Slow Thaw

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The little chest freezer in the garage is about the same size as a child’s desk. It barely fit in the cargo area of the Forester to haul home after D. bought it for me as a birthday gift a dozen years ago. I wanted to freeze more blackberries, more blueberries, more tubs of Oregon strawberries. Back then, I filled it with berries and jam..

I thought there was a whole chicken in the freezer.  I rummaged among the pounds of butter, frozen peas, beef bones from the butcher for Mercy, lamb bones from summer souvlaki, and cartons of leftover bean soup stashed when we grew tired of it. In the panic of the pandemic, the freezer was stuffed full and the chicken remained mythical or a memory.

Last March, California locked down to the south. Seattle was ravaged early by contagion to the north and paralyzed. We were caught in the middle between the anvil and the hammer. Lettuce, citrus, avocados, and other vegetables travel I5 from Mexico and the San Jaoquin Valley to feed the West Coast. We didn’t know if supply channels would hold. I couldn’t find seeds to buy.

Dad eats a banana and fresh berries on his oatmeal every morning. He was bewildered by the bags of frozen berries I shoved in his freezer.  California locked down, I said. Butter freezes well, I assured him, and four pounds is not too much. It may not be enough. Toilet paper was scarce, as was hand soap and bleach. I filled the freezer week by week and bought cans of tomatoes, salmon, tuna, and pineapple to add to the pantry shelves.

There is a cardboard box next to the freezer filled with anchovies, tomato paste, sesame oil, shoyu, a kilo of basmati rice, and cans of dog food. The box is slowly being emptied. I rummage through it, taking from the hoarded goods to use, resisting the impulse to buy more to drop into the box. I wonder what I was thinking when I bought the package of grilled artichokes or dried bing cherries, but realize it was not thought so much as premonition. We’ve come through better than many, better than most.

I found the chicken down at the bottom of the freezer. I rolled it out like an icy bowling ball, cradled it to the kitchen, and dropped it in the refrigerator so heavily I thought the plastic drawer cracked. Every morning for four days, I put the frozen chicken in the sink for an hour to thaw.  On the fifth morning, I put the chicken in the sink and took up my cauldron. Mercy ate simmered giblets for dinner.

The garlic planted in the dark of winter is now two hands high. This year I found sets of red and white onion and golden Dutch shallots. I put them in the ground flanking the garlic on the waxing water moon. The green tips are barely visible now.

In the I Ching, after Heaven and Earth, follows the third Hexagram of Difficulty, which gives birth to all the ten thousand things, the tao of “Bursting, Sprouting, Hoarding, Distress, Organizational Growth Pains, Difficult Beginnings, Growing Pains, Initial Obstacles, Initial Hardship.” Of this, like the onion first spying sky, the commentary notes: “It is visible, but has not lost its dwelling.” 

It’s a slow thawing spring.

Year of the Ox

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When Rat finished with us, it scuttled away under the brier whipping a naked tail in a long last lash. Cursed Year of Rat.

We crossed under the tall firs down to the river edge but saw no sign of Ox. It’s the Year of Metal Ox come along with the new moon and Lent. Ox is a slow beast like the freight engines pulling across the water heading east into the mountains across country, strong like a big yellow bulldozer. I found a small river rock painted by a child among mushrooms and lichen sprouting from a fallen log; it was a dragonfly, a totem. I put it in my pocket.

I drove Dad and Jo down to the fairgrounds after the new moon. I printed  their names and confirmation codes in big block letters on an index card and handed it out the window at intake. The volunteers guiding traffic at the 80-and-over vaccine clinic were from Lane County Search and Rescue. They waved light wands to direct us to the next open tent as if we were a plane lumbering toward our gate.

We parked to wait 15 minutes afterward to ensure neither Dad nor Jo had a reaction to the shot. Jo opened the thermos of coffee Dad brought. He packed the same bag they always use to go on day trips to the bird refuge or Irish Bend. They nearly quarreled over the coffee cups and the coffee. I offered around  diamond-shaped pieces of Revani, a coarse semolina cake I baked, soaked in blood orange syrup and topped with crushed pecans. We sipped coffee and ate the crumbly sweet while we waited.

In October, when I took Dad to his local pharmacy to get a flu shot, I choreographed the operation as carefully as a jewel heist. As we walked out, his pharmacist called out behind us “I love you.” Dad turned to me and asked me what she said. 

In the Rat, I made vats and kettles and cauldrons of soup to share out, pans of spanakopita and lasagna, stews and sesame soba noddles, coconut cake, banana cake, gingerbread, and oatmeal cookies studded with bing cherries. I’m weary of my own cooking.

In March, on the day before California locked down, I asked Dad not to go to the grocery store anymore, not to go to any store, to stay away from crowds. I made him a mask from a bandana and hair bands. I buy his groceries every week as well as our own.  (Though I know he and Jo snuck out to Costco to buy a cheesecake this summer for my birthday, I didn’t say anything.)

Even after he gets his second shot, I’m still uneasy about letting him go out among many people again. I feel the thaw coming, slow like learning to walk again, yet still feel like an anxious parent rather than his child. That’s beside the fact our weekly grocery exchanges go roughly like this:

“You got two turkeys but no chicken,” Dad drops deli meat in the refrigerator drawer as I bring in more bags from the car. I push the front door shut with a toe shove.

“There wasn’t any chicken,” I hoist double-bagged sacks up onto the counter.

“No chicken,” he’s disappointed. His dogs get strips of the prepackaged deli meat on top their dinner kibble, nibbles from slices he doles out while eating his lunch.

“What’s this?” Dad rummages in a sack and pulls out a bottle of dish soap.

“It’s soap, Dad. Palmolive, like you asked,”

“This is the green. I use the blue,”

“There wasn’t any blue,” I set the bunch of bananas, green enough to ripen and last through the week, in the ceramic bowl next to the kitchen window.

“No blue? I can’t believe that,”

“There’s a lot of empty shelves in the store,”

“What?”

“A lot of empty shelves, in the store,”

“What?”

“Do you have your ears in?” I gesture to my own ears, asking in pantomime if Dad is wearing his hearing aids.

“No, I was going to take a shower,” Dad hobbles along the counter to the nook where he keeps his wallet, keys, and hearing aids and fiddles the devices in to his ears.

“I need new batteries,” Dad returns and rustles a hand in another brown bag and pulls out a box of instant oatmeal.

“Now? You need them now?”

“The left one is dead, I think,”

“Sure it isn’t ear wax again? Are you using those Q-tips I brought you?”

“What?”

“Q-tips.” I shake the box of swabs next to the prescription bottles and vitamins lined up on the shelf above the counter.

“Those hurt my ears,”

“Dad, I don’t want to go back to the audiologist already, we just had them cleaned,”

“I just need batteries,”

“Fine. Ok. I’ll go back to the store after we put this away,”

“Go to Bi-Mart, they’re cheaper,”

“I’m not going to Bi-Mart. I’m trying to stay out of the stores. That’s why I want you to think about your list every week. Make sure you have everything,”

“I can go to Bi-Mart. I’ll wear my mask,”

“No Dad, you need to stay away from crowds, or why am I doing this?” I bang the cupboard door shut and, turning, stumble over Dad’s German Shorthair, Emmy, hovering at my heels. She yelps. “Dammit, Emmy, get back,” I clap my hands above her head and holler “Snap!”

“Come on, Em,” Dad shifts down to the stove and offers the dog a crust of bread from the big plateful he toasts every morning. They both avert their eyes.

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Let the thaws come soon

Air

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Last year an eclipse bloodied the full moon in her home sign. It was after solstice, after the holidays, the demarcation of the before-time.

Under this year’s full moon, a wasp queen woke from her secret winter nest inside an oak haunch stacked for the fire. She circled madly through the kitchen hammering the light above the stove.  While I chopped vegetables for soup, her gryring shadow fell across my knife magnified into a furious gryphon on the wing. She was finally trapped and set free into the December night. 

A flood of narratives are on offer everywhere reflecting on the old year gone, but I do not read them. It is air now, not stone. Watch the blade and not the shadow.

Down along the river the sky and water blend together at the horizon, smelted iron without inflection, my boots sinking down in the saturated loam. The dog reads the shades of scent in the air and tells me their story. She presses her nose to the long grass, following, to raise a pheasant. When the fireworks started, she slipped under the bed.

I cut my hair on New Year’s Day. Six inches of hair grow in a year. I picked out the moss and twigs and mud with a wide-toothed comb and sliced away old handfuls with sharp steel shears.

Return

rosemary_lights

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

The Turning Point

Hexagram 24 –  I Ching

Judgment

Return. Success. Going out and coming in without error. Friends come without blame. To and fro goes the way. On the seventh day comes return. There is advantage in choosing one’s path

The Image

Thunder within the earth: The Turning Point. Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes at the time of solstice. Merchants and strangers did not go about, and the ruler did not travel through the provinces.

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Conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn on Solstice

Ginger

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The southern sky burnished fire at dawn, orange and brass, under a haloed last-quarter moon.

The rains tapered and ceased. Freezing fog abated. The moon ebbs to black now until she eclipses the sun. The Butte is a weather vane, a barometer, the day’s augery.

Ginger it is, then.

Mercy and I walked the north canal paths, crossing away from the level south bank where ever more people pass, picking our way through mud, sodden leaves, and marshy grasses. Some wear masks, some do not.

As we came up one slippery rise, I looked down on to the stadium parking lot with white tents pitched in the gravel in the same space tailgaters reveled before kickoff last year. Lines of cars waiting to pull inside a tent and park, a driver tilting back a head to be probed by a nasal swab, and then pull through the other side and drive away. Wait for the results. And then the next car, until they close the gates because the swabs are gone for the day.

Along the trails we find three things. The dog found the first at a fishing spot along the canal bank. I roll up the line the fishers leave behind, tie it and put it in my pocket, pick up the interlocking plastic rings left behind after the six-pack is emptied, scan for hooks and weights, anything more dangerous to water birds than we are and stuff it all in the game pocket of my vest. Mercy unearthed a scruffy stuffed animal with a stiff blue tail and a red nose. As she thrashed and tossed the toy, I realized it was Rat. Leave it, I said, and we walked on. Cursed Year of the Rat.

We found a hot pink Frisbee. I threw it for Mercy in the long soggy grass. The hapless Golden Retriever, Bailey, came splashing through the puddles with his owner calling for him away in the distance and stole it, leaving behind a bright yellow tennis ball. A good trade, I told Mercy, and put the ball in the game pocket.

As we left the trails and came up to the road, we happened upon a playing card, face up. It’s a Knave, I thought, but no. It was a Joker.

I made cake with blackstrap molasses, sliced apples caramelized in butter and sugar, with cinnamon and heaps of bright burnished ginger.

God Clouds

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“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.

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Not Yams

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–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.

A Feather

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The first rager of winter bellows in from the Pacific, swirling wind circling southeast in the valley bowl, bends the birch and tears the last frond feathers from the locust. There will be more and they will keep coming.

An inch of rain pounds against the stove cap, wind whistles through the chimney cap, eaves overflow with leaves and water spills broadside. Black moon in a black sign at the end of the Via Combusta, wait for the lights to meet and seed a new turn. Then we will know.

Venus trails and lingers, fingering the Feather and Scales as Maat; she still walks the burning road. The Messenger knows the secrets, where the bodies and the booty lie buried in the bog. The Warrior turns for the third and final battle.

Dress in mist, all the colors of air, to slip between: chalk, slate, smoke blue, steel. Waft through empty spaces like vapor, never noticed by human eyes, observed only by the heron at the river bank who sees and, wishing herself invisible, remains unseen. There is deep pooling water along the trails we tread–sky traps ensnaring clouds and gobbling them whole.

The coipú, the swamp rat, startles as the dog emerges from the mist, slips off the bank and dives underwater. I watch for the creature to surface for air downstream. It is last quarter now, in this cursed Year of the Rat.

Just the weight of a feather~

Dust and Phantoms

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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…]