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The Imperative of Gratitude

full moon

What a tangled up snarl of a November it has been.  On one hand, it is November! The trees shot forth their last bright flames before settling into winter bones. And I love Thanksgiving above all other holidays. Of course, there’s the food—daydreaming over recipes, returning to old favorites, jostling for the oven. But there is also the gathering together with no purpose other than conviviality and gratitude.  A call to gratitude is about as close as we get to holiness in the secular waters where I and most of my friends swim.

And yet, there is a long shadow cast over this November. Since the brutal Daesh (let’s call them that, shall we?) rampage of November 12 and 13, the media has blanketed us with terrorism reporting. Every day is filled with news of another attack, another lockdown, another shootout. This alongside the news that an Oregon college student was assaulted in a racially motivated attack over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists were shot in Minneapolis by white supremacists, and Western Washington University is closed after students of color were threatened online.  Oh and yes, our last hope for any kind of half-feasible climate agreement that might at least slow the earth’s incineration is dependent on the erstwhile leaders of the world pulling up their socks and getting down to business in Paris next week, a city that is more than a little distracted.

I’ve heard it argued that we have no business counting our bougie blessings while the world is consumed with injustice and oppression and violence. And under the circumstances, that’s a pretty compelling argument. The call to outrage and fear and retribution seems a lot more appropriate under the circumstances, and it offers our amped up limbic systems something to do. And plus, I’m kind of in love with my outrage. It makes me feel less powerless, and it obliterates all those pain-soaked emotions like confusion and heartbreak and grief. By staying high on outrage, I can keep moving at 70 miles-an-hour and not stop to feel what’s really happening.

I know that gratitude for my clannish family and home-grown squash and working hot-water heater and relative health and silly joyous pets and meaningful work and whip-smart colleagues and dry socks and a decent haircut and ridiculously thorough education and big street trees and beautifully maintained parks and clean water and fierce sparkly friends and dry firewood and books of heart-stopping poems (some written by those sparkly friends) and a watchful mountain and a curvy river and a brilliant husband and stunning daughters contrasts my abundance from the want and suffering of many of the world’s citizens.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be outraged than really feel how unjust it is that I have so much when others have so little. Yes, it’s definitely better to be infuriated than guilty and confused.

But it is a dangerous business to plunge fully into the pool of outrage. It is blinding and deafening and disconnecting. It feeds on self-righteousness and certainty and locating and demonizing the other. It whips up hysteria and loves a good mob.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a call to close looking and affection. Yes, it can tip into sentimentality and self-congratulation (which don’t look that bad in contrast with mass brutality), but gratitude also ties us to the world, even in all its brokenness. Since the Paris attacks, I have seen several people return to Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was published in The New Yorker right after 9/11. Here it is:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(translated by Clare Cavanaugh)

Yes, there it is. Wine and strawberries and the thrush’s gray feather in the face of suffering and brutality and capriciousness. And it is not just comfort that Zagajewski offers us, it is an imperative.  We must praise the mutilated world because the future depends on the actions we take out of gratitude and connection—and, yes, love—in addition to the actions we take out of outrage and holy indignation.  I am reminded of a stunning insight by the painter and mythologist Martin Shaw: “I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years.  We can’t be sure.  What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself.  If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair.  I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea.”

So this Thanksgiving, I am challenging myself to keep the fire of righteous indignation burning while I kneel at the hearth of gratitude. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll slice the pie.

 

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garden 2015

I have been gardening for enough years now to make a proclamation: I have a harvesting problem. I love to be in the garden. It brings me tremendous, uncomplicated joy. I start looking at seed catalogues when it’s still dark 16 hours a day.

I love planting peas by St. Patrick’s Day and tomatoes by 4th of July. I love watching our seedlings grow and puttering around with my coffee cup and hose to make sure everything is good and damp before the sun gets too hot. I even get a jolt of destructive pleasure from ripping weeds out of the ground.

But every year, the same thing happens. I watch the cucumbers flower and the peppers sprout and the tiny tomatoes start to turn pink. And then, I lose interest. This year, we had unpicked strawberries and withering blueberries and summer squash that were left to grow to the size of school buses. The basil bolted, and there are still figs on the tree. That’s not to say that we didn’t harvest anything. We did. We ate a lot of Greek salads and Caprese sandwiches, and there were nights we relied on the garden for entire meals. I made a few blueberry pies and garnished breakfast plates with handfuls of perfect Hood strawberries. But for whatever reason—like other years—I just wandered off and don’t finish the job with the same gusto I started it with.

This, of course, is a trait I–ahem–recognize. I have drawers full of mostly done but not complete knitting projects and files of photographs sorted but not glued down in their albums and a wispy contrail of ideas in various stages of half-assed-startedness.

And truth be told, for the past few months, I have been heavily dithering over revisions to a manuscript. Dithering doesn’t even quite cover it. Opening it. closing it. Sleeping over it. Tearing it apart. Putting it back together. Crying. Complaining to anyone who will listen. But not bloody finishing it.

Last Saturday, I spent the whole day at a conference. When I came home, I was shocked to find that David had ripped out the garden. He—as he put it—was prepping it for the fall planting of kale and fava beans. He left the three winter squash plants, but it was Goodnight, Irene to the rest of it. In the process, he picked every last tomato, red and green; all the cucumbers that weren’t the size of the children, and about 1,000 chiles and other peppers.

Needless to say, I am deep into the days of blanching and freezing tomatoes, canning green tomato salsa, and lining up hot sauce jars on every flat surface. My life is like Pablo Neruda’s great Ode to the Tomato, which begins:

The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
the light
splits
in two
halves
of tomato,
the juice
runs
through the streets.
In June
The tomato
cuts loose,
invades the kitchens,
takes over lunches,
sits down
comfortably
on sideboards,
among the glasses,
the butter dishes,
the blue saltshakers.
It has
Its own light,
A benign majesty.

So, as Neruda says at near the end of the poem: “it’s time!/let’s go!” I guess I’d better take his celebration of the harvest to my stovetop and my desk and get busy, despite my leanings to the contrary.

p.s. – Here’s an easy satisfying hot sauce recipe just in case you’re in the same boat!

Master Hot Sauce Recipe
From the Bon Apetít Test Kitchen

Ingredients

1 pound stemmed fresh chiles (such as jalapeño, serrano, Fresno, or habanero; use one variety or mix and match)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar

Preparation

Pulse chiles and kosher salt in a food processor until a coarse purée forms. Transfer to a 1-qt. glass jar, loosely screw on lid, and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours to ferment slightly.

Stir in vinegar and loosely screw on lid. Let chile mixture stand at room temperature for at least 1 day and up to 7 days. (Taste it daily; the longer it sits, the deeper the flavor becomes.)

Purée mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Place a fine-mesh sieve inside a funnel. Strain mixture through sieve into a clean glass bottle. (Hot sauce will become thinner and may separate after you strain it; shake vigorously before each use.)

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Grandma Edna

Grandma Edna

Yesterday the darling-but-not-very-speedy-clerk at my local yarn shop took what seemed like hours winding five skeins of red worsted weight yarn.  I spent the first few minutes tapping my foot and pacing, but then I settled into one of my favorite pastimes – full-throttle eavesdropping. It’s one of the benefits of being a middle-aged woman.  People will talk about anything right in front of you, thinking either that your hearing must be going or that you have already heard it all anyway.

But as it turns out, my dear yarn winder was in a dither over what to wear in her hair at her upcoming wedding.  On skein two, I learned that the colors were red and gold and that the attendants—several of whom were sitting there at the table leafing through bridal magazines—were to find cowboy boots tout de suite. But she wasn’t sure what to wear in her hair—fresh flowers, a tiara with a veil, a fancy clip? One of her friends and soon-to-be-bridesmaids broke in: “Do you have your grandmother’s veil?” Her response was swift and categorical: “I have nothing from my grandmother.”

That hit me like a punch in the gut.  Oh sweet girl! Nothing?  I mean I don’t have my grandmother’s veil either, but I do have her funeral hat. And her kitchen timer. And a soap dish shaped like a chicken.  I have one of her mixing bowls, a box of doilies wrapped in tissue, and her recipe for pecan pie, though I am almost certain she got that recipe from the back of the corn syrup jar.

So I do have all those things—and I have a few treasures from my other grandmother as well—but I have other things, too.  I have her outright love of electoral politics.  In 1992, I scrounged together enough quarters and dimes to call her from a payphone in Dupont Circle the morning after Bill Clinton was elected. I had been out all night in the streets of DC with the other young idealists, and I just wanted to hear her voice. “Ah honey,” she crowed, “I haven’t slept that well since Roosevelt died.”

I have her crazy inability to make a decision. Just when I think I am close, I start to consider the benefits of the other side. We’re both Geminis. We’re meant to dither.

I can trace my handwriting directly from hers. Hers was tiny and immaculate, but her capitals were three or four times the size of her lower-case letters, and her Ws had a little curl at the top of the right hand bar. She handed that angular writing down to my mother, whose handwriting is slightly bigger but is still mostly composed of sharp corners. It has those epic uppercase letters though. That sensibility came straight down to me. I’ve allowed for a few more curves, but the capitals and the Ws are a testament to DNA.

I suspect my grandmother might have been a bit of a tough customer as a mother. She was lonely and mercurial and expected her daughters to fill the void. She had a stink-eye that was unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere, and she could turn a cold shoulder for days at a time. But that’s the blessing of grandparents.  She never—ok, rarely—gave me the stink-eye, and there was always a pot of coffee on. She clipped out gossipy newspaper articles and bought my favorite candy bars for her freezer. She met one of my daughters before she moved on and just missed the other.

No, I didn’t wear my grandmother’s veil to my wedding either. But I treasure my chicken dish, and I still can’t make a decision to save my life. Seeing her handwriting on the back of photo can reduce me to tears, and I wish to good God I had had enough quarters to call her last Tuesday night after the mid-term elections.  And this week, I am going to make her pecan pie recipe, and I hope you will, too.

 

Grandma Edna’s Pecan Pie

3 eggs (beaten)

1 cup sugar

1 cup white karo syrup

1 cup whole pecans

1 tsp. vanilla

¼ cup melted butter

Pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake 325 degrees. 50 minutes.

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On Failure & Cake

the notorious cake

the notorious cake

As sometimes happens over here at our house, Easter got a little—ummm– complicated.   This year, we had the great good luck of Easter falling on the last Sunday of Spring Break, so there was a lot of time to plan for a big and elaborate celebration.  In other words, a complex, multi-part meal.  This year, it was to be Greek.  White fish in tomato and parsley, new potatoes with lemon and thyme, asparagus in phyllo, deviled eggs, Greek salad, homemade pita, spanakorizo.  And of course, there would be dessert.  Lots of dessert.

Saturday, the girls and I got up early.  We hard-boiled some eggs, blew out some others.  Then, we dyed about 50 of them, some with glitter, some wrapped in lace.  They were beautiful, it was fun, but we were starting to flag before it even hit 10 am.  But it was—after all—Holy Saturday, and we had some baking to do.  So, I ran that kitchen like a NASA launch site.  Ruby made the sugar cookie dough and chilled it.  Violet made the chocolate cupcake batter then baked them off.  I made three tiers of a lemon cake from scratch and put them in the oven just as the cupcakes came out.  By the time the cakes were baked and the cupcakes were frosted and decorated, it was 6:30 p.m., and everyone was exhausted.  Despite the fact that  I really, really wanted to press on to frost and fill the cake, everyone else in the family—including the dogs—were starting to give me a wide berth.  This is a sure sign that I have crossed the line between Easter-loving Mama and holiday-crazed maniac.  So, I flashed a tight smile and agreed to walk across the neighborhood for some lovely Mexican food.  A good time was had by all, even if I could not stop looking at my watch.

The next morning, I got up at 4:45 to make the raspberry filling, the lemon buttercream, and the “lemon glaze” for the cake.  It meant more zesting, but that was fine.  I made a cup of tea, prepped the ingredients, and enjoyed a little puttering time on my own.   In the meantime, Ruby came down to frost cookies, followed shortly by Violet, and the three of us were back in the kitchen, bumping shoulders and listening to loud covers from the Glee soundtrack.  Just to foreshadow a bit:  It all goes badly from here.  I made two rookie mistakes:  1. I picked a random recipe off the Internet despite the fact that I have many, many wonderful and trustworthy baking books right on my own shelves.  2.  I chose a recipe for a holiday that I had never tried before.  Both things I would have told my children never to do.

But, anyway, the cakes came out of the pan perfectly even and moist.  The filling, the stacking.  Fine.   But this “glaze,” a crumb coat that was thinner than tap water, did seem to be a bit odd.  It was to go underneath the buttercream.  Rookie mistake number 3: I followed the recipe like a sheep.  I am 46 years old.  I have made dozens of cakes.  I know the basic chemistry:  If you pour a mixing bowl of water over a cake, it gets wet.  Everything runs.  It makes a huge mess.  But, despite those very clear warning signals, I went ahead and tried to “glaze” the cake as directed by the recipe.

Shockingly, the cake, the filling, and the plate got soaked, and it all started to run together.  Raspberry filling started pouring off the cake, over the sides of the plate, and on to the counter.  This is the point in the Easter marathon where—how to put it delicately?—I lost it.  I used every swear word I know.  Some of them, multiple times.  I threw my spatula into the sink.

The girls just stared at me across the counter, saucer-eyed and shocked.  Ruby actually said to me:  Mama, Mama.  Take a deep breath.  (See, they are listening!)  I picked up the plate and was headed for the trash can, but Violet jumped into action.  She grabbed the butter cream and started spreading it on the cake.  Ruby mopped up the sides.  They took all the leftover decorations in the house—noodle nests, peeps, jelly beans—and covered the cake with eccentricity and style.  It was tilted and pink and quirky and delicious.  They laughed.  I laughed.  They told everyone who entered the house the story, and I expect a visit from child protective services anytime now.

But, here’s the thing.  The failure, the swearing, the salvation, will be what we remember from this Easter.   The rest of the meal was delicious, but comparatively dull.  We had a lovely, slow warm day with our family, and they loved the cake.  They adored its idiosyncrasies and professed its tenderness and rich flavor.

I have had other failures—many of them.  But some of them are just too big and painful to look in the eye.  They are either too raw or just plain humiliating.  But, the failed cake, the bad judgment, the repeated rejection of intuition and experience, those are things that aren’t so grave that I can’t examine them and learn from them.  I can remember not to make the same rookie mistakes, I can try to stay calm for a beat longer, I can bring the language down a notch.

But for this year, we will remember the swearing—and then the laughing—in the face of a river of lemon glaze and raspberry filling.  And we will carry the great cake failure forward into the family lore.   And forever now, I will be able to envision Ruby or Violet talking one of their kids off the ledge—No, no, we can fix the volcano.  It doesn’t matter that the paint turned out to be purple.  Take a deep breath.  We can cover it in jelly beans.

 

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Cupcakes for Congress?

I am here to tell you that there is a lot of Christian  radio in this country.  Despite the fact that I am a marginal driver—on a good day—I seem to find myself behind the wheel an awful lot, often driving long distances between remote airports and rural communities.  On those trips, I flip between radio stations–listening to public radio when I can find it; if I can’t, then to stations that play that weird mish-mash of country and pop; and finally to Christian radio if that’s what’s available to keep me company.  And often, that’s what available.  There are times when 3 out of 4 stations are filled with sermons and Christian folk-rock.  The other is blasting heavy metal.

Last week, as I was driving from North Bend to Gold Beach on the far southern Oregon coast, I got came across a sermon in progress.  I’m actually not even sure what the sermon was about, but I was struck by a digression the pastor took into the Biblical notion of hospitality.  He explained that the Greek word for hospitality –philoxenia—means “love for strangers.”  He talked about the importance of hospitality in the “ancient world,” about the Jewish and early Christian expectation that folks would open their homes to strangers, about the obligation to provide refreshment and respite to wayfarers.  He referred to Hebrews 13:2, which admonishes: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

And while I am not sure about the angels—though I love the idea of offering buttermilk pie to winged travelers—it got me thinking again about our obligation—and our failure—to cultivate a sense of civic hospitality.   As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam made clear in his groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone, civic participation and hospitality are somehow linked.  As civic participation declined, so did hospitality, even at the most rudimentary level.  As Americans became less likely to vote, to write letters to the editor, to give to charity, they also became less likely to entertain friends in their homes or even to eat dinner together as families.

But what about the Biblical notion of love—or even care—for strangers?  That’s a tall order when we have a hard time even inviting our friends into our homes.  But, isn’t that at the crux of many of the questions we are struggling with right now?  As we talk about welfare reform and tax rates and service levels, aren’t we often talking about just how much care we are willing to offer to strangers?

So, what do you think?  What is our obligation to our neighbor, to our fellow citizen?  It sounds so cold when we talk about “entitlements” or the “social safety net.”  But what if we ask the questions in terms of hospitality?  That’s a much warmer word, a word that conjures up steaming loaves of bread and fluffy pillows.  It connotes a sense of reciprocity – I’ll offer you a bowl of soup as you pass through my town because I know you will do it for me or my daughter or my grandfather when one of us is passing through yours.

Philoxenia.  Hospitality.  If we cast our citizen-to-citizen relationship in those terms, I think we can up our game.  I am not exactly suggesting that we need to invite strangers into our homes for pot roast—though maybe I should be—but rather that we need to cultivate  a deeper sense of responsibility for one another,  a belief  that if we can offer respite to someone in need, we should.  That notion not only enriches Christianity—or Judaism—but  it enriches the Republic.  It warms up our sense of citizenship.

Truth is, I’m not sure what to do about it.  For sure, I think it gives us a new way to think about our relationship to strangers.  But, what else?  It’s Meeting Planning 101 that food makes everything go smoother.  So, maybe we should serve pie in the subway, give out sandwiches at the mall, invite a stranger to tea.  Maybe we should have Democrats serve Republicans cupcakes in Congress or have potlucks at City Hall.  Let’s take this notion of hospitality seriously, but let’s have some fun with it, too.  Let’s get busy.  I’ll call you from the kitchen.

 

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The Way to a Texan’s Heart

One of the first things David ever said to me was:  “You know, you can’t handle me with food”.  What?   I didn’t even know what that meant.  I come from a family that plans the menu for the wake while the nearly dearly departed is still breathing.  We talk about what we’re going to make for dinner while we’re still eating breakfast.  Our memories are marked by what we ate:  “Remember,  that was the year we had croissants instead of dinner rolls.”  We call recipes by the family member’s name:  Aunt Helen’s Divinity, Grandma’s Pecan Pie.  Food is the currency of relationship.  What was he even talking about?

David doesn’t love the thin veil of flour over the kitchen that comes from the constant stream of baked goods – sometimes Ruby and Violet just open their eyes feeling like whipping up a batch of cherry chip cupcakes.  Sometimes I need to make six dozen cookies for the bake sale.  Usually, it’s just fun to try a recipe out of a magazine.   But, David man, he’s a tough customer.  He’ll nibble at one cookie or bypass tasting a cake entirely.

At first I felt like it was a rejection.  I offer food—especially of the baked variety–as a sign of care.  I love you, therefore I feed you.  I thought David didn’t want what I had to offer.   I’ve gotten used to it, but I still secretly wish he’d go back for a second slice of cake.

Last week, when I was planning for Thanksgiving, David piped up from the living room, “Can we have cherry pie?”  Missing the opening, I replied:  “Cherry pie is not a Thanksgiving food.  I’m making pumpkin, pecan, and buttermilk.  You’ll like the buttermilk.  It’s from the Homesick Texan.”  Him:  “But it’s Thanksgiving food to me.”

Wait, wait.  What was I thinking?  He’d actually asked for a pie.  A particular type of pie.  I recovered and bit my tongue.  I hated the thought of making cherry pie out of season, using canned cherries and too much sugar.  But, I had an opening and I took it.  And now I have two cherry pies in the oven.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.  Maybe there’s hope yet.

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October is my favorite month.  I love the bouncy light; the crisp evenings; the promise of sweaters, thick tights and endless varieties of pie.  I also married my true blue love in October.  And now, Blood Sisters officially comes to the world today– on October 1.   What a gem of month!  Love it up.  Read a poem. Kiss your sweetie.  Bake a pie.  Stay in touch.

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