Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

_________________

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Dark and Light: Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa

Light yellow leaves on a dark path on a gray day in the forest.
Light leaves in a dark forest. Kottenforst, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

This morning the day felt heavy for the first time this summer. The clouds are low and gray and the day looks dim.

But I went for a walk in the forest just now. There the light is trapped between the dark sky and the ground. Every dead leaf, blue flower, patch of moss and white stone glows with reflected light. Maybe there are more shadows, but everything stands out. The leaves on the trees are dark green and flat in this light, but the wheat-colored grass and the earth underfoot, that shines.

Hot cocoa is on the stove and I’m waiting for the foamy milk to rise to the top in the milk frother.

Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa
(Adapted from THE FANNIE FARMER COOKBOOK, 12th ed. Revised by Marion Cunningham with Jeri Laber. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.)
4 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 Tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
2 Cups milk
Vanilla

Foamed milk
2 Cups milk

Makes 3 giant cups of cocoa and milk or 6 small ones.

Mix cocoa, sugar, and salt with 1/2 Cup water in a small saucepan and boil gently for 2 minutes. Then add 2 Cups of milk and bring gently to boil. Add vanilla and pour into cups.

Pour 2 Cups of milk into the milk frother and heat gently. [A metal frother can go right on the stove, a glass one (no metal!) can be microwaved.] When a ring of bubbles form around the rim, the milk is hot enough to froth.

To froth the milk, hold the handheld frother right at the surface. It’s going to splatter, so pick a deep container.

Take the pump type frother off the heat, hold the finger grip on the lid and pump it up and down 10 or 12 times. Let stand until the foam collects itself at the top. Lift off, pour some liquid milk into your cocoa to taste and tilt the white foam onto its dark surface. Dark can be okay too.

Add a friend and a cookie for each and you have Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa. Enjoy!

 

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Impossible things to try before breakfast: Bicycle Gymnasts and JINX’S MAGIC

Two gymnasts riding the same bike. One standing on 1 leg with 1 arm in the air.
Things you never knew were possible on a bike. © Jan Decher, 2015.

What makes us decide to try impossible things? A thing can call to us, but we still don’t try it. Some of it must be inborn and some must be the recognition that a thing is possible.

In Crossing Unmarked Snow, William Stafford captures the “inborn” part beautifully.

The things you do not have to say make you rich. Saying things you do not have to say weakens your talk. Hearing things you do not need to hear dulls your hearing. And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are why you are in the world.

This weekend, I went to a summer festival for the local YMCA. Three bicycle gymnasts put on a show. Most of what we saw looked impossible. How do you learn to stand (on feet or hands!) on bike handlebars while the bike circles the floor? A bicycle pivots at the handlebars. We’re talking acrobatics with traveling scissors. Generosity was so evident. The performance was free and stellar: concentration, coordination among the riders, and now I can’t even remember if there was music. I was too busy clapping.

It’s so miraculous when something impossible works. Ice skaters, musicians, dancers, and others practice and practice, but when the performance comes, it’s still miraculous. My husband said afterwards: “They have so much CONTROL over their bodies.”

The encore was a fleet of smaller bikes for kids 6-12 to try out. Little kids lined up right away. Older kids looked on regretfully from the sidelines.

I still couldn’t imagine myself doing a handstand on a moving bike, so I went to help at the used book stand. A customer handed me a stack of books and beamed.

“How much work goes into writing a book?” She smiled, shaking her head. “I can’t even imagine.”

Since I’ve been writing fiction for a long time now, I can imagine that very easily. It looks impossible when you see only the finished product. But with consistent work, a miraculous fragment or two becomes less rare.

So much so, that the audience continually raises the bar. “We’ve seen that already.” Once you’ve proved that something can be done, nothing is the same. If you want to amaze people again, you have to create something else.

This weekend, I read JINX’S MAGIC and marveled over author Sage Blackwood’s performance. I was completely immersed in the story until the very end. Not an easy feat in a sequel.

Jinx’s learning style made me think of the bicycle gymnasts. He learns magic by climbing inside a spell and seeing how it works.

The bicycle gymnasts pitted their muscle control, balance, and ability to work together against gravity, acceleration, and painful falls. They kept coming up with new twists and combinations until you were sure they were going to fall off.

What kept me reading in JINX’S MAGIC was the tension between the characters. Were they on Jinx’s side or not? Would they support him at the critical moment or let him fall? I wondered if Jinx would make the right choices for his own life and for the Urwald. It makes me want to climb into the novel and take it apart so I can see how it works.

Author Joanna Penn commented that one of her goals is to show society that it’s possible to make a living with art.

Both JINX’S MAGIC and the bicycle gymnasts showed me unexpected possibilities. You have to see that something is possible before you start walking down that road to a new adventure. It doesn’t even have to be very possible. Just imaginable.

 

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