Stuff. It’s my bane. That word has all kinds of terrible meanings: poison, death, destruction, woe. Maybe it’s not that bad—unless you ask one of the kids in the family who fear I’ll drop dead and they’ll have to do something. “Mom, we’re just going to get rid of it all.” Fine. Good luck. A friend of my aunt’s commented that we put too much in her estate sale, and her children were going to keep her things. What could I say? No, they’re just telling you that? It’s a trend.

So with a big remodeling project, I was/am faced with mountains of stuff. Lots of it remains: crystal I’ll never use, odd bits of china, figurines even I don’t care about, etc. I refuse to pay for storage, and if it doesn’t get donated, it will go to the attic or the curb. Or into an already-stuffed drawer or cabinet. Perhaps if you’re of a certain age, you know George Carlin’s riff on stuff. Low profanity level. Charlie Chaplin said, “Humor is playful pain.” Carlin gets that going here.

An essay I used to teach, “Neat People vs. Sloppy People” by Suzanne Britt, is worth the read. It is my life. I find things that make me think about people who’ve gone or a happy time; someone commented that I’m connected to my dead relatives on a molecular level. I have piles of things I intend to read, unfinished projects, unbegun projects. But I won’t get morbid. I’m working on it. The cool thing about Britt’s essay is that it’s unfinished. This is the last line: “After they’ve finished with the pantry, the medicine cabinet, and the attic, they will throw out the red geranium (too many leaves), sell the dog (too many fleas), and send the children off to boarding school (too many scuff-marks on the hardwood floor).” All the other teachers or nicely organized writing specialists assume that it’s a complete piece, but if you read it at the end of the page, there’s no doubt that you’d turn the page because it’s so obviously incomplete. No conclusion. Even my students admitted to turning the page. It’s a brilliant move. That’s how we sloppy people are.

One final note on stuff: Bette Midler tweeted this out last week—“And how was YOUR Black Friday? No injuries, I hope! It’s incredible that we have to fight over STUFF. If there were a DECENT minimum wage, or if workers were treated fairly, and got a tiny portion of the kinds of salaries and bonuses CEOS pay themselves, we wouldn’t.” Hmmm. Not that I would shop on Black Friday, but her explanation is that people don’t have enough money and so are fighting over stuff. In 2017, only 542,000 were paid the minimum wage. Half of those are 25 or younger. These cities and states have higher minimums. It’s a whole different issue. As for Bette Midler, I guess she didn’t understand Black Friday. People are cheap. There were deals to be had. Not people fighting over limited bread. As George Carlin said, we go out to get more stuff. I’m trying to do better. No more stuff for me today. No thrifting.

If there’s a takeaway today, it would be to give be creative in giving. An experience. A kind gesture. Not a something. Time, perhaps. Or love.

An Open Letter to President Trump

I think you have greatness within you. There. I’ve said it. In my training for literary criticism, I learned to lead with the negative. That way, when you’re ready to say something positive, your recipient has already heard the bad part and will be glad and relieved to hear what’s good. This time, however, I’ m bringing out the good first for two reasons: I’m afraid you wouldn’t wade through unhappy matters to get to the better news, and your sincerest critics may not want to criticize me because they’ll just quit now. So, I’ll begin again.

I think you have greatness within you. Some of your best decisions have taken courage because they haven’t been politically correct. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is one example. Others include leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, implementing a tax cut, rebuilding the military, rolling back the individual mandate on health coverage, presiding over historic low rates of unemployment. Appointing judges who will interpret the Constitution instead of rewriting it has mattered in a huge way. The list goes on. Your supporting statements to those among who are suffering have been inspiring, revealing a genuine impulse to help. In spite of the negative press, many in the country feel energized and positive, confident again in the direction our country is going.

Now for the clouds. As the once-popular 20th century writer James Branch Cabell said, “Cleverness Is Not Enough.” Not everyone can speak or write cleverly, of course, but cleverness as its own end rarely succeeds. The term “cheap shot” also seems relevant. Just because one can do or say something doesn’t mean one should.

What I’d like to propose is an experiment. For one month, refrain from being clever on Twitter or to detractors. Don’t call names. Don’t react to every critic who says you’re wrong. Instead, pay attention to your ratings. I predict they’ll soar. Perhaps this sounds too simple. Most things really are. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I believe it to be good advice. Just try it. If I’m wrong, you can go back to Twitter. If I’m right, that greatness may bloom.

What a country we live in where a citizen can offer advice to her president without fear of reprisal or harm. It’s also a place where too much gets said or written without concern about consequences. I’m willing to accept mine. Let’s touch base this time next month.

Happy Hallowthankmas

Last week we had two posts, so this week will be short. The holidays are upon us. After school starts, the running toward January begins. At Home Depot the fall decorations stand proudly with Christmas across the aisle. The phrase I’ve heard is Happy Hallowthankmas! No Christmas in my house until the day after Thanksgiving, but Saturday I visited a friend whose tree last year never went down. It is spectacular!

Since the last twelve months plus a few have been difficult with the passing of several dear ones—and perhaps you have experienced the same—I feel to remind you that the holidays are especially tender for those alone for the first time or those whose loved ones passed during this season or for those who have ever loved anyone and shared holidays with them. That’s probably about all of us, come to think of it. So let’s take care of and with each other.

A Farewell

Time cannot heal all wounds

Nor all hearts’ hurts.

Love cannot seal all raw edges

Nor smooth all life’s sad brows.

Those whose lives we share,

Who say our names in ways

We cannot forget,

How could their love fade?


It cannot, does not die

But blooms in other places,

Other kingdoms richer than our own

Waiting for the someday to say again,

To feel and show again,

“I love you, I love you.”

Along for the Ride

Ennobling obligations. Last minute urgency. A need, a willingness to help, a call. Two people on opposite ends of a political spectrum. Three others, politics unknown.

As I often acknowledge, words aren’t going to be enough. What I’ll be attempting is a description of a set of circumstances, an outcome, and its meaning, without flights of existential fancy or spiritual overreach. Wish me well.

Following two days of knocking on mostly unanswered doors, my brother wanted to participate in an effort to drive voters to their polling places. First the app was down. It came up but no one came up. Then all the opportunities were in Fort Worth. Things were looking grim. Finally, a woman and my brother connected. Her father wanted to vote but needed to find his ID. After some discussion, they decided to talk later when the potential voter was ready to go. Hours later, with no response, my brother decided we could shop after driving by some polling places, just to see what was happening.

On the way, the woman called and asked if my brother could come ahead and get her father. Instead of going back to get his car, I offered to help. It was a good decision.

When we arrived, we wondered about two cars in the driveway. Were we really needed? Soon enough, we had answers. Jean wanted to vote, his wife didn’t know why, and his daughter had to leave. Oh, and he was in a wheelchair. Whoa. We thought we could manage. Jean couldn’t walk but he did stand well enough to get into the car with tender help from my brother. I encouraged his wife Marie to come along, even though she’d voted already. She was glad to, still so appreciative we were there to take her husband. One more enriching element: Jean is a naturalized citizen, originally from Africa.

An aside: In Texas, if you’re over 70, an expired ID will work. And if you cannot come into the polling place, someone will bring the ballot out to your car. That worked well, so Jean and Marie stayed in the car while my brother and I stepped out to allow them privacy. It didn’t take long, and we were on our way to their house. I fetched the wheelchair, my brother carefully placed Jean in it, and all was completed amid “thank you’s” too numerous to count. Grateful for the ride, so thankful, blessings upon blessings on our heads. Near tears, we felt a sense of joy and accomplishment; we also knew it probably meant more to us to have helped this particular man than it did for him to get a ride with some strangers.

Those are the facts, the data. What was the feeling? Harder to describe: We were willing and able to help, enthusiastic, eager even. Cheerful, grateful, humble, dutiful—Jean used the phrase “completing my civic obligation.” Marie and the daughter were equally pleased and excited about this bit of service. It felt good, really good.

No one—no one—said a word about how we voted, how Marie voted, how Jean voted. It didn’t matter. The ennobling act of performing what is, yes, a duty united us.

We think we know what the word “vote” means, of course. There’s a race. There are winners and losers after a process that invites and even encourages acrimony. Of course, we’ve forgotten to look closer, to remember what we’re doing.

Voting is more than choosing. That duty, that right, is also an obligation. Jean was correct to use that word. When we vote, we are pledging and promising support. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, your vote is “a vow, wish, promise to a god, solemn pledge, dedication.” Think of votive candles, lit in some churches to signify a prayer.

One helping another make that promise, regardless of the recipient of the choice, approaches, then, the sacred act of participating in this system of ours, the best the world has ever known, for all its participants’ failures in leadership, lapses in justice,  mistakes and missteps.

Here, finally, is the guiding metaphor: The ride. Taking Jean meant so much because he couldn’t have done it without us. To go along for the ride—to participate in his journey—ennobled us in a way nothing else could do. It’s why his choice of candidate doesn’t matter, nor ours.

We often talk about the “ship of state” but perhaps another image is better: the grand mechanism of our governing system needs those governed to participate, to learn about the candidates, the issues, the problems, the solutions. Not to follow blindly. Not to scream like spoiled children but to reason like educated, committed adults. Disagreements are inevitable. Suspicions should arise if there aren’t any. Helping someone get on this ride, well, it’s a great thing. I wish you could have been there. I hope you have felt a hundredth of what we did when you voted. It’s not the cliché that you can’t complain if you don’t vote. If you’re not along for the ride, you’ve missed more than you can imagine.

And When in Late November

And When In Late November

Aaron watched the round tower of cranberry sauce cans go higher and higher as he stacked them in a fancy spiral. He could just see Mr. O’Donnell’s face when he saw it. “Just pile ’em up, Aaron. This ain’t art class.” And then Aaron would explain, so carefully, that the cans were arranged in a Fibonacci series, perfectly, all the way from the top to the bottom. From there down it went one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one. Just like in nature. Just like the spirals of sunflower seeds or rose petals. No, this wasn’t art class. It was advanced mathematics. Aaron imagined Mr. O’Donnell turning that great shade of red and muttering under his breath. And maybe even rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.

Aaron’s mother knew he liked to do things differently. This year, at sixteen, he knew what to have for Thanksgiving. The week before, on Thursday, they would have a dinner of a bowl of rice, to remember all those in the world who had too little to eat. The money they saved would go to feed the poor. Everyone in the family thought it was a good idea. Jennifer, his little sister, seemed so proud of him, so he neglected to say it wasn’t really his. But the main dinner the next week had to be special too.

Aaron had done more research and told his mother the menu.

“No, Mom. They did not have roasted turkey mostly all white meat. Maybe a wild one and other game birds. Smoked venison, corn, dried cranberries, and pumpkin boiled with vinegar for flavor. . . No pretty jellied cranberry sauce, no soft rolls, no sweet pumpkin pie with whipped cream.”

She had relented and agreed to the authentic meal, but Jennifer’s eyes, deep blue and big even for a six year old, clouded over with tears. “Don’t worry sweetheart. I’ll cook us a turkey for Christmas. This will be fun, you’ll see. And Aaron has killed the deer himself.”

“I hate vinegar, Mama,” Jennifer cried. I want some punkin’ pie and with cream. Those old Pilgrims didn’t know nothin’. And that poor old mama deer . . .” She proceeded to wail so much that she was sent to her room.

“Anything, Jennifer, not nothing,” Aaron corrected. People needed to learn things. Not do things the same old way. Be creative. The traditional dinner had its place, of course, but it needed some improvement, he thought. It was illogical to have two meals so much the same, Christmas and Thanksgiving, so close together and so similar. Not smart.

As the cans neared their final, triumphant height, Aaron heard the swoosh of the doors opening. Who could be coming out so late? It was two nights before Thanksgiving, and most women were home baking or simmering green beans on the stove. He did like his mother’s, with slices of bacon added early. But they could wait until Christmas, like everything else. The store was about to close. Even Mr. O’Donnell seemed anxious to get out and on his way for once.

Aaron picked up his duster so he could at least look busy and rounded the corner of aisle 4A. Oh, just Mrs. Vang, he thought. What would she care about Thanksgiving anyway? She often had to come in late because of her job at the nursing home. He’d heard that she was a doctor, really, but she had to work as an aide until she could learn English well enough to take some test. She looked a bit confused tonight and went looking for Mr. O’Donnell. She always spoke to Aaron because he and her son Phong had classes together, but he noticed that she never asked him questions. That honor fell to Mr. O’Donnell.

Tonight she went to him right away, without trying to find anything herself. They talked for a few minutes, Mrs. Vang shaking her head several times and putting her hand on her mouth. Aaron watched as she followed Mr. O’Donnell directly toward him on 4A. They did not acknowledge him as they walked backed to 4B. Mr. O’Donnell handed Mrs. Vang a small package of flour, two pounds, and some shortening. He turned the can over and showed her a recipe. Aaron thought Mr. O’Donnell seemed a bit more patient with her than usual. Perhaps it was his famous Christmas spirit hitting early. Aaron crept around the end-aisle display where the candied yams were piled and tried to listen.

“Must be ten kinds of pie, Miz Vang. There’s apple, cherry, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream. The fruit is on 4A, custard mixes on 3B with the gelatins, of course. Some folks like gooseberry ’cause it’s all tart and syrupy. My personal favorite is buttermilk. It’s rich and creamy and my wife puts this little dusting of nutmeg on . . .”

“How make pie with milk?” Mrs. Vang looked puzzled and her brow wrinkled. Her head then moved back and forth. “Milk go out. Slip slosh. No, not milk pie. What pie Phong say?”

“Well, what’s it for? He ‘sposed to bring it for somethin’ special?”

“Yes, oh yes. Very special. Church party. Must bring pie for Thanksgiving. Only right pie will do. Most important.”

“Some folks make apple, some cherry, lots do pecan. Very popular. My wife makes hers with all halves.”

“No, no. Nothing I ever heard of before.”

“Well, ma’am. I’m not sure what else to tell you. There’s lots of pies.” He started counting them on his fingers again. “Cherry, apple, blueberry, lemon, coconut cream, mince. .

“Pumpkin!” Aaron blurted. “At Thanksgiving people have pumpkin pie!” The adults looked at him, startled.

“Sure, some people like pumpkin,” Mr. O’Donnell allowed without looking at Aaron. “This time of year.”

“Yes, yes. Oh, thank you. That is the word. Very important. Must be pumpkin.” Mrs. Vang looked pleased and bowed slightly toward Aaron. “Yes, must be pumpkin.”

Later, as he prepared to leave, Aaron took off his deep green apron and folded it carefully. He slid it into his back pocket and removed a limp, crumpled dollar bill. He removed the top can of cranberry sauce from its spiral and walked to the counter where Mr. O’Donnell prepared the evening’s receipts.

“I expect your mama has plenty of cranberry sauce.”

“Maybe. She said she’d have a different menu this year, to go with my deer, though. I thought we ought to do something authentic. Venison, some birds, boiled corn. They didn’t have milk, the pilgrims, you know? And no sweets like we make them. It was pretty basic, I guess.”

“Changed your mind, Aaron?”

“Well, no, not really. Yes, I guess.”

“”Somethin’ got into you, boy?” Mr. O’Donnell looked at the cranberry sauce as if trying to put it all together.

“It’s what you’d call a symbolic gesture.” Aaron mumbled as enigmatically as he could and headed for the door.

The old white pickup’s door creaked its familiar welcome. He tossed the can onto the passenger side of his old truck, rolled down his window, and drove home with the smell of the fine old American dust making him smile. It was going to be a fine Thanksgiving.