Sky Gazing

A photo of a bear, taken by Deborah Schildt, appeared in the Anchorage Daily News in 2004. In her field note (caption to the photo), Schildt says: “A large female walked up behind us on the trail today. She sat down, then sat up with her paws resting on her knees, looking up at the leaves in the treetops scattering with each tug of the wind. We watched her as she watched the wind.”

I remember the day the photo appeared in the paper, because our younger son and I had one of those parent and child moments you treasure – both of us were stopped by the photo. It seems to capture pleasure (though wildlife photographer Schildt doesn’t make that judgment), but it says something about all we don’t know about animals. I thought the bear looked happy. Our son said to me: “Look, she must know so much.” He was thinking about her life in the wilds – mostly alone – coping with everything in her world.

Just before Christmas I found the newspaper copy of the photo again, and thinking it would be a great present for the younger son, I found Deborah Schildt’s web site ( and ordered it.

Then the other day at school one of the wee scholars read to me a book about two orphaned polar bear cubs being reared in a zoo, far from their Arctic birthplace. The cubs began their zoo life indoors, with all sorts of play things (including each other) and human attention. When they grew, they moved outdoors into a spacious enclosure with plenty of play objects like balls and straw bales and a large water pool for swimming. But their attendants noticed the cubs were most fascinated by the sky – that they spent a lot of time gazing upward.

The tale of the cubs made me wonder again about the bear in the photo. What she’s thinking is unknowable – but so “feelable.”

It led to a New Year resolution – to simply look more at the sky. Pause an instant and make note of it. Let clouds or clear, slate gray or heaven blue register, and not take sky or treetops for granted. Wonder what a bear would think, and enjoy what I see.

Order – and Incentive – in the New Year

The end of January exerts a certain pressure for completion. Too overdosed with good spirits to attend properly to the year’s end in December, I use January to catch up year-end tasks, the ones with words like tax, file, balance – or photos.

Starting with the refrigerator-bulletin board-photo album. In January, waiting for the teakettle to boil I study the pictures (I always do anyway), but this month I consider clearing them off.

Clear refrigerator doors appeal to me, but I am unable to maintain one. Some photos never change, like Frances in her escape artist days, crouched on the very top of her courtyard fence against a splendid sunset background. Or a photo of our old dog Bill, at such close range I can feel his velvety ears. Another keeper shows us with our younger son – his arm draped inclusively over the shoulders of Barack Obama (well, a cardboard cutout).

A couple of old hiking photos tell well-known tales. In a picture taken south of Anchorage at Crow Pass, against a backdrop of craggy Alaska mountains, my husband stands on a trail with our sons – one in a backpack and the other, an excited brand-new kindergartener. (The next day he told his class he’d come “face to face with a marmot.”) In another photo taken one September on Mount Rainier, our old friends’ kids and ours stand up to their knees in an icy mountain lake – competing to see who could stay in the water longest.

Replaying those familiar stories always pleases me – though some would call that procrastinating. (I’m full of that – even telling the tales here a diversion).

So – the rest of the photos are more current events – but they need updating – and my January list needs doing. This month I’ve tried a primitive reward system (one that also helps with dark rainy nights).

For months last year I read (fell asleep over the pages of) Olivia Manning’s novel “The Balkan Trilogy.” A little bit of a slog in the beginning, but after more than 900 pages I loved it – for language, for sweep, and for its rich characters, including British heroine Harriet Pringle, who in 1939, as war threatened on all sides, traveled to Bucharest and to Athens with her teacher husband.

But that’s not the reward – reading at night is a right – but video, that can be incentive – great fun to see characters and settings come alive! Ah yes you think, here comes the BBC. I did watch the Masterpiece Theatre version, “Fortunes of War,” doled out on Sunday evenings in the 80s. Flash forward to 2011 and it comes on a disc with many hour-long episodes.

An hour each evening – perfect carrots! (I said it was primitive, my system, also subject to breakdowns and cheating.)

But it helps cross off the January jobs!

Roasting Roots – Newly Stylish

A January commentary on NPR about food fashion allowed as how pie is replacing cake, adding that, if pie is the new cake, vegetables are the new meat. Vegetables become the main event – “Root vegetables, meanwhile, are the new heirlooms. These gnarled vegetables such as salsify, Jerusalem artichokes and celery root are about to step onto the food fashion runway.”

Who knew Red Dog Farm was so trendy? My refrigerator contains some stylish treasures in the way back – and I am writing this post to inspire a big roast off. I also keep thinking of our younger son’s almost plaintive pronouncement that he can BUY the vegetables (he lives in Los Angeles with 125 farmer’s markets all year long) – but how does he use them up in time? Roots with long storage life help that problem.

Our farmer addresses her members’ individual needs and capabilities for consumption by dividing her CSA subscriptions into sessions. In spring and summer small suffices for us – the market and the garden are backups – but this time of year we are large. And often in her newsletter, she includes the simple injunction: “Roast those Roots!”

My refrigerator holds parsnips, celeriac, potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, and a rutabaga. All or part can be roasted together so easily – cut into similar size chunks, embellished with olive oil and salt (and maybe just a touch of maple syrup – often recipes suggest adding a tiny hit of sweet to amplify the natural taste of roasted vegetables). Bake in good heat till tender. Same size chunks roast evenly – but the inevitable smaller ones are crispy and delicious.

In “The Winter Vegetarian” I noticed a new possibility (in a nine recipe section on rutabagas) – “Fireplace-Roasted Rutabagas.” Goldstein says, “roasted in the coals of a hot fire, rutabaga turns mellow and creamy inside, with a smoky, charred crust that adds some bite.” Using two one-pound rutabagas, she wraps each with olive oil, dried marjoram, salt and freshly ground black pepper in two layers of aluminum foil. Placed in hot coals in the fireplace, they roast for about an hour and a half. Slice to serve.

Old friends are coming to dinner. Cooking in the fire will remind us of long ago camping trips with our families. A rainy winter night instead of a long summer eve – but food and friends by the fire!

The Dark Side, Virginia Woolf’s Birthday, and Blossoms

A so-far faithful reader, a friend of my husband’s, told him that the blog didn’t have any dark side. It’s true, and my husband’s response was to point out the name of the blog. But since year two doesn’t seem any more likely to explore angst than year one, I’ve been wondering why not.

Reading Peter Schjeldahl I thought maybe I found an answer. I appreciate the way he thinks and writes about art, and a long time ago I wrote down his words “Determinedly political art is generally depressing. It forfeits creativity’s inclination to praise life.”

And the other day with tea, I read in “Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker” Schjeldahl’s review of the (then) new folk art museum in New York. He recommended the museum to new artists, saying they could learn a lot from it. Starting with the “indispensability of delight.”

Those could be my operating principles, and today, the day before her 129th birthday – I get a chance to say I really learned this from Virginia Woolf – particularly from her letters and diaries. Day after day she recorded the ordinary world in language lively from her effort to observe.

VW is my favorite practitioner of praising life – whether describing an overstrained waistcoat button flying across a room with “impetuosity” or having “tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of a giant hollyhock,” I love when she tosses off comments about ordinary life. When she writes that “homecomings are so upheaving” or reveals she likes human nature best “all candied over with art,” she nurtures me. And she speaks always of her work – of the effort and the reward.

In 1924 she wrote that the core of her life “is this complete comfort” with her husband Leonard. She wrote, “The immense success of our life is, I think, that our treasure is hid away; or rather in such common things that nothing can touch it.”

Things did touch it, of course, but that doesn’t negate the hours of happiness. The dark side is always with us, but so is the light.

Like plants that want to grow, no matter what – broken buds blooming.

Time on My Wrist and on My Mind

I have a new watch. For more than 35 years my watch, an old-fashioned, small-faced watch with leather strap, a long ago anniversary present, accompanied everyday life and big events. I wore it during our second son’s birth, through multiple graduations of both sons, and at the firstborn’s wedding. So I was sad when after a few weeks of attempted repair, the local jeweler (who sent it away to an expert) declared it “kaput.”

Our holiday Anchorage trip had unexpected events I enjoyed – best was a late afternoon movie matinee with our older son – complete with tea and popcorn. Another was when my good-natured husband did his Christmas shopping (my watch). The amiable shopping together, walking familiar cold and windy downtown streets, was a gift itself.

This watch needn’t last as long as the old one. That statement makes not wasting any time imperative – and it goes quickly. At 40 Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to Carrington: “At my age, life I may say melts in the hand…I sit down, just arrange my thoughts, peep out of the window, turn over a page, and it’s bed time!” (I always wish VW had lived to negotiate and narrate her next decades.)

Time spent on “Her spirits rose…” keeps me from risking being haunted by a Mary Oliver quote the young writer sent: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power or time.”

Robert Grudin writes so eloquently about time, and to enrich time he encourages always trying “to make the present memorable.” He speaks of a “feasible kind of chronological magic – making present time slow its pace. For one must love life indeed, in all its miscellaneous fullness, in order to hanker that its smallnesses, its very dimples and indentations, be lengthened for one’s pleasure. To wish such a thing is, in effect, to begin to do it, and to do it is to enlarge life immeasurably.”

My new watch can keep good time while I try to slow it down.

Lentils – Happy and Amused

If you have a little free time, like I did in early January, and search for the source of a quote by the Roman naturalist Pliny, who credits lentils with the “ability to produce temperaments of mildness and moderation in those who consumed them,” you might stumble on “ la web de las legumbres.” Though the site is in English, Italian, and Spanish, it seems to be supported in this country by the Dry Bean Council. I never thought about a council for dry beans but it sounds good.

In my wandering state, I sidetracked to Catalan pinto beans and a chocolate surprise cake made with green peas and chickpeas. But I was seeking lentils. The Barcelona chef Néstor Luján writes of lentils – “a legume which has played a fundamental part in human food, especially in the West.” He describes the lentil as “the humble, nutritious and much maligned.” He names Egypt as the source of lentils, where it was said “On eating Egyptian lentils, a man becomes happy and amused.”

That seems good place to stop and retreat to an utterly simple recipe from “The Winter Vegetarian” (a cookbook I find more and more intriguing – it’s winter!). Because we’ve had terrific leeks in the CSA, I chose “Lentils and Leeks.” I rinsed and sliced the leeks half-inch thick with just a little of the green as Goldstein recommends, added them to sliced carrots in olive oil and sautéed over medium heat until the vegetables were lightly browned.

Then I added the rest of the ingredients: two and a half cups of water, one cup of green lentils, a tablespoon of tomato paste (I happened to have this open, but if I hadn’t, I think a small can of tomatoes would be fine), a teaspoon of sugar, and salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer for one hour, till lentils are tender and most liquid absorbed. Serve hot.

They really are good hot – comforting – no doubt that helps create the mildness of temperament in the diner on a cold, dark eve. Goldstein’s lentils left us happy and amused, being excellent the first night with leftover New Year black-eyed peas, and then welcome to me for several solo lunchtimes.

No matter their culinary strengths and versatility, lentils aren’t visually delightful – but my Christmas present apron is! And it also makes me happy.

January Weather

By way of talking about our wintry weather this January, in spite of snow falling so gently down I can hardly keep my eyes on my business (it’s like one shake of a snow globe or the WordPress snow), I’m thinking mostly about clothes.

In Anchorage, an annual exhibit of small self-portraits is titled “No Big Heads.” I liked to respond to that call-for-entries – my favorite submittal being “A Small Book of Self-Portraits With Big Head Cold,”  but the piece I have in mind dates from 1989. That winter we had six sub-zero weeks, six weeks of days when the temperature didn’t rise over 0° – taxing even for Alaskans.

The layers of clothes on the paper doll I made to mimic what I wore in those sub-zero weeks included outdoor gear, but I actually wear more indoor layers now. Washington houses in general are chillier than Anchorage, and our modern automatic thermostat assumes everyone here goes out to work – and heats middays only minimally.

This fall when I complained about the cold, the roofer told me I didn’t move around enough, and it’s true – I sit in my job. On windy days I abandon the window seat and sit at my desk in front of the computer, feet propped on my old sewing machine underneath.

Multiple layers of wool insulate my days – long underwear tops and bottoms, wool pants, and heavy sweater over lighter sweater. Wool socks, of course, but my feet would still be cold were it not for a suggestion, a happy style I adopted from my young friend in Anchorage.

When I visited in December I found her wearing a pair of chubby boots designated indoor boots – with warm fluffy lining and quiet soles – she called them her slippers. (Style dictates that her cohort of pre-teens wears them without socks.) So her mother kindly sent me a pair (they’re knock-offs and not extravagant). They’re knee high – you might laugh – but it’s a great winter pleasure to prop up those boots and get to work – no matter the weather. Bare toasty feet do feel extravagant when snow falls past my window.

We’ve had it all weather-wise this month: a sufficiency of rain and snow events, and, often, lashings of wind. But in the early morning we can always walk for outdoor time – and somehow the weather’s been perfect for the reflective month of January – true winter – as long as one is well clad – and shod!

Wandering Mind

The amaryllis or belladonna lily, the one I’ve been recording, is progeny of a bulb given to me nearly 30 years ago. A long time ago I gave my painter friend a daughter bulb, and she returned a granddaughter to bring here to Washington. Usually it blooms for the New Year, but skipped last year, so I was so glad to see the start of a bud.

With smaller flowers than the showy amaryllis we force for the holidays, these plants bloom the color of a Creamsicle. When the bud emerged, the only leaf extended from a smaller bulb rooted beside. Impossibly spindly at first, the stalk grew fatter and sturdier just in time to support the buds. And then they fell.

By depicting the amaryllis during my time off, I recognized I still wanted to tell what was going on. In his beautiful little book “The Art of Description: World into Word,” Mark Doty suggests there might be a problem of “life not having been really lived until it is narrated.” I surely missed the narrating.

In spite of enjoying the freedom to wander my mind, I also missed discovering in the way the poet William Stafford described: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought if he had not started to say them.”

I appreciated all comments and encouragements at the end of the year. You who show up to read provide what Brenda Ueland says someone who wants to write needs – ”…persons who, for some mysterious reason, leave you full of energy, feed you with ideas, or, more obscurely still, have the effect of filling you with self confidence and eagerness to write.” What a gift. Truly, my spirits rose.

In her third book “Prospect,” Anne Truitt explains the motivation to write this way: “Life is a lonely business. My impulse is to hold out my hand to readers. By recording my life as clearly as I can (while retaining my reticences) I offer them my companionship, a kind of friendship.”

It’s a happy thing to touch another in the process of trying to describe my place in the world. Including my mistakes. I shouldn’t have watered the amaryllis again so soon. I debated, and then pictured moist Kauai, with afternoon rain squalls – brief, but frequent and drenching. But my potted bulb had no leaves and no way to process extra water. I’ll do better with the second bud. And I’ll try hard with the second year also!

Thank you for reading – I’m glad to be back!