Shells of glass to shield from winter
Leaf and flower, root and seed
Give the tender lives inside them
Shelter that they crave and need
In the warming arms of friendship
We in kind find safety, grace,
Shelter from the world’s hard trials
I had such a grand week at the conference. The 11th through 15th of March was my spouse’s purported Spring Break from the university, but as so often happens, most of the week was filled up with work. In this instance, the work was exceedingly pleasurable, but as it was the conference of the American Choral Directors Association, it was, as are most tremendously enjoyable activities, exhausting. Two, three or four concerts a day, master classes, seminars and sessions of all sorts, wandering the exhibitors’ booths, networking and lots of socializing and late, late nights are all piled into the ACDA conferences. By the end of the week, going home sounded beautifully and truly welcome.It might surprise some people to hear it, but by nature I’m an introvert, shy, and I used to have a fairly nasty perpetual case of social anxiety. Yeah, all that fun stuff. I spent a lot of years feeling scared and sick over every new meeting, every unfamiliar place or event. Luckily for me, there are such things as therapists, medications, and lots of family support and training. As a result, going to the various conventions, festivals and conferences that bring together the choral world from time to time has gone from what was, the first time I attended one with my then new husband, quite overwhelming and nerve-wracking to this last, which like its latest predecessors was a much-anticipated ‘family reunion’ with a great number of beloved friends and colleagues from all over the world.So I certainly had a grand week. Meeting with longtime friends from various places we’ve lived, choirs my husband’s conducted, and from our school days, and with ever so many outstanding colleagues, we got to celebrate with them all over music, lunches and dinners, receptions, walks-about-town, drinks and quiet conversations. We laughed and hugged and chattered with current and former students, with composers and conductors and publishers and singers and players, so many friends, and it was all tremendous fun. It made for long days and for short sleeps, for incredibly dry eyes from staying up way too late and for teary eyes from amazingly sweet meetings, no matter how fleeting, with our long-absent dear ones. Stellar music performed by both friends and strangers moved me to both sniffling and silly grins (sometimes simultaneously). It made me as happy and full of love for music and friends and life as I can get, and it made me so tired I could hardly move ten of my cells at a time. And it made me look forward with great intensity to the splendors of home. There, I can relish in retrospect all the sweetness of the multitude of marvels granted by a superb week. And I can revel in Just. Plain. Being. Home.
Lest you think I’m so thrifty, what with my numerous posts regarding the delights of leftovers, hashed and rehashed, that I’m not equally overindulgent when it comes to food freshly prepared, I could just refer you to all of the other Foodie Tuesday posts regaling you with proof positive of the opposite. Wherever, whenever and however I can get my choppers on it, I love good food. But of course if someone else has done the preparation, it’s often that much more to be–no pun intended–relished. Who doesn’t love having somebody else do all the work, I ask you.
So when I do go out to dine, I’m very pleased if it turns out there’s more to the meal than can be eaten at one sitting. Good once, good twice. In fact, good twice can = good at least three times, as in a recent casserole-like conglomeration of leftovers from eating out more than once upon a weekend. Convenient to the occasion, I had picked up a small carton of ready-made Parmesan tuiles (yes, I do know how to make them by hand, but there they were staring right at me in the store) and had also just taken it into my head to also make a sort of onion jam, so I already had good companions to side the dish. The ‘jam’ was simply two large yellow onions all sliced up thinly, three modest sized navel oranges (cut segments plus the peel of about a quarter orange, chopped), a half cup of butter and a half cup of dry sherry, a big pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of honey, all cooked down together for about 24 hours in my slow cooker until fully caramelized. The tuiles were of course prepared by the even more complicated method of Open Packet, Place Contents on Plate variety.In spite of such ridiculous ease, the simplicity of preparing the ‘casserole’ was its rival in that regard. I chopped up and stirred together these leftovers from my weekend restaurant peregrinations: 1 chicken paillard, grilled with Italian seasonings and heaped with diced ripe tomatoes and parsley; 1 handful of hand-cut french fries made in beef tallow; about a cup of deep-fried zucchini, light breading and all. I seasoned them with a little smoked paprika, mixed them with about a half-cup of plain yogurt and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, heated the whole thing in a covered casserole until it melted and melded together, and voilà! Instant main dish happiness. That it all came together with so little effort on my part only added to its savor. ‘Cause that sort of lazy success is exactly what appeals to this person who is mighty thrifty with her kitchen time.
I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
That which is seen by the untrained eye of the casual observer is an older man, an elderly man, perhaps a shell of his former self. Not someone with a lot of use and life adventure left in him. Handsome, perhaps, in his latter years, with this silver hair and these pale clear eyes, with his faintly stooping posture before a window where no single thing that’s new is seen; elegant in his quiet way, and maybe wise. But not more.
What cannot be seen is the forty-two years he spent working for the postal service, learning the business from the bottom up and eventually teaching not just the next generation that would follow him but the next after that as well. There is no way to know at merely a glance that he tended a beautiful garden on Sunday afternoons where he grew too many vegetables for his own table so he shared the rest around the neighborhood. Invisible, too, is the love he keeps alive for his long-dead wife of thirty years, except for the small bouquet of flowers he picks from that garden of his and gives to their son and his wife every Monday because they were her favorite blooms. Yes, the flowers and the kids.
In the plain little vase where those flowers live for the week, there is room for all that can’t be seen in one quick look at the profile of a man who sits and meditates beside a window. Only by taking the time to appreciate the fulness of that humble bunch of flowers and all that they have to tell can anyone really know what to see when looking toward that window’s light. It takes a certain clarity to see what’s right in front of you.
Mediterranean-style foods bring with their ingredients and flavors a joyful dose of the sun that nurtured them into being. Eating Mediterranean-inflected foods almost makes me feel I’m giving my insides a solar power retrofit. I rather wish that this meant I would become the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine, but at least I hope there’s a noticeable mood enhancement in the short term when I indulge in such deliciousness.
A characteristic I’ve seen in the foods of sunny climes is that many of their indigenous cuisines have built-in traditions of hors-d’oeuvre style dining. Given warm temperatures, lighter meals of smaller portions can often be a grand way to ward off feeling overcooked as an eater. Many of these same food cultures are characterized by wonderfully intense flavors, and somehow the right combination of heightened spicy, zingy, smoky or, say, tomato-y tastes tends to make foods seem slightly more-ish to an extent that the nibbles make a perfectly fulfilling and lovely whole meal.
The treats of this occasion light up with some of that bright, vivid deliciousness and make for a nice nibble or snack, or when combined with a few more of their kind, a pleasant summery version of complete dining. No matter what the season or the weather.
A good sunshiny plate-full:
Stuffed grape leaves (homemade would undoubtedly be grand, but I’m not above choosing ready-made ones as I did here), marinated artichoke hearts, pimiento-stuffed green olives, sun-dried tomatoes rehydrated in red wine, and soft boiled egg, with a dip made of whole-milk yogurt seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and salt to taste.Sparked-up Three Bean Salad:
Three bean salad is a longtime favorite of American picnickers and lunchers, and there is a fairly classic style of making it: green and wax beans and kidney beans combined in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, sometimes with minced onion and even, occasionally, with added chickpeas–and often, using all canned beans for convenience and the traditional texture. There’s no law, however, that this already delicious old recipe can’t have a few surprises added. My latest combination was the simple three-bean version with only two small additions, canned (not marinated) baby corn, and for a contrasting splash of sweetness, some more of that minced sun-dried and red wine rehydrated tomato. The sun is inherent in the salad, but if I’m going to tweak it anyway, I couldn’t resist garnishing it with the first tender dandelion sunbeams that came my way.Even adding any of these individual items to a menu can heighten the flavors of the other foods in the meal and bring some of the same cheering pizzazz to the occasion. Think of serving the pickled-tasting salad alongside a deeply roasted leg of lamb, or trimming a magnificent platter of rosemary-scented pork roast with the plate-full at the top of the post, and adding a few fat-roasted potatoes; methinks there might be a whole number of diners that would feel sunlight pervading their innards and their spirits when presented with such taste treats. I know I wouldn’t mind even just repeating this part of the menu, and you never know when the rest might follow.
There is, of course, one overriding, excellent reason that Ireland should celebrate the remembrance of her patron saint with a vivid display of everything-green. Ireland is the Emerald Isle. I’m not Irish, but I suppose I can pretend to a certain level of affinity on the strength of two excellent reasons of my own, the first being that my Viking ancestors (if any of my Norse forebears were actually so intrepid and aggressive) had a pretty good chance of crossing paths somewhere along the line with their counterparts in the British Isles, Norwegians having gone on various exploratory and marauding forays in that direction. My patronymic (Wold), after all, sounds suspiciously more Anglo than Nordic to me, no matter how many in Norway do share the name.
The second and far kindlier tie I feel to Ireland is because I was born in the Emerald City (Seattle’s nickname) in the Evergreen State (Washington’s), surrounded by every known flavor of green and a few yet undiscovered, and I think it was anything but coincidental that on my one visit to Ireland thus far I felt remarkably at home even in the middle of the winter, when the chill and snow still couldn’t entirely subdue the exquisite greenness of the land. It may not have hurt this sense of connection that some of the locals on that trip asked me what part of Ireland I came from, given that my accent apparently wasn’t heard by them as being wildly different from some in the UK. In any event, as green and growing things resonate so deeply in my heart and soul, I can’t help but celebrate the beauty of Green while millions are wearing, spending, planting and drinking it, and otherwise rejoicing in the character seen as protector of the great green land of Eire on this most Irish of days.Here in this Emerald Land
Because there is no sapling in the earth
But that springs out when water wakes its seed
And sunlight calls it up in urgent need,
I think the rain and sun of equal worth–
Yet all the riches of a blooming world
No greater shine than that most humble weed
Whose leaf invites the passing deer to feed
Because its banners, sweetly green, unfurled–
No flower can surpass, exotic bloom
Outdo green’s living beauty or exceed
Its life-affirming sweetness when we heed
The subtler potency of its perfume–
And so I bow my head, ecstatic–sing
It’s possible that, given my genetic descent from a pair of neatnik parents, I keep a slightly fussier house than average. But I must emphasize the word ‘descent’, because the Czarina of Creative Chaos and the Lama of Laziness are my spiritual parents too and often win out in the balance between controlled environment and bombing aftermath. What this means in practice is simply that I often settle (and therefore, my housemate and our guests must, too) for ‘clean enough for safety’. I don’t like any sense of living in the bottom of a rubbish tip, let along canoeing a sewer [the kind with appalling effluents in it, not the kind that makes things out of fabric]. So I think I can fairly claim that I have never–barring being bedridden–let my environs fall into utter wrack and ruin, but there are times when I’d rather let sleeping heaps lie and be satisfied with relatively germ-free untidiness than spend all of my energies on a pristine home.
I can’t imagine wanting to have a ‘show house’ anyway. If I can’t slouch around a bit and put my feet up on the furniture (yes, dining surfaces excepted), it doesn’t feel comfortable enough for me to call Home. All the same, I enjoy those times when I’ve been in my cleaning-tornado mode enough to find whatever I need to find without pulling all of my remaining hair out by the roots, and to have the house all spiffed up and looking its prettiest beyond merely being generally non-toxic.
For that reason, deep cleaning is not saved exclusively for the Spring, and a few spates of active reorganization throughout the year are not only helpful but refreshing. When those bouts result not only in unearthing and offloading unused, excessively worn, dated, or redundant things from closets, cupboards and spaces that ought by rights to be airier or at least better used, that is exceedingly pleasant. When the result is more practical organization, it also means that not only are things pleasanter than before in the short term but they will be easier to maintain in that state and even to return to it when the busyness of the everyday has overridden good intentions and available time for a while. I may never have that DIY-goddess glory of everything in pretty and cute and magnificent containers, all labeled alphabetically with gorgeous calligraphy and stored so beautifully that the cabinets should remain forever open and on display, but I have what I want where I want it. At least for the time being. My putative parents of Chaos and Laziness do come calling, and they’re ever so much more trouble to have around the place than my biological ones. Ah, well; I’ve learned to live with them.
Someday I will retire. Ah, but how does one retire when one hasn’t been employed for pay outside of one’s home for a longish time, eh? How, to be more to the point, does one retire when one hasn’t been productive or purposeful or a contributing member of society?The very idea is preposterous. Crazy, really. But let’s be clear here: I wasn’t really that impressive and significant a member of the workforce when I was under contract to my various outside employers. Heck, some of them might conceivably have wished to put out a contract on me. But I digress. The thing is that this idea of retirement stems not entirely from my personal lack of a job-related work ethic (a.k.a. lazypantsitude) nor even, strictly speaking, from the retirement-contemplation infection I may or may not have caught from any of those near and dear to me, who may or may not include close friends and family members–it’s simply that Issue that so many people begin to contemplate with a bit of trepidation nowadays when the world of personal finance is so volatile and the future as unpredictable as it could possibly seem. It’s the persistent and slightly frightening specter of what will become of me, of any of us, when we opt out of the workaday world entirely and attempt to live a post-employment life. Retirement, as (or if) experienced nowadays, is a mighty scary mistress, sweet as sticky toffee pudding one minute and in the very next one, raving like a latecomer to the sale at Filene’s Basement.You will not be the least bit surprised that, no matter how modest and unconventional my work life has been, I am enamored enough of non-work-related occupations to desire the life of a retiree if (and when) I can lay my hands on it. So I consider, now, what it will really require in the way of planning and saving and earning and arranging between now and that magical date, whenever it may be, and am plotting a course through the intervening period that I hope will set me and my beloved up as well as can be for that eventuality. If any billionaires should happen to be reading this and simply itching to offload some of their excess samoleans into my personal coffers, of course I am willing to shoulder that happy responsibility. If anyone should be looking for some fantastic artworks to purchase for home, office, gift or birdcage-liner, I have stacks of material available for the buying. But I suspect it will take some other, further, additional and/or different approaches to actually put me in a reasonable position to retire.Don’t mind me, in the meantime, wigging out just a mite over the whole process. It’s how I handle mysteries and challenges. And yes, I am very well aware that worry about such a thing as retirement is entirely a rich person’s problem and thus not exactly worthy of much sympathy. Still, I do fuss over it a bit. Since I don’t have regular skills that have kept me gainfully employed (and even when I was employed, it was mostly in academia and selling art, so you can guess how gainful that all was), I shall just have to take my own tack, no matter how tangential it is to the norm. That is definitely how I tend to operate, and I can’t imagine that my life as a retiree will be any different in that regard.
After the labor that fills the day and long before full darkness falls,
We long to gather and go away, to leave the dimness of labor’s halls
And go back home to the fireside, where supper and books and armchairs wait,
To spend the remains of eventide over soup and a novel beside the grate.
This is the way the day should end, and peace and renewal repair the spent,
Frayed souls whose work was less than friend, for whom the fire is heaven-sent–