A literary Experiment

Geez Magazine has just published an essay of mine on their site. You can find me over there today:)…

Photo Credit: James White

I don’t have time to write an essay. I don’t have time to outline my points, think of a snappy ending, or edit several drafts until it’s ready for submission. Rather than staring out my window while I let ideas take shape I should be washing last night’s supper dishes or running to the store to get toilet-bowl cleaner. But instead I give in to my craving, jot down the time, 8:43 p.m., and start scribbling.

READ MORE

Different

DSCN0148_

Lamb’s quarters

If you have jumpy little black bugs in your garden, and if the arugula you planted has holes in it one day, is shriveled the next, and totally gone the third day, you might have flea beetles. I love arugula, especially with feta cheese, toasted pecans and cranberries, so I plant it every year. This year I planted it twice–both times the seedlings succumbed to flea beetles resulting in my sixth consecutive arugula crop failure. Which of course doesn’t matter one whit when I consider real crop failure and livelihoods on the line, but in my little world it is something to take note of. Don’t plant arugula…will not survive flea beetle.

Besides the arugula fiasco, I’ve taken note of something else. Just about the same time my second planting of arugula went down, lamb’s quarters started elbowing out the Orca beans. I always have these weeds in my garden, and I often munch on them before pulling them, but today I had an idea. Why don’t I let a few of these silver-powdered plants reach maturity, harvest their seed, and dedicate a whole plot to them next season? It’s a nutritional powerhouse, doesn’t cower to the flea beetle, and best of all, grows like a weed!

Once upon a time, lamb’s quarters greens received more respect. Their ancient name was “all good,” and all good they are. They contain more iron and protein than raw cabbage or spinach, more calcium and vitamin B1 than raw cabbage, and more vitamin B2 than cabbage or spinach.  According to Joan Richardson’s Wild Edible Plants of New England, lamb’s quarters “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A, not to mention all the minerals pulled out of the earth by its strong taproot.” (from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association)

What makes arugula so much better than lamb’s quarters anyway? I did a taste test with the greens I harvested from my garden today (butter crunch lettuce, red leaf lettuce, spinach, and lamb’s quarters) and enjoyed the young lamb’s quarters as much as the rest, if not more. The nutty flavour is not as bitter as the lettuce and will go fine with pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve read the seeds are also edible and can be ground into flour or cooked whole (like quinoa), but will update you further when I have some more first-hand information!

***

Our annual skip-school day is a sacred tradition the girls talk about months beforehand. This year I send them ahead with Shelly while I stay home for Vivian’s first nap, hoping she will be well-rested and ready for the dunes just like her big sisters. While she sleeps, I ready the back-pack carrier and envision walking for miles along the shore, like always. I grab wieners and anticipate roasting a perfectly salty hot dog. Like always. I fold my towel and look forward to laying in the sun, water evaporating off my freshly cooled skin. Like always.

When we arrive at the dunes the sun is high. It’s just past noon and Vivian is starting to get hungry. Should I feed her now or put sunscreen on her or try to build a lean-to shelter for shade? I set her down to look for baby food–which I forgot to bring, while she cries and eats sand. There are tent caterpillars everywhere; on our blankets, our water bottles, our sandals, and our legs. I flick one out of Vivi’s hand and try to cover her up from the sun with my long-sleeve cotton shirt. It doesn’t work. She crawls forward and bungles her knees in the fabric, the sun beats hard, and I’m wondering if it’s okay for her to eat chips all day. I’m also wondering how long we can last.

This isn’t like I planned and doesn’t match my memories of visiting with the other moms, laughing while kids vault off sandy cliffs, and joking with them about what “all the children in school are doing”. I haven’t taken one picture of the girls jumping off the dunes or heard any of the conversation around me, much less contributed to it. I am too worried about Vivi, the worms, the wind, getting her to sleep again and why this feels so different than last year. After nursing her awhile with her fleshy white legs jutting out from my sweaty belly, I know we need shade. I walk down the beach while the wind pushes hard against me and dig my heels into the sand. Towel whipping in the wind and cooler tugging on my shoulder, I yell back to my mom trudging behind, “The ambiance isn’t quite like I’d hoped!”

It’s true, the ambiance is different with a ten-month-old. My mom and I whisper about it while Vivi snoozes on the blanket beside us; how this summer will be hard and so will the next, and then maybe, by the time she’s three, things will go back to normal. How relaxing at the beach really means multitasking: conversations that ebb and flow while chasing a little one, filling up buckets of sand, monitoring liquid intake and readjusting sun hats.

When I worked as a liaison with high school exchange students, their orientation manual included a section on making judgements and how things don’t have to be “better” or “worse”.  Sometimes they are just different. Now, like the exchange students, I am learning about my new landscape; calibrating expectations so my internal gauge reads different instead of worse. Instead of leisurely roasting my own hotdog like I imagined, I go without until Belén finds us in our new spot. She comes back shortly, kicking up sand and running with a sizzling wiener at the end of her stick, cooked just for me. Later, Susanna and I count to three and dive under the water. It feels like freedom and I manage a few strokes before my Vivi radar turns on. I look back to see her with my mom at the water’s edge. They are just fine.

Back on shore, the day stretches into its finest hours–the wind dies down and the sunshine sweetens into a gentle heat. Belén is dangling her feet from the dinghy and Ainsly floats beside while they make up terrible jokes in a secret language. Susanna is throwing a football with Jack, and Shelly sits nearby in the sun. I watch water droplets disappear from her tanned shoulders, instead of my own, while sitting with Vivi under the shade of a poplar. Vivian is bare-bummed (sure to pee any minute), her mouth is mustached with grit, and I just gave her another potato chip, but she is quiet. Perfectly still. This is when I decide we can stay just a few minutes longer. Everything is going to be okay.

DSCN0140_

My mom and Vivian

DSCN0144_

Tricia

PS. Here’s a quote I forgot to add to my last post. It’s one of many I highlighted in Ueland’s book:

“Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. When I read this in Tolstoy it seemed like a great flashing discovery. But perhaps I would not have been so struck by it if it had not been for my class. I saw in their writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were. But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead. No infection.”

 

 

This is 37

It’s getting harder and harder to blog lately. And it has more to do with the eight and ten-year-olds, than the five-month old. I drafted a piece last week that I thought was inspiring, hopeful, and honest; some truly magnificent writing. 🙂 I read it to Belén right after she got home from school and while she peeled off her parka and finished her snack, her face grew still and sad listening to my words. I knew then, I wouldn’t post it. I thought the salient points were positive enough to justify the honest beginning, but she disagreed.

“Why can’t you write, ‘It was hard at first, but I got over it. Now it’s good? Leave out that stuff at the start and it will be okay.”

I sat for a moment without saying anything. I really wanted to share this piece even though parts of it made me sad, too. I thought it might be worthwhile even if just one other person read it and felt less alone–and isn’t that why we do all of this reading and writing anyway? To feel connected and reassure ourselves we’re not the only ones facing the unpredictable world out there?

“Mmm…” I started slowly. “If I leave out the details, and only share the good stuff, it won’t be very interesting anymore. Telling the hard things makes the good stuff make more sense.”

She resisted, and I left it alone. I thought about a book I’d read recently and how the author, Krista Bremer, took me from mountain trails (where she met her husband) to the dusty villages of Libya (where she met her husband’s family), straight into the heart of her marriage. It’s one of the most well-written books I’ve read in a long time, precisely because she doesn’t say, “It was hard at first, but now it’s good.” Her words are sharp and the images vivid. It’s a beautiful, raw story, but I wonder: what did her husband think of it all? And her children? How do you write any kind of memoir, or even an amateur blog like this one, and respect the ones who are living out the stories with you? It’s dangerous territory, this writing hobby, and I’m not sure one can ever do it well and be safe.

So what do I do now? Turn this into a sewing blog? That would be great if I had more patience for following patterns. A foodie blog? Not likely. I’m very insecure about my kitchen skills lately; the accumulation of complaints from my children over the years is taking its toll. Besides, I’d have to type out recipes and that wouldn’t be fun at all. A photo blog? My camera is too cheap and the thrill of blogging comes from creating pictures with words, not just uploading them.

Maybe I’ll have to make it all about me–I’ve never been one to bother much with privacy anyway. It might be boring, but certainly not as risky. Here, then, is a poem to start with. It was an “assignment” for my writing group. All of us–from our early thirties into our sixties–did a piece explaining what it’s like to be the age we are. It was fun to write and I loved reading the others’ too.

***

This is 37

Unwrapping baby gifts billowed with tissue paper,
opening my front door to a friend trembling with a new diagnosis,
pretending to be the tooth fairy–but failing,
praying and explaining, but never understanding leukemia,
cheering for smiles and poop, coos and farts,
new lines under my eyes,
in between birth and death.
This is 37.

Cradling my baby to my breast,
peeling the fuzz and dust we slough from the lint trap,
dipping fingers into coarse salt and sprinkling it over roasting potatoes,
heaving half-rotten compost from one pile to another,
reaching under sheets, tracing the body pressed next to mine.
My arms are strong.
My hands are full.
This is 37.

Arranging after-school sledding dates,
hoping my college friend will notice my facebook post,
waiting for book-club night,
calling my sister three times a day,
searching, always searching, for community.
Then Friday night comes,
lights are out at 9:30.
This is 37.

Skating on an outdoor rink for an audience of two
listening to my daughters cheer from the snow-banked sidelines,
springing off toe picks, bunny-hopping more like a groggy bear than a limber rabbit,
The crowd jumps to its feet and roars with approval.
“Did you see that?” one daughter gasps to the other.
I sing the last note till it goes flat,
jazz hands still fluttering.
This is 37.

***

What’s it like for you at 28? or 45? or 67? And how honestly could you write about it? Please share.

Tricia

What I’ll Miss Most About Not Teaching

It’s not the planning, the marking, the dressing up and getting out of the house, the literacy intervention program, or the pay. I will miss what happens when I ask a class full of students to write. What occurs then, is something I still don’t understand. It appears they actually like it. I mean, really like it. And it’s not just one or two of the nerdy kids. It’s all of them; the struggling students, the ones who’d rather be sleeping, and those who wait all day for phys. ed. Eventually they come to the same place (given enough time and routine) of wanting to write. When this occurs it’s like I’ve just been surprised by a witty comedian who comes up with such an odd image, it’s laughable. It’s thrilling–and a little comical–when children don’t want to put their pencils down, or are so proud of their work they’re desperate to share it. Sometimes it catches me off-guard and I respond with cynicism instead of encouragement. Like the time the pre-teen asked if he could work on his story outside of class time. I thought he was being sarcastic so I answered dryly, “Only if you’re especially well-behaved.” And then I realized he wasn’t kidding.

It’s not that I’m an exemplary teacher or my assignments are particularly clever. In fact, the opposite is true. The more elaborate my plans, or complicated my invitation, the less enticing the offer for the students. Instead, bare-bone instructions fueled by an excerpt from a book or a poem seem to churn out the best ideas and most enthusiastic participation… to my constant amazement.

Sometimes I wonder what happens to this innate drive as we get older. Perhaps our creative energies go to to our jobs, keeping our homes and vehicles together, planning birthday parties, or other artistic endeavors. And after work (whether at home with children or in an office) and dinner who has time to pen an essay? But, the thing I’ve noticed whenever I confide to people about my writing habit, is that almost everyone wants to write, or has an idea for a novel or a memoir. Who knew there are so many unwritten books walking all around us?

A little over a year ago I joined a writing club. It’s a lot like my book club–there’s food, warm conversation, and fine women–only a little more focused. The person who facilitates brings an excerpt, or two, from an inspiring book and after a quick-write, the rest of us share and give feedback on pieces we’re currently working on. After I came home from writing group this week I was heartened, as usual, but also amused. Amused at myself, and others, who sit around fleshing out stories and ideas…for what? The love of fame? Money? I hate to be a downer, but the probability of any one of us producing a bestseller is almost as high as Stan taking off his toque. No, the reason we keep bringing drafts and revising stories that will never hear the ring of a cashier’s till is probably the same reason students moan when I tell them their writing time is up. It’s almost like we were born for it.

The author, Kate DiCamillo, explains here how a college professor once brought special attention her work, and it wasn’t because her writing was extraordinary. It was her ability to see. She writes,

“I cannot control whether or not I am talented, but I can pay attention. I can make an effort to see. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past everyday? What love? What hopes? What despair?

Writing is seeing. It is paying attention.”

I feel the same way, though I’m not quite so eloquent about it all. When I write, I’m like a cow chewing my cud, regurgitating the moments I was too busy to suck the life out of the first time around. But I doubt my young students would resonate with DiCamillo’s essay or my cud-chewing metaphor. To them, writing isn’t philosophical; it’s fun, even addictive, and witnessing this in action makes going to work worthwhile. So next fall, when I’m in my rocking chair instead of circulating desks, I know what I’ll remember. What I’ll miss most is when the moment I say, “Pick up your pens.” And, against all odds, they do.

-Tricia

*In case you’re just stopping by this site: I won’t be teaching next year because I’ll be on maternity leave. I’ve never taken one before because, well, let’s face it,my employment history is pretty sketchy. The whole prospect of a mat-leave makes me feel terribly grown-up.

Upcycled Wool Cowl (no knitting required) and some blogging philosophy

I feel like I’m in grade five again, pretending to make a fashion magazine–which is appropriate as the project I’m featuring today is entirely doable for any fifth-grader. Because I’m marginally better at sewing than I am knitting (I can knit and sew anything as long it’s rectangular) I thought I might try a no-knit cowl to partner with my new winter parka.

I’ve had the wool sweater for years and used it as a tea-cozy after it shrunk/felted in the washing machine. It worked nicely to keep my teapot warm, if a bit unsightly with the hoodie and arms occupying more table space than necessary, but after I got my purple coat I decided to re-incarnate the tea cozy as a winter scarf:

DSCN7070_

The more felted the wool, the warmer the scarf. Although my sweater didn’t felt 100%, it did shrink substantially and I didn’t need to take it in at all.

I cut the arms and hood off, but left the base wide.

DSCN7071_

another almost-rectangular project to show off my sewing finesse

I turned down the cut by the neck and seamed it. Then I sewed the armhole cuts together and made sure the cowl was narrow enough at the top to stay up when I need to keep my nose and cheeks covered.

DSCN7131_

DSCN7143_

After Belén took that last photo she said, “You’re not going to put this on your blog, are you, Mom?… That scarf looks weird.”

I happen to love my recycled cowl and told Belén so (I’m used to her comments on my clothes; she’s been critiquing my fashion for years now) but I have to admit, it feels weird posting pictures of myself wearing it. I question why the world needs to see my scarf and why I’m spending time typing out those very questions… which leads me to the bigger question of blogging and why I do it.

Every time I publish a post, WordPress (my blogging engine) flashes a congratulatory message across the screen including a tally of all the entries I’ve written. Once I hit the publish button on this draft I will have reached 100 posts. That’s a lot of hours spent loading pictures, typing, deleting, rewriting, and proofreading. And for what? So family can catch up on our lives? Partly.

So I can practice writing? Yes, that’s one reason. I’m finding that learning to write is a lot like learning another language. The more Spanish or Guarani I spoke when in Bolivia, the more agile my mouth and tongue became at forming new sounds. Similarly, sitting down at the keyboard regularly keeps the pathway from my mind to my fingers a little easier to travel.

So I can share my work with an audience? Definitely. Blogging is an egocentric activity, but it’s also a forum to connect with others. I teach a writing workshop to a grade 2 class and everyday I ask at least one student to read a piece of writing in front of their peers. Once, when a little girl delivered a choppy monologue punctuated by breathy pauses picked up by the microphone, she exploded after her performance. Unable to contain herself, she danced the whole way back to her seat singing, “This is the best day ever!” And then, between twirls she shouted, “I wanted to write a story and read it to the whole class and I did it! I did it! I did it!” I tried to re-focus her energy and speak in a low tones to move the class forward and keep calm, but I totally understood her reaction. It is thrilling to produce something and have other people read, see, or hear it. Blogging might be egocentric but I think it’s even more self-absorbed to pretend that an audience is irrelevant.

And finally, blogging is just another creative attempt to capture some of the curiosities, confusion, and beauty strewn around me. When I consider an ordinary image I might translate to words, it’s like picking up a pebble from a river bed. There are so many and they all look the same under the water, but study one for a moment and it becomes interesting enough to roll around in my hand for awhile. Scripting a scene from our week makes me appreciate the details of it, while it’s still dripping wet in my palm.

And so I guess I’ll keep blogging after all, even if it took me 39 ridiculous tries to get a shot of myself wearing a scarf.

Stay warm and keep creating, however you do it,

Tricia

PS. If you’re interested in creative non-fiction, check out this book I just read. It would be useful for any writer (it’s filled with brilliant essays critiqued by the author) but it’s especially appropriate for mothers. I loved it.

Prosciutto and a Writing tip

It’s nice to get out sometimes, isn’t it?

Yesterday Belén, Susanna and I went to the city and after a quick doctor’s appointment, the day stretched before us with opportunity. We went to an art gallery, wandered around a bookstore ’til our eyes got sore, and talked about going to Chuck E Cheese’s. Susanna kept on calling it Checkered Cheese’s, insisting she didn’t want to go because she didn’t like “checkered cheese” anyway. (The girls had never been there and I thought I somehow owed it to them.) I, of course, was happy to skip out and we ended up substituting a little Italian deli for ol’ Chuck E.

DSCN5281_

deli packages

When we walked in the doorway, a man with slicked-back hair and a mouthful of rolled rrrr’s welcomed us in. Sausages hung from the ceiling and the rotund lady behind the counter patiently answered all my cheesy questions, cutting slivers of gouda, fresh goat cheese and aged parmesan. When I asked about the prosciutto she held it up like a trophy then lowered it to the table where she cut it so thinly, I thought the strips might evaporate. She laid down each piece of sliced meat with a slow flourish, seeming so appropriate and natural I wondered why I’d never seen interpretive dance with cured pork before.

DSCN5283_

More deli packages (isn’t brown paper SO photogenic?) and some of Stan’s homemade wine (in a recycled bottle).

While she packaged my goods in brown paper the owner of the store made his rounds between customers: slapping them on the back, making suggestions on what kind of cheese to pair with mortadella, and escorting them out the door. When it was our turn at the till, he slipped two chocolate bars to Belén and Susanna and we all left feeling like we’d hit a jackpot.
DSCN5284_
Back at home, while eating our meal straight out of the brown wrappers (adding a little olive oil and butter to the spread) I asked my family a favour:

“Remember how Laura Ingalls had to be Mary’s eyes for her after she went blind and Laura described everything so perfectly, Mary felt like she was seeing? Well, I want you all to be Laura and I’ll be Mary. Only instead of being blind, I’m celiac (which I am). Now, tell me everything you can about how that bread tastes.”

Belén tore a piece off one of the artisan loaves and started talking, “This one is as light as a cloud–on the inside; on the outside it’s like soggy cheerios.”

She closed her eyes, reached for the second loaf, and chewed it slowly before deciding on her words. “This crust is about as hard as a rotten log…”

She gets points for understanding simile, I’d say.

***

DSCN5288

Belén, writing in her new diary. It took us NINE stores to finally find one with a lock and key–apparently an absolute must for eight-year-olds.

While searching for just the right diary for Belén, I am tempted by all the beautiful journals available. I finger the leather covers and and funky closures. Some are embossed with whimsical birds, others are filled with heavy paper that seems to promise meaningful and substantial prose. I almost pick one out for myself… but then I don’t. Here’s why:

Most of what I write is incomprehensible. I am consistently amazed by how much garble I cough up when trying to capture a poignant moment or a simple story. And so, if I had a pretty book I might try to fill it with pretty writing–which would be a very time-consuming and painful affair. Instead, I write down bits of conversations and scraps of sentences in an old notebook so I can catch the words before they’re gone, without the pressure of matching the quality of the journal. The tired clichés and overused imagery slide onto the paper right beside the stuff that isn’t so bad; the stuff that makes me sit back and smile. Then, on some clear day when I feel up to the task, I can pick my way through the verbal debris and pull out the parts worth saving. Fine, expensive journals are nice ideas; I just don’t think I could get mine out on them.

If you’ve come this far looking for the writing tip, thank you so much. Unfortunately, that was it; that’s all I got. You should probably leave my blog now and check out Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg, my two favourite authors on writing. I am currently re-reading Bird by Bird and it is just as inspiring, funny, comforting, pathetic, and hopeful as ever.

Does anyone else have other great titles on writing to share? Or recipes with goat cheese?

-T

For Corinna: salt, soup, and more

“Where did you get that bowl, mom?” She asks me, while staring at a crude piece of pottery sitting on our book shelf. “Can you tell me the story?”

Lately, the girls have been asking us the story behind the stuff in our home. Fortunately we live in the type of house where almost everything has a story: it’s either been handmade, thrifted, or given to us.

I jump off the couch, grab our Bolivia photo album and start flipping through the pictures, but Susanna stops me before I get very far.

“Wait,” she says, placing her hand firmly on the plastic pages. “I didn’t know Daddy knew how to cook!” She is staring at a picture of her Dad kneading bread.

“He doesn’t cook much now, does he? He used to cook a lot.” I say it kind of wistfully, but not because I’m disgruntled; I’m quite happy with our roles around the home. Rather, I’m remembering how he wooed me with some tomato, basil, and jalapeño soup…

After looking at the pictures I decide I will make the soup for old time’s sake.

Frozen tomatoes, ready to be peeled (with the help of hot water).

Frozen tomatoes, ready to be peeled (with the help of hot water) for soup.

DSCN4946_

Jalapeño and Sweet Basil. I don’t add very much jalapeño… (maybe 1/3 of the pepper), hoping the girls will eat it.

DSCN4947_

Sauté garlic, jalapeños and onions in oil. Add tomatoes and basil and simmer. It will be pretty mushy by this point. Cut up the chunks with 2 knives or blend in food processor. Add cream, al gusto, and thicken with flour or cornstarch. Add anything else you think it needs …

DSCN4954_

tomatoe, basil and jalapeño soup

I learned many things living in Bolivia; one was how to make soup. I remember watching women dice up shriveled carrots, peel potatoes (leaving only wisps of curled skin), toast rice, gather parsley a few feet away from their fire, and produce bowls of soup–all without consulting a recipe book. I realized then that cooking is not so much plodding through directions as working magic with whatever ingredients you have on hand.

DSCN5204_

chopped, dried apricots

Sometimes, ok–very rarely, the magic awes the audience. Most of the time though, I feel like I have to persuade the crowd to give me a chance. Like last week; I made roast chicken with apricots, almonds, ginger and cream, set it on the table with a flourish… and my dinner companions eyed it skeptically.

“It’s called Tuscan Chicken” I say, sure that someone, somewhere in Tuscany, has eaten a roasted bird with nuts and fruit before.DSCN5203_

I end up having Tuscan Chicken for lunch the next day, the day after that, and the day after that.

Last week I picked up An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace on a whim. I was drawn by it’s cover, and although I’m not particularly interested in food writing, I brought it home anyway.

I find recipe books tiresome, even ones with beautiful, mouth-watering photographs. Tamar Adler’s book is not a recipe book. It is a book with recipes embedded in essays on grace, living well, and “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.” If you are mildly interested in eating or good writing, I highly recommend it. It is the kind of book that makes you want to make mayonnaise from scratch at eleven o’clock at night, and stock your cupboards with anchovies.

Today, it made me start on a soup of roasted cauliflower. The recipe, of course, is non-existent.

DSCN5267_

Adler recommends roasting vegetables with everything they’ve got: core, leaves and all!

DSCN5269_

She also recommends things like a “long pour of olive oil” and “more salt than you think”. I’ve followed through on these vegetables.

…But, enough of soup and salt, let’s get back to the pottery on my bookshelf. I am trying to find a picture of Sabina, the Guaraní lady who made it for me, to show Susanna. When we study the photo together I’m amazed that something in my 1950’s bungalow has come from the other end of the earth.

Watch this 4 min. video clip and you’ll see what I mean. We found it the other day when Stan was doing some research on animal traction. Stan traveled to the Guaraní community (and met some of the men) featured here; it also shows some of what our life was like.  

Have a tasty weekend,

Tricia