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Key in jar

My favorite jar, with key to grandma’s house.

A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes. – Simone de Beauvoir

The local news had a story recently about a man in Bessemer City, North Carolina, who loved Duke’s mayonnaise and had eaten nothing but Duke’s for his entire life. He was such a fan that he wanted his mortal remains laid to rest in a Duke’s mayonnaise jar. That would not be newsworthy in and of itself, but the man’s daughter contacted the C. F. Sauer Company and they got to work and prepared two special jars for him. They even printed his name across the little red banner that graces the front of the jar. (On the jars that actually contain mayonnaise, the banner reads, “Smooth and creamy.” I think it’s just as well they decided to replace that with his name.)

I am mocked in my family for liking to put things in jars (as I did last Easter), so of course I was intrigued by this whole idea and began to think seriously about what sort of jar I would like to be buried in. There isn’t any one particular jarred food that I love so much that it would be the obvious candidate, so on my last trip to Food Lion I went up and down the aisles, paying particular attention to anything that was in a glass jar.

Marinated artichokes? No. Sauerkraut? Certainly not. Peanut butter? Well…no. Jelly? That’s a possibility, especially a name brand that includes the words “Naturally sweet” on the label. I do think that it needs to be a name-brand item; nothing against Food Lion, but who wants to be buried in an off-brand jar, especially if it’s called something like Valu-Time?

The Rolls Royce of jelly jars is the white glass crock that holds Dundee Orange Marmalade. But the text is painted onto the jar, and would not be so easy to revise. The Braswell’s Fig Preserves jar is attractive with its gold-colored lid and forest-green and white label. But the prominent location of their slogan, “Full of Tender Figs,” put me off.

The condiment aisle had several options, including mustard (“coarse ground” would be appropriate), salsa, chutneys, barbecue sauce, and olives. If your name happened to be Olive, you could just add the word “remains” beneath “Olives” and you’d be all set. Yes, it lacks the possessive apostrophe, but these days nobody seems to care about punctuation, anyway.

I glanced at the mayonnaise jars, but really had no interest in any of them. I did note that it was a good thing the gentleman in Bessemer City had preferred Duke’s, since the other popular brand down here is called Hellman’s. Don’t want to spend all of eternity in Hellman’s, even though they have a nice tagline: “Bring out the best.”

Then there were the pickles. This is rich territory. Almost anyone could be buried in a pickle jar and still retain his or her unique personality. I would probably choose bread-and-butter pickles, or sweet pickle relish. Yes, sweet pickle relish has a pleasant, positive tone.

I came to a full stop in front of the varieties of spicy pickled products offered by Sims Foods: Wickles. “Wickles” could become “Vickles” on a bespoke jar from Sims Foods—assuming they are as accommodating as C. F. Sauer—and the slogan “wickedly delicious” has strong appeal.

Moving on. Besides the sauerkraut and marinated artichokes, the vegetable aisle offered several brands of mushrooms in jars, chicken gravy, and Aunt Nellie’s Pickled Beets. I wouldn’t want someone else’s name featured so prominently on my jar, which is why I wasn’t interested in the Newman’s Own salsa or marinara. In fact, none of the spaghetti sauces seemed right: Ragu, Prego, Hunt’s. Classico is the only one I would even consider, if I had no other choice.

Like the jams and jellies, the ice cream toppings are tempting—hot fudge, caramel, walnut, butterscotch. Who wouldn’t be happy in one of those?

Among the breakfast foods, I found Grandma’s Molasses, which certainly sounds like me, as the label declares it to be many of the things that I am: Natural, sweet, pure, never bitter, original, unsulphured. Maybe they would print a custom label for my special jar, incorporating a photo of me and changing the name to “Vicki’s Ol’ Ashes.”

Tiny Houses

Bird house found near Lake Tillery, 2014.

Found bird house, 2014.

I thought I saw a cardinal at the bird feeder this morning, but it was only the taillight of my car, which is parked beyond the bird feeders under the open section between the stables. Viewed from the kitchen table, the taillight appears as a smudge of red between the gaps of the metal grid that protects the birdseed (theoretically) from squirrels.

I like to watch birds, which is why we have multiple bird feeders. Lately we’ve had cardinals, juncos, white-throated sparrows, and tufted titmice. I’ve seen a couple of blue jays and a goldfinch, but they are less regular.

We’re branching out to provide housing for the birds of Redbud Lane, too. Ernesto has hung the small terracotta birdhouse that a previous owner had left behind at his house in Florida, and my dad recently made two cedar bluebird houses for us. We attached one to a very tall stump in what used to be the corral, and the other is on top of a fence post at the back of our property. I can see that one from the kitchen table, too, through the back French doors.

The birdhouse at the top of this post belongs to my sister. She saw it in the woods, wrecked, across the road from her little red lake cottage. She walked by a couple of times, wondering about it. Was it a birdhouse? No, it seemed too large. Maybe it was what was left of a salt lick to attract deer. Finally she could stand it no longer; she made a determined plunge into the underbrush and discovered that it was in fact a birdhouse. More importantly, it was her birdhouse, made specially to look like the red cottage. It’s under repair now, and I think she plans to display it on the front porch, although our dad warned her that unless she stops up the front-door hole, a bird will certainly nest in it.

Birds are like that, and I don’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to live in a sweet little dry house with a stone foundation (it’s real stone!) and a chimney, also real stone but in need of restoration?  It provides at least the illusion of coziness and security.

I wonder if it’s that illusion that gives tiny houses, whether they are for birds or toads or fairies, their considerable charm. When I told my friend Kathy about the red cottage birdhouse, she told me about the replica of her friend’s home in Grimsay, Scotland. She saw it in the back yard, and took the photo below. The teeny house is so dear that you just want to squat down and peek inside to see what’s going on. It could only be something nice: a little fire roaring on the tiny hearth, a thimble-sized loaf of bread cooling on the table.

Grimsay, Scotland:  A tiny house.  Photo by Kathy Wilson.

Grimsay, Scotland: A tiny house. Photo by Kathy Wilson.

Full-sized houses, of course, aren’t always cozy and safe. In Florida, the danger of hurricane, tornado, flood, fire, and sinkhole made life uncertain. In Missouri we were threatened by tornado, flood, and earthquake. I remember being told by my insurance agent, the day after a tremor sent one of our office chairs rolling across the wood floor in the middle of the night, that no, we were not covered for earthquake damage. Here on Redbud Lane we have ice storms and the possibility of falling sweet gum trees. Sweet gum trees are tall.

Speaking of trees, it’s even possible for Christmas lights to ignite a very dry tree, which surely must be the saddest form of home destruction possible.  

The simple passage of time brings houses down, too. When I was in middle school we found fragments from a vanished household in the front yard of our newly constructed house on the farm. Vintage marbles, bits of broken pottery, bottles, a clay pipe with a hole in the bottom, bricks. It was hard to tell if this was a homesite or a long-buried trash pile, but either way it offered a glimpse into the domestic habits of a family that had lived on the very ground that we considered ours.

There’s another homesite on the farm property, a spot in the woods where daffodils still bloom in the spring and periwinkle blooms all summer. A nearby tumble of rocks suggests an old chimney, long-ago crumbled as the birdhouse chimney was beginning to crumble when my sister rescued it. My mom tells me that the lady who grew up there came, many years back, and took some of the daffodil bulbs for planting in her yard. I want to dig some up this year and bring them to Redbud Lane, where we have recently planted an ancestor of my grandparents’ fig tree. I hope the fig tree lives and produces fruit, and that it’s enough fruit for us and the birds to share.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. What I do know is that I’ve been picking at a snarl of ideas about houses (tiny and not, for birds and people), hospitality, home, and connections. In the middle of picking at that knot, a piece about hospitality by Henri Nouwen landed in my inbox. Nouwen believed that by making our own small places comfortable and welcoming to everyone, we can change the world.

Which took me, via odd channels, to a poem by Judy Chicago, who believes the same thing:

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again. 

Perhaps bird houses and tiny houses are the first step.

The Woodcarver

Trees at dusk

A story from Chuang Tzu.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

When educator Parker Palmer shares this story in his book A Hidden WholenessThe Journey Toward an Undivided Life, he points out the “sheer chutzpah of the woodcarver’s words to the Prince,” adding:

It is as if your boss asked how you managed to do so well with the assignment she gave you, and you replied, ‘Well, frankly, I had to forget that you and this organization even exist!”

Which is, of course, true. When we are attuned to the expectation of the boss or the corporate culture rather than to the soul’s imperatives, we cannot cocreate anything of truth and beauty.

Palmer goes even further and says that, when Khing declares that there would be no bell stand without the particular tree that he had found, he is pointing out that the idea that we can simply take raw materials and force them into something of value is false.

Like every good gardener, potter, teacher, and parent, [Khing] understands that the ‘other’ with which we work is never mere raw material to be formed into any shape we choose. Every ‘other’ we work with has its own nature, its own limits and potentials, with which we must learn to cocreate if we hope to get real results. Good work is relational, and its outcomes depend on what we are able to evoke from each other.

We should probably begin to reconsider much of the work that is considered perfectly normal in today’s world. Too much of our work relies on the twisting of wood, water, minerals, and even human beings into unnatural shapes for questionable ends.

Joyously Homeward

Trees (2)

It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when [Mole] slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him…. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.

from “The Wild Wood,” The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Now that I’m back home in North Carolina, my daily commute is for the most part a solitary drive through the country, past open fields and subrural clusters of homes, across small old bridges over gentle creeks. I count four country churches; an abandoned store with a tree growing inside, visible through the uncracked front window; a goat farm; a llama farm. All of this—road, meadow, churchyard, farm—is stitched together by patches and borders of tall gray-boned trees, whose upper branches catch the last clear light in the late afternoon sky. I love those trees. Seeing them makes me feel like Mole as he prepares to enter the Wild Wood.

I feel a lot like Mole, in general.

At the very beginning of The Wind in the Willows, Mole leaves his home because he’s anxious to see the sunshine, to breathe fresh air, and–let’s be honest–to ditch the spring-cleaning. But one cold winter night he feels the pull of home again:

It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal…. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had captured it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way!

– from “Dulce Domum,” The Wind in the Willows

When I lived in Florida, I would visit North Carolina, but at some point I always had to leave and return to my house in Jacksonville Beach. It was about a 9-hour drive, mostly on interstate 95. From the moment I passed South of the Border, I began to feel heartsick. (Of course, if you’re familiar with South of the Border, you will understand that there were sound reasons for feeling ill.) The closer I got to Florida, the heavier my heart became. I knew I wasn’t really going home. Almost every time I made that trip back, I had the feeling that I might as well take any exit, at any point of the trip. I would just go ahead and exit, I thought, and drive into a neighborhood and walk into the first house with an unlocked front door. It would be not so very different, after all, from continuing on to the unlighted coquina house in Jax Beach, and it would have the advantage of making my trip shorter. (And wouldn’t the residents of that unlocked house be surprised? And pleased!)

Once I got to the coquina house, I soon got over my homesickness and settled back into my routine, and was comfortable and, after a day or two, happy. But it wasn’t a place I yearned to be, nor did I ever feel pulled toward it.

So it’s very nice to be back in North Carolina.

Now, as I drive home from work, I cross the bridges and pass the goats and avoid hitting deer and smell the woodsmoke from someone’s chimney and I feel warmed by that fire, cheered by the lights in the windows that I pass as I get closer to Redbud Lane. It’s not just that I feel pulled back to the little brick house where Ernesto is waiting and the lights are on.

It’s because, even before I get to the house, I know that I am already home.

//

Where is home, for you?

ImageIt has been a longish time since I produced a tract. The original piece, which explains the reason for the series, is here. Today’s tract is for those of us who have perhaps waited a bit late in the day to rustle up a Christmas gift or two and are feeling a tad desperate, but it is also aimed at those smug persons who have completed their Christmas shopping and are sitting back with upper lip curled at everyone who has not. Because shopping has very little beauty in it, whereas a homemade gift is always merry and bright.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #3:  Homemade Christmas Gifts

Chances are, if you are participating in the holidays to any extent, you have already made cookies for the office, or the traditional family fruitcake. The treats that you make each year would be a perfect gift for someone, assuming that you know that person’s food allergies and tolerations.

If you don’t have your own recipe to share, here is a simple recipe for homemade fudge. The list of ingredients is short, the amount of time required is minimal, but the result is a wonderfully heavy tin of delicious chocolate.

One 12-ounce package (2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips

One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1-1/4 cup chopped nuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the chocolate chips and the sweetened condensed milk in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 1 minute. Stir, and if it is still not smooth give it another 30 seconds and stir harder this time, like you really mean it. If you had stirred vigorously after the first minute you would have been fine. Stir in the vanilla and nuts and glop it into a wax paper- or parchment-lined 13 X 9 pan (or a 9 X 9 pan, for slightly taller fudge). Leave the ends of the paper hanging over two of the sides to use as handles when lifting the fudge out later. I also like to put a piece of parchment or waxed paper on top and press it down to smooth it out before placing the pan in the refrigerator to chill. Once it’s firm, use those nifty handles to lift out the block of fudge, peel off the top paper if you used it, and cut the fudge into reasonable portions and package as desired.

To make Rocky Road Fudge, follow the recipe above, using walnuts and adding three cups of mini marshmallows. I also made a batch using dark chocolate chips with chopped dried cranberries (about half a cup) and 1 cup of pistachios. I made some of that last night, and it is good and rich in antioxidants.

I did say that the amount of time to make the fudge is minimal, but be warned that the clean-up is sticky. You will certainly have to wash the can opener. Why doesn’t condensed milk come in a pop-top can?

If you are unwilling to add to the caloric load of the season with a gift of food, then I have another idea for a homemade gift:  Write a letter to your gift recipient. The power of  written communication is mighty. If you need a recipe for your letter, here is a simple one addressed to Joe. Please change “Joe” to the name of your recipient.

            Salutation:  Dear Joe

            Paragraph 1:  Wish Joe a happy holiday season.

            Paragraph 2:  Tell Joe that you are grateful to know him, and give at least one reason why.

            Paragraph 3: Recall a memory that you share with Joe, and why you recall that memory

            with fondness.

            Paragraph 4: Express your desire to experience more happy times with Joe in the new year.

            Closing:  Sign your name.

It isn’t difficult, and it is a great deal less sticky than making fudge or even cookies. Don’t worry about perfection in spelling or punctuation, because perfection is not the goal. I made a batch of Rocky Road last night, and realized as I was cutting it this morning that I had forgotten to add the vanilla. But it doesn’t really matter. I sampled it, and it tasted delicious.

That’s the magic of Christmas. Our gift offerings, even when they are flawed, are valuable.

Merry Christmas!

Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (Danish, 1857 -1942): Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

The writing process is often a matter of piecing together the interesting flotsam and jetsam that twinkles past in the normal flow of life. What with painting and moving the household to Redbud Lane and preparing for Christmas and trying to find the belt that goes with my brown dress I have had no time for the piecing process, so this is a collection of various items that have floated past in recent weeks, unretouched. It’s not really a piece of writing, it’s more like a glimpse inside my mental cabinet of curiosities.

Designer Castoffs

NPR had a story this week about how clothing donated to Goodwill in America may end up in a bale of clothing shipped to Africa. Having just dumped a load at Goodwill myself, I can certainly understand how that would be necessary; there is no possible way that, with all the good will in the world, any organization could actually process and resell all the crap that gets dumped on their doorstep. Most times I’m ashamed to accept a receipt for what I donate.

Once these bales of truly terrible clothing arrive in Africa, a whole new economy springs up around them. Some of the clothing is sold as-is, but many more pieces are salvaged to create new garments. Plus-size t-shirts are generally too large for most African people, so the shirt will be recut to a smaller size. But the restyle doesn’t end there—the t-shirt may also get colorful new sleeves from a different shirt, or a contrasting collar for visual interest. The result is an original handcrafted design. I think that’s wonderful. You can read about it yourself here.

Reading Trees

I read about a xylothèque in a book called Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama. I’ve only gotten as far as page 175 (401 pages to go, not counting notes) but the book is a marvel. Schama captures the magic of forests and their importance to all of us who live, if we are fortunate, among their leaves. The xylothèque was, if I have understood correctly, invented during the German enlightenment. It is literally a library of wood, a way of chronicling the trees of the forest. Each book about a particular tree is made from the tree itself. Similar to those faux leather-bound boxes for hiding valuables, when you open one of these books you find a hollow cavity for stashing things. A volume in the xylothèque about an oak, for example, would have a cover fashioned from slabs of oak bark, and the hollow inside would hold oak leaves, acorns, and information about the oak tree and the stages of its long life. I love this idea.

I wish that the trees at Redbud Lane came with doors on their trunks that I could open to find similar information. Then I would know if the redbuds need to be trimmed and, if they do, should it be done in spring or fall? We have hickory trees, too, and I am certain that there must be secrets about how to harvest the nuts and when to gather them and how to thwart the squirrels. Those would be wonderful secrets to have.

Speaking of trees, isn’t the painting at the top of this post, Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest, wonderful? I am grateful to Tail Feather for that one, by way of Parabola. Here are some of our own trees, mostly not suitable for Christmas (although that plump little fir tree on the left has possibilities). Isn’t the light in the woods wonderful (or can’t you tell from where you are)?

Trees at Redbud Farm

Trees at Redbud Lane (October)

Things Truman Capote Said

Truman Capote said a lot, and I enjoy almost all of it. Here are two particularly nice quotes that I stumbled across recently.

The wind is us—it gathers and remembers all our voices, then sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields.

Capote also said this at some point, though I’m not sure where or when: “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.”

I wish I’d said that.

Feasting the Heart

Thanks to a recent book sale at the local public library, I acquired a copy of Feasting the Heart: Fifty-two Commentaries for the Air by Reynolds Price (2000, Scribner). These are short essays on a wide variety of subjects, written by Price for presentation on National Public Radio. Over time, I may end up posting more of them, because they are wonderful. For now, here’s two good-sized chunks from one about writing: “The Ghost-writer in the Cellar.”

The novelist Graham Greene said that, if he reached an impasse in writing a story, he’d read the troublesome passage just before bed. Then he’d rise in the morning to find that, almost invariably, “the ghost-writer in the cellar” had solved the problem while he slept. Most writers I know have similar strategies for passive reliance on their mind’s dark compartments. So do most people whose work flows primarily from their minds—physicists and mathematicians, architects and choreographers, even (I’m sure) great fireworks artists and the CIA’s most uncanny code-busters.

Yet the vast resource of our unconscious mind and the techniques for tapping its wellsprings are almost never taught to students in any discipline known to me. In my own case—in the early 1960, as a fiction writer ten years after college—I was still stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement: why could I write fluently on certain days, then go appallingly dry for weeks?

For a start, not one of my excellent teachers had so much as mentioned the urgency of learning two things:

     –first, that creative thought… is conceived in the human mind below the level of our awareness and,

     –second, that the mind resides in an organ called the brain, which is (like all our organs) a piece of meat with its own rules and needs of nutrition and rest, stimulus and respect.

I was well into my thirties before I began to understand that my unconscious mind would—to an amazing extent—compose and deliver my novels, poems, plays, and essays if I bothered to give it sane amounts of good food and sleep, sane chemical and emotional nourishment, and then made myself available—six mornings a week—at a quiet desk with the phone turned off and all distractions, short of falling meteors, cancelled for the hours it took me to transcribe my mind’s ongoing work. It has hardly failed me since, though I grant that a reader who dislikes my work may feel I take dictation from a fool.

Price goes on to say that when he is between periods of productive writing, he lives a quiet life of rest—something that the more industrious might disparage as hanging out, or slacking off.

I’d accept those descriptions, though I might amend them to hanging around. My bet, my risk, is that what I’m doing is quietly hanging my resting body round a deep spring-fed lake that, since it has proved so trusty in the past, may now be renewing itself beyond my reach. The main hope of course is that soon I’ll catch sight of some craft rising, breaking the surface with its own strange fittings and a crew of imagined hands as real as my friends and enemies—a craft I can manage to board and steer.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing—subconsciously—when I hang out at the family pond. It’s a good place to slack off and wait for a ghost-ship to rise. And perhaps the reason why I’m stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement instead of boarding these ghost-ships is because I’m not getting enough good, restorative sleep to clear out all the accumulated brain-gunk. Will try to get a solid 9 hours tonight and see what happens…. 

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