Shut Up and Eat

No matter how many times I travel to the Czech Republic, no matter how much time I spend there, no matter how culturally sensitive I think I am, I manage to make one mistake after another.

For example:

I arrived at the offices of my colleagues at Caritas College of Social Work early on a Tuesday morning, and the way the office area is constructed, I made quite a racket as I climbed the steps and greeted the first colleagues I saw.

Soon there were several of us gathered around, every one of us calling out greetings– here a hug, there a handshake–when one voice rose above the others and asked, “how are you?”

“I am excellent,”  I said, in that expansive way Americans do, an exclamation point at the end.

Some little voice in the back of the crowd repeated it, “excellent” with a surprised little laugh, and I didn’t give it much thought, but I remembered it because the tone was one of embarrassed surprise, or something else.


I thought of it again just as I fell asleep that evening, and it came to me. 

When I said I was “excellent,” what I meant was this:

My flights were all on time. I had no trouble negotiating the train and the tram with all my luggage.  I had slept well and felt rested.  I am  so glad to be here,  and I am especially happy to see each of  your  smiling faces, and therefore, in this moment, everything is just perfect, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.  The traveling experience that brought me from Owensboro to Olomouc had been an easy and, therefore, an excellent one.  And look! All of you!

What a Czech hears is this:

“I, Greta McDonough, am an excellent person.  My life is excellent.  Everything about me is excellent.  I have no need for improvement, at all, ever.”

Well, you can see how this might come across.

At lunch that first day I sat with my colleague, Miluska, and I asked how she was.  She wanted to know first, did I want the Czech reply or the American one.

As Americans, when we toss out the casual, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” we mean,

“Hi.” 

And we keep walking because we don’t expect (or want) much of an answer beyond, “I am fine.”  When we toss a “how are you” in a Czech’s direction, he or she thinks you mean it, and they have already stopped to tell you how, exactly, they are.  You, on the other hand, have walked past them and already turned the corner, leaving them confused, and I am going say, hurt.

I asked Miluska for the Czech answer. 

She told me about her weekend (busy) and her general health (okay but she is tired) and also, I think, how she had slept the night before.  Then we turned our attention back to our soup. As we were eating in the school canteen, other colleagues joined us, many surprised to see me, and this necessitated more greetings, more conversations, or so I thought. 

I turned my attention to this person, asking how they have been, then I turned to the person on the other side, and before long I noticed I was the only one who still had food left on her plate.  I was doing the polite table talk that we have been taught.  I was doing the table talk I always do in the Czech Republic or at any social or business gathering where food is served.

But then my friend, Viktor, let me in on a little secret.  It seems that Czech children are taught not to talk while eating.  It is impolite, unsafe. You won’t choke if you don’t talk.  You won’t distract others and cause them to choke, and after you master this rule of etiquette then you will be able to conduct yourself in polite society with confidence and consideration. 

Well, who knew? 

I wondered why the Czechs seem to fall on their food, why restaurants and cafes are so quiet, with perfectly behaved children whispering questions to their parents, if they speak at all. I imagine with some shame the hours of irritation and indigestion I have caused Czech  friends with my mealtime prattle.  What must they have been thinking?
“Won’t she ever shut up?” may be one thing.  “Didn’t her mother teach her any manners?” may be another.

I have almost trained myself to say “dobry den” instead of “how are you?”  Dobry den isa short, quite serviceable  phrase that means, simply, Good day.  It requires nothing but a dobry den in return.

Now, if I can just learn to  shut up and eat…

Thanksgiving, 2018

Early last week I awoke to just the tiniest spitting of snow, but it was enough to prompt me to update my Facebook status with the single word, SNOW!  I had posts telling me how warm it was at just that moment in Florida, where, we assume, the poster was. But such news of 86 degrees and flip-flops is to miss the point.

I  was not complaining, I was extolling.

It was the week before Thanksgiving, a week of preparation and anticipation of the holiday season, and snow is an important part of that.  My Czech friends celebrate St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.  It is a feast day celebrating not only the saint but also the harvest, and it is also mid-November when snow first begins to fall.  They say that St. Martin often arrives on a white horse and legend tells us if it snows on St. Martin’s Day, it will also snow on Christmas. 

So, yes, snow in mid-November is a hopeful harbinger of the season to come. 

For the first time in a while  I am in the Christmas spirit,  so I am in the mood to think about early snows, and new wreaths for the doors, and even as I write, my eyes are stinging from particularly pungent holiday home fragrances, the ones I purchased in frenzied sprees all over town.

I thought I would give the plug-in warmers and go—several of them—and this evening the Winter Wonderland Fir Forest is arm wrestling with the Cinnamon Apple Crisp, while the Bayberry Christmas Baby battles with the Holly Snowflake Soufflé —who knew snow smells?—I have made myself quite ill from it.

My little home is so overwrought with olfactory sensation that I had to leave the Christmas scented pinecones in the car or risk being done in completely.  I know the exact date and time that my Christmas tree purveyor will open for business, I have collected several versions of the traditional Czech Christmas cookie recipes—the ones that look like little crescent moons—and I have researched the proper flour with which to make them. 

But first, we have to get through tomorrow.

Or perhaps, I should say that first, we get to enjoy tomorrow.

Thanksgiving is the gateway holiday for all the tinsel and lights and baking and overspending and late-night wrapping and general hoopla.  It has as its mythical center the table, and those gathered around it, and the main event is not so extraordinary—it is just a meal, and we have those all the time.

But it is a special meal and we go to some trouble to take care with the menu, to prepare favorite food, to pore over crumbling and spattered recipe cards, to honor and properly serve up the past on new dishes.  We are to be gracious hosts and charming guests—guests who show up on time, keep the conversation light, who behave and use the right fork.  Guests who should help with the dishes and at a reasonable hour, go home.

It isn’t so much a serious holiday, as it is a proportional one. We expect to have something good to eat, to be with family and friends, to share some laughs.  There will be pie. We hope it goes off without a hitch, but if it doesn’t, there is always next year. 

Or next weekend. 

If you just didn’t get enough turkey, or you didn’t like the dressing, you can have a do-over, just about anytime you want.  And if the company disappointed, you can sit down with better company, or sit down by yourself and not have to fool with anyone, and all that dressing just for you.

I have done this.  Made another turkey, baked another pie, whipped up the sweet potato casserole the way I remember it, the way I like it best.

Christmas, when it disappoints, disappoints for good and all.  We ask so much of it.  Ask  of it magic, and delight, we ask of it resolution of all old hopes and hungers and hurts.

But Thanksgiving is the adult in the room.

It is about feeding each other, which we may do in a myriad of ways. 

Thanksgiving is appreciative and transitional, as the celebration of harvest ushers in winter. 

I am going to enjoy it in the moment.

And then I shall go get my tree.  I hope it snows.

MOONFLOWER

If I have failed as a tomato farmer, I have excelled in the realm of night bloomers, more specifically, I have excelled in the growing and tending of the moonflower.

Before I started running the roads with my pal, Alice, I was unfamiliar with moonflowers.  I had spent an evening years ago in my old boss’s backyard waiting for a similarly named plant to pop with blooms—also called moonflower—but this is not the same moonflower of which I now speak. 

That was a shrub covered with trumpety looking blooms that dangled down and were supposed to give off a lemony fragrance at the exact moment of eruption.  Everyone ooh’ed and ah’ed and I kept missing it, missed it even as I moved my lawn chair closer and closer to the action.   I finally ooh’ed and ah’ed, too, just to fit in, but I never managed to share the experience.

But driving around with Alice one spring, she insisted we stop by this nursery and that one, in search of moonflower vines.  We found them, scraggly-looking things, and then we plonked down an unbelievable amount of money for each, and took them home, and with the slimmest of instructions from Alice, I stuck mine in the ground.

For the longest time nothing happened.

There was a shoot—a long tendril that crept along at a pace so slow I thought surely I had chosen a sick plant.  It was tough that first summer remembering which was the moon vine and which was that invasive weed vine that shows up and takes over, especially after a rain—the weed with the large heart-shaped leaf, not the variated green and pointy weed vine.

Patience, however, is rewarded.

Sometime in late July, the moon vine just takes off, climbs the pillars of the porch, overtakes the trellis, wraps around the downspout and reaches toward the roof line, and SNAP!  just like that, the flowers come along.

At first they look like tiny soft-serve ice cream cones, all tightly twisted, a soft pale cream, tinged with the faintest of lime green.  Then, about dusk, they loosen up, work to open, and they do, but still a little sad looking, like a crumpled tissue.

Peek again just as night falls completely and you will be rewarded with a delicate flower, the size of a dessert plate, no wrinkles now, but a perfect bloom adorned with a spiral center, the pale tracing of green even fainter now, and it is a thing so beautiful it stops the heart and arrests the breathing for a moment or two.

And this delicate, perfect moonflower is not alone.  She has her friends with her, some evenings two friends, , some evenings, a dozen. There in the dark, they glow, or we think they do, because they should, really, they should.

They last the night, that is all.   New flowers set and spiral, destined to bloom when the sun goes down, only to fold up and fall from the vine with the first rays of morning sun.

And so it continues until late in the summer, until autumn arrives.

Ipomoea alba—moonflower or moon vine —shares its lineage with the morning glory, and is native to the New World—therefore, completely our own.  No cultivar this, no coveted and pirated plant brought in a ship’s hold to recreate the gardens of Europe, the exoticism of Asia.   Just a joyous little flower with a night owl’s sensibility, brightening up little corners of darkness here and there.

Much later, when the blooms are spent and there is nothing more to see here, the seed pods will be ready for harvest.  The seeds are poisonous but then, what is beauty without a little danger?  Research tells me moonflowers are easy to grow from seed, and this will be my late spring project.  If I fail—and it is a possibility for which I am prepared—I know where to purchase new plants.

But for now, I visit my moonflowers from dusk until dark, counting the blooms, admiring them against the dark foliage, against the black night. I talk to them, toss compliments their way.

I do it every night. 

Because in the morning, they will be gone. moonflower

Reunion

I really didn’t want to go.  Or more accurately, I was ambivalent about going.  I keep up with the old friends I most want to see, a habit helped by the annual girls’ trip in spring.  It seems enough for me.  I get to see Ruth Ann, Janet, Nancy, Linda, Julie  on a regular basis.

But my childhood friend, Margaret, is an organizer, and a bit of a pesterer, and she kept bringing it up.  She’s always nice about it, not manipulative really,  just a bit insistent that everyone know the dates, suggesting that it might be fun, using certain ploys to hit the right notes of enticement, each one tailored to whomever she is speaking to at the time.

And of course, I received urgent messages from the event organizers to RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL IMMEDIATELY and to GET MY MONEY IN NOW.  It was all too much.  But then two things happened that tipped the scales.  First, about a week out, three good friends from out of town let us know they were coming, and I received an email from someone I hadn’t seen in decades, and she was coming for our high school reunion, too. 

Good old Ritter. 

She has a first name, one of those mid-century names that every fourth girl child owned, so, to distinguish her from the others,  she was simply Ritter.  And I am happy to report, she still is.  She moved to Texas not long after graduation and once her dad moved to Texas, too, I don’t suppose she ever came back, or at least not much.

We had drifted away in high school, any way.  Our class was huge and the baby boom was at its height. In  our senior year we were on double sessions—splitting the school day between four grades to accommodate a classroom crunch.

It made for a sad sack kind of senior year, with a fractured schedule and many of us dreaming of life after graduation and just getting on with it.  I was one of those.

But Ritter showed up early the week of the reunion, came in from in Texas and hosted a gathering of old friends, some from our class, others whom she knew as a kid.  It was great seeing them, seeing her.  She is a grandmother now, has lived in Texas and Singapore, manages a hotel, has almost a half-century of living away from Owensboro, and she hasn’t changed a bit.

But of course, she has. 

But not to me. 

She looks the same, sounds the same, has the same sense of humor, and we might as easily have been eleven and circling the food table like we did at slumber parties.  She looks like her mother now.  Many of us look like our mothers, we decided.  But what I saw, saw it all night long, was the little girl who could climb trees like a monkey, the child I went to Girl Scouts with, the friend who was always up for a laugh and an escapade.

It was a quieter reunion than others, although the music was better, thanks to our classmate, John Laswell, and his band.  When I say quiet, I mean, we sat around and talked more, caught up.  It was endearing to hear grown, mature men who live out of town talk about going home to sleep in their old rooms, in a twin bed, in a house kept too hot by their parents.  We commiserate with them, thinking of our own parents’ homes. Those of us whose parents are gone, may wistfully have wished for one more night in our old beds.

If this reunion were a person, it would be decidedly middle-aged.  We are that, and then some. It was a sweet evening, low key, but connected.  There were hugs, real ones, from girls we’ve known since grade school, from boys we had crushes on.  Hugs that were affectionate and warm, uncomplicated now in a way that high school never was.

We are less our old selves and more our old selves, and it works somehow.  We had a hand in shaping each other, whether we knew it at the time, or not.  That is worth considering, although it requires nothing of us now.  But to spend an evening remembering and reconnecting was nice.  I am glad I went.

Here is where I thank Margaret for getting me there. I might have one more reunion in me.  But that’s a maybe, with the final decision reserved for the eleventh hour.

Back to School Blues

Back to School BluesAugust arrived, often with some of the hottest days of summer, but nights were cool, just in time to leave us dripping and shivering on the edge of the SportCenter pool, where our mother had signed us up for late summer swimming lessons.

We whined in the back seat to stop for ice cream, but our hearts weren’t in it. It was, well, it was just old hat, summer was old hat, and we mostly just liked to whine in a mindless, directionless way.   There might be some watermelon at home, but by now it was less sweet, more pithy, less lovely than the first one of summer. 

We had gathered around our mother wielding a carving knife then, overly excited and hopping up and down, peering into the deep gash she created as we listened for the crack of the rind parting from the wound, and the innards ruby red and thrilling. I thought maybe lungs looked like that.  But only for a moment.  Otherwise the image might have kept me from fighting over the largest slice, kept me from the bliss of it, the sticky juice running down my chin, the pink chunks falling on my shirt, which I picked off and ate.

School didn’t start until after Labor Day, a nice, long August to grow mind-numbingly bored, so bored that the idea of school was a welcome relief.  There were no more Nancy Drews to read, no more dusty games of baseball.  Cleaning our rooms to get ready for fall was the stupidest thing I had ever heard my mother utter.  She made me dust the baseboards, then, all of them, but I showed her.  I started in the living room—the one room in the house she kept nice for “company”—where I crawled behind the sofa as if to dust, and promptly fell asleep.

But school was still far away, or felt as if it was, and the last days were spent in idle anticipation, a little like being packed for a trip a week early, and all you do is sit around and check  your watch, look at your luggage, wander to the window and wonder when the cab will come.

There was an orientation day, as I remember, when kids met their new teachers and parents received the supply list.  Everyone headed to the Ben Franklin, ON THAT DAY, to pick up cellophane-wrapped packages of paper, pencils and crayons, notebooks and fancy binders.  I always required a new pencil box, with a compass and protractor, the latter a tool I had no idea how to use or what it was for.  (Determining angles, it turns out,  a skill I have never required in all my years of living.)

It never rained on the first day of school, which seems extraordinary to me. We have years of pictures my dad took of us standing in the alley and squinting at the camera, with new book satchels and new shoes, just before we walked the five blocks to school.  In a few feet from the picture-taking spot, my older brother will peel off from the group and act like he doesn’t know us.  A middle child will exert authority, or try to, over a younger child, by grabbing his hand, which will be wrenched away.  Words will ensue.

That’s about all I remember.  Walking to school on the first day, then a week later and it was if I had never left, so quickly does a new routine become, well, routine.

I will pass a high school on my way to work this morning.  The parking lot will be full, and the halls will be loud, crackling with “first day back” jitters, kids in wrong rooms, lost freshmen, faculty plastering on happy, friendly faces.  I wish them all well, and also the other students returning to classes all over town.

But, even more,  I wish for them a few more weeks of freedom, a September start to the school year.  It’s an old-fashioned notion, I know, and one that doesn’t have much relevance to the way we live and work now.  But give me a cool morning in early September, new shoes and  sharp crayons, and everything, all of it, right there, in front of me.  I can work with that.  Make something of it. A clear ending and new beginning that the weather and calendar reinforces. 

None of this mid-month, still summer business.  But September, finally, and fall.

Sanctuary

On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, after a fashion, to enter.

I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 13th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior.  And it was cool in there, with only the faintest shafts of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.  I sat in the quiet, punctuated only here and there by the organist’s practicing.

I wasn’t alone.

From my place in the back I saw an elderly man with two laden plastic bags swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door.  He sat for a moment, then  gathered his things and left through the side door opposite, as if this were a regular stop on his rounds, a  throughway or a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.

A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm the fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it.  She slumped, just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion. 

Minutes passed, I lost track of time.  From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face.   Some deep trouble has come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, or seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place.  Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

In that moment— a twinkling, really — I knew I was meant to bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.

I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in eight centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. 

I remembered all this again, this afternoon, as I read in the UK “Daily Telegraph”  that British millennials  are returning to church in larger numbers than you might think, even those who identify as nonbelievers.  They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them.  They seek the sacred. 

According to the  article, young people are  filling the pews for events like choral evensong and stopping by  churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have someplace quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.

A monk from St. Meinrad once told me they have special instructions for the new young brothers,  should they see someone weeping in the great cathedral.  It attracts visitors all the time, and often when people sit in silence in such a place, they are overcome with emotion.  Cathedrals are designed, very specifically, to act as a conduit for the sacred and the divine.  Sitting still with oneself  can provide a similar conduit.  Sitting still with oneself in a such a place with a troubled heart or a worried mind is that, and then some.

The young brothers were instructed to honor the space and the visitors by allowing them to have their feelings in peace, that people don’t need to be rescued from their emotions. Walk quietly, they are told, and be available if someone seeks you out, but in no other way interfere.

In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it.  Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Or seek out any heavy wooden door on any place of sanctuary.  Find one unlocked.

Go in.

Summer Tomato

I saw the most amazing thing last week, amazing and delightful, and even now, I am not convinced what I saw and experienced actually occurred..think it may have been a phantasm or a hallucination, or at the very least overactive wishful thinking.

I saw a tomato.

A ruby ripe tomato, slightly smaller than a softball, the top neatly sliced off and reminding me of my grandmother’s kitchen in summer, where she prepared such tomatoes for our lunch.

But I wasn’t in my grandmother’s kitchen, wasn’t standing in the middle of a Kentucky summer, but rather, passing by the lunch table in our break room at work.
My colleague, Matt, was sitting there, enjoying his lunch—he eats well—entire meals left over from Sunday dinners—and at his elbow was the tomato. He had been delicately slicing himself pieces, one at a time, as he ate his lunch.

Stopped me in my tracks, did that tomato. Stopped my buddy, Al, too, and we gathered around the tomato, and Matt, with reverence and awe. Someone might have knelt. I’m not sure.

Matt is a wonderful fellow, and generous, and he offered us some, carved off two slices with a beatific glow, for he knew what he possessed was not of this wintry world, knew it was to be shared, knew other, more ethereal forces were at work here.

We took our offerings in trembling hands, sat down, eyes closed, and took our time—no greedy slurping and inattention, but rather a savoring, and when we were done, Al and I wore beatific smiles, too.

Because this was a summer tomato. A perfectly formed, low acidic, delicious orb of a fruit, as authentic as any of its summer brethren, worthy of a place in a roadside stand, nestled under a handwritten cardboard sign reading “home grown.”

Where, or where, did he get it?

His father gave it to him.

Now here, as in most miracle stories, the details get sketchy but I will do my best to recreate it for you. Matt’s dad lives in Union County, of this much I am sure, and he purchased the tomatoes from the Amish, or the Mennonites—of this I am less sure—somewhere in the countryside, Matt wasn’t clear.

I remember him saying something about a fund-raiser, but that doesn’t exactly square up when you think about it, and he said they were expensive. For some reason the figure of twelve tomatoes for thirty dollars sticks in my mind—quick math and that brings us to $2.50 a piece.

I envisioned the tomatoes snug in heavy cardboard boxes, some wrapped in tissue paper, some wrapped in thin gold foil, like those specialty pears we send at Christmas. I envisioned a rendezvous under the cloak of darkness, a buggy on some overgrown backroad, a kerosene lantern blinking out code, and tomato hunters inching their cars—lights off—toward the golden glow, dodging muddy potholes and low-hanging branches.

I envisioned a small child appearing from the shadows, dressed in somber clothing, a poke in one hand, the other an outstretched palm, reaching to receive the cash, horses whinnying and pawing the damp earth. I envisioned a hot house—say it isn’t so!—a hot house, where a sea of tomatoes are chugging along, under water or manure, ripening and ripening, and ripening all winter.

This is what I thought about as I ate my tomato, I don’t know about the others. Each of us sat in communal silence, thinking our own thoughts, contemplating the miracles of the universe, perhaps, and what forces of nature or fate or simple good luck brought us to this tomato.

Matt offered us more—there was still half a tomato left—but Al and I demurred, knowing, I think, that we had been given a rare and precious gift, and it doesn’t do to be greedy.

There is a poem, one I admire but can’t find, that speaks of eating fruit in its season. That there is no better joy. The poem is a cautionary tale reminding us to do things in their proper time, reminds us of the value of waiting, the wisdom of patience.

I embrace the sentiment of that and work to be patient and wise and proportional in my life, living the seasons as they present themselves to us, standing still in the moment, with joy and faith.

But oh, my, that tomato. Summer in a twinkling, and just like that, gone.

Pure rapture.

%d bloggers like this: