I know, I know… CD gets all gung-ho on blogging and then drops off the face of the earth. Why? A September book deadline, a July article deadline, and, with David, working on the most ambitious, satisfying, beautiful vegetable garden I have ever grown, but …
Unity, New Hampshire & the writing process
But that’s not why I’ve been so long between posts.The reason for the hiatus is an
entry about the first joint appearance of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama since
his becoming the Democratic nominee for president, which took place in Unity, New Hampshire, about an hour’s drive from us. It took place three weeks ago, and David and I
were there. I’ve been working on writing about it since the evening of June 27th, following the rally. And three weeks is, of course, an ice age, in political reportage. But I’m not a political reporter, and the essay turned out to have its own agenda, different from what I anticipated when I started it. There turned out to be many skeins to follow. In
part this was because of the peculiarities of this particular presidential race. In part because of our deep disaffection with "politics" and "politicians" now. And in part, because of my relationship to
Hillary, a personal one. Every time I worked with my partially
formed ideas, in thought and on computer, more presented itself for exploration.
Dawning personal clarity is one of the privileges
of practicing the craft of writing. Sometimes it happens rapidly; often slowly. (If you’re an essayist, novelist or memoirist, that is. For most political reporters, there isn’t time for digestion). Lines of thought that seemed promising peter out. At the beginning you know only that you don’t have it yet, though you can feel it out there, just beyond reach. Tension, frustration, and uneasiness are inherent at this point (which is when many beginning writers, not recognizing this and understandably disliking these uncomfortable feelings, throw up their hands). Left, immediately after the rally, in the sudden burst of rain which followed, a journalist files his report from
the field … under a poncho. Perhaps the speed with which we require news is partly to blame for its often-spotty quality. This journalist, for sure, was literally in the dark.
But those seeming false starts, though they may not appear in a finished draft, are the beginning. They’re the way the elusive, slippery shape of what wants to be said emerges. (This is another way of understanding why nothing is wasted on the writer). The craft of writing teaches patience, persistence, tolerating of unpleasant feelings instead of being deterred by them, and faith. For as as long as the follower of that craft is willing to just
keep showing up, and writing, where is the waste? — for one continues to be taught by writing.
I did eventually finish my piece on the Unity event. It’s long. I’ve divided it
into three parts. I’m going to post Part One on Monday, July 21, Part Two on Thursday, July 24, and Part Three on Sunday, July 27. Meanwhile…
the happiness of weed-yanking
This morning, going into the active bliss I enter when I garden, I thought again about
Hillary and Barack: how they, like anyone in the more elevated levels of government and public service, would never, ever get the time to experience that particular pleasure I was having at that moment, as I tucked mulch in around one of the thriving heirloom tomato plants, the one named, improbably,"Japanese Black Trifele" (picture, above left, what they’ll look like when ripe, courtesy of Johnny’s Seeds)— now more than four feet high, covered with green, lumpy, egg-shaped tomatoes (Ours, taken the day of this post,
below.) . And I had a thought that was sort of a thank you, sort of a God-bless-them, and sort of a prayer, for all those who hold office and are actually trying to make things better for those they serve (as opposed to serving their own interests) … and I thought, with sympathy, of all that such people give up to do that. Like gardening. Like any hope of a quiet life. Like having a single day where you go uncriticized.
And, I thought, possibly with even more sympathy, "And they have to go to all those meetings." I hate meetings.
Growing season in Vermont is short. Full-on, timely attention is required to plant, raise and harvest before frost. Despite my weird sleep habits
(see Insomniac Lessons), I’ve been getting up early every morning (6:00 a.m. today), working in the garden with David (aka Farmer Brown) . I (Farmer Green) usually intend to work just a half-hour, but often wind up spending more like an hour, hour and a half, two hours, before it gets too hot (on the days, thankfully not too often, when it does get hot).
A lot of what we (Farmer Brown and Farmer Green) do at this point is weed.
I love weeding. Yes, I do. I would rather weed than attend a meeting any day. I get a big kick out of weeding. In fact, two kicks.
Kick # One: it improves things. Pulling up weeds neatens the garden demonstrably and immediately. It allows what you want to grow, to grow, without interruption or competition for soil nutrients. It leaves clear visual evidence of your effort and progress. So little in life is tidy-able, let alone with a single satisfying vigorous yank, and then: into the weed bucket, to be turned into compost.
I would love, for instance, to clean up my very messy office this way. But nothing in here can be just yanked up. I’m pretty good about throwing out what needs to be thrown out, but that means that every single piece of paper that is here, is here for a reason. Business cards from people I met at conferences who asked to be put on my email list, or to whom I promised to send something (guilt!). Fan letters from kids, sometimes whole classes worth, who read and liked my books (guilt!). Articles I wrote that really ought to be filed (guilt! But only because Ned, my late husband, was a meticulous archivist and would be distressed at the state I’ve let things get to). Research material for current writing projects (scribbled spiral notebooks, notes taken on the back of fliers or paper place-mats, stacks of Post-It noted books, torn-out magazine articles with underlined sections). Bills, because my writing office is not separate from my bill-paying office (yet, she said hopefully). Bills (guilt! What am I doing blogging, I’ve got income that needs generating!).
To my right, on the desk, at this moment, is an opened copy of The Moon is Always Female, a book of poetry by Marge Piercy. It’ s been here at least a month. Only two small triangular pieces of pages are visible. One says "64", the page number of the poem I was looking for, when I brought the book up from the poetry shelf downstairs because I’d intended to quote a few lines from "Attack of the Squash People" here. But there the book lies, still, now largely buried: a half-page of address stickers, a note from Charles Schwab about my barely-there-anymore IRA, a CD of pictures David took at the Unity rally, a pair of orange-handled scissors, a blue see-through plastic envelope into which I place bills that have been paid, and a few bills that have, in fact, been paid but have not yet been put in the blue envelope. Nothing in this pile can simply be yanked like a weed. Every single piece of paper requires more complex action. This is why I come into my office and feel, often, guilt.
As opposed to coming into the garden. and feeling joy, satisfaction, and surprise. In a garden, things
change! For the better! On their own! (Provided, of course, you do the basics; stay on top of weeding, water if hasn’t rained). The sun-gold tomatoes, greenish yesterday, are now bright yellow, ready to eat on the spot! That fat bud on the Grand Commander lily has opened! The Kentucky Wonder beans have shot up the pole another six inches! Look at the way the morning light is catching the red leaves of the beet seedlings, they’ve turned into rubies! Left, David captured the latter, only this morning.
Kick # Two: it’s an edible treasure hunt. Some weeds aren’t weeds: they’re edible wild plants which arrived in the garden on their own. So while I’m yanking and flinging bindweed and johnson grass into the weed-bucket, I’m also,
more gently, looking for, finding, and placing lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium album) and purslane (Portulaca oleracea) in the bright yellow colander, to be brought to the kitchen, washed, sometimes steamed, and eaten, raw or cooked. Click on the picture, left, and you’ll see, under one of our squash plants, the enthusiastic
reddish-stemmed succulent purslane growing at its base. Below this,
said colander: purslane (round leaves) and lamb’s quarter (jagged-edged, arrow-shaped leaves in the left foreground and behind it two spectacular lettuces, the next-to- last of spring’s crop) This morning our post-gardening breakfast was an omelet filled with just-picked steamed purslane and lamb’s-quarter, a little Parmesan, some cut-up potatoes leftover from last night’s parsley-buttered potatoes. Grainy sourdough wholegrain toast with that.
Eating this breakfast on the screen porch, gazing out across the view to New Hampshire, one of those moments of perfect contentment, where you think, "I must have done something right, to be right here right now."
Now purslane is, according to a recent blog article in the New York Times, one of the vegetables recommended by nutritionist Jonny Bowden in his book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. It’s also, evidently, a high status, trendy food in the city: a current foodie’s food. Though purslane was considered too hard to find to make the Times’s list of "11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating," the newspaper recently referred back to its own report of research dating back two decades:
Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, a Washington, D.C., nutrition researcher, has
found that purslane, a wild green sold in farmers markets and easily
grown as a house plant, contains large amounts of omega-3. Purslane has
long been used in folk medicine to treat inflammation, Dr. Simopoulos
points out, adding that the low rates of cancer and heart disease in
her native Greece may be partly due to the liberal use of purslane in
soups and salads. ( New York Times, April 17, 1988)
But there’s the purslane, growing away of its own accord, out in my garden.
Yo-Anka, you wild-woman, R.I.P.
I recognize the plant thanks to Yo-Anka Light. As I mentioned in Identity Gumbo, astilbe connects me to the economist Eliot Janeway. But purslane, and flower-arranging, connect me to Yo-Anka Light, a Eureka Springs (Arkansas) Character-with-a-capital-C.
Yo-Anka died at age 66, in 2002 (here is a letter she wrote to the editor of the local paper, the Lovely County Citizen, touching on her childhood in Europe during World War II; she wrote it shortly after 9-11). I knew her as an eccentric organic gardener who used to bring vegetables and flower bouquets around to Dairy Hollow House, the inn I once owned with Ned back when in Arkansas. Yo-Anka had, long ago, been a prostitute in Amsterdam. Or was it Copenhagen? I’m not sure how she got from there to being a farmer in the Ozarks, but somehow, she did. She sold her gorgeous produce, beautifully displayed, from the back of a small closed pick-up. She’d open the back gate of the truck with great drama, revealing a gorgeous array of produce, a display somewhere between a boutique florist’s and a high-end specialty produce market (no farmers market, where her vegetables and flowers might get lost in the crowd, for her).
She dressed with equal drama, always in stop-you-in-your-tracks costumes: fortune-teller style ensembles that were layered, vintage combinations of her own creation. There were often with full skirts, and mixes of solids and prints chosen so the same three or four bright colors of the day would be repeated artistically head to toe — fuchsia, orange, yellow, green and black, say. And the rows of bangles which climbed her lean arms, and the multiple necklaces, and the dangly earrings, would echo the day’s color scheme. She often jingled. She was her own canvas, on which she painted daily. It was impossible not to notice, and admire, her and her presentations.
You never knew when Yo-Anka might show up: she stopped by (with her much-younger boyfriend, who had survived being struck by lightning; no kidding, literally!) whenever the spirit, and garden, moved her. "Yo-Anka’s here!" someone from the front desk would call, and we’d all come from the kitchen to admire the splendid, outrageously overpriced array of vegetables and bouquets (each tied with jute twine and stuck in a mason-jar of water, a mix of garden- and wildflowers). Her face, very tan, was heavily lined: sun damage, plus, in direct contradiction to her gardening practices and macrobiotic diet, she smoked like a chimney (she also always, invariably, helped herself to a cup or two of Dairy Hollow coffee, which she drank, black, rapidly). She was from the Netherlands, and spoke with a heavy accent and unusual syntax: whenever I use collards (which, for those of you who don’t know, are a green that’s pronounced KAH-lerds), I hear Yo-Anka’s smoky, accented voice saying, "I have today some very nice co-LARDS, ya?"
Yo-Anka introduced me to purslane. She sold it, touting its healthfulness and rarity. She turned out to be right on its healthfulness: it’s not only high in omega-3s, it’s even supposed to be a cure for depression. But she was (knowingly) mistaken on its rarity. As befitted its wonders, she charged astronomically, never for a moment letting on that it was a ubiquitous, incredibly easy-to-gather shallow-rooted weed. I was thus surprised, and delighted, to find it growing vigorously all on its own, its plump red-green stems and juicy, slightly tart leaves amiably covering the ground, in my Vermont garden (no doubt it did, as well, in Arkansas). I belly-laughed the first time I thought about all this, and sent a thank you of admiration to Yo-Anka, that sui generis marketer. You knew you were being hustled by her, but you couldn’t help going along for the ride. Thank you, Yo-Anka, wherever you are.
Perhaps this — thinking about the strange rich presence of people in our lives, and how, even in their absence, they stay with us, even those who didn’t seem all that significant at the moment — is a good time to finally employ that quote from Marge Piercy’s "Attack of the Squash People."
The poem is about zucchini, at the height of its fecundity: ways to use it, trying to give it away when all your friends and neighbors already have too much of it in their own gardens. All true, as anyone who has ever grown it knows. (Last year on the bench outside of L.A. Burdicks, I actually saw a box heaped with zukes, a plea in black felt-tip marker on one of the cardboard flaps. "FREE. Please take. PLEASE.") Perhaps Piercy’s words make sense of the compulsiveness of gardening in a place where the growing season is brief and extreme, as the winter is long, and extreme. Here are the concluding lines from the last verse of the poem, in which Piercy addresses the zucchini directly:
… You give and give
too much, like summer days
limp with heat, thunderstorms
bursting their bags on our heads,
as we salt and freeze and pickle
for the too little to come.
And now, I will take the book back downstairs and my desk will be, incrementally, neater.
Watch for the Unity posts.