Hello friends and visitors. I’ve been remiss in posting a notice here that the Sixburnersue blog is now a Substack newsletter (as of January 2023!). It comes out every Sunday morning, so if you’d like to subscribe, I’d welcome your support. Thank you! Susie
I TURNED 60 week before last and suddenly my multi-tasking skills have deteriorated. Only kidding – they’ve been going downhill for a while.
If I look a little closer at why, I realize it may have less to do with brain function and more to do with heart function – I don’t really want to multitask anymore.
It’s been a long and restless 60 years. I think I started setting goals as a toddler; I certainly started moving around frenetically as a young child (you’ve heard the Romper Room story), and this past year I caught myself doing it all over again – still pushing, looking for the next bright thing. I thought I wanted to write another book – that I finally had an idea worth fleshing out. I started down that path and the path widened, lost definition, and finally disappeared into the horizon. Pouf!
I thought I might like to set a goal of returning to farming (flower farming this time) once I could financially afford to decamp from an office job again. (Twice I’ve left the office world to freelance, twice I’ve come back.) I plotted how to turn our field into a bigger garden. I still may do that, even if it is just to grow more food for us. But it’s not a very practical financial move, and I’m not even sure I want to physically maintain a huge garden. Maybe I do? I’m certainly more fit and healthier when I spend more time outside.
At various times I’ve thought about taking flower courses online or even horticulture or botany courses. What kind of work I would do with that I have no idea.
I’ve actively pursued getting an MFA with a program I could do mostly remotely.
I’ve thought of going to a photography program (there’s one in Maine I have my eye on) so that I could perhaps finally become a professional photographer with a specialty in nature and gardens.
But many days now I think I just want to spend time with my husband, read, walk, garden a bit, and generally enjoy life. That is sort of a radical goal for me. It does not involve achievements or list-checking. Last night we actually went to the beach with our beach chairs, books, take-out and a cooler and enjoyed a spectacular cloud-and-light show, a quick dip, and a bout of stillness. This particular beach is a 10-minute car ride away. Both of us wondered why in the world we don’t do this more.
I don’t really know if this attraction to stillness and rejection of busyness is simply what happens 16 years into sobriety, when one has more stability – less moving around, less financial insecurity – or whether there truly is some kind of physical change that’s decreased my motivation and increased my irritation at trying to do too many things at one time!
I can’t say that there’s been any significant change in the way my brain richochets from one thing to the other, and the voices are still chattering in my head. I also can’t predict whether or when one creative pursuit will pull out ahead of another and lock me into focus. But for now I’m not sure what my next step is and I’m feeling fine about that.
You probably know where I am going with this.
Last year (February, 2021), I reactiviated the Sixburnersue blog for a few reasons. Honestly, it was designed to be an essay writing exercise for me (and an excuse to take more pretty photos). I thought if I couldn’t get at a long-form memoir, I could try writing in short bits. (I do a lot of short writing for my day job, but it’s a different kind of writing.)
Of course the biggest impediment to this has been finding the time to do it. First my goal was weekly, then biweekly, but all of that was asking a lot of myself, since my day job extends through the weekend and often into the night.
Yet this summer I gained a sliver of time and found myself with another problem. I couldn’t settle on what to write about. I started and stopped several blogs. Some interested me enough to stick with them, but none felt like they would be the right thing to share with you. As an editor, I feel like an editorial product (even a blog) should have a consistency to it so that readers get what they are looking for. (Is she writing about sobriety? Gardening? Nature? Cooking? What gives?) And I have felt like I am all over the map with what direction I want to go.
The simple (sober) life I have today is good for a few messages: Do what you love, listen to your gut, say no to things that don’t feel right to you, seek peace and beauty in nature, use creative pursuits to turn off the voices – that sort of thing. You’ve “heard” me write these things in a zillion ways, and I’m not sure I have much more wisdom to offer with that kind of writing.
For most of my professional life, I’ve been writing “how-to” copy (service journalism, some call it) — how to cook mostly. I’m proud of the four cookbooks and hundreds of magazine food stories I’ve written and the recipes I’ve developed (and still do on cookthevineyard.com as part of my day job). But I’m not interested in doing that kind of writing in a personal blog — at least not now. If I ever get to the point where I can (or I want to) devote a lot of energy to learning more about plants, and experience being more of a full-time gardener or full-time farmer again, that might change.
What I am still interested in, always will be, is telling stories. An essay can also be a story, and I’d like to work on doing that better. But it’s not the kind of writing I can do quickly and extremely regularly when I have a full-time job. I’ve been working on an essay about how our house has become a home, and it feels more narrative to me. I’m enjoying coming back to it and working on it a little bit at a time without feeling pressed to finish it prematurely. And when I finish that (or something like that!), I’ll share it with you by posting it here on sixburnersue.com – and will do my best to let you know it’s up via social media.
But I will no longer be sending a regular blog out in newsletter form via Constant Contact. (Less mail in your inbox!) Constant Contact charges fees that don’t make it practical for me to pay without making good use of their service. I considered moving the “newsletter” to Substack, a popular platform for writers who are freelancing and looking to eventually monetize their newsletter content.
But producing a true newsletter on a regular basis would be more work than I have time for now (I know because I produce two newsletters for my job every week). The newsletter idea – to my mind it’s like creating a mini-magazine – is very appealing to me because I could curate different kinds of content, including plenty of visuals. But it’s not doable now. Maybe in a couple years…
So if you are a Sixburnersue subscriber (and reading this in your email), I want to let you know that this is the last missive you’ll receive from me for a while. As I mentioned, I will still post here on sixburnersue.com from time to time, and following me on Instagram @sixburnersue is probably the best way to keep up with me. (And of course you can find recipes from me @cookthevineyard and cookthevineyard.com.)
I appreciate all of you so much – some of you have been through many iterations of this blog with me — and I am grateful. I will see you around, and I wish you lots of joy always.
- the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
BY SOME MIRACLE, I have a summer intern. A really good one. Work life has taken a turn for the better.
I can’t truthfully call it a miracle. (Though you know me and the God thing – I’m pretty sure this is an answered prayer because I certainly put my work fatigue out into the universe. In other words, not only did I pray about it, but I told everyone who would listen that I was wearing down.)
My boss and I talked about this a few months ago, and she, being the supremely practical person that she is, suggested that giving me my own summer intern might be at least a partial solution. In the past, I’ve tried sharing interns with the newspaper, but it never worked out. I got the short end of the stick because there were plenty of news stories to keep the two interns busy.
But this year, when all the summer intern applications were in, four smart young people rose to the top of the pile. And instead of just hiring two, my boss gave the go-ahead to hire all four – two for the paper, one for the magazine, and one for me (special projects editor).
My intern wound up starting first, and he bounded through the front door of the office with a backpack of positive energy. From that moment on he’s been fantastic. And the work he’s done in just a few short weeks has already lightened my load considerably.
My business is all about content production. I hate that we use a banal word like content to lump together all the stories, photographs, illustrations, designs, maps, graphics, tips, recipes, resources, schedules, directories and every other form of useful information destined for a digital or print product.
Product is an equally horrible word. But again, since we’re not just making a print newspaper and a print magazine, but websites, newsletters, and all kinds of specialty publications, too (hence the need for a special projects editor), we need words like product and content to encompass everything — even if the words do rub out whatever romance was left in the idea of being a writer, an editor, a photographer. (Remember, romance is important in the absence of large salaries!)
And here’s the thing: Products are insatiable consumers of content. To feed the beast, new content has to be created constantly.
So basically the intern’s job is to produce some of the content for some of the products that I am responsible for. The more he produces (competently, requiring only a reasonable amount of oversight and editing), the less I have to produce. I didn’t really boil it down to this simple equation before he arrived, as I wondered (maybe feared) how much time managing him would add to my already stretched schedule.
But the math is working — exponentially. I’m gaining just enough time to do a little gardening in the morning before work and some in the evening when I get home. I’ve gained a little weekend time, too. Wouldn’t you know it, I’m actually sleeping better – I haven’t had one of my 3 a.m. wake-ups in a while. The more I garden the better I sleep. The less time I spend on the computer late at night, the better I sleep. The more I sleep (and garden!) the better I feel about my job.
Thank you, intern.
It all seems too good to be true, so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. But in the meantime, I’m marveling at how the physical and mental activity in the garden has improved my mood. Stretching under-used muscles feels so good. And focusing on satisfying tasks like getting every last plant and seedling in the ground, crafting trellises out of stakes and twine, repairing hoses and MacGyvering solutions with zipties, clothespins, fabric staples, and no carpentry skills (!) — this is all the anti-anxiety medication I need.
Today I took my notebook into the garden (the fenced garden) and recorded how many zinnias are in the ground (75) and what varieties they are; how many (and which) dahlias are planted (32) and how many are still in pots (16), how many cosmos are in the ground (50) and how many tomatoes have been planted (10). I’m happy to say that this nerdy notetaking — counting and recording things — is for me a pure delight.
Tonight I picked purple snow peas and green sugar snaps for dinner. I planted a new herb – African Blue Basil — and crammed the last of the cosmos in the ground. (It will be a jungle again this year. Oh well.) I arranged the rest of the potted dahlias in alphabetical order and grouped together ones I’m going to bring to friends. I said hello to a small mouse who has been eating my strawberries. I made a fresh flower arrangement from roses and hardy geraniums and salvias and chocolate cosmos and bee balm from the perennial garden. I watered. I stared at the ground wondering when the nasturtiums are going to germinate and if the sunflowers will grow where I planted them and whether I should rip out the peppermint that jumped the fence and broke through a weed barrier. It got dark. I came inside. I made tea. I ate chocolate (just a little bit). And all was well.
Thank you, intern. I’m hoping you hang around for a long time!
- the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
IN THE MORNING, I slip out of bed, pad down the carpeted stairs in my pjs, open the living room shades to let the sun in, and head for the kitchen to hit the coffee go-button. It is early. Not sunrise-and-birdsong early (that was 4:47 a.m. today) but Susie-early, meaning I have borrowed a few hours from my preferred pre-8 a.m. activity (sleep) to do a garden check. I am full of Christmas-morning glee, anticipating the joy of finding something new, something sparkly, something captivating.
I love this garden check so much that I do it every morning now on repeat. Farmer joins me. I throw a flannel shirt on over my PJs and stuff my bare feet into a pair of old Keen slip-on mules I keep by the door. Out I go.
And back in I go. Out and in. Back and forth until I’ve hauled out whatever plants spent the night indoors. I am still hardening off the last of the 60 dahlias and 200 seedlings that started life inside in the bathroom shower and under grow lights.
Farmer heads off to the woods while the coffee cup and I start our rounds. We head down the gravel path past the towering Bowl of Beauty peony my sister gave me from her garden a few years ago. It has finally settled in and is showing off its lollipop buds by hogging the air space a small rose and some Russian sage were supposed to commandeer.
I stoop to pull from the stone path another round of offspring from the flighty geranium Karmina. The tiny volunteers are everywhere, both in the path and in the horseshoe-shaped perennial bed to my left, where a war of aggressors is being waged. The marauding Blue Moon “Sugar Buzz” bee balm has marched, in an unstatesmanlike manner, across the border of its own territory and into several neighboring nations, including Zagreb coreopsis (no shy foe there) to the north and Tutti Frutti Apricot Delight yarrow to the west. In clear and present danger to the south is a thatch of Amethyst Pearl phlox I am so hoping to see bloom profusely this year. A lone poppy is holding its ground.
I stop at the outdoor shower, anxious to see if anything has snacked on the clematis or the climbing rose we’ve trained up the trellis. I’m relieved that my stinky Bobbex-spraying seems to be working. The clematis has bloomed, offering up humongous lilac-blue flowers that are so pretty as to be almost fake looking. Next year, I hope there will be more blooms, but even if there are, I doubt they will coincide with the rose blooming. I’m afraid I chose the wrong rose-clematis combo. The rich apricot blooms of Crown Princess Margareta climbing rose were meant to be a foil for the blue clematis, but H.F. Young appears to do its thing almost entirely before Margareta’s first bud breaks.
Farmer is back, doing a roly-poly on a mossy patch beneath the seven-trunk oak. By now I am around the corner, past the Millenium alliums that some critter (maybe a bunny) decided were not too oniony for his taste, and the daylilies, fenced off with an ugly chicken-wire-and-stake situation because there is no question that they are on the deer dream menu.
I am staring at a fat mound of perennial willow-leaf sunflower stalks (Helianthus salicifolius) squeezed between three Karl Foerster feather reed grasses, wondering what to do with this bounty. There are maybe 40 or 50 stalks (there were only 5 or 6 last year) about waist high right now, and each will grow 10 feet tall as they did last year. (Which in itself was astonishing to watch.) Who knew this plant was a secret kudzu, pretending to play nice and offer a cheery, late-season skyline of bright yellow flowers, all the while spreading like wildfire at its roots. I think I might have to yank some of this up. I make a mental note, never having paper and pen along on these garden checks.
By now the coffee cup is abandoned and I am focused on counting the number of coneflower blossoms I see coming when I’m startled out of my reverie by the whir of a hummingbird. Our little guy is back – hurrah! He’s come to poke in and out of the tubular flowers of a new salvia I’ve just planted. My eyes follow his zippy path back up the hill to the vegetable garden, where I see that Farmer has taken up his position in the direct sun near the garden gate. There he can keep one eye on me and one eye on the back door, where he expects Daddy to arrive any minute, usually offering treats for no particular reason.
I realize I am running out of time and must move on to the vegetable garden (aka the fenced garden where flowers for cutting are grabbing more and more space from the vegetables every year). The peas are happy, the lettuce lush, the radishes ready to pull. Pots of dahlias are everywhere, some lined up and ready to go in the ground.
I see that my flats of zinnia and cosmos seedlings came through the cold night without distress. My onions are perky. I will need to water later. I stare at the five beds that still need prepping and long for the time to do that.
I hear my name from down on the deck. Farmer is looking my way, too. They both are telling me what I already know but want to ignore: it is time to come inside, get ready for work. Leave the garden to itself for the day. Sigh. I don’t want to leave, but I know the garden will welcome me back just as soon as I can get here. And I am grateful for that.
- the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
ALL IT TOOK was this:
I got a haircut.
I climbed a tree.
I lay down at the end of a dock in the middle of a pond on a warm sunny day and stared up into the blue and white accordion sky. An osprey flew over, then another.
I walked on the beach. I crouched in the lee of a tall dune, closed my eyes, and listened only to the surf rolling in and rolling out.
My best friend and her husband came to visit us for the weekend. We walked for miles. We climbed to the top of a big rock. We climbed to the bottom of a rickety beach stair.
We ate extravagant pastries and freshly baked bagels and charcuterie from the North End. We grilled swordfish, baked chocolate chip cookies. Listened to music, sat on the couch, looked at photographs, walked the dogs.
My peas came up. My radishes sprouted. Three little chrysanthemums arrived in the mail.
The wild blueberry bushes came to life in the woods, hundreds and thousands of tiny blush-colored bell-shaped blossoms popping out against a tedious sea of brown decaying oak leaves. Overnight, the grass in the hay fields grew a foot tall and turned the color of a leprechaun’s top hat.
I planted 72 zinnia seeds in six-packs and plopped them on the heating mat.
I picked cream-colored daffodils and shy pink hellebores and arranged them in green glass bottles.
I talked to my sister. She sent me a photo of her new red sneakers.
I called my Dad. He told me what he cooked for dinner.
I took a nap.
Just like that, I felt better – lighter, saner, happier.
It’s not so hard, really, to lean into the things that bring me serenity, if only I will listen to what I need. If only I will avoid obfuscating the obvious: that I need fresh air, and lots of it. I need to get out of myself and out of my desk chair, to be with people that I love, relaxing and enjoying life. I need to break up my work day with acts of joy, no matter how simple.
If I work all the time, I will go crazy. A few weeks back, I was mired in deadlines, feeling like a gerbil running on one of those spinning wheels – on Groundhog Day, no less. Not this again! Another day, another deadline.
But the universe intervened to offer me a break, to open up the space and time for our friends to come visit, and that was a boost of the first order. I got to see the beauty of my Island home through their eyes. It’s embarrassing that I could forget for even a minute that I live in a truly beautiful place, and that I can access that beauty literally any time I want. Oy, that just blows me away.
If I am feeling like my head is going to explode, all I have to do is walk outside. Even when I’m in the office in downtown Edgartown, I can walk out the door, down the tree-lined street two blocks, and be looking over a white cap-rail fence at the harbor, sparkling in the midday sun. If it is noon, the Federated Church bells will be ringing. Soon all the village fences will be covered with the blooms and leafed-out canes of climbing roses or obscured by the blousy blue blossoms of mophead hydrangeas.
If I am working at home, Farmer and I can do a garden check in the morning. This week I will inspect the Black Parrot tulips frequently as they begin to unfurl their gargoylian petals.
I will peek under the cool canopy of rhubarb leaves to see whether any fairies are dancing in that little forest of pink stalks beneath them. I will thin the lettuce beds and keep the extra seedlings for salad. I might give the peas a pep talk.
At noon, Farmer and I will go back outside for a brief sunbath – he on the cool moss, me lying flat on a deck bench.
In the evenings, I will walk with my husband down to the big field, where I’ll listen to the birdsong in the hedgerows and watch the peach sky bloom behind a distant herd of deer. I’ll pluck wild field pansies growing amidst patches of clover and wild strawberries and bring them home to float in a dish of water on the windowsill.
And I’ll call my Dad.
- the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice‚
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations‚
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do‚
determined to save
the only life you could save.
— Mary Oliver
I have not been listening to myself, I realize now. It’s not like I haven’t been talking (I have), but I haven’t heard what I’ve been saying. Because I thought I was talking (or more accurately, writing) to you. You, my reader. Let me see if I can explain.
Three or four times in the last month, I’ve tried to pen a blog, but each time I’ve pulled back, feeling like I was writing around something, rather than into it. It was discouraging – not being able to complete an essay. Writing is always hard, of course, but it is usually an enjoyable challenge for me – to locate the thread, weave it through, and tie it up. Even better is the opportunity to offer the reader a takeaway – something useful or inspiring, or at least a story that makes one nod along in recognition, feeling less alone knowing there are others who feel the same way.
In the best of both worlds, a personal essay is both illuminating to the reader and cathartic for the writer. But what I have been trying to write lately I now view as pure navel-gazing. Of course I sensed this, which is why I kept stalling out. I’d drive down a long, twisting road, take a fork, then another, and realize that anybody following me was now surely lost. Yet stubbornly I’d turn around and go down the road again — pursuing the same topic, thinking there must be something inherently beneficial to writing about it.
Turns out there was! Only it was beneficial to me, not to you. (But hold on, I do have something for you.) I didn’t see or hear it at first, but gradually I realized that the hands on my keyboard had taken the gibberish inside my head, translated the whole mess, sorted my thoughts into a logical framework, and displayed them on the screen in front of me. There, to the left of the blinking cursor, was the thing that had been puzzling me.
I finally understood that solving this puzzle was important to me; it needed my attention. But not yours.
Yet here’s the takeaway for you: Write.
Writing is an excellent way to reach that place inside yourself that may not feel like it has a voice. It’s a way to capture your feelings and articulate them, to quantify your spirit. You never know what might be pulsing in your fingertips as they hover over the keys.
You don’t have to keep a daily journal, or write complete essays, or show your writing to anyone else. You don’t even need to write down more than a sentence at a time. But you do need to hold on to what you’ve written. The big idea here is to collect your thoughts so that you can look back at them from time to time. You’ll find out what really matters to you.
While you’re collecting your own thoughts, collect those of others, too. Grab snippets and quotes and excerpts and poems that you like and stash them all in a little notebook that will become a gift to your future self. I started my wisdom notebook in the early days of my sobriety to try to keep hold of the good and useful things I was hearing. Over time I added poems (like those from Mary Oliver I’ve included here) and passages from books and favorite authors.
By gathering what I like, I’ve learned that the topics I gravitate to most are grace, faith, addiction, spirituality, nature, the psyche, family, gratitude, honesty, fear, responsibility, and materialism.
I look at this notebook frequently for advice and reminders:
“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” — Annie Dillard
“Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires.” — Gerard May
“Grace is accepting the fact that in the end we are accepted, despite being unacceptable.” — Paul Tillich
“What we are looking for already resides within us.”
It was reading this notebook the other night that sent me back to look at what I’d been writing recently, that opened my eyes and ears to see and hear what I was trying to say to myself. It was my younger self reminding my older self of how wild and precious life is (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) and that “whoever you are…the world offers itself to your imagination.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
I AM PUSHING a rickety garden cart through Pepper’s Greenhouses in Milton, Delaware, following behind my 91-year-old father as I have done in plant nurseries and gardens my entire life.
(Once when I was six, I tagged along on a fancy garden tour, shadowing my Dad so closely that I caught the wrath of a bee’s nest he awakened as he forged ahead of me through a narrow gap in a privet hedge. One sting on my tummy under a loose-fitting summer sleeveless blouse and one on my bare freckled arm earned me a place in his arms for the trip back to the car.)
Today it is cold and drizzly, a maddening reminder of the fickle fate of March vacationers. My husband and I have been luxuriating in the past three days of 60- and 70-degree weather, using our little respite from real life to explore the Delmarva peninsula during the day while visiting with my Dad over coffee in the mornings and family meals in the evenings.
From the wild ponies and windy dunes of Assateague Island to the salt marshes and Loblolly pine barrens of Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge and Cape Henlopen State Park, the hours of walking outdoors have been thoroughly restorative.
Yet the turn in the weather provides a good excuse to go plant-perusing (and shopping) with Dad.
I have filled the top basket in the cart with six-packs of pansies. Pansies were the first flower my Dad let me pick from his gardens when I was young, and I loved to bring them to my teachers at school, my fist nearly crushing the fragile stems wrapped in wet paper towel and aluminum foil before I ever reached the classroom.
Here I spy my favorite Frizzle-Zizzle mix amidst a sea of color. Flats and flats of pansies line the long corridor that connects the maze of greenhouses at Pepper’s, each a domino of treasure: one housing perennials, another annuals; herbs to the left, vegetable seedlings to the right; woody perennials and deciduous shrubs around the corner, fruit trees further on down the line. But the pansies merit a special spot in March — the plant nursery’s equivalent to Easter or Halloween candy in the grocery store.
Some people scoff at pansies, or worse, ignore their ubiquitous presence in early spring, thinking them mundane. But I will always love them and their little viola and johnny-jump-up cousins, especially now that I know how many truly beautiful varieties are available if you look hard enough (or decide to start them from seed).
Curly petals, sweet scents, unusual colors, artful veining and Jackson Pollock blotches – their charms are many. Not to mention their habits: They tolerate the cold, show up early in spring, and bloom profusely as long as you keep picking them ( a win-win). Plus, the petals are edible!
Erin Benzakein at Floret Flower Farm (my flower hero) even grows them as cut flowers, lengthening the stems to up to 15 inches by growing them under row cover. I might try that. But even without long stems, the shorties make long-lasting posies in a creamer or small glass jar.
Dad and I have come to a crossroads. To the right is the hellebore and snowdrop greenhouse. To the left is a wooden door leading out to a small yard filled with dogwoods. I follow Dad out to the dogwoods and the drizzle, my cart rattling now with a ceramic flower vase I’ve nabbed as we passed through the vast houseplant wing. The owner of Pepper’s stops to greet Dad, who is a frequent visitor. Everyone knows him there and treats him warmly.
Theoretically we are just browsing, but as Dad begins to tell me about the merits of this and that dogwood (his current favorite is Appalachian Spring), I start looking at the tags on the Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), the pretty Chinese dogwoods that are less susceptible to the anthracnose disease that has attacked and killed many native dogwoods (Cornus florida). Dad mentions he has been looking for a Kousa called “North Pole” as a possible replacement for the Japanese maple at my mother’s grave. I bend down and look at all the tags, moving pots around on the puddly tarmac to peer in. But no North Pole. We turn to leave and I notice a handsome dogwood set aside on a bench with a “sold” sign on it. Dad asks me what the variety name is on the tag, and I report that it’s a “Snow Tower.”
“That’s it!” He says excitedly, laughing, realizing that in trying to recall the name of the variety he’d read about, he’d settled on North Pole when really the name was Snow Tower. Quickly I see that he is disappointed though, as this one is sold. I tell him I’m sure that I’ve seen another Snow Tower in all the tags I looked at a few minutes ago. I go back into the sea of pots and soon we have three Snow Towers to look at. We debate the merits of each and discuss how each might be pruned, finally choosing our favorite. I tell Dad I would like to buy it as my contribution to the gravesite landscaping (Mom is in with a bunch of other relatives!), and soon we are stuffing it, along with the pansies, some Thai Basil, the flower vase, and a few bottles of deer repellent (for me, cheaper in Delaware than on the Island) into the car.
Not our biggest haul ever, but a good day. A stop at the Food Lion to pick up a can of baked beans to go with the BBQ pork Dad has in the slow-cooker for dinner, and we’re home.
This is a day I want to bottle up and bring back to the Vineyard with me along with the pansies. Is that possible? Can you carry over the good feelings from one day, one week, to the next? I wonder, can you actually bank the comfort and joy of these days, storing them up to fall back on when you need them, here on the sharp side of reality where pure evil looms?
I think so.
One morning in Delaware I toppled out of bed early, grabbed my coffee, and found a quiet nook to squinch up my knees, rest my laptop on my pajamas, and dial into a virtual meeting of my fellow travelers in sobriety. One of the first things I heard that came bounding through the fog of sleepiness was the phrase “spiritual armor.” I smiled at that and knew right away what the speaker was referring to – the idea that all the work we do on a daily basis (from doing the next right thing to letting go, from praying to forgiving, from checking our motives to practicing acceptance) makes us better able to handle the wonky stuff when it threatens to throw us off the beam.
There is such a thing as building up a spiritual reserve, keeping our spiritual muscles flexed. Not only has this idea been hammered into me, but I’ve experienced the benefits of it again and again.
In the same way, I’m using those days in Delaware – both the relaxed time spent in nature with my husband and the precious time spent with my Dad, as well as my sister – as a deep well of comfort right now. Dipping into that well is a tool, a deliberate practice of gratitude, that feels especially important to use right now. I (like all of us) must focus my energy on what’s good and delightful and joyous in life — or despair, as Wendell Berry says in The Peace of Wild Things (below), will grow in me, and in us all.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
MY GRANDMOTHER NANA DIED on Good Friday, 1964, after a week in the hospital suffering from burns over much of her body. What I know of that week and of the day of her accident is a trickle of details filtered through my Dad and my sister years later; no one (most especially not my mother) told the toddler in the highchair what had happened that night, even when the toddler grew into a rambler. But Nana left me a legacy, one I would unwittingly embrace years later.
This is as much as I know of what happened that night: Nana was cooking dinner for my grandfather, who would be home late. He was chief surgeon of Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C., and worked long hours. Three daughters grown and married, he and Nana had moved from the big stone house in Wesley Heights to this apartment high above Massachusetts Avenue. It was April, so the south-facing window in the narrow kitchen off the formal dining room might have been open, the scent of cherry blossoms or early azaleas wafting in on the damp city air.
Somehow, Nana accidentally caught her dress on fire, whether from the gas flame on the stovetop or the oven, I’m not sure. My mind can’t configure what a gas stove in 1964 was like, how a flame might have leapt out to grab her as she lifted a casserole out of the oven or bent over to stir a sauce. I imagine she might have been wearing one of those house dresses, maybe made of synthetic material which would have been terribly flammable. She was an elegant woman, so I don’t know what she wore in the kitchen. But somehow it is important for me to imagine this, and to wonder what she was cooking. Maybe it was pot roast or creamed chicken. Or maybe something fancy like spinach timbales or one of those recipes she’d mastered from the Fannie Farmer cookbook.
There was a phone in the kitchen. But when she caught on fire, Nana did not call anyone. She had been drinking, was likely drunk. Instead she went and laid down on the bed in her bedroom, passed out, and rolled off the bed. My grandfather found her on the floor.
At the hospital, there were calls to the Universtiy of Texas burn unit to see if it was possible to treat her there, calls to every colleague my grandfather knew who might be able to save her life. But despite all his resources, my grandfather could do nothing; apparently it was clear from the start that she would not make it. She was cared for to reduce her suffering, while my mother and her two older sisters took turns sitting by her side. I have been told that she knew her daughters and husband were there.
My mother was home feeding me when the end came. The end to the life of a beautiful woman, sad and tormented by a disease she was never treated for, but had tried repeatedly to manage herself. It was also the end to a painful, complicated, life-shaping relationship for my mother, who had taken on the role as a teenager, after her sisters were gone, of both protecting her mother and keeping up the false social pretenses that all was well — all the while filling up her own deep pool of anxieties that she would draw from for the rest of her life.
Nana left a heartbroken husband. Nana left a little granddaughter – my eight-year-old sister – who adored her. And she left my aunts and uncles and cousins. I could never know how painful this must have been for so many people.
To me, Nana left her disease. Not just her alcoholism, but the legacy of my mother’s anxieties, also passed down to me and my sister.
But she left me one other thing, too — something joyful: flowers. In news clippings and photographs, there is Nana in her garden, Nana with a vase of flowers, Nana as president of the garden club, preparing for a garden show. I know Nana must have found so much joy in flowers, that flower arranging was a creative outlet for her that must have quieted the voices for her as it does for me. The flowers surely buoyed her in good times — the stretches of time when she managed not to drink, before the obsession would take over again.
I thought about Nana a lot when I got sober, and I still think about her constantly. If she had gotten help, what might have been different? I wish she could have lived and been happy. I wish my mother hadn’t had to shoulder so much of the burden of hiding her secret. But mostly I wonder why I got the gift of sobriety when Nana didn’t. My father’s father was an alcoholic, too, and died in mid-life. I lost two cousins on my father’s side to addiction. I hold out hope that one or more of my many cousins on both sides is in recovery and that I just don’t know it. But so far, I’m the only one I know about.
Recently my sister gave me a stack of old photos of our mother and her sisters and Nana (in topmost photo with them), all taken at the same time in the mid 1930s. My mother is the little one.
Among those photos was this later photo (above) of my mother as a schoolgirl – she was so sparkly and adorable. I would have loved to have known her then. Actually, she was sparkly and adorable all her life to many people. But she was something different to me – someone I never quite disconnected from on a steamy July night in 1962 in Columbia Hospital for Women in the city of Washington. Still haven’t, though she’s been gone for four years. It was a life-long tug-of-war. I loved her very much, but I was incapable of understanding her completely. Over and over I tried to align with her but couldn’t quite get there. I imagine she felt the same way about Nana. And that Nana’s death didn’t so much end their relationship as it did leave it suspended, forever.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
JUST CALL ME CLOUSEAU. Like the inspector, I’ve been bumbling around, searching for clues of spring. Yesterday I got down on my hands and knees in the cold, black, barely defrosted soil and rooted around amidst piles of sodden leafy detritus and tangles of winter-bleached-blond grasses, looking for bits of green.
Ah ha! A chive! I found one, then two. This one no bigger than a pencil tip, another barely a speck of emerald dust in a leprechaun’s eye. I suspect that little Irish trickster has been mischievously dancing in my garden, spreading false hope. I did notice a tiny rainbow the other day, but no pot of gold. It is only February, after all.
But the signs are all pointing in the right direction. Literally. For some reason, on my long walk yesterday under a brilliant Carolina blue sky, the weathered trail signs kept grabbing my attention. In the dull grey icy afternoons of January, the signs shrivel and recede into the dusk. On a day like this, they pop, beckoning passersby to take heed of the journey, to make choices, to mark progress. Time is passing and we’re all going somewhere, rather too quickly it seems to me, though it is so tempting to want to project into the future.
Lately, it seems my restlessness has been at a fever pitch.
But today, another graciously warm and sunny day (two in a row – be still my heart – and on a weekend, too!), I stopped in the middle of tidying up my vegetable garden, suddenly struck.
I realized what’s been bugging me all winter: winter.
Okay, duh. But by winter I mean the absence of the growing season. The time when I cannot forget myself with an obsessive project like making pea trellises out of stakes and twine, cannot put on my farm boots and my jeans with the hole worn in the back pocket where the pruners go and head out to deadhead or weed or puzzle over the knotted snarl of irrigation hoses. I cannot cut flowers and drop them gently into buckets of water, carefully curating them by stem-length and color. I cannot crouch and straighten out repeatedly, stretching my hamstrings as I side-step from bush bean to bush bean, flipping over the shy plants with one hand to reveal the hidden gems to pluck with the other. Or stand on my tip-toes reaching for the Sungolds and Rattlesnake beans dangling from the tallest arch in the garden.
But now that the days are longer, the sun still above the horizon at 5 o’clock, I can feel the relief coming. A day like today when I could actually work outside for a bit is such a noticeable boost that I wonder, once again, why I forget how closely tied my well-being is to the garden. All that is coming excites me – seeds are arriving, we’re moving the seed-starting shelves upstairs, I’m planning how to start the dahlias, dreaming about a hoop house or a little greenhouse – but it makes me a bit panicky, too: I know that the hours I must log for work each week (work as in employment) mean that I’ll need to make Herculean efforts to maximize garden (and sunshine) time, too.
I can do it. I must do it. I first realized how important being outside is for me in a series of tests given to me by a kind and gentle life coach when I was in early sobriety. (Don’t laugh – you would think one wouldn’t get to be almost 45 years old without knowing what makes one tick. But I was, well, busy.)
During the first six months following the day (Christmas day, 2006) that I finally put down my last drink, I gained a life coach, a therapist, a 12-step sponsor, a literary agent, and a new friend – five women who alighted in my life like angels at the exact moment I needed them. Little by little they all helped me realize that I was withering under the fluorescent lights of the office (among other maladies!). I ached to be in nature. Only when I got up enough courage to quit my job as editor in chief of Fine Cooking magazine did I unwittingly open the door to coming here, to the Vineyard, to write my first cookbook (the plan) and to wind up moving here permanently (not planned) and learning to be a small farmer (a complete surprise).
I became a grower of things and for that gift I am enormously grateful. I will always have it, even though reality requires a steady paycheck. But I will turn 60 this summer and time seems so fleeting that I’ve begun to dream again about a bigger garden, maybe a small cut-flower business, when I retire. My husband says he’ll help build the big garden, but after that he’ll wave to me as he heads off to the golf course. Deal, I say.
P.S. I wrote this yesterday, contentedly reflecting on a day spent outdoors on a warm (ish) sunny February day. Today it is 32 degrees and grey, with snow in the forecast. Ouch.
P.P.S. Farmer (aka The Farm Dog) turns 11 tomorrow, Valentine’s Day. Happy heart day to all.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
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!
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?