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August 2011

Going gray

I like the idea of calling them “sparkles,” but they are - honestly - a pretty dull gray.  I began to notice the transformation underway on my head a few years ago, when I was in enough personal tumult I couldn’t bear to add one more thing to my list of life-changes. I dyed my fading hair several different colors, badly, before getting some professional help from my sweet, nearly lifelong hairdresser who began blonding-up the new hairs every few months. But it's costly, and after a few years of it I began to wonder what it would be like if I just let it be.    

I remember imagining, as a child, what I might look like when I grew up. Then, there was no sense of dread or loss, just curiosity. I simply "wondered"  - in a que sera, sera kind of way - what would be. If we lived in a culture that appreciated aging, if we acknowledged the growth and the wisdom obtained over the course of a human life, might we be a little more open to this change, or even see some beauty in it? As it is, I have an oppressive feeling that going gray is failing somehow. But at what? Beating back time? Keeping myself up (as opposed to letting myself go)? Who says?  

A lot of us, unfortunately. The hair-dying is just the tip of the iceberg. I have a friend who, at forty, went to a well-respected dermatologist to have a mole looked at and also got a free lecture on all the ways he could improve her face - removing laugh and frown lines, plumping up her lips, "a little here, a little there."   I have a younger friend whose husband gave her a breast-lift and tummy tuck for her birthday following the birth of their second child. God forbid we appear to have actually lived during our lives. This does not happen in the same way to men whose graying temples are considered distinguished and whose wrinkles add a certain amount of panache in the middle years. This worries me too. Is it simply biology? Instinct makes us perceive signs of aging as indicators of security and experience in men, but only of lost reproductive potential in women? This is kind of dreadful.

But I have been gradually going gray in other areas of my life too, and this has been - honestly - wondrous. Things are simply less black-and-white than they were in the brighter days of my youth when I thought I knew so much. The world I inhabit these days is much more nuanced. I have seen, heard, and done a lot I would not have imagined when I was a young woman. As I look at those thirty years of choices - my own and those of others - with some distance, I tend to see the whole thing as a lot more mysterious that I would have thought possible back in the day. I couldn't see then the wonderful outcomes of my worst decisions or some of the difficult times that followed the ones I made most carefully. Real life is even more colorful than I had imagined. Categorizing, labeling, and judging is complex to the point of being futile. 

Looking back from this place in the road, I see a winding path indeed, partly of my own making, partly coincidental, with plenty of unexpected twists and potholes that put an end to some of my careful plans and assumed ideas. Following some of those bumps off the path, I found myself looking for tracks in the mud from those who had gone on ahead of me, for some worthy guides in the fresh territory.

I still seek those tracks. When I look at the women I most admire, they have had the interesting, unexpected lives that those who resist falling into role-playing, or truth-hiding, can have. They had false starts, and backtracks, and a certain amount of floundering. They aren't necessarily "pretty" and neither are their lives. They are "beautiful" instead, with their skinned knees and messy play-clothes, their deep wrinkles, bright, curious eyes - and gray hair.  

What does the world need now? More women desperately trying to quash the consequences of the adventure of living? Or those wearing their real age proudly? I think we need more graying women out there, dancing. More hard-laughing, recklessly ageing grown-ups delighting in the mystery and wonder of it all - as it is. We need women who just don't have the time to keep checking themselves in the mirror or against the latest magazine ads. Srong and resilient, gracious and flexible women, appropriately worn a bit around the edges; women who are gray, silver, and whitening, lightening up. And while I entertain the real possibility of a bright-headed future version of myself down the line, it will not be because she is hiding something, but because she is expressing on her head a true inner brilliance, vibrancy, and  joie de vivre. We deserve some joy after all this living, not shame-filled slinking around. For me, for now, that means going a bit grayer. 


[photo: Advanced Style - I love this blog!]

Ode to Things

Stairway montmartre
- Pablo Neruda

I have a crazy, 
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
and scissors
I love
and bowls--
not to speak, of course,
of hats.
I love
all things,
not just
the grandest,
and flower vases.

Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It's full of
through tobacco smoke,
and keys
and salt shakers--
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man, every little thing:
shapely shoes,
and fabric,
and each new
bloodless birth
of gold,
carpenter's nails, 
clocks, compasses,
coins, and the so-soft
softness of chairs.

Mankind has
oh so many
Built them of wool
and of wood,
of glass and
of rope:
ships, and stairways.

I love
not because they are
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don't know,
this ocean is yours,
and mine:
these buttons
and wheels
and little
fans upon
whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms,
glasses, knives and 
all bear
the trace
of someone's fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.

I pause in houses, 
streets and 
touching things,
identifying objects
that I secretly covet:
this one because it rings,
that one because
it's as soft
as the softness of a woman's hip,
that one there for its deep-sea color,
and that one for its velvet feel.

O irrevocable
of things:
no one can say
that I loved
or the plants of the jungle and the field,
that I loved
those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It's not true:
many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
or my hand touched them:
they were
so close
that they were a part
of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.

[Photo: Stairway to my Montmartre apartment rental... I don't think I saw a single utilitarian stairwell anyplace in Paris.]

Stumbling along the abyss

People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.  - Wendell Berry, from “Racism and Economy” in The Art of the Commonplace

I watched him through the sheer curtains in the well-lit living room, pacing back and forth, then exploding out the side door of the house into the screened porch where he frantically rifled through seat cushions and overturned storage boxes looking for the car keys his mother had hidden. She had called me and we had called the police. He was jacked up on something and afraid "they," the thug dealers, were out to get him. His bloodied lip and bruised chest indicated that there was something wrong, if not exactly what he was describing. Outside on the driveway, I found myself "praying" for help, something I often find difficult to do: "Please help him. He is so young and afraid. Make him safe. Help him, help him. Please.” I can still see the fat baby and the skinny little boy in him, and  know my friend is seeing the same thing. But when the police come, they encounter the fearful, raging, tattooed and muscular young man and ask the questions they ask all the parents: "Did he threaten you?" "Is he a danger to himself or others?"

All addicts are a danger to themselves and others. They are circling a drain - or maybe the existential abyss - and they are likely to pull the ones who love them down with them. Everyone revolving around the addict is forced to ask the big and immediate question that "danger" drives one to: "What on earth am I doing?" We hope the addict will find his/her way to ask themselves the same question, and soon.

The addict's life is very immediate and "real," lived in the present moment of desperate need and momentary satisfaction. What may have begun as a buzzy distraction from boredom or brief respite from pain, turns into an escape, and then the thing that must be escaped. Each addict, and those who love him or her, has a different story, which is somehow the same at its core - and at its very deepest, the same story we all have: Longing, loneliness, fear, pain, fatigue - the "quiet life of desperation" relieved for a minute by the happy buzz or a numbing out, a break from the relentless burden of being human. 

It takes "tough love" they say; it takes hitting rock bottom, or watching the one you love hit it. There is no easy way out or back up. If the life of an addict is particularly "real," the path out is even more so - looking squarely at what you are doing, what you have done,  where you are heading, and doing something else instead. Every time.

The illegality of street drugs and the edges of illegality of alcohol use (under-age use, drunk driving, alcohol-fueled violence or neglect) adds another level of complication to the whole thing. It is a morass, and no surprise that support groups for people who are trying to help addicts say the same thing: save yourself, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, watch closely how you are "enabling," prepare yourself to let go of any vestige of control you thought you had. 

Oh Lordy, aren't we all addicts and enablers? Again I sidle up to prayer. No one needs a "higher power" more than ... well, all of us. Alcoholics Anonyous (AA) - the best and most real "church" I know - makes it clear that it doesn't matter how you actually conceive the higher power, only that you acknowledge that there's something more than simply you. If nothing else, "we" is a higher power than "I." Me to the second, or the third or to the entire roomful of people feeling the need, making the choice, watching with love, asking what on earth we are doing, or will do today.   

{photo: image from Clean and Sober, Not Dead}

Keeping quiet

Black-eyed susans and bee balm
Now we will count to twelve 
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, 
let's not speak in any language; 
let's stop for one second, 
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment 
without rush, without engines; 
we would all be together 
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea 
would not harm whales 
and the man gathering salt 
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, 
wars with gas, wars with fire, 
victories with no survivors, 
would put on clean clothes 
and walk about with their brothers 
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused 
with total inactivity. 
Life is what it is about; 
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded 
about keeping our lives moving, 
and for once could do nothing, 
perhaps a huge silence 
might interrupt this sadness 
of never understanding ourselves 
and of threatening ourselves with death. 
Perhaps the earth can teach us 
as when everything seems dead 
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve 
and you keep quiet and I will go.

- Pablo Neruda

{photo: black-eyed Susans and bee balm in Madison Wisconsin last summer}

Summer Pumpkin Soup

Warty pumpkin

Our native Seminole pumpkins and other summer-surviving "winter squash" are at the market now. We love these peeled, chopped, and roasted on polenta or baked scraped and frozen for future pies. Soup is another tasty possibility. 


1 pumpkin
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 large cabbage, cut lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices (opt.)
4 additional cups water or vegetable stock
1 cup cooked riso pasta or rice
1 tablespoon fresh chives for garnish

Preheat oven to 350F. Cut the pumpkin into 2-inch squares (should make about 10 cups of squares). Leave the skin on, to remove later when cooked. Place on baking sheet in a single layer, and sprinkle with oilive oil, cumin,tumeric, and marjoram. Bake till tender, about 1 hour. Add the 1/4 cup water only if they seem in danger of sticking or burning. 

Meanwhile, in a saucepan large enough to hold the stew eventually, melt the butter over medium heat and saute the onion for a couple of minutes. Add the water/vegetable broth and cabbage if you are using it (here, it's hard to have cabbage and pumpkin growing at the same time; the soup works fine without it; we just added a salad). 

When the pumpkin is done, remove from baking sheet and let them cool slightly. Peel the pumpkin, then puree in a blender or food processor with 1/2 cup of the soup mixture. Repeat the process with the remaining pumpkin. Add pumpkin to the stock mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the cooked riso or rise. Simmer for a few more minutes. 

Sprinke with chives. 

Serves 6. 

Hokusai says

Hipp cranes 7 sm
Hokusai says look carefully. 

He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.

He says everything is alive --
shells, building, people, fish
Mountains, trees. Wood is alive
Water is alive.

Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you...

It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.

Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.

- Roger Keyes

Mango fever

Mangoes are not technically a local food, growing outside the 100-mile boundary most locavores embrace. But the fact that it is possible to grow them north of the Okechobee, along the coast, close to the house, against a south facing wall, with a plan to cover in case of frost - makes me want to excuse how many I eat in the summer. Most are grown south of Lake Okechobee. 

They are beautiful to look at, delicious to eat, difficult to prepare. Fortunatly, many years ago, I came across the "hedgehog" method of mango preparation. The hedgehogs make a fine snack or dessert in themselves, but cubing them offers up more possibilities. We rarely make black beans and rice without mango salsa, for instance. And this time of year, they're in the bean salad and the watermelon and blueberry summer salad, as well as on top of cereal and even cake. One of my many summer goals was to have a mango ripening on the shelf or waiting in the fridge at all times. This may be my one success. 

{photo: succulent mango photo from "mobiletechworld."}