The Tenth Leper

512px-ChristCleansing (1)Guest post by Kelly Foster

If you grow up in the South, you learn to write thank-you notes. You write thank-you notes for kind gifts. You write thank-you notes for kind words. You write thank-you notes for kind thank-you notes people send to you.

It’s a vicious circle of gratitude, but I suppose there are worse circles to be caught up in, and plenty that don’t provide one with an excuse to keep a ready supply of handmade stationery in reserve. So it goes.

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The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

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Sisyphus with a Lawnmower

I hate mowing the lawn. I hate lawnmowers.

Our unkempt yard stands out among our neighbors’ lush green lawns. Their leaves and sticks are promptly removed after storms, their yards are neatly mown, and their borders are crisply edged. My wife and I imagine that we get a pass on our shaggy, limb-cluttered yard because everyone knows we’re academics, bookish types who aren’t much use at real work—otherwise we might have already been voted off the street.

I don’t see the point of constantly struggling against nature when she will certainly outlast me. What’s more, I like my yard shaded and shaggy, with leaves and sticks all around. It feels more natural—it is more natural. Why put so much energy into fighting it? [Read more...]

The Peril of False Spring

It’s January, but the weatherman says the temperatures will creep up near seventy for the next day or two. In fact, things have been warmer than usual for a spell now. Tiny buds are popping out on some of the trees, and croci (yes, a bunch of crocuses) are spackling the earth in little paintbrushes of yellow and purple. The birds, from black starling to blue jay, are wild about it all.

This shouldn’t be happening, of course, because this is the mid-Atlantic, and the average temperature this time of year is in the low forties. The skies should stay dark and unruly for weeks to come. Windshields should be sheathed in icy skins that have to be chafed and busted off with barely-effective scrapers that send shivers of freezing pellets down your shirtsleeve.

The ride to work should be intolerable, the seat a glacier beneath your pant legs and too frost-bound to lean back against. The heater controls should take a merciless pounding as you demand more from them than they can possibly give in such tundral conditions.

But that’s not happening right now. Right now, the car windows are down a tad to let in a waft of fresh air, like an old friend finally come to call. Right now, you walk to places instead of drive, and find a way to get out during the noon break. There’s no need for a big coat pinning your arms down or a scratchy scarf rubbing your neck raw. Free of thick, globby Chapstick, lips can be used to whistle. [Read more...]

Traditional New Year’s Food

At the end of December I talked to a friend of mine who lives in Seattle. He was going to a New Year’s Eve dinner and was having trouble deciding what to contribute to the meal. “It’s strange,” he said, “that Americans don’t have any traditional New Year’s foods. We have Thanksgiving food, and Christmas, but not New Year’s.”

What I found strange was that he’d grown up without a food tradition on this holiday, because my family always ate black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread on the first of January, and although I knew it had originated in the South, I’d thought the tradition was now widely known, if not widely practiced.

Each year my parents, brother and sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I would gather in my grandmother’s kitchen.

“The black-eyed peas are coin money,” Grandma told me, stirring the big, black pot where the beans floated in a bubbling liquid, a smoky chunk of fatback bobbing in the middle like a buoy. [Read more...]