A Letter in the Mail

Our city house in Anchorage had a rural mailbox – they are such a good size. It stood right by the front porch, and even in winter I could go out in my socks and get the mail. Now I put on a jacket and real shoes, and walk down the driveway. I like the walk after lunch – I’m cold and the quarter of a mile gets the blood warm again. I can’t help being hopeful as I approach the mailbox, in spite of modern reality (nobody writes letters any more).

Or so they say. Sometimes people write letters about important things. They write letters when email isn’t quite right. No matter that the thank you isn’t instant – it seems so much more heartfelt on paper.

An exception to the no-letters-to-speak-of is my painter friend. We have written letters and letters with drawings for more than 30 years. We often did series of drawings – one a day on a vacation or when stuck at home during a rainy summer. I think we began the drawings because I was so envious when she sent a letter with a little drawing included, that I learned to draw in part so I could add such sketches – teacups or sleeping cats – images setting us in place.

My part of the exchange has suffered this year – but I do know that I always used to wish that I approached work as eagerly as I did the making of a letter with a drawing for my friend. Creating “Her spirits rose…” gets close to that feeling.

I read an essay a long time ago – I remember sending it to my old friend (we used to be good about letters) that if you fail to write the letter, you let the creative impulse die – unacted upon. In “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says the point of writing is not merely to transmit information but to create it, to put “experiences into words” and allow a chance for reflection.

I thought when I began writing about mail, that I’d just lament the passing of letters – and I do – but I also admit greed. I cherish a letter with its re-readability and tangible presence in an envelope, but also texts from the young people written on the fly, allowing a glimpse into their lives. The commonalities are words and caring.

I was very glad to get my old friend’s postcards from a recent bike trip to Corsica. I pictured her buying them, and then writing while sitting on a stone terrace over the sea, her words describing the adventure scrunched into limited space. She found a tabac selling stamps, figured the postal rates to the U.S., and mailed. Great fun to find in my mailbox.

Equally, my clever friend’s amazing, nearly daily emails written on computers in pensions on a recent Turkey sojourn were full of outpourings from her racing mind and agile fingers on unfamiliar keyboards. She described wondrous markets, exotic food, happy encounters with Iranians, dervish dances, and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

On any day – a letter in a mailbox – Hooray!


Mushrooms have been much on my mind. They’re everywhere in the woods – but I select them from the shelf at the Food Co-op. This time of year wild mushrooms like chanterelles join the ones local mushroom growers provide year round like shiitake and cremini. Portobellos are a favorite. (They fill a bun so nicely!) Jack Bishop’s “Portobello Mushrooms with Red Wine and Oregano” is quick and delicious.

But now also, I have mushrooms in the house – or at least the potential for mushrooms. A “blob” in a plastic tote (a gift from our builder) is allegedly going to sprout shiitake mushrooms! I’m following a schedule: misting for two weeks – then dry, then submerge, and start over. I’m on day four so not much to see yet – but it’s an exciting thought. The builder says it works and he’s usually right.

Now I’m in the midst of making “Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Tomato” – a Deborah Madison recipe. (I love Deborah Madison – she never lets me down. She explains and inspires always. I never pick up my cluttered-with-sticky-notes copy of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody” without encountering something pleasing to cook.)

Today I’ll make the firm polenta and refrigerate. I’m actually looking forward to stirring for the entire recommended 30-45 minutes – this is for company so I want it to be good. Deborah says it’s the “time spent cooking that brings out the full corn flavor.” (She also says it’s a good time to catch up on reading.) When cooked, half of the polenta gets poured out into a baking dish and the other onto a baking sheet, wrapped with plastic film and refrigerated.

Putting the rest of it together looks easy for tomorrow. I have a mixture of mushrooms – around a pound – to slice, and add along with garlic mashed with salt, to olive oil cooking with an onion, bay leaves, thyme and marjoram. Then add half cup of dry white or red wine and simmer till reduced and add two cups of tomato puree or crushed tomatoes in puree. Simmer a little longer, “taste for salt and season with pepper.”

The tomato-mushroom sauce gets spread over the polenta in the baking dish and covered with grated provolone and Parmesan. Another layer of polenta (Deborah warns that it might be necessary to cut it into smaller pieces before placing over the sauce). Cover with the remaining sauce and cheeses.

I like the description of this dish as “hearty and straight-forward” and the thought of baking till it’s “bubbling and hot throughout” – about 25 minutes. Along with greens from the CSA and an apple crisp, this should make for a festive, fall Friday night.

Excitements and Possibilities

“…the excitement and possibilities are in the working and can only come in the working” – is a quote of long-standing importance for me. The words are those of the painter Francis Bacon, and they’re scribbled on a paper scrap, edged with blots and scratches from attempts to get my fountain pen started. It sat on the desk for a long time, and now is thumb tacked to a shelf – a reminder to get started.

Bacon referred to creative work, but I try and tell myself the same principle operates with house chores. Now in October, jobs pile up that I’ve let go during the summer when the garden is priority (or truthfully the blog is priority). But just now I am trying to convince myself of “excitement and possibilities” in resealing the bathtub. It’s the kind of job I stall about.

I already know the phrase applies to garden work. I go out to do some specific task and suddenly have ideas about what else I’d like to do. Moments when work gets accomplished and new potential excites me.

Lists work – one on a yellow pad in the kitchen and one on my desk calendar. I just need make them – and then look at them. (I love a peek at other people’s lists. The first time I saw a son’s long “to do” list on a yellow pad, I knew things were different.) The best thing about the sealant job would be being able to cross it off the list.

I’m hoping going public about the caulk job (and taking a toothbrush to the grout wouldn’t be a bad idea either) might spur me on. Once engaged, the fall jobs won’t take so long. “Well begun is half done” the adage says.

I’d like to get past the “must do” part of the list to elective tasks – like organizing the recipes (the mother of my young friend told me about plastic pages in a notebook making finding things simple). Changing the nook pillows. Clean out my closet.

Virginia Woolf once wrote of the summer being “folded up and put away on a shelf like a sweater.” I think of that each time I get a sweater off the shelf at the top of my closet. It’s past time to get out the heavier sweaters (the distinction here is not sweater or no sweater, but the weight of the wool). It’s time to wash and organize the sweaters, add fresh lavender sachets and discourage moths with their own job in mind.

Freeing my mind from nagging and reminding might lead to excitement, and I have a gift from the young writer to help – words from John Cage: “If something is boring after 2 minutes, try it for 4. If still boring, try it for 8, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Olé!

Books – Pixels or Pages

On a rainy Sunday (no, not all Sundays are rainy these days, but many), we headed for the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair at the Seattle Center. We rode the ferry from Bainbridge and walked up the hill to the monorail – a Sunday morning city – quiet.

And it was hushed in the Exhibition Hall – a huge room full of aisles of booths manned by book people of all stripes – independent bookstores, dealers with first editions, collectors of posters, individual pages of manuscripts, and author correspondence.

My main goal was to visit Vamp and Tramp Booksellers. I don’t know how or if they assign those titles to each other, but Vicky Stewart is pretty with southern honey-tones in her voice, and her husband Bill is professorial and kind. Both are gracious. Together, they cross the country in a van with their goods aboard – handmade books consigned by the artists that Vamp and Tramp, with enthusiasm and care, represent.

They have a great web site (vampandtramp.com), but with artists’ books there is no substitute to seeing, holding, and opening pages. Vamp and Tramp make this possible by visiting book fairs and special collections at libraries and universities on their rounds.

Artists’ books are hard for galleries to exhibit, but they are comfortable owned by individuals or in special collections. Housed in custom made boxes in closed stacks, these often one-of-a-kind books are brought out by request for students and interested visitors, and for exhibitions organized around individual artists – or particular subjects.

To visit Vamp and Tramp at this book fair is a little like a visit to a collection. In a setting with many faded (but valuable) books, their books are colorful and inventive in shape and content – popup books (handmade and amazingly intricate), accordion folded books, elaborate hand bound books, and books of unexpected materials. I asked particularly to see books that contained text beyond letterpress (many book artists are printmakers, and they produce exquisitely beautiful volumes with large text blocks).

I’m curious because I want to make more books, and wonder now about beyond the year of the blog. Combining words and pictures is joy for me. The mechanics of constructing a book by hand is at the other end of the spectrum from sending out the blog with a push of a button. Paper pages or pixels – both a chance for expression.

On this visit I delivered my set of foldbooks, newly bound and housed in a red portfolio. On their circuit to Canada, back home to Alabama, and up the East Coast, Vamp and Tramp will show these books where they might be of interest – all before Christmas.

While I stay home and work – that’s inspiring – and I’m very grateful!

Orange in October

‘Tis the season of orange – pumpkins pile everywhere on this peninsula, in fields, on doorsteps, at the Farmer’s Market – bringing an orange haze to the season of Jack o’lanterns.

Before we moved here that is pretty much all a pumpkin meant to me – something to carve with the kids to get ready for visitors expected in the evening on a chilly Alaska doorstep, when parkas and wool hats peeked from under princess dresses and space helmets.

But now I cook pumpkins, and we are also likely to be infused with an orange-tinted, beta-carotene glow. Pie pumpkins are small, but one pumpkin purchased on Saturday led happily to pumpkin muffins on Sunday, pumpkin pie on Monday, and pumpkin soup on Tuesday.

To get the pumpkin ready to use, I cut it in half and baked at 350° face down in a little water until tender. A small pumpkin yields a surprising amount of pumpkin when it’s scooped from the collapsed shell. After baking, it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days (and I’ve read you can also freeze it.)

I made the pie late in the afternoon of a workday not for any particular event, but because there was pumpkin (and farm fresh eggs). My favorite recipe (from Red Dog Farm) calls for a cup and three-quarters of cooked pumpkin, two lightly beaten eggs, a cup of milk, half cup of honey, and spices (a teaspoon of cinnamon, half teaspoon of ginger and eighth teaspoon of cloves). Mix all together and pour into an unbaked shell. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes, turn the heat down, and bake an hour or more till no jiggles in the middle of the pie. (Out of curiosity I made a Deborah Madison piecrust using oil – interesting.)

Humming like hobbits, we ate slices right out of the oven (making an event of a dark Monday night). My good-natured husband was decidedly good-natured at this turn of events and suggested we share.

So we took pieces to our friends down the bluff, “a spontaneous pie delivery” as my friend called it later.

It’s cozy in the house with candles and lamps and shades drawn, but outside was Halloween dark! I clutched the still-warm pie on a plate covered with foil and walked in the light cast by my husband’s headlamp, a bobbling blue circle on the gravel road. Occasionally the woods rustled, but mostly the night was silent and moonless.

Light from our friends’ windows shone like houses come upon in rural darkness do – a sudden bright warmth. Beyond their house, diffused by a film of fog across the water, Victoria lighted the horizon.

It felt good to walk home after our delivery – crunch up the gravel and approach our house with lights aglow. When we opened the door, we knew by the fragrance – “Somebody’s been baking a pie in here!”

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are building contractors in the bird world. Because they move on each year to build new nest and roost cavities, the Audubon society says a “wide array of species use their old spaces” for lodging.

In the woods in the spring, to spot the source of their deliberate territorial drumming, I need to look high – most often on a snag. This time of year when I am attracted by what seems to be the sound of a happy hammer, or a tap dancer overhead, or an elevated person tapping out a text message – it’s a pileated searching for food.

Pileateds mainly eat ants – carpenter ants and others. They chisel distinctive rectangular holes, sometimes drilling through the tree’s outer wood to hollow centers. This summer a downed tree bore their marks, and looked like a collapsed apartment building with window shaped indents.

While pileateds are often said to be crow-size, their decorative, bright red crest (source of the pileated tag) and long beak makes then seem bigger, specially by comparison to the littler Downy woodpeckers or red-breasted sapsuckers. Like carpenters’ plaid shirts, bright red is associated with all these birds.

Their call is distinct and easily recognizable once you’ve heard it, and Kootenay Photos has a remarkable video of a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest hole and calling:


In “Seasons with Birds,” the British Columbia birder Bruce Whittington says he has come to enjoy fall birding best of all, in part because it is the beginning of life for this summer fledglings, what he calls a critical time for birds.

Birds do seem more collegial this time of year – our regular sparrows, juncos, robins, and towhees, adults and juveniles, congregate more often now. I watch many communal, though not always completely cooperative, baths in the dish out front.

And sometimes these bird-flocking events include a pileated or two. Credited with providing “foraging opportunities for other species,” pileateds have been taking apart an old stump here.

Other birds help with the clean up. They’ve learned it’s smart to stick around the big birds with the red crests.

Yellow Paint

On one of our early visits to the Buffalo before we lived here, I bought a can of mellow-yellow paint and one of warm white. I mixed them in various versions to cheer up some of the existing hospital-white walls.

Near the dining table in the Buffalo’s one room, on the yellowest wall, I hung oil sketches on paper by my painter friend, paintings exchanged in our “letter drawings.” The sketches are colorful and about house (fragments of corners of rooms and belongings) – on the yellow wall they are jolly.

On different visits I thinned the paint with more white and stretched it up one wall of the stairway – and then, pale yellow by now, on a single wall of the bedroom. And, this week, after the Buffalo repair I used the same delicate yellow (leftovers) to paint inside the closet.

The shade of the yellow reminded me Emily Carr’s house on Government Street in Victoria, her birthplace. The graceful house from the 1890s is a museum now about Carr and her work. It has a resident black cat, flower gardens, musty belongings, and tea and cookies for visitors.

Painting that yellow reminded me to dip back into Carr’s journals, “Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist.” Finding my old copy with crackly spine but classic painting by Carr of “Red Cedar” on the cover, I remembered why I loved it. Like Anne Truitt in her journals, Carr acknowledges the importance of writing down the “bits” – small things that often seem unimportant but describe our lives. “It was these tiny things that, collectively, taught me how to live…the little scraps and nothingnesses of my life have made a definite pattern.”

Part of what I enjoy about Emily Carr’s life, is her fondness for houses – and the way she writes about them. In 1946 she moved to a little cottage and describes setting things to rights after moving in: “Things are getting straightened out. Each corner suggests objects. Sometimes the objects object, but mostly, if the corner calls, the object responds. Furniture is so very alive. It knows who it wants to hobnob with. Sunshine has poured into the cottage all day and has gladdened everything. I am beginning to love the cottage. It’s homey.”

Carr admits to caring for “creature comforts” (asking herself if perhaps too much), and she will keep me company while I put the Buffalo back together. Wash the bedding (in a plastic bag since August), air out blankets, and polish it up for coming visitors.