All posts by Susie Middleton

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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Looking Up

THE LOOP AROUND Nat’s Farm field dips down through a scrubby glade along Old County Road before it takes a roughly 90-degree turn and begins to rise again. If you’re walking the trail, as we were this weekend, you’ll hardly notice the gentle incline passing under your feet as you make your way from shade to light, swinging left, then right, to skirt an evergreen bowing the path.

There’s a point, though, when your eyes – at least on a brilliant September day – will likely send a message back to mission control to put the brakes on your forward motion.

Before you, at the crest of the path, is a vast swath of blue sky painted across the horizon, a brilliant counterpoint to the rich golds and greens of the wildflowers and grasses in the pasture beneath it. It is such an open and expansive view that you could be out West, not on Martha’s Vineyard. 

That sky, that color! To me it is Carolina blue and always will be. It’s a deeply nostalgic color, the color of childhood and the happiest of warm summer days. The field is glorious and nurturing, too. As we keep walking, I bend down to catalogue the latest declension of wildflowers signaling summer’s end. Tiny star-shaped purple asters, random Black Eyed Susans, and clutches of scarlet Sumac berries have replaced the Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch from a few weeks back. And everywhere, knitting sky to field, those yellow fronds of goldenrod. 

Looking down on a walk is routine. Looking up is different. It requires stopping.

I have been looking up at the September sky a lot lately. Not just on our walks, but in the garden, too, where nearly everything that is still alive and thriving towers over me.

I have to turn my camera up to photograph the tithonia, the dahlias, the zinnias, the pole beans, the return of the cherry tomatoes, the sweet peas, the sunflowers, and the cosmos.

Once my eye is trained up there, I can’t help but linger on the brilliance of the sky. Some mornings I just stand in the garden, close my eyes, tilt my chin to the sun and bask a minute. Maybe say a little prayer.

Looking up, after all, is a form of reverence. I remember being astonished when I saw my dying mother-in-law, a deeply religious woman completely at peace with moving on, reach up from her bed with her frail arms several times during her last hours, as if she was greeting someone on the other side.

It’s not been lost on me as September 11th has neared how blue the sky was on that day 20 years ago. We woke up that morning and looked up at that cheery sky, naïve and grateful for the sunshine, only to watch with horror as it turned gray a few hours later.

As I was reading my colleague Paul Schneider’s poignant essay in the Vineyard Gazette yesterday, Waves of Grief Roll in Twenty Years Later, all of my own memories of that day flowed back to me. Strangely that blue sky is in most every vignette I recall.

The scenes are vivid, starting with my sunglassed drive up through the Connecticut hills to my office. But of the many frames from the September 11 reel in my head, one stands out most.

By midmorning, our office in Newtown had closed, and when I returned home, driving down eerily empty roads to the coast, it was just me and my 85-year-old father-in-law to huddle together. We decided to walk down the street to a small park on a point jutting out into Long Island Sound. We stood together looking over the water at lower Manhattan, and there against that azure sky was a plume of grey smoke, visible from so far away. We wondered aloud about all the commuters from our town who were likely right there. Some of them friends. Would they be on the train coming home that night? We didn’t know then that the trains weren’t even running.

The last frames in my film memories are all grey, of course. Everyone’s are. The smoke erased the blue sky at Ground Zero, and it would be a long time before it would reappear.

This morning I wanted to post a photo of a distinctly tower-esque 12-foot helianthus salicifolius (perennial willow sunflower) on Instagram for #day70 in my #100daysofflowersandveggies series. This crazy plant was a gift from Polly Hill Arboretum director Tim Boland, and I had no idea it would get so tall and branch so much. It is covered with hundreds of green buds, and we have been waiting for the flowers to bloom for weeks. This morning the first bud turned to bloom and many more showed hints of yellow – against a deep blue sky.

I took my photos and came inside to crop the images. To my surprise, in every frame a looming daddy long legs was smothering the top bloom. Not that I can blame the daddy long legs, but it was a little creepy. The things you don’t see with your naked eye!

You just never know.

Look up, look down, look all around today. Grab the moments of beauty and hold on to them.



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Hidden in Plain Sight

USUALLY my partner wakes up before I do. He pulls on his slippers quietly, grabs his book and heads downstairs to turn the coffee on. When I finally open my eyes, sit up, and swing my feet to the floor, I lean over to the windowsill and peer outside, sometimes pressing my head against the screen so that I can see the back deck below better.

There he is, moccasin-slippered feet crossed and poking out from plaid flannel pajama pants, that grey tattered zip-up sweater hanging loosely over the mustard-yellow West Tisbury tee shirt. He fills the Adirondack chair like he means it, left arm draped over the ample chair rail, hand clutching his coffee mug, book on his knee. The tousled bed-head of silver Christopher Lloyd-ish hair belies gravity.

This is comforting to me. Not only that he is there, but that he is allowing himself this time of peace and quiet outdoors before the day begins (and before I start a nonstop stream of chatter). 

The very next thing I do is putter around the bed and into the bathroom, where another set of windows along the back side of the second story of our house offers a different view. From this vantage point, I can see the perennial beds along the walkway below, the mounds of catmint and lamb’s ears and sedum and Russian sage bunched together just as I drew them on paper two winters ago. Better still, I can look up the hill to the fenced vegetable and flower garden.

The garden faces east, and since it sits up on a rise, it draws the early morning sun like a magnet. Right now, the garden is almost completely enveloped in bean vines, with the occasional sunflower or cosmos poking out here and there. I planted the Rattlesnake pole bean and sunflower seeds halfway through the summer all along the bottom of the semi-circle of fence on the east side and all across the back of the west side, where the peas were in June and July. 

I always forget that the vines race up the six or seven feet of fence in a few short weeks. After that, in an effort to keep growing, they travel sideways, up, down, and around each other, twining themselves into a massive heavy canopy that bends the top of the wiggly deer fence in on itself. The effect is dramatic, essentially creating an outdoor room within, almost like a secret garden.

Inside, the zinnias and cosmos are pushing six feet tall, reaching up for the midday sun now that the vines throw so much shade at sunrise. In the shadowy paths between the beds, bits and pieces of light that manage to filter through the vines dapple on bouncy nasturtium leaves and flowers, picking an occasional chocolate lace flower or snapdragon to spotlight. A few winter squash vines have taken off in the oldest bed on the north end of the garden, forming a horizontal canopy that matches the vertical bean vines in mystery and abandon.

This morning when I looked down on the back deck, my partner was not in his chair. Moving to the bathroom window, I looked out to see him padding down from the veg garden.

Hello!

Hello!

He paused, a broad smile bridging his face. 

“I’ve been in the garden,” he said slowly and deliberately, looking up at me, the smile widening. “It’s lovely in there. Did you know the zinnia blossoms have these little tiny yellow star-shaped mini flowers in them? And that Tithonia — it’s magnificent.”

He went on to say that he thought of me up there, and understood why I like to visit the garden and linger inside it every morning. It is serene and beautiful and magical, he admitted. But something you have to appreciate alone. (Usually his visits to the garden – since spearheading the construction of it and occasionally venturing in for infrastructure repairs – are on my urging when I’m busting to show him a new dahlia or a heavy branch of ripening tomatoes. It’s fun to share my enthusiasm, but not the same as enjoying the serenity the place brings in solitude.)

A hummingbird has been visiting me frequently in the garden. It’s almost as if it wants to communicate, hovering as it does three feet from my face until I hear the distinctive thrumming of its wings and look up to greet it.

Yesterday afternoon the hummingbird appeared on the back deck and visited my partner, choosing to greet him first, hovering to say hello before spinning off to poke around some salvia along the walkway. My partner loves hummingbirds and was thrilled at this gesture — a tiny messenger from the land of serenity reminding him not to forget what he gleaned that morning. An acknowledgment of what comes into focus if you stop to observe. And a sheer delight, if nothing else.

Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but his is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.

This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.

Wendell Berry

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A Body in Motion Stays in Motion. A Body at Rest…

“Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully and you will be doing everything at the same time.” 

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I AM NOT known for my ability to stand still or pay attention for long periods of time — my default setting is constant motion. And my brain is even worse. A nonstop game of ping-pong is going on inside that cavern. 

At this particular moment, there are 45 windows open in the Chrome browser on my laptop. There are 10 books and 12 magazines on and below my bedside table. I am ostensibly working on this blog, but in reality I’m thinking about a friend’s sick dog, another friend’s illness, an event I need to wrap my head around, a telephone call I’d like to make, two appointments I have tomorrow, and a recipe I plan to test today.

Getting my thoughts to settle in one place seems nearly impossible sometimes. Worse, sometimes (many times), I verbalize them: Words come streaming out of my head in the form of a Faulkner-esque soliloquy which my partner must listen to with patience. (God bless him, he has that ability.)

That may be why I am drawn to gardening, to photography, to cooking, to arranging flowers, to writing. These activities require extreme focus, and inevitably when I am deep into one of them, my anxieties drop away, my whole body slows down, and I feel peaceful and content. I’m still energized but the concentration of the energy on one thing is very freeing.

“Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing.” 

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I’ve gotten pretty good at turning to one of these activities as a natural way of calming down. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a hedonist, seeking out pleasure, but most of the time I identify this impulse as one of the ways I manage and maintain both physical and mental sobriety. It may not be the thing that someone else has to do to get through life, but for me these pursuits are essential.

Late in the day on Friday (after our internet returned from its fifth hiatus this week), I decided to press the button and sign up for a gardening photography class happening the next morning at Polly Hill Arboretum. Naturally I didn’t sleep well Friday night and after a cup of coffee, I was still regretting my decision when I got in the car to head over there at 8 a.m.

Bear in mind that Polly Hill is only a couple miles from my house, the place is gorgeous, a front had blown through leaving us with much cooler air, and the class promised to be laid back. A couple hours of wandering around outside in a beautiful place with a camera — how hard is that?

Of course, it turned out to be a good call, sleep or no sleep. The teacher – Dan Jaffe Wilder, the author and photographer of Native Plants for New England Gardens – was lively, articulate, and down-to-earth. The class was small, we moved through almost the whole arboretum, and we photographed a range of subjects. Best of all, I stimulated the learning part of my brain, which I always enjoy. It’s not that we covered a lot of technical camera things (which frankly make my brain short circuit), though I did push myself to use the camera in ways I don’t normally.

It was more about making art ­– looking at scenes from different angles, moving around rather than shooting straight on, framing a shot in different ways, dividing a shot into thirds to find the interesting off-center spots to focus on, noticing unusual interplays of texture and shape.

It was very freeing since I realized that I normally tend to dive straight into the most colorful or most graphic object in a scene — the flower, the bee, the rusty door, the moss-covered pig.

But that means I often miss the more interesting and dynamic contrasts of shapes and textures — the place where the meadow meets the stone path, where the climbing hydrangea begins to take over a stone wall, where the flowering branch interrupts a stream of light spilling through the opening in a hedge. Just the hint of a barn door through a veil of foliage.

I took literally hundreds of photos. That is a little bizarre – all photographers, especially in the digital world, do this to some extent and cull out much of what they shoot. They “bracket” a shot by changing the aperture and shutter speed and the distance from the subject so that they have lots of options of one scene. But I don’t think they are wasting shots the way I do – I still take way too many photos without really changing much in each frame. Ironically, I might need to move around more!

But taking so many pictures yesterday was helpful as I was able to look at them last night knowing why I had 20 versions of one thing…that I had been concentrating (as instructed!) on framing, on depth of field, on the flow of a photo, or the location of the subject.

I think that may have been the biggest takeaway for me from the class: Work on one thing at a time. (Ha! Difficult for me.) Break photography down into components. Work on just composition or just light or just depth of field. Instead of randomly firing off a million photos and hoping for the best, focus on one thing and slowly consider different approaches to it.

 Doing this requires stillness.

“The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body are full of noise — then we can’t hear beauty’s call.

Thicht Nhat Hanh 

Well, it’s something to aim for anyway, even if I never quite get there.



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Hello, Henri. Goodbye Fair-Weather Neighbors.

THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better. 

Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.

You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.

There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.

Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.

You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows. 

Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.

You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.

The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.

Not heading for the nearest exit.

It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)

No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.

P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!


BOOK RECS THIS WEEK


I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.


I recently discovered Sarah Raven through her Instagram account @sarahravenperchhill and through an interview she did with flower farmer Erin Benzakein. Once again, I’m not sure how I missed this talented and accomplished British flower maven, but I’m glad to be on board now. I just got her newest book in the mail and I am over the moon about it, especially her tips, her suggested color palettes and her lists of favorite flower varieties. Beautiful photographs by her collaborator Johnathan Buckley featured in a compact book with a lovely design make A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for All Seasons one I will be reading from cover to cover.

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Releasing the Pressure Valve – Now Off to the Fair

NOTHING LIKE RELEASING the pressure valve to flood the system with endorphins. I’ve been sort of floating around the last couple of days, freed from the anticipation of the event I moderated Wednesday.

It was a marvelous day all around, successful on all counts. You can see a handful of photos by my dear friend Jeanna Shepard over on the @cookthevineyard Instagram site. All three panelists were amazing, and Dr. Jessica B. Harris dropped some big news on us too, about another season of High on the Hog, and about the groundbreaking subject of the newest book she’s working on, which will weave the three threads of American cooking – Indigenous cooking, European immigrant cuisines, and African-American influence – into a historical narrative.

Me, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Sam Sifton, Dawn Davis, Jane Seagrave 
Photo by Jeanna Shepard

Anyway, with that behind me and a short (very short) break in the constant deadline schedule, I have spent the last couple of days sleeping late, eating buttered cheese toast (Swiss levain from our Vineyard Baking Project bread CSA), catching up on garden maintenance, reading a good book (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — I never read it!), taking a little ride off-Island on Thursday with my partner, and, most importantly, obsessing about my Fair entries. 

The ride on Thursday was just the thing. It’s funny how hopping on the ferry and going for a quick off-Island jaunt can change your mindset when you live in the middle of what has become a pretty intense vacation destination. It’s nice to get away from the crowds on the Island, and a change of scenery is always uplifting. We took a drive along the coast (Buzzards Bay) through West and North Falmouth, past Snug Harbor and Old Silver Beach – so pretty.

But then once you’ve been in a big-box store or two (the budget toilet-paper-and-laundry-detergent-run which every Vineyarder does when off-Island), you can’t wait to get back on the ferry! 

But about my Fair entries. I was chatting with my co-worker and fellow gardener Steve at our editorial meeting Friday morning. I told him I entered way too many categories (14 in total), and he looked at me with his deliberate gaze and said, “You said the same exact thing last year!” Oy, so true I guess.

Anyway, this year I have entered more flower categories and less vegetables. I won’t have enough green beans, but I will enter cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100 and Sungold), roma tomatoes (Midnight), eggplants (Fairy Tale), and peppers (Shishitos).

But not only am I entering two size categories in zinnias and dahlias (as well as cosmos, marigolds, and coneflowers), I am also entering two arrangement categories. One is the “tea cup” arrangement, which I’ve always wanted to do, because how cute is that? But the other is a more standard arrangement, which of course terrifies me, as I am still in pre-school (maybe kindergarten) when it comes to flower arranging.

And once again, I am entering everything in the commercial (not home grower) categories, partly because I am a former farmer and mostly because the requirements suggest that if you teach or lecture about vegetables or flowers, you must enter commercial, and technically I do that through writing and occasional demonstrations.

Being in the commercial category in vegetables used to be an advantage, as busy farmers would often not enter, and even if they did, there were far fewer of them than home growers.

But these days we have so many young farmers on the Vineyard that I bet the categories will be crammed. And I can’t even begin to tell you how talented the flower arrangers are on this Island. So I won’t feel bad if I don’t get a ribbon in those, though there are opportunities where I might have a shot. (For instance, I doubt commercial flower folks will enter the marigold category!) We’ll see.

My friends on the Vineyard Dahlia Collective Facebook page are gearing up for the Fair so it should be interesting. The crazy humidity and the short window of time to put everything together puts a bit of pressure on the whole flower thing. I’ll probably pick as late as I can on Wednesday evening and put the flowers in buckets of water in the cool basement. Then I’ll get up super early on Thursday to do the arranging. Perishables are due at the Fair grounds by 8:30 a.m.

Delivering is always a fun event; you see your friends in line and get a peek at what everyone else is turning in. Then you go home and hold your breath until the hall opens later on Thursday.

We usually go over in the evening, cruise through the hall to check the ribbons and see all the beautiful quilts and pies and artwork, visit the magnificent teams of oxen in the animal barn, eat BBQ and french fries and ice cream at the picnic tables, and watch the Tilt-a-Whirl light up the night sky.

I’m just hoping this crazy Delta variant doesn’t throw a wrench in the Fair. Not so much for me, as I get a lot of joy out of my flowers every morning when I go out to the garden. (Those dinnerplate dahlias – OH MY!). But for the sake of the Ag Society. The Fair is their main fundraiser and they really need this to happen. Last year the Fair was virtual, and that was a bummer.

Plus, we all want it to happen simply for the good will it generates. From the pet show to the Firemen’s burgers, from sheep shearing to prize-winning pickles, the Fair is classic old-school Vineyard. To me it represents everything that I love about living here.

See you at the Fair!

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From Stranger Things to High on the Hog: Is it Life or Netflix?

THE TWO HUMANS AND ONE CANINE in my household have been in the Upside Down this week. (Not all three at once, but seemingly two at all times.) You know the Upside Down, that flipped-over underworld home of seething demons that plagued the characters in the most excellent Netflix series Stranger Things?

We’ve taken to saying we’re in the Upside Down whenever we feel not quite right, like an alien alter ego has invaded our equilibrium and left it teetering. Of course the canine did not verbally check in with his symptoms, but anyone who’s ever hung around a dog who’s a bit punk knows the signs – the lethargy, the clinging, the forlorn look in those big eyes.

But hey, if a bunch of 12-year-olds on banana bikes can conquer the creepy demogorgons and silence the Mind Flayer, then I think we should be able to toss off a little August weirdness.

Though if you are a Vineyarder, you might agree that the whole Island seems to be in the Upside Down this August.

Here’s an example: On each of the three days I left my house early last week (Sunday, Monday and Wednesday – I stayed safely at home on Tuesday), I found myself behind major car accidents (twice) or pulling over for emergency vehicles (twice). And this was all on the same road — the road we use to get everywhere, a two-lane road that runs from east to west (and west to east), down-Island to up-Island and back down-Island. There are no stoplights on the Vineyard; max speed limit is 45 mph. In other words, we’re not well set up for an onslaught of city drivers who race to get everywhere in humongous vehicles twice the size of an average Vineyard pickup truck.

I’m starting to feel like when I get to the end of my dirt road I should have a special force field to raise around my car as I turn out into the parade of whizzing cars.

The record number of cars and people on the Island this summer is a bit jarring, to say the least.

Also, it was grey and rainy most of the week – lovely for the plants but surreptitiously mood-reducing. Add to the mix a report on mounting Covid cases on the Island again, complete with Delta variant and a high percentage of “breakthrough” cases of vaccinated folks. And Whoopee! Way to put a damper on getting out and enjoying the 4000 events that go on out here in the second and third week of August.

It’s hard to know whether to hide under a rock or throw caution to the wind.

Of course, as you know, I’m mostly the hide-under-the-rock kind. (All alcoholics are excellent isolators – they excel in it, I’m afraid. It is not something they willingly give up, even years into recovery. That’s why we have sponsors to check in with.) But that is not going to work for me this week. Of the bigger events coming up, one of them is ours (meaning the company I work for, the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, and specifically cookthevineyard.com), and I must be, er, present for that.

Actually, not just present, but on point: I’m moderating the panel discussion between Sam Sifton (NYT Cooking), Dawn Davis (Bon Appétit), and Dr. Jessica B. Harris (author and historian). Our topic is The Changing Story of American Home Cooking, and we’re taking a look at how the food media is opening up to a broader spectrum of voices. (We’ll be under a tent at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum; if you’d like to join us, you can get tickets online.)

Honestly, this will be exciting (though my stomach will betray me as it always does before I go in front of large groups of people), and it’s not like any one of these three people is a shrinking violet – they could talk amongst themselves quite easily without me even being there. (Indeed, ideally that will be mostly the case!) But since I am so goal-oriented, I want to be sure the audience will walk away with a clear story in their heads, to know about the changes the food media is undertaking to tell a wider range of stories.   

One of the things I’m doing to prepare is watching High on the Hog, another excellent Netflix production, though this one a documentary series. Maybe you’ve seen it by now; I’ve been meaning to get to it all summer.

Inspired by Dr. Harris’ work tracing the journey of African ingredients and cuisine to this continent in her 2012 book, High on the Hog, the documentary is a fascinating and emotional look at how much of what we think of as American food has its roots in African ingredients and African American cooking. Macaroni and cheese, for one. (Here’s a link to Dr. Harris’ recipe for Spicy Three-Cheese Marcaroni and Cheese.)

The host of the series is personable food writer Stephen Satterfield, who travels with Dr. Harris in the first episode to the West African nation of Benin, where almost one million Africans departed for a life in slavery. The four-part series travels back to America – first to the Low Country of South Carolina where enslaved people built the nation’s first big business – rice farming – and from there to Philadelphia, Virginia, Texas and California.

If you are a lover of food and history and interested in expanding your understanding of the African contribution to American cuisine, I highly recommend watching this beautiful documentary.

Once again I’m reminded that to enrich my life (and come back from the Upside Down), I just have to stick my nose out from under the rock. And maybe watch a little more Netflix!

I wish you could all join me on Wednesday, but I’m comforted in knowing some of you will be there and that the universal topic of home cooking will be center stage. No matter what you cook or where your food traditions come from, the act of gathering at the table for a meal cooked with love is a universal connection we all share.

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The Edit

I AM HAPPY to be home. I was sorry to leave Delaware. I am loving the cool breeze, the dry air, the deep blue sky and the rustling leaves here in our backyard on the Vineyard. I am missing the enveloping warmth of the hot, humid, languid days of last week.

I am happy it’s the weekend and that we could splay out on the back deck this morning, books and phones and coffee and toasted cinnamon raisin bread strewn about, freshly clipped flowers stowed in mason jars of cool water in the shade. I am wishing I didn’t have work to do, many hours of it, inside, and bills to pay and housework to do. But I am looking forward to a long walk and grilled chicken for dinner. And maybe a game of Scrabble if there is time.

I was beside myself with excitement and joy to see all the flowers blooming in my garden when I got home. But bummed that a critter has apparently eaten the first ripe beefsteak tomato. And sad when I think of my father outside in the sun, dutifully pruning and hauling and replanting his garden plants, but with no family dinner to look forward to tonight.

I’m happy for the quiet day here with my partner, but missing my Dad and sister very much.

It occurs to me once again how much influence the narrator has over the trajectory of a story. (Just think of the impossibly fictional creation of a social media feed…even my own, where I mostly show the pretty flowers—not the rotten or bug-eaten ones.) Amazing how details are carefully plucked from life and arranged in a row to advance one (white-washed) story line over another. 

But real stories are never linear, and real emotions are never constant.

I craft my own stories so that they lean positive, mostly because I do want to share the joy I feel like I’ve worked hard for, and because I think it’s especially great to show how life smooths out in sobriety. But also, I probably don’t dwell on the negative or the controversial as much because I’m not as confident there. I have to be very very sure of my knowledge of a subject before condemning an action with opinion.

But on a given day or in the space of an hour or a minute, no matter how much joy I’m experiencing, there are always moments of malaise. Mostly they pass quickly, and I am back on the bright side. But sometimes they linger on in the background, naggingly present, even though I’ve made every effort to stash them.

Living in joy is a good place to be, but it isn’t possible all the time and even difficult for some people to do most of the time. (Understanding that is called empathy.) I like to think of it as a choice, but it isn’t – at least not in the moment. Though it is a series of a zillion choices, starting with making the decision to be honest about what you feel, which can change like the wind direction in a nanosecond. And sometimes you feel two ways at one time.

All the little choices that move you towards the light matter. I chose to live on Martha’s Vineyard because the suburbs of New York were too frenetic for me. I chose to quit my job as editor in chief of a national food magazine because, in sobriety, I discovered that I actually don’t handle stress well. I’ve made a lot of bad choices, too, over the years, but they are surprisingly less frequent now that I listen to my gut (whenever I am quiet enough to hear it). (And choosing to plant a lot of flowers this year was definitely a very fine decision.)

I have a good life, interrupted by occasional bad things, like everyone else. That’s my story for today.

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Fifty-Nine Candles of Gratitude

EXACTLY 59 years ago on a sultry July night (4:30 a.m., to be accurate) in the City of Washington, in the Columbia Hospital for Women on NW 25thStreet, my mother gave birth to a six-pound baby girl. My father told friends the baby’s name would be Laura. My mother told the same friends the baby would be Susan. Guess who won?

Soon baby Susan met her six-and-a-half-year-old sister, who wasn’t immediately happy about the intruder, but would quickly become the most loyal and fierce protector, friend, and even caretaker to the baby. Six months later, the baby would meet her other best friend for life, who came into the world on December 31, 1962.

Baby Susan, by all accounts, was not very cute. “Where’d you get that homely baby?” a great aunt commented upon seeing her, noting that the older sister couldn’t have been a cuter baby. (Apparently Susan looked a little like J Edgar Hoover in the early days.) This story would be oft repeated to peals of laughter, so one can only hope that this means baby Susan grew out of her awkwardness eventually.

Small strides were clearly made, but the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is still magically happening, 59 years later.

All this of course, is just a way of saying that it’s my birthday. Of the immense gratitude I have today, those two women – my sister and my best friend – are at the top of the list. My healthy father, and the healthy relationship I have with my wonderful partner are the source of so much joy for me.

In my view, my 14 ½ years of sobriety has made all the difference in distinguishing the importance of homely-baby comments vs. how I see myself as a whole person, one who is always growing. But instead of growing into a persona I created for myself based on others’ expectations (something I embraced whole-heartedly pre-sobriety), I am just watching how I grow closer and closer to my true self by following my gut, being honest about my own limitations, and embracing imperfection.

A friend and I were walking through my garden this week, and I said, “It’s not perfect.” And she said, “That whole perfection thing is overrated, especially in the garden, but in life, too.” So true! In the recovery world, “Progress, not perfection” is a common refrain.

One of my biggest challenges – one I may never master – is balancing work time vs. play time. But due to it being birthday weekend, I went along with my partner’s request to do whatever I wanted to do this weekend (which meant Friday-Saturday, since if I don’t work this afternoon, I will completely crumble. We leave for Delaware Friday, and I have three deadlines before that). We went out for a fancy and delicious dinner Friday night.

And on Saturday morning, we went to the beach. We took advantage of the foggy weather and the early part of the day to avoid the crowds. And it was lovely. We weren’t there for a long, but it was so peaceful that we promised ourselves we’d go back, work or not. (Though negotiating the crowds on Martha’s Vineyard this summer is pretty much the number one hassle on everyone’s minds.)

Of course, these days I don’t have to go to the beach or go for a walk to find joy. It is right in my own backyard, where I have cultivated it. The seedlings and young plants I worried over for months are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. The flowers are just as beautiful as I imagined they would be. Our first cherry tomatoes and Fairy Tale eggplants and shishito peppers are coming in. The peas have been generous, the beans are proliferating.

There are at least 59 reasons to be grateful just out in that garden, and many many more deep in my soul.

P.S. There will be no blog from me next week while I travel to visit my Dad and sister. See you in August!

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