Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Storms and Other Forces of Nature

I'm sitting on my back porch and a late-afternoon storm is rolling in. The sky is growing dark and the pecans and Bradford pear trees in my back yard are rustling their skirts in the wind. The calla lilies and the wisteria are shimmying and shaking like Tina Turner. Then...stillness and quiet.

It's funny how although I love a storm, the approach of one sets off small alarm bells in my belly and I share that with my boxer dog, Pearl. She is deathly afraid of a storm although the small dogs don't seem to notice the weather at all, except to avoid going out in the rain to poop and pee. I have taken lately to giving them all "thunder treats" when electricity starts to crackle and roll across the sky, coming from some great distance on its way to here. I am hoping to associate the sound of the thunder for Pearl with the taste of something good- in today's case, a bite of leftover hamburger from Saturday's grilling. I doubt this will really work, but I'm trying.

I was never afraid of bad weather until I was fifteen. I was at a camp in North Carolina when a huge storm came through and lightening hit the wall of the cabin I was sitting in. I and my cabin mates were fine, but a counselor in another cabin was crying out that she'd been hit, that she was burned, that she needed help. I took off down the steep, rocky path to get help under a black sky that was spitting lightening all around me, rain was pouring down and the thunder was deafening. I knew I was in real danger and I did pray for safety, but even at the age of fifteen I had a strong feeling that God, if He did exist, was not really watching out for one fifteen-year-old girl.

All turned out well. The counselor was mostly just scared, and we all lived to tell about it, although the wall of our cabin bore a scorch mark for the rest of the summer to demonstrate what nature could do when she took a mind to it.

I'm sure that's where the little niggle of alarm comes from when a storm is approaching. Well, that and the fourteen or so hurricanes I've lived through and oh yes, that time we were on the boat and a storm came up...

But the bottom line is that I lived through every one of these experiences. And it amazes me that the lesson I've taken away from them isn't "Oh, this is so exciting! Another adventure to live through and remember!" but "Shit. Another opportunity for death or dismemberment." It takes everything in me not to call each and every family member I have to make sure they're in a safe place and are all aware that a storm is coming through.

But I think that's my nature. I am a worrier and a brooder and a glass-is-half-empty kind of girl. I have tried so hard to learn not to be this sort of person. I know that it's the optimistic, swing-with-the-wind, adapt-to-changes sort of person who lives to be a hundred. So far though, it hasn't happened. As with Pearl, I continue to work on it.

And the really good thing is that even though I get buzzed (and not in a good way) when a storm comes through, I can still enjoy it. I can still enjoy the power of it and the relief of it and the way the air changes and the birds welcome it with chitter, and the frogs call it with croaks and I love feeling cozy and safe in my house, observing it all.

And it's good to remember that when other types of storms come through my life, my heart, this crazy brain of mine. I can respect the power of my feelings and of the situations, even as I grow anxious and worried. I can remember that I have lived through these sorts of things before and most likely will again.

The storm will pass, the air will be all the fresher for having been rinsed with rain and cleansed with ozone, and the trees will have had their thirst slaked. All of my children will be safe, and the sky will quite miraculously turn blue again.

The thunder is beginning to rumble now and Pearl is huddled at my feet. The goats and chickens and the turkey who all live next door are silent, waiting for the party to truly begin. And I can feel the oak trees yearning for the clouds to open and pour their water out, to soak the ground around them.

I have prayed for these storms. I have ranted and raved for these storms. I have craved their arrival for months and months. Now they are here and how can I be anything but grateful? They are life and without them, we would perish.

I suppose the same can be said for those tumultuous occasions that we all go through. They must have purpose in our lives and a positive purpose, too.

At least that's what I try to tell myself. At least that's what I try to believe.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Dreaming Life in Late July

Sitting in my office in the afternoon heat
A fan blows air my way
It's noisy, but can't compete
With the chirring of the crickets outside
Trying to stir up the storm they think is coming.
The day before my birthday
It's Sue's birthday today,
That bucktoothed girl, gone to Heaven.
I work beneath a small statue of the Virgin
Some of Sue's ashes wrapped up and tucked away
In the little votive below it.
I think of her today and miss her terribly
My birthday twin
My sad friend
But I know she's fine
Where she is.
My boxer dog sleeps right in front of the fan
And has a dream that makes her growl and make
Small, strange barking noises
My other dog, disturbed, gets up and goes to
Pearl to investigate.
"She's dreaming," I tell him,
"She's okay."
I look around at all of this
This life, this dream of my own.
And suddenly, for no reason,
Here in the late afternoon heat
Of the last part of July
Under the bruised gray sky
I am too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

They Say It's Your Birthday

There's a myth out there that aging is not for wimps.
Not true.
We wimps do age. We just bitch about it more.
I'm about to have a birthday and I'm having a lot of ambivalence about it. It's not the fact that I'm turning fifty-three. Hell, how much worse is that than fifty-two? Not a whole lot. And how much better is it than fifty-four? I guess we'll see. But frankly, fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four- they all sound really tired to me. Boringish birthdays, wouldn't you say? What's to celebrate?
I have a good friend who always loved to celebrate her birthday. She was of the opinion that her life had positively impacted a lot of people and that it was a fine thing for those people to get together with her and celebrate that life on her birthday. She was right and always had huge parties with lots of friends who agreed with her.
But when it comes to me, celebrating my birthday, I have some real issues. And this year, they seem to be getting out of hand, making me sort of crazy.
Last year, I had a fabulous birthday. I got on the road the day before my birthday and drove down to Tampa where I met up with my best friends from nursing school. Back in the mid-eighties, we four women were tight. You have to have good friends in nursing school to get you through it. We studied together, partied together, cried together, laughed together. No one but someone who's been through it can understand what a summer of clinical experience at Chattahoochee State Hospital is like. It's a bonding experience- nursing school.
But we'd gone our separate ways and this was going to be our first coming together in years and years. Between us, we'd had eight children since we graduated and one of us was pregnant. Not me!
We had a wonderful little reunion and it was great to catch up. I was the only one who didn't bring kids, though, and I felt a bit old and a lot happy to have gotten through the years of child-raising that all my friends were still firmly involved with. And when I left, the next day, on my birthday, it felt like I was driving away from all responsibility and care. I drove across the state to Roseland, the little town where I spent my childhood and which I blogged about earlier. It was an incredibly beautiful drive, and it was with true happiness that I sat on the dock over the river the night of my birthday and watched the sun go down. I spent almost a week there, eating what I wanted to eat, going where I wanted to go, having adventures on my own, writing for hours every day, taking care of no one but me. Any mother knows what I'm talking about here.
And that was just a great birthday. I celebrated me and it was perfect.
I should have remembered that for this year, and it's not like I didn't, but I just felt like for some reason, I shouldn't go off this year. We've got a trip planned for next month with all the kids to go down to Weeki Wachee Springs where we're going to meet up with my nursing school buddies again and that's going to be swell. And my husband and I were just in Roseland last month for his birthday.
So what do I want to do for this one?
Everyone keeps asking me. Kids, husband. A precious girlfriend called me and asked me if I'd like her to cook a meal for me, have everyone over to her house. That was a gift in and of itself.
But I'm so weird about all of this.
I love getting presents and having a fuss made over me as much as the next person. BUT, I don't.
I get very uncomfortable when given presents, and despite the fact that I've given literally hundreds of birthday parties for my own family alone, when it comes time for my birthday, I just get all Old Jewish Mother and martyrly. No fusses for me, please! I don't need a cake. I don't want anything. I don't need a thing in this world.
And yet, if no one makes a fuss, I get hurt. I know this is crazy. No one needs to point this fact out to me.
And I'm trying to figure out why.
I keep thinking about how I used to go out with another dear friend on her birthday, which was the day before mine. We'd go out on her birthday and come home on mine. We'd have dinner, go listen to some music, have some drinks, dance, laugh, and give each other our presents.
She's dead now. Died fifteen years ago and I miss her every day and when her birthday comes around, I miss her bad. So there's that.
And my friend who believed that her life was worth celebrating? She's in a nursing home, suffering from a horrendous neurological disorder that makes it almost impossible to take her out, much less throw a big wingding for her. And all those friends? They never come visit her. So there she is, her fifties passing her by as she spends her days sitting in the hallway of a nursing home, unable to communicate or do one damn thing for herself. She can't even turn on her CD player, put a little Beatles in to dance to.
And all of this should make me realize how precious the years are, make me want to celebrate them.
Somehow, though, I just mostly get sad.
And since I'm a wimp, I bitch about it.
And I have no idea what I want to do for my birthday. Today it feels like I want to dig a hole and crawl into it.
I hope I feel differently by Saturday, I truly do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Little Confusing

I am also blogging on the website Slow Food Tallahassee Talks.
I had thought to copy and paste the blogs here on my site, too, but let's face it- I have been discussing food a bit too often as it is. So if you want to read a blog I wrote about fig preserves, please go there and check it out.
Meanwhile, it's time to start doing that rain dance again. I'm sure you've noticed. That's all I'll say about that now because we've beat that horse to death, too.
But really- could we just get some REAL rain?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kool Beanz, Open for Business

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Kool Beanz at all. I am not related to any employees there. I have no financial interest in the restaurant.

Unless you are speaking of wishing I had more finances to eat there more often.

The husband and I rarely go out for meals any more. We used to go out every Friday night, come rain, shine, or hurricane conditions. But we live farther from town now and it's just easier to stay home, throw something together to eat, have a drink on the porch, and enjoy what we have right here.

So when we do go out to eat, it is a real occasion and frankly, the food better be killer.

Which is why we always go to Kool Beanz Cafe. Almost always. Sometimes we drive down to the coast, but that's not really for the food. That's for atmosphere and adventure.

For food, for a really good meal that's worth leaving home for, my money is (quite literally) on Kool Beanz. (By the way, I really don't like that name, but what can you do?)

The restaurant was shut down about six weeks ago due to a fire in the kitchen and during that time, we went out to eat only once in Tallahassee and it was a grave disappointment and it cost a ton of money and no, I won't say where we ate, but I will say that any restaurant which claims to be French should know how to make a Nicoise salad. In my opinion, anyway.

So last night we put on our goin'-out drag and went to Kool Beanz for its reopening and we sat at the bar, which we always do, because we can watch the chefs do their thing and I can flirt with the dishwasher who has the prettiest smile in the entire world. I am not kidding you.

And we were so happy to be back. The husband got a fried chicken, black-eyed pea, collard green, mashed potato dinner that came with the best fried okra I have ever eaten in my life. In fact, that fried okra may have been the best thing I've ever eaten, period.

I got some outrageously good tuna with new potatoes, Greek olives, spinach and tomatoes.

We split a salad and were able to eat only half our meals, so we came home with enough for lunch for two. I've already eaten my leftovers and they were just as good today as they were yesterday. So good that I was inspired to sit down and write this.

I feel blessed to have this restaurant in our community. The menu changes daily and shows creativity and respect for the freshest ingredients. The chefs are geniuses at using local seafood and produce and coming up with dishes inspired by other cultures' cuisines. They're also terrific at putting new twists to old favorites without ruining them with ridiculous and pretentious cheffy bullshit. They know how to cook collard greens, they can fry oysters that'll compare with any you'll get on the coast, and don't get me started on the okra.

Kool Beanz. Worth every penny.

And oh yeah- best servers in town. They're friendly, knowledgeable, remember what you drink, and don't ask you to leave when you start making sounds of ecstasy that are really best heard only in the privacy of your own home.

And one more thing- the only key lime pie I've ever tasted that was better than mine comes out of their kitchen.
Their new, restored kitchen.

I'm so glad they're back.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Monday, July 9, 2007

Soul Food

I love to cook and I love to eat. In fact, if I ever have a gravestone, I've told my family that I wouldn't mind if it read, "She sure could cook". I had my first real epiphany about cooking when I was about fourteen. I was primitive camping with the Girl Scouts on a mountain in North Carolina and I was in charge of supper one night. I built the fire and peeled potatoes and carrots and onions and put them in a pot of water and set them on the fire and when I went to check on them later to see if they were boiling, I realized that this simple act- cooking vegetables in water over an open fire- satisfied something in me that had never been quite satisfied before. I will never forget that moment. I'd been cooking for a long as I could remember, everything from home-made pizza to birthday cakes, cookies, pies, and family dinners when my mother was sick or out of commission somehow. But this iron pot of bubbling vegetables seemed to be something altogether different and real in a way that a tray of chocolate chip cookies never had been.

Going to Europe and tasting the food there when I was eighteen was another eye-opener. "So THIS is soup?" I'd think, after believing that soup was something that came out of a red and white can, poured into a pot and diluted with a can of water. "So THIS is bread," I realized, eating a French baguette fresh out of the bakery, after a lifetime of Wonder Bread. Everything tasted better- the fruit, the vegetables, the meat. And I wasn't eating anything fancy, either. Simple fare, freshly picked, simply cooked and seasoned- this was food the way it was meant to be.

The third big influence on my cooking was a restaurant in Denver, Colorado back in the early seventies. I was living in a dorm at the University of Denver, but whenever I could afford it, I ate at a small restaurant near campus called Hannuman's Conscious Cookery. Okay, I probably spelled that wrong, but it was something very close to that.

Hannuman's was somehow religiously based. All the servers and cooks wore white- long white robes and white turbans. Very exotic. Very vegetarian. And everything I ever ate there made me feel like I was eating something cosmic. Not just cosmically great or cosmically healthy, but cosmic in every since of the word. My favorite thing they made was a mung-bean casserole. Yeah, I know- sounds nasty, but boy it was not! It was thick with beans, rice, shredded carrots, cheese and who knows what all else? It had none of that hippie bean and rice paste consistency, either. Every bean, every grain, was perfectly cooked, perfectly itself.

COSMIC, I tell you!

They made their own bread, their cheeses and yogurts came from a goat farm on some nearby mountain, and their vegetables had to have been grown by totally enlightened beings somewhere not too far away.

I saw Allen Ginsburg eating there one night. I was not surprised.

And those were my influences on how I cook and what I want to eat to this day.

Oh! Wait a minute! I almost forgot Granny Mathews.

Now Granny Mathews was not my actual granny. We just called her that. She was a friend of the family, was at least eighty years old, and was a real character. She wore a lot of nylon negligee outfits and she always had a cigarette in her mouth, but the woman could cook. Just watching her in the kitchen, shuffling from stove to sink, stirring this and cutting that, adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that, mixing it all up in the most casual manner- I think my cooking style borrowed more from her than anyone else. She transmitted the idea to me that if you use the right ingredients and just don't mess 'em up, everything will turn out good, from bread pudding to meatloaf.

That principle holds true for me in my life. After putting thousands of meals in front of my family, I still enjoy cooking. But the older I get, the more I believe that the simpler the better. The more I believe in using the best ingredients and doing the least to them. I've become suspicious of processed foods (even the "organic" ones you find at the New Leaf) and my favorite meals come from our garden and from what my husband catches in the Gulf or brings home from the woods. He's a hunter and a gatherer and I love that about him.

Tonight I'm all by myself and I could just have a nice bowl of cereal with some of the fresh blueberries we've picked, but no, I've been boiling a pot of soybeans all day long. I'm going to marry them in a bowl with brown rice and barley. And I'm going to cut up some okra, tomatoes, squash and peppers and cook them with a little soy sauce. And that'll be my dinner. I'll have my protein, my grains, and my vegetables.
I have a ripe mango that will probably be my dessert.

That sounds about perfect to me.

I'm still cooking in the original iron skillets and pots I've had since I first started house-keeping (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) and three pots of Revere Ware that were my grandparent's. These are OLD pots, believe me. My grandparents have been dead for over twenty years and I've used at least one of the pots daily myself for far longer than that. I have my knives I love and that my husband keeps sharp, I have my wooden spoons and my favorite bowls. I do use a food processor and I have a powerful Kitchen Aid Mixer that I use all the time.

That's about all I really need. In fact, it's more than I need.

I know in my heart that if I had to, I could cook in a dutch oven over an open fire and I'd be all right.

Hmmm. I'm hungry.
Let's eat!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Keeping the Sabbath

It's Sunday afternoon and I always used to hate Sundays. Sunday was the day that was the worst for me as a child. Abuse in the morning, followed by pancakes, sausage, then church, followed by the rest of a day set aside as God's. The All-American Grand Slam!

Then I grew up and Sundays held no abuse, no church, and pancakes only if I wanted them. And yet, I would find myself waking up on Sundays, sad and crying, weeping over some pain I couldn't locate, couldn't pinpoint or describe. Finally, I realized the pain was my inside-baby girl's pain; she was still there, she was still hurting.

Oh. Well. I see.

Got myself off to therapy which was wonderful, in the way that vomiting nails would be wonderful, because of the relief of not having those nails in the belly any longer. Still, though, Sundays were hard. I would tiptoe around the land mines always lurking there, no matter how thorough the digging had been to locate, disarm, and defuse them. Tricky business for me and for my family, too and I frequently bemoaned the loss of one seventh of my week to such ridiculous and needless sadness.

Then one Sunday, a good friend of mine died. She'd been sick for a long time and her death was as beautiful and grand a death as anyone could want. She was surrounded by friends who loved her. We held and stroked her, whispered our love for her. And she went like a rocket! onto the next level. Into the place where babies come from and where we will all return someday. Birth, in reverse, a tidy packet of here-to-there, instead of there-to-here. That's exactly what it felt like, including the joy.

After that I was fine for a long, long time on Sundays. It was if my friend had given me, with her profound gift of such a holy death, an erasure of the pain that day had always brought me. I could wake up on Sunday morning without the heaviness in my heart that foretold the heaviness in my eyes that preceded tears. It was beautiful. Divine, even. That was twelve years ago, and I am still mostly fine on Sundays. Mostly. That's how powerful my friend's gift was.

But there are still some Sundays that a trace of sadness can cast a tiny shadow over me. It's as if that inside-baby girl sometimes sighs on a Sunday morning. She doesn't wail anymore, or scream or even weep silently. She simply sighs a little breath of despair of ever being rid entirely of pain. But so what? We all have pain. How could we know the joy of release if not for the pain?

And I get up and make pancakes (real ones, not like the Bisquick ones of my childhood) and serve them up to the family I have now and we like to eat them under the trees in the back yard next to the bird feeder with the dogs lazing around our feet, hoping for scraps, panting softly in the building heat of a summer day.

No church for me, thank-you.

And I think ALL the days are set aside as God's, if by God you mean that net of life that connects us all- that web of quarks and sparks the universe is made of.

Or something like that.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sound of the childhood bell...

My daddy was a drunk. A real, no holds-barred drunk. He was the kind of drunk who would go off and leave the family to really get into his habit, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. He was the black sheep of a prominent Tennessee family, trained and licensed as a lawyer (the family business) but unable to hold down a job. When he bought a gun and started threatening my mother with it, she knew she had to flee, which she did in the dark of night with me and my brother.
She took us to a tiny village on the east coast of Florida called Roseland where her parents lived in a small cottage across a sandy dirt road from a slow-moving, muck filled river. Granddaddy, who owned a little property, built a cement block, terrazzo-floored house for us to live in, my mother got work as a third-grade teacher at the Sebastian elementary, and my brother and I settled in to what would turn out to be the happiest part of our mostly shitty childhood. If there were any moments of magic and goodness in our growing up years, they were spent right here, in the snaky, jungly, hot, humid village of Roseland where I am visiting right now.
Yes, I've left my beloved home to come here to Roseland with my husband to celebrate his birthday. We're staying at a place on the river, a few blocks down from where my Granddaddy and Granny lived. I found this rental on the Vacation Rental By Owner web site a few years ago and as the description and pictures came up on my computer, I couldn't believe what I was seeing because I had known this place and known it well as a child.
When I was young, unlike today, kids were trusted not to get into situations where they might be maimed or die. We were sent off on our bikes, or on foot, to "play." Play was serious business in those days. We played war in the jungle, we fished for poisonous catfish on the community dock, we traced hopscotches and marble circles in the dirt roads with rocks. And we explored.
One of the places we found in our explorations was a piece of property on the river, guarded by a crumbling stucco fence and rusted iron gates. We pushed these open to behold the burnt ruins of a large house, a small stucco building still intact, and, wonder of wonders- a huge cement pool, empty, but still guarded by four lions, one at each corner.
You have to understand- Roseland had no pools and no grand houses. It was mostly small shacks that fishermen and their families lived in. There was one paved road. And so when we found that pool and what had obviously been some sort of estate, it was like we had discovered the ancient ruins of the Inca. Even seven and eight-year olds could see that this place had been something back when in its day.
And it was a place I had dreamed about, quite literally, my entire adult life- the once beautiful grounds, the house that had burned, the iron gates, the little stucco house with a tower, and especially that huge, empty pool.
So when the pictures came up on my computer, I sucked in a breath and said, "Lord have mercy. It's still there."
And here it is. Two very industrious and far-seeing men from Atlanta had bought the place and restored it. A different house had been built where the big house burned and they had fixed up the whole place, cut back the jungle, landscaped, built a dock on the river, and most wonderfully of all- filled the pool where the lions still stood guard, only now spouting water from their mouths into the sweet blue waters of a pool that is just as big as it had seemed to us kids back a million years ago.
And I have stayed here now three times. Last year, I spent a week by myself to celebrate my birthday. I had the entire place to myself- the big house was unrented. I spent hours on the dock every night watching the sky go through its sunset changes, watching the fish boil and feed in the river as the tide changed. I spent hours walking the still-dirt roads of Roseland, exploring like I had as a child, rediscovering. It was amazing how little had changed. Even the shacks were still here, looking somehow better than they did forty-something years ago, and each one of those little houses, each dirt road, each path through the woods, each bend of the river, held a thousand memories for me.
And here I am again, this time with my husband. He likes it here because it's beautiful. I had thought I grew up in paradise, but it's only been since coming back as an adult that I realize I truly did. So besides being a paradise here on earth (albeit a paradise that's still hot, humid, buggy and snaky), it's the place for me where there was magic.
Can't beat that.
We stay in the little cabana house, tricked out now like something from a magazine with a big open room, a sweet kitchen with Florida pink appliances and a terrazzo floor. Outside the kitchen window is a view that holds the lions and their pool and the beautifully landscaped lot that stretches down to the river.
As much as I love my North Florida home with its giant ancient oaks, to me, this part of the state is the real Florida. No condos in sight, just palms, mangroves, jungle islands, a railroad trestle crossing the river built by Henry Flagler, osprey, pelicans, dolphins that come up from the Atlantic, jumping mullet, bougainvillea, mango trees, blooming hibiscus.
And yesterday, floating in the pool with my husband, the lions, freshly painted startlingly white, spitting out cool streams of water, I thought that this pool is a a great metaphor for my life. At one time, my life, like this pool, was in ruin, abandoned, empty, and in great need of care, attention, and tremendous work. But there was the spark of great worth in it. And slowly and with sometimes little obvious progress, an amazing amount of work has been done, so that now, like the pool, my life is full and sweet.
It's an amazing thought that forty something years after I first saw this pool, stared at it with wide eyes, trying to imagine what it had been in its glory days, I can now slip into it, dive deep, eyes wide open, then surface to the blue sky and clear air.
Man. You can go home again.
Another miracle.