Pie Time

November 28, 2022

I studied the list of ingredients for my second pie ever. The first was apple, made with the crust “from scratch” two weeks ago. I thought I had followed the recipe to the letter. I pressed the crust into the plate. I dumped the filling, the sliced apples slathered with sugar and cinnamon, on top of the crust. Then something went wrong.

The apple pie was for “Pie Night,” a couple of weeks ago, a happy gathering of friends here in Greer who have been holding competitive Pie Nights for several years. The hosts award prizes for the best savory and sweet pies. More than a dozen exotic recipes were laid out on the dinner table. My humble apple pie didn’t win anything. At the end of the evening it was missing exactly two slices, including the one I ate. Actually all I got was filling—the crust was burned, cemented to the plate.

For my Pie Night attempt I found halfway through that I didn’t have enough crust for both the base and the top of the pie which, when out of the oven is supposed to show golden brown and delicious-looking. I took a breath, excavated the apple filling and dumped it in a bowl, then peeled the crust out of the plate. It came off as a sticky mess. I pressed it again between the two sheets of parchment paper, applied the rolling pin, and ground the dough paper-thin.

I relined the pie plate with the dough, barely covering the base. About one-third of the stuff remained. Instead of stretching it across the top I sliced it in thin strips and lay them in a criss-cross pattern over the filling. I shoved it in the oven. It became my first homemade pie, baked with original ingredients, with way less white sugar and other additives than the mass-produced Pillsbury stuff. I looked at the clock: three hours for all this. I was exhausted, with mountains of pans, dishes, and utensils to clean.

Now it was Thanksgiving, the holiday that taunts us with irony. It showed up amidst unspeakable tragedy. Last Thanksgiving Ukraine was at peace, or at least not at war. Today, lacerating violence is epidemic. Inevitably—we have no choice—we confront the essence of the human condition: heartache and pain, then hope and redemption. Families still gather to cook and talk. Courage comes to the troubled, angry ones, they show up and make peace.  Memories return. The eternal lesson of the Season offers spiritual sustenance, faith, and love.

Pie-making seemed both trivial and cosmic, preposterous and sublime. Thanksgiving, along with its solemnity, is the holiday of pies. Sandy and our daughter Marie were teaming for dinner that afternoon. The grandsons wouldn’t touch the Thanksgiving meal. Chicken nuggets or mac-and-cheese, maybe. I thought: another go at pie? Why not? Why not something they’d eat?

I took my ambition down a couple of notches to grocery store crust and filling. No original ingredients, no pride of authorship. The recipe called for preprepared crust in a tinfoil plate and chocolate pie filling from a box. Basically heat and serve. I thought I’d get one pie, but I mistakenly mixed in an extra helping of filling. So I could produce a second one.

All this amounted to was baking the crust for 12 or 15 minutes, mixing the chocolate powder with milk, then combining both ingredients. I forgot when I put the crust in the oven and pulled it out too soon. I combined the chocolate filling with the still-raw crust, but corrected the mistake with the second.

I placed the properly cooked pie in the refrigerator and took a do-over on the second. I scooped the filling out and stuck the crust back in the oven. When it looked done or almost done I pulled it out, once again added the filling, and with a deep breath stuck it in the fridge.  Finished, but still close to two hours.

We spent Thanksgiving morning with friends and their children. We all jogged or walked a few blocks then led the meal with a prayer. We shared Southern food, eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, biscuits. We talked about the common things that create closeness and hope—careers, children, parents, health challenges, recipes, holiday plans. The coffee was hot, rich, and tangy.

Later, before dinner I etched a funny face with whipped cream on my pie. The kids turned down the baked acorn squash and other good things but gobbled their helpings of pie. Afterward we all walked the nearby streets, waving to neighbors putting up their Christmas lights.  Late in the evening the two of us crept away, leaving the dregs of the pie.

Our first Thanksgiving came back to us as a bittersweet memory, now priceless. Three months past our wedding, we could not claim to know what we were doing. Late that drizzly, cold morning we stuck the turkey in the oven before it was fully defrosted. My in-laws waited impatiently. We kept checking, playing for time, but the bird would not cook through. Eventually the guests ate a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner and drifted away. We thought we heard some muted grumbling.

The turkey was done about 10 PM. The two of us, in pajamas, ate our first Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t recall any pies.

Following years flew by in a blur, Thanksgiving was always at home, just the two of us. We still suspect those first guests who didn’t get turkey found excuses not to join us. Our family grew, girl, boy, girl, girl, but from time to time we dragged neighbors and strangers over. Eventually we got the turkey right, and—I think—even had pie. I recall we talked for hours with people we barely knew or didn’t know at all—young and middle-aged couples, an elderly guy we saw at church, people with no plans, no family to join. Together, we gave thanks.

The weather is turning cold, the paranoia and anticipation of Christmas has exploded on the internet, the malls, everywhere. We’ll do our best in this new city, the second Christmas in this house. We know where to place the tree. I now have a ladder to climb for hanging lights. The simplicity and trauma of the holidays rushes in, two years now since the last surgery, more treatment ahead. I have a hospital appointment in nine days. But we got through Thanksgiving and pie time. Time for Christmas, and other miracles.  

Swamp Rabbit

November 21, 2022

The Swamp Rabbit Trail, really an asphalt bike and walking path, runs northeast about 20 miles from downtown Greenville to somewhere around the little town of Traveler’s Rest. The city built it on an old railroad bed as a tourist attraction. It follows the trickling Reedy River much of the way, past scrub woods, construction sites, and weather-beaten brick structures, the old textile mills now turned into upscale apartments and offices.

The Swamp Rabbit Café sits along the trail maybe three miles from downtown. The slogan, “Eat Local, Ride Bikes” is painted in bold letters above the doors and windows. The café advertises “sustainably sourced” drinks, sandwiches, and pastries “made from scratch.” It’s also a grocery store that offers “artisan” vegetables, beverages and snacks, beer and wine at prices we don’t want to pay.

On a gray, chilly afternoon we drove over and parked at the café. Looking about, I wondered if I were really in Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury instead of the Old South. We wandered through the store mainly to warm up. It was late, the place was nearly empty.  

We had just observed our two-year anniversary in this town. The idea was to get out of the house and walk a bit, so we set out on the trail, heading south toward downtown. We stayed to the right to allow the cyclists in their multicolored riding outfits to pass. They whizzed by on their ten-speeds and fat-tired mountain bikes. The trail is nearly level—flat—for its entire length. I wondered: how about trying a mountain trail, a bit of a challenge?

We talked as we hiked, but also paused and were silent. We moved away from busy streets. The trail isn’t particularly scenic, you wouldn’t call it beautiful. The river, more of a creek, was on our right, the woods to the left. As we padded along the silence helped ease the tension I felt watching election returns. People everywhere believe preposterous, contemptible lies. Some believe Lee should not have surrendered to Grant in April 1865.

I recalled driving out to the mountains near the North Carolina state line. You pass a no-name gas station that also sells freshly cooked barbeque. The place is done over in Confederate flags. A mile farther up the road is a shack next to a yard littered with busted appliances, tools, and car parts. Often a guy in a straw hat pushes a rake around. A skinny cow grazes in a pen. And I knew it before seeing it—one of those big blue and white banners draped over the fence.

We saw them on fences in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia. Lies are everywhere.

Second president John Adams gave us the gold standard on measuring lies against truth. When the eight British soldiers who fired on civilians in the Boston Massacre of March 1770 were charged with murder, Adams agreed to defend them when no other attorney would take the case.  He won acquittal for their captain and six of the eight because no evidence was produced against them. Adams then spoke his famous line, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” We know Adams borrowed the quote from the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett. But there it is.

We kept walking, riders and runners kept passing us. The riders tended to be older folks, grayhaired, decked out like twenty-somethings.

The runners were fast young guys and girls in teeshirts and shorts, showing off their sleek, graceful athleticism, within minutes they were dots. I smiled, recalling when I’d run for miles without a second thought. I felt happy watching them snatching these moments to leave their desks and computers to stretch their legs, test their strength, seize the joy of the road.

Watching them disappear up the trail bucked me up, prompting the thought that we all can create goodness for ourselves and others when we summon a reserve of faith and perseverance to confront the hard things that come to our lives. The columnist Michael Gerson, who died last week of cancer at 58, in a talk in 2019 said, “even when strength fails there is perseverance. And when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.” Gerson, a true Christian, stood his ground against the hard-right so-called “evangelicals.”

The long run, the sickness, the physical or moral pain, offer us a challenge, to steel ourselves to overcome, to find joy.

The runners, as they raced by without noticing us, moving their lives ever forward, reminded me of these things. They demolished my dark thoughts of this political moment.        

I moved with more of a spring to my step. We were starting to feel the chill. At a little over a mile we turned back as the afternoon light faded. We crossed a couple of bridges that spanned the Reedy, here and there the water churned in feeble rapids as it flowed toward the city. Lights strung around the café popped on as we approached. We stepped inside, I bought a small cider, eight ounces, for $2.75. “You could buy a half-gallon for $4.00,” Sandy said.

The place had largely emptied out. The evening clouds were moving in, warning of coming rain and cold. The two-year mark is behind us, the holidays are ahead. Our kids are coming for a few days. We headed home, wondering about the latest election updates—no, not really. What’s left to say. The lies are still out there, but so is truth, and hope.

The Abbey

November 14, 2022

We walked the tree-lined brick paths of the campus of Belmont Abbey College just after sunset. The twin Gothic spires of the basilica rose into the darkening sky. We pushed the massive door open and walked into the silence. We saw no one else.  Sandy knelt in the last pew. I looked around. It was nearly 7:00 PM, time for Compline, the monks’ evening prayer.

Since our daughter graduated from the school, run by the Benedictine monastic order, the fundraisers there fire a steady stream of emails and letters at us. A week earlier one of them announced a talk and piano recital by Rev. Robert Nixon, a Benedictine from an abbey in a remote corner of Australia. Sounds exotic, I thought. His topic: “The Love of Learning and the Search for God.” He would touch on the lives of the Benedictines, including St. Anselm, the patron of my alma mater. I pushed for going.

Belmont Abbey, in Belmont, just south of Charlotte, is 80 hard miles up I-85. South Carolina has been widening its stretch of the road for years, and for years it’s been a death trap—the actual words of a state coroner last summer. At least 30 of those 80 miles, maybe more, are narrow chutes past rows of jersey walls and construction cones that bring traffic to a halt any time of day or night between the state line and our place. Still, we needed to get out of the house.  

The drive up was tough, past construction crews and their rows of earth-moving vehicles, but we arrived at the campus a bit early. We brought a picnic dinner with us and ate at a table outside the campus theater, where students were rehearsing MacBeth. As we walked to the basilica, a monk appeared with his breviary. “Come to Compline,” he said with a smile, and hurried off.

We waited. At seven the lights went on and the monks filed in and took seats around the altar, the way Benedictines do in obedience to the Rule of St. Benedict, who founded the Order 1,500 years ago. One waved at us to join them. We stood with the others as the Abbot entered. Father Nixon took a seat next to Sandy. When the prayer ended we found a place in the front row. The crowd flowed in. I set my recorder near the lectern.

He introduced himself, joking about his thick Australian accent. “As you can tell, I’m not from around here,” he said. “I live at the Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity at New Norcia, in western Australia.” No one in the audience had ever heard of New Norcia. “If you saw the movie ‘Crocodile Dundee’ you know what it’s like,” he said. “Crocs, venomous snakes, wallabies, kangaroos, scrub, desert.” The crowd laughed.

He was a young man, I guessed late thirties. He explained that in his former life he was a classical pianist, then after turning 33 entered the seminary, studied philosophy and theology, and discovered a gift for Latin. At New Norcia he found his vocation as a Benedictine. His mission now is translating the ancient works of Christian scholars from the original Latin, in the tradition of Europe’s medieval monks. He is director of the Institute for Benedictine Studies at the Abbey and a fellow at Trinity College of Music in London—but still gets on the road for speaking tours and concerts.

With all that finished, he escorted us through the experience of the Benedictines, through Christianity’s fierce philosophical and religious debates, heresies, and wars that continued through the Early and Later Middle Ages, into the Renaissance, to this day.     

He paused and stepped to the piano and played for us, a hypnotically beautiful piece by Rachmaninoff that resounded off the stone walls of the basilica, filling the place with the magic of classical piano. Then he stood and walked back to the lectern.

“My title is inspired by a book by a great Benedictine of the 20th century, Jean Leclercq: The Desire for God and the Love of Learning, he said. He went on:

“I would like to suggest that all human learning is a search for God. Whatever we’re studying, we’re studying the work of God, the creation of God—whether it’s the humanities, whether it’s the natural sciences, whether it’s philosophy or theology, ultimately everything which exists is of God, contains the trace of God, something of the glory and goodness of God.

“When we try to search for God, we find ourselves encountering something of a brick wall, a blank slate. We think, ‘Well, I’m looking for God, but what is God?’ But God is ultimately beyond our understanding. God has given us this created universe, given us the glory of the human person for the sole purpose of coming to know him, of coming to love him. Ultimately all of our love, all of our desires, are part of this one single desire, for the ultimate reality, for the only true reality, which is God Himself.”

He turned back to the piano, and played again, the sound of his keystrokes rose above us.

He moved on, sharing insights on the great Benedictines, St. Benedict (480-547), who founded the Order in 529; St. Gregory the Great (540-604), who also was Pope and a nephew of Benedict; St. Bede the Venerable (672-736), known as the historian of England; St. Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury, who created the famous “ontological argument” for God’s existence.

He played again, then talked about St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), author of many devotional works. St. Hildegard of Binken (1098-1179), he said, was one of the first great women saints, a philosopher and naturalist.  Johannes Trithemius, the German mystic and cryptographer (1462-1516), was considered the most knowledgeable man of his time.

As he walked us through history, he added, “If we reflect more deeply on the human condition, we realize that our happiness, our fulfillment, doesn’t depend on the things of the external world. It depends on our interior being … . As our Lord Jesus Christ said, “The kingdom of God is within.”

He played a composition that summoned dreams of spring, playing with one hand, five fingers flying over the keys. Then he paused and stood, and spoke: “All of you, especially the students here at Belmont Abbey, are invited into this wonderful spirituality—the spirituality of the search for God and love of learning, which in the final analysis is one and the same.”

We joined the crowd, mostly students, on the basilica steps in the bracing autumn air. The kids laughed, chatted, and lined up for hot chocolate, cider, and cookies. The lawns around us glowed in moonlight. The monks filed out of the basilica. We waved goodbye, and headed for the car and the trip home, away from this special, beautiful place.  

Sterling Square

November 7, 2022

Inevitably, evil and oppression fail. Justice overcomes and restores, over years, decades, generations. Communities and nations find the way forward.

A dignified statue of two African American high school students stands at the northwest corner of West Washington and North Main Streets in downtown Greenville, S.C. The site is a few feet from the former front of the Woolworth’s department store.

In July 1960 eight students from Greenville’s all-Black Sterling High School tried to order food at the lunch counters at two downtown stores, W.T. Grant and S.H. Kress. The students were asked to leave. The lunch counters shut down, then reopened when they left.

The students followed the example of four Black students who conducted a sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C. The lunch counter sit-in tactic spread to several Southern cities and attracted national press coverage.

On August 9 the Sterling students returned to the two stores and to Woolworth’s and were arrested for trespassing, found guilty, and sentenced to either a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. The students appealed, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the conviction. In May 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court, deciding multiple similar cases, reversed the South Carolina court decision.

In 1967 Sterling High School caught fire during a student dance in an adjacent building, the school burned to the ground. Questions were raised, but a state investigation found “brittle wires” caused the fire. The 1,200 Sterling students were sent to Beck, another all-Black high school. Students of the two schools attended classes in shifts. In February 1970 the Greenville School Board complied with a court order to desegregate the city’s schools.

The statues at Washington and Main, dedicated November 19, 2006, aren’t conspicuous, actually easy to miss. The spot, called Sterling Square, evokes a solemn sense of goodness—that local South Carolinians resolved to honor the courage of those young people. The local Woolworth’s closed in 1994 and the company disappeared in 1997, eradicated by the hard laws of capitalism.

An inscription on the granite plaque at the base of the statues declares, “during the 1950s and 1960s Sterling students held demonstrations, marches, and rallies that finally integrated the Greenville County library and public accommodations, changed the seating arrangements on city buses, and eliminated the segregated lunch counters at the former Woolworth’s department store at this site.”

Last weekend we paused at Sterling Square and looked at the statues, trying to get a fix on how things we see here now came to be that way. We saw the remains of a couple of the last textile mills in the city, which once called itself “the textile capital of the world.” In the 1880s New England textile producers started shutting down their mills in Manchester and Nashua N.H., Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., and dozens of other places, and came south for cheaper non-union labor. Around 1970 they started heading for Southeast Asia, where they could pay workers even less.

Greenville, in the northwest corner of the state, escaped major Civil War action, although the local carriage company built wagons for the Confederate Army and a gun maker supplied rifles. Six weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Union troops ransacked the town looking for rebel president Jefferson Davis, who was 300 miles away. Reconstruction brought a struggle over livelihoods, stable lives versus subsistence. Businesses started and survived for a while then shut down, to be replaced by others.

Early Greenville folks went to church. The downtown Episcopal Christ Church dates from 1854, the First Baptist Church from 1858. In 1876 the Catholics got St. Mary’s. But while the city grew, segregation and Jim Crow set in here and throughout the Deep South. A local high school, major highway, bowling alley, and fire department, and lots of other places statewide are named after Wade Hampton III, pre-Civil War slave owner, later Confederate general, and still later governor and senator.

Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which moved here in 1946, lost its IRS tax-exemption because of its Whites-only admissions policy in 1976. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled against the school. It retained its rule against interracial dating until 2000.

Memories linger. Last February, during Black History Month, the city apologized for a social-media comment by Mayor Knox White, who in a narrative about Greenville’s experience with desegregation in 1970, let it slip that when he was a teenager, “a good number of my friends disappeared. They were sent to another school.” The city communications director dashed off a note: “I take full responsibility for not recognizing how insensitive it is to tell a story about a painful chapter in the lives of African-Americans through the eyes of a White person.”

Sterling High graduates were the first African Americans elected to the State House during Reconstruction. The student body president was the first African American admitted to nearby Furman University. Another was the first Black Superintendent of the Greenville County School District; another Sterling graduate was the first Black woman elected to the City Council.

The Sterling Square statues, “The Spirit of Sterling High,” were created by South Carolina sculptor Maria J. Kirby-Smith. At the dedication, Sterling High’s then-oldest living teacher, 94-year-old Wilfred Walker, who taught masonry, laid a brick in the wall the encloses the statues.

The future matters now, not the past.  Mayor White served as a member of the City Council committee that sponsored the statues. A new restaurant, Bricktops, will be opening in the former Woolworth’s site. On the upper floors is Golden Path Solar, which manufactures solar panels, a high-tech outfit taking advantage of the local go-go business climate, along with BMW, Fluor, General Electric, Michelin, Lockheed Martin, others.

Sterling Square moves this town forward. Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce waves at prospective new businesses with the slogan: “Did you know? South Carolina is a right-to-work state without unions!” Yes, that’s an exclamation point. No unions? Lower pay, fewer benefits! Maybe the future has arrived. Maybe not