The Death Smell of Compost in the Joy of a Warm Winter Day

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 6.55.46 AMSeed catalog season. They started coming last month. I really should be planning the garden. I can virtually smell it around me…

Wait, that’s compost. It’s been a couple weeks and a few feet of snow since I took out the compost. That little carbon filter in the top of the pail’s done its duty. Can’t smell it at all. I pick up the pail and collect the mountain of fruit peels on the cutting board in the kitchen. I trudge through the mud.

It’s beautiful outside–a break in the winter that tempts me to get out there and plant something I know will subsequently die. A January thaw–a break in Winter’s show. He got off the couch to get some snacks and a beer, letting Spring fill in for a bit. Still, I can’t plant now. The Farmer’s Almanac would be horrified. It predicts much more snow in February. Not long odds in Vegas. It’s New England.

I dump the compost in the bin. It smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced, having done most of its composting in the house. The death smell chases me half-way across the yard, laughing the moment I take off the lid. I can’t leave it like that. It smells worse than the time I left the chicken in my trunk for a week during summer. That one forgotten bag…

I stop breathing, reopen the bin, and stir the rotting compost into the fireplace ash. I toss a few oak leaves on top. Better. I sniff. The worms will rejoice just as soon as they thaw all the way.

I step into the garden. Mud. Enough to swallow me. I realize I haven’t been outside–really outside–in months. I stop. I listen to the birds who welcome me back. I think about walking around the garden. The mud plots to enshrine me. I sink. I take a step. I sink further. We come to an agreement. The mud releases its hostage. I’ll take my tour some other time.

The seeds will be calling soon. I’ll scatter them everywhere. Many will die as a result of my overzealousness and impatience. The laws of nature don’t bend for one good-weather day. Seeds in the garden–like in life–must be planted at the right time, then nurtured consistently to grow.

I take out the recycling and go to the farm. Eggs are in the red cooler out front on weekends.  Put in some money, take out some eggs. The cooler’s blown over. Scrambled eggs. I manage four dozen good ones. I toss in an extra buck–I was short last week. I still have eggs in the fridge. I stack these on top–always overbuy, over plant, overestimate when nature is involved. Plan well when you can and appreciate nature’s bounty always. It’s better to have just a little too much when it comes to growing, cooking, and eating. Dieters and zen masters have it all wrong.

I take off my muddy boots,  put the compost pail back onto the mantle, and sit back down to work. 

Spring will be here soon enough.

 

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Breaking News: Polar Vortex Swallows Teens

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 5.32.37 AM

“You there! In the shorts. Did you take my geography class? Didn’t I teach about climate? It is cold outside.” A balmy New England 12°. With a windchill of 150 below.

Today was the first day I didn’t see teens in shorts. I was looking–there’s always one.  Just hoodies with no coats, and shirts falling off the shoulder. Which is just as bad. School gets canceled in places because it’s so cold and kids won’t dress right. My thoughts–dress right! Now, I’m not talking about preschoolers with no body mass whose faces will freeze off at the bus stop. I’m talking teens who know better. Dress warm. Come to school.

There’s black ice on the roads, piles of snow on the sidewalks, police directing traffic in ice skates…a few clues for teens that it’s cold. If that’s not enough, get the Weather Channel app. It’s free.”Nah, miss, I’m not cold.”
I explain the science behind skin cells bursting, how frostbite works. That teens can’t defeat the laws of nature–water freezing and expanding inside the cell wall, exploding the cell, not a simple game of no brain no pain. Wind whistles in one ear out the other making the sound of a barely boiling tea kettle.
I once thought I was too cool for winter gear. Earmuffs “looked silly.”  One mile of 20 below in the Rochester winter holding my ears the whole time…they’re the hottest fashion on the runway.
That’s what teens must do. Convert ridiculous winter fashion to trends. Then sell it. Make a million. Teens have the power to make the most ridiculous fashion look amazingly cool. Instead of getting windburned butt cracks, try bringing back warm.
Pants without holes–a great place to start. Ones that fit over the buttcrack and even up to the waist. Warm. Trendy. No one is doing it… You, kid, could start the next big trend. 
Legwarmers are back. Bad 80’s fashion–get two sets and call them arm warmers, too. Large circle scarves are in. Wrap them twice around the head if you’re cold, and around the face if you’re ugly. That’s versatility.
For the kid who always wears shorts, be advised–there exists something called “convertible hiking pants.” These allow you to wear pants at the bus stop, then quickly unzip and ditch the legs before your friends beat you up for dressing right. The legs roll up and fit in the pockets most people use for hiking gear. You can use the extra pockets for gum.
And lastly, put away your shiny new shoes. No, I don’t have any sneaker cleaner. I’m sorry that you got snow on them. I feel you. I really do. Wear boots. That way tomorrow you won’t tell me all day that you’re cold and your socks are wet.
If you’re truly renegade and wish to transcend fashion, go balls to the wall and create a new fashion, called “winter coat.” Pick a big, fluffy one, so if anyone throws a snowball at you for looking too cool, it will just bounce back and hit them in the face. More science–angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. You see–this stuff we teach you really does have an application in real life.
Disregard me if you must. Disregard science. You may find it boring. And I’m old and out of fashion. But I’m really, really warm. You could be, too.

Watching People Not Suck: Moments of Kindness Pile Up Into a Movement for 2014

“We’re out of meat.”

That normally doesn’t affect me. It was the last day of the year. Vegetarians don’t ring in the new year with dead creatures, but meat makes the others happy. I like to make others happy. Being unable to wave my magic wand and procure meat, I got in the car and went to the store. I tucked the Visa gift card into the pocket with my phone. It was a gift from a friend whom we’d been blessed enough to help. I was touched by his letter reminding me that kindness is a continual circle. I’ve received so much–I am humbled to give what I can. In his case, I didn’t think we’d given enough. I guess that’s often the case with helping.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.05 AMUsually, on a day like New Year’s Eve, the store is crazy, carts crashing around like demolition derby. This time something seemed different. There were a million carts–it looked like the GW during rush hour, but the store was not the same. People were acting–nice. Like it was they’d all vacationed in Colorado and weren’t standing in Rhode Island. They were all smiling so pleasantly. I sniffed for incense. None.

“You first…” I’ve never heard that in the store. The air was ringing with “you firsts” as people picked up bags of kale and organic things I can’t pronounce. I got some kale, too. It reminded me I really should call my friend in Colorado. I haven’t seen her in a while.

I headed for the meat counter. There was a bit of a wait. I checked my email, dropping the Visa card to the ground.

“Excuse me. I think this is yours.” A smiling lady with bags of kale handed me a Visa gift card. Two Visa gift cards in one week. Fabulous! I realized it was mine. She’d rushed from the kale aisle to make sure I didn’t lose it. And she smiled. That never happens in a store. People find a spare twenty and it’s off to the races.

The meat guy smiled, people let people go first at the counter, and people waved me through the coffee. Was there a wine tasting going on? Everyone was so elated to be alive. Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.26 AMI passed the cheese samples, smiling at the Robustotasted normal. I looked around. No mushroom samples anywhere in sight.

Time to check out. The line was long but still smiling. Everyone put their kale and organic things I couldn’t pronounce on the belt in turn. They talked to each other instead of using the constipation face doing the old “New England ignore.”  It was a sight to behold–lines crowded with New Englanders on one of the busiest store days of the year and only kindness and love abounded. Not one single solitary person with constipation. And everyone intending to eat their vegetables. A tear rolled down my cheek. I put my stuff on the belt. I was ready to go.

Until I noticed the person behind me. She had one thing. “Sorry,” I said, I should have noticed you.”

“It’s okay.” It was a long wait for just piece of dead animal.

I took her roast off the belt. She looked surprised. I wanted to say, “Your roast is safe with me. I’m going after the kale.” Instead I joined in the spirit of communal love. “You have to go first. You only have one thing.” She smiled. Now we were all smiling, even though none of us vacationed in Colorado or ever found the mushroom samples near the cheese. I enjoyed paying forward the smallest act of consideration.

There’s plenty of kindness in the region, but it’s rare to see it coalesce into a bubble of human goodness so large it spills out into the parking lot. “You first,” people were waving. No one in Rhode Island does that unless they’re waving you through the outside lane of a four-lane road where the inside lane’s about to crush you. There were Rhode Islanders driving with respect even as I passed the parking lot to the Dunkin Donuts and the liquor store. That never happens. We’re the worst driving state in the union. Everyone knows if you’re going to get into an accident, it’s going to be in the parking lot of Dunkin Donuts. “Must get my coffee now…” But even there–people parked between the lines and waited for each other to go… I paused a moment to enjoy the perfection of the universe. Meanwhile, I let someone out of her space. Enjoy now–it won’t last forever. 

Or maybe it will if each and every one of us eats our kale and leaves the New England constipation face at home joining the “You First” moment, making it into a movement for 2014.

I don’t make resolutions. I’m getting old. I break them and the years whiz by so fast I hardly have time to break the first set before it’s time to make a new bunch to break. But if I did, I’d make 2014 the year of “You First,” because if everyone says that to everyone, at some point we’ll all be put to the front of the line. With love and kindness.

 

[images: shorpy.com and babyccinokids.com]

 

Storm Alert: The Rhode Island Bread and Milk Report

When a snowflake threatens to dangle in the air, Rhode Islanders go out in full force. Today, was no exception. Every single last Stewie and Vincenzo went out for bread and milk. Because it might never be available again…

I didn’t intend to go into the grocery store. I was at the craft store nearby, and my husband instructed me to get a Christmas turkey if I found one on sale. Being as though there weren’t any Christmas turkeys at the craft store and a good woman always obeys her husband, I went into the grocery store even though I knew that it was a very bad idea. In less than twenty-four hours the snow would be falling. A flake or two landed on my glasses in confirmation. Rhode Islanders would mob the scene at any moment.

I found the turkeys. I bought two. As a vegetarian wife, I go above and beyond. I know sometime this year, he’ll want another turkey, and off season they’re expensive. So expensive that I consider running over just one of the turkeys that play chicken with me during my morning commute. I’ll target the one who stares me down and laughs.

Rhode Islanders were out in full force–buying loaves of bread, gallons of milk and case upon case of water like they couldn’t pour it from their sink into a bucket in preparation for the power outage we are probably not going to have. I picked up some cranberries. I might make cranberry orange muffins for breakfast. What’s better than the smell of muffins in the morning? Besides, nobody is crowding the produce aisle before the snow. Bread and milk are more critical to long-term survival than broccoli and lettuce I guess.

The more I can’t find things, the more I realize I’ve spent a lot of time at farms, canning, growing things this past year and a half. I no longer know my way around the regular grocery store. I get in everyone’s way looking for the bacon, and for the life of me I can’t find the cream cheese. I’ll deal with that next week. I can make some cheese in the mean time if I need it, because I already have enough milk. I’ll get the Philadelphia for the Christmas cheesecake later, because I don’t want to mess with tradition.

The store gets more crowded. I notice a kid get nearly decapitated because he is curled up laying under the carriage, head occasionally protruding like a turtle from a shell. Rhode Islanders, whizzing around trying to get the last carton of eggs nearly slice his head clean off like Robespierre. Twice. His responsible party tells him twice to get up. He negotiates, “Only after you pay.” Sounds like my six-year old, who can out negotiate the G8. I check to make sure I’ve left him at home. Phew. I have.

I get in line. I reach for the store coupon card. I can’t find it because I never use it. Eventually, I locate the card which will tell the marketing team I’m the only moron who was in the broccoli aisle instead of buying bread, milk, and cases of water in advance of six inches of snow. They’ll know I’m native to Connecticut, not Rhode Island.

It’s New England. It’s winter.  It snows. I escape the grocery store with my life. I got two turkeys and didn’t even have to run one over.

But if you want bread or milk, you’d better get out there…fast.

Don’t Need to “Get a Sweater”

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 5.40.37 AMThe wood stove is on. Rural New England’s got “the-leaves-have-turned” chill that sparks my competitive spirit. It’s five degrees colder than urban New England where the collective effects of the sun beating off the black pavement and all the car exhaust produces heat.

Growing up, leaving off the heat was a triumph. “I didn’t turn my heat on until November 17th,” one person bragged. My dad tried to trump it, like when I try to outrun the guy next to me on the treadmill. Every year he said, “I’ll give everyone heat for Christmas,” and “Get a sweater.” We wouldn’t think of touching the thermostat. It was relegated to the male head of household, like hooking up stereo parts or packing the trunk for vacation. There are just things women don’t do. Even in modern times.

When I got my own apartment, my first thought was, “Who’s going to turn on the heat?” I pondered from the first chilly day in September all the way through the fall. I wondered “What day can the heat go on? November 17th? Christmas? Or should I try to knock this out of the park and go for Groundhog Day? I can WIN this!”

There are things a person can do to avoid turning on heat. Wear many sweaters…but there are only so many layers one can wear before resembling the inside of a padded room. Baking works, too. But that’s cheating, because the energy that runs the stove–gas, electric, or propane isn’t free.

What is the reason for the “Get a sweater” anyway?  Why avoid heat, historically?

Flashback. My grandmother used to give the look when I put sugar in my tea. “Have some tea with your sugar.” Clear cut sarcasm. The best way to combat sarcasm, I’ve found, is to pretend to be too stupid to understand it.

“Okay. Thanks, Grandma.” In order for this to work, the response must be genuine and innocent. Any touch of return-volley sarcasm invites doom.

The point is, she remembered The Great Depression and World War II when ration cards restricted the amount of meat, sugar, eggs, and butter for her growing family. My uncle tells a story of losing the ration book on the way to the store. He didn’t go there straight away–he stopped to play with his friends. Everyone went out in the dark to hunt and luckily, it was found. They would’ve lost the food for the month, let alone the sugar.

“Have some sugar with your tea,” is a flashback to times of no sugar. Grandma also saved every plastic bag and odd gadgets before we recycled such things. Never know when they could be of use. We don’t have to worry about sugar now. There’s no need to ration it. It’s mass-produced in countries where people should get paid more, and it floods the nation. No shortage whatsoever.

Where did the “get a sweater,” originate? Where did freezing become a badge of honor? Growing up in the 70’s with electric heat–the type of heat that was supposed to end up cheaper and cleaner but really ended up making houses unsellable relics with bills that got up to 4-500/month…that’s where the sweater began for us. Then we lived in a large Victorian to start a group home that never quite got going, while my parents did about fifty things to make the world a better place–soup kitchens, grants, helping others in need. Meanwhile, they, themselves worried how to heat the large home they bought with the helping-others package. It had a wood stove that heated the center column of the house. The rest of the large house…got a sweater. Getting a sweater burrowed into two generations of psyche.

I don’t waste money. I can afford heat. Rusty gathered and chopped two years of wood himself, taking trees for people after the hurricane and turning them into round pieces then woodstove-sized logs. “It’s exercise.”

But here I sit, with the heat on early, toggling between guilty and defiant.  I’m drinking coffee enjoying the calm. I toss another log in the stove. The gloves cover my pajamas with soot. Forgot about that. That’s what you get for putting on the heat so early. I put the heat on because I can.

I remember times of need. I’ll see the faces of students and others this time of year–no coat, “Christmas sucks” (because I’m not going to get anything). Some have as much heat as they want in utilities-included apartments, others are “getting a sweater” too. And some remain blissfully unaffected by the needs around them. Innocent.

The winter and holidays are times of great compassion and generosity–food drives popping up everywhere, “Give a dollar for this cause,” in every grocery line.

I don’t need to “get a sweater” anymore, I’m blessed. I’ll joke about sweaters on Thanksgiving. But for a moment, I remember the times when I’ve needed them. And think about those who still do.

 

[image: tipsyelves.com . They have some cool sweaters. If you dare….]

Looking into the Artists’ Eyes

It’s easy to give feedback. But there’s something about giving honest and genuine feedback while looking into the eyes of an artist that’s emotional, different.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

The Scituate Art Festival is one of the largest festivals of its kind in the nation. We’ve been coming for years. It’s my husband Rusty’s hometown. He always wanted to move back here but the time was never right. I’ve found the time is never right for most big things in life–changing careers, having a baby, moving…making any life change, really. The time is never right.

Sometimes, the universe intervenes. Other times it sends people to drop kick me. This time, it was both. The airport began to swallow up homes behind our house threatening to take our last shred of value. Selling wasn’t easy–who wants to move into a neighborhood where the roofs are part of the tarmac? Moving is tough–stressful, expensive. It’s never time. We found this house in the woods in my husband’s hometown, the town with the huge art festival and postcard New England village, and a buyer who was grateful to get from an apartment to a house. We escaped. And now this art festival is our hometown event.

“You’d better get rid of your hyphenation,” my husband said, “It’ll do you no good here.” This is his hometown. His last name gets nods. Mine, not so much. This is the type of town where people have lived for generations. I’ve been grandfathered in. “Oh, you have that house…” Everyone knows the house by description. People tell me stories of each generation who lived here, and the stonemason who built it. It’s the type of history I love.

As a real resident of this town, I pay attention to the festival. I listen to the old-timers, talking about the way the town was and used to be. The real history. The kind you can’t find in a book. The Greatest Generation telling the way things use to be, could have been, and sometimes still are.

The food court is everyone's favorite at festivals.

The food court is everyone’s favorite at festivals.

The Art Festival is the way it always is, a finely tuned operation that draws 2-300K people in a good year. Locals and people flock in for the artisans and the New England foliage alike.  We stop here and there for a small-town greeting or an apple dumpling–the type I eat every year, once a year, like clockwork. The civic organizations, school clubs, and people of the region set up booths and all the repeat revelers know how to find the best BBQ, the biggest sausage and peppers, the most perfect fries…and that apple dumpling.

And of course you can’t run a New England town without chowda and clam cakes.

Everyone in town bakes, mans a booth, volunteers or attends. Artists from all over the world show their crafts. As an outsider, I appreciate the variety and efficiency. As an insider, I see the community. I am starting to attach.

I see the antiques booths, the painters, the artisans. What started as a twelve-booth event in 1967 has expanded to pay for repairs to the Congregational Church has become something to behold.

But the best feature, by far, is the artists and artisans. I used to look at art through the eyes of a simpleton, an ignoramus.  Now, I look through the eyes of the creator. Just for an hour or two, I imagine myself painting, sculpting, bringing forth woodwork or pottery into the world, instead of writing, and showcasing my creations for the public. I look at the soul of the artist sitting, quietly showing his or her work. What courage to put oneself out there, in the middle of 300K people passing by casually, blending as people say things like “Beautiful,” or “Oh, no, that’s awful,” or worse yet, passing by without a single glance. The heart and soul of the artist unnoticed. Brilliance blending into the background of clamcakes and doughboys. There can be no greater insult than that.

I see the soul of the artist with the brush, crayon, typewriter, or lens. When possible, I talk to them. I appreciate them. We’re all the same, no matter the genre. We all put stuff out there, hoping someone will appreciate it. Or maybe, just maybe, that it’ll make a difference.

That’s what I see at the festival. Community, cohesion, and people making a difference. It’s the way every community should be, and can be, if we all just smile, create, and share. I’m grateful to be a part. Even if the screaming boy makes me leave early. Some day, this festival will be his.

Obstructions

deerI’m running late… It happens. A lot. I get up to do some work in the morning. Then I leave late for…work. I’ll drive faster. 

I want to back out of the driveway. A fawn stares me down. I stop. I wait. I’ll make up the time on the back roads. 

“Go ahead, eat them.” She’s eating my plants. “It’s okay, I don’t like hostas anyway.” I say I’ll plant more for her. She nods. She eats. She moves. I drive.

A fisher cat lumbers across the road, not graceful like the deer. He looks up–fierce. He stares me down. We connect. He decides I’m not worth attacking, being in my car and all. He muscles his way into the woods. A chipmunk chases a squirrel. Both escape the fisher cat’s notice. I avoid them–tricky with squirrels, who laugh at the tires of a car, going back and forth, playing a game that’s pointless until it’s too late. Squirrel pinball.

I’m running later. I said I’d make up the time on the back roads, but the leaves are changing. The fire, the color, the explosion. Sunrise stops me cold. It makes the reds look redder and the orange glow, the water of the reservoir doubling the impact.

I drive over the bridge. A fox sprints for the grill of my car, not deterred by the size of my car. I am worth attacking. He plays chicken. I slow. I stop. That crazy $#^%^’s going to hit me. At the last possible second, he leaps onto the reservoir rock wall.
It’s the last flurry of activity in a quaint New England town, where the ghosts peek out of the buildings, and the gravestones lean over slightly, telling the secrets of three hundred years of forefathers who have seen the leaves blaze before.  The animals do their last-minute prep before winter sets in. Soon we will all be waiting for the first signs of spring.