Category Archives: Sobriety

A Muddling of Dark and Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care of yourself and have a peaceful holiday.


LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

Hitched

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Gifts*

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

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

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

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

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

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


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


LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

Recalibrating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sophy Chaffee

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

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

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

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

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

Just shows you what I know.

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

Crafty Like a Fox

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

— Wendell Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my favorite, the last lines:

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

1.    Skillful, clever

2.   Adept in the use of subtlety and guile.

“Artful” is offered as a synonym for both.

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

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

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

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

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

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

Writing in Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

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!

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

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.


LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

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.



LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

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.

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

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.

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)


If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.