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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Wrapping, Unwrapping, and Wrapping Up the Old Year

Good morning! Last dawn of 2019!
In the days preceding Christmas, my writing desk displayed a row of colorful gift bags for local Arizona friends and neighbors. “Would you like me to find a box you could put those in,” the Artist asked, “so you wouldn’t be so crowded?” I thanked him but declined the offer. “I like to look at them,” I told him. For me, those colorful bags went some distance toward making up for the lack of the fragrant Fraser or balsam fir I would have had back in northern Michigan.

Outgoing gifts, only partially reflected in memorabilia-crowded mirror

Incoming gifts -- and ours to open!
Over on my bookshelf was a substitute “tree,” a shorter, less elaborate mesquite branch than the one I found and used last year, but something, at least, on which to hang Moravian folded paper stars and other ornaments from sisters and friends. I also cleared the remaining top of the bookcase of other items to make room for gift bags from sisters and friends. In that way, my book and writing corner served, for a little while, as our Christmas corner. 

lighting my corner of the darkness
Because I don’t know about you, but when the short, dark days of December roll around, I “need a little Christmas,” and I’m completely sympathetic to Jo March’s complaint that “Christmas [wouldn’t] be Christmas without any presents!” Poor as those “little women” felt, yet they managed to scrounge up gift surprises for each other and for their mother, and in my frugal life it means a lot to me to be able to do the same. 

Still in Michigan, and starting way back in summertime, I had great fun thinking up and making and buying little things and making a happy collection of items for the bags I would later assemble. But I’m lucky. I have sisters! The Artist thinks my gift bags are a “girl thing,” and maybe they are. I do know that my sisters and I have a wonderful time finding and buying things for each other. “Oh, Bettie will love this,” Deborah will say to me as we stand together in her friend’s gift shop, and I agree. “You’re right. That’s perfect for her!”

Gifts on any occasion need not be expensive or elaborate or enormous to say “I love you” to recipients. It is indeed the thought that counts. But giving tangible body to the thought counts, too, I find. For instance, my sisters and I typically give each other cute socks, tee shirts, books, holiday ornaments, and kitchen items, and whenever I put on a shirt or pair of socks from a sister, or pick up a book or admire an ornament or use something in my kitchen that a sister gave me, I think of that sister, and she is right there with me. The gift keeps on giving!

New shirt from a sister!

New socks from a sister!

New apron from a sister!
more new, heavenly soft shirts
Sometimes, surprisingly people other than the givers are with me, too, through gifts I receive. Such is the case with a book one sister sent me this year, a book of poetry by the cousin-in-law of a friend of the Artist’s and mine. I have yet to meet Cele Bona, but her poems are powerful, and her name and relationship to our late friend Al Bona, himself a friend we also admired for his poetic gifts, brings Al to mind, though he has been gone for years.

Years! They pass so quickly! Some years I send Christmas cards, other years New Year’s cards, and sometimes no cards at all. But the truth is that I enjoy buying bright postage stamps and taking stacks of cards to the post office almost as much as I enjoy going in with gift packages to mail. I often think of a friend who hated going to the post office (and now there are ways to avoid the p.o. altogether), but whether I’m at home in Northport, Michigan, or in Willcox, Arizona, the post office is almost always a delightful stop for me. I love the way the United States Postal Service connects us all, and when I go to the p.o. I feel that connection, a little the way I feel it when I go to my precinct voting place in northern Michigan (where I’m happy to say we use paper ballots!). We’re all in this together, these places say to me. We may be far apart in the moment, but these places, these rituals, these bits of paper and other stuff provide us with tangible links to each other.

A friend back home collects our mail and sends it on to us.

[Reminder: Gifts can be wrapped in brightly colored recyclable tissue or reusable cloth. Paper envelopes that hold cards can be recycled, and the cards themselves can be repurposed. Besides, it’s only once a year!

But just as I never tell anyone, friend or bookstore customer, “You have to read this book!” -- I only make suggestions or offer ideas -- so I do not intend to guilt-trip anyone into buying or giving Christmas presents. Whether or not one celebrates this holiday or any other, giving presents in the U.S. is, like so many other decisions in this freedom-loving country, an individual choice. Neither am I going to go all religious here (wouldn’t that be inappropriate?!) and dwell on the Infant as God’s gift or the gifts the wise men brought to the Infant, because the truth is that for centuries even Christians did not celebrate Christmas or exchange gifts. Is Dickens responsible for kicking off the holiday we all know today as “traditional”? Who knows, and what does it matter? Philosopher I may be, but there are some things I don’t want to argue about, and Christmas is one of them. 

And just as I will not guilt-trip anyone into giving gifts, neither do I intend to let anyone guilt-trip me into abstaining from gift-giving. I love that part of Christmas! I love looking for, thinking about, finding, selecting, buying, making, planning, wrapping and giving gifts for Christmas! It is a big part of my holiday joy. No colorfully wrapped packages? How sad! Maybe someday I will be an old lady in a nursing home, hunched up in a rocking chair and unable to indulge myself in what is, for me, a very modest seasonal orgy, but until then I’m not giving it up! 

For now, though, all the wrapped gifts have been unwrapped to exclamations of delight, bright bags and tissue are put away for another year, socks and tee shirts tucked into drawers, and soon it will be time to take down the ornaments and stow those in cupboards and closets, time to unplug and remove lights from the cabin windows. — But no, maybe I’ll leave those lights up a while longer. They are such tiny lights, such brave little lights, after all, and we do need our courage and indications of each other’s loving presence as we go into another new year, don’t we? So with that in mind, here is my wish for family and friends and everyone in the world, known to me or unknown: 

Amid the challenges and struggles that another year will certainly bring, may we find also hours and days of joy and gratitude and love, and may we return again and again to a calm center of peace. 

Happy new year, one and all!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

We Experience Different Worlds!

Saturday was a wild day of cold and wind and snow here in the mountains! Temperature hovered near the freezing mark all day, but the wind gave Willcox a “feels like” of 24 degrees, so you can just imagine how much colder it was here at our elevation. My walk to the mailbox with Sarah was quite an expedition, so when the Artist wanted to drive into town around midday, I almost stayed home. Once we got out on the highway, only a mile or so from the cabin, I was very glad I hadn’t missed the larger day! 

There was sunshine down below but none back in the mountains when we returned to the cabin. We are in another world up here. It may be raining in Willcox, but that can easily be snow in Dos Cabezas and above.

Tough day for LBBs (little brown birds)

Later we drove again to Willcox, through the dark, into swirling snow -- oh, what a day! You may remember that back in February of 2015 we were part of an audience of six people (including the manager) in the Willcox Historic Theatre for a screen viewing of the Opera of the Bastille, from Paris, performing “The Marriage of Figaro,” and how absolutely transported I was by that show. Well, last night we were practically the King and Queen, the only two viewers (in the much smaller Studio 128), given our own private showing of Peter Wright’s 1984 “Nutcracker,” performed by the Royal Ballet in the London Opera House. It was absolutely magnificent! Every moment was stunningly beautiful. What a great Christmas gift, one I will never forget — well, until I forget my own name, anyway.

There had been a large group for the afternoon show, so you should not get the impression that we were the only people in Willcox to see and appreciate the show. There had also been a Friday afternoon show. Maybe everyone who wanted to attend had already been to the show, or maybe the storm gave otherwise eager viewers second thoughts.

But here’s the thing: While I know it would be a thrilling and unforgettable experience to attend the opera in Paris or the ballet in London, there is also something magical and moving about seeing these performances in a little old theatre in a cow town in southern Arizona, being transported to Paris or London and from there into the story of the opera or ballet, and coming out again afterward into the quiet, dark, high desert night. No crowds, no traffic, just dark stillness, except for brightly colored holiday lights in Railroad Park. Both times the whole experience felt so unlikely — and last night, I thought, it felt as unlikely as the “Nutcracker” story itself, as if we ourselves, like the young girl in the ballet, had been transported into a fantasy world.

Then this morning the sun came up over the mountain and lit the snowy ground, flooding the cabin with light. Birds clustered around the suet feeder. Another winter storm is past. Was it “only a dream”?

Friday, December 27, 2019

“Toujours gai” -- and Snow at Last!

Friday morning surprise
archy seeks to vary his diet
I’d been up since six o’clock, smiling over Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, the antics of two transmigrated souls, one formerly a free verse poet, the other Cleopatra, now embodied respectively in the forms of a cockroach and an alley cat. The stories come directly from archy, still a poet but now also a necessarily resourceful little cockroach who can only pound out his adventures and reflections by jumping on one typewriter key at a time, landing on his head with all the force of his little body. Unable to work the shift key, he makes do without capital letters and punctuation.
boss i am disappointed in 
some of your readers they 
are always asking how does 
archy work the shift so as to get a 
new line or how does archy do 
this or do that they 
are always interested in technical 
details when the main question is 
whether the stuff is  
literature or not
Now inhabiting a cockroach’s body, archy has a new view of life: i see things from the under side now

But it is mehitabel the cat who so often steals the show. While protesting that she is “always a lady” and “toujours gai,” mehitabel’s amorous adventures take place within a perilous life of want and near-starvation, and she is not above tearing the ear off some tomcat who promises her luxury and then fails to stand and deliver. Neither do periodic litters of kittens cramp mehitabel’s style for long. She knows she will end on a garbage scow, but until then,
i never sing blue 
wotthehell bill 
believe me you 
i never sing blue 
there s a dance or two 
in the old dame still 
i never sing blue  
wotthehell bill

Underneath the humor and courage of these entertaining characters is the pathos of life in the America of World War I, Prohibition, the stock market crash, and subsequent Great Depression. In “pity the poor spiders,” archy is saddened by roach exterminators and shares the sad tale of a spider who bitterly lament the advent of flyswatters:
curses on these here swatters 
what kills off all the flies 
for me and my little daughters 
unless we eats we dies
The mother spider’s mate, “lured off by a centipede,”  made no excuses for abandoning his family but said only as he left them, “tis wrong but i ll get a feed.”

The cockroach makes do with apple parings left in the newspaperman’s wastebasket but pleads for “a crumb of bread” sometime, while mehitabel’s adventures are as much about food as art or love. In one particularly haunting piece the cat, now with one frozen, crippled paw and nowhere warm to sleep, must dance all night.
whirl mehitabel whirland 
show your shadow how  
tonight it s dance with the bloody moon 
tomorrow the garbage scow  
whirl mehitabel whirl 
leap shadow leap 
you gotta dance till the sun comes up 
for you got no place to sleep
mehitabel remains "toujours gai"

I can’t help wondering if the social commentary aspect reached many comfortable, well-fed readers at the time these pieces first appeared. Illustrations by George Herriman, the creator of “Krazy Kat,” undoubtedly contributed to the reception of archy and mehitabel as comic characters — which, of course, they are, and that implies no contradiction.

As I said at the beginning, though, I was up early, reading, while darkness still surrounded the cabin, and when I finished my book and looked out the windows, what a surprise! We’d only been expecting a rainy day and maybe some snow up on the peaks. Instead, peaks are hidden from view, and snow blankets every twig. Snow is all around us.

wotthehell - as mehitabel would say. archy would add, in words rather than sign, exclamation mark

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Coyote Christmas

Contrary to the mournful western ballads, coyotes seldom howl; rather they emit variously pitched yaps and yips, so that a single coyote has the knack of sounding like several. They are especially vocal during bright moonlight nights, though sometimes we hear them in the late afternoon and early morning. Their shrill, excited clamor electrifyingly animates the desert, bringing indoors a sense of its tingling wildness. It is an eerie sound, which turns the night into a restless and precarious place and sharpens one’s feeling of safety behind closed doors. - Ann Woodin, Home Is the Desert

Back in January of 2015, almost five years ago, on our first night in a rented ghost town cabin in the high desert of southeast Arizona, we heard coyotes, and the sound, so like night sounds around our old northern Michigan farmhouse, made us feel right at home. There in the dark of a strange, new place, we smiled to hear coyotes. 

Much, much, much less welcome is the sound of one or more javelinas! Probably not really bent on mischief (as it certainly seems!), javelinas combine large size, very poor eyesight, and long tusks with terrifying voices, so when they come foraging in the middle of the night for whatever they can find — we have no garden for them, but once they managed to get into the shed where we keep our garbage, pushing open the metal doors we had unwisely (a mistake never repeated) left unlocked — the noise they make is blood-curdling. Give me coyotes any night! So far this winter, the season barely underway, we have had only a single javelina come calling, and it clattered and stumbled away in haste when met by the Artist’s yells to “Get out of here!”

Who, me? Not me?!
Last year we heard no coyotes and were uneasy. Had they moved away? Been killed? Ann Wooden wrote in 1964 that while the coyote was
… still considered a pest by the chicken farmer and the sheepman, … most ranchers are now beginning to realize that coyotes are beneficial, keeping the rabbit and rodent population under control, and the wiser of them encourage the coyote rather than shoot him. 

One of our neighbors speculates that coyotes become quieter when they realize that “singing isn't workin' for 'em.” We have always thought the chorus came after the kill, rather than before, but whatever the timing, our wild canine neighbors are back again in full voice this year, and we are happy to hear them. We hear them in the evening, in the night, before sunrise, and sometimes, less often, during daylight hours.

Cottontail rabbits no doubt have different feelings when coyotes sing, but even with all the coyote chorus performances, there still seem to be plenty of rabbits around. And now, on Christmas Day, after a rainy Christmas Eve day, the sun is back. Yesterday’s rain on the high desert was snow at higher elevations. Our mountain was snow-covered, though I have photographs only on my phone, as camera battery needed recharging.

Snow on the mountains…sunshine in the windows...birds at the feeder…rabbits in the yard…coyotes nearby. 

Merry Coyote Christmas!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Winter Is — Here? Now? Is It?

Morning cattle
For more than a week now, when I walk out the cabin door every morning with my dog, I revel in the sunshine and the quiet peace that surrounds me like a comforting shawl around my shoulders (until neighbor dogs get to barking, and that’s a kind of comfort, too), and every day I marvel at the fact that it isn’t winter yet. That’s how it has seemed to me, anyway, coming from wintry, cold, very snowy Michigan. Here in the high desert there is still foliage on the trees, and while the temperature goes down to maybe 20 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, it’s back up in the 40s, 50s or even 60s by the next afternoon. Frost appears on the ground every morning, true. But unless a hard, bitter wind is blowing, the morning air doesn’t feel all that cold — not when the sky is clear and bright with sunshine.

last week 
The giant cottonwood in Railroad Park in Willcox is one of my favorite trees, one I never fail to admire every time we drive across the tracks. Maybe its leaves are not quite as brightly gold as they were last week (but then, I photographed the tree from a different direction, with the light falling on it differently, too), but at least the wind hasn’t blown those leaves all off and away yet. Many hold fast.

Netleaf hackberry
Closer to home, here in Dos Cabezas, the tree species and individuals I watch most closely to see how long they will hold their leaves are the netleaf hackberry trees. Some still have green leaves, others’ leaves are shriveled and brown, and most are thick with red berries. In fact, trees with only a few brown leaves left have a reddish tinge when seen from a distance, so thick with berries are their branches. 

green leaves, red berries
brown leaves, red berries
What evolutionary advantage, I wonder, do these trees achieve by having such a incredibly thick, snarled tangle of branches? Netleaf hackberry is not a conventionally “lovely” tree, and yet it is ubiquitous here, so it must be well adapted to the climate and terrain. Many birds and other wildlife enjoy its berries, and Native Americans used berries, wood, and bark in a variety of ways. It belongs here, and the more familiar it becomes to me, the fonder I become of it.

As for the mesquites, some of them are bare, and green leaves cling to others. What is it that can make that difference? It isn’t whether the plants are growing down in the wash or up on higher ground, because both bare and still-leafy specimens are found in both high and low places. 

Sarah sniffs tips of green-leafed mesquite branches
We've got mail!
Today is the official beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, despite my impression of lingering autumn. Well, let winter come. Our propane heater is working, we had a delivery of fuel the other day, we have plenty of warm clothes, cozy throws and comforters, and shelves full of books for evenings at home. (I don’t write this in smug, self-complacency but in gratitude.) During our bedtime reading aloud, we have reached the part of Julia Child’s story when her correspondence began with Avis DeVoto. I love the letters those two wrote to each other, and I remember when a friend in Australia whom I’ve never met face to face — as Julia never met Avis in person for I don’t remember how long — was reading the letters at the same time I was. Reading and exchanging our views about Avis and Julia’s letters, their personalities and expressions and activities, formed much of the foundation of Kathy’s and my initial correspondence.

Oh, books and letters, letters and books! Winter is such a perfect time for both! And how well they go together! Let winter come. The snow was lovely here in Dos Cabezas last winter, but as of the present winter solstice, snow has yet to arrive.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Train Times, Book Times

The Southwest is still very much train country. The photograph above shows an engine (pulling a long line of freight cars) crossing Ocotillo Avenue in Benson, Arizona. There is a passenger train that stops in Benson, also, but while it races through Willcox, it does not stop there. I wish it did.

When I was growing up, ours was very much a train family. My grandfather was a “hogger” (engine driver) on the Pennsylvania Railroad, first with a steam engine, later with diesel. Two of his brothers were conductors. After World War II, my father’s first job, with his bachelor of science in civil engineering, was as head of a survey crew for the Milwaukee Road. That explains why I was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota. 

Before my third birthday, my father took a job with the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern Railway in Joliet, Illinois. The EJ&E ran only freight, no passenger trains, but for some reason EJ&E employees had discounts on passenger lines — 50% off for adults and children over 12, with children under 12 riding free. That was coach, of course, so we could either sleep sitting up in our seats or pay full price for private space — “roomettes,” or whatever. And we paid full price for our meals in the dining car, too.

(I am old enough to remember — this is a scary realization! tell me you can’t believe it! — one trip where we rode in one of those old sleeper cars you see in movies, with top and bottom bunk beds on either side of a center aisle and only curtains for privacy. We changed into pj’s behind the curtains. Really!) 

Recently I picked up two books written for young people. Rod’s Dog, by Jean Bailey, published in 1954, begins with twelve-year-old Rodney Colwill (who hates being called Rodney) riding a train from Chicago to Kansas to live with his uncle and aunt for a year while his mother and engineer father are away on a job his father has in South America. Rod is unhappy about leaving his friends, his “gang,” in the city, so unhappy he can’t even respond to the conductor’s friendliness or enjoy the view from the train windows.

I Am Lavina Cummings, by Susan Lowell, is a historical novel. It is 1905, and Lavina, ten years old, has grown up on a ranch in southern Arizona. Lavina loves the ranch. Being Lavina of the Bosque Ranch is her identity. But her mother has died, and her father feels she is more likely to learn to be a “lady” if raised by her aunt in Santa Cruz, California, rather growing up wild on the ranch with her father and three brothers. She is adept at working cows on her pony, Chum, and is not afraid of rattlesnakes. But once on the train, she is excited by the passing scenery and sights.

In each story, the child is traveling by train alone. (In a story set today, the child would undoubtedly be traveling by air.) Rod is going from city to country (in the middle of the 20th century), Lavina from country to city (at the dawn of the 20th century). My sympathies at first were all with Lavina. I mean, she had to leave her pony! Heartbreak! But Lavina was brave and excited and curious about what lay ahead. I am not very far into the story yet....

It took Rod much longer (I finished his story this morning) to adapt to the changes in his life. Eventually, however, he made peace with country life. What helped enormously — and here my sympathy was all with him — was a little black dog! And that certainly makes sense!

(dog story, not train story)
Neither of these is really a train story, though, and that makes me wonder just how many books there are with stories that stay right on the train. Right away I think of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, of course. Then there is Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar; The Old Patagonian Express; and Riding the Iron Rooster, a wonderful travel book about train travel through China. Also, last year I read what has been so far my favorite book of Mexican history, with history incorporated into what is also a travel book, the marvelous Yesterday’s Train: A Rail Odyssey Through Mexican History, by Terry Pindell, with Lourdes Ramirez Mallis. There must be more fiction set on trains, though, no? Can anyone think of novels with train settings, either passenger trains or hobos riding boxcars? I do not count The Boxcar Children, because their boxcar was no longer attached to a train when they moved into it.

Here is a sweet little something in the back of the hardcover copy of Rod’s Dog that other bibliophiles and amateurs (lovers) of old books will recognize. The tiny, unobtrusive bookstore sticker tells where this book was originally purchased new. Lancaster, Pennsylvania! And somehow it found its way to Willcox, Arizona! Seeing it, my bookselling idea for today is that it may be time for independent bookstores to bring back these stickers. I’m thinking that with growing enthusiasm for indies (the personal and local experience over the impersonal, online purchase), bookstore customers might appreciate a reminder of where they had found each of their books and which bookstores they  had supported with their custom. The visibility of the bookstores themselves would last longer in memory, too.

It’s a small idea, and I am not a marketing consultant, but I wonder if other booksellers think this could catch on.