Wednesday, August 13, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Packing, Again

How many times in your life have you moved?

I've moved 11 times in my life. Packing for each of them grew progressively more difficult, as I moved from being a child whose parents did the packing to being a college student who had very little stuff (at one point, I could move using just my VW Bug), to an adult with a whole house full of things. And those things that I acquired are all inevitably attached to some memory that keeps them in place.

It isn't me packing this time, though. It's my daughter Abby who will move into her student apartment on Friday morning. This is her first apartment (last year was a dorm room), and it feels odd to be on the sidelines waiting to be asked for help. I'm trying to be quiet, to be out of the way as she organizes what amounts to her life at this moment. But I'm certainly reminiscing about my own transitions.

The first apartment I lived in without my parents was a two-bedroom garden level in St. Paul. I had a roommate, my friend Margie with whom I went to high school. We shared our apartment with hundreds of box elder bugs who tried to move inside as the weather got colder. I learned that living alone was something I needed to experience and that if I had a roommate, I should probably get together with someone whose habits might be more like my own. Margie and I remained friends, which is saying something, but we only lived together for a few months. When I got my own place, it was a very tiny efficiency apartment across the street from the one Margie and I shared. Luckily, there was no box elder tree outside the window of that place. But there were silverfish. Yeesh.

Sometimes, I compare that efficiency apartment to this whole house that I share with my husband. I don't miss the bugs or the colorless decor, but I do miss the freedom that comes from having very few possessions. While it's inconvenient to not own a washer and dryer, or a television, just starting out pushes us to consider what we absolutely have to have in a very different way than when we have the resources to acquire more.

This, of course, is the whole point of the tiny house movement. What do we really need? What is superfluous? What can we share with our community?

But, back to Abby. She seems excited about her move. She has acquired dishes and cookware, bedding and towels. She will leave things here, books and movies from her childhood that have little purpose on campus. But she will take a few that are precious or comforting. We will keep her place here, waiting until she decides where home is going to be after college.

And I will consider just what I need to hang onto as well. A long marriage, parenthood, friendships and jobs - all these have entered into the equation of what I've acquired and what I've let go. But, as I watch Abby get ready to leave again, I am reminded that I've acquired more than I can use right now. More than I need.

A purge is in order. As I clear out old belongings, donate things to people who will actually use them, perhaps my thoughts will move toward the calm that comes with space.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Canning Lessons

This week, I've been trying my damnedest to practice being in the moment, being grateful, and using what I have. Oh, so Zen-like. August has this effect on me, with its reminder that summer is waning and the light is shifting and the garden is giving up its produce for anyone who's paying attention.

I've spent a fair amount of time these past few months not just gardening, but reading about food production, health, and pesticides, and agricultural policies made interesting by people like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. I've thought about what it means to grow our own food and preserve it for the winter months ahead. Are we using what this place offers to the best of our abilities and in ways that are kind to the environment?

Anyone who has paid attention to the idea of sustainability asks themselves that question over and over. In my case, it sometimes gets phrased as, "Do I really need to go through the Taco Bell drive-thru when I have a fresh tomato from my garden that will make a perfectly good sandwich?"

Sometimes sustainability questions are pretty simple.

Anyway, yesterday, I took finally took my own garden's produce and learned to can. I come from a family who didn't grow food or preserve it while I was growing up, although I was surprised to recently learn that my mother canned food before I was born. (Really? My mom occasionally burned Totino's Pizza on Saturday nights because she just plain didn't want to stand in the kitchen long enough to watch it in the oven. She really preferred going out.) It's no surprise to me that I don't know how to do a lot of things related to growing and preserving food or that I've come to this so late in my life.

But at least I got here. And I'm growing cucumbers that are the most prolific things I've ever seen that aren't rabbits.

So I started my own canning lessons with the cucumbers. Yesterday, I canned my first pickles. I followed advice I had heard that the best pickles are made from cucumbers picked that day, so off I went in the morning and gathered these:

Then I set about slicing them. One of the things I love about cooking in general is the slicing of things, how the food feels, how it smells, the beauty of the insides of vegetables and fruits. Cucumbers have beautiful insides.

Once I had the cucumbers and some onions and garlic ready, I followed my recipe's instructions to add the pickling salt, cover everything with cracked ice, and leave it all in the fridge for several hours.

During the time the cucumbers were sitting in the fridge, I sterilized jars and lids and re-read the canning instructions again. I was a little apprehensive about making a mistake and creating a jar full of something that would make someone else sick. But a former poetry editor ought to be able to pay enough attention to details that nothing gets missed, right?

This is the thing about canning and cooking in general - multitasking is a bad idea. Trying to do something else at the same time makes room for huge mistakes that render whatever food is being prepared inedible. So, my lessons yesterday were not just for the canning process, but for letting everything else I could be doing go. 

Then I did hit a point where all I had to do was wait for the cucumbers' fridge time to be up, so that was when I did something else. I wrote. And, because I was already in a state of mind where I was very much thinking about that which was right in front of me, the poem I worked on came rolling out of my pen (no computer in the kitchen where I was staying put) in a way that just worked. There is now a draft ready to be revised and sent somewhere. I haven't had that kind of luck all summer as I've dashed from one thing to the next, even though the things I dashed to were summery kinds of things.

It took a day of canning to slow myself down to the sort of pace that welcomed creative work completely.

The pickles turned out pretty well, too. I'll be thinking of August every time I open one of these jars.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Traveling Light

On Monday, my daughter Abby and I packed one backpack each and got on a Chicago-bound plane. We booked a room at the Travelodge on Harrison Street, walking distance from everything we longed to see. We left behind our computers, dress clothes, cameras, to-do lists, and anything that wouldn't fit under an airplane seat. It was all last-minute because we waited until Abby had four days in a row off work.

So here we are until tomorrow, wandering around our favorite Windy City with very little to weigh us down. I'm typing this on my iPhone, which is also  doubling as my camera and that's quite a concession for a writer who loves to shoot photos.

But this lack of stuff has been wonderful. We so seldom travel this lightly, thinking more about what we absolutely have to have with us than what we can do without. 

Dropping all the stuff we usually carry makes movement a whole lot easier. 

I leave you with this morning's view from our room.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Space, Inner not Outer

This week brings the gift of perfect summer days, a trip to the farmer's market, two baseball games, a visit from an old high school friend, a reunion. It also brings the general life stuff of parenting an emerging adult, navigating differences of opinion, feeling the sadness that is a natural part of that process. It brings the comfort of a long-term marriage as a foundation for the rest of it. And all of these things meld into a very big quilt of a life.

That said, I'm feeling a little tapped out this week. The details aren't important this time. What's important is the realization that more space is necessary. More time in which there is not a pull to be somewhere else, to make a decision, or to find more room for one more thing on an already-packed calendar.

So, I'm going to go find some summer today. How about you?

White coneflowers bring summer light to our garden.


Bonus reading link for you today... I recently won a flash fiction contest over at Postcard Poems and Prose with my piece, Half-Baked, which was published on Monday. This is the third piece of my short fiction and second piece of my flash fiction that the folks over at PP&P have published and I am honored. I hope you like the story.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Summer Gratitude, Summer Perspective

Nice font, don’t you think? Well, maybe it's more the color.

One of my son’s pet peeves is the misuse of fonts in an overall design. I see his point every time I look at a website that has several different fonts within one page, or a business card (why, yes, people still use those) with four different fonts in that little 2”x3” space. That always sends me to my computer to see what I can come up with on my own for a design and then I eventually land here, on my blog, to play around. 

This time I thought I’d actually publish the silly little post I was having fun with.

But it’s hard to read, isn’t it? Hot pink italics do not make for an easy scan of an article.

Ah, there, that’s better. Why, oh why, do people sacrifice readability for some goofy font they think is cool? 

Just as I got today’s gripe out of the way, I met up with another one. As I was typing this post, my landline (soon to be abolished) rang. Since there are only about two people who call me on that line, I answered. Shouldn’t have done that. It was the Minnesota DFL calling to inform me of what’s happening politically right now and ask for money. Both things drive me crazy. I read the paper. I know what’s going on, mostly. And I haven’t won the lottery lately, so stop asking this parent who has a kid in college for money. Go away. I’m going to vote as I see fit no matter how many times you call me.

But I am stalling. Can you tell? This is what happens to a writer in full summer mode, who would rather be outside than in. A writer who spent the beginning of the day on a long, fast-paced walk with her dogs that took us to the nearby Reservoir Woods

Now that’s a summer thing to do. As I took Ruby the Irish terrier and Truffles the miniature dachshund on the paved trail among trees, birds, and filtered morning sun, I felt something other than my muscles working. That something was gratitude. It’s a feeling I’ve been working hard to encourage in myself as the summer progresses and it always emerges when I walk outside in my own neighborhood. We are so lucky to live in a walkable community with green space large enough that a person can pretend to be far from the city for a few minutes. We have spaces here in Roseville where we can be still or walk fast without fear of being bombed or shot or taken prisoner. We can wave to other people without it being taken the wrong way. We can return to a house that is secure with dependable utilities. 

This gratitude gets magnified every time I read the newspaper, every time I see a photo of what’s going on in the Middle East right now. It gets mixed with sorrow for the people who live there. It gets magnified when I read about what’s happening across my own metro area, when some kid gets hurt by their own family. It gets mixed with questions about what I should be doing to make the world a better place from this very safe spot where I have the good fortune to live. Volunteer more? Donate more? Raise awareness more? Be less quiet?

Big questions for someone in summer mode. But they certainly make those little gripes that kicked off this column seem like nothing. 

Nothing. I have absolutely nothing to complain about and I am thankful.

Why, yes, we've exercised today. Thank you for your concern.

Friday, July 11, 2014

First Five Fragments for Friday - Lazy Summer Edition

Your weekly offering of writing/art prompts.

What time is it as I write this? Oh, yeah, it's afternoon....2:09 p.m., to be exact. This post is not quite the first thing I did today.

Sometimes, regular blog posts need a shot in the arm. A nice big shot of interest. I think that's true for First Five Fragments for Friday. It's been a regular feature on this blog for a long time and I'm feeling the need to let it rest for the remainder of the summer so it can percolate. Writing weekly prompts has gotten to be stale.

In the meantime, my regular Eat, Write, Digest column will continue. Read, share, comment.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

"It's summer, baby. Lay back." - Truffles, the mini dachshund

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Got Good Dirt?

It all started with a flat of impatiens, those ubiquitous summer shots of color that Minnesota gardeners adore. The month of June was rainy that year and Mick and I were headed to our first overseas trip together, to Helsinki of all places. 

I was moving into Mick’s house. My son, who was just finishing fourth grade, was excited that Mick had a cat and a yard and we would not be constrained by apartment life any longer. It was the end of the school year, but the Helsinki trip overlapped with the last few days of school, so Shawn went to stay with my parents for a few days. He would later stay with my friend Sharon, whose son was the same age. We were crazily packing up, moving items out of the apartment and into Mick’s house, but would finalize the move once we returned from overseas. 

Mick’s yard had a flower garden. He is a gentle sort of guy who loves plants and animals and I began my gardener’s education with him. We acquired a bunch of impatiens somehow - I think it was my friend Sharon who had excess - and we had only a couple of days before our flight left to get those flowers in the ground.

We ended up throwing them into the dirt early on the day we left.  It misted while we set 48 little plants into the beds along two sides of Mick’s yard. Wet, muddy, but triumphant that we’d actually planted the impatiens, we cleaned up and took off. We just hoped the flowers would survive while we were gone. 

Survive they did. We returned to an impatiens explosion in the back yard, where weather had been just right for unattended growth. I remember being enchanted with the bright little petals as they balanced the green of Mick’s hostas and grass. And I thought, hey, growing flowers isn’t too hard.

Of course, those flowers, which aren’t native to Minnesota, are easy to grow. Nothing eats them. Squirrels sometimes dig them up with abandon (I think there is actually an ongoing plot by squirrels everywhere), but impatiens are impervious to much of what Minnesota throws at them in the summer.

Today, Mick and I don’t plant a lot of impatiens. We’ve expanded our gardening knowledge to include native plants, fruits, vegetables, herbs. We’ve plopped native river birch that our neighbors dug up at their cabin into the low spot in our back yard, where snowmelt accumulates every spring. Those birch are thriving. We’ve given milkweed from my husband’s uncle’s farm a new home on the side of our house, where we can see it outside the kitchen window. At this time of year, it emits a lovely sweet scent while butterflies and bees move continually over the flowers. We’ve learned about columbine, butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, sumac, goatsbeard, penstemon, daisies, bee balm, yarrow. We’ve nurtured a bur oak and a pin oak. We’ve learned which nurseries carry northern perennials and read about flowers that actually hurt bees and other creatures because genetic modifications have made their beauty toxic.

I’ve even learned to walk next to bees without panicking, unless they’re wasps or hornets. Honey bees have a soothing collective buzz when they are working together in the fragrant hyssop that grows behind our garage. It’s almost hypnotic to watch them on a hot summer afternoon, when they seem too busy to notice anything but the flowers. 

When I think back to those impatiens that first got my attention, I see a young woman who had no idea that digging in the dirt was going to play such a large role in her life. That woman was so busy raising a son and scrambling to pay the rent on time that nurturing another form of life wasn’t an option. Mick’s proposal and my acceptance that we make a life together changed all that. Throwing impatiens into a garden bed before going with Mick to a science conference in Finland was the beginning of a grand adventure. And, now, I can’t imagine life without Mick or a lot of garden soil. 

Good dirt grows a lot more than flowers.

Mick's uncle's milkweed

Butterfly weed


Fragrant hyssop