I’m grateful for so many things today, including hot running water, cold drinking water, and water in hoses for the yarden. I’m grateful that the Say’s phoebes are happily nesting right over the living room window and the juniper titmice are nesting in the hollow tree in the tortoise pen. I’m grateful that the redtail in the Smith Fork nest is clearly sitting on eggs or possibly even chicks the way she was poised on the edge of the nest when I drove by this morning. I’m grateful for another day alive mostly at home, mostly with Stellar, working, resting, walking, and eating good food. And I’m grateful for every little green thing that sprouts and grows in the garden, including the eight red-potato plants breaking through, six tiny new carrot cotylodons first up in the tub, and the radish sprouts in the tire. I’m excited every morning to go out into the yard-and-garden, the yarden, and see what’s new. I’m grateful after another full day to sit down in the evening with a relaxing adult beverage and a long conversation with my people, the Dog People, in Florida. And that unspools another long, circular thread of gratitude in my thoughts for all the years of love and growth, adventure and comfort, dogs and more dogs, these dear friends have brought into my life. So many good things come in circles, including potatoes in a bucket, cocktails, seasons, friendships, and the days of our lives.
Of the numerous things I’m grateful for today, including wise teachers and more tulips, I’m grateful for Boyz Lunch. I didn’t raise a family or even marry. There was never anyone I always had to cook for. Without cooking for children (the hasty routine breakfasts day after day, the packed lunches, the weeknight dinners week after week after week for years), I never got in the habit of three meals a day. I’ve just recently learned to cook for myself consistently. But I’ve always loved to cook for other people.
For about five years I’ve been cooking lunch for two friends, older gentlemen, or as they would say, geezers. They were meeting at a restaurant once a week; things changed, I started cooking, and enjoying the meal with them. The last time we dined together without masks was March 11 last year, the day before the country shut down. We put it on hold for a few months as things settled out, and in June we resumed lunches at a distance outside. At our first lunch back, our dear friend Michael was supposed to come too, but he’d been by then two days in the hospital; our next lunch we spent processing the news that he’d died that morning.
We met the rest of the summer two or three times a month and into the early fall while we could still eat outside. But then the big freeze came, killing so many fruit trees in the valley (as we learned this spring) and Boyz Lunch ceased for winter. What a difference a year makes: Many of our trees are dead from that fluke October freeze, including my almond tree. Some of our friends are dead. Many of my beloveds are dead. So much has changed, and I think, I hope, in a beneficial way. We need to learn to live more lightly on the planet, and this novel coronavirus woke many people up to that truth.
We zoomed sometimes through the winter just to stay in touch, and today I am so grateful that we finally got to gather again outside, around the table, without masks, all of us with some supposed level of immunity. Recently our zoom conversations have focused on drought, and we circled back to that again today. Where would we choose to move if we had to leave here because of no water? John said, “I don’t have to think about it because I’ll be dead.” Philip and I concluded there’s really nowhere on earth we’d rather be. Where will the climate refugees go when it starts being the US southwest? They’ll go northwest, or northeast, north for sure where there will still be water. But we’ll stay here because it’s home, and take our chances. Then we started talking about The Water Knife…
I’m grateful we still have water. I’m grateful that we all made it through Covid – thus far. I’m grateful for the conversation, which is always interesting, and reassuring to me in an odd way. I’m grateful for the friendship, support, and help with firewood. And as much as anything about these lunches, I’m grateful for the opportunity to make delicious food and serve it to people I love who thoroughly enjoy it.
I don’t know who she is, but I’m sure grateful that her recipe for sponge cake came to my attention. Kim made a cookbook of her great-grandmother’s recipes many years ago, called Rosalie’s Kitchen. When she texted a picture of this amazing cake a few weeks back, I knew I had to try it, and was grateful she’d given me a copy of the cookbook. (I’ll be taking a crack at Rosalie’s biscotti pretty soon.) I was excited to try a genuine Genoese Sponge for the first time, grateful the Great British Baking Show had given me courage and incentive to try it, and grateful I had enough good Bad Dog eggs, milk, whipping cream, and everything else I needed to make it.
I’m grateful to have most of my mother’s ancestral recipes. One I hadn’t made in at least forty years was Granny’s Fudge. Granny was my dad’s mother, but my mom adopted many of Granny’s wonderful traditional Tennessee recipes as her own signature dishes, and fudge was one that only came out at Christmas. Along with May’s sugar cookies that we’d decorated that day, these were the two things we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how the fudge lasted til Santa came, honestly; I just made my second batch in a month and have already eaten so much my teeth hurt.
It seemed so complicated and time-consuming when I was a child. I’m grateful that years of experience have shifted my perspective on fudgemaking, as on so many other and more vital subjects. It’s pretty simple, but it requires close observation and finesse to do things like “cook to soft ball stage” and “beat until just right.” It requires attention and skill, just like living mindfully.
I modified the recipe just a bit. It calls for oleo. I’m sure this was my mother’s substitution because I’m sure Granny made this for decades before oleo existed, so I used butter, of course. You melt the butter in a heavy pan, and mix together the sweeteners and milk, then add this to the butter and bring to a boil. Gradually add the chocolate til it’s all melted, stirring the whole time. I remember as a little girl peering over the top of the pan and being cautioned. One splash of this molten candy, I realize now, would cause a serious burn. I’m grateful I’ve learned to back away from dangerous heat.
I made a couple of mistakes with the first batch, resulting in a tasty hard candy rather than the creamy fudge I was expecting. A perfect example of impact bias. Impact bias describes how “our mind consistently misjudges how much happiness or how much suffering (and its duration and intensity) a future event will bring us.” I expected a certain level of delight in the finished fudge. I was very particular, using a candy thermometer to take it up to 235º with constant stirring. Well, at high altitude, I figured out (too late), soft ball stage is at a lower temperature: It was pretty much hard ball when I dripped a drop into the ice water. Then I made the mistake of scooping it into a cold metal bowl to beat it, thinking that would make the beating process shorter, and it did: the fudge suddenly set as I was beating it and I barely managed to spread it in the pan before it was hard. Too hard. So this thing, that I though would taste so delicious, whose texture I craved, and I was sure would make me so happy… it let me down. I wasn’t nearly as happy as I expected to be as I stood there crunching on hard candy with the right taste and completely wrong texture.
The second batch, however, has made me happy all day! And I know it’s made some other people happy, too, since I sent some home with the Bad Dogs after they delivered groceries. I’m so grateful to these dear friends for continuing to deliver groceries and other necessities, long after many people may have given up on humoring my self-imposed isolation. Their consideration gives me a strong measure of peace in this fraught time. After ten minutes in the post office last Friday I was traumatized for the whole weekend. Out of five men who entered the tiny space while I was shipping packages, only one wore a mask. Three lingered and chatted right behind me, one of them huffing and puffing with forceful exhalations. I couldn’t find the words to simply turn around and say, “Excuse me, can you all please wait outside? I’m at high risk for the virus.”
I couldn’t find the words because I assumed them to be Covid deniers, based on the absence of masks. Unskillfully, I couldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, nor trust my own voice. My head fills with static sometimes under stress. I couldn’t stay there another minute with the big bad wolf three feet behind me audibly spewing whatever microbes he was harboring into that tight little space. I wrapped up the transaction without mailing my last parcel, which required a customs form. Skillfully, I left. The grocery store’s not much better, with a pretty consistent rate of at least 50% of customers unmasked. I get that my risk threshold is extreme compared to most people’s. But so is my familiarity with devastating chronic illness. So I’m grateful for friends who will shop for me, and eager to reciprocate their generosity.
Yes, the second batch delivered, just solid enough with the perfect creamy texture. After looking up my hypothesis, I recalibrated the temperature and pulled the fudge off the heat at 225º, then “beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy).” I got it poured into the buttered pan just barely in time to smooth the top before it started to harden. I had to leave more in the pan than I would have liked as it set so quickly. These timing and texture details are what makes it seem like a difficult recipe, I guess. You have very short, very specific windows in which to accomplish essential actions for a successful outcome, as one often does in threading a day. I gained just a wee bit more experience that will improve my next effort.
I’m grateful for this day that brought me kindness from friends, success in my culinary venture, and a mouthful of insights about how these human minds, with their expectations and biases, yank us around like a powerful untrained puppy straining at the leash. And then, outside for a work break, I cried out in wonder and delight as I spied the first crocus blooms! I shared that joy with a friend that I knew was also waiting for this harbinger in her yard, and she replied with a fitting quote:
"A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace." ~ David Steindl-Rast
Granny's Fudge Recipe 3 squares unsweetened chocolate 1 ¼ cup white sugar 1 ¼ cup packed brown sugar ¼ cup white Karo ⅔ cup milk ½ stick butter Melt the butter in a heavy pan. Mix sugars, Karo, and milk, and add to melted butter, stirring. When this boils, gradually add chocolate. Keep stirring. Cook to soft ball stage and remove from heat. Add one pinch salt. Beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy). Pour in buttered pan, and cut before it hardens.
So simple, and so delicious!
I am grateful that I made it to 62. Grateful that my parents, despite their challenges, raised me well and with plenty of love, and raised me to hold certain values among which number … well, another time for elucidating those, but they definitely did their best, and I turned out pretty OK, and for that I’m grateful. I’m grateful to live this part of my life in this part of the vast world, surrounded by natural beauty, supportive community, and kind friends. I’m grateful that even in the social distance of Covid, I was able to celebrate my birthday all day long in many and wonderful ways.
I didn’t get done half of what I’d hoped to today, but that’s OK. I did connect with a lot of people, and allowed myself to receive their generous wishes for a happy birthday. I made connection a priority this day that comes but once a year, this precious day that will never come again. I’m grateful for all the warm wishes that came on Facebook, in the mail, by phone, text, email, zoom, and by special hand-delivery. For most of my life, I confess, I have not felt myself to be lovable: I must concede to the majority today, and acknowledge that all these birthday well-wishers can’t be wrong. I’m grateful, in this moment, to feel lovable, and loved. And loving.
Going into this new year, I’m grateful for friends who have traveled this life with me, those I met just last year and those I’ve known since childhood, those who came into my life along the way and those who may arrive this new year. Thinking of friends this morning, I imagined writing a rhyming ABCs like Edward Gorey’s: A is for Amy who once saved my life, B is for Bethie a multiple wife, C is for Carol who lived in the parks, D is for David who fishes for sharks….
That silly imagining got me to reread “The Ghashlycrumb Tinies,” because it always makes me laugh, and besides that, it reminds us that death is certain, time of death uncertain. That recollection motivates me to wake up every day grateful, and determined to live this one precious day to its fullest.
All the little children in Gorey’s story meet a creatively untimely end. In my ABCs my friends wouldn’t die, they’d live each day in genuine happiness, and get plenty of sleep. Auntie told me once that when she couldn’t fall asleep she did what her grandmother taught her: instead of counting sheep, she would name her friends, starting with A, all the way to Z. I asked her about X. She said she was usually asleep by the time she got there. I’ve used this trick a few times to fall asleep. Sometimes I make it to the end and start the alphabet over with different names. I’m flexible: they don’t all have to be alive still, or human, or even actual friends as long as I’ve actually met them. I once shared a house for awhile with a grandpa named Q, so he’s always my go-to there. Once I met Marla’s granddaughter I had X covered.
Human or animal, girl or boy, F is for Friendship that brings me great joy.
The last of 2019’s almond crop, store-bought organic romaine and cheddar, and homemade ranch dressing: so much to be grateful for within a simple salad in deep winter. Grateful for the almond tree, that feeds bees in spring and provided pounds of fruit last year; this second crop proved the tree is not a bitter almond after all but a sweet one. This year, drought and an exceptionally hard spring freeze yielded only a handful of nuts, which I left for birds and squirrels. I still had a bag frozen from the previous summer, and thawed them out last week intending to bake or cook with them. After thawing, I slow-roasted them with a spritz of olive oil and some kosher salt, until they were crunchy, and set them on the counter to cool.
I keep snicking a few here and there over the next few days til I can get time to bake, and next thing I know, there aren’t enough left in the bowl to grind for a torte. A couple more days and all that’s left is a handful for salad. Oh well, and yum! Each crunch is a reminder of all that each almond took to get here.
I tried the “tarp under the tree whack it with a broom” method of harvesting, but it felt all wrong, smacking the limbs of the living tree, so after a few whacks I gathered the sheet and went back to snapping individual nuts or handfuls off the twigs. Over the course of a few weeks, I harvested several bowls full and enjoyed sitting outside processing them. Most I used before I harvested the next batch, and I saved the last in the freezer.
So, today I’m grateful for almonds in winter, and grateful for this trip down memory lane. I’m grateful for Philip, who among other demonstrations of friendship delivers groceries, grateful he’s survived Covid to once again bring cheddar cheese and greens, grateful for the growers and pickers of organic romaine, the makers of cheese, all the people all along the trail of ways these foods get to the store, drivers, road maintainers, all the conditions that make it happen that Philip can buy lettuce in December….
The Colonel drilled into me the importance of the right tool for the job. It’s a refrain I hear often in my head when I’m working in the garden or the kitchen. Because I was raised in a throwaway culture, though, it’s taken me awhile to learn the importance of regular and proper maintenance. I’ve re-oiled the cutting boards a few times since sanding them. I was thinking I should invest in a new big cutting board and really take care of it from the beginning, sanding it and the others regularly, but I hadn’t gotten around to it when Cousin Melinda offered to send me one for Christmas.
And she did! I’m grateful for this new cutting board, and will tend it well for many years. Melinda lives in Kentucky, not far from Berea College, the first integrated, co-ed college in the south, with a remarkable zero tuition, work-study program that includes student crafts industries like high-quality brooms and… cutting boards. I’m grateful that I got to visit Berea one year when I stopped at Melinda’s house for a few days on a cross-country trip. I’m grateful for the student who made this cutting board, for the teachers who taught him or her, for the trees that gave up the wood…. In gratitude practice, you eventually figure out that everything is interdependent.
Though we didn’t grow up together, Melinda and I connected a few meaningful times in our younger years, and then about sixteen years ago we reconnected for good and for real. I couldn’t be more grateful to be family with my wonderful cousin, who comforted me after my mom died with the promise that she’ll remember that I love peanut soup. She’s probably forgotten that by now; just this morning we talked at length about our fading memories, how we can remember some things that happened but not when. I asked her when it was that I had stopped by her Kentucky home that first time. I had to look it up, and she had to ask her husband.
I was driving back to DC in the fall of 2003 when my dad mentioned that his niece lived near where I had stopped for the night at a hotel. “You should call her,” he said, so I did. I think I left a message. Six months later I was making the same drive east, with two dogs, a tortoise, a snake, and a carful of possessions as I moved back to help my mother through her last months with PSP. Melinda and her husband welcomed me and my menagerie with open arms, and since then we’ve been fortunate enough to visit here or there about once a year. Until this year, of course.
I’m grateful for the long, easy conversations we share by phone at random times, for her wisdom, medical knowledge, and wicked sense of humor. I’m grateful that through her, I was able to connect with her brothers and their families a little bit, and her dear father who will be 98 in February. Her mother and my father were siblings, and died a couple of years apart some time ago. I’m grateful to be able to explore family history with her in our conversations, comparing our sibling parents and their upbringing, to gain insight into who I was growing up and who I am today. I’m grateful that she’s game for any adventure I dream up while she’s visiting here, and that she’s eager to share her life in Kentucky with me. I’m grateful that even though my other mothers are gone, I still have Cousin Melinda to love me.
I am grateful ~ I can’t help it ~ for Christmas presents. As much as I practice non-attachment to stimulus-driven pleasure, and as much as I don’t want more stuff, I still take “conditional joy” as a friend called it, in opening presents. The pleasure of having some presents to open on Christmas morning hearkens back to the simpler time of childhood: but, the presents I give and get these days are smaller and seem to mean more. A jar of homemade of jam, a special glass, a paper platter of baked treats. We are putting more of ourselves and less of our money into presents, with the genuine satisfaction of knowing it really is the thought that counts.
Amy’s box, for example, was full of thoughtful little gifts. A wooden hook her father made for me in the shape of an R; a jar of homemade peach~blueberry~pepper jam, cloth napkins, chocolate, a couple of magnets, and a gift card for Penzey’s, a social-justice company with great spices and the motto Love People, Cook them Tasty Food. When my mom, aka Santa, stuffed our Christmas stockings she filled them with thoughtful tidbits she’d collected during the year, and at the bottom was the toe present, always the best gift. Opening Amy’s box this morning reminded me a little of opening my stocking, only there were several ‘toe presents.’
Grateful for homemade-handmade gifts of fizzy bath salts, an artful marbled bookmark, a pint of vanilla ice cream, a beeswax candle, all thoughtful presents that will disappear quickly or take up little space; but mostly grateful for the thoughtfulness of dear friends who gave me all these bright little treasures, and for those near and far who sent actual Christmas cards, making me feel loved and cared for. I know this holiday is hard for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and my heart aches for the copious suffering of others who haven’t got what I have: sufficient food, fresh water, warm shelter, and a life full of friendships, all making it easy for me to feel grateful and perfectly contented spending this holiday isolated, but not alone.
This morning I finally tried out the new vacuum I bought myself for Christmas, and it didn’t work. I did all the troubleshooting steps, but each time I started it the brush roll spun for about three seconds before stopping with its red light on. A bit annoyed, I mean I was finally ready to vacuum and the sun was blazing so there was plenty of power to run a 1300 watt appliance for awhile, I called Shark tech support. An hour later I had a new vacuum on the way after Yokine declared it was “clearly defective.”
He determined this through an app that let him use my phone camera to see what the problem was. I had tried it out a dozen times with various adjustments, and each time it took only a couple of seconds before the brush roll jammed. While Yokine was watching, naturally, the vacuum ran smoothly across the rug, no jam, no red light. “You’re magic!” I cried, and he laughed. We’d already gotten chummy after I inquired about his name, which I hadn’t understood the first time he said it.
“It’s a traditional Japanese name,” he said. “You… are you Japanese?” He didn’t sound Japanese. “No, Jamaican,” he said laughing. “I guess my mother just heard it and liked it.” As if it weren’t magic enough that I was talking with a vacuum technician in Kingston who could see my floor dirt. Well, then I put back on a piece I’d taken off, and the red light came on again. “I’m not magic,” he said a bit dejectedly.
I could have been frustrated at ‘wasting’ an hour of my morning when I had plenty of other things on my to-do list, including vacuuming the house which now isn’t gonna happen for another week. I’m grateful I was able to choose to be pleasant and treat him like a human being who had to work on Christmas Eve, instead of gripe self-righteously as I might have done some time ago. I asked him about Christmas in Jamaica, and how they’re doing with Covid, and was glad to hear that it’s “not so bad as in some other countries. We all did what our leader told us to do,” he said. Ha! Then we talked about US presidents a little bit, and had some more good laughs.
It was kind of hard to hang up when the call was over. We wished each other Merry Christmas, and told each other to stay safe and well. I’m grateful for the sense of genuine connection I felt with this stranger thousands of miles away in the tropics on this single-digit morning here, and for the technology that enabled our cross-cultural communication. I’m grateful for my friend Marion, whose poem came to mind in a surge of emotion as Yokine and I shared well-wishes before disconnecting; I wanted to tell him “I love you.” I felt it but I didn’t say it like Marion did.
“Only Connect” – E.M. ForsterA glass of wine in bed and Wendell Berry
on my lap. But I answer, and
it’s Lamar, calling about protection
for my credit card. “You can protect
your credit, ma’am, for just 70 cents
per hundred dollars. Can I sign you up?”
I like his young, black voice. As though
it’s a possibility, I calculate
on my bookmark, quickly. “I can’t
afford to be protected. You know?”
Lamar clears his throat. In the brief silence,
I ask, “Do you have credit card protection?”
He half laughs. “No credit card.”
We both laugh. “Hey,” I say. “Wendell
Berry doesn’t have one, either.”
“Yeah?” he says. “Is that your dog?”
“Nooo! That’s a very good writer!”
We laugh longer this time.
“Well … Thanks for your time. … Uh,
if you should want details on credit protection…”
“You take care of yourself, Lamar. I love you.”
“Yeah, Ma’am. Thanks. You, too.”
I hang up, aghast. “I love you,”
I hear myself say! I look down.
A line of Wendell Berry looks back:
“That I may have spoken well at times
is not natural. A wonder is what it is.”