A Call for a Calendar

Recently Amazon addressed me as a person “who had shown an interest in calendars in the past” – I don’t think they’re reading my blog or my mind, but they’re right.

Calendars encourage time management – that business term – they organize the expanse of time into those boxes, that grid of days we are lucky to have to fill. To “calendar” a project is surely the first step – planning how long, planning when.

Kenneth Atchity wrote “A Writer’s Time” about organizing time for creative work (and the upcoming month is a big creative project). He says, “No time is more important than the time used to examine and schedule your time.” That calls for a calendar.

He also writes: “The first step marries desire with will – saying, “I will do it!” The commitment of your will is the true beginning of creation, the necessary ingredient of productivity – without it, creation will remain only a dream.”

This time of year lights and music and color distract from the dark weather, and I love connecting with old friends by mailing cards and thinking about how to please people with presents. But it is challenging to figure out how to add all that into already full lives. (The young mother of two recently sent me a striking card she made in six two or three-minute segments – so it can be done.)

For a longer term project, connecting “desire and will” often means writing it on the calendar.

Calendars make great presents – especially handmade calendars. I like the teeny, tiny calendars that businesses give away – with plastic sticky or magnetic tops displaying ads for car repair or real estate. Those little calendars hold some memory of childhood, when my sister and I would glue them to cardboard to decorate for our parents. (I was thrilled to see once a picture of a similar calendar Vita Sackville West made for Virginia Woolf – tiny calendar glued under a photo of Vita’s tower.)

My painter friend and I have exchanged calendars (or handmade books) at Christmas for many years in a cherished tradition. Pictures and drawings of our families and work, quotes and notes – the imagery can be complex but the date grids have devolved to the little squares pirated from bigger calendars (assuring the dates will be right). Calendars from past years hang on each of our studio walls, and we flip them in a changing of the month ritual – enjoying the timeless images, ignoring the out-of-date calendar block.

Committing to the calendar year was an overall organizing principle for “Her spirits rose….” I draw a month-at-a-time rough calendar, for thinking about the blog, and begin to fill in the blanks (in pencil) with ideas for possible subjects. It’s hard to believe I’m nearing the end of a whole year – but the proof’s right here – on my calendar!

Winter Comforts

Anyone for a day-after nap? This post isn’t for someone with a warmer house or who lives in warmer clime, but maybe some readers share my fondness for the homely hot water bottle.

Last year Margaret Drabble published “The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws.” She writes in the foreword, “The book started off as a small history of the jigsaw, but it has spiraled off in other directions….” The book is a puzzle itself in a way – jigsaw facts and memoir mingled. It became such a hybrid after Drabble’s husband fell ill, and as she says, “Doing jigsaws and writing about them has been one of my strategies to defeat melancholy and avoid laments.”

I don’t have Drabble’s memories of jigsaw puzzles, but another topic resonates. She writes (it is an eclectic book) of turning away from a short infatuation with electric blankets (I like English books because everyone is always seeking to combat the cold), and says, “So I returned to the safety, the traditional comfort, of the hot-water bottle. You really can’t do yourself much damage with a hot-water bottle, apart from mottling yourself with red blotches, and the fact that they are still so widely available means that others agree with me. You’d have thought they might have gone out of production by now, but they haven’t.”

I read this quote with my feet tucked against MY hot water bottle and laughed out loud!

I love a hot water bottle.

My mother’s idea of a hot water bottle was a Ball jar filled with hot water – that works but is risky. Mrs. Seal, my landlady in England when I was a student, used to put a bottle in my bed when I was out late. (Being a 21 year-old in the 60s with other things on my mind, I didn’t deserve this kindness).

But now I understand her impulse and can hardly bear for people to go to sleep in the Buffalo or Buffalito without a warming bottle. Mrs. Seal’s bottles were the same pink rubber as my current one. But the mother of my young friend made mine a cover from a too-small-for-anybody cashmere sweater some years ago. It grew completely threadbare, and she made another. A friend presented fish-shaped small bottles to the Buffalo as a present – so a drawer full of possibilities waits there.

A guy friend told me once that his wife always put two bottles in the bed – one on his side. That made me feel bad, so lately I’ve been making two. I love to put one in the spot right where I will sit down and then move it further down, pushing its watery, wool-clad warmth with my feet – happy for the encounter.

Small pleasure – winter pleasure.

Thanksgiving

Cliff Mass warns that the last week of November is by any measure – “rain, wind, you name it” – always the worst week of the year (this year so far we have snow and cold in the teens). But if the weather gods be merciful, planes, ferries, and rental cars will cope, and by tomorrow everyone will be gathered for Thanksgiving – from Alaska, California, and Washington.

We’ve been lucky in our years here mostly (one year we had a departure-delaying snowstorm), but local tales abound of power outages and uncooked turkeys. My old friend and her family have an outdoor-cooker-fall-back-plan for that eventuality, but likely they will bring the turkey already cooked in their oven and bundled up for the drive, along with two different dressings and maybe some starters (last year olives to warm in an earthenware dish and carrot sticks).

The young mother and father traditionally come before the traffic on an early morning ferry, and spend the night. They bring a huge and terrific salad, and this year a second sweet daughter we’ve never met will join her older sister at the festivities. (I hope the whole family can fit still on the entryway bench, pulled to the table.)

Here we’ll do the vegetable “wrangling” as my daughter-in-law calls it (she’s really good at it) – we’ll prepare and roast all the usual suspects – a festival of vegetables. I used to think of Thanksgiving as celebration of butter – but a lot of olive oil decorates things here. Sweet potatoes cut in big chunks, sturdy and delicious winter roots like parsnips and rutabaga, and Brussels sprouts for sure. Mashed potatoes and celeriac!

Ahead of time I make cranberry sauce and cranberry relish – ruby red in glass dishes. My clever friend brings beautiful pies – topped with crusty leaves.

After the pie we might break out the bottle of Ratafia Russet brought home from Spain – a fitting tribute to the day. But first we do all the travelling and the cooking (and table setting and bed making). Jobs I am thankful for and so glad to do.

I know you readers are up to your elbows in your own getting readys, and I wish you a wonderful holiday. I’m grateful to each of you!

Giving Thanks

Our younger son’s sweet friend is joining us for the holidays. She’s from Thailand and has never been to an American Thanksgiving (or Christmas), so I’ve been thinking about the essentials in the celebrations.

For Thanksgiving our sons would say turkey I think – their dad pie. But maybe under those quick responses lies the same thing that I cherish – family and friends around a table laden with lovingly prepared food.     Because it gives me energy for the preparations in their honor, I like to think of this holiday as a gift I give to guests. But I get too much for that thought to work.

The first year we had Thanksgiving here, I was a little disappointed. The food was great (thanks to all the participants’ contributions), but the table was too long for meaningful conversation. The meal ended, and somehow the holiday seemed lacking.

The next year, inspired by a young friend with a “bi-coastal” (as she says) extended family who use the Thanksgiving gathering to tell of the year’s significant events (this year she gets to announce a baby-to-be!), I proposed to my family that we go around the table and say what we are thankful for (not original but new to us).

The idea got shot down, but I tried again the next year, and my good-natured husband agreed to give it a try. Picking the kids up at the ferry is one of my favorite things about the holidays – most of the work is done, and I’m so glad to see them. On the drive we get to hear their stories, and I re-floated the “goofy idea.”

At dinner we drew numbers, and the young father arranged for his very young daughter to go first. He asked her if she was thankful for pink (which she adores), and she said, “Yes!” with much enthusiasm. Ice broken then, I was astounded at the rest of the “thankfuls.”

My old friend’s son unexpectedly said “women,” and then delivered an amazing sentence or two about the women in his life – including his mother and his (bi-coastal) sister. People spoke of concepts like opportunity and time. The young couples spoke of gratitude for each other. Everyone thanked the cooks.

Our younger son admitted he’d hoped the idea would die, and then when he drew a high number, hoped the whole thing would dissolve before reaching him. But said his feelings changed as he listened to the others, and he spoke of his gratitude for this beautiful place and for being here with his family.

It’s a solid tradition now, a highlight. I look forward to including our visitor from Thailand – she has a way of putting her hands together and bowing her head slightly when she accepts a sandwich by the side of a trail. She’ll be beautiful with the thankfuls.

Well-lighted Scenes and Margaret Drabble

November’s afternoon darkness holds a tingle of anticipation and excitement. We’re closer to the winter solstice and very close to the holidays making these months so celebratory. The darkness begs to be lit, begs for color, and is background to winter festivals with lights and food and family.

Some of my spirits rising phenomenon is left over from Alaska. November meant snow – a little glitter to reflect city lights. Here, forest and ground stay dark green and afternoons end abruptly – time to shut the shades, cook the meal, light the candles.

Our older son told me once in his world travelling days that he tried always to be in place for the sunset. I’ve imagined that meant knowing where he would eat and stay that night. Then he could enjoy a few minutes with his book in a lighted place – a traveler’s routine – a homey feeling.

This time of year I think about a scene from a book by Margaret Drabble – my favorite contemporary novelist. When I first read her, as my friends and I did, as the novels came out – her characters’ lives almost paralleled ours – just a little ahead – your own life narrated in a richly descriptive way. I’ll never manage to read “Don Quixote” the prescribed three times (youth, middle and old age) but I relish rereading Drabble with eyes changed by time and age.

In “The Radiant Way,” Drabble writes of her character Alix’s trepidation at visiting a grown son and girlfriend in an uncertain living situation, nervously fretting about what she would find: “What would it be like, would it be warm, would it be habitable, would the food be edible, would there be any food?”

But she finds instead a “paradise” – “And wonderful it was, like a fairy story, a Bohemian fairy story. The little room was illuminated by candles, by a paraffin lamp, by crackling packing-case twigs in a real fire in a real Victorian grate; its walls were painted a dark midnight blue, its floor was painted a deep red with a dark blue and green patterned border, wooden painted chairs stood at a table covered with a white embroidered cloth and painted bowls and plates, huge cushions lay in heaps in a corner, there were two comfortable chairs….” Alix and the rest of the family are offered: “glasses of firelight-glinting red wine, with olives on a white plate, with nuts on a blue plate.”

I love her words of real things, describing this home where “an island of colour and light had been salvaged from the darkness by long hours, great pains, great ingenuity.”

Upending a lack of parental faith amuses me, as Drabble honors the young people’s creation. And always I find inspiration for “islands of colour and light” against the dark. Ole!

Taking Stock – Making Stock

Writing this post feels like the multi-tasking tangle that often accompanies cooking itself, with two intermingled things to do (or describe). Karyn, Red Dog farmer, suggested “Roasted Delicata and Steamed Chard with Sautéed Leeks and Garlic” in a recent CSA newsletter, calling the meal a “straightforward but delicious fall combination” – and she provided all the ingredients.

I put the squash to roast – using a beat up baking pan, buffered with parchment paper. (My clever friend’s husband once found me scraping at some vegetable, which roasted onto a pan and asked, “Don’t you know about parchment paper?” So now I do – and use it often to make life easier). I smished around a little olive oil, halved the squash, and scraped out the seeds.

At the same time, I noticed Karyn’s second newsletter suggestion – a rutabaga soup. But it called for stock, and usually I fail to make stock. The taste of purchased vegetable stock disappoints me, so I use water or avoid such soups.

But then I remembered using squash seeds in stock (a Deborah Madison hint most likely). I set the seeds aside, chopped the leeks, and realized that parts of the leeks could also go in stock – along with the chard ribs.

I got out Deborah and got serious.

Her quick stock essentials are to sauté an onion, a carrot, and a celery rib – along with “useful trimmings” (taking stock of what’s in the fridge). I’m already well begun.

I sautéed the roughly cut leek leaves and root ends, the chard stems, and a carrot in a little olive oil. After 10 minutes or so, I added two teaspoons of salt and two quarts of water and brought to it a boil with a bay leaf. I tossed the squash seeds in, strings and all, and simmered uncovered for about 30 minutes.

While the stock simmered I steamed the chard, then added it to sautéed leeks and garlic. I found a container of cranberries in the freezer, chopped almost the last apples from the columnar tree, and simmered them together with just a little sugar.

The chard was melt-in-your mouth good – also the squash – the cranberries a perfect tart note. And the stock smelled terrific. I strained it after dinner and the next day made the soup.

Now at our house rutabaga isn’t any more enthusiastically embraced than elsewhere. (Rutabaga used to be what we called the kind of noisy, vibrating kiss you’d plant on a really sweet baby’s belly – we had two in their time – sure to stir up a giggle from the recipient.)

The soup was wonderful – the stock-based broth delicious, the small chunks of rutabaga transformed into tasty bites, like squash but sweeter. Why don’t I make stock more often? Doing it while making dinner seems the answer – approved multi-tasking.

Home to November

Our plane touched down (I nearly wrote “splashed down”), and a film of water slid off the wings, splattered on the windows, and puddled on the runway. I loved it – loved also the pouring rain in Seattle, and gray dark sky and fog through trees (still wearing their rainslicker yellow) on the peninsula. Back on the bluff we found a beautiful evening with calm moist air.

The next morning I was perfectly happy with fog, then delighted by a sparkling day – summer-blue sea and sunshine filling my room. It was so good to see home and feel at home – such different environs from a city or a desert.

One day in Boston I noticed an ordinary black ant on the steps leading up from the subway to Kendall Square, and watched as it tumbled over the edge of the next step. It looked halfway up or down with no place to go – so out of context away from nest and kin. Or maybe not, it’s suited to its particular life. Same with the tarantulas, three-inch fur-clad wonders in the desert mincing their way across paved parking lots or stony trails (impressive but not poisonous in Joshua Tree).

Here, the local fauna greeted me. Driving home from the wee scholars, a large rabbit, white tail bobbing, hopped from a sunny patch to camouflaging shade, and stopped to nibble a leaf, looking at home on the south forty. Also our resident deer – they couldn’t imagine the places we’ve seen – no salal tips, no rose hips. And Frances, so pleased with her lot and fairly indifferent to our return (our beloved house sitter having lavished her with “doting craziness”).

But most of all the weather amazed me anew – such a polyglot of weather language, all jabbering this week! The Washington weather guru, Cliff Mass, warns us now about the winter “weather systems” which will pass through – and they begin.

By the end of the week, during which we had the wettest November 1 and the warmest November 3 ever, after rain, wind, rain again, we enjoyed a Sunday of weather to welcome us home. We woke to rain and wind but by mid-morning I sat in the nook in pure sunshine to stitch the pillows (fall changeover).

Frances sat outdoors under the nearly bare cherry tree in a patch of sun. The garden looks a little sad and a little wondrous – still a few brave flowers and so many textures of green – like ferns – what a marvel, a fern – or a fir tree!

By 4 p.m. rain poured down again, and just after five – hood-over-the-head dark as a friend once said – winter dark.