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.

… it pours.

(The first half of this post can be found here.)

I recall that as a child, electrical outages always felt a bit like an adventure or at least held the potential for adventures on par with snow days. At the very least, it held the possibility of finally answering the question: how *would* I have fared on the Oregon Trail with some, however small, degree of certitude. I try to hold on to the idea that my kids are somehow experiencing this beach vacation outage in the same way that I did as a child. But, somehow, adulthood and the still intact cellular service provides us with just enough information to suck away any potential mystery and magic and, yes, even adventure.

Eric does what he is good at: collecting information. He figures out who the utility company is that serves this area and begins to monitor their on-line updates. It turns out at least one tornado did touch down somewhere north of us. The projections for when service will be restored for this area vary from the following day to four days, which is the rest of our vacation. I swear I can hear the frozen baked goods I lovingly prepared at home and transported here on dry ice scream from inside the now-warming freezer.

Aside from the food we have in the refrigerators and freezers, the kitchen appliances all run on electricity. But there is a propane grill outside. There are no flashlights in the rental house other than those on our phones, from which the power is already draining. We can’t even find candles. We brought one camping lamp (for outdoor lighting) and, in a pinch, we can charge our phones and other devices in the cars but that’s not something we want to rely on. I reluctantly stop checking twitter and instagram. Ok. Full disclosure? I slow my roll, a bit, but don’t stop entirely. I share this with you so that my re-telling doesn’t become more dramatic than it really was.

My sister and her daughter load all the coolers we have into the back of their rental and venture out to track down ice. (The employees at the nearby liquor store laugh at idea of having any ice left but the further afield grocery store has plenty.) My brother is on dinner duty and decides that hot dogs (with a fixin’s bar) and summer veggies won’t be too hard on the propane grill and he grabs pillar candles safely ensconced in glass holders on his trip to grab ingredients.

We aim for an early dinner for the sake of having sunlight and because of Covid-19 we’ve already been eating all of our meals outside so that we can be together. After the meal, I hang the camping lamp from the ceiling light so my brother (who has requested be called “Sir Illin Pain” on this blog and henceforth it shall be so) can wash the dinner dishes. I dry. But really this is just an opportunity for me to tell him about how I think that the vision-impaired villain of the movie Get Out should not have been physically vision-impaired. It should have been metaphorical. Sir Illin Pain isn’t really buying what I’m trying to sell but I’m not too worried because I don’t think Jordan Peele is going to be calling for my help any time soon.

Outside on the front porch, my sister and her kids and husband and my sister-in-law (who has been asked to be called Ms32yo on the blog) and my mom and other younger brother have started an impromptu (is there any other kind?) sing-along/ performance (primarily by my nephew G who is the one who mostly puts in the time and effort into his voice and guitar). G sings one of my favorites by Bright Eyes.

This is the first day of my life. Swear I was born right in the doorway. I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed. They’re spreading blankets on the beach.

Later, I am lying in one of two twin beds in the room I am sharing with Ms7yo. If I strain my ears, I can hear the ocean, which is, of course, the dream: to fall asleep to the real sound of the real ocean.

I can also hear voices. Is someone arguing or is that a chair being dragged across a floor somewhere? Laughter? Or crying? For a period of time, twenty years ago or so, I lived in a remote part of Thailand near the Burma border in a small house made of bamboo. Hearing our neighbors through our open windows reminds me of that and the quiet often made me feel like I was eavesdropping. I feel the familiar blush of shame at this thought. I’m not trying to hear, I think to myself. And I fall asleep thinking about privacy and auditory invasions.

“What should our plan be?” Eric asks me in the morning. He’s already been awake and checked in with some of the others. It was the heat and the neighbors’ noise, neither tempered by air conditioning units that most disrupted sleep. Much of the day is spent thinking about how to best to keep the houses cool and what to do about food. How much longer can we last without electricity? The kids drain the iPad battery. I don’t blame them.

I have the ingredients for key lime pie, including slowly warming whipping cream in the fridge. After a morning trip to the beach where, thankfully, a lack of electricity doesn’t effect us, I decide to attempt the pie on the propane grill, which has a thermometer on the lid. After pressing the graham cracker crust I pre-mixed at home into the pan, i place it into the preheated grill off of the direct heat. While I am moving fallen branches into piles in the backyard, I catch the unmistakeable smell of burning butter.

It’s not a total loss, I try to console myself. I’ll cut off the blackened edge and be more careful on the next one. Sir Illin Pain joins me out back.

“Are you baking a pie on the grill?” he asks me.

“Trying to,” I answer.

“When the shit goes down,” he says. “I’m taking you with me.”

“Wait. You mean like when it’s time to run into the woods?”

“Yes.”

“Because you want to be able to eat pie?”

“Yes.”

It’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

Thunk. Whirrrrrrr.

“Is that the…?”

A cheer erupts from the other vacation houses and otherwise quiet streets in answer to my question. Yes. That is the sound of the air conditioner.

My sister walks into the backyard, “I was just walking back from the beach, thinking about how quiet it is without any electricity, when it all came back on,” she tells us in a tone equal parts relief and wonder.

I’ll finish the pies in the oven.

Later on, when Eric and I are reviewing the 30 hours without electricity in a pandemic in a vacation rental, we realize the degree to which SARS-Cov-2 had been occupying our every waking thought and moment for the past several months. And how, when issues of food and heat became more pressing, the pandemic fell to the periphery of our focus.

“You realize how people in other parts of the world have been experiencing the pandemic,” Eric notes. I agree.