One Two Three

by jkatejohnston

2 December 2017

Dear Max,

Here we are again, me and Pete in front of the fire in the early morning dark. I have some notes, but it’s too dark to read them, and I don’t want to turn on lights and find my glasses. I have coffee. That’s enough.

I woke up around two and remembered how furious I am about something that happened at work. I won’t say any more about that in this public (barely!) forum. But I noticed that, even though I’m annoyed by the work problem, I’m even more pissed about how much room the grievance is taking up in my mind. I would like to have bigger thoughts than this.

But, as Oprah advises, count your blessings, one, two, three, and if you include mixed blessings you can go on for a long time. So, my work blessings, enumerated:


My actual boss is pretty great. I was writing an Accusation and wondering whether I could use the word butt in a legal pleading. Perhaps the more formal buttocks would be better. Butt? Buttocks? Butt? Buttocks? I posed the question to my boss, in what I hoped was a funny way. We were literally passing each other, so that she didn’t have time to answer, but she turned and called back to me, “Ass.”


This is more a story than a blessing. But I think it counts. The security guard who works at the service entrance of my office building is a Ukrainian woman, probably in her mid-sixties. Her name is Valentina.

After Thanksgiving I asked her how Ukrainians celebrate the harvest. She said it’s very important. They’re farmers, and there’s no irrigation. So no rain, no harvest. Religious people celebrate the harvest in church. Most people celebrate by drinking a lot.

I said something about Ukraine’s history of famine—meaning to say that when famine is a real possibility, of course the harvest takes on more significance.

And she told me that when her mother was a little girl, three or four years old, the communists took away her family’s farm. And they wouldn’t let you keep any seeds. You had to turn your pockets inside out and show that you didn’t have any. The family was still living on the land that had once been theirs. They made a shelter out of corn stalks and sunflower stalks. That night the weather changed, and a hard frost came. Valentina’s mother was the youngest child, and she slept huddled up with the mom. In the morning she woke up and her mom woke up, but her father and all her brothers and sisters never woke up.

The little girl and her mother walked a long way to the mother’s family home. There was nothing to eat. The mom would take a pototo and cut a round slice and use some wild berries or leaves to give it color and then give it to the little girl, and that was called a cookie.

A few days after Valentina told me this story, I noticed that she had missed work. When she came back, I asked if everything was all right, and she said that her mother, now in her nineties, had fallen at home and was in the hospital with a broken hip. Valentina and her sister were taking turns staying with her.

Every day I’ve been asking Valentina about her mom, and every day she’s been a little bit better, getting physical therapy, learning how to walk again. But Valentina told me that her mom is pretty heavy, which makes walking harder, and the doctors want her to lose weight. But her mom has been through three starvations and she loves to eat, and she loves bread. I asked Valentina what sort of bread Ukrainians eat, and she said her mom loves bread with big holes.

So I made her some. That’s part of the reason I was up at four yesterday—to do the second rise on a loaf of Jim Lahey bread. I brought it to work in my bike bag, loosely wrapped in a kitchen towel and still warm. I gave it to Valentina, and she looked at it and smelled it and sort of hugged it. Tears stood in eyes. She said she would bring it to her mom on her lunch break.

It would be nice if thinking about this woman’s life–three starvations!–would put my little work problem into perspective, but it doesn’t. My troubles and hers coexist in my mind nicely, and neither lessens the other.  I contain multitudes. And I’m still pissed.



Baking Credit: Annie Anderson. Photo credit: Todd Anderson (Mine didn’t turn out quite this pretty, but you get the idea.)