Sunday, October 31, 2010

And so jammy weekend season begins

Today I declared to be the first of jammy weekend season. I went grocery shopping Saturday night, which is my favorite--it's quiet, mellow, trance-like. There are no cranky children, no frazzled parents, no obstinate teens, no power corporate types. Just me. And a few guys buying beer on their way to someplace else. I mostly have the whole store to myself.

So, hunkered down with provisions, I woke this morning and took it wayyy easy. Hot chocolate, reading a little of The Book of Night Women (seriously, it's outstanding), toast with melted peanut butter...all the makings of a relaxed Sunday.

Eventually, I got myself motivated to begin a project I eyed recently: a beautiful flying geese miniature quilt. So I set myself up with candy, broke out the sewing machine and other props, and started in.

I purchased the materials at Checkerberries Quilt Shop, which is one of the most adorable quilt shops I've ever been in. It's full of beautiful fabric in muted tones--rustic Americana. Civil War prints, Little Women-inspired materials and quilts. It's all yummy. And the woman who runs the place is a sassy little minx. And it's right nearby, in Northwood, NH. I went there for the first time recently and was in awe.


I haven't quilted in a long time. Years. I don't know why. Crafting tends to be an on and off thing for me. When I'm stressed or shutting down, I craft more. At least that's what I've observed from a bird's eye view of my life. At points when I've lived with someone I didn't care for, I've been my most productive. Right now? I think I'm just happy that it's autumn, don't have social plans, and wanted to stay away from watching TV and movies all day on the computer (so much for canceling cable). So I got started.

This project, part of the "Jo's Little Women" series is a black and gold combination in the flying geese pattern. It's tiny, so it stitched up quickly--maybe three to four hours total so far.

The afternoon was spent at my kitchen table, with soup simmering on the stove, the dryer rumbling, and the sewing machine humming. I'm happy with how quickly this came together. There's something about that sense of accomplishment--sometimes it feels outside my reach. But I realize I'm my own worst enemy. There were a few times when I stood up from the table and my mind raced with other things I could be doing. It took discipline to sit back down and sew another row. I'm pretty fleeting about things. It's frustrating to have my mind racing in so many different directions.

But I did it! I made the whole front. Next will be buying batting, piecing the layers together, and beginning the stitching. Now THAT could take a while. But it's so stinking cute, and I'm so stinking proud of myself.

Hope your Halloween weekend was fab-o.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cold weather cooking

This morning I woke to a cold, gray sky. I made myself semipresentable, grabbed the camera, got into the car, and headed for town.

I'm proud of my tiny, odd mill town. I haven't been here quite a year yet, but I every evening when I drive through on my way home from work, my heart fills when I come around the first bend and see the old mills looming large over the left side of the main drag, and the tiny shops all in a row to the right. So even though we're a little past prime up here, this morning I took pictures to capture fall in Newmarket.

I drove around some of the side roads too, down to the Great Bay. I didn't realize there were so many luxe houses here. But I do appreciate that the town has a little of everything. Along with the out-of-the-way richies, there are lots of hipster college kids, many earthy hippie types, and the locals who grew up here. In front of the coffee shop, it's typical to see a Lexus parked next to a beat-up pickup truck. And it's typical to hear conversations about graffiti as a growing problem, the band that played last night at the Stone Church, and local drum circles. I revel in it. Probably because it reminds me of Amherst and Northampton, MA.

The sky never lightened after this morning's sojourn, and stitching alone in my apartment, I could feel my fingers growing colder. But I come from a long line of yankees who proudly refuse to turn on the heat until absolutely necessary. No way does 45 degrees warrant anything more than another sweater. And maybe a blanket over my lap. And maybe some soup to warm me up.

I read several recipes and then came up with the following. It turned out quite good. Enjoy!

I started out cooking up some kielbasa in olive oil to give the pot a smoky flavor--just enough to get it warm and juicy, but not enough to brown it. Then I tossed in three cloves of chopped garlic and a healthy sprinkling of red pepper flakes.

Next, I poured in four cups of chicken broth. I wanted organic, but I also wanted something low in sodium. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find both in the same package. So I chose organic over low sodium. Depending on your salt sensitivity, you may want to do the opposite. Considering the other ingredients, this is a pretty salty bowl of soup.

Once the broth was warmed through, I put in a chopped bunch of kale. I've never cooked with kale before, but it shrinks just like spinach (and isn't half as tedious to prepare).  

When the kale was good and shrunken down in the pot, I added a handful of Parmesan cheese (which is essentially adding a layer of salt as well as yumminess).

Next, the star of the show: small white beans. These are another first for me today. I dumped in the whole can for added liquid and a slight thickener.

Finally, I added pistou, which is French and fancy for "half a container of store-bought pesto." Kidding--my Frenchie ancestors would kick me for buying a container of the stuff, and I do make good pesto from scratch. But damn, a girl doesn't always have time for that sort of nonsense. That's when a tub of pesto comes in handy.

And what soup doesn't cry out for a slice of crusty bread and a little butter? Tonight I found a darling rosemary rustic bread at the bakery. I used some quality local butter. And the final results:

 Hope you had a great weekend too.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Taking reader questions

"do you have thoughts or inner dialogue that you keep special/private that you don't share with the world?? that you don't offer up for their interpretation or ridicule?"
This question from a recent email exchange has been on my mind for a couple days. And I was trying to figure out why I had a strong reaction to it. The word ridicule kept bouncing around between my ears. Ridicule, ridicule, ridicule.

There are several answers to this question. And my first reaction was--maybe I'm an optimist. I have a readership of maybe six, plus the occasional stray who lands here. And all y'all know me. I don't believe ridicule is an issue. If it is, good for you. Thank you for spending so much time thinking about me.

But, then, I'm not really an optimist. More a realist. So my second answer to anyone who comes across this blog and decides to take out their upset on me is, "Fuck'em if they can't take a joke." Sometimes I'm happy; sometimes I'm sad. Sometimes I'm on a roadtrip with Stevie Wonder; sometimes I'm steps away from writing a grocery list. I'm not really here to impress.
Currier & Ives
The point of this blog was for self discipline. I decided it would be good for me to have a middle-of-the-road place where I'm not trying to write the Great American Novel and I'm not scrawling a deeply personal journal entry. It's a playground for me to explore the craft further. And it's a way for me to throw my fifty cents out there in more than 140 characters and away from the motley crew I'm friends with on Facebook. If I want to write a research paper on Allen Ginsberg, I will, damn it.

But in the end, "not really" is the answer. Of course I keep some shit to myself. But I'm also a pretty open book. That's my choice as an artist, a writer. My favorite writers and poets took huge risks in putting themselves out there. All in hopes that some other poor schmuck would come forward and say, "me too." I tout the gritty truth among my better qualities. I don't write anything here that I wouldn't say to a good friend. And with many of you, I've shared much more/worse. I'm human. And this weekend, when I am camping in Maine, I'm sure I'll share all kinds of inappropriate tidbits by the campfire. And I don't care. Life is too short to give a shit about some things.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Writing be silent talking

Kudos to Boston for putting on a fantastic Boston Book Festival yesterday. Compared to last year, it was grander, the weather was better, the venues were larger, and the list of sessions more numerous.

I left NH around 10:30, got to Wellington Station (now lovingly referred to as Beef Wellington Station), and boarded the orange line. On the train, a loud, confident guy holding American and don't-tread-on-me flags was lecturing a sweet group of Canadian 20somethings. "I'm paht of the Nohth Shoha Tea Pahty blah blah blah." By the time we got to my stop, North Station, he had talked about taxes, the price of gas, how all our freedoms are about to be ripped from us, and that FOX News is the ONLY reputable news source. I managed to bite my tongue the whole way. Asshat.

The first session my friend and I attended was Time and Place, at the Old South Church on Boylston. The first two readers felt restrained and too serious. But I was there for Gish Jen. And she delivered. What a feisty little minx! Here's a Harvard graduate who's been published in all the hot spots (New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly...), and she was personable. She laughed, she was smart, but never stuffy.

Her latest book, World and Town, was released this month. I'm looking forward to reading this and delving into the depiction of voice: the old Vermont farmers, whose dialect is terrifically informal and probably unsettling to an outsider; a long-settled immigrant, whose English is textbook perfection; and a teenager girl who has seen Cambodian refugee camps, the mean streets of a city akin to Lowell, and finally a rural landscape.

The next session we hit was Fiction: Reality Bites, at the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. A perfect day for stepping on fallen leaves, looking at beautiful people, and ducking into echo-y chambers of stained glass--the way the afternoon sun shines on the dust in the air and each movement in each pew sets off a creak.

Readers for this session included Brando Skyhorse--fascinating life story, of which he shared only a little. He spoke with the kind of humor one develops when the truth is too embarrassing to take seriously. Great speaker; not so hot a reader. He read too fast--and his words were all description, so there was no time to picture what he was offering the listener.

Second was Allegra Goodman, who read from The Cookbook Collector. I'm not sure I care for the subject matter; I just wasn't drawn in. She is an interesting character, however. Very quirky personality. My friend called her "cute." I warmed up to her as she spoke, but she was goofy as hell. I would totally be that nervous and goofy in front of a crowd too, however, so who am I to judge?
The third writer in this session was Marlon James. Now, ladies, I admit the first thought I had was, in the words of Jada, "He is foine!" And then he spoke. With a Jamaican accent. And told us he's an Austen fan. And quoted Pride and Prejudice. Are you fucking kidding me? Deep breath.

Looks and voice aside, what an incredible writer! He read from The Book of Night Women, a story about 18th century Jamaican slavery, written in, according to Bookmarks Magazine, a "lilting Jamaican patois."

Asked to read a "dangerous" passage, James chose to read a passage in which a slave learns to read. Afterward, he spoke about his passage choice. In sum: There's danger in love and in giving one's heart. But the danger of knowledge, of critical thought, can be the most deadly. Considering the amount of violence in this book, I was touched by his choice.

His writing is beautiful. From the passage he read,

So Homer commence teaching Lilith how to read. Lilith don't know why her, but glad to have the new feeling rise in her when she see a letter shape into something when they in front of her. A cup was something that she could hold and pour tea into, but a cup was also a c-u-p.


Writing be silent talking

Simple but smart. Really clever and thoughtful. My friend and I felt fortunate to have gone to the session and come across this writer we might otherwise not have encountered.

Full up on the written word, my friend and I hit the bars. First stop was Top of the Hub. Hella expensive drinks; but, really, the charge is for the phenomenal views of Boston. And the drinks deliver an ass-kick pretty quickly. I had a beer later but was mostly on water for the rest of the evening so I could drive home.

From there we joined a pub crawl through Faneuil Hall. The initial reaction was a wrinkled nose because FH tends to be where college kids learn to drink. Loud bars jam packed with young people who aren't interesting yet. But we were early and didn't encounter any of that business until we were heading out of the city. Watching it all, however, made me realize it's been a long time since I was that young. Even then, out in Amherst, I just didn't aspire to that. I absolutely did stupid things, but decidedly different stupid things. I'm so glad to be an adult. To be unique and on my own track. I have no desire to travel back and do it again. Onward!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where I wax poetic about an angelheaded hipster . . .

Today is the anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of his famous poem "Howl." He was only 29 years old that night.

Peter Orlovsky/Archive of Allen Ginsberg

I was thrilled to find this piece, written about the event. It's full of all the usual suspects and plays up to the romance that follows the Beats.

I loved Allen in college because he was a fucked up kid from a fucked up home who kept his nose in books and, eventually, blew the world away. He put the word fuck in poetry. Fuck. He wrote about masturbating. His whole last collection is mostly about shitting. The week he died, a poem of his was published--perhaps in the New Yorker. It was a couple pages and pretty much listed all of the lovers he'd had--from the life loves (Orlovsky) to the pizza boy who didn't know what was coming . . . He wrote openly about how he saw and experienced the world the whole way through life:
what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos--all these 
--Sunflower Sutra, 1955

1955. He wrote the word cunt in a poem in 1955. That invigorates me.

He also wrote about politics. He lived politics. As a radical. In his last years, he sent at least one poem to President Clinton. I read that he received a polite thank you in response--too bad. Billy shoulda taken the opportunity to visit Allen in his apartment in the Village and had a good sit down.

I met Allen the year before he died. I called his agent and booked a three-day event for him at UMass Amherst. The other members of the Distinguished Visitors Program were more than a little hesitant, figuring he couldn't fill an auditorium (bunch of engineering students who'd never heard of him). He was incredible. He led a couple poetry classes I was in (the profs were in heaven), went out to dinner with people ("No salt!" his manager kept scolding), and gave a phenomenal reading.

Sitting in the center of the front row of a packed, standing-room-only theater, I listened to him read and recite and sing. He sang Blake ("Tyger! Tyger! burning bright") and read "America" ("America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."). And eventually, he read "Howl," shouting "Moloch" at the end:
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
After the reading, I spent time with him, and many anxious others, at a small reception. Sitting indian-style before him, I felt the awkwardness--a man who has lived many lives, now sitting above eager college students who are looking for answers--but without questions. I read that he felt a heavy weight to be a wise sage to those he met. I can only imagine how exhausting this must have been.

I put something about him on Facebook earlier, and a friend who was there with me that night just wrote that it was a privilege to see him in Amherst that evening. It was.

I believe he died about a year later. Though sad, I was touched and inspired by the number of people who came out of the woodwork--there were so many readings and gatherings and memorials. Western Mass is that kind of place: a lot of deep, smart folks living in the woods and mountains. I met a lot of people in those following weeks, though none held fast. And I also heard, several times over, my favorite lines of his:
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're all blessed by our own seed & golden naked hairy accomplishment--bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset . . . 
--Sunflower Sutra, 1955 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Picture yourself in a boat on a river . . .

Today was a bad day. One in a recent series. I drove home late, doing breathing exercises, giving myself a little pep talk, even just thinking strings of curse words in righteous anger. And then I did what I always do when I find myself too far on one end of the spectrum: I think in opposites.

Thinking in opposites is a trick I learned in college. When struggling in lit classes to explain any given piece, a professor might say, "Explain it by first explaining what it isn't." A little obscure, perhaps. But insightful.

So opposites. What if I didn't have this stressful job? What job would I enjoy that would not be stressful? Hmmm . . . maybe running a little craft shop, teaching classes in embroidery. That sounds dreamy. And what if I were not just always talking about being a writer, but actually had the iron will to sit my fanny down and write? What time of day would I write? Would I type or use a new pen? And what if instead of cobbling something together each day to eat, I actually took the time to plan out weekly meals? That would be healthy and probably more economical. And maybe, eating the right foods, the inflammation in my back would go down.

No, I'm not exactly curing cancer here. But I did realize something sadly obvious: I don't have a vision of what I want my life to be. I have certain flash glimpses, and I have concepts. But there's no clear end goal in mind.

"The Awakening," Washington DC. Photographer: Ryan Sandridge
It may be because I am a slacker. That certainly carries weight here. But part of it is also that we let life happen to us, many of us. And we are swept up in what happens to us and go where the tide takes us. Before you know it, you're married, paying a mortgage, coaching your kid's soccer team, mowing the lawn, making lunches, and watching reruns. At that point, is there time in the day to consider one's self? One's own needs? My guess is that's how people come to just exist.

So what the hell is my excuse? My only dependent is a nine-pound cat missing most of her teeth. I'm saddled with school loans. I have ongoing fears of being a bag lady because times were tough when I was a kid. And I like to have a good time and not worry about money. Okay. But that aside, why don't I have a vision of what I want my life to be? It means I have no goals. I am just existing, but without a spouse, house, and child's love to keep me feeling fulfilled.

Copyright Alexandra de Steiguer
My opposite lives differ widely. And maybe that is what has me rolling along in neutral. Sometimes I am the earth mother, living in a farm house with a wraparound porch, growing my own food. Sometimes I am a city girl who spends time with a writing group and arguing politics at a hookah bar. Sometimes I defect to Paris or Canada. Sometimes I own a small, old cape on a rocky shore and run a craft shop.

The thing about New Hampshire is that it's very . . . settled. Almost everyone I know is married, has kids, etc. They are living their lives. There's not as much time to think about options. And I've been alongside everyone, year after year, existing. But I think I like the sound of a cape. A quiet life of creation.