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of our studio walls, and we flip them in a changing of the month ritual – enjoying the timeless images, ignoring the out-of-date calendar block.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.


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.

Joshua Tree – Really Different

Just above the tiny town of Joshua Tree, on the edge of the national park with the same name in the Mojave Desert, we found our rented house. A Technicolor house, street side painted persimmon, the other side in shades of chartreuse.

The owners of the house are a Hollywood director and costume designer, and their house is full of an eclectic mix of second-hand pictures and furniture, shelves with books about the desert, movie posters, and videos (labels indicated they were sent to a member of the Academy for Academy Award review).

Saturday morning as we drove the paved road into the park, we saw piles of room-size boulders scattered across the desert floor. It’s said they look like casually piled giant’s blocks, but their edges are softened and their surface gritty like sandpaper.

Joshua trees (a species of yucca) stand widely apart as far as the eye can see. They look endearing as they lift their sturdy branches (pompons of spiny prickles for leaves) in welcome or startle. (Posing for photos it was always temping to lift our arms and bend our hands in imitation.)

In a cold wind but bright sun, we began a hike to an old mine. We tried to follow a sandy trail, sometimes marked and sometimes hidden, through scrubby low-growing pinyon and juniper. Flat at first, the route climbed steeply up a rocky hill to a plateau.

Thanks to watching another party who knew the route, we found the easy-to-miss mineshaft and miner’s shack. Built into a boulder pile, the shelter has a glass window (with most panes intact), a fireplace and cook stove (mortared rocks for chimneys), a natural bed-shaped alcove, and an insert of shingled roof made from flattened cans. Packing-box shelves held rusty tin cans.

We sat outside to eat lunch looking off toward more park in the distance, and talked about what it would be like to spend the night in that cabin – wondering if it would be warm from the fires.

Sunday morning we hiked up Ryan Mountain, hoods raised against the cold wind – 1000 feet of elevation gain but with a well-worn path including many steps cut from rock. At the top – 5000 feet up – we could see in all directions – but found a sheltered spot lower down for lunch.

I loved seeing a brand new landscape – and two tarantulas, pink pincushion cactus, car-sized boulders balanced precariously on others, and shrubby blooming plants growing impossibly from cracks in a rock face. But best of all, I loved being together – from oatmeal in the morning to sitting by the fire at night, stars overhead, and plenty of laughing at parental foibles.

It feels really lucky to have been on the edge of the young people’s lives for a few days – and then do something different, together, on the weekend.

Pasadena – and the Journey to the High Desert

Aah – California! From our arrival at LAX (to strains of “We could have danced all night…” in baggage claim), to an 11 p.m. salad (three-inch high pyramid of spinach with toasted pecans and strawberries) – California announces itself.

Our younger son’s office is in Pasadena with two favorite museums nearby. At the Norton Simon, a walk in welcome warmth from our hotel, I wanted to see a special exhibit of a 1969 visual art piece by John Cage (a recent article about Cage left me admiring his engagement with the creative process). Cage created this piece after Marcel Duchamp’s death and titled it “Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel.”

Cage screenprinted words (selected by using the “I Ching”) onto pieces of Plexiglas held in wooden stands or lithographed onto one piece of paper. According to the (helpful) accompanying statement, Cage aimed to take anything personal out of his reaction to Duchamp. In spite of that (or because of it), the words have an eerie beauty. You puzzle over word bits and occasional image without making “sense of it” – words not saying anything about Marcel.

The library at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens contrasts with the beautiful gardens, the light low, the air cool. The main exhibition hall displays real treasures – you walk through centuries of books – from a Gutenberg Bible to exhibits about contemporary authors who have chosen The Huntington to house their papers. We saw a manuscript page from “Wolf Hall” – like a glimpse of Mantel’s mind at work. The handwritten page hinted at how she might get down quickly the movement through an episode or chapter in longhand – to be fleshed out in her inimitable, rich way.

In a special exhibit honoring Charles Bukowski, a case held a little set-up of his belongings – his typewriter, a well-used wine glass, a radio tuned to a classical station, and pens. The pens surprised me – not ballpoints, but the pens he used to make expressive little drawings, which were often part of the broadsheets published by small presses who supported him early on. To accompany a poem entitled “Pastoral,” Bukowski drew a lamp and a man in an armchair, both sitting on a squiggle of ink that is a braided rug.

We left The Huntington to head east for a weekend getaway with our son and his sweet friend – driving Interstate 10, San Gabriel Mountains to the left, past the Santa Anita race track, palm trees, and wall-to-wall houses. In the car we ate sandwiches and a great beet salad for me (gathered along with breakfast and hiking food from a two-story Whole Foods with an escalator for people and one for carts! So easy to thrill this country mouse.)

Our destination was Joshua Tree National Park, and just before we turned off on Highway 62, we passed twirling windmills dotting the landscape. They spin, not together, but with irregular cadence as each catches or not, the breeze. Like some Cristo installation these inanimate, animated objects, tall and white, wander across valleys and up ridges to whirl against the California blue sky.

And then – Joshua trees!

Something Different – Boston

Once on the door of an appealing restaurant a hand-lettered sign said: “CLOSED – because sometimes it’s good to do something different.” And the last week of  October, we did just that – traveled to Boston and circled home through Los Angeles – a trip to see the young people – a weekend in each place.

A main goal was to watch our niece race in the world’s biggest regatta, the “Head of the Charles.” When she was a freshman and a new rower, our niece seemed intrigued and inspired as shells glided by, one after another, oars in unison. This year, as a senior, she rowed in the important “stroke” seat just in front of the cox, and her team finished third in their large division.

After the race and her return to school, we filled our extra day and a half. In spite of the Beantown label, Boston seems Booktown to me, with so many universities (where people lean over books or modern forms of books), and libraries – temples of books.

An impression of the Boston Public Library depends on which door you enter. In the morning, to inquire about attending a lecture, we went in the old entrance on Copley Square – underneath the John Singer Sargent murals, up wide stairs to a reading room with green-shaded lights on old wooden tables. Scholars toiled, many with laptops, all with an air of concentration.

That evening we entered a modern part of the library to hear Alexander McCall Smith deliver the Lowell Lecture. Smith spoke to an overflowing, thrilled audience of fans. Jolly, and wearing a kilt, he meandered though his talk, exploring his theme – that small and inconsequential things can add up to describe a life lived, in novels and in reality, giving texture to character and place.

Smith said he loved Precious Ramotswe so much that he developed a whole series from an initial short story, and didn’t know till he wrote the line, that Precious Ramotswe would open a detective agency – a choice that made all the difference. “You grow a picture of the world with small things,” he said, adding that quotidian things let the novelist talk about profound things.

At the Boston Museum of Fine arts a small exhibit reinforced that thought, with painters who make the ordinary extraordinary in their work – Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Scott Prior (his statement spoke of “the painted intimacies of ordinary life”).

In the Houghton Library on the Harvard campus, a glass case displayed nine of the letters with drawings Beatrix Potter wrote to the children of her former governess – pictures from the same mind and the same pen as the handwriting. Peter Rabbit and his associates first appeared in such letters  – in one letter, a little drawing of a rabbit like Peter accompanied a comment that he might want a jacket he could take off. These drawings – so familiar from the books – were beginnings of work renowned and beloved the world over.

I came away from these visits thinking how surprisingly often that which is saved, in museums and libraries, is the utterly personal. It’s a thrill always to see the real object – knowing it was held, used by its maker – and preserved.

How the Buffalito Came to Be

A bunkhouse was what I had in mind – a little cabin – to be a guest bedroom for when holiday or celebration company fills the Buffalo and our house. Such buildings of small stature recall all sorts of little structures – playhouses, tree houses, Virginia Woolf’s writing hut, Thoreau’s cabin, potting sheds, small studios.

Our cabinetmaker, when he built the cabinets and bookshelves in this house, adapted to the simple materials and needs here with flexibility and imagination. When he returned a couple of years ago to build a few more bookshelves, he told me he had a little free time, and I asked if he would consider a bunkhouse. He thought about it for a few days, and then asked if I had considered a gypsy wagon?

I hadn’t. But right away I was intrigued. I had a picture in my mind of Emily Carr’s caravan she called “The Elephant,” and an Internet search revealed ornate constructions, recreations of historical “vardos.” We were thinking something simpler – a bed, a chair, and a table for work – a movable structure as “green” as we could make it.

From his research, the cabinetmaker knew the walls would be slightly narrower at the bottom than the top – a trademark of such wagons. Like building a house, you consider roof, walls, and windows. No plumbing, though thoughts of a lamp and a little heater made electricity appealing. I hoped for a tiny front porch. In planning conversations, we’d enter a made-up space – putting the bed at the back end, and hooks along a wall by the door, so you would hang up your jacket and be there. I loved those early meetings – drawing on a scrap of paper at the kitchen table with a rush of ideas.

The cabinetmaker and his assistant ingeniously solved all kinds of challenges – from exact dimensions to the materials for the curved roof and inside paneling. To hold the wagon, they had a frame welded to the axle of an old truck. These craftsmen made windows with the appearance of mullions – with screens for the two that open – and a paneled door with a window. They designed the sturdy built-in furniture. And they engineered a way to build the whole thing in the workshop in winter weather, then dismantle and finish it outdoors.

When the cabinetmaker went back to his real work, the painting fell mostly to me. A warm yellow on the rough cedar exterior with battens gives it texture in the sunshine. Inside I used milk paint on the plywood floor and on the sturdy table, set of shelves for a guest’s belongings, and a platform for a futon with bedding storage below.

Now succulents grow in two pairs of old hiking boots on the tiny doorstep, giving the wagon a lived-in look. In summer, it’s surrounded by a tilted-over, wild cherry tree and a small garden full of daffodils, then daisies and lavender. In winter, a little lamp on the table comes on in the evening, and the Buffalito glows – a welcoming sight on a dark night.

A Simple Feast

Winter food festive red – words that belong together to me – in part because of a long-standing holiday tradition with my painter friend in Anchorage (and thoughts about the holidays do begin to surface now). For years, with our families, we ate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals together, trading who cooked which. Eventually the “red meal” (usually lasagna) became mine, because my friend is better at cooking turkey.

Lasagna has so often starred for company and special meals that now I try to branch out. But the other day, talking about a dinner needing to be made in a tight schedule, but also to be festive for friends to celebrate both a birthday and Big News, my husband said, ”It’s hard to beat lasagna.”

Lasagna with red sauce and stuffed with many vegetables.  Lasagna using some favorite store-bought sauce – easy to make ahead and keep in the fridge. Easy to make two at a time for many people, or to freeze one for another night. (Leftovers are always popular.)

Uncooked vegetables vary with the season, but always include kale or chard. Wash, remove the mid-ribs, and tear into small pieces.  Because it cooks down so thoroughly, a big bunch will fit, even though that looks impossible piled in a colander. (For sturdier kale, a three or four minute par-boil makes for a tender green.) Sliced zucchini and mushrooms add texture and flavor.

It goes together in classic layering (to reverse the analogy – like garden beds), a little sauce, dabs of ricotta, a lashing of mozzarella, layer of vegetables, and repeat again. Sometimes my over-enthusiasm with greens requires flattening by pushing down a little after the last noodle layer. Top with sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan, cover with tinfoil, and bake at 350° for at least an hour.

Baking all those vegetables inside means this meal is complete with salad and crusty bread. It smells good cooking and the heavy, red casserole dish looks cheerful when pulled from the oven. If the pre-dinner snacks and chatter take longer because of fun – that’s fine. It’s a forgiving dish that allows for relaxed hosts.

Pears, both opulent red or gilded gold, decorate winter kitchens and meals. Because this meal is a celebration for a fruit-for-dessert lover – I get to make another favorite of appropriate hue: Mark Bittman’s “Pears Poached in Red Wine.” Bittman calls for Bosc pears, but lately we have beautiful red pears from a Washington grower. They’ll be perfect simmered with water, wine, sugar, lemon, and cinnamon sticks – then refrigerated overnight.

After the warming lasagna, the chilled pears, served whole topped with their syrup – will be refreshing – and celebratory.

Three Days at Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England closes for the winter on the first of November. Once I visited just before closing and stayed at Sissinghurst Farmhouse, a bed and breakfast located beside the garden. For three days (“three pure and rounded pearls” as Virginia Woolf called three days alone), I saw Sissinghurst from my window in early morning with mist rising from fields, and at night when the moon lit Vita’s famous tower.

One evening I used the phone in the farmer’s study to call my husband – a continent away in Alaska. We were in the midst of deciding whether to make an offer on this place. I wonder how much I was influenced by Vita – overwhelmed with longing to build something, and wanting to garden with England-like seasons.

My Bloomsbury curiosity – a quest that began with Virginia Woolf’s diaries – included Vita on gardening. No matter the difference with my life, I used to reread with pleasure Jane Brown’s “Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography” or Tony Lord’s “Gardening at Sissinghurst” about the garden and how it came to be. Vita is a great gardening companion, and sometimes even now I hear words from her garden columns like, “Cram, cram cram, every chink and cranny.”

That trip started me writing about gardening, and the newspaper in Anchorage published the story of my three days. It was a pleasure to tell the tale of Sissinghurst and describe the wreck it was when Vita and her husband Harold Nicholson bought in 1930 – a collection of tumbled-down, crumbled walls of an Elizabethan and a Tudor house, part of a former moat, two brick cottages, a barn, and a farmhouse – all silted over with decades of rubbish.

But it had a central courtyard and history (in 1573 Elizabeth I spent three nights at Sissinghurst), and, best of all, a pink brick, still-climbable tower from which to survey the Kentish countryside. Sissinghurst’s potential instantly captured Vita’s imagination, and now, surrounded by Vita’s famous gardens, it does the same for readers and visitors these many years later.

The garden is made around smallish buildings, not a huge stately home, and you can picture living in the cottages where the Nicolsons lived. They and their sons slept in separate buildings, but came together to eat in the dining room of the Priest’s House, or at a sturdy wooden table in a vine-covered loggia outdoors. In all weather the hardy English family crossed the garden for every meal, Harold coming from his study in the South Cottage, Vita from her tower.

A visitor can still climb the tower, up pie-wedge steps, circling inside the tower past Vita’s writing room. The walls on the battlement part of the tower are just right for leaning elbows and looking out – past the shapes of the garden and fields bounded by hedgerows – to all four horizons.

Sissinghurst is a garden of gardens, every turn round any corner, through any gateway reveals another beautiful garden, small and intimate, and utterly distinct.

I see where the farmhouse is newly refurbished, and learned that Kent has more long-distance walking paths than any other English county. That’s an idea – given the small scale of England, walking a couple of miles might bring villages, farms, forest, and then – magical Sissinghurst.