Category Archives: Sobriety

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.

The Edit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Fifty-Nine Candles of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Hugs Are Free (No Matter What Snoopy’s Sign Says)

MY PARTNER AND I share a home office, which works out surprisingly well, all things considered. It’s a big space, and I have my cluttery cubby-ish space at one end (it’s kind of a nook under the front eaves) lined with bookshelves and filled with baskets of magazines and other Susie-stuff.

Every surface is covered with little ceramic dishes, old family photographs, oddities like dried straw flowers and pressed pansies and packets of seeds, and more books. Inside the little ceramic bowls and cups (mostly handmade, given to me by my best friend over many years) are the usual things like paper clips and rubber bands, ear buds and USB drives, sticky notes and colored markers, and more personal things, like a collection of all the anniversary coins I’ve gotten in sobriety.  

The walls are lined with bulletin boards which I’ve covered with favorite quotes (a lot of Wendell Berry, I realize), more old photographs, photos of beautiful gardens and flowers I’ve ripped out of magazines, and other odd bits of art.

On the floor, nestled in the nook behind my desk chair, is a fleecy blanket that Farmer settles into on cold days.

On the other side of the office, the lawyer has a tidy desk, neat piles of manila folders, and stacks of cardboard file boxes filled with case files.

An assortment of odd throw rugs winds around the furniture from here to there. An orchid blooms improbably under the north window. My desk faces east. His, west. He gets the sunsets and the garden view, I get the sunrise (not that I’m ever at my desk to see it), the crows (hanging out in the roof gutters), and the treetops (tall oaks strewn across the field in front of our house). Bonus: I can see cars turning into the driveway!

In the middle of the room are two low credenzas pushed together. They neatly divide our space; technically we split the surface area on top of them. But my half is covered (currently) with a stack of African-American cookbooks, a bag of camera equipment, two framed photos I’m hoping to hang, a West Tisbury Farmers’ Market tee shirt, an old grey wool sweater I’ve had for 20 years, six Fine Gardening magazines, a box of art supplies, and a stack of Vineyard Gazettes. There is also a coffee cup and a sandwich plate waiting to go back downstairs.

On his side, there are three pieces of paper and a stapler.

He is a very good sport about the differences in our office décor.

Every once in a while, I get up and go over to his side and give him a hug. Every once in a while, he does the same. (He is an excellent hugger.) He also brings me a freshly brewed cup of Tazo tea every night when I return to my desk after dinner. Coffee in the morning, too. He deserves a lot of hugs (not just for the coffee and tea, but for many, many reasons).

The other day, I thought he really needed one (a hug, that is), so I devised a way to let him know that one (or more) might be available.

I still have my old blackboard-painted farmstand sign, currently propped up against our outdoor shower. I use it as a surface for photo shoots, but I’d been toying with the idea of drawing on it.

I started thinking about the Peanuts comic strip where Lucy sets up a booth and a sign that says “Psychiatric Help: 5 cents” on the top and “The Doctor is IN.” on the bottom. Snoopy thumbs his nose at her (she isn’t getting any business) and sets up his own booth that says, “Hug a Warm Puppy, 1 cent.” “The Puppy is IN.” So I figured I’d advertise free hugs on my sign and see if I got any (particular) takers.

Yup, it worked.

Corny, I know. This compulsion I have to write things down and collect neat little sayings and quotes to sum up what I’m thinking is not going away any time soon. In fact, it’s getting worse. A few months ago, while off-Island shopping with my sister at Target, I bought a letter board – you know one of those things with changeable plastic letters like you see outside of churches and barbecue joints, only smaller. A home version (only $15!).

I unpacked the (cheesy) plastic letters and figured I’d put a favorite quote up and change it out every so often. The act of spelling it out would help me remember it, and then I’d look at the board for inspiration from time to time. I decided I’d channel Amanda Gorman for starters. “Be the Light,” I spelled out.

I put the board on top of one of my bookshelves facing in my partner’s direction. When he gets cranky I point to it. He does not appreciate this.

But I haven’t changed the quote because I think it is going to be a very long time until I feel like I’ve soaked that up. Actually — probably never. I need that reminder every day, not only to keep my head up for other people, but for myself, too. Some days, life can be so complicated and frustrating that all I can really do is offer a hug. Or ask for one.

And pick flowers, of course.

LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

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

And hey, by the way, the featured recipe in this week’s newsletter is one I know you’ll really like. Check out Summer Squash, Corn, and Pearl Couscous with Coriander and Herbs.


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

One Vegetable, One Flower, One Bird at a Time

The first fuschia flower of Beauregarde snowpea appeared today. Lots of peas on the way.

I’VE DECIDED that when I finally get the headspace to write the memoir I have false-started many times, I will call it One Vegetable At a Time. (A not-so-clever play on “one day at a time.” Ha, ha, I know. Funny, not funny. But appropriate for me.) Not that any publisher in their right mind would let an author actually pick the title for her book. But the magazine editor in me always wants to sum up the story before it is written. (Yeah, that’s a problem in itself!)

But I’m thinking about this right now because I am feeling overwhelmed. In three days, we get on a plane to go to Georgia for a memorial service, and between now and then I have three work deadlines, two more publications that need to get moved forward substantially before I go, four work meetings, and about 60 plants that need to go in the ground — after erecting a new fence and filling two large raised beds with soil. Got to clean the house for the dog sitter and of course eat, sleep (very minimally), pack and get to the airport. Yada yada ya. Everyone has this stuff, these weeks, so I feel a little silly carrying on about it. (Well, more than a little silly.) Especially because half of it is self-induced stress. 

This is the first time I’ve grown clematis, and it is so exciting to see it bloom on the trellis we built last year. This one is called H.F. Young and is paired with a peach climbing rose (Crown Princess Margareta) that is about to burst into bloom.

I am so very adept at stressing myself out! I always take on too much and then feel like I must accomplish it all in proper fashion. God forbid I should just not do some of it.

Then there’s the complicating factor of actually wanting to accomplish some of the tasks more than others. Spending time in the garden this time of year is probably my most favorite thing in the whole world. Not being able to do it is doubly frustrating since I can see the garden from my office window. It sings out to me like a Siren, begging me to come out and leave my work, unfinished, behind. Day after day it taunts me.

Lately, I’ve taken the last hour of daylight – between dinner and a return to the desk – to give in to that call. I’m snatching a little time in the early mornings, too – the garden being one of the only things that can get Susie out of bed early (since Susie reads and/or tosses and turns until very late at night!).

With these little windows of time, I take things one flower, one vegetable at a time. The other night during the rainstorm, I sat in the garage and began repotting the top-heavy tomato plants, one by one. Pretty soon I had 30 done. The temperature of my anxiety dropped in a short amount of time.

By breaking things down into simple tasks and not trying to be too ambitious, I can get one thing done and feel good about it. (I was taught to do this in early sobriety, when often I didn’t feel well enough to do half of what I needed to do.)

One day last week, I used 10 minutes to get 12 zinnias into a corner of a raised bed. Not much, but it was something! It felt good. (The gangly zinnias had been languishing in six-packs with tiny root balls. I know they felt better, shaking their roots out.)

I try to use the same approach with my work. If my head is about to burst, I stop and rewrite my yellow legal-pad lists. I have a different legal pad for each aspect of my job (and different colored sharpies, of course!). If I get even a small task done, I cross it off the list. (My mother was such a big list maker that she wrote things down every day just so she could cross them off, starting with “Get up.” Yeah, and you wonder why I am crazy. By the way, the next thing on her list was usually “Vacuum.” That is almost never on my list.)

This bite-size approach isn’t novel, and I think my favorite illustration of it is an anecdote from author Anne Lamott on how she came to call her book on writing Bird by Bird:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

I also keep this quote (that also happens to be about writing – which apparently inspires stress and anxiety in even the most seasoned authors!) from novelist E.L. Doctorow on my board:

“Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog – You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Page by page, bird by bird, vegetable by vegetable, flower by flower, task by task. Not only do small accomplishments move you forward and push you through anxiety, but sometimes performing smaller tasks, especially in repetition, is particularly soothing to a noisy brain.

Tuck that into your toolbox to use when you need it.


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 Mole and the Fox, The Dog and the Pig

FARMER AND PIGGY and I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday. It was lovely. Piggy has a habit of moving around when I am not looking and today I found him hiding in the lamb’s ears and later peeking out of a forest of bee balm. By late afternoon he was over by the rose trellis sniffing the hardy geranium that’s about to bloom. Honestly, Piggy.

Farmer loves gardening. He lies in the grass, baking in the sun until his black fur is as warm as beach sand on a hot July day. Then and only then does he move into the shade. Occasionally he gets up and wanders over to a mossy patch under the oaks where he immediately dives on to his back and does a roly-poly, squirming with glee as he scratches his back.

He’s a big help.

Today’s project was planting up containers and pots with annuals and herbs. It was a total immersion in dirt. The driveway was a disheveled disaster zone, pots upturned everywhere, bags of potting soil spilling in the gravel, various plants in various stages of undress waiting for new homes. Whenever I am covered in dirt, I think back (way back) to making mudpies with my best friend Eliza. This makes me happy. Dirt makes me happy.

My joy at being outside with Farmer and Piggy (yes, I realize that one of these two is an inanimate object) was coupled with relief, having powered through practically nonstop from Sunday midday to Thursday evening on a series of deadlines.  

I was so tired Thursday night that I couldn’t even read. I settled myself in my comfy chair, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, thinking I’d be dipping in and out of any number of things.

Sadly, I was exhausted. Disappointed, I yawned and thought to make tracks for bed. But I hesitated, looking at the book on the top of the pile and thinking I had just enough energy to page through it. Again. It’s a book so charming as to make you weepy with gratitude. 

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy, arrived earlier in the week, a gift unbidden from a friend, a kind and thoughtful friend who also happens to be a sober friend. She shared the book with me in part because it is so darn beautiful and sweet (and we already know that receiving wisdom from animals is actually my preferred wisdom-delivery form) but also because it is an affirmation of all the self-knowledge we’ve gained in recovery, the painful scraping away of the superfluous junk to arrive at the truth of who we are and what really matters in this life.

Wisdom delivery is a very tricky thing. No one really wants it thrown at them in a neat little package. But what is it about young children (in this case a boy), animals that talk, and a mythical land, that turns a story into a fable and creates a safe place to have honest thoughts and to express love?

In the book (which Mackesy hand-wrote in pen and ink and illustrated with sketches of the four unlikely friends on a journey through the wild to what may or may not be home), there is a moment when the boy — who was lonely before he met the mole, and they met the fox, and they all ran into the horse — is looking at his reflection in a pond.

“Isn’t it odd? We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”

So true. One of the first things I learned in early sobriety was to look past the outsides of people and to imagine a person as a struggling, yearning, vulnerable soul, someone just like me. (In the world I grew up in, appearances were valued above all else, so I had to unlearn this. In the book, the boy asks, “I wonder if there is a school of unlearning?” Don’t we wish!)

A wise person taught me to practice stripping away a person’s trappings and circumstances and to try to feel compassion. Not saying I’ve mastered this, but forced humility (in the form of realizing you are an addict who is unable to recover on her own) helped. And I clearly remember a moment when being judgmental suddenly felt less comfortable as a prop. I was listening to a woman talk who had recently been released from prison. Mind you, this was early on and I was still in a fog. I immediately began to judge her … until I began to truly hear her story. She had gone to prison for killing an elderly couple in a car accident by driving through an intersection while in a blackout. While I wasn’t prone to blackouts, there were certainly many nights when I had to drive with one eye closed to keep the yellow line in focus. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Later on in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, the mole asks the boy, “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” And the boy replies, “I think I’m just happy to have a glass.”

I love that! I know I sure am happy to have a glass, and even though some days it is three-quarters empty, it is still sturdy enough to hold the few tablespoons of (non-alcoholic!) hydration I need to get through the day.

And if it is truly drained dry, I know (now) what to do. It’s something the boy learns from the horse, who is the most wise of all the creatures. 

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse.

“Help,” said the horse.

It gives me goosebumps to think about how life-changing that plea can be. I know that I can pinpoint the exact moment my life began to change course – and it happened the day I said out loud, “I can’t do this myself.”

If you know someone who needs help but is afraid to ask, perhaps a gift of this book might provide an opening. I also highly recommend at least one furry creature (real or imagined, live or inanimate) to talk to.


The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse grew from the response British illustrator Charlie Mackesy got when posting his thoughtful drawings on Instagram. The book was published in October 2019 by HarperCollins and has become an international bestseller. Read a bit about that here. And be sure to visit his website and follow him @charliemackesy on Instagram. All illustrations pictured here are Mackesy’s, of course!



LOOKING FOR RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.comand 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.