Tag Archives: books

Talking to Mr. Ed — And the Living and the Dead.

Early evidence of animal-talking propensity. Photo by Katie Hutchison, 2008.

THERE IS A HORSE in my neighborhood I am trying to get to know. I talk to him. So far, unlike Mr. Ed, he has not talked back.

I talk to Farmer a lot. He rolls over and looks at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, “Oh, mommy, stop babbling. Just rub my tummy.”

Lately I’ve been talking to the plants in the garden. They are just coming around after a long hard winter, so it is very important to give them a pep talk. I coach the tiny rhubarb leaves and the hellebore flowers every day, give the shaggy carpet of young chives a pat, and cheer on the arugula that hunkered down and shivered through the winter under two layers of row cover. I tell the tiny sedum buds how fetching they are.

I always talk to myself out loud when I am cooking dinner, even when there are others present. This is partly because I am multitasking (who isn’t when they’re cooking dinner?) and I’m afraid I’ll forget something. Make the salad dressing. Flip the sweet potatoes. Turn the flame down. Spin the lettuce. Grate the Parmigiano. Set the table. Get out the matches. Rotate the chicken. Pour the Pellegrino. Warm the plates. Wipe up those bread crumbs. Don’t forget the nuts in the oven. I smell something burning. NUTS! Refill sea salt. All out of sea salt. Open chile crisp. Stir the shallots.

At night I talk to God. This doesn’t always go so well, because I am tired and my brain is like a Slinky flopping over itself down the stairs, tumbling from one subject to the next. But I try.

I also talk to my friend Judy, who isn’t around anymore. She died four years ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember when someone died, but I know for sure it was the winter of 2017, because one of the last things my friends and I did was gather around her hospice bed (which was set up in her living room), so that she could give me my 10-year sobriety coin (my anniversary having been Christmas Day of 2016, the day I found out Judy’s cancer had spread).

Judy meant the world to me. And to my friends who were there with me that day. And many others. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. I could talk with her about anything when she was alive. Lately I have been reminiscing about a picnic lunch we took at Polly Hill Arboretum, about a drive we took around the Island, about sharing her favorite chocolate cake at the Black Dog. Talking all the time, about good stuff and the difficult stuff.  

So I just keep right on talking to her.

For years I talked to my grandmother Honey after she died. I still do sometimes. 

I don’t know if you do the same thing – talk to dead people – but it can be quite cathartic. It’s also rather interesting to think about who you choose to talk to. For me it is the people I think understood me best. And people I loved for their joie de vivre, for the way they lived their life knowing the best part was right there and then.

I have no idea whether they are listening. I am always conjuring visions of the cartoonish ghosts portrayed in George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (The novel is fiction, but the fact is that President Lincoln did visit his son Willie’s grave frequently after he died, staying well into the night, presumably talking to him at length.) In the book, the ghosts in Oak Hill cemetery are those folks who, for one reason or another, are stuck in the Bardo, the in-between place between life and death. They are a motley but caring crew, and when Willie joins them, they become concerned when Lincoln’s visits seem to be keeping Willie stuck in the Bardo, when really the young child should be moving on to a better place. And they set out to do something about it.

And I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the ghost of a child who never moved on (from a particularly hideous in-between) manifests in the lives of her family so profoundly that she is physically present. Yikes.

I’m not sure how I got from the subject of one-way conversations (whether with an animal, a plant, a pot on the stove, or a missing person) to the subject of ghosts. It’s just that I began to wonder the other day why I do all this talking (other than my obvious verbose nature, which I am so stuck with that I’m sure I will be bringing it with me into the Bardo). Why all the talking when there’s (presumably) no one to answer?

You probably guessed already that a lot of it is a nervous habit, a way (yet another way – you can’t say I haven’t started a great list for you!) of soothing anxiety. But I think there are other reasons. There’s an urge to connect – certainly with a horse or the dog, the hope is that it isn’t really a one-way conversation but an introduction of intentions, a way to express affection. With the plants I’m growing or the dinner I’m making, again I think I want to be connected to the process in an intentional and joyful way. I want to notice what miracles are going on, what alchemy is happening, how the puzzle of getting dinner on the table can be solved in a given time frame.

With people who are no longer around, the desire for connection of course intensifies. Not only do I wish those people were still here, but I like to pretend that they actually are and that engaging with them is still possible.

Honey, Uncle Doug, and Uncle Rodney are no longer around. But Dad (in plaid) is.

But I have the great good fortune of still having someone very important to me (and very old!) alive. My father.

And the way I connect with him is by talking. On the surface of things, I talk with him because he lives hundreds of miles away, alone, and I worry he might be lonely. But I also talk with him because I enjoy talking with him. He is smart and thoughtful. I learn from him. He’s always brimming with some new bits of information — a plant he’s fallen in love with, a Julia Child recipe he’s made, a story about our family. I talk with him because I love him. And I talk with him because I can’t bear the thought of the day when the conversation will only be one way. 


Book Recs This Week

Lincoln in the Bardo, By George Saunders

Beloved, By Toni Morrison


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I’ll Take an Order of Beauty and a Side of Color, Please. And a Better Night’s Sleep.

I am writing on four hours of sleep. I think I mentioned in passing that I was aiming to be honest with you, so let’s not waste any time. Here are three things not to do in the evening: Stay on your computer until 11:30 p.m. absorbing the screen’s blue light, which suppresses melatonin; eat a bowl of chocolate chips during this light show; and decide that climbing into bed and reading a riveting, gut-wrenching novel like Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife will lull you to sleep.

You might perhaps wind up like me, staying awake until 5 a.m. finishing said book.

I didn’t just stay awake; I also tip-toed downstairs to the comfy chair in the living room, where the dog was snoring on the couch and the Scotsman had turned the heat down to a level that would just barely keep pipes from freezing. At least I had a wool hat and a cheap throw. 

To improve on this situation, I then decided that drinking a cup of warm milk would be a good idea, because that’s what my grandmother Honey always did when she couldn’t sleep. But I couldn’t resist turning it into a big mug of hot cocoa (at least it was good quality cocoa!), which zeroed out any drowsy-making and put my bladder into overdrive as a bonus.  

Looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t a nip of scotch, neat — a frequent trick during the Before Times that I used to treat sleep disturbance caused by too many evening drinks. Catch the irony there? A vicious circle.

The point is, even though I may be sane, sober, and well-intended these days, I’m still stupid. And stubborn. You?

I listened to a great podcast this week, The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships. On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, the author of the widely read New York Times opinion piece, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In it I was reminded, with relief, of the importance of realizing how imperfect we all are so that we don’t experience the chronic delusion that everyone else’s relationships are better than ours. And more importantly, so we don’t set up ridiculous expectations of our partners. We’re all crazy in some way; if we’re going to make a go of it, we’ve got to accept each other’s craziness, starting with our own. 

I bring it up because it never hurts to take a gentle look at the crazy stuff to see if it’s really working for you. And because lately I’ve been thinking that my stubbornness – or insistence on doing (or not doing) things a certain way – can sometimes actually limit my imagination (as well as affect my sleep!).

For instance, how is it that I managed to grow things outdoors for so many years, across three seasons every year, without realizing I could (more or less) recreate the experience indoors in the winter?

It took a pandemic and hibernation to snap my longing (and need) for year-round beauty into focus. In this most wintry of winters, I finally embraced the house plant. Or, more accurately, plants in the house. It started with a collection of scented geraniums I rescued from outdoors — peppermint, orange, lemon, rose — each plant with its own seductive fragrance and uniquely beautiful leaves. Some leaves as soft as bunny ears. But then I bought real houseplants, too. A fern. A jade plant. Ivy. Two fancy rosemary topiaries.

I swear I’ve done nothing more than crowd them all near southern windows and water them sporadically. And I’ve been wildly rewarded. In the breakfast room, we have a sea of soft green leaves blanketing one wall like a living mural. In the bedroom, a tabletop collection of greenery that lights up in the mid-morning sun, casting cartoon shadows on the dog basking on the carpet below. 

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed wrote. I have loved that ever since I read it in a little book of hers called Brave Enough. (You need that book!). But I never stopped to think about how beauty really works. What is the real reason that I love flowers and foliage so much?

Sure, nurturing plants fills a need and assuages anxieties (not inconsequential). But there’s more. It turns out there’s a connection between our vision and areas of the brain where pleasure thrives. Beauty, and its sidekick color, can actually stimulate serotonin production.

Ah ha! No wonder, for one who runs a wee bit under the optimal serotonin levels during the winter (lightbox: check, vitamin D: check, omega 3 fish oil: check), the pleasure of seeing green every morning is so rewarding. The color green supposedly reminds our brains of peaceful and pastoral settings. The color pink (my favorite) is relaxing, blue (the color of our walls) calming. And while I don’t normally lean into yellow, it’s the color of happiness — which may account for the very cheering effect of some bright yellow (and red) tulips that wandered into our house last weekend.

My suggestion? Get thee to a florist, please, and purchase a plant, some flowers, a flowering plant, or a planting flower. That’s the good kind of crazy.

Have a beauty-filled day.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who emailed me last week or commented on the blog after the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I want to encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section below, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Read last week’s post: Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

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