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America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

************************************************

A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

***************************************

I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

******************************************

We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

Book: The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis

I read this beautiful memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis, a few months ago for book club and am just now having some time (barely) to write down my thoughts about it. I have had a whole mess of thoughts about it and I will try to jot down as many as I can coherently (again, barely much time to do this) but, for both of our sake’s, here’s my TL,DR: Read this book.

The book opens with an incredible story centered around the narrator’s (Bridgett’s) robust shoe collection. This is Detroit in the 1960s and the narrator is a young Black girl with a white teacher who has a lot to say (in too few words) to her about the girl’s shoe collection. Enter Fannie Davis, the titular numbers-running mother. I don’t want to spoil what happens other than to say that the yellow shoes story itself does more to reveal what kind of mother (in short: amazing) Fannie Davis is than a handful of pages written by mere mortal writers has a right to do.

Initially, the story of the yellow shoes, which involved a school and a mom and a child being treated poorly by a person in a position of power, set me on edge. Surely, this would end in some disaster for everyone. The child would be embarrassed. Accusations would be thrown around. Neglect and failure would ensue. I don’t think it’s ruining it to say that my fears were unfounded. But what my thinking revealed is that I have become accustomed to the mother narrative, and especially one, perhaps, told from the point of view of a child, to be fraught and disasterous. I’ve read many essays and books and stories of parental failure. And while I think these stories are important, I also realized that I had been in a parent-child-success story dessert. I was thirsting for stories told from a child’s point of view showing a parent-child (and specifically a mother-child) relationship that was warm and loving and open. The World According to to Fannie Davis was that long, cool drink I didn’t know I’d been craving.

Through her personal story and details, Davis also gives us a birds-eye view of American history including the realities of redlining and discriminatory lending, “numbers” and how it birthed what we know as the lottery, and the rise of Detroit aka Motown aka Motor City. (This is the first book I’ve read in a while that could inspire a playlist of music that would be truly and definitively American.)

One of the most striking aspects of the conversation in our book club was the ways in which several members (myself included) had experiences with playing the numbers in other countries or in small American communities. The book (and our experiences) were tinged by whether the games we were playing were legal or not in each time and location and whether they were considered a “vice” or not. It was a stark illustration of the ways in which the laws can be arbitrarily written (and enforced) to essentially teach entire groups of people or generations that their cultural practices are morally corrupt. Because while it was clear that Fannie Davis was providing a service (or several services including her home being a social hub and the entertainment factor of the numbers which allowed for greater social interaction) to her community, it was under the shadow and fear that what she was doing was illegal and somehow, therefore, wrong. And Bridgett writes about this. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to think that a book about a mother who was running numbers out of her home would be potentially full of vice and guns and violence. But it wasn’t. But as readers, or at least I, as a reader, have been raised on this idea that this sort of gambling is illegal and therefore wrong and therefore must lead to other wrongs.

And it’s clear that these larger social and legal pressures have been absorbed by Bridgett. She writes about the struggle to write this story (at its heart a story of a mother who worked incredibly hard to raise her children, keep them clothed, and housed and educated and more) because of the shame around their family business being illegal.

It doesn’t take much to draw the comparisons around the law in America around what has become perceived as “vices” like marijuana use. In both cases — with the number becoming the lottery and with the gradual legalization of marijuana — the people who end up losing out are those to created and built up these cultural practices under the shadow of them being illegal.

I want to mention the medical disparities in this country highlighted by her story. At one point her father, who Bridgett Davis was very close to, was in the hospital. One of the nurses asked her why no one had been taking care of him. So here we have a family who has been continually under attack from redlining and disability and the stressors of factory work and on and on … and when they try to access health care, the nurse asks them why they didn’t take care of each other. That’s abuse.

Bridgett Davis quotes Toni Morrison to describe her mother and I’ll close with that because it’s a beautiful way to describe her mother and because I feel that this quote gets at the heart of the book. And while it’s Morrison’s words and not Davis’s, Davis’s narrative flow cleanly outward from Morrison’s.

“Black women seen able to combine the nest and the adventure… they are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.” I feel she was describing my mother. (P181.)

Asking for more

Once upon a time, I lived in a remote village in northern Thailand. It was about 18 kilometers outside of the provincial capital, which was, itself, a sleepy but charming town which drew visitors to its fields of sunflowers every October.

The village I lived in was out a well paved road past rice paddies and an old rope suspension bridge currently only used by thrill-seeking teenagers. Next to the road out to the village where I lived, there was a steep mountain and, if you looked closely, you could see some rough steps hewn into the side leading a bright orange flag which marked a small cave where a hermit lived.

I am not making this up and this is not really a story.

I am merely pointing out the cave to say this: this village where I lived was remote. This village was so remote that in order to get there you have to pass a hermit’s cave wherein lives a man whose entire life is centered around not coming into contact with any other human beings. The village where I lived was “past the hermit cave” remote.

And yet.

And yet, I still managed to, fairly easily, get to and from this village to the provincial capital where I could get on a plane to a city and eventually wind up back home on the opposite side of the earth.

Buses should serve everywhere and everyone, even the spooky places.

And how did I transport myself to and from this village and the provincial capital? Some of the time I hitched a ride with friends or rented a motorbike. But some of the time I did it the old fashioned way: I took a bus.

That’s right. A bus. It didn’t look the way that you might think of a bus if you grew up in the western world, but that’s what it was. At a designated time, it passed by certain predetermined places and you could climb aboard and pay a fee and sit next to other commuters and eventually arrive at another stop where you could get off.

So here’s the thing. The next time you are lamenting that your local bus service doesn’t go where you want it to go or that you can’t ride it because it doesn’t come to your neighborhood or doesn’t take you the places you want to go, here’s what you do: you ask. Ask the bus company or the transit division in your local municipality (in my case it would me either/ both WMATA or Ride-on to please expand their bus service to serve where you live.

And when you do, remember the bus that I was able to ride to a “pass the hermit cave” remote village and do not take “no” for an answer (unless you are asking them to go past two or more hermit caves in which case, I’ve got nothing).

Everyone, and I mean everyone, deserves access to public transportation.

Isaiah on Snow and Community

On any given day, the Catholic mass is celebrated in the exact same way no matter the time or location, right down to what passages from the Bible are read. (OK, so the priest has some leeway in, for example, what he preaches, but the framework and the readings are the same.) The weekday masses include one reading from the Old Testament and one Gospel. Today’s read was from Isaiah.

“Thus says the Lord:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
Till they have watered the earth
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.”

We’ve had a bit of snow and ice now and again this winter and we were just on the end of a melt when I read these verses earlier today. Snow has been on my mind a lot.

A local news reporter interviewed me about a new bill being brought to our county council that would impact snow removal. I told him that when it has snowed, I’ve observed neighbors walking in traffic on their way to the bus stop because the sidewalk was impassable with ice and snow. I told him I’ve observed some turning around on their way to the bus stop when they see the snow and ice. We used to live in Minneapolis so, compared to there, we don’t get very much here in Maryland. This means that people are less prepared for in, however. And having to forego a bus trip because a sidewalk cannot be safely traversed can mean a lost wages or a missed health appointment or no trip to pick up groceries. These are no small things. The snow removal bill making bus stops and sidewalks more accessible, and especially in low income areas would have a real impact on at least some people’s lives with little or no sacrifice to the larger community.

So snow and my neighbors had been on my mind when I read Isaiah and it was like a little lightning bolt when he compares the Lord’s word to rain and snow. The rain a snow will water the earth, making food. Around here, in a suburban area, there’s not much food being grown that relies on the immediate snowfall. But I think that when Isaiah talks about the earth being made “fertile and fruitful” he means food but he also means more than that. He also means compassion and love for our neighbor. In our case, the snow forces us to think about our neighbors and about how we can make their lives a little better or a little easier. This is a fertile community: one in which neighbors care for each other and make sacrifices, big and small, in order that all of us can live in justice and peace.

Skid Lane

When you live along a six lane highway, options for dog walks (or any walks for that matter) are limited. Leaving my house, I can only turn one direction and from there, walks are primarily a matter of trying to hunt out sidewalks.

So I head out on a one-block loop that my kids refer to as the “short walk”. The one great hazard of this trip is an extra-wide crossing over a maze of three streets intersection at odd angles, and neither crosswalks nor sidewalks to be found. The paucity of stop signs adds to the driver dominance, but having completed the “short walk” multiple times, I’ve become accustomed to tracking the variables.

On this trip across, I note (and successfully avoid) a patch of what could be black ice in the road as well as a set of headlights, presumably from a car parked straight ahead of me, before my street fording is complete. It is hardly the first time I have come across someone sitting for long stretches of time on this and other neighborhood blocks. As I continue on the sidewalk, the driver peels out. I cringe and turn backwards, wary that they will hit that patch of black ice but they turn right, just avoiding it.

Further down the block, I dally as my dog sniffs at snow and ice, a tree stump there, an unexpected piece of bark there. But soon I hear the unmistakeable sound of a car engine coming fast. The driver rushes down the hill next me, not so much as a brake tap through the stop sign, narrowly missing another car. I watch as it speeds off up the car-lined single lane road ahead of me. My heart pounds slightly. It’s not that this is the first time that this sort of thing has happened on a walk. It’s more that it will probably always remain jarring.

I take out my phone after I tentatively cross the intersection the car ran through moments before. The driver may come back this way and somehow maybe I will record it.

Sure enough a minute or two later, I hear the same engine and then the squeal of tires as the driver turns a corner a few blocks from me. I can hear that he is coming in my direction but am only able to record a few moments before he pulls off another road.

If your sound is on, you can catch the last moments of the squealing tires.

I have often read about and seen diagrams illustrating that drivers moving at increasing speeds have a decreasing field of vision. In other words, they faster they are moving, the less they see. So it’s highly probable that this driver didn’t see me. And yet, when you encounter them three times on a walk (and particularly when it’s the “short walk”) it’s hard to not feel like you are being harassed. And even more so when the driver is driving at such speeds, so recklessly, and noisily.

As I continue home, I have two more streets to cross. Even though there are marked crosswalks along both, I wait back in the shadows, far from the curb until I no longer seen headlights in any of the four directions that might be coming from. Regardless of whether or not that driver was targeting me in some way, what’s clear to me is this: none of them can be trusted.

Auto-bio-graphy

Yesterday evening, from the front of my house where I was standing with my dog, I saw two people walking along the six lane state highway near where I live. They were across a smaller road and on the sidewalk and I could just sort of make out their silhouettes and then a few more details in some of the headlights of passing cars.

At first they seemed to me a couple, a young man with his arm draped over the young woman’s shoulder. Then in the next flash of headlights, she was pushing him away. And he was stumbling away from her, towards to the traffic, stepping in such a way that revealed either a slight limp or too many drinks.

But I was a county road away and the cars were driving by and so I couldn’t hear them and didn’t know what was really going on. Was he hurting her in some way? Was she trying to fight him off? They were soon behind the tree that was between me and them and I could make out even less. No one else was around to intervene.

But, wait, of course there were people around. Each of the cars driving by — and there must have been at least twenty? Thirty? In the period of time I was able to see them. And each of those cars with at least one person, a driver inside. Maybe more. Moving fast. Too fast to see? To fast to care?

These two people eventually moved out of my line of sight. I still do not have resolution on whether or not I should have crossed the street and stood out there with her as the cars rumbled past so that she would know that she was not alone, that someone was there to help her if she needed it. But how to keep myself safe? And, after all, it might have been nothing.

And it was all just one more seemingly small way in which this six-lane highway further isolates us, how car culture inflicts its individuality and freedom on even those outside of cars, standing on the sidewalk on the side of a road maybe trying to get back home. Unseen and unsafe.

Auto-bio-graphy

Yesterday evening, from the front of my house where I was standing with my dog, I saw two people walking along the six lane state highway near where I live. They were across a smaller road and on the sidewalk and I could just sort of make out their silhouettes and then a few more details in some of the headlights of passing cars.

At first they seemed to me a couple, a young man with his arm draped over the young woman’s shoulder. Then in the next flash of headlights, she was pushing him away. And he was stumbling away from her, towards to the traffic, stepping in such a way that revealed either a slight limp or too many drinks.

But I was a county road away and the cars were driving by and so I couldn’t hear them and didn’t know what was really going on. Was he hurting her in some way? Was she trying to fight him off? They were soon behind the tree that was between me and them and I could make out even less. No one else was around to intervene.

But, wait, of course there were people around. Each of the cars driving by — and there must have been at least twenty? Thirty? In the period of time I was able to see them. And each of those cars with at least one person, a driver inside. Maybe more. Moving fast. Too fast to see? To fast to care?

These two people eventually moved out of my line of sight. I still do not have resolution on whether or not I should have crossed the street and stood out there with her as the cars rumbled past so that she would know that she was not alone, that someone was there to help her if she needed it. But how to keep myself safe? And, after all, it might have been nothing.

And it was all just one more seemingly small way in which this six-lane highway further isolates us, how car culture inflicts its individuality and freedom on even those outside of cars, standing on the sidewalk on the side of a road maybe trying to get back home. Unseen and unsafe.

Life Learning: Baking Edition

We have long considered Eric our family baker. He’s worked in a lab for most of his adult life, and I think there’s something about the precision of baking recipes that is similar to following experiments in a lab setting. Follow the steps laid out on the page. I lean more towards cooking which, ironically, leaves a bit more room for experimentation. A little of this. A little of that. Oy! Maybe not quite so much next time.

But this idea of pre-assigned roles is made for disruption. With all of us at home, Eric has taken over more of the meal cooking, I’ve picked up a bit more baking. And more often then not, Ms7yo has joined me. Two things she loves about baking: the feel of dough in her hands and any sort of decorating or icing. She’s happy to do the rest, measuring and stirring and whatnot, too but the dough and the decorating are her favorite.

It’s cookie baking season. Every year, I’ve thought to myself that during advent, I would really like to make baking a regular thing. Prior to 2020, those ambitions have always fallen apart. I don’t know whether it’s just more time at home this year or because Eric (the baker) is doing the grocery shopping so he’s always stocking our shelves with baking ingredients or if it’s because my sister gave us this book last year or what, but it’s actually kind of coming together this year.

We started off with these lovely (and surprisingly easy) Swedish shortbread cookies. We are technically a Norwegian family, but we don’t hold their Swedishness against these cookies. (See! Baking builds bridges across life-long rivalries even of the Scandinavian sort.)

As I’ve mentioned a few times, we homeschool, and baking is a great source of lessons — but academic and life lessons. Do not underestimate the power of a child experiencing ownership over a project from beginning to end, and particularly when the project has such tangible, innate, and sweet (!) rewards. This is aside from the obvious lessons that come with baking: fractions and measuring and all the math that goes with it. Ms7yo recently needed to reduce a recipe. At first, she only cut one of the ingredients in half, so I explained to her how each of the ingredients have to be cut in half. Later on, as she was working on balancing equations, she remarked, “You have to do the same thing on both sides, just like all the ingredients in a recipe!” If you had been looking, you too would have seen the lightbulb floating gently above her head actually turn on.

Later on, we shared the cookies with my parents and enjoyed some at home. And it’s with utter pride that Ms7yo could confidently say that she had made them with me and explained what tasks she had been responsible for.

“And what parts did you do?” my mom asked Ms10yo.

“Oh no!,” she exclaimed, shaking her head and hands as if to say that baking is something she would never do, “I didn’t help make the cookies. I was watching [Mr2yo] while they were making the cookies.”

She paused a moment. “Oh. So I guess I did help!”

And so the learning continues.

Life Learning

Learning does not have to be separate and apart from life. To wit.

I’ve been knitting a lot this year. Amongst other skills I’ve worked on (like making socks without a pattern), I’ve wanted to learn and work on doing colorwork or using multiple strands of yarn to create multi-colored patterns and images in the knitting. I was thinking about this, when I came across a pattern from Insayshable Knits (Saysha Green).

The double layer, reversible ear warmer had just a touch of colorwork and I had some beautiful Farmer’s Daughter Fibers yarn to which Ms7yo had already laid claim from the FDF Sock Squad monthly subscription service. The icing on the cake was that the pattern had a story behind it. Saysha Green used Bogolanfini or “mud cloth” from Mali as her inspiration for the colowork, to beautiful results.

As homeschoolers in the DC area and prior to the pandemic, we viewed the numerous (mostly free) museums in the area as a learning resource. We didn’t visit them that often, but one trip could inspire several weeks-worth of projects and areas of learning. Of course, with the pandemic, we’ve had to find ways to bring those topics into our home.

After I’d finished and blocked the earwarmer, Ms7yo and I sat down with an atlas in front of us. We talked about the different continents and oceans. She found Africa. I explained about the mud cloth and the meaning behind it as Saysha Green had included in her pattern directions. Ms7yo found Mali on the map.

This short lesson didn’t take long. And I’m hoping that whenever she pulls out her earwarmer, we might take a moment to remember where the inspiration and yarn came from and how we are all connected in these ways big and small. Even when the museums are closed. And even in a pandemic.

Queen of Nostalgia

In real life, my given name is Rhena. My dad was the one who chose it when he found it in a biography of Albert Schweitzer, who gave it to his daughter too.

I lived for a year in a dorm in London while I attended Goldsmith’s College and one of my dorm-mates was a woman from Germany who was majoring in Spanish. She’d read my name outside my room several times and one day, she finally said, “I’m saying your name wrong, aren’t I?” I started to explain that it’s the same as the Spanish word for queen but the look on her face as she looked at the letters comprising my name told me that this didn’t compute. “Just read it like you’re reading German.”

A lightbulb went off for her and she never mispronounced my name again. In Spanish, it’s spelled Reina although I’ve know people who spell it: Reyna, Rayna, Raina, and even Rehna.

I’ve never found a keychain or a beaded necklace or barrettes with my name on it on any souvenir store in America, or anywhere for that matter. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I don’t know how many wire racks I’ve slowly spun, by-passing Rachel and then Rebecca before giving up at Sarah.

And so it’s not without a little thrill that I’ve enjoyed the rise of women calling each other “Queen” to show support in public spaces.

And perhaps that’s part of why I signed up for a monthly “Queen of Yarn” enamel pin club. I’m not an impulse purchase person. And I don’t tend to buy things that feel frivolous. I don’t buy things that feel purely decorative to me. Turns out these pins didn’t. They felt affirming and charming and a little (maybe a lot) nostalgic.

I grew up in the era when groups of kids would gather on the school playground to swap and admire sticker collections. Back then, I never would have thought about the person or people behind designing and producing the stickers. It was purely aesthetic: the colors, the images, the textures, and sometimes even the smell of them. And it was, of course, the coming together with other kids in mutual appreciation.

The Queen of Yarn enamel pin club recalls all of that and then some, because now I get to know a little bit about the creator behind them. (Turns out that we both grew up in DC!) Her details — the colors, the inclusion of the phrase “Queen of Yarn” and, of course, the little skeins of yarn in unexpected places — in her designs recall that same sort of simple childhood feeling of delight and surprise that is, frankly, rather hard to summon up these days. And, of course, the little handwritten notes are a reminder that there’s a person behind these pins. It’s an equally imperative reminder.

This is one of my favorite things

We usually have the breaded chicken with a ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, sushi rice, a vegetable and/ or salad greens.

This breaded chicken (Japanese style) is one of my favorite meals to make. It’s simple and easy and doesn’t require much in the way of technique and expertise. Because each piece of chicken must be individually breaded, it requires focus, the same kind of focus that working on an assembly line might require and it takes a long time to make.

Every single member of our family loves this meal. In the evenings, before the pandemic, they used to all hang out with their dad (who they hadn’t seen all day) in the basement, and Eric later told me that when they heard the “bang! bang!” sound of me using the meat tenderizer to flatten out the chicken breasts, they knew that this meant of one of their favorite meals would be on the table. Knowing that my family will enjoy the meal means it is satisfying to make but there’s more to it than that.

The best part of preparing this meal is that I’ve done it enough times at this point that I feel competent. Competency feels good. I can slice chicken breasts super thin. I’ve figured out how best to control the salt distribution. I’ve figured out how to keep one hand the raw chicken contaminated one and one not so that I don’t have to wash my hands every other step. I know which tools in my kitchen work best for each step (I line my colander with paper towels so that the oil can drain off vertically placed pieces of chicken rather than flat on a plate where only one side drains). Once, I made the panko bread crumbs from scratch using a homemade loaf of bread. I probably won’t do that again. But I’ve done it and know that on the off chance I can’t get premade breadcrumbs, I can make them myself.

As much as I love trying and doing new things in the kitchen, I think I love more the feeling of: I’ve been doing some things for long enough that my fall-backs produce something consistently tasty and satisfying. And that feels good too.