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Month: July, 2009

domestic calculus

once, a long time ago, i was in accelerated math. only i never remembered to open the text book at night. so it made it hard to keep up.

the smart boy who sat one up and over from me, bless him, he took to sliding his paper off to the edge of his desk, the side that bordered near mine. occasionally, in the middle of a test, he’d drop it. oops, slipped. so sorry, teach’.

having been raised with pleases and thank yous, white gloves, and a knee-jerk reaction to lurch for falling objects, i’d be the one who stirred from my test-taking to behold what had dropped, right there before my wondering, wandering eyes.

why, i’d scoop it right up, return those carefully calculated logarithms to their rightful owner, and along the way maybe catch a number or two.

saved, once again, by the smart boy with dropsies.

and so it seems once again, here i am, sitting firm in my life, and once again the math of the day hardly adds up.
i can’t for the life of me, these past many weeks, get the hours and minutes to add up the way that they should, that i sure wish they would.

in one column, you see, there’s the stuff that’s gotta get done: the train ride downtown, the piles of baseball-stained clothes, the milk that’s not in the fridge, the piano books sitting mostly untouched.

in the other, it seems, there’s the short list of satisfactions i can’t seem to get to: the farmer’s market, the chair in the summer porch, the picnic packed and hauled to the beach, the bedtime stories told to a boy who’s scrubbed and pink and not smelling like too long a soak in the pool.

there’s the stoop, just off the kitchen, where, all around, my garden is laying down roots, and the birds–whole flocks of ‘em, red-headed woodpeckers, nuthatches, finches, sparrows and cardinals, even a hummingbird–flit high and low, anointing the place, trying out a leaf or a branch, nibbling a berry or blossom.

sad thing is, i’m barely home to greet them, and thank them, for blessing my labors. for bringing their wings to my garden, for bringing my garden to life.

it pains me, i tell you, a dull throbbing pain in the heart, this domestic not-adding-up.

it was one thing, long long ago, to miss out on all of that calculus–just think of the nuclear reactors i’ll never invent–but it’s a whole nother emptiness when the math that escapes you is the bare-boned essence of why you’re alive in the first place.

by now, after all these meanders we’ve meandered together, you might be onto the notion that i am nothing if not a romantic. and a dyed-in-the-wool believer in all things make-believe, to boot.

so you won’t be surprised, won’t sputter and spew, if i let you in on my latest mathematical delusion: i find myself wishing, it’s true, that mine was a life with days that stretched for 48 hours.

maybe then i could wake before firstlight, tiptoe out to the barn, scoop the eggs, milk the cow, slip-slide the breakfast cakes into the oven. then, in my lacey-hemmed nightgown, i’d stroll barefoot through my cottage garden, pluck a rose here or there, strike up a morning’s reverie with one of my birds or a butterfly.

oh, i’d have time to read the paper, rouse my boys with cinnamon-and-butter clouds wafting from the oven. we’d all sit and share thoughts at the start of the day. then i’d go off to my typing room, tap out the words to a children’s book, write a newspaper story bursting with wisdom and truth. take time to stroll through the garden, stake a drooping vine, pluck a fat ripe tomato.

in my domestic equation, there’d be time to cook a slow dinner, read a late-afternoon book, pluck roses for the wobbly old table i made from a door.

the stars would flick on in the night sky and still we’d be gathered there at the table, plates emptied by then of the feast that i’d cooked all from scratch, from my organic garden.

i’d soak in a tub, and so would my muddy-kneed boy. then off to bed we would toddle, where we’d read and we’d dream and whisper our prayers goodnight.

and then, come the dawn, i’d be the first and only one up. and i’d start all over again.

the beauty of life, after all, in the end, is each blessed day we get that breath-taking chance to begin all over again.
even when it doesn’t add up. even when, for the life of us, the answer escapes us.

we’ve the grace and the gift, hallelujah, to try once again to borrow and carry those columns of hours, those joys and delights, and even the sorrows.

it’s a math that’s essential.

and some days i swear i just might rub that eraser down to a nub, trying to figure it out.

but i’m not giving up. i’ll not be stumped on this calculus of the domestic persuasion.

how do you struggle in the math dept.? what parts of your life, your day after day, don’t seem to add up? have you found new ways to borrow, add, subtract, multiply or divide that leave you a bit more fulfilled at the end of each season? do share your math tricks. we’re eager to learn here.

that picture up above, that’s my little one, sprinkling sugar and cinnamon on just-outa-the-oven cinnamon rolls, the kind from a tube, people, don’t get excited. i had no real picture of the madness that is my too-short day, so i went instead with an image of what it might be like on a good day. a little dreamin’s always a good thing.
here’s to a day that adds up just the way you’d wish for….

cottage industry


out the window, the one that’s cracked open just wide enough to let in this summer’s night, i hear the hush-hush lullaby of the gentle rain. every now and then, a rumble from far enough away.

the heavens are blessing a long day’s work.

my brand new garden, a cottage garden in the making, is drinking in what the clouds have to offer. and it is succulent, the libation that comes from on high, not from hoses.

my chockablock garden plan continues.

today we tackled the weedy jungle along the side of the house. a passageway that since we moved here was a place where, to get from one end to the other, i held my breath and ran. never knew what might reach out and grab you by the leg.

and the holes beside the house, the ones that seemed to tunnel down and underneath the floor of this little room where i type, i always figured they were big enough for baby skunks. or snakes.

then when i heard the rustling down beneath the floorboards, i’d freeze, tell my fingers not to move, don’t touch the keyboard. we’re being invaded, i would think. wait for the rustling to stop. then return to typing here in the room where the critters crawl below.


ah, but in my mind’s eye, for a gardener is nothing if not a fool who sees what is not there, i’ve always seen a swath of meadow. a plot for herbs. and rambling roses.

now mind you this is a space about the size of a narrow grocery aisle. and not much light if you add up all the hours that aren’t in shadow.

like i said: a gardener is a fool who sees what isn’t there. might never be.

but those of us who sink our hearts and souls into the earth, why we can make a whole vast woodland from just a clump or two of lilies of the valley. and one climbing rose might as well be munstead, the great walled garden of gertrude jekyll, england’s great gift to all of us who don big-brimmed hats, muddy gloves and soggy shoes to match.

i often think the trick to being a gardener is that we have lilliputian tendencies, can shrink down to sprite size, imagine ourselves no bigger than the lady bug i found today, crawling on an oakleaf hydrangea.

we get lost, some of us do, beneath the domed canopy of that one hydrangea leaf. we imagine setting up a hammock stretched from stem to stem of a shrub rose, a hammock that might be the size of a handkerchief tied with knots at the four corners, just big enough for our imaginary little self, the one that would get lost, if we let her, in the bleeding heart, the painted fern, the lenten rose.

i launched this day with big hopes. could barely sleep, waiting for first light to come, so i could finally toss back the covers, slip on my holey jeans, drive down to the city where my friend marguerite has her yard. that’s what she calls the quarter lot, behind the drive-thru mcdonald’s, where she stores her summer’s stash.

we meander through the packed aisles, climb over hoses, shove big pots out of the way, pick this and that, the makings of my cottage garden.

then we load up her flat bed truck, and drive north, back beyond the city limits, past the line she once said she could not cross, not without shots and passport. but now she’s made the trek twice, although she’s sworn me to secrecy on that. so do not spread the word.

we hacked and dug and cut. cleared the land, we did. heaved the old bluestone slabs, hauled out the roto-tiller, a fine machine if ever there was a lumbar-sparing invention.

wasn’t long after all the bumps and holes were straightened out, filled in, leveled, that marguerite starting plucking trees and shrubs the way a kid pulls colors from the crayola 64-pack.

wasn’t long till i had tears. and a big old lump in my throat. i saw roses right along my picket fence. and a flowering crab that will explode in deep dark pink, and fade to white, come april.

she even carved out a cove that some day will hold a bench. will be the place where i sit and dream. or whisper holy words.

there’s a lot of some day in my garden. a lot of hyphenation now. wide spaces in between.

you need faith the day you plant a garden. and the days after and after too.

you need to tamp down the urge to go out and raid a meadow. bring home the pretty things you dream of. the swaths of poetry to come.

i’ve made a pact with this plot of earth that’s mine. i will tend it, and poke at it for years and years to come. i will tiptoe through at nightfall and back again at dawn. i’ll sit on the stoop outside my kitchen door, sip minty waters, pay my garden mind.

it‘s only just begun today.

but i have seeded it with hope.

and it is listening.

i hear it now, gulping down the rain.

it’s late. i’m bone tired. time for this gardener to toddle off to bed. but a pause at the typing keys is a lovely way to end a day that started in the someday cottage garden.
what hopes have you seeded lately?

summer’s slumps

oh, not to worry. our session here today is not one in which i recline, spread out, upon a couch, regale you with a long and sorry tale of summer woes.

there shall be no tears today.

mais, non. this here’s an upright exhortation. we’re gathered near the stove, my friends. pulling up our cooking stools to peer into that deep dark pot, the one gurgling on my ancient burner, the one where the flame comes, depending on the day and temperament, in fits and starts and sputters.

the slump of which i type, the one for which my tummy frankly growls is not one of climatological dippings, nor a moody one either. not a pinch of depression to it, only baking soda, and corn starch, and cardamom just ground.
it all started in the name of my day job, you know the one where newsprint stains my cuffs, as i run and gather all the news, lay it out in tidy columns, toil in vain to keep the world supplied with fishwrap.

in one of life’s ironic wrinkles, i–me, the girl who loves her broccoli steamed sans fat in any form, who downs her popcorn by the bowl not the handful, who doesn’t know a hamhock from a rutabaga (they do look as if they might be distant cousins, do they not, what with all the lumps and bumps and discolorations?)–yes, i, am now among the scribes who write the cooking stories.

oh my.

(pause here for gulping, all of you who know me well enough to gulp in unison.)

i suppose the thinking goes that in a life’s work where you might be parachuted into, say, tehran, and expected to get to the bottom of the troubles there, well then why not point a simple kitchen waif like me in the direction of the cookstove and expect that, somehow, i will find my way back to where the sun shines.

and besides, i’ve always dreamed of being a big bosomed mama who wears her apron well.

and so it is i came to stumble on the slump.

a slump, one of my cookery books tells me, (and this is alan davidson we are quoting here, he who penned “the penguin companion to food” (the paperback edition of “the oxford companion to food”), a tome i have because a cooking friend labeled it indispensable and i’ll not dispense with the indispensable) is–are you ready?–well, then:

“a culinary term immortalized by louisa may alcott [be still our hearts here], author of little women, who gave to her home in concord, massachusetts, the name Apple Slump and recorded a recipe for the dish. this is a dish of cooked fruit with pieces of raised dough dropped on top, the whole being then further cooked. the reason for the name is thought to be that the preparation has no recognizable form and ‘slumps’ on the plate. it is served with cream. for related items, see pandowdy, cobbler.”

no recognizable form? no wonder it’s my culinary wonder.

inspired by miss louisa may, then, i set upon my slumping.

page 66 was the place to which i turned, for my assignment of the day, to test-drive a hot-off-the-presses cookbook, make sure it had no lumps, not even for a fool like me (bibliographic details down below, we’re slumping now and shan’t be stalled).

“stone fruit slump,” the crisp page promised. and so–tickled mostly by the name, i tell you–i inhaled deeply and tilted toward that slump.

oh, if only i’d had an orchard.

alas, i plucked my stone fruits at the grocery store. peaches, fuzzy, garnet red, the way the produce man, from way down south, once taught me how to pick ’em.

the darker, the sweeter, he told me in his mississippi patois.

made my mind wander, that produce whisper did, consider whether the deep dark cloaking of the sweetest peaches means they’re hiding from the bees and birds, trying to make like they’re just peach-tree leaves. not bright yellow orbs, streaked with sunset orange and red, shouting, come get me, i’m yours.

oh, never mind my brain that dillies and dallies on the road to anywhere. back to slumping.

once home, once those fruits were sweet enough to smell when waltzing by, i set to slicing, and then the kitchen alchemy.

the whole experiment, i tell you, was one of mixing potions, and giving way to courage. and isn’t that, after all, the pulsing heart of all true cooking?

i was working from a book, “rustic fruit desserts,” by cory schreiber and julie richardson, two pastry chefs who know their way around the baking nook, and the farmer’s market, too.

cory, the book jacket tells me, is a james beard award winner–best chef, pacific northwest. he opened wildwood restaurant in portland, oregon, back in the late 1990s, and now teaches cooking up where it rains and rains.

julie, it seems, has a small-batch bakery up that way, too, called Baker & Spice, where the line twines out the door, rain or shine, with folks queued up for her pastries, pies, pandowdies, crisps, cobblers, crumbles. and slumps, of course.

julie’s first sentence in the book is this: “i am not a fussy baker,” and thus our undying kinship was begun, hers and mine. from there on in, whatever julie told me, i was with her, bosom to bosom.

she told me to do this with my sliced and juicy crimson peaches: “rub the sugar, cornstarch and salt together in a small bowl, then add to the fruit and gently toss to coat.”

now i’ve never done this rubbing thing, but julie said so. and so i rubbed.

the magic started shortly thereafter. instead of simply juice and peach parts, i had thick-and-syrupy juicy peaches. on its way toward stew, i tell you. but not all sloshy and misshapen. don’t picture peach mush in my pot. why, i had picture-perfect peaches bobbing in some shiny semi-liquids.

not long after (the peaches and their rub sat for 15 minutes, surrendering their succulence, then i simmered the whole lot for a mere two minutes), i began the best passage of all: i was on my way to louisa’s dumplings. soft and doughy pillows, yes, that under lidded steam just rose and rose. and rose some more.

but that’s missing a step or four, so i’ll retrace my way: i whisked my flours (ubiquitous all-purpose and refined cake); sugar; those baking twins, powder & soda; salt, cinnamon, and freshly-ground cardamom (the magic bullet, there it is). next came butter, cold and cut to pea-sized pearls. buttermilk was poured, and all of it mixed till moistened through and through.

atop the swimming peaches in their syrup pond, i plopped eight rounds blobs of future dumplings. i cranked my reluctant flames, just enough mind you, and put on the lid.

i stood in wonder, yes i did, as the kitchen elves took over and, so help me, sprinkled magic powder.

with not a whisper nor a flicker of my finger, that dough did rise, accompanied by the song of peaches simmering and swimming down below the dumplings’ bloating bellies.

given the feeble constitution of my flames, it took me nearly twice the time that julie promised. but two-thirds of an hour later, i was lifting the lid, poking in a toothpick, and declaring this a miracle of unheralded proportion.

i had slumped, by golly.

and so can you. for what finer pursuit might a slow summer’s afternoon bring upon us, than reason to slice, to simmer, and in the end, to slump.

there is, i’d say, a satisfaction deep and lasting in the art of turning store fruits into a pot that’s sweet and risen somehow.

i think i’ve grasped an inkling of why it is some folk can’t keep away from what the kitchen brings: it’s a chamber, isn’t it, for those who’ve not outgrown–never will, really–the lo-and-behold prestidigitation of that chemistry set that once astounded you.

you make solids out of liquids and liquids out of solids. you follow along, just like the teacher tells you, and in the end, you’ve something wholly charmed to carry to the hungry hearts of those you love the very most.

that’s what i discovered cooking in my summer kitchen.

i promise to put up the whole recipe, start to finish. but now i’ve got to run. today’s meander is nothing deeper than the 5-quart cookpot that beheld my slump. but that’s what summer’s for, isn’t it? some days are purely for delight. and that’s what the slump was all about. what delights have you discovered in your summer kitchen?
do tell….
oh, p.s. i had a little tale in the chicago tribune this week, one of those pull-up-a-chair sorts of pieces. only now i can’t pull meanders from here to run there, so i had to write it on a workday. it’s about a sparrow that sang outside our bedroom window. only the fellow i sleep beside didn’t think much of that ol’ morning song. if you’d like to take a peek, click
here, the only way i can share those stories now.

any hour now…

it is, like so many of the lines we draw inside our lives, invisible, undetected from the outside. and yet, for years now, it has loomed, larger and larger. defined me, in many ways.

especially in these last two weeks, i’ve noticed.

if there is a lull in the whirl around me, there it creeps. the voice that whispers, “this is how it looked for him, the parting frames. these were his final days.”

and, now, it’s down to hours.

my papa is the one whose eyes i see the world through right now. especially as i look upon the ones i love so dearly. the ones whose face i study. whose voice, whose laugh, whose footsteps i could pick out of a crowd of hundreds of thousands. the ones whose rhythms, rise and fall, thrum within me.

my little one especially. the one who holds my hand still, as we walk to camp most mornings. the one who, as i tuck him into bed, lets it all spill out in whispers, stored up, saved for that blessed hour at the edge of day and night when the stirrings simmer over. he is young enough, baby enough, to still climb into my lap, to still reach out while getting water from the fridge, and wrap me in a squeeze, unannounced.

i’ve done the math. done it over and over, for years and years. and now it’s come.

my papa died when he was 52 and six months and eight days.

that’s how old i’ll be tomorrow.

and as the hour comes, so too does the drumbeat in my heart. i am, in some ways, coaxing it over the line. don’t give out now, i tell it. don’t take me now.

and as i say those words, i imagine he did too. never would have thought his time was up. shouldn’t have been, damn that it was.

it is the oddest slipping of my self into his self. as if the two of us have, for these shadowed days, blurred, become the oddest form of one. i cannot not see the world through the lens of what must have been his. cannot not count the days, the hours.

i’d think it odd–might be too shy to mention it–if i’d not found out that i am hardly alone.

but months ago, i wrote about how it is to become the age your parent was when he or she died. and by the hundreds, i got letters. i am not the first, nor the last, certainly not the only one who’s done the final calculation. who knows, to the hour, when the line is crossed.

when, God willing, my life’s hours extend beyond the hours that were his.

and so there is a holiness like no other draped across these days. today especially, perhaps. the day ticking toward the last.

if you were told you’d one day left to live, how would you live it?

a cocktail party question, perhaps.

except when it’s not.

and i’d think this might be the closest i could come to taking a pass at that question in real time.

and so, this holy blessed day, i am entering into the hours as if a bride. i am paying supreme attention.

i’ve been in the garden, squished my toes in mud, as the hose rained down. as my delphinium and roses drank their morning’s rejuvenation.

i watched the sun play peek-a-boo with clouds.

i cuddled with the cat.

i let my little one sleep in. no camp today.

today, he and i are playing, the way it should always be. except most days it can’t be. we don’t let it be. most days we let life get in the way of living.

we are holding hands today. walking down the street to a place where the screen door slaps, and the kitchen cloud of frying bacon and coffee perked and pancakes sizzling on the grill wafts out onto the sidewalk.

we aren’t walking by today. we are asking for a table for two, please. three, if his big brother will join us. will make a holy celebration of this day.

they’ll not know why it is their mama seems full to bursting all day long. they’ll not hear the unspooling dialogue inside, the vespers of deep thanksgiving, the holy pleas and promises.

they’ll not know how very merged is the consciousness of their mama and their grandpa geno, as she and he criss-cross the holy line of what was his, and what is hers. and she holds up his final hours, once again, in a sacramental lifting, one last time, of a holiness that for so long has defined her.

her papa’s life cut short. too short. and a long-held prayer that she’d do right by whatever hours came to her.
dear God, be with us all. this most holy day, and every other.

an odd sort of meandering today, perhaps. more like the whispering of my soul. in white-on-black. like trying to catch a cut-glass rainbow, splattered on the wall. trying to wrap in words this inescapable line in the landscape of my soul. it’s an odd, sad mix of fear and hope, of chest-expanding promise and crushing loss. i’ve no choice, really, but to go on a prayer, and plan on being here tomorrow. not just for me, but, especially, for that little one i so love, who still so deeply needs me. as did my brothers need their papa, as did my mother. as did i.
how would you spend your hours if you had some inkling they might be among your last?

fat envelope

the letters tumbled out the other day, years and years of history, pages from a childhood, not yet examined, spilling, pooling, on the kitchen counter.

they’d arrived in a fat envelope, addressed to me.

and what spilled out was from me, penned by me, over years and years. in orange pen, and loopy l’s and i’s and p’s, in hearts drawn upon page after page, on gingham-checked cards, and flower-petaled stationery, and plain old legal paper, too, yellow, lined, official.

i wrote, it seems, on whatever surface was put before me. didn’t matter much. the voice was, at its heart, the same; growing older though with every page, every “dear grandma and grandpa,” every “love, barbie.”

i grew up, it seems, writing letters, writing those letters. and because my uncle’s moving soon, he started sifting through old boxes, boxes he’d acquired when my grandma died. these had been, he tells me, among her treasures, and he thought they best belonged to me.

so he addressed and mailed them back, tucked in a few other pages besides.

and i of course immersed myself in a slow course of who i was, letter to letter, year after year.

a stash of old letters, surely, is a mirror into the soul. especially, intriguingly, when the soul we see and study is the one we call our own.

i saw my little self–my 1969 self–come tumbling from that stack. i read, between the lines, how hard i tried to be so good, so very very good. i read, too, that i’d just begun a sewing class, that my little brother had the flu, and that we’d just gotten, the day before, a new angora kitten.

i saw my 1975 self, a year that was so hard for me, a year i will spend my life trying to understand. and there, a gift from my grandmother, my long-dead grandmother, my grandmother i remember more as harsh than tender, i see she too understood that year was one i might some day choose to re-examine. so she saved for me more letters from that year than any other year.

because, of course, when you’re a writer, letters are the clearest snapshots of your soul. so i held them to the light.

i read those words and cried. i felt the tenderness of a grandma who’d saved my words. a grandma who might, too, have been worried that year. who, for some reason, held onto those letters, the letters of ’75.

but the piece of paper that caught my soul the most, that held me, drew me deep and long, was a radio script from 1952. from WCPO in cincinnati.

“bob otto’s broadcast,” it says up top, on the yellowed, typed, page.

6 p.m., may 31st. that’s the day, the paper tells me, my great-grandma died.

her name was kate. i’ve always heard her referred to as “laughing kate.”

bob otto writes, on the evening of her death, in a broadcast heard all around the seven hills of cincinnati, that if he had to pick anyone who, in his “childhood, boyhood and adolescence, stood in second place” behind his own “very best of mothers,” it would be my great-grandma kate.

he goes on to recall her kitchen, most of all, and her cakes, “luscious apple, peach and cinnamon cakes.”

he writes how so many kids–little kids who grew to be teenagers–congregated, through all the years, in her kitchen.

“maybe,” he writes, “we congregated there because we grew to love her as well as her baking, though i don’t think in those years we ever dared place affection for a human above that of an aromatic cinnamon cake.”

in the last paragraph of this grown man’s tribute to a now-gone mother figure, to the great-grandma i never knew, but suddenly had such a sense of, such a pull toward, bob otto writes:

“today, one of the many boys she always attracted, realizes that essentially the hold she had on us after all might not have been her magic in the kitchen.

“we couldn’t have put it in words then,” he writes, “but i believe we can say as men that what we liked most about [her] was that she was a genuinely good mother and an all-around great lady.”

i was struck, still am, by that picture of my great-grandma kate and all those cakes and all those kids, crowded ’round her table.

struck by the notion of how she–someone else’s mother–pulled growing, searching souls ‘round her ample bosom. how she fed them, so much more than apple, peach and spice. how sweet her kitchen must have felt. how safe.

i’m struck too that upon her death she was remembered in a broadcast not for her heroics, but for her simple, profound humanity and her deep maternal streak.

i felt sad, a bit, as i always have, that i’d not known a minute of her goodness.

but over and over and over this soulful week, i’ve felt richer than before that i got a glimpse of my great-grandma kate huddled in her kitchen.

and i’ve thought long and hard about the simple gift of making cakes, and drawing hungry searching souls to your table.

not for what you slice so much as what you serve in ample helpings.

dear God, i whispered more than twice or thrice, stir in me, the very gifts you stirred in grandma kate. and bless her soul with ever-lasting peace.

beloved chair people, happy independence day. today’s my half birthday. today’s the day the sky explodes in starry lights and pyrotechnics. today is red white and blue, and very much the essence of summer. i’ve been pulled a hundred different ways here this morning, so it took a while to pound this out.
but here it is.
and here’s my question: have you stumbled, through a letter or a well-worn snapshot, onto some soul from your past, someone to whom you are tied through genes and heart, and whom you learned from long long after that someone was no longer?
do tell….
and, p.s., thank you thank you uncle david for taking the time to bundle up those letters, and the lessons they contained. i am forever grateful. love, bam