How many times have you heard someone say “absolutely” when what they really mean is “yes” or “maybe” or even “no.” Absolutely has become the “I only have the tiniest clue, but prevarication or anything less than complete confidence is regarded as weakness so I am using this word.” In our one-upmanship culture, hesitation or thoughtfulness is considered a sign of weakness, apparently.
A picture of your lunch on Facebook is not awesome. Awesome really means something extremely impressive, whether of the apprehensive or inspiring variety. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is awesome, actually.
Means to be filled with astonishment. I’m not astonished that easily, so my days are not filled with amazing events. Maybe yours are. Or maybe you’d be more accurate to use, in its place, the British “quite”—that polite neutral dismissal, alas.
I think it’s time to be amazed and awed by the layers of nuance in language and the close attention demanded to select just the right word. And to that end, I think this photo is Adorable.
Yesterday I decided to make my version of Thai noodles and so I brought out the old Cuisinart food processor, remembering as I did so, the woman who gave it to me. Lisa and Nick are my husband’s oldest friends—really his mentors and surrogate parents. They decided to move north after retirement and she, an enthusiastic cook, wanted to start fresh with pots and pans and such in her new kitchen. So she gave me some of her old stuff.
At that time I had a view of meal creation that was less about creation and more about check-off-the-box. I had lived on a farm where I grew most of my food, meat included, and the growing and processing of it took up most of my time outside of my going-to-work job.
My favorite cookbook then was a Mennonite cookbook and it was all about large quantities and efficiency. I would prep ingredients for the week on Sunday and stick them in the freezer. When I got home from work (a fifty mile each way commute) I would look at the schedule (yes, a schedule!) on the refrigerator, (“Monday, chicken casserole, Tuesday: veggie medley, etc.) pull out the appropriate packages from the freezer and assemble it.
But life goes on and the farm and my life on it became history, and now here was Lisa, giving me some really nice kitchen things. There was the Cuisinart, copper saucepans, and Le Creuset skillets. I didn’t know how wonderful these things were at the time, being more familiar with meat grinders and such. But over the years, as I continue to use these substantial, solid kitchen tools—the very antithesis of planned obsolescence—I marvel both at Lisa’s generosity and at her intuition in knowing that someday I would expand my creativity into cooking.
There are gifts that are brief moments of thought, and gifts that are a fulfillment of an obligation, and then there are the gifts that abide through time and thick-and-thin, and enduring friendship is the best of those.
I saw the first wood duck of the spring this morning, as I was sipping my tea upstairs. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I needed the binoculars to confirm. Yes. A male wood duck in breeding plumage. Which, if you haven’t seen one, here is a picture.
Beautiful, isn’t he?
Wood ducks are small and self-possessed. They swim in a quiet, deliberate, earnest way, keeping to the brushy part of the pond, because they are very shy. Even my figure at the glass windows forty yards away can spook them. It is always a thrill to see one.
Another special moment occurred last week when I spied an unfamiliar duck pair. Out came the binoculars. I stared to see how large they were, if they were diving or just dabbling and their coloring (this one seemed to have a black and white beak.) When I had enough information, I put the binoculars down and got out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I flipped through the pages, and it turned out that, without a doubt, I was seeing a pair of ring-necked ducks. Something I had never seen before.
Here’s what I think. I think that a life of limits becomes an unlimited life when you slow down enough to see the richness around you.
One night not long ago, I woke up at 2:00 am. I lay there listening to Richie and Buddy breathe. I listened to my brain rushing through all its thoughts of what to do, when to do it, and what has been done. Our window looks out on the water and for the first time in at least a week it was a clear night; I could see stars reflected in the still water and Orion like a jewel.
Stars. They settle me—settle my restless brain with their steadfastness. A long time ago, I read a poem by the nineteenth century English poet, Matthew Arnold. It had me at the first two lines:
Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,…
Ah, isolation, confusion. I could relate.
…”ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!”
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.
Live as they. Calm and Belonging in the universal sense. It was the answer I was looking for those many years ago and it was the answer that renewed itself to me again that sleepless night.
Recently on the radio, I listened to a program on the resurgence of the cocktail in American society. Perfect timing. Weary of the wrestling spectacle of politics and anticipating the green of spring, it brought to mind my own favorite cocktail to offset dreary—the Buddha’s Hand.
To make a Buddha’s hand you need to start with the citron called…the Buddha’s Hand (citrus medica var. sarcodactyllis). Related to the lemon, but much older, a Buddha’s Hand fruit contains no juice, only pulp. When its “fingers” are closed, it resembles the hand of Buddha in prayer. In China, its characters mean long life and happiness. But what you’re going to do with it is infuse it in good vodka for a month. So slice in up and stick it into the vodka. After a month, it’s ready. Smell it, and revel in the complex and generally uplifting aroma. Next get yourself a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur. Chartreuse is no ordinary liqueur. It is made by the monks of the Chartreuse Order in France–contemplative monks who spend their lives in silence (a documentary, “Into Great Silence” filmed in the monastery brings this home viscerally—there’s no speaking at all in the entire movie.) The green color of the liqueur comes exclusively from the one hundred and thirty plants and flowers that are infused to make the liqueur. Which one hundred and thirty, and in what proportion, is a nearly three hundred year old secret held and passed down to only two monks each generation.
To make this auspicious cocktail, take two ounces of your lovely Buddha’s Hand vodka and one-half ounce of Green Chartreuse. Add one-half ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice and shake with ice. Strain into your very favorite glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a thin lemon slice.
Now, admire the green-lemon color and know that no dyes were used to achieve it. Take a sip and savor the complex herb and citron infusions, redolent of the the natural world, of silence, and of meditation.
And if this doesn’t help you through the testing times, nothing will.
“I have rejected things with nothing so strong to replace them, and I am floundering.” So I wrote to my Zen teacher twenty-nine years ago. And in the way of the cycles of life, twenty-nine years later, I find myself at this point again. (As an aside, this appears to be where we are at as a country, also.) We humans build up our internal infrastructures, relying on their existence for our sense of meaning, forgetting that infrastructures, too, get outdated and need to be refurbished. Life demands growth, and growth is change.
The realization that what worked for us in the past no longer does, is part of a natural cycle of growth. But just because it’s supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it feels great. As a matter of fact, it often feels so un-great that people have developed stock coping mechanisms. Some buy the little red sports car. Some throw off their partners for someone younger, some abuse alcohol and drugs—all to avoid feeling the pain of growth.
What did my Zen teacher write back to me? “If you are floundering, then just flounder” adhering to the Zen teachings of just experiencing your life without attachment.
No stones are left unturned in our lives (try as we might to keep them face down) because we are growing, thinking beings. A time of questioning beliefs, priorities, and values comes to everyone.
I forget sometimes, because it is so damn scary, that the best course of action is to sit right in the middle of it, experiencing (and not reacting to) those uncomfortable feelings. The floundering, like the curve in the road, brings us to the next place in our lives.
There is something weird going on this week. Nothing is running smoothly. The propane company, after 8 years of filling up the propane tanks on schedule, now can’t seem to fill up the correct tanks. They have filled up the shop tank twice now, and left the house tanks unfilled. Not a good thing in the middle of winter. I even put a big sign on the shop tank that said “NOT this tank, the tanks at the HOUSE” with a big arrow pointing toward the house, and they STILL filled up the shop tank.
Then just this morning, a whole passel of ice fisherman glibly trespassed across our property sliding their sleds 10 feet from our house and when Richie told them it was a private pond, they said, “So call the police.”
What is going on here? Is the repugnant presidential campaign persuading people that incivility and incompetence are acceptable ways of behaving?
There is a little something called self-responsibility. We all have power and that power is the power to behave decently. Let’s try that for a while and see where it gets us.
Did you know that Chicago Midway airport has a Yoga Room? Flying back from Tucson on Wednesday, my layover in Chicago was extended due to the delayed departure of my next flight. What to do? I was tired from not sleeping well the night before and my lower back was sore from sitting and stress. Dejected about the delay, I walked around the airport and tried to get some exercise. Then, underneath a sign for Gates A through whatever, I saw “Yoga Room.” What? I followed the little sign to a hallway and then a door and opened it….
into another world. Now I am not one of those really devoted yogis, but I do like my five stretchy asanas as well as sun salutations and here I found myself in a quiet, clean room with a wood floor, a wall of mirrors, a flat screen TV playing soothing music and showing peaceful nature images, and a basket of yoga mats. This was wonderful! I selected a mat, and began to do my poses. I was the only one there. The airport noise faded, the quiet and calm took over, and my back eased into relaxation. After 20 minutes, I was ready to head to my gate, refreshed.
If you’ve got a layover at the Chicago Midway airport, I really recommend the Yoga Room, even if you don’t think you’re a yoga person. Because everyone can do the savasana pose—you lie on your back and close your eyes.
I am in Tucson now for a bit, and the other day I decided to try to do a watercolor of the mountains at sunset. With their vast swaths of deep blue shadows it seemed, visually, like a simple image to capture. I retrieved my travel watercolor kit, 3 x 5 watercolor block, HB pencil, and squishy eraser and walked to the park where there was a view of mountains beyond the highway and power lines. I balanced my cup of water on the rough and not terribly flat surface of the wall, poised pencil over paper, stared at the mountains hard and tried to look artistic, rather than suspicious to any passersby.
When I opened up the watercolor set to begin painting, I noticed that the popular colors—and the colors I would need—were mere scraps of paint clinging to the sides of the pan. Oh well, I thought, it’s only a 3 x 5, surely I’ll have enough paint for that. I unsheathed the tiny travel brush and dipped and dribbled water into each cake of dry paint. But when I started painting, I quickly realized that brush was way past its sell-by date as my husband is fond of saying. It had lost its spring and now resembled, more than anything, a tiny dispirited scrub brush. I plodded onward, painterly speaking, but the deep dark blues of the mountain shadows looked anemic on my paper. I let the painting dry before folding everything back up, because sometimes a painting that I think is awful doesn’t look so bad, given some time and space. (This one didn’t, so you’re not going to see it.) I had began my disappointed trudge back to the house when a flash of hot-coal caught my eye. I stared. What kind of bird was that? Much too red to be a cardinal. Disappointment forgotten, I followed the bird from tree to tree, weaving from one sidewalk to the other. I certainly looked suspicious now, but I needed to see that bird. Back at the house I went on the internet and learned that it was a vermillion flycatcher.
Vermillion–now that’s not a word you hear too often outside of painting. It’s a pigment, made from ground cinnabar and it’s a brilliant, nuanced red. The saturated color of the vermillion flycatcher contrasted, in my mind, with the anemic colors of my watercolor attempt to capture the rich beauty of the mountains–and my dissatisfaction about it.
And then I got it. There is transcription, and there is the thing itself. And that firebird had just reminded me not to forget to rejoice in the thing itself.
What with the world going to hell in a hand basket, I thought maybe you’d like to read about something uplifting this week.
Two years ago, I took all my individual amaryllis bulbs (always save your amaryllis bulbs; they are very easy to grow to re-bloom) and planted them, with lots of space between them, in a big blue ceramic pot.
I let the bulbs grow their foliage in the pot all summer, in full sun and I watered and fed them occasionally. When the frost nipped, I cut all the foliage back to the bulbs. Said bulbs, I noticed, were making new little bulbs and now generally being obstreperous and crowding with each other. I hauled the pot into the cold area of the dining room where it sat in the dark, with no watering, for about six weeks. When I saw the bulbs beginning to grow on their own, I hauled the pot (I keep saying ‘hauled” because it is a heavy, large ceramic pot and I want you to appreciate my strength and effort) to the sunny windows of the living room and began to water. And now look. Each bulb has sent up one to two stalks and each stalk has six flowers. That’s a lot of blossoms, each six inches across, and more coming. It’s been blooming for three weeks now.
So. Save your holiday-impulse-buy amaryllis bulbs after they’ve had their flowering. Plant them all together in a big pot. In the summer, let the foliage grow like crazy. Keep the pot watered and feed it once a week with a balanced fertilizer. (I use, I’m afraid, the blue stuff. It just works better for flowering houseplants.) When the nights get nippy in the middle to end of October, cut all the foliage back (ALL of it) to the bulb. Don’t cut the bulb. Put the pot in dark-ish, cool-ish spot. Don’t water. After six weeks or so of this rest, the bulb will start sending up a green leaf or flower stalk. As soon as you see this, bring it out to the light and begin to water. Don’t feed, since the bulb supplies all the nutrients now for the flowers. And sit back and enjoy your own Amaryllis! Amaryllis! (While the rest of the world largely ignores the beauty that is theirs to create.)