Primroses and Paper Roses

My next door neighbor from Alaska came to visit and brought pots and pots of primroses, like the ones making their last appearance on the blog header – so cheerful, so intense, looking artificial and welcome. I used to carry them back to Alaska under the airplane seat in front of me. I’m still glad to put them in window boxes and on the front porch to catch my eye with shocking color.

Now in late January, the Christmas tree is still drinking and still standing, colored lights twinkling, but it looked a little barren for company without decorations. I remembered Tomie dePaola’s paper roses.

I sat down to look at his “Christmas Remembered.” DePaola is a famous children’s book illustrator, but in this book he writes (and paints and collages and seems to use some computer generated images) to celebrate sixty years of holiday memories. I knew what he’d do with such a bare tree.

In a couple of minutes out of crumpled tissue paper which overstuffs the wrapping paper drawer, I cut out circles, gathered them as roses and transformed the Christmas tree into blossoming tree. Pleased, I rooted around in the back of the drawer and found more primrose colors – yellow, a rose pink, and purple.

When I read dePaola, I’m struck by his lack of a big critical internal voice – at least he lacks one that tells him what he does is silly. If he has one, I suspect it only harasses if he fails to work at his art. That failure is worthy of disapproval – but not paper roses – or primroses.

I do intend to get serious about the plant life here and write of primula from the local specialty nursery rather than primroses from the local hardware store. This just a slight January diversion – when color so wantonly cheers.

Salsify – the sequel

After a lifetime of putting up with what I dish out (in more ways than one), my husband is expanding our meal horizons by taking a local chef’s cooking class. Coming here made cooking much more interesting because of the Food Co-op and Farmers’ Market, and Washington growers who provide fresh and local in abundance.

My mother was a 50’s career woman, really good at what she did which was social work, and seemingly indifferent to cooking. Looking back, maybe she was just realistic about the challenge of “doing it all.” I know a treat dinner, or maybe the busy-night-fall-back-alternative, involved hamburgers at the local A&W (featuring inexplicably but memorably, a caged lion in the parking lot).

I married knowing how to make tuna casserole (heavy on the potato chips), and cooking for young children became a steady rotation of the easy and the easier. Only when the sons grew up and became more eager eaters did I pay any attention beyond nutrition.

Books held the key once I learned to use them to suggest alternatives and encourage. The cookbooks I like best help find the place to start in, and along the way they teach about life. I first encountered one-pointed concentration in “Laurel’s Kitchen,” and still think of slowing down dishwashing to enjoy hot and sudsy water. The bindings of the Moosewood cookbooks cracked and fell apart long ago as I explored new grains and once (only once) made an enchanted broccoli forest with a six-year old. Birthday cake at our house is still yogurt-oatmeal cake (perhaps that is why we are rarely together for birthdays).

Mollie Katzen (most lovable for me because she cooks and draws) moved on with “Vegetable Heaven,” and I saw the light. I love vegetables – and not just as side decorations or afterthoughts. Making vegetables the main event was a proclivity filled with uncertainty until I encountered “Vegetable Heaven.”

Katzen suggests small portions of intriguingly prepared vegetables, a variety of grains, a nightly potluck on a plate. Several tastes, several colors, squash with apples and onions baked inside, next to something red – cranberry relish or beets – a salad of something crunchy.

There is no doubt that when one is faced with sink full of a growing pile of peelings and bits and ends of parsnips or carrots or celeriac, vegetables seem like a lot of work. That’s where one-pointed concentration shows its strength. Focus, pay attention. Alternately, listen to NPR and be grateful for cooking dinner with electricity and water and no disaster.

When I took my current favorite, the hefty Deborah Madison (1400 of her favorite recipes) from the bookshelf last night – full of sticky notes, a left-behind silver butter knife marking vegetables for Thanksgiving – I noticed those signs of much pleasure in cooking. My new, my only, daughter-in-law introduced me to Debbie, as she calls her, but the daughter-in-law is a much better cook than I, and on more familiar terms with this expert.

And you are wondering about that salsify – how it was part of a more artfully lived life? I boiled them with lemon and sautéed with shallots a la Deborah – but found the salsify most delicious cut up and tossed into a salad the next night. My memories of peeling those brown sticks had faded, and it surprised me to encounter their solid flavor with chilly salad greens and frilly cabbage.

Virginia Woolf’s birthday

On her birthday today, Virginia Woolf might be amused by all these generations of reproduction of her image: a 2010 scan for a blog, of a 2006 photo of a 1998 drawing of a 1920’s photo, from the cover of her published diaries.

I drew the picture (recognizing the weakness of my likeness titled it a “Bloomsbury woman”), and I taped it to the top of a tin full of cookies to give a friend on another January 25.

Virginia Woolf would surely be pleased that she still matters to so many (a young writer friend told me recently that she read all Woolf’s novels in the order they were published). And how intrigued Woolf would be to Google herself.

Janet Malcolm’s 1995 New Yorker article introduced me to the whole complicated Bloomsbury scene and to Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. And most of all to Charleston, Bell’s Sussex home – a work of art as a house, full of clever, imaginative, happy decoration, good design sense, and comfort in an austere, by modern terms, way. My surprise and fascination stemmed in part from what Malcolm revealed about the artful way the sisters arranged their houses and lives to value creativity and encourage their work.

I often wonder about writers from another time like Virginia Woolf – now would she blog – or tweet? In addition to Woolf’s fiction, she wrote newspaper articles and critical essays, and above all she kept the diary that continues to resonate.

When we shipped our books from Alaska (many small heavy boxes including a motley assortment of most of Woolf’s writing), a cranky post office clerk opined that television was better than books anyway, because books get out of date.

Not Virginia Woolf – 128 years later – Happy Birthday VW and thank you!

January Weather

The last week we’ve enjoyed mellow and spring-like weather, nearing 50° during the day, but when we first came here I bought a thermometer and thought the gauge was broken, so perpetually did it sit on 42°.  I wondered if the varieties of 42° needed  different names depending on wet or dry, night or day, with or without wind, blowing from what direction.

In January the three lead weather characters – rain and wind and sun – compete to be the star of a day’s weather drama. In a weak sun, wet cedar boughs glisten yellow-green. Wind shakes rainwater from the branches in a torrent on the forest side of the house. Then, startling strong sun shines through winter-smeared windows revealing that some of the holiday gossamer glow might have been cobwebs. And just as quickly, the day glowers a sullen gray. The browns forlorn, the greens dull.

January can be a series of rainy days, sometimes pouring belting rain all day. It pounds the roof, and fills standing puddles in paths and courtyard. In Washington rain you’re grateful for watertight roof and weatherproof boots. A friend here says we rust along with metal.

Sometimes the rain is quiet and steady without the abrupt thumps of wind. But wind defines a peninsula and blows, if not one way then the other. Wind gathers up a blast composed of little movements, whips along the front garden bed, pushing rosemary and evergreen huckleberry aside, heading for the woods.

Wind, switching to come from the north, brings a string of cold and clear days and frosty lawn, car, and roof. The moon, over the water at night, sets and leaves a clear day. Sailboats appear even in January. Instead of a gray line, the horizon is layers of islands: the San Juans, Whidbey, snow-covered mountains behind them dark against a pale blue winter sky. 42° and beautiful.

Art – Everyday

“Art is what you choose, how you arrange things, permeating and sustaining everyday life.” Fiona MacCarthy, “The Charleston Magazine” 1999

That quote sings out permission – art isn’t out there, it’s right here in all this regular stuff. For MacCarthy (who wrote an engaging biography of the artist-craftsman William Morris) anything is fair game.

Even salsify. I’d never laid eyes on these root vegetables until I encountered a pound in the winter CSA. (A brave and fine local farmer keeps her food subscription going all year – moving seamlessly from summer to winter with a weekly box of vegetables.)

So salsify can stand for the challenge of making art happen every day. For too long I cordoned off “real work” from daily work and lost out on the possibility of nurture from ordinary doings.

Artists, who use everyday things in their work, and others, like designers and chefs and jouralists who use creativity in their work, inspire me, but so do people who artfully stack the firewood or paint the kitchen and then go out to work in the real world.

So it’s a question – is how the farmer grew and her customers will cook and serve the salsify art? Does it matter? Does it only matter only because that which is labeled art nurtures, is legitimate, and that which is work of house or family can seem just something to get through?

The components of the tasks are the same: planning and deciding, having materials to hand, and acknowledging the need for inspiration and energy and time. I recognize that attitude shift can’t always happen – but cheer when it does.

I better start by making something of salsify.

Here be coyotes

Our younger son reminded me at Christmas, when defending his fondness for “airport novels” against my encouragement of Dickens, that instead of being published serially, today Dickens would be sold at airports.

If this is serial non-fiction,  a recurring character will be Frances. A nine-pound cat, Frances was freed from a cage in a vet’s office and her former life is a mystery to us.

The early morning we left Alaska (black-and-white Frances under the airplane seat in front of me, the mostly-black-with-some-white dog Bill below in cargo), the temperature held a steady sub-zero. No arctic wind, just calm, and dark.

That first night we collapsed in front of the welcoming warmth of our new fireplace – the dog happy to sigh and stretch out after a hard day. Frances quickly leaving her laundry room containment to travel the whole house, demanding closets be opened and inspections made. She walked the edges of rooms, figuring the extent of her territory.

In the morning the black-and-whites gingerly, paws reluctant on sharp crushed gravel, took a tour of their new turf. Noses to the ground, surely aware of but not looking at, the eight-foot mesh deer fence that contains the space between our two buildings into a “courtyard” garden.

Bill is gone now. Already 12 that first January, he daily walked the trails and beach here, but probably always missed the alleys, dumpsters, and dogs-to-make-a-ruckus-with of his old city life. His grave is on the “south forty” – covered in rock cairn and prayer flags. We think of him nearly everyday.

But Frances might not. She, the second to arrive, assumed the throne with authority. That first winter she fearlessly nose-to-nosed with a yearling deer who visited frequently and approached the fence. Frances stares at eagles overhead (from the steps by the door) and coyotes who pause to regard her as they pass along the bluff.

She’s hard on rodents in this garden she rules. Thankfully birds learned quickly, and look carefully for the resident predator before they ever light in the garden.

It took Frances two years to remember she was a cat and could climb a fence. She attempted numerous breaches – usually on rainy or wild windy nights when we’d have to fetch her off the roof. Now a tilted-in top netting confines her to castle and courtyard.

An opportunist, she’ll bolt out the front door, if it’s held open by mistake. And equally quickly she’ll bolt back in. She knows about the coyotes. She’s heard tell of how they dine.

A year of order

Gardeners say, when speaking of plants settling in: “The first year plants weep, the second they creep, and the third they leap.”

In January the third year here, there was no leap for me. My forward motion dissipated, January felt low-ebb with doubts of all sizes and shapes. My work appeared the most dismantled – a show scheduled but energy lacking.

In New Year’s week that year, I wrote “a year of order…” on the back of an envelope and stuck it on my workroom wall. I wasn’t sure what it meant – something beyond tidying up.

Structure supports order, so I began volunteering to tutor at a local school – reading with wee scholars twice a week and joined a yoga class. These made a sturdier framework for time – and reasons to go to town.

I let myself be engrossed using paper scraps from bookbindery friends to cover the spines of all the photo albums, transforming random, ugly plastic bindings into cheerful, colorful order. I felt a little foolish, it wasn’t real work – but gave me thinking time.

Discipline also underlies order – “showing up” as they say. I wanted to write and draw about this place and for two years had scribbled notes on scraps of paper, in pocket notebooks and daily journal. I hoped I could sink roots and gain nourishment by observing.

So I began, every day for an hour, to take my tiny computer and cup of tea to the window seat on the landing surrounded by books, I could follow the time-honored practice of just writing – and I could gather all those notes. It really is the doing that matters.

And here in the fifth January? Into the blogosphere – now that’s a leap.