Sunday, October 24, 2010

Falloween Nights

I grew up with a mother who, on Halloween nights, occasionally made us sit in the dark basement while she prayed in tongues and the doorbell rang with trick-or-treaters who wouldn’t be getting any treats from our house. Her idea, I think, was to communicate her disapproval of Halloween by not participating in what she saw as a demonic, devil worshipping ritual. Every year I heard stories of satanic ritual human sacrifice, blood-thirsty covens, and witches casting spells in the deepest night. To combat the forces of evil at work in the world, she prayed in her otherworldly language and kept my brother and me cloaked in the darkened house, as if to protect our spirits from the evil that floated by outside the door. But other years, my mother seemed less threatened, and she adopted a proactive attitude toward the trick-or-treaters. Seeing as how Halloween was a prime opportunity for evangelism, she handed out pencils and stickers on which the words Jesus Loves You smiled up at the recipients.

I have only one memory of trick-or-treating as a child—probably about the age of five, before my mother developed her stance against the holiday. I dressed up as an angel, gold pipe-cleaner halo circled about my head. From there, the years ticked by void of trick-or-treating, and by the time I was 23 and pregnant with Oldest, I felt seriously deprived. I needed to make some magic happen—better late than never—so I dressed up as Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and, guitar case in hand, paraded around our neighborhood with friends who were also too old for trick-or-treating.

Aside from the ever surfacing awkwardness of being a pregnant 23-year-old dressed as a pussycat-slash-rock star who finagled free candy from elderly residents in the neighborhood, trick-or-treating was all I hoped it’d be. Candy. Lots of it. Free. Mine.

I have to admit, though, that since then I’ve become rather grinchy about Halloween. I can’t say that I’ve adored the holiday in its total Halloweeny essence (this dislike having nothing to do with the Halloween religious hysteria of my childhood). Pumpkins, yes. Dress up, okay. Candy, not so much (!) anymore since Fair Trade labeling and Food, Inc. And the elaborately designed graveyard markers in my neighbor’s front yard don’t really float my boat. Nor do the mock lynchings in the yard on Friendship Street. And the historic old barn on the Scott Blvd extension, the one that gleams rustic red in the October sun, is desecrated by a petroleum-based 8-foot-in-diameter black-and-blue spider and scarecrow bodies with sunken eye sockets and shriveled-up gray heads. Plastic skeletons are tethered to the split-rail fence and another faux corpse hangs by the head from the peak of the barn’s roof.

When Oldest was in preschool, she was scared by all the songs about witches’ brew and ghosts and boo and monsters. And I wanted to cover her eyes and her ears when we set out from the house anytime between October 1 and mid November.  

I’m a bit standoffish when it comes to most commercialized and holiday-themed lawn décor, and you won’t find an inflatable reindeer/Santa/Easter bunny/leprechaun in my front lawn. Ever. You won’t even find a flag on the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day (not that I don’t value our freedom or our veterans). However, none of those put me in a foul mood the way the sight of that beautiful barn swimming in all that deathly plastic crap does. Call me prudish, innocent, naïve, “too good” (as Jane Austen’s Lizzie calls her sister Jane). I'll take whatever label you want to dole out.  I just can't get behind all that death.

"Happy Halloween!" strangers at the grocery store sing out to my children and Oldest fires right back, "We don't celebrate Halloween" in her precocious, smart, 8-year-old way.  My face flushes and I duck my head away from these strangers who size me up, likely wondering how I could deprive my children of  the likes of the holiday.  I stutter and sometimes explain our alternate activities, what Oldest has begun calling Falloween: a kick-ass treasure hunt with clues and suspense and little gifts along the way, culminating at Grandpa's house for more (and better) gifts, apple cider, and oatmeal cookies. Sometimes we cut apart pumpkins, scooping their inner fibrous centers out onto cookie sheets and roasting the seeds.   Occasionally, the girls look longingly at the trick-or-treaters, but other times they're so busy with the fun of our hunt, giggling at the clues we've rhymed and written up, that they just don't care. 

Hopefully they won't ever feel deprived to the point that impending motherhood will create the need to re-enact childhood lost. If I ever see Middle or Oldest, round-bellied and wearing cat ears on Halloween night, I guess I'll have my answer.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Raven Street Notes # 2


This week, I am thankful for fall weather and leaves and that Oldest and Middle are big enough now to rake and not only rake, but actually get the leaves curbside where the city’s leaf vacuuming machine will suck them up. I’m thankful for the Tiny and how she smiles at me almost every time she sees me anew, and then some, and how she responds to my voice and does this little laughy cry that sounds like heh heh heh heh when she wants to get some milk.

I’m also thankful for good friends—one A.B.G. who spent time with me last night—and good conversations.


This morning, on my way out the door, Oldest sized me up and with a quizzical expression on her face asked, “Did you already get ready for the day?”


I’m wondering if I have some serious work to do in the Department of Appearances, Social.


Two years ago this fall, I was miserable for a good reason. My brother had died. I didn’t know how to put together all the pieces of myself that seemed to have fallen apart. Even though I love fall, I think of Henry at this time of year simply because of the association of seasons, simply because that when, two years ago, the leaves were falling off the silver maples in the front yard, I stood at the window and cried.

There were many people who condoled, sent cards, visited and cried with me. One was a woman in her forties named Ellen. She was Oldest and Middle’s preschool teacher. She had a master’s degree in education yet chose to spend her time with 3- and 4-year-olds making very little money because she loved kids that much. She was smart and she was nurturing. When she heard somehow that Henry had died, she sent me a card and in it she told me how she’d lost one brother in childhood, another to the attacks of on the World Trade Center. She was part of the constellation of brotherless people I was beginning to map out in my life, and she and I struck up more conversation, more emails, and I found comfort in knowing there was a person like Ellen out in the world—someone who’s integrated loss and grief and continued on to parent her own children well, to give back to the community in life-affirming ways. Since then she’s kept tabs on Oldest and Middle, and came to visit when Tiny was born, bearing gifts for all three children.

On Tuesday of this week I got a call that Ellen had died. No one knows why. She didn’t come to the preschool and she didn’t pick up her own daughters, elementary- and high-school-aged, after school. She was found at home, in bed. Today, I went to her memorial service and found it nearly impossible to tolerate the fact that her daughters have lost their amazing, devoted mother. I cried for them and prayed that these little chickies would somehow be strengthened to move and grow into the women they were already on their way to becoming—strong, life-affirming, and joyful—before their mother slipped away.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bidding Adieu to Mrs. Bennett (thoughts on church)

I grew up attending lots and lots of charismaticky church services. By the time I was 8 years old I was used to sitting around with coloring books in hotel all-purpose rooms while grown-ups whooped and hollered under fluorescent lighting during church services. They spoke in tongues, screamed at demons, fell down on the floor, shook, wept, roared, and ran in circles around the building.

On into my teens, I was accustomed to these sorts of manifestations of the faith, yet knew that a church service such as what I've described was the sort of place that would utterly alienate most of my friends. Eventually, even I felt alienated.

It's not that I didn't believe God was present in the midst of all of the ruckus-y parts of charismatic church life. I think God is present everywhere and moves through a multitude of cultural expressions. I believe God can be found in the seemingly foolish, the seemingly unwise. I often found God in the midst of the ruckus, and sometimes I was part of that ruckus. Most importantly, I believed that what mattered most was the content and meaning, not necessarily the form.

But sometimes the ruckus had little discernible meaning behind it. Charismatic culture was often a little too much like Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennett (a la the A&E version of Pride and Predjudice). Mrs. Bennett's family loved her and were loyal, but there was no reasoning with her hysteria. Her children scrambled desperately to cover over the shame of their mother's rudeness, impolitic judgments, and her almost theatrical episodes of "nerves."

This week I went to a conference with a line-up of speakers from all over the world. I was excited to hear one in particular, who always, in my estimation demonstrates great intellect coupled with great faith. But the other speakers, who I had not heard of nor heard speak before, were quite different, and shockingly so. For no discernible good reason, one of them began screaming a prayer that lasted 15 minutes and made the Tiny look quite nervous. While the speaker screamed, he encouraged others to do likewise. Some people in the room seemed excited by all this commotion, energized even. But I just felt tired. There were other instances like this at the conference, too tedious to detail at length. As I backed away slowly from the room full of shouting pastors and other church leaders, I realized how little tolerance I have for Mrs. Bennett these days. I don't want to sit at her bedside and make sense of her hysteria. I don't want to play audience to her drama or find myself in the situation of having to explain or defend her at all.  She makes everything simply too complicated.

But I feel a as if I've experienced a death--the death of a very distant great-aunt. Old Aunt Bennet, who I haven't visited in so very long, has passed on from the accumulated eras of my life.  And I bid her adieu with a heart full of small regrets. I was not successful at making her make sense. Or of making sense of her for myself.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Bucolic Plague (a readerly response)

The answer to why we bought the Beekman could fill the entire paper. Because we wanted a place to get away from the city. Because we wanted to grow our own food. Because the place looks like it belongs on the cover of a magazine, and we wanted a life that looked like the cover of a magazine. Because no one else in the area had the means to take care of such a high-maintenance historic building, and it seemed like a generous task to take on. Because I’m turning forty next year and wanted something to show for it. Because we’re vain, kindhearted, ambitious, shallow, deep, humble, trendy, old-fashioned, rich, poor, proud, and vulnerable. Those are merely the beginning of the reasons we bought the Beekman.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner Brent are disenchanted New Yorkers. Purcell, a former-drag- queen-turned-advertising-exec, and Brent, a trained medical doctor who works on staff at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as her resident expert in health and wellness, stumble upon the two-hundred-year-old Beekman Mansion during one of their weekend countryside excursions. Enamored by the mansion’s history and charm and the draw of a country life, the men find themselves suddenly caught between their New York City world and the world of Sharon Springs, where they experiment with raising chickens and goats and start their own vegetable garden. The financial demands of the mansion’s upkeep, however, grow increasingly urgent, and the men find themselves hardly able to keep up with basic farm maintenance, even with the hired help of local Farmer John.

At Christmas time, a stroke of genius inspires the men to gift Martha Stewart with homemade goat’s milk soap, straight from the Beekman farm goats. Martha loves it so much that she invites Brent and the goats on her show, just as the men are feverishly strategizing ways to save themselves from financial ruin. Such exposure ignites a slew of goat milk orders, which provides a slow trickle of revenue to the partners, and spurs them to launch a web site featuring various aspects of farming life, from gardening to recipes to pie baking. It’s not enough, however, and as the recession worsens and both men lose their jobs in the city, the story becomes the struggle to maintain their hold on the mansion and their relationship with one another.

The Bucolic Plague is a charmer that pulled me in with its descriptions of the historic Beekman Crypt; the colorful residents of Sharon Springs; Josh’s attempts at heirloom vegetable gardening; and the insider scoop on Martha Stewart, the comical foil against whom Josh and Brent judge their own domestic and bucolic adventures. And while the author’s given lines of dialogue are the best in every conversation and witty, perhaps, to a suspcious degree, I came to care about the pair and found myself rooting for their success.  If you like memoir with long subtitles (I do!), memoirs that tell you how somebody got from point A to point B (me too), or memoirs that wouldn’t exist without the book advances that funded the author’s point-A-to-point-B experience (sometimes), you’d probably enjoy this book. It’s a little bit The Year of Living Biblically. A little bit Eat, Pray, Love. And it’s definitely Animal, Vegetable, Miracle meets what Kilmer-Purcell calls “farmer drag.”