Theme and Variations, Or Dinners for Most of a Week

For the past few years, in autumn we’ve bought a beef cow from next door to split with two or more families and eat during winter.  Although I was a vegetarian for six years, I feel good about eating local beef that lived happily for a time on sloping, rocky land perfect for grazing but unsuitable for growing grains.  My neighbor, farmer Don, lives mostly off the land and will stop by our house at a moment’s notice if we have trouble with our water heater, stove, or most anything he knows how to fix.  We like being able to support his farm by purchasing beef.

Also, I’ve discovered that meat-based meals can stretch a long way.  Here’s an example.

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Parallel Universes

After more than a decade of being married to a web designer, I finally became interested in learning about hand-coding.  Last night, Steve showed me the rudimentary skills of how to construct tags, with their corresponding end tags, then opened the text in Firefox to see how it looked, and voilà! it struck me that coding was very much like knitting.

In knitting, every stitch must be correctly formed and integrally linked to the adjacent stitches, or else the fabric will unravel.  It’s a methodical crafting process in which every detail is important–any pattern mistakes will show up in the finished piece.  Likewise, in coding, one has to pay attention to every keystroke so as not to screw up the web page.

Then I thought of math–say, geometry or algebra or calculus–where each symbol is a vital part of the solution.  For every problem, there’s an elaborate system that must be taught step-by-step in order for a person to grasp what is happening in the mathematical system.

Music, too.  While anyone can listen to and appreciate music (I’ve even heard a deaf person sing), it takes a slow accumulation of details for someone to grasp music theory, which is like a universe unto itself, to create meaningful harmonies and musical structures.

Suddenly each of these different systems of thought struck me as separate worlds, each constructed slowly over hundreds of years by different people dedicated to mastering the details, building on previous knowledge, whiling away hours in an abstract place of the imagination, somewhat separate from the ordinary, animal things of life–cooking, eating, sleeping, fighting, sex.

Each of these systems converge somewhere in “real life,” as when building with wood, or using Facebook, or singing, yet those practical uses represent only tiny points contained in the giant universes that exist as systems of thought, whether in music theory, programming, geometry or calculus.

As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, each of these different intellectual pursuits seemed to me like parallel universes, ever-expanding, strange places to those who haven’t spent a lifetime of study learning to navigate their vast territories.

It occurs to me that written language–even spoken language–is yet another of these vast universes.  People talk about literature taking you to another world, putting it metaphorically.  But language itself, a pattern of syllables and symbols, is its own universe, too–a system of thought that exists parallel to the bodily one in which we live.

Somehow, this all seemed very deep as I was falling asleep, which is probably why I’ve never felt a need to experiment with marijuana.  Suddenly I got a little silly, and started singing, “A Whole New World,” and told Steven that he and I had been like Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on the magic carpet, when he was showing me about coding.  (Again, no need for mind-altering substances here.)

Today, as I spend the day alone in my old farmhouse, practicing scales on the piano, blogging, drawing, and writing, it’s as though I’m traveling between different universes, trying to learn the languages, taste the cultures, wondering how long it will take to feel like a resident in one of these places instead of a hitchhiker.

A quiet day alone can sometimes feel like rush hour in Union Station.

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Best Smoothie Ever!

For the past month, our household has battled seasonal flu, and found an ally in fruit smoothies.  Any frozen fruit will do, but mixed berries yield highest quality anti-oxidants and immune-boosting vitamins.  When we ran out of yogurt, I experimented with a pared-down version of our usual smoothies.   It’s so good, I wanted to share it with you.  Even if you’re not sick.

Into a blender, drop:

-Most of a bag of frozen fruit (about 10 ounces?), ie.  mixed strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (alternatively, use peaches)

-1 cup steeped Good Earth sweet and spicy tea

-1 banana

-honey, if desired

-1 capful vanilla extract

-enough milk to aid blending (optional; may use 4-5 ice cubes instead, for vegan version or if you’ve simply run out of milk and are too sick to grocery shop)

Puree until pourable, and enjoy immediately.  Serves 4.

If you’re too sick to enjoy real meals, alternate smoothies with hot soups and tea till you feel better.  If you’re well, enjoy smoothies for breakfast or snack to help ward off illness.

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On Happiness

In college, a good friend used to wear a purple T-shirt that said, “Choose to be Happy.”  At that time, being of a certain fatalist bent, I interpreted the shirt to mean that, regardless of one’s circumstances, whether plagued by bad weather or torture, one could always choose one’s attitude.  My friend, however, interpreted his shirt in a different manner–that a person has the power to make choices that can lead towards greater happiness, and should choose things that will make him or her happy, rather than favoring, say, money, security, or guilt.

At least, this is how I remember the conversation.  (If this friend of mine is reading my blog, he can correct me in the comment section.)

A decade later, reflecting on that conversation, I suppose we were both right.  But these days, I’m going with his version.

Back in college, I think I had a bit of a martyrdom complex.  More about that in a future post.  (Look for “On Martyrdom,” coming up!)  Part of that was maybe fueled by personality, part by upbringing, part environment (fervently evangelical Christian college campus).   Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to critique the idea of self-sacrifice.  But there’s sometimes a tendency for some of us (women, especially, it seems) to choose self-sacrifice when it’s not being asked, when it’s not required, maybe it’s not even useful.

Too much needless self-sacrifice can make a person resentful, bitter. Glum, depressed.  Not very nice to hang around with. Which basically defeats the point of being self-sacrificial.

This is why, in the last couple of years, I’ve decided to adopt my friend’s interpretation of his T-shirt.  I’m making choices–some small, some large–that lead to my happiness.  I don’t mean I’m going completely selfish.   At least, I hope not.   What I mean is, I’m allowing myself to do more of the things that make me happy instead of automatically assuming that I have to sacrifice my happiness for other people’s sakes.

For instance?

Okay, here’s a big one.  For a very long time I wanted to go to grad school.  I love to learn, and am good at academics.  But I didn’t think I should use so much of our family’s financial resources –including taking on debt–for myself.  I thought I should resign myself to doing housework and laundry and taking care of my husband and kids.  Because they’re more important than my dreams and desires, right?  Of course.

But here’s the thing.  I was a sullen housewife!  I would fold laundry and feel angry that my life had been reduced to this domestic drudgery, while my husband went off daily to an interesting job that used his talents and considerable creativity while paying him money, and my kids went to school and ballet classes where they got rewarded for their accomplishments.  As for me, no matter how hard I tried to change my attitude, I seemed incapable of being happy about washing dishes and mating socks. (Where on earth do those socks go, anyway?!)

Finally my husband, in desperation after yet another banal argument about housekeeping roles, insisted that I think harder about my goals and dreams, and work on pursuing them.  “I don’t care if you do the laundry, just be happy!”

What a guy, huh.

So now I’m studying fiction in grad school, and I’m mostly happy.  These days, I feel good even when folding laundry because I’m thinking about stories to write instead of, “Woe is me! how sacrificial I am.”

Everyone in the house benefits because when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.  And as it turns out, the husband and kids are perfectly capable of matching their own socks.

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I am not a poet, but sometimes I like to play with a very structured form, such as a haiku, villanelle, or a rondeau, and see what happens. Structured poetic forms appeal to the mathematical side of me, I suppose, the part that finds freedom and creativity through boundaries. I love to make lists of rhyming words, count up the syllables, and arrange them neatly into the form’s required slots until something comes together.

There are two blogs that I religiously follow. One is Steven David Johnson’s luscious photo-blog, Virginia Journal, at The other is Numero Cinq, a literary blog dreamed up by Douglas Glover, one of the faculty in my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Art. Glover occasionally runs little contests on his site, and I always try to enter something, just for fun. Right now, there are three days left to the Rondeau contest. I dare you to write something and enter it! (If you, like me until last week, don’t know what a rondeau is, run over to his rondeau contest page and find out.)

Here is John McCrae’s famous rondeau:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And here is mine, not yet famous:

The Way To A Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach, or
Kitchen Ostinato

In the kitchen, eating avocado,
Sits a housewife and a desperado.
He weeps gently while she peels a carrot.
“Things are not what they seem!” squawks her parrot,
then with his beak, pecks an ostinato.

The housewife drinks some amontillado
then scoops a handful of turbinado
to sweeten the tea before they share it
in the kitchen.

The cowboy, trouble aficionado,
tells her that his name is Leonardo.
He’s wasted years on things without merit.
Would he settle down now? Could he dare it?
He gives her a stolen carbinado
in the kitchen.

I’ve chosen to use a feminine rhyme scheme (which means two or more rhyming syllables, ie. carrot /parrot) to reflect the domestic imagery.

I’m obsessed with the kitchen, maybe because I spend half my time there, or perhaps because it’s the pumping, four-chambered organ of the home. Or possibly, it’s just the light. Our kitchen was formerly an enclosed sun porch, long before we moved here, and as such, has two walls composed almost entirely of windows. Whatever the reasons, kitchen imagery has become iconic in my visual art and tends to show up in my writing too.

If you don’t choose to enter your own rondeau in the contest, you can still go to the rondeau page and vote for your favorite entries. Voting will start after all entries are received on November 21st.

And if you have a literary bent, I recommend Numero Cinq as a rich resource for your writing and reading life. If you don’t, just enjoy looking at all the pictures on Virginia Journal!

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David and Sufjan

After a logistical obstacle course, Steven and I drove to Richmond Tuesday to see our friend, David Stith, play with Sufjan Stevens.  We had a good dinner at the home of poet Ian Bodkin, fellow MFA candidate with me at Vermont College of Fine Art, and his wife Wendy.  Ian made an amazing spaghetti sauce that included turkey and mushrooms–richly textured and aromatic (Thanks Ian).

The National, Richmond, Virginia–one of those old-school performance halls with ornate paneling, gilted woodwork, chandeliers.  Inside, everyone was standing packed together listening to David’s opening songs–his voice harmonizing with himself as if he were a one-man choir, through the magic of some kind of instantly recording microphone.  Really, you must hear it for yourself if ever you have the chance.  Midway through the third song, surprise trombones joined in!  I must admit to wriggling with joy at the whispered voices muttering nearby, “Who is this guy?  He’s amazing!”  Suppressing my desire to scream, “That’s my friend!  He gives me tea and writes letters!” I simply answered, “The musician who’s playing?  He’s David Stith, S-T-I-T-H.”
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Field trip to DC

My friend, Paulette Moore, and I gaze up at Finch's "My Business, with the Cloud." Paulette communicated articulately with her hands. Photo by Steven David Johnson.

Yesterday I rode a charter bus with Steven’s art students to Washington, DC, to visit art galleries.  Sun shone and the air was perfect for a long sweater.  I’ve learned, through decades of looking at art, that the best way is to choose only a couple of exhibitions to savor slowly, rather than trying to take in too much at one time.  Good art is like dark chocolate–a little bit satisfies more than ingesting too much.

In the National Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875–an exhibition of both painting and photography–appealed to the romantic in me.  Henry Peach Robinson constructed some of his photographs from multiple negatives, carefully selected to create a compelling narrative, and sometimes mixing media by hand-coloring the resulting image. They’re the equivalent of today’s digitally manipulated photographs.  Over a hundred years later, these feel contemporary to me, almost like a movie still image.  I like the stagey-ness, the carefully researched period costumes in which Lady Clementina dressed up her daughters.  This art era drew heavily from literature, history, mythology and religion. Follow the link below and you can see some highlights from the exhibition, including photographs of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll’s muse for Alice in Wonderland.

In a completely different vein, in the Corcoran, Spencer Finch’s exhibition My Business, with a Cloud, fascinated me, although in some cases I found the concepts more appealing than the finished art pieces.  He took a scientific/artistic approach to cloud studies, exploring cloud shapes and other weather-related forms in a variety of media: fluorescent light tubes, watercolor sketches, ceramic tiles, plastic. For instance, a series of cloud studies was made with pieces of Scotch tape to build layers of whiteness that resembled different cloud shapes.  Who knew Scotch tape could be so beautiful?   Or a big blue cellophane “cloud” held together with clothespins, suspended from the ceiling.    Four brown watercolor drawings depicted the water stain he sees on the ceiling above his bed.  Most of this exhibition, especially the blue cellophane cloud, felt ephemeral–not something likely to be found in galleries a hundred years from now, but pieces that stand, for now, as fleeting moments of nature’s awe and beauty.  Like clouds.

Also stopped in at the Natural History Museum, and recalled a line from Myles’ book that I’m reading.  Writing of Robert Smithson (you know, Spiral Jetty guy?):

The true ground of all of Smithson’s art and thought is the dialectic between the art in the mind and the art in the world, the work drawing the viewer along a path of creation and destruction and calm.  This man was a kid who, way back when, was far more delighted by the Museum of Natural History than the Met” (The Importance of Being Iceland 82).

My painter-friend Paula once told me she secretly preferred Natural History museums to art museums, and I’m inclined to agree–at least these days, when natural history exhibitions have gotten so beautiful.   How fun when art and science converge in The Hyperbolic Crochet of Coral Reefs, a community-based project currently on display at the Natural History Museum.

And the human origins exhibition is a wonder beyond words.  I have no words, so will simply post an image of the moment of silence I experienced there.

Sharing a contemplative moment with a human ancestor. Photo by Steven David Johnson.

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November Rain

Other things have been taking priority over writing during the past week or so–fall cleaning, no school for the kids the past 3 days (teacher workday, parent-teacher conferences, election day), Halloween costume-making, voting, constructing a dollhouse out of foam core and fancy papers because the kids are home, baking breads & biscotti and pumpkin-y things, garden clean-up . . . you know, the usual.  Seems like the more time I take off from writing, the more I become aware of other things out there I could/should be doing.

For instance, as I poke my head out from under a pile of books and stories-in-progress, I recall that I own a 110-year-old farmhouse. Leafy gutters.  Attic starlings. Wasp nests.  Dead light bulbs.  Dead batteries; can’t tell the time by the clocks.

I’ve been told we’re to drain our water heater each fall to prevent mineral deposits, inspect the vinyl siding before winter; there are lists of things good homeowners do in autumn.

Just thinking of it makes me want to hunker back down into my books.

Which might be a good thing, since only a month remains of my second semester.  Four books to read.  Forty pages to write.

Outside the passing trucks and cars splashing past remind me that it’s raining.  It’s November, and I’ve got a certain melancholy song stuck in my head.

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The Importance of Being Iceland

Spent much of the day curled in the living room by the fire reading a book of “travel essays in art” by Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland.  Contemporary art, travel, cultural criticism, and poetry–everything that excites me woven throughout the volume.  She writes from such an experiential point of view.  For instance:

Paul Lee’s work excites me because of its disproportionate or maybe inverse relationship to scale.  I saw a group of tiny photo collages of his a year or two ago–the exhibited pieces were composed of small bits of photographs, rearranged into versions that often included a pearl among their parts.  My response to these first pieces was to want to hug the work yet it was so small.  I felt larger and bulkier than unusual.  My body was troubling and felt oddly squeezed out of the contraption of this photo culture as if I myself were the pearl.

(from “Paul Lee’s Piracy,” 2005, page 74)

Throughout the collection, her writing is compact, minimal, sometimes too spare in commas for my liking (poetic license, I guess), but always visually rich, thought-provoking, layered.

She frames the essay collection with her experiences of being in Iceland, and now I want to visit the magical island that is still being formed by volcanoes even now, the place from which the earliest prose comes, the Icelandic sagas.

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Conversation with Grandma Davis

Today, on her birthday, I called my grandma, and enjoyed a wide-ranging talk about the family gossip, literature, magazines she reads (The Smithsonian and National Geographic), television, writing, her hearing aids, and handicapped accessibility.  As usual, I enjoyed her witty banter (“They think they’ve fixed the church to be handicapped accessible, but it’s more ‘capped’ than ‘handy’!”), her spouted opinions (“Well, National Geographic is meant to be non-fiction, but how can they be sure what happened millions of years ago?  Seems like it’s at least part imaginative fiction!”), and appreciation for beautiful things (“Your father and D. sent me a bouquet of flowers in fall colors–lilies, snapdragons, and it’s either cosmos or asters . . . so nice to look over and see them”).

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