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potatoes

 

I have borne witness to an awful lot of handwringing lately.  Handwringing about the fighting in Gaza and the fact that a mob of Russian separatists can lay their mitts on enough firepower to shoot a commercial airliner out of the sky and about the fact that it is a good 10 degrees warmer here than usual (fossil fuels, hello) and about an Ebola outbreak moving faster than the speed of human intervention and about the fact that the world—the entire world—cannot seem to rescue nearly 200 beautiful school girls from a band of thugs.  And those are just the things I am handwringing—and lamenting and praying—about every day.  But the handwringing I am actually puzzled by is the handwringing about, yes, potato salad.

Over the past year, I have had the chance to learn a good deal about crowdfunding.  In fact I love crowdfunding.  I think it is an opportunity for us—the citizens (and by that I don’t mean citizens who are anointed by legal status but citizens inducted by heart and soul and action)—to say “Yes, in my back yard.  Please.” It is a chance for us to express preferences and push creative projects.  It is an amazing thing how $5 means a lot more to the powers-that-be than a signature on a petition.

But for the last few weeks, there has been drama in the crowdfunding world. In case you haven’t heard, a crazy character named Zack Danger Brown from Columbus, Ohio, persuaded nearly 7,000 citizens of the internet to give him $55,492 to make potato salad.  He was asking for $10.  (Favorite fact:  His middle name is Danger. Seriously.)  But in the civic crowdfunding world, this kicked off a whole lot of the aforementioned hand-wringing– “How can someone raise $55,000 for potato salad when there are [suffering children, homeless dogs, under-appreciated marmots].  Few of the campaigns to address these injustices raise anywhere near $55,000.  What is wrong with people?  Seriously, potato salad? Think of the children, the dogs, the marmots!” It is a symbol of all that is wrong with America.

Of course, they’re right.  But truth be told I find myself loving Zack and his potato salad, even if I’m afraid to say it in hand-wringing company.  Yes, I love the campaign for its pitch-perfect irony.  (“Will it change the world?” Head nod. “Probably.”) And I love it because it makes fun of Kickstarter and its rewards and its ducktailed hipsterness. And who doesn’t love that?

But really that’s more like a crush.  I love it because it invites us to something real, to something human.  I love it because its basic impulse is one of simplicity and nostalgia. It invokes grandmothers and church potlucks and bacon bits.  It is, as I keep telling people, a subversion of modernity.  It is the human hand versus the machine, recalling the central anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial age.

But I also think it runs deeper than that.  At the end of the day, even with all our crowd-funded empowerment, we suspect we can’t do a thing about neighbors bombing the living daylights out of each other or the suffering of children and animals. We fear it’s too late for the planet and for the cherished girls in the Nigerian forest.  We fear Ebola could wipe out entire continents while we watch in horror.

But we are pretty certain we can make potato salad.  Or at least that Zack Danger Brown can.  Or that he can try to make it with a huge smile on his face, and he can invite us to join in. We find solace in the fact that we can sustain one another with picnic food and laughter.  We are comforted by the simplicity, the ease, the hospitality.  We are relieved that we still locate sources of pleasure and generosity.  So, it is for those reasons that I love Zack Danger Brown, and it is for those reasons I can actually pause—for a moment—and stop wringing my hands.

 

p.s. – But here’s another confession: I loathe mayonnaise potato salad. I prefer a vinaigrette. My family, not that into potato salad either way.  But they’ll tolerate it once a year in honor of the birth of the nation. So here’s the recipe for my Independence Day Potato Salad:

 

Independence Day Potato Salad

 

Ingredients

1 sweet onion

4 cloves of garlic

2 small handfuls of tender green beans

8-10 new potatoes

a generous scoop of cherry tomatoes

½ cup of olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

¼ cup of balsamic vinegar

Basil, oregano, salt & pepper to taste

 

Directions

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil

Dice potatoes and boil until soft

Meanwhile, snip green beans and blanch for 2 minutes

In a splash of olive oil, cook onions until clear and soft

Add garlic and beans to onions;; sautee until gold but not brown

Drain potatoes and add to garlic/onion/bean mixture

Make vinaigrette with remaining olive oil, lemon, vinegar, and spices

Toss all ingredients in a bowl with fresh cherry tomatoes

Serve chilled or at room temperature

 

 

turkey dinner

I hate to do this.  But I am going to have to take issue with the great Joseph Campbell, from whom I have gained solace and comfort and inspiration from for nearly as long as I can remember.  Campbell was one of the world’s foremost experts on myths and culture. And yes, he was a genius. And a cultural icon.  But let me back up.

I am in a mess at the moment.  I don’t ever remember saying—or even thinking—the dreaded words writer’s block. I have always had a backlog of ideas and a drive to wrestle human experience into poems or essays or even wisps in my notebook.  Not so right now.  I have no idea what I am doing or why I am doing it.  Poems are turning to ash in my mouth. The essays I have started feel self-indulgent or derivative or—worse—wholly unnecessary.

It is both terrifying and bleak. So I am reading like a fiery fiend to try to find a path back into art-making of any form. My pen is poised over my notebook, but I will take anything. Karaoke. Macramé. Paint by numbers. Anything. This dead and doubt-filled mood feels like the mood that overcame me when I first heard someone describe dark matter in space—ice-cold, menacing, lethal to everything I thought I knew about humans’ role in the universe.

So enter Joseph Campbell.  For many years I have turned to a little book entitled A Joseph Campbell Companion, a compendium of teachings by Campbell collected by the poet Diane Osbon, with most of the material coming from Osbon’s attendance at a month-long seminar with Campbell in 1983 at the Esalen Institute in Northern California.  The book is generous and wide-ranging and is intended to inspire.

And boy do I need some inspiration, particularly when it comes to art-making. So, I skipped ahead to the section “Living in the Sacred,” which as I remembered it, is a paean to the transformative power of art.  And sure enough, there is this lovely:

Art is the transforming experience.

 The revelation of art is not ethics, not a judgment, nor even a revelation of humanity as one generally thinks of it. Rather, the revelation is a marveling recognition of the radiant Form of forms that shines through all things.

 

There. Of course, the invocation of the Form of forms doesn’t help me with my immediate problem—not being able to find a poem with both hands. But it does reassure me that art matters, that it is the light in our fumbling quest to become more human.  More alive.

But then, a few pages later, is this:

 

One application of the artists’ craft is in doing something like making a turkey dinner, another is in creating art that is of no use whatsoever except esthetically. When I use the word “art,” it has to do with “divinely superfluous beauty” and esthetic arrest. There’s no esthetic arrest in eating a turkey. That’s life inaction, doing what it has to do, namely eating something that’s been killed, putting it into your system. It’s totally different from esthetic arrest and recognizing the radiance. Are you going to look at the object or eat it? Eating the object is related to desire and loathing.

 

Vasily Kandinsky, Circle with a Circle

Vasily Kandinsky, Circle with a Circle

And there is where the issue of taking issue comes in.  I am all for superfluous beauty. In fact, the transcendent geometric forms of Vasily Kandinsky are among the paintings that matter to me the most.  I can almost see the shimmering sub-order of the constellations vibrating behind them.  But the paintings of Marc Chagall are also among those I treasure most. Chagall’s paintings are magical and otherworldly as well, but they also celebrate and embrace the world of cows and churches and broad-hipped weddings.

Marc Chagall, La Mariee

Marc Chagall, La Mariee

For me, there is even more to it than that than the difference between Chagall and Kandinsky . While I am in the dark night of the soul with regard to poems, I still have to cook dinner.  It is high summer, so I am in my garden every day.  And, I am still knitting baby blankets and prayer shawls.  And it is in those every day makings that I can still find the “radiance” that Campbell talks about, even when the well of pure art-making is dry or at least very, very low.

Every day, I am immersed in the transformation that comes from heat and water and time.  In the application of those elements to raw materials—peppers and tomatoes, radish seeds and soil, wool and cotton—I get a glimpse of the order of things. I get a chance to join in the steady business of creating and re-creating form.  For me, that is not “life’s inaction” nor does it relate my peppers or pea shoots or yarn to “desire and loathing” because those transformations have practical, daily functions. As it turns out, the very fact that I can transform a pepper from our garden into chile rellanos or ratatouille makes the idea of making a poem again seem more possible. It makes it seem as if the order of the universe favors the makers after all.  It makes me want to stay at my desk and ride out the doubt and flailing and suffering in hopes that there are still poems to be written.

And so I guess Joseph Campbell did work his magic over me once again.  He did arrest and inspire and bring me back to what matters, not with solace exactly, but with provocation and a turkey dinner.

Aging into van Gogh

starry night

 

Last week, I dragged Violet to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  I took her to New York for a few days to celebrate her birthday, and it was a tornado of  12-year-old exuberance—Mama Mia, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Times Square at midnight. For me, going with Violet was like going to New York City for the very first time. Nearly the only motherly insistence I displayed was that we spend a morning at MoMA. Well that and also that she balance her chocolate croissant intake with at least an occasional lettuce leaf.violet in grand central

While—not surprisingly—Violet raised the requisite eyebrow at Al Reinhardt’s all black painting and—surprisingly—was not all that into Andy Warhol’s soup cans, she did plop herself right on the floor to take a long look at Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, 1950.

I—as always—was drawn back to the room that holds the van Goghs, the room that holds The Starry Night.  It’s strange, really. I was never attracted to van Gogh when was I was younger.  In fact, I didn’t think about van Gogh at all beyond “postcard material” and “pretty sunflowers.”

But now, whenever I’m in New York, I find myself making a pilgrimage to pay my respects.  And I adore the painting of Postman Roulin at the Detroit Institute of Art. I’m trying to understand why. Somehow they speak to where I am in life. There’s something so tender about them. There’s such unmasked affection for the material world.  Especially The Starry Night feels like a grasping, it feels like trying to capture water in your hands.  There’s the nestled town, the ominous cypress, the boundless sky. And van Gogh holds it all.

Now, when I look at The Starry Night, I get it. I don’t feel as bold or as certain in the world as I once did.  The world feels fragile, and I feel cracked.  But those fissures and bruises make both the sleeping town and the bursting sky all the more precious. The painting brings the massiveness of the universe and the coziness of human co-habitation into intimacy but not collision.  The best we can hope for, really. So earlier this week, there I was, weeping in the middle of hundreds of international tourists, trying to hang on to the moment where my 12-year-old daughter  first lays eyes on a painting that cracks the world—and my middle-aged heart—right open.

So there’s this, a poem from a few years ago about the painting of Postman Roulin:

postman roulin

 

 

And It Appears that—Once Again—All the Blues Are On Hand

But now, I spend my time searching for a wisp

out of reach, for even serviceable French,

for enchanté & desolé.  For a moment stamped

here & now.   What is it about the mind made visible

in the cracked cornflower wall?  It’s a tell,

Monsieur R, you could be a sea captain

but for your bead-blue eyes, not horizon-weary

but nearsighted and sparking for a brindle-back.

 

Sixty percent will say their favorite color

is blue.  I wonder.  Is it for blueberries

or baby powder, a sky-sick Navy or love

for the Saxton sea? Is it for a grandmother’s

gentian or latent loyalty to Napoleon or the steel

of the last century?  Half-buried porcelain

or just an empty palm to declare a milk-sotted truce?

I wonder. Could I have been a sea captain

 

but for mal de mer & bald-faced failures with a compass

& two psychics who raised the flag of drowning?

You could be a police officer gatekeeper jail keeper key

keeper, keeper of the peace.  Zookeeper?  Maybe.

But not anything close to a stable keeper or a bar keep—

you must be something requiring the I-mean-business blue

of the state (or its proxies).  For me, it’s an outright search for nouns.

 

The neighbors called Van Gogh Fou Rou for a reason—

all that mal de tête in the fierce night sky.

My littlest little girl: what does it feel like to be a fish?

I reply: wet.  But, I can’t say:  the mind splinters

& insists you could have been an astronaut.

(But what of airsickness and vertigo

and grief for the spinning  blue planet?)

 

I could recall the sea blue wall if only the sea

were such a color, rendered by a foreigner, a mad man, a maker

of the blue of nations the blue of warhawks and love, doves.

The blue of oblivion.  Of the mind peeling off in gritty, lethal flakes.

I could have been a clam digger. You, a conductor, a chancellor.

A postman is better anyway.  Amongst splintered women

& salty dogs.  Ah, Sacré bleu! you can smell the mind

run amok.  You can hear it smoke.

 

Blessed are the bored & brindled. The lovelorn

& the seasick.  Blessed are the stern & right,

the silvered & the split. The iced-in stars, the warhawks,

the doves. En Francais: beni. Blessed is the smoke.

Blessed is the fire and last cold spark.

Blessed are the blustering & the brackish.

Blessed is the forgetting.

Beni soit l’oubli.  Beni soit le bleu.

Blessed is the blue.

The Power of Kale

kale

 

 

For the past few months, we have eaten kale for basically every meal.  Mostly, we eat kale salad, which we fondly refer to as the magic salad.  We top it with baked miso tofu or sautéed shrimp, but most of the time, we just eat plain kale salad –finely chopped and massaged with a simple dressing that I cannot divulge here for fear that it will somehow lose its magic. (Maybe another day when I’m feeling more confident.)

Part of the reason we have become kaletarians is because we overwintered half our garden in kale, then put in a spring planting just to make sure.  But now we need that garden space for summer crops, so we are redoubling our efforts to consume the kale.  This morning, I pulled out the end of the kale (Well, nearly the end . . . I wanted to leave enough for one last magic salad.) and set to work making pesto.

Mostly, I used what we had in the house – walnuts mixed with a few pine nuts, garlic, lemons, olive oil, parmesan.  I tossed it all in the food processor and within a few minutes had seven jars of bright green garlicky pesto.

There is something tremendously empowering about scrounging through the pantry and transforming that which we babied along in the garden into something decadent and delicious to be eaten another day.

Around our house, we have recently discovered that one way to motivate teenagers to think about what they put in their mouths is to ask a simple question: Do you want corporations to decide what you eat?  Any amount of nattering on about nutrients or salt and fat content means nothing.  But the one thing teenagers loathe above all else is having someone else try to control them.  They don’t want their food-pious mother controlling them, for sure.  But almost worse than that is thinking that Nestle or Nabisco will decide what they can and can’t eat.

 

potTruth be told, I don’t really want General Mills bossing me around either. So I felt downright revolutionary as I pulled huge heads of kale right out the ground and dragged them—dirt and all—into the kitchen sink.  I rescued the slugs (I know. Bad idea.) and plunged it all straight into my big enamel pot.  It made me feel like Mother Jones or Rosie the Riveter.

I don’t think I am some kind of freedom fighter of the kitchen or that I am going to destabilize Nabisco’s business model with my magic kale salad, but if the apocalypse comes, at least I have seven jars of kale pesto tucked away in my freezer. For an hour, I had control over what I am feeding myself and my family. I felt empowered and capable and slightly less passive in the face of the corporate titans. And at very least, I got that kale out of the garden and made way for the subversive song of the summer squash.

pesto

Thumbing Your Nose at Nestle Kale Pesto

1.Pull out whatever kale you have left in your garden or buy it at the farmer’s market.  It takes a solid two bunches to make it worth your while. Wash it well and pull off the toughest parts of the stems. Make your own decision about the slugs. Rough chop the kale

2. Bring a big pot of water to a boil and blanch the kale for one minute.  Drain and rinse with cold water.  Dry and press out all the excess water.  Dry again.

3. Meanwhile, toast a cookie sheet full of walnuts or pinenuts or whatever you have in the pantry.  Cool and rough chop them, too.

4. Toss as many garlic cloves as you can handle, two handfuls of shredded parmesan, the juice of one or two lemons, the kale, and the nuts into your food process.  Douse liberally with olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

5. Run food processor until the pesto is as coarse or fine as you like it.

6. Scrape into jars and freeze.

7. Wait for the apocalypse.

 

A Scattered Heart

dandelion

Good Lord, my mind is a sieve these days. I am misplacing bills and forgetting to turn in permission slips and–worse!–mistaking one person for another even though I know them both perfectly well.  I like to joke about my rapidly advancing age, though my gently contrarian husband predictably replies:  You’re hardly elderly.  My friends commiserate and say they have the same problem, they say, we just have too much to do, too many balls in the air.  That’s probably true.  I mean we’re in the thick of it – working full time, active kids at home, trying to keep the artistic flame burning in some small way.

 

But I’m not sure that’s the absolute source of my forgetfulness.  I don’t think it’s only that I have too much to do.  I suspect it may be that my time—my life really—is too fragmented, that the things I have to do are so separate from one another that they literally block each other out.  So when I am working on a project for work, my mind completely shutters off the publication agreement I am a month overdue in submitting.  When I am immersed in the world of a poem, I just cannot remember that we have no turkey in fridge so the children will be eating hamburger buns and strawberry jam for lunch tomorrow.  And when I am on an overnight field trip with a group of sixth graders, I space the conference call I was supposed to squeeze in between the boat ride and lunch on the docks.  It’s like that for me right now – the worlds are so segmented and so completely unto themselves, it’s as if the other worlds cease to exist. But it’s worse when I actually do try to keep all these identities in mind at the same time, leaping from one flare up to the next, never settling into sustained focus and forgetting yet more things.

 

I was thinking about these feeling, this sense of chronic fragmentation, when I listened to a podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview of Brené Brown earlier this week.  Brené Brown, a research faculty member at University of Houston, became a social media phenom a couple of years ago when her TEDx talk “Listening to Shame” went viral.  Last time I checked, it had been viewed over 4 million times.  Clearly, there’s something about shame we want—or need— to listen to.

 

But on this particular episode of On Being, Brown was talking about the power of vulnerability, a topic she has done another TED Talk about. Her thesis is that in order to live what she calls a “wholehearted” life, it is essential to embrace vulnerability.  She argues that the people who most fully inhabit their lives are those whose sense of worthiness—worthiness to be loved, respected, beheld—is not dependent on what they achieve or how many tasks they accomplish. As she put it in another interview: “There comes a time when we just get tired of those Ps – proving, pleasing, perfecting, performing – and it normally happens between 35 and 55.”

 

But she also said something like this:  “Your ability to live wholeheartedly is directly proportional to your willingness to tolerate the risk for heartbreak.”  Or something very close to that.  But her point was that the biggest barrier to wholeheartedness is fear of heartbreak.  I’m sure that’s true.   It makes sense to me – you can’t throw yourself into the things that really matter to you while you are spending most of your energy protecting yourself from failure and disappointment. If you announce and pursue your deepest dreams, you are setting yourself up for the possibility of failure, of humiliation, of heartbreak.

 

But for me, in the midst of my mid-life forgetfulness, her talk triggered something else.  Maybe for me the barrier to living wholeheartedly is not so much fear of a broken heart as it is my practice of living with a scattered heart.  It is not the spectacular shatter of glass on concrete, it is blowing a dandelion into the wind.  My mind, my attention, my heart blows in so many directions that the flow and focus—and hopefully short-term memory—that comes with wholeheartedness eludes me.

 

That’s an interesting thesis, I thought. I wonder what it means. For sure it means that I do not completely inhabit my life in the way that Brown’s wholehearted study subjects did.  In my family, they treat it as a pathology, as an immutable character trait –That’s just Wendy.  She’s always been like that. She was overcommitted in kindergarten.  But I guess for the first time, I wonder why. Why do I scatter my energies and my affections to the four winds?

 

Truth be told, I don’t think the reasons are that different from those who are guarding themselves against heartbreak.  It plays out a little differently, but the impulse is the same.  When guarding our hearts against shatter, we think I will be destroyed if I am hurt, if I fail.  But for me, with my scattered heart, I think I have to do everything myself, that it is a deep failure to admit that some things (many things!) are best left to others. Somewhere along the line, I melded effort and virtue.  I married striving and worthiness.  If I stop moving, it will prove that I am a lazy person, an unworthy person.

 

It’s that simple really.  I scatter my heart because the virtue of doing is more important than the wholeness of being.  Well, that’s screwed up.  And besides, it’s making me forget things.  And plus I’m not doing a very good job at any of the 10,000 tasks I have set up for myself. But I have put my shoulder to this wheel for a long time.  I wonder what would happen if I just stopped.  If I said I don’t have to try to be everything.  At least not all at once.  I wonder what would happen then.

 

 

Violet at the Creation

 

 

Violet

Violet

Oh look at this big girl!  Today, she turns 12.  Violet is a singular spirit. . . and in honor of her day, this poem from oh so many years ago.  But it is still her!  Still Violet.

 

VIOLET AT THE CREATION

 

In April, before the clouds settled

their differences and the lake was still

nervous, she crawled into the garden

while a blue blackbird resembling nothing

 

more than a catfish sang arias

to give her cover. The apple-hipped

stepmother taught her a secret

game to fool the husband

 

who wore an egg-yolk jacket,

Dominion stitched in russet on the chest.

The pie-apple bride tossed

the little she high and her giggles

 

turned to pebbles dibblety dropped

until the husband raised an umbrella.

They tried on names like rumpled gowns.

Nanny goat called herself sloth

 

and humpback whale was torn

between winter wheat

and passenger pigeon.

Falcon christened himself

 

sapphire silence, blue jeweled

and unuttered, while she blew

spun glass through the straw

of her bones and plucked

her own name—Violet—from the new grass.

 

* And all gratitude to VoiceCatcher and Press 53, both of which published this poem.

 

 

On Missing

my grandparents, edna & coy

my grandparents, edna & coy

 

I realized today that the human activity  I engage in above all others is missing people.  Of course, all my family members are gone tonight doing one thing and another, so I miss them.  And right now, I am baking mac and cheese for the family of one of my dear friends, who is on a dream trip to the Bahamas.  So I miss all of them, too.  And my true heart’s best friend has gone to the Redwoods or to a treehouse in Southern Oregon or to some fool place she says makes her feel like a hippy or an Ewok.  I miss her too.

Every single day of my life, I miss my Grandma Edna.  She died 13 years ago this month, and I’m still a little mad that she didn’t hang around to meet Violet.  But I miss my grandfather, too, though he died when I was three.  I can scarcely remember what he looked like, but the smell of a pipe can bring tears to my throat in a hot second.

I love my co-workers now, but I still miss my colleagues from City Club and the Federal Defenders Office and Energy III, the insulation company where I worked after high school.  I miss my friends from law school and college and kindergarten.  I miss Rodney, the boy who died in a car crash when I was in the fourth grade.

The odd thing is that I’m not lonely.  Not at all.  In fact, it is a rare and beautiful thing to be alone at the dinner hour when I can eat cottage cheese over the sink while I balance Martha Stewart Living on the cutting board.  Nothing to cook, no dishes to wash. I can think my own thoughts, and they are not all entirely melancholy.

The vast majority of my time is spent with people who I admire and enjoy and love.  But in the back of my mind, I am missing all the others.  In fact, sometimes I miss the people I am with because I am thinking about the fact that they will grow up and go to college or get a different job or go the grocery store without me.  As I drive Ruby and Violet to school, I often think I miss you even though you are still here.  Sometimes I even say that out loud, but they look at me—as they say—like I have nine heads.

I also miss people I barely know—like the friendly barista who has worked in the coffee shop around the corner for the last few months but who doesn’t seem to be there anymore.  And I miss all the dogs I’ve ever had – Zeke and Kaikatsu and Katie and Romeo.  And Kia, the German Shepherd that we boarded for two weeks when I was in second grade.

I miss restaurants and coffee shops where I ate and argued and laughed with friends and lovers and kids—Ron Paul on Broadway and Chance of Rain and especially Esparza’s, where we went for chicken fried steak on Thursday nights even though I am a vegetarian.

I miss my Uncle Eldon and my Great-Grandfather Harry, who I never met.  I miss my cat even though I have never had a cat and I don’t see a way in which I would ever have one.  But you see, I know that if I did have a cat, his name would be Diego Rivera and he would be a calico, and he would have a gray eye patch. I miss him.

It’s a pathology, all this missing.  I can’t decide if its ingratitude or an over-abundance of gratitude. Or if it’s just plain looking a gift horse in the mouth.  But I do know, in that moment just before I say goodbye to you, when you are both there and not there—it is the sweetest thing I know.  It reminds me how fleeting it all is.  It reminds me we are damn lucky to be here. Now.  Together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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