Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Dragonfruit


A welcoming presence in this new locale—
A community garden an easy walk away.
Most mornings, a garden elder greets me,
Shares stories of other gardeners and of
The plants growing under her watchful eye.

Along a trellis just outside the garden
Gate sprawls a droopy set of greenery—
Half cactus, half vine, it shades the
Garden’s tool shed behind it.

droopy cactus?



“What’s that?” I ask the first time
I see this mystery plant, splaying pale
Cream-colored blossoms along
Its width. “A dragonfruit,”
Explains the elder. “It’s not officially
Part of the garden, but one of
Our gardeners asked to put it there.”

Most of the time, the blossoms are
Already spent by morning. The plant,
I learn online, usually blooms at night.
Bats and nocturnal insects pollinate it.

On subsequent visits, I find that spent
Blooms have fallen off, replaced by growing
Orbs, at first pale green, then pinkish,
Then red. As they get bigger, they
Sprout what look a bit like scales—
Hence the popular name.

My most recent trip reveals a new sign—
“Large fruit, $3; small $1; proceeds to
Help buy supplies for next spring’s planting.”
I remember having eaten some once in a fruit salad:
White inside, with black seeds and a mild flavor.

I think I’ll buy some and try to find creative
Uses for them. If nothing else, they can remind
Me, in this pivotal time, when so many
Preconceptions have been turned
Inside out, to nudge my inner dragons
Away from seedy black and white,
Toward a more scaled and colorful reality.

halved dragon fruit

pink-red dragon fruit

A Time to Gather Stones Together?

rocks for drainage control

rocks and shrubs for landscaping

rocks, gravel, mementos and cacti

Earlier this year, I moved from an area that gets about a meter of rain per year to a locale that rarely gets as much as a quarter of that. Per local weather data, this past year has been drier still, with only about 13 centimeters of rain during the most recent dozen months. Water rationing has not yet been fully imposed, but residents are required by local ordnance to limit any landscape watering to the periods of early morning, late evening, or nighttime. More and more areas that previously tried to be “lawns” have been converted to less water-thirsty designs. 

Because of pandemic restrictions, some of the in-person resources that had been available for teaching “water wisdom” have been curtailed. Still, there are online resources, such as https://www.watersmartsd.org/residential/landscape-resources/, and some visiting allowed at an area “water conservation garden (https://thegarden.org).”

While on neighborhood walks, I’ve also been surveying our vicinity for inspiration before making any further changes to our small yard. It’s pretty amazing what can be accomplished using varieties of mulch, stone, and other pavers, sometimes with a dollop of desert plants, sometimes using a broader set of shrubs and grasses. My guess is that “xeriscaping,” also know as “drought-tolerant landscaping” is also more erosion-resistant if and when the rains do come. A time for this newly minted southern Californian to gather more stones together?

Our Avocado Kitchen

 

The house where we mostly raised our children was an older two-story dwelling that had likely had several owners before us. We’d bought it pre-children, thrilled by its roominess and by its relatively low price. Its exterior stucco was a light green, with darker green trim on its porches and windows. The colors fit well with the shade trees lining our narrow, one-way street. What was less thrilling was the color of its interior paint. Nearly every room was a dull, sickly looking green. Perhaps that shade of paint had been on sale when the prior owners were preparing the house to sell, or maybe they had some leftover mixture after the exterior was painted? We never got to ask. 

We quickly set about redecorating to colors we found more pleasing. By the time our older child was born, we’d stripped both the paint and the wallpaper under it from most rooms in the house. The dining room became a shade of light blue, the living room even paler. A couple of the bedrooms got “photo walls” of spectacular scenery. The nursery had kid-themed wallpaper. I sewed curtains. 

The room we left most nearly “as is” was the kitchen, where counters, sink, moldings, and a walk-in pantry broke the lines of the drab green. Our refrigerator, though, was the “avocado green”  shade popular during the 1970’s and 80’s. I don’t remember whether the fridge had come with the house, or if we purchased it at an appliance store. Over time, it developed a slight list, so that to close its door securely you had to kick the bottom. (A habit we had to break when we eventually moved to a different house and bought a non-tilting fridge.)  

The children have long since grown and set up housekeeping on their own. Their decorating tastes differ from ours, but to my knowledge, neither has ever painted a room avocado green. In retirement, we live in a townhouse with muted colors inside and out. An older friend who’s lived in this area most of his life characterizes our suburban milieu as “beigeville.” 

Then, a few years ago, we succumbed to the dietary craze for avocados—on salads, on toast, as garnishes. The pits were nearly indestructible, as I found after they’d aged for months in our backyard compost bins. Curious for alternatives, I checked online for how to sprout an avocado pit. After several tries, I got one to put down a smallish root, then planted it in a ceramic pot, where it spent warm weather on our back deck, getting lots of sun, and enough water to keep it happy. We’d bring it indoors in cold weather, since our winter climate so far freezes too hard and too often for avocados. It was happiest in our south-facing kitchen window. By its third autumn, the avocado looked more like a small tree. It had grown so tall that we trimmed its main stem before bringing it indoors. We added a stake to its now-larger pot to encourage it to grow straight. Like the fridge we used to have, though, it too has developed a slight list. 

This winter, our avocado tree has sprouted lots of auxiliary branches, with a spread that is encroaching ever more severely into our person-and-a-half kitchen. We’re not sure how much longer we can keep it. Do any of you in central North Carolina hanker for your very own kitchen avocado, with the transport to move it and enough indoor space to keep it happy for cold seasons to come?

avocado reaching for the sun

Our crowded kitchen

Wear a Mask (to the tune of “Silver Bells”)

(can be sung to the tune of “Silver Bells,” perhaps a fitting tribute, or lament, for the year 2020) 

(Chorus 1): Wear a mask! Why, you ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Cases spike,
And though we’d like,
We can’t wish this virus away.

City sidewalks, parks and greenways
Offer welcome respite.
In the air there’s a chill now it’s winter.
Shuttered venues, take-out menus,
At the food banks long lines,
And until vaccinations are here…

(Repeat Chorus 1)

Pharma’s Pfizer and Moderna
Make vaccines at warp speed.
Health care workers get first dibs on doses.
Testing sites fill, more relief bills,
As the POTUS still fumes,
And in virtual choirs you’ll hear:

(Repeat Chorus 1)

(Chorus 2): Wear a mask! Must we ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Spring will come,
Outdoor fun–
Soon will be vaccination day!

 

Senior Crafting

some senior crafts old and new

 

more senior crafts

One Christmas when I was in elementary school, I was among many girls my age to get a potholder loom kit as a gift, probably from a non-resident aunt.  I spent part of that winter crafting multi-colored potholders from the loops provided with the square-shaped miniature loom. My mother graciously consented to use the somewhat lumpy things in her kitchen. (Mom was not especially fussy about equipment and accessories.) As I recall, the potholders were washable. They shrank only marginally once run through our wringer washing machine. Though the one I had in childhood has long since made it to the dump, such looms are still available for purchase. The next generations of potholder-makers may be getting some as holiday gifts.  

As I grew older, I learned to sew.  As a teen, I made some of my own outfits, stretching my limited clothing allowance. My grandmother taught me to knit, though I don’t remember knitting much except for an impatiently completed sweater for my then-boyfriend-now-husband that came only partway down his midriff. 

This holiday season, hubby and I are retired, locked down, with too much time on our hands and little social life. We’ve each discovered a craft outlet that fulfills some of our need to feel connected and useful: Jim decorates sets of garden pebbles, distributing them in area tree wells and along park paths; I make small “quilt-lets” and decorative fabric face masks. 

Previous generations of our families had different craft outlets. While doing this year’s minimal straightening and decorating for Christmas, I uncovered a few “potholders” from our elders—a crocheted afghan, some wooden candlesticks that my post-retirement dad turned on a lathe in his backyard wood shop, decorative tissue holders and toilet paper holders that my mother-in-law produced as part of a yarn crafts class. Perhaps “craftiness” is a skill set that lies dormant during the busiest parts of our lives, resurfacing once we have more leisure (certainly abundant in 2020!)

We may eventually need to downsize further, discarding or recycling yesteryear’s  “potholders.” For now, their quirks provoke curiosity: the uneven dimensions of the candle holders, the “squiggly thing” atop one of the toilet paper holders. I wonder if Dad got tired, after raising twins, of “matched sets” of anything, or if it was just difficult to get his raw materials to lathe into uniform shapes.  I wonder if Mom B., somewhat bored as she completed yet another tubular shape, decided to include on the top of a bird-sided holder, a sinuous brown and orange shape that doesn’t look part of the original pattern of concentric rings—maybe the worm that got away? 

The coldest days of the year lie ahead. We’re in for a few more challenging months while we await widespread vaccinations and the end to this pandemic. Perhaps our elders were wiser and craftier than we realized at the time—when times got tough, they got creative. Whimsy matters!      

Gratitude for Late-Life Friendships

My heart goes out to the many families who will be missing a member at this year’s holiday celebrations because of a covid-induced death. I have yet to lose a family member or very close friend directly from the pandemic, though the final year of our close late-life friend, Phyllis, was impacted. She had to journey through end-stage cancer with limits on visits from loved ones, limits to her travels beyond what her illness proscribed. 

We’d known Phyllis for about a decade before her death. She was among the first non-family members to welcome us to North Carolina when we arrived here. More recently, she and her husband had finalized plans to relocate to their “retirement haven” in rural Virginia just before her diagnosis. We were very lucky that there was a summer lull in the pandemic while Phyllis was still ambulatory. She and her family visited friends in North Carolina one more time, a sort of chance to say good-bye.  

As I grieve Phyllis’s absence, I’m comforted by the example she set of dying well and of leaving a nourishing legacy. She spent as much of her final months as her energy allowed painting nature scenes, a gift she had put on hold for much of an active life. Her son just posted an image of art created by a young artist at a school to which Phyllis had bequeathed her unused paints and drawing supplies.  

At this Thanksgiving, made virtual for so many by the pandemic’s continuing spikes, I need to be especially grateful for late-life friendships like ours with Phyllis and her family. Many of our friends from earlier life stages have been work colleagues, or family members of our children’s friends, or affiliates in non-profit groups. Though genuine, these friendships were somewhat opportunistic and sometimes withered as our locations and life stages changed. By now, we’ve retired, our children are grown and establishing their own friendship networks, and more and more non-profits are conducted virtually even when there’s not a pandemic. 

This year’s limitations on in-person holiday gatherings have highlighted what connections we still can have. Not long after we’d gotten up this morning, we got a surprise phone call from a different late-life friend, a former next-door neighbor, recently retired and living across town. A confirmed “foodie,” Greg wished us a happy holiday and shared a story of a memorable Thanksgiving feast when he was living in Germany and tasked with contributing a pumpkin pie to a community celebration with his graduate student colleagues. Turns out, fresh or canned pumpkin were rarities in the part of Germany where he studied. The only variant he was able to find were jars of pickled pumpkin. Numerous iterations of rinsing the jars’ contents before cooking didn’t entirely restore the taste of a traditional pumpkin pie. 

Another set of late-life friends that I cherish are members of a pre-covid walking group, now on temporary hiatus. All of us are retired. Many of us have lost spouses. Most of us have health conditions that slow our steps and make uphills more challenging than earlier. Still, whenever I go for a walk outdoors, either with my husband or alone, I mentally have the “Tuesday morning walkers” with me. 

Even once the covid pandemic subsides, through vaccination and/or better public health preventative measures, I will remain at the stage of life when more of my contemporaries will die off. It’s important, then, to cherish them while we still can. As my husband explained on a down day for both of us, “We’re likely to spend an increasing proportion of our time mourning deaths of friends and loved ones, until it’s our turn to be mourned.”  

So let us give thanks for life, thanks for the capacity to share our stories, whatever the medium, thanks for friendships, especially those late-life friends who can help make this trying time more bearable. Happy Thanksgiving and a big set of virtual hugs!      

Fallow

Fallow   –by Jinny Batterson

Farmhouse in November snow, 2018

My sister’s farm lies fallow,
After an unseasonable frost
Killed off much of the late-
Season garden.

My sister’s body lies fallow
Beneath the rose bushes
She planted when she gave
The farm its name–
“White Rose”–in memory of
The father whose memory fogged
Before he could return to farming.

A fallow North Carolina morning. Foggy.
A looming work assignment
Helped chase me outdoors to unfog
My thoughts before confinement.

As the fog lifted, it gently coaxed out
Memories of a sister
Who tirelessly worked to
Improve the soil and to create
A community that, in due season,
Will birth something new.

Goodwill

Goodwill    —by Jinny Batterson

In business dealings,
Intangible assets in excess of
The value of bricks and mortar,
In Christmas carols,
What the angels sing of
At the birth of Jesus.

In this conflicted age,
An improbable hope that
Something good will emerge
From this global pandemic:
Our acknowledgment that
Human life is uncertain
And that all life is connected.

 

 

What Difference Can a Letter Make?

What Difference Can a Letter Make?   —by Jinny Batterson

Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail. 

I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through. 

Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage:  “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district.  (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).  

My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”  

Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime. 

The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.    

 

Using Tools Wisely

Using Tools Wisely  —by Jinny Batterson

My parents, long dead now, got most of their early schooling in relatively sparse classrooms. My dad attended grades one through seven in a two-room schoolhouse that was still standing, if derelict, when I was a child. On one of our Sunday afternoon rambles in the family station wagon, we stopped to see it. The wooden structure, built on raised posts, was set in a grove of trees at the edge of a small country road. Its door had a padlock, but, with a boost from Dad, we could look in through a couple of windows whose glass had long been missing. Only a few benches remained inside. Gone was the blackboard where Dad said students had practiced their sums and letters. Near the center of the structure on the floor was a metal platform. Dad explained that the platform had partially protected the rest of the structure from the potbellied stove (now also gone) that had provided the school’s only heat. Feeding wood into the stove had been a job reserved for the teacher or for responsible older students, since errors could result in either too little heat or a bad fire.

Much of what our parents shared with us from their early schooling were poems or essays they remembered having read in their texts all those years ago. The memorization tasks they set for us may have been a partial 1950’s equivalent to some of today’s at home “virtual learning.” They’d ask us to learn, then recite from memory, some of their favorite poems, like Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” about Mudville’s baseball team and its famed but ill-fated slugger. Somewhat more somberly, they introduced us to the Klondike gold rush via Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

The old schoolhouse selection that has come back to me most often lately, though, is an adaption of Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig.” The adapted essay was likely an entry in one of the “graded readers” that both my dad and my mom learned from.  (A Gutenberg project link to Charles Lamb’s entire essay can be found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43566/43566-h/43566-h.htm. )

According to Lamb’s account, likely neither true nor fact checked, roast pig first arose as a result of a house fire. A Chinese peasant had left his careless son in charge of the family homestead while he ran some errands. The son accidentally spread some sparks onto a bale of straw that then set the whole house ablaze. The building, a relatively insubstantial hut akin to the straw or stick houses built by the first or second of the “Three Little Pigs,” burned completely to the ground. Poking around amid the rubble, the son noticed a delicious aroma, and eventually determined that it was coming from the skin and flesh of a piglet, one of several who had been unfortunate collateral damage in the fire. After he tasted it, the son wolfed down the rest of the scorched creature. By the time his father arrived back on the scene, he’d started to devour a second piglet. The son avoided punishment by introducing his father to the roast delicacy—a huge improvement on the raw meat, grains, and vegetables that had previously made up the peasants’ diet. It took a while before the peasantry adjusted their practices so that roast pigs could be obtained without pyromania. Taming fire, using it wisely, was and is an ongoing effort.  

You can likely see where I’m going with this. Our burgeoning online environment has spawned some of the same excesses as the pyromania that, per Lamb’s essay, originally attended roast pigs. We hear almost daily about “tweet storms” and various distortions, half-truths, conspiracy theories and blatant lies circulating on the internet. The “world wide web” has proved to be a hugely important adjunct to many of our former ways of communicating, but it is susceptible to abuses that, unchecked, can burn down more than houses. Can we in time figure out ways to enjoy our virtual “roast pigs” more safely and wisely?