Book of Marvels
Monday, October 23, 2006
October Snow

Not just snow, but all sorts of extreme precipitation-- snow and then hail and then pounding rain and then snow again and then hail again. I was making my way to my car with an armload of drycleaning when the latter hail hit. It was like thousands of people shooting at me with little white BBs.

Snow in October makes me anxious (as it does the guys holding up my bird bath-- look at them scowl). The last time it snowed significantly in October was about eight years ago. It was a disaster.

It started much more decorously than today's snow. My husband and I were having lunch in a restaurant, bending into our hamburgers or whatever. And someone said, "Look!" Outside, the most astounding snow was falling-- huge things that couldn't really be called flakes. More like a battalion of flying saucers. Or large, slow-moving magnolia blossoms from a cosmic tree. Or billions of little white umbrellas turned upside down. The snow looked like all sorts of things other than snow, and it was already weird enough to get snow in October. Even in Cleveland.

The magnolia-blossom snow turned into heavier, faster snow and it kept falling, falling, falling for hours. And since it was only October and all the leaves were still on the trees, the snow stuck to the branches-- until they all started snapping and crashing to the ground. We lost a bridal veil shrub and a couple of lilacs; the weight of the snow just ripped them apart. But whole trees split and fell elsewhere, yanking down power lines all over town. We didn't have it so badly at my house, where the power was off for about a day. We made a big fire in the fireplace and put mattresses on the floor and read by candlelight-- it reminded us of a fun camping trip a few years earlier. The people whose power was off for four or five days didn't have as much fun.

So when it snows early like this, I go outside with an old hockey stick and bat the snow off the Japanese maple by the front door. And I get a little more nervous about the weather, the world, even the war-- you know how all those concerns can play off each other. Posted by Picasa
Monday, October 16, 2006
Turning a Corner

That's what we were doing, turning a corner, trying to avoid yet another Kabul traffic jam, when we came upon a street filled with all these lovely girls in white scarves. "What are they doing?" I asked Debbie.

"Going to school," she said, as if this were an ordinary thing.

But of course, it's still not ordinary in Afghanistan. Girls are allowed to go to school again, but only some of them, only in some areas of the country. I just read a report saying that 1.2 million primary-school-age girls are not going to school. And I've read plenty of reports of girls schools out in rural areas being bombed, and of principals of girls schools being executed.

I had to deepen my statistical knowledge of women in Afghanistan recently because a local private girls school asked me to speak at at their symposium on education. They wanted me to talk about the Kabul Beauty School and about what I learned when I stayed there to help Debbie Rodriguez work on her book. I had plenty of stories about the women who have come through the school--heartwrenching stories of their lives in wartime, under the Taliban, as refugees, and now-- in these still difficult days. But I didn't know a lot of the numbers, not by heart, so I spent a day going through articles and reports that I get in a daily email.

It's such a tough country for women.

Between 60-80 percent of marriages are forced on the women, often to settle feuds or repay debts.

About 57% of the girls are married before the age of 16, even though 16 is the legal age.

Hundreds of women set themselves on fire every year in despair over terrible marriages. Many are sent to prison because they try to escape their husbands some other way.

85% of Afghan women are illiterate. The number of girls going to school is half that of boys.

And then there was this article that said, "By the end of the year at least 30 percent of seats on all public buses in Afghanistan will be reserved for women under a United Nations-backed programme launched in a country where drivers now speed past stops if only women are waiting while men refuse to give up seats for women..."

They had to legislate women's right to a seat on the bus. It's so awful that it's almost funny, but of course, it's not funny.

I've come to know several Afghan-American women-- mostly online, a few in person--who are back in Afghanistan working on various programs to try to salvage their country. They're tough, tenacious, amazing women. I guess they have to be. Posted by Picasa
Sunday, October 08, 2006
White Farms

You have to work a little to see the photograph I intended here. First, imagine long rope lines hung with sheets and clothes in two palettes--fluttery pastels of pink, green and blue bracketed by somber navies, browns and blacks. Imagine next an amazing bounty of birdhouses on tall poles, maybe ten of them, white like the house and the other farm buildings, big as breadboxes for giants, each with about twenty neat round openings for the birds. Finally, imagine a much more lavish garden planted near the road-- imagine it topped with brilliant red cockscombs, nearly iridescent in the bright October light.

We passed the perfect picture dozens of times on our weekend into unglaciated Ohio, as we drove along the narrow county roads through Ohio''s Amish country. There was always a reason I couldn't photograph the perfect farm. I didn't want to pull my camera out because there were people there, Amish people, in their buggies or behind their plows or on their bicycles. I didn't want them to think I was trying to photograph them--you know, as if they're kittens, so cute in their straw hats and white bonnets that people like me can't resist leaning out their car windows and cooing; as if they're so quaint with their big-shouldered draft horses and aversion to zippers that they're not even going to know what a camera is. Anyone who thinks the Amish are childishly quaint should stop at the Amish Flea Market in Walnut Creek, Ohio. This is a county fair-sized spread of buildings containing miles of the worst kitch I've ever seen. I think those Amish merchants must be keeping half of China working.

But away from the monster flea market and some of the other monster Amish-themed tourist attractions in Holmes County--according to a brochure, the largest continuous Amish community in the country--there are still the Amish farmlands. And what farms they are! There's almost nothing I love more than a beautiful, well-tended farm, and I don't think we passed one that didn't send me into rapture. There is something almost sacred about applying that much care to the ordinary--each gleaming white fence as if it had just been scrubbed, each dry leaf and spent blossom patiently plucked away.

We hadn't really intended this driving-around-aimlessly kind of weekend. Years ago, I wrote an article about one-day trips from Cleveland to places that offer some sort of educational experience. One of the places I wrote about was The White Oak Inn near Mount Vernon, a B&B where they had special weekends with naturalists who taught you to hunt wild mushrooms and archeologists who let guests help out with a dig on the White Oak grounds. I never got to go there myself, but always wanted to. So we finally went for my husband's birthday. It is much lovelier than its online pictures suggest and is perched just above one of the valleys now filled with corn, not the ancient waters that created it. This gives the impression of a golden river passing by, just beyond the trees. The archeological dig is finished, all covered up, but Ian the innkeeper told me that the researchers think the grounds were the site of an ancient flint knapping workshop. Farmers below still turn up the occasional blade when they plow. So, yeah, I spent a few hours pacing through the mud at the edge of the cornfield looking--aside from anything else, I have this magical thinking that my novel will sell if I find an arrowhead, as my main character does. And I'm always looking for that stuff anyway. I did find three pieces of flint, but none of them appear to be worked. And they're not the gorgeous rainbow flint from Flint Ridge, even though Ian's neighbors have found some.

I thought we'd spend most of our weekend riding bikes. Since my knee is still cranky, we rode around on tiny back roads and looked at farms instead. Every time we passed a buggy, the driver waved. We waved back. My husband loved this. I felt as if his beard was getting longer with every mile.

At one point, we stopped at an Amish general store to find something for lunch. There wasn't much food, although JD did find a bag of excessively sweet, generic M&Ms. Then we wandered around looking at the rest of the merchandise. There was a whole room devoted to fabrics, straw hats, bonnets and sturdy shoes. There were shelves of tools and cooking supplies and lots of what looked like spiritual novels featuring pretty Amish girls. Nothing we wanted. As I waited for JD to pay for the faux M's, I noticed a display selling cigarette lighters in the shape of small handguns.

Coming so soon after the recent shootings in that Amish schoolhouse, it gave me a chill. Posted by Picasa
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
The Beauty of Limited Vision

Most of my garden looks wretched these days. The hydrangea blossoms have turned beige--who wants that? Who even wants to say it? The monarda are covered with powdery mildew and the Alma Ploshke (or whatever) asters are disappointing for the twelfth year in a row. I never manage to cut them back severely enough earlier in the season at the required two times. Now, they're too tall and flop to the ground--as they always do. There are some small consolations. I will no longer disparage dahlias--I mean my own, not the astounding beauties at the farmers market. I grumbled about mine all year and pulled a few up, because they didn't seem to be doing anything but making big leaves. Now I see that one which escaped my fury by growing sideways behind a rose bush is emerging with some lovely big shiraz-colored blooms.

But for the most part, if I want to enjoy my garden, I have to look at the small spots where all is well. Here by the path to the front door, the false dragonhead have opened and intermingled with what I thought was an annual (now I'm hoping it's not) called Mona Lavender Plectranthus. As its tag claims, it has beautiful purple stems and leaf undersides--almost black in some lights--with deep lavender flowers. And it just looks great with the false dragonhead (how I love that name!) and has for over a week.

The news from outside my little world is so bad this week-- from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from the schools where wackos have been kiling kids. From the prisons on any ordinary day. The Plain Dealer ran an article this morning that made me weep about the tiny and intimate details that are recorded in logs of death row prisoners' final days. I suppose it's fine and natural and necessary to find consolation the small lovely details of my life--and on the whole, it's a good life--but I sometimes feel a little guilty taking pleasure anywhere when there are so many awful things going on.

Don't tell me that this comes from a Catholic upbringing! Guilt is catholic, not Catholic. Posted by Picasa

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