All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

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.

Lententide

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.

Contemplation.

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.

Eating Cincinnati

My writing pals and I get cranky if we don’t see each other at least every couple of months, and that is about how long it had been since we gathered in Berea for Christmas.

But none of us had an entire weekend to devote—well, I did, but I am more boring than the others—so we settled on Cincinnati as a place to meet up. 

I had forgotten how barren and dead the stretch from Louisville to Cincinnati is, but then you swing around a large bend in the highway and the Cincinnati skyline jumps out at you as if served on a giant platter, an abundant jumble of colors and shapes and on a sunny afternoon in mid-February, it is thrilling as all get out. 

I squealed, I think, when I saw it.

My cooler, younger, hipper friends had set us up at the Aloft Hotel, Newport, on the Kentucky side of the river.  All glass and angles and modern lighting, this hotel is also pet-friendly, if that matters to you, with welcoming bowls of water just inside the sliding glass doors, across from the porter’s carts.  It reminded me a bit of a European hotel, with clever use of space, minimalist but inviting.

My room overlooked the revitalized downtown and Hofbrauhaus and Brewery.  There was a room-length desk with lots of USB ports and space for laptops and appetizers, because that is what we do when we gather. We check our phones. We eat.

Our Friday night plan ran something like this.

Let’s meet for drinks and appetizers in someone’s room, and then, at 5:30 Uber over  for drinks and appetizers at the recently renovated Hotel Covington.  Then, on to dinner.

As the Uber driver let us out he whispered to me that this wasn’t the best part of town, but the hotel was doing a brisk business, with people checking in and most of the plush sofas and chairs in the lobby bar occupied.  We started with a little something, which included, but was not limited to:  a charcuterie board, some cheeses and hummus and ciabatta, some cut up vegetables, I suppose, because that makes us feel righteous, and cornbread.

But not just any cornbread.  Two large rectangular pieces of cornbread, caramelized on top and bottom with a syrup/sorghum glaze, a little cap of butter, warm and dripping off the top. 
You all.  Our eyes rolled back in our heads. We fought over it.

As we nibbled and drank, we took photos to send to our pal, Beth, because she made us promise to take her with us, even though she lives in France.  We did, right up to the time we had to leave for Mita’s, across the river in Cincinnati.

Mita’s serves tapas, a small plate, tasting kind of menu.

We each ordered a couple of dishes to share, which is the point, and they brought the food in “waves.”  We ate in those waves for a couple of hours and on the ride back to Newport someone said,  “It’s hard to believe we will be eating pancakes in twelve hours.”

No one laughed, but made mental notes to  set our alarms.

The Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, billed as “a west coast cafe in the heart of Cincinnati,” is famous for its ricotta lemon pancakes, but also for its organic egg dishes, the chicken hash, and probably just about everything else it serves.  We managed to hit it just right…often on a Saturday the line snakes out the door.

We admired the Roebling Bridge—we crossed it several times.  Linking Covington and Cincinnati, it is a prototype for its more famous brother, the Brooklyn Bridge.  We visited the Cincinnati Art Museum, too, because, in addition to gourmands, we are aesthetes.  It is a fine collection, and we were calm and centered after a couple of hours of wandering.

Our time was coming to an end, but since we were in the Mount Adams area anyway, we decided to stop at the Mount Adams Bar and Grill, an old tavern with a sordid prohibition past.

No one was hungry, but we ordered a few light things to share, and again took photos to share with those who peeled off early for home.  We talked about them in their absence, and said funny things, and admiring our cleverness, texted and told them.

We stopped for gas somewhere out from Louisville, complaining and moaning about how much we had eaten, and purchased candy bars, and ate them in succession.

As you do.

Winter Shopping

I am not a big shopper. Most often when I do get around to it, I am sitting in front of a keyboard, while sitting on my sofa and flipping through Netflix offerings will clicking on ads that entice me on Facebook.

I have never liked to shop, especially for clothes, and my forays into clothing stores are more about restocking inventory than shopping sprees. Shopping implies discovery and adventure, a certain excitement and delight. Restocking implies exactly what it is, a list that instructs “one of these, four of those, a pack of those unless they can be purchased separately, then get two.”

And let’s face it, customer service—remember customer service?—has died a slow and painful death, has been dying for years, and some days it seems that it is as dead and buried as our ancient forbearers.  Now there is much discussion about the death of “brick and mortar” stores, and we have a shuttered mall to prove it. It has orphaned brothers and sisters all over the country, and I have sat on my sofa and contributed to their demise, and chalked it up to progress, and congratulated myself on moving with the times.

But then, one day, my phone wouldn’t work. That very sophisticated and expensive bit of technology from which I am inseparable, had a malady, and there was nothing to do but make an appointment with a twelve-year old “genius,” who hangs out at his “bar” at the Apple store, and so I signed up—on line and with some complications—for an appointment, on Wednesday, at 1:30, in Nashville.

It was a cold and rainy day, the middle of the week, in the middle of winter, and we pulled into the Dillard’s adjacent to The Mall at Green Hills. My pal, Alice, was having Apple troubles, too, so we had dual appointments and some time to kill. I had a wedding coming up and, while I had ordered some clothes, and then some shoes, I thought, why not take a gander in Dillard’s, just for the fun of it.

Well. You all.

Shiela was there, folding clothes and looking a tad bored, and since I was only one of two customers who seemed to be on the entire floor, she made a beeline for me, and help me she did. She was great. It was old school customer service, with honest opinions, and multiple trips to get me different sizes, and I left with an armload of things, all giggly at my good fortune and with feelings of genuine warmth for Sheila.

On my way to find Alice, I passed the Bobbi Brown counter, and Elliot was there, fussing around with the displays in a half-hearted way. He perked right up when I asked about the pot rouge and he fixed me right up with color, and lipsticks and an expensive but magical brush. Then he spent a good fifteen minutes showing me how to use that brush.

I looked fabulous.

Alice was having the same kind of luck over at the Origins counter. We carried our treasures—for they were treasures, so small and dear—in their nice little bags and blew kisses over our shoulders. Elliot and Alice’s person blew kisses back. I swear, it seemed as if we did, as we floated toward the escalator in the embrace of such goodwill.

We got a bit lost trying to find the mall from Dillard’s, but no worries…Tate saw our confusion and walked us to the door, then over the pedestrian walkway and waited and watched to make sure we found the mall’s back entrance.

I swear, it was if they had opened Dillard’s just for us. And the service at the Apple store was superb, too. And the Cheesecake Factory. Williams-Sonoma. Lush. Sundance. Nordstrom’s. And all the shops we popped into.

And we didn’t even venture into the fanciest and finest. Those scenes from old 60’s movies finally made sense, the images of the idle rich shopping with abandon, think Mrs. Maisel sashaying through Manhattan with bags and boxes stacked taller than the doorman’s head.

They say that bricks and mortar stores aren’t dead, but are transforming. Shoppers—read that millennials— love to shop, but want not just for goods, but for experiences. I get that, too. Shopping as theatre, spectacle, entertainment. Let me say, if retailers can deliver that, all presented with the big bow of outstanding customer service, then sign me up.

I will take a second job just to be able to see Elliot again.

Flesh and Blood – A Memorable Memoir

A year or so back, a friend gave me a copy of a beautifully crafted memoir entitled “Of Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses.” It is written by Dr. Turner, from “Call the Midwife,” or more accurately, it was written by Stephen McGann, the actor who portrays Dr. Turner. He has chosen a fresh and clever architecture for this book. He uses illness as the load-bearing walls to support the textures and patterns, the shape of his family over time.

Like all good memoirists, he begins with a question. How did the McGanns go from a family of extreme poverty in Ireland to a flock of successful and siblings, actors whose names glittered on marquees, the brothers sharing real estate on theatrical posters, grinning out at us with those larger-than-life and  handsome faces?

How did this occur in a relatively short time, a span of a 150 years or so, especially when so many of the McGanns “failed to thrive” in infancy, died of starvation, in fact, during the potato famine? How was it his branch of the McGanns found their way to Liverpool, still poor, still vulnerable to diseases from overcrowding and poverty, but with hope for a different outcome?

McGann sets out to answer these questions, delving into family birth, marriage and death records, researching illnesses and sussing out secrets, until he comes to the page like a builder might, unfurling his technical drawings, tracing with a finger the medical and historical context of one illness after another, this backward-looking blueprint of how he has come to be, and from whom, and why.

The result is a sophisticated piece of writing, elegant in its use of language, but the real strength of the book lies in the rich and engaging way he tells us about his people. McGann’s work is clear-headed and clear-eyed, honest, deeply personal but never sentimental. You can trust this one, you think, and you are happy to sit with him and hear his stories for as long as he wants to tell them.

As fascinating as “Flesh and Blood” is as a memoir, I was equally fascinated by this.

Stephen McGann became interested in genealogy and he began collecting and researching his family history at a young age—as an adolescent, a high school student—a kid.

I think of genealogy as the great endeavor of the geriatric, the retiree, at the very least the middle-aged.

I am gratified and oddly reassured by his youthful enthusiasm, and I like to imagine him, this young lad with his hair flopping in his eyes, bending over dusty family Bibles, and dustier family records and photos in boxes in attics or basements. Perhaps he shared table space with an octogenarian in a courthouse records room somewhere, as they asked each other, Can you read this—“Is it a T or F?” or “ What is that date? Does that look like a 3 to you?”

In the past week I have talked to my cousin as we have worked to make sense of some new information she has uncovered. She, herself, is recently retired, and a genealogist, and right now she is working on our side of the family.

She can list the names and birth order of my grandmother and her siblings. I can never remember if there were six children or seven. They were born in Indian Territory, 120, 130 years ago.

Granny told us stories of her childhood when we were young. I loved the stories, of course, but when I was the perfect age to start paying real attention—in adolescence, in my twenties—I couldn’t be bothered to ask questions, to write things down.

And now there is no one to ask.

And there is a family mystery.

But there is also a new cousin out there, one we didn’t know about, a granddaughter of one of my grandmother’s sisters, living in Illinois, I think.

With this mystery and this new relative, I am beginning to see the appeal of all this family history business. That genealogy isn’t just a remedy for boredom, like working jigsaw puzzles, something easily done sitting down. There is the hunt, the discovery. There is the unexplainable something —call it resonance, connection—that comes with knowing your people. Knowing their stories. Making sense of those stories, making sense of yourself.

Stephen McGann’s book, “Of Flesh and Blood” sneaked up on me, helped me think of family genealogy in a new way. That the search for family history begins as all good mysteries, as all good memoirs do, with a question, and then another one, and another.

New Year’s Eve –Almost

And what to do with the pittance that remains of 2018? In my misspent youth I would be arranging and rearranging my outfit for New Year’s Eve right about now, would burn up the phone lines with plans and agendas and shopping lists and logistics for the Night of Nights.

Oh, there was high drama, almost certainly, as plans changed, members of my partying posse dropped off the list, or new people had to be accommodated. And what to wear, what to wear? This was the question that kept us up at night, staring at the ceiling, kept us in the mall, kept us perusing the cosmetic counters in search of the perfect shade of blush, lipstick, that hideous blue eye shadow.

We wanted snow and frosted windows to go with our wools of winter white, our sparkly sweaters. Our fellas would appear, dashing in new leather jackets, but shivering like delicate flowers or stray puppies, because, anyone will tell you, leather is cold.

Too often the evening ended, if not in disaster, then disappointment, because no matter the attention to detail, New Year’s in reality would never be mistaken for a snowy and romantic Manhattan soiree, with twinkling lights, and lavish apartments and guests as glittery as the ball in Times Square.

We always knew we were not in New York City, but Owensboro, Lexington, or Louisville, the places I was most apt to ring in the New Year. I I think in those days we just tried too hard, frantically working to have fun, for anything less than a legendary evening was just a total waste of time.

My current outfit for New Year’s now is one of my favorites, something soft and well-worn, and like the sign I saw once advertising an upscale car wash—it delivers the promise of “nuthin’ touchin’ “ I may be with friends and family, and some years I am home before darkness falls. On occasion I am home in time to celebrate the turning of the calendar with Great Britain. 
 One New Year’s Eve I celebrated with the Marshall Islands as I drank my morning coffee, just to get it over with.

I appreciate these quiet New Year’s, and I prepare them, too, but with less fervor and fever, and with more gratitude and warm regards for the year. I am grateful for the year just done—if it was a good one, then thank you very much.

If it was a bad one, or a challenging one, or a sad one, then, I am grateful for its going. And I look to the new year for some relief or a change of perspective and patience.
I buy new notebooks, calendars, journals, and pens. I admire my penmanship on those first few entries, letters lined up like neat little soldiers marching across the page. By February I am back to writing on the backs of envelopes, my letters slanting, illegible—sometimes I can’t decipher what I have just written, and it doesn’t matter anyway.

I will lie awake and reorder my plans as I stare at the ceiling, too lazy to turn on a lamp and write it down, committing it all to memory, awaking with no recall whatsoever. I have given up on some of my organizational interventions and embraced others. I still think the perfect calendar will save me, but I only think of it in the same way I think unicorns might have once been real, or the way I envision a parallel universe—it’s interesting and I am open to the possibilities but it has no relevance in my day to day life.

I enter into this new year a lot calmer than I have in years past. I spent 2018 getting rid of things—objects, activities and obligations that no longer bring joy to my life.
In a recent interview the British actress, Hermione Norris, said that one way she keeps depression at bay is to be mindful of the company she keeps. I read that, then I read it again. It resonated with me. I cast about and took a serious look at who was rubbing off on me in good ways and bad, who causes me pain, who enriches me.

I made some adjustments.

This too, is a kind of uncluttering.

So, come ahead on, 2019.

I will be well-rested and relaxed when you peek over the horizon on a cold Kentucky morning. I will have be lighter and less encumbered. I will be the one drinking coffee and looking east, patiently waiting for you, and a new day, to begin.

2019 – Not Resolutions, exactly, but…

Here are some things I wish to improve in the new year. Not resolutions, because I don’t make those, but just some things to think about and work toward. Things that, in my rich fantasy life, will make me 5’10” tall, thin and blonde.

I had little expectation of enjoying France this fall, beyond seeing my pals, Beth and Kris, and maybe eating some great cheese. I didn’t plan on falling in love with Bordeaux, the vineyards, the lifestyle, and the great service.

That’s right. You heard me.

Great service.

I attribute this, in part, to the crash course in shopping protocol that Beth hissed in my ear before I entered my first shop. The French greet you before the bell stops tinkling, and the custom is to offer a pleasant bonjour in return. And not just any bonjour, but one offered in a sing-song lift, an octave higher than normal.

I excelled at it.

The inflection is almost exactly the same one Czechs use in their greeting and I have years of practice with that. So now I think I have an ear for languages, and am toying with the idea of taking French lessons, because I clearly have a gift, and it is just how I see myself. All five feet, ten inches of me.

Some of my pals met up with some of their pals in London, and when they came home they talked about their admiration for the way their British friends live. Let’s start with the fact that they are just lovely people, down-to-earth and creative, and accomplished in interesting ways. But more than that, my friends were graciously treated, and they both made mention of it.

I wanted to know more about that, so they told me. It is about being invited to their friends’ home and all the attention to detail that surrounds their lives. The food was delicious, well and lovingly prepared. Abundant Everything at table, just, well, right.

The guest room wasn’t large and fussy, but the linens were luxurious. Falling asleep and waking up were events cradled in comfort and ease. Indoor living and outdoor living were seamless, pleasant and easy. Striped sling chairs in the garden, a little table for the lemonade. Flowers well attended.

I have friends who create the same kind of graciousness right here at home. They build fires and read by them, on rainy afternoons or snowy mornings, with coffee and warm socks. Friends who would rather cook for you than meet at a restaurant—because their food is better. Which is true, but it is also true that the act of feeding people, and doing it well, has at the heart of it the gift of time, attention, care.

Graciousness.

Over the holidays a pal and I were talking about our lives, our hopes for the coming year. We were discussing, as always, clutter. I have too much of it, she doesn’t have enough. Naturally neat, she purges and curates her belongings to the point of austerity, and then she feels untethered, impermanent. At which point she goes and gets more stuff, and the winnowing begins anew.

We decided that the idea of gracious living might guide us both. So, I am working on that, one comforter, one bedside lamp at a time.

I ain’t getting any younger and the time has come, is long overdue, for paying attention to my health. Blessed with my father’s prairie stock genes and my mother’s hardy constitution— she could eat anything, could our Gretchen—I am rarely ill and surprisingly fit for someone as out of shape as I am.

I am paying more attention to what I eat, and when, and I find myself committing to memory articles I read about how to tell when a calorie isn’t a calorie, and why we must debunk the myth of metabolism, followed in a few days by new articles on how to fire said metabolism up.

You won’t find me eating kale, or chia seeds. Chia seeds, come on. I tried them once and the gelatinous mess they made in my teeth gave me nightmares for a week. I figure, if chia seeds are a superfood in their native Central and South America, then it is only sporting that a similar, but alternative, superfood must grow around here.

My father would have voted for the pinto bean.

So, I am dedicating myself to healthier eating in the coming year, and working on my house—adding gracious elements, removing clutter. I may download Babble for a laugh. If I can speak French, do I need to be blonde?