Baby (Snapping Turtle) Steps

 

Look at its determined eye. At John Boyd Thacher Park (North), 2016

This newborn snapping turtle, along with its siblings, had come out of the nest in the gravel not a minute before we walked up on it, on the yellow Perimeter path at Thacher North. Coated in wet clay from under ground, it scrambled quickly for the nearby pond. Though only an inch and a half long, this baby was already fully itself, and on its way.

That’s me.

Right now I feel messy, roiling in the gunky mud of fears and expectations about the unknown. Half-baked, incomplete. But I will trust it’s about perspective: I am a baby snapping turtle, destined for size and strength I cannot imagine from my sticky clay birthing place, called to a future of sun-warmed water.

***

For the last eleven months I have been working half time.

In May of last year, a week or two before I leapt in to that job, I finished my initial Forest Therapy Guide training. On duty at the local library, I learned to scan and shelve materials, while at home I concentrated on the six month certification process, and graduated in November.

Back then I was pretty worried about taking those twenty hours a week for paid work away from my well established practices, and then the addition of the Guide training. Was I crazy? For almost seven years, I had had a much freer schedule, during which I became a serious writer of memoir and nature essays and a serious photographer. I also worked as a personal chef, accompanied a friend who was dying, trained as a yoga teacher, and created workshops for writers and artists.

Yes, I was pretty worried eleven months ago, but those who know me well were right. It all turned out fine—and in fact, excellently. Not only in my job, but in figuring out balance, even if it wasn’t the fully realized balance I so desired. Questions popped up, and I answered them as they came.

How to write? Request a work schedule primarily noon to 8 pm and then do the vital observations and editing while most of the world sleeps, between 4:30 and 8 am.

How to continue and increase my nature connection? Walk alone before dawn. Make walks and photo sessions with my hiking partner a happy requirement. Walk with friends sometimes at dinner break (mid-afternoon), and observe the seasonal changes in my city.

How to manage the inevitable exhaustion? Alternate those days of dinner walks with dinner nap days! Cry as I needed to, which turned out to be a lot.

Nesting eagle pair, Peebles Island State Park, glimpsed on a sunset self-care walk with a good friend.

***

The past eleven months, I haven’t posted any blog essays.

But I remind myself I am closing in on completion of the final draft of my first book-length manuscript.* I have written poetry for two small collections and for myself. Two of my photographs were chosen for the Thacher Nature Art Show this March, even though unfortunately I was too sick to attend the opening, see the exhibition, or even publicize it. This summer, I plan to be offering forest therapy walks in at least one place. And finally, I kept my promise to myself and posted this essay today.

I’ve been persevering, with self-compassion. Yes, alternating with panic and frustration and fallow periods, but those freak-outs allow me to come back, repeatedly, to self-compassion.

April’s first Oxalis (shamrock flower) with its fuzzy stems, searching out sun at Thacher North.

***
Now, next week—tomorrow! I begin a full time job with the state of New York.

I am feeling those same anxieties as when I started my half-time job last June: about performance, self care, managing my tendency to perfectionism, creating a new balance with forty hours a week gone, plus a commute by car now.

This challenge has been taking up quite a bit of time and energy, as at first I delved into the test taking within Civil Service, then interviews and decision making—while I maintained that half-time job.

This is not a place I ever intended or planned to be, taking an office day job in my mid-50s. I’ve loved my decades of creating a personalized daily and weekly schedule with its many layers of paid and unpaid work. I loved to be a parent, then a homeschooling parent, to run a massage therapy business and before that a tutoring business, manage a household and house and rehab of said house, cook nutritious local food tailored to multiple dietary requirements. And as part of the fabric of my life, to organize and work for social justice and community.

But in those early years, I also left no space for myself as writer and naturalist—didn’t even know I WAS either one—or for myself as a physical being who needed much more regular exercise and connection with the outdoors, along with moving meditation.

I took care of many people but not enough of myself.

When I started my half-time job I was very afraid of returning to that place of self disregard. Again, I acknowledge than in almost eleven months, I’ve done pretty well.
I also had some unexpected surprises.

I fell in love with my community again, through people I met as they came for books, DVDs, and music. I fell in love with my historic and struggling town again, through those walks before dawn. At the library I got to glory in organization and creation of order, in the quiet and in the chaos of deliveries from other libraries. I experienced kind, patient, and interesting co-workers.

A wide variety of humanity walked through the heavy wooden doors of our building and gasped at the Tiffany window behind the circulation desk. They also fought with their children, suffered daily frustrations without some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, showed me patience and compassion, and thrilled with their first library cards.

I handled a lot of books but didn’t read many at first. Then I took out piles of them, like raiding the candy store. Now I’ve settled into 20 to 30 books out at a time, and gotten to enjoy popular items along with dusty volumes pulled from the stacks. After a couple years of illness and depletion and a very sad inability to read long-form writing, I can stick with a whole book and read it over time or in an afternoon.

I hope to still work some hours at the library, because of these gifts I have found.

Post-March blizzard, curls of heaped snow compete with the curlicues and angles of the library’s 1897 architecture.

***

Now I’m going into this full time day job. I was fretting, anxious, anticipating the worst, as I pursued the actual getting of the job. I was also able to observe, feel, analyze what spoke to me, what didn’t, and know I had a choice—not something I’d really felt before.

I hate that I’ve been so wrapped up in learning these balances I haven’t been able to do the essay writing, finish all books I’ve been writing, sort and enjoy my photos.

I try to listen to those around me, those who love me, who again say I will be fine. I return to leaving behind perfectionism and fear of Armageddon brought on by my own mistakes. The details of learning how to follow all my goals will be familiar AND unexpected. I will attempt not to anticipate all the problems or things I might dislike, and be open to the surprises.

In the muck to come, I will remember my turtle-ness and my snapping-ness. My completeness and my newness. I will remember that I’m just starting on this part of the journey, and that I am well on my way.

I will hike and take photos and guide walks. I will do yoga and meditation. I will do my personal writing and my creative writing. I will travel, close in and far away. I will cherish my friends and beloveds and attend to my own wisdom.

The pond awaits.

And the sky above….

*I am presently editing the first book of essays, poems, and photos that Carole Fults and I are co-authoring, gathered from years spent together at Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, in Berne, NY. More news soon!

Doing this book editing, I realize—I have been through all this before. For example, my blog post entitled “January Thaw.” Guess what! I have been stuck in my writing when my attention just had to go elsewhere, my creative energies spread into a job search, a business build, a health crisis. I forget. Then I return to myself, and remember. Thanks to my readers, for waiting and for encouraging me in the remembering.

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Remembering Commodity Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Today’s Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Once again, Some Day came for a food item in my house–this time in the category Leftover Bits of Cheese Saved in the Freezer, Intended for Macaroni & Cheese Some Day.  The double wrapped packages included slices of dill havarti left from late summer sandwiches, chunks of Colby-Jack, and a half-used bag of shredded cheddar preserved from potential spoiling before a trip out of town.

This assortment made me think about cheeses of the past, specifically, a lack of variety in days gone by…

When my former spouse and I lived in student apartments, we received Commodity Cheese. The distribution of this calcium and protein source, otherwise known as Government Cheese, dated back to World War II when it was fed to soldiers; in the 1980s, we were told it served to purchase excess milk from American farmers (in order to stabilize prices), and also to assist the hungry. Our family income, clearing the high four figures, qualified us as hungry, or potentially so. Other commodity products included powdered milk, greasy pork and canned vegetables. But the most common item, and the rubbery backbone of the program, was the cheese.

It was so ubiquitous that the local grocery store sold keep-fresh containers for the 5-pound blocks of what looked like American or Velveeta, but was actually a variety of cheeses blended together with emulsifiers. A whole set of recipes grew around using this hunk o’ dairy, since each month we received at least one block. Several times we received two huge bars of cheese (ten pounds total), along with ten, count ‘em ten, pounds of butter. What the hell? we laughed. And they can’t figure out why poor people might have weight problems?

Sometimes that wrapped slab was the biggest thing in our fridge. We were lucky–relatives sent us grad-school care packages, and for years we’d been part of natural foods buying co-ops, so we were able to spend our very limited food budget on other, healthier items. In addition, our family received WIC coupons, which enabled me to vary the kids’ meals with cereal, juice, eggs, peanut butter and milk.

We used up our Government allotment in grilled cheese, cheesy rice, cheesy grits (for the southerners), cheesy potatoes, cheesy eggs. My favorite recipe, shared around by the industrious Moms, Dads & Tots Group, was “Pasta Salad.” Not many fancy ingredients—a box of white store-brand elbow noodles; diced Commodity Cheese; a chopped green pepper; if you had it, chopped up Spam; and a dressing made of equal parts mayonnaise and mustard. Sounds a little scary, but it actually tasted pretty good; served cold, it was a nice side dish, and heated, a filling dinner. Of course, we all had our recipes for macaroni and cheese.

I say “we” because it was a community blessing and curse, that cheese. Almost everyone in the cinderblock apartments received it. I don’t know what the international students thought of it, if they ever got used to this strange, squishy, egg yolk-colored American fare. Our other cheap go-to food (at five cents a package), Ramen Noodles, was at least familiar to some of them, albeit originally in a spicier, tastier form.

The parents’ group also hosted International cooking nights. We learned how to make dishes from Burundi and Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Peru. We U.S. natives cooked our regional specialties and holiday recipes.

I don’t remember Commodity Cheese appearing in any of these showcases.

We used it when we had to, but weren’t thrilled with it; we might have been materially poor, but we were proudly not culturally or creatively poor.

Nowadays I don’t yearn for that situation of having fewer ingredient choices, but I do miss the comradeship of the particular community that received and dealt with those yellow bricks.  I am reminded of what can be accomplished when people of different cultures and backgrounds come together in a mutual task–whether that is making food you can stomach out of something odd, or greater goals.

****

My macaroni and cheese in 2012 is made with with more vegetables than carbohydrates, and carefully chosen smoked mozzarella, chèvre, Muenster, and so on–certainly none requiring a special Keep Fresh container. The carrier for these artisanal cheeses is Tinkyada brown rice pasta, or locally made Flour City noodles, accented with fresh garlic and herbs.

This sounds like food snobbery, but isn’t intended to be so; when given the option, of course we crave variety and subtlety in our food, to please our particular palates–and if we don’t have options, we humans make do, often with inventiveness and humor.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Here’s what I made the other day, with those odds and ends. I brought back chopped sweet peppers from the good ol’ “Pasta Salad” days.

  • 8 oz Pizza Pasta from Flour City Pasta
  • 2 oz dill havarti slices, 4 oz Colby Jack slices, and 3 oz shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 diced green pepper and 1/2 diced red pepper
  • basil, Community Gardens dried parsley, garlic salt
  • 1 cup 2% local milk
  • 2 eggs (of course–brown, free range, local, from the farmers’ market!)

Cook the pasta according to directions but deduct a minute or two from the boil time, mix all the ingredients, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes in a toaster convection oven, until the top noodles are getting a little crispy and the cheese is all melty (adjust as necessary for your oven). Serve with big heaps of steamed sliced broccoli.

If you are wondering, it’s four servings @ 475 calories each.

And it's so good heated up the next day, too!

And it’s so good heated up the next day, too!