A Lot of Salt

Excerpt from Chlora's Book of the Month Club: February
Copyright 2015 Ginger Henry Geyer

Chlora’s elementary school class is learning about the USA in social studies…

Next up, a hands-on geography lesson
where in small groups they
were making
a big salt map of the United States
to display out in the hall.
The teacher probably regretted this bright idea
as it was messy. Geography usually is.

Two days ago each kid had to bring
a whole container of table salt from home,
and the school cafeteria chef brought in
big bags of flour, giant spoons
and stainless steel bowls.
It looked like they were going to bake bread.

The class was divided into small groups
and each group had to mix up the ingredients.
Standing on a desk, Chlora gleefully
dumped a whole box of Morton’s Salt
into the bowl just to see if
it rained when it poured from high above.
Salt went everywhere and the floor was gritty.
They added flour and water
and stirred up a goop-ey mess that represented
the melting pot of America.
It was kinda like a big fondue pot of lumpy
Velveeta, where amalgamation
was up against multiculturalism
to see what could blend in the best.
But in this case, you didn’t have to heat up
the cheesy stuff with Sterno.

More flour had to be added
and the kids wedged it into the stickiness.
What now looked like sugar cookie dough
tasted even worse than PlayDoh,
but each kid had to find that out for himself.

Chlora kept the round salt container
and glued a picture of Lot’s wife on it.
Lot’s nameless wife was known as
one of the bad girls of the Bible,
but who could blame her for looking back?
You would too if your house was burning up.
For that, she got turned into a pillar of salt,
stuck there on the outskirts of Sodom
like a giant salt lick for cattle.
Women back then had to stay a few steps
behind the men. So when one of those guys
turned around, saw this saline woman,
and reported this phenomenon,
why didn’t he get turned into a pillar also?
Maybe Lot’s wife should be reconsidered
as salt of the earth, a good thing,
which Jesus himself recommended.

Chlora perched her tribute to the salt lick wife
on the windowsill
near the pile of pizza boxes that had been
recycled for the salt map project.
The best thing about this was the entire grade
got to have a pizza party last week.
All fifty states had been outlined
on the inside of the pizza boxes.
Chora considered the states
she wanted to work on.

She dismissed all the bland squarish states
from middle America which were so flat
you might as well use a rolling pin on them.
And she avoided those little bitty
northeastern places
that had more influence than square footage.
Rhode Island wasted a lot of cardboard,
whereas Alaska took over both the pizza box
and part of its lid.

Blobs of gritty dough were doled out.
This sort of project had much less wiggle room
than an art project. There were rules
and, unlike art, they were
supposed to be followed.
Each state shape
had to be one-half inch thick,
even those with deep lakes.
However, the Rocky Mountains and places
like Mt. St. Helens could be made taller
by pinching the dough up into mountain ranges.
The more 3D, the better, but no air bubbles.
And the edges of each shape
had to be smoothed out so the fifty states
could be assembled together like a puzzle.

Why do humans make things like this?
Maps were a necessary way of organizing space,
but as somebody once said,
maps are a way of organizing wonder.
It was a wonder the world survived
at all with its combination of human ingenuity
and natural disasters.

Chlora took on Texas.
A bit of pepperoni stuck to the lid
of its box, so she ate it.
The dough was sticky and difficult to handle
and it was a challenge to fit that
big-headed shape
into the borders of the box,
but somebody had to do it.
Texas was a complicated shape, with both
straight and curvy borders due to rivers.
She rubbed her eye and got salt in it
and had to cry me a river
before she got to
play God and create the Rio Grande.

Texas was hot as a frying pan
so it had a panhandle,
as did Oklahoma right above it.
Who decided such things?
And what about poor Arkansas
with a bite taken out of two corners?
Some kid asked if they could include
a bit of Canada around the Great Lakes
to give the lakes another shore
to keep them within their banks.
Lakes were fun to dig out of the dough,
so Chlora snatched up Utah,
molded out a hole for the great Salt Lake
and filled it with a teaspoon of real salt.
Lot’s wife would probably
find some friends there.

The next day the pizza boxes were lined up
in alphabetical order and the kids stuck
toothpicks with little flags into the stiff dough
to indicate state capitals and landmarks.

Texas had a lot of those, such as the Alamo,
and Arkansas had a towering Jesus
and Utah had its Mormon temple.
The toothpicks wouldn’t stay stuck
in these religious symbols
so Chlora got out the rubber cement
to keep them in their places.

On the third day they peeled the hardened states
off the cardboard, making another big mess.
Then out came the tempera paints.
Several moms were on hand for this,
premixing the pigments with water
and a bit of powdered detergent.
Little plastic cups of primary colors
lined the countertop near the sink,
each with its own paintbrush.
No color mixing was allowed,
and no double dipping of brushes.

If your state had cracked,
apply glue, unless the cracks were
from California earthquakes.
They were instructed to first
paint all bodies of water in blue.
Avoid getting paint on the toothpick flags.
If you get paint on your clothes,
see a mom right away and wash it out.

Chlora took a cup of each color
and scowled. She insisted that
they had to mix the colors and they must
have both white and black to create
better tones and hues.
Certain states had to be cool colors,
and others warm colors,
and it had nothing to do with
politics or football teams.
Yes, the color was influenced by weather
but mainly it was derived just from
the sound of the word.
Tennessee just sounds yellow ochre.
Mississippi however was blue, a muddy blue,
that would contrast from old man river,
and Florida must be sunshine yellow.
Or maybe flamingo pink.
And most of those Yankee Doodle states
are shades of brown,
except for Vermont which is green.
And D.C., which should be blue
but is only a speck on the map
and doesn’t even get the benefits of being a state.
Chlora explained that Texas simply
was not a blue state.
It is hotter than Hades down there,
so you have to color it red, or better yet, orange.

Her tablemates looked at Chlora
like she was looney tunes.
The smart aleck Alex kid
went to look up the word “Hades”
in Webster’s and loudly announced that
Chlora had said a cuss word.
The teacher intervened
and said the U.S. didn’t have
anything to do with art,
so Chlora should just skip the color lesson.

Chlora’s small group had to
color the Southern states
and somebody asked if they could put
the colored people on the map, too.
The teacher replied that all people are colored
and, no, these maps were not for people.

At the next table, a bored kid whined,
what is the difference between Iowa and Ohio?
Whereupon a song broke forth:
  It’s round on the ends
  and high in the middle…O-HI-O!
And Iowa is the state where tests come from.
The same boy then asked where is
that country of Guacamole,
where they grow lots of avocados?
He was told to concentrate on the USA
right now and forget the rest of the world.

They’d do a world map next year.
That would be interesting, making a flat globe
like in the time of Columbus
when they thought you could sail
right off the edge of the world. Then what?
Would the boat float through the stratosphere
like in Peter Pan?
People lived with mystery back then
much easier than we do now.

On the globe it looked like
South America and Africa
were puzzle pieces that used to be attached
to each other.
Maybe one’s hollow fit into the other’s hump
long ago but they got divided
and eroded by the sea.
It was fun to spin the globe and watch time fly
as the time zones got blurry
and it made it into a small, small world.,
like on that little world bank globe
she received once as a gift.

Chlora broke out in song,
the Disneyland song
that her little brother liked to sing
over and over until it got obnoxious.

  It’s a world of laughter and a world of tears
  it’s a world of hopes and a world of fears
  there’s so much that we share
  that is time we’re aware
  its a small world after all

  it’s a small world after all
  it’s a small world after all
  it’s a small world after all
  it’s a small, small world

  there is just one moon
  and one golden sun
  and a smile means friendship to everyone
  though the mountains divide
  and the oceans are wide

Chlora was told to hush
even though it was a nice little ditty
and, yes, it is
all about a peaceable kingdom
like in the book of Isaiah Is.
but Chlora wondered
where to find a place like this
where wolves and lambs and leopards, etc.
can all live together.
She glanced at Isaiah’s Middle East on the globe
but it was perpetually in an uproar,
something that was difficult to indicate
with cartology.

The teacher went on to explain that the
next worldwide myth, that is, the overarching
story we all live by without thinking about it,
would be about interconnectedness.
The global economy was already proving this,
and so was quantum physics and spirituality.
So yes, we must all learn
to get along, even these small groups
quibbling at the table.
Otherwise we will fall off the edge
into the abyss like the Nina, Pinta,
and Santa Maria almost did.
Chlora’s mind map went all over the map
with this notion, branching out in
a non-linear flow like ink seeping through silk.

The smart Alex kid asked in a loud voice how to
plot out the geography of evil
on the world map. He spilled a box of
toothpicks as he turned
the globe toward Russia.
The teacher asked Alex to instead
enlighten us on the geography of love,
where does it occur the most?
Does it thrive in bigger or smaller areas
and how do we measure its effectiveness?
Alex was stumped for once,
and she grandly informed him
that it is love that makes the world go round,
so geography was everywhere.
Go sit down.

After the kids finished painting the salt map states
they hot-glued each one
onto a piece of plywood
to hang out in the hall.
This turned out to be
an off-the-wall proposition,
as the states simply refused to stick together.
Chlora’s Texas was sagging
and trying to secede.
Somebody let Nevada get too big
and it wouldn’t fit in.
State boundaries were rough and irregular,
but at least they were porous.
Those in a state of denial broke apart,
like churches that split and divided
all the time.
Love it or Leave It?
How was the state of the union?
Chora wondered if the ideal of union
should flex with the times
because they were running out of glue sticks.


There had to be a better way to make a map.
Chlora’s little brother had a wooden puzzle
that was a map of the US,
but it was missing at least four states
and there was no way to replace them.
Some leader needed
to make those states stay put
and remind us what the word united means.

Chlora envisioned a large round tabletop map
where all the states blended together,
centered by the Statue of Liberty.

She thought of all the souvenir china
that her grandmother collected.
You couldn’t eat off of the plates and
they just hung there
on the wall in alphabetical order,
with several gaps
for states she had yet to visit.
There were dinner plates, cups and saucers,
bells, figurines, state birds and ashtrays.
Why not smash those garish souvenirs
into smithereens and put them back together
so everybody got a fair amount of attention?
It’d be a jumbled map in the way that
the world really is, with places
plotted here and there as people
visited them, set down roots, and moved on,
carrying a bit of home with them.

All the silly caricatures we attach to places,
like hillbillies and hula girls
would be reassembled and redeemed,
the war icons would cease to be celebrated,
and racist symbols, like confederate flags
and cartoony Indians would be
shattered because they needed to be.

All fifty states at the round table
negotiating their own history and future,
facing up to the original blessing and the
original sin of America,
offering up their own acculturated stereotypes
to be broken so they could be healed.
Even mass-produced kitsch could be
transformed at the round table,
with border states along the edge
giving up their fences to welcome
the homeless, tempest-tossed,
wretched refuse of their teeming shore.

Lady Liberty would be raised up whole
and see liberty from both sides to remind us
how to nurture national pride
plus care for the tired and poor and
huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
If Abraham Lincoln were still around,
he could show us how to live up to that poem
on the Statue of Liberty that we take for granted,
and restore this union again.

Better yet, collect plates and doodads
from all over the world,
break them and reassemble the shards
so that people could
cross borders as easily as birds.
It’d be a playful and poignant jumble,
a grand cultural mosaic of transmigration,
an offer to refugees of a humane place to make home.
Moreover, throwing plates would be
a therapeutic way to put a lot of those
kitschy souvenirs out of commission.