Chickens 2.0

March is an odd month. As it draws to a close, there are signs of new life and new horizons everywhere on the farm. It occurred to me yesterday that– “Hey, I didn’t go back to work!” I had meant to “find a job” starting March 1, but some work came to me, and really a series of small tasks with breaks between suits my current energy level. There’s planting and watering every day in the greenhouse.

March is when I always get anxious for the homegrown produce to begin, and every warm day, like yesterday, I’m restlessly roaming the property and doing spring cleaning. Cleaning the beds of weeds (still too frozen even to turn over the soil). Cleaning out the freezer and cooking up those last batches of venison chili and pesto pasta. Cleaning out the potato bin and throwing away the hopelessly sprouted and withered tubers.

This week we ate the last garden garlic bulb of the 2016 season. I had to put garlic on the grocery list because I’m so out of the habit of buying it. In eight weeks or less, we’ll have “green garlic,” small cloves and then scapes.

The trees that lined the driveway are cleared away, though there are still a lot of stick piles that will be burned in a few weeks. Oddly, the heaps of wood make me think of signal fires in Greek epics. Either that, or the aftermath of a tornado.

 

The landscape changed instantly with their removal, and there are surprises. There is more light and space. Walking across the commons to the house, I also noticed our backyard oak from a different aspect. And I saw for the first time how it leans, how it is stretching and struggling to support the long outstretched arm. I never saw its shape, even though I see this tree from my kitchen window.

Downstairs in the basement everything is sprouting. Even the peppers, on their heat mat, are coming up. Out in the greenhouse, I’m hopeful we’ll have good baby spinach and arugula for Easter. We should even have radishes.

Also downstairs is the constant cheeping of our new set of baby chicks. By the barn, my remaining chicken and Tim’s remaining chicken (he has two but one is sick and doesn’t leave the barn) wander around together. I call them the “sole survivors.” They look healthy and strong and are starting to lay an egg now and then. I found one under the pine when I took out some miscellaneous sunflower sprouts.

I bought two kinds, 3 Americauna and 3 Blue-laced Wyandottes. I love Wyandottes, and this is the variety they had at the newly discovered local hatchery. Two sisters hatch and raise chickens on the family dairy farm, and take care of old horses they once used for horseback riding lessons and kids’ horse camps. Last year they processed 750 chickens just for family and friends to eat through the winter, and their eggs go to the same people. My freezer would never empty.

The Americaunas will lay blue or greenish-blue eggs. I already know Wyandottes are good layers.
This batch of chicks are already very entertaining. I don’t remember the last batch sleeping so much. I definitely don’t remember them just sacked out in a heap or splayed all over the box. But more funny, when awake these chicks like to sit in a row on their food tray. They roost there all day. I have a feeling these chickens would love a swing! I can’t wait to see where they’ll roost and what they’ll get into when they’re grown. I do love chickens.

 

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On Time… More

I just finished reading Elizabeth Alexander’s wonderful memoir The Light of the WorldMost people know Alexander as the poet who wrote/read the poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. I met Elizabeth only briefly, through the poet Kevin Young, when she was living and teaching in Chicago.

The subject of her memoir is her marriage to Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly of a heart attack four days after his 50th birthday. It’s the story of a happy marriage, which makes the fact that it was cut short all the more sad.

What I take away from it is that in this marriage there was time. There was time for so much! Not just two sons, but time for art, for discussion, for sex, for sitting in the backyard, for drinking coffee, for making meals that take a long, long time to make, for a garden, for poetry, for smoking, for speaking Italian (and his other four languages), for deep friendships, for travel. How can that be?

Flowering Tree at St. Louis Arboretum, March 9

Elizabeth Alexander is an academic, and during their marriage taught at three different colleges/universities, but mostly at Yale. She was also, by the end of the ’90s, a very well-known poet with many invitations. She was busy with lots of work and even a fair amount of travel for that work.

And lest you think Ficre was a lay-about painter, he was not only prolific as a painter, he ran restaurants. Restaurants! A very demanding profession. He had business partners, but one of these restaurants was in New York City. There is no question his own life had external demands beyond the family.

Catherine in front of art on the High Line, NYC

And yet, he is waiting on the couch for her when she comes in after an event at Yale, so that they can sit and talk together. The sense I got on every page of the book was that Ficre had time, for everyone and everything, but especially for Elizabeth and their two sons and for beauty. And so, as the book expands out and envelops us as readers, we luxuriate in a life in which there was time. Whatever else there was, there was plenty of all that is good and true and deep in life on this earth.

water tower from the Whitney Museum roof terrace

Somehow I think this has to do with “shoulds.” It is a big problem I have, all these “shoulds” always hounding me. I try to limit them, to beat them down, to keep them at abeyance. “Shoulds” devour time, make it so much more of a drudgery. And also, I stack things up on a calendar. I know calendars are necessary, and also charting how much I work and various commitments. I missed two poetry events this week, which I would have enjoyed. That is not a problem so much as I did not spend that time instead with something more expansive, being more present, but by being upset with myself and fretting. I should have gone. I should have energy. It wasn’t a burdensome event. Why didn’t I go?

When I think about the life ahead, not knowing how long that will be, I realize it is not about what I want to “do” or even who I want to “be.” It is about how, and that how answers in large part (whether one’s life is long or short) the question of time.

 

photos from recent travels, which were full of beauty, friends, family, and “big” time…

 

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Slow Down

Am I still a blogger? It has been what, three weeks? More? In that time we’ve taken a trip to New York. I was determined to start looking for work on March 1, but instead work came to me, with two big Saint John’s Bible presentations, one of which I went to in St. Paul right from the airport. The second involved a trip to St. Louis, where I had a fantastic time with more friends down there and a really good experience at the talk to the archdiocese for their Lenten Staff Reflection Day. But also, on March 3, I received a large freelance project with many, many due dates. That gobbled up my weekends and any spare time between the trips and talks.

In the midst of all that I got blood work and a scan done. I wasn’t nervous at all, really and truly, and my CA-125 was 19, absolutely perfect.

So my phone is full of photos and blogs have gone unwritten. But today I went out to the greenhouse.

Ah, the greenhouse! It is fully functional and super cool. There are thermometers and when the temperature gets too high, a louvered window opens on one end and a giant exhaust fan turns on at the other end. There are lights, so you can be there at night. There is water at the turn of a handle (though the coupler seems to have frozen last night and cracked, so watering my beds this morning meant water spewing everywhere).

There are tables where Jeff and I are planting plugs today. But since Jeff wasn’t there this morning when I arrived, I planted a bed with spinach, arugula, and radishes.

And as I watered the bed and planted, I contemplated. Contemplated the story of this farm. My other project is working on some documents so we can set up the place as a Land Trust, a way to ensure a preservation of values and a peaceful transition of tenants (!) to the next generation.

I had all sorts of thoughts–

The three families here have lived by certain values, balancing individual ownership and privacy with communal use and restoration/transformation of the property. As I work on a draft of possible bylaws, I’m thinking about our values. I’m thinking about why it worked– in part because it wasn’t ideologically driven. In fact, it started as a dream of a lay Benedictine community, but that sort of fell apart. What remained were people with a love of natural beauty and a commitment to stewardship of the property. What remained were people with a lot of charity toward one another that enabled them to share the property for the benefit of all.

Also, this place has been able to sustain massive and nearly constant change. Over Christmas I saw home movies where Steve’s three girls and some friends played on a swing set on a grassy lawn. (What the wha?) They also built forts in small areas of scrubby trees. Just last week, one row of cottonwoods came down along the drive, and the other half will come down next week, while the ground is frozen and it’s easy to clear them. Everyone likes the way it looks. It will look even better with the clusters of red cedars and oaks coming after the ground thaws.

There was once a horse named Coco in the stall where our chickens live. There have been so many chickens.

After a certain number of years, a third home was added to the original two. A marriage ended and the girls moved away, a major trauma in the life of the farm. I arrived not even nine years ago and started building garden beds.

And in the greenhouse, I experience the property in a different way. It’s more centrally located, so I will see people more often. The common areas like the shop and barns are where people drop by to visit. Last week when I went out to see the progress, the beekeeper was there and warned me of the angry bees, so I cut a wide swath around him.

Yesterday I woke up happy. I had work to do, and that doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, but the rush was over. I had made it to a certain point where I could start to write for myself, too, and plant seeds, and go out to the greenhouse and help. It was very cold but had not snowed as much as was expected. I had no job to “go” to, and was happy to turn on my computer and face the task at hand.

Until there is produce, we have sunflower sprouts!

If everything goes well, we’ll have radishes in three weeks, and baby spinach and arugula– maybe in time for Easter. On Easter there might be some children here, though they’re all growing up fast, and there might be baby chicks, and there will certainly be a greenhouse.

 

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One Year Ago…

Facebook let me know that today was a big anniversary: one year from the official diagnosis. I decided to go back and read some of those early entries in the blog. The entries interested me much less than the comments on them. The writing has been a great blessing to me, and I’m sure it has helped me to integrate this experience as I went along. I definitely feel in good shape “moving forward” and not as stuck as I felt two months ago at Christmas time.

More important, however, has been community. The presence of friends and family from Day One has been extraordinary.

Having cancer is one of those experiences for which there is a very clearly delineated “before” and “after.” I suppose it is true mostly of trauma– but also of dramatic success (ask J.K. Rowling about “before Harry Potter” for instance). After divorce, or cancer, the loss of a child or a dear loved one, the person is never the same.

Yesterday, living in this unseasonably warm February week, I went out to the uncovered cold frame to scatter some seeds for greens. I was surprised, after clearing the dead leaves from the surface and ready to go at it with a shovel, that the dirt was still frozen a couple inches down. It was February!

On my way to the garden, I thought again that I am not the same person I was a year ago. It is not cancer necessarily– chemotherapy really does leave one diminished. I plan on recovering much more, and feel well already, but it is clear to me I’ll never be the same. I’m just not as “sharp” as I was. It is harder to switch from task to task and be effective.

On this anniversary it is rainy but unseasonably warm. I worked editing Steve’s new company website and making appointments and investigating some work possibilities. I did not get to the taxes or my writing project.

I also corresponded with a friend I’ve made in this past year, another ovarian cancer survivor. She might be headed into a medical trial, and she gave me the broad strokes, so of course I had to spend some time reading up on it and contemplating how it fits into the story of ovarian cancer. She told me that first they have to find her original tumor, which is  required to be stored for ten years, so they can biopsy it. She said it is in “the bowels” of some institution. I love that metaphor! I had to think a bit about the Frankenstein (or Kafka) possibilities of that image. Also, where are my tumors?

As a storyteller, I realize how quickly we learn things about life– how all these pieces and details fit to make a whole, like Jenga in reverse. This year has been quite an education, and it continues. Perhaps most surprising is that it is not at all the story I expected. I hope that I convey here on the blog the hopefulness people with cancer live with now, but also the specific way in which cancer removes fear– which is surprising– and allows us to see, and face, all of life.

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“Margaret” by Kenneth Lonergan

Thursday night I was walking with my parents on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. A woman walking behind us wearing a fake fur and with very, very blond hair, was talking in a normal voice on her phone, and we heard her say: “You never had a brain tumor so you wouldn’t know.”

The woman kept up with us, or we with her, for a couple blocks, exchanging positions, walking with the crowd and with the stoplights. We talked about her as she continued talking on her phone. I’d been in Chicago for two days, spent a lot of time on the El, remarking to myself how quiet all the public spaces were, how few people looked at each other, and listening to the things people say that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. My favorite interaction by far was when I was on the train with a CTA driver who was wearing a uniform of his own making: blue-and-white striped overalls and a matching engineer/conductor hat, just like a character from a children’s book. A young African American guy boarded the train, smiled at him, and said as he moved into the car: “That’s a show stopper right there.” City as moving poem.

Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret is full of these moments. As Anna Paquin’s character, 17-year-old Lisa Cohen, moves through Manhattan, and as the camera follows her at various distances, we hear a number of outsized conversations, some of which seem important but most of which seem banal — and all of which are unconnected to the main drama of the film.

The main drama but by no means the only drama is this: Lisa’s interaction with a bus driver (played by Mark Ruffalo) leads to an accident in which a woman’s leg is severed. The woman bleeds out in Lisa’s arms, leaving Lisa confused and covered with blood. Lisa lies about what happened in order to protect the bus driver, at the encouragement of her mother (adults in her life are very morally problematic) and, one imagines, because of her own guilt over her part in the accident. She spends the rest of the film more or less trying to recover her story from that lie and figure out what the event “means” in her life.

Like all of us, she wants to be the heroine in her own life story. She wants to be an adult and also desperately wants connection. At the same time, she pushes away her actress mother Joan (played by J. Smith-Cameron) in some of the most heart-wrenchingly real mother-daughter interactions I’ve ever seen on film. She is both harsh beyond reason and a “bestie” to her mother, and the result is a fraught relationship that both offers Lisa her best chance at meaningful connection and frustrates both of their attempts to be simultaneously individual and close. Isn’t that the paradigm for mother/teen daughter angst?

Like most teenagers, Lisa knows a lot about drama but nothing about intimacy. She betrays her mother’s simple attempts at intimacy again and again, alternately contemptuous and indifferent. However, her mother has her own life, a complicated one, and Lisa’s independence is both admirable and dangerous. Intervention is triggered by something quite cliche: the bad report card. These two are so unmoored, however, the roles are hard to maintain: what is the mother’s responsibility? How is a teen daughter supposed to behave? Then there are the men — what are their roles and responsibilities? What can be expected from them, including a father (played by Lonergan) in Santa Monica making contact through awkward phone calls? Lisa’s younger brother is completely un-parented and even the film doesn’t seem to care.

One of the great recurring motifs in the film is a series of teen conversations in classes and in theater rehearsal where the teachers set them up and turn them loose on each other. The precocious know-it-alls with shallow but emotionally-packed relationships to their cultural identities have at it and tear each other to shreds. The teachers are completely ineffectual referees.

Important, traumatic things happen to Lisa throughout the film. The inability and awkward attempts to talk about these things, to make them the basis of relationship with others, and to live fully in “real life,” whatever that is, makes a mess of Lisa’s psyche and she spirals out of control. It’s beautiful and challenging and riveting for every minute of the three hours.

On Thursday night in Chicago, my parents and I were on our way to theLookingglass Theater to see the play Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth. This play is also about stories — life stories and the stories we hear from the time we can make sense of language, the foundational myths and fairy tales of all the cultures of the world. When one of the characters in that mythic world, a character with a very, very difficult story, goes into a rage and kills the big, bad wolf, chaos is unleashed. In fixing the story tale universe, however, the eponymous couple face their own sorrows and the difficulties of life. It’s so much more powerful than you thought a story about fairy tales could be. Leaving the theater, a precocious young woman behind me said to her boyfriend, or maybe he was just a friend: “I hate you right now.” He asked, “Because I brought you here and now you’re feeling feelings?” “Yes,” she answered.

Lisa Cohen’s world is a mess. And so is ours. In a city you can easily feel pressed up against so many lives — and what does it all mean? A first encounter with death, even the death of a stranger, can be hard to fit into the narrative. When I was 17, working at a cafeteria-style steakhouse in suburban Chicago, I waited on a man who died more or less in my arms. The encounter was very deep for me — I was thankfully attentive enough not to drop the food and walk away. We spoke a bit without speaking, as his heart attack had already begun. I think he came to that restaurant so as not to die alone. Maybe that’s just me being grandiose. I believed he wanted me to stay with him instead of going for help. And I did.

I know that after grieving that stranger I decided not to cry again unless someone died. By the end of my freshman year in college I was a dissociated mess. I was in Lisa Cohen’s world, filled to the brim with connections I could not organize or assemble or figure the meaning of. I would say those questions consumed my life more or less for the next decade.

Lonergan’s film is brilliant. There was a long struggle to bring this film out in its current, 3-hour-long director’s cut version. Watching it, I thoroughly understand that it could not be cut any other way; in each decision about how long a scene should go, and what should be heard or not heard or overheard or pantomimed, was the whole meaning of the film.

I saw the film by Lonergan getting all the Oscar hype this year, Manchester by the Sea. That film has good performances and a good script. What I said after watching it was that, unlike so many films that rest on “a secret,” the secret here was of the proper type and magnitude to justify the drama the film depends on for its meaning. But that film is child’s play compared toMargaret. You wanna know what it means to be human? Watch Margaret.

Note: This review is also available on Medium. Click here to visit the site.  I‘ll be posting my essays on film over there. Cowbird.com is closing down (it will still be available as an archive, but no new stories can be posted). I’m exploring other platforms to share my writing. 

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Sun Basket: Meal Delivery Services

Ingredients for an Indian bean stew from Sun Basket

Meal Delivery Services are all the rage these days. The most familiar is probably Blue Apron, which advertises aggressively on social media and elsewhere. One of Steve’s daughters and her partner in Brooklyn use it, and although both are good cooks, they say it’s upped their culinary game. The experience inspired Julia to make General Tsao’s Chicken for us over Christmas, which definitely was complicated and did not take a few ingredients and 30 minutes to prepare. Having everything prepped for you definitely makes cooking a gourmet-ish meal faster.

I’ve been a skeptic, not of the experience but of the benefits claimed by these companies. The ad for Blue Apron that plays on my Facebook feed continuously definitely suggests their service is benefiting small, organic farmers and provides a farm-to-table experience. What I’ve read in Modern Farmer suggests farmers are being pressured to grow a single vegetable crop at lower-than-market prices for the service, which of course also only buys perfect-looking produce.

And then there are questions about treatment of workers as the services scale up. Blue Apron has had trouble with its warehouse workers. Here’s a recent article, and the original Buzzfeed report. In keeping the meals affordable, the people who grow the food and package the meals means labor costs are high. And yet, these businesses have grown so quickly– and multiplied– that they are the current darling of investors.  I suspect there is a lot of overvaluing now that is pouring in seed money that will be used up quickly and, as prices rise, the model will collapse.

A third criticism is of the packaging. Although the companies seem to do their best to make things recyclable, it’s a lot of packaging for a small amount of food. For one thing, the food has to be kept cold until the recipient can unpack it. The Sun Basket delivery was entirely recyclable and told you how to recycle each piece (but we didn’t drain and recycle the ice bags).

 

My friend Doug in Southern California is a subscriber to Sun Basket, a certified organic service that provides regular meals and vegetarian, gluten-free, and paleo options. I was there one Wednesday when the box was delivered mid-day to get the sole and ground turkey into the fridge. I have to admit, it was fun to receive a package of meals in the mail! It was chock full of goodies, brown bags that included, for instance, a couple peeled cloves of garlic or a nub of ginger. A little baggie of dried fruits and nuts for a warm salad, and a whole cauliflower. Doug gets a mix of gluten-free and paleo meals. He gets 3 meals/week, 2 servings each. This means food for him (when I’m not there) for 6 meals. He usually takes the leftovers for lunch. The cost is $80/week, about $12.50/meal. If you actually ate these meals for 6 dinners and only bought food for breakfast and simple lunches, grocery bills could be kept to $100/week, which is about what I spend for two at our house.

Also, if you ate these portions, which were really satisfying and delicious, you could lose weight. You get exactly enough ingredients to make the meal for that night. No desserts. No leftovers. Which, hey, I LOVE leftovers, but we also eat larger portions and more starches and sides because we’re cooking for ourselves from scratch for reals.

Doug had been in Spain for three weeks, so he had almost no food in the house when I arrived. It was interesting and good to just buy what I thought I’d use and eat simply. I did eat out a bit, definitely more than I do here, but Doug and I only ate out once. The concept of six delicious dinners at home and one meal out is super appealing.

Doug cooking

There was nothing in these packages that Doug couldn’t make with a recipe card. However, I don’t think he’d make any of this without the prepared ingredients. He says he’s lazy, but it really is about quantities and a variety of delicious meals. For a single person, buying the right combination of ingredients in the right quantities– at a Whole Foods, I’m thinking– would be tricky. And it’s daunting to come home with a head of cauliflower and acorn squash and ground turkey and lemongrass and go about it.

Sun Basket, unlike Blue Apron, provides pre-made sauces. The lemongrass paste for the turkey meatballs and scallions in a lemongrass broth was included. The recipe card told you how to make it from scratch, but why would you?

The meals definitely took only 20-30 minutes to make, even the Indian bean stew. The cauliflower rice was already riced. Pastes and sauces made. And the recipe cards took you through making the warm salad and sole filet in parchment so that everything was ready at exactly the same time.

It is extremely satisfying cooking, and you don’t have to think at all. In this way, it’s the perfect product for our time. You get the illusion of supporting small farmers. You definitely get healthy food in delicious combinations. And you get to assemble it yourself. There is no comparison between these meals and frozen dinners, even the high end ones.

One thing I liked about Sun Basket is that the meals came to Doug from San Jose, California, down to Los Angeles (although they deliver from there to eight western states). That seemed a reasonable travel distance. Because, of course, petroleum costs to ship all these packaged meals is a fourth criticism.

In the 1950s, a company that wanted to sell cake mixes did a survey of housewives. They asked them to rate the character of two shoppers on the basis of the contents of their shopping carts. The carts had the exact same ingredients with one exception: one woman had a boxed cake mix. This woman was judged by her peers to be a floozy who didn’t care about her family. REAL women make cakes from scratch!

The company worked on the model and found that women approved if the housewife had to add an egg and oil. That was enough to qualify the mix as a shortcut and not a cheat.

These meal kits are shortcuts like cake mixes. But they are not cooking from scratch– to me that involves planning and buying the ingredients and doing the decision-making to prepare a meal. That is probably unfair of me. I work part-time. I’m happy to spend time and energy on my garden and cooking.

Also, unlike most people, I have the luxury of changing my lifestyle to consume primarily locally produced, in-season food. Adjusting to eating seasonally and growing and preparing the bulk of my food was not easy. We eat no “convenience” foods at all. I never ate a lot of them, but now I barely dip into the center aisles at the grocery store.

Tonight I’ll be making pasta and a chicken breast in a sauce of canned garden cherry tomatoes and local mushrooms, onions and (not at all local) olives. As I said in my last blog, winter is when I indulge in non-seasonal and non-local ingredients. It will be much simpler than any of the Sun Basket meals. It will be tasty. And there will be leftovers.

 

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Raised Beds (Greenhouse Edition)

I’m home! And Steve has been busy while I’ve been away. In addition to cleaning out his parents’ house, he was putting the finishing touches on the greenhouse– including installing the major exhaust fan and small fans, installing the heater (which will be attached to a propane tank), and finally, building five raised beds.

Once the beds are filled with soil (a potting mix being prepared for us by Mississippi Topsoils in Cold Spring: compost is too rich and soil is too mineral-y), I’m going to start with peas and spinach and greens. Once the beds are finished, the tables will be built and we can start growing microgreens and sprouts and of course, prairie plugs (the real purpose of the greenhouse).

Everything is better…in bed (me standing in an empty raised bed)

I’ve entered the world of “one year ago”… as it was mid-February when I was in the process of getting a cancer diagnosis, followed by all that treatment. And as I go about my business now, still suffering from fatigue and some bone aches and a bad shoulder where all the nerves have revolted against me, I think about the not-too-distant time when I couldn’t do even this. Yesterday, I planted the leeks, those plants that need six months to mature, and the rest of the tray in sunflower sprouts.

I kind of lost heart making hummus, though, and left it for today. I didn’t know this, but the low point for me in all that treatment seems to have been the day I couldn’t muster the focus or energy to make a batch of hummus. No doubt I’ll keep coming face to face with other lows. There are some planting lows, like the day it took me three trips to the basement to plant 24 tomato and 24 pepper seeds I then didn’t have the energy to label. That was not a good day. The many days I wanted to but couldn’t find the energy to mound the leeks.

Quinoa and butternut squash salad with dried apricots

I have been cooking up a storm, however. We’re continuing Steve’s work while I was gone in “eating down the pantry” and the freezer. I also started a February Middle Eastern cooking challenge with my Facebook cookbook group. I like cooking other cuisines in winter when I don’t have fresh vegetables and so don’t mind digging into more “exotic” and out of season ingredients.

So last week I made this, my favorite chicken recipe from the Jerusalem cookbook, and also a quinoa salad with carmelized onions and dried apricots, to which I added the last of the garden butternut squash. We bought some lettuce, so the day before had big salads with the last of a jar of pickled beets, feta, and a vinaigrette with the fancy olive oil I got for Christmas. And last night I couldn’t help myself. Though we had dry pasta, I wanted fresh made, so took a few cubes of pesto out of the freezer and made some fettuccine!

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Coffee House Culture

Long Beach, California, is rich with coffee houses. All the old ones are still in place, and plenty more have popped up in the 12 years I’ve been gone. Like I did when I lived here and had tons of papers to grade each week, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in them.

When I lived in Long Beach, back in 2003-05, I was sad. I had arrived married, but within a year my husband left. I made a pact with myself that I would say “yes” to every invitation, not easy for an introvert like me. Luckily, I quickly fell in with a group of fellow teachers: Lydia and Lina Llerena, who had grown up in Long Beach, Doug Eisner, and Russell Magerfleisch. This group was already spending a lot of time in coffee houses, we all lived within a mile of each other, and it was the advent of cell phones so we could easily make plans to gather. (Texting was not yet a thing. We made calls.)

We spent hours and hours and hours in the coffee houses of Long Beach. There was no end to the amount of hanging out we could do. Sometimes we’d break for dinner and then go to a movie. Lydia and her now-husband Jim were in a band and we’d go to the bowling alley to hear them play in a back room. We listened to a fair amount of live music, including shows at the Long Beach record shop Fingerprints. I wouldn’t say I got happier, but I was comforted and well companioned.

I also learned during that time that Doug and I traveled well together. He accompanied me on an epic Route 66 trip when I moved all my stuff from LA to Minnesota.

I have been in Long Beach ten days. The first morning I did a quick Yelp search for the closest coffee shop and found that Henry’s Market two blocks away had become Honeybee’s, a fine place for a cup of coffee and a bagel.

I have been to my old neighborhood coffee shop, Portfolio, three times. It looks fancy from the outside but it is actually the same tattoo-and-burnt-out-artist-looking haven it always was. The second time there, I ran into a guy who has been in two yoga classes with me. The friend I was with, Martine, was surprised and not surprised I knew someone. “Long Beach is a small town in many ways,” she said.

I ran into Suzanne Greenberg on consecutive days, Friday at Rose Park, a fancy coffee shop with the motto: “Welcome to the Process” on one wall. On the next day, a rainy Saturday morning at Bogart’s in Seal Beach, one town away, she was just leaving as we entered. I went there with Lydia and later Jim, Doug, and Tom met us and we went next door for tacos. Oh yeah. Long Beach living!

Suzanne and I already had plans to meet on Sunday at yet another coffee shop, Polly’s, whose mural is on the cover of her first book of short stories. Polly’s, with its outdoor patio and on-site roasting, was one of our favorite coffee shops.

On Tuesday Doug and I met Lydia at Peet’s on 2nd Street.

On days off from yoga, Doug likes to go to Viento y Agua, next door to the studio, because they have brewed matcha. It is kind of dark in there and the coffee was a little on the sour side for me. But the owner, Bella, is SO friendly and kind. I also ran into him while walking on the beach. He was in the other lane on a bike.

Time is running out for me to visit The Library on Broadway, but it is close. It could still happen.

I think Long Beach might have been where I developed my theory that all you had to do was leave your house for things to happen. Maybe that was Chicago, though I didn’t do a lot of hanging out in Chicago. Chicago is a small town in many ways, too, but the social engagements are more coordinated. Maybe even more purposeful. Unless you are just there to welcome the process. Right now I’m working on committing to going out more to volunteer in my own community and make more plans with friends.

I haven’t done the “work” I planned on doing this trip. There’s been a lot more social time, which has been wonderful. Lots of toasting and prayers of gratitude and just casual celebrating of my good health and our friendships. A trip to Disney Hall yesterday was a bonus, followed by a lovely dinner party hosted by Danielle where no one seemed to know a thing about football.

Here’s to coffee. And a place to drink it.

 

 

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Surprises

While I’ve been here in California, Steve has been busy working on his new landscaping website, building raised beds in the greenhouse, visiting his elderly aunt and his parents in the nursing home, and cleaning out the family house in Sleepy Eye, two hours from our house.

He went right to work tackling “the work room,” an unfinished part of the basement that was crammed with “stuff” and files. It was the usual jumble of photos and old papers and unanswered Christmas cards, as well as old small appliances and a set of Encyclopedia Britannica it is impossible to get rid of. He has filled four dumpsters and is now down to the nitty gritty, sorting papers and photos into three piles: trash, recycle, save.

In this process, he has developed a deeper appreciation for his mother’s creativity. We all knew Betty was creative. A story from her childhood was of painting the family piano pink. She had a flair for home decorating, choosing modern, bold fabrics. She made wonderful hand-drawn Christmas cards and felt-on-burlap wall decorations. Much is made of Steve’s paternal grandfather Martin Heymans and the plays he wrote and published with the Catholic Dramatic Movement in the 1920s. But Betty has always talked about her own writing. Usually she spoke of it dismissively saying she published some things but mostly wrote and edited Catholic education newsletters. She often talks about a story she wrote in college, “Mother Married the Milkman,” which drew great praise from her teacher, Sister Mariella Gable, OSB. She tells this story because, she says, she was in a class with a lot of “great and serious writers,” and she was a milkman’s daughter from Faribault. Like so many, that encouragement by her teacher kept her writing.

No one knew how much writing she did, however. Steve found a fat file of rejection letters for work that Betty submitted to magazines like American Baby and Catholic publications. Also, this one from Hallmark Cards. The language in those 1960s and ’70s rejections is quite familiar: “Thank you for sending these materials to Xxx Magazine. Unfortunately, they do not meet our editorial needs at this time.”

Some pieces did get published, but her children don’t remember seeing them. She continued to submit stories to the literary journal published by the College of Saint Benedict into the 1970s. In addition to “Mother Married the Milkman,” Betty often talks about the alliterative slogans she wrote for her father’s dairy: “Mandel Milk Makes Many Mighty Men,” for example.

Not only did she write, she took hundreds of photographs. Among the best are those that chronicle two trips she made before she got married. One was with a fellow teacher to New York City and the East Coast. The other was west to California with her parents. Three photos, particularly, show me who Betty was and where she came from.

The first is of Betty descending the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She looks ready to take on the world, sophisticated even. I would bet she made that bold polkadot dress herself for the trip.

The second is of her parents, Harry and Julia Mandel, taking a break on the trip west to see the scenery. Another shows Harry viewing a dam in Nebraska.

Betty Mandel Heymans married in 1956 and had her first child, Steven, in 1957. She is the mother of eight and a delight to this day. Even with dementia, she is kind and happy and helpful. Her daughter Amy often takes her to the school next door to the nursing home where they help stuff envelopes and do other tasks. Here she is cutting out hearts for a teacher to use in a Valentine’s Day project.

 

Everyone I’ve visited in California– and my sister in Seattle– is dealing in one way or another with aging parents. Broken hips, dementia, the pain of downsizing, grief and letting go.

It feels like we’ve moved fully into the 21st century these days. Three people here have talked to me about the advent of driverless cars. The current political situation is, I believe, the beginning (or middle) of the fall of the American Empire. The next generation, and even my generation, live differently– mobile and entrepreneurial with communities that are increasingly virtual. The loss of parents– and the discovery of parents’ pasts– gives many of us a last look back at “the American century,” and a deeper look, possibly, into ourselves.

 

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Static

It has been so long since I’ve posted! I usually don’t feel like posting when I’m on vacation because it feels so outside of ordinary life, which is the focus of this blog.

After a lovely week with my sister near Seattle, I’m in Long Beach, California, now. I lived here from 2002-2005, before I moved to Minnesota. I’m surprised how long ago that was, and that I still have so many friends here. I’m here for almost two weeks, staying with my good friend, former teaching colleague and travel companion, Doug Eisner. His place is three blocks from where I lived when I was here.

The first day I went for a walk to see what things were still intact. I would have placed a bet that Broadway Video, a fantastic neighborhood video store, would be no more. But no, there it was, seeming the same as when I left. And two doors down from there, my real destination, my former massage therapist Donna Castillejo. Though she’s not available for a massage until the day I leave (this is more like physical therapy, actually, for my frozen shoulder), she referred me to someone else who is quite good.

blooming lavender

Long Beach looks so much the same to me. And this morning it occurred to me that I always thought Southern California had a very static quality to it. Despite the traffic and noise– helicopters still patrolling the beach, people and gardeners and cars– the houses and yards and plants– the environment– feels still. I’m not sure I can explain it. I remember visiting friends in LA a long time ago, friends who had all sorts of objects outside, including a somewhat trashed Eames chair they’d found in the alley. I kept wanting to bring things inside, for protection. And the windows had no screens (there were no bugs). But there in LA things could stay where they were for a long time. Even the slight rains evaporated quickly and didn’t leave anything soggy or mildewed.

This winter there have been torrential rains, and a friend pointed out the six-year-olds have not experienced rain in their lives, due to the drought. Not pouring rain. Not a night of rain.

Standing on the beach you can look at a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. They are very impressive. They are also flat as paper dolls. I mean, even the line of trees behind our house, which I’ve been contemplating this winter, have texture those mountain peaks lack.

There’s nothing really like the grand stillness of a row of palm trees.

There is nothing like the static quality of a bird of paradise. I am sure they were closed before I got here, but were they? They seem to always be in bloom down here. They are exactly as I remember them.

All of that is reassuring. It is so easy here to walk through space. I went out in the evening, though I was very tired, to the grocery store for a few things. I walked back with the things in my backpack. There was no weather, and there isn’t even a sense of temperature– hot in the sun, yes, but not oppressively so (thank you ocean). And there is plenty– rosemary hedges in bloom! (Bees buzz around the flowers but don’t fly in anyone’s screenless windows.)

Everything is beautiful and stays beautiful.

It is a lovely place to visit. And filled with lovely people who have complicated lives and are very friendly. I am having a very good time.

Today I had a couple disappointments– a poetry prize I was really hoping to at least be a finalist for did not come through. And in a very basic “restorative” yoga class I was so discouraged by all I could not do and how challenging it was (dang shoulder, dang feet). At that massage yesterday the therapist talked about pooling emotions or the difficulty of “working trauma” out of the body. My emotions do feel stopped up and in many ways buried in my body. I can’t seem to will myself into anger or grief or any strong emotion. I can’t will my shoulder to release or open. As she said: “so many bundles and clusters of nerves so very, very angry at me.”

I breathe and direct my energy into letting go, into release, even into “a curious quality” as I explore what things feel like in my body without effort. I lie there over the blanket or bolster opening my heart. I lie there with my right forefinger touching thumb, my left ring finger touching thumb, waiting to feel energy in my joints. I pull my breath to the outside of my ribs, expel it down and out through my feet, draw it into the belly and expel it up into the crown of my head.

And yet I feel static, even in all the chaos. I feel pain when I try to move even in simple ways: lifting my arms over my head, interlacing my hands and twisting.  There is stillness and there is stillness. I don’t want to be a groomed palm or a mountain backdrop. I can’t figure out exactly what I want to be.

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