Spooking Ourselves

We have a new crop of Czech students in, working away in their community agencies, adjusting to a new environment, learning a great deal. The Czechs are surprised by the number of churches, and so close together. This seems a natural observation, as they stay on the Brescia campus and their stomping ground is the oldest part of town, with a church on nearly every corner.

But what really thrills them, gets them punching each other and drawing attention are all the Halloween decorations. From the first day of arrival they have had plenty to gawp at. One afternoon, the first rainy one we had had in months, they spied the old Victorian house on Frederica all done up with ghosts in the yard and stuffed figures of people with machetes on the porch. I slowed to a crawl, hoping the light would catch us so we might stop for photos; they had their phones out in three seconds flat. I lowered the rain-splattered windows, but the results were unsatisfactory.

Luckily, this fine old house and its fine decorations are on our regular route. Every time we pass it they take pictures. Any old drive around town produces plenty of pumpkins and witches and giant spiders on tree trunks, cobwebby shrubs and bushes. They thrill to the sight of all the Halloween goings-on with the same kind of thrill they experience when they see a yellow school bus.

They can’t quite believe we really celebrate Halloween like they have seen on TV, in the same way they don’t really believe the roads and streets of American towns are full of school buses. They think school buses only exist in the movies.

Halloween seems to be one of those iconic American events, like Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday. The Czechs, under Communism, didn’t celebrate it.  Many of my friends over there are religious and the holiday never quite caught on, Halloween seeming, well, perhaps unseemly.

They don’t quite get the frivolity of an American Halloween, the kind of Halloween we celebrated as children. I was a princess exactly once, in a flammable nylon-y store-bought costume, loaded with glitter down the front and on the plastic wand and tiara. It got in my eyes and I couldn’t breathe nor see out of the plastic mask, which dripped with condensation. Good times.

Mostly we were hobos or Army men, because we had old clothes and my dad collected World War II memorabilia. Those standard issue gas masks were a nice touch.
The ancient Celts may have started all this Halloween business. They celebrated the New Year on November 1, a day to mark the end of the growing season and the hard winter to come. On the eve of the new year, the Celts believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin, which  explains the ceremonies, bonfires, and special costumes to ward off the bad and beckon the good.

I’m not sure where the candy and treats came into it, but I am grateful.

Since All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day as it was once called, is on November 1, followed by All Souls Day on Nov. 2 which is a day to remember those who have died, it makes some sense that on Hallows’ Eve we might want to cut loose a little and scare ourselves a bit with some foolishness.

It is a little like whistling past the graveyard or scaring ourselves with ghost stories to take our minds off the monsters lurking under our beds.  Is there a person reading this who, as a kid, couldn’t leap into bed from four feet out, an attempt to avoid the boney and grasping hands reaching for your ankles in the dark?

Our Czech students will have some typical late fall experiences. They have been to the Apple Fest and last week they attended Soup Day at Brescia, which will be interesting for them, since the Czech eat soup all the time but never, ever as an entire meal. They will help pass out candy on Halloween, and get to experience that. Maybe there will be a party for them to attend.

Their classmates who have come before them have gotten in the spirit of Halloween. I know because I’ve seen the rubber snaggle teeth, the pointed witches’ hats, the packages of fake cobwebs they leave behind. For the girls next year, they always say. They will need these things.


The Big Boom — July 4, 2019

Today’s  the big day, with cookouts and parades in some places, those little home-made parades around neighborhoods and small towns, with dogs dressed up and riding in wagons, little kids in red, white and blue, and grandmas on the sidelines in lawn chairs.

It is the day of waking with John Philip Sousa marching around your brain, and maybe the 1812 Overture, a day of rising early to check the weather, because of all our holidays, this is the one we spend outside, with swimming, and hotdogs and watermelon.

It is a day of firecrackers.


A day of those booming things that have been going off for over two weeks now. It starts early each year, those trial runs. It is fairly infrequent in the run-up to the Fourth and easy to overlook or ignore the late night boom and pop..pop..pop that could only be fireworks. It is annoying, but tolerable in small doses. It will reach full crescendo this evening, when all over town we will hear the shriek and whistle of explosives—such fun!—sounds that will send dogs under beds, cowering and shaking and will irk the rest of us if it continues past 10:00 p.m.

Which it will.

We will be irked, that is, unless we have gotten our own hands on some fireworks, have gathered in our back yards or out by the street where children are standing around with their lips stuck out because their fathers are setting up tubes jam-packed with gunpowder and lighting fuses, because, you know, it’s too dangerous for kids. They will hog the bottle rockets.  And these grown men, why, there is nothing of the big kid in them, just the epitome of mature and responsible oversight.

When I was a child, firecrackers, wrapped in the thinnest of paper with Chinese characters written all over it, were hard to come by.  Sometimes, with great pleading and coercion, a dad might stop at a fireworks stand on some family trip through Tennessee. Just across the bridge in Indiana firecrackers could be had, but only for a few weeks a year.

A rickety wooden stand with a large hand painted sign would appear in the empty lot right off the bridge, and it looked a little fly-by-night and iffy. Word of its appearance would spread like a rash among adolescent boys and clandestine trips were planned.

It was a simpler time, when just driving across the bridge constituted leaving town and was forbidden for most new drivers. It was forbidden in my house. It was if, upon receiving our permits, my parents presented us with a map on a piece of parchment with the town and a crudely drawn river, and just beyond, in the void, the words, “Here be dragons.”

Boys, though, the cool ones, always seemed to have a ready supply of firecrackers. Girls were relegated to playing with “snakes”—those little black disks we lit on sidewalks to watch grow and writhe into long trails of black ash.

We managed to procure sparklers most years, but they weren’t all that much fun. The thrill is in the lighting of it, and then the thrill is gone. You wave it around a bit and then stand about self-consciously until it goes out, at which point you burn yourself on the wire and your mother harps on and on about not dropping the spent sparkler in the grass where your dad might run over it with the mower and put somebody’s eye out.
Sucks all the fun right out of the endeavor, that image.

I suppose this year will be no different from others. Leftover fireworks will go off all weekend. Dogs, bless them, will shake and convulse, no matter how tightly we cinch their thunder shirts. We will drift off to sleep at ten, or eleven, or twelve, and be jolted from sweet slumber with hollow booms and the popcorn bursts of firecrackers lit all in one go.

And I will be cranky. Or maybe not cranky.. I used to spend the Fourth with my sister and her tribe and all their neighbors, with a communal cookout, and lawn chairs and grandmas, and the dads hogging all the best gear. The kids are grown now, new neighbors live in the homes of those who have moved on, or left us. Things change.

Maybe the fireworks of last week, today, this weekend, remind me, and what I really feel is a little sad.

Lake Cumberland at a Certain Age

My girls’ annual weekend getaway has come and gone, and I must tell you, being of a certain age places undue burden on us.  We deign to share rooms as long as the bed configurations are sufficient.  This means, single or double beds apiece, and on the rarest of occasions, a couple of us might share a king.

But really, given our druthers, we would each have a bed, a bath and a room of our  own. It is hard to come by since there are so many of us, so we work to make do. We manage quite well, as it turns out, each of us having a preferred roomie, and we don’t fight over who gets the biggest room with the best bath. We are models of courtesy and generosity and we only pout for a little bit when we don’t get our way.

We act all organized and send out copious emails about food and arrival times and links that include the code to the gate, check-in times, and so on.  Soon there is a stack of undecipherable  “reply all” messages, and no one can remember who said what about anything. Someone gets superior and emails, “I sent that information in an email two weeks ago…” and then we all scurry to find it,  only to discover it came as a text, and was sent five days ago —which must then be called to everyone’s attention.

This leads to even more complex communications—texts about emails, emails about emails, texts about phone calls…it just never gets old, this confusing, frustrating and convoluted checking in with each other.

Somehow, we manage to arrive about the same time, and we spend a happy hour or so unloading the cars, disgorging coolers and cooking pots and bags and canvas totes of junk food,  fancy crackers, cheeses, dips, drinks, breakfast casseroles, fruit, whole watermelons, homemade cookies, breads and cake, appetizers and raw veggies, coffees and tea, other fine potables.  All this for less than three days of isolation in the woods. 

Which aren’t even woods.

And at least two evenings we plan to eat out.

Because we can, you know, since, again, we are not really in the woods.

This year we rented a house on Lake Cumberland, in Nancy, Kentucky.  We traveled down narrow lanes, past Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, rolling through a landscape that would not be out of place in the Midlands of England.

We stayed up late laughing, but mostly talking about our immunizations and shingles shots, the Hep A and MMR booster, our statins and steps—some of us were quite dedicated to our steps—and after an evening of categorizing our ailments and health concerns, we decided we should all go…


And why ever not?   All of us had seen boats, a few had even been on one—what could go wrong?  I was against it from the very beginning, had vowed I wasn’t getting on a boat with any one of them at the helm, but would stay safely on shore so that I might point emergency services in their direction.

Maybe it was the sugar high, maybe it was the fear of missing out, maybe it was the fact that we rented a pontoon which even I could out-swim.  Whatever it was, I tagged along and enjoyed it immensely.    It was fun even when the young turks in their fast boats pegged us for exactly what we were and created awful wakes to toss us about like the USS Minnow.  On purpose.

Some of the water babies among us swam a little when we stopped in a quiet spot.  We stopped again to watch three fit young men scramble up a cliffside looming over the lake, as a drone hovered around and above them, photographing the whole thing.

You could see them sitting all loose and cool a good thirty feet or more up the cliff.  They shook their arms as they stood up, more a nervous gesture than one of preparation, I think.

Then, catching the afternoon sun, they jumped to the cheers of their girlfriends waiting on their boat below.  If they had been listening, they might have heard another cheer go up from another boat, a little way off, one overflowing with women of a certain age who still remember warm summer, and lakes, and beautiful boys showing off, just for them.

The Low Country and Being There

I chanced to wander through a delightful garden recently, a large and lovely thing in South Carolina’s Low Country. Because Brookgreen Gardens lives in the South, there is something blooming year-round. They have even placed a little table outside the welcome center with samples of what to look for on your ramblings.

The day I visited the table displayed several varieties of hydrangeas, their half-bloomed heads drooping in the heat, some salvia shoots looking brave, coleus and sweet potato vine. It was a nice touch and I halfway longed for some kids to be tagging along, because what child doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt?

I fiddled around with my phone, not because I had to check a text or make a call, but to let my friends get a head start on me. We are an amicable bunch, but you know how these things go. If you start off as a group, you have to stay as a group. It is almost an unconscious reflex, the turning around to locate the pack, the silent counting of heads, the mama duck/baby duck aspect of it.

I brought a camera and wanted to take some pictures and didn’t want them waiting on me. I didn’t want to feel rushed, either, so the phone trick worked just fine.

The figurative backbone of the gardens is The Live Oak Allée. Here is a grove of 250 year-old live oaks that were around in the 1700s when this spot was part of Brookgreen, one of the four rice plantations from which the gardens come.

The Live Oak Allée gives the impression of a cool and dark green park, the trees massive and gnarled, with branches scraping the ground and seeming to intertwine overhead. The eye is drawn instinctively upward and there, in a soft breeze, long beards of Spanish moss sway back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, hoary and dramatic, rolling in waves, an entire canopy of gauzy gray.

It is possible to wait a minute for the path to clear in order to take a photo unobstructed by the human form, to take a photo of the masses of Spanish moss, the likes of which I’ve never seen.

And so I did. I checked my camera eagerly, smugly, even, because it had to be a perfect shot, and when I looked…it just simply wasn’t.

I tried the photo again, this time with my iPhone, and again, I came up with an accurate depiction that wasn’t accurate at all. The trees stood in the same place, the general color of the grove was more or less accurate, and if I looked closely enough I could see the moss, but it was no more true of the place where I was standing than the interior of a Paris salon might have been. There was no breeze, no birdsong, no sense of a creeping humidity quietly slicking my skin. No undulating moss, just static gray, like a smudge.

There is a decision to make, standing there like that. I could keep trying, doggedly rendering one mediocre photo after another.

Or I could put my camera away.

I could take a deep and cleansing breath, happy to have sent my friends on ahead, not because they are irritating, but because without them I can be quiet, to be completely and singularly in the garden, mind emptied and mind expanded—odd how that works—as I saunter through the deep green grove, entranced by the swaying moss, eerie and comforting at once, sheltering me from high above.

I think all this manic urge to record every aspect of our lives is an insidious thing. It looks like memory keeping, but I don’t think that is what we are doing at all. We are wooing and wowing our social media fans. We are experiencing events once, twice, three times removed even when standing it the big middle of them.

I am reminded of an image of an elderly woman at some race or parade, surrounded by young people. She, alone, has no phone pointed at the action. All the others have their phones out, watching the action coming at time on their screens, all with faces beaming. She, too, is smiling, if not exactly beaming. Her smile seems to go deeper, taking in the event joyfully, first-hand and from the inside out.

It is a striking image, a cautionary tale and I am reminded of that, every time I see it. I thought of her again while standing with the trees.

Oh, I took photos of statuary from odd angles and sent pictures to friends with funny captions, I took images of flowers I want to find for my own yard. But mostly, I worked to just be there, alone, and to let that little bit of stillness be what I remember, what I will share with friends.

The Burning of Notre Dame

I was messing around in the yard and didn’t know a thing until a friend texted our group she was watching Notre Dame burn. I rushed in, flipped between news channels and watched in disbelief and something akin to grief as the Paris sky, not yet the evening sky, glowed orange with the impossible flames.

The spire fell as we fired off texts, this virtual moral support we use in times of distress, the modern day equivalent of gathering on porches to share news and commiserate. We each checked our preferred news agencies and sources, texted updates as we watched almost nine hundred years of history and tradition go up in smoke. Beth, who lives in France, told us the news from there, what she was hearing, the insider speculation.

During lulls we sat in our separate places, holding our phones like each other’s hands, texting out words our grandmothers might have uttered with neighbors as they sat in some long distant living room, adjusting to shocking and horrible events.

“So sad.”
“I’m just sick.”
“Oh, the pictures of that spire burning.”
“I know! Just awful.”

Then Beth would give us new information on the city’s planning for just such a disaster, and how this fire was too big, too high, and caught too quickly to get water above the flames, so they were regrouping in an effort to save part of the lower structure. We shared our stories of Notre-Dame de Paris.

It seemed we all had one, even if we hadn’t visited. Some had photos of themselves outside the cathedral, or inside lighting candles, silhouettes of parishioners backlit by the stained glass. Others had stories of only seeing the outside, saving a proper tour for a later visit, too late now. I grieved the prospect of losing the rose windows.

One friend went looking for her copy of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” One friend sent Willa Cather’s poem, “Paris,” with the lines,

The towers of Notre Dame cut clean and gray

The evening sky, and pale from left to right.

Another sent us words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,”

“And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…and the fire and the rose are one.”

Even as the spire fell, as the two towers’ fate seemed precarious, we moved on to how it might play politically in the days ahead, how the blaming would begin, such is the news cycle and the world we live in.

I have memories of Notre Dame, too. I was there in the early 80s, when cars and buses and scooters and motorcycles could still pass by the little square in front of the cathedral. The towers loomed over the Point zéro routes de France, a marker that is said to be the exact center of Paris, and the spot from which all distances in France are measured.

I couldn’t find any photos. In those days, Kodachrome slide film was all of it, and now my memories sit fading away in boxes, somewhere in the basement. But I remember lighting a candle, though for whom or what I no longer remember. I was new to the whole candle lighting thing, and my prayers on that trip ran along the lines of “thank you, thank you, for letting me be here, letting me see this.”

As crowded as it surely must have been, my recollection of moving through the space was one of solitude, as if I had passed into a moment of grace, all time suspended. It may not be the most magnificent of structures, the esthetes can debate that, but it means something to us, and it is that which we come to see and experience.

I climbed up to see the gargoyles and looked out over Paris, the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. I posed for a picture as f I were feeding them grapes, a silly touristy thing to do, like holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa with one finger.

But oh, those rose windows. The soaring vaulted ceiling. Art as I had never seen, the relics of saints. And me, there, so small, with the world, and the ghosts so large around me.

As the fire raged, many speculated total devastation. The windows surely will break or melt or explode. If the 20 ton bells fall—supported as they are on gargantuan wooden beams— it will likely bring down both towers and the collapse will be complete.

It would be several hours before news would come the windows survived. The towers stand. The pieta, reliquary, the cross survive, enough structure to salvage and restore. Millions, a billion euros pledged. For a moment, though, on a Monday afternoon, a reminder that nothing lasts, exactly as it is, forever. A fact we can face, if we are brave, and together.

Winter Into Spring

We are on the downhill slide of the endurance race that is weathering a Kentucky winter. So far we have experienced a couple of half-inch snows, disappointing in their brevity and depth. Really, they were hardly worth the hot chocolate and chili we threw at them.

A quick peek at the prediction for the first two weeks in March is just plain disheartening in its monotony—mid-forties, some fifties, cloudy, rainy, a little dip into the thirties, some shower/rain events, and so it goes for as far as the eye can see.

Or as far as the eye cares to look.

This is that weird, not-quite-any season that takes hold along about now, and it is hard to take most years, but this year I am taking it harder than usual. I am one of the lucky ones who likes winter and when there comes a big snow, I am excused from showing up at work. I suppose I might feel differently about it if I had to rise extra early, struggle into a parka and gloves, a hat, boots, scrape the car, slide around, curse the cold.

I get to watch snow from a window, hands wrapped around a coffee mug, Netflix screen saver bouncing around on the TV. I might stick my head out the back door and pant as I try to see my breath, and if I manage it, I run back inside and congratulate myself on being so hardy, what with my prairie stock genetics and all.

But this late winter we have had rain, rain, and then some rain. A few frigid days—dangerously cold and frightening—and then, for fun, more rain. And now I gaze glumly at the forecast and see little hope of that last ditch snow, and likewise no promising signs of spring.

How shall we cope with these last days of winter? Surely it will be just days, a couple of weeks at most—before we get glimpses of spring, some faint hint of budding in the yard, a return of birdsong, that awareness, all of a sudden, that yes, the days are getting longer.

I like my signs obvious, even when I am too dense to catch on right away.

A few years back, on one of my trips with Caritas College of Social Work colleagues, we traveled to the Monastery Želiv, where we stayed overnight for a spiritual retreat and then some meetings. It is a beautiful place and they run a successful monastery hotel and restaurant, and where, as luck would have it, they also brew their famous unpasteurized beer.

It is made as it was in the 1300s, and we took a tour of the surprisingly small one-man operation. The beer is brewed in three or four different alcohol contents and we were served generous and redundant samples as we sussed out our favorite. After such taxing work, we decided to take a short walk through the village to clear our heads and enjoy the landscape.

Martin, always the taker of the longest strides, led the way, pointing out trees, details of architectural interest, infrastructure and other things. He stopped at the small wooden fence separating us from a family dwelling, and pointing into the back yard he said,

“Look. Spring.”

I didn’t get it. It was a gray afternoon, threatening rain, and cold. I saw upturned buckets, the ghost of a garden plot, outdoor furniture scattered about.

“No, look. Spring. Mama sees spring.”

There, almost invisible in the grayness of the afternoon, was a clothesline stretched between two slanting and rickety posts. Marching across it were sets of mittens, a dozen or more small mittens to large ones, waving winter goodbye. Then came the gloves, still waving, and finally woolen hats and scarves, fluttering in the damp.

The Czechs seem to me a cold-natured bunch, bundled up at the first little drop of temperature, their homes and offices baking chambers of nice steam heat, students blowing on their hands to warm them and scarves wrapped to their ears in sweater weather. The good Czech mother must have been certain about the approach of spring for surely she would not have snatched her family’s woolens prematurely.

So, you see, a sign. Perhaps our signs of spring are lurking, just there, waiting for us to notice. Something tangible but subtle, a promise and adieu, winter into spring, as easily as that.


I was raised a Southern Baptist, attending the church my grandmother helped get off the ground, and we went every Sunday morning, after studying our Sunday school lessons the night before.

I was a fierce Sword Drill competitor, as I knew all the books of the Bible, more or less in order. I either won or came in a close second, and if I failed to place in either of these positions, I refreshed and renewed my skills at night, under the covers, with my Bible and my Girl Scout flashlight.

On Sunday mornings my dime for the offering plate scooted around inside my white glove, and it usually stayed there. Sometimes, though, because the cold metal felt so strange and lovely wiggling back and forth, that I ended up waving, then flapping, my hand to such a degree that the dime escaped and flew out, never to be seen again.

I sang in the beginner choir, graduated to junior, and eventually anchored the alto row in the time of “Pass it On!” and Easter cantatas. But we did not observe Lent.
Lent is rooted in the Christian tradition, and all major world religions have a similar tradition of fasting and self-sacrifice, spiritual contemplation and introspection. There are specifics to each tradition’s fasting, differing from each other, of course, but all with the intent of bringing about a state of cleansing and purifying, of mind, body, spirit.

Growing up I had friends who would give things up for Lent. In adolescence these sacrifices often looked suspiciously like efforts to clear up bad skin or to look better in a swimsuit come spring break, which often occurred sometime in April at just about Easter time. Abstaining from chocolate, cokes, and bread seemed to serve purpose quite nicely.

I played at giving something up for Lent because I didn’t want to be left out, but my offering was as shallow as everyone else’s seemed to be. I also had an escape hatch when I abandoned my half-hearted attempt as soon as it got difficult. All I had to say to myself was “we don’t really do that,” and I was off the hook.

The fast and the sacrifice, as I understand it, is supposed to get our attention in a significant way, to deprive the physical in order to point us in the direction of the spiritual. It is not, strictly speaking, a plan to jumpstart the cessation of bad habits—smoking, cussing, and the like.

Even so, some make the case that “fasting” from gossip, backbiting, social media and Netflix may be also be appropriate, if these activities are poisoning our spirits or our relationships.

The goal, I guess, is to stop—just stop—and pay attention, and denying ourselves something that feels essential is one way to do it. Every time we feel the pang of that denial, we remind ourselves of something bigger than ourselves.

We practice intention.

We practice reflection.


Growing up, we would have called this practice prayer.

Mathew tells us not to moan and groan and carry on, making a big deal of our fasting, or our praying, either. Not to make a show of ourselves doing it. We never got that message, sitting around the lunch table at Southern Junior High, dramatically moaning about the last time we had M&M’s or Coca-Cola, or tater tots.

I don’t know, maybe it is my age, or just the age in which I find myself. So much in the world seems overwhelming and out of control. And by that I mean out of my control, which is all sorts of hubris, I know. Even so, it is unsettling.

I attend a church now that practices Lent and I would like to more fully take part in the service.There is something ancient and mysterious about Lent, and Ramadan, and Yom Kippur, and any of the other religious and spiritual traditions like these.

I will think about all this in the next forty days as I go quietly about Lent. Always the educator, I suppose I will research it some more, will contrast and compare this tradition with the fasting and self-sacrifice traditions of other religions. Or maybe that isn’t the point.  Maybe the point–which is harder than it sounds–is to just be quiet.

As the season slowly changes and brings with it new life and color and renewal, out there for us to see, I will be looking inward, too, searching for signs of renewal and color and the awareness that comes from sitting still and paying attention.

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