Old Things

glass liquor bottle 1890sI love old things. One of them you see here, a bottle from the 1890s or before, meant as I am guessing, for spirits of some kind. You can’t really tell with the label mostly effaced.

I came upon this and the item below while going through a nasty drawer full of junk under our kitchen’s utility sink. It was in the 1980s that these two items first came to our notice from their sleeping-place deep down in the earth . It happened when we excavated a portion of the yard to expand our antiquated kitchen.

I don’t know what the builder was thinking when he laid out the original room when the house was new in the 1890s. Even by that era’s standards, it seems a truly terrible space to for the preparation of food. I say this because in all the 90 years before we came, this kitchen had remained the same. Sure, the stove had been swapped out and the old stove still reposes, a slumbering whale in our basement. The refrigerators got swapped out too, from the original icebox to electrified coolers, like the 1920s-era version that also slumbers below stairs.

But the basic layout?  Unchanged in all that time by which I mean to say that when we got here, there were no cupboards above sink or stove or fridge. If you wanted a cupboard you had to walk in to the next room, a room grandly called, in those days, ‘the butler’s pantry’. I called it that myself  – I had grown up in a house with room we called the l pantry – until I realized my small children thought I was talking about a pantry without a butt. (It must have been my Boston accent.)

Additionally, there were no surfaces on which to set things in this kitchen we inherited in the 1980s. Not a countertop in the place. If you wanted a surface, you had to walk into another room called the larder, where there were wooden shelves, wooden drawers and a lone square of marble for rolling your pie dough on. If as the cook, you needed to pare the potatoes you stood at the sink. When you needed to whip the potatoes, you sat at the wooden table in the room’s center and worked with the bowl in your lap.

And when our family of four sat at that table, still situated in the room’s center, we were all squeezed in so tight that someone had to vacate his seat and push in his chair in order to open the fridge for a forgotten item, and another person had to do the same so someone could check the oven to see if the brownies were done.

We couldn’t wait for that renovation. It brought us not only a larger more airy space in which to prepare and serve meals to friends and family, but it also delivered to us this last old item: a railroad spike from… who knows when, as Its irregular shape argues for a vintage older still than the 1890s. Today I am thinking hmmmm: the old Massachusetts town of Concord lies only a few hills and laps distant from here.  Maybe this is the kind of spike driven in to the earth when they first laid that Boston-to-Fitchburg run in the 1840s, and the iron monster  so shattered young Henry Thoreaus’s peace of mind over there in his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Anyway, here is ‘our’ spike, seen against one of my cookbooks for scale.


The past is all around us, no doubt about that! Now if I could just talk to Thoreau, or Emerson, or Walt Whitman, or my girl Emily D. over the road there in Amherst. Where do they go, the dead, the silent dead?

A Great Thing It Is

gloria steinem at the keyboard

one of my writing heroes, Gloria

A great thing it is to be a writer. An even greater thing to be a writer who never made it to the big Leagues, and so has an undefinable ‘audience’ if she has an audience at all. (Is it the mom of this brace of babies in the twin stroller here? That late-night web surfer looking for news about Jeremy Bentham? The people who clicks through from my column in any given paper to see the blog post I wrote that day because that paper is nice enough to provide the link to it?)

Last week on this blog I had a piece about April Fools Day bookending things on the Monday and a picture of my mother in her casket bookending things on the Friday. Yesterday I posted Ten Tips for Using a Public Restroom and later this week I will post a piece, tearfully composed on the anniversary of his death, about my husband’s elderly uncle who became my own best friend. What I’m saying is I realize the tone changes a good bit from day to day and I hope that’s OK with people.

On the Writer’s Almanac last week I heard Garrison Keillor quote something Gloria Steinem said that I identify with entirely. She said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

I feel just that way about writing and also, I’ll admit, about any time at all that I have with young children and any time I spend reading things either by or about 19th century American writers. (Does anyone KNOW anymore how amazing Walt Whitman was? Walt Whitman who said “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches; give alms to everyone that asks; stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God; have patience and indulgence toward the people; go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families….”)

I just tell what I saw, heard, felt. I may sometimes amuse people and sometime anger people. Sometimes I may make them feel more than they wanted to feel and maybe sometimes I just make them yawn.

But every time I write I too feel, like Gloria, and probably like the great Walt Whitman, that there is nothing in this world else I would rather be doing.

This is What You Should Do Whitman

Meet Me in St. Louis

I flew to St. Louis to attend a wedding which, for the five or six hours I was at it,  made me hugely happy.

The rest of the time I was by myself, and that was fine too, and strengthening to the spirit. I felt like Walt Whitman striding along the broad avenues of the city, breathing that soft Missouri air, sensing close by that old muddy river made famous by Mark Twain and a thousand others.

The houses there are made of brick and stone because there aren’t so many trees, or at least that’s what I was told.

There are however, acres and acres of fields under cultivation.

You fly over the Midwest and see all that arable land: precise rectangles as far as the eye can see, measured out for the growing of crops.

Fly over New England and all you see are trees; no crops at all, because our soil is thin and studded with the work of that glacier that barreled down,  scraped off the tops of our little mountains and then withdrew again in its own good time, leaving behind everything it had once held suspended in its icy matrix: Rocks, in other words. Rocks and more rocks.

It’s wonderful going to a new place to see a new thing like a marriage begun upon.

The newly done-over hotel room was wonderful too except it didn’t have a tub, the room itself so sleekly modern the mattress were Tempur-Pedic mattresses, which turn out to make you feel like Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie where he gets trapped in that weird four-cornered frame of pudding.

I mean to say you sink in and your trapped body heat slowly warms you. They give you a thin little Kleenex of a blanket because they know this will happen. It was fun if jarring at first for a northerner like me, raised on hard mattresses with a pancake-stack of blankets as heavy on the body as a pile of sleeping hounds.

My first night in St. Louis, eating at the Applebee’s connected to the hotel, I watched a party of ten sharing their appetizers and laughing so hard they were leaning over onto one another’s shoulders. That made me happy too.

It didn’t matter that I was alone –  on my four flights and in my rental car, in my hotel room and on my walks about the city. The solitude made a wonderful the contrast to the wedding, which like every good wedding was a celebration not just of two people’s promises but the promises of the loving community that surrounds them. The solitude was fine on its own too, for how much it reinforced the lessons about connection so indelibly written onto my heart the first time I read this passage by Whitman, preface to the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Here it is now with a little video clip below it.

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” 

And now, the couple in real time, happy guests and that just-cracked beer also in evidence:

Dig It

When you say you like one thing and then say you like another, you’re just doing what great minds have often felt free to do. Didn’t Emerson call a foolish consistency the hobgoblin of little minds?

I love Emerson’s writing and was thrilled to receive a pewter bust of him for Christmas. Still, at the same time I’m often sore at him, for all kinds of reasons, like changing his wife’s name to something he found more “classical-sounding” , and withdrawing into his books when their little boy Waldo died, leaving the poor wife doubly bereaved. I also feel like “Oh easy for him to look down his long nose at the littler minds, he who never made a bed or picked up after tea!”

But that’s how it was to by a gentleman of the comfortable class in the 19th century. They never carried their full chamber pots down the stairs mornings. They never hauled a hundred pounds of boiling water up the stairs for anyone’s bath. Invisible and nameless others did that for them.

So see? You can admire someone on one level and be mad at him at the same time. (Think marriage, any marriage.)

And remember that other famous quote from Emerson’s same century? Give ya five bucks if you recognize who said this one:

“Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.”

Yup. That was Walt Whitman, whose genial free spirit made stuffier 19th century types almost burst their corset buttons. Word of him even reached quiet Emily Dickinson in her seclusion who said never read his book, but was told it was “disgraceful.”

But that’s what you have to love about the guy. That maxim “Nothing human is alien to me”? That was Whitman all over. He could sing the praises of a pile of Plague corpses if you caught him in the grip of one of is ecstasies. (Could and did just about. Remember the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”? Remember him happily enriching fthe soil with his own lifeless body?)

I admire Whitman very much. I guess I’m more like him than I am like Emerson. One day I would love to visit his house in Camden NJ, but until I get to do that it might be enough to just go outside and dig things the way he did.

Hmmm looking outside here. Cloudy right now with a sky that looks like cake batter ladled into the pan. Like dirty snow. Like soiled bed linens. And yet an amazing radiance just at the horizon.

Dig it. It’s all God asks of us.

The Sap’s Confession

I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.

I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.

“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.

“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.

“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”

That stopped me for a second. The Bronx?  “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.

“No, she said. “No other country.”

I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.

She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks.  “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.

“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.

 But I couldn’t just leave it at that.  “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.

“Gypsies.  Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve  heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”

But I didn’t say any of that really.

I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”

“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated.  “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.

 “You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.

Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.

“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.

“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.

“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door.  But that’s not the church I meant, really.  

I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19: 

“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.” 

The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount?  To me they are.

Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.