Choosing Beauty in the Every-day: New Dishes

My first plate, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats.

My first plate purchased in July, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats: spinach fronted by fresh mozzarella, tomato, and garden basil.

Last week I bought the (almost) final dish in my new set of Bennington Pottery.

That’s important because three years ago, I found myself suddenly a one-person living unit, every room of the new apartment stacked with bins and cardboard boxes six feet high. I was Keeper of The Household as I had always been, but now with a much smaller Household to manage.  It was simultaneously frightening, sad, and a relief.

The containers spilled over with stuff saved for other people, for future needs and/or disaster: financial papers, cooking equipment, furniture, clothing, decoration–and dishes. Most of it had been purchased already-used decades ago, found on the street, or gratefully acquired as other people cleared out their basements and storerooms. The items didn’t necessarily match or work optimally, but they functioned, and when you are just barely surviving, that’s what matters.

Happy to have a very different life now,  I’ve been learning to go beyond the idea of just-surviving, especially since–as witnessed by the stockpiles of food I’ve been using up–I am releasing myself from the burden of so many belongings, the weight of saving in order to feel safe.

In addition, in the small amounts I keep, I want not only functionality but also beauty.  When my best friend was making a pittance on the front lines in human services, she would still buy a little piece of handblown glass or earrings, telling me:  Beauty is as important as food. 

Since Bennington Pottery is not only beautiful but relatively expensive, I’ve been acquiring the matte finish Elements design over time, buying most of them as “seconds” from the outlet or Potter’s Yard in Vermont (making me much more comfortable with the idea that I might break a piece here or there).  I certainly don’t need all of the sizes, just the couple that work for me ; I chortle over picking four different colors to mix and match, the option to make my table look different at every meal. The quirks in curvature and mis-splotches of color, part of being a not-quite-perfect dish, endear each salad plate and soup bowl to me.

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

During the factory tour on a slow day, one of the fewer-than-ten potters took visitors behind the scenes to see how they smooth and glaze and fire the clay.  To meet the artist-makers of my belongings moves me, and I often relive those discussions when I encounter the objects in my home.

Behind the futon on which I sometimes sit while eating out of my new palm-sized bowls, hangs a yellow-and-red Amish quilt, signed on the back by a northern Kentucky woman named Ella Bontrager.  As I study its shifting geometry, the rainy April afternoon of its purchase returns: talking in Ella’s little farm-shop, hearing how her husband and daughter work with her, why she used a nontraditional “proud” color in this artwork, what is valuable to her and her community.

A corner of Ella Bontrager's Amish quilt

A corner of Ella Bontrager’s Amish quilt

My gaze moves to the purple and green and brown placemats I splurged on at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo.  The nuance in their colors and patterns frequently draw me to thoughts of architecture, simplicity and beauty–same as the quilt and the plates.

In the window, light glows through two tiny hobnail glass vases.  From over three dozen of varying sizes, I have kept only a few; the rest were donated, moving on to other people’s homes for their flowers and their meditations. The mis-matched plates and bowls from my past left in that give-away box, too.

Every day we eat off dishes and placemats, look at interior walls and surfaces, use the items we share our living space with.  How do we make this inside life beautiful?  What choices do we make, what do we get rid of, to add beauty to our lives?

Moments of startling light.

A moment of warm afternoon light.

Washing Dishes

Today’s view from the kitchen window

There the pile sits in the morning kitchen: water glasses with lip marks and fingerprints; small plates smeared with food, accompanying utensils splayed over them; tea cups and travel mugs with rings of dried milk and sugar; plastic leftover containers, greasy lids akimbo.

Usually it doesn’t feel like an onerous chore. But a not-unexpected sadness has come to nest in my house this fall.

I know that when you lose someone, like I’ve lost J, you revisit your other deaths, especially those you have not finished mourning. You acknowledge and examine the loss of friends, places, homes, relationships, belongings, patterns of behavior, certainty.

That is the work I am doing.

Part of the floundering has included a scary disinclination to write, choosing entertainment over introspection, an old habit I thought I was done with. I haven’t felt like cooking. Or even cleaning up after the take-out.

But then I remember J half-joking, half-begging: With these lungs, I may not be able to vacuum or dust, but I can still stand here and wash a few dishes. Just let me do them!

A little bleary-eyed, still in slippers and ‘jammies, I set up the water boiler on the counter, fill the empty ice cube trays and put away the clean dishes washed a week ago.

Another voice from the dead, Great-Aunt Helen, whose legs were heavy and painful, fingers mangled by arthritis: This is my house and don’t you touch those dishes!

But Aunt Helen, we helped make this mess, and you must be tired after baking cookies and Mahogany Cake–and cooking brisket and dirty rice. It will be so much easier for us to clean up.

We’all are gonna sit in the screen room, have some Dr. Pepper, and listen to the night sounds. Leave the dishes ‘til morning! When I wash ‘em up tomorrow, I can take as long as I want and relive all the arguments, and the jokes, and the silliness. I know you mean well, but I want to remember the good time we had while dirtying these very dishes.  No arguments; it’s settled.

So today at the sink I pay monk-like attention to details: the sound of the tea water moving toward a boil, then the smooth matte surface of robin’s egg and gold stoneware plates in the sink, essential oil of lavender soap bubbling my hands.

I remember the phone conversation with a fellow writer while I drank the Earl Gray Cream out of this Shakespeare Quotes mug, and commiseration with an out-of-work friend accompanied by Russian Caravan in that blue flowered cup.

Having reached temperature, the water in the boiler is poured over loose Truffle black tea, bits of dried coconut and chocolate chips visible. Back at the sink while it steeps, I revisit Lad Nar over garden green beans here, the half sandwich left from a writing session at Professor Java’s there, and an apple-farm Honeycrisp purchased in September after a sunny bike ride along the Mohawk River, sliced carefully onto a blackberry colored plate. Washing, rinsing. Washing, rinsing.

October ivy

Outside the window, ivy reddens on my building, the green ivy opposite just barely blushing yet. Rain pelts the cars rushing by and students grind wet gravel underfoot as they hurry to class. Up the hill, willows and maples and birches and oaks are all changing color at different speeds.

I scrub to get every bit of scrud off a pot, rinse it thoroughly in hot water, then place all the dishes one by one on the gas stove so as to be perfectly dried by the heat of the pilot lights. When ready, there will be the satisfaction of putting each plate, each mug, in its own place once again.

After the fixtures and counter are wiped down and dry, I pour a cup of tea and finally, finally make the frittata I planned a week ago.

It consists of: freezer spinach overdue for use, a teeny green pepper from my garden (one of five whose existence completely surprised me two weeks ago), four ounces of muenster cheese, half a white onion, a teaspoon of salt, some crumbled dried sage from another friend’s garden, a pinch of nutmeg, six local eggs, a couple tablespoons of flour to thicken. Out of milk, haven’t gotten myself to the store, so I just steam all the veggies in the microwave, keep the liquid, and stir it all together with a tablespoon of butter chopped up.

I bake the sun-yellow concoction in a greased oval pan in my convection toaster oven at 375 for 15 minutes. With puffy browned edges, eaten off a pretty green plate, the frittata tastes of warm kitchens past and present, meals present and savory meals to come.

Tomorrow morning I will make tea and wash these dishes, too.  No arguments; it’s settled.