We planned to go for a walk at twilight tonight, David and I, but when we stepped outside the dusk was chillier than we'd anticipated. "I wonder if I should go check the forecast," he said. "Yeah, you should," I said, "because if it's going to get below freezing we probably need to do some harvesting."
He went back inside, and came out again through the French doors, leading to the garden, where I'd already gone. "Supposed to go down to 28 degrees tonight," he reported. "Yikes," I said, and we both returned to the kitchen to grab several large bowls and the yellow colander. Then back out.
David worked on the beans, which have been producing generously all season long, the pole beans, climbing their rustic tee-pees, tendril by tendril, at the edge of the garden, adding what to my eye is such charm, the sunflowers behind them. He picked my favorites, the exuberantly abundant densely podded Spanish musicas. Then he picked the others: the flatter white and scarlet runner beans that are so good when cooked slowly, the rattlesnake beans, with their green purple-mottled pods, encasing white beans also mottled purple. Then he crouched to work on the bush beans: the limas, the Kentucky wonders, the yellow waxes, the black valentines (green pods, shiny black beans inside), and the royal burgundies (wondrously purple-podded, and though the pods turn green a few moments after they're submerged in boiling water, the water, after their cooking, turns turquoise, which keeps the wonder going, as far as I'm concerned).
I love beans, as you can tell. In fact my book about them, Bean by Bean, will be out early next year.
But. Given the quantities David was picking, I would clearly be canning, pickling, and freezing in the near future. (Below, last year's Green Tomato Mincemeat, which I'm about to make again, from my own Passionate Vegetarian)
I was thrilled, three years ago, to find tomatillo starts at the farmer's market. I love tomatillos (for those of you who don't know them, they're in the tomato family, usually bright green — though there are purple varieties — and protected by an elegant papery husk; and they are the stuff of salsa verde). I think I bought six or seven plants that first year, with little idea of how enthusiastically and messily they would grow and produce.
At harvest that year, after canning a dozen half-gallon jars of salsa verde and the same again of just plain tomatillo puree, for our household of two — yeah, we have a lot of guests, true, but still — I called it quits. When I added the pulled-up plants to the compost pile that year, I am embarrassed to confess I did so, consciously, knowing I was still leaving plenty of perfectly good tomatillos on the vine: me, to whom wasting food is morally repugnant. I begged the pardon of the plants, and every hungry person in the world, and the generous universe itself, for forgiveness as I discarded them. But I did discard them.
So, last year, I planted cautiously: just two tomatillo plants. They bore, but not with nearly the fervor of their kin the year before. They were far fewer fruits per plant, and, strangely, in quite a few cases the husk would grow full-size, but the tomatillo within it would be only the size of a cherry tomato. I ended up canning just 1 half-gallon and a quart or two… which I kept aside for what is now an annual tradition at the Labor Day Fearless Writing: the Whole Enchilada. Because one dinner at that event, of course, must be enchiladas, which I sauce in long beautiful stripes of red tomato salsa and green salsa verde, and I couldn't know how well the following summer's crop would bear.
This year I hedged my bets. I put in just three tomatillo plants, gave them a corner of the garden in which they could flop uninhibitedly to their heart's content, and basically left them alone, harvesting just a few to freshen up and round out the last year's canned ones, for the Whole Enchilada dinner in early September, which is too early to justify wholesale harvest.
Otherwise, I left them alone. That is, until tonight.
As David did the beans, I pulled tomatillo after tomatillo from the spreading, generous stems, many stems per plant. They bore, this year, as abundantly as they had that first year. I'd break off a stem, and pick the tomatillos from it. I'd drop the husk-wrapped fruits into the 2 1/2 gallon stainless steel bowl, then toss the stem to the side of the garden to pick up later during the serious fall garden clean-up, which we'll do in a few days, at the same time we plant the garlic.
(Plant garlic in fall; harvest the next summer… as I did, one hot, hot day a few months back, on my way up from a dip in our pond, as I passed through the garden. Silly picture, but so true to that moment.)
I brought one full bowl of tomatillos in from the cool darkening night to the warm, bright kitchen. I em
ptied it carefully onto the kitchen counter, returned to the garden, and began to fill the bowl a second time. There was still some light, the sky still recognizably blue, but it was growing darker, more chill by the minute. A sudden half-moon rose in what's east this time of year (here in this northern latitude, the directions change so radically, disorientingly, with each season). Very large, very bright, the moon was more cooly silver than golden, and a few wisps of haziness veiled it. Three or four small puffy pink clouds, still colored by the departing sun, hovered near the moon, seeming like slightly anxious handmaidens: "Is there anything you need?" "Is everything all right?"
Harvesting under this illumination, I suddenly thought of the Edna St.Vincent Millay poem my mother, now 96, used to quote when I was a child, the line "she weeds her lazy lettuce by the light of the moon" sounding in my inner ear as if she had just spoken it in her young mother's voice, getting across, somehow, how succulent those words were to her. My mother, who has forgotten every poem she ever knew, but who, paradoxically, seems to me happier moment to moment than she ever was when in her so-called right mind.
I pulled another large stem from the tomatillo plant I was working on, and, as I pulled the fuits off of it, completely unexpectedly, my heart gave a sudden contraction of grief. Because there, arching out from it, was another stem, covered with the robust fleshy leaves… but also, blossoms. Small bell-shaped bright orange blossoms, star-like in the night, dotting that whole stem… maybe fifteen of them.
"Awww," I called out to David. "I just found a whole lot of blossoms here. They didn't get to be tomatillos!"
"What?" asked David, in that startled, did-I-miss-something tone, which suggests if-I-didn't-miss-something-you-may-be-insane.
"I wonder if he felt like he still had all these blossoms that weren't going to have a chance to bear fruit."
As I continued picking, that thorn still in my heart, I thought about Steve Jobs, the little I know about him.
I'm still a PC user and I don't own an i-anything, though I can't count how many people I know who've had an Apple moment where the heavens opened up and everything stood revealed, and I have no doubt that one of these years I will have an i-something, and maybe my own Apple moment.
But I do have a mouse. And I do have a laptop. And I do know how much he revolutionized the world. And how much people who knew him, along with the countless many who didn't, revere not just his work, but him.
And then, there are all the things he said that are circulating now: About how he'd "wanted to leave a ding in the universe." And "... the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on."
But his rolled on only to 56.
And from here, standing at the cusp of 58 and 59, blessed with work I love doing, I know that if I received a terminal diagnosis tomorrow, I would feel like one of the plants I was pulling tomatillos from: partially able to be harvested from, partially fulfilled, but with so many, many unpotentialized blossoms.
And, I guess inevitably, I wondered about Ned, about the seconds when his bicycle flew through the air before landing in and breaking the windshield of the oncoming vehicle — if he had a chance to know, wonder, regret all the things he was not going to have a chance to do. (Ned, right, as a 16-year-old, long before I knew him, throwing wheel pottery in high school. When we were affianced and went to meet his parents, he opened a door in their attic and showed me boxes of his pottery. "My dowry!" he said proudly. I still eat from his soup bowls).
I talked to the young man whose pick-up it was — this was early days, just a week or two after Ned's death; not six months later, when he decided to sue "the estate of Ned Shank" for "pain and suffering due to PTSD" — on the phone. I told him I didn't hold him responsible; that from what I could tell, from the accident report, it was an act of God, and the laws of phyics.
Then I asked him a question I maybe shouldn't have asked. But I wanted to know, I wanted some clue: how did he feel? Did he know? How much? "Did you see his face, before the moment of impact?"
"Yes, m'am, I did. "
"And… did you get a sense of … what was his expression?"
"It was like, 'Oh… crap.'"
But balanced against that is the story of the lovely woman named (and how poignantly this struck me) Grace. Grace was 2/3 small-town acquaintaince/ colleague, 1/3 friend, and she was in the car behind the pick-up which struck Ned. She got out, and sat with Ned in that two-lane road, as traffic backed up on both sides, until the EMTs got there.
She told me that when she first sat with him, bloodied and broken but still alive, she said, "Ned, this is Grace." I always wonder how he heard that; how, in that state, he interpreted the word 'grace'. And afterwards, from the first time Grace described the scene to me (very late that same night, after he'd died) to her words at his memorial, to the last time we spoke, identically: she talked about the feeling of peace that descended over the two of them.
And that, when she told him I had been notified, he repeated my name.
Ned's first children's book, The Sanyasin's First Day, had been published just six months before his death. One of the first condolence calls was from his editor, Judith. Judith is a person whose emotional affect is not so much flat as consistently placid, unflappable. For the first time, in the many years I had known her, I heard her express unbridled emotion. "He would have written so many more books!" she said between the sobs, gusts of feeling shaking her. "I just know he would've!"
And he would've painted and drawn countless more pictures. Curled up with me so many more times. Had so many orgasms, and contributed to mine. Closed his eyes in pleasure as he let the first bite of any dessert he particularly liked dissolve slowly in his mouth. Laughed so hard that his whole face scrunched up and all you could see of his huge eyes with their absurdly long eyelashes was the tiny edge of the lashes. Made, on days when he woke up, staggered down to the bathroom, first beheld himself in the mirror and saw his hair crunched from either side into a tall, odd thatch, a "Woo-hoo-HOO" sound, which we referred to as the call of the Great Crested Droon, and which he would make while standing on one leg, indeed, looking oddly like a very peculiar, leggy shore bird.
He would've done so much: in and of himself, but also for and with others.
But, like the tomatillo blossoms, now and forever, he would not.
Ned was 44. An early, killing frost.
Steve Jobs, 56.
One set of my present-day neighbors, Beth Kaplan and Jim Jordan, who — with their daughter Stella — live right down the hill from us here in Vermont, work for Antioch University of New England. Both Beth and Jim are in the Department of Environmental Studies.
Beth runs their graduate center in ecology and primate research, in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. She comes and goes from that country several times a year. At any given time, a couple of Rwandan graduate students live in Beth and Jim's downstairs.
Last Thanksgiving, we had dessert with Beth, Jim, their daughter Stella, William and Yves, the students staying with them, and a host of their other friends, in the educational, environmental, local and international communities in which they move. At one point, Yves and William and David and I were talking. They were astonished to learn that David was 71 (true, he looks young for his age). They were also astonished to learn I was 57 (true, I also look young for my age).
But their astonishment had little to do with looks.
"How old people live in your country!" exclaimed Yves. "In my country, 45 is old."
Perhaps a blossom isn't an immature fruit, but a blossom, perfect, orange, bell-like (if it is that of a tomatillo). Perhaps it is complete, completed, in itself.
Perhaps we write stories, and for that matter, blog posts, because there is no way we can ever answer questions definitively, in a world where loss and beauty and incomprehensibility all exist, side by side. Our narratives attempt to give shape and form to something so much larger than form itself, something that began long before we were here and is ever hurtling towards an outcome that will be forever unknowable to us.
Our narratives, by contrast, have a beginning, middle, and end. A story is, or can be, shapely.
It is not as messy as a tomatillo plant, as disorienting as a moon that rises in one side of the sky in October and in a wholly different place in June. It can have an equality and balance and sense a Rwandan student who witnessed the murder of his older sister (who had just, William once told me, bought him a soda, before the militia came) can never have when he considers … well, life, or America and Africa, or me, or you, or Steve Jobs, or books about beans, or enough wealth that you could ever, under any circumstances, knowingly discard any food.
Yet, a story can include all these things.
Tomatillos: I have planted them, harvested them, cooked them, and even wasted a few.
But maybe not the latter. Tonight, the night of this fall's first frost, however imperfectly, I've written about those tomatillos, including the discarded ones, and the insights and longings they managed to evoke for me. This being so, nothing, even the tomatillo plants thrown, still fruiting, in the compost, is wasted. Nothing, when it can take you inward through writing, at all.