God Clouds

god_cloudes

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

The full moon arched overhead masked by clouds, a chip-shot eclipse while we slept, a rosy glow lingering on the western horizon at dawn. The last of day of November cruising the Via Combusta, a cursed month in a cursed year.

We held a masked drive-by Thanksgiving. My sister and I filled plastic containers with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and whipped cream and stacked them in boxes for family to pick up, although she did most of the cooking. I made wild chanterelle and sage dressing. My caramel-apple gingerbread came out doughy and underdone. I think I overreached by trying to squeeze in the last half an apple.

Eventually, all the Tupperware floats along some inscrutable relay and ends up piled in a bag at our father’s house to retrieve. Christmas trees will be small and potted this year, maybe Rosemary pruned to resemble a fir. We will send the Tupperware circulating again with a spin for the next round of holidays.

I made a pie of leftovers, from dressing mostly and dry bits of chopped poultry. Caramelized onions and spinach wilting on its own formed the base of a roux. Mix in the leftover cup of gravy and mushroom stock, stir in heavy cream that wasn’t whipped and mash it all together. The pie looked like knobby dirt and tasted delicious.

I dreamed the dog was nuzzling at the tawny flanks of a lioness seated in the desert looking far into the horizon. I tried to call her off to me, hissing quietly so as not to break the cat’s meditation and have her devour Mercy. When I woke, I realized the lion was me.

pond_thanksgiving

Not Yams

blue_oak

–A Thanksgiving Screed–

It’s late Wednesday afternoon when my father finally breaks away from his practice and comes home to load our big white Chevy wagon for the trip across the state to Idaho. Dogs and shotguns stacked in the back for bird hunting Thanksgiving morning, pastries and coffee cakes Mom baked and wrapped stowed safely away from the dogs, and coloring books for my brother and me during the 400 mile trek over the Cascades, across the high desert, twisting through icy passes in the Malheur, until finally crossing the Snake River and up Olds Ferry Road to my grandparents’ place.

Dad’s clan gathered in the drafty farm grange surrounded by fallow disked fields under light snowfall. Women brought covered dishes and converged to carve three or four turkeys. I snitched black olives from the relish bowl and stuck one on each finger. The food was cold, at best lukewarm. The turkey was stringy and parched, mashed potatoes congealed, and green beans boiled with bacon for hours took on the flavor of the bleak November sky. The women did their best, I know now and understand, with what they had in that rustic grange hall.

The important thing, Mom said, was family and yes, I had to wear a dress until dinner was over, and yes, I must try everything and not just butter a roll for a turkey and pickle sandwich. (The Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail and swirled Cool Whip was palatable.) The worst dish, nastier than gelatinous dressing and greasy gravy, was the platter of sticky yams coated in marshmallows.

Eating a cloying yam, a sickly sweet potato, the stringy fibers of an acorn squash, was a feat too far. The taste of orange mealy vegetables made me gag as surely as the trip over the mountains made me car sick. Butter, brown sugar, and marshmallow are for fools. I was not so easily deceived. Yams are the bottom of the fodder rainbow and better left to beasts. Try it, Mom hissed, but I gagged over my plate and she lifted me up by one arm and hustled me away from the table.

Carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns made me retch, reaching down the stinking cavity into a sticky web of seeds smelt of dying earth. Even pumpkin pie, dressed with cream and spice, tastes of swampy rotting entrails. Roasted carrots coated with honey and sesame seed served by loving friends are a problem. I toy during conversation to discreetly hide them under a stray rib of romaine.

“Eat the rainbow,” nutritionists counsel, so I slug down a shot glass of carrot juice every morning and call it good. Autumn markets showcase brimming bins of orange squashes and tubers so I give them wide berth. Cooking magazines displayed at checkout feature glossy butternut and patty pan recipes and I can’t swallow. I look away instead and read the headlines of the tabloids featuring the latest dish on Harry and Meghan.

Dust and Phantoms

october_gourds

The clock turned itself back one hour, one week too soon. US daylight savings time ends late All Hallows Eve, before dawn of All Saints. The dog jammers from bed about breakfast in her whale-singing-song steadily gaining pitch. I look down at her and then look at the clock, digital time out of sync with the gray light dawning through the windows. Trust the dog. Always trust a dog to know when it’s breakfast.

Shuffling upstairs in wool socks and sad sheepskin slippers, kicking puffs of dust and leaf strung on strands of hair as scaffolding along the baseboard, it’s time to sweep the floors again. Again, and again, chasing all the detritus blown in or tracked in or slipped through cracked afternoon doors and only seen in the slanted cast of this waning light.

Hard frost: 22F/-5C the eaves are white with crystal. The citrus trees replanted this spring in thick keg-shaped ceramic pots are still outside, covered in yellowing sheets against winter. As the wind stirs the worn fabric, I startle at the unexpected apparition outside the kitchen window, cloaked phantom treat-or-treaters dressed like cartoon ghosts. I hang the hummingbird feeder back up outside while the birds hover at my ears impatient to suck the sugar water.

There is much, so much, to let go of.

Big white cannellini beans I scraped from the bottom of a bin in March, when the world scrabbled for toilet paper, go in the pot with a smoked ham hock acquired at the same time, shoved in the freezer against fear. Two bay leaves from the laurel tree, two stalks of celery, five peppercorns, and all day to simmer, all the time in the world.

[It’s Decorative Gourd Season…]

On the Water

october_river

This is a color photograph I took standing out on a rock below a riffle yesterday.

Mercy and I went down to the river yesterday morning between storms. The dog hates the wind and hides under the bed, but doesn’t mind rain. I scan as we walk beneath the firs for a hefty stick she can retrieve as we walk down to the water, scouting along the trail for a branch as big as my forearm, still a bit green, but not waterlogged or decaying. If the stick sinks, she’ll dive after it, and I don’t want that now, not now with fall coming and the river rising. The current is coming swift.

Tiny honey locust leaves rain down, a flock of sparrows shot on the wing and stick to the soles of my boots, lodge in the bandanna around my neck. Leaves and stems shore up in drifts against the back door when we come home again and go inside to towel off. A tempo change.

Games of chance.

It’s what I think of, as we walk: rolling the bones, picking a card, spinning the wheel. My right palm itches. I wonder if it’s the first twinge barely perceptible of shifting fortune, some red flickering light suggesting an exit door from this gray cadaverous casino, or whether I’m weary, as we are all weary, and deceiving myself. Either jump in volcano or keep trudging through the ash. Leave the table or double down? There is something in the wind.

In August

roses2

For August, a checklist:

Buy roses, an odd number as the French do, rather than an American dozen–white roses, with a blush, to suit the bleached sky in the afternoon and the crumbs on the tablecloth. Cut the stems very short. Wipe the dark cobalt vase to place on the dining table. Fill the bowl with water each morning and sigh.

Water the monster red geranium, the one that managed to survive three winters, the one that spilled out and overwhelmed its large ceramic pot to litter petals on the deck that look like jam-stained rubies.

Check the Orthodox calendar to confirm the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos. I am not Orthodox, but the stores close in Athens and it would be difficult to find a taxi if I was there. It was yesterday.

Count the cantaloupes swelling on the vine. I tickled the yellow-starred blossoms with a twig because I didn’t trust the bees. They seemed distracted.

Make more refrigerator pickles, grate zucchini and salt it, squeeze out the water in a clean cotton rag. Bake muffins. Bake pastitsio. Grind handfuls of herbs from the garden with garlic, olive oil, anchovy, fresh lemon and blend in creme fraiche to drizzle on watermelon.

Listen for distant thunder.

Move the hanging fuchsia to the backyard; a doe crept up on the front porch early one morning and ate two-thirds of it. The dog warned me, but I stayed in bed.

Bundle up the wool Flokati rugs and lug them down to the local laundromat. (Laundromats are damp and dismal places, even with all the supposedly hopeful scents of detergent and fabric softener.)  Load a bag of quarters in three industrial-size machines, cold water only, and work the crossword puzzle in the free weekly newspaper while the machines spin. Lug the wet wool home again and flatten the rugs to dry in the sun for several days, turning as needed.

Let the young repair men inside to replace the tattered canvas of the awning. Though I tugged the monster geranium and its fellow potted roses and nastursiums  out of the way, the trailing petunia managed to be crushed underfoot.

Walk Ben to the park and loop down Walnut Lane to see the enormous house under construction. Let the workers pet Ben, but avoid the nice woman with the yellow Lab, because Ben is sketchy sometimes. Throw sticks for Mercy on the hill and let her greet the neighbor’s landscapers who arrive every Wednesday.

Wash the grime, the dust, the layers of cedar off my old pony because it’s hard to see out the windows when Mercy and I head down to the river. The car is 22 years old and I paid much more to have her rebuilt than her resale value, but she’s a trusty manual transmission and survived my son learning to drive and his powerslides into curbs, although she is missing two hubcaps and the right side mirror.

Strain the red currents that soaked in apple cider vinegar for a week and blend the juice with a thyme-infused simple syrup. Bottle the fruit shrub and tuck it away, satisfied with sampling the overfill.

Think of calling the chimney sweep, but sit on edge of the front porch and roll the white blossoms of summer savory between my fingers instead.

[A revised repost from August 2018]

Elegy

Pea vines gone to paper, I pulled them this morning and sorted through the last snaps: supple green steamed for supper, coarse corky pods spread to dry for seed.

Four head of lettuce pulled before bolting, leaves stripped, washed, waiting ready for the bowl.

In March there was only wanting, only walking, planting seed and trusting because there was nothing else to believe.

Elegy

What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.
All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.
–Aracelis Girmay

 

Stone

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“Women cook and clean to keep the holidays”

–Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club (apocryphally attributed)

New Year broke already, arrived Christmas night.

There’s only stone now. Pour from the kettle in fingerless gloves, scant the honey, and save the bones for stock. Turkey vultures perch in the dying fir and spread their wings, not enough wind to dry in the mist, no rising thermals to hunt. They fly away north. It’s a long way down.

Solstice day the rain fell a river into the valley howling in from the Pacific. We lit the fire with rosemary limbs salvaged after February’s snowstorm, lengths of white holly from the tree cut down last fall. (Beware the Holly King I tell my son before he leaves for New Orleans.)

Take up the cauldron and brew. Sunday to the market, early with first light, where the staff are surly in their rumpled holiday sweaters stacking eggs and carrots, fresh loaves of rustic bread, hams and brisket for the crowds coming after me. Simmer soup from barley and beef shank, handfuls of thyme, Marsala wine, enough to share these days in the darkness when the sun stands in this liminal space loud with silence and phantoms.

My son wants his own iron pot as his gift. I go to a department store in the mall, out again at first light, and buy a fine red pot, the largest and iron heavy. I navigate down the escalator carrying it somehow, though I couldn’t see over the box, waiting behind two older women afraid to take the first step onto the unfolding case. “It’s a long way down,” one says to the other.

Wash the holly leaves and berries, dry it mindful of the barbs, arrange sweets around the sprig on a red platter. Bake the first pan of pasta, set to broil the final minutes to crisp the crumbs on top, pack everything into a basket insulated under a thick blanket. We go out in the early dark to join the company gathering to crack crab and hear O. Henry’s story read after dinner, The Gift of the Magi. Home then in the dark, sleepy and wine-filled, to feed Mercy and stroke her head beneath the starry lights of Christmas Eve.

What does it mean? I don’t know. For now, in this time of stone, the only certain succor comes from the kitchen; the dragon head in the moon’s own sign rages and needs feeding.

Talk won’t cook rice.

 

 

Cornucopia

scramble

In November I gather up cereal and nuts, corn oil, Lea & Perrins, check the cupboard for garlic salt from last year. I find Mom’s recipe in the back of my battered Betty Crocker cookbook. I know the game now, but pull it out anyway and smooth it on the counter. I look over the instructions, typed in Courier on an IBM Selectric, for the oven temperature and Mom’s note that she used more cereal, more nuts, more of everything.

It’s an all-day roasting affair in a low oven with frequent gentle stirring working through two batches. I stick to tradition, never adding cheese crackers or mini shredded wheat, just the Chex and the Cheerios, five jars of mixed nuts without peanuts, stick pretzels. It’s been 20 years since Mom died in another November. Before Thanksgiving she always made gallons and yards and acres of this Scramble to give away in jars and tins saved throughout the year. I ship off a jar to Auntie in Davis, priority mail.

We should be driving across the state, through snow and ice, just across the Snake River, for Thanksgiving. My lumbar still feels the pull and ache.

Yesterday before sunrise I walked out in the dark in falling snow to check the road. I drove downtown through the muffled gray to High Street where snow turned to rain. I met the HVAC tech, Lonnie, in the parking lot for scheduled winter maintenance on the old building; it was built in 1909 as a boarding house and now divided into offices and upstairs flats. The heat pump arrays are fenced in and locked on the alley. I have the keys.

We work our way through each lock. I check the wall I painted last weekend over the same tag, same tagger, different color, when the temperatures held high enough. I walk over to Dutch Brothers kiosk and buy a hot chocolate for Lonnie and an Americano for me. We are outside in the cold for hours, Lonnie cinching down his hood and me fumbling for keys.

After I sign the work order, before Lonnie leaves, I hand him a bag of the Scramble. He asks if it’s trail mix and I shake my head and smile. Oh, he says, it’s that stuff, because does it really have a name we all agree upon? It’s a relic from mid-century America. He opens the bag and takes a handful to shake into his mouth, wipes salt from his whiskers when I wish him Happy Thanksgiving and hugs me.

riffle_island

 

 

 

Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.