Son of Lemon Tree

Late yesterday afternoon, my friend Robert called.

He said, “Go look out your kitchen window.”

Being a dutiful person, I immediately went to the kitchen and saw the top of a green plant swaying back and forth as if wind were blowing it. But there was no wind, and when I went outside I saw Robert’s partner, Ron, kneeling under the window swishing a small lemon tree back and forth in front of the window. The tree was planted in an enormous round ceramic pot, one big enough to allow for a lot of root expansion, and the pot was balanced on a stack of mulch bags.

Ron and Robert were grinning like kids who had pulled off the best stunt in the world. Ron said, “We knew how much you enjoyed having the lemon tree to look at, so we got you another one. It’s a sweet lemon.”

Robert said, “It’s not very tall, so I’m going to build a wooden platform for the pot to sit on, and that will raise it.”

I was so touched by their kindness, and so thrilled to have a lemon tree again, that I just kept saying, “Oh, wow!” like an idiot.

I suspect that it will take a few years before the little tree has lemons, but butterflies will like it anyway, and soon it will be strong enough to support a curious squirrel. Every time I look at it I think of my friends’ kindness and of Ron crouched under the window moving the thing back and forth to simulate wind in its little branches, and that makes me smile. When it has out-grown its pot, maybe the danger of being killed by other people’s herbicides will be over. If the danger still exists, I guess we’ll get a bigger pot.

It’s great to have another lemon tree. It’s even greater to have good friends.

Lemon Trees and CDs

I just spent a lot of time on one of those tasks that make you realize you’re old and that the task itself is archaic. I organized my CD’s. They were a terrible mess, out of order, not in the right jewel cases, generally unavailable. It took me over an hour of work before the thought came tiptoeing into my mind that I rarely play a CD anyway because I use my radio linked to Pandora or Public Radio on my iPhone.

I still had an untitled CD left over, so I inserted it into the player to see what it was. After it played, the player began blinking “Player Inoperable.” My Bose’s CD player had apparently chosen that moment to die. I felt as if the radio was thumbing its nose at my CDs. If they rejected it, it wouldn’t work for them either.

I looked out the window at my newly dead lemon tree and laughed. The Universe seemed to be telling me something: all things come to an end, and when they do, let them go and move on. So I patted the radio, stored away the CDs, and called a man to come cut down the lemon tree.

Happy Easter, everybody!

Mourning a Lemon Tree

My beloved lemon tree has died. Within just two or three days, it went from being a lushly green tree covered with blossoms and buds and ripening lemons to a dead tree with dried, shriveled leaves.

When I first saw what was happening to it, I went through all the stages of denial and hope for a miracle, but the tree was dead. When I finally accepted it, I was devastated. I felt as if a dear friend had died. Then I got furious and looked for somebody to blame. I called the county extension service who said that a tree wouldn’t die so suddenly unless it had been poisoned. As soon as I heard that, I knew who had poisoned it. Almost every weekend finds my new next door neighbor out with a sprayer attached to a can of herbicide, killing any weed that dares to raise its head. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that my lemon tree’s roots extended over the property line and that his weed killer seeped into the soil and poisoned the lemon tree at the tips of its roots.

To be fair, he sprayed his own weeds on his own property, which he has every right to do. And my lemon tree was the one that went over the property line. Our houses are very close together, only about fifteen feet, so it didn’t have long to go. But my heart yells that weeds can be pulled out by hand and not poison the soil, and that the lemon tree had been growing for about six years and was the healthiest it had ever been.

At first I planned to plant another tree because I’ve enjoyed this one so much, but it would probably be killed too. The new neighbor seems like the kind of man who barrels ahead without a clue to how his behavior affects other people, so I don’t think he would be interested in what his weed killer did to my lemon tree.

When so many people in the world are fighting for a chance to live, it’s absolutely ridiculous how something like this can take on so much importance. I tell myself it’s a tree, not a child. And that my neighbor killed it by thoughtless spraying of herbicide, not by shooting it with a gun or dropping a bomb on it. I’m trying very hard to keep it in proportion, but I still feel like weeping when I see my lovely lemon tree shrunken and dead, with its lemons hanging dead from its branches.

Tough Love for Oprah

I love Oprah Winfrey. I think she’s the most influential woman alive today — not in a political or ideological sense but because she has affected the way millions of ordinary men and women view the world, themselves, and one another. If she’d done nothing more than create her book club, that alone would make her hugely important in shaping ideas. But she’s done more than that. She has provided the equivalent of free psychotherapy for countless people, in many cases more effective psychotherapy than they could get in their own area. She is one of my heroines and I want her to have all the rewards that come from the monumental work she has done for a quarter of a century.

That said, I must confess that I find the OWN network a great disappointment. I had hoped for something better. I had expected something better. And when Oprah said that she created her OWN network as a response to all the banal, meaningless crap on TV, I was excited. But so far, the shows have been banal, meaningless crap. And I say that with love. Tough love.

I have absolutely no interest in watching the Judds snip at each other. I have no interest in watching Ryan O’Neal and Tatum get to know each other. And while I like Gayle King, watching her interview a parade of famous and near-famous people is as interesting as watching wallpaper paste dry. The rest of the shows are big ho-hums too, including the ones that haven’t aired yet. Kids kidnapping their parents is so predictable that I won’t need to watch adorable moppets bringing tears to their parents’ eyes because the parents aren’t home enough. Cooking shows are cooking shows, no matter what’s cooking. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Oprah hasn’t asked me what I’d like to see, but if she did, here’s what I’d tell her: Show me something that truly stretches my world, that makes me feel a kinship with people I’ll never meet. Not some washed-up celebrities or eager wanta-be’s but real people. I would like to spend a month with a woman in an African village, perhaps, and see what her life is like. I would like to get to know a woman in south America who tries to support her family on a few dollars a month. I would like to see her life dramatically improved by a small loan that allows her to expand her business of selling vegetables or knitting sweaters or whatever she does to feed her children. I would like to spend a week or a month with a young girl in Afghanistan who goes to school at great risk to her life. I would like to hear what her parents think and how they justify their decision to let her have an education. I would like to hear the opinions of the men who believe it is evil to educate girls. I would like to hear their own words, not have them paraphrased or reported by somebody else. I would like to spend time with an Appalachian family and learn their history so I can better understand the trap they find themselves in now.

Basically, I would like Oprah to present shows that allow me to come to a true understanding of cultures radically different than my own. Not glib, glossed-over, “we vs. them” shows, but in-depth, thoughtful, respectful sharing. That’s what I had expected of OWN, and I believe Oprah may be the only person on the planet with the intelligence and sensitivity and power to pull that off. I know OWN  hasn’t gelled yet, and I expect some bumbling until it gets off the ground, but I greatly hope that when it matures it will be a lot better than it is.

Please Look After Mom

Whether your experience with motherhood is being married to one, being one, or having one, you’ll find plenty to make you cringe with guilty recognition in PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. The story is simple enough: an elderly woman is left behind when the subway train doors close in Seoul. Her husband, who has always walked ahead of her and ignored her pleas for him to walk more slowly, doesn’t realize she’s not with him until it’s too late. At the next stop, he gets off and walks back to the previous station, but she’s gone.

The couple are from the country and have come to Seoul to visit their grown children. In past visits, one of the children has always met them at the station, so their mother has no experience navigating the crowded streets by herself. As they frantically search for her and put out flyers asking for information about her, they each remember their unique relationship with her, the secret sacrifices she made for each one, the promises they made to her about what they would do for her when they grew up. The promises they never kept. The husband remembers too, how he had taken all she did for granted and how he had not insisted that she go to the hospital even when her headaches had worsened so much she couldn’t bear even to cry with pain.

The mother has her own memories, some secrets that her family has never suspected. Told in four points of view, the result is an intricately woven pattern of a family’s love, loyalty, betrayals, secrets, forgiveness, and emotional transcendence. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. Most of all, it made me wish I could spend just one hour with my own mother and beg her forgiveness for some of the thoughtless things I did and said when she was alive. 

Alcoholism and Writers

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. I mention that not just because it’s something everybody should pay attention to, but because writers in particular seem to find it cool to talk about getting sloshed, snockered, loaded, pie-eyed drunk. In almost every piece in a writers’ newsletter about the last writers conference some author went to, nine times out of ten there’ll be an elbow-jabbing reference to time spent at the bar. The implication is that real writers drink like guppies. Alcohol is such a theme in the lives of some writers that their fans study their work and studiously compare their pre- and post-sobriety writing — as if the alcohol was the only determining factor in their output or talent.

Regardless of the myth about alcohol going hand-in-hand with literary genius, the fact is that too much alcohol not only harms the body that consumes the hooch, it also harms the families of the drinkers. By too much alcohol, I mean more than one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. I mean drinking so much that you can’t remember what you did. Or said. Or went. If that has happened only once or twice in your lifetime when you were young and dumb and lucky enough to live past it, you’re probably not an alcoholic. But if it happens regularly, you have the disease of alcoholism. And let’s be honest here, alcoholism is a disease like diabetes or asthma, and it has to be treated as a disease. Furthermore, alcoholism isn’t cool, and it won’t make you another Hemingway. Unless you’re thinking of the way Hemingway’s life ended.

If you feel that your inner genius comes out while you’re drunk and causes your writing to soar to poetic heights, remember the Lot Syndrome. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him because he was the only man around and they figured if they were to have babies they had to have them with him. Lot has always been cast as the innocent victim of his daughters’ nasty plan, but if Lot had been too drunk to know what he was doing, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. If a writer is too drunk to know what he’s writing, he won’t be able to write anything at all. If you need to lose your inner critic to write well, find some other way to lose it rather than pickling your liver.

More important than any other reason for an alcoholic to stop drinking is the effect alcoholism in the home has on children. Growing up with an alcoholic parent causes children to become adults beset by guilt, fear, shame, depression, low self-esteem and loneliness. Your children deserve better, and so do you. If you’ve been aware for some time that alcohol is ruining your life, this month is the time to take charge. Every city has AA meetings, and AA has the best track record of any treatment plan. If you try one group and don’t like it, try a different group. You’ll find people from every profession   — including writers — who are ready and able to help you learn how to have sober fun. And when you’re completely sober, your inner genius will still be there, smarter than ever.

Ode to Quaker Oats

In this age when heads of manufacturing companies are apparently gathering around their conference tables and asking one another how they can most effectively screw up their products, I’d like to congratulate Quaker Oats for keeping their integrity and their product intact. The same round box, the same logo, the same oats. They’ve introduced quick-cooking oats, but I still stick to the old fashioned kind. Either way, the box is the same, and it’s that box that takes us all back to steamy kitchens and buttered toast with our morning oatmeal. Some cinnamon sprinkled on top, a little cream, maybe a pat of butter. I now stir applesauce in mine as a sweetener, add some blueberries, top with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Quaker Oats may be the one thing that has stayed constant in my life.

When I empty a box of Quaker Oats, it’s always hard to toss it in the trash. Somewhere there’s a Kindergartner who may need that box for a class project. I could help him. We could cover the box with fancy paper or we could paint it and put glitter on it. It could be a drum or a crayon holder or a vase for paper flowers. But my kids who once were Kindergartners are all grown up now and I don’t have anybody to play with, so I throw the Quaker Oats box away. But as I do it, I know there are untold numbers of people carefully saving theirs for their kids’ next project, and it gives me a warm feeling that the Quaker Oats people have given us that continuity.

Stonyfield Farms can break my culinary heart by changing their whole milk yogurt so the cream no longer rises to the top — I loved that risen cream! I used it on baked potatoes, steamed broccoli, French toast, and stirred into my Quaker Oats — and Palmolive dishwashing liquid can change its container to a bottle guaranteed to slip out of your hands, and my favorite lipstick shades can become obsolete overnight, and I won’t even mention the horrors Isotoner did to a great line of women’s houseslippers, but as long as Quaker Oats remains unchanged, I have hope that sensible minds will prevail. To all the other companies who ruin good products by tinkering with them, remember this sage advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.