All posts by Susie Middleton

Stir-Crazy, Gitts Crazy, and Just Plain Crazy

BETWEEN OMICRON and Oh-My-God-It’s-Freezing-Out, there is some serious winter-itis going on around here.

Turns out hibernation is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m getting restless. Frankly, stir-crazy. I have no right to complain – I am warm and cozy in my house, and I can take a nice walk (in the 30 mph wind and zero windchill) any time.

And it’s not like I don’t have plenty of work to do. But there’s just something equilibrium-swallowing about Covid winters. Winters plural – that in itself says it all. Plus, we are, um, on an Island. Which is never exactly hopping in the wintertime.

The evidence of my scattered state is everywhere, strewn around the living room in seed catalogues, piles of magazines and garden books, bags of old clothes I’ve rounded up, oversized graph pads and pencils. Colored pencils. Collage glue. Pieces of fabric. Paint chips.

I bounce from one project to the next.

I have been reorganizing my pantry (aka rickety shelves in the basement), starting with grains and legumes. Someone gave me a lot of arborio rice and red lentils in bulk, so I have an excuse there…but where did all the rest of this stuff come from? I guess I buy grains and beans every time I go to the store. Oh well, it’s very satisfying to package them all up and label them and arrange them in orderly rows.

I “redesigned” the kitchen (on paper) – again. This whole kitchen renovation will probably never happen, but I will be ready with multiple versions if it ever does! This time I took my stepson’s advice and co-opted the space where the downstairs bathroom is now and added it to the kitchen. (Yeah, we won’t talk about what that means for the bathroom—and the rest of the downstairs—just yet.) Playing with this bigger space kept me entertained for three nights running while the Wolf Moon prevented me from sleeping.  (I’m sorry the scribblings are barely intelligible.)

In this new (paper) kitchen I have lots of light (check); the range goes against the outside wall for venting (check), there is a nifty floor-to-ceiling shallow pantry (check), a small second sink (check), a smallish Island (check), and no corners (I hate corners). Who knows what the next iteration will look like?!

I finally sat down with all the seed catalogues. I’d been avoiding them because I have so many seeds from last year and I wanted to be fiscally responsible. But my new husband/old live-in partner (who should know better) said, “Don’t skimp – how much can seeds cost?” Ha. Ha. Ha.

We now have 17 varieties of zinnia seeds (among other things) coming in the mail. (This, in addition to the ones we grew last year, below.) Once I started I couldn’t stop. Did you even know there were 17 varieties of zinnias? Well, there are even more than that!

Of course, I’m not giving up on dahlias either. But I have been super restrained, only ordering five new tubers — so far. They are Labyrinth, Sweet Nathalie, Break Out, Crichton Honey, Rip City, and Kharma Gold. Oops, that’s six. Plus, I got Otto’s Thrill and Thomas Edison at the end of last summer (discounted!).

And they join Bumble Rumble, Jowey Frambo, Andrew Charles, Parkland Glory, Omega, Gitts Crazy, Hamilton Lilian, Noordwijk’s Glory, Bishop, Brown Sugar, Bluetiful and Maarn from last year. (Photos below are from last summer.)

Last year’s tubers are all stashed in the basement in bags of peat. Every so often I go down to check on them and wind up doing something else. The basement is a mess, so it’s easy for me to forget why I went down there in the first place once I start restacking prop dishes, moving suitcases around, breaking down boxes…It’s not a good place to go for someone like me with concentration problems. But it’s better than the garage, which is a whole other story.

This problem I have with jumping from one thing to another is not new. I’ve never been able to sit still for very long. I was nearly thrown off the set of Romper Room – my first TV appearance! – for refusing to stay seated in my chair. Apparently ice cream was used to bribe me (why does that not surprise me?), and I managed to last the week and get my Good Doo-Bee certificate. 

But these winter willies feel different, and unsettling. I think maybe it’s because life seems extra precious these days. Two very kind and good people I knew died this past week, both in their 60s. Another friend is having cancer treatments. Friends are retiring, moving, downsizing. The news makes one wonder what life in this country is going to be like in five, ten years from now. I don’t know about you, but I tell myself that I’m letting it all slide off my back, but that’s not really true. In the back of my mind linger the same questions all the time – What should I be doing with my time? Am I making the most of my life?

The only way I could think to calm the jumpies today was to call my Dad. Conversations with my Dad are never short, so they force me to get in a comfortable chair, relax and be present. There can be no better use of time than talking to this interesting and smart and amazing man who I am so lucky to still have in my life. I always learn something from him and hopefully absorb just a thimbleful of his wisdom. Every time I hang up the phone with him I am filled with enormous gratitude. 

I have to remember that gratitude answers a lot of questions. Especially about what one should be doing with one’s time.

Now if it could only stop my head from spinning!

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Seizing the (Grey) Day

IT’S FUNNY WHAT EMERGES from the fog of a languorous week, a week when the ordinary cacophony of work and self-made busyness is dimmed, a week when the wet blanket of a cloudy sky obscures the nuances of time passing.

On the one hand, the weather makes you feel like you are dragging a drogue around behind you. A single days passes in a blur of stingy daylight hours: By the time you sleep in, have your coffee, read a gazillion year-end features on your computer, tackle de-ornamenting the Christmas tree, vacuum, and eat the rest of the holiday chocolate candy, it’s almost dark. You just manage to squeeze a walk in under that haunting pewter sky. Oh, and it’s still hunting season, too, so finding and donning the orange hat, orange vest, orange doggie vest, orange everything, means the machinations of walk preparation move in slow motion.

On the other hand, if it is possible to be both dazed and stimulated, this is the week. As we reach the bottom of the calendar (I always visualize the months stacked up on top of each other) and jump back to the top again, it’s hard not to be both reflective and projective. Especially when one message seems to emerge out of the gumbo of commentaries and obituaries and films and documentaries and novellas that simmer in your skillet of inspiration this week.

The message seems to be clear: Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Joan Didion, you might have heard from a thousand sources, has died, yet she seems to be speaking (or writing) from the grave at every turn. This showed up on @nytbooks this week:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”

Not only that but Robin Williams came back to life this week, too (at least on Amazon Prime video), to star in Dead Poet’s Society and to whisper carpe diem in our ears. And to recite Walt Whitman (“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”)

Whitman is everywhere it seems, including in the final scene of a remarkable film called Nine Days (also on Amazon prime video) when the character played by Winston Duke, a man charged with choosing a soul to come to life on earth, recites the final section of Whitman’s 52-part poem, Song of Myself, as a tribute to humanity and its unbreakable connection to the life-giving (and taking) force of nature. (“… I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.“)

And this morning the latest edition of the most excellent newsletter, The Marginalian, written by Maria Popova, arrived in the inbox with an absolute treasure: Resolutions for a Life Worth Living: Attainable Aspirations Inspired By Great Humans of the Past. (Life-tested wisdom on how to live from James Baldwin, Ursula K. Le Guin, Leo Tolstoy, Seneca, Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Viktor Frankl, Rachel Carson, and Hannah Arendt.) 

Popova includes this from Whitman (from his preface to Leaves of Grass):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.  

Meanwhile, downstairs Kenny Chesney is singing “Don’t Blink” on our Spotify wedding playlist, followed by “Live Like You Were Dying” (Tim McGraw), two songs my rock-and-roll loving husband chose for his country-music loving wife but that he now plays on repeat while washing the dishes, tiny tears appearing in the corners of his eyes if you look closely.

We are at that age when a constant reminder of the passage of time is enough to scream carpe diem at every turn. On New Year’s Eve, we sat side by side in the near-dark a few minutes before midnight (only the dim glow of a few remaining fairy lights to light our Dickensian faces) and said aloud to each other what our hopes were for the new year. Not goals like weight loss or more exercise, but dreams like creating a life where spontaneity and creativity and maximum immersion in nature are the norm.

The next day — New Year’s Day — we ventured beyond our usual walk (hunting season finally over), heading through the thick fog to the South shore, where we found the ocean raucous and alive and the sea air so invigorating that breathing it in and out felt like filtering out the cobwebs and dust bunnies from our winter weary bodies. Reminding ourselves once again that it does not take much to seize the day, to move a muscle — to rage against the dying of the light as Dylan Thomas wrote.


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A Muddling of Dark and Light

THIS IS A CONFUSING time of year, don’t you think? It’s really really dark outside most of the time (15 hours here on the Vineyard), your diet suddenly shifts to 90 percent sugar (perhaps a wee exaggeration), and your body wants to sleep or slouch on a couch all day long.

Meanwhile there’s the holly-jolly brigade out there reminding you to be festive! Wear funny hats and jingle bells! March in the Christmas parade (well, maybe that’s just a Vineyard thing…)! Buy your secret Santa a gift! Don’t forget to line up at the post office for two hours to get those presents in the mail! Haven’t bought those presents yet? No problem, just spend a lot of money and stretch your carbon footprint by ordering everything from Amazon and Target and Chewy.com! (Not that I would know anything about that.) Bake cookies! Wrap presents! Bake more cookies!

Then there’s Covid. Covid is to Christmas like the Grinch is to Whoville. A very bad mix. It’s already hard enough to figure out the right social protocols during the holidays, but throw Covid in, and well, even the Secret Santa Swap becomes fraught. And just when you thought it was safe to grab a coffee with a friend, the coffee places are all suddenly closed and you wind up sitting outside in the freezing cold six feet apart on a wet bench just to catch up a bit.

Ugh. I know a lot of people who just want to slip under the covers and stay there.

I am one of them. I conveniently forget every year that I am adversely affected by the decrease in daylight. Somewhere in the late fall I start to feel very fatigued, headachey, hungry for carbs, and extremely sluggish. I sense my work productivity going down and my mojo slipping. I inevitably make an appointment with my doctor, who looks at her charts and tells me I came in the same time last year with the same symptoms, and that I’m not sick, I’m depressed. I’m just one of many people who get SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) this time of year.

Oy. How is it that I can forget this? In fact, I am so thick-headed about this that yesterday I took a Covid test, convinced that I must be sick because I was so tired. (It was negative.) My husband gently reminded me that it is time to get the lightbox out, just like we’ve done every year for the past three years.

The buildup to the wedding and the cluster of deadlines in November kept me so distracted that the symptoms were pushed off this year. And now that this heavy feeling has arrived like an unwelcome elephant, it feels particularly odd, coming as it does on top of my general contentment with life. But chemistry is a powerful thing – a decrease in sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop, especially in people genetically predisposed to SAD. So is it possible to be both happy and (mildly) depressed at the same time? Apparently.

And that’s okay. Most of us go up and down to some degree many times during the course of a day or a week or even an hour. Not a reason to pummel oneself, though it is good to be aware that it’s possible to take positive action even when you’re feeling blue. 

Hence the sparkly fairy lights, twinkling tree lights, glowing candles – and the fake fireplace flame (sorry, but we haven’t gotten the flue fixed!) in our little house. I went a little crazy decorating with the many strings of battery-operated fairy lights leftover from the wedding. I started with a few and just kept adding more. And more. They’re nestled in plants, draped across the mantle (with my mom’s wooden santas), wrapped around the bannister, looped over windows. I didn’t even realize what I was doing at first, but obviously I craved light.

Technically, they’re no substitute for a lightbox (which has to be used rigorously and in the morning), but they are enchanting and I find them uplifting. I look forward to turning them all on at 3:30 in the afternoon, and before I go to bed at night I sit in the living room quietly with them for a bit; it’s peaceful and calming.

Decorating with lights is just one way of taking care of myself, something I learned to do in sobriety (my 15th anniversary is Christmas Day!). I know I also need to take Vitamin D and Omega 3, plan to do my walks in the daylight, set up that lightbox, and give myself permission for that extra hour of sleep (why not?). A  few chocolate candies won’t hurt either; I can diet in January. (Or maybe February, when we will finally have 10 full hours of daylight on the Vineyard.) I need to ask for a hug when I need it, decline group activities I’m not comfortable with (but say yes to those uplifting one-on-one meet-ups with friends), and snuggle my dog frequently. Whatever it takes. Winter is here, but spring is coming.

Take care of yourself and have a peaceful holiday.


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Hitched

ON SATURDAY, November 27, at 3 p.m., my 91-year-old father walked me up the aisle of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware. As the organist played, we followed my sister and oldest friend up to the altar, past mostly empty pews, with only the first two on either side filled with family and friends.

There I joined with my partner and the rector in a short but deeply powerful marriage ceremony that included a riveting homily about how we are meant to love.

Outside in the three-hundred-year-old graveyard surrounding the church, generations and generations of my relatives and ancestors, including my grandmother and great grandmother, grandfather and great grandfather, my father’s brothers – and my mother – paid witness to the ceremony.

During the ceremony, we sang, we prayed, our family members read (and, upon the rector’s encouragement, loudly proclaimed their support of our vows!), and my soon-to-be-husband and I held on to each other’s hands with an unbreakable grip. We spent more time looking directly into each other’s eyes than we probably ever have.

As we left the church, bracing ourselves for the blustery cold November chill, we linked arms again, happy to be facing the future together, whatever may come our way.


When I wrote a few weeks ago about feeling stressed, I wasn’t entirely forthcoming with you. My apologies. Planning a wedding (even a very small one) in just a few short months and doing my job at the same time proved to be challenging, to say the least. Also, in all honesty, despite my tendency to bloviate about personal matters (!) I have felt protective of the privacy of my family in this case, and also unwilling to carry on about an event from which we necessarily had to exclude so many people in our lives.

I’m happy to share our good news now, but I also am content to leave much of the weekend as a little jewel box, where memories live as sparkly treasures, to be opened and cherished from time to time.

For now, we have chosen not to share photos on social media, and I am happy with that decision. But because I won’t be able to help promote the fabulous people who we worked with to pull this off in a short amount of time, I wanted to thank them here. Almost all of them have been double-booked all year due to Covid wedding backup, and many of them squeezed us into their schedules, even though they are running on fumes at this point.

We are so grateful to our amazing cake baker, Jeanne Scott of Mill Stream Farm Bake Studio; our talented floral designer, Jamie Taylor of J. Starr’s Flower Barn; our wonderful photographer, Maria DeForrest; and all of the folks at the Hopkins Heartland Honey Bee, especially Ingrid Hopkins, where we had our reception (in the middle of a corn field – of course!).

A very special shout-out to a certain young lady (she knows who she is) and her mother, who helped make everything better. And to my talented friends on the Vineyard who provided goodies for us to take with us, including cookies from @sweetannabellescookies, sea salt from @mvseasalt, and chocolates from @saltrockchoc.

And so much gratitude to my husband’s family (and now my second family) and my cousins for traveling on a busy weekend, because you were what it was all about. And to my big sis, who has always been there for me no matter what, and to my Dad, who put up with bossy me with his usual composure. All of these folks handled the inevitable glitches that come with any gathering like this – there will be laughs and sighs and head-nodding when we open up that memory box – with grace and unwavering support.

They all made me feel like a princess for a day (or more accurately, for a weekend). I got to wear a fabulous pink dress, have fancy hair and makeup, and carry the most beautiful flowers. But none of that compares to the life I have every day with the man who walked out of the church with me.

Simple Gifts*

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we will not be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

*Simple Gifts is an old Shaker dance tune which my father suggested we include in our service. It is traditionally a fairly upbeat song, and can be played on the organ with an upbeat tempo. If you want to listen to a more haunting version of it, this Alison Krauss-Yo Yo Ma version is beautiful.


P.S. Please note the photos on this page are family snapshots (thank you family!), not from our photographer, Maria DeForrest, who’s beautiful work we will see in a few weeks.


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Recalibrating

LAST WEEK I backed my car into a tree, striking the trunk with a force that shattered the back cargo window and left me somewhere between surprised and horrified – and with an aching neck. I was far down a long dirt road, in a woodsy area with the sun at its slanty best. I missed a turn, pulled off at the next dip in the road, backed up to turn around, and bam! Apparently my ability to use a rearview mirror properly was impaired.

Impaired by rushing, stress, distraction, general neuroses, impatience, anxiety, fatigue, hunger. Oh, I could go on blaming anything and everything, but not everyone – it was my fault.

I found myself at that moment, as I hopped out of the car, concerned with making sure most of the glass was falling (as it does in slow motion, breaking apart into those tiny green puzzle pieces) into the back of my car and not onto the ground so I wouldn’t be leaving a mess. (Note: I was still rushing, on my way to an appointment. The brain is a stubborn organ.) Later I couldn’t even reconstruct in my mind how this could have happened, as the tree was not a small object!

I cried just a little, called my partner, then straightened up and went on to my destination — an interview with a farmer for a newspaper article. It was not an ideal day to do this interview, as I had two impending deadlines already. But the words, “No, I can’t do that,” are sometimes hard for me. Still.

A few days later I lost my credit card in a crowded store. And found it. Fortunately. (In the half hour of time that passed between losing and finding, I managed to alert (alarm?) three other people who kindly went to work looking for the card in the places I had been before entering the store.) Eek. Poster child for embarrassing, absent-minded goofball-ism.

There were some other little mildly confounding matters. Mostly things like finding myself in the basement and wondering why I went down there. Arriving at the post office without my post box key. Misplacing my favorite pink hat (again) and my eyeglasses (again) and my brain (oh, I already mentioned that).

So all this seemed to be sending a pretty high-pitched message to me, like one of those horrible beeping tornado alarms that command you to take shelter. But if the tornado were really coming, I’d be screwed. I’d be like Dorothy out there looking for Toto long after everyone else has taken shelter.

I wish I could say I stopped and used all the tools I’ve learned in sobriety to make an immediate course correction. But that would not be entirely truthful. I did tell on myself to my sponsor, who recommended, in her kind way, that more meetings might be helpful. (They are, and they were. Turns out I’m supposed to let go of control of certain things – HA HA HA.) I did practice saying no by getting out of one commitment. I did make sure I walked every day this week. (Last week, zero meetings, 3 walks; this week 3 meetings, 6 walks. So there’s that.)

But truthfully, the main reason I’m feeling calmer is that I pushed my way by sheer force of will through a to-do list that had grown to several yellow legal pages. With one big deadline looming, I had no choice. At least not in my mind. But like I say, my mind is a strange place.

It’s not just me, though, I know. This push-and-pull, the struggle for balance, is universal, especially in the cacophonous modern world we live in. (I finally got a new phone, and it keeps informing me of nifty things it can do for me. It also keeps informing me of where I am, how many steps I’ve taken, who’s stealing my passwords, the exact spot I live in, the most recent purchases I’ve made, what my favorite songs are, what the weather will be like ten weeks from now…I think Siri may even have told me she can do a better job of driving my car than I can. Now that’s just rude! I feel like this creepy little computer I’m walking around with is following my every move, and far from making my life easier, is probably the crucible of all the devil’s charms.)

On my walks (the fiery sunsets have been otherworldly) I’ve been thinking about this thing we like to call the work-life balance. Then today I happened to be looking at Facebook (something I try not to do unless I have to; it’s a quagmire) and saw a West Coast friend’s post that I immediately related to. I asked Sophy if I could share it with you because I was struck by a couple things.


Sophy Chaffee

I was reminded that everyone needs a secret garden (or some equivalent place) where she can go to sort things out. And I was reminded that engaging in physical creative expression can offer a surprising window into what’s really going on in your brain. You may not be able to verbally communicate your state of mind, but your hands act like a conduit from your innermost thoughts, forming and shaping something tactile that you – or someone else you are trying to communicate with – can understand. 

I liked that Sophy’s rocks and pinecones formed a swirl, a fluid imbalance – like a wave turning back on itself, both decisive and uncertain. The pattern also reminded me of a labyrinth – that circular path you walk to try to get closer to the center of yourself.  

Also, I liked her reminder that even when we are trying to do something good for ourselves – like recalibrate – we’re never completely in charge. Though we do have to learn to pay attention to where the compass is pointing, to notice the clues.

The other day I was fussing around with house plants in the breakfast room, arranging them on benches and stools. Many of these were potted plants I swore I wouldn’t bring inside and through another winter – just too much going on (maybe you remember what this room looked like last winter). But the plants decided not to let me have my way with them and they followed me indoors. I reluctantly nestled them all in sunny spots and went about my business.

A few days later I found myself watering them, picking off yellow leaves, turning them to better angles, and generally losing myself in the warm sunshine coming through the southern windows. One geranium had a dozen tiny pink buds on it, another had already begun to lean in, growing towards the window gratefully. It was beautiful and soothing to tend my little window garden. Why had I wanted to get rid of the plants?

Just shows you what I know.

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Gradually, Then Suddenly

THERE IS A NARROW SHAFT OF SUNLIGHT beaming from the south-facing window in our bedroom across the room and onto the keyboard of my laptop. Normally — meaning summertime — the sun pours in through the easternmost window in the room this time of day, lighting up our morning space with a cheery greeting.

But the sun is so far south and so low in the sky now (well, actually the sun hasn’t moved, but we have) that it now sneaks around the south side of the house while it is still low enough to shine a pale luminous beam through this window, and to light up the breakfast room for several hours downstairs. If you live in the north, especially far to the east like we are, a south-facing window is key to surviving winter with its scarcity of daylight hours. If I had my way, I’d plaster the south side of our house with windows.

I am awake early because of the change from daylight savings time to, well, no daylight savings time. It is only early mornings like this (and mostly Sundays) that I indulge myself with writing from this comfortable position, propped up by colorful pillows, blanketed by an old quilt and new flannel.

To move to that black plastic chair in the office (on the north side of the house) would be disheartening — I spend so much time working there. And here, not only do I have the south and east windows, but I am three feet away from a double window facing west. 

From my comfy post up high here on the second floor, what I see out those windows is a sea of oak branches, oak trunks, copper oak leaves dangling from limbs, brown oak leaves carpeting the ground below. I can see our old wood pile and the path we use to wind our way through the woods across fields and down to the water. The oaks are not pretty; fall on the south central side of the Island, where scrub oaks and pines predominate, is not classically beautiful.

But those stubborn oaks, clinging to so many of their brown leaves despite last week’s hurricane-force winds and subsequent deluge, do mark the transition effectively. Along with the change in sun direction, I wake up knowing where we are in time.

Less than a week ago, we had a light frost. Then another. But still a few random zinnias, low-lying nasturtiums, sturdy roses and purple hardy geranium blossoms carried on with color. I snipped orlaya and snapdragons to take inside. Then Friday night, bam! Not a hard frost but an actual freeze. Odd to go straight into a night where temperatures dipped below 30 degrees and stayed in the freezing zone for so many hours that buckets of water were frozen and every tender leaf turned to black.

I had not dug up the dahlia tubers, partly because the plants were still green in many places. Also, I was busy and thought I had time. Yesterday when I knelt down to put my hands in the soil, the top two inches were crusted together from the freeze.

Fortunately the dahlia tubers all lay several inches below the surface – at least in the garden. I had a few in pots, and I noticed when trying to dig those out that a few tubers near the surface had actually frozen and turned to mush. 

With our ground so moist right now, and not knowing when another very cold night would come, I decided I couldn’t take the risk of leaving the tubers in the ground any longer. So in a fit of deadline procrastination, I grabbed my gloves, my pruners (to lop off the stems), and my pitchfork, and dug up half the dahlias, arranging them — with their name tags — in anything I could find in the garage. (It looks like our plants produced a lot of tubers!)

Suddenly I realized that I really had to go inside if I was going to leave myself enough daylight to cook and photograph a recipe for this week’s Cook the Vineyard newsletter. Food photography in natural light gets really tough this time of year. So when my partner arrived home from running errands, I Tom Sawyer-ed him into digging up the rest. He was a good sport as always. An amazing man.  

Not only did he finish digging the dahlias, but he picked the hundreds of Rattlesnake beans left hanging on the dead vines after the freeze. They were in varying stages of development, and except for the ones that had dried on the vine, their pods were left wet and limp from the freeze. But still we will be able to extract the seeds; we’ll let them dry in the warm air inside, and save them for cooking this winter – and a few for planting next year.

This is the funny thing about transitions — they seem to move in slow motion and then in the blink of an eye, they are manifest. We are left wondering where the time went and how we got to where we are, and most especially what the future will hold.

P.S. If you are looking for Thanksgiving menu inspiration , be sure to check out Cook the Vineyard’s Thanksgiving recipe collection. And, um, if you are not subscribing to the free Cook the Vineyard newsletter, be sure to sign up while you’re over there! (Sign up on right hand side of any page.)


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Crafty Like a Fox

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.” 

— Wendell Berry

How I wound up on Martha’s Vineyard had much to do with farmer-writer Wendell Berry. A friend gave me his book The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays when I was in very early sobriety, and it was no less than a complete wake-up call about the discomfort I was feeling living in a high-end suburb. I had no idea how much my true self longed for a more rural lifestyle, longed to be part of the natural world rather than a distant observer of it.

I had a chance to meet Berry several years ago, and he is as gracious and wise as one would hope. And I continue to dip in and out of his writings, because he is more articulate about the declining state of our natural world — and the declining relationship between man and nature — than any living writer I know (he is now 88). And he’s been at it for decades.

As early as 1968, when his essay, “A Native Hill,” was first published (collected in the 2002 edition of The Art of the Commonplace, yet not read by me until 2007!), he writes:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.”

Berry’s prescient prognosis nearly 60 years ago reverberates in most of his writing since then, but not without a great deal of optimism and love. He has never given up hope that man will do the right thing.

Recently I was reading a collection of his Mad Farmer poems and found myself reading and rereading Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, an enthusiastic exhortation to “do something every day that won’t compute.”  (Please read it!)

Examples include: Love someone who doesn’t deserve it…ask the questions that have no answers…put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years…Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…”

And my favorite, the last lines:

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”

That image of the crafty fox makes me smile. (How many times have I made too many tracks, often in the wrong direction?!) Perhaps the fox is intentionally misleading those who might be inclined to follow a straight line (or him). Or maybe the fox knows the wisdom of a circuitous path through life. And definitely Berry means to exhort us to question the status quo — whether in the world at large or in our own lives.

The word ‘crafty’ has two definitions that at first look seem to have nothing to do with each other:


This is Google’s (Oxford English Languages) take:

1.    Clever at achieving one’s aims by indirect or deceitful measures.

2.   Involving the making of decorative objects and other things by hand.


But Merriam-Webster’s streamlined approach exposes a similarity in both definitions:

1.    Skillful, clever

2.   Adept in the use of subtlety and guile.

“Artful” is offered as a synonym for both.

I like the idea that being crafty in an artistic way is so closely aligned with being deliberately subtle in revealing intention. What is art if not an invitation to wander off the expected path?

Yesterday I found myself consumed by a spontaneous crafting activity. Having spotted grape vines in the woods (thanks to my partner who pointed out the luminous yellow leaves), I wondered why I’d never thought to gather them and make a wreath from them. Wild grapes grow all over Martha’s “Vineyard,” though the grapes themselves are not very palatable. But it took me 14 years to look at them with a slightly different eye.

I clipped some of the vines (they were in a semi-dry state, still pliable), dragged them home and intended to leave them be until I had time to do something with them.

But I was afraid they’d dry out so I began twining them together. An hour later, I had a wreath, haphazardly and inexpertly decorated with garden flotsam and jetsam. What it looked like hardly mattered – it was the act of defying the time pressure I felt to “work,” “to check things off the list,” “to accomplish tasks” that was my heart’s not-so-subtle way of thumbing its nose at my head.

My spirit is crafty like that. Just when I am about to melt under a mountain of man-made minutia, nature beckons me off the path to a place where time stands still and the simple art of crafting something lovely from nature becomes a message to myself, as Berry advises, to “do something every day that won’t compute.”

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Writing in Circles

IT WAS STRANGE not writing the blog last weekend. I do have an excuse, but it’s the same old one I’m always using: I was working.

The same thing nearly happened this weekend, with a magazine story due tomorrow. It’s like the weekend falls into a black hole. And here’s Monday again. With all the other deadlines stacking up like planes on a rainy runway.

Three times this weekend with short windows of time here and there, I sat down to work on the blog and found myself writing in circles. I was trying to articulate how the work stress makes me feel, but I couldn’t capture it. I thought writing about it would relieve it, but that didn’t turn out to be true.

Could be that my head is too full right now to find a good thread and follow it. But I also think I have very mixed feelings (like many of us do about a lot of things) about my workload.

The weird thing is that on the Vineyard, work is also life. In fact, separating the two is nearly impossible, especially if your job (like mine) is to cover your community. The people you work with and report on are your friends or at the very least, acquaintances. There is an adage on the Island that there are only two degrees (not six) of separation between everyone who lives on the Vineyard year-round. This is not an exaggeration; I’ve very rarely met someone for the first time who doesn’t know at least one other person that I do.

To write about the food and farming community (my “beat”), I shop at farm stands, talk to farmers, talk to people about what they’re cooking and growing, and often take part in food and farming events on the Island. Much of this is fun and serves to remind me of why my life on the Vineyard is so good. 

Last weekend, my beat collided with a request to contribute to the newspaper, resulting in a long-form feature on how Island farms are producing more food – on the same amount of land they were using 10 years ago. This turned out to be a stimulating challenge for me, which I like. And at the same time it exasperated me, sucking the time away from an entire “holiday” weekend.

But I landed a nice front-page top-of-the-fold byline, so there’s that!

Also, I got the satisfaction of helping my co-workers out, and that’s a great feeling.

These days I am fantasizing about long winter evenings reading by the fire. Quiet and stillness. The unusually warm weather right now makes that seem far off.

The garden, on my infrequent visits this week, seems oddly suspended between decay and rebirth. An intense tobacco-y smell of aging bean vines hits you when you walk in, the cosmos (all but one!) are spent, the squash vines are desiccated and crackly, and the dried sunflowers bow their heads like monks in prayer.

Yet the peppers and beans are still fruiting, a random sweet pea blossoms, and those darn dahlias and zinnias are six feet tall and delivering me buckets of blooms every few days.

The nasturtiums are happier than they’ve been all season, sprawling from one raised bed to the next.

The whole thing is as marvelous as an aging Broadway star.

When I bring the flowers inside, instead of arranging them on the breakfast room table, I bring them upstairs to our office now, where we can soak up as much of their cheer as possible before they go away for months.

Bringing the outdoors in while you’re working never hurts. But it doesn’t substitute for actually being outdoors, so those end-of-day-walks are still one of the best ways I handle work overload.

With the exception of an occasional Monday or Tuesday when that deadline runway is especially slippery, I walk most every day. With Farmer, with my partner, and by myself on occasion. It forces a separation from the computer (and the phone if I can stand to leave it). Someday I’ll probably realize I handed over too much time to technology, too.

But for now, they’re the tools I need to do my job, which of course pays my bills and also guarantees me a place in a community that gives a whole lot back in return. Because of that and the people I work with, I like my job – enough, more than enough at this point — to equalize the stress, a stress (I remind myself often) that never comes close to the levels I had in my pre-sobriety life. But if the equation gets too far out of balance, I know what to do about it.

In addition to this crazy gift of sobriety I’ve been given – which has taught me to listen to my gut – I also picked up this useful motto from the school I attended for nine years: “I shall find a way or make one.”

Most of the barriers to positive change are in our heads, whereas if we follow our gut, we can literally find a way to do anything. I’ve heeded that motto as I’ve muddled through any number of predicaments.

I may be walking around in circles, but at least I know where I’m going!

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The Necessary Art of Lollygagging

THE BUSIER I get, the more stress I’m under, the more I tend to dive into molasses when I get some downtime. It is almost comical watching myself waste time.

The last three weekends have been full-on with travel to Delaware, two weddings to attend, and work duty this weekend at the first annual Martha’s Vineyard Oyster Fest. (I played Vanna White on the culinary stage, chatting with chefs as they demo-ed.) The event was pleasant enough, but being “up” for several hours is exhausting, I find, and since my free time has been so limited, I’ve been starting to feel an intense need to crawl into my comfy little crab shell. Plus, it’s October – isn’t the busy season supposed to be over?!!

To be perfectly clear, it’s not that I’m so much busier than the next person – I’m surrounded by colleagues who bust their you-know-whats seven days a week – but I know my limits. As a recovered alcoholic, I’ve learned to recognize when I need to depressurize.

Yet I also recognize that I am a world-class ditherer, capable of going down any rat hole, and staying there for quite some time if I am finding reality too noisy.

The other day I took my walk in the morning, alone, in order to fit it into a busy day. What was supposed to be a quick turn or two around a nearby field slowed gradually to a wander as I fell into the lure of wildflowers (asters of every kind) and berries (Autumn olives) and blue sky. The walk took twice as long as it was supposed to.

My favorite distraction of course is to go into the garden with my camera (you knew that). The dahlias are, at long last, proving why they are worth the wait. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the garden is like a cocoon now, woven tight by pole bean vines. Inside it feels a bit like being Charlie in the chocolate factory.

If there were a handy portable endorphin meter, you could easily see the dopamine spreading throughout my body when I’m in the garden. I feel it physically. In some ways, this is a little disappointing, as it reminds me of how I run at somewhat depleted levels the rest of the time. But it is also a mild and healthy high that does not involve illicit substances – like ice cream (every recovered addict’s favorite vice).

I have been off the ice cream for weeks, but found myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Salted Caramel Core Friday night late. You can shelve this under the immediate gratification category – it doesn’t really offer much benefit beyond that while also producing (mild) guilt.

The last and perhaps best place I go is into my comfy reading chair. One of the tangible ways I can tell that I’ve been pressed lately is the growing piles of magazines, newspapers and books that are next to my chair — and spilling over my bedside table as well as creeping around the living room and breakfast room.

I have been stubbornly adding to these piles for weeks. I was at Bunch of Grapes bookstore signing my cookbooks the other day and came home with Louise Penny’s new mystery (The Madness of Crowds) and Richard  (The Overstory) Powers’ Bewilderment, and I put Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle on order. I bought a slow-cooker magazine and a fall gardening magazine at the grocery store.

Glancing at the excess this weekend, I realized the piles are a passive-aggressive message to myself, a not-so-subtle manifestation of a little resentment growing towards all the time-takers (I don’t discriminate – they are all on my list!). Resentments are about the unhealthiest emotion you can have as an addict. As Anne Lamott says, “Resentment is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Time to do something about that. Last night I sat in my comfy chair (without ice cream) and started in, first putting all the shopping catalogues in one pile (mindless! fun!), next the quick-to-read alumnae magazines (which turn out to not be so quick to read), the gardening mags, the cooking mags, the latest publications from my own company, the odd New Yorker I’ve snatched from my partner’s piles (there is an entire table devoted to New Yorkers), and then the books. The flower books, the books of gardening essays, the new novels, the partially read ones.

The simple act of organizing the piles was soothing. Stacking the spent catalogues and magazines next to the back door was a relief.

And doing some actual reading? Completely absorbing, in the best way.

Now if I could just master the art of going to bed early, rather than indulging myself in epic reading jags. Ha — good luck Susie!

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Letting the Days Go By

FALL COMES in slow motion on the Vineyard, especially to our little acre, where the landscape is all oaks and evergreens, some of nature’s most stalwart resisters of changing seasons.

Every morning acorns plink and plonk on our back deck, falling randomly from a canopy of oak branches, heavy and drooping with an exceptional crop of nuts this year. I’m hoping the abundance will keep the deer happy over the winter. They won’t get all of the acorns, of course. Other critters will gather them and stash them in odd spots — in the wood pile, inside a stack of terracotta pots, underneath the steps, in a mulchy bed of perennials – so that in the spring we have a sea of pinwheel-shaped mini-oak trees germinating all over the place.  

When the acorns land, the noise is startling; too many at once and Farmer heads for cover. Give him a minute though, and he’s back in his sunny spot, stretched out to soak up as much solar power as he can.

We’re doing the same, maximizing our back-deck time, enjoying the whir of the steady fall breeze and stockpiling sunlight before the days arrive when darkness comes early and we enter the long stretch of dormancy known as the Vineyard winter.

We have time, though. October on an Island buffered by summer-warmed seas is a gift of suspension, sort of like overtime in the football game of seasons.

The gift of extra time in the cycle of birth, growth, flowering, senescence, and death has the effect of being surreal, in the David Byrne “how did I get here?” kind of way. Surreal in part because it is hard to delineate with logic or structure, but surreal, too, because it invokes an overwhelming sense of gratitude that is nearly impossible to quantify.

I feel this way about time with my Dad, who has outlived all of his brothers, my mother, and many of his friends. The seemingly “extra” time he’s gotten has given my sister and me a new friend, someone who has been a star in the sky all of our lives, but because of a planetary shift, has moved closer to our orbit and is now a constantly luminous presence.

Last weekend, we stood on the beach in Lewes, Delaware, on a beautiful warm evening, to witness the wedding ceremony of my second cousin Gregory. My father was the oldest guest and the oldest member of the family present. Gregory’s 10-month-old son was the youngest.

Four generations of our family (or at least some of us) gathered, along with other wedding guests, in a spot on the shore where many, many generations of our family have pushed boats off, dipped a crab net, dug for clams, thrown a fishing line, waded out to a sandbar, hunted for remnants of shipwrecks.

Later in the evening, one of my cousins got Dad out on the dance floor. His glee was contagious — and his resilience impressive when he took a stumble and the younger generation of doctors in the room ran to his side. He was perfectly fine, he said. “I’m pretty good at falling,” he said. “I used to play soccer.”

And with that comes a small clue, perhaps, as to one of the possible reasons time has stretched out for Dad. In all those millions of moments in life when we are thrown a curveball and the impulse to shut down, sit down, give up or give in comes over us, we also have the opportunity to stand up, go forward, keep at it, and make the most of it.

I apologize for the clichés, but time (when it isn’t suspended) is flying, and I want to make the most of it. Fortunately, I’ve got a good example to follow.


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