Planning for Dragons

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

 
My husband planned to mow the lawn today, but last night this happened.
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We were not home at the time, but apparently we missed quite a thunderstorm. Our two cats witnessed the event, but they’re not talking. As we drove home from a fun evening with friends at the Auburn Road Vineyard and Winery, we watched as lightening traveled from cloud to cloud and sometimes from cloud to the ground. We weren’t driving in the rain; it was all in the distance, and it was quite amazing to watch. We were fortunate that there was no damage to our house, cars, or neighbors’ property. As with dragons, when you live near trees, you must consider them in your calculations.

 

Of course, plans go awry all the time. We encounter traffic delays and arrive late somewhere; we have to move an outdoor event indoors because of rain. And we change what we are writing because of new evidence or a sudden, brilliant idea. OK. I suppose there are some writers who plan everything and never change a word, or bit of punctuation. I’m not one of them.

 

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation about marital problems in eighteenth and early nineteen-century Pennsylvania, which became Breaking the Bonds, I could not plan the chapters until I had done the research—and, of course, I kept finding new material. At the same time, I searched desperately to find particular court records and other documents that no longer existed. Or to discover more about the men and women I encountered in court dockets and almshouse records, people who were not well known or wealthy, and in fact, were often poor and desperate. I planned and wrote, and planned again, and wrote some more. I had a baby during this process—also planned—but I did not know then how having a baby would change how and when I worked. Writing a dissertation is one big life lesson on planning and re-doing plans.
This has proven true for most of my writing. What I plan to write about in my books and in my blog changes constantly.

 
As some of you know, I often change a cooking plan in mid-recipe (or more likely mid-non-recipe). A few weeks ago, I had some bananas I wanted to use up, and also a few strawberries. So I made strawberry banana walnut bread. This is my new super-easy and delicious banana bread recipe, adapted from Simply Recipes. My version is mainly banana bread with just a hint of strawberry. Because I think banana bread is kind of naked without walnuts, I also added some ground walnuts to the original recipe.

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So here’s the recipe. You might want to plan to make it some time, or not.
Super Easy Banana Strawberry Bread
3 ½ medium bananas
About 4 strawberries
1/3 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup (approximately) ground walnuts
Melt butter. (I use the microwave to melt the butter in the same mixing bowl I’m going to use for the recipe.) Mash bananas and strawberries into the butter with a potato masher or other tool of your choice. Or use your hands if you want to. I don’t care. Mix in the egg—you can use the same potato masher, spoon, hands. . .Stir in the sugar and vanilla with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the salt and baking soda on top, and stir. Add the flour and nuts. Bake in a greased loaf pan for about 1 hr at 350 degrees. Cool. Then remove the bread from the pan. Eat and do a little dance—because it will make you that happy. Plan on it.  Image

Maps of Life

Cropped section of original image of three anc...

Cropped section of original image of three ancient maps, public domain Scanned by WMF intern Mike Hoffman, uploaded by Bastique, and cropped by Editor at Large (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Love Over Scotland

Recently the son of some friends did very well in his school’s Geography Bee. It made me think about the whole subject of geography—not really something I’ve thought much about. I’ve only had one formal geography course in my life, and it wasn’t even a full year’s course. This world geography class was part of the 7th grade curriculum at Haverford Junior High School, but I didn’t enter that classroom until March, after we had moved from Dallas to Pennsylvania. As I recall, the teacher was a no-nonsense man with a crew cut and glasses. On one of my first days there he announced that the homework assignment was to read a new chapter in the textbook. I went home and read the chapter—because I always did my homework. But, as we all know there’s reading, and then there’s careful, in-depth reading. I was surprised by the “pop quiz” the next day, but my classmates had already learned to expect one with each new reading assignment. “Oh yeah,” they told me, “He always gives a pop quiz after he gives a reading assignment.”  From then on, I was prepared, but I don’t think any of the facts and figures I learned during that course remains in my brain. I wonder how much of what I learned then even applies to world now?

I seem to remember lectures about the Danube and Elbe Rivers in one of those first lectures. I assume the course of the rivers has not changed significantly—although I don’t really know. But when I was in that 7th grade classroom, East and West Germany were separate countries, and Berlin was still divided by a wall. Much of Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union, which was still the Soviet Union. The Cold War was in progress, and US troops were fighting in Viet Nam. The names of African nations I learned as a child have changed. The world has changed—as it always has.

Over millennia, the Earth has been transformed many times.  Both physical and cultural geography have undergone changes as civilizations have appeared and disappeared. When Europeans first came to my section of New Jersey, there were vast forests on both sides of the Delaware River. There were islands in the river that no longer exist. English settlers lived in caves built into the banks of the river, and over time built roads and buildings that covered swamps. Since my husband and I have lived in our current house, new houses have been built on our block and trees have vanished.

Learning facts about geography is important and valuable, but it strikes me that it is like taking a snapshot of a particular time and place. The borders and names of countries and cities can change overnight during wars or political upheavals.  Physical changes can take place, too, as a result of natural disasters such earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanoes, or human acts, such as bombings.

Even with satellites, photographs, and computers, maps identify terrains that are in reality fleeting and mutable. “Those maps of our private world,” as Alexander McCall Smith refers to them, are also fleeting and mutable, at least in the physical sense. The first house you lived in might no longer exist, but in the memory of your childhood, it remains constant and unchanged by time.

When I think of myself as that 7th grade girl, I realize I had to learn and create many new maps. My own personal geography had changed. My family had moved to a new town, a new house, and I was in a new school.  Despite my terrible sense of direction (I’ve been known to get lost getting out of an elevator), I don’t remember having any problems navigating the physical geography. I felt a sense of excitement, along with the apprehension. I didn’t know what path my life would take, but I fashioned some new maps as I walked it.

As we go through life, we create many new maps and learn to live in different settings, both physical and emotional. We graduate, we marry, we find a new job, we become parents—all of these life moments change our own personal geography. Sometimes it’s scary; sometimes it’s exciting. According to legend, ancient mapmakers labeled unknown areas with the inscription, “Here Be Dragons.”  In truth, we all face dragons and uncharted territory as we go through life. Our futures are Terra Incognita to be explored and mapped. But really, would we want it any other way?