Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I'm thankful for...

Every year, Susan insists on asking us all what we are thankful for as we gather around her table, feasting. Every year, we say the same things—family and friends, a decent job, health…but, this year, what I am really grateful for is a skill, developed over the years—I am thankful that I can cook. I am not talking about gourmet five course meals here (although I have pulled off a few in my time) but daily cooking, coming home at six o’clock and making dinner, every night.

Being able to cook grounds our household in many ways. First, we are grounded in the seasonality of our foods; we eat local produce, with an occasional banana or red pepper thrown in in February. Our food is alive, not road weary, when it lands on my chopping block. Yeah, we eat a lot of kale and mustards in March and April, which can be a challenge, but they are still so much more vibrant than the tomatoes lying in a bin at Fred Meyers that we’re not really tempted. And the kale is balanced out by piles of green beans and cucumbers in late August, asparagus spears and new eggs in March, fresh potatoes and plums in September, winter squashes and cabbage in November, that is not around long enough to grow boring, even if we eat it every night for weeks. There are times when beans and rice, with sautéed greens is a bit old, but it is what’s for dinner, and we’re glad to have it. Many people don’t.

Cooking also grounds the house through ritual. Every night, when the darkness settles, I light a candle and make dinner. Sometimes I have to mix bread dough, sometimes I’m making soup and salad, occasionally we’re eating a leftover casserole which I just throw in the oven. Often, as one dinner cooks, I prep the next. Bake the squash or potatoes for Tuesday night, boil the beans for soup, wash more lettuce for later in the week. There is a small chart on the fridge, laying out the week’s lunches and dinners. Each week is a small circle. When dinner is ready, we set the table and sit down to eat. Afterwards, Mark washes the dishes. I have always done this, even when I lived alone. Sitting down to eat is civilized and focuses the day.

There are larger rituals around food as well. In the late summer, I’m preserving for the winter—and opening the first can of tomatoes is a sign that winter has really begun. There are the foods that we only eat around holidays—the Lucia Buns that we take to the barn for breakfast in December, the stollen that we eat on Christmas morning, coconut cream pie for Hot Cross Buns on Easter all mark the seasons as well as the first raspberry does. There are cookies that only taste right on a rainy day in late June, because that is when I first ate them.

All of this keeps us healthy --physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our food tastes good and I know what is in it and where it all came from. We don’t eat a lot of junk, although we are huge fans of desert. We do eat the Dr. Honeyman recommendation of two cups of veggies a day, eyeballed on the plate. Cooking becomes a form of meditation, as way to clear my mind from the day just past. Through our food, we acknowledge the seasons, the circles of the year. And we eat a lot of kale….

Sunday, November 21, 2010


It’s leaf gathering season on 21st Street. Every night, I eye the piles as I walk home and if there’s a new one, I’m out there with the equipment before dinner. Lucy loves it. She rushes down the street ahead of me and rolls around on the sidewalk, accosting everyone who walks by. I used to use a big blue tarp and drag it into the back yard, but wet leaves are HEAVY and Mark didn’t like helping that much. He was afraid someone would see him making off with their leaves. This year, I have a new piece of equipment; I stole a yard waste container from the rental down the street. They were not using it and drunk people were knocking it over every Thursday night – you cannot believe how loud an empty plastic container is until one is bowled over at 1 AM—so I snagged it. I was, after all, doing the landlord a favor at that moment by raking up his leaves, so I figured it was fair game. I’m sold on the thing. It has wheels and a lid. I can pack it full, haul it down to our yard, flip the lid over it, and leave it there until I have time to spread my harvest on a bed. Lovely. The leaves even start to compost in there, warm and cozy.

Harry uses 40 to 80 truckloads of leaves every year out at Sunbow. The city drops them off in the fall as they sweep the streets and they sit in huge piles for at least a year before he digs in. They are his prime mulch; we spent hours this summer weeding out the fields (no easy task) and then laying five gallon buckets of leaf mulch around the plants. One day, there were five of us working steadily. It was a lovely day—clear and warm, with a light breeze dancing the purple leek flowers and the ripening wheat stalks in the distance. We cleared out an entire field and laid down the deep brown leaf litter—green and brown in the sun, straight rows of beans and tomatoes. “Imagine,” I said, “What it would look like if we did this every day.” Harry nodded. “We used to,” he said. “There were a dozen people working here years ago, 16 hours some days. We raised a lot of food.”

I’ll be gathering leaves for a few more weeks. The willow and hazelnut on the back yard still have about half of theirs. The oaks across the street, with their beautiful warm and shiny browns, are still green. They’ll be laid on the front beds over Winter Break. Most of the veggie beds have at least one layer down, although the chickens have been tossing them out with wild abandon. The raspberries and blueberries are covered. The blue bed has some high piles and I’m waiting for a good frost to take out the mints before I lay down more. I still have the leaf hoop in the far back to fill and the compost pile can always absorb some more….It’s the last work of the season. Soon, the back yard will be resting, tucked under its winter blanket for a few months before the cycle begins again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

House Purges

I don’t know about you, but when my life is stressed, I begin to see piles of useless stuff everywhere—old clothes toppling off closet shelves, dishes we haven’t used in years, extra chairs needing to be refinished, flotsam washed up into the corners of the cellar—it amazes me how much junk one small house can collect over a few years. Usually, I can ignore it, but this month, it pushed me over the edge. I was hurrying down stairs in the dark, onions about to shift from caramelizing to burning on the stove, to put away a glass canning jar. I swung my arm to the left, wacked into one of the black Bicentennial Eagle Has Landed chairs, and it smashed all over the floor. Glass everywhere—under all of the junk. That was it. Purge Time.

Purging isn’t simple in a household that prides itself on three trash pick-ups a year. You can’t just pitch it out (although I have thrown some totally rotten food in the dumpster across the street). It needs to be sorted. The jar full of nails that we pulled from the garage during its transformation, the runner for the garage door, and other scraps of metal all need to go the metal recycling in Albany. We The scraps of pressure treated wood and old shapes of plywood are trucked to the PRC by the dump. Clothes and dishes to Goodwill, books to the Library Frenzy, the second drill to the CHS woodshop. Plastic garden pots can be turned into binder twine, but only if I drop them off at the South Corvallis recycling Center. This is all obvious….but then there is Mark’s old backpack, the one that fights him every day when we are backpacking—that needs to be walked down to Community Outreach, along with the air mattress that I never use. The earrings that I no longer wear—those go to the co-op, where the head cashier has a collection and only needs 30,000 more pairs to be in the Guinness Book of World Records (if every woman in town cleared out her spare earrings, she’d be there in a week!). Left over yarn from long ago sweaters I knit into winter hats for the Corvallis Food Bank.

It took several weeks to clear out all of the stuff froim the corners. Mark and I went to Albany one Friday afternoon, ate lunch at Burgerville, and dropped off the metal. I walked his backpack down one morning, metal frame banging against my back the whole way. Community Outreach was glad to see it. The sliding pile of books by the front door is gone. The basement has been swept. The storm windows went up, clearing out that space, which was quickly filled by the picnic table. For about a week and a half I felt like we had accomplished the task…and then, when I was rooting for a hat in the bin, something toppled off the closet shelf and hit me in the head. I guess we’re not done yet….

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"I'm not dead yet"

That famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been running through my mind for the past week…”I’m not dead yet.”

About three weeks ago, Mark and I went down to visit my mother for her birthday. She had a clearly stated agenda—she wanted to play Rummy with Mark and then eat at Anatolia’s. We were agreeable. When we arrived at her apartment, she was looking serious. “We need to get this over with,” she said, clutching her deck of cards. “Then we can play. Doctor Jill told me that I have three months left to live. To get my affairs in order.” I looked at her. “No way,” I thought. “She’s looking good. “If she had said this back in late July, when her hearing was blocked and she was constantly fussing about her oxygen, I would have agreed, but right now? She was looking stronger and more cheerful than she had in months. It didn’t make sense. I decided not to worry about being on the earth with no one would remembered me as a small child—an unsettling thought—until after I had met with her doctor. She had, after all, been muttering about some young upstart in the doctor’s office wearing a short skirt and high heels (I think she’s jealous—my mother was never opposed to such wardrobes when she was wearing them…) wanting her to sign papers about hospice care.

A week later, I took the day off and drove to Eugene. My mother swung into the van with her usual vigor; after spending twenty years, in high heels, swinging into a pickup truck, she still has the moves. We drove through the pouring rain to the doctor’s office, where I dropped her off and parked the Ark. Inside, I pulled out the sweater I am working on and settled in for a long wait, but they were prompt. A young woman took my mother’s blood pressure (just fine), weighed her (she’d gained a pound), and made some changes to her list of medications. I noticed that she was not good at looking at my mother while she talked and so my mother was often confused. “She deaf in one ear,” I told her. “Speak up.” It didn’t help.

After the young woman left, the actual doctor came in. She was good. She sat down right next to my mother and leaned in. “How are you doing?” she asked clearly, head nearly touching my mother’s. Good move, I thought. “Not so good, “my mother sighed. The doctor nodded. “You’re here to have your medications checked,” she stated. I was puzzled—I thought this was going to be an end of life discussion, not a meds check, but they went through the list, clearing it all up.
“There,” Dr Jill said cheerfully. “What’s left is what you need to take to live for years.”
“Years?” I thought. “I thought it was three months.”
My mother also looked puzzled. “What about hospice?” she asked.
“Hospice? That’s what we recommend when you have less than six months to live. I don’t think you are there yet.” The doctor was cheerful and brisk. My mother sat up straighter. They spent a few more moments talking about the results from an oxygen test and we left. As usual, my mother climbed right into the Ark.

On the way home, we stopped at Fred Meyer’s for a cooked chicken and some soda water. Before I ran in, my mother looked down at her old red blouse.
“I guess I’ll have to buy a few more warm tops,” she said. “As I’m going to be around a little longer.”

As I drove home, I figured out what had happened. The young woman in the short skirt had tried to talk with my mother about end of life care—that discussion the Crazed Right has been calling the “Death Panel” where you talk about final wishes while the person is still of sound mind, usually long before it becomes essential. She also talked about the results of the test, which indicated that my mother was having trouble clearing out her lungs of carbon dioxide. My mother put the two together and shut down. When she talked with her doctor on the phone, she was even more confused, because she did not ask about what was really on her mind—am I going to die soon and is that why we’re talking hospice? Neither doctor had any idea of the chaos they were creating; they were both doing their jobs. But one was in a hurry and the other was on the phone. They still don’t know. I debated telling them, but I haven’t …yet. What would they do differently?