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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Word about Whimsy



Our neighbor called last weekend, inviting us to take a tour of his Christmas light display.  I’ve written about his property before, describing the elemental ways in which he composes and nurtures his land. This man builds stone cairns and labels them by spiritual influence. He creates contemplative labyrinths and invites folks to walk them. He builds bird houses with slate roofs reclaimed from an old train station.  Although their own kids are grown, his two-story tree house, complete with a trap door and turret, will host a Boy Scout camp-out soon, and he and his wife hold an annual Easter egg hunt for neighborhood kids involving thousands of eggs hidden around their property.  During the summer, they grow vegetables and raspberries, fat chickens cluck in a pen, rhododendrons and day-lilies flourish—and while the place is stunning, and in a way, mystical, during Christmas it transcends everything.

This neighbor spends two full weekends in November setting up lights that cover about 120 bushes dispersed through the woods.  There are no synchronized flashes or hot air Santa's bobbing on the breeze. Don’t get me wrong.  Those things have their place, and trust me, I’ve driven miles to see them.  But here; it’s as if, rather than stringing the lights, he finds a way to make his bushes bloom with them, and because of their luminescent, magical quality, one might expect to see fireflies and druids, maybe even Tinkerbell flitting about. Each time we drive by, I tell my husband the place is a fairyland.

Keep this in mind as I tell you about Saturday night, when my husband and I and our sister-in-law, along with our daughter and nephew, both 22, walked over to visit.  There we joined another group, including two young children, and almost as soon as we began walking the paths, our host told the little ones, “If you find any fairy doors, make sure you knock before looking inside,” He pointed his flashlight toward a tree, where he’d carved a door to fit the shape of the natural opening between the roots, complete with a knob.  Following instructions, one of the little boys opened it to find a plastic figurine inside, ordinary I suppose, except nothing was that night. 

All throughout the walk, even the adults took turns, tapping at tiny doors to discover the surprises inside. Our daughter marveled at one, “It even has a slate floor.”  Toward the end of the tour our host spoke again to the little boys.  “If you come upon the fairies' treasure, only take one piece, so they don’t get mad.”  The last door they opened contained a pile of shiny beads and baubles.

Our daughter and nephew have visited this neighbor since they were little. They already speak its history, of the days before the cairns and labyrinths, when as toddlers they petted his goats and held chicken eggs, warm in their hands.  They learned generosity through the Easter egg hunt, when first, they experienced the joy of retrieving, and later, spent afternoons filling plastic eggs for those who still believed. They encountered mystique as they climbed into a tree house castle at twilight, and discovered how raspberries just off the bush taste so much better than what comes in a carton.  All through their lives, through his land, our neighbor has offered up stories and lessons.  This time, I hope they learned one more--that it's always right to invest in whimsy.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Holiday Retro



As I write this, it’s early Saturday morning and after breakfast, I’m into the kitchen.  I’m on hors-d'oeuvre duty for the family Christmas party one of my sisters holds each year. She’s a phenomenal cook, and for ages we’ve enjoyed preparing food when we are together and sharing recipes when we aren’t.  As a result, when I am providing edibles for an event at her house, it’s important for me to provide a quality dish.  I’ve spent a lot of time over my life pouring over recipes, but this year I didn’t.  I’ve reached the age and stage where experience speaks I guess. I figured I’d come up with something.  And so, I did.

Last week, my husband had to attend a pot luck Christmas party for his work, and as he’s not a cook (but an amazing dish washer and kitchen cleaner) I was in charge.  He requested something his mum used to make, and while I was preparing his water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, I remembered back to the late eighties, standing beside his mother at her counter, watching as she dipped water chestnuts into soy sauce and brown sugar before rolling them in bacon.  I made them myself for a New Year we spent in our first house.  We had friends down, ate up a storm, and they all stayed over.  The next day, before they were scheduled to leave, we pulled out the leftovers.  Somehow time got away from us…and since we were all childless, they all stayed another night. We called it "The New Year’s that Never Ended." I chuckled as I recalled that and decided heck, yes; I’d make them for this year’s family party.

My second choice was bit of a no-brainer, although I had a Eureka (!) moment when I thought of it, knowing how right it was.  You’ve heard me say “Food is Memory.”  Well, today will be the first Christmas without my oldest sister.  There were seven years between us and she married young, so while I was still hanging around the house being less than helpful to my mother, she and her husband would arrive on holidays bearing several food offerings.  Her spinach cheese squares are the right thing to bring today.  She’ll be with us as we celebrate.

Comfort food, indeed.

Water Chestnuts wrapped in Bacon

1 pound bacon
2 can whole water chestnuts
1/3 cup soy sauce
½ cup brown sugar
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

Set the oven to 375.  Spray a sheet pan with cooking spray, and then cover with aluminum foil.  Spray a cooking rack and put it on the pan. ** See note. 

Slice the pound of bacon down the middle, so you have halved each piece.  Soak the water chestnuts in the soy sauce for a few minutes.  Mix the cayenne (if using) with the brown sugar.  Lay a half piece of bacon on a cutting board.  Sprinkle it with about a teaspoon full of brown sugar making sure to it spread the sugar the length of the bacon. Place a water chestnut on one end of the bacon, and roll the whole thing up. Skewer with a tooth pick and place on the prepared baking rack. Repeat with the rest.  Bake until the bacon is crispy, approximately 20-25 minutes, checking regularly.

*Note: The brown sugar caramelizes and makes for very difficult cleaning, so don’t skip this step.  If some of the brown sugar mixture does stick to your pan, then soak in very hot water, it will melt off as you scrape.

Susan’s Spinach Cheese Squares

4 TBSP butter
3 eggs
1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
½ cup chopped onion
10 oz. sharp cheddar
2 packages chopped frozen spinach, water squeezed out

Heat oven to 350. Melt butter in 9x12” pan.  In a large bowl, beat eggs, add flour, milk salt, and baking powder.  Mix well. Grate cheese; add to bowl with onion and spinach.  Spoon into pan.  Sprinkle with salt.  Bake at 350 for 35 minutes.  Cut into two-inch squares.  (These are fine to cook ahead.  Reheat in the microwave.)

Wishing you all a joyful Christmas, filled with good food and good cheer.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Blackman's Point

Credit to Robin, from Your Daily Dose, who reminded me a while back how important writing poems is to me sometimes.  I wrote a few this spring, two of which I actually submitted for publication.  They weren't selected...so I'll publish one here.  Recognize this.  The piece is sad, yes, but a release for me, and I am glad to have written it in honor of my sister, who we lost in May.








 


Blackman's Point

Not what you planned
when you maxed out
credit cards
to buy
a trailer home
one row back
from the sea.
Monthly interest
secured a shush
and slurry ocean,
the rain refrain
of pebbles,
awning flap-ups,
goosebumps
off the water,
green-head curses
from the marshland
behind.
All year long
you counted to Spring,
for packing the car,
climbing grey-stained steps,
unlocking the door,
built-in table, bed,
airplane bath,
the beagle from
the next door RV
whimpering at dawn.
Even tarnished
by chemo,
the trailer wheels
rusted from salt,
you thrilled
at the purchase,
never wanting
to leave
the sun, earth,
cinnamon smell
of beach plum roses,
a high tide line
tumbled with stone.

During the last winter,
we rinsed pink pails of bile,
tempted you with
delicacies you could
no longer chew,
cringed at the erosion
of your flesh,
and still you plucked
at the bedspread,
planning summer,
refusing to concede to
any finish, but to
make your way
to the trailer,
and so, in the end,
we took you to
the white beach light.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Marking Magic




Apparently, for the last few years, I've felt the need to write about one of my favorite days of the year.  The second weekend after Thanksgiving, several churches in our town, grouped around the town green hold a “Christmas on the Common.”  Santa arrives on a fire truck and weather permitting, sits on his sleigh outside. None of that overheated mall action for us—kids dressed in scarves and mittens tumble about the grass (or snow) waiting for a picture with him.  One church holds a used book sale, another a rummage sale, a third a meat raffle.  All sell hand-crafted and baked items.  Nothing about this day is high tech and to my thinking, it’s the best possible way to mark the transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas.  

I’ve been attending this event for years, at first holding my daughter’s hand for visits with Santa.  Once she outgrew St. Nick, my husband stopped coming, but she and I kept up the tradition, driving down to purchase a bowl of clam chowder at the Congregational Church, then stopping in for the band concert at First Parish. It became so much our “thing” that when she was away at school for a few years, even though I went by myself, the thought of her stalked me like a shadow.  

Currently, she’s living and attending school in Rhode Island, but to my delight, early Saturday morning, she returned home to join me in our newest incarnation of the festival, a repeat from last year.  It goes like this.  It’s early.  She’s sleepy, so we drive down town and claim a parking space, then head to the French Bakery for coffee before climbing a flight of cement steps carved into ledge.   St. Stephen’s is at the top and we arrive there panting.  There she pushes and prods me through the used book fair, holding me to a limit—on this occasion, apparently eight hardcover books.  We return to the car to dump off my load before heading toward chowder and music.

This time, we met a sister-in-law and my husband’s mother there, and sitting around a table together, we all slurped on cardboard cups filled with a thick stew of cream and clams, topped with crumbled crackers.  Then it was off to the concert.  The price of admission?  A donation to the local food pantry. 

I’m not sure what I love more about this day.  Acquiring my reading material for the next few months at a steal? The creamy, salty chowder?  Listening to the reverberations of flutes and trumpets in the balcony of a seventeenth century church and singing Christmas tunes along with them? That my twenty-two-year old daughter not only enjoys spending the hokey day with me, but drives over an hour to do so?

Or this?  Every year, by the time we get back sometime mid-afternoon, my husband, who is a champion at keeping Christmas in his heart, has decorated our home for the holidays.  

It’s as if attending the festival sprinkles us with seasonal magic.  We return home to a house transformed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Stepping Out

Well, it's that time again. and this is the last IWSG post of the year, if you can believe it. Thank you to Alex Cavanaugh and all his minions who provide such support.  For those of you who don't know,  the goal of IWSG is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds! To read other contributors, click here.

http://www.alexjcavanaugh.com/p/the-insecure-writers-support-group.html

This is what I call a great big cheat.  But, because I loved this, I'm passing it along. Here's a link to a timely piece written by Ruth Harris in Anne R. Allen's blog.  It includes twenty-five gift ideas for writers, along with cool information on writing software.  Keep on scrolling though, because at the end, it lists opportunities for writers, too!

Don't let the rush and bustle of December get to you folks. Just sing this song, like I do!





Monday, November 30, 2015

The Phoenix



In tenth grade, my best friend’s father purchased a New Hampshire inn and that fall, she moved away, leaving us both inconsolable. The following year, her parents invited me to live with them for the summer while working as a waitress in the dining room. In June, I moved from suburban Boston into a back bedroom in their 1790’s inn, situated at the head of a common, in a town of twelve hundred. Talk about culture shock. But to this day, I define the experiences that summer, and the following one when I returned, as the period in which I first came to know myself—and to imagine the type of person I wanted to become.

Many years later, the inn, so centered at the core of me was sold, and I grieved.  Even though I could visit, it wouldn’t be the same, but even worse, a series of new owners failed to run the place successfully. Foreclosures resulted, and it remained empty for extended periods. So, when an invitation arrived to celebrate the recent wedding of this same friend’s daughter at the inn, open again and under new management, I was all in. We booked a room for the night after the party, and last weekend, my husband and I took the trip north.

Here’s the thing.  We can’t relive history, really.  But if we’re lucky, we get to step through emotional ghosts. My husband and I opened the door to the inn to find my friend waiting to greet us, and discovering her there stripped me down to oh-so-young-me.  Much of the place had changed—walls opened up, bedrooms removed to allow for cathedral ceilings below, a pizza oven installed on the back porch where I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. But, the bones remained, and while we were there, the place echoed a happiness I remember, reflected in the smiles of the bride and the groom and her parents—even on the faces of the energetic couple who now run the place.
 
Following the afternoon reception, my husband and I took a long walk, and by the time we returned, a line had formed for the dining room where we’d hoped to eat, so we claimed two stools in the expanded pub.  Over delicious salmon and risotto there, we chatted with the couple next to us.  Around us glasses clinked, the beat of conversations blended with music performed by local college students, and all this evidence of the inn’s revival fed a furnace in my heart. 

Before we left the next day, I took a picture of outside of the building, unchanged from when I was a teen.  As it disappeared behind us, I felt as if I’d been allowed to finger my history through a soft cloth, before handing it off.  I went home comforted to have touched the patina of the past, but more importantly, grateful to see it polished into a gleaming, present-day shine.