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Night-Blooming Cereus

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Photo: Susan Bryant
The Night-Blooming Cereus blooms at night once a year. Be there when it happens.

In the same way that the sun shines on the keyhole to Smaug’s lair only once a generation — or through Suzanne’s fence and onto the stonewall only twice a year — the lovely Night-Blooming Cereus has its own moment in time, and it’s worth planning your life around it.

Margaret Renkl writes at the New York Times, “For decades, my grandmother was the caretaker of a gangly, disorganized houseplant with nothing, so far as I could see, to recommend it. The plant was ugly. … It was less a plant than something out of a nightmare. As a little girl, I thought it might bite me.

“When the evenings began to cool in early autumn, my grandmother would bring the plant indoors, set it on a table next to the fireplace, and wait hopefully for it to bloom. She called it her ‘night-blooming series.’

“It was years before I understood that the scary plant in my grandparents’ house was actually a night-blooming cereus, a catchall term for several varieties of cactus that bloom at night — often for only one night each year. That’s if it blooms at all: My grandmother’s ‘series’ apparently bloomed only once in all the decades she had it. There are just two pictures of it in full flower, and they were taken on the same night sometime during the 1960s. …

“My cutting came from my brother and sister-in-law’s plant, a proven bloomer, but it has never formed a single bud under my care.

“[In September], my brother texted a photo of the bud he’d discovered on his plant. ‘It might bloom tonight!’ he wrote. ‘I looked in my garden journal, and it was fully open by 8 p.m. in 2014.’ … So I got in the car and drove straight to his house in Clarksville, more than 50 miles from here [Nashville], stopping only for gas. With a night-blooming cereus, the transformation from bud to blossom can take less than an hour. …

“I recognize the irony: There I was, driving through a parched landscape with a full tank of gas, on a pilgrimage to do nothing more than watch a flower bloom, while the hot winds from the 18-wheelers shook my whole car as they passed.

“I am only one generation removed from the farm, and I spent much of my childhood in the very world where my mother grew up, the same one where my grandmother grew up, and my great-grandmother before her, going back farther than anyone could remember. …

“Today only 2 percent of Americans live on farms or ranches, but we have not lost our need to be among green things. Which may explain why friends and neighbors were already hurrying to my brother and sister-in-law’s house by the time I got to Clarksville, and why we all gathered together in their living room to wait for the miraculous event to unfold. The plant’s single bud, which spanned the full length of my hand, was clearly in no hurry to open, pink filaments still tightly ribbing it from stem to tip an hour after we arrived.

‘It’s like counting contractions, waiting for a baby to be born,’ someone said.

“Then, finally, the bud began to open, at first just one tiny aperture at the very end. The pink filaments began to loosen and lift. As the aperture widened, a star-shaped structure unfolded within it — a white star inside a white flower — and the translucent petals unlayered and arrayed themselves around the star. The flower was nine inches across fully opened, and its perfume filled the whole room with sweetness. It was not a nightmare plant at all. It was the flower of dreams. It would be gone by morning, not to return for another year. If then. …

“That night-blooming cereus brought my grandmother back to me in her halo of white hair. It brought back, too, her plum tree, long since cut down, and the feeling of red dirt between my toes. In a time of great cultural dislocation and environmental despair, for an hour it made me remember what it feels like when the world is exactly as it must be, and I am exactly where I belong.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: History Today
This bronze relief panel from the Gutenberg Monument in Mainz, Germany, was created by sculptor David d’Angers in 1840.

When you make knowledge available to everyone, good things happen. That was one of the attractions of helping to teach English as a Second Language to refugees and other immigrants. Although I decided to take time off to make regular visits to my sister during her cancer treatments, I hope to go back to volunteering before long. Imagine that some of our students couldn’t even read and write in their own language! Opening up doors sure felt important.

Back in the 15th century, reading in Europe was limited to a chosen few. If you wanted to know what was in the Bible, for example, you had to take the word of a Latin scholar who had access to handmade manuscripts. There were no books in circulation for ordinary people. Then Johannes Gutenberg had an idea for moveable metal type, and that led eventually to the printing of Bibles in the vernacular.

Justin Champion writes at History Today, “In 1454, in the Rhineland town of Mainz, three friends formed a legal arrangement to produce an epochal object. An inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, a printer, Peter Schöffer, and a financier, Johann Fūrst, collaborated to publish a Bible – the Gutenberg, as it is now known – widely regarded as a transformative moment in the history of European culture. …

“It heralded a step change in printing technique: whereas earlier forms of printing relied on woodblock technology, the use of moveable metal type allowed more flexible, efficient and cheap printing. The invention of new forms of ink (more like a veneer) enabled crisper and more durable printing. … Printing also enabled accurate, and (mostly) reliable reproduction across a number of volumes. It also meant that any minor mistakes would be reproduced, too.

“The printer who mistakenly omitted a vital ‘not’ from the Ten Commandments was vigorously punished by a very bad-tempered Archbishop Laud in 1631.

“The crisis of Reformation authority encouraged the printing of Bibles in Germany, England and, eventually, Geneva. Luther and Tyndale led the way with their clandestine and vernacular Bibles. … [Vernacular Bibles from] the Tyndale New Testament of 1526 (for which Tyndale was executed) to the King James Version of 1611 – captured and preserved God’s revelation in the English language, specifically aimed to provide a text ideally comprehensible to every English servant and maid. …

“The legacy of the Gutenberg Bible was a revolution in the relationship between reading and authority in the early modern period. This encompassed the practices of lowly men … or, at the other extreme, scholars such as Isaac Newton and John Locke, who owned multiple copies for forensic textual comparison and exchanged commentaries on their findings. … Newton devoted millions of words to decoding the inner meaning of Revelation, but hid his own views from the Anglican establishment for fear of persecution.”

The article History Today, here, emphasizes the effect that Gutenberg’s invention had on the history of religion, but for me as a former publishing person, what’s important is that it enabled the printing of many more books — first in Latin, then in the languages ordinary people spoke — and opened up a new world of knowledge to anyone who was interested.

Today only specialist artisans use moveable metal type and much of our reading is not on paper but online, but I hope that hard-copy print never goes completely out of style. It has a value that humanity has yet to fully appreciate.

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Photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Cathy Corbett got her hair cut at HER on a recent Saturday. HER is a weekly event from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

When I think of all the health care I’m able to utilize (cataract surgery today, for example), my heart breaks for people who don’t have coverage. A special program in Boston aims to help homeless women get some of what they need while also lifting their spirits with fun activities.

Elise Takahama writes at the Boston Globe, “Linda Winn … sobered up six months ago, but she’s been battling homelessness for the past year. Winn, a 51-year-old Somerville native, said she’s working with a few organizations to find permanent housing, but for now, she is staying at Woods-Mullen, a South End homeless shelter.

“A few months ago, she discovered a haven of medical care — and free haircuts — just around the corner..

” ‘I started coming a few months ago. I love the staff. It’s been helping with depression, helping with any problem I might have,’ said Winn. …

“In one corner, a group of women played bingo, while others danced and sang karaoke in the middle of the room. A table near the back was filled with markers, beads, and nail polish. Movies were shown in a separate room.

“All these activities are part of HER Saturday, a program that offers a medical clinic for women who have suffered abuse, are homeless, or are in need of health care services, said Melinda Thomas, the program’s associate medical director. …

“The HER Saturday program was launched in February 2016, Thomas said. When it first started, about 30 to 50 women would wander through the doors. Now, at least 100 women — sometimes up to 200 — line up at 7 a.m. every week, she said.

“The Saturday clinic not only gives the women a chance to get manicures and watch romantic comedies but also provides preventative health care services and cancer screenings, which include mammograms and Pap smears. Homeless women have higher rates of mortality from breast and cervical cancer, Thomas said. A medical provider, a nurse, a case manager, a social worker, and a behavioral health counselor are available every week.” More at the Globe, here.

Those of us who can have a medical check-up, a haircut, or a tasty meal whenever we want really should feel gratitude every day. I also feel gratitude for the people behind programs like this, which benefit us all if only indirectly.

Gingerbread Plus

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Today I’m posting recent photos, including a few gingerbread pictures that really get me into the spirit of the season.

The first is of a gingerbread house that two of my grandchildren decorated. You can see that they also made a garage from some extra pieces of gingerbread.

Next there’s one of my shadow pictures, followed by the random donkey that graces the yard at Boston’s old city hall.

Background for the photo after that: About a week ago all four grandchildren were at a Christmas crafts workshop where grownups in elf hats made everything run smoothly. The next day I found elf hats on parking meters around town.

Next are several gingerbread creations at annual displays in town. The tree house, hobbit house, Victorian advertisement for the Gentleman Handyman, and the Acton Dental house with Santa inside in the dentist chair are all at the Colonial Inn. The last gingerbread house is in the library and is created every year by a local physician who starts to work weeks in advance.

Finally, what’s this? Another shadow picture. A Christmas-y one this time.

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Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

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Photo: CBSLocal
New York City hopes that donating reusable water bottles to high school students will make some advocates for reducing waste. The campaign is part of the city’s ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030.

After reading an inspiring book called Climate Justice, I signed up at the website 1 Million Women to get ideas for reducing my carbon footprint. One thing the site suggests is to boycott fruits and vegetables that have unnecessary packaging. You know, like those Japanese pears in plastic foam holders. Such gestures are small, but they add up if a lot of people pursue them.

In New York, meanwhile, schools are trying to wean students from plastic water bottles by giving them nice reusable ones.

CBSLocal reports, “After a recent push to ban plastic bags, straws, and bottles in New York, some local leaders are working to get the city’s high school students involved. …

” ‘When you think about it, you’re not gonna be wasting all that plastic,’ [student] Daisy Palaguachi said.

“More than 320,000 bottles made by S’well were donated to all New York City high schools throughout all five boroughs [in September].

” ‘The goal is really to extend our mission to rid the world of plastic bottles and we couldn’t help but think the best way to do that is to tap into the city’s future leaders,’ S’well Vice President Kendra Peavy said.

“The company partnered with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Sustainability for the new ‘Bring It’ campaign. They’re asking students to ditch the plastic and spread the word to their families and friends.

“ ‘To empower them with actual tools that they can bring and take to make better and more informed decisions,’ Mark Chambers, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said.

“The city says its goal in doing this is to try and get rid of 54 million single-use plastic bottles.

“ ‘About 167 water bottles are used by the average American every year, and so it’s important to say by using a reusable water bottle we could displace that many from going into the waste stream every year,’ Chambers said. …

“ ‘Knowing that you’re making a small change can turn into something bigger in the future,’ student Alexandra Capistran said. ‘You don’t have to spend all your money buying water bottles every day.’

“Sunset Park High School now also has a newly installed water bottle filler for that very purpose. … The bottles donated [would have cost] $19 to $35, and the campaign is part of the city’s ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030.”

More at CBS, here.

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Photo: William Raynard/Essex County Sheriff’s Department
From left, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and department director of food services Kathy Lawrence meet with program director Kate Benashski, Carlos Zagada, and Josiel Cabrera from Haven From Hunger on the farm at the Essex County Pre-Release Center in Lawrence.

Most of my posts about people helping people must seem like a drop in the bucket to readers: the problems of this world are so enormous. But I like to think about what can be accomplished by, say, one person whose better nature is released by a program like the one for ex-offenders described here. And I like to think of the way many such efforts can accumulate to improve the world.

Morgan Hughes writes at the Boston Globe, “Drive around the back of the Essex County Pre-release and Re-Entry center in Lawrence, and you’ll find 6 acres of pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.

“Inmates at the center run the farm, which yields about 50,000 pounds of produce each season to feed others who are incarcerated and the wider community. Located just behind Interstate 495, the farm is fertile ground for personal growth.

“ ‘We’re giving jobs to the inmates, we use the crops, but it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community,’ Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger said.

“At the moment, the farm has about seven inmates who volunteer to plant, maintain, and harvest the produce. They feed not only the roughly 200 inmates at the pre-release center, but those at the Middleton House of Correction and Women in Transition, a women’s pre-release center in Salisbury.

“The facility purchases meals from a third-party food vendor, but the kitchen incorporates the fresh produce into the menu whenever possible.

“ ‘They live there, so they can really see the fruits of their labor,’ Coppinger said.

“About 30,000 pounds go to food pantries and homeless shelters in the Merrimack Valley and throughout the North Shore, said Kathy Lawrence, director of food services for the sheriff’s department. …

“She said, ‘What we can do sometimes is either incorporate [our produce] into the menu and serve it in addition to what’s being prepared, or we can substitute in ratatouille instead of giving them frozen green beans.’

“But even when the harvest is over and the ground begins to freeze, these hyperlocal vegetables are used throughout the year, Lawrence said. Bell and Italian peppers are frozen to use in casserole dishes. The butternut squash is also kept in the freezer and saved for special holiday meals.

“Heather Bonanno-Baker is manager of both Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen and the farm at the pre-release center. She took over duties from her father, who helped inmates run the farm for at least 15 years.

“She said she teaches inmates how to plant and water the crops, manage pests, and harvest at the end of the season. She shows them what a vegetable looks like when it’s ready to be picked, and how to wash it before it goes to a kitchen.

“ ‘I’m big into teaching the public about agriculture, growing your own food, and where it comes from,’ Bonanno-Baker said. …

“When Lawrence collected some feedback from the farm workers, she said some common themes were ‘a sense of pride in what they’ve grown’ and feeling rewarded to be able to give back to the community. One told her: ‘Hard work leads to positive results.’

“Lawrence teaches ServSafe to inmates working in the kitchen, a certification in food safety necessary for many jobs in the food industry. Coppinger said working on the farm provides another skill they could use to find a job when they are released.

“ ‘From the minute you arrive at intake in Middleton, to when you are about to be released at the pre-release center is trying to get them in better shape to get out of here and not come back,’ he said.

‘I always like to say, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back.” ‘

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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