Writing Community

I have seen myself as a writer ever since I could hold a crayon.  I drew and wrote letters, telling stories to anyone who happened by. Usually, that person was my mother. She was a teacher and always encouraged me. She’d look at my scribbles and pictures and ask me to tell her about them.  And that would be the only invitation I needed.  I’d start rattling off some adventure with animals, the woods, and a tea party with cake. My stories always ended with cake. My father would also encourage me.  He was a poet and a writer and I think he was so proud that I loved the pencil as much as he did.  He’d read stories to me that were way above my understanding, but somehow I would take snippets of images and make them my own.  Today, my father is ninety-four years old, and he continues to send me texts telling me to read this article, or that book, and sometimes he writes me text-sized poems.  So I guess I was very lucky to have grown up with a built-in writing community.

As I grew, I often received praise and awards for my poetry.  It was the one thing I did well.  The one thing of which I could be confident.  I loved to share my writing with classmates and often teachers would showcase my stories or poems.  When I became a teenager all that changed.  I still wrote, but I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I separated myself from my parents as all teenagers must do, but I also felt that I could not share my writing and feeling with my friends. No one else in my circle wrote.  They danced, or skated, or played softball.  I felt that they would not understand.  So I wrote for myself.  It wasn’t until college that I found another community of writers.  These were women like me: English majors, readers, passionate about the world around them, full of ideas and dreams.  In my junior year, I was selected to be part of Adrienne Rich’s year-long poetry seminar.  I was excited and terrified at the same time. This was a whole new level of community.  This community was going to judge me, my writing – Was I actually the writer I thought I was?  Class after class was inspiring, Ms. Rich always pushing us to think and go beyond ourselves.  I received praise at first, and then I was summoned to Ms. Rich’s office one day.  She had been reading my work and judged it to be not serious enough.  It was full of college angst, unrequited love, and misplaced desire.  She knew I could do better, but I would have to read more widely.  I sat there small in her office.  I could not speak.  I just listened and nodded. I wrote down the people she told me to read, I stood up, I walked out the door, head bowed.  I left deflated but determined. I began to read. The one person she told me I must read – Edna St. Vincent Millay – I did not read as my single act of youthful rebellion.  I read and I wrote, but I would not read Millay. I published lots of poems in the college literary magazine, and I started a literary magazine with a group of friends when I was in graduate school, and then in my late twenties the writing began to fade away and teaching took its place. 

As a teacher, I made lots of room for my students to write.  They would fill journal after journal of their ideas and stories.  Some could write easily, filling blank pages with chapter after chapter of childhood adventure and fantasy.  Some sat there, staring at the blank page, terrified.  They were the ones who became my personal mission to support. We would start by drawing pictures first.  Then labeling the pictures.  Then telling about the pictures out loud to a friend.  Then writing something down.  We would slowly build detail, problem and solution, character’s feelings and motivation.  Slowly… slowly… slowly… For the few who had all the ideas but the pencil was their foe, I would listen to them and write down their words.  I asked high school students to become scribes to these students in their free time and watched as those relationships grew and blossomed. I began to see again the power of community.  Having someone to listen was as important to having the desire to write.  If I was encouraging countless students over the years to write, why wasn’t I writing anymore?

My answer was always TIME but I knew that wasn’t a good answer and that TIME would indeed run out.  I was forty-years-old at the time, and I knew I had to become more consistent in my writing.  I began to write children’s books and send them out to publishers.  I got rejected.  I got rejected again and again.  I got good rejections.  It didn’t matter.

I stopped writing. Or rather, I kept writing but I stopped sending out my work.  I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I became guarded.  Then when I turned fifty, I decided to return to poetry.  My husband and I would hike in the woods and he’d take photographs and I would write poetry.  It was a lovely time.  I felt good and confident about my poetry.  It came back like an old friend.  I could always count on it. And then I started reading Millay.  First, I read her biography, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and then I read every one of her poems.  Adrienne Rich had been right.  And I was so wrong.  I laughed at myself.  I wish I could have tea and cake with Adrienne and tell her but she had probably known all along.

For the last fourteen years, I’ve been writing for myself and sometimes for family.  I wrote a collection of poems about my Grandpa Charlie for my mother just two years before she died.  We hugged and cried together as she read them, and I was so happy I took the time to create them.  I wrote poems for my each of my friend’s children when they were born.  I created a picture book for my cousin’s young daughter about my Aunt Jo (her grandmother) who she had never met.  I wanted her to know what a powerful person her grandmother was. I continued to write poems, took up photography too, and was generally satisfied.  Kind of. Not really. I knew I needed connection.  I started this blog a couple of years ago.  I wrote.  No one read it.  Well – yes – one person read it, my friend Molly because I knew she would be positive and encouraging.  But still I wasn’t consistently writing. 

It wasn’t until this past April that I began to write consistently. I had been reading Ruth Ayers’ blogs and books for years.  Last March, I commented on one of her posts.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know there was a stranger that understood.  To my surprise, Ruth responded to my comment and invited me to be part of her online writing community, SOS – Sharing our Stories. That day happened to be my 64th birthday. I wrote Ruth back and told her how much her words and invitation meant to me, and I began to write.  To write consistently.  To think of myself as a writer again.

And I began to step out and share my writing.  Each week, when I publish a post, I send it to a small group of friends and family. The women who post on SOS have also become my readers and I am so thankful for them.  I love reading their posts and am inspired by them.  We are a group of strong women who love to write.  We write about family triumphs and tragedies, we write about gardens and the discovery of grass spiders, we write about the joy of playing at seaside with a beloved nephew, we write about teaching, we share favorite recipes, and we write about our dogs and our favorite shoes.  We write and that is what’s important.  We write, and I am so grateful.

A Writer’s Dilemma

What is a simile

For the rainbow that forms

Beneath the waterfall

At the light of day?

What is a metaphor 

For the red bird

That hops hopefully

Among the bare brambles?

How to personify 

The indomitable, presence

In the morning sky

Announcing the day?

How to alliterate

The spider’s web glistening

High between forked branches

Overlooked and undiscovered?

The writer is left with ancient, brittle words

Which fall to her feet

And break and crack

Into sharp, uneven pieces.

Bending, she tries to salvage

One rough fragment,

One simple thought 

To set free upon the page.

The next poem was written as a response to e.e. cummings’ poem, Song I.

I love his work. He helps children think about and gives them permission

to play with words.  And as I’ve said before, it is always a good idea

to end with cake:

I have joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.

Some Thoughts on Geese

I’m taking some time to think and wonder about the world right outside my window. Since I live near the Great Swamp flyway, I get to witness lots of birds.  I am so lucky to look out my window and see hawks, vultures, turkeys, and all manner of songbirds.  It is the Canada geese who most grab my attention.  Geese are monogamous.  When they are two or three years old, they find a partner and mate for life.  Their loyalty has always intrigued me.  When I was young, Canada geese were a rare occurrence, but now they are common and are usually viewed and an annoyance.  A whole industry has been created to get rid of them: Birds Beware, Bird B Gone, Goosinator, and GooseBuster – to name a few. But I think geese are beautiful, graceful, and devoted friends.  They are bold and forthright. There is nothing deceptive about geese.  They are unapologetically simple and true.

Commitment

The Canada goose decided

To lay five perfect shiny white eggs

On the curb near the busy road

She did not choose the meadow

At the edge of the woods,

Or the thick grass by the pond.

No, she decided to lay her eggs

In the middle of the housing development

Where she would have no end

Of Human contact.

Cars whizz past and

Suddenly slow down to gawk,

Children screech from their car seats.

A middle-aged woman

Trots out of her apartment

With a plastic container

Full of cool spring water,

The goose hisses and flaps her wild wings,

The water spills, the woman retreats,

The children clap and laugh.

An hour later workmen come,

Cordon off and caution

With bright yellow tape.

The goose settles down softly,

Turning her eggs regularly,

Waiting so patiently.

We keep our distance, we wait.

Days and days pass, almost a month.

She does not eat, she does not drink,

She is vigilant.

Suddenly one day without fanfare

Five perfect fuzzy yellow heads emerge

From their steadfast mother

Peeping, peeping, peeping,

Their mother bends her

Sleek, graceful black neck

Tenderly caressing,

No longer waiting,

She stands, ruffles her feathers,

Her yellow brood following behind her.

Freedom

I draw open 

The heavy drapes 

In my bedroom

Look out to the

Shrubbery and thorny flowers

There he stands

A dark-headed sentinel

Staring with one black beady eye

Quiet and still

His webbed feet 

Providing sturdy balance.

He looks in my direction

And meets my gaze.

He rustles his sleek feathers,

Moves towards the adjacent patio

To stare intently through

The sliding door windows 

At the neighbor’s

Orange tabby cat,

Who suns himself

On the worn blue ottoman.

The goose unmoving watches

The cat stands, circles,

And shape-shifts –

All the while his 

Massive tail twitches.

This interests the goose

And he steps closer

To the window.

What creature is this?

What predator behind

Clear, strong glass?

The cat pretends not to notice

And turns his back.

The goose returns to his place

Under the cool pine tree.

He stands proud  

lifting his wild wings slightly

Catching the wind

Knowing he is free.

Finding Paris

A Paris State of Mind

This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity.  My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad.  The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure.  I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway.  First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast.  After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective.  It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists.  As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing.  There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others.  I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.

When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture.  Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me.  They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world.  I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.

Paris at 13

When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea.  And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.

I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon.  I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark.  And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets.  I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk.  I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression.  On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top.  It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted.  I could have eaten two more platefuls.  I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up.  I have yet to go back.  But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.

Paris in Montreal

Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years.  It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago.  Montreal is our North American Paris.  We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés.  My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free.  Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.

One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!

One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy.  It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.

Paris Metro

Standing on the platform –

Gleaming white tiles,

Everything clean and fresh

Even though we are underground.

It is a busy time in the morning,

The train screeches in –

I take a step back,

My father urges us into

A packed car and motions us

To get off again and then on again.

I get lost in the confusion.

They are on the train,

I am on the platform,

The doors slide shut.

My mother’s face is agony,

My sister’s face is amusement,

My father’s face is serious,

His hands motioning,

Wait for the next train!

Get off the next stop!

We will wait for you!

The train pulls out

Taking my family away.

The platform is empty now.

Just one lone American teenager.

I sit on a bench and lean

Against the cool tiles

I look at the bright billboards

I imagine myself in a new life

What would it be like

To stay in Paris?

I can see myself at school

Becoming fluent in French

Creating a new life.

The places I’d go,

The food I’d eat,

The person I was meant to be.

I hear a low, slow rumble

The next train arrives

Pushes the daydream

Out of my mind

I step aboard.

Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.

Memory is Hunger

Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley.   It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now.  Memory is hunger.”

This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory.  Often about our childhoods.  Often about my grandfather, Charlie.  The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details.  Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last.  Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him. 

Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees.  As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures.  Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade.  A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife.  He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk.  Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort.  Summer would not be summer without these.

Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens.  My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb.  He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree.  I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil.  It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me.  Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind.  The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.

This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations.  We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations.  My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals.  In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors.  As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more.  He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be. 

Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods.  Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.

Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast

 Ingredients:

4 slices of your favorite bread

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise

2 teaspoons honey

Directions:

  1. Toast bread.
  2. Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
  3. Top with sliced figs.
  4. Drizzle with honey.

Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs.  They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.

Watermelon Summer Salad

Ingredients:

¼ cup fresh Basil

4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled

1 ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
  2. Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
  3. Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
  4. Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
  5. Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
  6. Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily.  It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Apricot Crisp

Ingredients:

4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped 

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup old fashioned oats

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup sliced almonds

½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter square baking dish.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter).  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
  4. Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.  
  5. Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
  6. Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!

Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.

A Pause for Celebration

“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James

 

After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration.  There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified.  It seems insurmountable.  This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.

Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday.  It is Henry’s 40th birthday.   Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years.  In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students.  His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.

Then something unbelievably senseless happened.  One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver.  I did not know how to process this loss.  The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did.  I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.

Henry and I had many adventures together.  We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys.  Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up.  Gradually, we lost touch with each other.  However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!”  I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.

Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing.  I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years.  And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother.  I was so overjoyed.  We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away.  Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story.  I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote.  I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered.  I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now.  That made me sad for him, but also happy.  I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died.  I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.

Remember Me

Three days after Catherine died,

I took her young son home from school.

I put her key into her door

As her son pushed ahead,

Running through the house, calling,

“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?

I made a picture for you!”

He was three and didn’t understand

The permanence of death.

I ran after him,

Took him by the hand,

“You remember, Henry, don’t you?

Mommy’s not here.”

He leaned into me,

His face hidden between

The folds of my skirt,

“I remember,” he whispered.

 

We went into Catherine’s kitchen,

Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,

Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,

Built castles out of wooden blocks,

“When’s my mommy coming?”

Henry asked again.

I looked into his eyes,

“Henry, I’m sorry –

Mommy’s not coming home.”

“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,

She’ll be lonely without me.”

I turned my tears away,

Looked out the back door

Trying to find the words

To make him understand.

 

I caught a glimpse –

Something bright from Catherine’s closet,

One of her dresses, the Marimekko

With the bright flowers,

The one she wore the first time I met her.

I took Henry’s hand,

Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses

And laid them on her bed.

I picked up each dress, one by one,

Held them in front of Henry.

He looked up at me and knew what to do:

He hugged each dress,

Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,

“Good-bye Mommy,

Have fun in heaven,

Remember me,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Ascent: Sharing Our Stories

This week’s Sharing Our Stories prompt from Ruth Ayres was “spreading your wings wider.”  I thought about her words for a little while.  Lately, I’ve been spreading my wings a little wider each day even though we remain in quarantine.  It’s funny how being physically inside has made me become more open and wandering within my mind and heart.

I usually like keeping my writing to myself. I am very protective of it.  Too protective.  I know where that comes from so I try to encourage myself to take risks and reach out.  Today, I invited three friends to join SOS.  They are talented writers and need a helpful nudge, like Ruth nudged me on my 64th birthday.  I wouldn’t normally reach out to people – even friends.  But this online writing group is teaching me to read others’ words and connect.  I’m learning that my thinking is stretched and strengthened by others.  I know that intellectually, but now I’m coming to know it emotionally.

When I come to think about stretching my wings, taking chances, being wild – I think of all the abundance I have in my life and how that abundance has been revealing itself to me  these past months.  I have a 94-year-old father who lives by himself in a high risk COVID area – he remains healthy and safe.  This is good news because my relationship with him continue to heal and grow in beneficial ways. I have a mother-in-law who is very needy and lives far from me.  She has no other relatives nearby.  I am her lifeline and though sometimes, it is stressful, I think about all the lovely talks we’ve had about books (she was a research librarian and has a home library of 4,000 books).  Over the years, she has reminded me just how important books/knowledge is to personal development.

Thought it’s been a tumultuous year so far, I recognize all the things in my life that I am grateful for: my husband – who always encourages me to stretch my thinking, my family (sister, cousins, aunts, and nieces) who are there for support, my friends – and especially my friend, Molly, who is one of the most creative, positive, and courageous people I know, and the children I’ve taught for the past 42 years, who have come back to share their grown-up lives with me.  I am ever so grateful and blessed.

I use my poetry as snapshots.  They help me remember moments in my life.  This poem below fits so beautifully with how I’m feeling right now and how Ruth helped me spread my wings.

 

Ascent

This morning, if I hadn’t decided 

To hike around Lake Minnewaska,

If I didn’t choose the yellow trail

Up the mountain, past Gertrude’s Nose,

If I didn’t stop along the ridge

To watch the hawks circle above the pines,

If I hadn’t bent to tie my boot on the rocky path,

I would not have seen that single moth 

With wings folded upright, carefully clasped

Almost the color of birch bark or sunlit limestone

She would not have startled me 

With her out-spread, periwinkle wings –

I would not have witnessed 

Her ascent into the April air.

 

Come into the Garden

 

As a child, I took great delight in my grandfather’s garden.  Though it was just a small, backyard patch of land, my grandfather transformed it into a magical place with an abundance of vegetables and fruits.  He planted rows and rows of lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, a variety of squash and beans, tomatoes, and tall stalks of corn.  Grandpa also had an apple and a peach tree on which he’d graft branches of other fruit trees to expand his crop of fruits.  Our family would enjoy this bounty all year round.  Grandpa would make squash blossoms in the spring, set bowls of strawberries or cut generous slices of watermelon in the summer, we’d carved homegrown pumpkins in the fall, and savor his cinnamon-laced canned peaches in the winter.

No matter what the time of year, I loved wandering through grandpa’s garden.  I’d help him weed, concoct natural fertilizers from eggshells and coffee grinds, and set seedlings into the moist earth.  There was always something to keep my sister and me busy.  We would rake leaves, pick ripe fruit and vegetables, and gather up fallen tomatoes, setting them on a sunny sill to ripen. My grandfather would bring these garden treasures into his kitchen, creating delicious, savory and sweet treats.  Those smells and tastes remain in my memory.  My grandfather taught me that no matter how small the space, anyone could make the world beautiful.  All it takes is a little imagination and a lot of perseverance. 

Grandpa’s Garden

Grandpa’s garden stands green before me: 

Apple trees bloom pink-white,

Corn ripens on silky stalks,

Feathery carrot tops sway,

Watermelon vines wander aimlessly.

 

Grandpa and I walk among

Golden squash blooms,

Small green pears slowly ripening, 

Pumpkin vines crawling along the ground,

String beans climbing lazily towards the sun,

 

Grandpa’ hands, brown and weathered, 

Encourage tender shoots,

Smiling, he stands before me,

A perfect, sun-speckled peach,

A garden offering, in his hands. 

 

Squash Blossoms

No one quarrels

As the squash blossoms 

Are quickly plucked 

From slowly, spreading vines

In grandpa’s garden.

 

Under huge, green leaves

Grandpa’s rough hands,

Quietly gather the buds –

Tender green, yellow,

Mellow orange.

 

Wise fingers dip 

Blossoms in the batter.

Quivering as they sizzle,

A wonder to the tongue,

A springtime kiss.

 

Those memories always bring me comfort.  Though my grandfather died almost forty years ago, his garden remains with me and continues to give me sustenance. For that, I am ever grateful.  One magic recipe I made with my grandfather was squash blossoms.  They are a rare delight and well worth the effort.

Garden Recipe:  Squash Blossoms                                                                                              12-16 blossoms

You can pick squash blossoms from your pumpkin or zucchini plants.  Remember not to pick too many blossoms; otherwise you will have no pumpkins or zucchinis at harvest time.  If you don’t have a garden, you can get squash blossoms at your local produce stand, grocery store, or gourmet specialty store in the spring.

Flour mixture: Milk mixture:

1 cup cornmeal 1 cup skim milk

½ cup flour 1 egg

1 tsp. baking powder 1 egg white

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp baking soda

Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce:

½ tsp. Dill ½ cup apricot preserves

½ tsp. Chives 1 Tbsp. water

Canola oil for frying 2 tsp. lemon juice

2 tsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. yellow mustard

Directions: 

  1. In a medium bowl, combine all dry ingredients:  cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, dill, and chopped dry chives.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, egg and egg white.  Mix well.
  3. Dip blossoms one at a time in milk mixture and then roll in flour mixture.
  4. Place floured blossoms on a plate and place in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
  5. Pour an inch of oil in a frying pan.  Heat oil to bubbling. Place blossom in oil 3 or 4 at a time, turning until each side is light golden brown.  Remove blossoms from pan and set over paper towels. 
  6. Serve immediately with honey-mustard dipping sauce.

Making the Dipping Sauce: (Keeps for 2 days refrigerated)

Place all the ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth.  Transfer to a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wings Wide Open

 

Ruth Ayres recently encouraged me to think about what it means to live with arms wide open.  Even though I’m an introvert at heart, I love to take quiet risks.  I was born curious and that curiosity hasn’t subsided in my sixth decade of living.  I guess that’s why I also love teaching.  I am always looking for the new — looking to learn.

Last week, I found a new poetry form.  I never had heard of it before.  A new children’s poetry book, Nine:  A Book of Nonet Poems written by Irene Latham and illustrated by Amy Huntington, will be published in June. Nonets are poems with 9 lines and 45 syllables. Nonets can go in descending or ascending order (9-1 or 1-9 lines).  

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Nine+a+book+of+nonet+poems&i=instant-video&ref=nb_sb_noss

Line 1: 9 syllables                                                                                                                                  Line 2: 8 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 3: 7 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 4: 6 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 5: 5 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 6: 4 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 7: 3 syllables                                                                                                                            Line 8: 2 syllables                                                                                                                                Line 9: 1 syllable

I decided to have a go at writing nonets. I actually like the challenge of having to stay within a form.  It is somehow comforting to have parameters, boundaries – a garden border, a frame for my thoughts.

Nine Song Birds

In my yard, under the great green pine,

The songbirds gather in the shade

Pecking and chirping along:

Robin, jays, chickadees

With one joyous voice,

While woodpecker

Keeps the beat:

Rhythm – – –

Rhyme.

 

 

Buds

Buds

Blossom

Purple, white,

The crocus first,

In row upon row,

Then Yellow daffodils,

Golden guardians stand watch.

Sunshine in the form of flowers,

Long awaited spring returns and blooms.

As I continued to reflect on the idea of “arms wide open,” it made me think of the poem by Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Thing with Feathers.”  I had repeated that poem over and over again when my mother was gravely ill six years ago. On a crisp, blue early November day when she was cremated, I walked out into the cemetery and suddenly a flock of Canadian geese took flight.  They honked and flapped, creating a “V” as they lifted into the air. I smiled and took in this as a final good-bye from my mother whose name was Vivian.  She was a teacher too and an artist.  It was Vivian who taught me to live life with arms wide open.