same kind of magic that I hope to perform whenever I enter a classroom to teach a literature course. I always have in mind certain goals, objectives, and outcomes that I hope my students will achieve. But deep down in my heart I have one goal that surpasses all of the pedagogical ones.  And I share it with my students. My hope for them is that somewhere during the course they will find a writer—a poet, short story writer, playwright, novelist—any writer who from that point forward will serve as a touchstone in their lives—a friend; a companion; someone who will be there with them always; someone they can live with forever.

Living with a writer, especially vicariously, might just be the best of all possible worlds.

Wrapping My Head Around Age

Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. 

(Ascribed to the Mark Twain)

Come on now. Tell the truth. Are you aware of your age? Do you feel your age?

I know. I know. You could really nail me on that question. It’s far too vague.

I agree. But, after all, talking about age is always vague, and it’s sometimes downright uncomfortable if not painfully disquieting.

I’m guessing that you immediately thought about your chronological age.

That’s a solid and smart place to begin, but it’s only one type of age.

What about your appearance age?

Or your biological age?

Or your psychological age?

Do you have an awareness of those ages? Are they all in sync? How do you feel about those different ages when you think about yourself?

While you’re processing those thoughts–don’t think too hard or too long, though; spontaneity works as well with that question as it does with maneuvering life itself–let me toss out some other ways that we can look at or avoid our age.

Let’s start with life stages. I like a fast pace, so we’ll skip right over prebirth, birth, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and late childhood.

Let’s move right on to subsequent stages, the ones that matter most to me and this post.

You probably know them all already, but in case not, I’ll toss them out with a word associated with each stage.

Adolescence (12-20): passion. Early adulthood (20-35): enterprise. Midlife (35-50): contemplation. Mature adulthood (50-80): benevolence. Late adulthood (80+): wisdom. And death/dying: life.

In case you’re wondering–and I certainly hope that you are–I fall into the “mature adult” stage. It’s great being in a stage with 30 years to fool around with, whether I’m 50 looking toward 80 or 80 looking back at 50. And it’s great knowing that I am benevolent. (I knew that already. But reinforcement always works well.) More important, “mature adult” is far more melodious to my ears than the ageist “Sweetie” or “Dearie” that I and other mature adults suffer far too often by far too many people who should know far better.

With those life stages behind us, let’s have some linguistic fun. Let’s explore some single words for each decade of our lives.

Brace yourself. They’re dreadful words. Just dreadful, especially when they’re all hanging out in the same place together all at the same time. Any one of them makes me scratch my balding pate, trying to figure out who on earth would use such words in regular talking or in regular writing. (Don’t tell anyone, but I just checked. The terms that I just dissed–and am about to diss more fully–are used in the medical field. I might have known it. But, again, don’t tell.)

I’ll start with the one coined most recently. 1991. Supercentenarian–110 years or older.

Then Centenarian–100 or more. I like that one a lot, especially since I completed an Estimated Longevity Test a few days ago. It was free. So why not? I didn’t even have to give an email address. It calculated the results right on the spot. According to the test–which, btw, seemed medically well-grounded and super scientific–I should live to be 105. Imagine that! I’ll take it, especially if it comes with good health, a sharp mind, good spirits, and faithful family and friends lifting me up. (I had to pause here to correct a plethora of typos. Glasses go hand in hand with aging and I’ve had my multi-focal lenses since midlife. OMG. I wonder whether I made typos on the Estimated Longevity Trst and that’s why ut told me that I wuld live to be 501. I’m absolutly sur thet I did knot.)

I’ll combine the next two. Nonagenarian–90s–and Octogenarian–80s. I lump them together because when people ask me my age, I sometimes tell them that I’m 88. At other times, I tell them that I’m 98. It just depends on my mood and how much I need to be pumped up. I love looking at them as they look at me. They smile. They beam. Then they declare, “My goodness, Professor Kendrick! You sure don’t look that old. And to think that you still manage to teach. How on earth do you do it?”

What an ego trip those comments give me, all because of my playful exaggeration. Of course, I still teach. Of course, I don’t look 98 or 88–well, hopefully I don’t–because I’m a Septuagenarian–70s. I exaggerate my age for a very good and highly legitimate reason. When I tell folks that I’m 74, I get puzzled looks or no comments at all. What can I say? I’ve left folks looking puzzled and speechless more than once in my life. Trust me. It never had anything to do whatsoever with my age.

Then we have Sexagenarian–60s–and Quinquagenarian–50s.

Oddly enough, the terms Quadragenarian–40s–and Tricenarian–30s–are not in common usage. Somehow that strikes me as an affront to both groups.

The same can be said of Vicenarian–20s–and Denarians–10 to 19.

All that I can say is this. Perhaps it’s not an affront after all that those terms are not in common usage for those age groups. I should know. When I was someone in those age groups, I wouldn’t have wanted to be called those things either, any more than I would want to be called a Septuagenarian now. I mean, come on. Who wants to be called something that the person doing the calling can’t even pronounce, let alone spell.

I warned you nine paragraphs ago that these terms were dreadful. Candidly, they ended up being more dreadful than I ever dreaded that they would be dreadful.

Nonetheless, I suppose those terms might come in handy from time to time to add an aere distinctionis to what, in reality, are downright insults. And we might just get away with it. Let’s see.

“He’s an old geyser” might morph into “He’s a sexagenarian geyser.” That might even be mistaken for sexy.

“She’s just an old broad” might become “She’s just an octogenarian broad.”

Truthfully, though–and I am all about truth and transparency–I’m not sure that either insult works any better, all garbed and garbled in Latin as they are.

No doubt, you’re still pondering your varying awarenesses of your various ages.

In case you’re wondering what I’m pondering–Please tell me that you are wondering. You are, right?–let me tell you that it’s not my age.

Actually, I’ve never pondered my age because I’ve never had a clear awareness of my age at any age.

I guess you might call me an Age Chameleon. (Go ahead. I’ve been called far worse.) How old I “feel”–regardless of how I slice it and dice it–changes based on those who are around me.

When I was a kid, surrounded by older folks, I felt wise beyond my years.

Now that I’ve grown up to be one of those older folks who surrounded me when I was young, I feel like one of the younger kids who surround me now that I am older. (I know what you’re thinking, and you can just stop it right now. I have not become my own grandpa.)

Let me explain. When I’m teaching traditional, right-out-of-high-school students, I feel exactly like I felt in my late teens. Independent. Not averse to risks. Extraverted. Romantic. Confident that a full lifetime lies ahead. Confident that my full head of hair will always be full. I like feeling like that. 

Sometimes–especially since I teach in a community college–I have some students who have been out of high school for a while. With them, I feel exactly like I felt in my twenties: strong bones, strong muscles, ready to run life’s marathons, and ready to make lots of moves– career or otherwise. I like feeling like that, too.

Sometimes, my students are in their thirties, and, around them, I feel just as I felt then: hitting some high notes in my career; thinking about settling down. Or maybe they’re in their forties, making me feel as I felt then: climbing toward career peaks; reaching financial security; discovering the power of progressive lenses.

Hopefully, you’re getting my point. I see myself pretty much the same age as those with whom I interact.

Dare I tell you the truth? Of course, I will. I always do. I interact with me more than I interact with anyone else in the entire world. And in those interactions, I feel just as I felt when I was 27. Unstoppable. I feel that way, that is, until I walk past a mirror. I hate mirrors because they shatter the unreality of my 27-year old self. I do not blush at all to tell you that I have considered removing all the mirrors in my home, but if I did, how on earth would I manage to comb the hair (that I have less and less of) or check to see that all the wispy strands (that I have more and more of) are in place?

But let me bring me and you back to my point before you and I both drift off to parts unknown.

I like the fact that I am an Age Chameleon. I think that it might be a blessing in disguise.

It gives me the best of all the ages. Potential. Hope. Vitality. Playfulness. Imagination. Ingenuity. Passion. Enterprise. Contemplation.

Toss in to that fantabulous mix two more things. Benevolence. Wisdom.

I don’t mind at all that I am not aware of my age and that it doesn’t matter to me.

Here’s the way I see it. As I work at wrapping my head around age, maybe–just maybe–I’ll end up wrapping my head around life.

The Final Drive: The Chilling Backstory

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897).

Do you remember “The Final Drive”–my post about the sudden and unexpected death of my 2013 Jeep Wrangler?

If you do, I daresay that you will enjoy the backstory just as much, if not more, than the original post. The first part of the backstory is straight forward. Even so, it requires close attention. The second part is chilling–never before shared except with a few close family members and a few close friends. It requires even closer attention.

I started the original essay with my Creative Writing students in March of 2020, just when COVID started showing its nastiness. I needed a topic, something to write about. I was up against one of my own “good-professor” assignments with one of my own “good-professor” deadlines. I knew that I had to deliver the goods or suffer class embarrassment.

I had lots of ideas, but I wanted to write a humorous essay.

At the time, the only thing remotely funny to me was what I did when my Jeep’s sound system failed. A mouse or a chipmunk or some other critter had gotten under the hood and had chewed unseen wires in unseen places. The repair cost was far pricier than I chose to pay. Instead I figured out with great speed and with zero cost how to jerry-rig my iPod to a Bluetooth speaker. Voila! I had perfect surround-sound gospel music wherever I went.

For me, that was funny. Here I was a college professor who could have afforded the repair. But here I was choosing to do what I had often chosen to do throughout my life: make do with making do, especially with things that are of little consequence in the greater scheme of things.

But my chosen course of action became funnier to me when the day came that I forgot to recharge my jerry-rigged sound system and I had no music at all. Instead, I had the sounds of silence. I started hearing an unusual noise coming from under the hood. The noise was hard for me to describe. Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.

I knew the very moment that I watched the dogs run–the very moment that I watched my neighbors watching their dogs run–that writing about the reality of what was happening to my Jeep might elevate my essay to the humorous level that I desired. I had an angle that I thought would work.

But when I took my Jeep in for service, the humor started to lessen. The lesson that I would come to learn took on a more serious tone.

My mechanic’s fear was that the Jeep had faulty hydraulic lifters.

“How could that be?” I questioned, especially since the Jeep had relatively low mileage and especially since I had followed the service plan to the letter.

“Sometimes those things just happen.”

Despite his fairly certain preliminary diagnosis, he suggested that a heavier oil with an additive might reduce the friction, lower the noise, and extend the engine’s life. I tend to trust experts, so I followed my mechanic’s advice.

Sadly, his remedy didn’t last long. The tapping grew louder and louder. Eventually, he told me that the hydraulic lifters had to be replaced. But before the job was even finished, my mechanic delivered worse news. The engine was shot. Nothing could be done. That was it for the Jeep that I had loved so much and had taken care of so faithfully.

As these things were unfolding with my Jeep, I was drafting my essay with my students. I shifted my angle to a more serious one.

I focused on the simple observation that what was happening to my Jeep paralleled, in many ways, what happens to human beings, especially as we grow older. Even if we faithfully follow the most recent and up-to-date edition of life’s unpublished user-manual, we all reach a point where even the experts can’t fix our brokenness.

I liked that angle a lot and set about revising the essay to make the parallels between a Jeep’s engine and a person’s heart as clear as I could without hitting my readers over the head with a skillet.

To my surprise, when I workshopped the essay with my students, their comments made it clear that they had not gotten my intended message. I had not delivered the message clearly, even though I thought that the takeaway–wrangling with mortality: the Jeep’s; mine; yours–was abundantly obvious. It wasn’t.

As I continued to revise, I did two things.

First, I decided to end the essay with some email snippets, exchanged with a friend.

“’Does this mean your poor Wrangler is in the shop getting that rattle fixed? Or worse …???’ she probed.

“’Worse,’ I answered. ‘It looks like the engine is shot.

“‘Aww. I’m sorry. Jeeps are sort of human, aren’t they?

“‘Yes,’ I mused. ‘Both are wrangling for the final drive.‘”

Second, I decided to change the title. “The Wrangler” became “Wrangling” and that became “Wrangling for Life.” Then I changed the title one last time so that it mirrored the last three words in the essay: “The Final Drive.”

“The Final Drive.” I liked that title a lot. It worked for me. By then, the semester was over, I had given the essay all the thought and energy that I cared to give it, and, besides, Allen–my partner–and I were enjoying my new, four-door 2020 Jeep Sahara.

From this point forward, what I am about to share with you today–right here in this post–will be met with full belief or full disbelief. A middle ground cannot be taken because it does not exist.

I never discussed that essay–or any of my essays–with Allen. Nor did I ever share that essay–or any of the others–with him.

We were so immersed in all the other rich dimensions of our daily lives together that my private-time writing always struck me as comparable to his private-time reading: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wallstreet Journal.

Be that as it may, toward the end of 2020–the week before Thanksgiving–Allen thought that he had a cold or maybe pneumonia. Unfortunately, our family doctor discovered otherwise. Her diagnosis, to our mutual alarm, was Stage 3 Lung Cancer. Allen’s cancer team developed a comprehensive treatment plan: thirty days of chemo and radiation. A month later, they would operate to remove the upper left lobe of his lung.

The treatments were agressive, taking a far heavier toll on Allen than anyone expected. Naturally, when we got back home after his last treatments on January 25, 2021–struggling to make our way from the driveway to inside–we hugged and hugged and hugged, tearfully celebrating the fact that chemo and radiation were over.

The very next day, however, I had to call the rescue squad to rush Allen to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care.

At that point, he and I both knew the seriousness of his condition, but we were optimistic, so much so that we talked about his surgery scheduled for late February, and we even chatted about new linen drapes for the living room and about renovation plans for the guest bathroom.

I spent most of the next day at the hospital with Allen before coming home for dinner.

When I returned for my evening visit, Allen looked at me and said:

“When you come back tomorrow, bring a can of gasoline.”

“Gasoline? What on earth for?” I asked.

“We need to make sure that we have enough gas in the Jeep to go for the final drive.”

Allen died suddenly and unexpectedly the next morning.

OHIO on My Mind.

If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.

Groucho Marx (1890-1977; American comedian, writer, and performer: stage, radio, television and vaudeville. He was the most famous of the Four Marx Brothers.)

One of my all-time favorite essays is Suzanne Britt’s “Neat People vs. Sloppy People.” It’s perfect when I’m exploring the structure of compare/contrast essays in my College Composition classes, especially as I explain a subject-by-subject approach. The first half of her essay focuses on sloppy people; the second half, neat people.

But what I like far more than the essay’s rhetorical structure is Britt’s unexpected humor.

Obviously, it’s not unexpected humor for me because I have taught the essay for decades, and, for what it’s worth, the essay is as fresh and as funny today as it was when I first read it in her Show & Tell (1983).

But it is unexpected humor for my students. Here’s why. Britt sets the stage brilliantly with nothing more than the essay’s title. Tell the truth. In your own mind, don’t neat people always win out over sloppy people?

Of course! Neat people always come out on top. And in her essay, they even come out first in the title. We’re all programmed to value neatness over sloppiness. My students are, too.

So I like to build on the assumptive beliefs that Britt puts into motion with nothing more than the title. When I assign the essay–but before my students have read it–I ask them to jot down whether they are neat or sloppy.

Also, I ask them to jot down whether I am neat or sloppy. I know fully well that they will put me into the “neat” category. When I am at the college, I always wear a shirt and tie (or jacket, shirt, and tie) and real, polished dress shoes. (Mine are real because they have genuine leather soles.) My students are convinced that’s how I dress when I’m weeding or when I’m weedwhacking or when I’m splitting wood with a maul. Shirt. Tie. Real shoes with genuine leather soles. No doubt about it. I’m in the “neat people” category.

My students read the essay. When they come back to class prepared to discuss both categories–neat and sloppy–they are gobsmacked.

Let me explain.

Britt is soft–really soft–in her discussion of sloppy people, and, indeed, she defends their sloppiness: “Sloppy people, you see, are not really sloppy. Their sloppiness is merely the unfortunate consequence of their extreme moral rectitude. Sloppy people carry in their mind’s eyes a heavenly vision, a precise plan that is so stupendous, so perfect, it can’t be achieved in this world or the next. […] Someday is their métier. Someday they are planning to alphabetize all their books and set up home catalogs. Someday they will go through their wardrobe and mark certain items for tentative mending and certain items for passing on to certain relatives of similar size and shape.”

And in the second half of her essay, Britt comes down hard–really hard–on neat people. She’s exaggerating, of course, but my students aren’t expecting her extreme exaggeration, even though they all chime in, announcing that someone in their family is “just like that.” Here’s an example: “Neat people have cavalier attitudes toward possessions, including family heirlooms. Everything is just another dust-catcher to them. If anything collects dust, it’s got to go and that’s that. Neat people will toy with the idea of throwing the children out of the house just to cut down on the clutter.”

Her exaggerated ending is just as comical: “Neat people […] are so insensitive. After they’ve finished with the pantry, the medicine cabinet, and the attic, they will throw out the red geranium (too many leaves), sell the dog (too many fleas), and send the kids off to boarding school (too many scuff marks on the hard-wood floors).

It goes without saying that my students remain 100% convinced–really convinced–that I’m in the “neat people” category.

However, their eyes widen and their mouths open when I disclose that I am unequivocally in the “Sloppy People” category. I offer up solid evidence. I have every personal letter that I have ever received. I have every canceled check that I have ever written. I have all of my federal and state income tax returns. I have my father’s last bottle of cologne (Avon–Wild Country, still fragrant after 40 years). I have my mother’s last tube of toothpaste (Close-Up, still squeezable after 12 years). I have my late partner’s last pack of chewing gum (Spearmint– Rain, still tempting after one year and six months). Need I go on? I agree. Thank you. I’ll spare you and me.

Needless to say, down through the years as I gathered up all of these treasures (and, let me add, they are treasures)–evidence of lives lived; of lives well lived; of stories in the making; or of stories waiting to be written–my motives were pure and noble. And they still are as I continue to gather up treasures.

But a few months ago, I started seeing tell-tale signs of a type of sloppiness that has nothing at all to do with my extreme moral rectitude–the underlying reason why I keep all the things that I can’t bear to toss away as of no worth.

I wonder sometimes whether some of my emerging, non-moral sloppiness isn’t downright laziness.

I mean, like … maybe everyone does some of the things that I discovered that I was starting to do. I hope so, but I doubt it.

Let me toss out some examples. You decide.

In early spring, I pruned an evergreen tree outside my bedroom window. When I finished, I returned my shears to the basement, but I had the brilliant idea that since the ladder was out, I should go ahead and polish the windows on that side of the house. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time right then. So I folded the step ladder and left it on the edge of the walkway. Sadly, way led on to way, and well over a week later, I was still walking around the ladder lying on the walkway, still somewhat in my way.

Here’s another example. Emails. Yes. I keep all of the personal, meaningful ones in virtual folders. No problem. But what about all of the other ones that I could delete and be done with? Why don’t I just go ahead and delete? I don’t, and I don’t know why. Or what about the ones that require–and will get–a straight forward response? Why not respond right then? Your guess is as good as mine. I have a tendency to wait until the next day so that I can think about the response that requires absolutely no depth of thought at all and that will get no depth of thought at all.

And then there’s the real mail, the printed stuff that I find in my mailbox. Most of it is junk mail, of so little interest to me that sometimes I let it accumulate and ride along for several days as the passenger in my Jeep before bringing it into the house and tossing it into the trash where it belonged in the first place.

And what about the real estate tax bill that I discover when I sort through the stack of junk mail that’s been riding along with me? I always look at the due date and inevitably decide to wait a few days or so before paying. Why? I have no idea. It would be so simple to just write the check and check that item off of my to-do list.

This self-discovery, folks, was troubling and troublesome. Somehow, I knew that I had to reconcile the sloppy side of me that Britt celebrates with this sloppy/lazy side of me that causes crimson as I cringe.

Fortunately, I remembered a perfect solution that had been hiding out in my cluttered mind–yes, it’s sloppy, too–all along. Years ago, when I was the  Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office, I worked closely with Copyright’s executive officer. Her office was lean, mean, and sparse.  Nothing was out of place.

“How on earth do you manage to keep your office like this?”

Her response? “Only handle it once.”

I have always remembered her approach even if I have not always applied it.

But as I thought about this post, I did some quick research to see what else I might find out about the wisdom that Grace Reed shared with me.

Come to find out, “only handle it once” is a well-known management tool that’s been around for decades and decades.

It’s commonly referred to as OHIO: Only Handle It Once.

Guess what? I’ve been using it to save myself from becoming the sloppy/lazy person that I am hell bent on not becoming.

Guess what else? It’s working really well.

Let me prove it to you. Hang on a sec. I’ll be right back after I do a quick walk through of my home.

That didn’t take long, did it? Thanks for waiting.

I am ecstatic because I only found three things that I had not disposed of properly when I handled them the first time. A can of spray paint by the kitchen door leading to the deck. (Later today, I’ll throw the can away after I paint the table on the deck.) A brush cutter replacement blade at the top of the stairs leading to the utility room downstairs. (I would have been back sooner, but you will be pleased to know that I took the time to put the blade on its designated hook in the utility room.) A post card eye-exam reminder smack dab on the edge of my dining room table. (Voila! I made it disappear. Who needs it now, anyway? My appointment is bright and early tomorrow.)

My efforts to avoid toppling into the abyss of lazy sloppiness have made me so ecstatic–so euphoric–that I may well have reached a near state of mystic self-transcendence, and I want to stay in that state. For that reason–and that reason alone–as I move ahead, rest assured that I will keep OHIO on my mind.

The Circle Is Unbroken

Bertha Pearl Witt Kendrick

(May 16, 1912–May 30, 2010)

Freud was not the only one who took dreams seriously. My mother did, too.

Admittedly, her belief was more Biblical than psychological. Nonetheless, my mother could—and often would—quote Scripture verbatim and at length—verse after verse, from Genesis to Revelations and many books in between—to convince her husband and six children that dreams could hold profound messages and meanings; that we could interpret dreams; and that dreams could take us inward—to our psychological, spiritual, and physical selves—and outward—to a collective consciousness linking all the ages and bringing us all together.

Dream talk was part of our daily ritual, though never before seven in the morning, lest the dreams might come true. We could share any dream, but mother focused on those that lingered in the psyche as the ones possessing possible significance and meriting analysis. Rarely did my mother proffer interpretations of other people’s dreams. Instead, she listened and redirected us to discover how our dreams made us feel. I was fascinated by her dream analysis—nearly self psychoanalysis—and by the uncanny way that so many of her dreams tapped into profound spiritual truths.

Early in my life, my mother made a believer out of me. I remain so, especially since her death twelve years ago today. Two nights prior, I had three dreams in quick succession, with short-lived awakenings and instantaneous interpretations.

DREAM ONE. Mom was home, observing how hot it felt inside the house. She got up out of bed and walked out on the porch where it was so much cooler. As she reached her arms up toward a blue, blue sky, the wind blew her hair upwards and furled the skirt of her gossamer dress all around her. Mom started smiling and laughing and twirling—around and around and around.

Interpretation. Is Mom dead? No longer paralyzed? For the first time in six years, she’s out of bed—walking and dancing. She’s ecstatically happy.

DREAM TWO. Mom, costumed as a white mouse, performing. Her audience, amused by her antics. Their reward? An encore—more frolics, much laughter.

Interpretation. Freed from the journey, freed from the maze, Mom blissfully celebrates her new path.

DREAM THREE. Mom entered a softly lighted room. Dad was sitting in a recliner, as was his practice before his death. Beside him, a table with lamp; to the right, another chair. Mom walked over, sat down in the chair, smiled at my Dad, and turned off the lamp. The room slowly—ever so slowly—fell into warm darkness.

Interpretation. It is finished. Mom and Dad are reunited. The circle is unbroken.

When I awakened, my dreams lingered, vibrant and vivid. I felt—no, knew—deep down in my soul that my mother, who celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday two weeks before, came to me in those three dreams to prepare me for her death.

Two days later, Mom died.

God called her home. Forever dancing with a heavenly host of saints and angels, Mom finished the circle.

In Praise of Work

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hey, folks. Listen up. We need to do something about the bad rap that work seems to be getting!

Witness what happened to work in 2021: The Great Resignation. The Big Quit. The Great American Walkout.

But even before the Pandemic, job satisfaction wasn’t the greatest.  A comprehensive study conducted jointly by the Lumina Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Gallup found that more than half of U. S. workers are unhappy in their jobs.

That’s unacceptable. That’s downright dreadful, especially since we spend about a third of our life working. It seems to me that what we do for a third of our life ought to make us happy.

As for me, I must be blessed. No, I must be super blessed because I have always loved my work, whatever it happened to be at the time that I happened to be doing the work that I was doing. And believe me: I’ve worked far more than one third of my life.

I’ve worked my entire life. In fact, just the other day, I said to a friend, with no hint of whining, with no intent of complaining, and with no lament of exhaustion: “I was born working.”

Exaggerated? Perhaps. All right. Of course. It is.

Nonetheless, I’m betting that I did something to help my mother speed up my birth so that I could get into the world and begin my world of work. Since she’s no longer alive, she can neither verify nor dispute my claim, so I’m safe with my exaggeration.

Nonetheless, I’m here to give work a better rap. I’m here to sing work’s praises.

Lots of songs focus on work. Who doesn’t know “Heigh Ho” in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Or Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5“? Or how about “Workin’ for a Livin’” by Huey Lewis and the News? Or “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer? Or “Five O’Clock World” by the Vogues. Or, finally, “Hard Hat and a Hammer” by Alan Jackson.

If those folks can sing about work, why can’t I blog about it? Besides, work is what I’ve always done, and work has always worked for me.

Read on, work with me, and you’ll see for yourself.

I have vivid pre-school memories of scrabbling up and down and all around the slate dump behind our West Virginia home, looking for scrap iron. The “Iron Man” paid a good price for our finds. I say “our” because my brothers and sisters joined in as did most, if not all, of the kids in our coal camp.

After my family moved away to another West Virginia town when I was seven, I discovered that the citizenry there could not only afford bottled soft drinks–Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi–but also could afford to toss the empty bottles thoughtlessly out of their vehicles onto the side of the road. That’s when I discovered that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I collected those bottles, washed them up to their original sparkle, returned them proudly to the local general store, and walked away with three cents per bottle, fully believing that I was fast becoming the richest kid in town.

Around the same time, one of my older brothers found out that folks in our new town loved to fish, especially with night crawlers–large, slimy, segmented worms, with a wide reddish purple band just behind a large head and a body tapering back sometimes as far as 10 inches to a flat tail. Luckily, our yard seemed to be a breeding ground for the anglers’ preferred bait. Weekend nights would find me and my older brother and my older sisters out in the yard with flashlights, searching for nightcrawlers. We became experts in pulling them ever so gently from the ground, ever mindful of increasing our collective earnings by a nickel for each live worm. Before long, we had a nightcrawler monopoly with our local bait shop. We had hit pay dirt, and we knew it.

I branched out to another work endeavor: mowing neighbors’ yards. It didn’t pay much–a quarter a lawn. But it wasn’t as much about growing rich as it was the rich satisfaction that I derived from seeing my beautifully landscaped yards. I remember one in particular. I would spend the entire day cutting the grass, edging around the garden beds and walkways, refreshing the mulch, deadheading and pruning. Sometimes when day was done, I would sprawl out in the grass and play out in my mind the answers that I would give the interviewer who would one day seek me out before featuring my client’s yard in Better Homes and Gardens.

Those work stints joyed me all the up to, through, and out of high school. The summer after graduation, I worked at an explosives company, high up on a mountain, a mile or so from the nearest town. All by myself, I managed an office of one–me. I did it all. Bookkeeping. Typing. Answering the phones. Monitoring the scales and recording weights as trucks went out with explosives and came back empty. In my starched shirt and full Windsor-knot tie, I was the master of all that I surveyed all alone on a mountain top, a mile from nowhere.

When I went to college in the fall, I continued working for the next four years. Work Study. Dorm Counselor. Summer Discovery English tutor. Mail carrier–United States Senate. Intern– former Department of Health, Education and Welfare (Division of the Two-Year College). In all those positions, I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed my colleagues, and I enjoyed the networking.

Work continued through graduate school. Research Assistant for one of the world’s most respected textual bibliographers. Teaching Assistant in one of the country’s best university English departments. Again, the work, those with whom I worked, my students, and my research on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman all brought joy beyond measure. Somes days I pinched myself because it all seemed too good to be true.

We’re nearing the end of my working man’s chronicles, so keep working with me.

After graduate school, I kept right on working. First at the Library of Congress (LOC), where I had a rich, twenty-five-year career. Editor, MARC Project. Editor, National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints. Training Coordinator, United States Copyright Office. Director, Internship Program. Special Assistant, Human Resources. Little wonder that I still consider the LOC to be the best agency in the entire federal sector.

After retiring from the LOC, I became a professor of English at Lord Fairfax Community College (becoming Laurel Ridge Community College). For twenty-three years (teaching twelve months a year, every year), “Professor” has been music to my mountain ears, the completion of a melody that I first started hearing as a coal camp kid. Little wonder that I consider Lord Fairfax/Laurel Ridge Community College and the thousands of students I’ve taught to be the best community college and the best students in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

At the end of this fall semester, I will retire. But guess what? I will keep right on working at something.

Teaching: visiting professor doors may open and I may enter. Research: visiting scholar doors may open and I may enter–my work on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is ongoing. And how about my love of gardening (see my The Joy of Weeding) and my love of baking (see my Oh, No! Sourdough! and Baking Up My Past) and my love of company (see my My Imaginary Guests).

But here’s the bottom line. Whatever work comes my way, I will work to make sure that I’m enjoying the work that I’m doing!

OMG! Do you mean to tell me that you had to work with me all the way through this post just to hear me blurt out that we have to work at enjoying the work that we do. It’s so true that it’s worth repeating. We have to work at enjoying the work that we do.

Maybe–just maybe–the attitude that we bring to our work determines, as much as anything else, the praises that we are able to offer up.

Things Wanted. Things Needed. A Prose Poem for Graduates.

Desiderata

Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), American scholar and poet. Written in 1927, “Desiderata” is Ehrmann’s most widely known poem. It’s an inspiration to all, especially graduates.

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Directions to the Magical Land of Ideas

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

Anaïs Nin

Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.

Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.

Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.

Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.

In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.

My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.

This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.

I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.

At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.

When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”

How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.

I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.

I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?

As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.

When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.

Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.

But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea.  Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.

The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.

I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.

For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.

Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.

Oh, No! Sourdough!

“’Can I bring you some of my sourdough starter. Would you like that?’ Hattie raised an eyebrow at me. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It is quite a commitment. I had some before and I didn’t look after it. It died and I felt terrible.'”

Sally Andrew, The Milk Tart Murders (2022)

When I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (Columbia), I became a sourdough master, partly because I lived the life of a starving grad student but largely because I loved practicing a culinary art with spores going all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. And whenever I wanted, I could fast forward to the more recent and better-known traditions of the California Gold Rush miners who were known as “Sourdoughs.”

With equal speed, I could shift my focus from sourdough histories to sourdough geographies. Did you know that the flavor of sourdough differs from region to region? It does. The reason is simple. Microbes differ from place to place. Plus, bakers in different regions have varying flour preferences and differing ways of starting their starters.

Working with my own sourdough was so fascinating and my baked goods–primarily bread and pancakes–were so delicious that I kept my sourdough culture alive and well throughout grad school and throughout my subsequent career at the Library of Congress.

Oddly enough, when I moved from Capitol Hill to the Shenandoah Valley, my sourdough starter died.  Maybe it didn’t like fresh country air as much as I. I doubt it. I probably got so blown away by country air and country living that I neglected to give my sourdough culture the care, attention, and regular use that it requires, even in the country.

Obviously, without my own starter, I had to stop baking my own sourdough bread. No big deal. I could easily buy some pretty good sourdough loaves in my local grocery stores. I say “pretty good” because store-bought sourdough bread always smacks of commercial yeast. A real sourdough aficionado would never, ever–absolutely never, ever–use commercial yeast to boost a sourdough starter that wasn’t strong enough to rise up on its own. No way. The beauty of working with sourdough is slowing down, taking time, and letting Mother Nature work her own Poppin’ Fresh, Pillsbury Doughboy magic. Rise up. Rise up.

But a few weeks ago, I got a hankering to bake some sourdough bread. So I decided to make room in my life once again for sourdough starter.

No big deal. It’s simple and straightforward. Using a wooden spoon, I mixed up 120 grams of whole wheat flour with 120 grams of water in a glass jar, covered it with cheesecloth, put it in a warm kitchen spot, and waited for my mountain spores to start their mountain magic.

By day two, little bubbles bounced gleefully up and down and all around. The magical sourdough dance of life had begun!

At that point, I knew exactly what to do. Discard half of the starter. Then feed the remaining starter 120 grams of all-purpose flour and 120 grams of water. As always, mix it all up with a wooden spoon, cover with cheesecloth, and return the jar to a warm kitchen spot.

However, I ran smackdab into a major crisis of monumental magnitude, ethical and economical.

Here’s the ethical part. The “discard” starter is filled with living microorganisms. While I had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about baking it to death for my own betterment and joy–not to mention the joy and betterment of those with whom I share–I was distressed thinking about throwing it out–discarding it–as of no worth.

Here’s the economical part. I am a big believer in “Waste not, want not.” I can’t throw away something that I might be able to put to good use. The mere thought makes every fiber of my being quake.

My compound crisis that day resulted in two jars of starter on my counter, instead of the single jar that I should have had.

On day three, I suffered just as much as I had the day before. Yep. You guessed it. Now I was parenting and feeding four jars of sourdough starter.

Day four doubled my joy and my responsibility: eight jars.

Day five, sixteen jars.

Now, come on folks. This is getting serious–alarmingly so–because it takes seven days or longer for a starter to mature and be so full of vim and vigor and little yeasties that it can transform any kitchen into a Sourdough Sanctuary.

You do the math. (After all, I teach English. What do I know about math?) But as near as I can figure, by day seven–if I continued to adhere to my high standards of sourdough ethics and economics–my counter would be covered with 64 jars of sourdough starter, each one needing love and feeding. I could manage the love. I could manage feeding. But what the heck! I don’t even own that many Weck jars. Besides, I don’t need all that sourdough. Neither baker nor bakery am I.

Thank God, I came up with a brilliant plan: reach out to friends and offer up my precious sourdough starters for adoption. Surely my friends would save me from myself.

Thus began my noble quest to rid myself of my own madness.

ME TO A FRIEND. “If you have any interest in adopting a jar [of sourdough starter]–with a full commitment to having it bring you baking joy for years into the future–I’ll be glad to share with you, and I will even forego the customary adoption process that I am told is customary in matters of bake such as this. Just let me know!”

FRIEND TO ME. “Well, I’d love to know about that ‘adoption process’ for hand-reared sourdough, but I daren’t risk actually adopting any cuz I have a feeling it would die before I got any use out of it and I don’t want to risk experiencing any ritualistic unpleasantness that might have made up part of the adoption process. If you want to give me a loaf or a waffle, though, I’d be entirely grateful!”

Well, phooey! How’s that for a friend? She wants all the gain without any of the pain. Hmpff!

At that point, I knew that my efforts to place my starters up for adoption were going nowhere fast.

Here’s what I came up with as an alternative. Rather than watch jars of sourdough starter double every day, why not bake with the sourdough discards?

I love to bake, you know. You definitely know that if you read and remember my post “Baking Up My Past.” (And if have not read it, read it. And if you have read it but don’t remember it, I won’t say, “Shame on you.” But, really! Shame on you. Re-read it to lessen the shame that you’re surely feeling.)

But returning to the serious matter of turning my sourdough discards into delights rather than tossing them into the compost heap as of no worth, I did as my friend–the same one who chose not to adopt one of my starving starters–always reminds me to do whenever I share with her one of my many and endless brilliant ideas: “Google that.”

And that’s just what I did! I googled, “Baking with sourdough discard.”

Dare I share with you my utter shock and amazement when I discovered that lots and lots of other folks had stolen my brilliant idea–just as lots and lots of folks have stolen my other brilliant ideas in the past–and had posted hundreds of recipes without giving me even the slightest crumb of credit, not even in Baking Notes. Well, I have never. (But rest assured: I have.)

The only thing that lessened my shock and amazement was the fact that some of those sourdough discard recipes sounded so good that I decided to try them.

I knew just where to start. Sourdough bread. I had made it before. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Next? Sourdough pancakes. I had made them before, too, but these would be super special because I could open up my last bottle of Brattleboro (VT) Maple Syrup that I bought in 2019 when I was guest speaker in the town where Mary E. Wilkins Freeman launched her distinguished writing career. Oh, my!!! I was not disappointed. Those pancakes were well worth the wait.

Then came sourdough waffles. Vanilla one day. Chocolate, the next. Both days, Brattleboro maple syrup presided.

Then came sourdough muffins, lots and lots of jumbo, bakery-style muffins. Morning Glory. Blueberry. Triple Chocolate. Lemon White Chocolate Chip. Banana Chocolate Chip. To my great joy, the sourdough muffins proofed to be exceptional. My neighbors, friends, colleagues, students (and one stranger) gave rave (and ravenous) reviews.

I knew, though, that I needed to move past breakfast. How could I use my sourdough for dinner? Of course! Pizza. Imagine your favorite pizza, and I’ll guarantee that it will be better with a sourdough crust.

My sourdough chicken and dumplings were heavenly. I confess that I had some major doubts about sourdough cornbread, but it proofed to be the best ever.

And you can’t have dinner without dessert. How about Sourdough Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake? You want some? Excellent! You won’t be disappointed. What’s that? With ice-cream? Sure thing. Vanilla. Homemade. On the house.

I am happy to report that I have baked the good bake so successfully and so frequently that now I am the proud parent of sourdough-starter triplets. All three jars are in the fridge where they can chill with one another for an entire week before I have to care for them again.

At this point, I have a plan. That’s right: you guessed it. It’s brilliant. Here it is. I’ll spend this coming weekend having my own sourdough bake off.

To start, I will use one entire jar of starter–every last drop of it–for making several loaves of sourdough bread.

Then I will use the second jar–every last drop of it–to make assorted sourdough muffins.

“What about that third jar?” I hear someone asking. Don’t worry. It will be an “only,” but it won’t be lonely. I will love it and nourish it and use it forever and forever and forever, and I will bake really good bakes, bake by bake by bake.

Better still, every time I bake with it, I will do so with an abundance of bubbly joy, knowing that I saved myself from parenting the 64 jars of little yeasties that I nearly found myself parenting.

And, best of all, I will no longer walk into my kitchen sighing under my breath, “Oh, no! Sourdough.”

The Joy of Weeding

“Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.”

–Albert Einstein

Personally, I hate weeding! It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s tiring. It’s never-ending. Absolutely.  Never-ending.

I would much rather harness myself to a weed whacker, clearing great swaths of wilderness with every swing to my left, with every swing to my right, and with every step thrust frontward as I charge ahead to tame the untamable. I reckon a weed whacker is a reckoning force.

Yet, some folks (so I have been told) actually enjoy weeding. Apparently, they like to pull up weeds, one by one by one. Apparently, they never grow tired or weary of pulling up weeds, one by one by one. Their mantra? You guessed it: “One by one.”

My late partner, Allen, was one of those folks. He liked pulling up weeds and did so with the same care and precision that he used as a surgical technologist.

He would plan his weed work a week in advance. The conversation below shows how it all came to pass. I see no reason to say who’s saying what. The differing approaches to weeding–mine and Allen’s–are abundantly clear without naming either of us and without calling either of us names.

“Thank God! The weekend is nearly here. What would you like to do on Saturday?”

“Weed.”

“How about doing something fun? You really want to weed?”

“Yes. Weed. I just need some quiet time.”

“Well, okay. Sure. While you weed, I’ll weed whack. We’ll get a lot of yard work done.”

On reflection, I’m not certain that my part of the bargain provided quiet, especially since we usually played Gospel music in the background, full volume, while we worked in the yard. And when the music stopped, no problem. I would fill in by singing at full throttle the handful of words that I knew from some Gospel song that I liked, over and over and over and always painfully off key, though never deliberately so. Soon thereafter, Allen would slip inside and slip back out again, protected fully by his smartphone and earbuds. He never said a word.

But, hey. I’m no dummy. He made his point loud and clear. Quietly. Immediately. I got it. But since he was now listening to his own music with his own earbuds stuffed into his own ears, I just kept right on singing, as loudly and as off key as ever. It made me feel good. Besides, I take the Bible literally when it says, “Make a joyful noise.” And, equally important, I take folklore seriously, too: I have always heard that making noise while doing yard work keeps snakes away! So there! Even if indirectly, Allen still reaped the benefits of my singing: all the snakes disappeared into the woods, all except for the black snake that loved my off-key singing and slithered all around the yard to stay close to me, but that’s copy for a future post.

When it came to weeding, it was no big deal that Allen and I listened to different music while applying different weeding methods. Working together, we always accomplished a lot within four or five hours.

I mowed down an acre or so, and I was covered from head to toe with vestiges of grass and leaves and dust. But, hey! I got my weekly weed whacking joy.

Allen removed every single, solitary weed from an established flower bed, perhaps 20 feet by 15 feet, and, sometimes even refreshed the mulch. He would be drenched in perspiration, with muddy jeans from butt to hem. But, hey! He got his weekly weeding joy.

Inevitably, as we admired what we had achieved individually and collectively, we would mutually agree to a quick shower (individually, not collectively) and a backroad drive (collectively, not individually) to a farmers’ market, followed by lunch!

The after-joy of weeding and weed whacking meant as much to us (collectively and individually) as the actual joy itself.

Since Allen’s death, though, I have often wondered what those treasured weeding days meant…to him. What was it that he experienced deep down inside?

Recently, I decided to re-create, as nearly as possible, one of Allen’s typical Saturday weeding days.

I won’t bore you with all the pre-weeding details, like getting up at 4am, reading the New York Times and Washington Post, both online, cup of coffee in hand.

Or, having leftovers for breakfast, from dinner the night before.

Or, putting on bluejeans and a favorite flannel shirt–plaid, with sleeves far too short–and always a baseball cap from somewhere memorable like Geneva Falls, NY.

And I’ll not mention heading out to start weeding almost always at exactly 7:30am.

Those were the things that Allen did. So I’ll skip right over all those details and commence with Allen’s weeding tools.

A black plastic yard bag, for sitting and kneeling. An old dull kitchen knife for cutting out the roots of each weed. And a yard basket for collecting the weeds and their roots. And, yes: no gloves. He liked his fingers and hands to be one with the soil.

That was it. A simpler array of tools for such a noble task cannot be imagined.

Sometimes, as he weeded, it was as if he were descending into the earth that he tended, rising up from time to time, carrying to the compost pile the red yard basket filled to the brim with weeds and their roots. And so the cycle continued–descending, rising, and carrying–until he was done for the day.

That was it. A simpler approach to such a noble task cannot be imagined.

On my appointed day for re-enacting Allen’s day of weeding, I did not need to think about method or tools or pre-weeding activities. All those were so ingrained in my memory, my heart, and my soul that everything fell into place naturally.

My morning–this past Saturday, in fact–started with cool temps in the mid fifties, gradually warming to the upper seventies. A mix of clouds and sun. A gentle breeze. Low humidity. Just right.

As soon as I positioned myself with intentionality on my black plastic bag, I felt grounded–no pun intended. I knew that I had sat down exactly where I chose to sit. I knew that I had no where else that I wanted to be. I knew that I had no where else that I  wanted to go. “In the moment” vibrated with new meaning.

And then I felt totally in control. I knew that I could do as much or as little as I chose to do. I knew that I need move no further in any direction than the limits of my reach. Suddenly, I no longer felt overwhelmed by the enormity of totality. I could sit right where I sat, forever and forever and forever, and work my own postage stamp of mountain earth.

To my surprise–and, again, with no pun intended–I could smell the coffee that my neighbor higher up on the mountain was brewing, and I could nearly taste the bacon that he was frying. Closer to home, I could smell the lilac in my upper yard, just beginning to perfume the air, but even now its purply fragrance was so heavy that it nearly took my breath away.

To my great surprise, I could hear tractor trailers racing seventy miles an hour up and down the interstate, their roaring engines muffled to a monotonous drone by ten miles or so of puffy clouds and winding river. Closer still, I could hear the chirping of robins, never alone, always calling one to the other, always with the other returning the song.

And I could hear and feel the rustle of dry decay as my hands grabbed and bagged leaves from yesteryear. I could even hear the blue buzz of a horse fly as it circled my head, and, more joyous by far, the whir of a ruby-throated hummingbird–my first of the season–as it helicoptered all around me with quizzical uncertainty, darting deliberately, continuing to hover nearby, singing its high-pitched chips.

To my greater surprise, I started seeing things at the granular level. The grit in the soil. The veins in the weeds. The spidery whiteness of roots. The leaves and blooms on nearby plants. The house looming ever so large above my grounded perspective. The trees towering above the house. The clouds and sky arching over all, including me.

To my greatest surprise, one hour slipped into two. Two melted into three. Three faded into four. Four, into forever.

By then, the sharp, cutting edge of my morning angst had become as smooth as  well-worn marble stairs.

By then, my hope had heightened beyond my reach, stretching as far into the future as my senses could carry me.

By then, I had experienced deep down in the inner recesses of my soul what Allen had experienced in his.

By then, I knew the joy of weeding.