Sunday, September 27, 2009

Small Town Moments, Hometown Life

This week was a doubleheader for small town moments and hometown life.

It was Fair Week here in Delaware. Delaware is the county seat and the fairgrounds are right here in town, about four blocks away from our front door.

When I was a kid, the fair was a Big Event. For me, it probably ranked right up there with Christmas. The big draw was Horses, especially the draft horses that filled the horse barn for part of the week. Never mind the quarter horses or the sleek Arabians. I was enamored of the Percherons. Back then, you could get right up next to the horses and pet them any time at all, and I always had my favorites that I would make a beeline for and talk to while stroking their improbably soft noses.

The County Fair is still a Big Event, not as robust as it was 40 or 50 years ago, but still a force to be reckoned with. One of the country high schools still shuts down on Monday and Tuesday so the kids can show their cattle and their goats and their horses; those kids still bunk out in the fair barns during that time. Midweek, major harness races take place, and the fair attendance swells to over 50,000. Thursday and Friday, the city schools shut down - the first day to keep the kids home when traffic is so bad (because of the races), the second day because, after all, it's the fair!

Warren and I are not big fairgoers. Not having small children in the house, there is not quite the same impetus to get up there and look at the pigs. We lack the desire to roam the exhibits picking up free pencils and whatnots that kids seem to collect. And there is no one small enough to wave at on the merry-go-round or put a steadying hand on after one too many throw-up rides (my favorite name for them).

All the same, late Tuesday evening, we walked up to the fair- grounds and strolled around for an hour, taking in the sounds and sights. It had been raining earlier and with school the next day for all schools, the preteens and teens that normally clog the Midway were absent. The lights were just as bright for the few riders as for the many. We bought some waffles, looked at vegetable displays and quilts, and then walked home.

I came home from the fair with full hands, one holding Warren's hand and the other holding a bag of fair food. It was a small town, hometown kind of moment.

Warren's daughter Elizabeth is in the marching band of the small country high school she attends. Last night her band performed in a Band Festival in a small community less than 20 miles from here. I urged Warren to attend for two reasons. First, we don't often have the chance to see Elizabeth perform anything anywhere, due to problems with her mother. This being Warren's weekend with his daughter, that was not an issue. Second, I love marching bands. I used to march in high school and thought marching band was the highlight of the band year. (Contrast that with Warren, who was lukewarm at best about marching and saw it as something to be endured before concert season started.) My son Ben marched for two years in high school; I happily sat through my share of marching shows and competitions, big and small, when he did.

Last night's festival didn't disappoint me. There were only five bands, the smallest with less than 20 kids in it; the largest barely over 50. The bands were from small rural schools; one even had 7th and 8th graders in it to help fill the thin ranks. There were lots of shako hats with shiny plumes. There were flag corps and even a baton twirler or two.

There were lots of parents, including us, sitting in the bleachers at the football field; there were lots of little kids and grandparents too. The little kids liked to barrel up and down the steps, which, being metal, clanged loudly at every step. The Athletic Boosters had the concession stand going, with the local specialty item being chicken and noodles. Veterans from the local American Legion were on hand to present the colors; one shouted "hey, stranger!" at me beforehand and turned out to be an old family friend when I looked around in surprise.

Those of us in the stands clapped con- tinually. We clapped when the bands marched onto the track to take their field positions for the opening. We clapped after the combined bands played "The Star Spangled Banner" and the local scout troop raised the flag. We clapped for the silly intermission games. We clapped for soloists. We clapped for local sponsors - the pizza shop! The bank! The Mini Mart! We clapped for the twirler who threw her baton high and then did a cartwheel before catching it again. We clapped when our school's fight song was played. We clapped when every band received its trophy, and then we clapped them all off the field.

Afterwards, Warren and I beat the buses back to Buckeye Valley. Sitting there in the car, dozing a bit while we waited, I remembered all the times I waited for the buses to come in after Ben's performances so long ago. When the buses came in, we got out and went to the band room, all abuzz while the kids put away instruments and hung up uniforms. There were jokes and shouts and dramatic exclamations as only teenagers can muster and everything was a wonderful hubbub of noise and movement.

It was a wonderful small town, hometown kind of night.

Sinclair Lewis is remembered for his biting works about life in small, Midwest towns. In Main Street and Babbitt, he savaged the intellectual, artistic, and emotional restrictions that he felt small towns forced upon its residents. He won a Nobel Prize for literature - the first American so honored - on the strength of those earliest novels.

Ten years after Main Street, Lewis wrote a novel that softened the condemnation he had so liberally heaped upon small town America a decade earlier. Dodsworth today is rarely read except by Lewis scholars, yet is considered the equal or better of his earlier works. In it, the gentle Sam Dodsworth, a retired automobile manufacturer, leaves his comfortable life in small town Ohio and goes traipsing across Europe with his singularly selfish, shallow wife who is on the hunt for the "culture" and the "good life" that she feels entitled to and knows America cannot begin to offer her. Sam's musings about the America he loves and has left behind - including its small towns - are in truth a love letter Lewis wrote with a swift and sure hand.

I left my hometown when I graduated from high school and stayed away, more or less, until I was in my mid-30s. I had lots of reasons for doing so, including a shared belief with the author of Main Street that small towns were dead ends of hypocrisy and bigotry and shallowness. When I returned to this one, my hometown, it was willingly and gratefully. It was where I wanted to be, where I wanted to raise my sons. Like the author of Dodsworth, I had come full circle in my view of this small town, my hometown.

Tomorrow marks 19 years since I came back here. In those 19 years, I have watched my boys grow up, navigating the same streets and institutions I did decades earlier, and I have watched them leave as I knew they would one day. I have gone to fairs and footballs games, concerts and council meetings, funerals and weddings. I have watched parades and fireworks. I became more of who I was and less of who others thought I should be. I even got to marry the guy who decided a long time ago to stay right here in this small town hometown of ours.

My days are full of small town, hometown kinds of moments. Those moments shape my life. It's a wonderful one.

Friday, September 25, 2009

In Celebration of Books

September 26 through October 3 is Banned Books Week, now in its 27th official year. Created by the American Library Association, it is a yearly reminder to us all that the right to read what you want when you want is a precious one and not to be taken for granted.

Books are removed - or attempted to be removed - from libraries and schools around this country on a regular basis. Those calling for censorship cross the political spectrum from right to left, so despite your political convictions, you can't blame it on the other side.

When I look at my bookshelves or think about my sons' bookshelves, I see a plethora of books that have come under fire: The Wizard of Oz. Slaughterhouse Five. The Grapes of Wrath. The Diary of Ann Frank. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Bible.

So many books, so little time.

Ray Bradbury more than once wrote short stories about a future where books were taboo. In his novel Fahrenheit 451, he imagines an America in which books are torched pursuant to the law: The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning, along with the houses in which they were hidden.

Bradbury's works pop up on banned books lists from time to time. I suspect that makes him glad he wrote them.

Next week, celebrate your right to read freely during Banned Books Week. Be a radical. Read a banned book. Read 10 banned books. Reread Fahrenheit 451 while you are at it.

And then go out and read some more. Not just this week but every week. Not just now but always.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"And We Came Away Happy..."

Saturday night we went out to Margo and Gerald's house for a late night supper and then dessert sitting around the fire ring in their yard.

The four of us are good friends of some years now. Margo and Gerald were the first couple we socialized with as a couple. Back when we were not "out" yet publicly, Margo had invited me to come to supper on Thanksgiving. I asked if I could bring a friend. Sure. I could not interpret the look on Margo's face or her sudden laughter when Warren came to the door with me that long ago evening. Several months later, over coffee, Margo confessed she had speculated to Gerald that the "friend" I was bringing was a puppy (Margo and Gerald are dog people) and she was so convinced it was a puppy that she was momentarily stunned when Warren emerged from my car.

To this day, I never drive up their long driveway without thinking "I'm not bringing a puppy this time either."

We were a little late getting there; dinner was delayed a little longer while the brats and the cut vegetables - peppers, yellow squash, leeks - roasted. Margo had also made baked beans. We had brought homemade coleslaw (the cabbage coming from Mrs. Hough's garden) and roasted potato salad made with our entire crop of potatoes. We also carried in a homemade apple pie still warm from the oven.

[A word about the entire crop of potatoes going into the potato salad: that morning we had dug the potatoes that I had never planned on growing in the first place. They were from seed potatoes that my friend Scott brought over because someone gave them to him and while he couldn't grow them in his yard, he hated to throw them away. So did I. So I planted them in the sod garden and trusted Nature to know what to do with them. Per Pa Ingalls, you "can't get much from a first year on sod ground." We had just enough to make the salad - about three pounds - and not a potato more.]

While we ate supper, we kept exclaiming over the variety of flavors and textures and tastes of the meal spread before us. The food was good. And as we ate, we talked of many things as we always do.

One of the topics was food nostalgia: what tastes do you remember from your childhood that you sometimes yearn for (or even seek out) just because it reminds you so much of home?

For me, it was the coleslaw we brought. My grandmother Skatzes, who always had Thanksgiving at her house when I was little, made a vinegar dressing coleslaw that I loved so much that I was in my twenties before I learned to tolerate more conventional (i.e., creamy) coleslaws. When Grandma died, that recipe died with her for thirty years until I discovered that Barberton chicken is always served with a side of almost identical slaw. It is once again the only type of slaw I make.

My story led Warren to compare my slaw dressing to one his father made for thinly sliced cucumbers and onions. That sparked a memory in Gerald of a similar dish, causing him to comment that he didn't even like the dish that much, but sometimes wanted just a taste of it because of the memories it brought back. That led to a story about switching the mashed turnips for the mashed potatoes on his Thanksgiving table.

Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote, "What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?" If that quote had been put to the test Saturday night, it would have been immediately proven true.

After our meal, we cut thick slices of the pie and took them outside to the fire ring. Gerald and Warren spent several minutes rekindling and then building the blaze, then we all pulled our chairs up close and ate pie and talked. Our talk ranged widely from the Symphony to United Way to which snakes give birth live (rattlers, among others) to the fact that a log in the fire ring looked like a large frog squatting in the flames. When the fire was particularly hot, we would scoot our chairs away; we'd pull back closer when the flames cooled and the cooler night air wove its way back in among us.

Margo and Gerald live just far enough out of town that you forget Delaware is right over there. Their house and yard are surrounded by fields farmed by the Skinners; this year the Skinners planted soybeans. Sitting out in the yard around the fire ring, listening to the late summer katydids and crickets, looking up at the stars, talking and sharing among us, is one of my favorite things to do.

It was almost one a.m. when we all finally realized we were tired and it was time to head to our respective beds. (Margo and I had been quietly testing out that notion on our own at ringside.) We stumbled into the kitchen, its cheery red and white floor all the brighter for the early hour, exclaimed as we always do over the lateness of the time, and said our goodnights. It never fails to amaze us that we are so compatible and talk so much that it is usually the next day before we end our evening.

Kentucky author Jesse Stuart wrote, "We went to our supper table hungry, and we came away happy, full of food and great dreams." I thought of that quote as we drove home. We too all came to the table hungry: hungry for the good food, hungry for the good talk, hungry for the good friends. And like Jesse, we all came away happy, full of good food and great friendship.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Moment of Grace, Moment of Gratitude

It is United Way campaign season and this year I volunteered to help give workplace talks to encourage employees to sign up for payroll deductions. This morning I did my first talk at the huge diaper factory on the edge of town.

The diaper factory runs 12 hour shifts that start and end at 6:30. I was there to talk a few minutes about United Way. There were about 100 employees - both permanent and temporary - in the "Town Hall" as the shifts ended and started.

The diaper factory is a grueling place to work. The work is hard. The main factory floor, brightly lit and immaculate appearing, is noisy. Everyone wears ear plugs. The shifts, which follow a 2 week cycle, can throw your body clock to pieces if you are not prepared. I know because my son Sam and some of his friends worked there last summer, thinking they would make "real money" now that they were 18 and could work anywhere. Sam's body clock was so thoroughly wrecked after a few weeks there that he finally quit because he never knew whether he was coming or going.

So I was doubly appreciative of the men and women finishing their shifts who came in to listen to the pitch. They're tired. They're ready to drop. I suspect some of them, especially the exhausted looking teen in the front row, may have been doing it because they didn't have to clock out until the meeting was over. But more employees than I would have guessed were there because they believed in United Way.

How do I know that? Because after the campaign video and after my brief remarks, the campaign coordinators for the factory passed out the enrollment forms and many of the men and women in the room proceeded to fill them out.

That was a moment of grace.

What floored me the most, bringing tears to my eyes, was that a number of the temp workers (distinguishable by t-shirt color) also filled out forms.

That was a moment of gratitude.

Temp workers don't have it easy. They get no benefits; they usually get less pay; they often have little chance of being made a permanent employee at a job site. Currently there are rumors that this factory will be cutting back shifts and laying off workers. If that happens, the temps are on the frontline of expendability.

Yet here they were, filling out pledge forms, committing to helping out the 2009-2010 campaign.

Our local United Way funds 20 community organizations, many of which are integral strands in the community safety net. In the few moments that I spoke, I touched solely on that topic: these agencies bind our community together, we are going through tough times, and helping United Way strengthens our community.

I have a feeling, looking at the faces, that my few words were unnecessary. The workers filled out the cards because they believed in the power of standing united.

As I left the factory, the sky was reaching a crescendo of colors just before the sun slipped over the horizon. I turned onto the highway back towards town and the colors just washed over me. I thought about what I had just seen, I thought about the temps filling out their pledge cards, and the tears came back.

Moments of grace, moments of gratitude. This morning I witnessed both.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Welcome to Cancerland

Yesterday I spent about an hour on the phone with a gentleman I have never met, but whom I knew immediately after reading a brief message from the friend who connected us:

Hi April, I have a friend who was diagnosed with what you had. Is it ok if he emails you?


[For the record, what I have (present tense) is multiple myeloma, which is bone marrow cancer. Although considered "manageable," myeloma is incurable. It is unlikely that a cure will be found in my lifetime, whether I have one year or two hundred years left. That's the reality of cancer in 2009. While the medical profession understands many manifestations of the disease more than ever before in history, and many people live longer than ever before after being diagnosed, the progress made in eradicating cancer of all types has remained pretty static over the last 40 years.]

But I digress. This is about welcoming a fellow traveler, who goes by the nickname "Sam," to the shores of a land he never wanted to immigrate to in the first place. I was the welcoming committee for this new arrival at the gates.

Welcome to Cancerland, Sam.

Sam has only been recently diagnosed and like everyone else out there who has ever heard a doctor say "you have cancer," was still reeling from the hastily arranged journey. No one gets first class accommodations on the plane, train, or automobile trip to Cancerland. Heck no, we are stuffed into steerage, crammed into coach, or made to sit in the jump seat of a too small truck cab while we head to our destination. We arrive dazed and bruised and wondering where our luggage is, if we had a chance to throw anything on the baggage cart before boarding the Cancerland Express.

I made that trip almost five years ago. I remember the dizzying pace and disorientation. So yesterday's phone call, with its jumps from this here to that way over there and then back to this other thing here, made perfect sense to me.

Our conversation was held in both English and Cancerese, a dialect spoken in Cancerland. For those of you not familiar with it, here are some translations of yesterday's phone call.

"I was told I should learn as much about this disease as I can, so I am familiar with the treatment options. Was that your experience?" (Translation: Where do I go for language lessons?)

"Treatment is so very expensive. What was your insurance experiences?" (Translation: What is the currency exchange rate here?)

"Did you have chemotherapy?" (Translation: Is it safe to drink the water?)

"How did you learn you had cancer?" (Translation: How did you arrive here?)

"What is your life like now?" (Translation: Is there a curfew?)

We talked.

And talked.

And talked.

At times, Sam's voice broke and he apologized for being emotional. No, no, I said. Emotional is okay. Your life has been turned upside down.

Sam is 50 and has a five year old child. I was 48 and had two sons who had just started college and high school respectively. "I didn't know if I would live long enough to see them graduate," I told him. That was when my voice broke.

In talking with Sam, I was reminded of my first brutal days in Cancerland. They came back to me last night as I was falling asleep. I remembered being so ill and worn out that I could barely get up in the morning. I remembered the cold dread of the computer screen at 2:30 a.m., when the Google hits for "myeloma" turned up words like "terminal," "poor prognosis," and "less than five years."

I remembered the difficulty of telling people I had cancer: not because I wanted to hide it but because I knew that I was about to hurt people with what I had to say. One close friend stopped me mid-telling and said "I have a feeling I know where this is going and I don't like it, but keep talking." I remembered my son Sam, who was all of 14 years old at the time, saying "I'm not surprised. I've been thinking for a couple of weeks it was cancer or something."

But I also remembered the gratitude that has never ended. I had family and friends and colleagues who immediately formed ranks around me and did not break. I had a woman my parents' ages, who I barely knew from my childhood, contact me within days of my diagnosis. She was my welcoming committee. Edna and I became close and stayed close until her death from myeloma last October. (In writing those words, I have a sudden catch in my throat at remembering how much her words and friendship meant to me and how much I miss her yet.)

I spoke little of this to Sam when we talked yesterday. Although we all live in Cancerland and share many experiences, each of us sees it through the eyes of our own life. He will have his own Cancerland experiences to share in months and years to come.

I did tell him that I was changed by cancer and not the same person I was before I got the news. Sam immediately said, almost eagerly, "yes, yes, I know what you mean." (Translation: So this isn't just a delusion?)

One of Sam's questions for me yesterday was how I went about telling people about my disease. (No translation needed.) I told him I had told some family and close friends first. I also explained that I lived and worked in a close-knit community and that the news traveled fast.

"And then I went and held a huge party."

My answer caught Sam so off guard that he laughed out loud. I think the word "party" was the very last thing he expected to hear. I told him that I wasn't about to sit around and wring my hands after I got the diagnosis. So a month or so after those irrevocable words, over one hundred thirty people packed themselves into my apartment and we laughed and talked and ate and drank and partied all evening. I told Sam that the friend who connected us, Sherry, was at that party.

It was a great sendoff party. It was the only way I could move to Cancerland.

Every day in this country, some 3500 people, ranging in age from newborn to elderly, are diagnosed with cancer. I don't know what the global figure is; the American number is staggering enough. To make that number real to me, that means that every nine days, enough individuals have been diagnosed to populate the town I live in.

That's a lot of people.

I moved to Cancerland on November 10, 2004. My friend Myeloma Larry (to distinguish him from another Larry I know) moved there a few years before me. Earline arrived about the same time I did. Edna no longer lives here, but I remember her every day.

There are lots of good folk who live here.

And now Sam has joined us. Welcome, Sam, welcome.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Of Starfish and Quilts

The starfish anecdote has been circulating on the internet and before that on office fax machines for at least twenty five years. If you haven't seen it, it goes something like this:

Strolling along the beach after a storm, a woman catches sight of a young man who appears to be dancing at the water's edge. The young man bends down, straightens to his full height and then casts his arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, she sees that the sand is littered with starfish and he is throwing them, one by one, back into the sea.

She says, "There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?"

Smiling, he stoops down and tosses another starfish out over the water, saying, "It made a difference to that one."

That's me all over. What I do here, now, in this lifetime, is not unlike the actions of that young man. Bend down, pick up, stand straight, throw, and hope I make a difference.

Earlier this week, author Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at Ohio Wesleyan University, which is our hometown college. Barbara is a social activist who wrote Nickel and Dimed (2001), which details her experiences working in low-wage America. At the end of her talk, she encouraged the students to find an area in which they could become involved to bring about social justice: wages, housing, health care, hunger, peace.

I am a huge Ehrenreich fan and had the chance to talk to her after the lecture for a few fleeting moments while she autographed my copy of Nickel and Dimed. It was a Big Deal for me.

I enjoyed her talk because I enjoy her thinking and agree with her on many issues. All the same, I did not come away feeling motivated and energized to Take Action (uppercase). I came away instead thinking that when I take action (lowercase), it is always locally.

This is not a new thought or a startling revelation. I do think and act locally - beyond my nose, I hope, but not too far beyond my front porch.

Catholic activist Dorothy Day wrote "Why localism? For some of us, anything else is extravagant; it's unreal; it's not a life we want to lead."

That's a philosophy I heartily embrace. It echoes the saying I have adopted from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: "Think locally, act neighborly."

Some may smirk at that homey saying. Acting "neighborly" doesn't necessarily mean always saying "please" and "thank you," although that doesn't hurt one bit. (Especially in light of our uncivil discourse in more and more public arenas.)

To me, the phrase means keeping my focus and my time and my efforts in those local programs I am most passionate about. By thinking locally and acting neighborly, I do my small part to strengthen the community quilt that covers us all.

Quilting and quilts are metaphors for life for me. I don't quilt, although I came from a long line of quilt-makers, all on my dad's side of the family. (That's a look at one of my grandmother's quilts in the photo.) I never picked up the basic skills, let alone the artistry that they possessed, but I did pick up a bone-deep appreciation for quilting, which is why I use quilt metaphors so often.

When I think about that community quilt - that blanket of actions and organizations that gives warmth and comfort to us all - I try to imagine its pattern.

Freeform? Amish? Log Cabin? Rose of Sharon?

None of the above. The pattern of the community quilt, at least the one I am working on, is obvious. My life's remaining work is already cut out, the blocks neatly stacked, just waiting for me to piece it all together.

It's a starfish quilt.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Seeing Far Enough

Warren had a xylophone to deliver to a percussionist in the Pittsburgh area. He had repaired and refinished the bars, and built a new case (the part the bars are strung on).

Warren's custom work is beautiful.

He also had a large order of bass drum stands and gong stands, as well as a set of reconditioned xylophone bars, to deliver to Volkwein's Music, which is also in Pittsburgh. So Thursday night he loaded a trailer and his truck, and very early Friday we set off.

Pittsburgh is about four hours from our home, and we left before the sun had risen. Preferring the lesser traveled roads, we angled east then south before joining Interstate 70 at Zanesville. Our route took us through smaller communities and past farm fields, much of them swathed in a thick layer of fog. About 45 minutes into the trip, I happened to glance over my shoulder and see the setting moon, full and red-tinged with the rising sun, sinking into a fog bank.

We arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-morning, stopping first to deliver the xylophone to a very pleased customer. From there it was a quick hop to Volkwein's, where we spent the next several hours.

We were greeted at the Volkwein's delivery door by a sousaphone bell undergoing a touchup. I played sousaphone in high school marching band, so it caught my eye right away.

Warren and Jack, the president of Volkwein's, have had a personal, professional, and business relationship for three decades. They are both passionate percussionists, so we were not there merely to drop off the order. Instead, we were there so Warren and Jack could discuss percussion playing and gossip about other percussionists. We were there so they could talk their way through some problematic instruments and look at rosewood bars and snares and timpani pedals and slapsticks. Warren needed to measure a set of crotales for dimensions for the mold he will build for casting the set he is making this winter.

It was a chance for me to watch Warren in his element as a percussionist, as a craftsman, as someone whose skills and talents in percussion making are respected and valued. I had glimpsed some of that before, but this was five hours of Warren and Jack roaming through the workshops and storerooms of Volkwein's, pulling instruments off of shelves, joking each another, grabbing a pair of drumsticks and trying out a new practice pad and then discussing the tone and bounce of the pad.

It was a joy to behold. I told Warren later that he had bounced from topic to topic. Even his body language was different as the two men compared notes both on and off the multitude of drums.

We left Volkwein's mid-afternoon. We wanted to spend some time in the city before heading back; it was time for that part of that trip. Both of us wanted to stop at the nearby Ikea store. This was a great idea in theory; in reality, I was so exhausted after much of the day in Percussion Land that I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff there. Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed the sleek designs and bright colors; instead, even after taking a dessert break at the in-store café, I whimpered "Can we leave now?"

Despite my exhaustion, I still wanted to go to downtown Pittsburgh. I wanted to ride an incline, which is sort of a cable rail car that travels up and down the steep hills of the city. (Pittsburgh used to have 15 of them; it still has two fully operational ones which are part of the city's transportation system.) And we both wanted to eat hotdogs at the O, up by the University of Pittsburgh.

Warren checked and double-checked. "Are you sure you are up for this? We don't have to do this." He was worried about how tired I was.

One of the frustrations of being a citizen of Cancerland in that I have no control over my energy levels. I never know if taking a few moments here and there will recharge me or whether my reserves will still be below E. As a result, I tend to go ahead and do rather than stop. I gamble that I will find some energy somewhere and more times than not, I am right.

I was right yesterday.

"Let's go to the incline."

We rode the Monongahela Incline. The ride up was fun and full of folks just happy to be there. Speed is not the issue when riding an incline; just by choosing it as the way to scale a hillside, you are announcing that views trump haste. From the base station, it took us some 360 feet up a hill to a neighborhood. Some of the riders got off and walked on down the street; they lived there. Those of us who were day-trippers, though, wandered down the sidewalk to a series of viewing areas overlooking all of downtown Pittsburgh.

I turned to Warren and said "if I lived in Pittsburgh, I would want to live up here and work down there so I could ride the incline every day."

The views were magnificent. We were there as evening was falling, and the setting sun just washed the tops of the skyscrapers.

The overlooks are popular for bridal parties and we saw two different ones. I can see why, with the city spread out behind them as the photographers snapped away.

Lights came on all over Pittsburgh. The full moon began rising in the east.

It was magical. And I was renewed.

After an hour or more up at the top of the city, we reluctantly tore ourselves away, rode the incline back down, and headed out to dinner before driving back to Delaware. Our destination? The Original Hot Dog Shop, also known as the O.

The O was one of several hot dog shops featured some years ago in a PBS show about - what else? - hot dogs. One of our "for fun" goals is to eat at as many of those shops as possible. As my stepdaughter Elizabeth would say, why not?

The O is pretty much a dumpy diner that caters to the Pitt students. At 9:00 at night, which is when we arrived, it was hopping. Students, locals, Warren and I were all there, all ordering hot dogs.

These are the dogs cooking on the grills.

And this is the great neon sign outside.

After the O, we turned back towards Ohio and home. We arrived home late, tired and worn and grateful to fall into our bed at last. (It was three a.m.)

I am a little groggy today, not thinking or moving quickly. All the same, I feel more alive and centered than I have for weeks. The jaunt to Pittsburgh turned something on inside that had been much too dormant. Our little trip renewed my enthusiasm for experiencing something new, whether it was riding an incline or sampling a hot dog

Emerson wrote "The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough."

Emerson being Emerson, you never know whether he meant the physical or the metaphysical eye. Probably both, I suspect. All I know is that as of late I have felt worn around the edges, grasping for moments of quiet, for moments of gratitude, for small moments of great reward.

Today much of that lassitude has fallen away from me. I am no longer tired in the ways that count most - the ways of my heart, the ways of my spirit.

Yesterday I could finally see far enough.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


After the pace and complications of August, I have reached September like a shipwreck survivor, washed up on shore, lying there with my face against the wet grainy sand, grateful and incredulous that I am out of the churning surf. I need to rise to my feet and get above the tide line, but for the moment, I am thinking only "I made it."

Helping me make this transition to where I want to be is the time of year. Our summer has begun to melt into fall, a little earlier than in recent years. The nights have been cool - cool enough to reach for a sweater or shut a window. The noonday sky has become so blue it makes my throat ache to look at it.

Fall is just a breath away.

We get up at about the same time each morning, and with the slow wheeling around of the seasons, that means we now are up before the sun has cleared the horizon. There is a different quality to the light these days. The brassy harsh gold of the summer sun is gone. The sunrise is now long shafts of cool, clear colors before the sun finally appears.

I am invigorated by autumn and find it a season of renewal. I know: it is the season of the earth decaying, readying itself for the long sleep of winter. But to me it is full of energy. Maybe I am fueled by the chill air. Maybe it is the brilliant autumn colors that sustain me.

I know I need to take out my compass and determine where I am following the tumult of last month. For today, though, I feel akin to Emily Dickinson, who wrote:

The morns are meeker than they were -
The nuts are getting brown -

The berry's cheek is plumper -

The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf -

The field a scarlet gown -

Lest I should be old fashioned

I'll put a trinket on.