Reading

Sitting in the shade, I lift my eyes to glittering water and warm sand, glance back at the page, and I enter a world of beddings and beheadings and shiver the dismally damp days of 16th century England. Reading, hours and hours of it, is a prime paradise pleasure.

The older of our sons was reader child in my mind. The kind of kid who shelters in the doorway at recess, his nose in a book. He grew much more interested in what happened on the playing field, but he is still a reader with a capital R.

On this trip I thought of him when I loved Adam Gopnik’s book “Angels and Ages” about Darwin and Lincoln. Gopnik describes a reader child: “…those for whom the experiences of reading and writing are addictive, entrancing, overwhelming, and so intense as to offer a new life of their own – those for whom the moment of learning to read begins a second life of letters as rich as the primary life of experience.”

For years of sandy vacations, we read aloud and shared that second life: wandering to Oz, adventuring with Tin Tin, striding through the future with those tripod creatures of John Christopher, enduring the Long Winter.

I’m grateful for the reader child’s willingness to listen a second time around (to stories he could read himself), while we read the same books to his brother. Shared pleasures then, I cherish that they became reference points – a common imaginative landscape.

We’re no longer much part of grown children’s primary lives, relishing their independence and being saddened by it at the same time. When the reader child and I exchanged the same book as Christmas gifts, it was a welcome recognition of a still sometimes shared second life.

We each gave the other Hilary Mantel’s delicious “Wolf Hall.” Always happy for commonalities with grown children – Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and all that English weather as backdrop to political and romantic intrigue works just fine.

A Different Focus

Apple bananas – the bananas you find in a tropical paradise, and that’s where we are as I write (but not as you read).

At first I thought to keep “her spirits rose…” honest, I needed to write about one place. I think I was wrong (this is a learning experience). Before we left on the trip, I wrote ahead some posts about February’s topics. Being here, I mostly observe how my focus fixes on the same things in a new setting.

Focus is challenging with family around. Or I suppose where you focus is the issue. Who could resist a day trip to a wild beach with the fully-grown surfer son and his sweet friend? Long ago, when he was a not even three-year old, we visited the same beach. In an old photo we’re dwarfed between cliffs at the edge of the sand and crashing breakers. Roles reversed now, I follow behind and put my feet in his big footprints in the sand. Awed by time’s changes and more than a little proud.

Food’s a focus, but like the apple bananas it’s different. From the farmers’ market we gathered avocados for a dollar(!), lettuce for salad, and beet greens to make (oh yes) that day-in day-out soup, even in paradise. We ate the beets, golden and pink pinwheel striped, one night with small white beans, dried ones cooked with onions and garlic. (The bean adventure been a worthy, portable focus). The next night the beans made a slimmed-down version of baked beans. There’s a make-do flavor to condo cooking – real cooks probably travel with tins of spices at the ready.

A long-hoarded lotus flower candle, I packed at the last minute, lights our table on warm dark nights. A meal cheered also by music from this land and cloth napkins from home – even when the dinner is happily pizza from a local parlor.

Maybe I just want to share the word pleasure of this place: papaya, palm – and puakinikini. New to me, this lei flower changes from white to orange but always possesses the fragrance of paradise.

Focus

The only member of my high school class to get anywhere near Hollywood did it big, producing movies seen near and far. When our children were medium sized and we were in L.A. for other things, I called the producer. I’d always liked him – he was funny, and he liked me – I was short.

We were staying in a hotel and the producer arrived, carrying T-shirts and ball caps ablaze with the current movie’s logo, driving his tiny, shiny black sports car practically into the lobby.

We drank a beer and tried to ignore how we didn’t look like high school anymore. I think the younger son wandered off, but the older stayed, and the producer entertained the three of us with his success story (which was impressive). What I remember most was when the producer said to the older son: ”Your parents are going to tell you can do anything!” (which of course was true), ”but I’m going to tell you that isn’t true. You can do a couple of things, maybe some one thing really well, and your job is to figure out what that is.”

More beer – we parted, the kids grew up, the producer died a too early death in a Hollywood way.

In the family mythology, this story is subject to different interpretations, but I take away the part about figuring out what you can do by focusing on that question. In spite of the sad ending, it’s a good story for young people, if they seem overwhelmed by the vast possibilities for their futures. The story also resonates for me when people say they aren’t talented or imaginative, attributes which also require focus.

Once I made a series of artists’ books called “Shoe Statements” to explore what a shoe’s type or a shoe’s relation to others might imply.

In these original drawings for the book titled “Archetypes,” well-worn shoes and boots posed on my worktable. In a book titled “Connections” they consort heel to toe; in “Crowds” they huddle together in an uncomfortable pile; and in “Mismatches,” footwear lose their regular partners: a little cowboy boot pairs with a dress shoe, a Converse-All-Star mates with a work boot.

In my favorite book “Horoscopes,” I combined shoes with some of those daily newspaper homilies. Statements like: “Develop routine that enables you to complete a variety of tasks, assignments” and “The tide suddenly turns” can seem meaningful – or absurd.

All this is to include a text from “Horoscopes” which suggests why focus might be beneficial:

“Focus and the horizon widens.”

Ti Plants and T-Shirts

hinking more about creativity, I consider other, but intertwined words – imagination for example.

A reminder of why imagining is worth pursuing comes from Emerson: “There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.”

My imagination doesn’t operate well in a vacuum or when surrounded by sour talk or negativity. I’m looking to encourage creativity – and maybe not separate it from regular life. What if, as part of honoring the everyday, we credit ourselves for little strokes: an idea given away to someone else, a thing repaired because you “figured it out,” or the untying of a knotty situation.

Every time we rethink when we forget the reusable grocery bags (without accepting new paper or plastic) or momentarily inhabit another’s mind to buy them a gift, and wrap it without buying paper, that imagining is a little hit of the same juice. If the meeting-daily-life challenges became warm-ups, practice drills, perhaps the ideas which bear on what one might want to achieve could more easily slip in.

When we neared the completion of this house, I badly wanted one of those iron pot racks – locally made, dramatic and functional. Our house designer offered the one she’d used to store tools in her basement. Since in the building we strove for reuse and recycle, I was delighted – and most dismayed to realize the rack would, when hung normally, be way too close to the burners. The designer flipped the rack and asked it be hung upside down. Perfect.

When the young writer thought she killed our tea kettle, she responded with a story which begins: “Once upon a time, there was a shiny metal beauty, on the kingdom counter outsteaming all teapots in speed of boil and elegance.” The clever language of the tale winds through her reaction and the replacement she bought “plastic charade, a placeholder, a poor substitute, lady in waiting until the true prince arrives.” Asked how she came to write such a fairy tale gem in apology and explanation, she admitted uncertainty – “Where did that come from?”

That’s an Emerson stroke for sure, an imaginative leap achieved because she was at the ready – able to express strong feelings because of practice with words. But her query is an indication also of the mystery of such vibrations.

I wish I could sum this up easily (for myself as well as for anyone reading). Put A in front of B and attach C – for creativity. It is about wooing, not demanding, making space and opportunity and being hopeful – trusting in the undermind to bring forth “Where did that come from?” ideas.

I should be able to provide here some illustration of how a burst of imagination sparked something specific in my art. In spite of only having a black and white photo, I offer a small stroke – when laundry and plant image vibrated together to make a quilt.

When in Doubt Make Soup

In the on-going bean project, I made “White Bean Soup with Pasta and Rosemary Oil” – delicious. No need to soak beans and change water, but instructed by Deborah I covered the beans with hot water while organizing and chopping carrots and celery, parsley and rosemary. The results made me glad for days – sticking to my resolution glad and soup in the house glad.

I thought this post would be about change, since I am in the midst of a computer changeover and nervously awaiting word from the new one that the old one has transferred precious contents. I am so intimate with tech support now, I have the private line of a senior advisor. We’ve enjoyed a lot of quality time, but sometimes he doesn’t call when he says he will. Sad about this and about having to eat scrambled eggs for lunch, there is nothing to do but make soup.

The everyday soup isn’t so fine as soup made carefully from a recipe with special stock – but it is a staple of a good life. This day-in day-out soup is a variation of Deborah’s hearty lentil. The only constants are lentils, parsley, carrots, garlic, and some form of allium. This time I used leeks, but shallots or most usually onions fill the bill. (Sometimes Deborah might not recognize her soup, but I don’t think she’d mind.)

The strength of this sort of soup lies in its flexibility (a worthy attribute) and the easy availability of the ingredients. Lentils wait patiently in the drawer (Deborah suggests the little green French ones). Parsley often survives long into winter in the garden, winter-sweetened kale even longer. Carrots and celery are always on hold in the fridge, cans of tomatoes in the pantry. A divine attribute of such soup is the “tastes better the next day” phenomena. The soup reliably nurtures noon after noon, and dependably provides dinner in a pinch.

Sometimes I pile vegetables on the cutting board as an encouragement, a reminder of intent. (Flexible, reliable, divine, that reminds me of tech support, I better go check the computer’s progress). Then come back to chop, filling cutting boards with vegetables of orange and green, crying over onions, glad to get them sizzling. Eager to get to the simmer.

In a way I love it that our daily soup is different each time depending on the variables – an extra like turnip or rutabaga – or leftover cooked beans!

February Outdoors

In town this month ornamental fruit trees blush pink with blossoms. Out here buds swell on the cherry tree,  flowering quince,  and a new plum tree as well. Solo frogs announce spring and coyotes sing at night. Newts begin to make their daring pilgrimage across the paved road to nearby ponds.

February weather, especially in a good winter like this one, cheers as the month goes on. Some days clouds grate like steel wool, but blustery weather means movable, changeable gray with a chance the day might lighten.

After a storm, we gather downfalls, saw and stack, rhythmically satisfying jobs, not hurried and not ending. It’s a pleasure to be outdoors, smelling the wood from sawing, listening to the wind high above in the trees, doing the work of place.

One February midday I put on gardening pants for the season’s first time (over the wool long johns) and concentrate on the big front bed – pull pop weed, compost around the already budded daffodils (stems rising in cheerful increments: two inches, four inches, six inches – a blossom!). I trim fragrant but winter-damaged lavender and rosemary, and stop as raindrops tap on my coat. That muscle between neck and shoulder activated by twisting the trowel suggests tea.

Another morning, warmed from a woods walk, the first one this year with spider web wires across the path and the heart-lifting song of the winter wren, I walked out to the bluff. Sitting on the top of the picnic table, I watch clouds separate and coalesce on their way north to Victoria. Puffier clouds and more light reveal the Olympics to the west. Wind from the south pushes the water offshore, heading north with the clouds.

I intended just to toss one of Frances’s doorstep mouse offerings over the bluff (in an almost burial at sea), but I’m warm enough to enter that garden fugue state: pull a dandelion start (one even has buds), uncover emerging poppies, stop to admire pulmonaria blooms, turning from blue to pink or is it pink to blue as they open.

The wind picks up with that high in the trees roar, firs leaning against one another groan their movement. Clouds pile up solid and gray and ominous to the south.

Convinced the day holds rain and more indoor life, I’m surprised, as always, by the ways of Washington weather. By 11 a.m., strong sunlight flickers in the house as wind moves the trees and the clouds – and, spirits rising, the sky turns blue.

Dust, Iron, Sort

Well I liked eat, pray, love better, too – but dust, iron, sort, along with frame, mend, and weed badly need doing. There are various theories and strategies for housework, like the “do it every week and on the same day” principle which I mostly observe. But this last week the cleaning lady (that would be me) didn’t come. (She was blogging.)

Usually I show up weekly in that persona and do the basics. In spite of what you read about vacuuming just scattering the dust, somehow rearranging dust molecules is a necessary fundamental. It’s hard to be creative for me in a mess. That can also be an excuse to not get to the real work.

But even if I adhere to the basic schedule, the secondary tasks pile up. Oh yes, even just clean the bugs out of the corner of a couple of pictures. I’m tired of the thought pattern that occurs when I look at a long-framed picture of a belladonna lily, amaryllis like, blooming for the new year. For too long now I’ve looked at that picture, and instead of thinking about the amaryllis and how much I loved drawing it and how the real-life version might bloom soon, I think about that bug. Very dead and very irritating.

Some jobs on that list of house verbs are good for wit gathering, always a worthy endeavor. Scattered wits allow no space for important thoughts to surface. Folding laundry works – making those one-of-a-kind piles – but not putting the laundry away. Too often the t-shirt or sock drawers are overstuffed and that leads to a whole internal lecture about the necessity of making room while trying to fit the newly folded pile into the drawer.

Ironing quiets the mind for thinking, warm fabric, hiss of steam, but it is prioritized way down – tablecloths from Christmas won’t be needed for so long that they exert no pressure, allow no solace today.

In theory I could devote a day, and sometimes that seems the best thing to do for creative work, to organize the real world. Do the high dusting. Clean under the sink. Or under the stairs. Sort out the pantry. Doable and not confusing jobs. But in one day, because of a concept an old friend introduced the other night, I might not get under the sink.

My friend told how she’d cleaned out a cupboard and discovered food products of ancient lineage. I asked, being curious about people’s housework habits and since she’d started the comment by saying she was taking down the Christmas tree, how she happened to clean that cupboard, “Oh,” she said “don’t you know about One Thing Leads to Another?”

And indeed I do, but never had labeled it quite so accurately. Now I’m wondering if I can employ it to my own ends. I began to clean the fridge this morning (if you really love vegetables your fridge is always stuffed, and the only hope for a bare shelf is the day before the CSA). I’m looking for a reversal of my friend’s One Thing Leads to Another experience – in hopes a clean refrigerator leads me to bid farewell to the Christmas tree.

Rhubarb

Digging in the freezer I contemplated making some of what we call “that rhubarb stuff.” I thought, too, about an article Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker, describing the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans’s work process and quoting him: “It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.”

And then Schjeldahl says: “Now, that – uncertain ends, confident means – is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know.”

I wrote it down, always collecting definitions of art and creativity I encounter – and begin to think it a perfect definition of how a good cook goes about making food. Obviously good cooks know exactly the ends they will achieve most of the time. But a cook of “confident means” creates something out of what’s in the cupboard without fear of “uncertain ends.” Cookbooks are inspiration and guidebook but not rulebook. (My husband’s chef instructor is really like this.)

When I attended an English university for a year in the middle of my college career, I lodged with the Rev. Seal and his wife. They lived in The Rectory in a town by the sea in the north of England – a huge house (to my Alaska eye), right out of an English novel.

I loved pretty much everything about that year – and a pleasure I hadn’t expected was Mrs. Seal’s food. She made all her own soup, bread, granola, and as I remember, something like the rhubarb stuff, but with a more elegant name – compote or preserve.  I suspect she made it in its season.

Storage in our small freezer runs the season backward: blueberries, red berries, and then rhubarb. We’ve been profligate with the blueberries in the front. Now it’s time to dig back to a rhubarb package, add a couple of the strawberries and a stored local Liberty apple, a little honey or maple syrup, and cook that sweet-tart rhubarb treat – specially since I just saw rhubarb emerging in the garden.

Mrs. Seal also preserved marmalade from Seville oranges – a once a year winter event. I recently asked her daughter via email if they still make marmalade  – and they do. Mrs. Seal is 96, soon to be 97.

Now this is stretch that might leave Peter Schjeldahl shaking his head, but maybe a lot of life meets his definition of creativity: “uncertain ends, confident means.” Who knew all those years ago, when the Seals warmly welcomed an unknown American, that I’d always think so fondly of them when rhubarb sweetens our oatmeal, on a morning in winter.

New Green Leaves

“Art poses problems. The artist’s job is to solve them, or try to. I tell my students to stop worrying about creativity and concentrate on the fundamentals. Discover how to turn ordinary pigments into frosting or fur or a flower. Above all, learn to draw. Draw until your hand aches, until you’re drawing in your sleep.”

This quote, from a long-ago interview with the artist Wayne Thiebaud, is faded from years of being taped to the front of the scissors drawer in my Anchorage workroom. When we moved here I saved it, along with a handful of other treasured operating principles.

Like handwriting, drawing is a skill we can learn, a functional tool for both transforming and remembering. From cave drawings to paintings made on an IPhone, the endeavor is a natural motion of hand and brain. But now that we can take photos as easy as pie – why bother? Because drawing is one way we make something individual.

In a radio interview once, the writer Alice McDermott said that artists “want the world ordered in a certain way” (maybe everybody does), and making something of our own is part of how we order the world.

It thrilled me to learn I could screen-print whatever I wanted on muslin and build a quilt from images of everyday things like hot water bottles or winter boots, but I couldn’t draw any better than when I quit as a child. Eventually “to order the world” my way, I needed to be able to draw. And I was curious. Drawing seemed like magic. It still does.

My painter friend recommended Mendelowitz’s “Guide to Drawing,” and I took it on a family trip. I remember the pencil, and the moment, when I looked carefully at my flip-flop and drew its outline. And then a greasy bottle of suntan lotion. Given how wooden and terrible those first drawings were, it seems a miracle I continued. But energy and drive accompany the fascination with learning something new.

For a few years when our younger son was at that age when kids draw all the time, we made “trip drawings” – usually on the airplane home. Now some hang on a wall here with a hodge-podge of family photos. Looking at a pineapple or new tennis shoe, one drawn by each of us, I recall the moments when we struggled with the problems of making an object out of marks of ink and paint.

The doing of drawing is transporting and engrossing, and if you come even close to a semblance of what you are after (just the outline of that bottle), drawing is a joy. Virginia Woolf said in another context (about writing), that it is in the attempt to capture very real things that one would find happiness.

To draw something for this post, I turned to the snowberry brought inside weeks ago – the native plant world’s mini-marshmallows, long-lasting berries of Styrofoam white. Looking up close, like you do when you draw, I see, as I tick my pen along the stem line, the happiness of new green leaves.

Geraniums and Places to Sit

An Alaska architect once referred, a little dismissively, to the kind of greenhouse window the Buffalo has as something every woman wants. (I’d asked about having one.) We who value growing things imagine such a window, full of healthy plants.

The Buffalo’s greenhouse window doesn’t get enough light (because of a shading Doug fir) to really come up to its promise, but my geraniums winter there.

And I know they are pelargonium. But do we ever really think pelargonium when we see that cheery, overly bright blossom color with distinctive thick, slightly felted foliage in window boxes, in clay pots, or passing the winter in some protected place?

They are easy to root, properly with some rooting hormone, or in a jelly jar of plain water, when a branch breaks off the mother plant. My scraggly five are all the progeny of a years-ago gift plant from my mom.

In February I fetch them and give water and food, this year I even cut them back in hopes of the elusive fullness. They spend a few months in the house, by the French door, enjoying heat and light. When the weather warms, they belong on our tiny front porch, near my mom’s old white wicker chair and a yard sale table. On the south side, and sheltered, it’s a good place to sit.

My painter friend makes memorable cherished oil paintings of just that combination – geranium and chair – inside on a Persian rug, outside on a porch. Her subjects have sunshine and certainty.

Certainty about a sitting spot I lacked here to begin with, such a simple thing, but it was strangely undoing to not know where to sit in the early morning. Mostly I manage to get up in order to have a little time with a cup of tea and my journal. The habit began in an effort to arise before children and gather my wits for the day, thinking about work yesterday and what might be accomplished today. For years I sat in my work chair, seat worn out and replaced multiple times, my feet up on the sewing machine stored under the desk, usually our heavy cat in my lap.

Here my workroom was so empty. I used a wooden stool at the high table I’d cobbled together – not a comfy sitting spot. I tried sitting in the kitchen nook, a space modeled on a favorite “settle” in a friend’s house nearby. In spite of a padded bench, view of the garden, chair for feet – it was not the right place.

Finally, like the geraniums and the paintings, I have certainty. I got a tall work chair with a welcoming seat, and I feel at home by my worktable.

Maybe what a woman wants is a chair of her own.

Willi Explains Umami

Garden writer Willi Galloway stayed recently at the Buffalo. In town to give a talk in the Master Gardener winter series, Willi is a treasure trove of information about growing and cooking vegetables (and she shares at her lively website DigginFood.com). I like to think about the cohort she represents: young city couples who dig up their lawns to plant edibles, and come home from work to keep bees and tend the land.

When gardening information threatens overload, as it can in a lecture, it’s good when some one thing – or two – sticks in my mind. Willi provided many gems, starting with her “how to decide what to plant” guidelines: “choose a genetically good vegetable, build healthy soil, optimize photosynthesis, and employ consistent watering” – solid resolutions for the new season.

In spite of my love of them, I don’t grow many vegetables – and none, like tomatoes, that need hot weather and sun. So when Willi revealed that left-behind potatoes in the garden bed might be the source of late blight in tomatoes, it wasn’t so important for me. But friend wrote to me after the talk: “We used to rejoice in volunteer potatoes – but no more.”

Willi is writing a book about growing and harvesting vegetables for optimum taste and nutrition in cooking. In her research she discovered much about how those attributes are linked – freshness being key to both. Science now seems to support what makes common sense.

A couple of posts ago, I puzzled over the way to describe the taste of salsify (oh that again). Willi describes how we perceive flavor by combining three factors: taste, texture, and aroma. She listed five primary taste sensations: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Umami? Willi calls that a “meaty, mushroom-y, delicious taste.” Ah ha – that’s salsify.

Hellebore

Here in the Northwest, spring fever lasts for months. Giddy days with a high temp are followed by days of taking to our houses.

Neglected, my garden looks under-the-weather, so the other day I cut back stalks of foxglove and dried-up bushes of herbs. Spring is lengthy, but winter quiescence for herbaceous plants is brief, and cutting back crocosmia slimed by November’s frost, two-inch blades of new green stand ready. Tightly furled newborns of columbine and sedum hug the earth. To plant the primroses, I took the Christmas fir branches off the window boxes – breaking up last years roots, happy to smell dirt.

In a bed by the front step, tiny magenta cyclamen bloomed all January, but I can’t pick them. Wanting to bring flowers indoors I found one beautiful hepatica, starry-shaped, stalwart, such a blue, a couple of tiny fern fronds, one pansy and one last year primrose, both with slug bites – and hellebore.

Hellebore – improbable beauty – they bloom so willingly and early that one variety can be called the Christmas rose. They seem an old fashioned delicate flower – and terrifically tough.

One year before we lived here and had to cancel a winter trip further south, as a consolation I bought nine hellebore from the Heronswood Hellebore Open. Heronswood is gone, but the hellebore still console. Since deer don’t eat them (another strong point), I should move them out of the courtyard.

But shoulds aside, I like having them close by in wintry weather. The hellebore tip their heads and protect their faces from rain. They cheer a quick trip to the Buffalo. (A four-year old visitor melded what she called bison that she saw on her drive north, with bungalow her mother’s word for the guesthouse, into Buffalo. And it stuck.)

A hard freeze will flatten hellebore into a faint – long stems, blossoms, and leaves collapse on the ground – but they revive as the day warms. In summer their big leathery leaves stay a healthy green, and only now, as the new blossoms come on, do they look sickly. Trimming them back sets the blossom clusters off – pale pink, acid green, burgundy.

I used to be disappointed, when I brought them into the house, by their immediate swoon over the side of a vase. But last year in “The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores,” I read the expert Margery Fish’s advice to simply slit the stems of cut hellebore all the way to first leaves. Now hellebore in tiny Turkish glasses stay vigorous for days.