a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Friday, January 19, 2018

PORCH, or who I am

Last December I offered to take the place of a vacationing friend who collects and helps sort food donations from our neighborhood for PORCH, an entirely volunteer-run local organization begun seven years ago by three local women to help relieve hunger.  I liked it so much, I promised myself that come the new year, I would continue volunteering there...not just intending to, but actually putting it on the calendar, and showing up.  

I’d been thinking about doing more for PORCH for some time, anyway. Aside from leaving grocery bags of cans, boxes, jars and sacs outside my kitchen door for the monthly pick-up, I hadn’t really put my hand to anything helpful in a community way since I’d moved house four years ago.  It was, in fact, the first time in…let’s see…forty-some years that I wasn’t active somewhere as a volunteer, beginning with my children’s preschool. 

From the first, I’ve been impressed by the way PORCH could do all it does without any levels of bureaucracy…indeed without any paid staff or lease.  Founders Susan Romaine, Debbie Horwitz, and Christine Cotton were neighbors who worried over the hunger they saw in their separate volunteer work, especially among school children.

PORCH works on the simplest principle possible:  one is the basic number.  One family puts one sac of food (even one can is acceptable) on its porch and one neighborhood driver, in her/his own car, volunteers to pick it and others up to bring to one common site.  At the site, (also generously donated by a local church) volunteers, one by one, gather to unpack and rebag the donations, then one by one, drivers, each in their own cars, redistribute the bags to people and agencies who need it.  The power of one means that all those many ones make one morning a month's work into a substantial impact on hunger.  Besides the many generous households who leave bags of food or checks on their porches for their neighborhood coordinator, an increasing number of businesses—especially, but not only food-related companies—give goods, money, time and advertising, often on word-of-mouth recommendations.  Thanks to all of them, PORCH has provided our community with nearly $2 million of hunger relief; add in the other PORCH sites which have sprung up on this model, and it sounds more like $3.5 million.

Lately, the PORCH  emails had been asking for not only more hot cereals, hearty soups, and snacks for the winter, but more help as well.  So this month, I returned to join the other deliverers, gatherers, unpackers, sorters, repackers and re-deliverers, and over the next few hours floated from task to task in the large space, learning the routines more firmly.  It’s a well-run group with people who don’t mind doing what they’re asked, and who pick up pretty quickly on the next thing needed or the next thing to be figured out.  Everyone is there to help.  As many volunteer organizations as I’ve belonged to over the decades, from grass-roots to multi-national, I admired this group’s energy...dedicated, efficient, cheerful...and amazingly ego-less.

Naturally, as I worked, I learned more than simply how to get food from my kitchen to someone else’s in need.  Watching people moving around me, and moving me around, I began to listen for where the volunteers had come from and why.  From “We started this because…” to “It’s such a wonderful  group of people” to “My wife brought me along” to “I’m doing a month of community service for a traffic violation” to “I work for a food pantry in a shelter…”  They included two of the local police who lent a hand sorting, carrying, pushing tables and chairs around, staying til the very end—it’s part of the task to clean up and return the space to its original use when the party’s over. 

As I did last month, after the sorting I offered to drive a few dozen bags to one of the places that distribute goods, last time a mission, this time the county social services.  PORCH isn’t the only organization donating food to schools and food pantries. But it provides a hefty amount of basic nutrition where it’s needed, including fresh foods bought with cash donations or given by grocers.  Most impressively, they offer help to  nearly 400 hundred individual families through school counselors and other community need-watchers.    My deliveries afforded me the chance to look into those spaces, too, watching how they worked, who they worked for, how much they needed.  It's never just a job for a few hours; it's education into increasingly wide circles of society.

While I packed and delivered, I thought about what appealed to me, personally, about such work.  The first appeal came immediately:  philosophically, and for better or worse, I’m one of those people who, as an old friend used to say about herself, feed people.  Hunger is one of the things I’ve, thankfully, rarely suffered, but I imagine it well.  I’m a kitchen person…even while I'm pulling things off the shelf to donate, I’m organizing a bag in terms of protein, fruit, starch, vegetables, milk…

And then there is the appeal of all that sorting and packing.  Like my favorite work with the Friends of the Library, I can’t help bringing order to a pile of thrown-together donations so they make sense for somebody.  You laugh…but it’s true.  (My sister is the same way, so she better not be laughing.)  Categories, sequences, and patterns are me/I.  How I loved diagramming sentences in grade school!  How quickly and avidly I could organize anything from library shelves to syllabi to a committee  agenda!

Too, it’s the accessibility of the volunteer work.  The tasks are simple enough, and yet there is so much need for them, and it is so easy to step in and lend a hand.  Often, they lead to other “jobs” equally as appealing and just as needful.  Busy people, it seems, are often found in the same multiple places, a network of community knowing and doing.

But mostly, and this most selfishly, it’s one of the best ways I know to get myself further out into the world, connecting with what’s going on…really going on…outside the walls of my house and my neighborhood. You learn so much, for one thing, and you can never go back to thinking that you’ve seen or done enough to make things better.

Photographs of PORCH activities thanks to Christine Cotton, Debbie Horwitz, and Mary Sonis; OCIM.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


All day it has been falling.  At seven this morning, it was light rain; by eight, white...drifting down like a Hollywood scene, covering us fast and lovely.  For a while, the children across the street were out, trying to rescue their dad's car, which had slipped sideways at the end of the drive, and some neighbors walking dogs or walking to town, booted and scarved and enjoying the kind of snowfall that feels good...crisp air, wet refreshing flakes, still manageable underfoot.

It kept up long past what we were led to believe...an inch or two, over by early afternoon, said the weather people, like last week's fall more a gesture than a storm.  The plows came and went, but all the tracks were soon covered, as if no one, no car, no sand, had ever passed this way.  All day we'd heard from the north, the west, the south and southwest...chilling cold, bright sun, the precipitation stopped after a few inches, promising better tomorrow.  But it's late afternoon now, and here the snow still falls, lighter, thinner but equally persistent.  Now and then a branch, overloaded, snaps and crashes.  At first we heard them, but now, we see only after the fact the deep impression it has made on the heightening cloud over the ground. 

At noon, I gathered some hazelnuts from the basket we keep for Alexander on the dining table, and threw them outside the front door under the sheltering eaves.  If the chipmunks and squirrels dare to come out of their hiding places, they'll have dinner, of a sort.  The birds haven't shown themselves yet either, but I know, as they do, where their repast will come from:  behind the ivy growth on the bark up the tall trees in the back yard, they'll peck out bugs enough for days.

Tonight, since it's my birthday, and no one else can brave the foot or more accumulated by now, not to mention our town's infamous steep, iced driveways, to help celebrate, my next-door neighbors are wading through from their kitchen door to mine for a winter dinner...a sort of curried rice and shrimp thing, a salad, some apple crisp.  They'll bring wine.  (I wish I had a fire to welcome them, but alas, it's the one thing this house is lacking...a fireplace...and I'm at cross-purposes trying to figure out where to put one, without losing a bank of windows.)

Meanwhile, the snow rises into a silence unmatched, cushioning us from all outdoors.  As I watched a movie to spend the quiet, it seemed as if there were no other world except the rooms of this house, its windows showing only snow broken now and then by the criss-cross of hyphenated tree limbs and high wires.  Snow falling in the air, snow lodged in the elbows of branches, snow piled high on what might be, underneath, rocks or cars or hibernating creatures.  Not eerie at all, just the long black and white emptiness of winter.

It's a sort of gift, I suppose, that bears waiting a while to unwrap.

Thursday, January 4, 2018


All I wanted out of this new year were a few ordinary days to begin again.  But opening the drapes this morning, I found out my window the snow the weather people said was coming.  Scorning them, I had disdained all those shoppers I found late yesterday afternoon at the grocery, who were practically looting the milk, egg and cereal shelves.  I was just there because really and truly I had run out of milk, eggs and orange juice, and, happening to be driving right by, thought I'd save myself a trip on the morrow.  Darting through the melee, I managed to snag the last gallon of milk and a carton of jumbo eggs that weren't broken, and the cashier and I made a joke of the panic people get into when the weather threatens to leave them at home too long.

Those of you in northern climes will no doubt roll your eyes at an inch of snow (that's how much we had) causing such hoarding, but here in the land of relatively rare snowfall, one could be holed up inside for a few days until the sand-and-brine trucks get around to one's street.  Even I, who live right off the main road through town, a road already cleared and well-traveled, am not about to risk life and limb dodging the (let's say politely) less experienced drivers who rev an engine jauntily over a patch of ice and don't expect the spin or the slide downhill. I hate driving (or walking, for that matter) on ice anyway, no matter how many of my youthful years were spent spinning on it.

But no one will argue that the sight this morning wasn't beautiful, the landscape shining jewel-like in the brilliant sunlight.  There were already tracks of birds, deer and something else I couldn't recognize across the driveway, and pretty soon I added my own, making up errands to enjoy the air and sun, even the crunch of snow under my feet.  Ordinarily all this white stuff would melt before noon, except that this week the peak temperature will just barely break the freezing point and nights will dip into the teens...not ordinary.  As I mentioned, we might be stuck inside a few days.

Beautiful winter scenes outside put me in the mood to do something warm inside.  Making breakfast, I pulled a package of English muffins from the freezer and discovered too many bags of bread-ends accumulating near the back of the shelf.  Ordinarily, I save them to dry and grind into breadcrumbs, but this morning that seemed too mundane a fate.  Bread pudding...a treat on a cold day, both the aroma as it bakes and the taste thereafter...sounded much more palatable. My copy of Craig Claiborne's classic tome, The New York Times Cookbook, is, after forty-five years, approaching the look and feel of an antique, but its Orange version is still the best recipe for that homey dessert.

As it came to fruition in the oven, I headed to the workroom to made a card for a friend's birthday, and when it was finished I began to play around, pulling stuff together to make a new one, collaged like the first, this time with leftover bits of a page from an arty style magazine, a rag of cotton and a few handmade paper ends.

Somehow, though, shapes of a deeper significance began to appear as I tore and glued, inked and painted and overlay.  The pile of folded rugs seemed now like a temple; the beginning of an ancient invocation occurred to me, and after I'd inscribed it once, twice, ten and more times, I reached under a pile of scraps and out fell a tiny square with the message, This life is a gift.  I suppose the same words had been nesting in my mind unrealized behind every move of my hands.

What I was building with those scraps was a talisman against worry.  My poor grandson has had a fever that has enervated him for several days now.  Those of us who know from experience about fever in children know that with some medicine, some cool cloths, a lot of liquids and rest it's likely to run its course and shake off lethargy soon enough, but we still can't help remembering all the things that could go wrong.  We also can't help feeling sorry for their parents, remembering what it was like when we were first faced with a little one, usually so full of energy, waterfalls of words tumbling minute by minute..."Dad, Mama, Nana!  See this?  I can do...", now way too quiet and droopy and hurting, his favorite blanket comforting him as he curls into a corner of the couch.   We'd do anything to make him himself again. It's only the flu, we think, but it brings with it a vulnerability we don't want to be reminded of.

So here before me is this collage unfolding from distress but insisting on turning into the bigger picture.  I'm thinking it will probably now be the cover of a book instead of simply a card.  Though I'm still pondering the right frame for it, I think I know what it's about, this piece.   It's the way the making of art turns those deep-hidden emotions we are too old or stolid or iron-willed to admit, into images that overcome vulnerability, even though they are born of them.

We busy our hands with work to reinvent anxiety and uncertainty, creating the outward expression rather than eroding the sense within. 

The bread pudding, by the way, my uncle enjoyed for lunch with a little cream, while the sun flooded the dining room and the snow glittered outside.  Comfort made against the cold, usually by hand.