Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned.¬†Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Frog Circus

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Tucked into the back corner of a small city museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts sits the Frog Circus. It literally took my breath when my eyes landed on it, and not in an awed-and-inspired kind of way, more in an ‘oh-my-god-look-at-that-roadkill’ kind of way.

But I have to admit, it was pretty incredible.

Dozens of taxidermy-ed frogs were arranged in an elaborate circus style setup, in a big Amphibian Big Top, forever frozen in place like strange freaks of nature, somehow equally adorable and disturbing. Behind a glass partition in a setup the size of a large television set, the creatures performed in perpetuity, forever frozen there.

A crowd of frogs on bleachers, large parents and small children, were arranged in rows to cheer for the performers.

Awkwardly bent frogs swung on trapezes in the air, one pulling an American flag with him, one holding on to the feet of another.

A frog clutching a parasol walked a tightrope.

A frog with a stick tamed a fearsome large rodent creature, seemingly a weasel.

Frogs rode on the backs of turtles, and other frogs were pulled in carriages by teams of small mice.

An entire band of frogs playing instruments, trumpets and drums, sat off to the left, horns raised to frog lips.

The woman who worked the front desk of the gift shop seemed to cringe a little when she told us about the Frog Circus. When my sister and I learned the museum was closed to tours, we had asked if there was still anything to see in the area, and she grimaced as she mentioned the Frog Circus, a crowd favorite since it was made in the late 1920s. Apparently some man named Burlington Schurr (a super-villain name if I’ve ever heard one) made the exhibit back in 1927, one of many he curated to teach youth about animals and nature. ‘What could be more natural,’ he must have thought, ‘than dead frogs posed unnaturally.’

I pictured him staking out his local pond, killing frogs of all sizes, taking them home, and going through the process of stuffing and arranging and preserving each one. ‘A circus!’, he thought. ‘I’ll put them in a circus!’

No matter the strangeness of the display, I realized it’s been around a generation longer than my mother. Hordes of people have lined up to stare at it, to marvel, and laugh, and retch, and be curious. I stared at it for several minutes, that slightly horrified look plastered on my face. And then I stepped away, knowing instinctively the images of those frogs will¬†be behind my eyelids when I try to sleep tonight. They won’t be moving, they’ll just be frozen there mid-act. And the thought of that makes me shudder, much as it will again tonight in sleep.