Baking Up My Past

“If baking is any labor at all, it’s a labor of love. A love that gets passed down from generation to generation.”

–Regina Brett

Make no mistake: I love to bake! My earliest baking triumph was a total disaster. I was four years old. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen to bake a cake all by myself, as she pretended to busy herself in the adjoining room, ready to rescue.

Rescue? What on earth could possibly go wrong? After all, I had been hanging out in the kitchen since forever, watching my mom bake one delicious cake after another, one sweet, tasty day after another into oblivion.

But something went terribly wrong. I measured the baking powder incorrectly. Neither I nor my mother knew until batter oozed out the door of our South Bend, woodburning cookstove, onto the kitchen floor.

Then my mother helped me understand the companion joy of baking: cleaning up the mess.

More, she made me bold enough to give a botched bake another try! I have no doubt that my second attempt–that same day, of course–was a resounding success. Ironically, though, what lingers is the initial memory of cake batter oozing out onto the floor like lava spewing out of Mt. Vesuvius.

That first bake–catastrophic though it was–got me hooked on baking, and through baking, I discovered that cake is the way to everyone’s heart. It can also be a mirror into the past.

For example, my mother’s favorite cake was a twelve-layer strawberry stack cake, make (preferably) with wild strawberries. Her mother always baked it for mom’s birthday. Later in life, when I baked that cake on mom’s birthday, she insisted that mine was every bit as good as any that her mother ever made (even if my strawberries never quite measured up to the wildness of the ones that her mother picked each May).

As for my dad, his favorite was a yellow layer cake with apple butter not only spread between the layers but also slathered on the sides and top. The thicker, the better. It was his favorite, first because he enjoyed baking it, and, second, because it was a quick version of the more complex and complicated apple stack cake that he enjoyed as a child.

As for my two brothers and three sisters, I am clueless.

As for me, I may be clueless about lots of things in life, but I am never clueless about my favorite cake. It’s always the one smackdab in front of me, assuming, of course, that it’s homemade from scratch or the one that I’m planning to back next always from scratch.

My siblings must have their favorites, too. I could ask, I suppose, but that straightforward approach would give me straightforward answers. What’s the fun in that?

I prefer thinking and conjecturing and researching.

What cakes were the rage when I was born? My siblings? My parents?

Mind you. This is not original thinking at all. I have seen such articles before: “famous cakes the decade you were born.”

The thing is that most of those articles don’t focus on what matters to me: cakes before the 1950s. Apparently, people born before 1950 are no longer alive, or, if they are, they’re too old to be baking cakes!

Well, excuse me. I was born before 1950, and I’ll put my bakes up against the best!

So I decided to don my toque blanche and research cakes that were popular during the decade of the Fighting Forties when I was born! I have two older sisters and an older brother who were born in that decade, too.

I could simply tell you that desserts from the 1940s included Carnival Marble Cake, Magic Peach Cake, Mincemeat Christmas Cake, and even a Chintz Cake.

But my 1940s siblings and I, though born in the same decade (and of the same parents) are as different as night and day.

So I decided to see what I could discover about birth-year cakes.

1947 was my year. A Chocolate Weary Willie Cake seems to have captured attention. It might interest you to know that “Weary Willie” was another name for a tramp. (Well, excuse me again. I’ve been called lots of things before, but never a tramp. Having made that disclosure, I’m confident that you will check out the link to that recipe. However, would you refrain from doing so until after you finish reading–and liking–today’s post? Thank you in advance for refraining and for liking!)

Another 1947 cake was Jack Berch’s Mahogany Cake. Berch was a radio announcer who chatted, whistled and sang for audiences from 1935 to 1954. “Keep a listenin’ while I’m a whistlin” was his motto. I like the backstory enough to try that recipe.

Now let’s move back a few years to 1943 when my sister Judy was born. That year the Red Velvet Cake was a hit. The recipe had been around far earlier, but in 1943, Irma Rombauer’s classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking introduced the Red Velvet Cake to America.

The year before–when my brother Stanley was born–America was grappling with war rations, and many cake recipes called for cheap pantry staples and far less sugar. This was the year of the Victory Cake.

My sister Arlene was born in 1940, the year of the Do Nothing Cake: “easy, takes no time to throw it together, and is so delicious.” I’m sure that she will be quite insulted when she reads about “her” cake, because she is always busy doing something.

My two oldest siblings were born in the previous decade, the Threadbare Thirties following the Great Depression.

Little wonder that when my sister Audrey was born in 1935, an eggless, milkless Depression Cake cake was popular. Far better, though, would have been the Sun-Maid Raisin Nut Cake from the same year, with the recipe right on the back of the raisin box.

Moving back two years to 1933, when my brother John was born, a Chocolate Prune Cake was the favorite. If you don’t like prunes, you might try the Doberge Cake, also popular that year.

Since I started this post by talking about my parents’ favorite cakes, it seems fitting that I should end with something about the cakes that folks enjoyed during their birth decades.

My mother, Bertha Pearl, was born in 1912, the year that the Titanic sank. During her decade of the Nineteen Tens/Teens, lots of cakes were in the lineup. Chocolate Nut Cake. Sponge Cake.

But I think my mother would have given a nod to the Lady Baltimore Cake, described in Owen Wister’s novel, Lady Baltimore:

“‘I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore,’ I said with extreme formality. I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore.  Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it?  It’s all soft, and it’s in layers, and it has nuts – but I can’t write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.  Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud, and with my mouth full, ‘But, dear me, this is delicious!’”

Finally we reach 1902 when my father, John Saunders, was born, at the start of the Aughties decade. Among a number of other chocolate-battered cakes, the first recipes actually dubbed Devil’s Food appeared that year, “one in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, and the other in The New Dixie Receipt Book in which it was slyly subtitled ‘Fit for Angels’.”

Clearly, I could bake up my past forever, especially if I were to pursue cake backstories for grandparents, aunts, uncles, first cousins, and cousins twice removed.

Fortunately, I won’t.

But rest assured. I will bake all the cakes that I have mentioned, knowing that I will continue to learn an awful lot about baking. Who knows: with a little luck, I might even stumble upon a recipe or two worthy of sharing with others.

As I taste my way along, I will stack up a rich and multi-layered appreciation of my family’s past with every cake I bake … with every bite I take.

Two Ways of Looking at the World

“Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes.”

Virginia Woolf (Three Guineas, 1938)

I live a quiet life. My days tend to have the same shape, with my activities anchored to specific times, so much so that at any appointed hour, I spring automatically into action. It’s similar, in many ways, to the meticulous scheme that Benjamin Franklin followed so faithfully and immortalized in his Autobiography.

A daily routine works for me as well as it did for Franklin. I swear by mine. Actually, I live by it.

Unlike Franklin, though, who got up at 5:00am, I tease myself (and sometimes others) claiming that I am a little more industrious because I get out of bed at 4:00am.

And, again, unlike Franklin, I start my day with robust physical activity rather than with passive–though well-intentioned–reflections about what good I shall do for the day, as Franklin did.

What Franklin did, of course, is all fine and well. But I prefer to engage in those reflections as I start my days–each and every one of them, seven days a week–by biking indoors for 20 miles.

As I bike, I listen to music. Not just any music. Generally, it has to be soul-filled Black Gospel music. But some White Gospel music slays me in the spirit of their singing, too, so those songs are on my biking playlist.

While biking recently, two songs by White Gospel groups caught my attention. In fact, those two songs got me to thinking about the importance of attitude in our lives.

Those two songs are at the heart of what you’re reading right now.

Both deal with the Biblical event recorded in the Gospel of John 11:1-44.

It’s the story of Lazarus. When he fell ill, his two sisters–Mary and Martha–sent for Jesus. But when He received word, He did not hurry to the side of His three friends. He remained where He was.

When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus ordered that the gravestone be rolled away, and then He raised Lazarus from the dead.

Even though both songs celebrate the same miracle, each sees it through different eyes.

The first Gospel song is by The McKameys. They wrote the lyrics to “Right on Time.”

Their lyrics are consistent with the Biblical account. Having been sent for, Jesus tarried, Lazarus died, and they laid him in the tomb. And as they said their last goodbyes, they looked: coming down the road was Jesus, right on time.

“Right on Time,” the song’s title, is repeated five times in the lyrics.

“Right on time.” Five times.

There is in the McKamey version a celebration of the belief that the Miracle Worker knows our needs–whatever they might be–and that He will arrive to meet those needs right on time. His time.

It is a comforting way to look at the world.

The other song, it seems to me, sees the same Biblical event from a  slightly different perspective. It’s a song by Karen Peck and New River, “Four Day’s Late.”

In their version, when Christ arrives, Martha runs out to Him, telling Him that He could have healed Lazarus if He had gotten there sooner.

And then the Miracle Worker gets an upbraiding: “But you’re four days late and all hope is gone.”

Imagine that! He who had performed twenty-eight miracles previous to raising Lazarus from the dead was now charged with being four days late for His twenty ninth!

“Four days late” is repeated six times in the song.

“Four days late.” Six times.

In fairness to Karen Peck and New River, they use the “four days late” refrain to remind us that whatever we’re going through we should be mindful that the Miracle Worker will always be on time for us, even in those times when we think He’s late.

Nonetheless, “Four Days Late” seems more like a lamentation than a celebration.

Same Biblical event. Seen somewhat differently through different lyrics.

What it comes down to is attitude. On time? Late?

And isn’t that true with all of us? What’s our attitude as we look at the events in our lives? Right on time? Four days late? Either way, the outcome is the same.

Why not look at each day as a rich, multifaceted, unpredictable, right-on-time miracle?

Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers

I started working on something, and it was really bad. It was crummy. But I was really so happy just to be working on a little crummy thing. I would get home, and I would think, “It’s waiting for me. My crummy thing.”

Louise Glück (American poet and winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature), “The Poet’s View” (2014).

Writers’ lives have always fascinated me. Their writing spaces and their writing habits have fascinated me perhaps even more.

Some writers’ spaces make me feel right at home. I’m thinking of Albert Camus, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Jack London, Ray Bradbury, Wallace Stegner, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Carl Sandburg. Their writing spaces are filled with stacks of papers and books just like one part of my office. They seem to thrive on chaos as much as I do.

In stark contrast are the well-organized and sparsely furnished writing spaces of E. B. White, Edith Wharton, Edward Albee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken, and Hunter S. Thompson. Their writing spaces are aesthetically beautiful, with everything positioned perfectly, but those spaces would be far too still–far too quiet–for me.

Interestingly enough, Maya Angelou doesn’t have her own writing space. She rents a hotel room in the towns where she lives. She goes there to write every day.

Angelou’s method would not work for me either. I couldn’t afford that kind of luxury.

Aside from writing spaces, writers have preferences about how they’re poised when they write. It might surprise you to know that not all writers write while sitting down.

Some stand. Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Philip Roth are a few examples.

Some lie down on their beds, notably Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, and Edith Wharton.

At least one writer dons his gravity boots and hangs from an exercise frame to think things out: Dan Brown.

What time of day do famous writers work?

Some are early birds. Toni Morrison (4am), Benjamin Franklin (5am), and Ernest Hemingway (6am).

Others, night owls: Franz Kafka and Charles Bukowski.

And what about daily writing quotas?

James Joyce prided himself on a well-written sentence. A good writing day for him? Three sentences.

Ernest Hemingway, 500 words. John Steinbeck, 1 page. Stephen King, 6-10 pages.

Ray Bradbury, a lot. One short story a week.

Henry Miller worked on one thing at a time until it was finished.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman worked on three stories at a time, on three different typewriters.

You’ve guessed it already. Famous writers are downright quirky.

But what about writers who are not famous? Are they quirky?

I can only answer for myself. I’m definitely not famous, but I definitely have one or four quirks.

Let me share a few of mine. I am doing so only because I casually shared one of my quirks in an email to a friend. Here’s what she wrote in response:

“I was interested in your note the other night about how you are now writing in bed! I have lots of questions! None of my business!  But I’m still interested!  

“On a laptop? Cup of tea by your side? Wine? Cocktail?  Pencil and paper? Do you rewrite as you go along or wait until the end?

“How do you label your docs?”

Before tossing my reply out into the world for all to read, let me put things into context.

My home is on a mountain top. My office is downstairs where I have sweeping views of the valley below and the mountain range beyond. Nearest the expansive window looking out onto my stone patio and my gardens below is my sparse desk with an HP All-in-One Computer and a lamp. This is where I do my professorial academic work.

To the back of my office is an old Shenandoah Valley farm table (bookcases on the side walls) with an HP EliteBook and a lamp. That’s the research end of my office where I’m currently working on a two-volume book tentatively titled Dolly: Life and Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. That part of my office is cluttered chaos, but I know what’s where.

Obviously, I need one dedicated space for my academics and another one for my research.

What I had not realized, however, until my friend asked about my blog-writing habits, is that I need a third area for working on my blog!

Here’s where and how I work on my blog. It’s what I shared first with my friend and now with you, my readers.

“What I am about to share will shatter your image!

“I am literally in bed, usually around 7:45pm, and I try to write until 9:30pm or so. This new routine–started just before Christmas–seems to give me a better night’s sleep, though I am now sleeping in until 5:30am.

“Yes, I have a cocktail: a Bunnahabhain Scotch, neat, waiting for me on the night table. No laptop. I’m doing the thinking, writing, revising, and editing right on my smartphone, while lying all comfy in bed. 

“No docs. I’m doing it all as drafts in WordPress.

“I find that having four or five different posts going at once lets me focus on what my mood requires.

“I’ve never written in this manner before, but I like it a lot. Actually, I love it. It makes me feel very much like a writer must feel. When I write now, I am done with the busyness of the day.  It’s quiet, and my mind just settles in peacefully on ideas and fooling around with words!

“So there! You heard it first right here! And what you’re reading here might well find its way into a future post. I just had an idea!”

Indeed, “the idea that I just had” is exactly what you’re reading now: a blog post sharing glimpses of the spaces and habits of famous writers and one not-so-famous writer: me.

What I didn’t share with my friend is this. The multiple posts that I work on–each in various draft stages–start out as little more than ideas, sometimes bad ones. To paraphrase Louise Glück, I say to myself as each day winds down and I get ready for bed: “They’re there. My crummy draft posts are waiting for me.”

Who on earth would have dreamt that writing could become such a comforting, lay-me-down-to-sleep bedfellow?

My Imaginary Guests

I have a funny mental framework when I do physics. I create an imaginary audience in my head to explain things to – it is part of the way I think. For me, teaching and explaining, even to my imaginary audience, is part of the process.

Leonard Susskind

It seems to me that if a noted physicist like Leonard Susskind can admit to having a funny mental framework and imaginary audiences, a simple English professor like me can, too.

My funny mental framework is an occupational requirement when I do literature. I spend a lot of time exploring literary white spaces, I spend even more time reading between the literary lines, and I spend the most time helping my students develop their own funny mental frameworks.

My imaginary audiences are simply a carryover from childhood. Truth be told, my imagination is probably the only part of me that’s still in tact and in shape after all these years. I guess it’s a prime example of “use it or lose it.” Believe me: I’ve used it.

Indeed I’ve had to use it more than ever since Covid’s arrival a little more than two years ago, especially when it comes to house cleaning.

I had just as well tell you up front. I love a clean home, but I hate house cleaning.

It’s tedious. It’s odious. It’s repetitive. And worst of all, it’s never done. Just when I think that I have finished, I discover that I have to start all over again. Where on earth does all that dust come from? And who put all those streaks on my windows right after I cleaned them with streak free window cleaner?

It’s a good thing that my late partner, Allen, felt the same way about house cleaning. We both preferred cooking. (The heady perfume of Thai spices always out fragranced lemony Pledge.) Or gardening. (The wishful anticipation of spring flowers always out did our untidy offices.)  Or hiking.  (The quiet time with nature always out maneuvered the roar of the vacuum cleaner.) Or cycling (The revving up of heart and lungs always out powered mopping the kitchen floor.)

Yet we knew fully well that house cleaning was a necessary evil. So we faced it head on. Occasionally. But no more often than necessary.

We developed a foolproof strategy for keeping our home clean. Invite guests!

If the house didn’t need much cleaning, we’d have dinner guests.

If the house needed a little more attention, we would have overnight guests.

And if the house needed lots of cleaning because we had simply frittered away our spare time with silly things like cooking, gardening, hiking, and cycling, we would have weekend guests.

Never, absolutely never, did we ever let the house get to the point of needing so much cleaning that we had to invite guests to stay longer than a weekend. We took Benjamin Franklin at his word: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Whether our guests were with us for the weekend, for an overnight, or just for dinner, we knew that we would have a truly joyful time.

Equally important, or maybe even more, we selfishly knew that we would enjoy the spic-and-span home that preparing for company always brings, almost as magically as a self-cleaning oven–well, at least in my wired imagination.

But all of that was before COVID.

Since COVID, we’ve all had to change the way we live. But I’ll tell you one thing: COVID has not changed the way that I see house cleaning. It’s still tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending.

Actually, it’s even more so because since COVID I don’t entertain a lot, especially since winter has kicked in and since Omicron has kicked our butts even harder.

These are the times when I find myself summoning up my imaginary guests.

They’re helping me keep my home clean, the way that I like it to be.

I have lots of real cleaning strategies that I really do use when I conjure up my imaginary guests.

Sometimes my strategy focuses on who my imaginary guests are. If they’re family or friends or neighbors, I rationalize that they’ve seen my home clean at least once before so their memory of that memorable degree of cleanliness will no doubt equal my imaginative degree of imagination. In that situation, the cleaning doesn’t make me break out into a sweat.

But if my imaginary guests are my colleagues, I shift my strategy. They may or may not have seen my home before. And it really doesn’t matter because I know that they are as skilled in exploring white space and reading between the lines as I am. They’ll be exploring everywhere and looking under everything. In that situation, the cleaning makes me break out into a big time sweat.

Either way, just imagine the cleaning that I get done for guests who never come. That’s fine by me.  My home still gets cleaned.

Another strategy focuses on what parts of my home my imaginary guests might visit.

Dinner guests: Kitchen. Dining room. Living room. Guest bathroom. I can get those rooms readied up right fast. Done in an hour.

Overnight guests: Same as for dinner guests plus guest bedroom. No big deal since the guest bedroom is not used that often. Done. Add an extra thirty minutes.

Weekend guests: Same as overnight guests plus the entire rest of the house because they want to see it all. These imagined guests require me to roll up my sleeves and do some deep cleaning. Done, in just one day, but begrudgingly so.

Another strategy that I use to house clean for imaginary guests who never show up is perhaps my favorite though most feared

How soon will they arrive?

Tomorrow? Today? This afternoon? In an hour? They’re in the driveway? No way! OMG! The nerve!

Trust me. Panic can clean a house faster than any other strategy!

I can’t begin to tell you how much I treasure all of my imaginary guests–whoever they are, wherever they are, and whenever it is that they will never arrive. I bless each and every one of them for all that they’re doing to help me with my tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending house cleaning.

One day, though, they really might arrive. Oh, how I long for that day to come. Real guests in my clean home. For dinner. For overnight. For a weekend. (For longer? Never.)

When that time comes, I’ll be so proud to show off my spic-and-span home that my imaginary guests and I have maintained, waiting for my real, honored guests to arrive.

I’m a Spring Teaser

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Charles Dudley Warner
(The witticism is often attributed erroneously to Mark Twain.)

I have been forecasting the weather forever.

One of my favorite “meteorological barometers” is the sky! I stare at it. I swear by it.

I especially swear by “Red sails at night, sailors delight. Red sails at morning, sailors take warning.”

Who would have thought that variations of that weather adage go all the way back to Shakespeare (“Venus and Adonis” [lines 453-46]) and to the Bible (Matthew XVI: 2-3)?

Be that as it may, it gives me lots of traction, especially when it comes to forecasting fierce thunderstorms and fierce snowstorms.

And that’s exactly how I like like my storms and my forecasts. Fierce.  “Fierce” may not be a crowd pleaser, but it’s a sure-fire attention getter.

Without doubt, forecasting the weather predates my modest efforts. It also predates Biblical weather forecasting by Lord knows how long.

Well, we do know that it goes at least as far back as 650 B.C., when the Babylonians predicted weather based on clouds and haloes.

Then around 340 B.C., Aristotle wrote his Meteorologica, a treatise about rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes. It remained the weather standard until the 17th century.

Fast forward from then until now. The advances are far too many for me to mention even briefly. Lucky me. Luckier you.

But there is one fancy scientific gadget for forecasting weather that stands heads and shoulders above the rest.

I mention it only because I own one. It’s a Fitzroy Storm Glass. A group of my creative writing students gave it to me years ago.

I wish that you could see it. I keep it in my kitchen on top of a fabulous antique corn sheller. About all that I can say for it–the Fitzroy, not the corn sheller–is that it’s a wonderful objet d’art, and it always draws attention to the corn sheller. (Other folks, it seems, are no more interested in a scientific approach to weather forecasting than I am.)

Nonetheless, I have a pretty good track record when it comes to predicting storms, particularly snowstorms.

If you want proof, ask around. Neighbors. Students. Colleagues.

Better still, ask my former and present college presidents. I always give a heads up when a snowstorm is headed our way. I want to make sure that the “college-closed announcements” go out early–preferably the night before–so that I can sleep in the next day. Ah! The exquisite luxury of getting up at five instead of four!

And if those folks won’t give me credit for my SnowCasting accuracy, let me just say this in self-defense. What I lack in accuracy I make up for in hype. I’m a snow-hype maximizer. Local grocery store chains love it when I get folks all cooked up over a storm headed our way. I’m the one who spurs on all the frenzied shopping that leaves all the shelves empty.

That’s what I’ve been told at any rate.  I hope that’s true, because then I won’t feel too bad when my forecasts are from time to time hundreds of miles or so off track or a few weeks behind or a few weeks ahead of schedule. They’re still good for the local economy.

If you’re wondering how I established my track record for weather forecasting and my reputation for weather hype, let me explain.

It’s as simple as I am. I use one of the oldest methods ever: patterning. I observe what’s happening in the natural world around me. Trust me: I’ve been around long enough to put two and two together and come up with lots of observations and patterns. Sometimes they’re about the weather.

Patterns are helpful–really helpful–in predicting the arrival of spring (Vernal Equinox) as I am about to do right here for 2022, soon and very soon.

However, before sharing those patterns and my prediction for spring’s arrival, there’s something that I simply must get off my chest.

I know that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on February 2, ran back inside, warning us all of six more weeks of winter, thereby putting his official arrival of spring pretty close to what it would be officially this year anyway: March 20.

But based on what I’m seeing in my local mountain patterns, I’m convinced that the famed Pennsylvania groundhog (Marmota monax) is wrong.

Actually, I’m so convinced that I have every intention of getting my own groundhog. Her full name will be one that regular folks can pronounce from one year to the next without having to consult HowtoPronounce. Hmmm. Edinburg Eve might be perfect.

Then I’ll set up my own groundhog club right here on my mountain, right in my own backyard! It would be locally significant, and it would draw world-wide media attention. (Note to myself: This is, without doubt, a perfect GoFundMe dream opportunity. Be careful not to share this idea with others. Someone will steal it for sure. This is hot. Really hot.)

Here’s how I know that Phil is wrong, based on six patterns showing up around here.

No. 1. When my witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) blooms. I can always count on a bouquet by the end of February. This year, though, I gifted a neighbor with some blooming branches in early January. That’s a healthy month earlier than usual. It probably, perhaps, doesn’t mean a thing.

No. 2. When local striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) mate. Around these parts, they mate in mid-February, no doubt because of Valentine’s Day. This year, they’ve been at it since late December. They get so carried away by their amorous pursuits that I see them all the time, all on and all along the highways. Dead. That’s even more than a month early. It probably, perhaps, doesn’t mean a thing either, other than stinky dead skunks.

No. 3. When my mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) start courting.  Charlie and Alabaster took up here years ago, and they normally start their courting rituals in late February. But as I live and breathe, when I looked out onto my deck last week, there they were, feathers puffed and ruffled, cooing and wooing and strutting all around with no shame whatsoever. That’s the third early spring harbinger that I am witnessing.  It has to mean something.

No. 4. When robins (Turdus migratorius) return to the area. Although I have not seen a single, solitary robin yet, I have heard from my faithful weather correspondent in Strasburg (Virginia, not Austria) that robins appeared in her yard last week, a full month earlier than usual.

No. 5. When my tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) start budding. They never bud until late March, sometimes early April. Guess what? They have swollen buds right now. One more piece of evidence. One more pattern.

No. 6. I saved the best for last. When the faerie ring (Crocus fatum) blooms. The same well-informed and faithful Strasburg informant just a few days ago informed me that her faerie ring is blooming. As proof that it was blooming on time, she shared a copy of the email that she sent me last year on February 9 announcing her blooming faerie. Oh, dear. Now that I’m re-reading her emails more carefully, it seems that her point was nothing more than the fact that her faerie ring is blooming right on time. Still, this piece of evidence could have been so strong and so convincing that I don’t have the heart to take it out.

Taken singly, the evidence probably, perhaps, might not mean anything. Yet I am mindful of the power of one.

Taken collectively, the evidence probably, perhaps, might mean everything. I am mindful of the power of many.

Before I make my declaration about spring’s arrival (which I am about to do), let me say succinctly, as is my custom to which you can attest, that my declaration is based on the full reckoning of all the scientific evidence, weather lore, and mountain patterns at my disposal, offset and adjusted as necessary to advance my own whims based on how the winds blow.

We are, as I have shown clearly and convincingly, one full month ahead of schedule in terms of the arrival of spring weather.

Yes: more snows will probably, perhaps, fall.

Yes: the innumerable meteorologists who are probably, perhaps, reading this post right now, hoping to strengthen their own forecasts and give themselves greater credibility (albeit stolen), are scratching their proverbial heads trying to make sense of it all. I wish them well.

But pay neither the snow nor the meteorologists no mind whatsoever.

What Mother Nature knows, she knows.

And has she not brought forth into full and plain view, for everyone to see and now to understand, evidence from a wide assortment of her best witnesses? She has.

Witch hazel. Skunks. Robins. Tree peonies. Faerie rings.

As you share this spring teaser with social media far and wide–and I hope that you will–remember not only to consider but also to credit the source.

You heard it first, right here. An early spring awaits us. I tease you not.

Running Reference

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Attributed to Mark Twain

We’re all probably familiar with Mark Twain’s observation that the older he got the smarter his father became. 

Ironically, no evidence exists that Twain actually authored the words credited to him far and wide, over and over.

Doubtful authorship, however, does not diminish the truth: we grow wiser with age. In our twenties, we see our parents differently than we did in our teens. Life experiences and hindsight heighten our perspectives.

Looking back on my teens, I never considered either my father or my mother to be ignorant.

But in my mid-twenties, as a graduate student, I had an epiphany not too unlike Twain’s.

Mine, however, was not about my father. It was about my mother. Let me share what I learned.

As a Pilgrim Holiness minister, my mother was well versed in the Bible, forwards and backwards. She loved discussing the Bible and the nuances of Scripture with anyone and everyone.

Sometimes, as a child, I was a silent listener as she talked with members of her own congregation, but sometimes with people from other denominations and faiths. Either way, everyone went their separate ways with a clear and deeper understanding through my mother’s insights.

Sometimes the Scriptural explorations would intensify, and the circle of friends would expect my mother to provide an interpretation of Scripture, right then and there on the spot. She was, after all, the minister.

But my mother would not be beguiled into answering what she did not know.

Her response in such situations lingers still, as I hear her saying in her characteristic, soft-spoken voice, “Let me go home and run reference.”

“Let me go home and run reference.”

And that’s exactly what she did, though, at the time–as a youngster–I had no idea what she was doing, exactly.

I never saw her do it. I suppose she did it privately in the few quiet moments that she would have claimed as her own throughout the day and night as a minister, wife, and mother of six.

After running reference, she always continued the Scriptural inquiry with her parishioners and neighbors the next day, and, sometimes, for days thereafter. That which had been confusing became coherent and intelligible.

What she had been doing became abundantly clear to me when I started graduate school.

My mother had been doing scholarly research. When she ran reference, she was consulting multiple Biblical commentaries, especially her treasured Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, originally written in 1706. Her research brought informed clarity to her interpretations.

When she ran reference, she was–in her unpretentious way–conducting Biblical research right there in our Southern West Virginia coal camp. It was every bit as sophisticated as the doctoral research in American Literature that I would later chase up and down and all around the ivory halls of academe, at a major four-year university.

When I had that epiphany in my twenties, I can’t begin to tell you how proud I was of my mother for the scholarship that she had been doing all down through the years. I am grateful that I told her so.

I chalk up my love of research to my mother’s influence. Whenever I’m working on my own scholarly projects, I am always mindful of my mother.

And, to this day, I can still hear my mother saying, “I have to go home now and run reference.”

What a Way to Live!

“As I get older and older and older, my determination is getting stronger and stronger and stronger, especially when it comes to using things up.”

I am a Baby Boomer with an incredibly strong work ethic and a fierce willingness to roll up my sleeves and get the job done. But like the Silent Generation before me, I am frugal. Whatever I have, I’m going to use it, and I’m going to use it up.

As I get older and older and older, my determination is getting stronger and stronger and stronger, especially when it comes to using things up. Like certain toiletry items. My toothpaste. My hairspray. My shaving lather.

I can’t see inside my toothpaste tube. But what I have found is this: just when I think there’s nothing left inside, I can always get more. All that I have to do is press from the bottom up. Sometimes it’s enough to last another week. That’s amazing, especially since I was ready to toss the tube aside as empty and of no more worth. Here’s what’s even more amazing. After that week is up, if I start rolling the tube from the bottom up—rolling really tightly—I’ll get enough toothpaste for a few more days. The manufacturer would be surprised.

The trick?  Keep pressing. Keep rolling.  Always with full belief and full determination.

The same thing happens with my aerosol hair spray and my aerosol shaving lather.

I can’t see inside those cans, either.

They, too, seem to be empty long before they are. If I set them on the shelf and wait a little longer, perhaps an entire day, and then shake a little harder, out comes enough lather to give me a clean shave and out comes enough spray to hold my silver strands in place. This might go on for days before they are really used up. Manufacturer surprise, again.

The trick? Keep shaking. Always with full belief and full determination.

It takes patience. It takes work. Actually, it takes quite a bit of both. Needless to say, the toothpaste doesn’t squirt forth with full gusto, falling off the brush as it sometimes did when the tube was full. And needless to say, the shaving lather never goes flying off the palm of my hand as it sometimes did when the can was full. And the hairspray doesn’t rearrange my strands into an upswing as it sometimes did when the can was first sprayed. Simply put, the outcomes are by no means as spectacular as they were before the tubes and cans were nearly used up.

Even so, I always celebrate the fact that I found enough remaining inside to get the job done just as well as when the tubes were fully plump and the cans were fully pressurized.

That’s how I want my own life to be. When I’m feeling empty—when it seems that I have little left, perhaps nothing—I hope that my Maker surprises me with enough resolve to keep working my hands, my heart, my mind, and my soul—fiercely determined to keep on keeping on until every bit of me is used up.

What a way to live! What a way to celebrate life!

Honoring an Angel

“May there always be an angel by your side.”

–Blessing

My belief in angels goes all the way back to my childhood in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia.

I’m not too surprised. My mother was a Pilgrim Holiness minister, and she had read both the Old Testament and the New Testament more than thirty times. She was well versed in the text and the context surrounding the 273 references to angels in the King James Bible.

She anchored me squarely and securely to my belief in angels, and it has lingered with me and has fascinated me throughout my life.

Angels are acknowledged, of course, in many of the world’s major religions, aside from Christianity. They figure prominently in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as in belief systems such as New Age Spirituality.

And I am not alone in my belief. Some polls show that nearly 80% of Americans believe that angels are real, year-round, ethereal beings. Among Americans who attend weekly religious services, the belief jumps to 94%, and among Evangelical Christians, it edges up to 95%.

Angels are messengers who comfort, protect, provide unconditional love, and serve others. Some are earth angels. Sensitive souls, lending the helping hand even before the cry for help can be heard. Seeing the good in those who might not see it in themselves. Feeling pain when others hurt. Possessing an aura that makes others confide and trust. Encouraging the discouraged. Turning to nature for quiet, for renewal.

My belief in angels is strengthened by personal experience. My life was blessed by an earth angel for twenty years, all the way up until his death a year ago today.

I knew that Allen was an angel from the moment that he won my heart, from the moment that I won his. We knew that we had each met our soulmate, that we had each found our way home.

I told him so on the spot, right then, right there. He smiled with an angelic smile that only he could smile: coy and twinkly-eyed, all angel like.

As we came to know one another better, I was even more convinced, so much so that I promised to one day write an essay about him as the angel in my life. “I hope that you will,” he beamed, giving me what was by then the angelic, twinkly-eyed smile that was his signature smile that I so adored.

Ironically, when Allen died, I had never gotten around to writing that promised angel essay.

To be certain, it was not because of any waning conviction that an earth angel had entered my life with perfect timing, as angels always do.

Looking back, I think that it was simply because, rather than write the essay, we chose to live it jointly in every dimension of our earthly life together, side by side. Partners. Lovers. Friends. Hikers. Cyclists. Chefs. Gardeners. Educators.

Obviously, we lived it separately as well. Allen was an incredible human being, accepting of whatever life offered. No moans. No groans. No complaints. He knew the power of surrender. He knew the power of acceptance.

Like all earth angels, Allen loved serving others, helping others, and healing others. As a Surgical Technologist, he was a passionate practitioner not only in multiple hospital settings where he distinguished himself but also at the colleges whose Surgical Technology Programs he directed.

Like all earth angels, his aura inspired in his patients and his students confidence and trust.

At our end-of-day, before-dinner cocktail conversations, Allen was always at his angelic best as he talked about his challenging surgeries or about his precepting experiences. Always at those moments, I could count on seeing his angelic, twinkly-eyed smile.

Like all earth angels, Allen gave unconditional love, and his unconditional love met with the same from me. During our life together, we learned the value of affirming our mutual love. Whenever we went our separate ways throughout the day and always at bedtime, we made a point of saying, “I love you.” Without fail. “I love you.” We wanted those three words to be the last thing that we heard. And indeed, “I love you” was the last thing that each of us said to the other, just minutes before Allen died.

Like all earth angels, Allen turned to nature–to gardening–for quiet renewal. He helped turn a mountaintop wilderness into a coveted botanical oasis for the two of us. Always true to himself and his beliefs, he took greatest joy in watching small, undernourished—and sometimes unwanted—plants thrive and flourish under his care, against all odds, against all wishes. Perhaps even greater was the perpetual joy that he derived from the ever-so-constant, ever-so-required, and ever-so-faithful maintenance of our gardens, spending hours and hours and hours on end—with great satisfaction—pulling weed after weed after weed, fervently and constantly, up by the roots, one by one by one.

Little wonder that when I started to write Allen’s obituary a year ago, it was as if angel wings brushed across the page, just as magically as Allen had brushed across and touched our lives together.

Immediately, I knew that I would anchor his obituary to angels. It began with: “A kind, gentle, and angelic soul—ever so quiet and ever so reserved but ever so full of life and light and ever so much loved by all who knew him personally and professionally is with us no more.”

Little wonder that I ended his obituary with: “Now, Allen gardens forever and forever and forever with angels.”

But obituaries are not the final word.

And death is not the end.

Twenty one years after my promise, I’m actually writing the essay honoring my angel–Patrick Allen Duff.

And as I honor him, he’s right here by my side, always, giving me back his coy, twinkly-eyed, angelic smile, once more and forever.

Call and Response

“We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.”

A few months before Daniel Boorstin retired in 1987 as the 12th Librarian of Congress, I had the honor to interview him. It was a rare opportunity. Armed with pencils and pad, I was readied with more than an ample number of questions, the answers to which I hoped might reveal new insights into the man whose prolific, prize-winning books included the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); The Americans: The National Experience (1965); and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).

I still remember one of those questions.

I wanted to know, as preposterous as I knew the question to be, what book in the Library of Congress he would keep if he had to throw every book away save one.

I still remember Dr. Boorstin’s response. It stings as much now as it did then.

“Oh, I can’t answer a question like that. It’s not realistic.”

Of course, he couldn’t.  After all, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 25 million cataloged books.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to respond to my unrealistic question.

“I might say the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When dictators burn books–let me say the first books to keep are the books that would be burned by a dictator. I’m saddened that people in parts of the world … can’t read what they want. We should weep for our fellow human beings who can’t read whatever they want.”

You would think that I would have learned a lesson about asking unrealistic questions.

And I did.

But if you’re thinking that I learned not to ask unrealistic questions, you’re wrong.

What I learned is this: ask the questions even if they might be perceived as unrealistic.

And that is exactly what I have always done. And that is exactly what I will keep on doing.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I love asking my students questions, even unrealistic ones.

Just last week, smackdab at the beginning of the semester, I tossed one to my Creative Writing students: 

“What important lesson have you learned during the pandemic?” Write a 500-600 word essay responding to the question.

I had no sooner given the assignment than Dr. Boorstin’s comment started reverberating in my memory. “I can’t answer a question like that.”

But after the echo quieted, I remembered that Dr. Boorstin responded to my question anyway, unrealistic as he considered it to have been.

And I remember so vividly that his response joyed me, thrilled me–not so much for the content (though I think that his selection of OED was a stellar choice)–but more because he graciously went right ahead and responded to a question that he had just stingingly characterized as unrealistic!

Truth be told, it wasn’t until just now–this very moment, actually–that I realized how successful I was with that interview. I went into the interview simply hoping that I might gain at least one new, unique insight into this acclaimed historian. And I did! By asking my unrealistic question, I gained a priceless response: Dr. Boorstin’s statement that the OED might be the one book from the millions of books in the Library of Congress that he would save.

Search and explore, if you will, all the published interviews with Dr. Boorstin, and I daresay that you will not find this little nugget anywhere other than in the September/October 1987 issue of Insights: The Library of Congress Professional Association Newsletter that published the full interview.

But I digress, as I am so inclined to do, as I so love to do when I’m fooling around with ideas and words.

Let’s get back to my students, wherever it was that I left them before my digression caused my moment of forgetfulness! Ah, there they are: I found them again. I usually do! It seems that they might be talking about how preposterous the topic is that I asked them to explore, how unrealistic it is.

If they feel that way, I get it. I feel that way, too. No doubt, you do, too. No doubt, we all feel that way because we have all gone through so much during a pandemic that has lasted for two years and that threatens to dog us into the future. Globally. Nationally. Personally.

How do we cope with the challenging times ahead, whatever they might be?

Maybe, just maybe, we make it through the same way that my students will make it through as they write about what they have learned.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment to pause.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment or three or more from all the busy-ness that so often prempts the genuinely important things in our lives.

We let our minds wander. We pause in wonder. We think about what we have learned. We reflect.

We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.

I have no idea how my students will respond to the call–absolutely no idea. I am writing this blog post days before I will have seen their submissions. But I am confident that they will respond. And it won’t be because of a grade. It will be because they have an opportunity to sort through it all.

It will be an opportunity for them to explore a question that, perhaps, no one has asked them to explore before, especially with the requirement that they chronicle their explorations in writing.

As they sort through it all and share what they have learned, I reserve to them the right to preface their lessons learned with the same caveat that Dr. Boorstin used to preface his response: “I might say […].”

Tomorrow, my students might change their minds and explore another lesson learned. Actually, I hope that they do!

Whatever it is they might say, I will value, honor, and respect their responses. For they will have done what I hope each of us will do as we grapple with a pandemic that baffles science and scientists and that requires daily changes to the game plan.

Respond. Write. Distill.

Since my students have to grapple with and respond to my unrealistic question, it seems to me that I should have to do the same. It seems to me that I should have to sort through my own pandemic experiences and arrive at a lesson that I have learned.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this post.

What I have learned (re-discovered, if you will) is how much I love fooling around with ideas and words. It brings me great delight. It always has. As a child, I fooled around with ideas and words in the dictionary, letting one definition lead me to the next and that one to the next and so on, just as my mother ran reference in her Biblical commentary books. It was so easy to get lost running after ideas and words. Sometimes I even lost myself.

More important, though, sometimes while fooling around with ideas and words, I landed upon moments when a great calm washed over me and comforted me and made me believe that everything might be all right after all.

It’s akin to what Robert Frost observed about poetry and about love: “[Poetry] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion […] Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (“The Figure a Poem Make,” Collected Poems, 1939).

I’d like to claim that thinking about today’s post began in delight. It did not. My initial thoughts were a mishmash of all that I have missed out on–lost, if you will–during the last two years. I won’t even begin to list my woes and heartaches and tragedies here because you know them all, already, all too well. I’m betting that yours have weighed as heavily on your spirit as they have weighed on mine.

I had to reign myself instanter. I had to shift my focus from lost to found. From lost to learned.

Ideas and words have always anchored me and held me fast during the raging storms of life, even before the pandemic, and they will continue to do the same long afterwards.

As soon as I made that much-needed attitude adjustment, my essay-in-progress–this post– started giving me delight! Then, I allowed impulse to take over, and I went with the flow as the essay rode along on its own melting.

And, by the time that it ended–as it is about to do–I had a moment of clarity– perhaps even a moment of wisdom.

I am delighted that I called on my students to tackle my unrealistic question.

I am even more delighted that I tackled it myself because in sorting through my own lessons–in creating my own “call and response”–my essay ran a course of lucky events, and I achieved my own Frostian stay against confusion, momentary though it might be!

A Cursive New Year’s Resolution

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a lot of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance this list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I have never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I have never ushered in a new year with any firm resolution to do–or not to do–something. This year, however, I may make an exception. This year, I may make one, single solitary resolution.

Here’s why.

Last week I sat down to write some personal notes to a few alumni of Lord Fairfax Community College where I am a professor of English. It seemed to me that the personal touch would be the right touch. 

Armed with my blue-ink, roller ball pen—and just barely into my second note—I realized that something was wrong. My fingers felt cramped. My upper arm muscles felt atrophied. My relaxed and cursive grace of yesteryear was gone. 

I was “drawing” my letters. They were tight and cramped like my unused writing muscles.

Once upon a time, I knew how to use those muscles, and they were robust and firm.

Once upon a time, I knew how to write naturally and smoothly and uniformly.

But that was long ago when I wrote letters in cursive—in longhand—with my special pen, on my special paper.

Suddenly, I realized that I had not written in longhand for a long, long time.  For nearly four decades, I have word processed nearly everything. I just don’t “do” longhand anymore, beyond the mechanical “Enjoy the holidays” or “Feel better soon” or “I love you” scrawls. How strange, especially considering that I love reading published volumes of letters and, in fact, I spent ten years locating, deciphering, and editing the letters of New England writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and I am now working on a revised, updated, two-volume edition. 

Suddenly, I realized that I have not received many personal longhand letters and notes in a long time either. Over time, the volume has decreased steadily, and I no longer need trunks and file cabinets to store those personal artifacts, treasured objets d’art. Handwritten notes from friends and family have been hardly better than the scribbles I have sent their way. Touché.   

Paradoxically, I receive far more communiqués these days. My smart phone goes with me everywhere because I want to stay connected and be accessible. My email inbox has nearly reached its maximum storage capacity. Truthfully, those messages are far more frequent, far more detailed, and far more extensive than the longhand letters of yesteryear.

I store these electronic messages in virtual folders, where, hopefully, they will remain, virtually forever. But I doubt it. Maybe I should start printing those messages. Maybe I should start putting them away somewhere for safekeeping.   

I’m thankful that I sat down to write personal notes to some former students. Writing them has given me a wake-up call. I realize that some traditions can be preserved alongside all the marvelous advances that propel us magically forward.      

Ironically, here I sit at my computer on New Year’s Day, pecking away at the keyboard, wondering: What else in my life is cramped? Atrophied? What else should I re-train? Re-learn? Preserve? Potentialize?

For now, I’ll resolve to make one—just one—New Year’s resolution for this year and this year only. I’ll strive to renew my old tradition of reaching out to folks from time to time with longhand letters—my hand, my pen, my ink, my paper, my postage stamp. My arm, my hand, my mind, my heart, my soul—retrained to a cursive tradition that is natural and social and graceful.