Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Warm Room

Until not so recently, I spent a lot of time around the holiday season waiting in train stations, bus stations and I even camped out for four days, (yes, four days ) in an airport terminal waiting for a storm to pass. Luckily, the four day hiatus was post-Christmas and it did not look like this train station. Most people I know find waiting in random locations tiresome and annoying. Franky, I miss it terribly. Yes, I miss even places like this train station in Poland where the task of traveling sometimes felt more like an act of faith than an activity. Traveling in Poland was more of a crap shot as to where you might really end up, but even more improbable to predict was the duration of time it would take to go anywhere. Thankfully, a lot of places I ended up looked like this.
This is the place I wish all trains would end up. Maybe they do. Maybe in the locomotives of our minds we each have some preordained destination where one day at random like the Polish train system we will crank open the doors and find a spring field and one bold poppy, waiting. Just like us. Just like us.

And this is why I like waiting at stations, somehow it's like a democratic purgatory of sorts where everyone is alike, everyone waits just like everyone else. No one can out wait another or one up someone's ability to wait. Although I recall watching a group of Serbian men one New Year's try to out wait the world by singing the longest song that latest seven days. They seem to have been seated in a warm room of an Austrian train station for a entire week or seven bottles of vodka which ever came first, just waiting. Perhaps they were waiting for a train that would take them to some other time and not just some distant town.

I've also witnessed people who think they can out wit waiting. A cellphone in hand and one in a protected pocket and laptop in tow, shouting into one of their cellphones to some poor customer service person at an airline company. I've heard sentences shouted, such as, "Do you have any idea who I am," while not so secretly purchasing a ticket on sidestep.com. These people are amazing to watch and I cannot believe their hasn't been a coffee table book of photos taken at airports, to show the agony of defeat or the triumph of home comings. I guess there are just some moments of vulnerability that are just too much to see.

And odd as it might sound, maybe it is just the vulnerability of waiting that I like, the fact that people will strike up conversations with you and openly discuss their views of politics or hope to exchange personal philosophies and all with or without knowing each others first names. My fondest of conversations happen when both parties were speaking different languages and somehow, something got communicated. I recall getting relationship advice once by a man who only spoke Hungarian, I don't speak Hungarian. But somehow, we managed to find ways to learn about each other. It's amazing what you can only learn from hand gestures. I'm sure if any of you who are reading this are mimes then you can really back me up here. I quietly applaud you.

But sometimes, all it has to be is a phrase, a simple gesture that you hold on to. So I send this poem to you as a reminder. If you get stuck somewhere this holiday season, look around, take off your i-pod and maybe you'll have your own moment in limbo that feels surreal and thankfully a gift from the warm waiting room. Happy Holidays. I hope all of your travels end up in a field or as least may it feel like it. Enjoy.

Stop Request

You wouldn’t mistake your mother

for a woman who walks through glass

and sits beside your book.

So you pass the time and frame

the woman’s face, the one who

isn’t your mother. She’s like a Budapest tram

ticket you carry in your wallet

next to the taste of oranges

shared with a boy whose name

you don’t remember. You watch her hands brush

a bit of hair away from her brow while she opens

a can of beer. Not cheap beer either

and rinses her teeth. The warm yeast fills

the room like the smell of sex on cotton. She spits

on the floor. In that moment you love her

more than your mother, who would never spit.

When you leave the room, she shouts

Happy New Year in German. And you believe her.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SkiJøring for Sissies

I've never felt bad about using the word sissy. Sure, I've been known to enforce word restrictions in class, but sissy has never been one of them. Perhaps it says more about me and my desire to be willing to jump into any physical test or at least try--even if it is badminton. I cannot say I was born an athlete, nor would I say I was born a poet, but it's surprising how little talent you need to actually feel good about just giving something a try--be it writing or flailing your body. Even if it is as odd as being pulled by a small dog in arctic temperatures around a snow-filled golf course, attempting a sport directly translated from Norwegian to mean "ski driving," Skijøring, I must admit, is very inspiring. Plus, you get to use such strange letters as the sliced o to make you feel better about your linguistic skills if you aren't that sporty.

And in the history of poetry, you rarely hear about sporty poets climbing mountains or circumnavigating anything but their own brains in search of themselves. The Hemingways of this world seem suited to fiction, riding out their days in Western backdrops along the backs of horses or venturing off for years on end whale hunting, sailing, pirating with nothing but bags of wind and the hope to return to stable shores and typewriters. Their romance with taming nature resembles the task of trying to tell a good story--a long affair of battling odds and time. Included above is my own (failed) attempt to look like I know what I am doing with a gun. I know, I will stick to a pencil.

But poets? We are an odd bunch. We usually work erratically spending long hours of the day or night alone, then sleep it off and go to our jobs that might not resemble anything poetic in hopes that we'll feel like writing again. If we were to be put in some sort of police line-up, a poet might be hard to identify. Minus the tendency towards tweed, poets are really hard to sum up physically. It's not like some genetic disposition like basketball or swimming where the body might guide the path. No, poetry doesn't work like that. I cannot recall hearing someone examine a baby's hands or feet and claiming their destiny, "My that furrowed brow will make him a fine thinker, maybe he'll be a writer?"

Nor is it as mysterious or mythical as some might try to persuade. Actually, if anything being a poet is like being a farmer. Seriously. There needs to be a whole lot of faith in something as temperamental as the weather and a stubborn and sometimes overly prideful belief in your efforts amounting into something, if anything at all. Yet in the case of poets, not farmers, the faith lies in something even more elusive than rain, ( I shyly pause before saying this to not sound too trite), you have to have faith in inspiration and your own capabilities to find it--even in the dark. I like when asked if Faulkner wrote everyday he said, "I only write when I'm inspired, and frankly, I get inspired everyday." Sure, he wrote fiction, but some of the most poetic fiction, so I think it works.

But what works the most for inspiration, isn't waiting for it to come or chasing it across lands and sea, I like to use the analogy of skijoring. Skijoring is a sport based upon a simple principle. You have a harness, the dog has a harness and both of your harnesses are connected and if you move fast enough on your skis and the dog moves fast enough pulling you, you'll find an odd rhythm. Sure, you have sort of forced this rhythm, but it feels somewhat liberating and endless all at the same time.

Now, unlike my husband who holds a world cup in Skijoring, I recently tried it for the first time. I must admit I was oddly displacing my memory of learning to water ski with the idea of skate skiing behind a dog that resembles the size and appearance of a juvenile seal. I had these visions of being pulled into snow banks and being drowned in cold temperatures and arctic winds. Thankfully, I was wrong. I was gracefully given a small female dog, named Mabel, and we were harnessed up and after thorough instruction such as, "Just keep skating. If you fall, the dog will stop." I shyly called, "okay Mabel, lets....um..go?" And that's all it took. Suddenly, this seal leaped and we took off with a short tug and oddly enough some sort of rhythm began.

As I've stated previously, I really cannot claim any physical talent in sports, but I can occasionally keep rhythm and in the bitter cold and still skies of Fairbanks, Alaska little Mabel and myself started moving, together. Yes, I did fall. And yes, Mabel did stop. But we got up and kept going, kept trying to tap into that feeling of some closeness to breath, beat and bray of our hearts pounding under all those layers, skating away from all that disbelief. I wanted to keep doing laps around that golf course or really I felt inspired despite all the doubt and darkness.

And that's what poetry does or tries to do at its best. It can take the simplest of situations and turn them into moments you keep as coveted memories, to tap into, to get close enough to feeling your heart and head aren't at odds, but simply a harness connecting them, moving together in hopes your efforts might just move or inspire. But the real task? It isn't just feeling this, it's trying to put this rhythm into words in the hope you can do it well enough to also inspire someone else. I hope I am not too much of a sissy to keep trying myself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Souffle in Each of Us

It has been far too long. Far too long since I've written and I bet far too long since you've made a souffle. Now I am sure you can come up with a variety of reasons why you haven't made a souffle in awhile or if ever just as I have a variety of reasons why I haven't written. It doesn't matter. Now, you are here and I am here and so, let's be thankful for being present. But really, let's really be grateful for butter and eggs. Regardless of what you find to bind these two sentient creatures, such as chocolate or cheese, butter and eggs do their modest magic to create the true showmanship of any souffle.

Let's get it straight. Souffles are rather existential creatures. Seriously, they demand a lot of attention to make and they aren't intended as a dish to sit alone in the fridge as leftovers. You make souffles to be eaten right away. Despite their French origin, I tend to think of souffles as being more Italian in personality especially in their completion as if they come out of the oven all puffed up and wanting to grab the recognition of everyone in the room. Saying, "Look at me, look at me, look at me. Tell me how wonderful I already know I am." But let us not forget their humble beginnings, especially this souffle that I send to you. It is far more pilgrim than pomp.

This souffle hails from perhaps the most solemn and least showcased vegetable, the carrot. Please don't expect this souffle to puff itself like Napoleon on a white horse nor will this be a dish that you might want to make for some hot date. This is Middlewest where we honor the quiet and stable creatures of this world. Here in Middlewest, the carrot is king. Yup, this carrot souffle comes off as not even the supporting side dish on Thanksgiving, more like the gaffer, the electronics guy who makes all the others shine, letting even the one hit wonder brussel sprout roasted in balsamic accompanied with dried cherries take a moment to be the Turkey's coveted sidekick. This carrot souffle is more of a mediation than a simple side. It's more of a dish to make while you are married than dating.

But for me, this carrot souffle symbolizes Thanksgiving in tastes and cultural texture (if that could be a term) For now, just roll with it. Thanksgiving is a time to be gracious, slow and mindful. To feel comforted in all that you presently have and have achieved. For years, my father would place five kernels of corn on each of our bare plates as a reminder that actually after the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a period of great hardship and starvation. The five kernels symbolize how for days some Pilgrims were rationed just five kernels of corn, like some poorly dealt hand of even worse luck, to survive a whole days work of toiling on frozen soil and cold pews to pray. Don't get me wrong, my dad wasn't trying to make the day a real downer as much as a time to remember how little you can live on and still be grateful.

Thanksgiving is a such a modest holiday, a time to just eat and perhaps nap and read a book and slowly let the warmth of the room allow you to slip into memory or mediation. Perhaps one of my favorite Thanksgivings took place in a kitchen the size of a shoe box, seriously, I am sure most of you have larger closets than this kitchen. I was teaching in Poland, living with a British vegetarian and for some odd reason I wanted to bake a Thanksgiving meal in my Russian oven that sometimes worked.

What did work that year was the carrot souffle filling our apartment with the foreign smell of America, a whiff of what I wanted to try to show my roommate, that America had a quiet side, a humble beginning of sorts and that once a year our culture actually remembered and rejoiced. As if our own pomp could be dulled at least for one day in honor of the tastes of rosemary, turkey, cranberries, cinnamon, onions and juniper berries. Somehow these smells communicated more than my stories or family photos of what I wanted to try and share or show about being American.

I recall my roommate, Anna, walking into the kitchen confused yet drawn by the smells I had somehow managed to conjure up from bartering at markets. That night despite the fact that Anna hadn't eaten meat in over three years she ate her entire plate clean. I had a few Poles over and listened to music on our cassette player and tried to explain national holidays to each other, but mostly we talked about food.

How Anna would only needed to smell the faintest hint of an orange to be in her nona's (who lived outside of Rome) garden, Tomek said if he smelled warm strawberries in butter, he knew his mother was filled with spring and happiness, while she made berry pierogies. Each of us had some flavor that wasn't just a national dish or icon rather some memory of humility and grace. And food is like that, a little bit of attention and care and you can recreate something to fill a distant room far from your home, your family, your culture to share something as simple as carrots. Without translation.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy.

Carrot Souffle

2 cups carrots, peeled & diced
1 stick of butter
1/2 cup sugar ( I don't add sugar b/c the carrots are sweet enough)
3 eggs
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook carrots in boiling water. Drain carrots and let cool for about five minutes.
3. Place carrots in blender and add butter, sugar, cinnamon, salt and eggs.
4. Add flour, baking powder and milk. Blend again.
5. Bake for 45 minutes or until fork ready, like a cake. Remember this won't puff.
6. Share and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Jar of Garlic

This coming week marks a two year anniversary with moving to Missoula. The story of how and even why I moved here is either too long or too simple to tell. Frankly, I can sum it up in just one word: hope. But I must clarify. I cannot say I moved West with the idealized hope of finding gold, wealth or even the antiquated idea of homesteading. Nor did I have the kind of simple hope in greeting cards such as, "Hope you are feeling better" with a picture of a fluffy cat wearing a beret. I would like to think I didn't move with a suitcase full of naive intent thinking life is always better somewhere else. Nor would I say I was searching for a different version of hope that was once lodged in a jar, Pandora's Jar, and circled out along with the other abstracts such as destruction and grief. The darker side of hope was surely not my intention either. The hope that I was chasing was simple, a hope to start again in my mid-thirties in a town I liked the sound of. Simply, Missoula has a high concentration of both writers and mountains and all I wanted to do or hoped to do was write a lot and ski a lot.

For most people, hope seems to fall to the positive side if life, offering one last chance in a mired of desperate feelings or a state of chancelessness. It can be that undeniable glimpse or fraction of light that can surprise even the darkest of hours--when even stars betray you and seem like just some other light for someone else to wish on. Yet hope strikes us when we least expect it and when we fundamentally need it the most. Now, I am not going to take this into a metaphysical realm, not completely, nor will I start bringing in religion either, but the complexity of hope fascinates me.

Perhaps my first sense of the difficulty with hope came from one of my ninth grade students, Maggie MacAlpine. Maggie spoke with a slight lisp and carried herself with an awkward stance of confidence. She always caught every error I made on any of her Greek Mythology quizzes and had the maturity of a thirty year old trapped in a young and awkward preteen body. During one of our readings of Epimetheus, the one who ignored the warnings not to take any gifts from Zeus, blindly took the gift of a woman who also came with a rather questionable jar. Now, I have to pause here to say how difficult it is to really teach Greek Mythology to ninth graders without having to go into polygamy, sodomy, rape or try to explain wife swapping? Basically with Greek Mythology you are teaching unedited sex education. Seriously, try to teach anything about Zeus PG-13.

Luckily I was teaching in Rome where billboards are unrated and mythology still makes sense in understanding Italian laws of attraction. There might not be a Zeus, but there are labels like Prada, Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana or controlling Italian nonas and mamas that wield some power over the city's men. So mythology was more like teaching sociology and Maggie MacAlpine was a quick study. After we had read how Epimetheus blindly doted over his mail ordered bride (via Zeus the all knowing post master), Epimetheus was more than smitten and basically let Pandora do anything, such as release all the evils of the world from her jar. So watching the new world that he and his brother, Prometheus, had so carefully made fall apart with the simple opening of a jar, Epimetheus finally realized the meaning of his name, "after thought." Concluding the fact that he was an idiot.

It was tempting at times to say, "okay kids, so what did we really learn from this myth?" Hoping to hear something along the lines of "Well, Ms. Walter, this myth clearly shows the problem with power dynamics between men and women and how you want to be sure not to be controlled by another person's motives especially if you are persuaded by superficial aspects like beauty and charm." This was a challenge. They were fourteen. They didn't even really like the opposite sex yet. Luckily though, I was in Italy and these were budding clones of fashion and sexual impression. I'd glance in the teacher's edition for the "right" answer and find something like, "Epi means after and this story clearly illustrates the power of afterthought or hindsight." What? This is so dumb, these kids read 10 pages for this answer, I thought to myself. What good would this answer really do for these kids in life? Do I tell something like, "Basically kids, you can tell yourself that your heart was broken and that you were mislead by this person whom you trusted for basically, linguistic reasons. Be sure to know the Greek root of your name and remember kids, It's called hindsight." Or maybe I could say, "Basically kids, never trust people with jars." No, they needed something more and Maggie MacAlpine was going to help us.

Maggie raised her hand and said, "Mthss Walther, thes is odd. If Pandthora released all the evilths in the world, then why was hope in there? I thought hopthe was good?" I paused. Looked out the window and smiled. I didn't want to interject or release my own dark side for these desk-seated, freshly-washed pink cheeked fourteen year olds. So I asked, "What do you think of Maggie's question, is hope a positive or negative feeling?" Looking around at blank and nervous faces, I said, "Or is it both?" "Have you ever felt "tricked" by hope?"

And I must say, what followed will go down in my mental history as some of the most fascinating discussions of metaphysical dilemmas posed. Yes by 14 year olds. Seriously these kids understood dilemmas and the temptation of hope that can blind them. Sure, they referenced buying video games they thought were going to be cool and ended up being lame, but at least they started to understand the importance of cause and effect of their actions brought on by the slippery duality and temptation of hope. No, I wasn't trying to form small jaded skeptics in my classroom. Rather, I wanted them to think through the repercussions of their actions especially if they were using naive or shallow reasonings. What were the results they were creating by their actions? Basically, I wanted them to learn accountability. I wanted them to think through what they were being tempted by and if they were willing to accept the possible results. Or so I hoped.

And so, even out of the classroom, hope finds me yet again today in this place that I feel grateful to not have been lead by shallow or simple reasons. This place is Missoula, but more importantly or metaphysically speaking this place is my heart for while I was driving into the darkness over mountain passes and along rivers lit by moon and October stars, I found myself falling into a city where I would also fall in love. Luckily, I wasn't led by own blindness brought on by superficial reasonings nor by shallow intentions. Not this time. Happily, I can say in these two years of living here, I've had to deal with both the darker and lighter side of hope and thankfully I've had to learn and keep learning my own answer I finely gave to my class in regards to Pandora's box: Each of us posses the power to choose how we want our gifts to be used, for positive and creative means or for negative and destructive results. We might not choose correctly all the time, but remember we aren't the gods and that makes us lucky: We get to choose which hope we want to live.

Cold Storage

Most days are either beef or wildflowers,
brief moments of sustenance or sun
filling the gardens of my mind with nothing
but garlic, whole heads posing
as papery fists that never bloom or hit
the surface without the hint taste
of swollen rain and tart onions. Even
when neglected, my heart, the bulb
of my body never rots, no matter
how hard I try. Forget about farmers'
almanacs, French techniques or thinking
the sky of soil pearls just you a private moon.
Your heart, bitter onion of your being, roots
in the basement of your neglect. Your savored weed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Loyalty of Recipes

So you're at a pot luck and you notice the chard and kale torte you bring seems to be one of those dishes that could so easily arrive and act happy as just the supporting side dish, passively sitting by the louder Mexican or Italian dishes. But it's not. People find themselves coming back and less publicly polite with their second time around portions. You notice the first timers took gracious sizes perhaps apprehensive of limp greens blanketed in goat cheese. The second and some third timers cannot help themselves, both in the amount and in their compliments. Someone finally turns to ask you, "Did you make this?"

This brings up one of my favorite moments in cooking, no, not the ego in saying, "why yes, I did actually make that fontina and goat cheese torte you seem to be stuffing in your face," feeling as if you won some ribbon for best hot dish. No, I am not that Midwestern, but hopefully Midwesternly modest. Rather, I enjoy continuing the statement with, "It's my mother's recipe, do you want it, I'd be happy to e-mail it to you." And so the physics of loyalty in cooking lives on. The sharing of recipes that were once written out on small note cards with stenciled wagon wheels or creeping lilies of the valley as a header and most likely written in an archaic and illegible handwriting that included the line: Recipe from: Ester or Judy.

The other favorite part of this interaction is how giving credit to someone else who most likely lives far away offers some validation or even a whiff of lineage and secrecy to the most basic chocolate chip cookie. But really the question is, how long must you claim your prized peanut brittle as laying honors to someone else? Until just when does it become yours? When do you have to stop claiming a dish as being inherited by your aunt in Houston, your mother in Michigan or your grandma, who bless her soul has passed on long before you wield her sweet Christmas buns each December. When are they really your sweet buns? When does the loyalty of invention seem to rest on your laurals?

This question of loyalty recently came to head when I was given what seemed at first as a just a bag of home made caramel corn. I must admit I do not have a compulsive sweet tooth that I need to keep in check, but what I was most taken by with this bag of salty sweet was how perfectly each kernel was coated. I examined the bag, put it up into the light and gently turned each piece to see any variation or trace of some blemished or burnt marks. But none were found. These observations occurred all before I had even opened the bag. And when I did, seriously, this could be claimed as Pandora's treat. I gently untied the ribbon and to find at first just a faint hint of sugar, enough as if to say, "just eat one, a sample per say." I ate one. And another. And as if I had been possessed but some sugar sultan, I couldn't stop. It was embarrassing. I was at work. And I was stuffing my face and probably making a lot of noise in the process. Soon I was not looking at each kernel as much as how much I could try to hold in my palm and stuff in my face without looking like I was a refugee displaced at a boulangerie.

As I noticed half of the bag was emptied in less than ten minutes, I turned to see if some whiff of cold air had come into the room and if I was going to be visited by something or someone who would demand I make some sort of life decision like keep eating the caramel corn or give up my first imaginary born child. It was at this point, I knew I had to do two things. One, share the rest of the "treat" with someone else and two, find out how to make it. Obviously, the first task was easy to do, but finding out the recipe was a bit more a challenge. The caramel corn was made by my boss, Cheryl. Now, I work at a non-profit natural health food store and frankly my boss is so modest that I am not sure she would even like to be called "my boss." She was once claimed (jokingly of course) as being "the ceasar of the grocery store", but that seems a bit totalitarian. I like to think of where I work as being a mini Sweden. Here, in our Sweden people are treated equally and fairly, most of the higher positions are run by women and even the furniture in the deli is a higher quality but similar Ikea design. My boss is a tall and willowed blond, who is fair and humane, so she's more like a prime minister if Sweden or The Good Food store were to have one.

I peered in Cheryl's office to see if she was busy and if I could get her recipe. Little did I know, that this caramel corn was usually made for the holidays and no, there was no amount of begging or flattering that was going to give me the recipe. Now you need to understand that I didn't leave the room and go back to scheduling cooking classes and hope whom I had shared the caramel corn with had more restraint than myself and might have left a few kernels. I stayed in Cheryl's office because I was incredibly curious about this recipe's history and more importantly, Cheryl's loyalty and her calm refusal to give me or anyone for that matter the recipe. Ever.

Cheryl told me her sister, Marsha, brought this recipe to her house one Christmas to make together as a sisterly gesture. For years after, Cheryl continued to make the caramel corn and claimed the fame and fabulousness to "Marsha in Helena". As the compliments came, Cheryl started to wonder, when is this Cheryl's caramel corn? Cheryl decided the logical step was to ask Marsha the time frame of recipe acknowledgment. The answer, simply Marsha stated, was three years. So as I sat in Cheryl's office still a bit rushed from sugar and curiosity, Cheryl in her sturdy and deliberate tone said, "Emily, people have even threatened to break into my house when they know I am not home to try and steal the recipe." I just nodded and said "whoa, that's serious." Yet in my mind, I could see someone dressed in black, searching through a drawer of recipes and a furrowed brow under a black hat change with intense relief in finally finding a fix to what may seem on the surface as just caramel corn. But really, it's caramel crack.

And so, you may have guessed it, I won't be including Cheryl of Missoula's caramel corn, but maybe for some of you the loyalty of recipes only needing three years will free you this coming holiday season. No longer will you feel entangled with explanations or the obligatory need to write long titles on your jars of coveted homemade pear butter first made by your Aunt Rita. Remember, if it has been longer than three years you can take claim, sit with pride, watch how that sweet potato and cumin side dish is yours and answer, "why yes, I did make this. Would you like my recipe?"

Today I give you a recipe that I have been working on for some time and I think I may be close to wanting to lay claim as mine. I am on the pursuit of crafting a tangy, but home-style mac and cheese and I think I found the combination. Of course, I first adapted it from Bon Appetit, but was mostly inspired by memories of eating something similar back in Portland, Oregon at Montage. I tell myself, I only have three years before I can change the title to Aunt Amelia's mac n cheese. Until then, I will lay claim to someone else, keep cooking and remain modest with this hot dish. Enjoy.

Northern Italian Macaroni and Cheese

6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 unbleached all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups Fontal, finely grated ( Fontal is like an elegant Monterey Jack as my good friend Cicelia says)
2 cups goat cheese, crumbled
2 cups Parmesan, grated
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Rainbow Chard
12 ounces macaroni
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1. Melt three tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat.
2. Add onions and saute until translucent, about five minutes.
3. Stir in garlic, then flour and stir constantly for one minute.
4. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook whisking occasionally, until mixture begins to boil, about five minutes.
5. Add cheeses and stir until cheese melt, about two minutes.
6. Stir in cayenne and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 13x9x2 inch baking dish.
8. Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about one minute.
9. Remove chard with slotted spoon and place in a colander and let chard cool.
10. Reserve pot with water and let it come to a boil and add macaroni.
11. Meanwhile squeeze water from chard and finely chop.
12. Cook macaroni until al dente, drain and stir macaroni in to warm cheese sauce.
13. Place half of macaroni in dish, smooth and layer chard.
14. Top with rest of macaroni and spread evenly.
15. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan and then drizzle over panko and mix well.
16. Spread breadcrumbs on top of macaroni and bake for 40 minutes.
17. Let stand for ten minutes and serve.

Yields: I would say at least six hunger people who can take a lot of cheese

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Autumn Garden

Cool mornings with frost and afternoons with slow sun have always meant one thing for me: sweater weather. Contrary to poetical history, autumn is not a season of melancholy for me. Quite the opposite for I find myself more awake and more capable of sitting at my desk for longer periods of time. Maybe I don't feel sadden by this season for the mere fact that unlike during the era of Yeats and Rilke, I have central heating and can throw a sweater on with the faintest hint of a chill and get to writing. Writing seems to make more sense this time of year for when the sun is shinning and warming the rivers, I feel guilty taping out my fingers to syllables in my head instead of swimming and putting my face to the sun.

Plus, I think it is too expected to be melancholy during the fall. If you only see the shades of trees rising like some phoenix to only fall in order to die, then perhaps your life may feel like you are walking in some battle field, some lone survivor on a sidewalk crowned by maple and oak. Yet this seems rather Victorian and indulgent. What if the leaves were reminding us more to merely let go? What if sugar maples find pride in their dark red October hues and wait until winds lets them move on, or leave (no pun intended).

Growing up surrounded by birch and maple forests, I had certain favorite fall trees. Trees that during the spring and summer seemed to just meld themselves into the mass of woods, but once autumn came the slow sense of change reminded me to take notice of each individual tree, as if each species offers a slightly different shade to the whole horizon. I like to watch time unfold itself in colors. As if slow moving waves reach their crest and then fall into sand, each tree peaks and then fades into just bare bark and limbs. Winter ready.

I haven't been to a more autumnal place than Poland. It wasn't the contrasts of color as much as it was the shades of gold that seemed to rise out of all the fields and cobblestone city gardens. Gold against brick or warn out grey blocked houses, gold in forests outlining smoke choked cities, gold in a single tree outside my class room window. And at night, the shades of rich yellow under lights illuminated streets and lightened shadows. It was a time of such light in what has been to easily seen as such a grey country.

The golden autumn of Poland wasn't just a time for trees, but also lovers. I recall public gardens being a common meeting place for dates. Some man wearing what sadly seemed like his dead uncle's suit with a long stemmed rose, would pace and run his thumbs under each fingers' nail, walking off nerves and anticipation. You see, when you live at your house (which often consisted of three rooms including the bathroom) with your entire family; physical space is an issue. So public gardens were open spaces waiting to be filled with couples entangled on park benches. PDA or public displays of affection in this context probably felt more private than stealing kisses over the kitchen table with your grandmother staring at you over a plate of boiled potatoes.

And so this poem I include today may not have autumn shades, but the autumnal flavor of rising from some fall. My favorite kind of love poem. Enjoy the leaves, the small reminders of learning to let go, and to embrace the season of sweater love.

In the Public Garden

Every gym class, Stevie Flowers pissed
his corduroys. He hated dodge ball,
stood in the corner or hid
from the bigger boys who broke
anything or anyone small.

He read Make Way For Ducklings
sat on his knees with Buddha's
slow smile. I knew even then
he would be the one who loved me.

I still remember the metallic
taste of the bat that summer
we played softball. He cupped my face
while my nose bled, told me later
he'd tape my glasses.

But later it was others who stood
outside my window, holding
a book of Yeats, fly open
with a half-drunk grin.
It's always a simple request
at first.

In the Boston Commons, I pause
at the ducklings in bronze, still
like the boy who read to me.
Somewhere there's a man
I'd never think to run from.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poet as Water

Recently, I saw a trailer for a film about John Keats' life. Or perhaps I should say, about his love life, which is much more film worthy than an hour and a half of someone coughing and sitting in a dank room in Rome trying to write poems. The irony of Keats being sent to the eternal city was that he arrived in January when all was wet with river and even the cobblestone streets under sun held ice all day long. I cannot tell you the cold I felt while living through two winters there and I certainly figured out how to say "bone cold" in Italian and purchased a coat that looked more like a sleeping bag with a fur collar to wear even in my apartment at night.

While I was teaching twelfth grade British English at the American School in Rome, I took a group of students to the Keats' House which overlooks the Spanish steps. We were taken on a tour by some overly-British Keats scholar who seemed to know the scent of the young poet's breath. While this scholar brought out artifacts and books, I couldn't help but notice how bored my students seemed. It's hard to convince a group of Italians that some meek man of 24 could contend with the likes of Virgil or Dante. They didn't even seem fazed by the fact that Keats was sent by his doctor to go to a Mediterranean climate, a respite from all the grey of England, only to find himself more ill-suited than ever while his more popular poet friends were off traveling in Greece and being Lord of something. Nope. Not even drama and death seemed to pique their interest. Not yet.

All the students acted sluggish and foot-heavy until we were lead into Keats' bedroom and shone his death mask. The students crowed the plaster and moved in closer. Finally a bit of curiosity filled the room while our tour guide's voice became a soft whisper. Keats had both a "life mask" and "death mask" and they were side by side each other under glass. Questions arose and suddenly I didn't feel like the outing was a complete loss. I stood in the back of the room, which is what you do as a teacher: you monitor and ask questions during the dull silences, feigning interest for everyone. But thankfully, everyone was engaged and I was silent. Trying to see over the heads of my students I couldn't identify which mask was which. I waited until everyone had left so I could get a closer look. No wrinkles, no lines, just lips and eyelids. Closed.

I'm not sure what I was expecting to see. As if images of death would be one of grief or anguish, but under the dusted glass of the case were two small faces of calm. As if they were just napping side by side; each other waiting for all the visitors and tour guide to leave them alone so they could wake up, look out onto the city and watch all the fashionable and beautiful people below.

We toured more of Keats' spots that day, including a cafe he used to frequent, and ended at his grave. We had another tour guide through the Protestant Cemetery and found Keats' tombstone with the inscription, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." It was the most decorated grave with fresh flowers and my students just kicked gravel around with their shoes and pulled out their cellphones from their pockets to check the time and for texts. I admonished one of my students, "Orlando, please get off your cellphone. It's a cemetery, you'll make all these dead people envious that you can talk and they can't." Maybe I didn't say that exactly, but it was usually humor I used with "disciplining" Orlando.

Orlando Miani stood at least six foot three, had a shaved head and large curled wooden earrings in both ears. Orlando was the kind of student that other teachers would say in passing, "Good luck with that one, Ms. Walter" and keep walking away. I had to meet with Orlando's father once. His father spoke of all the "bad things" Orlando had done in the past holding my eye contact as if looking for my compliance, looking like an overgrown child sitting in a student desk. His father appeared and acted more Germanic than Italian and perhaps was why Orlando stood as some Italian giant amongst the shorter Romans in his class. I cannot say Orlando become my favorite students, nor did I make some major breakthrough with him leading to some "after-school special" moment. And despite his father's catalog of horrors, Orlando pleasantly passed my class. But what happened that year which is far more impressive than passing was that Orlando understood Shakespeare.

I had decided not to teach Lady Macbeth as their textbooks had suggested that year, but Hamlet instead. My class of mostly twelfth grade boys, who were not in the AP English class and were most likely not going to Harvard or Oxford or even the voc-tech if Italy had one. These students were barely passing anything and not because they were ignorant -hardly the case, they were all just too busy enjoying life already, perhaps too experienced one might say. Such was the case with Orlando. While discussing Hamlet's need to do something and yet his inability to act on it. Orlando started talking. He didn't sit there and talk about his personal life or how Shakespeare made him feel, Orlando was both too cool and too private for that, but what he did say was that Shakespeare created this character of not acting to prod us, the audience to act. "It's as if he's (Shakespeare) giving us hindsight," Orlando just blurted out one day. Perhaps even surprising himself.

It's hard as a teacher sometimes not to jump up and down and scream, "yes, you crazy kids, yes you are finally thinking and not just feeling." I recall nodding, looking at Orlando and saying, "interesting point, does anyone want to expand on that idea of audience giving hindsight?" Yet privately, I knew Orlando was finally present in class. Privately, I wanted to tell him that he was right.

Later that year, I went to graduation and watched tall and bored Orlando collect his diploma and walk with his long gait off stage. I was getting ready to leave the courtyard after the ceremony and I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to be shadowed by smiling Orlando.

"Meez Walter, you are here. Thank you, really, you know you got me here."
"Oh, no Orlando, you got yourself here. We are all just players, just players Orlando, even me."
"Die Meez Walter, really thank you."
"You're welcome, Orlando" nodding I just didn't know how to even navigate hugging someone so big or so tall so I just smiled and walked away.

Had I had hindsight myself, I would have hugged him. I wished I had. Years later, I was informed by another student via a letter that Orlando had died in a car crash in London. He was only 22 and I believe going to art school.

I'm sure if you were to ask any of my former students from that twelfth grade class if they remember any lines from, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" or even our outing that fall day to follow Keats life, I'm almost sure they wouldn't. But I doubt any of them have forgotten the masks or if they have forgotten Orlando. I know I haven't. Nor have I ever written a poem about either. It is just too much. There are some things you don't put in poems, some things you let live as they are, without the encumbered task of being weighted by metaphors. For sometimes, we are capable of being and living in uncertainties. Sometimes we don't have hindsight, so we can ignorantly appreciate what we have, today.

Enjoy the poem.

Sweat Pants

Seattle swallows rain for a month
straight. Gutters fill, water parts in alleys
where men wrestle with cardboard boxes
and disappointment. A man waits
by the bus stop without an umbrella, exposed
when a few of us hunch under a store front, slickered
in rain jackets, while this man stand reading
without a coat, just a grayed Henley and a pair
of sweat pants. The sweats are blue, flap
at his calves. His socks hiked up, once white. None of talk
to one another, sulked in silence.
The man in sweats turns his paper, reaches
under his belly to scratch himself. Not a hesitant itch
or rub. A dig. He reads the Times and I wait
for something. A slight twitch, a nervous cough,
or shrug. Instead, for the first time in thirty-six days
I forget it's raining. I want to forget about everything,
expect for this man in sandals, who stands back
when the bus arrives, letting a mother and her child,
who's dressed like a lady bug, board first.
The squelch of tires pushes water onto curbs,
trucks grind back up. The girl turns and waves
to the man. He tucks his paper and waves back
with both hands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blogging Bombs

Perhaps it sounds oh so aptly convenient of me to say, I learned to cook about the same time I learned to write poetry. But I did. Yet, what wasn't convenient by any means for either pursuits was the location: Kielce, Poland. During my last year as an undergraduate, I had taken a class by professor Thylias Moss, who boldly titled her workshop, "Poetry that Matters." We were a "selected" group of students huddled around a small table like some boat that was sure to sink, while at the helm was a four foot eleven African American woman who stared us all down over her glasses if anything we wrote was considered fluff. How could we not write fluff? We were coddled. White. Isolated. Naive. Young. What could we possibly offer to the world of poetry?

Yet during that semester we read a book titled, Contemporary Eastern European Poetry which focused mostly on Polish poets and I was hooked. I don't think I really understood half of what I read. No, I am sure I didn't. But what I did know was this was poetry that didn't need a lot of show, ego or even gold-leafed edges. If poetry could be compared to furniture, Polish Poetry is like a Swedish couch. Upon first glance, one might say simple, subtle and good design upon first glance, but upon further study or sitting one begins to understand a lot of attention has gone into making something so modestly aware. So after a post-graduate course in teaching English as a Second Language and a trip to Poland in the middle of winter, I landed a job just 120 miles north of Krakow in Kielce, the knife city.

There is nothing in Kielce that would cause anyone to want to visit. No monuments, no castles, not even a walled city section left. There are rolling hills that surround the concrete industrial blocked town, but mostly Kielce is grey all year long. However, I had landed a job at a small British school and found myself teaching six year olds English via cassette tapes of sing-alongs with such phrases as "I can jump. Can you? I can skip. Can you?" Yes, I thought this was truly the beginning of a life of a serious poet.

Sure, I took Polish lessons twice a week and found myself slow to learn and practice with the shop clerks who smoked over muted colored vegetables at the market and addressed me with comments such as, " Cwzego" which means," What?" No, this wasn't your American in bountiful Europe or Julia Child in the post war streets of Paris. This was Poland and oddly enough, I found myself at a loss at being able to buy even groceries as much as I was at a loss to write poetry.

Needless to say, I found myself drinking more than writing and one evening having found myself with a small crowd of English speaking Poles at a bar, I met a young man by the name of Tomas Bomba, laughing I said, "your name is Tom the Bomb? what kind of post-war kid are you?" Not exactly the kindest thing to come out of my mouth. Luckily, Tomas had taught himself English by reading Henry James novels so even his insults sounded faintly like compliments. Also, I had read a bit of Henry James so I could muddle my way through his early 19th century English diction and also fumble an apology despite the potent vodka on my breath.

Thankfully, Tomas and I became friends and we both had Wednesdays off and decided to spend our midweek day collecting food and then cooking it in my closet of a kitchen. Tomas had picked up a Penguin edition of French Cooking in England while on his visit to his British girlfriend and this was our guidebook through the markets of Kielce. We made souffles, ragouts, and we even found a coconut once and made a delicious dish of chicken curry for my British roommate who had sworn off meat, yet when she came home and found the smells of the whole apartment drowning out the hint of vinegar of our apartment complex, she couldn't refuse. We'd make crepes with nothing but two bowls and a pan Tomas would borrow from his mother. Slowly my Polish did improve, but more importantly, I learned to shout back to the ladies at the market if they tried to give me a wilted bunch of beets. I started to forage not just for survival, but for pleasure.

I cannot say the same happened for my writing. Sure I could say, like Hemingway, I wrote about Europe in Michigan and wrote about Michigan in Europe. But really. I just didn't write at all while living in Poland. Really. This was the mid-nineties, the Velvet Revolution was still a visual memory for most of my friends and Tomas himself told stories of rations. Poland was still arguing to find itself part of Europe and not just The East. Internet cafes weren't like ATMs and I still paid for groceries with zloty. My contact to the outside world was via a staticed phone line plugged into a wall. No Facebook to post my days of collecting root vegetables, no blogging to write about how much I had witnessed now as an enlightened American abroad, no cellphone to text or send images quickly home.

And I'm glad. I'm glad I was forced to be present. Ironically enough as I write this on my blog now, I recall how before all this business of being connected, to text, to blog, to tweet, we had just one verb, to be. We had to just commit to be where we were. Regardless if you wanted to or not. Sometimes you had to just stand next to men who stunk of canned meat on a crowded bus, or to learn how to strike up conversations with others waiting to catch a train that might or might not arrive, to cook from a borrowed copy of French Cooking and to navigate yourself through an ugly city with nothing but your token ability to talk to strangers.

Neko Case states, "the most tender place in my heart is for strangers" in her song, Hold On, Hold On. And this is true for me too. It was true while I was living in Poland and even now as I am in Montana sending out these words read by friends, family and hopefully strangers, I believe in the importance of being present. Certainly this sounds vague and full of fluff and if Thylias Moss were to read this, I am sure she'd be looking at me over her glasses. But the simple act of being where you are and not trying to connect to someplace else is hard. It was hard for me and still is, but it is worth it. It is worth sometimes just sitting with what and who are really in front of you. Sure it sounds silly, but it is true. Being present is a simple and yet essential quality for writing poetry, for cooking and for being a good friend even to someone whom you might at first off have offended. And frankly, no matter where you live in the world, you still have to practice it.

This poem I share with you came from an evening of being stuck in a train station in the middle of winter in a town I don't even remember where, but I do recall stepping out to catch some air and from Yugoslavian smoke from the waiting room, to watch a woman repeatedly sweep iced sidewalks with a broom. I felt so alien and lost, but I had no cellphone, no one else to talk with and oddly enough I am grateful I had to be where I was. Hell, now I get to blog about it. Enjoy.

Stop Request

You wouldn't mistake your mother
for a woman who walks through glass
and sits beside your book.
So you pass the time and frame
the woman's face, the one who
isn't your mother. She's like a Budapest tram
ticket you carry in your wallet
next to the taste of oranges
shared by a boy whose name
you don't remember. You watch her hands
brush a bit of hair away from her brow while she opens
a can of beer. Not cheap beer either
and rinses her teeth. The warm yeast fills
the room like the smell of sex on cotton. She spits
on the floor. In that moment you love her
more than your own mother, who would never spit.
When you leave the room, she shouts
Happy New Year in German. And you believe her.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

WWJD or What Would Julia Do?

I'm not certain that WWJD ( What would Julia (Child) Do) would be as popular as the other acronym by the same name. Despite the fact that I claim Julia Child to be my personal saint in and out of the kitchen, I don't see France creating any sainted sculptures of her six foot frame with pearls around her neck by a fountain in Pairs; nor would we, in the US, start handing out plastic wristbands with WWJCD as reminders for patience with plucking, cleaning and preparing an entire chicken in less than twenty minutes. Probably not. As a poet, it's easy to over inflate the importance of another person, especially when they are dead and then played by Meryl Streep. Seriously, I could also include Meryl Steep to my personal muse list for who else can make Robert Redford swoon with a Danish accent, play a believable lesbian, sing ABBA in the Greek Isles and now take on the great cooking icon of Julia Child?

There are certain expected icons that you would expect a poet to hold with high regard such as John Keats, whose death mask still haunts me. Emily Dickinson, well, for obvious reasons, and of course my poet of highest regard, Jack Gilbert, the heartfelt recluse who seems to rise as some poetic phoenix genius with each book he publishes. But in regards to cooking, I have had few people affect me with the same sense of depth as Julia Child. Certainly, this is just as expected as me selecting Emily Dickinson; however, it wasn't until reading her book, My Life in France, did I have a new respect for her sense of humble curiosity and American determination to be more than just a housewife cook in post-war France. Yet she didn't start out wanting to be any sort of icon, all she wanted to do was feed her husband she loved so much while also learning to understand and appreciate the culture around her.

What struck me the most in the book came early on in a chapter titled, "Never Apologize." Again, growing up in the midwest, cooking and apologizing seem to go together as well as Campbell's mushroom soup and the word casserole. I cannot tell you how many houses I have been to when the person cooking placed a dish down and proceeded to tell everyone all that had gone wrong and then of course our response would usually began with, "It could be worse, we could not be eating... etc." But here's what Julia Child states in regard to this lack of cooking etiquette:

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When's ones hostess starts with self-deprecations such as, "Oh, I don't how to cook"....it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you are right, this really is an awful meal! ...Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile---and learn from her mistakes. (pg. 77)

This was so enlightening for me to read. Finally, I had a reason to understand why a litany of apologies is so gauche after you have served another even if it is your husband who you know would truly would be happy if you just served him toast. But there is more to this paragraph that spoke to me. The end of this passage speaks to the responsibility of the cook to learn from their mistakes and not accept others to cover them with inflated comments to cover up the fact even if the food is truly vile. For me, this passage states the importance of three things, be accountable for your actions, don't apologize for being human, and above all smile. As if we can understand that if something is truly bad that we've made, we can keep it to ourselves and learn from it and above all, keep smiling. In other words, we need to not only find our inner Julia Child but also inner Sisyphus in the kitchen, Camus' version that is.

For me, I feel I was born apologizing. No, my first word wasn't sorry or forgive me, but "hot". I cannot deconstruct any greater meaning than I am sensitive to temperatures. But as for the apologizing, I am guilty of wanting to learn sorry first in every language I have learned to speak to ensure the fact that in case I blundered, I could gracefully and correctly apologize. Frankly, sorry seems to be something I have trained myself to believe I almost always am, so reading this passage about one of my favorite passions, cooking, as well as one of my not so favorite habits, apologizing, I somehow felt absolved. Reading Julia Child's honest and ego-less diary of her own transformation helped me to start to rid myself of my midwest guilt in cooking but also just for sometimes, just being born. But more importantly, Child states the need to move on and correctly learn whatever you've blundered for next time.

This approach to life, not to apologize, choose to laugh and keep smiling wasn't first introduced via Julia Child, but from my aunt Carol. My aunt Carol could have been European or Europeanly influenced for she wasn't afraid to wear fur, have a year round sun tan and would at most family gatherings laugh in her tall slim frame drowning out the heaviness of our grandparents' expectations. My aunt Carol also did something that I would like to think Julia Child did well, listen intently. Each visit to our house in the North aunt Carol would bring each of us three kids a book always wrapped in purple paper from the bookstore where she worked. Also with each visit, Carol would sit with each of us, individually, and ask us about our lives, our thoughts and always what we were reading.

I loved it when it was my turn on the couch. Perhaps if you are born with an innate sense of being sorry, therapy comes easily. But Carol didn't analyze us or evaluate us, no, she just listened. Sure, she had traveled to distant cities and seemed more stylish and younger with each visit. But I don't think I could tell you all where she has been because she didn't waltz into our home listing all the fabulousness of her life. No, Carol wanted to know what I thought about the The Island of Blue Dolphins, asked me about my thoughts on Holden Caulfield and what I got out of Steinbeck at age 13. Sure, again, I can glorify someone in memory, but really for me, Carol was one of the first women I knew who decided to choose joy in the face of adversity, and also prefered to listen to children and think we had something worthy of saying. Also, I saw Carol as someone who regardless of mistakes or blunders, could chose joy. Carol, despite divorce and adversity, still chooses joy. And finally, I don't recall ever hearing her apologize either.

Besides being my aunt who really listened, she is also a very good cook. There are numerous recipes I could choose from to show my gratitude, but this berry bread recipe seems to say it all. It is comfort Carol food. It's bread that seems to listen to you and your stomach's need to be fed. It's bread you want to eat while you have your morning coffee or make it for a friend who you want to sit and chat with, take it to a book club or just make it for your husband and watch him eat the entire loaf with a whole stick of butter in one sitting. Again, I am lucky that my husband is happy even if I make him toast, but here's a type of toast you can make and never find yourself apologizing over. Ever. Enjoy.

Carol usually makes this with strawberries, but any berry at the moment would do such as huckleberries, thimbleberries or blueberries.

Carol Murray's Berry Bread

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs, separate yolks and whites
1 cup of berries, fresh
2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Grease a 9" by 12" bread loaf pan.
3. Mix butter and sugar and blend until creamed.
4. Add almond extract and egg yolks, one at a time, blend.
5. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
6. Add half flour mixture and half of strawberries to cream mixture and mix well.
7. Add the rest of flour and then strawberries and mix well again.
8. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and then blend in berry cream mixture.
9. Place in bread loaf pan and bake for one hour.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Even Virgil Slam Dances, Sometimes.

Slam dancing has been a family affair. Seriously. I don't recall the first time I slam danced with my brother or if I just watched for years and then followed suit, bouncing up to his armpit while London Calling was playing, slamming to the line, "should I stay or should I go now." Call it the myth of the older brother, call it growing up in the early eighties or just call it what happens when sensitive people are tired of being so sensitive and they need a release. Really, slam dancing is perhaps some poets' favorite secret pastime from all those, well, from all those feelings.

I remember once someone telling my husband after they heard I was a poet, "wow, I bet she has a lot of feelings." And I do. Thankfully for me though, I grew up with men who do also. My father once told me, "Emily if you feel like crying, cry because well, not crying gives you headaches." My brother, a mechanical engineer, also has a very pragmatic approach to emotions. He just has them openly and we, my brother and I, have always shown them openly to each other. I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have made to my brother from where ever I have lived and while I ranted on, he would listen, be patient and always say something far more insightful than my winded over-talked analysis. We've been close growing up and even now as adults, so he knows talking to me can take some time. And thankfully he always seems to have time. Thankfully too, I've grown up a bit and hopefully listen more. Now, we mostly find hours to chat on Sunday mornings via the phone and during the week we send each other random videos of music we love or you tube clips we cannot stop laughing from.

Yet when my brother was in high school, I was in elementary school and he seemed, well, old. But during the summers, we were friends again. Growing up surrounded by cherry orchards, every summer brought two harvests: tarts and sweets. If you wanted to go to college or be able to buy records and maybe even a bike, most kids worked their summer away to the odd hours of cherry harvesting. There were usually two shifts, midnight to noon or noon to midnight. My brother started pulling tarp and then graduated to tractor driving and when he'd come home he'd fill the house with the scent of sulfur and sweat, never sweet hints of cherries, just labor. In between harvests, the crew would usually have time off to just chill and thankfully, for my brother, the harvest crew consisted of most of his friends. When it was down time for them, it was for me, fun time.

My brother is seven years older and could seriously be claimed the greatest influence in my life in regards to music, and for kids growing up in the middle of nowhere, music made you feel somewhere. The summer when my brother was 16, my cousin Eric came out from Baltimore to work cherries and being nine years old and held up at home with books and an occasional sleep over, summers felt long. But not that summer. That summer my brother let me tag along everywhere with him. One night we loaded up in the Horizon (my brother, Eric, me and my friend, Erin Sweeny) headed in to Suttons Bay to eat pizza at the Hose House. My brother drove and the radio blared, "I'm your Venus" by Bananarama while we all misquoted the lyrics, yelling out the windows to nothing but rows of trees and humid summer skies. I recall while we were driving along the road, my brother, without hesitation just drove off into an orchard and he took that horizon through the rows of cherries and then down onto a tractor road and then back onto the pavement without even blinking. Erin and I, seat belted in the back, laughed while being slightly afraid all at the same time.

And my brother was like that. He would be so mellow and calm and then suddenly some surge of energy would come over him and he'd do something so reckless and wild, which is probably why slam dancing made so much sense to him. Maybe it isn't the aggression as much as it is the music that makes my brother so amped up. Maybe growing up on Donnybrook (our road my parents still live on) has something to do with it too. Or maybe if you're sensitive, this world seems to understand bold acts of energy more so than quiet displays of introspection.

My brother would get quiet, really quiet. I'd sometimes find him in his room, all dark and a slight volume of Morrissey playing in the distance. Sometimes, I knocked on his door, and always he'd let me in. We'd listen for hours together and ask each other questions about lyrics from U2 or Peter Gabriel and he'd say, "listen to this Emily, what do you think it means?" And he already had an idea, but he'd ask me and would really listen to what I thought. I recall feeling nervous sometimes as if I might not fully understand or be able to analyze some lyric, but Chris would keep asking me questions, keep helping me feel more like an intelligent equal, than some tag along. Sometimes we'd talk about life on Donnybrook, our family, our grandparents or aunts or uncles as if we would have each other as witnesses to make sense of our experience all while Sinead O'Connor would sing in the background from "The Lion and the Cobra".

Other times we would talk about depression. One time my brother told me about being young and feeling the weight of depression come over him and the odd fact he told me, "I remember liking it Emily and liking the darkness was what scared me the most." Sure, we both love Harold and Maude, The Smiths, we would share novels like The Brothers K and The River Why and sometimes find ourselves on the phone asking each other questions again, about the odd loneliness of being in a crowd, our love of traveling and searching instead of being still. But through time, experience and probably each of us growing up, we can now return to music again. We can share soundtracks from our individual lives and remind each other to not be afraid of the darkness. We both know it is there, but we don't have to be dark, anymore. We can walk away from all the weight of our past or who we once were and remind each other we will always be there in music even in a quiet dark house. There is always sound and light, somewhere.

And really, I like to think of my brother as my Virgil, a slightly taller and smarter version of myself who has been a voice and hand of reason for me. Sure, there are a lot of terms for big brothers, like bully or being over-protective and, don't get me wrong, my brother has been both. From dislocating my arm twice from politely shunning me from bad boys, my brother has been the typical older brother, but what I feel grateful for is that he has been an atypical guide and role model. It's as if my brother decided to close the door on all that Morrissey and The Smiths of our youth and has moved beyond the darkness and to listen more to Talking Head's "Pulled Up" but he knows when to pull out Leonard Cohen when needed.

This past week I was in Michigan visiting family, my sister's family and my brother and his wife's new baby girl, Wren. While we were all home, we (the three siblings and spouses) went to the Traverse City Film Festival and watched "Winnebago Man." While The Dead Kennedys were singing "Winnebago Warriors" in the beginning of the film my brother shouted out the lyrics. People turned around slowly and stared. But my brother just keep singing along as if he were slam dancing in the dark against people seated comfortably eating popcorn. I loved it. I loved hearing him and his earnest energy of angst come alive again. I felt oddly proud of my brother not to lose that gift of making people feel awkward by someone simply expressing themselves and sure enough, that was what the movie was about. Winnebago Man is about how a man spent one summer making Winnebago ads in the muggy heat of Iowa and how the camera caught him swearing on all of the out takes, which later become a Youtube craze where people find pleasure in someone else's anger. But it was about a lot more than that.

And so is my brother--a lot more than just someone who likes to slam dance and take his shirt off and mow the yard while listening to Van Halen. He's a lot more than just an engineer, a big brother, a mountain biker, a son. He's now a husband and father and he will always be the one who first taught me to really listen to lyrics and to try and make sense of them. Really, he taught me to be a poet. But to be a poet not attracted to or in love with darkness only, but to recognize that it is there, but to believe in light. The lightness of being in all of us and that we all have music. So we can sing, our "bittersweet symphony" (The Verve) to get close enough to "sound and vision" (David Bowie). To get close, enough.

Scrabble in the Hospital

Jet or zip will give you a higher score
than death or meadow. Even zoo
is greater than grief. Axe on a double word
will always be more points than embrace.
Our language in tiles can be separated
by vowels, but our bodies cannot speak
the sounds of the word for a baby born
without breath. There aren’t enough letters
for this loss. There are no words
for this color. And when they told me
of how you held your baby girl,
Ariel, I didn’t think of the sprite
on an island or the book of poems
which rests on my night stand.
I thought of your hands
around a blanket of a body
born cold in a room shaded pink.
The same pink of your cheeks in February
on frozen lakes when you’d tell of trout
in their slow sleep. And now your slow voice
staticed and wintered in a phone line
tells me of joy, the stubborn happiness
in loving what cannot live. Knowing
we couldn’t ever spell or keep score
of the light of each star, but we have the word
sky, elephant, and hope . To get close

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Upper West Side Grace

The first time I saw New York City, I cried. I was fifteen, awkward and so fully aware of my awkwardness that I just kept quiet hoping it might not be so obvious as I sat on a bus filled with mothers and daughters headed up from Baltimore, Maryland for a weekend in "the city." Perhaps this seems melodramatic to cry from a view, but call it feeling overwhelmed by anticipation. As I sat under a dark hue of grey clouds and night skies on a coach weaving into light, I remember the city seemed to move like the moon--chasing me in the reflection of the window. It was my cousin's private school's yearly outing to go on a mother/daughter visit to NYC before Christmas and thankfully my mother and I got to tag along all the way from the Midwest.

As a girl growing up in the middle of nowhere in the middle of this country, you learn that frankly, you are in the middle. This is a good thing. You learn that there is always somewhere else that people are trying to live, wanting to live in order to tell themselves they are somewhere and when they leave their middle town they can "finally be somebody." Or tell themselves so. City names become more like identities, I myself am very guilty of this. At times I've said with pride I lived in Rome, and other times I sound like some pretentious privileged wannabe I myself would roll my eyes at. Yet as a child, I remember reading Madeline books and staring more at the city pretty women, then the twelve girls in two straight lines in Paris. I recall being older and reading about girls growing up in the Upper East Side of New York and taking elevators out of their homes and cabs to school and I would dream at night in the quiet of orchards of sidewalks and city parks. Long before I traveled outside of even Michigan, I would say distant city names: Paris, Warsaw, Prague and Florence as if they were fiction, as if they were some kind of distant gods I wanted to worship or at least live under.

And that first night I saw New York, it was the mere fact that the fiction of a city I had visited in my mind was becoming real. This is what made me cry. No, I wasn't afraid which may sound like a lie coming from someone who hadn't ever been to a city larger than Lansing. From that bus window, New York was a backdrop that I had nothing to compare to, nothing to identify as familiar and yet I knew I liked it immediately. I liked how it did seem to move from a distance and even closer in the city it was in constant motion with buildings towering over water and forgetting about anything wild.

As the bus dropped us off at our hotel, I was immediately hit by city-heavy cold air, the orange glow overhead, the wreathed sky scrapers and I recall forging for some scent of Christmas in all the concrete. It was mid-December and what I did notice women were in fur vests and matching hats and a frank resistant to showing any sense of being cold. I'd love to tell you all that we did from Radio City Music Hall to Central Park, but frankly I don't remember. What I do remember are the clothes and the fashionable fast moving New Yorkers moving just as their city did from a distance. The speed of the women rushing in their importance who seemed to me catalog fresh, and frankly, Vogue worthy.

My previous exposure to fashion had been through reading Vogue at the local library and taking home back issues and trying to mimic outfits. Granted, I was in fourth grade at this time and had a healthy supply of OP pants and turtlenecks. Actually, I think I may have still been wearing Oskosh overalls and of course very thick glasses. I recall one outfit post-Desperately Seeking Susan Madonna consisting of bangles and a headband of lace. I overheard my sister that morning commenting to my mother about my assembled Madonna wanna outfit. As I came to breakfast with my still round belly and elastic pants shadowed by my twelve bangles on each arm my sister said, "you can't let her wear this to school, she looks ridiculous." And yet thankfully, my mother did let me even though I did look ridiculous. No, I didn't take it to the child-whore like a virgin state ever but I would like to think this was my first attempt at merging preppy and punk or maybe geek and goth. Regardless, in fourth grade I thought I would stand out. I'm sure I did.

Thankfully, my mother let me go through other tragic fashion phases and also she thankfully required that I buy my own clothes. So on that trip to New York City, I purchased a head band from Laura Ashley and sadly lost it two days later in a cab. My mother also taught me a lot about sensible style long before our first trip to NYC. I used get up and talk with her in the mornings before she would go to work as a nurse at our local doctor's office. She'd be getting dressed and say, "Talk to me Emily while I get ready." And I would. I would tell her about school, ramble on about something that worried me while my mother would transform herself from bathrobe to beautiful. My mother always looked and still looks attractive even in her uniform. During one of those mornings she told me her personal philosophy of style with clear authority: "Emily, there are three very important things to your sense of style that hardly cost you anything. Number one, always wear clothes that fit you, your body size and shape. Number two, always shower, nothing is more unattractive than someone who looks sloppy and smells. (she'd laugh at this point.) And three, always make sure you have a good hair cut."

I'd like to think these maxims are universally shared and honored for their simplicity, but I want to give my mother credit due to the fact that from a very early age she made her own clothes, took hand-me-downs from more stylish and wealthy aunts who lived in cities, but my mother always had something else. This is something that my husband's grandmother, Doddie also says, "a woman needs a sense of P-R-I-D-E." Yes, Doddie still spells this out each time she says it. This sense of pride is something that I am still developing. Due to a long phase of all black and only jeans and shorn short hair for years, I am still trying to discover my own sense of style. Basically, it took me years of watching old women in foreign countries and in America who would never be caught dead in elastic waist anything, especially sweat pants to really understand style is something you create, not buy, for yourself.

The elegant Roman signoras each day leaving their homes with high heels and stylish sunglasses carting their sometimes dated but always matching handbag have been my greatest teachers. No, it wasn't the women I'd watch slowly extending their long legs out of Ferraris on side streets in Rome, nor the city skinny women of Paris, not even the Eastern European heighted women smoking in cafes who moved as slow and as elegant as silk on skin helped me see style might be in what you put on, but beauty is how you carry yourself in your clothes regardless of age. Roman women taught me that even in age, sun damage and years of living under even a dictator of Mussolini couldn't take away their pride in asserting their beauty. For me, it took two years of waiting at my bus stop before going to school early in a Roman morning, Italy early like 8:30am, to see how women asserted their stylish beauty regardless of gravity or age. I recall when watching one woman barely able to board a bus clowned with her huge Gucci sunglasses and teetering her last days in high heels, I wasn't laughing, but longing. Longing for this kind of stubborn belief in yourself regardless of age or wrinkles.

So I've added another maxim to my mother's sensible sense of style: Beauty is an act of grace. Attractiveness is not youth, labels or even attitude, but something subtle and well, sublime that causes people to pause. Grace is defined as effortless beauty that I believe emanates by confidence. This isn't ego confidence or some kind of feminist edge, asserted over other women, but joy, pure joy in doing what you love and selflessly sharing this passion with others. This joy is an action, say, in making a pie for your family, riding your horse until you are 70, playing tennis into your 80's, looking sexy at 50 or just putting on your best dress at 95 for your birthday. But really it is the joy in still being present and part of this world, not aging into some sweat suit and cropped permed hair, that gives some women gracefulness.

Let me explain. This past spring Greg and I spent some time in New York City to visit friends and to get a city fix of food and to wander together for the first time in a big city as married people. We had such a good time eating cupcakes from Magnolia, an epic burger and fried pig's ear at the Spotted Pig to just loving any random deli sandwich we could find and of course watching beautiful people busily go by.

One morning, Greg had said he wanted to check out a bakery on the Upper West Side which was owned by his brother's college girlfriend's mother. Frankly, I heard Upper West Side and Bakery and that was all I needed to know to hop on the subway to find it. It was sunny and a perfect day to sit in Central Park and well, eat or ponder just how pretentious Paul Simon's lyrics are. As we walked along the sidewalk on the Upper West side headed towards 107 West 70th to Soutine, the bakery, the streets were quiet and bare. The only echo of sound was coming from a lone songbird hiding in the green of a city tree.

That morning as we entered the sweet of the bakery, Greg walked up with the air of confidence and introduced himself to a woman seated behind the counter. She was tallish with a pink stiff dress shirt, a white apron and a matching pink scarf tied around her salt and pepper bobbed hair. I recall smiling and saying nothing but watching her face change as she heard Greg's name. Now smiling she said, "Now that's a name I haven't heard in awhile" as she stood up and moved towards us. I remember watching her hands, her artist hands, for on the subway Greg had told me how Madge Rosenberg had recipes in the Joy of Cooking and how her bakery was famous for wedding cakes. Hands seem important to me as a cook, a writer, a woman and seem to show a person's history as if hands are like some still life attached to each of us. Madge had beautiful hands and she spoke with such clear and steady diction, never rushed, never forceful, just a slow ease of elegance as she filled white bags with sandwiches and fresh berry tarts. She spoke of losing her husband, her three grandchildren, her life in New York alone for the first time while I listened and stood slightly on the side. I just stood back and stared at the birthday candles in packages with a slight covering of dust and overheard Spanish coming from the back of the bakery.

As Greg and Madge were speaking, a group of ladies came in for their order of sandwiches and brownies. These women were part of the Garden Club of America meeting just down the street and stopping by Soutine to pick up their lunch. I noticed one of the woman's sweater had rhinestones spelling out Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Sheboygan. I couldn't resist. I said, "Are you from Sheboygan by chance?" Smiling she said yes and I told her of Michigan and living across the lake, growing up in a village called Suttons Bay. While speaking with this woman, Greg told Madge of my job and I fumbled into their conversation stating how cooking has really merged from my private passion into a job I really adore. She laughed and said, "You know, I never even cooked before I went to Italy. Before that, I just liked to eat. I was in college and I just decided I wanted to learn how to cook and how to bake." I'm not sure why this statement triggered something deep inside of me, but it did. Again, there I was in New York wanting to cry. How pathetic right? Here I go again, being overwhelmed. But as I spoke with Madge, I thought for some brief moment, I could take this feeling or being overwhelmed or intimidated and transform all this awkwardness into grace. I could carry myself like Madge even if I was as old as her daughter, I could resist the ego driven sense of myself. I could stand with a slow calm and say without feeling pretentious that, "I lived in Italy and it humbled and grounded me, while also teaching me to want to be beautiful. Because it did. It gave me the chance to see women who have a stubborn pride and hope in themselves who also seem to be taught as I was that there is beauty feeding others.

As we stood there, I started to pull out my wallet to pay and Madge who just shook her head and in a quiet voice said, "just put that away, Emily." Our bags were full and as we were ready to walk away and say good-bye, Madge said slowly, "wait." She walked back into the kitchen which I couldn't help but peering into, where there was a tray of brownies still warm in the pan. Madge carefully selected a few and put them into yet another white sack. She smiled at me as she extended her arm full of brownies, "these broke" shrugging her shoulder, "enjoy Emily keep cooking," she said holding my eyes with her eyes and smiling fully.

Greg and I walked loaded with food and silently headed towards the green tips of Central Park, passing the Botanical ladies and saying hello again, we kept walking in silence. As we found a place along a small pond to sit and eat our sandwiches, I said to Greg. "I feel like we were just in the presence of someone so beautiful, so present and I cannot explain why I feel like crying." Greg nodded and thankfully he didn't joke about how sweeping of a comment I had just made, he himself was about to cry. He just smiled a slow smile nodding his head while steadily holding my eyes. As we pulled out our baguettes of ham and cheese carefully wrapped in holed plastic, we couldn't stop talking about how Madge had remembered so many details of Greg's family, a visit with Greg's parents and how Madge almost cried herself when she told Greg how sorry she was to hear of Greg's dad's death. Almost finishing our sandwiches, I put my nose into the still warm bag of brownies and said, " I don't think you can make beautiful food without being beautiful yourself." Again, a silly broad generalization, I guess I haven't fully learned the ability to be quiet and graceful yet. As we sat on rocks watching young Koreans practice a wedding, a Russian couple sat slowly in a row boat, and the Majestic seemed to almost hang in the perfectly sunny sky above our view, we ate those brownies and every last crumb in silence watching other couples lose themselves to the midday afternoon in the city park. As if all of us gathered to find a place to slow ourselves down.

Thankfully, Greg and I wrote to Madge to thank her for everything and of course I asked her for her brownie recipe. I want to share it with you so you too can make the simplest of desserts an act of beauty. Remember folks, this is a person who has been in the Joy of Cooking, so this is the real deal. I feel so honored to have met her. Enjoy.

Madge's Brownies

8 ounces semi sweet chocolate
2 ounces milk chocolate
1/2 pound sweet butter
1 3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 large eggs or 4 jumbo eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9"x 12"x 1 1/2" pan.
2. Melt chocolates and butter over double boiler or in microwave.
3. Beat sugars and eggs, vanilla very well.
4. Beat chocolate mixture into eggs and beat until well combined and color lightens a little.
(Do not over beat or brownies will be crusty).
5. Mix flour, salt, baking powder and nuts into chocolate just until everything is well combined.
6. Spread batter in pan and bake for 40 or maybe less, check at 30 minutes.

Yields: 12 brownies and can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated and kept for three to five days.