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?
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?
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?
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.
‘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?
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.
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?
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?