Pre-Season Growth in the Greenhouse

beets and the watermelon vine

The greenhouse is officially a game changer. At this point I’m just wondering how I can wrestle more space (always I need more!) for beds so I can expand my spring– and fall– production next year.

I wasn’t sure what it would mean exactly, this “season extender.” I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. People immediately have visions of orchids and tomatoes in January, but I explained this is a gigantic and unheated greenhouse. As such, I considered it untrustworthy. I feared losing work with a sudden freeze.

And a few of my tomato plants did get frostbitten leaves one night in April. But with a heater that kept the place above 35 (supposedly), and with the temperature always being at least 10 degrees above the temp outside, we quickly got to sustainable temps for the seedlings and the beds.

Things have gone so well that all three families have been eating regular salads– spinach, mixed lettuce, and spinach– from the greenhouse for a month. The spinach is getting more and more “spiky,” and I’ll pull it at the start of June, but it’s been a good run. Same with the arugula– we’re in our second batch right now. All of these greens have enjoyed an extra week since it’s been raining and cold outside. They looked almost done with the heat of the week before but bounced back for a little extra life.

pea vines

But that’s not the exciting part. The exciting part is pea pods in May!! And beets and carrots that are leafy and starting to root. Usually I have had a sort of dead zone in June, since the greens are worn out, the asparagus getting woody, and there hasn’t been enough sustained good weather to bring along the next crops. Pea vines can take a while to grow in windy and intemperate conditions. Beets are such a good, solid, dependable crop, but they take time. So even as I look at the baby sprouts coming up in the beds, the first pea vines clinging to the bottom rung of the fence, I have blossoms, lots of blossoms, and even pods! on the vines in the greenhouse. The greenhouse will mean bonafide bounty in June around here. And since the weather has confirmed my general policy of not planting out much before June 1, this is a great leap forward.

By the time it gets hot hot, I expect to start seeing cucumbers on their vines, and will pull the beets and carrots and let the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers take over (along with one watermelon and one cantaloupe vine). So far the tomatoes are very happy, and I can only expect they’ll be even happier when the heat comes. I have room outside, but also continuous weeds (the rain has taken me back a notch!) and a long way to run the hoses. So I’m eyeing that greenhouse space and even thinking about going vertical with some of these early plants (greens and lettuces do well in suspended roofing gutters) because that’s the kind of greedy gardener I am.

The prairie plants (why we have this greenhouse) are doing well, too!

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The Newest Immigrants

Saynab and Mariama with pinwheels and Sadiya at the end-of-school celebration (teacher Dianne)

 

This was the final week of the school year in the local ESL program where I’ve been tutoring. We started in March as outreach to Somali women who have moved to our town. The six women who have participated are all different– different ages, different personalities, and different levels of English speaking. We have gotten to know each of them a bit and hopefully helped them not just feel more comfortable speaking English but also feel more comfortable living in our town.

This week I also went to the local elementary school and did a Poet-in-the-school visit for all four sixth grade classes. Each class had Somali children in it, the girls all in hijab. Here in Minnesota, the arrival of Somali immigrants is the second wave of diversity in our area. There was a wave of Mexicans and Latin Americans, who came to work in the local meat processing plants.

But the Somali immigrant situation is different. For one thing, no one feared the Mexican immigrants. They may have had disdain for them– for people who don’t speak English or were suspected of being here illegally– but there was not the stigma of America’s fear of Islam and suspicion about terrorism hanging over them.

The Somali population has it hard. Most of these families are coming from refugee camps. Many adults have not had formal schooling or held a pencil before. They are coming from a failed state. Also, they stand out wherever they go. Really, the women are so striking in their bright clothing and flowing hijab that they can’t help but turn heads. One day I saw a group of Somali women waiting at a bus stop near the library and that image has stayed with me. There is an otherness to these East Africans that would be noticeable anywhere but seems even more stark in the homogenous neighborhoods of Central Minnesota.

Teaching English to the women who come for the class is a way to bridge what feels like a big gap between the two cultures, to get to know these women. Because like any other immigrant group– from Asia or Latin America or Africa or the Middle East– that first generation, the parents, need to learn English and find ways to connect.

I saw this need most directly when I was in the sixth grade classes. We wrote a poem together and then they wrote their own on the subject of “A Trip to X.” The Somali girls wrote about “A Trip to Paris,” and “A Trip to Los Angeles.” Places they had never been but supposed were filled with glamour and movie stars. The Westest of the West.

One girl, however, started her page with: “A Trip to Somalia.” She was immediately stuck. I worked with her a bit. She had been born in Somalia but didn’t remember it, but heard about it from her parents. I asked what she thought she would see, hear, eat– use your senses. Was she in a city? A village? Near the coast? She looked blankly at me. Are there flowers? A market?

When she got up to share her poem, it was no longer about Somalia. She didn’t name the place. But she said it was frightening there, dangerous, and you couldn’t go outside. She said it was an ugly place and outside was death.

Her poem shocked me. It represented the worst of the worst of what Americans think about Somalia. Blackhawk Down. But a friend of mine had just been there on a trip to help repatriate some refugees, and she posted photos of markets and clean streets and elaborate banquet meals. So how did this sixth grader get that picture of her homeland in her head? It came to her in English, I believe.

And it was hard for me to imagine these children taking their poems home to some of the mothers in our class. Two of the mothers would not be able to understand their children’s work at all. Others would be able to read the poems, but probably wouldn’t know what to make of the pop culture references– of Spongebob Squarepants and Steph Curry. In a discussion of rhyme and the oral nature of ancient poetry, one of the boys brought up rap music, and the other two Somali boys turned and smiled at him, though they seemed a little embarrassed or unsure of how rap music would be received in this context. I compared early rappers who stood in circles competing to see who could come up with the best rhymes with early Haiku masters who would sit in circles and compose 100-poem cycles.

The sixth graders were already Americans. They were fluent in English and pop culture. Their classmates appreciated their quirks and contributions.

Somali dishes and American cookies!

On the last day of class, the Somali women brought in a lot of food for a little farewell celebration. They compared the “sabaayad (flabread) with stew (curry)” to tacos, and we recognized the delicate, sweet pancakes as crepes. The sambusa meat patties are clearly relatives of Indian samosas. We talked to Sahara and Fardosa and Saydab and Sadiya about grocery stores and food. Sahara particularly stresses her search for “quality”! We asked if she’d made it to the Farmer’s Market, which is right behind her apartment building on Friday afternoons. Sahara was pleased, because she bought “organic honey” there. Always she wants “quality, best quality” for her family. No doubt her children ask for “PBJs” and the cereal with LaBron on the box.

In other words, it is as it always is. We meet over language learning. We share food. The children lead the way.

Fardosa and Sahara ready to eat!

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Localish and Seasonalish


The eating is so good right now it really brings me joy. The transition from winter to spring eating is so dramatic here. I’ve never been a big salad eater (and soup is not for dinner), but growing my own lettuce, greens, and spinach has changed my tune. Right now, before things start to bolt in the heat, is prime time for salads in our house. And also for building up those salads with additional veggies and herbs that are coming into season.

I remember when I entered a stage of dedicated local and seasonal eating a friend said, “But I couldn’t live without olives, lemons, and avocados.” I reassured her I wasn’t suggesting she follow me or that there was a moral imperative here. Also, she made a good point. There are a lot of things we can’t get locally or that I want to eat all year round. Once I got in the habit of thinking locally and seasonally first, I relaxed my standards to gain more variety. (That cheese making with local milk? Not so much anymore.)

I’m a big fan of the New York Times cooking site. It’s replaced Epicurious.com for me as my go-to recipe site. This spring, they ran a feature on rhubarb that I read with interest. I really wanted to add rhubarb to savory dishes and wasn’t sure how to do that. It seems like it should be doable because rhubarb isn’t sweet. But the key was to embrace it as a fruit and still use it in savory dishes.

This recipe for a chicken tagine with rhubarb caught my eye. Martha Rose Schulman never leads me astray. I didn’t get as far as the tagine, but I did make the poached rhubarb.  I didn’t even have a vanilla bean, but I added a splash of vanilla after cooking. The secret to this rhubarb is to drain off the syrup (you can save that for sweet dishes). The rhubarb becomes sweet pieces like cranberries or raisins and can be used in that way. I used half the rhubarb in a layer with spinach and salmon. The other half I used on a “big salad.”

Julia Moskin has a guide up called “How to Make Salad.”  In it she encourages people to think of a green salad as a “real vegetable” with a meal, just greens and dressing. I have to say the best salad I have ever eaten in my life was in a Palo Alto restaurant circa 1992 that consisted only of butter lettuce and vinaigrette. It was perfection. But it’s true I forget you can just throw greens in a bowl and dress them for the vegetable.

Her other instruction is on the “big salad.” This is the area I’ve been exploring lately, based in part on a salad nicoise and in part on the Greek salad, but using seasonal things as the base (we’ll get to nicoise when I have green beans and baby potatoes and Greek when I have tomatoes and cucumbers).

Right now I have a mix of lettuces and greens, asparagus, radishes, garlic, and rhubarb. I also have chives and lots of dill I’m trying to thin and get under control. I have started buying cherry tomatoes, which are flavorful and easy to use.

Local sunflower oil is available at the farmer’s market. I’m also trying to eat more grains, since I get a pound of them every three months from my Rancho Gordo bean club membership. I have a half pound of amaranth and quinoa to get through for breakfasts (with almonds and dried cherries) and salads. That goes in the salad, too. And for protein, shrimp is easy, or leftover chicken thighs, local eggs, or beans from that club.

Feta or blue cheese, nuts, or other non-local non-seasonal things make good additions. But I still have a flush of pride over what I’ve grown, both the bounty and the variety, and more and more each night I’m not trying to come up with a way to eat the produce but just building meals.

 

 

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Tenacious Weeds


I got the worst of the weeds out of raised bed #15 yesterday. The worst are thistle, and this bed had a lot of thistle. It’s the worst because it will come back and because it stings my hands if I casually pull it without wearing gloves.

Dandelions are a close second. They put down deep taproots and often come back thicker and stronger.

There are two ways to get these weeds out of the garden: spray them with herbicide or pull and pull and pull until they give up. (They almost never give up.)

No wonder this weeding has made me think about cancer. Because last year we fed all the poison we could into my veins to kill the cancer and then we carved out via surgery whatever was left.

Of course I don’t use herbicide on the garden. After all, I’m growing food in there! But also, I can live and the garden beds can thrive with a certain amount of weed activity. As long as I maintain the garden and keep pulling and cutting out the weeds as they pop up– and use my handy hula hoe for the small stuff– the food plants will be fine. The bed will be healthy.

I’d also much prefer not to put any more poison in my body. I’m growing good cells in there! Skin and hair and nails and also white and red blood cells and digestive aid cells and organ cells of all types.

The surgery, also, was “optimal.” Nothing visible left behind. I think of that whenever I am able to dig in and then pull a dandelion that yields its entire root. So satisfying. Right now there are a lot of thistle plants peeking out of the yak compost we dumped in two beds, but again those pull out easily and completely. The surgeon gave us reason to believe that the taproot had not gotten very far. The oncologist, though, let me know that Stage IV means a lifetime of “watchful waiting” for what may return.

It’s really a drag to see a large amount of weeds popping up in the compost pile. Cancer is also a huge drag. But in the garden, we can go in and dig and hoe and restore order. I am in control. And like the baths I took every week of treatment, there is a good deal of nurturing that follows up. And in the end, food.

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Chickens Just Want to be Free (Range)

This is an angry chicken.

Last Sunday we moved her over to her “summer” digs, out of the barn and to the pen and coop behind the house. I was a little nervous about how she would react to the young chickens, and even more worried that they would be afraid of her.

She’s not angry that she has to share the coop with six young chickens. She doesn’t care about those greenhorns at all. She just wants out. Meanwhile, the young chickens were instantly curious about her. “Mama!” They’re taking the rejection well.

I kept her in for five days so she wouldn’t run back to the barn but would “bond” to the new coop. It is important that she comes home there at night. And that seems to have been enough.

I opened the door Thursday afternoon to give her a little freedom. She hung around the pen, going in and out, pecking around some trees and in a straw pile.

Yesterday I opened the door in the morning and she spent the day getting reacquainted with the wider area. I was gardening and she hung out by the garden (though not in, thanks to the new and improved garden fence. At one point she made a full round outside the fence and then moved on. Later we watched her from the porch as she made a full round of the house.  By 8:30 she was back on the roost.

This, my friends, is a happy chicken. I’m happy, too! Good to have her back.

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Stability

a view of my patio in apartment 9 at the Collegeville Institute

Last night I went to the 50th Anniversary event for The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John’s Abbey. It made me think about the Benedictine virtue of Stability.

Sacred Heart Chapel at Saint Benedict’s Monastery a mile from my home

The room was full of wonderful people, many of whom I know. On the way in I met up with S. Michaela, the prioress of Saint Benedict’s Monastery, the women’s monastery where I was communications director from 2008-2012. One of my last acts was working on her installation as prioress. With her was S. Susan, the prioress elect, who will be installed in June. I said to her: “One night I was sitting next to you at an ESL training session and the next week you were elected prioress!” I asked her about her team, which will be announced soon. I have known her as a somewhat shy and quiet woman, but she was beaming!

I met a couple of new people, too. When I said my name was Susan Sink to a young editor at Liturgical Press, she said, “Oh! I know that name!” My work on The Saint John’s Bible continues on there. When I introduced myself to a woman at my table, who turned out to be the daughter-in-law of J.F. Powers, she said, “Oh! You’re a poet, right?” To be identified as a poet was really gratifying!

Saint John’s Abbey Church

I was seated between two Benedictine monks, the music scholar Anthony Ruff, and the wonderful Hilary Thimmesh. In great Benedictine fashion, they gave two takes on a joke. Fr. Hilary said: “There was a farmer who won the lottery and received $10 million. When asked what he would do with the money, he said, ‘I’ll keep on farming until it’s all gone.'” To which Fr. Anthony said, “I thought you were going to say, ‘I’ll give a half million to each of my children.'” Both answers are rooted in this Central Minnesota (large German families) farming community.

The keynote speaker was Kathleen Norris. She told the story of her relationship with the Institute, particularly how it served as an ecumenical place, where Catholic and Protestant and Evangelical and Pentecostal and Mennonite scholars come together, each working on their own projects, and speak to each other of their faith, traditions, and theological positions. Into this environment was dropped Norris, working on her book Dakota, a Presbyterian drawn to Benedictine monasticism. She had trouble winning over the scholars, and recounted a discussion with a philosopher/theologian who said dismissively that all she did was “tell stories,” to which she replied, “What else is there?”

Her book Cloisterwalk, about her experience at the Institute, is what brought me here as a scholar in 2005-06. I often relate how full I was that year. Even though I was lonely a lot of the time, I was also completely engaged with ideas and writing and the people around me. I was in the company of giants and I knew it. Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, taught me so much about liturgy that year it transformed my relationship to my faith. (And I was her occasional bridge partner to boot.) After I read from my memoir about my experience as a teenager in an Assembly of God Church, the one evangelical in our group came up and said, “You did good, Susan.” That meant more to me than any other response.

I became an Oblate of this community, Saint John’s Abbey, and present at the ceremony, where I made my promise to live out the Benedictine Rule as closely as I was able in my layperson life, was Kilian McDonnell, OSB, 95 years old and the founder of the Institute 50 years ago. He was also at dinner but retired early. I tried my best the year my office was across from his at the Institute to convince him one could not find immortality through poetry (and that his legacy in ecumenicism and theology was immortality enough) but he continues to write it!

And stability. It is a major pillar of the Rule of St. Benedict. For the monks it means staying in one monastery, committing to community and place no matter how difficult that becomes. Loving one’s brothers or sisters and staying rooted.

When I had lived here two years or so, I was asked to write an essay on Stability for a book for Oblates. I also gave a talk to the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey on the subject. But I have to admit my heart fell when I received the topic. Before coming to this area, I had moved every two years (or more) my entire adult life. I had never been in a place longer than four years. I had never been committed to place. Also, I came here after a divorce– even my marriage had not proven stable enough to last more than five years.

I had to be creative, and so I found that the word “stability” only appears twice in the Bible, and only in the Old Testament. And it means “good rule.” The term only applies to stability of government– good rulers applying good rule. The story of the Israelites is not one of sustained stability. I also remembered that my friend, the scholar Dorothy Bass, who had been at the Institute with me, was trying to write a book about Christians embracing place and staying put, only to discover the New Testament was all about moving around, not staying put, never putting down roots! Jesus did not say “bloom where planted.”

But in the Quad last night, where the bricks were made by the monks in the 19th century, I had a glimpse of how my own stability has happened. Here I am. It has been twelve years! Here I am, full of stability (ha!), growing food and prairie plugs, raising chickens, living in a world of family that was not my own ten years ago– with adult children visiting and elderly in-laws to care for and in-laws on the farm.

I have been tutoring Somali women in English on Monday and Wednesday mornings and last week I drove them home after class. I asked if they wanted to see my home, and they did, so we drove to the farm. When I pointed out that my husband’s sister lives in one house and his brother in another they said, “That is good! That is very good! It is good you live with family!” They also thought it would be scary out here at night with the animals in the woods– like me before I came here, they are city people.

I have not stayed still since I arrived here. But I have stayed (or maybe become) rooted. What a blessing to be gifted with life in this place. What a blessing to have come here and what a blessing to have stayed.

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Hard vs. Impossible

weeds in a raised bed

This spring is hard. But last spring during chemo was impossible. I’m always overwhelmed in the spring, although the self-talk helps me realize it is early and I can take it bed-by-bed until the garden is planted.

Right now it’s time to plant the alliums. I’ve planted out the leeks and some spring onions (small bulbs planted close together), and the shallots. Then, gathering together my seed potatoes, I discovered a small laundry basket with MORE GARLIC in it! I was so excited. The bulbs are starting to sprout but they’re still nice and firm. And I was just lamenting I’d only planted one bed of garlic. So I went out this afternoon and got 40 more cloves in the remaining space of the allium bed.

garlic on 4-21

Last year I did not get onions planted. I was incapable of clearing the boxes and never got it together to put them in the bed alongside potatoes– which was just as well because I never had the energy to weed those potatoes. I got major help to get those in the ground.

This year I can’t imagine digging a trench in that garden, but I know I will. I’m able to dig out the deep-rooted weeds in the raised beds, turn the soil over, even shovel some of the new compost Steve dumped in two beds and move it to the other beds that need it. I can chunk open the bags of mushroom compost and spread it on the beds.

Last year I had time– so much time. But I couldn’t do a thing. It was impossible.

This year I have time– I’m working a bit, volunteering a bit, but I have afternoons that stretch out for hours. And though it is hard, I can also be more methodical. Today I relocated the adolescent chickens, who were very crowded in the pen, out to the summer home. I’m a little worried they don’t have enough adult feathers, so I bought a heat lamp, assembled it, and ran cords from the house out to the coop. It was not a big deal, but I usually don’t do things like that. I also cleaned out the straw and put new straw down, cleaned the extremely dirty water dispenser and food dish.

It is hard because in every area I see the neglect from last year. I was too tired to take proper care of the chicken water dish. I was just not up to cleaning things out and getting rid of the rusted feeder in the fall. None of the fall clean-up of the garden happened.

So there are more weeds, and more chicken poop, and there was less garlic.

But we have a new garden fence (almost) completed and six new chickens in the yard. We are eating salad quite regularly, and there are carrots coming up in the greenhouse. Last year there were no carrots. It was impossible.

Tomorrow, I’ll plant bags of interesting potato varieties I bought from a guy in New Hampshire. They can sit in the greenhouse until it’s really warm. Finish turning over a bed and put beets in.

And we’ll take it from there. Hard but thankfully not impossible.

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First Signs of Plug Life

hyssop

Prairie plants are not at all like vegetables. Vegetables need so much care and are so varied in the way they prefer to grow. Just ask my pepper and tomato plants, newly transplanted but brought back inside for one last frosty night and put on their heat mats. Just ask the radishes that were briefly happy in the greenhouse and now are splitting as they grow because of the occasional daytime high temps. The carrots are happy, as are the beets, but they need lots of thinning if they’re going to stay happy and produce good fruit.

Not so the prairie plugs. We have more than forty varieties out there, about 15,000 cells in all, and though they are very uneven in their emergence from the planting medium, when they do come up they don’t seem to care what the temperature is like. They want water, but they’re kind of forgiving about that, too. And though there are bursts of plants coming up in each cell, they don’t need thinning, or so I’m told. (That means there are about 60,000-80,000 plants out there, multiple seedlings per cell.)

lupine

I’m enjoying seeing how varied the seedlings look. For example, the lupine have their full-petaled leaves, like a tropical plant, even at the tiniest size.

The blazing star, of which we have three varieties planted, look really cool. First come the two little leaves and then a stem like a blade of grass shoots up. Supposedly more stems will shoot up and then they’ll bind into a little ball.

dropseed (grass)

The grasses are coming up, too, making me think of crew cuts and Walt Whitman’s description of grass as “the uncut hair of graves.”

I’m not a big fan of infants– I get interested at about six-eight months when the babies start exhibiting personalities and cognition. These plant babies, though, have my interest. I’d like to be able to recognize some of them and learn their names. Of course, I have been watering them and weeding the cells throughout gestation, so I earned these little guys.

Jeff says some of the plants will take two years just to get to size, which is hard to imagine. Others we’ll be able to sell come July or August. It’s enough to make me rethink my flower garden, where all those precious annuals and showy lilies now grow. Why not stuff it full of bellflower and aster and blazing star and cup plant and compass plant? (Or turn it over to vegetables?)

 

 

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micros and babies

On April 8, we ate our first salad of baby arugula from the greenhouse. I was planning on keeping it growing until Easter, but you have to cut it when it’s ready– arugula especially will get sharp. With some luck (we’re getting cold weather now but it’s going to warm up for the rest of the week) there will be more for Easter.

Arugula in the greenhouse bed

I guess next year I will plant earlier. It took this arugula three weeks to grow. The radishes, which usually take three weeks to bulb, are probably going to develop fruit this week, one month out. Which suggests to me that planting earlier wouldn’t have made a difference. I waited until we set the heater on, meaning it would stay above 35 degrees at night. It never hurts to plant seed– it seems to know from the soil temperature when to grow. It’s been the same story in the cold frame, growing even more slowly because it’s colder out there.

radishes

I also harvested a full tray of tiny collards/tatsoi/mustard greens. These aren’t like the baby arugula– they are bonafide microgreens. Microgreens seem a bit precious, more like sprouts than salad, but I was given a large quantity of these seeds and really, they’re quite good mixed in with baby greens. I have another tray going inside on a heat mat under grow lights that I can use for the Easter salad, which will also include quinoa, red onion, dried apricot, and maybe some adzuki beans with a vinaigrette.

I’m always surprised how long it takes for spinach to germinate. Other greens pop up as soon as possible, but not spinach. And when it emerges, it looks like a fancy grass, with two prongs of thin, straight leaves. The round leaves develop afterward.

carrots

But spinach is nothing like carrots, which seem to take forever to germinate when I plant them outside. The greenhouse has made a huge difference for them. I’ve never had carrots sprout this early, and so many! I didn’t get any carrots last year, what with the rabbits and lack of attention to the beds. They didn’t grow themselves like I’d hoped! This year will be a different story. I’m leaving them a bit thick so I can get carrot tops. Same with the beets, which are just coming in the greenhouse bed and will contribute to greens.

April is the time of precious overlap. There is praise for the last of the storage vegetables, in my case some potatoes that I had stashed in the fridge. We ate the last quart of frozen tomatoes last week– and made a discovery there.

They were late season cherry tomatoes, blended in the food processor, cooked down a bit and frozen. In the freezer, the liquid separates more from the pulp, so on the stove the liquid boils off very quickly. I had made a little stew of chicken, beans, olives, kale, and the tomato puree. The tomatoes were so sweet and the sauce so thick, it was like tomato paste. I am planning on using that technique this year to make tomato paste in a two-part process: cook down, freeze, cook down again and can. Or freeze again. I have big plans for this year, so we’ll see.

I’m taking out my garden-to-table cookbooks and putting away the ethnic ones I use in winter. I’m reading the spring cooking magazines. I’m going out every few days to see if the asparagus is starting up and today I’ll also put some onions in the outdoor beds for spring onions. The fresh eating season has begun!

washed arugula and microgreens

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Poetry Month

I’ve been writing a lot of poems lately. Cowbird.com went over to a static site, so there is no more posting “new stories” there. I have moved with a lot of other Cowbird writers over to Medium.com. You can find me there at https://medium.com/@susansink and I believe you can follow me even if you don’t have an account on the Medium website.

This poster available from “pop chart lab.”

There are a few recent poems, like really really recent, there. One I wrote in response to an offer for a poster that popped up on my Facebook feed. It’s a poster of “Every Single Bird You’ll See in North America.” It seemed impossible that every bird on the continent could be fit onto a 2’x3′ poster, but every time I thought of a bird and checked the little pdf I downloaded, there it was. I decided to make up some birds we can’t “see” in North America even though they’re there. Here is the poem.

Another came from the experience of tutoring Somali women learning English. It has been a highlight of my week, every Monday and Wednesday morning, to help and encourage them. Here is that poem. By putting them on a magazine within Medium called “Coffeelicious,” I’m getting more readers, who hopefully come back to the blog.

The past two days have been particularly intense in terms of thinking about cancer. First, there is a friend who has been very much on my mind. Spring is confusing, always, but it does seem it has come earlier this year (I say that knowing it could snow and drop far below freezing before May arrives). And every warm day I’ve been thinking of this woman, who I met through a mutual friend, and who I’ve only met once. She is an ovarian cancer survivor of eight years, but her cancer is back. She is on a trial, but doesn’t want any more chemotherapy, and so things are uncertain. She spends as much time as she can on Madeleine Island in Lake Superior. The warm days makes me hope she’s getting good time there or will soon. This is my poem for her.  I know it’s a strange poem. In it I hope to capture my sense of uncertainty and tongue-tied nature over her situation and nature and time in general.

Then yesterday I learned about a monk at Saint John’s Abbey, Fr. Mark Thamert, who is dying of stomach cancer. He has had a painful three years of treatment, but having entered hospice a few months ago, he is receiving medication that makes his life pain free and he is discovering many blessings of what he calls “this final chamber.” I learned about him because a Benedictine friend, another tutor, asked me if I was going to his talk at noon about dying. I hadn’t heard about it, and she followed up by sending me a few e-mails he had written recently that were very moving and resonated a lot with me. Last night I was able to access this interview with him online. It is here.

I loved Fr. Mark’s talk, but I have to say some of the interview questions annoyed me. I sort of wish the interviewer had himself been a cancer survivor. Because for people with cancer, particularly where Fr. Mark is now, the most irrelevant question I can imagine is: “If you knew this were your last day on earth, how would you spend it?” I’ve never liked that question, but I really find it to be stupid now. We each of us live as well as we can every day until we die. Our last day is probably spent in a bed, maybe unconscious. We ALL hope we are surrounded by loved ones, or at least not alone. Other questions like this treated him as someone with special wisdom to impart that we are all in need of. I guess that is true in that we are all going to die. However, he doesn’t have any special insight. He has his particular life experience to share– and it is quite a rich experience! And he can offer us comfort by saying that they can do something for his pain, and we can be happy and encouraged by his clarity of mind. He shared the experience he had at the bedside of another monk who died that was really wonderful. But his death is not our death any more than his life was our life.

Fr. Mark also shared some poems. I enjoyed them all, but one struck me right to my core. I loved it as a poem and for its content in the context of dying. It was a prayer, really, by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of  my favorite poets. And in this year of so many prayers, the intimacy of this particular prayer and all it suggests, was astonishing. I’ve spent some time recently with the account of the Resurrection and particularly all the times Christ tells his disciples: “You are my body.” and sends them out to carry on the mission, to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Here is the poem, in Fr. Mark’s translation.

 

What will you do, God…?

by Rainer Maria Rilke
from The Book of Hours
tr. by Mark Thamert, OSB

 

What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken lie?
When I your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning if you lose me.

Homeless without me, you will be
robbed of your welcome, warm and sweet.
I am your sandals: your tired feet
will wander bare for want of me.
Your mighty cloak will fall away.

Your glance that on my cheek was laid
and pillowed warm, will seek, dismayed,
the comfort that I offered once—
to lie, as sunset colors fade
in the cold lap of foreign stones.

What will you do, God? I am afraid.

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