Why we’re not going to be Halloween Scrooges

I was going to skip Halloween this year. I made plans with a friend to go somewhere–anywhere–away from home so that I could keep the lights turned off and avoid trick-or-treaters. The candy has become so expensive, and I didn’t want to buy and carve pumpkins. It’s hard to know how many will actually come. Some years we get a fair number. Last year, when it rained, we only had two or three and at the end of the night I was left with a big bowl of candy that I didn’t want.

I just wasn’t feeling it.

Over the weekend, though, we had friends for dinner. They are Jewish, and as we talked about what is happening to them, for them, I found myself revisiting my Halloween plan. I found myself thinking about community, and what it means to be a member of one. In our conversation, I told my story about a rift with my next-door neighbor. More than a year ago we found ourselves on different sides of a conflict over the creation of a project to house unhoused people in our neighborhood, and since then my formerly friendly neighbor avoids me. She once turned around and walked in the opposite direction when she saw us approaching as we were out walking on a sunny evening after dinner. She is Israeli, spending part of every year with family there, and I have wanted to check in on her, offer something that would be helpful, but I haven’t had the courage to reach out.

I found myself revisiting memories of my childhood Halloweens.

There was the year my brother wanted to be a sprinkler. My brother, who is significantly autistic (though we didn’t know that until he was an adult), was fascinated with sprinklers. He could sit and watch them for what seemed like hours to me. He loved them so much that he would go into neighbors’ yards and pull out their hoses and turn their sprinklers on. (It was the 70’s, a different era. There were few fences and every kid we knew was free-range.) Our neighbors on one side complained, but the neighbors on the other side, the Fryes, were kind about it.

My mother was stumped about how to turn my brother into a sprinkler, but eventually she figured out how to do it. She made him a green cape, then fashioned a wave sprinkler (his favorite kind) from styrofoam and tin foil for him to wear on his head. Most people did not know what he was; many guessed that he was an alien. But Mr. Frye? As soon as he opened the door, he began laughing. Really laughing. Belly-laughing. He knew right away what Joe was, and that he knew made me like him even more than I already did. (The Fryes had two plum trees, and they gave me a standing invitation to climb them with my books in hand and to sit and read and eat as many plums as I’d like.)

Both Mr. and Mrs. Frye had cleft palates, and so their speech could be a little hard for me to understand. They knew, as our family did, too, what it was like to be judged and misunderstood for simply being who you are. What it was like to be treated meanly by those who more easily fit into society’s norms.

Another year, perhaps the last good year before invading hormones began to change Halloween for me, my group of girlfriends came to my neighborhood to trick or treat with me. We were a loud horde of shrieking tweenagers just beginning to glimpse what life might become as we kept running ahead of my mother.

We turned into one yard I was unfamiliar with, running and shouting and kicking leaves down a long front path to a small house. An old man opened the door to us, holding a finger to his lips as he waved us into the house. That was strange, and I felt a little uneasy, but we all trooped in. “Don’t wake the little one,” he cautioned, and I saw a young girl asleep on a couch, a hand-knit blanket draped over her body. There was a fire burning in a fireplace and old-fashioned music playing low from a radio. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my books, one that told a story set in a different time.

“Just a moment,” he said, and went into an adjoining room. He returned with a tray of caramel apples, each wrapped with the kind of plastic wrap our mothers all had in their kitchens. “Here you go,” he said, and told us that we should each choose one. We each slipped an apple into our bags, quietly, and moved to the door. I didn’t want to leave. Something about this house, so different from my own and from all the others we’d visited, felt so good to me.

Back out at the road, by mother was waiting anxiously. She asked me why we’d gone into the house.

“He asked us to,” I said.

“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. I showed her the treat–one unlike any other I’d ever received–and she told me that I would have to throw it away because it was home-made. I protested, describing what the house had been like, what he’d been like, but she was firm. “We don’t know him,” she said, “and we can’t accept those kinds of treats from people we don’t know.”

I knew she was wrong–I knew it!–but I did what I was told, keeping only this memory that is still vivid nearly 50 years later.

After dinner with our friends, I thought of the children in my neighborhood, the boys who shoot baskets in the street and ride their bikes and skateboards in a loop in front of our house. They are Russian, and they’ve never come trick-or-treating, but there are others in our little part of this large city who have. I thought about how hard so many things are for so many children, and about my fears for the future they will be living their lives in.

Then I texted my friend and asked if instead of going out she’d like to come over for dinner and help me hand out candy. Ours is a neighborhood that doesn’t see a lot of kids on Halloween, even when the weather is good. We are tucked between two major thoroughfares. Many of the folks who live here are older, and a good number of the younger ones are members of cultures that don’t celebrate Halloween in the ways I traditionally have. Ours is the opposite of a destination neighborhood, one that people drive their kids to because they are full of large, decorated houses and streets filled with bands of costumed kids and parents. Even on a good year, our streets are sparsely filled.

But there are kids who come, and they live here.

So, Cane and my friend and I are going to eat soup and have a fire and maybe play a board game. When I asked her about changing our plan, my friend offered to bring some candy to add to our treat bowl.

I know that staying home and answering the door to families in my community won’t change the situation in Israel/Gaza. It won’t ease my friends’ or neighbors’ pain. It won’t house those without houses or fix the climate or our broken political system or any of the systems that make some neighborhoods a destination for Halloween and others something else. But it will help some people feel good right here, where we are all living together, even if just for an evening. Maybe it will make us something other than total strangers to at least some of our neighbors, so that if one of them at some time needs or wants something I can give, they’ll be more easily able to accept it.

In the work I’m doing with a school this year, we’ve been reading, thinking and talking about how to cultivate critical hope in children who are growing up in trauma. One of the keys to doing so is to provide “material hope,” and that “comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to deal with the forces that affect their lives.”

Maybe I’m pinning too much on a welcoming house and a generous treat, but a material gift that is an expression of love–one that says, “your neighborhood, too, has adults who want to care for you”–is probably worth the price of a few pumpkins and bags of candy.

A little visit from the ghost of Halloween Past…

A few (kind of random) good reads

Woke up Friday to a long read (appropriately) from Longreads about the literary world and online writing: Poets and the Machine. It was part history of online writing and part musing about why the literary world has shunned such as having literary merit, and it made me feel interested in writing here in a way that I haven’t felt in awhile. It reminded me of the possibilities for online writing that I got excited about back in the late 90’s (blogs are about to turn 30 years old!), and it got my brain turning. I felt a little spark, some ember of something within me flare.

On the subject of writing here, and online in general, I’m finding that more and more of my online reading is happening on Substack. (Head here to learn more about Substack.) Substack is a free newsletter service, but it feels (and looks) a lot like writing-focused, old school blogging to me. As my annual renewal for WordPress approaches, I’m thinking of shifting over to it. I’m not much interested in charging for my writing (what Substack is built for), but I like the idea of a free platform without ads.

One of my favorite Substack’s is Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, which I do pay ($5/month) for. I learn a lot about topics I care about, and there is a robust community there; both make the small payment well worth the price for me. (Much of her content is free, but you do have to pay to be part of the community.) It is, as she regularly asks readers to keep it, “one of the good places on the internet.” Petersen has some regular paid-subscriber only prompts that are goldmines of great info. My favorite is “what are you reading?” which fuels my holds request list at the library, and I’ve found some great shows through “what are you watching?” A recent prompt to share favorite soup recipes yielded so many soups I want to try making.

Through a recent post there, I found another Substack this week that also blew air on an ember I thought might have extinguished: Rebecca’s Your House Machine. I particularly enjoyed “How you spend your time is who you are” and “Shield your eyes from your stuff–yes, really.” My neurodivergent self felt so seen by the latter one, and it helped me understand why questions about home interiors are so compelling to me that I once (with Cane) had a whole blog just about making a home. Basically, she’s writing what I wish I had written. (Maybe I did? Maybe I will again? We’ll see.)

I think it was Rebecca’s newsletter that led me to Laura Fenton’s Living Small (a sample post that I really appreciate: “A book that changed me (and how I wish to ‘influence’ you“). Most of the newsletters I’m reading I found through other newsletters–another thing that reminds me of the early years of blogging.

A few others that I think some of you might like:

Sari Botton’s Oldster, which is about “exploring what it means to travel through time in a human body.” I love this one, as my mind is being blown on a regular basis by the intersections of time and bodies and what it means to be human.

Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vajenda, an “an evidence-based hub for reproductive health matters.” Most of my reproductive system left the building years ago, but I find so much valuable information here. And I like the writing.

Kelton Wright’s Shangrilogs, which is “a peephole into a different life — one centered around small town living, high-alpine adventure, and deep dives into nature.” Wright is a Millenial living in a small mountain town, and I’m living vicariously through her engaging writing. (For the record, I could never actually live her life, but I like to think I could. That’s why I appreciate being able to read about it.)

So tell me (if you’re so inclined)…

Anything you’re reading online that you think others might like/appreciate?

Any thoughts on blogs vs. Substack?

Would it make any difference to you if I started over on a new platform?

What would you like Rita to write about? (Not promising anything, but this blog is feeling a little too aimless to me…maybe that’s why I’ve been ignoring it.)

(Also, one last read, about Lilla Irvin Leach, without whom there would be no Leach Botanical Gardens, where this photo was taken last week. I wish someone would make a movie about her.)

Simple things, done beautifully

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about my rekindled romance with ice skating. Me + skating was full of what a friend of mine calls “new relationship energy.” I was positively giddy with possibility, and it felt amazing.


Those first-stage-of-love endorphins have died down, and a part of me was relieved to take a break from skating when we left to spend the summer in Louisiana. I hadn’t been able to skate consistently for several months, and my progress had stalled. I wasn’t sure about what kind of skater I wanted to be, and I was struggling with all the beliefs I’ve internalized about productivity and how they rubbed up against the time I was taking to do an activity that I saw as being primarily about my own enjoyment. I just wasn’t sure where I wanted the relationship to go, to the point that I was wondering if I even wanted to continue it.

Still, I returned to the ice in mid-August. The first few times were rough! I loved seeing people I’d missed, but I’d lost strength. I’d lost moves I previously had. I’d lost stamina. I made myself stay for an hour, but after only 20 minutes what I really wanted was to go home.

What a gift. For all that I know–truly!–that many of my feelings about productivity and time stem from problematic socialization, I have a really hard time doing something that’s just for me, just because I want to. The quick deterioration of balance, strength and stamina, despite a summer of hard, physical work, helped me see that skating isn’t just fun for me; it is a way for me to maintain physical functioning as I age. Because I’ve become part of a community of skaters, it also provides the mental health benefits that come from connection and belonging. It ticks off two of the seven keys to longevity that mark the lifestyles of those living in blue zones. I got off the ice my first day back more committed than I’d ever been to make space in my life for skating.

Committing to the relationship was only the first hurdle. I quickly realized that I still had to figure how to be in the relationship.

There are a lot of options for adult skaters–testing, competitions, clubs, classes, private lessons, etc. There are different kinds of skating a person might focus on–freestyle (jumps and spins), dance (solo or paired), moves in the field. I’d thought about and dabbled in different ways of skating since first returning to the ice. Exploring was good and I’m glad I tried on different goals and ways of being a skater, but my lack of a clear focus contributed to my feelings of ennui. Then, a long thread in an online forum this August full of older skaters talking about life-altering skating injuries gave me serious pause about my attempts to return to jumping and spinning. Did I really want to risk my ability to do all kinds of things I now take for granted just so I could do a waltz jump that was likely never going to look or feel the way it did 45 years ago? A few weeks ago, while talking about possible goals with another skater, I said, “I think I’d rather do simple things beautifully than hard or risky things I can barely get through.” As soon as I heard myself, I knew I’d figured it out, my new skating manifesto:

Simple things, done beautifully.

I want to be a strong skater. I want to skate with speed. I want to skate without fear. I want to skate gracefully. I can do all of those things if I’m skating simply.

At my next lesson, I shared this way of thinking about it with my coach. “You often say you don’t want to nit-pick,” I told him, “but I think I want you to nit-pick. I don’t want to just execute a move. I want to master it.” He took me back to working on basics.

I then had one of the best lessons I’ve ever had. Focusing on moving beautifully broke through a block in understanding I’d had about doing crossovers, one of the simplest moves there is. I was able to do crossovers more powerfully than I had previously, and with less fear.

That felt so good, I started thinking about how it might be to do other simple things beautifully. I followed Kate Lebo’s process for making chicken pot pie, one night roasting a chicken and making gravy, and the next roasting vegetables (using herbs from our garden) and making pie crust. The third night I put all the parts together into a pie, and it was pretty amazing. Pot pie is one of the simplest dishes there is, and Lebo showed me how to make it beautifully. Now, I’m wondering how I might apply this way of thinking and being to everything–to my relationships, to work, to writing, to making a home.

I’ve been thinking particularly about how this idea can serve me within the context of aging. My return to skating has, like nothing else, made concrete the disconcerting abstraction that my body is going to deteriorate (if I’m lucky) before it dies. I know in new ways that the longer I live, the more I will lose of the physical being I once was. Losing things is hard. It has been hard to accept lost abilities that will never return. It has been hard to lose my youthful conviction that if I just work hard enough, my body can do whatever I want it to. I know that confronting such kinds of loss this late in life is a sign of my good fortune. I’m grateful for it, but loss is still loss. I think, perhaps, that one way to find peace with it all is to think about how to do fewer things more beautifully.

Doing simple things beautifully wasn’t always an option when I was younger and in the thick of parenting and teaching, because doing things more beautifully doesn’t necessarily mean doing them more easily. I lived those years in survival mode, getting done what I had to get done in whatever ways I could manage. My life was complicated, and it was often far from beautiful. Chicken pot pie from scratch for a weeknight dinner was not something I had any capacity for.

But, now I do, at least some of the time. Again, what a gift.

It is nice, in this stage of life that can be so marked by loss, to find things we might gain. I love the paradox of gaining by letting go, of expanding what’s possible by lessening our expectations. In my first identity as a skater, I was someone who advanced quickly. I was “a natural.” My coach would show me how to do something, and I could just do it. Big goals were in the realm of possibility. I have had to let go of that identity. I am not that skater now. I’m never going to land (much less attempt) a double salchow again, and it takes me much longer to improve when learning something new, but a strong, sweeping, beautiful, simple swing roll, for example, is definitely within reach.

Isn’t that a gift, too, to be be able to find paths to growth, even as we become, in some ways, diminished? I think it is, and I’ll take it–to my garden, to my friendships, to my home, and even to my writing here.

I would love to hear how any of these thoughts land on you, and of how you do simple things beautifully.

(Tomatoes picked yesterday from our simple garden. We grow only tomatoes, a few herbs, blueberries, and raspberries.)