Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanks

For several years I wrote, as director of YSB, a piece at this time of the year which thanked all those who made it possible for YSB to help children and their families succeed: our staff, foster parents, volunteers, board members, donors, funders, collaborating agencies, and the kids and families themselves. It requires so much work, dedication, and support from everyone involved to accomplish the difficult task of protecting children and keeping families together. It was easy to work right past the simple act of telling people you appreciate what they did to help both me and the organization. I know I did so plenty of times. So at least at Thanksgiving, if not throughout the year, I made a conscious effort to simply say thanks. I want to say that again. For the first six months of this year I enjoyed the support and hard work of all those around me at YSB, and it meant a lot to me. Thanks for everything you did to support both me as the director of YSB, and the children and families we served.

But this year I want to add another note of thanks. Thank you for letting me go. Thank you for not calling me, relying on me, involving me further in the work I did so long and wished to leave. I miss many of you, but I appreciate the distance. I hope you understand.

Beginning July 1st, I began to realize slowly, and more clearly, that there is a whole universe of people outside of work who have made and continue to make a difference in my life. It starts with my family, who realized I was going through a big change by retiring and supported me in doing so. My wife led the way, getting me to the finish line, over the finish line, and off to the sideline. My kids check in on me more often these days. I’m very thankful I have them in my life.

My extended family, especially my siblings, are there for me as they have been all along, and as the last among them to retire I’ve learned a lot from them. My brother from California is moving home to Illinois at the end of the year and I look forward to spending more time with him. I’m thankful we’re close to one another.

People and organizations that may not always realize their importance to others have grown to be very important to me. I’m thankful for my church in many ways. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve as a volunteer there, as a member of the choir, as a member of one of the boards that will shape its future, as part of the Wednesday night book group, and simply as a member of the church community. I thank my pastor, my choir director, those I serve with on trustees, and those in the congregation that count me among their friends. It means very much to me. I think my life would be much poorer without church.

I‘m part of an organization called I Care International which conducts optometry and vision clinics in Latin America where eye care is scarce or non-existent. They’ve allowed me to become more active in helping plan a mission in February to Trujillo, Honduras. I’m thankful for that opportunity. I am thankful for the old friendships, the new acquaintances, and the camaraderie we enjoy as we put this clinic trip together. It’s great to be part of something where no one is paid a dime yet give so freely of their time.

I’m thankful to old friends and old friendships I neglected for so many years. I’m thankful for their forgiveness and generosity.

I’m thankful for this shack I’m in right now. I’m thankful for everyone who helped me build it. I’m thankful for the quiet, the ravine outside the window that separates me from my neighbors, the trees that surround me. Did I say I’m thankful grateful for the quiet? Let me say that again. I’m thankful for the time and the quiet to think, to not think, to simply live and breathe, eat and sleep.

I’m thankful for living in a country that maintains a social security system which makes it possible for me to quit working , earn nothing from my labors, or labor not at all, and still have sufficient money to live in community. I would be remiss if I was not equally thankful for reliable and trustworthy financial advisors, stable banks, and investment companies that took care of savings that I forgot I had, could not have cared less about, and yet created further support for me now that I’m earning nothing. I’m thankful to live in a country where retirement is allowed and possible.

I hope one day everyone experiences life in a community that knows you. That’s what I experience when I leave the place here on Caton Road. I’m thankful to everyone who wishes me well. They ask me how I like retirement. That question is less frequent as the months go on, but I appreciate everyone’s concern and good wishes just the same. Thankfully I’ve made the adjustment to sloth and idleness rather easily, thank you, and am happy to report I’m enjoying every minute of it.

I’m thankful for those of you who read this blog. Each comment I get inspires me to keep writing, and reinforces my hope that you may one day read a book I put together. I’m on that. It’s a challenge, its slower than I thought it would be, but it’s coming along.

I have a lot to be thankful for and I’m trying to express it. Thank you. I hope your blessings are many and you feel supported and thankful this Thanksgiving. The way to make sure everyone experiences that? Go be part of a community. Support those around you. It has a way of coming back around.

And finally, I’m thankful you read this piece all the way to the end.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Like Everyone in America

Like everyone in America, it seemed, I saw The Exorcist in 1973. I went to Chicago to see it when it first came out. I had read William Blatty’s novel in 1971, which was scary enough. But seeing that little girl’s head spin around (it was a puppet), and her body rise from the bed (wires and a harness), and the green projectile vomiting (pea soup) were so vivid that although I knew the story the impact of those scenes absolutely blew me away. My date and I were scared to death. We ran to the car when we left the theater. That’s what most of us know about exorcism. We know the movie.

We understand exorcism as a little used religious rite but the concept rarely enters public discourse these days. That’s because it’s medieval. It is an antidote to demonic possession and we don’t often frame problems in terms of demonic possession these days. I have not encountered it, nor suspected it come to think, in my entire life. I’m talking about demons jumping in and taking over some unsuspecting human being like the little girl in the movie living with her mother in Georgetown, making her life a living hell. We see people living what we imagine as a living hell but we now attribute such misfortune to mental illness or horrible coincidence and not Beelzebub, Prince of Darkness. Am I wrong here? Has demonic possession been popping up in your neighborhood?

So I was quite surprised when the Bishop of the Springfield Catholic Dioceses, Thomas Paprocki, announced plans for, in words taken from his press release "Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.” He certainly created a buzz by choosing to invoke the rite of exorcism on the day that the Governor of Illinois signed the Marriage Equality Act which will allow same sex marriage throughout the state in June of this year. It got people’s attention in Illinois and beyond. In researching reaction to his plans I realized once again that the Catholic Church is a big institution. It harbors within it a wide range of opinion and thought.

Thomas Villareal, something of a renegade Catholic monk writing in the Los Angeles Times, said this about the Springfield Bishop’s service at the ornate Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception church a few blocks from the state Capitol:

“(As) outrageous –and perhaps even a bit comical –as many might find the use of the rite of exorcism to make a political statement in the culture wars, the entire body of U.S. Catholic bishops has, in fact, implemented a far less theatrical, yet ever more serious plan in their attempt to sully the love and commitment of same-sex couples, along with their civil marriage equality, in the minds and hearts of lay Catholics. This is no laughing matter.”

On the other end of the spectrum is CatholicCulture.org, a non-profit with a web site run by Trinity Communications. The board and officers of Trinity Communications are Catholic laymen faithful to the Magisterium of the Church who seek to enrich faith, strengthen the Church, and form Catholic culture according to the mind of the Church. They claim to “draw special inspiration from the outstanding Catholic vision and wisdom of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and continue to follow the lead and guidance of Pope Francis.” Here’s what they say about Wednesday afternoon’s exorcism.

“Trained as a canon lawyer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki understands the prudence of working within the system of Church law. He is not by nature a “lone ranger”—not the sort of prelate who would ignore the rules and rubrics to make his point. Still, while other American bishops have reacted to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage with protests and press statements, Bishop Paprocki has taken one long stride further, announcing plans to lead prayers of exorcism in the cathedral of his Springfield, Illinois diocese. Exorcism isn’t something the Church takes lightly. Priests are strongly discouraged from using the ritual unless there is strong evidence of demonic activity. So Bishop Paprocki is telling us that he regards the acceptance of same-sex marriage as something far more serious than a matter of mistaken judgment; he sees it as evidence that Satan is twisting the thoughts of legislators, and presumably of the people they represent.

Satan, twisting the thoughts of legislators and the people they represent? The people they represent? That’s us, for God’s sake. Satan, at work in us? Have you felt funny lately? I feel fairly normal and in control.

As an English major I love words and I take them seriously. I think speakers and writers deserve to have their words read and understood. I read most all the newspaper accounts of Wednesday’s exorcism but more important to me is the Bishop’s Homily, which you can find printed in its entirety if you work at it. I don’t have time to give you the link. In his own words Paprocki denied he was exorcising demons from individuals. Let me quote him directly. These are excerpts, taken from his address to the faithful, with omissions indicated by three periods. I know that you know it’s always better to read the whole thing for context, but it’s long.

“God is calling me to speak out and conduct these prayers.... Our prayers at this time are prompted by the fact that the Governor of Illinois today is signing into Illinois law the redefinition of civil marriage, introducing not only an unprecedented novelty into our state law, but also institutionalizing an objectively sinful reality.

... the meaning of the term ‘exorcism’ in the title of this prayer service is not so readily apparent and requires some explanation. ...It should also be noted that the bill that the Governor is signing today is called the ‘Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,’ which purportedly provides that ‘the Act does not interfere with any religious beliefs about marriage.’ Perhaps a large part of the negative reaction is because most people don't know what the Church teaches about exorcism, since they get their misleading information and sensational ideas on this mainly from Hollywood. The fact is that a ‘minor exorcism’ takes place in every Baptism and Confirmation ceremony when we renounce Satan and all his works and empty promises. This prayer service will be along those lines. I'm not saying that anyone involved in the redefinition of marriage is possessed by the devil, which, if that were the case, would require the remedy of a ‘Major Exorcism,’ but all of us are certainly subject to the devil's evil influences and in need of protection and deliverance from evil. Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture, both in the state and in the Church. These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye, which is why they are so deceptive.

... . Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project (this is a mere instrument), but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ The ...’father of lies’ comes from the Gospel of John (8:44), where Jesus refers to the devil as "a liar and the father of lies."

... Since the legal redefinition of marriage is contrary to God's plan, those who contract civil same-sex marriage are culpable of serious sin. Politicians responsible for enacting civil same-sex marriage legislation are morally complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin. We must pray for forgiveness of these sins and deliverance from this evil which has penetrated our state and our Church. The Church stands ready to extend God's mercy to those who confess their sins with true repentance and a firm purpose of amendment in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We must also affirm the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.’ The Church loves homosexual persons and looks upon them with compassion, offering assistance ...to live in accord with the virtue of chastity.”

No need to elaborate further on what the Bishop was all about on Wednesday except to say that although he may not be saying Michael Madigan is possessed by the devil if he did he would not be the first to do so. But all in all, I think his words speak for themselves.

Far and away the best words to come out of the whole deal are the words that hardly anyone understood. After delivering the homily in English, Bishop Paprocki read the rite of exorcism in Latin. I also looked that up. It’s no small deal. But if you’re doing an exorcism in the Catholic Church, it demands being done properly. Too bad they didn’t provide the English translation, although maybe they did. I wasn’t there. The English translation of the Rite of Exorcism is a treasure trove of words, quotable as hell, forgive the pun. I read it side by side with the Latin. The Latin says it in less words than the English. But it's the rich language in the rite that so strikes me. Let me give you the highlights of that piece, issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 18th 1890. Pope Leo recommended the exorcism, a prayer, be delivered standing. Get ready. It’s a doozy.

(Can’t you just see Max Van Sydow in the movie, playing the heavy weight priest they brought in from a dig in Iraq to do battle with Lucifer? It was like a religious Rocky movie at that point. There he was, standing by Regan’s bed, commanding Satan, tossing holy water that burned her skin, invoking the power of God. What a scene. Picture if you can Bishop Paprocki saying these words in Latin. Is there video?) What follows are excerpts again, same deal with the periods and omissions. Here goes.

O most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies, St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle and in our wrestling against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places…

Fight the battles of the Lord today with the Army of the Blessed Angels, as once thou didst fight against Lucifer, the first in pride…But that great dragon was cast out, the old serpent, who is called the devil and satan, who seduces the whole world. …

On men depraved in mind and corrupt in heart the wicked dragon pours out like a most foul river, the poison of his villainy, a spirit of lying, impiety and blasphemy, and the deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices…

His most crafty enemies have engulfed the Church, the Spouse of the Immaculate Lamb, with sorrows; they have drenched her with wormwood; on all her desirable things they have laid their wicked hands…

Offer our prayers in the sight of the Most High, so that the mercies of the Lord may quickly come to our aid, that thou mayest seize the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and satan and that having bound him, thou mayest cast him into the bottomless pit, so that he may no more seduce the nations…

We cast you out, every unclean spirit, every satanic power, every onslaught of the infernal adversary, every legion, every diabolical group and sect, in the name and by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. …No longer dare, cunning serpent, to deceive the human race, to persecute God's Church, to strike God's elect and to sift them as wheat. For the Most High God commands you …God the Father commands you. The Son of God commands you. God the Holy Ghost commands you. Christ, the Eternal Word of God made flesh, commands you, … The exalted Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, commands you, who in her lowliness crushed your proud head from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception… The blood of martyrs and the devout prayers of all holy men and women command you...

Thus, cursed dragon, and you, diabolical legions, we adjure you by the living God, …cease deceiving human creatures and pouring out to them the poison of eternal damnation; cease harming the Church and hindering her liberty.

Begone, Satan, inventor and master of all deceit…Stoop beneath the all-powerful Hand of God; tremble and flee when we invoke the Holy and terrible Name of Jesus…we beseech Thee to deliver us by Thy power from all the tyranny of the infernal spirits, from their snares, their lies and their furious wickedness...

From the snares of the devil…Deliver us, O Lord…That Thou may crush down all enemies of Thy Church…

Wow. Begone, Satan. Stoop…tremble and flee when we invoke the terrible Name of Jesus. That is the language, the words, the core of exorcism. It is just not the Jesus I’m familiar with.

And it is still not clear whom the Bishop was driving the demon from on Wednesday. Was it Illinois, its legislature, its citizens? I can’t tell. Suffice to say some Catholic leaders such as Paprocki are very upset with Illinois lawmakers, and in turn us who support this law, while other church leaders and the majority of Catholic Church members remain supportive of those they love and all who are gay, and wish for them the same opportunity for love, family and acceptance as heterosexuals enjoy.

What do they think will happen come June when the law takes effect? I think I know what will happen. Gay people will marry one another and have their relationship blessed by God and a church community. Joy will break out on those occasions, as it does at all weddings. Other gay people will choose to enter into civil unions, while many gay people will continue to simply live together. Still other gay people will seek love and relationship or they will choose to live alone. They will choose what is best for them among all those options. Take the adjective “gay” out of those statements and come June the same will be true for every adult in Illinois.

Some of those gay marriages will take place in my church, First United Church of Christ in Ottawa, an open and affirming congregation which worked for and welcomes this new law in Illinois, just as we welcome gay people, and everyone, to be members of our church. If they don’t want to use our church basement for the reception the couples will find a hall (probably not the Knights of Columbus), a florist, a bakery, a caterer to help them. If you’re lucky you may be invited. Quite possibly a member of your family is gay and longs to one day marry. Perhaps it will be a neighbor or close friend. As the stigma continues to fall from being gay we realize how many individuals we know and love that are positively affected by this inclusive piece of legislation. I think it is something to celebrate.

This same phenomena, weddings between people who love one another regardless of gender, has been taking place in Massachusetts for ten years. In Iowa for four. The sky has not fallen. Family has not deteriorated. In fact, family has been created. Gay marriage will come to Illinois and you will not be threatened. You may not notice. We can bring the rhetoric down any time now. Cunning serpent, cursed dragon, diabolical legion? The deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices? Come on. It’s going to be OK.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Listening

A guy I’ve known for years told me a story this past week. That is not unusual. It seems as if people have been telling me stories, or trying to, my whole life. I wish I had found the time to listen to them all but I just didn’t. For a long time there I thought I was too busy to keep my own mouth shut and sit quietly as someone talked and I took it in. Nowadays I find myself becoming, I hope, the curious and patient listener I remember myself being before I worked so much. This railroad story was told to me by a man who worked in LaSalle as a switchman while going to LPO junior college in the sixties. He went on to accomplish many other things. It took place in 1963, which was fifty years ago. I can’t quite comprehend that.

As he started I remarked “I don’t hear many railroad stories these days, or know many people working on the railroad. They must have automated a lot of the tasks that used to be done by people. You think that’s so?”

The guy telling the story seems to have left the present, preferring to talk almost exclusively about the past. He ignored my remark as if he hadn’t heard it. Maybe he didn’t. As he talked it seemed as if he was far away. He’d mention a person and pause, looking away, as if picturing him or hearing his voice. When he began to describe the night this story took place his voice took on a different tone. He was I think less in the restaurant hunched over a cup of coffee and a piece of peach pie and more in a train yard fifty years younger.

Here’s his story.

We made up trains at night, usually pushing empty cars on the spur to the cement plant and bringing loaded cars back. There was a hill we could roll them down. They’d bang together when coupling and make an assembled string of cars that would go out the next day. We’d work till the middle of the night, go home, and then at daybreak the engineers showed up, hooked on to those strings of cars we put together, and start out.

The office left index cards for us with lists of numbers on them that corresponded to the numbers chalked on the freight cars, and with that as our guide we’d make up trains. My supervisor, about my age and more friend than boss, trained me the first day while walking from the freight station to the yard. It took about ten minutes. If you didn’t catch on to the system they’d fire you. But if you got it you could keep that job as long as you wanted, if you did not exceed their limit of demerits. They had s system of demerits, or marks made against you for errors and accidents, and sort of kept a book on you. No credits, just demerits. But they wiped your slate clean every year and started over. It was a great job.

My supervisor and three of us were rolling cars loaded with bags of cement, hooking them together, when we got caught in a cold rain. A storm came up quickly. It had been hot as hell that day and then a cold wind hit us. A bank of big clouds rolled in and in no time huge drops of rain began to pelt us. It was amazingly cold, and then hail hit us. It bounced white on the ground around us.

The super yelled ‘Run for an empty!’ We ran between the tracks up the hill toward the empty freight cars. By the time we piled into a car and closed the door we were soaked and shivering. That only happens in Illinois right? Sweating your ass off one minute and hunched up in the cold the next. So we’re in this freight car, shivering and wet, and the super says ‘let’s build a fire.’

There were pallets in the car. We busted them up and started a fire. Cracked the doors to get some cross ventilation. In those wooden cars at that time there was a metal plate in the middle section of the car by the doors. They put steel there so the forklift trucks didn’t wear out the planks. We stood close to the fire to dry out. The rain was beating the roof and sides of that freight car like a drum. Outside the thunder and wind continued loud and hard. But we were safe and dry, a little group of men in a freight car, our faces lit up by the fire. The guys that smoked lit up. We laughed and wished we had something to drink to celebrate having beat the weather. Before long the rain stopped and we returned to work. As we rolled the door of the freight car back wide the cold wind hit us again.

“What about the fire?” I asked. Looking back in the car there was a small pile of coals glowing red on the steel.

“It’ll go out on its own,” the supervisor said. We worked another hour or so and all went home.

I was asleep when my Mom woke me up. It was early morning. Too early.

“Phone’s for you. It’s your supervisor at the railroad.”

My supervisor never called. I knew something was wrong.

“Hello?”

“It’s me. You know that empty we were in last night during the storm?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s nothing left of it but the wheels. Damned thing burned up during the night.”

“Oh oh.”

“Oh oh is right. We’re in trouble. Turns out it was a car that had been carrying sulphur for the zinc plant. Sulphur powder must have got hot under that steel and kept burning after we left, then spread. We’re damn lucky it was off by itself and was the only car that burned.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think we should blame the hobos.”

It was easy to blame things on the hobos. There weren’t as many hobos as there used to be in the train yard but there were enough that when tools went missing, or things got broken, we suggested to the big bosses that the hobos were causing those problems. Actually, they did cause a few problems but not nearly as many as were attributed to them. I was scared. I knew we could lose our jobs over this.

“I don’t think we can blame the hobos, not this time. I think we have to tell the truth,” he said.

“But we’ll get fired. I can get another job but you’ve got kids. Can you afford to lose your job?”

“No. But I can’t afford to lie either. Stealing a crowbar and blaming the hobos is one thing. Burning down a freight car and blaming someone else is another. I think if we tell the truth they may let us off. But if they find out we lied we’re for sure done. We didn’t mean any harm.”

My stomach was turning over.

“I’m calling the rest of the guys and tell them the same thing. We’re telling the truth.”

“OK.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind going with the truth. I just have to know what our story is gonna be.” I thought to myself my short railroad career, and his, was over.

The railroad had its own system of justice. They set up a hearing date, called in the union reps, and held what seemed like court in a few weeks right there in the freight station in LaSalle. They brought down a railroad guy from Chicago wearing a white shirt and tie and carrying a brief case. He looked official. It was hot again. Blistering hot and no air conditioning. They had all the doors and windows in the station open to get air. They moved tables and had us sitting before this guy like an inquisition. Felt like a firing squad. The guy in charge looked hot and uncomfortable. Beet red, veins standing out on his face. Should have loosened his collar but didn’t.

As luck would have it they were moving cattle on the Rock Island line at that time. Most cattle now are moved by trucks on the interstate but in those days we’d move cattle up to the stockyards in Chicago on the railroad. Just about the time the guy started asking us questions a string of cattle cars rolled up and stopped by the station. With all those doors and windows open you could smell ‘em. Hot summer day, bunch of cows packed together in a train car, it stunk big time. As the guy asked me my name and age one of the cows let out with this low bellow ‘Mmmmmooooaaaw. Mmmmmooooaaaw.’ We had a hard time not laughing. The guy conducting the hearing didn’t like it one bit. I’m not sure the day shift fellas didn’t roll that train up there on purpose. Maybe riled up the cows too so they made noise.

Anyway they all seemed flummoxed that we told the truth. We overdid the amount of hail that hit us a tad, and the size of it too, but other than that told the same story, each of us, which was easy because it was exactly what happened. The inquisitor with the too tight collar asked us some questions. Then the union guys huddled with each other and after doing so conferred with the hearing officer while the cattle continued to bawl and the stink and the heat rose. We fanned ourselves with the papers they’d given us detailing our infractions. The super mopped his brow. We didn’t talk to each other. But I caught his eye and he winked.

After a while the hearing officer sat back down and began to speak loudly in a stern tone. In a complicated arrangement, following the rules in only a convoluted and marginal way, he forgave a number of previous demerits we had earned in the current year earlier than was customary, making room for the whopping number of demerits handed down for unintentionally destroying railroad property. When it was all over each of us involved remained on the edge, just a few demerits short of termination, dangling by a thread, but still employed at the railroad. It made us think the fix was somehow in.

“That experience served me well,” my friend said, now back in the diner. “I always felt bad I wanted to blame the hobos, but thought it was the only way out. I didn’t believe enough in the power of honesty.”

Our coffee had grown cold during his telling of the story. I realized what I’d missed during the years I’d been too busy, convinced whatever I was doing or thinking was more important than listening to the tales of others. The waitress came by and poured a warm up in our mugs.

“So do you think that whole deal actually changed you?” I asked.

“I think it did. I think everyone in charge would have preferred we lied. It would have made their job easier. But when we told the truth they sure didn’t want to fire us. I can’t say I lived the entire rest of my life entirely truthfully, but seeing the truth win out made it a lot easier to be honest from then on.”

Life, even life lived fifty years ago, can teach your things if you let it. Stopping to pay attention is the trick.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Growth

I tilled my garden this week. Before I turned over the dirt I took the trash, old tomato vines, pepper plants, tomatillos, weeds, horseradish tops, herbs gone to seed, and hauled them to my compost pile where I put them on the side. I’ll add them in slowly over the winter. My compost pile is surrounded by a woven wire cage. It was the cheapest of all the alternatives ten years ago, and it works fine. I slide long wires, which thread their way through loops in the front wire mesh panel and two sides of the square, up and out of the cage to get access to the compost inside. I take the fresh stuff off the top with a pitchfork-the insides of the pumpkins that became jack o’lanterns, banana peels, manure from my dog, the skins of the cucumbers that became bread and butter pickles, apple cores, coffee grounds from the stove top Bialetta and press pot, bad peppers, outside leaves from a head of lettuce, the skin of a rutabaga I ate two days ago-to get to the good stuff below. The good stuff below is everything I just listed from months ago and more, now rotted, resembling dirt, inhabited by worms: decomposed kitchen scraps, some leaves and twigs from the yard, an occasional red or blue twist tie or rubber band that ended up in the compost bucket under the sink. I pick out those foreign objects, and fill my wheelbarrow with pure, rich compost. It steams in the cold air.

I spread it on the end of the garden that I’ve extended over the years. When I first created the garden, in full sun by the garage, I added sand and mushroom compost to the soil. Each year for the first five years or so I put in one or the other to loosen up the ground, enrich it, fluff it up, make it better. We live on a hill where the soil is sort of timber clay. It doesn’t drain very well. Adding to the soil only makes it better, loamier, more porous, richer.

I put the compost on the end of the garden that didn’t get sand and compost originally. That’s where I’ve been planting the garlic. Garlic does better in loose rich soil. The garlic bulbs can expand better in compost enriched dirt than in straight clay, I think. I don’t exactly know. But it makes sense to me. I know I’m turning my kitchen scraps into soil, and putting it to good use where I’ll grow next year’s vegetables, and there is not a hint of chemical fertilizer involved. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and old vegetables feeding new ones. I like it.

After I plant the garlic, each clove planted around Halloween turning like magic into an entire bulb by the 4th of July, I’ll cover it with straw and throw the steel mesh over it. My friend who owns the tiller doesn’t do this, says it’s unnecessary. I do it anyway. Another friend gave me panels of rigid steel mesh, reinforcing rod for concrete projects I think, to use as a trellis for tomatoes. I stand it up and wire it to steel posts. It stands up better with tomato vines tied to it and weighing it down than the round wire cages I used in the past. I’ll lay cakes of straw over the soil that contains the garlic and throw the steel mesh over it, which will hold it down through the winter. I’ll take it off in spring when all danger of frost is past, and let the garlic sprout and grow. I ordered seed garlic to plant this year instead of saving my own. Couldn’t resist eating it I guess, and thought maybe I should give it a fresh start. I’d been growing and replanting the same garlic for a few years. I bought a hard neck spicy garlic with a purple tint and a bigger, whiter, more mellow soft neck garlic to get two kinds next summer. The white kind is better in buttery garlic mashed potatoes. The purple is better for everything else.

After that I’ll seed the rest of the garden with winter rye. I mentioned this once before on Face Book and someone asked me what I do with the rye. It never gets to be rye. In the spring before it forms a head of grain I till it under, with the help of a friend and his tiller, to act as green manure. It grows green during the winter and early spring, and then it’s gone. Nice stuff. If I was out on a farm and owned a still, and possessed both the knowledge of distilling and the courage to break the law, I’d make rye whiskey. But this rye is a whole different deal. It’s made to be plowed under.

I have a lemon grass plant I need to take down before the frost gets it all. I use the white insides of the biggest stalks as an ingredient in a sort of Thai style chili paste I make. The asparagus plants, which front the garden to the South in a long line, are tall and starting to yellow. I’ll let them stand all winter and burn them off in the spring around Easter, if it’s not too late, as my Mom did. I have a nice little volunteer oak growing up in the asparagus, which I want to transplant in the spring.

I have a big old oak in the yard that died. It’s OK, I need the firewood, but I tell you it’s hard to lose one of those old oaks. We’ve lived here with that beautiful big oak since 1987. It’s like a friend dying. When I first saw a branch dying out on the top years ago I felt real alarm, palpable fear. I didn’t tell anyone for a while hoping that one dead branch was an aberration, sort of like a pain in your own body that you keep to yourself hoping it goes away. My alarm turned to grief as the dead branches spread and I realized our oak was going to die. I was sick about it. It might have been hit by lightning. In addition to dead branches the trunk started to weep sap in the summer and the bark began to shrivel. Mushrooms sprouted at the base of the trunk. It has died slowly over years but it’s time for it to come down. Maybe I’m ready for it to come down now and needed this time to say good bye.

I’ll plant that young volunteer oak in the asparagus near the site of the dead one. Might add a ginko tree somewhere, and maybe a pine near the shack. Our trees are getting old, like us. We need to replace them both for us and the next people.

After I get this garlic planted, the straw put down, and the rye seeded in that’s it for the garden till spring. When it gets warm we’ll start over. My wife plants the flowers and I plant the food. In gardening you get a new start every year. Next year I’ll be fully retired at planting time for the first year and able to be more thoughtful, planning better, instead of just slamming plants in the ground before June. Each year I vow to keep up better on the weeds, and most years I fail to live up to my own expectations. Next year will be different. I’m confident.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Spooks and Neighbors

I don’t know when this happened. If I was more thoughtful I would have written dates down. But on Halloween of some year I noticed, beyond my front stoop, where costumed kids were standing between my Jack O’ lanterns under a porch light, parents lurking in the darkness behind them. They were looking at me and their kids, overseeing the exchange taking place between my bowl of individually wrapped little Snickers and small bags of Whopper malted milk balls and their treat bags. And these were not little kids. I would guess their ages at ten and up. I couldn’t help but wonder what the parents were trying to see. Sometimes I would wave, and they would wave back. Odd, I thought.

That was back in the day when you could take your kids’ candy to the hospital and have it X rayed to check for razor blades and needles and such. That had to be the silliest duty ever for the X ray technicians, to say nothing about overtime pay or the costs of using the technology to take an in depth picture of an assortment of candy bars. It was probably seen by someone in the hospital as good public relations. And that can only be so because parents appreciated it. I think that’s faded out, at least in our area. I’m pretty sure the kids were not worried about biting into a foreign object and being maimed for life. The trip to the hospital must have been an agonizing delay in the inevitable sugar rush. If they were like me as a kid, all they wanted was to eat the candy. They’d been eating it all night between houses. They wanted to take it home, spread it out on the floor, look at the loot all in one glorious display, and tear into it.

My Mom started dropping me off by myself at a young age in Danvers, a town of 800 laid out in a big rectangle, long streets running East to West, shorter streets North to South. The school was on one end, so I asked Mom to drop me off at the other. My friends and I would make our way weaving back and forth, hitting all the houses. I was the youngest so I got all the old ideas for home made costumes tried out by my brothers and sisters. I was a scarecrow one year, as all of us once were. They found the little wooden cross, two flat sticks of lath, with yellow cotton work gloves tacked on the arms. Hold it in front of you, put a shirt over it, tack a straw hat on top, and look through holes between the shirt pockets. Pretty low visibility costume. Good thing there wasn’t a lot of traffic in Danvers.

We knew the best houses. Mrs. Oehler, whose husband repaired shoes and spoke more German than English, made homemade taffy apples. She would drop them, covered in wax paper, with a thud in your pillow case, smashing the popcorn balls. She was a big smiling woman, happy to have kids come to her door. Virginia Martin gave dimes. She was the school secretary. She was always dressed up and painted a mole on her cheek as a beauty mark amidst lots of make up. Once when I was the last kid on her porch, the rest having run to the next house, she dropped an extra dime in my bag while winking at me, her husband smiling behind her. I always thought they liked me.

We ended up at the school where they had cider for us. We marched in circles for costume judging. I don’t remember what adults were there. The adults were minor players in my trick or treating days. The kids owned the streets. I never encountered trouble on Halloween. Later when I was too old for trick or treating I caused some trouble, but that’s another story. In Danvers, if you were big enough and had the stamina, you could hit every house. When we were older we got giant bags of candy, calling on everyone in town who had their lights on. They’d try to guess what our costume was, and then who we were as real people. In Danvers I was then, and continue to be among the old people, Dean and Catherine’s youngest boy.

As a parent I approached Halloween the same way with my kids. When they were old enough to navigate the streets safely we let them go out on their own, in our neighborhood, with their friends. We gave out candy at the house while our kids went out and got candy at the neighbors. You could buy candy for your own kids, give it to them, and it would all come out even, but the kids would miss the fun. They would miss the interaction of ringing the neighbors’ door bells, and the neighbors, we in turn, would miss the joy of having kids in costumes smiling on the porch. Halloween is an event that creates community.

When the party at the school was over I would go downtown and call Mom to pick me up at the restaurant. On the way home in the car she would ask me in detail about the evening.

“Did you go to Aunt Dorothy’s and Uncle Harry’s?”

“Yes.”

“What did they give you?”

“Slow Pokes.” Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harry ran the grocery stores. They had candy to burn. I always thought they gave out the stuff that didn’t sell well. The Slow Pokes were rock hard.

“Did you go to Aunt Carrie’s house?.” Aunt Carries big brick farmhouse was on the way out of town, up and past the school, their barn and silo right across the street from new houses. It was out of the way.

“Didn’t make it there Mom.”

“Oh David, why not?” she said. “She would have liked to have seen you.” It was hard not to disappoint my Mom.

My kids knew who in the neighborhood gave out the best stuff, but the days of homemade popcorn balls and taffy apples were over. For my kids it was the houses that gave out full size candy bars. Mrs. Halterman gave out giant snickers, which made the bite size stuff we bought look tiny. Kids flocked to their house. When the kids came home they’d dump their candy on the living room rug and sort tit all out by type, counting it and seeing who got more. They liked the new stuff best, Nerds and War Heads, and some sour stuff that popped and fizzed in your mouth, but still treasured the Skittles and peanut butter cups. I’d examine it with them.

“You don’t really like these Almond Joys do you Dean?”

“Yea, I think I do Dad. But you can have these Smarties.” The kids gave me their less desirable stuff. I liked it all.

Dean’s best friend had to go to the hospital with his parents to X Ray his candy while we were already eating ours. Dean couldn't understand.

“What are they afraid of Dad? Monsters? The people who give us this stuff are our neighbors.” Dean was a deep thinker even at age eight.

“I know Dean. They feel differently than us.” I tried to downplay the whole fear thing associated with Halloween, but didn’t want to question his friend’s parental concerns. In other words, I thought it was nuts but I didn’t say so.

Raise your hand or reply to this e mail if you have ever seen a Gillette blue blade or any other kind of razor embedded in an apple or anything else that came out of your kids Halloween treat bag. Same for needles. Anyone personally witnessed a needle buried in a Baby Ruth? Has anyone among your family or friends experienced that? We change our behavior based on awful stories that are barely credible. They are urban myths. We live in reaction to rumor and emotion not data and experience. In the Tribune there was a story of a church which organized a trick or treating event with non scary costumes in a parking lot where church members, all known to one another, could open the backs of their mini vans and distribute candy to kids walking by them. It’s Halloween in a paranoid bubble.

Halloween is a community event. I know America isn't the same as it was in my small farm town in 1962 but Halloween is one of the few remaining ways we visit and interact as neighbors. How many people actually come to your door these days? Heck, how many people answer their phone? We so control our contact with others that the act of meeting someone new, or talking with someone we don’t know, is a very rare event. We can’t afford to lose Halloween. We can’t teach our kids to fear their neighbors. What will become of us when we’re all alone?