Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Burnt Toast

     The way I make toast is enough to drive anyone crazy. It has. It does. Yet, zealously, I still strive for those two perfect slices with my morning tea.

     I keep my bread in the refrigerator because it is a sprouted grain variety without any preservatives. I discovered a few years ago that cold bread doesn’t toast evenly so I warm it up a bit in the toaster before I start the actual process. And it is a process. I put the bread in the toaster for one minute at a time. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. You get the idea. Between all the upping and downing I give it a rest to let some of the moisture evaporate. I do this because, unlike many, I want my toast crispy all the way through—but not too brown. And I don’t want the pat of butter (perhaps, pat is an understatement) and the dollop of jam compromising the crunch.

     Does it sound obsessive to you? Probably. I know that anyone in the house waiting to use the toaster after me thinks that it is. Sometimes I miscalculate and must add scraping into the ritual. Sometimes I throw it away and start over. I don’t know anyone who really enjoys burnt toast. Burnt toast is a bummer.

     But it isn’t the end of the world, is it? In fact, it is nothing more than crumbs when compared to real tragedy.

     I have a book on my shelf that I re-read every few years. Mrs. Mike is a story about Kathy, an Irish girl in the early twentieth century who travels from Boston to her uncle's home in Calgary to recover from pleurisy and marries Mike Flannigan, a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Kathy leaves behind everything that is familiar to move with her husband to isolated posts in the far north of British Columbia and Alberta. In just a few short years she experiences the kind of hardship and heartache that would break many woman. It nearly breaks Kathy.

     When she returns home to her mother’s boarding house in Boston to recover from her devastating losses, she is plunged into the everyday concerns of smaller lives. Burnt toast in the morning becomes an occasion for exaggerated discord and complaint among the boarders, and nineteen-year-old Kathy realizes how much adversity has changed her, how it has added depth and dimension to her life. As Sergeant Mike Flannigan tells her, “When little things are so important, it's because there aren’t any big ones.”

     Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman is more than a memorable romance and adventure story. Without being didactic, it serves as a poignant tribute to endurance. We all experience spilt milk and burnt toast moments, but it is often the harsher struggles that give our lives definition; and how we respond to them shows the world who we really are.  Not many lives run in straight, easy lines. The book is primarily a novel, but knowing that some of it is based on the life of a real woman gives it more heft. It is a book that I will continue to read again and again and, in my estimation, that makes it a classic.

Burnt Toast by Todd Gipstein

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hot Mess

     We took a Canadian colleague of my husband's to dinner last week. He insisted we try a small plate of poutine. It has been a popular dish in Canada for decades. Perhaps you have heard of it.

     I hadn't.

     French fries smothered in gravy with bits of meat, cheese curds and scallions. It sounded rich, heavy and slightly disgusting to me. A hot mess of grease on grease on grease. Not my idea of deliciousness. But I didn't want to be a stick-in-the-mud so I took a bite. It was rich, heavy and one of the most toothsome appetizers I have ever eaten. I ate a couple of bites of the one we had ordered to share, and then ordered one for my dinner with a house salad to balance the flavors and mitigate the guilt. Crisp fries, tender short rib pieces with savory gravy, melting cheese curds and bright scallions. Yum. I could go for another one right now.

     But I won't. At my age, it isn't the kind of food I can make a habit of; I can't afford to make a hot mess of my health, but you can be sure it won't be the last time I will order poutine.

     And also most likely not for the last time, I am reminded not to judge a book by its cover.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My Picture Gallery - Roses by the Sea

     Even though I don’t subscribe to it, I understand the allure of Pinterest and have spent many pleasant hours wandering through virtual galleries admiring other folk’s pictures. My decorating style—if you can call it a style—leans toward the spare; too much clutter crowds my mind and makes me restless, but if there is any area in which I run toward excess, it would be in hanging pictures.

     Roses by the Sea is one of my best. I lived for nearly forty years up and down the West Coast before moving to the Chicago area. Saltwater ran in my veins, mountains grew in my gardens and I still ache with the absence of them. A few years after I moved I saw this watercolor by Michigan born artist, Nita Engle, and I had to buy it. That is often the way with pictures that grab you by the hand and won't let you go until you give in and take them home with you. 

     When I look at it, I can easily imagine that I am standing on a cliff overlooking the Puget Sound in Washington. The rain has moved off over the cloud-colored water, and the skies have parted to let the sun scatter fire and diamonds in the furrows of the deep. The flowers that grow from the sowing of those seeds will be rooted in sea-dreams and woven of mist. I can hear the sweet, sad keening of the gulls as they forage for fish, and the waves of wind washing over the cliff-edge are savory with salt. In the distance, farther than I can see, there are ferries crawling between green islands, liquid-eyed seals, and black and white whale tails parting the water. The kingdom of the sea flows to the edge of the sky upon a tide of myth. I stand gazing into the gray for so long that moss grows over my feet.

     The painting is a poster-sized print that hangs in my kitchen. The frame is pretty too. It is a dark walnut with brass-colored highlights and is embossed with wavelets and trailing sea roses.  This cherished picture is my Window to the West and every hour I spend with it brings me joy.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Snow Again

It is snowing again...

Last night, I dreamed of small white flowers.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Glitter and Glory

     We’ve had snow on the ground since early December. None of it has been very deep, except where we pile it into mountains beside the driveway. A day or two above freezing and the snow recedes, the grass begins to show—not green grass, of course, but the memory of it. Then it snows again. Winter drops a veil over our dreams in a guise the color of cold.

     But I like winter, and not just the winter that happens on the inside of the house: the cozy comforters, hearth-fires, and singing teakettles. I like the bitter cold that paints feathers and fronds on my window and rainbows around the sun; that freezes the air to make dust diamonds or soap bubble crystals; a cold that eases into icicles and snow.

     The sun came out last Saturday, trailing a scarf of aching blue across the sky. I went out to clear drifts from the driveway before the next snowfall. A skin of ice had formed overnight and the asphalt was treacherous. I wrapped my face in a muffler against the scouring winds and went to work. It grew warm under the layers and down, too warm to go back in the house when the shoveling was done, so I went for a walk. It was only a short walk because of the cold; just down to the play park a couple of blocks away.

     The park was crunchy with unbroken snow, and blue shadows gathered in the hollows of my bootprints. I sat down on a bench with my face lifted toward the warm and drank a cup or two of shine. Shine of the sun beating brightness from the snow; shine from the bare-limbed trees blazing with light; shine from the birds calling joy-words to one another; shine even from the wind making music in the pines at the edge of the park.

     Other than a quick dash through a parking lot or down to the mailbox, I had been cocooned inside the house for weeks. As I sat in the cold, steeping myself in the hard, bright glitter and glory of the winter afternoon, I felt happy. The glory seeped into my soul. The sun had laid its hand on my head with a benediction.

     Yes, I grow weary of winter; of the cold and the gray; of being shut up indoors for weeks at a time; of moving snow again and again, but all seasons have their afflictions, and all seasons have their work. The beauty and wonder of each is the glitter and glory that is present in all of them.