Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

Surprises on the Path

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

It was small, strikingly bright in the winter sun, and rested on dried yellow grass not far from the pond. A rectangle of the softest gray and white fur shimmered in the January-thaw wind. Belly up. All four pinkish paws poked out of its luxurious coat and curled up off the ground.

And where the head should be, a tiny red triangle of exposed throat. And, well, smooth connective tissue of the neck, and a glistening, smaller than I anticipated, slightly flat brain. No face, no black bead eyes, no whiskered nose.

Whoever slashed the little vole had sharp, surgical tools. It was a quick move, irreversible, with no real struggle. Talons, we figured. An owl, red-tailed hawk, or raven. Interrupted at lunch-time, by us.

I didn’t want to take a picture of it.

On past hikes, we’d followed rabbit tracks out of the cover of woods, where scuffle-marks in the open snow were then followed on the cliff path by isolated splats of bright blood—the creature lifted high, bleeding in the grasp of a raptor. We’d also witnessed evidence of more obvious fights on a path from the winter meadow into the woods: a swath of fluff and blood and bits of intestine. Then drag marks.

Remains of a paper birch.

Remains, of a paper birch.

I never used my camera or mentioned these incidents in my writing. It seemed macabre, somehow. Or just that I didn’t want to make it more or less than it was; perhaps I’d feel the need to editorialize and thereby risk trivializing, just because I’d captured the image. So I didn’t.

But what we came upon this day was so anatomically precise, clear, not savage or frightening. It was open, like the vole’s throat. It was clean, but not scarily. At least, I didn’t think so. I wasn’t sure.

I could always delete the photos later.

I was drawn by the elegant structures exposed. Touched by the fragile exposed. Aware of the anthropomorphic draw to fuzzy creatures, the Oh no! factor where we prefer the cute and baby-like to the musky terrifying bigger-than-us, say bears or bobcats. But I didn’t experience that, either.

I took three pictures. Click, one angle. Move, another angle, click. The macro lens allowed an even closer view, the final click. Still, I felt odd. Reflective, and yet detached.

Maybe the photos would appear flat. Resembling a lab dissection. After all, I could make out bilateral glands at the base of what had been the neck and the thin intact membrane that wrapped the brain.

Maybe I would see it later as an horrific image—mammal with no face. Or voyeuristic. Too much like something a creepy abuser would enjoy, masturbating over someone else’s pain. Or a bystander to something you are not supposed to see, and it is made normal—such as a fellow soldier separated into body parts by explosives.

But the portraits on my computer were plain. Sun on intact downy fur and what was gone, and what was there. I felt merely the witness, witness to this after-death, un-devoured pose.

I didn’t have any nightmares that night, though I thought I might.

Viewing the pictures now, I think sometimes we feel like the little vole looked: laid bare, breakable. And also beautiful. Even in being torn open.

“Here it is. This is the way we exist, live, die. It doesn’t hurt too much right now—at all, actually—after the fact.”

Submerged tree: what you can't see, and what the ice reveals.

Submerged dead tree: what you can’t see, and what the ice reveals.

January Thaw

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

I was struggling. And then I froze.

First in September, October, and November came an extended burst of business activity, wherein I neglected much of my essay writing in favor of creative-writing-to-build-my-new-venture. Stiffening commenced.

A long viral illness ran concurrently.  Rime condensed on the edges of me.

Painful anniversaries blew in; December holidays challenged.  Whether it was the early darkness of the afternoon or the late darkness of the mornings, I slept longer than I wanted to, resistant to pull up and out of heavy-blanketed winter slumber.

The weather turned truly arctic, hikes became sporadic; cookies called my name beseechingly, promising energy, and I answered, too often. (Those no-good sweet-talking sweets.)

Movement slowed to glacial and the yoga attention wavered. Through the swirl of internal storms I couldn’t make out my wonderful new habits.  Extra pounds crept onto my body.

I solidified.

Fall leaf captured by ice.

Red oak leaf captured by ice.

Inside my hardened self, I started worrying:  How can I get back to my contemplative life? Why don’t I have energy to write about things that yes, really do, excite and feed me?

Finally, self-judgment crinkled deep into me, a solid-through, could-drive-a-loaded-semi-on-top-of-my-lake, subzero temperature drop: What’s wrong with me? Am I a failure at all of this? Will my blog join the thousands of “dead” blogs out there?

Perhaps I froze because over the months I would come home from the few hikes and instead of meditating on them, I would be planning yoga classes. Or writing about a workshop. Processing how those classes and workshops succeeded—or didn’t. Corresponding with people. Building networks. Learning my new phone. Applying for tax IDs. Rediscovering aromatherapy, selling products locally.

-Ing, -ing, -ing. A fall-into-winter shower of unique “-ing” shapes that softly, quietly, buried me.

***

Now it is January.  I took a four hour tromp on the melting icy paths looping through the woods and around Tubbs Pond, at Partridge Run.

My hiking partner called the weather a “January thaw.” I’d never experienced that at higher elevations before; just imagined it, from books. Above freezing, the snow melted some and then some more, and streams ran.

The legs were sluggish at first and didn’t want to pick themselves up over frozen upheaved beech and birch leaves, and stones covered by slushy moss.  The hiking partner’s legs protested too.

We walked and walked, up and down. I started to sweat, pulled off layers, walked and walked, got hungry, devoured peanut butter and apples, walked and walked; I walked the worry out of my body, walked until I was so tired by dusk that my eyes could barely focus.

I got to see three ponds I’d not seen before.

And ice. Oh, the ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

Harsh angles.

Harsh angles.

Soft blobs.

Amoeba-like blobs.

Broken glass.

Broken glass.

Photo after photo, I lost myself in the teeny tiny: a single leaf on snow, and closer still the ridges of its veins, the iridescence of decomposition, backed by reflective crystals.  Jagged shapes, clear, opaque, rectangles, rounded blobs, layer across layer of frozen, half-frozen, refrozen. Miniature hemlock cones, red pine needles stacked pick-up-sticks style over white pine needles, leaves trapped under bubbles that couldn’t move.

The light--

The light–from below and above.

We two photographers gasped, giggled, and gestured: Look here! It can’t get more amazing—yes it can! I LOVE ICE.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

The winter sun moved from white to gray across the sky.  We stumbled past Tubbs Pond and cheerily waved goodbye to snowmobile and deer tracks, and the chickadees who flirted from tree to tree.

My cheeks were ruddy, legs exhilarated. Days later, I still feel the warmth of following my instincts, listening to my body’s craving for beauty—and the walking, walking, walking.

I think I’ve been thawed, by the frozen.

Shimmering seeds on snow.

Winged seeds glowing red on snow, ready.

Lions and Tigers and Peaches, Oh My!

Orange newt in thick mud, August, Partridge Run

Orange newt in thick August mud at Partridge Run, Berne NY

Over two months ago, my buddy C and I hiked an overgrown path at Partridge Run, south of Albany. Like two girls in a fairy tale, we hopped and skipped and lolly-gagged, cameras instead of baskets-to-Grandma in hand. Small frogs surprised, bursting up with powerful rear legs from well-hidden spots in the mud. Orange newts appeared and disappeared, foreshortened limbs squiggling their torsos in cartoon fashion. We moseyed along, but then were stopped short by encroaching poison ivy and, smartly, turned around.

On the trail back to the car we spied something. A dark thing, in the middle of the path. A rock? A tree limb? An ailing creature? Cue the scary Little Red Riding Hood music.

I kneeled down to examine it. Looked up at my hiking partner, concerned. Looked down to take in the evidence again. Squinted up as we nodded simultaneously.

Yup.
Looks like it.
Bear, huh?
Yeah, see the blackberry seeds in it?
It smells musky around here–must be pretty fresh.
Oh. Look here in the mud. A claw print.

Straightaway we realized we should have been alert in the woods for something other than late summer wildflowers, amphibians, and butterflies. We quickly re-oriented to the aqua paint on the trees—Long Path “blazes” that marked our exit out.

Bee on the wing in late summer

Bee on the wing, before.

Only once before I’d been close to a bear in the wild (and known it), and that was a few months earlier at Kripalu. One early morning as the sangha gathered around a guest speaker, he noted drily: “You may want to look out the window.”

Across the back lawn, a youngster Ursidae was galumphing and gamboling, presumably drawn by the smell of our breakfast cooking. Since we saw the bear through glass, it was much more like a zoo encounter than a live one, though it made us all think twice before taking the paths alone at dusk.

Bears have also shown up in my nightmares, though not recently. Terror comes from a sudden smothering attack in the dark, from the inability to escape a creature so much larger and more powerful than me.

What I do know outside of nightmares: Black bears live in this part of New York, but not brown bears or the subset of brown bears known as grizzlies, which have a reputation of being more aggressive than black bears. The advice: Don’t hang out near rich food sources like fruit. Don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs. Hibernation starts in October and if you see a bear in January be very careful: it is likely a female, in labor, the most inclined to attack.

On the other hand, I have heard many stories of fairly peaceable bear-human encounters, where everybody just backed away.  Because, very importantly, bears are reclusive, prefer not to run into humans, and so we hikers should proactively announce our presence by making noise, shaking bells or singing.

***
Therefore, back in the woods, my helpful hiking mate, who was aware we should not be silent in case we came upon the depositor of the dung, began to shout.
Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear!
SHE’S the plump and juicy one. I am the old stringy one. (Pause, as if listening.)
Yes, the one with the baseball cap, that’s her.

Only half-laughing, we sped our legs to cover territory fast, then faster. She continued:  Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear! We had a lovely visit but we’re leaving now!

Arriving unscathed at the car, we weren’t ready to give up on our day in spite of run-ins with poison ivy and bear poo. We drove south, arriving at a more civilized path, one that led to Tubbs Pond.

I remarked as we sat down by the water, Glad I didn’t stop to eat my lunch in the woods.

Then it dawned on me the horrendous portent of what I carried in my bag, into what had proven to be active bear territory—cue more sinister music—as my fellow hiker hollered gleefully into the trees nearby,  Oh Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! 
She’s got A QUARTER OF A PEACH PIE in her bag!

I whispered: And (more dawning, a veritable sunburn of realization) a sandwich, peanut butter and–

Whereupon she added with relish to her public service announcement:  AND HONEY!

Peace pie, water and sky on the Tubbs Pond dock.

Peach pie, water and sky at Tubbs Pond.

In the sunlight of the Tubbs Pond dock, safely consuming my late-summer pastry, I thought: Huh. In our hurry to get the heck outta there, fresh bear scat in our noses, I did not stop to take pictures.

And was beginning to regret it.

I ventured to my partner: Can we go back? I’d love to get a picture maybe of the tracks…is that crazy? My heart thumped in my throat like our legs had moved: a little fast, then faster. Without too much hesitation, she acquiesced. Only twenty minutes of walking, we figured…

Of course I was afraid. It would be a calculated risk. End of summer, blackberries obviously nearby, recent proof right in our footsteps of large alarming creatures–at least one of them.

But if I let the fear beat me, I might regret it forever, I thought. I really wanted photographic evidence of what we’d seen.

And lately I’m tired of being afraid of things, always stopping with “Maybe I’ll hurt myself, maybe I’ll look stupid, maybe I can’t be A+ at anything.” My new more honest self says: “Of course maybe I’ll hurt myself doing new things and of course I look stupid sometimes and yes, maybe the bear will return to the scene of his crime—er, droppings”—but should I let that keep me away?

My pulse continued to increase. I noted and then ignored it, as we climbed back into her vehicle.

After all, it was with some knowledge that we were deciding to proceed—to make noise, and look up and around while hiking, not just at our feet. Aware that if the wind is blowing at your back, the bear can smell you up to a mile away; if at your face, you can stumble on them because they can’t smell you at all.

Not out of the car a minute, hand cupped around her mouth, my buddy started:
The peach pie is in her belly, if you’re looking for a treat.

Jingling keys and singing, we found the path. She mumbled under her breath: Can’t believe we are going back into bear infested woods to get a ratsa-fratsa picture. I thought to myself—If I get attacked by a bear I’m gonna not only feel stupid, I’m going to have BEEN stupid.

Off to the side, something dark and thick swam forward in the woods; my eyes bulged and attention narrowed sharply–Oh my god, there’s a bear!

–Oh, a burned stump. In pseudo bravery, an aside to the cutthroat hiking partner: Here is where in the scary movie they say: Don’t do it! Don’t go back! You know there are bears in there!

Heart still thumping hard, I slowed my inhale, slowed my exhale. It didn’t help.

Maybe this IS a scary movie, I thought. Maybe I AM part of a fairy tale, but I can’t think about it now; I’m busy paying attention to my surroundings I shook my keys louder.

We walked quickly, one ahead, one in back.
I will stay behind you and have my camera ready, so I can take pictures when the bear comes out to greet you. She snickered mercilessly.

I hoped she knew it’s ok to take pictures with a small camera, but not one with a big lens because the bear interprets that as a large and very aggressive eye. I did know that when you encounter a bear, you look sideways at the ground, and back away or circle around.

Joe Pye Weed, with a non-lethal creature.

Earlier we’d passed Joe Pye Weed, visited by a non-lethal creature.

We arrived at the fated spot much more quickly than we thought we would; fear definitely distorts your sense of time. Involved in looking for the prints again, we walked along the path identifying deer and raccoon in the thick mud, and others, including the horse’s hooves we’d seen all over Partridge Run.

Then there they were–round, small, but bear’s prints, definitely not dog, definitely not people or coyote…click-click the camera went. I neglected to check the woods every second or two. In fact, the more bear-free minutes that passed, the less afraid I felt. We finished and hurried back to the car, the distance even shorter this time.

On our final steps:
A granola bar, Mr. Bear, I think she’s got one of THOSE still.

In the car, we giggled in relief. I had faced my fear AND gotten the pictures.

***

I am glad I had a hiking partner who was willing to go back, even if she was (verbally anyway) also willing to throw me to the omnivores. Glad I got to enjoy my peach pie, and the fairy tale lesson did not involve being swallowed and cut out again, or some outside hero saving me. Glad I’ve learned to not live without fear but to feel it and choose my action.

Having a wicked-funny friend along sure helps.

***

Postscript: At home I analyzed the photos. The ground was so wet and gravelly, it was hard to capture the details of the prints that were visible three-dimensionally, in person. You can’t see where we saw that nails and claws had dug in, versus just some other animal’s pads displacing the mud. But the dung was delightfully clear.

Yup, there it is.

Yup, there it is. The pile of scat was not large, hence the bear wasn’t either. Which is just what the size of the prints indicated as well.

Chanting? Really? Yes.

Oscillations of water wash over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Oscillation of water, like sound, washes over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Most mornings, I chant.

I have always been told I couldn’t sing well; whichever octave sits next to me is where I jump, and I waver when unsure if another note might be closer.  I’ll sing snippets with my CD player or part of a hymn I’ve practiced a hundred times, but only when I am fairly confident I will land correctly.

Still, I wibble and wobble.

But at yoga school, chant began our day. I had to open my mouth and make sound come out. On-target or out-of-key, it didn’t matter; first thing, we intoned “the resonance of the universe,” Om, followed by three Sanskrit stanzas of the Student-Teacher Mantra.

Almost sixty of us perched sit-bones on little black cushions while out the window, sunrise pinked the eastern sky.  The mantra song felt strange to many and made them itch in discomfort and wiggle like little kids.   Mountain fog dissipated into the evergreens while our eyes remained closed, or followed the lines on a large-print poster at the front.  Over twelve days the chant became more familiar.

IMG_4024

Clouded Kripalu morning over the mountain.

During the break between sessions, I committed to continue, using a grainy digital video I’d recorded at Kripalu.

At that point, I needed to be led.

By the third stanza, usually my throat hurt.  I tried again every daybreak to coax energy, with a vocalization some mornings tentative and froggy, other times expansively bouncing off the yoga room walls. Breath slowed and deepened out of necessity, and warmed my throat. Warmed my thoughts toward myself.

This was not just a tune.

Then came even deeper breath and movement, heat, circulation and all the good invited onto my mat with those sensations. Finally, my nauseated frustration flirted with comfort. I recognized unwanted thoughts and let them float away.

When we returned to Kripalu, I heard my morning voice steady and confident.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Now out of school, why do I do it?

One afternoon I sat in a kitchen that reeked of the detritus of cooking, home early because my therapist forgot my appointment–what deep things does THAT say? I asked myself melodramatically. Basil stems and onion ends needed to be taken to the trash, cabbage bits and tea leaves laid sodden in the sink, crumbs sprinkled the table and floor.

Earlier I’d stopped at the used book store and found two 25 cent paperbacks for the lake-vacation planned with my best friend.

But at my table I acknowledged it was a vacation she and I would have to put off–because her brother is sick, so she will instead drive five hours back and forth to him a couple days a week, and then to doctors and hospitals in search of diagnosis, prognosis, the plan, whatever-that-plan-might-be, however long it might take. Because of love.

How can I make my life like a vacation without a trip? Give yourself permission, my therapist might say, like the night before, to stay up and crush the basil into pesto, to cut the watermelon and freeze the grapes for hot afternoon snacking, to wash the lettuce–but also to toss the sprouting sweet potato, feel the sticky floor under my feet, acknowledge I ate maybe one too many pieces of the blueberry buckle baked in the beautiful dark. Feel it all.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

I had given the therapist some blueberry buckle as we laughed over the scheduling error. I thought, I would send some to my best friend if I could fly it there. In the midst of her pain, she’d mailed me a royal blue Pashmina shawl; the card read: Wrap yourself in this hug from me.

I want to take her to the lake we’d planned to visit, to hear the loons and go on long photo safaris in search of wild flowers and angles of light, to huff the thickly oxygenated Canadian forest air.  Drape myself like a scarf around her sad, sad shoulders. Feed her blueberry buckle and sip Chambord into the evening, watch the hummingbirds and fog dance in over the beach.

That’s why I chant. I chant to create space, to feel distress and delight. I chant, holding my best friend close, and her gravely ill brother. I chant and remember my friend J who died a year ago this month. I chant love gliding out of me for all of my existence.

I chant into the lakes and ponds and rivers and creeks, up the farmland and mountains, through the cumulous and wispy and mackerel skies. I chant into my cells, lungs, intestines, skin and fat and muscle. Into my toes and fingers. Through my navel: center of gravity, center of balance, center of self. Then out again and out again. Stretch, release.  Expand, contract.

Time passes and I am inhaling, vibrating, exhaling, feeling.

Time passes and I am in my breath in my body so time is inconsequential.

Chanting beckons me back to the mat and back to myself.

Chanting opens me with sound.

So most mornings, I chant.

Electric zing of fall color; energy courses through.

The visual zing! of fall; a path of green revealed by seasonal red.

The Past, Preserved

The container that got me to thinking.

The container that got me to thinkin’.

In my continuing quest to clean out kitchen drawers and cabinets, today I came across a glass jar. When I lifted its clear pear shape to the light, sediment clumped on the bottom and its once luminously deep red contents read cloudy and brown. The faded Sharpie writing on the lid, in my hand: Sour Cherry Syrup 8-17-03.

That’s 2003, ten years ago this week.

It’s the very last jar, of the very last jars, of my Michigan and Illinois canning years.

I learned to make preserves in 1989, when I lived in mid-Michigan with one small child and another on the way, and a spouse in graduate school (soon to be in medical school). The trees in South Haven and along Lake Michigan were studded with peaches, sour cherries and other stone fruit; I’d drive east as each came into season, or search out flats of fruit in the local market.

Peaches were the first item I mastered how to slice, cook, pack into sterilized jars, and boil in a water bath: peach halves in sugar water, peach jam, peach-apple chutney. Next, I expanded my “putting up” to blueberry and strawberry preserves, then hot sauce, and bread & butter pickles.

But sour cherries were my favorite juicy treat.

After we moved to Chicago, I could still get cherries, thank heavens. Some farmers would bring their wares up to the north side where we lived and from one farmer in particular I would order a 40 pound box of pitted and frozen cherries, available for pickup in mid-August.

Defrosted cherries would bubble along with the pectin thickener and cup after cup of sugar in a huge cooking pot as the canning day progressed. Mason and Ball and “Atlas StrongShoulder” jars were filled with the concoction, screw-tops carefully put on and the jars lowered into the water bath. By early evening, rows of glistening glass had been pulled out and placed on a wooden rack, out of any drafts in the steamy kitchen that could crack a jar that cooled too quickly.

Within an hour, always to my great relief, lids began to thwip down in a vacuum seal; knowing at least a few had been made safe for long-term storage, I’d shower and go to bed as the thwips continued into the night. Next morning the lids were wiped off and, one by one, labeled with that ultra-thin black marker, then placed for storage in cardboard boxes.

In addition to dozens of finished sour cherry preserves, some jars would hold only syrup, scraped from the bottom of my white enamel saucepan, when the solids were gone but there was still thickening ruby-red syrup I couldn’t bear to waste.

This jar was just such a jar.

The week it was sealed was a usual week, back in 2003. My calendar tells me I’d weeded the hostas and wildflowers in the front garden and the kids’ long anticipated beach day was cancelled due to rain. I’d bought the pectin and sugar on Saturday, and picked up the cherries at the Skokie Farmers Market on Sunday after church. A third year medical resident by now, my spouse had been on 24-hour overnight call in the hospital Tuesday and then that Sunday.

Wild geranium from the garden.

Wild geranium (also known as Cranesbill) from my Illinois garden.

The following week 15 clients showed up to my massage practice, martial arts classes and a Renaissance Faire filled the kids’ days, and the spouse was gone for two more overnight calls. All that activity was, I am sure, flavored with the typical couple of jars that–darn! we’d joke–didn’t quite seal and–double darn!–had to be used up right away. We grinned over buttered toast topped with cherry preserves and later each day cherry syrup in seltzer or cola or on ice cream.

I put up preserves and syrup summer after summer until 2009, when I moved our family household to New York, and then the spouse left, to do permanent overnight call, with another woman.

My first response, finding that lonely jar this August? Oh no! This will be the end of it! No more, those golden summers, that delightful food, all gone, along with the family life before empty-nesting, before a new state, before divorce.

In fact, this last jar is probably useless, not safe to eat. I’ll open and sniff it, then pour it down the drain.

But my second response? I’ll dump and wash that jar and store it with the others up in my closet, boxes and boxes of clean empty jars waiting for fruits to ripen.

Perhaps something novel should be put up in those Masons and Balls and Atlas StrongShoulders: plums? pear butter? cinnamon applesauce?

Or maybe I’ll call that farmer who delivered in Skokie, and ask if he ships to New York.

This season's blueberries, floating on top of home-made blackberry preserves blended into Greek yogurt.

This season’s blueberries, floating on top of Greek yogurt blended with some home-made blackberry preserves.

Right Relationship with Food–Lessons from Kripalu

Sweet potato and hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Glazed sweet potato with hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Two problems:  we were on a schedule (breakfast at 8, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 6:15). And it was a buffet.

Granted, a buffet heavy on vegetables: kale and pepitas–kale and other steamed vegetables at every meal actually!–, saag (spiced spinach), curried cabbage, whipped squash, salsa and guacamole, and so on. Heavy on fresh fruit, too. Some meat if you wanted. Tofu baked and seasoned with sesame seeds, soft chunks in curry, cutlets, diced. Salads and soups at every meal.

Also more carbs than available in my kitchen: banana bread and pappardelle and rice, quinoa and egg rolls and kamut and millet and loaves and loaves of bread. Not to mention my favorite, the maple-nut scones. And the ginger ones. And those scones with the currants. Oh my.

Spanakopita, beans and greens.

At lunch, phyllo covered spanakopita, along with squash, saag, beans and greens.

–All food I didn’t have to research recipes for, shop for, haul up three flights of stairs, chop/slice/dice, sauté/steam/boil, measure then serve. No dishes to wash. No dealing with leftovers.

This was problem number one.

The second one? At home, the meal “schedule” is: wake with the sun, drink water and tea until fruit calls, usually around 10 a.m. Slowly prepare scrumptious dishes on the cooking days, nibble and nosh on them for lunch and dinner, attending closely to hunger and fullness.

At Kripalu we were up way before the sun, on the yoga mat at 6:30 for an hour and a half, followed by the first meal, morning session, lunch then afternoon session followed by afternoon yoga, dinner, then evening session, shower-bedtime-boom.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad with red onion, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

With these unfamiliar food and time boundaries, desperation set in:

What if I get hungry? 

I am working very hard, after all, pushing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually!  Eating keeps me awake and alert.

I have paid for all these meals. 

Such nifty recipes deserve a taste; then if they’re good I can try them on my own.

What if I don’t like what’s served tomorrow? 

The cafeteria line closes at 7:30, then there are just things to drink. What if I get hungry before bed? In the middle of the night? Before morning yoga?

(Whining) Because I AM pushing myself physically, mentally and spiritually, I want to have fun food!

So I started having three full meals–breakfast just a little vanilla soy yogurt–and some granola and soaked prunes, that’s good for me. Of course the daily egg dish was comforting and warm. Ohhh, better try the scrambled tofu, it looks good. Don’t I need vegetables too?

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes.

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes for breakfast–and then some.

Even though it was Silent Breakfast, I found myself shoveling in big mouthfuls, swallowing before really chewing thoroughly.  We only have an hour before class and I have to do my writing! 

During other meals, I laughed and ate, chatted with one person and ate, got serious with someone else–and ate; at the end, surprised, each time my plate was scraped clean. Already? Is that all?

Comfort food after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce.

Comfort food  I gobbled down after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce. Yes, I felt comforted. Very.

Feeling bloated the umpteenth day in a row (for some reason, I wonder why?) one breakfast I decided to take a small bite of yogurt-and-seeds, deliberately put the bowl back on the tray, pick up my keyboard and write a while while chewing; then lean over and pick up another spoonful, and so on.

With this slowed-down approach, I could feel tender resistance from the sunflower seeds between my front teeth, spreading sweetness from the soft prune, savory egg on my tongue. Ahh, this is better! Not just flavor but sensation, and a sense of fullness earlier than anticipated. Choosing to leave some on the plate, in the bowl, especially if it didn’t appeal.

Take some, just a little, a few.

Take just a little, some, a few. Space on the plate is OK.

Then to myself–Remember your old habits? YOU put your fork down between bites. YOU pay attention to the texture and flavor. YOU ask: am I full now? am I putting this in my mouth merely because it is on my plate?

Smaller portions each day, I took bowls instead of plates, so the meal wouldn’t look so overwhelmed by empty space around it.  The daily menu board helped: is the  emphasis today on lunch or dinner? Do I want the Thai lunch–or the Mexican dinner instead? 

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Tofu with kale and pea pods here...

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Sesame tofu perfectly crisped with kale and pea pods here…

Indian curry cauliflower and peas, here,

Indian curry cauliflower and peas with chutney here (note the kale)….

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper.

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper (kale was in the other bowl).

I stopped eating the salads. Usually when dining out, I choose something I wouldn’t or don’t make at home–sudden lightbulb! I make leafy green combinations at home, easily.  So I took the things I don’t do as much on my own: julienned beets. Fresh peas. Risotto. Home-made naan (just one). Chilled cucumber soup.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad with raisins and walnuts.

I skipped lunch and took a stroll one day, after “hoarding” a scone from breakfast in case I got hungry. And a banana. Then I didn’t even want them, not until long after the hike, during the mid-afternoon break.

Next longer walks to the pond or around the lake settled my stomach, as I decreased the load of comestibles, helping my sleep as well as digestion. I began to feel more myself.

Then I realized I love interacting with people but actually need quiet and writing and aloneness to feel safe and sane.  Now at some mealtimes I chose a blanket on the grass, a nap in my room. Even photography on my own.

Heavy June rains on peonies outside Swami Kripalu's meditation garden.

Heavy June rain on peonies outside Swami Kripalu’s meditation garden.

Reflections at Monk's Pond

Variations of green at Monk’s Pond

More than half the days gone, to figure out the food piece, and then the personal space piece–I’ve had these revelations before.

But I hadn’t run into these particular challenges before–not for this long, not under these circumstances–with the skills I’d been developing for years.

At a certain point, I paid attention, saw the need for change, and acted on it. I celebrate finally seeing what I was doing, regardless of how long it took me. My knowledge is now reinforced.

But wait, there's more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables....

But wait, there’s more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables and parmesan….

The colors were spectacular!

And a plate of pretty colors! I don’t have to eat them all–but I’m gonna be more aware of color and texture again, when I cook for myself.

School over, I am coming back to a home routine:  doing my own shopping, steaming my garden kale (yes, I still love kale!) and yellow beans, fiddling with local cheese and watermelon and new recipes. Being aware. Thinking about my choices, then making and enjoying them.

Maybe I’ll stop eating after 7:30 pm like at yoga school. Maybe I’ll soak prunes for my mid-morning yogurt.  Maybe–no, for sure–I’ll remember that “problems” are actually wonderfully sacred learning moments.

Clouds over the Mohawk River.

Summer abundance of plants and clouds at the Mohawk River.

**Recipes for many of the dishes here can be found in the series of Kripalu seasonal cookbooks or at http://kripalu.org/article/270/  .