Wednesday, January 20, 2010

the loveliest time of the year

This is my favorite time of year, because of the weather here in southern Arizona and because, for another four days, I'm still on winter break. I love being at home, engaging in the gentle art of puttering.  We've had some rain and more is predicted (though today it's been sunny), and I can see the effects in my garden: nasturtiums that I feared might never germinate are up and looking healthy, the slow-growing fennel is finally showing its distinctive ferny leaves, the second row of mesclun is tall enough to begin cutting, and the roses I recently transplanted are budding.  Because we had so little rain earlier this winter I don't expect many wildflowers, though.  Our first winter here, 1992-1993, there were fierce rains in January that resulted in severe floods.  That seems like so long ago; our world and our climate have changed a great deal since then.

    Still, I am grateful for what we have, for example, the kale I picked this afternoon.  I love kale, both for its beauty and its vitamins; it's as decorative as it is healthful.  My favorite kale to plant is the "mixed wild garden kales" from Nichols Garden Nursery ( - it's like a bouquet in the vegetable garden with the variety of colors - some all green, some silvery, some with purple veins and stems - and leaves - some deeply fringed like delicate lace, some sturdy and solid.  You can see a little of the variation in this photo, where the vase of kale leaves is flanked by a pair of ceramic geese my daughter bought for me when she was in seventh or eighth grade. Anyone who has raised a daughter will remember the difficulty of those years, and yet I also remember moments of delight and communion punctuating that early adolescent stress, and every day, when I look at these geese who still live on my kitchen windowsill, I remember the love and closeness we have always shared.
      Today I also baked corn muffins to go with tonight's soup, in a pan that was on sale for half price at Williams-Sonoma a couple of weeks ago.  The recipe that came with it was for a dessert-type cake, but I love the way my cornbread recipe (which can be found in the post from 10/21/09, "Soup of the Evening") turned out in it,  especially the honeybees - after all, they are the right color.  I baked them at 375 degrees (25 degrees lower than usual) for 20 minutes.
      Such simple pleasures really are, as it said on a dishtowel I saw many years ago, "life's treasures."  Although I now live in the sunny southwest, at this time of year I remember snowy Idaho winter days when we wondered how long it would take the snowplow to get to us in our house near the end of a dead-end street. I remember the smell of soup simmering on the stove and of bread baking, and games of gin rummy at the dining room table (at the tender age of five, my daughter was already a natural card-shark) along with bedtime stories and the rest and relaxation that winter offers us, along with the anticipation of spring.  Sooner than we may imagine, new life will burst from the ground.  Let us rest, though, while we can, so that we can greet spring's green awakening with enthusiasm and joy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Silent Woman

Being "a little under the weather" on New Year's Day has now stretched out to a week.  Sore throat and no voice, but aside from some tiredness, I feel okay.  No fever or flu symptoms or anything like that.  I did make a big mistake by continuing to talk, but I had a good reason--a friend out from New England. We're only able to get together once a year or so, and since I wasn't contagious I couldn't pass up the opportunity.  And what do friends do?  They talk - and talk - and talk.  By the time she left I'd really done a number on my vocal cords so now I'm following the orders a laryngologist gave another friend and not talking or even whispering at all.  I write notes if I can't make myself understood with sign language and Joe gave me a whistle for when I need him and he's in another room.
       The quiet is really rather nice.  Restful, conducive to meditation.  It's just the two of us here, now that all the holiday visitors are gone, and my silence  has led Joe to whisper when he speaks to me. It reminds me of when my daughter was in kindergarten.  She had a lovely young teacher, Miss Booth, who spoke very softly, so all the children tended to speak softly too, and her classroom was a peaceful, happy place.
      My temporary silence feels rather liberating, perhaps because I know it's temporary, and so I am savoring it, but silence, both literal and figurative, is not a respite for many others who suffer an enforced silence to which they can see no end.  A few days before Christmas we were at the market and on the way out a young man stopped me and handed me a sheet of note paper laminated in plastic.  On it he had written his story, which began with these words: "Please read this.  I cannot speak."  He had printed it out, laboriously, to make sure it was legible, and what he wrote seemed factual, not filled with overly emotional language, and all the more powerful for the writer's restraint.  His muteness (he was not deaf) is due to a physical condition; his landlord sold the building and the tenants were forced to move; and like another 85,000 people in this country last month, he'd lost his job.  It sounds melodramatic and made up, perhaps, but somehow I believed him.  I read it all the way through--he'd written on both sides of the paper--and looked up to see tears running down his cheeks.  He seemed ashamed.  I gave him some money--I wished I could have given more.  When I got to my car I looked back.  He was trying to show his paper to another shopper who shook his head and walked away, just as I have said "I'm sorry," and walked away from panhandlers.  But those other panhandlers, beggars, people in need--whether they needed food or shelter or booze or drugs or whatever they wanted the money for--had voices.  They could get another person's attention, even if only for the seconds it took that person to process the situation and reject them.  To be voiceless is, for the most part, to be invisible.

       Women, of course, have been effectively silenced by various societies for centuries, and still are in many places.  The famous tavern sign may be a source of amusement today, but a few decades ago the women's movement pointed it out as symbolic of an attitude that supported repression. Whole populations, no matter how loudly they weep and wail at home, go unheard by most of the world today.  During the years of genocide in Rwanda, for example, almost none of my students at the university even knew that nation existed, much less what was going on there.  More recently, in the context of teaching how to construct an argument, one of my classes was discussing the local issue of whether water tanks should be left in the desert to try to prevent the deaths of illegal border crossers, another group of people who seem to have no voice, at least no voice that anyone listens to, either in their own country or in ours. A young woman sitting right in front of where I was standing started to pass a note to her neighbor but I intercepted it.  It read simply "Let them die."  I kept silent then because I didn't trust myself to control my reaction.
        Silence can give one time to think.  A character in a film I saw recently said that things become clear in the quiet. If my silence was permanent, I know it would become a burden, but right now I treasure it.  I don't want to turn on the TV or radio.  I even appreciate this brief vacation from conversation, or perhaps from having to contribute to conversation.  I can listen more carefully because I am relieved of the responsibility to reply.  And yet I know that people have the responsibility to reply to others, and that to reply responsibly, first we have to listen, even to those who seem to be silent.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

The first day of 2010 has been a good one.  I'd been feeling a little under the weather until I figured out it was due to allergies, and so I took the proper medicine last night and woke up feeling much better, well enough to resuscitate my inner Martha Stewart (just a little) and make the traditional New Year's Day lentils with Italian sausage.  I used to make Hoppin' John, partly for the good luck and prosperity it promises and partly to honor my Southern heritage (of my four grandparents, three had roots in the South, in North Carolina, Alabama, and Missouri).  But although I think I make really, really good Hoppin' John, and Joe likes it, he's not all that big a fan of blackeyed peas.  So some years we honor his heritage, since in Italy people eat lentils on New Year's Day for prosperity in the coming year (lentils look like coins, after all). I found a simple recipe in The Romagnolis' Table, a wonderful cookbook from the 1970s which I'm sure is out of print now. Here's my adaptation of the Romagnolis' lenticchie:

Pick over and wash 1# brown lentils and put them in a biggish pot with:
1 chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large stalk celery, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
several good grindings of pepper
8 cups water or stock

Bring it all to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 45 minutes to 1 hour, till lentils are tender.  If needed, add more stock or water. When done, season with salt (start with 1 teaspoon and add more to taste).
A sausage, some cooked greens dressed with garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, some good bread and a nice glass of wine - it's a good way to begin the new year!

I wish you all, most sincerely, a year filled with joy, love, peace, justice, and prosperity.

But my new year really began yesterday, with a phone call from a dear friend I hadn't communicated with in months.  She moved away suddenly, I didn't know exactly where, but I knew life wasn't treating her well, and so I worried, tried unsuccessfully to reach her, and worried some more.  Before she left she gave me some of her plants, three roses and several pots of coleus.  When the cold weather threatened I took cuttings of the coleus and potted them up as a mixed "bouquet."  The roses have done well, too, though I left them in their pots for a few months, trying them in a few locations before putting them in the ground.  Now they're beginning to bloom again.  This is the first blossom.

In this picture there is also a statue of Kuan Yin, the boddhisatva of mercy and compassion, "she who hears the cries of the world." She must have heard my friend's cries. It was such a joy to me to hear her voice again and to learn that, yes, things have been terribly hard, but they're getting better.  Winston Churchill said, "When you're going through hell, keep going," and that's where she's been and what she's done, and in the process she has learned to find some peace within herself when it seems there is none to be found anywhere else.  But it has not been and is not easy. 

I love this rose, not only for its radiant colors, but because every time I look at it, I see my friend.  Plants are a special kind of gift because they are alive and because they keep growing, unfolding their individual, special beauty, and enriching our lives, as friendship does. But life can be so hard. Often we don't get the nurturing and nourishment we need.  Sometimes life rips us up by the roots and we have to struggle to replant ourselves in inhospitable soil, and the pain and effort may seem to require more of us than we can give.  I admire my friend so much for keeping on, for following Eleanor Roosevelt's advice: "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."  Because we can do those hard things.  In spite of drought and poor soil and lack of nourishment, we can bloom again, and again, and again.  And every day can be the beginning of a new year.