My Little Night Music

Invocation

From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn

Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…

What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,

And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed

Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,

And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.

But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,

And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!

Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,

And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.

What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along

To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!

When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,

For whoever needs the tending, let me be

A nightingale.Digital illo: Nightingale

Uncertainty and Hope

Beloved, let us sit down together in the shadow of the oaks; let us take deep draughts of fresh water from the clear, swift stream. In the scorching heat of the middle of day, let us take refreshment like the dragonflies that skim the water’s edge, and be restored by the caroling of birds in the distant shade.Digital illustration from a photo: By the Cooling Stream

The days are long and our work makes wearying and seemingly infinite demands, and we know that this will not soon change. There is change of many sorts ahead, this we know too, but what it will be is yet beyond our imagining. Thus it has been, and so shall it ever be: we travel our paths, seldom knowing quite where they lead, and we labor in darkness the while. Some days, the destination is sparkling joy, and on others it is marred by sorrow and strife; at times, the mists of uncertainty part and the way ahead becomes clear, and at others it remains quite fully obscure.

Photo montage: Beloved, Let Us Sit

What I know, Beloved, is this—that no matter how hard or easeful is the road and no matter what the destination holds for us, we walk our way together, you and I. We may long for clarity and even for the strength to wait for it, but in the meantime we will take our stops for breath along the way, sitting in shade when we may and drinking deeply from the icy stream, traveling always hand in hand no matter what the journey brings.

Doesn’t Matter If I’m the Only One

There are ways in which solitude and solitary pleasures are among the loveliest, the most inexplicably un-shareable delights we can have. Even those things that are enhanced by happy sharing with one companion, or many, can only be experienced internally in our own unique ways, through our own highly individualized filters and lenses of taste, belief, experience, knowledge, and longing.Digital illustration: From this Angle

The beauty of this is that the best things I experience or encounter can be met at several different levels. Even when I am among a host of fellow travelers on the occasion, I can have that communal adventure and be guided and shaped in my sense of its goodness and meaning by any or all of those around me, while the reflections in my heart may say to me, “and yet…” or find me collecting all of the data of the moment in some private interior compartment for later examination.

In those after-times, I am at leisure to contemplate the whole and all of its components and think whatever I will, feel whatever I will, now that I’m left to my own devices. From this slightly removed angle, my own particular skew, I may find that the true enjoyment of this part of my life comes as much from within, from my imperfect yet fully tailored perspective being so well suited to make me like what I have seen, heard, tasted, and sensed in it. That is a subtly different but wholly wonderful part of living life: being able, in solitude (whether actually alone or not) to see what is marvelous and admirable, exciting and fine, to me on my very own terms.

Discretionary Fun

Digital illustration/drawings: Mood & 'TudeI get the impression that some people treat non-work times as the only times when they’re allowed to be happy. I do understand the need for income that can drive one to spend time in a job that doesn’t fulfill any other need or desire in life, and many of those are in the least-compensated positions at low-paying employers’ as it is. Been there, done that.

But I can say, too, that the greatest misery in my work life was attitudinal, and the more I did to discover and avoid the things that made me unhappy in my work, the less miserable I was. The more I sought to learn what I enjoyed in work and chose ways to magnify that, the closer I got to contentment both at and out of the workplace.

I grew more cognizant, at the same time, of not wanting to waste precious time on work that challenged my inner playfulness or threatened my general sense of joy and purpose. I was given a great gift in being able recognize the longing and accept and pursue it by choosing a much lower-paying job (on paper, at least) with a great happiness-quotient. I’ve seen, over the years, that many of us are easily misled when we try to calculate what we think we need for our daily expenses, and how much it costs us to earn that. Yes, we get those paychecks, but if the job requires, say, clothes that we wouldn’t wear other than at work, child care, transportation, professional training and memberships, and that sort of thing, how much pay on an annual or monthly or hourly basis does it really cost to go beyond paying for those, at least far enough to keep a roof overhead and food on the table as well?

Nobody knows this awful kind of math better than the working poor. I’ve been in that category more than once in my life, but have always had safeguards others lacked—like friends or relatives from whom I could rent living space more cheaply than I could even a minuscule, run-down apartment in a scary part of town—so I also know that I am luckier than most. Now, when I am married to a person who is not only able to make enough income to support both of us but is willing to do so, I am among the most privileged and fortunate of creatures, and I know that, too.

But one of the best things I learned along the way when I was living on a very slender, sometimes sporadic, income, remains valuable to this day: if I spend so much time and energy on just ‘getting by’ in life and don’t put forth equal effort to enjoy, live, and love my life along the way, all of the pennies I earn are of little value at all. And while I can’t always afford the most thrilling and glamorous ways of keeping myself amused, especially when I do need to be working at any task or job, I had better find the simpler and cheaper ways and the most reliable ones to fill my life with happiness and contentment, I know by now that surrounding myself with people I love, admire, enjoy and respect is the very best solution. And if my job doesn’t allow for that kind of happiness and contentment, then it is costing me more than it pays, in the end.

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

Communal Keeping

Digital Collage: What Light is ThisWhat Light

What gleaming and pellucid light is this

That dances from the darkness into view,

As gently kind and tender as a kiss,

Drawing the violet warmth out of the blue—

What is this gracious, guiding, welcome light

That, numinous, its blessing shines on me

And bids me then, so warmed and kindled bright,

In turn to shine? ‘Tis Hospitality.

What, then, the lantern lighted as we part

To guide and keep us as we wander on,

No longer cold and dark as at the start,

Though time find us all yet asunder, gone—

What is the lamp that makes each soul a sun

And lights the path to gather us anew

From ends of earth, that beckons everyone

Back home? It’s Love that lights the whole way through.

There’s comfort in the midst of darkest night

Where Love and Hospitality alight.

I Went to the Shore

photoI was born near water. I am not an avid (or skillful) swimmer and I don’t enjoy lying on the beach sunning myself, what with the high probability I’d burst into vampiric flames, pale as I am. But oh, my, I do love being near the water. Specifically, I crave the sound and spray and the whisper-and-crash sounds of moving water. Lakes and ponds are all well and good, but when I’m here in my present digs in north Texas, I’m not often close enough to the lakes and rivers to get as attached to them as to I am my bloodstream as it flows in the million waterfalls of the Cascade and Olympic ranges and pours back into the heart of the Pacific Ocean.

So this summer’s travel was a homecoming in that way as well: returning to some of those places where I feel the most connected and whole. The people who fill my life come first, of course; wherever my great friends and loved ones are will always be home. The places I love to go, visit, work, play and stay anywhere in the world have their merits that designate them home when I’m there as well. But few things have the same depth of attachment that, ironically perhaps, does not ebb and flow but remains strong and steady at all times in me, the same compelling passion, as the sea.

It was good to be at the docks, the marinas, the edge of the ocean–on the shore again.photo