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On darkly stained oak shelves in my office, there rests a set of red Britannica Junior encyclopedias, copyrighted 1976. My mama was proud of these books she purchased for me. Her family moved so often during her childhood that she missed many subjects her new class had already covered, and she never graduated. When she had me, she was determined to stay put, so I could attend kindergarten through 12th grade in one place and learn things she never had.

She also purchased one enormous Merriam-Webster dictionary which, if set on the hood, could flip a four-door sedan. If I asked her what a word meant or who a person was, she'd point to those books and tell me to look it up. Then she'd listen to me read the answer, and we both learned. To her, those books marked the first step toward instilling in me the importance of knowledge.

We now live in a world where information is at our fingertips. I can ask a computer about the time, my location or quantum physics, and be given a fairly reliable answer. With all this information to make us bright, how is it we seem to be getting a little dimmer every day?

For Christmas, I made bars of soap as gifts. To my surprise, most recipients cautiously asked, "Is this lye soap? Can I use it on my skin?" I assured them they could. Some said they recalled their grandmothers making lye soap and how it stunk. Some said they might use it only on laundry to be sure. One said this must be why my complexion is nice -- I burn my face daily using lye soap.

When did we stop knowing all soap is lye soap? Yes, Dove and Dial and all things Irishly springing are made with lye. Without a fat and an alkali, there's no saponification -- the chemical process which converts fat into soap and glycerin. Even the melt-and-pour "homemade" soaps are made using sodium hydroxide (lye) with the saponification already done for you.

We tell ourselves we've evolved and surpassed prior generations, and in some ways, that's true. But just two or three generations ago, more folks than not knew how to make soap, grow and preserve their own food, use nature for remedies, and do basic carpentry and mechanics and a host of other skills. They knew it because they did it. They didn't have (or couldn't afford) a system of suppliers to do it for them. So, is it possible, that when we stop doing something for ourselves and start relying on others to do it for us, we eventually lose the knowledge of how to do it altogether?

I'm grateful for this system which affords me the luxury of being ignorant, but I don't wish to give it so much power I remain stupid. Part of getting back to my roots is reconnecting with some basic down-home wisdom learned best from doing things by hand.

But don't put your hands in the lye, honey, that'll burn you like a bad habit. And I didn't learn that from Britannica.

NAN Our Town on 01/19/2017

Print Headline: The lyes we tell ourselves

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