a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

skirt weather

 This morning, for the fifth or sixth day in a row, I have reached into the closet and pulled out a skirt to wear, instead of summer's shorts or capris.  Knee-length, if you please, not the short short-like ones that carry me through hot, muggy weather.  Somehow, these late September days, while still oppressive enough to pass for August, are nudging me toward the loose, swingy, back-to-school look stored somewhere in the murkiness of my age-cluttered mind.

I don't believe, of course, that that is the whole story.  Fall might seem like slacks-time, but slacks or jeans feel confining now, closing me up against the possibility of a fall breeze lightening the oppressiveness of 90-degree afternoons.  When others in the north are celebrating yet another dip in their still-warm lakes, I'm intuitively past summer, and on to what autumn should be.  The trees, I must add, are with me on that, shaking down thick crackles like pepper over the rain-starved ground.

Perhaps, too, there is a metaphor to be found in my need for looseness, like swimming free among waves; like lying for hours in a day unobstructed by appointments and tasks, book open in hand; like lunch with a long-time friend which continues into wine hour.  Tonight, at dinner, ruing an overcooked entree prepared in haste, I was chastised (rightly so) by my uncle, "It's that you're too much in a hurry.  I know you have a lot to do.  But you need to slow down."

The fact that the year is closing in (look at the linguistic similarities:  close, closet, clothes, closer) also plays a part...late September always brings that rushed feeling, despite the fact on the other side of the coin that there is still a whole quarter of the year left.  Why the hurry to push time, to grasp all the looseness of never-ending hours while I can?  Isn't December just an arbitrary date on a calendar closing just when the new calendar, usually already in hand, is panting to be opened?

Well, I do have the answer to that...the simplest:  Winter is in the wings, even while most of the shrubs are green, and the annuals still respond to kind, if infrequent, waterings.  If there is ever a season known for closings, it's winter.  Closing up garden, closing up porch, closing up windows and doors, closing up a lot of what frees us spring through fall.  The only thing being opened are the woolens from their storage bags, while we pull clothes close.

I like winter, really I do.  Or maybe I just agree to fall under its spell.  It's a time to hunker down (more dark evenings to read, for one thing) and give the spirit a moment to replenish itself without the need to grow, except at the root.  We pull on sweaters and hide under lap robes; setting out for a brisk walk, we tuck gloves and a scarf in pockets, just in case. Nothing fancy need happen; nothing complicated need preen itself for show.  You can paint small masterpieces; you can knit and sew; you can read and write; you can cook stews and fill the freezer for company that may or may not be coming.  On the rare occasions that it snows here, things shut down even further and you can almost hear the sighs of relief as everyone who can stays home, stays put.  (That's the time to reheat the stew and make some cornbread.) Otherwise, anything you are planning winter-wise is focused on the future when winter is finally past.

It's the time anticipating winter, though, that I like better...the cooler but not chilled weather, the leaves adrift in the air, the sudden urges to spend a morning baking for no occasion at all except to share something warm with others...pumpkin bread for breakfast (if you're looking for GF, try Trader Joe's fantastic mix, which my daughter-in-law turned me on to...and I'm not even a mix baker).  And apple crisp.  By winter, we're so overstuffed with holiday fare that these simple treats which greeted the first chilly days have become old hat.

It's not only I who feel it.  At the library, anticipation of the season has taken on a greater urgency. Summer is a busy time for reading, it's true, with children out of school and families stockpiling vacation reading and elders staying out of the sun.  But last Saturday, exchanging the old week's reads for new page-turners, there was such a crowd among us...in a library as large and spacious and light as ours, it surprised us to feel that half the town had found some excuse to crowd in with us, rushing among the shelves, hurrying to check out, chasing children along the wide inside corridor.  The new coffee shop just opened in the lobby was doing a brisk business, and the paths from parking lots and parks were tread pretty persistently.

I'll admit to having somehow changed my literary tune, too.  Two of the novels I chose were centered around food, or so I thought from the titles:  Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, and Secrets of the Tsil Cafe, by T.F. Averill.  The first turned out to be a catalog of the lives, romantic mostly, of some early techies, and the second, though it began intriguingly about a boy growing up among cooks, finally disappointed with secrets one guessed too soon.  But I still have the third and fourth to carry me through this week: one about Paris, Ellis Avery's The Last Nude, and a mystery by Louise Penny, whom I gave up on last year, but decided to pull in anyway.  I'd have loved to bring home again The Last Chinese Chef, but it wasn't on the shelf.  Nice safe books, nothing current or adventurous or enthusiastically recommended by the avid and intelligent readers in my correspondence.  Every one redolent of winter's preoccupations.

Today, in a brown skirt with vines of embroidered flowers making the hem, and a fall-green three-quarter-sleeve shirt that sort of goes with it, I'm off to tackle everything from errands to card-making, including a shopping trip with my aunt for her new winter suit.  (At 98, she's decided it's too long since she bought herself anything new).  Meanwhile, I'm hoping that in the workshop this afternoon I can work myself into the right season for our November's show.  That handmade book I've been mentally inventing for months, on Time, ironically, has become more and more a preoccupation, and will soon, I suspect, center the worktable.  I won't be able to hurry that.

If, dear readers, you are scratching your heads, wondering what to make of the puzzling maze this post has become, scratch no more...consider it simply another indication of pushy winter:  woolly rumination.


Apple Crisp

6 tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
a little lemon juice
a little fine sea salt
1-2 tbs honey

Place apples in a deep pie dish.
Sprinkle a little lemon juice on them and a tiny bit of salt.  Mix well.
Drizzle the honey over the apples.

Mix 1.5 - 2 cups oatmeal with
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 scant tsp ground cloves 
small pieces of candied ginger
.5 (that's 1/2) tsp nutmeg and
1 tbs coconut oil, liquid.
Sprinkle evenly over apples.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.
Enjoy the aroma everywhere in the house; watch the leaves fall.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A tiny woman with a guitar

I was about to begin a new post, when I opened my mail to a message from a friend...in fact two messages from two dear friends, the best way I know to invite a new page and a new year.  One wished me peace; the other, wrapping her words in a calm, quiet (enviable) mood, inspired in me what she so perfectly called "the comfort in a familiar routine" that such holidays bring...breathing the aroma of apples and cinnamon while ironing table dressings and wiping wine glasses, looking forward to the songs of the ceremony, sung in her family's congregation by the cantor, "a tiny woman with a guitar".  She imagines that my dining room, like hers, will be where family will gather tonight.

Yes, the dining room will be our scene.  Instead of her apple cake, we will have rugelach, the nut-filled rounds with apricot. There will be ginger chicken, and potato gratin, and orange-carrot-fennel salad.  And apples and honey.

I hope to achieve as calm a space to prepare them as my friend has...my aunt will be out getting her hair done, and my uncle napping or reading, and the children not yet at the door.  I'll iron my tablecloth with some quiet music.

Years ago, I'd written a poem, Ironing on Shabbat, about that same calm achieved: the peaceful motion of the iron smoothing the cloth in a house "emptied of temple-goers", more religious than a formal ceremony.  Especially at a time when a little peace and quiet was a rare and most welcome gift for a young mother.

These days I've been making my own tablecloths and napkins by hand from fabric I find around on the remnant shelves; it's part of undoing a tangled day in the evening hours when I'm watching a movie or listening to music. Stitching without hurry, my hands can accomplish something for no required reason. There is sanctuary in the motion of the ordinary when calm prevails.
Even so, holidays like this one underscore the double edge we live with... as the table is plentiful and handsome with sweet things, so is the world outside (for too many, inside, too) full of terrors...want, war, megalomania, meanness.  We could drown in it if we didn't have these rituals which call us so firmly to our better selves.  Would that the whole planet knew how to untangle itself without pulling each other apart.

I too like the music of the service, for me the most spiritual part, like a mantle I wear for remembering.  Prayers for my children, for whom I keep it, the solemnity of halting the outside world to consider one's place in life, one's openness to peace...I do that for me.

With the friend who wished me peace today, I used, on the high holidays, to stay for the meditation service while most of the other congregants went home to nap til the memorial later in the afternoon.  We'd walk the gardens, or sit silently, or consider life awhile together.  Peace, acceptance...so little to ask of life and so precious, too often so far from reach.

And yet...may our tables shine with them, this night and always.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storm Warnings

Ever since Ivan appeared on the scene, whirling out of the South Atlantic, I've been getting messages from family and friends by all sorts of media inquiring whether I've decided to evacuate.  The fact that the storm is nowhere near me, and, by at least some projections, not likely to do more than send a small tail of rain and wind our way, makes me wonder what use warnings of this sort, to the tune of the background noise of insistent newscasts, are.  And also makes me realize how little I pay attention to things like that.  For better or worse.

Not that I wouldn't move in a hurry if I lived in a Miami high rise and the storm was at my door, as it seems to be there today.  We have, in our time, sat out more hurricanes than I can count, and lived to tell the tale, but only after judicious consideration, or blind indifference.  Hurricanes shift what the weather people design as their "paths" all the time, so projections are little use to coast-dwellers, who, if they have been born and bred to the climate, know better than to expect the expected.  One takes shelter in different ways, depending on a lot of things both at home and in the sky.  My mother and aunts liked to tell a story of a day they spent in the kitchen at the shore, baking, when one of them looked out the side window and noticed that the ocean was running down the street only a few feet from the side lawn.  How a hurricane could sneak up on you like that is beyond belief, except that I, who was small and there with them at the time, must have inherited their cluelessness.  They stayed put, of course, put out candles, I suppose, and listened to the wind howl.  I don't remember hearing how the baking came out.

My husband and I, who had eighteen years earlier traveled through a raging hurricane to our new home near the sound, sat out Irene five or six years ago, along with all our neighbors, despite "mandatory" evacuation orders.  We weren't scofflaws; we lived in 100-plus year old houses and figured that they'd lasted this long without suffering defeat.  Irene too felt right at home and so stayed atop us all day and night until, in the morning, we all looked out at the fine day and fell to picking up the trees littering one another's yards.  Right now, one Floridian of my family has moved north; another, with ailing parents less able to make a trip, has hunkered down to ride it out.  A third southerner, like us nowhere near its path, has made elaborate plans to be somewhere else, where exactly he hasn't decided.  My friend talks about her friends who live in a double-wide in Irma's path, but can't decide whether to stay or find a last-minute motel.  There's nothing like hurricane warnings to show us our tendencies.

Meanwhile, other warnings ride the waves of the air.  I'm not sure I pay enough attention to those, either.  Along the way, things I should have had at least an inkling of have caught me by surprise, like that ocean hurling past my mother and aunt years ago.  A job cut.  A friend's betrayal.  And yet there are others I can feel in the wind right to my bones.  A child in danger (the worst of the worst).  A need to get away.

Close friends I'd planned to see today have had to cancel; his health won't permit the visit...he's at a dangerous crossroads, suddenly brought on, and his wife is on tenterhooks.  While the cancellation is understandable, it's thrown me off this morning in surprising ways.  Coming home from the aborted trip, I changed and began to think of what I could get done instead...there's quite a list...but somehow I couldn't organize myself to what are, after all, pretty simple tasks.  I really wanted to see my friends.

I put on a recording of some Cajun music I like (my friends are from New Orleans in the most entrenched way) and thought about making shrimp remoulade for dinner.  To the tunes of the Breaux Brothers, I began to make some cookies, then went out in the yard to prune the overindulged tentacles of what's known in these parts as ugly-agnus.  The cookies crumbled; the pruning, which I usually consider therapeutic, seemed tedious.  Coming back into the house, I tried a few phone calls, but the work I really have to get done...art I've long neglected (and me with a November show coming up!)...just wasn't in me.   I'm thinking of my friend, blank of mind about his condition, and knowing I probably won't know how he is until much later.  That seems to have drained me of any focus except on him and on his wife, whose voice on the phone was uncharacteristically heavy with portent.  It's difficult to be so far away from those I care about and want to support.

I used to like storms...still in a way, do...but so much experience with those inner ones life throws at us have warn me down.  I believe I'm good at coping with what comes, but these days I think to myself, what next?, and not in a cheerfully anticipatory way.

I'd say that I'm just temporarily out of sorts (I used to tell my husband that, to his puzzlement; "What does that mean?" he'd ask), except that outside it's a beautiful day, one of the nicest we've had in a week of gorgeous weather, and one of my favorite seasons, fall, is in the air, and I've a workshop full of potential just waiting to be realized.  There is every reason to be hopeful, to be full of life, to be engaged in the future.

Instead, all I seem to be able to do is shrug, and wait for it to pass, hoping whatever storm is roiling through me leaves me grateful for the rain, inspired again, and, most important, facing no great loss.  Evacuation isn't really possible in such circumstances; neither is gathering candles and stockpiling peanut butter and water.  We just have to ride it out and accept the yard full of broken trees.  If the dam breaks, it breaks, and we ride its muddy wash out until our feet touch land again.  Then we get up again and start over.

A few days later, we're still waiting for rain stronger than a drizzle, but the weather has cooled a bit, and to counteract the gathering clouds I decided that I'd use up a week's leftovers by making a meal (I'd give anything to share it with my ailing friend) that seems to warm everyone.  Those of you in the same boat might try it, too:

Pot Pie
1. Dice leftover (cooked) chicken and set aside.  If it's been dressed while it was cooked...for example with pesto or balsamic reduction or even BBQ sauce...so much the better for flavor.
2. Saute some onion, celery and carrot, also diced, until the onion is almost translucent.
3. Add the chicken dice, about a cup of vegetable broth mixed with a small can of evaporated milk, and some parsley, sage, and thyme.
4. Add some small-diced sweet potato or butternut squash (or both) and cook for a few minutes, 
then add some green peas and cut string beans, maybe some corn kernels, asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, whatever.  Season with S/P (red pepper is best).
5a. Mash some potatoes with butter.
5b. Make a short pastry and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness.
5c. Mix up some cornbread batter.
6.  Pour the chicken mixture into your prettiest casserole dish and top with the mashed potatoes (5a.) or the pastry (5b.) or the cornbread batter (5c.)  
If you use the mashed potatoes or the cornbread batter, just mound it here and there over the top.  If you use the pastry, cut out a pretty design to vent the steam.
7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes while the house warms and smells delicious.
If, like me, you don't do meat, just substitute all the vegetables you can think of for the chicken.  If you're vegan, lose the butter and milk.  Won't make any difference to comfort.
If your refrigerator goes out during the storm, you can reheat it on your outdoor grill, 
or share it lukewarm right out of the pot.
A bottle of your favorite wine, red or white, isn't a bad idea, either.