Write Walk

Walking the Talk & Writing the Walk

 

Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes


In my third year of university I lived with Marisha Plotnik in a second floor apartment with baseboard heating and no insulation. I had just returned from volunteering for Canada World Youth for six months in Ghana, West Africa. CWY was, and remains, Canada’s equivalent to the Peace Corps. When I headed back to school that fall, although I had taken off my globetrotting shoes, I still had itchy feet. And as I stood in the classroom that had been converted into a makeshift housing office my head began to swim as I looked at handwritten ads on index cards taped in rows to a blackboard.


I had already come back to the housing office several times that day, after visiting revolting apartments, to look once more at the increasingly shrinking options for a studio apartment. Each time I returned, I noticed another woman who also was hovering around the single unit options.  She looked normal. And sharing an apartment would most certainly expand our options and lower our costs.


I asked.


I don’t remember what I said. I was 23 and self-conscious, but I mumbled something coherent enough that she agreed to look at apartments with me and we’ve been friends ever since, which is now close to 30 years. 


Marisha was smart, brilliant really, and pretty too. She also had a pinch of odd, maybe it was just an awkwardness, but it was lifesaving, otherwise her perfection would have been annoying. In so many ways she was all the things I wanted to be and wasn’t.  She was a Waldorf grad* and so she was comfortable in the outdoors. I had grown up in Los Angeles and wasn’t. She also knew her away around a kitchen and could knit socks; I could boil water and open a bag of chips.  She wore cozy scarves and fuzzy slippers when she cooked and she listened to public radio which inevitably would make her snort and squeal with laughter, before a great thunder would gather and a warm, deep, rich guffaw would spill merriment into the kitchen. 


I was never sure if it was the oven or Marisha’s laugh that made everything so warm. 


And when she drove her Hyundai Pony, (do you remember the Pony?), that she affectionally called ‘Mitten,’ she often drove it without turning on the radio at all. Instead she CHOSE to drive in silence. My 23 year-old mind was blown, irritated and a bit twitchy in the stillness, but grateful to have this remarkable teacher guide me into this realm of quietude. We would drive down to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and Marisha would buy a big hunk of bacon from the pig farmer and all sorts of root vegetables and I’d go to the Stickling Bakery’s stall and buy baked goods.


But coming home was my favourite part of the morning, when the smell of strong coffee permeated, and the cut sunflowers from the market found their new home sitting on the red floral tablecloth dropping yellow-powdered pollen beneath their vase. And Stuart McLean, a CBC icon, would share the latest happenings of Dave and Morley on ‘The Vinyl Cafe’ as the hunk of bacon, now sliced, sizzled in the pan. As another beautiful aroma did a promenade around the tiny kitchen building a crescendo of mouthwatering smells that fed my olfactory palette as my belly waited. 


Marisha, wrapped in her apron, scarf and fuzzy slippers, would be rummaging in the pantry, fishing out the tub of flour, then going to the fridge to collect eggs and butter as I played sous-chef, sitting at the table, chopping walnuts and grating apple. The kitchen was singing as the pancake batter was assembled.


Marisha taught me all sorts of invaluable lessons that school year, but introducing me to the comfort of silence and Mollie Katzen’s vegetarian cookbook, Moosewood, specifically her ‘Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes’ FRIED IN BACON FAT, was life changing.


My outdoorsy friend has spent the last 20 years living in NYC and my LA city roots have all but fallen away, as flannel and the smell of wood smoke has replaced glam and the pulse of the city for the fresh air and stillness of Vermont’s Green Mountains.


*Waldorf education is based on Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical principles which recognize the totality and essence of an individual when instructing students.


**photo credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor


words 739


Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes 

à la Mollie Katz’s Moosewood Cookbook


4 eggs, separated (yolks optional – use all, some, or none)

1 cup cottage cheese (low fat ok)

1 cup (packed) grated tart apple

3/4 cup flour

1-2 tsp lemon juice

optional: 1 Tbs honey

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 salt

optional: 2 to 3 Tbsp finely minced walnuts or almonds 

oil or butter (or bacon fat) for frying

optional toppings: real maple syrup

sour cream or yogurt

Berry sauce


Beat the egg whites until stiff

Combine all other ingredients (except toppings and frying oil) in a medium-sized bowl and mix well. Fold in the egg whites.

Heat oil or melt butter in skillet. When it is hot enough to sizzle a drop of batter on contact, add a spoonful of batter. Fry on both sides until firm and lightly browned. Serve right away, topped with syrup, sour cream or yogurt; and/or Berry Sauce.


They’re delicious cold too!

Photo credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor.


Where’s the Gravy?

 

The biblical narrative, ‘Tower of Babel,’ speaks of a time when ‘the whole earth had one language and used the same words.’* It was after Noah and the great flood, when enough time had passed that pride once again had run amok, and frail egos puffed with self-importance. It was out of this hubris that the idea to build a tower to the sky and play God was brewed and work began in earnest. It is a cautionary tale of human arrogance and God’s reckoning. 

 

For in a moment, God relinquished the gifting of complete understanding of the other by scrambling language and making it impossible to communicate.

 

Babel. [Illus. from Psychology Today]

 

I’ve wondered in recent years, when I misunderstand someone’s words completely, or they have misunderstood me with mine, whether an updated form of Babel is now plaguing our world. A 2.0 version, more insidious in nature and therefore more difficult to detect. Where language’s visual symbols––words spoken or on the page––remain unchanged, lulling us into a false confidence that we are understanding what is being said, as well as being understood. The reality, however, is that there is often a great chasm between us of confused meaning.

 

The salience of this theory gelled for me recently through the unremarkable subject of dog food location. This trivial matter led to a complete communication breakdown. But because the concern was innocuous, emotions remained level, which made the real issue easier to notice: the same word didn’t mean the same thing to me as it did to somebody else.

 

I had landed in the outdoorsy town of Peterborough, Ontario, the Brattleboro of the

North, to dog-sit two senior Golden Retrievers for five weeks. Besides being sweet and low-key, Goldens are also known for their weak hips which meant that both pooches each received a daily scoop of glucosamine ‘gravy’ powder in their evening meal. The dog owner had told me I could find more gravy in the “cellar, on a shelf.”

 

In my mind, the word “cellar” was synonymous with “basement.” So, when given the

instructions, I immediately made a mental picture of where in the basement the gravy

was and then forgot about it until the supply began to run low. When it came time to replenish, I went to the basement many, MANY times, returning to the kitchen empty-handed. 

 

As a last resort, I emailed the homeowner for more information. Why is

ASKING the final “go to”? I would say, like those Tower of Babel people, it has something to do with our pride and bluster. And also like those Tower of Babel people, our communication breakdown is found in our words.

 

The same directions were given, “gravy was in the CELLAR, under the FRONT stairs.” My brain again replaced the word cellar with basement, ignored the word “front” altogether, and focused on the word “stairs”. The only visible steps were those leading down to the ‘cellar’, and so I went with great confidence down the STAIRS to collect the gravy in the cubbyhole directly beneath them.

 

NOPE.

 

Frustration set in, regardless of the unexceptional nature, I was STILL

feeling cranky and irritated and wanted to blame someone. Maturity told me high

emotions were not the best helpers when figuring things out and if I desired resolution I

was going to have to slow down.

 

It was time to read the homeowner’s email again. Each word. Inchmeal.

 

“FRONT,” I saw the word for the first time in a meaningful way. I couldn’t picture how the words “front” and “stairs” fit together in the layout of the house that I was imagining, but because I was stymied, I finally discarded my mental image and was able to see what was directly before me. There in the musty light of a little-trafficked area of the basement was a door to a closet, which was directly below the FRONT door STEPS, steps I could not see as they sat above the basement ceiling and were not visible. And in the gloom, on a shelf was the gravy.

 

Exactly where I was told it was.

 

How often do we misinterpret each other’s meanings because we THINK we’re talking about the same thing? How often does a conversation come to a grinding halt because both parties are blind to the subtle, but essential, differences in understanding between them? We use the same words, but definitions vary, often due to our individual experiences and biographies that have coloured our wordbook of meaning unabashedly outside of the lines. And we miss each other.

 

It happens a lot.

 

There are reasons why it does.

 

A constant diet of information delivered in sound-bites has harvested short attention spans, and easily ignited scorn, all of which makes us bad communicators. We live in a time of Babel 2.0. What can we do to combat it?


For me, with the dog food, the veil lifted when I asked.

 

And when the answer came, slowing down to listen.

 

*Genesis 11:1



Ladies I Need Your Help

 

Okay, Ladies I need your help. 

 

Holes in the front of my shirt, actually shirt(s), for it is every single one. This is the problem. This is the mystery. HOW do they appear? Little holes in the fabric near my navel. Holes that never appeared in my youth, not that I ever noticed anyway or at least remember. But even a decade ago, a half-dozen years, I have no recollection of shirts tattering at my belly.

 

Every cotton t-shirt I own, which is a lot of t-shirts, as they are practically a self-issued uniform, have them. From the most inexpensive, to ‘good quality’ pretty-penny shirts have these same tiny holes.


There has been a progression in my reasoning. Like any good scientist specializing in sub-standard fabric will tell you, significant incremental steps must be taken if conclusive findings are to be made.

 

Hypothesis #1: Belt Buckle

 

When I thought I was the ONLY one, I assumed that my belt buckle’s pokey tooth thing, that slipped through the eye of the leather, was the culprit. The prong did sit just underneath the unsightly gapes. But when I stopped wearing belts to avoid the problem and the holes continued to appear, another theory was hatched.

 

Hypothesis #2: Counter Tops

 

I love my girlfriends for many, many reasons, and commiserating about wardrobe malfunctions and damage to beloved articles of clothing is not least among them. I stumbled on a fellow comrade in the tiny hole mystery when a friend and I stood in her kitchen. The outrage that skirted across her face as both her hands reached for the hem of the t-shirt she was wearing and held it taut so I could examine with my own eyes that the tiny holes had invaded her cotton as well. 

 

The relief.

 

The relief of knowing we are not alone is not excluded to weightier matters; the trivial whoas of day to day are also lightened when we walk with another. My friend had her own ideas on the cause of t-shirt shred. 

 

Countertops.

 

She leaned up against the kitchen sink to demonstrate. Sure enough the holes seemed to line up with the level of the counter. Eureka! After the delight of discovery subsided, the reality that the drudgery of homemaking tasks also had the further cost of destroying clothing left me a little sour. Our whinge then moved into bemoaning the inferior quality of today’s products, the lack of pride in workmanship, the greedy multi-nationals that make sub-par goods that just feed our landfills, as our ‘throw-away world’ continues to demand the latest and newest to replace the shoddy, as we all scream, “THE ENVIRONMENT! THE ENVIRONMENT!” “Little Chicken, THE ENVIRONMENT!!!” 

 

Oh we humans are an inconsistent lot.

 

But in the end is it simply an erosion of standards in manufacturing? Or is it the punishment I give my t’s, as I hurl them repeatedly against unfriendly counters? My mother never wore t-shirts like a uniform the way I do when doing our family’s dishes. Her requirements for the few she owned were drastically different from the punishing demands that I make.

 

So is it my belt buckles, the counter-tops or a deplorable calibre of present-day products? My guess is it is a combination of all three. 

 

Ladies, I need your help …


<photo credit: priscilla-du-preez>



Rabid Fan & Conversion


I am a Celtics basketball fan.


I know players names and their numbers, not all, but I do know those of the 2018 Eastern Semi-Finals dream team.


It didn’t start out that way.


In fact, just figuring out the dynamics of the retired lawyer’s living room was what took precedence over paying attention to any movement on the television screen. It wasn’t until the third night of the playoffs that I realized I had taken Luna’s seat. I thought she was just being friendly and wanting to cuddle, but when I figured out the right corner of the couch was preferred seating for this senior boxer, I moved.


But that first night, that magical first night of the semi-finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers and their silver bullet, LeBron James, had their backsides whooped by the giants in green, I didn’t know that I had made a faulty seating choice. I also had no idea that by the end of that game I would become a newly inaugurated CELTICS fan, bathed in the afterglow of beauty in motion. At tip-off I was still more interested in watching the antics of the seasoned rabid fan who sat beside me yelling at the television while I did arm exercises, moving my right hand from the tortilla chip bowl to guacamole, to my mouth.


And 1! And 2!


REPEAT, while using my spare hand to pet whatever cat that had decided to walk by my lap to investigate who the interloper was who was sitting in Luna’s place.


I saw my first Celtics game last winter, an uninspiring game, and so on that first night of the semi-finals, I was far more attentive to the busyness of my immediate surroundings: the menagerie of pets and my host’s passionate pronouncements. Her word arrows were hurled toward the flat screen as seriously as if she were speaking to her players courtside. I had never seen an armchair coach in action and was fascinated by her gravitas.


This basketball enthusiast has a spirited will. But I imagine it has softened over time, much like her red hair. However, her kindness is fierce and insistent and her vulnerability relatable.  A New York Jew who had fallen in love with Vermont’s Green Mountains and left the city that never sleeps for a garden patch and dirty hands. She, of course, was not the first New Yorker I had heard about who had been hypnotized and left defenceless to the mysterious beauty of this Eden State. 


Although her bold spirit was transplanted to a hilltop, her New York pluck did not slacken and in her 50th year, she enrolled into law school.


It is this gumption and acumen, this surprise, that inspires me and keeps me coming back.


Maybe her defence attorney experience is what is filled up, nourished, when she watches basketball; maybe it’s just her innate fire that fuels her emphatic shouts. I don’t know what deep place her barking orders come from, all I know is that her zeal is infectious and her animals are cute and sharing snacks is more satisfying than eating them alone.


It is because of this mad fan, who shared her love of the game and her beloved Celts with me, that I found myself sitting on her couch in the dwindling light of a spring evening, the first game of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, the game that made me a basketball fan.


Key Celtics players were on the bench due to injury and it was up to the less seasoned rookies to pull it together and shine.


Jaylen Brown made the first swish of the night, which opened the floodgates to a flurry of mesmerizing and unbelievable dunks. I learned about ‘three-pointers’; shots that are made from a ridiculously far distance from the basket, because they were raining like huge orange balls of hail into the Cavaliers’ bucket.


Everything about the game was electric. The chemistry of the players, the fans (known as the ‘sixth player’), all worked together as one unit, something only made possible because the team had left their egos in the locker room so magic could happen out on the court.


It was a choreographed dance, as breathtaking as the Bolshoi Ballet.


It was magnificent.


It was history.


It was the underdog beating the man.


Poetry in motion.


Final score: Celtics 108, to Cavaliers 83, it was a beautiful trouncing.


I was hooked.


I am hooked.


And it’s all because of one rabid fan.



photo credit: chelseaferenando




Is that You Aunt Helen?


Her fine white hair, unkempt, was pushed off of her pale, drawn face. She was tucked into crisp white hospital sheets; a thin white blanket had been laid across her shrunken body. Her frail shape, ashen and small, was framed by the white wall that stood behind her. The effect was stark and depressing. The only things that held any colour in the room were her blue eyes. Wide like an owl’s or those of an infant: searching, deep, blank. She stared at me and I stared back.


I didn’t recognize her. 


I didn’t recognize her at all.


Was this Aunt Helen or was this her roommate?  I hadn’t seen my aunt in over 20 years, not since Uncle Paul’s funeral.  She had married into our family, had married my uncle, when they were both in their late-50s; so much of his story had already been lived, and it was easier to lose track of her when he had died. But today on this crisp fall afternoon, when the sun’s light was soft, and the trees were shocked with saturated colour, Aunt Rita, my mother’s sister, and I had made the trek to this long-term care centre in the west-end of Toronto for an overdue visit.


So much time had passed.


I stared hard at this woman, taking in her details when my Aunt Rita, who had been out in the hallway talking to a nurse, entered the room and exclaimed, “Helen!” REALLY? I was stunned; turning my gaze back to this unrecognizable woman, searching even more intently, trying to find something in her face in which my memory was acquainted. 


Nothing.


It was only when she spoke that I recognized her as someone I knew. The gravelly smoker’s voice was unmistakable. It was jarring to hear something so familiar from so long ago coming out of this stranger’s mouth.  To see facial expressions animate her, expressions I knew to be my Aunt’s, but that now seemed foreign and incongruous when they moved along this countenance.


What makes a person recognizable to the outside world? 


What makes them uniquely themselves?


I had no clue that I had relied so heavily on the familiarity of a person's physical appearance until it was no longer there to cue me. I find it amusing that as someone who has claimed that the most essential aspect of a human being is that which is intangible, it was I, who was completely flummoxed when it was only the nonphysical part of my aunt that was recognizable.


The essence of my aunt continues to move through her in voice and movement despite how time and disease have ravaged her body. Her crabby temper may have mellowed, ever so slightly, as her greeting to my Aunt Rita confirmed, “I never liked you, but thank you for coming,” but is a marker, nonetheless, of character and person.


We are not merely our physicality. Our vigour is housed here and enlivens here, but the two, although inextricably linked, are separate. My aunt’s world has shrunk down to four white walls; living does not get much smaller. And yet, she STILL lives.


The essence of who she is, who she has always been, still lives in what is becoming an unrecognizable and lifeless shell. Her life force has vacated much of her physical being, leaving a lot of her body empty of ‘her’ as it were, but the life force that still quickens is most assuredly Aunt Helen.


No question.


(A note on the image: stock photo “Canva wilted flowers on table.”)



I See You


The smothering proximity of people was wearing me down. Personal space was non-existent and I felt intruded upon, unnerved.  


“Miss, Miss.”


Outstretched hands grated on my worn down faculties. The need was insatiable and never-ending. Hands empty, bodies hungry and people afraid.


I didn’t look at them. I kept walking, pretending they did not exist. I was scared to see them. I was disgusted, irritated, angry.


“LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”  


But they didn’t. They swarmed me instead, always empty, hungry and afraid.  And they were angry too. I could see it in their eyes, their misery and frustration, their rage that I wouldn’t HELP THEM. That I wouldn’t even LOOK at them, SEE them, see that they were human beings, not insects to be swatted away.


But I only walked more quickly, dropping my head, averting my eyes, trying to move past, trying to get away. I was a North American woman traveling alone in New Delhi. Although not hungry, still feeling empty and very much afraid.


That night in my hotel room, after taking a shower and washing off the day’s grime, the panic and vitriol began to subside and I got quiet.


I knew my approach wasn’t working; it wasn’t working at all.


Besides, feeling incensed and frightened, I felt like a jerk for treating people with such disdain. My behavior had made it glaringly obvious that there was a great chasm between who I wanted to be and who I said I was, with who actually lived inside and came out when the pressure was on.


Nobody deserved to be treated with so little respect. My dreams of reaching higher consciousness made me cringe. How superficial my definition had been, how easily it had cracked when challenged.


There had to be a different way.  


And, of course there was, more challenging, to be sure, but it existed. I went to bed with an alternate course of action in mind and slept soundly.


The man was about my age, thin and brown, a wisp of a moustache sat atop his upper lip.  Grey polyester pants that had been made into shorts, the ends frayed; a burgundy long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, only buttoned up to his pecs, miles too big; worn out black flip-flops.


“Miss, Miss, do you have a dollar?”  


I could feel my jaw tighten and my entire body clench when he first called out to me.


It was the following morning and it was time to find out whether my intentions were just fluffy bits or would actually withstand a serious poke. I took a breath, a deep one.


Inner peace didn’t just exist in ideal conditions.  I needed to find it here, right now.


I knew it was here.


I stopped.  I took the fraction of a second to find his eyes, his deep chocolate brown eyes and looked at him straight. I let him take in my eyes' expression as well, made sure that we connected for a millisecond before I spoke and then said: “No, I’m sorry.” 


My eyes didn’t leave his while the words left my mouth, my eyes affirmed what my words were saying. They were unwavering but then softened into a smile as did my lips as I said, “Thank you.”


He looked at me, surprised, and then with a slight nod of his head in understanding as he backed away. 


I saw him.  I really saw him. And he also SAW me SEE him. 


And he saw me too.


I’m sure that was the difference.


I must admit that not all of my solitary walks in this heaving motion of humanity were as successful. It was an effort that I did not always welcome. To consciously choose active love when my feelings had other ideas was stretching and HARD. To take the time to make eye contact with another in order to say, “No,” with strength and kindness made me work. But when I did, when I acknowledged the humanity before me, things seemed to shift.


‘I see you.’


If we take the extra second to truly SEE another, to take in the person before us, everything changes.


Photo Credit: dmitry-baye



Fake News & Side-Seams


The snapping sound of moving fabric as it was unfolded with a flick of a practiced wrist is what I remember most. 


snap!  


In quick succession, done with precision and skill, without thought. 


A movement carried out 100s, if not 1000s of times, releasing piece after piece of fabric into the air, a short ride on a Genie’s carpet, wafting weightless before it landed onto the small piece of space before me. The sound hung heavy in the ethers as each sheet of silk began to build a rainbow mountain of cloth.


snap!  snap! snap!


It was jarring, the way a door that unexpectedly slams is jarring, or the way all of India had made me feel since I had arrived.  


But sound was pushed aside, as colour moved forward to fill me up with its pulsating hue.


Yes, I also remember the color, vibrant color. 


The entire palette of the Crayola crayon box plugged into an electric outlet and vibrating Indian style. Oranges and fuchsias, even the black had a sheen that glistened. These radiant colours seemed more intense when contrasted by the drabness of the room.  


Off-white grimy futons covered the floor, as muted grey light seeped through the only window that was on the opposite wall. It was a silk showroom, and the two young Indian proprietors had greeted us warmly as we walked through the door.


Handing us chai tea, offered in small clear glasses that seemed better suited for orange juice rather than a hot beverage, they encouraged us to, “Sit,” “Sit,” as they motioned us down to the floor. I almost dropped my tea as my eyes adjusted to the gloomy light.


Varanasi, India, home to the Ganges River, burning ghats and gurus; a place that attracts thousands of tourists each year.  But this consecrated city is also known for more than this sacred river and its holy men; the weaving of fine silk by the Momin Ansari Muslims has also brought notoriety.


I had begun my six week trip to India alone and in its capital of New Delhi. But in the last five minutes of a bus tour of the city, I befriended another woman from Holland who was also traveling by herself and who shared the same given name, Susan (clearly a sign), and so we decided to travel together.


Our first stop was Varanasi, not only to check out the river but also to purchase some traditional Benares silk. On our train ride there, Susan struck up a conversation with a handsome Israeli tourist with smoldering eyes and our two became three. 


The day we set out to find silk was dreary grey. The effect was intensified by charcoal coloured stone pathways, so narrow that two Westerns barely had room to walk side-by-side. To my North American eyes, this foreign setting was more like a movie-set than what I knew to be real life. 


We had decided on what silk shops to visit the night before at the guesthouse where we were staying. However, the following morning we puzzled over our map once more before setting out. Even in two-dimensions, the streetscape was complicated. I couldn’t concentrate. I was dizzy and constipated; my body’s way of dealing with culture shock wasn’t to clear everything out but instead to close the plumbing down altogether. And so I just hoped my fellow travelers were better cartographers than me. 


The Lonely Planet, the Bible of all travelers, said that the shop was not on one of Varanasi’s main roads but rather in the labyrinth of skinny pathways that could hardly be called streets.  As we began to walk down one cobblestone alley after another, I moved forward with growing trepidation.  The further we went, the more lost we became until our sense of direction finally failed.


It was sheer luck that led us to where we wanted to go, although the strapping Israeli believed it was his wit and savvy that had brought us here.  Susan gave me a look that indicated that she too knew that fluke was the real guide to our destination.


After our morning’s tour, in what felt like repeated circles, my brain had gone numb. Instinctively, as I sat on the dirty futon I reached out to touch something familiar, something to ground me.


Fabric. I knew fabric. 


At least I thought I knew fabric.


In Brattleboro, Vermont––the booming metropolis of fashion––part of my shopping experience had always been comparing what my fingers felt, and my eyes saw, to what the label in the garment confirmed. I had become skilled at distinguishing good quality cloth, which for me was natural fibers, versus what I deemed subpar synthetics. The tag on the side-seam reaffirmed my tactile estimates.


I felt smug and smart when I did this.


Here, in this place, where nothing was familiar, where my senses were continually being bombarded by the new and the different, I reached out to touch the purple scarf that had landed closest to me. But here too, my point-of-reference failed me. 


I hadn't ever bought silk. My fingers and eyes had never encountered its glossy texture up close and therefore were at a loss to conjure up the comfort of my memory’s experience.  I did love the rich grape colour, how the fabric felt as it glided between my thumb and fingers but I didn’t know.


And yet, as my fingers moved over the sleek texture …


Aww … better. The fog was lifting.


I reached for another piece of cloth; a sari made entirely in creme but with a pattern of paisley woven into the fabric. Again my hands and eyes both agreed that it was beautiful; no label, but still certain.  


I looked up at one of the shopkeepers who hovered beside me, holding up both pieces to him and asked, “How much?”


He pointed to the sari and said, “$250,” that would be in American dollars. And “$50,” for the purple scarf.


I slowly lowered the fabric in my arms as I swallowed hard. I knew that part of being a tourist included paying more, that was part of the unspoken agreement of travel. But without the label to confirm what my fingers were just learning to feel and understand, my uncertainty couldn’t be reassured. I had no idea if the quality of the garment warranted the splurge.


In the end, as was the case in many instances while in India, I had to trust my internal compass to direct me when making a purchase.


It didn’t matter if I was overcharged–in many cases I was sure that I was–the question became, “What did I think?” I had to let go of all the outside rules because I had no idea what they were. And because I didn’t know what was objectively fair, the only reasonable question I could ask myself was whether the item was, “Worth it to me?”


When my group-think failed to work in my new surroundings, I was forced to establish a new metric for assessment.


‘What did I-think?’ became my new baseline.


This experience came back to me recently when I was watching the 6 o’clock evening news, and I heard, yet again, the phrase ‘fake news’ being bandied about by the newscasters.


I found myself thinking, The label in the garment is gone. 


And I think it is.


The certainty that comes from an agreed upon label of values and beliefs is no longer in our proverbial side-seam. There are no directions that unequivocally tell us who we are as a Society that we can refer to when we need to find our ground. The loss of this security is not only uncomfortable, but often painful, as we stretch into a new way of being.


We never act our best when we’re in pain.


It can make us do and say ugly things.


But thoughtless accusations and emotional tirades don’t help in the in-between-time of label-less side-seams. Listening helps. A conscious effort to see, to touch, to experience the unfamiliar before us helps. 


The profundity of the present moment is priceless.


To accept, and not to be scared of, not knowing is in fact the doorway to clarity. 


And until a new set of assumptions, that we all can agree on, solidifies to make a new label that we can sew into the framework of our side-seam, rather than judgement and blame a more productive approach might be to rely on our own intellect and reason, maybe our compassion and heart too, and ask ourselves the question, “What do I think?”


And in the end, when I asked myself, “What do I think?”


I bought the purple scarf.


[Photo Credit: Jose Aragones]



barking soliloquies


Annabelle is the low-key English Setter that I spend time with while in Vermont. She seems to become more gentle and more laid back as the years creep forward, or maybe I've just gotten to know her better.


Regardless, there are exceptions.


Mornings after breakfast, and in the evenings after supper, she waits at the front door with anxious anticipation, impatience brimming until I open the door and she is free to dart out to begin her rounds.


Part of her routine is to bark. She barks a lot.


To the unrefined ear, Annabelle’s earnest pronouncements are noise. I too felt that her barking was excessive when getting to know her. But that was before I took the time to watch her nightly laps, before understanding and love took over and brought me eyes that could see.


In her younger days, her tail at full-mast, a feathery flag that she held up behind her, she trotted the perimeter of her home’s landscape, sounding like the town crier, announcing to her world that morning had come or evening was nigh.


As she has matured, the vigor of youth has slowed, and she no longer feels it necessary to do circles of the property while shouting her emphatic message. Rather, she sits at the top of her hill; tail fanned out on the green grass behind her, ears perked forward at attention, her face moving from side to side in an impassioned rhythm, using the oratorical skills of a prized speaker who understands the value of the dramatic pause.


I’ve wondered what prompts these barking soliloquies to a faceless world.

What is it that compels Annabelle every morning and every night, to speak? And why speak out to no one in particular?


This week, I watched a bird behaving similarly, its lengthy speech sans audience. Not only was there no other bird nearby (that I could see), there were also no pauses in this bird’s song which would suggest a reciprocal call in the distance (that I could not hear). Dubious research methods to be sure, but it did lead me to ask a more profound question,“Was this bird, like Annabelle, vocalizing only for himself?


Which then led to the question, “Do we need to speak, is it something essential for all living creatures to express themselves, even if there is no one there to listen?”


It makes me think differently about those who insist on talking on and on and ON when it is clear that everyone in the room has checked out and are no longer listening.


Maybe there is just a part of us that is hardwired to express ourselves whether the world is paying attention or not. Maybe the primary purpose of speaking is to connect with others, to the outside world, but maybe it is also a way to connect with ourselves. Could it be a way to help us organize our thoughts? A way to integrate another piece of who we are that can only be done if we take what is inside and bring it outside so that we can bring it in again? I don’t know.


A bird doing this is a stretch, but maybe...



Covered Bridge Cathedral


When I am in Vermont, there is a bridge that I must cross to get to the recycling depot. I don’t know what it is about the West Dummerston covered bridge that calls on my reverence. I don’t know why it makes known, without question, that it is deserving of my highest regard and deepest respect.


All I know is that it does.


Whenever I reach its threshold, as I wait for the vehicle from the other side to pass through, I feel compelled to quiet myself and my car before entering into its sacred space. Instinctively, I reach for the volume dial on the dashboard’s console and turn it down to zero. The hum of the heat or AC is also silenced, as my hand reaches for the handle on the driver’s door panel, to roll the window down—all the way.


Whether in blazing heat or sub-arctic cold, something in me hungers to taste the palpable echo of silence. To get as close as I possibly can to the outside world, to listen to all time as it merges for a moment, conducting itself into silent stories within these hallowed walls.


This bridge seems to be a portal of sorts, where past and present meet, stand side by side, opening to one another for a moment before carrying on along their own trajectories to their separate ends.


I’ve entered an old country church, suspended above a lazy springtime river, or a frozen block of winter's snow. My imagination’s ears can hear the lonely sound of a horse’s clopping hooves, led by a solitary rider, as both bring sound and movement to the air of a still, dark night. I hear the footfalls of a courting couple, walking aimlessly and slow, in joyful innocence, willing the night to last forever, full up and overflowing in each other’s company. A time gone by, and yet their new love making a solemn vow, which attaches itself resolutely and forever into the thick wooden beams of this sacred place.


The bridge feels like a keeper of stories—stories of the past, those being lived out now and stories that have yet to come into being.


I feel like a small child in its presence, begging it to reveal all that it knows, but the bridge only seems to smile at my inquisitive longings, holding its wisdom softly, its resolve still firm, keeping its own counsel as I pass through once more.


The West Dummerston Bridge in Windham County is not the only covered bridge that conjures up these feelings of awe and wonder.


The design, the workmanship, the history of these Vermont bridges provide living, functional artifacts that speak of the cultural and historical spirit of the green mountain state. They hold the values of Vermont in their trusses: natural beauty, craftsmanship, and longevity.

The next time you drive through a Vermont covered bridge know you are experiencing some of the best of Vermont!



The Man on Newfane Hill


The echo of bullets firing in the distance has always been a part of the Green Mountains I know.


They never seem to come in rapid succession, instead, a lazy intermediate warp that weaves through Nature's woof, blending with birdsong and gurgling stream, to form the tapestry of sound that moves through the landscape. The Man on the Hill has taught me that this is called, ‘slow fire,’ and is standard when you are shooting from 50 yards. These unhurried balls of lead have been paired since the beginning of my life in Vermont with the soft rolling hills in the distance that my eyes drink in each day.


It started with the sound.


Even before I met The Man on the Hill, the shooting in the distance had enchanted me; the crack in the silence belonged here in this wild and alive Eden.


What had started out as an unsettling jolt in the quiet, had become a sound of comfort. I was unaware that it had captivated my heart, that the firing of a gun had charmed me, had no idea that it had planted a seed.


I spend half my year on Newfane Hill housesitting and writing.


My hermit tendencies have been allowed to flourish here: I’m shy in a way, selfish too, protective of my precious time in Solitude’s arms, fiercely on guard like a momma bear with her cub, wary about who I let into my garden oasis.


So my contact with those on Newfane Hill has been limited; a few brief conversations, exchanging pleasantries, commenting on the weather or the beauty of this special mountain, a hesitant wave as I move back into my world of one.


Other than a polite ‘hello,' I haven’t known the man who fills up the still air with lonely gunshots. And yet, when word got back to this grizzled gentleman that I was a writer who wrote in the morning, the gunshots stopped until 1 o’clock each afternoon.


This would have been the extent of our meetings if my front door lock hadn’t decided to dissolve as I left the house for a day’s outing.  A kindly neighbor dispatched an SOS call on my behalf, and The Man on the Hill was the one to respond.


Arriving in his vintage jeep, which looked more like a dune buggy to my unrefined eyes, was a man in his late sixties. Still strapping, although a little rumpled from wear.


I knew that he was the man who shot guns, a man who had changed his shooting schedule for me, a stranger, so that the mountains could be still as I wrote.


I think his prickly demeanor was meant to be off-putting, but strangely I was not. Instead of retiring to another room while he changed the lock I stayed with him to hand him his tools and to talk.  


He was surprised to learn that the lock was actually broken and I wasn’t just a whiner from the city who was crying wolf. When he realized I knew the difference between a Phillips and a Robertson screwdriver, his apparent litmus test for a credible stranger, his facial features softened and he relaxed into easy conversation.


Raised in the back-country of Springfield, Vermont, he had made the hike of four miles each way to school; a mile of that from his house to the main road. No electricity or phone, not a police officer or fireman to depend on in an emergency, wild animals both a threat and a potential meal.


The Man on the Hill spoke of his youth. He would hunt on his way to school, change his clothes once he arrived, put his gun and hunting clothes in his locker and then change again at the end of each school day to hunt all the way home.


He could shoot a coyote dead, right through the head, cool and emotionless.


Always an outsider, living on the edges, misunderstood and readily left out.


He handled ballistics for the local police department which was why he often filled up the alpine silence with gunfire. But he also spoke of history, politics, and nature, making it clear that his gruff exterior hid depth and heart.


As this kind, smart, old-timer shared his tales, I found my courage.


And so I asked.


Would he teach me to shoot?


I had never shot a gun in my life; I hadn’t even held a gun. My grey hair and laugh lines illustrate that this is a remarkable period of time and it was shocking to me when this desire had bubbled up to my surface.


He said he would.


He was a gunslinger in the truest sense of the word.  


When he held a revolver, his surroundings seemed to disappear; all receded into a background of grey, becoming shapeless and silent. It left only The Man on the Hill and his gun, both looking at their target.


When my shooting lessons began, he picked up his gun to demonstrate how to shoot safely. Though standing beside him, I felt myself to be in a different part of Time, his moving much, much slower than my own.


It was only at the end of our first lesson, made up entirely of theory and safety practices that I held my first gun and shot my first bullet. I could feel both fear and excitement well up as the Smith & Wesson K-22 Revolver was placed into my hands. I was holding death’s underling; the cold steel giving me the power to kill; the weight of this fact heavier than the gun itself.


Lining up my mark, focused, my front sight in line with the notch at the rear site and holding it at 6 o’clock on the target, allowing the gun to wobble around the bullseye 50 yards away. It was like patting my head with one hand while making circular motions over my torso with the other; total concentration made my brain hurt.


My most successful shot was my first. One circle away from the bullseye on the target page. After catching my breath and discovering my good fortune, rather than chalking it up to luck, I immediately wondered if I was a savant. The following week’s target practice crushed this delusion quickly when shooting oranges turned out to be shooting the dirt that surrounded them.


And so ended my shooting career. The desire to shoot was fleeting, like a summer infatuation or a passing flirtation.


After that, our weekly shooting lessons were just an excuse to get together and gab. Instead of lining up targets and shooting guns, we sat on the back porch and circled life’s eternal questions with our words.


My world in Vermont is textured. It is filled with the sights and sounds of some of Mother Nature’s best works, some of humanity’s most profound and yet strikingly simple kindnesses, which, in their combination bring together a world that is unique to these Green Mountains.


 


Write Walk


Walking the Talk

&

Writing the Walk


by

Susan Cruickshank


Susan Cruickshank is a dual citizen who spends half her time living in Vermont, while making her home base in Ontario, Canada.


She is growing her freelance writing

—Vermont Views Magazine

The Sunlight Press—

while chipping away at her first book, a memoir.


You can find her on Facebook:

 https://www.facebook.com/LivingANewFuture/

and Twitter:

Susan Cruickshank @LivingANewFutur