To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013

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Sighing into spring, and school

Golden now, not grainy-gray, the quality and angle of morning light has definitely shifted in the kitchen. Come 5:30 a.m., I hear returning songbirds chipping and chirping outside my urban bedroom. It is spring again–and still–despite the almost-blinding gusts of snow that assaulted my windshield after dark the other night.

Winter sunrise over the hill

Winter sunrise over the hill

I think about going back to school and sigh, just a little. This will be a challenge. Normally spring is the time students think about freedom! if not the short burst of spring break, then the long open opportunities of summer. Instead, I am picking up books, “screwing on my thinking cap,” as some obnoxious teacher once pantomimed. Ouch.

I am also intrigued, excited, curious. It’s like sleep-away camp–not that I ever attended, just read descriptions in books and heard about it from friends. Supposed to be new kids to meet, a whole lake to swim in, lanyards to twist and knit. In my case, other interesting grownups, a lake to walk around (still too cold for swimming), forest paths and a labyrinth too and a healthy cafeteria: physical and mental growth to be had everywhere.

My problem is that very persistent A+ student who hangs on the edge of my mind, like a bully taunting from the field beyond the playground, Yeah, just try stepping over here. You’ll see what happens! Loser!

She/he interjects comments as I read my Kripalu Yoga textbook. Sometimes I am pulled in by the resonating philosophy, so I forget that voice; sometimes I sigh yet again, frustrated by my more recent midlife difficulties with memorization. Perhaps because I am creating new neural pathways along with the information, undoing old patterns of self-deprecating reaction, my mind has rebelled: This is too hard! I’m not cooperating!

I go into the yoga room and look at the book, the diagrams. Deep breath. I speak the pose names as I stretch out and position myself–

–on the belly, pelvis firmly anchored into the earth, arms and legs lifting up and behind me: I whisper “Nav-asana,” and think Naval, like a boat on the water, floating with waves of breath….

Kneeling, then flowing back over knees-wide-apart, arms reaching forward on the floor, Garbh-asana, Child’s Pose–I am garbed in the freedom and openness of the child-mind and child-body, I take what rest I need, when I need it.

Bala-kik-asana, Crane: a one-legged pose of balance, arms hovering, the staccato Ks remind me of the stick-legs of a bird in water.

Like a boat--or a dock--water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Like a boat, or a dock:  water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Ah, there, that’s a reason you do yoga. Space for creativity, not pushing and grunting along, not cramming yourself into a place that doesn’t fit. By its very definition, yoga is about expansiveness, room for yourself, who you are, at that moment.

Unwinding my body in Spinal Twist (Matsyendr-asanahow to remember THAT one?) I exhale and think: Snow flies yet spring comes. I can’t remember things, I can remember things.  Just because I suffered last time I learned, doesn’t mean I have to again. In fact, the intention is to do it differently now.

Welcoming carving on the Emma Willard School  "Alumnae Chapel"

Welcoming carved face on the Emma Willard School “Alumnae Chapel”

I enjoyed a marvelous Easter/post-Spring Equinox holiday with a colleague of mine. We tromped through cemeteries overlooking the Poestenkill and around the Emma Willard School campus, deserted on a Sunday; snacked on huge pink slices of watermelon radish with cups of hot tea and maple sugar; worked on individual writing projects while the local whole chicken stuffed with crumbled sausage, butternut squash and kale baked in her oven.

We took a first-course interlude of salad: more radish, avocado, walnut, mesclun and vinaigrette.

Spring salad to tease the appetite

Spring salad to tease the appetite

I sliced sweet potatoes into fries. Her least favorite chore for the day, the knife-work was a job that didn’t feel like drudgery to me at all; I hummed as I chopped along.  That’s something I am watching for in my future earning-a-living, ways of spending my hours that I so enjoy they don’t feel like “work.”

My companion rubbed coconut oil, cinnamon and a little rosemary on the wedges before oven-roasting them. As we tapped our keyboards in the living room, the smells of dinner intermittently tickled our noses and then slammed us lusciously when we re-entered the kitchen in search of more tea.

When all was ready, we ate until satisfied and no more, heaving happy groans nonetheless, and deliberately leaving some food on the plate to wrap up for later.  Sips of tart cherry juice with seltzer served as dessert, accompanied by more writing time.

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Ahhh, we sighed, a holiday that wasn’t (as is typical) about overstuffing our stomachs or our schedule. As the day meandered, so did we; we took seriously our choices but made them only as we went along–Want to walk more? Turn this way or that? Whoops, the chicken isn’t done; oh, I see why it needs more time, ok, we’ll write for twenty more minutes.

She’s a future yoga teacher too, and we’re both applying the lessons on the mat to daily life: sometimes grappling, sometimes serene, knowing serene-plus-grappling is actually desirable.

Yes, I told her, I joke a lot about breaking into a sweat learning to love my life.

But ease is what I aspire to:  ease within challenges, like strength and lightness in a yoga pose, grounded in the earth and yet buoyant, willing to move and respond to the wind, and not let go of connection to who I am in my core.

False starts, shifts in weather, don’t indicate that spring won’t come. How days-off were acknowledged in the past doesn’t define how I celebrate them now.   I will allow myself to be not-so-good in school and not worry.

All of it will be delicious.  Especially the more I stand in each moment, Right Now, swaying and trembling perhaps, but over and over returning to curiosity, determination tempered with compassion, and gentleness toward myself.

Warm spring sunrise

Warm spring sunrise behind budding tree

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

To Clean is To Wander is To Meditate

Clean colors of evergreen against the snow, Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

Crisp colors of evergreen against the snow, Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

A few hours ago, my hands were barely able to curl around a knife in order to butter a bagel for dinner. Even now, it’s not easy to grip and flip open the laptop, and type. I plan to do an hour of yoga later, but along with achy wrists, my knees are sore from kneeling on the kitchen floor–not brush-scrubbing; I don’t have Cinderella fantasies–just wiping and rinsing, wiping and rinsing, the layers of dust and dripped food from Christmas and New Year’s and daily living.

And vacuuming–I seem to have lost, or never owned, the extension arm to my vacuum, so the bare-floor attachment clicks to the end of the hose and requires an up-close relationship with the floor to maintain contact. I did manage to squat part of the time but often the angles were too awkward to maintain. Hence the bruised kneecaps and cramp-y hands.

Tools at hand! my vacuum

Tool at hand, back together for the rugs.

It was time. The apartment needed cleaning way before the holidays, but since I had December guests coming, including a large, sweet, and very fuzzy dog, I only disinfected the bare minimum before their arrival, and left it at that.

Until this week, when it couldn’t be put off any longer.

When I thought about each room and how many things needed to be moved in order to de-grime properly, my old surgical aches came back–a wonderful indicator that I need to approach from a different mental angle.

I used to be very list-driven. The lists always started out long, and even as I circled jobs-done, more got added, seeming to approach infinity.  Now the inventory is general: “clean kitchen, clean bedroom, clean front room, clean dining room.”  I wander from space to space, trusting that the big job will get done through all the little jobs I feel called to do.

The question I ask: What will make it enjoyable, and let me do something I’ve secretly really wanted to get to? 

The speed I go, even with the compulsion to rush, since there’s so much to do? Slow.  And when panicked? Even slower.

Yup, house cleaning as meditation.

Today’s answer as to what I secretly want to do?  Put on my bed the new blue and white batiked duvet cover from Ten Thousand Villages. Well, have to change the sheets and sweep the floor first. Doesn’t that feel good, crisp sheets and plumped pillows? Oh, but I have to dust all the surfaces before doing the floor!  All right, leisurely pull every piece of jewelry off the hanging organizer, wipe the hooks and smile over the beads, the iridescent bangle, which earrings went with the sparkly outfit, for that delightful community dinner on Christmas Eve–and for the raucous snowy romp with the dog on January First….

Objects hold memories and I remember, as I handle them.

A bit of feather-down, fallen into snow at Dyken Pond.

A bit of feather-down, fallen into snow. Remember the snowy walk?

Another answer to the question about what brings joy for me today: organizing all the snowshoeing gear, after drying my trekking poles.  Ok, better stack the grocery bags to go out to the car, which reminds me–start the shopping list.  There’s the camera–upload the photos from the latest walk at Dyken Pond, where I got the gear wet in the first place. And wasn’t it a great walk?

A third job to bring relief:  moving the red chair into the front room, exchanging it for the reading chair, whose awful green checked cushion at last gets covered with a deep purple fringed blanket. Vacuuming the dining room wasn’t so bad, I can finish this quickly and after moving the chairs, pull out different candle holders–look, there’s the battery charger I’ve been missing!

All day, for days, I’ve wandered and somehow along the way become motivated to do the hands-and-knees cleaning that has now transformed my living space.

Finally, all those wonderful negative ions have been moved around, along with my belongings. I learned last year how to rearrange photos and sculptures so I see them again, how to shift the tchotchkes endowed with history and stories so I recognize and appreciate; after sitting in the same-old-same-old spots, my eyes would no longer be caught and would pass over them–along with that slight layer of dust that faded everything.  Now I’ve cleaned the dust, I’ve re-seen the objects, all is new again.

IMG_0114

Now I can see the art glass tray, the ceramic lotus, the dried flowers still bright with pink and yellow.

A confession: the bathroom only got a quick wipe down, and it will take a couple days to really scour the kitchen.  But wood is glistening and lights shining brightly, surfaces are clearer and paintings placed in new positions of honor.  A votive flickers in the window.

Tomorrow morning as the tea water comes to a boil, I’ll do more smaller-scale wandering in the kitchen:  washing dishes, wiping down cabinets, reading recipes. I’m cleaning, I’m dreaming, I’m wandering; I’m meditating my future life into being.

The rhododendron blooms are already set January 8th; they need only wait for spring.

The rhododendron blooms are already set here in early January; what does that say about being more ready than you think?  about not needing to rush? about trusting in Spring?

Winter Solstice At Home, with Rice Noodles

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

I’m having a hard time settling in this week, as winter holidays come and go, approach and recede, as personal and national losses do the same.

So I go to the kitchen.

The hills and bare trees and apartment roofs that stretch to the east bear witness through the windows. I write as I do my little jobs–if I think of them as little, building like snowflakes into larger things, they are easier to begin.  I jot down thoughts, recipe ideas, insights that spring on me like the birds who dive past.  Sunrise glows dimly through the clouds.

Since the rest of the world feels sad and chaotic, I create order in my corner of it: there are the clean dishes dried and warmed by the gas stove pilot lights. Now to stack the mixing bowls by size and slip them into the cabinet, organize the post-Cookie Party baking pans, and ponder which ingredients are to be used up next out of the freezer and fridge. Here’s the softness of a purple dish towel, water splashing everywhere while I clean the last of the teacups, and that final step: wiping down the counters and sink, sweeping the floor. Now to the cooking.

**

Frozen chicken thighs started me off, and some of the Community Garden string beans I had managed to harvest and de-string and freeze before my last visit with J–and a rock-solid jar of cooking juices, added to each time I’d roasted or baked chicken since June. When defrosted, the glass was golden-full of olive oil, salt, floating bits of garlic, Pappadew sweet piquante pepper seasoning, and chicken fat.

The broth blended with milk and sautéed dried onion on the way to my mother’s Curried Chicken sauce. The original recipe appeared decades before curry was a household word in the U.S., in Redbook, or Good Housekeeping, or some other 1960s ladies’ magazine; I’m sure they promised an exotic meal, able to be put together in 30 minutes or less, conveniently utilizing leftover cooked poultry.  Originally the sauce was served over rice (red-boxed “Minute Rice” in Mom’s kitchen) mixed with dried parsley, always with a side of canned pineapple chunks.

But horrors!–the bag of brown basmati rice (standard in my interpretation of the dish) was empty, and so I hurriedly dug through the cabinets to find rice noodles, purchased for another, more modern curry dish–Thai coconut and Kaffir lime.  Since the comfort-food sauce was almost finished, I quickly boiled the noodles like a wheat-based spaghetti, and they turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

After eating, I walked into the rest of the apartment where chores awaited patiently: the end of year budget, memorabilia to be sorted, work research and networking to be initiated.  I brought in the sense of order from my clean kitchen and home-cooked meal, lit a candle, later burned some incense, and calmly did small parts of huge projects.

I drank tea, cried about tragedies, and thought about some joys as well.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoon.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoons.

Later in the week I wanted to use up the rest of the dried noodles, so I hot-soaked them and then stir-fried with a jarred Pad Thai sauce I’d bought for “some day when I wanted Thai but didn’t want to order out or cook from scratch.”  I managed to employ this sauce, the rice noodles, about ten frozen raw shrimp left from Thanksgiving appetizers, some eggs and broccoli and aging celery, even had salted peanuts hiding behind the dried pasta; only had to buy fresh cilantro and bean sprouts.

I trust that if I eat up all the food I have, there will be more.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf. Oh, and broccoli and celery and bean sprouts. And a little egg.

This week, in the spirit of being empty, I even skipped a writing deadline, deliberately watching the clock tick down and observing my reactions. The piece I wanted to submit just wasn’t ready yet, so I didn’t force it.  I trust that it’s stewing inside me, and I’ll know it’s ready, if I keep close watch on the pot.

So instead of indulging the A+ student, I hiked for hours along the Niskayuna Bike Path, on the last sunny afternoon predicted for a while, then hunkered down for the blowzy day on Friday.

I trust there will be other opportunities in my writing life; that missing this one won’t be the end of me.

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

I conversed on the day of solstice with author E.P. Beaumont (http://epbeaumont.com).  E.P. describes late fall as “the end of things, the beginning of things, a gateway time, where the gates to the other world are wide open–and remember the other world includes The Past, as well.”  This is a time for processing, meditating, mulling. It reminds us of other darknesses that will inevitably come, and trains us to hold on to the memory of light and lightness, which will also inevitably return.

Though deeper cold chills the landscape and bits of snow flew outside this morning, winter solstice has come and gone and the days increase, even if imperceptibly for now.  I will continue consuming my culinary caches, making order, making messes, identifying my life’s work through my daily work. Lighting candles and cooking noodles.  Drinking tea. Trusting I carry my peace and emptiness with me, into the darkness, as I seek the growing light.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

Mom’s Curried Chicken Recipe:  Saute 1 1/2 tsp curry powder and 1 TB instant minced onion in 3 TB of margarine. Remove from heat and add 3 TB flour, 3/4 tsp sugar, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ginger. Stir until thickened. Add 1 cup milk and 1 cup chicken broth. Put back on heat and bring to a boil. Simmer one minute, Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup cooked cut up chicken, 3/4 tsp lemon juice. Serve on top of rice mixed with parsley flakes.

I usually double all the ingredients, thoroughly mix in more flour than recommended so the sauce will be thicker, and whisk the roux incrementally with the liquids, before heating, to avoid lumps. This time I also added 32 oz of cooked Community Garden green beans along with the chicken. And more chicken than recommended. Of course.

Shrimp Pad Thai. I used a whole jar of Thai Kitchen Pad Thai sauce, and followed the instructions on the label for stir-frying 2 eggs first, then the shrimp, then the sliced veggies, mixing in bean sprouts at the end, topping with crushed peanuts and cilantro. I followed the directions on the rice noodles for hot soaking, then stir fried them with the sauce, again per the Thai Kitchen label. Nice and easy….

Saving Food/Wasting Food

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Last week’s blog did not get finished or posted–all because I made an inedible pot of soup.

In a hurry; measurement ignored; ingredients tossed together; forgot to break up the frozen chard so instead of tasty green bits, slimy strings floated; didn’t realize the pinto beans had been freezer burnt by a crack in the container until they were already in the stew; frugally used up an open beef bouillon concentrate, but the whole thing tasted too dark and earthy, not savory.

Finally I admitted to myself that beef base just didn’t work here, and neither did anything else.  Staring at the congealed mess in the stockpot: How did I come to make this lousy food? 

Fear. The word bubbled up, like the greenish-brown liquid in the pot.  It’s fear. 

A discussion before Thanksgiving at a local barbecue restaurant prompted this reaction. One friend had grown up in an Italian family, but not one that stuffed him like a manicotti; plenty to eat, but no forcing, “take however much or little you want.” Therefore, few food issues emerged afterward, and he is able to enjoy a bit of protein, or a bit of sweet, knowing pretty instantly when he might be over-eating. My other friend grew up with nutrition from the pantry at her church, sometimes shamed by charity, and sometimes sending back food that was so unpleasant her family couldn’t accept it, for others more desperate than them. Later food allergies made meal preparation tedious and very limited.

I grew up with meals measured out carefully, only intermittent seconds or extras, and desserts strictly regulated–even though the cupboards and Frigidaires were full, a practice dating from the blizzard-on-the-farm days of my mother’s teenager-hood. We had enough, but the equal-sized and small portions of meat, starch, vegetable, fruit, though nutritionally well balanced, usually tasty, and not bad looking on the plate, combined with later skirting with poverty during grad school days to create an enduring sense of scarcity, and lack of knowing what my body actually needed and craved, aside from “more.”

After sharing our stories, we three studied our plates and take-out containers in shock, individually mulling over alternate universes–What would it be like to live with his relationship to food? With hers? With mine?

Weeks later, this led to my realization and then extended thoughts about fear, as I stood over my unpalatable potage, but a different fear interrupted–about meeting the Friday writing deadline. All this thinking is taking too long!

Then I remembered the book I’ve been slowly reading lately: Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, wherein she says some very cogent things about Running Out of Time and  Attachment to Outcomes.

With a sigh, I went back to page 36. Susanka reminded me to not make the end product the goal, but rather the process; the process of figuring out what I wanted to say, the process of understanding myself–that was the goal.

The A+ Student in me got sent to a time-out, to cool her proverbial heels for a week, and I lived my life and read my book and wrote pages and pages about my childhood and young-married life, and my relationship with food.

J's crazy-cats keep me company.

J’s crazy-cats keep me company while I write and ponder.

Now multiple essays are emerging, all linked by a challenge I’ve set for myself.

Don’t worry–it’s not a challenge that will cause the A+ Student to come roaring from her room with fangs out and lists streaming behind her. It’s just a challenge to gently help me and the A+ Student identify what ideational platforms I’m standing on, where they come from, and ask:  Are they true? Are they helpful?

So…I now take a vow to clear out old food, to undo the feeling of scarcity in my eating life. No more stuffing the freezer and shelves with food because I am worried about not having enough. 

In fact, I am going to “spend down” my supplies. I will buy the fresh things necessary for daily use, or specific ingredients to make something fun or follow a recipe, but no more stockpiling. If a food item is past due, or icky, it’s gone. After cooking, I can put an extra portion away, but will share it or eat it within a short period.

Reminding myself: it’s one person for many meals, little amounts of food, not like when I was cooking for a family of four, which with teenagers makes it more like six, and their friends, plus leftovers for the food needs that will come a few hours or a day later– Whoops, better cook for eight or ten.

Homemade pizza with a big family used to mean two 9 X 12 cookie sheets. Today I eat one piece, with salad and fruit. Lasagna in the past? Twelve pieces for today, twelve pieces for the freezer, regardless of the future texture. Who cared about that? It was speed, availability, and quantity!  Nowadays, lasagna is layered with vegetables, a delicate sauce, fresh cheeses, and no more than two or three servings over several days. Yes, life is different and the action I’m taking will be accompanied by meditating and writing.

A list is posted now in my kitchen, what’s kept cold and what’s kept frozen and what’s kept waiting in the pantry, along with a few lovely potential recipes.  A month of this, and the new year has a chance to begin fresh and open.

How will it feel to have emptier cabinets, an almost empty freezer?

***

Approaching frozen containers was too daunting after the soup fiasco, so I started by opening a can of sweetened condensed milk whose “best by” date I can’t even admit to.  It tastes fine, the texture is merely thicker and the color more caramel than usual, and I am using it instead of the standard turbinado and milk to lace my morning tea. It’s beautiful in J’s cat-covered mug, and stirs up nicely. A good start, I say.

Next week the menu includes Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese, and a side of My Personal History with Commodity (Government) Cheese. Soon to come: Phyllo Chicken Pot Pie accompanied by Women & Preparedness; Losing Books and the Purpose of Stuff; a dessert of Poverty, Pie, and the Possibility of Blizzards.

See? I tell myself. There’s still fullness, and not just of food.

IMG_8866

Creamy and filling, the tea with sweetened condensed milk–whose time had finally come!

 

Popovers, and Peace with Myself

Popovers in all their particularity–and fullness.

I hadn’t ever eaten them, I don’t think, before last year.

I learned to use a borrowed Bennington Potters smooth-glazed stoneware 6-count muffin pan.  (Metal just doesn’t work the same.)

I have discovered much, in my new friendship with popovers.

***

From a friend’s five-ring, first edition (1950) Betty Crocker Cookbook:

Beat together just until smooth: one cup sifted…flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs. Pour into well greased, deep muffin cups, three-quarters full. (Oven-glass cups make highest popovers). Bake at 425 degrees, hot oven, until golden brown, 35-45 minutes. Serve immediately. 

Amount: 5 to 9 popovers, depending on size.  It is not necessary to preheat baking cups.

***

An oven light reveals them becoming the “high hat muffins” Betty describes next to her typical mid-century artificially colored photo of breakfast on a red-checked tablecloth.  The clock’s slow countdown gives me time to watch and muse.

Sometimes the edges pull up in one direction or the other, sometimes they rise evenly–inflating caramel, tan, and white, puffing like out of control teenagers careening around corners, not caring where they spill, yet contained by their individual muffin cup.

A half dozen “high hat muffins”

Bulge, distend, inflate, expand, enlarge, all the synonyms for the process, feel kind of distasteful, instead of the happy idea of claiming volume, having plenty of room. We aren’t supposed to take up too much space, are we? especially women. Popovers stretch out as they heat and settle back in as they cool; it’s not their nature to be tiny, uniform and controllable, and I realize it’s not mine either.

In addition, each one tastes good, regardless of lumpy or cracked shape.

Remember that, I tell myself, when you are poking your belly as you look in the mirror. Remember that we all feel good, warm and toasty, to someone ready for our toasty-ness, our hidden steam–and that first person, who should love us best, is our own self.

The phrase “muffin top” comes to mind:, we don’t like to spill out, be exposed for our size.  Is a muffin top to be ashamed of? When we squeeze ourselves into tight clothes, our softness squished hither and yon, we are measuring against only one standard; I remind myself that muffin cups are there to hold and separate the baked goods, not painfully compress them.

All the different ways the popovers rise up makes each one itself. Not that we want to be overly heavy or fool ourselves if we’re being unhealthy. We just want to appreciate our popover-ness, our crispy freshness, our lovely expansiveness.

***

So after the 35 to 45 minutes, at the height of puffy but not to dark brown yet, it’s time to pull them out.  They deflate and darken a bit with rest, settle into their-selves, creating a little place for the knife to slide in and deposit butter without too much steam burning fingers. The defined crispy edges, crunchy and chewy to the tooth, lead to an airy eggy center, filling but light enough. I usually add a smear of summer blackberry preserves or honey.

Popover releasing steam, ready for butter and jam

After cooking, you have to eat them right away. Even an hour later, they just aren’t as tender, tending to be eggier, heavier instead.

Precisely because of that short peak, popovers are not popular.  I am the first to admit my royal role as Queen of Leftovers, doggy-bagging at restaurants or preparing extra portions so I can have something tasty tomorrow as well as today.  Popovers teach me a lesson in Right Now.

They only require a few things: flour, milk, eggs, salt. The right kind of pan, a hot oven, and enough time.  Blended components change and shift before your eyes, and then you get to savor them in your mouth. On these cold or snowy late fall mornings, you can share the making and tasting with family, a friend, or yourself–good company, all.

We, like popovers, are delicious, delicious beings–if we let ourselves be at the temperature we need, for long enough, in the proper container, no more than a few ingredients, then water and oxygen moving in and out with a sense of plenty–plenty of space, plenty of time to be spent on just this one thing, making and eating popovers, making and being ourselves.

Delightful, savory, just right. Aren’t we all?