Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Family, friends, the emails and notes and phone calls
that come from the friends so recently moved away from.
I am unceasingly grateful for my parents, my sweet grandma,
my brothers and the lovely families they have founded.

I feel absurdly grateful for Facebook.

I am grateful that our new home is as nice as it is,
that we are steadily getting to feel more and more
at home, that my husband spent the time
to find a place I would feel comfortable in.
I'm grateful that my daughter's spirit
is so buoyant and accepting.

My gratitude to the writers and artists
of the world is unending and vast.
I am grateful for winter sunshine this morning.
For leftover lasagna,
and all that the having of those leftovers implies.

I am, simply, grateful.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A brief dispatch from a new location

(That's a good title. It deserves more than a blog post...something to file away under "future poems")

We made it. The final day of going through the old house was kind of awful in that it just went on and on. We were underprepared. We had to rent a trailer for the "leftovers". I have learned a lot about moving, both on the practical end and on the emotional end. What was nice was that our drive, done in two stages with an overnight in between, was easy and eventless. What was nice was that I knew that at the other end of the whole ordeal my mother, a saint on earth, would be coming for a week to help us. And help us she did - with getting the kitchen put together; with keeping Cora entertained for a week without school; with putting up with living among mountains and piles and spires of boxes; and with generally assuring me that sanity was mine for the having.

There are still many boxes to unpack. I am sometimes appalled at how much stuff we have, and have to remind myself that we lived in our old house for twelve long years. That that house, though smaller than our new duplex apartment, actually had much more storage (including a basement). For example, this kitchen is the perfect size for someone who either doesn't much like to cook, or who mainly cooks one type of thing. For someone who cooks a variety of things, it can get a little cramped. As in, I have had to give up an entire bookcase so that I have space for all the herbs and spices. As in, my delicious curry habit is costing me about two feet of book-space! And when I think about it like that, it is hard to complain. Because I really, really, really love curries.

I am still finding my way around, still hoping to find work that does not involve wrapping other peoples' purchases or making them lattes, still trying to figure out where I might find a sack of white whole wheat flour. But, I have found a butcher shop that I already really like. And not just because the woman behind the counter was so kind to Cora, who insisted on bringing her stuffed piggie into the store and then lecturing the poor woman on how she could NOT chop up the pig because it is a STUFFED pig. Not a REAL pig.

In case this town was wondering, Cora has arrived.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

ACK!, or "what's that over there?!"

 We will be moving in just a few days. Boxes are everywhere, but there are not nearly enough of them. It would seem that the more time you spend in denial, the less gets done. In lieu of an actual post, I present photos of some things I've made recently.

Rapunzel on her way to the school party, also her last day at her beloved school. While I doubt I will win any wig-making awards with this one, she's pretty thrilled with it.

A new dress, as requested it is down to her feet.

Mmmmmm...pumpkin donuts....

Hard to get a good photo when they keep disappearing!

Knitting coffee sleeves is oddly satisfying.

I thought this fabric would make a cute skirt or dress, tried a new pattern out of a new book, hoped it would be liked.
Mission accomplished.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Computer games

A while ago I bought Cora a little toy "computer" - you can play number and letter games with it and it makes the most annoying monkey sound imaginable. We watch a fair amount of "Curious George" so I feel qualified to make that judgment. I think I bought it two years ago, and periodically she has pulled it out and pretended to work at her computer while I work at mine. But in the last six months she has begun to actually play the games.

I love watching her as she listens to the prompt and thinks about the answer.

And I love her victory dance when she gets an answer right. (Note the awesome skeleton pajamas. They glow in the dark! Although, Cora tells me that it kind of scares her when she looks at her legs under the covers and the bones glow. But she also likes it, so she keeps looking.)

Is there anything better than getting the answer right?!

Sunday, September 26, 2010


A week ago today we were coming to the end of our camping weekend - our first family camping trip, with borrowed tent and sleeping bags. Cora has been asking for months to go camping. I'm not sure what sparked her interest - whether it was something we read, something she saw on a TV show (did Curious George go camping? Oh, that's right, Olivia went camping! Mystery solved.) - and finally it seemed like the right time. Nothing else planned, fall weather so the mosquitoes might be dead or at least too weak to do much damage, and because it is the school year again, Chris could meet us if we picked a point half way between us. So we did. We found a State Park, reserved a campsite, and I started my lists.

The lists paid off. We had good meals. We had everything we really needed. I got to sit by the campfire reading Dracula the Un-Dead by flashlight (oh, the book is not good at all, except as a further permutation of the story, but I am reading it anyway!). We roasted marshmallows every night and that is still Cora's favorite part. I put my Girl Scout training, my family camping training, and my matriarchal fire-building genetic advantage to work in building the fire, making hobo packets, washing dishes in a basin, and generally accepting the discomforts of camping with as much fortitude as possible.

It was beautiful, it was relatively quiet. We were surrounded by trees. It came at the end of a week when I'd had the luck to spend two different days with friends who are also writers. I got my chapbook manuscript close to finished. I did some reading. By Sunday afternoon I was feeling more like myself - my idea of myself - than I have in a year. When Sunday afternoon rolled around, we got everything packed up, headed to the nearest town to have lunch together, and then drove our separate directions. We all felt good. We'd had a great weekend. Cora was excited to watch Alice in Wonderland (Disney animated version) on her little player. No tears.

After ten minutes on the interstate, the temperature warning light flashed red. Then the oil light came on. The car beeped at me. And then the smoke (later identified as steam; the water pump had blown out) started pouring out from under the hood. We pulled off on an exit ramp, called for help, got towed nine miles back to a little town with no Sunday mechanics. We stayed at a roadside motel - the managers were nice and helpful, but it was still a setting straight out of 45% of the horror movies ever made! (No deadbolt, no peephole.) We survived the night. We walked 30 minutes to the Ding Dong Cafe for breakfast. Our car was fixed by 4pm and we made it back home. Much of the serenity and self-restorative power of the weekend stripped away.

As we drove into our neighborhood I was explaining to Cora how camping had been so nice, and then our unintended adventure kind of ruined the weekend. She was shocked. But Mom! Wasn't it fun to eat snacks in the motel? Wasn't it fun to watch a new TV show?  Truthfully, it wasn't, for me. But I suppose the fact that she thought it was indeed fun, was simply another good adventure in the weekend, also says something about what the weekend did for my state of mind: I may have felt like the weekend was somewhat ruined by the misadventure, but I didn't ruin her weekend.

I'm almost as proud of that as I am of my fire-building skills.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Back to...um...

Well, I didn't go back to school this fall - no more teaching for me until sometime after we move. Yesterday would have been the first day of classes, and it was a day of mopey glumness. But, I am not without something having to do with "back" - as in, back injury, back pain, etc. Nearly two weeks ago I threw out my back (every time I say that I have a mental image of myself standing over the garbage can about to drop in a spine) - "all I did" was lean over in a twisted position and pick up Cora. You know, like I do every day, a couple of times a day. This was the wrong day for it though, and I am still working my way back to normal.

Why have that happen now? Let's see...loss of our oldest cat, Chris headed back to North Dakota, waiting to see what happens with the house sale, lack of access to standard stress-relieving activities...obviously, my back was a ticking bomb.

But, slow recovery notwithstanding, Friday is still a holy day to Cora because it is a STAY AT HOME day, and there is nothing she loves like a stay at home day. She gets to see some TV shows she doesn't usually, like CSI reruns...just kidding. There are some NickJr and PBS shows that she only gets to watch on Fridays. Also, since Chris's return to the long-distance daddy gig, I've tried to make sure we have some art projects and some cooking projects for Fridays.

But first is the freeform morning role playing. This morning I was a mommy, a baby, a hunter, a circus lady, and a police man. Cora was a daughter, a mommy, a hunting dog, a circus dog, and a police dog. But, here is my favorite conversation from when I was the daughter and she was the mommy:

Cora: Well, darling, now it is time for you to go into the world and live on your own!
Me: Really?
Cora: Yes, darling. Please just go.
Me: How old am I?
Cora (rolling her eyes): Thirteen! Of course!
Me: I think I'm too young.
Cora (in the tone of someone trying to be very patient): No, darling, and if you are lonely, you can adopt a baby who looks just like your mommy. Now, please don't argue with me anymore and just go into the world!

Later we made some paper dolls (really basic dolls) and dresses for them. And here's the shocking part - I finally gave in and got down on the floor so I could color next to her, and once I managed to stand back up, my back felt a lot better. Did it just need to be really pushed to do more? Will I pay an awful price tomorrow morning? Was it the magic of art therapy?

Cora has decided that every time Chris comes home we need to make a welcome home cake. Last week it was a real cake. This week it was gingerbread, which she is looking forward to eating tonight, even though the batter "looks like Arvo's throw up and it smells good AND bad." Then we made pizza dough for dinner tonight.

There's nothing like a kitchen helper who wears an apron, "pearls," and a tiara...and secretly eats flour when she thinks you aren't looking. There's nothing like having someone who thinks your art skills are amazing. There's nothing like being reminded that you are, in fact, always teaching.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Emily Marie, a cat, 1992-2010

When I moved to Minnesota, following a guy I'd been dating for about five months, my dad helped me load up my little white pick-up and drive my stuff out here. It was a three day trip, he didn't let me drive, and I loved spending so much time with my dad. I also bawled like a baby before we'd even left California, but nevermind that. We arrived on Nov. 1, 1992, and the next morning at breakfast he said, "Well, I think today we should get you a cat." (We also had to get ourselves some gloves, scarves, and hats, because we drove in with the first snowstorm.)

We found the nearest Humane Society location, finally figured out how to get there, and faced the daunting task of choosing among the dozens and dozens of cats there. There were cats who couldn't be around other cats, and cats in the "colony rooms" who were more sociable and well-behaved. I decided to start there. In the first room, none of the cats looked up when I entered, and none seemed too excited about the possibility of being adopted by a CA transplant trying to pass off a flannel shirt as a jacket.

So I went to the next colony room. When I walked in, only one cat turned her head to look at me. When I walked over to her, she jumped up onto my shoulder and began to purr. We took her into one of the "get acquainted" rooms and she continued to basically attach herself to me. Dad said, "I think you've got a cat." The vet at the Humane Society believed she was about nine months old. She'd been surrendered by a family that was moving and didn't want to pay a pet deposit (that's how it was phrased to me - perhaps they couldn't). Her name was Tasha.

We brought her home and I renamed her Emily Marie (for Emily Dickinson and Marie Curie). That first afternoon she took a nap curled up on my dad. She liked to sleep during the day in the bathroom sink. At night she would pull her favorite toy - a length of string - up into the bed and meow. She played fetch for a couple years. Our apartment was on the sixth floor of a building overlooking a freeway - she would sit in the window and watch the freeway, batting at the glass when am emergency vehicle or police cruiser went by with lights flashing. She once ran over and licked the speakers the first time she heard Brahms. When we moved to a duplex, she found new favorite spots and games. When we decided to get a second cat to keep her company...well, she put up with him. Mostly.

For the last few months she's been on a long slide downwards. In the last two months she began to let Cora pet her. She stopped coming upstairs at night. She begged for milk and cream constantly, but lost weight until she was only about 3 pounds. On Monday we took her to a very kind vet who had been seeing her, who gave us the space to make our own decision. She walked out of her carrier onto the soft blue blanket they had spread on the table. She lay down and waited while we signed paperwork and petted her. She waited patiently for the vet to find one of her tiny tiny veins with his tiny tiny needle, and then she just lay her head down and stopped. We had time alone with her, petting her, talking to her, until we felt like that soft furry body wasn't really her anymore.

During this time, Cora was with friends, who had lost one of their cats earlier in the year; people, I told her, who would know how she felt. I had talked with her starting a few weeks before about how Emily was getting closer to her time to die. We talked about other people we know who have lost pets in the past year. We read some books. She frequently expressed a wish that Emily wouldn't die. She wanted us to take a picture of her petting Emily. She would often pet Em's head very tenderly and say, very seriously, "Is it your time, Emily? Are you going to die?" Monday night she told me she would miss Emily's soft and beautiful fur. Tuesday night she cried because she wanted to kiss Emily one more time.

I understand that. I still think I see her out of the corner of my eye, standing on the table, wandering into the kitchen. I think I feel her jumping onto the bed. I wonder if our other cat, Arvo, has become so much more vocal in the past five months as a way of anticipating and mourning her death. I think about how she came into my life when I moved to Minnesota, and how she has left it just as I am preparing to leave the state.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Joining the heat

We've been having a week of hot and humid weather here in the Twin Cities - one of my least favorite kinds of weather (usually followed by another least favorite: big thunderstorms). We've been eating salads, sandwiches, snacky lunches and dinners, skillet meals, nothing that would use the oven or have to be cooked for very long.

Today I decided that we would just have to suffer the consequences.

Earlier in the week, Chris and Cora had mixed up a batch of dough for rosemary-whole wheat-flaxseed baguettes from the Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day book (I borrowed it from the library, copied out some recipes, and am now waiting for a copy to drop from the sky into my lap...or to be able to buy one later this fall). Whole wheat bread has been my nemesis this summer - I have had trouble finding a recipe I like that has both a good taste and a good texture. So, we made two baguettes to go with our pesto spaghetti tonight. I also, at the behest of Cora, made a pan of chocolate chip cookie bars. To round out the meal we had a little melon from our farmers - a variety of cantaloupe - and a simple tomato salad - four kinds of tomatoes, salt & pepper.

I know it is a good dinner when Cora eats it all, eats two cookies, curls up on the couch, and falls asleep at 8pm.  Plus, the bread turned out fantastic! Not only great tasting, but also beautiful. If only our camera were not out of batteries!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Well-stocked, and proud of it

About two months ago a friend paid me a compliment that I keep returning to and treasuring. She was helping me pack up and rearrange things in the pantry, in anticipation of the house going on the market. At one point she told me that she really admired and envied my well-stocked pantry.

I know that many, many cookbooks are happy to tell you what you should have in your pantry, what a "well-stocked pantry" will have. But what I find is that it is more important to know what my family likes, eats, and tends to think would be tasty. Lots of tomato products. Various kinds of beans and rices and pastas. Certain produce should always be on hand, certain condiments. Certain categories of food can be completely dispensed with (any kind of fish, any canned soup product).

My friend's comment was especially nice to hear because I do take a certain secret (up until now) pride in my pantry - in the readiness of it. I like it that I can do a decent amount of baking and cook on the fly, if need be. I like being able to pull a nice lunch together on the spur of the moment, especially in the summer when Chris and I are both pretty much home for lunch together most days. It's nice to grab up a bunch of good-looking peaches at the store and come home and waffle between pie and cobbler for a while, and know that either one could be made from what is on hand. Or bringing home an awful lot of zucchini in a CSA box and knowing I have everything I need for zucchini bread.

Getting those CSA boxes has really given me some great opportunities to exercise my pantry - both the physical pantry and also what I think of as my mental pantry, which is not so much stocked with food as with ideas about food. I have loved our CSA this summer - I learned a lot last summer about how to manage the box, what to expect, and how to work in new veggies for my family. There have been many fewer incidents of throwing things away completely unused. There have been times we haven't used something up entirely, and there have been times we just couldn't bring ourselves to eat more of something (I'm looking at you, kohlrobi), but on the whole, way fewer than last year.

The other night I made a fresh corn polenta recipe from the recent Bon Appetit - the only thing I needed from the store was the mascarpone. We had it with grilled chicken with some leftover jerk marinade that Chris has made a few days before, and with green beans - all the veggies involved were from the CSA. There was leftover polenta, of course, and once refrigerated it firmed up nicely. Earlier in the week I'd made tomatillo salsa from CSA tomatillos, onions, and jalapenos, and we had that with stacked cheese enchiladas, but there was extra salsa, of course.

So, the other day, faced with lunchtime and not wanting a sandwich, I started poking around the mental pantry. Here's what we ended up with: leftover chicken (retail chicken, nothing too virtuous there), and then a pan-fried polenta slice topped with a salad of chopped tomatoes (two kinds from the farmer's market) and black-eyed peas that just happened to be in the pantry and the leftover tomatillo salsa. It was the kind of plate that I find myself looking at with great satisfaction.

It was a combination of the "luck of the box" from the CSA and a prepared pantry. And it fit in with what we are striving towards: only buying what we might call ingredients, basic building blocks, and trying to buy locally and/or responsibly. (In this last respect, that leftover chicken totally didn't fit in.) But if we can keep to these rough guidelines, we can have meals like that: Totally unplanned, totally made up, totally delicious.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hold on / Let go

From the ages of about 5 to 15 there were few things I loved more than dancing. Somewhere towards the end of that period, around the age of 11 or so, I had to admit that it was unlikely that I would ever be good enough to make a life of it, and eventually some recurrent knee issues really put that thought to bed. I like to think that I can still appreciate dance.

But I'm having trouble mastering the steps to the dance I am currently engaged in. This hold on/let go dance of moving, of waiting for a house to sell, of leaving - in painful gradations - people and places I love, of looking for places to fit into in the new place, of leaving room for new people, of managing the emotions, bedtimes, meals, expectations, and needs of our little family. Every day is both rehearsal and performance. Every day requires changes in the choreography.

Today has been a day when it seems the only part of the dance I'm able to execute with any ability is the "hold on" part - and, of course, I think we all know that it is the "let go" part of the dance that earns the applause.

Monday, August 2, 2010

No blueberry-picking, but plenty of Snow White and fairy tale musings

But I wish this were a post about blueberry picking - I have read so many blog posts about blueberry picking in the last weeks, seen so many luscious photos of berries in boxes and baskets and pies and jam jars and cakes and ice cream bowls! I have been beset with terrible blueberry-picking envy. I thought of it too late to pull it together, which is a shame. I really love blueberries. Cora and Chris love blueberries, too, and we are certainly eating our share of retail berries. Mostly in cobblers and pancakes and yogurt and just fresh-washed out of a bowl. And now the peaches are threatening to eclipse the blueberries in our hearts. Such is the fickle nature of summer.

I finally got around to downloading the Flip camera. We had movies on there going back to early May. Yikes. But I think perhaps my favorite movies are a two-part sequence of Chris and Cora re-enacting Snow White. I think you will agree that Chris earns his Daddy stripes by participating in this, knowing it would be filmed and (of course!) posted. I only wish I had caught on camera the effort that went into Cora perfecting her technique for the "apple rolling away from my dead hand" move.

Last fall, in class we read fairy tales and academic essays on fairy tales and folklore. I was really surprised that none of my students, all first-year college students, *none* of the 40 students, were at all familiar with any of the more traditional versions of the tales. They knew nothing about red-hot iron dancing shoes, eyes pecked out by doves, walking on knives, etc. None knew the Bluebeard story, even! (I feel like I did pop culture a service by teaching these tales, the oldest and the newer reimaginings.) And over and over what they said was, "Who would let their kid read these?! Who would tell these stories to children?!" They were scandalized as only 18-year-olds can be.

Imagine their horror when I confessed that not only did I read and tell these stories to my girl, but that she really liked them.

I always go back in my mind to my good memories of tucking myself away in the back (the back-back) of the family station wagon and reading and rereading the volumes of Grimm and Andersen tales on family trips. I so loved those stories (my favorite is "The Goose Girl")! They were pretty accurate old-time translations, too. With the occasional illustration. I especially remember one of the end of a story wherein the evil character was turned into a giant black poodle that was forced to eat hot coals for the rest of its (presumably short) life. That thrill of revulsion and shock was delicious.

I also remember doing a paper on Maurice Sendak and all that he said about children and what adults think is too scary for kids is probably not half as scary as what already exists in the child's mind and fears. I agree with that. I read those tales now, and I think they are scarier for an adult - because as adults, we know that while we would like to think that people don't abandon their children in the woods when times are tough, a casual read through a newspaper will tell you such things do in fact happen today.

I also read something my cousin Traci wrote recently about why she identifies with Ariel from The Little Mermaid (Disney version) - how she feels born to sing (and sings beautifully), but struggles with losing her voice due to recurrent throat health issues. That she is also curious and sometimes naive. And that reminded me again about how we find ourselves in literature. Just as that poor goose girl ended up finally whispering her troubles to an old stove, here I am talking to the internet.

And, finally, at least in fairy tales, we do still get the happy endings we crave after all the trauma and tension.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Last night while Cora and I were eating dinner she announced that she was the mommy and I was the daughter. This actually happens on a nearly daily basis. But, in a new twist, this time I was told that now that I was five years old, I had to stop sucking my thumb and be a big girl.


Cora herself is four, still a fairly new four, and still quite a devotee of The Thumb. The thumb-sucking as diminished over this year, mostly only popping up when she is tired, sad, scared, or falling asleep. Because it is diminishing, I haven't ever made a fuss about it. In the winter I try to get her to lay off a little due to the chapping (ugh), but that's about it.

Further discussion and role-playing revealed that I could still put my thumb in my mouth if I were really, really scared, if I was falling asleep, and if I was at home.

I should know better, but I am still sometimes amazed at her ability to plan ahead.

Now reading: Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman

Yesterday I found myself with an hour and a half between when a meeting ended and when I needed to pick up Cora. Not quite long enough to go home and accomplish anything before having to be right back in the same part of town. My meeting had been at a coffeeshop, so the last thing I needed to do was to go somewhere and have another cup of coffee. So, of course, I ended up in a bookstore. I can always kill some time in a bookstore, though there is the substantial risk of purchasing something.

Needless to say, I succumbed. I walked out of the store with a copy of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, a nonfiction book. I’ve read most Waldman’s other books, the MommyTrack mysteries and also the novels, and I remember when she was branded a “bad mother”. It is always nice (if you ask me) to see good work come out of something like that, and Bad Mother is definitely good work.

The book caught my eye because this very subject has weighed on my mind quite a bit in the last year or so. One of the questions Waldman asks in the first chapter is “Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked into the cultural zero-sum game of ‘I’m Okay, You Suck’?” (19). She looks at those tropes of society, the Good Mother and the Bad Mother (and wonders why the bar is set so low for Good Fathers: “a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive” (11)). She looks at judgment, the judgments we pass on ourselves as mothers and on each other.

I’ve only read through the first chapter, but I am hooked. I knew I would like Waldman’s voice, but I also like the way she lays out the playing field, the way she ropes in modern references (Andrea Yates, Brittany Spears) and literary ones (Anna Karenina, late-Victorian poster girl for Bad Mothers, and Medea). I like the way she is both very funny and very serious – that this is serious business is never obscured.

While I’ve never been held up for public excoriation, as Waldman has, I know that I have felt the weight of judgment from other mothers. And I know that even though my mantra with Cora is “different families have different rules” (different needs, different challenges, different ideals), I do sometimes wonder if in some cases different actually is wrong.

Of course, there are different rules which are wrong – abuse is wrong, I think we can all agree on. Shame is wrong, many would agree on. And so on. But between the clearly wrong and the lofty ideal, there is a lot of open space. There is a lot of room for difference, for comparison, for jockeying for position to be closest to Good.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the book; I may come back to talk more about it (fair warning!)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Those old-time fairy tales.

On one of the PBSkids sites, there is a drawing game. You're supposed to draw a habitat for a specific imaginary animal. We did something different. Then you have a chance to write a story about the animal. Cora told me what to draw and what to write. You can see that hearing about red-hot dancing shoes and wolf-eaten grannies has not influenced her story-telling at all. Not at all.

(I'm told that in the story, Julia does come back to life. But "that story isn't part of this picture" - I tried.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Long Live the Kitchen Table

There have been a couple times in the last few weeks when I have been in the kitchen and felt entirely at peace - which is a funny thing to say, because it is usually the times when I have two things going on the stove and something in progress on the counter, and a growing sink of dishes. It's like that old saying about the duck - serenely floating above the water, paddling like mad beneath - except that for once I actually feel like the top part of the duck!

(And here is how life with Cora is currently affecting me: I have an irresistible need to say Guess what? Duck butt!)

I am having a good and successful time using up nearly everything from our Harmony Valley CSA box. (I cannot say enough good things about Harmony Valley.) I found a new cobbler recipe that is quick and easy and comes out the way I want it to. I made a cherry pie with cherries from a friend's trees that I loved, which is amazing, because I have not, historically, had much interest in cherry pies.

Every summer it seems like there are a few dishes that become the Dish of the Summer and that get made about every other week, or more frequently. And I'm not just talking about things like quesadillas or ham and pea pasta! Last summer it was a black-eyed pea-feta-and tomato salad. This summer it has been my version of a Rick Bayless Beans-Greens-and-Chorizo taco filling and a wilted spinach and bacon and egg salad. What I find astonishing here is the presence of greens and spinach - not previously staples of our table - but this summer we are all about the greens. Even Cora, though she is a dedicated raw food purist when it comes to her vegetables. And her fruits - she is not a fan of pie. Or cobbler. Or tarts. Or even blueberry pancakes (!!) - she wants her blueberries on the side, please.

The kitchen often feels like the one area of the house, and my life, that I am in control of, or where I feel fully prepared and competent. Even though our kitchen is off in a corner of the house, it feels like the center. And if I can keep centered there, then I can carry that into the other areas.

I admit it: lately I envision myself as an octopus. Only psychically, of course. Or does that sound worse? But, I do try to pull myself, my tendrils or tentacles, from that center, that calm and knowing center, rather than from the places where it all feels like chaos and limbo and anger and sadness. Those are the places I am not enjoying finding myself lately. Not much gets created in those places that is going to nourish anyone.

Today I ran into the poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo. Her first line is "The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live." And later she writes "It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human."

Oh yes. And this summer, I would say that the instructions served up by our kitchen table are: Be creative. Learn to love what you thought you would not. Make something your own. Know where you are safe, and how to carry that safety with you.

July: Opera Month

This month has been opera month at our house. We finally reached the premiere of the opera Chris and I have been working on for the past three years - and lately I have been walking around marveling at the fact that we wrote a show that has sold out five performances in two locations! By the end of the month about 1300 people will have seen it. That is kind of amazing to me, still.

Last night, as I sat and watched and listened, I could remember doing the research for the story, learning about life in a small Wisconsin town in 1900, about lumberjacks and logging camps, about the nearly unmentioned abundance of "crazy" old men living hermit-style just outside the towns, almost all of them amputee veterans of the Civil War (call it Soldier's Heart or PTSD, it has always been there), about folksongs. I learned so much more than what made it into the opera! And then starting to put the story together, learning the characters, the false starts and abandoned plots.

The opera was commissioned to be about a moment in a small town's history, a moment when the town changed its name in the hope of attracting a factory, more jobs, more people. I wanted to be sure that, while staying true to the historical moment, it was also a story that was about people now as much as it was about people then - about having to make choices, about the hard choices we have to make when something changes, about how far a person might be willing to compromise, and when compromise becomes unacceptable. It's a story I certainly recognize, and it has been rewarding to hear that other people have, too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cocktail meditation

As I typed that title, it occurred to me that perhaps I could pioneer a new form of meditation. Like walking meditation, only this would be cocktail meditation. Mindful drinking. Think about it.

I've had the opportunity twice in the last week to go out for drinks with friends, which has been lovely and fun. Not, perhaps, meditative exactly. But I will say that on both occasions I felt very present in the moment, centered. Most recently, I was struck by the way a cocktail choice can capture your mood, your personality, or your aspirations.

My choice was the Rosemary Pear Martini – I liked the sound of it: herbal, light, sweet, clear. I've been trying to be more sweet and clear myself, lately, and while the pear is not my favorite fruit, in combination with the rosemary it sounded more interesting that plain pear. Oh, it was delicious! So delicious, that the next evening I did something I rarely bother to do. I tried to recreate it.

In such endeavors, it helps to be the kind of person who has a bundle of rosemary in the fridge and a half-empty bottle of pear cognac in the cupboard.

First I made some rosemary syrup: a simple syrup with some sprigs of rosemary thrown in. I used 1 cup water, 1 cup white sugar, two long sprigs of rosemary - boiled it all together until the sugar dissolved and the syrup took on a pale green color. It makes about a cup of syrup, which may seem like too much...but I bet it would also be good in a gin fizz, and in green iced tea.

In a shaker with ice combine:
pear liqueur or pear cognac
rosemary simple syrup
lemon juice and strip of zest

I tried the proportions of two parts vodka to one part pear to 1/2 part syrup, 1/2 part lemon juice. But I think it needs more pear, actually. And I would leave the syrup and lemon juice at equal amounts.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

(Another) Love letter to my CSA

I love my CSA; this you already know. I've written before about how we tried a CSA about 12 years ago and the amount of bok choy we received was...daunting. But last summer we tried again, and fell in love. This summer we signed up with the same CSA as last year, Harmony Valley, and I find it even more exciting. Usually around Tuesday night I start checking the web site to see what we might be getting in our box, and I start thinking about the next week's menu. Then, on Thursday, we pick up our box. (This year we also bought a coffee share and a sample cheese share - heaven! And, wow, we drink a lot of coffee.)

Although, like any activity done with a four year-old, it can sometimes be more exasperating that expected, I do like to take Cora with me to pick up the veggies from "our farmers." On the best days, she helps me unpack the veggies from our box into our grocery bags, and we talk about each thing as we move it. I love that she will try almost anything while we are standing there in a stranger's garage. Last week she ate a bite of cabbage leaf, some fennel fronds, some carrot greens, an amaranth leaf, and cheered for the broccoli.

So, here are some of the meals we'll be having (or already had), thanks to our box of veggies; I'll put an asterisk by the things that came in the box.
- salads with beets* and blue cheese* (but Chris had feta, as the blue is too blue for him)
- carrot top* and basil pesto on orechiette
- Welsh rarebit (cheddar*), with simple potato salad and blanched carrots* and broccoli*
- cabbage* and paneer curry with a fennel*-golden raisin rice
- greens (amaranth*), black beans, and chorizo tortilla filling with salad (quesadillas for Cora with jack cheese*)

And of course the garlic and scallions we got will find their way into these and other dishes as the week goes on. I'm getting better at using everything before it goes bad, and at leaving in the "share box" things I know we will not use (sorry, kohlrabi, we gave you a good try, but weren't eager to eat you again right away). One thing I like about doing the menu-planning this way is that I start with certain pieces to the puzzle, and then have to try to find ways to make as many of them as possible fit, with as many pieces from the cupboards as possible. And I think I did pretty good, because after I made the plans, I only had 15 things on the shopping list that were new non-staples to be bought (I'm not counting things like milk and eggs and fruit that we would be buying every week regardless). Of course, this is also thanks to two other things: a well-stocked pantry and knowing our tastes well. I may not always need coconut milk, but if it is on sale, I know it is worth picking up a can.

So I'll end with one more food-news item, unrelated to the CSA (mostly). One of our favorite sides, come spring, is a caprese salad. Just typing that makes me think about basil and tomatoes! But, for Cora, it is all about her favorite cheese, the "squishy cheese" - fresh mozzarella. Luckily, she will also eat basil, but for the last two months she has been resisting the tomatoes. I don't even try to put one on her plate anymore. So tonight, with our pizzas, when I passed the caprese around, I just gave her cheese and basil. I would say this is probably the ninth or tenth time we've had caprese this year. After a few minutes, she ASKED if it would be OKAY if she tried a tomato. Of course, we tried to be very nonchalant about saying yes. She ate four pieces of tomato. Hallelujah! I believe this means that eventually beets will be tried as well.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vitality - work and collaboration

Tonight I enjoyed a double privilege: being interviewed about my work, and seeing someone I'd only know socially be engaged in her own work with skill, enjoyment, and vitality. For the first part, we are now just under a month away from the premiere of the opera Chris and I have been working on. We are so lucky that the opera is not only going to have a two-performance premiere in the town the opera takes place in, but we will also have a three-performance run in the Twin Cities. For a new American opera, this is incredible, and we are thrilled.

I know this sounds terribly geeky, but I take real pleasure in watching someone work, when that person really enjoys her, or his, work, and especially when I know the person, but not at all in a professional capacity. The woman who interviewed us, and who will be putting together a 30-minute radio program about the opera complete with clips from rehearsals, is someone I know through a friend and have seen at a handful of social occasions. It was fun to see her at work, to see that side of her - especially because she clearly enjoys and is good at what she does.

The opera project has, from the beginning, been a collaboration between Chris and I, between our composer-librettist team and the producer, and now expanding to include the singers, the instrumentalists, the production team. And now expanding again to include another creative person. I can't wait to see how she puts together the things we said with the other interviews she conducted and the songs - how she, in essence, orchestrates her program.

Collaboration can be hard work. Chris and I are lucky in that we already collaborate on so much in building our lives together, and so when we come to a project like the opera, we know how each other works. We know we can trust each other. We know what each others best work looks and sounds like. We have this now built in - instead of having to build it from scratch while the project is ongoing (I've done that - it can be painful and frustrating when it doesn't come easily or when the partners are mismatched). And, when collaboration works - in any field, the arts, business, a family - it energizes every part of the project. This is also what I find exciting about that happens in the classroom, when things are really working.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Waking up

As part of getting our house ready to go on the market and be shown, we took down the curtains in the bathroom. These are curtains that the previous owners had made, roman shade style things, and it had been a long time since they'd last been washed. So...they tore in the dryer. We needed new curtains. Quick. Cheap. I was going to have to make replacements.

The week before I had, reluctantly, packed up my sewing machine. It was in a big box somewhere in the garage.

But I had kept out a couple needles and pins.

So, we went to the quilt store - not the cheapest fabric, but my best chance of finding a fabric I liked - bought a print for the bathroom side and a solid for the window side. I love the print. It just so happens I bought enough to be able to make Cora a little dress sometime. I don't know how that happened. And that night I sat and sewed the new shade by hand.

That was about two weeks ago. Now, I have itchy fingers. I want to make something. I'm wishing I had some scraps of fabric - I am thinking about making a little old-school doll quilt. Something handsewn. From templates. Something scrappy and sweet.

I've also been reading, finally. During the year I kept up with what my classes were reading, and I would read an article online now and then, some other blogs, but not what I would call real reading. I mean, for the last several years I've averaged between 65-70 books a year, and last year it was far fewer than that. And it has taken a while for me to feel ready to take a book back up in a serious way - a novel, not just a "candy bar" (don't get me wrong, I love the candy bars). But in the last week...I've read three good novels (thank you, public library!). Atwood's The Year of the Flood, Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, and Walter Mosley's The Man in My Basement.

And, now it feels like my brain is settling back into place. I'm thinking about writing again. I'm thinking about what else I want to read. I'm thinking about who I am, who I want to be. I feel like the last ten months have been about being who I needed to be - similar to the time right after Cora was born, actually, though that felt more biologically-driven, and this more recent experience felt more driven by logic, by what I knew rather than felt had to be done. I'm still thinking through all this, still feeling out the shape of it, but it's good to have a start at the distance to see it more clearly.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A new look

Yeah, I changed things around a little bit. You know, everything else is changing, why not the blog look? (BlogLook? Blook? Yikes.)

Just checking to see if you are paying attention. Or, you know, maybe you are watching a princess movie. Or a dinosaur movie. Or something like that.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Art

I am sitting in a motel room in WI, Cora asleep in the bed, Chris at a concert, the room filling up with darkness as the world beyond the open window fills with evening birdsong and highway thrum, and I am thinking about that Elizabeth Bishop poem "One Art" and in particular, these lines:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I think I am thinking about these lines because earlier this evening we were all down
in the motel pool and at the end I was sitting and waiting for Chris to coax Cora out of the
water and my mind wandered to memories of our backyard pool when I was in high school,
and I was thinking that having that pool was one of the very best things about high school,
as I see it now. I loved being in that pool, lying on hot cement next to it after being in the
water for a long time, the feeling of the heat soaking into a wet suit. I would read stretched
out on the diving board. My brothers and I played games there - made up games of baseball
while sitting perched on boogie boards.

And I was thinking about places, bodies of water, I've left behind - that pool, the ocean,
a beloved lake, and soon a river, and those lines popped into my head. I am finding there is
something about a motel room, a cool evening, birdsong, a highway, and a sleeping child that
all conspire to make it very easy to think about loss. That is the art in Bishop's poem, after all,
the art of losing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Holy Moley It's a New Post!

Or that is what I imagine my mother saying. (And my other six readers, bless your hearts.)

I'm not going to to fill in from my missing time incident, but jump right to the important stuff, which is what I made for dinner tonight. The mixed greens stir fry from p264 of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, with Napa cabbage, spinach, and hon tsai tai, the latter two coming from our beloved CSA (yes, we signed up again!). With brown basmati rice and a few variations (more garlic, more ginger, a little teriyaki sauce, and so on). Yum! Cora tried a bite of the greens, and while she didn't want more, she didn't spit it out. Round these parts, we call that a success. She did eat her bowl of rice, plus some cheese, ham, and crackers.

Today I collected the final papers from my students, and graded them. I was really pleased with the papers this time around, though frankly I had designed the assignment so that it would take a real act of homework disregard to screw it up. And then I was really happy to be COOKING and enjoying it again. I even have plans to make a cake tonight, still. I think it is partly that Chris is home again, that the semester is over, and also that we have made our decisions.

I can't say that our decision completely fulfills all my hopes for the next few years, but this year apart has also helped to clear up my priorities to the point where I am mostly content with the fact that we are moving to Grand Forks.

There. I said it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Turn here for Memory Lane

Today I watched Natalie Merchant's Feb 2010 performance on TED; she sang songs from her new album, settings of old poems. It was terrific, especially her setting of Hopkins' "Spring and Fall", a poem I love dearly. Then at the end, for an encore, an old 10,000 Maniacs song.

And then I spent some time in the storage closet looking for my old tapes, remembering how many times I listened to those songs in Santa Barbara, in my old apartment, humming them on the walk to the beach, singing along with a friend at her place in Ojai. You know, throwing myself a big nostalgia party.

These are some of the songs I listened to while I packed up my apartment, getting ready to move to the Twin Cities.

These songs cover a lot of emotional territory for me. I found the tapes. I'm not sure I'm really ready to play them again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A good morning

Despite the fact that Cora woke up at 6am, this morning is nice. She laid in bed pretty quietly for another half hour (a bad dream last night sent to my bed at about 10pm, and she seems to finally be grasping the concept of "don't push Mommy off the bed"). Then she played in her room for another half hour. Given that I finally weaned myself off the baby monitor, this was actually restful for me.

Once I got up, we had a tea party. Then she wanted to get dressed. She colored while I made French Toast. She ate four pieces of French toast, a banana, a cheese stick, and drank a cup of juice. Right now she's watching Dinosaur Train ("Our favorite show, Mom!!!") and wearing her Palm Sunday outfit: pink polka dot dress, pink striped pants, rainbow shoes. I'll try to get a photo.

It's the kind of weekend morning that was so rare to have this past fall, and is becoming something more dependable. It's nice. After a couple months of feeling like I am struggling uphill with this girl, now it feels more like we can meet each other on more even ground. Yesterday we were at a birthday party...at a toy store (I know). We had talked in the car about how we weren't going to buy anything, but that fell apart when Cora spotted a ballet bunny play set. And, frankly, if it had been a $5 thing I might have just bought it. But this was $20.95. After about 30 minutes of off and on tears and negotiations, she made the choice to put it back and wait for another time. It was a relief and a surprise. This girl, she is growing up.

I am liking the way age 4 looks from this vantage point: five weeks to go!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Four new reasons why spring has to be on the way

This morning was a good morning. I dropped Cora off at school and we went through our new ritual where she walks me to the lunchroom door, gives me something out of her "pocket", holds the door for me, gets one more kiss, and then runs back to her cereal. Then I went to my favorite neighborhood cafe for a coffee and a muffin (plus a bag of coffee beans and a baguette) and waited for the Co-op to open. There is something about going to the co-op that makes me happy about cooking. I've struggled with that this year, with finding the happy in the cooking, as exhaustion and cooking for a preschooler has taken a toll. But I've got it today, and I am happy about that.

(I have to point out: preschooler. Not toddler. I'm trying to break the habit of calling her a toddler, because she is so not a toddler. A mother of one of the 2nd graders who is at Cora's daycare for before and after schoolcare stopped me in the hall the other day to say she had had quite a conversation with my daughter, and can't believe how many words she knows. I know! It's crazy! I love it! She also winks!)

Today at the co-op they had something guarenteed to stop me in my tracks. Seeds. A big display of seeds.

It is only March. Early March. I exercised restraint and only bought four packets. Brought them home. Took their picture. Decided I wanted to be able to see them all the time until I get their little seed-butts in the ground. (The best joke in our house right now? "Guess what!" "What?" "Chicken butt!" Oh yeah. Incredibly funny EVERY TIME.) SO, of course, I taped them up on the cupboards in the kitchen.

Where I tape all the things I want to see everyday. Don't you?

(One day, probably in an alternate universe,
I will have two English bulldogs
and their names will be Muscles and Roosevelt. )

Friday, February 12, 2010

What groundhog? or, thinking of spring and fresh food

I was surprised what an impression Groundhog Day made on Cora. She came home knowing all about Punxatawny Phil, though she insists he lives in Milwaukee and is named PunxaTONY Phil. She was disappointed about the six more weeks of winter. She was a real snow bunny last year, but this year she is not into it at all. This year it is all about spring, and when is spring coming, and how in the spring it will be warm and Daddy will be home!

We have a book, When Will It Be Spring?, that we have been reading often this month. It's about little Alfie bear and his first hibernation and he keeps waking up his mama to see if it is spring - he mistakes frozen leaves for birds in the trees, a hunter's campfire for the sun, and snowflakes for butterflies. Cora and I take turns being Alfie or Mama and playing the game of the story.

We talk about how in spring we can plant her garden again with radishes and carrots and pink flowers. In spring we will start getting vegetables from the farmers again - we reupped for the CSA, hooray! - and we will get out her tricycle and be able to walk to the park again. We'll plant my flowers again. We'll attack the weedy bits of the garden again. We'll have patio parties again and grill again.

I am particularly excited about the CSA and having more fresh and local produce. I was thinking the other day about the places I go to buy our food, and how somethings can only be had from certain stores and that is what keeps me from cutting out one of them. There's Whole Foods (the cats' crunchies come from here - lowest protein content without filler and without prescription food prices), the conventional grocery story (my usual brands of certain canned and packaged foods come from here, plus it is the most convenient to our usual driving routes), the co-op (local produce, local cheeses, locally roasted coffee, one cat's canned food), the CSA, the grocery delivery service (though I am using them less as I recommit to eating more produce and I like to pick that out myself, and see it before I buy it), and during the warmer months the farmers market (especially for the local organic meat). Now, even I can look at this paragraph and see one good reason why I have no spare time! The easiest to cut out, and the ones I have the most reason to cut out, are also the most convenient: the conventional store and the delivery service.

I'm also thinking about this because I just watched Jaime Oliver's TED prize talk over at TED.com, and it was inspiring and reminded me of all the ideas and plans I had when I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and whenever I pick up one of my favorite cookbooks. I really do want to be making more of our food. I really do want that food to have more grains and produce in it. I really do want to pass on to Cora a passion for cooking and for, as my favorite cafe puts it, good real food.

And I want to do it without waiting six more weeks for spring. (Ha! We live in the upper midwest; we probably have eight to ten more weeks until spring!) Which is why I'm off to the co-op today to buy poblanos, white onions, potatoes, chard, leeks, a rutabaga, a scarlet turnip, and some other ingredients for soups, tacos, and risottos.

And for brownie sundaes. It is Valentine's weekend, after all.

(the double rainbow photo is from spring 2009)

Sunday, January 31, 2010

That's right, I MADE a dog!

A lot of the dissatisfaction I have been feeling in recent months has had to do with how nearly impossible it has become to find time to *make* something. I made some fingerless gloves for myself around New Year's, with some yarn I had ordered online and then ordered Chris to give me for Christmas. Then I made a pair for Cora, who implied she might die a horribly whiny death if I didn't know her something immediately. Gratifyingly, she wears them almost every day. Then I made a pair for my grandma (which resulted in my mom buying me yarn so I could make her a pair, and my grandma commissioning a pair for an aunt).

When I was visiting my mom recently, I saw an ad in one of her quilting magazines for a book called "Sew Me, Love Me" - the cover appealed to me and I thought it would be good browsing, and my local library had the book, so I picked it up when we got back home. This past Saturday, Cora and I snuggled up on the couch to look through the book. She spotted a dog she especially liked and asked if we could make it.

I was pretty sure I had everything I needed already in-house, including socks I no longer was wearing (heel holes) that could serve as a body. So we headed upstairs and chose our materials. At this point Cora lost interest in the process and while I cut out the pieces, she completely unpacked her dresser and spread her clothes in piles all over her room. This had something to do with a dance performance she was planning, but we never got that far.

In short, I made a stuffed doggy this weekend, and while I can see the ways I would do it differently next time, and have some other ideas, I like this little dog. I think she's pretty cute. And, considering I have not attempted a stuffed creature in quite a few years (I think jr. high was the last time), I'm also pretty proud.

I read a number of blogs by creative, crafty people, and often I have envied their "I wanted to make this so I looked around and found the stuff and did it!" capabilities. Making this little pup brought me some delight of a kind I've been missing. It felt good to realize I had everything I needed. It felt good to realize I certainly had the sewing skills to do this quickly. It felt good to watch the dog take shape. It even felt good to do it all by hand!
And, does she like her new doggy? After about 36 hours of deliberation, she named her Alyssa.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Oh. Hi. Um....

My mom pointed out to me recently that it has been over a month since my last update. But I can explain! (Not that I need to...)

We had a very nice Christmas season (as Cora likes to say, as in, "is it still the Christmas season?"). Chris was home for three weeks, and after a "storm and form" first week we settled back into something like our old routine. I know the old routine will never really come back - but I would like parts of it to revive themselves once we are all together all the time again. Because of the weather - a Christmas Eve blizzard makes for a pretty winter scene, but can also disrupt plans - we ended up staying home Christmas Eve (which also explains why we don't actually have photos of Cora in her Christmas dress and Swedish braids - perhaps a dramatic recreation will be staged at some point), and basically holing up for three days. I loved it.

The day after Christmas, of course, I worried that it would be a big letdown for Cora that there were no more presents to unwrap. But, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that the Advent calendar was done. No more doors to open. No more morsels of chocolate. No more little verses about woodland creatures decorating a tree. She asked after that calendar until New Year's. Something to anticipate next year.

New Year's came and went. I found that this year I am feeling incredibly resistant to the idea of evaluating the last year, let alone the last decade. Likewise, I've had very little interest in contemplating the new year or the new decade. Things feel stagnant to me, with less than satisfactory times behind and before me. 2009 had its bright spots, but the last few months have, over all, just been really freaking hard. And, let's face it, there's more of the same for the next five months.

Still, the drive to resolve something at the beginning of a new year is strong. So, here's the one resolution I am prepared to make: To spend more time with friends this year. I feel like over the course of the last few months I'm moved to the margins of some of my friendship circles. A lot of this has to do with my need to hunker down and figure out how to be a solo parent, to make a routine and reinforce it so we don't completely drown in chaos. There are a lot of things that I have, in the past, depended on for my sanity and equilibrium, and I don't have time for those things now. So I had better make time for friends.

OK. Next time, photos.