New Year Resolve

by May Sarton

The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.

Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.

Let silence in.
She will rarely speak or mew,
She will sleep on my bed
And all I have ever been
Either false or true
Will live again in my head.

For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.  


I have long been smitten with Sarton’s poetry, and now as I push seventy living in the clutch of New England winters, her words resonate even more. Thanks, Garrison, for choosing this as the Writer’s Almanac poem of the day. 

From my own journal entry this morning:

Writing here has taken such a back seat to doing email and FB, and as a result, so much is backed up (the clutter of which Sarton speaks). I’m trying to be kinder to myself, give myself some slack, loosen my vice-grip on perfectionism and be observant of my precipitous falls into obsession, even if I have to let it pass on its own time. The seething resentment I feel at Rachel, my neighbor in front who refuses to do her share of shoveling our shared driveway, leaving it all for me, for instance, is one aspect of that obsession. It doesn’t hurt her a whit, yet it poisons me. 

When I am caught in such toxic thoughts, I feel weighed down, and my energy for creativity is lost: I write less, I make art less, I have little room for problem-solving or keeping up with the necessities of living.  

Better to welcome the cat of silence, scoop him into my arms, bury my face in his soft fur and give thanks. Fortunately, I have two such creatures to practice on. 


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Department of Keeping a Sense of Humor, “It’s All Material” Class

So, after I take Lucy for what’s recently been her daily her walk in the woods–25 degrees, sleet like needles hitting my face on the way back the the car–I head to Market Basket on Storrs Street for bananas, mozzarella and goat cheese. The forecast is for more nasty stuff in the next few days, and I figure I’ll not want to leave the house. I spy a man begging for change or whatever when I turn onto Storrs from Pleasant, standing at the turn into the parking lot. Damn, I think, and go into my internal rant piqued by seeing such people and all the static around this, from the political to the psychological, and all the other mini stops in between, plus the load of guilt I feel for even having such a rant. Okay, I say, I won’t give him money, but I’ll look for something he can eat. Inside, I get my bananas, baby arugula, mozzarella, goat cheese (First World diet guilt!) and I decide on soup, perhaps a can with a pull-top. Sure enough, Campbell’s has said tops, two for $3. I choose two cans of minestrone. At the check-out I decide I’ll also give him a banana, and I put those items in a separate bag.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, the man is not there when I get to the parking lot exit to Storrs Street. What to do? Now I need to find a homeless person! I can’t leave the banana in the car for another time. Okay, I decide I’ll head over to Fort Eddy and Louden Road, which I’d wanted to avoid in the first place, thus going to the smaller Market Basket, because there are always people standing at that very busy intersection. And sure enough, when I’m crossing the river, I see a figure in the distance. I have to wait to turn left, which places him in what will require a U-turn for me to reach him, and I notice that he seems to be dressed in a dark business suit and not wearing a hat–odd, I think, in this weather. But a mission is a mission, so I enter Fort Eddy to find traffic on the return side backed up way past Hannaford, and more cars in the inside lane waiting to enter the right-turning lane. Oy. What to do? I enter the plaza there, which Lucy is quite exercised about because she sees Petco, and she has visions of delicious smells and a free biscuit. I congratulate myself for figuring this out, because I can go through the parking lot, park the car, and walk up to the intersection rather than try to hand the bag out the window at a moment when traffic will need to flow.

I grab the bag and start walking up the hill toward him, and I have a better view: indeed, he is wearing a business suit, and soon I’m close enough to read the neon-chartreuse sign, printed in dark, thick black marker, “I want YOUR $.” WTF? I think, umbrage at the ready. You mean, I’ve gone through all this trouble–did I mention that the sleet has made the roads so slick that, even with studded snow tires, they spin when I try to move from a stopped position? And that I am well-past my point in needing to eat, and I’ve driven all the way over here to find a fucking homeless person and he just comes right out and says he wants my money, not even bothering to appeal to my middle-class, but cash-poor, conscience with the proper attire and demeanor! Jesus.

I go no further.

Just then I see two twenty-something women bundled up and carrying cardboard signs walking toward me, having come from the west side of the river. Saved! I think. They look the part, and I do give them the bag, for which they thank me. After I tell them what’s on the man’s sign, say that they really are homeless, and what a nerve he has. I figure she means that he’s taking a choice spot and not adhering to the unwritten rules of begging. One tells me that she’s been homeless for three months and it’s the first time she’s ever been on the street. They look it, disheveled, doing what they need to do to survive, with determination.

A generous driver allows me to enter the long line of cars on Ft. Eddy waiting to turn right onto Louden Road, and as luck would have it, I was stopped right near the sign-holder. Perhaps it’s his clean-cut good looks that turns my umbrage to curiosity and wonder, perhaps it’s his smile. I roll down the window and take the whole scene in: early Beatle mop-top (a black wig?), slim tie, pristine white dress shirt, oil-slick reflective aviator glasses, and iPod ear buds. He bends down to be at my eye level. “Are you doing an art project?” I ask. “Sort of,” he says. “Performance art?” I ask. “Sort of,” he says, the two of us holding our smiles.

Of course, I’d have liked the whole story, but the light turns green and I have to move. I give him a thumbs-up and drive away.

Ah, art. In my world view, it’s always for art’s sake.

Who knows what his true motive is? But I know that I’ve gotten much more back than the $3.50 I’d spent. I’ve got material to make art out of. And, isn’t that what counts in the end?

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Autumn and it’s Theme of Loss

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rainier Maria Rilke
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

This morning I sat on my sofa and glanced up to the window on my front door, where the orange fire of Barbara King’s glorious maple tree one yard over filled the frame. I love this tree, and until two days ago, it was at peak color. This is a tree of elegance and stature, tall, a single trunk with branches that form a rounded point on top and seemingly trimmed to a perfect ovoid shape. Patient to a fault, its leaves are slow to lose their chlorophyll coating, allowing the base colors to show. While other trees seem to rush fully into the change, Barbara’s begins at the very tip with a few yellow leaves, and by and by, it’s almost as if slow buckets of first yellow, followed by shades of orange-to-red spill slowly over the green, all the colors present until peak. Until two days ago, there were no fallen leaves on the ground; yet winds and rain over the weekend have coaxed a slow fall, a balding, as it were by degrees. Yet many hold on, the blaze still evident through my front door window. By weekend, I will see only the skeletal remains until next May or so, when, as e.e. cummings describes, its leaping greenly spirit returns once again.

From that same spot, Ground Zero for being on the computer, watching TV, even eating supper while watching TV, I read an essay on the Talking Writing site in which the writer spoke of her tendency to hoard details always with the intention of using them one day in a piece of writing. ( The same can be said of visual artists when it comes to stuff, the ephemera, ideas and concepts, each precious in the moment, inspirational, even, yet the collection burgeons, requiring more and more storage space. That someday never seems to come. Yet the thought of discarding these materials is abhorrent, even, I dare say, paralyzing, for the fear of an emptiness never to be filled again.

I am a hoarder. Not the pathological variety with narrow paths between towers of putrefying stuff, but I do hold on. Tightly. Loss, whether it be the last blazing leaf on a tree or an actual death of someone close, is merely a matter of degrees on a spectrum, and my spectrum is weighted toward the higher number. It would be fair to say that my disposition is elegiac: I wear loss like a blanket around my body. That’s why Rilke’s poem holds fast my soul, filled as it is with impending loss associated with winter: Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . These are the images that sound the death knell of hope. And the interminable New Hampshire winter is not to be trifled with.

Except for having my daughters stay with me Wednesdays and weekends and six weeks in the summer until they left for college, or one or more sisters sharing my home temporarily, or a three-year co-habitation with a boyfriend in the mid-Eighties, I have lived alone since 1973. Come March 10th or thereabouts, forty years. Solitude used to be scary; now it fits comfortably (although, it would be nice to have someone help hold up this heavy tent). I have never been truly homeless, out-on-the-street homeless. That said, growing up, I felt homeless in the chaos of our family, and I left after graduating from high school at seventeen, never to return. Still, Rilke’s Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . resonates, particularly since I live on Social Security, and that doesn’t cover my bills. It wouldn’t take much to cause me to lose this rented home, tiny as it is.

The imprint of loss is indelibly engraved on my soul, as if part of my very DNA, and was the theme of both maternal and paternal lines, back to my great-grandparents, at least the ones I knew, and even if not, their legacies were filled with losses. Two World Wars, the Great Depression; my father losing his mother when he was three; my maternal grandmother losing a daughter to pneumonia when a toddler, a son stillborn; maternal grandfather losing his father when he was barely a teenager, and his sister at 22 of a septic abortion; my mother giving birth to me, her first child, seven hours after my father left for the War to name a few. The elements of scarcity and fear were modeled and taught like the alphabet.

There’s a good reason I’m the family archivist: the loss of generations of memorabilia is unthinkable, and when a family member dies, their rich repository of memories goes with them.

Buddhism teaches that attachment to things, people, anything, really, is the root of suffering, and to be able to let go frees oneself from that pain. (I would never make a good Buddhist.)

But what is the price of my holding on to so much? Perceived perpetual scarcity, the fear of never having enough to replace what’s no longer there? Is that fear rooted in fear of never being enough? Which then brings me to Fear’s companion, Perfectionism.


How does one rid oneself of that, for Pete’s sake? Such a loss would be beneficial, no? As a writer and visual artist, I take pride in aiming for the perfect sentence, the perfect piece of art. If you’re going to do something, do it right, my grandmother’s dictum echoes still today as it did when I was growing up. How does one find a harmonious balance?

When I was in Jungian analysis, my analyst asked me what it would take for me to free myself from this fear of scarcity. First thing out of my mouth was, “A Ph.D from Harvard.” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Trust me, that is no guarantee.” Today my answer is, “Being on solid financial footing.”

I have no answers, even after spending almost three hours writing this. A litany of affirmations doesn’t do it for me, frankly, but occasionally listing things I’m grateful for helps. I find at least five before I do my reading at night; still, when I open my eyes in the morning, fear of loss is the monster lurking about, always ready to pounce.

Where is that MacArthur fellowship when you need one?


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A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain Slant of Light (258)

By Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons–
That oppresses, like the Heft
of Cathedral Tunes–

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us–
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are–

None may teach it–Any–
‘Tis the Seal Despair–
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air–

When it comes, the Landscape listens–
Shadows–hold their breath
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death–

Hold that thought for a few moments.

Today I encountered, across the broad greensward of a 19th century graveyard in Bradford, NH, fall’s golden slant of light that set the long row of yellow maples aflame and provided shadows in the recesses of the low gray stone wall. The air was newly crisp, after a week of what seemed as if New Hampshire had switched coasts with the rainy aspects of Washington state, and the intensity of the color, and the languorous, but steady, descent of leaves were nothing short of breathtaking.

But first, some back-story. Must always have back-story.

In 1993 I graduated from Goddard College with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, after spending three semesters working toward an M.A. in Feminist Art History. I’d got bitten by the writing bug, and when I told people what degree I was working on, I got only blank stares or “What are you going to do with that?” I thought about that question, so I switched disciplines. Four years earlier, in 1989, I earned my B.A. in Liberal Arts at Goddard (Concentration in Visual Art), a seventeen-year process wending backwards from SLU before Goddard, to Tulane, and Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY, where I completed an A.A. in 1974, Liberal Arts (concentration in English). It was while at RCC (the Summerhill-like–read hippie–off-campus College A, as it was called) that I was bitten by the shutter-bug. I carried a camera everywhere, and after several years of practice, developed my signature style of shooting with black and white infrared film, printing on Afga matte paper, sepia-toning and selectively hand-coloring the prints. Infrared film enhanced my love affair with light because of the hazing effects around highlights and living tissue, and my images were serene examples of the intersection of time and light.

All this is by way of explaining that when I encounter the waning, golden light that ramps up color intensity, I stop in my tracks, overwhelmed by visual and literary entreaties to document it that aren’t easily quieted. In fact, my creative juices try to outshout one another: capture it on film, write about it, until I’m ready to shout myself. I don’t carry a camera anymore–in fact, after earning a living as a photographer for twenty years, I no longer enjoy making art photographs–and I’m slack-jawed, struck dumb by what I see. Words–other than that particular phrase about light’s golden slant–don’t come.

When I was a novice writer, I recall showing something to a friend who had a doctorate in English (I’m pretty sure it was she and not one of my advisors at Goddard), in which I referred to fall’s “golden slant of light,” and asked for feedback. “You can’t use that phrase,” she proclaimed, and I, who worshipped at the feet of those with doctorates, was defensive.

“Why?” I asked. “How else can you say what clearly is a slant of golden light?”

“You just can’t. It belongs to Emily Dickinson.” It belongs to Emily Dickinson? No one else can describe light that way? I was too embarrassed to admit my ignorance of the poem or the fact that the maiden from Amherst, MA had a copyright on those four words. As I said, this was when I thought persons who had doctorates lived on tall pedestals, high above us mortals, particularly this mortal who’d not graduated from college until she was 46. And didn’t even know of Emily Dickinson’s poem, for Pete’s sake!

Nevertheless, I took the commandment to heart and never used anything close to “golden slant of light” again.

But this afternoon, when I gaped at such a sight, I finally came to my senses. “Fuck that!” If Ms. Dickinson wants to come back from the grave and admonish me, well, I’ll deal with it when it happens. Meanwhile, Goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight . . .

Turns out, did you notice that she’s writing about winter’s slant of light, and how ominous it is with it’s clarion call of Death? Far different from my riotous autumnal rays, still lively and gay.

So, there I am in the graveyard, connecting this fall with those past, particularly the sight along the narrow road to College A, flanked with yellow maples, or the breathtaking colors of an autumn residency at Goddard in central Vermont. I approach the headstones, shuffling through a thick, crispy layer of dry leaves atop a springy carpet of emerald green plants no more than one-inch tall with tiny needle-like leaves; I read names (wife of . . . daughter of . . . son of . . . ), their age at the time of death, and the year. The carvings on some headstones are illegible, worn with age; many are askew, a few broken off, others still tall. The earliest burial I find is from 1802. There’s hardly a car that passes on this lonely stretch of road marked by a bronze plaque, Bradford Center. I’m alone, and playing hooky from my incessant need to keep up with household chores, errands, garden demands, and writing and making art. In fact, I have to give myself permission to be there, and even then, the demanding voice of “You have work to do!” invades my peace.

I’m torn. I want to obey the voice–there is so much I need to be doing–but the small, quiet voice within wants me to linger, to step outside kronos into kiaros. It wants me to play (like the kind of playing we all used to do back in the day, much of it stoned). In fact, it really wants me to find a place to lie upon those leaves, away from view so as not to alarm anyone seeing a body lying in the graveyard. (After becoming alarmed, would they deem my lying there disrespectful?) I scout the area, dousing, as it were for the perfect spot. It has to be fairly dry, not directly in the sun, not upon hidden twigs or stones.

I find that spot behind several tall, close-together headstones near the entrance, and I lie down. Oh, God, it feels so good; my body craves contact with a surface. I look up into the tree above me, about half-bare of leaves; I watch the dance of those falling, take in their signature scent, feel the earth supporting me. I listen for voices of those under me, imagining their lives in what was a very difficult climate and time, honoring their own supine positions; the best I come up with is to understand their suffering, and grasp the strength it took to live in rural New Hampshire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I look over my feet toward the wide swath of decked-out yellow maples, see the brilliantly blue sky, marvel at all the beauty. And I want to nap. In fact, nothing would please me more than to savor the bliss of waking to an even more golden light, a little chilled, but rested, grateful for the enormous gift of falling asleep of a fall afternoon in a peaceful churchyard, where those long-ago fallen lie.

Alas, I cannot allow myself to do that. After about ten minutes, if that long, I rise and walk toward my car. On the highway home, I promise myself to seal forever the sensory memory, there to dip in whenever I need it. Writing about it makes that possible.


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Love’s Mystery

This morning as I walked along the seashore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table . . .

 Billy Collins, “Fleeting Love”


Once upon a time, I had a religious experience when I fell in love.  Not the sort that comes with burning bushes or clay tablets, or even sounds of erotic bliss in the night, but filled with awe nonetheless.  I was leaving our only bank in Abita Springs, Louisiana, one that pays architectural homage to the iconic nineteenth-century white-steepled Lutheran church a block away, when I spied a praying mantis sitting on the bank’s long white porch railing.  I don’t think I interrupted anything liturgical when I stopped to greet it, as its hands were firmly planted on the railing.  But of course, one never knows when it comes to witnessing prayer, since it manifests itself in sometimes surprising ways.

I figured my sunglasses would frighten the little critter, so I removed them when I bent forward in greeting.  “Hello there,” I said.  “You’re a mighty handsome fellow.”  (As a Southern woman, I live by the rule that it is always polite to make favorable comments on another’s appearance.)  Anyway, he—and I shall use the masculine pronoun to simplify matters—turned to take me in, folding up his elbows in the process.  There were pinpoint black dots in his eyes, which continued to regard me, cooing away as I was on the excellent quality of his coloring and his fine appendages. And oh, how captivating were his eyes.  

That’s when it happened. He put his hands down on the railing and began swaying from side to side in a steady rhythm to music barely perceptible to my ears and yet familiar.  Whether it was “Beautiful Dreamer” or “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” I cannot say for sure.  “Such a flirt you are,” I said, clearly charmed, unable to break away from his dance.  We stood like this for a while, he swaying, me watching intently, but too shy to join him.  Finally, he began moving slowly forward, sashaying down that railing in a strut so irresistible as to render me speechless.  I had a brief pang of regret as he left.  I almost wanted to call out, to beg forgiveness, saying that I wouldn’t be so reserved the next time.  

Now, I recognize a mating dance when I see one, and I want to tell you that I felt truly honored by his efforts.  In fact, I fell in love. Who was I to spurn such a suitor—especially one so spiritual in nature?  Yet I wondered if our relationship would be problematic in the long run, coming from such radically different cultures as we do.  So, I simply beamed my gratitude and bid him adiós.  He continued down his path, and I mine, heartened by the fact that I’d been invited to dance along the way, a little wistful, nonetheless.

It might have ended there.  Yet the mystery of our encounter lingered and, flawed human that I am, I wanted proof of his love, even if our relationship was fleeting.  Did I mean anything to him, or was I simply a convenient mirror for his narcissism?  And why malign mirroring in the first place?  Wasn’t the pool equally smitten by Narcissus?  I wanted The Real Truth.  Closure even. 

A letter would have been nice. 

Entomologists, with their bright lights and dissecting tools, would likely inform me that my experience was not at all what I thought.  “It was just gas,” the chief entomologist would rant in biospeak, not even bothering to conceal his hard-science disdain for what he regarded as my romantic foolishness.  Any child could tell you not to pay much heed to that kind of poo-pooing.  An analyst—not mine, of course—would stroke his van Dyke and pronounce, “All projection, my dear.  Now tell me, what does a praying mantis represent to you?”  The abbot of the nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey would intone in Gregorian chant that one should not ask pointed questions, that close scrutiny of Love and Mystery isn’t always wise. “Sometimes it’s best just to let things be,” he would counsel.  Rilke would take a different stand.  He would tell me to learn to love the questions, and not to concern myself with needing answers.

 Nevertheless, I know the Dalai Lama would agree with me.  I can just see that beatific smile wash over his face and merriment twinkle in his eyes when he says, “You remember, don’t you?”

            See, that’s the thing.   Even if karma assigned me to be a mantid in this life, wouldn’t there still be the problem of our dissimilarity?   With his almost Calvinistic, if elegant, spare green attire, my little suitor clearly embraced the clerical; and I, undoubtedly, would be one of those secularly-entrenched, flamboyant flower mantids with enough ruffles and excess to make Carmen Miranda envious.  Showy would not be too strong a word to describe my raiment.  While he might be content to do a modest sway on a bank railing, I would want to tango on Tahoma with moonlight bathing the snow.  Wouldn’t what is obvious on the surface reflect that which is innermost?

Who knows?  Maybe my concerns were completely unfounded and we could have found ample occasions for communion. 

I hate to admit it, but I suppose the abbot could have a point about putting Mystery under a microscope.  The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”  Having savored those pleasures and accessing the Divine, we want more.  And yet, when one opens the door to Eros or any other of the gods and goddesses, one had better hang on to the doorframe.  Look at what happened to Psyche and Semele.  They wanted to know for sure and what did they get?  Ants and a pile of seeds and all that business with smelly ram fleece was only the half of it.   And turning into a pile of ash?  I mean, who needs it?

A niggling thought lingers, though.   What if it really were something else?  What if I had completely misread the situation and projected my yearning for the Beloved onto him, when his strut bespoke the killing he’d just made on his Apple stock? After all, he was leaving the bank.  Or perhaps he was simply an angel in disguise, sent with a message a different sort, one that has yet to reveal itself.

It is about Love’s Mystery.  That much is certain.  And in that alone, I recognize the Divine.  







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Vegetable Wrangling (Not Zucchini)

It’s like the potato thing, in a way. 

Fifteen years ago I did the cooking for Pilar and Geordie’s rehearsal dinner on Chebeague Island off the coast of Yarmouth, ME. In planning the menu (roasted beef tenderloins; roasted red peppers, eggplant, summer squashes; warm red potato salad with curried dressing, among other dishes I can no longer remember), Pilar and I went to Hannaford to place orders for what we’d need. After consulting with one of the produce workers, a lovely man from Senegal or Burundi and part of the refugee community here, we decided a medium-size potato and a half per person would be right.  For 35 people, we figured somewhere around sixty potatoes would do fine. When we picked up the order a week later en route to Chebeague, we found ourselves with sixty pounds instead. The potatoes were twice the size we thought we’d get.

Do you know how long it takes to wash and cut sixty pounds of potatoes?  Being stoned helped.

After the potatoes were steamed and cooled, they were placed in plastic bags and stored in refrigerators in six guest houses that were rented for attendees, since Geordie’s parents’ refrigerator couldn’t accommodate them. Come the day of the event, I realized we needed only half of the potatoes. God knows what eventually happened to the others.

Except for one outlier.

I was back home in Abita Springs several days when I got a call from Pilar. Chatty, catching up on their trip, recalling funny stories; then she asked me if I found the potatoes.  “What potatoes?” I asked. “You mean you haven’t found them? We stuck a bag in your luggage!”

It’s a good thin this was well-before the hysteria about toting peanut butter, yogurt, baby formula, etc., on planes, or the query, “Has anyone but you touched your luggage?” I would have had some tall explaining to do, and there I was, innocent as a lamb. Not wanting to know from potatoes for a long time.

To this day, we get a lot of mileage out of that story, never failing to laugh at the memory.  In our family, stories are premium, and the more awkward or embarrassing in the moment, the more precious they are later. Like the time Mama smashed Nanee’s titties down in her coffin because they were standing up like snowball cones, and Nanee never wore a bra in her life.

This time it’s garlic.

I love garlic, cooked or fresh, and am of the belief that, once it’s cooked, you can’t really have too much of it in anything. Witness that divine baked chicken dish cooked with 40 cloves of garlic and white wine, something Don and Kim Marshall introduced me to decades ago, served with crispy French bread for dipping and spreading the mashed garlic on. Or just plain roasted garlic. Yum.

Our UU church service auction fundraiser is coming up in November, and I volunteered to make black beans. Mary Brunette said I should aim for enough to feed thirty people even though sixty were expected. “We’ll only need small portions of everything,” she said. Not that I believed that to be true: my scarcity issues rang alarm bells. Unh unh. Gotta make more than just for thirty, I said to myself.

I bought four pounds of dry beans, four large red onions, four large heads of garlic, a celery and eight red bell peppers. I put half the beans and spices (bay leaves, coriander seeds, oregano) to cook overnight in my crock pot the first day, cooked them longer in the Dutch oven the second day, cooled them and stored them in the refrigerator.  Day two, I repeated the process. I had 24 cups of cooked down beans. Definitely not enough, I thought. So I bought two more pounds, two more onions, two more heads of garlic, and cooked them the same way. Day five, I cut and roasted the red peppers, then peeled and stored them. Day six, I began chopping the seasonings: six red onions, the celery, the roasted red peppers, and after 45 minutes of peeling the garlic, decided I couldn’t bear the thought of standing on my feet while chopping them with a knife, so I ran them through the Cuisinart, reducing the mass to tiny minces.

Bad Move. This released enough garlic essence/oil to fuel a space rocket. Still, undaunted, I sautéed the onions and celery in olive oil in the Dutch oven, removed them, then added more olive oil and the garlic. It immediately stuck to the pot no matter how quickly I moved it around, and the smell–well, let’s just say that the heat did NOT tighten its shorts so as to raise its booming baritone to falsetto.

Nevertheless, I divided the seasonings into three pots and added the cold beans, thinking surely that long, slow cooking would make everything all right. By the time I put the pots outside to cool overnight, the smell was still pungent and the taste too strong–as if the garlic had not been cooked at all.

As a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes, and my spirits plummeted. All that damn work, all those materials! Wasted! And, as a child of a child of the Depression, waste is a cardinal sin.

The following day I tasted the cold beans, and they seemed to have tamed some, but still not to a comfortable level, because when I opened the lids, the aroma was still evident. Now, with the addition of the seasonings, I had 48 cups of black beans, more than enough to feed the masses at the church dinner, but still risky, especially to the garlic-averse.

So, I did what any right-thinking person would do: bought two more pounds of beans, two more onions, four more red bell peppers. But no garlic. And repeated the whole process again.

The original 48 cups are in the freezer at church, and I’ll be bringing the rest over.  A couple of days before the event, I’ll remove them to thaw in the refrigerator, and on Nov. 2, I’ll find a pot large enough to mix them all together and then set them to simmer, sending novenas to the divinities of garlic-taming, that this will solve the problem.

If not, the streets are going to run black beans for a long time to come.


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Life’s Little Lessons

Class, today’s lecture will focus on that adorable 1967 admonition, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”  I can see you rolling your eyes, but bear with me for a moment because I am certain you’ll come away enlightened and energized.

Take vacuuming.

Got your attention now, haven’t I? I’m sure, if you’ve followed this blog, you’ve read posts by a certain person whom I’ll refer to as The Whiner. She kvetches endlessly about how she hates the chore, yet also would like to rid her floors of dust bunnies, a collection of which would qualify for petting zoo status. Months–yes, months–go by and she ignores the chore, keeping her gaze at least two feet off the floor, writing in her journal how the house is driving her crazy, promising herself that Today Will Be the Day.

But no. It never is.

So this morning, she’s determined to wrangle that beast, even going so far as to sing, “I’m going to vacuum today, I’m going to vacuum today,” in the shower, hoping to trick her brain into thinking it would be fun. The brain is so easily fooled: it doesn’t know the difference between imagining something and actually doing it.

After an hour of “pencil sharpening,” as it were, shaking out the sofa covering and putting it in the wash, moving things from one spot to another, she plugs the thing in, and begins with the stairs to the second floor. Soon enough, in that closed stairwell, her brain knows it’s been taken for a ride. “Goddamn noise,” she curses, much like her grandmother who vented her well-earned anger at her grandfather, as she cleaned her O’Keefe and Merritt white stove within an inch of its life, filling the air with daisy chains of words strung together that evoke the German language. Donaudampfschiffahrts­elektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamten­gesellschaft handily comes to mind.  (Translation: “Association of sub-ordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services.” Her grandmother’s bursts of temper were more terse, however, and leaned more toward the “Goddamnsonofabitchinbastardgoddamnit”-style, always tacking whatever particular grievance or grievances spurred her on to the task.

Oh, our friend can throw in her own grievances–the house is too Goddamn small, she doesn’t have enough Goddamn money to hire someone to clean it, it gets so Goddamn dirty so fast–but she doesn’t have the luxury of someone to blame, like her grandmother did. That’s when her brain switches from victim to activist. And, what it comes up with is staggering in both its genius and simplicity. Why hasn’t she thought of this before? Why isn’t it on the lips of everyone who’s suffered silently (or at least, whiningly)?

It is as if a voice from above speaks in stentorian tones:  Earplugs. Yes, earplugs! Can you imagine? For at least six decades she’s bitched and moaned, and now that unmufflered Harley racket is reduced to a cat’s soothing purr. She’s part of the solution now! 

And, Class, each and every one of you can make that leap as well. The next time you’re bitching and moaning about something you loath doing, no matter what it is–washing dishes, cutting the grass, cleaning the bathroom, changing the cat litter, paying bills–don’t try to fool your brain, because it never works. Instead, make a mad dash for earplugs. 

Yes, earplugs. Such a simple solution, one that spirits you away from being part of the problem.




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