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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve At Grandmommy's

We are having ham, and hen (as Grandmommy always refers to chicken), and beef meatballs, and pork. There's enough yellow corn to feed a stable, and beans and peas and sweet potato soufflé. And new potatoes, but sadly not those grown by Granddaddy and kept in the cool space underneath the house--those always tasted so fresh! And cake and two kinds of pie for dessert. We're celebrating Christmas today in Dublin--just me, Mums, John, Grandmommy, and my brother Nate, whose arrival from Atlanta we anticipate in the next hour. Grandmommy is busy in the kitchen, all four curled mazes of electrical eyes on her stove crowded with cooking pots and the pressure cooker Presto Model 40 she bought about 70 years ago. This morning we ate homemade biscuits baked in two even more ancient round aluminum cake pans, which her mother used to make four layer cakes in the wood-fired oven at the old homeplace. We always say that one reason Grandmommy's biscuits taste so good is because of those pans. It was the children's responsibility when she was growing up to fetch the kindling in for the stove. I asked Grandmommy how her mother knew how long to bake things, given there was no thermometer, and she said she had to guess.

Grandmommy and Mums are debating the use for the probable leftover broccoli, potentially in a broccoli chicken casserole. It's a beautiful sunny day outside, and is forecast to warm to seventy. John was strolling outdoors and came in to remark on how pleasant it is, and so we're going to have the doors open. Mums is washing the dishes and Grandmommy is concerned about there being too much water in the potatoes. I am sure they'd be delicious even if they were swimming. Grandmommy's cooking is superb. She claims to be just a "plain cook," but her plain food is far better than much fancy stuff. I wish more of the family could be here, but a large proportion of those who had planned to come are sick with either colds or the flu.

It's quiet except for Grandmommy's narration of her cooking process--I'm glad I am not the only one in the family who talks out her planned steps--the rattle of lids on pots, and the swish of water as dishes are washed. Everything is cooked and maneuvered into the oven to keep warm, ready to be placed on the counter for serving at dinnertime. My cousin once referred to Grandmommy's "magic oven, noting that she'd never seen her cook, but that she just would open the oven and a multiple dish meal was there to eat. And the oven itself is like the Weasley's tent in the Harry Potter stories--it's bigger on the inside than in is outside--into than one small space, an incredible number of covered Corningware dishes and tinfoil wrapped plates can fit.

The Christmas cactus is blooming on the back porch, and I just heard Grandmommy wondering where I have disappeared to as she went to turn off the heat, the doors being open for fresh air. The aroma from the kitchen is making my mouth water. And my mother is doing leg lifts as she waits for my brother. He'd better get here soon. I'm hungry!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Bright Stars, Painful Memories, & Beautiful Ambitions

I love beautiful things. I wonder sometimes that it may be the desire to possess beauty that has kept me single. On the one hand, one does not, or rather one should not, possess another person--when I was psychologically possessed by another person, it was the most miserable and unhealthy state in which I have lived. Moreover, a spouse is not a curio cabinet treasure, to be admired as an object, dusted off and displayed. But I do like male pretty, and I have a collector's eye for fine examples. Too bad the transient superficial is often all there is, or connected to selfish pride, and that men are often attracted to women as beautiful or even more so than they, all of which suggests that I am doomed in the spousal pulchritude department.

I just finished listening to Edith Wharton's "The Dilettante," which I wish I had read decades ago – as I have myself been the emotional victim of dilettantes such as that so ably portrayed in this incisive short story. And at least once I have likewise proven unable to invest my emotions in a romantic relationship. While I was dating my only boyfriend (a score of years ago!), I still remember my father almost busting a gut with laughter when I mentioned to him that I was concerned that the boyfriend in question had a heart ailment, because when we kissed his pulse would race. Apparently this is normal. My heart, on the other hand, thudded along at its usual dull rate because I was not in the least emotionally engaged, and I soon realized that the apathy that suffused all of my interactions with this otherwise estimable character was not going to lift.

A sylphlike colleague at the museum where I was working at the time told me that she had had sex simply to see what it was like. A friend had lent her her boyfriend for the experience, which I found odd on multiple levels. But later, I realized I had no room to talk (in kind if not in extremity), as I had kissed somebody I didn't have any feelings for simply because he had expressed an interest in kissing me, and it seemed the sort of "normal" thing to do. When I discovered that he actually loved me and was planning to propose to me, I realized I couldn't continue the charade into matrimony. Perfunctory marital relations would have been ridiculous. I had thought that I would eventually begin to feel something if we dated for a while, but six weeks passed, and then 12, and though I certainly appreciated the man on an intellectual level, I was simply going through the romantic motions, absorbing his devotion without returning any, which filled me with guilt. He deserved better. So I broke up with him. He was crushed, and went off to France for a year on a Fulbright. Then he met and married a nice woman. Their children could be teenagers by now, for all I know.

My heart has been touched deeply twice, once by someone who was a dilettante, and the other time by one of whom I was mistaken. The former left me badly wounded, while the latter had the courtesy to wait offstage until I was recovered (and a few years later I had totally forgotten that I had any attraction to him whatsoever, which was a comfortable and pleasant realization). So it is possible for me to be emotionally engaged, but I wonder at the miracle it must take for me to come to like someone who is reasonable and for him simultaneously to like me. I think that most people must take this as a matter of course, but I don't.

My ability to communicate my feelings, or lack thereof, has definitely improved as I've gotten older. I hope that my spirit has gotten both stronger and softer, that the worst of the psychological scars of a quarter century ago have faded while the lesson of not being drawn into an exploitative relationship has ingrained itself into my marrow. I thank God that that first fellow whom I adored one-sidedly was an effectively asexual dilettante, given that I have since seen other controlling people introduce elements of romance into their power play and thereby brutalize their victims even more thoroughly.

I can see the point of perfunctory affection if one is in a marital relationship. There is duty, and the heady emotional involvement that accompanies early infatuation does not typify day-to-day existence over the long run, though Lord willing it will return regularly. I do earnestly desire a marriage grounded in comfortable, pleasant coexistence, but I also want to like to be touched by my spouse. Not just sex and kisses, but having his hand over mine, his arm around my shoulders. Hugs are awesome when they are from someone you love. Being able to snuggle up to someone who doesn't consider me physically repulsive, who doesn't withdraw unconsciously, and about whom I feel the same…that would be so nice. Someone whose face will crinkle into further little smile curves over the years, so we both can beam companionably at one another over the breakfast table in our old age. That's the sort of relationship that I really hope and pray God grants me. Someone who finds me admirable and fascinating, and someone whom I likewise admire and with whom I am fascinated. One of the things that I have observed in successful Christian marriages is that each spouse is impressed with the other's skill. They clearly enjoy the other person's character, and his or her being able to do certain tasks, from building things to sewing things, from cooking things to arranging things, from writing things to thinking things. They see beauty in the other person and his or her handiwork and celebrate it.

The past three years have been a humbling experience for me. I have glimpsed (and repeatedly shut my eyes to!...there's a limit to how much realistic self-assessment I can handle) how small I am in the face of the universe, and how little my gifts account for relative to the broader population. My current job has been particularly illuminating in this regard: I have overseen the editing of about 100 biographies of people who exhibited both great and lesser literary skill, the one area of ability in which I have always aspired to excel. God has given me a better sense of where I am to fit, and has encouraged me with the realization that even small spheres prudently occupied can be far more beneficial than large swaths of power mishandled. A beautifully influential life resembles a star in space. From our terrestrial viewpoint, in that empty stretch of infinite darkness a comparatively tiny glimmer shines across vast time and distances. In notes too deep for the human ear to hear, the star's voice throbs through the reaches of the universe. The human eye is naturally drawn to the light, however infinitesimal it may at first appear, and even at its death, it yields spectacular beauty. Thus, I will subscribe to what I call a "little woman" theory of history rather than to the "great man" theory of history. Even if I cannot enjoy the beauty of a beloved spouse, I can, through God's grace, be a twinkling (if slightly batty) inspiration to a small circle.

If I may continue to indulge in free association ("like a tea-tray in the sky..."), Lewis Carroll is prompting me to a bedtime cuppa. Maybe the chamomile will let me enjoy a solid night's sleep!

Granddaddy's Centenary

Today would have been Granddaddy's 100th birthday. When he was born on the family farm in Alabama, the US had yet to enter the Great War. His own grandfather, a Southern veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic in the American Civil War, was alive and telling stories of his youth, declaring when invited to speak of his wartime experiences at my Granddaddy's elementary school that if a certain neighboring Confederate veteran had been invited to speak too, he wouldn't: "I already whupped him once, I ain't gonna whup him again!" Granddaddy once asked him what prompted him and his six brothers, all Southerners, to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers, and he responded simply "I don't believe one man should own another man."

Granddaddy himself fought tyranny on the international and local level, from his service in the US Navy during World War II to his insistence on honesty while serving on the city council of his small middle Georgia town; the refusal to kowtow to the ol' boy network limited him to a single term, but he managed to achieve the approval of key initiatives in that short period whose positive effects are still felt. He worked hard and steadily, and despite ongoing struggles with severe PTSD, his affection for his family was unwavering. He made a wise choice in the selection of a wife, for one! I miss him, oftentimes badly, but I look forward to seeing him again. I expect even in the company of the Almighty, he's still got a crew cut.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Outbound Stretch

While outwardly I have been calm about moving halfway around the world, I have reason to believe that my subconscious is not enjoying such equanimity. My ability to sleep has been vastly affected, as has my ability to speak in complete sentences and to remember basic vocabulary words in English. These symptoms imply that I am under a great deal of stress, and it is only perhaps being overcommitted timewise that is keeping me more or less operating in what superficially appears to be  a normal range.

Several friends have expressed an interest in talking to me on the phone before I move, but I've been so busy, finishing either conventional job assignments or setting up for the estate sale so late into the evenings that we haven't been able to talk. I told the Hungarian computer guy at work that I was burning three candles, and he asked me if that were the typical American phrase, and I admitted that it was not, but that two candle-ends seemed insufficient to depict the level of distrait in my life right now.

The estate sale that my uncle and I have worked so hard and so swiftly on opened for business today. The revenue was respectable, but not at the spectacular level that the location and the contents implied was possible. Tomorrow everything is marked down some percentage, and I hope and pray intensely that it will be far more successful than today was, as I have not only medical bills to pay, but also two months of living expenses to have in hand (I won't receive my first Korean paycheck until the end of February), and my car brakes had to be replaced this past Monday. And the aforementioned computer guy told me that I ought to get a new computer before I head overseas, as while the one I have now is working perfectly fine, it is reaching the end of the average lifespan of the typical laptop.

My three suitcases are open and lying semifilled in the middle of my living room, and as yet I haven't put but few clothes in them, just the needful accoutrements of housekeeping. Measuring cups, a tablecloth. Pantyliners, a shower curtain. My scooter, toothbrushes. A sewing kit, language textbooks.   A sleeping bag, sandals. Umbrellas, cold medicine. I am packing a box of lighter items that I intend to mail to myself--powdered peanut butter being the most important. I have already purchased 2 computer  monitors and a stand and had them shipped ahead of me – the process was moving smoothly, oiled by generous quantities of money, when it ground to a a sudden halt – the international UPS affiliate sent me confusing "we need information" messages linked to an all-Korean website demanding a number that I did not have, and which I must acquire or the shipment could not proceed –which issue was only ironed out after a week and remote  interaction with three Amazon staffers [and my actually breaking down into tears on the phone (another manifestation of my subconscious stress level].

One of the several pleasant things that happened this past week, however, was my niece Rita sending me a Facebook message – through her paternal grandmother's account – asking me what the address for this blog was. And one of my cousins told me that he often reads Rummynation when he has downtime from medical school. And my mother made sugar cookies. And I had a good conversation with Grandmommy. And things are being bought out of my consignment booth--which I will be emptying, Lord willing, Christmas Eve morning. And my plane tickets for Seoul (through Atlanta and Tokyo) are bought. And I mailed off my passport to the Korean Consulate for my visa to be affixed. And my garage is now empty enough that a car can be parked in it. And my sweet friend, who is house and cat sitting for me is moving in December 30, the day before my departure. I know without a doubt that the Almighty is sending me to Southeast Asia, but it's all unreal and theoretical  right now. I'm as jittery as a bride, and more than a little terrified of the responsibilities that I will be assuming.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Fire, Angels, & Demons

The president of my Sunday School class was caught in the Gatlinburg, TN, fire last weekend. He saw a wall of flame rushing across the mountain—he said the air was so hot that the dry brush in the fire’s path spontaneously combusted before sparks even reached it, bushes and trees popping into flames one after the other in a series of quick explosions. The fire came within 15’ of their house, then turned and went around it, raining blistering cinders as they sprinted for their car. They barely made it out in time. Two of the three roads off the mountain were blocked with debris, and thick smoke boiled over everything. In the grocery store parking lot in the valley where they rendezvoused with their son and his family, the wind gusted between 40 and 80 mph, lifting one side of their SUV, and flinging shopping carts (and the steel corrals meant to contain them) against the cars.

I spent yesterday breathing third-hand smoke; the interior of the house where we’re putting together an estate sale had been scorched by a fire (from an electrical spark under a sofa) two years ago. The surviving contents were professionally cleaned and boxed by the insurance company, which paid for the full restoration and furnishing of the place, but the single female homeowner hadn’t been back in residence but months (and few boxes were even unpacked) before she succumbed in September at the tender age of 60 to a lifetime of chain smoking. We opened most of the windows (despite the cool drafts) to air out the place, which reeked. My uncle climbed up on a ladder to examine the HVAC intake vent, and found that the filter was not grey from dust but a nasty nicotine brown. He installed a fresh filter and saturated it with Febreeze, a treatment which he also applied to most of the living areas. I sound like a 20-year smoker myself today; breathing all that junk was miserable. Every time I blew my nose, I was convinced I would snort out soot. Despite the comprehensive house restoration, and the “professional” cleaning—they definitely didn’t sponge off the books--I had to wash the smut off my hands so often than my knuckles were bleeding by midafternoon. The cold air circulated chapped my lips thoroughly, so this morning during the early service “greet your neighbor” time I found that I couldn’t smile pleasantly without pain. But I considered the day a complete success—in almost exactly twelve hours of working flat-out, we sorted everything and started staging. We unpacked every single box. I actually thanked God for the house fire, because it undoubtedly cut down on the clutter—there remained over 50 purses, and more than 200 pairs of shoes. I hope someone with a sock fetish shows up weekend after next.

The books displayed a curious eclecticism. There were probably a gross of newsprint bodice-rippers with semi-pornographic covers, twenty years of the Southern Living cookbooks, Bibles with bookmarks, self-improvement and relationship guides, a hundredweight of textbooks on law and finance and banking regulations, shelves full of classical literature, and just about every work Ayn Rand had typeset. 90 Minutes in Heaven was next to an evangelically secular Stanford University Press book on how to debate creationists. Elsewhere were dime store angel figurines. Twee, delicate, and female, all of them. I loathe mass market figurines in general and representations of angels in particular. When an angel appears in Biblical accounts, he tells the human person or persons being addressed, “Do not fear.” Which implies that real angels are terrifying, and your natural instinct on encountering one is to want to hide under a rock, or bow down and worship. These pretty plastic ladies with feathery wings correspond to pictures of the Devil in a red suit with little horns, a smart goatee, and a pointed tail—and these silly, safe, cartoonish images seem to be the bread and butter of popular American religiosity. Jonathan Edwards’s  sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sit well with the “All Dogs go to Heaven” and Chicken Soup for the Soul mentality of the average nice modern person. Whether our late client evidenced this typical affinity was hard to tell, given the wide range of reading material she apparently enjoyed. One of the many results of doing estate sales (though it is not infrequently depressing) is developing a character sketch of the person who lived in the house, even without any photographs to guide me. It is my contention that your estate sale agent learns as much about you as your lawyer, your priest, and the IRS, and sometimes we find out more.