A Plague on All Our Houses

Even the most steadfastly unquestioning among believers in various versions of mainline religions will allow that, if their deity cares for them as a shepherd cares for sheep, their own religions, yes, even their own temples, mosques, and churches, sometimes harbor wolves in sheep’s clothing. Partisans of every political and philosophical school of thought have seen the unmasking of many such monsters that have hidden behind the guise of goodness and faithfulness, selflessness and judiciousness, or at least experienced the dire effects those have on the lives of the truly committed. There are reasons most languages have such large inventories of words like heretic and traitor, infidel, apostate, renegade, impostor, infiltrator, double agent, betrayer, and hypocrite.
Digital illustration: A Pox on Both Your Houses!

So it astounds me every day that such experienced, otherwise reasonable people are either afraid, or simply refuse, to regularly and thoroughly question and examine the sources of their information, whether they are people or inanimate forms of evidence. Even among the most dedicated, wise, and well-meaning persons the human flaws we all bear cause mistakes and missteps. The most widely accepted proofs of truth may have come about by means of equally imperfect human study and the telephonic accidents of human transcription and translation. No matter how inspired the origin of the wisdom, it can’t be guaranteed to get to the page and from hand to hand, meeting to meeting, one end of the surprisingly not flat earth to the other, without sometimes being misinterpreted or co-opted, whether it’s by the false sheep in the flock or by our own good intentions.

All I can say is that if such stubbornness against rigorously examining our beliefs and every source of them is at its roots a terror of self-examination, we are doomed. We will forever repeat the grim side of human history, by acting out of doubt, cowardice, and ignorance, assumptions that have as much chance of being incorrect as not, and hidebound inability to see the wolves in our very midst for fear of discovering our own culpability. Circling each other with rapiers drawn and fighting to uphold traditions or beliefs or codes that we have so ingrained that they are unquestioned no matter how wrong, we will only deserve the curse of Shakespeare’s Mercutio—who, by the way, may or may not have said “A plague a’ both your houses,” in the original text, but various scholars over the years have guessed at such a reconstruction of it. Even Shakespeare, that demigod of English literature, is only as reliable a source as the many readers and interpreters since his time can determine, assuming that there was one playwright and poet of that name and not, as some believe, some cadre of the great literary minds of that era. Don’t get me started.

I will say right out that I know full well that I am guilty of being poorly or misinformed on a host of topics, and a stubbornly slow learner on top of that. I am trying, however I may stumble along the way, to grow beyond such ossified thinking. If only we could all begin with the premise that the fault might be not in our stars but in our selves, I think we might discover that our reliance on incomplete or incorrect information puts us constantly at risk for inner and outer conflicts we ought to have laid aside or, better yet, avoided altogether. The Other Guy might in fact deserve a listen, and acting first, asking questions later is not a conversation but is likely instead to end in swords crossed and lives lost. Acting in haste or acting in hate, the result may be the same because we were ill prepared to ask the right questions, let alone come to a wise and humane conclusion as a result. There are, sadly and unquestionably, baddies among us. But even so, if we all insist on clinging to our own versions of the truth without regularly and rigorously questioning their verity, then the attack we are all under begins inside, not from any external enemy, real or imagined.

Things to Remember

Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.

My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.Photo: Mama's Embroidery

You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.

My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.

This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.Photo: Throwback Thursday

Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.

A Musical Tradition

The office where my esteemed spouse performs many of the studies and administrative duties comprising his workload outside of the conducting element at the church where he’s now interim chancel choir director hasn’t got a lot of stuff in it other than a big desk, a small piano and a couple of bookshelves. Most of the books that had filled the shelves went away with their owner, the previous director; a few that go with the office itself remain on the shelves, and all by themselves they tell quite a story. That’s the way of books in general, isn’t it.

It’s all the more so in this instance, by virtue of the books’ being vintage hymnals. The history of the United Methodist Church at large is in their pages. The history of this specific congregation within the UMC is there, too. And there’s a great deal of Protestant church history, Wesleyan history, English and American folk music and even larger and older parts of the musical tradition. All right there in the pages of some rather small, rather worn books that just happen to be full of hymns.

There are libraries; there are Protestant theological resources; there are music collections; there are history books. All of them are in this one room, in a handful of little old books. And that, in itself, is the nature and long-lived tradition of printed music in general. So much has been passed down in the oral traditions of so many cultures and religions and peoples, but there’s an enormous amount that lives on and grows and inspires because of those amazing repositories that exist in the written music that survives everyday use, one generation after another. I only hope that all such traditions can be preserved and enjoyed far beyond our lifetimes, whether in temples or towns, religions or regions, families or foundations, schools or individual choirs. Beyond inspiration or even enjoyment, these are great containers of food for thought.digital collage

Foodie Tuesday: Pizza & Beer

photoOurs is a household that both embodies and defies sex stereotypes. I am a female homemaker whose male partner is the sole income producer for us both. I wear dresses at least come of the time, and aside from academic gowns I’ve never known him to wear one. Though he has great legs and would look pretty cute in any old frock he threw on, I’m quite sure. It’s really not his style, all the same. He can get all misty over a sad movie just as well as I can, but he’s a pants-wearing guy. In food terms, we’re generally fairly well set into the expected tastes of our respective sexes. I like a frou-frou salad with baby lettuces, goat cheese in an almond crumb crust, fresh figs and mint-basil mandarin vinaigrette. My guy is mighty fond of meat and potatoes.

On the other hand, the second time this man who tends to avoid onions and garlic, sour cream and frou-frou salads–whose supertaster status leads to overwhelming visitations from sour or bitter hints in foods that to most others are relatively benign–asked me out to eat, it was for delicately crafted, raw fish and wasabi and pickled ginger filled sushi. And though hops make ‘manly’ beer unpalatable to my beloved, another loved one of mine taught me to appreciate a good beer, and I learned that it was a dandy companion to another famously male-craved food, pizza, and that together they could make this female pretty happy.

So when the opportunity for a really fine piece of pizza is not just sustenance but a great treat, I’m happy to dig in and eat. Especially if the pizza is one that doesn’t have a bunch of bitter or sour or Weird toppings, but rather the much-loved supreme deliciousness of good pepperoni and cheese and a slick of only a well-balanced ripe tomato sauce, the way my excellent spouse likes it best, so I can share it with him. And if I can wash down my tasty pizza with a good beer, then I will happily raise my glass in memory of Granny, who taught me to appreciate that the old-time stereotypical American image of men enjoying their beer and pizza in estrogen-free splendor was far from exclusive. And in memory of Gramps, whose sole-wage-earner retirement money paid for the beer and pizza Granny the homemaker bought for us while I was out with Gramps’s sons and grandsons, my uncles and cousins, practicing the ‘manly’ arts of working in construction as he had done for years before us. Keeping tradition and breaking with tradition. There’s always room in a good family, or a good stomach, for both.photoAll of this being said, with the help of my perspicacious, pizza-loving spouse and some research he’d read, I’ve recently discovered that avoiding wheat, of all things, seems to greatly reduce the hot flashes that have been the bane of my middle-aged existence since well before I was middle-aged. What to do? Wheat is the basis of the traditional pizza crust. Not to mention a key ingredient in lots of tasty beers. What!!! Is the universe spinning out of control???

Fear not, my good friends. I am finding that where there’s a hankering, there’s a way. Besides the existence of a number of flour mixes and recipes for them that substitute quite neatly and directly–and generally must more tastefully than in gluten-free days of yore–for wheat flour, I am also learning that there is an ever-expanding universe of alternatives for those who are forbidden wheat, whether by choice as in my case or perforce as in the lives and kitchens of celiacs, allergy sufferers and others who must avoid the offending grain. Stay tuned for the experiments that are sure to follow: rice and potato and nut crusts, vegetable stand-ins and stunt doubles, and more. Meanwhile, I will not shy away from a cold beer, just check to be sure that it’s a wheat-free variety. And of course there’s always a nice cold cider or lemonade or iced tea, or perhaps a fresh and icy strawberry-cucumber mojito, as they also make quite the dandy accompaniments to a slice of pizza, gluten-free or not, don’t you know. I’m quite certain Granny would approve.photo

How Quickly We Learn

Even when we’re young we pick up clues pretty swiftly regarding what sort of behavior and attitude is expected of us in our interactions with others. As a child, I learned ever so quickly that I am not the boss of anyone else and practically everyone else is the boss of me, and not much has ever changed in that department. Whether happily or unfortunately, depending entirely on your point of view, I also figured out as speedily as most kids do that as long as I behaved in the expected manner when anyone was watching I could get away with a fair amount of far more self-indulgent–if not subversive–ways. Sure does simplify my life!graphite drawingShow of Proper Respect

The Mistress in her jewelry and finery and furs

Thinks everyone should bow and kiss the ground—that’s also hers—

And genuflect before her grand tiara and her mace,

So that is what we tend to do—at least do to her face.digital illustration from a graphite drawingAll frivolous jocularity on the topic aside, however, getting trained by our elders and betters, in particular our mothers, is both more complicated and more happily meaningful for those of us who are blessed with great moms. Me, I’ve got two. The mother who gave birth to me and raised me from my days as an only mildly subversive little sprout into the silly but exceedingly happy big kid you see before you today is worthy of recognition as one of the great teachers not only for giving me a framework on which to hang my sense of right and wrong and general grasp of manners but also the education and freedom and knowledge of being unconditionally loved that enabled me to choose how to build on those foundations as I grew. My second Mom, brought to me courtesy of (her son) my beloved husband, gets credit for instilling the same curiosity and drive in her children and, in turn, for reinforcing in me through her example what it means to be a lively and lovely person who is good company, an active part of the household and community at every turn, and a tireless learner and adventurer who earns her place in those settings with remarkable grace. Whether I can live up to the standards set by either of my Moms remains to be seen, but they certainly give me the tools that should make it possible if anything can.

If it can’t, I guess I’ll have to fall back on my naturally ridiculous ways and just pretend to be better than I am for as long as I can keep up the front. Those of you who are looking for reliably good, sound company, go see Mom W and Mom S. And also my sisters and my sister-in-law, great mothers to their children, and all of those other mothers, who by birth, adoption, random acquisition and teaching, raise better people, who in turn make the world a better place altogether. All of whom I thank profusely not only on Mother’s Day but every day for being such great examples even for those of us who are a little too childish to be motherly examples ourselves. Go ahead, you can say it right in front of me. I’ve learned that much, at least!

The Green Man is on the Move

digital artwork from a drawingThough he may well have sprung from the roots of ancient earthbound deities, the Green Man remains alive and well and, at this season, inhabits garden and woodland alike, filling sun and shadow with his mischievous magicks. And this presence is a very welcome thing indeed. Few things can compare with the appearance of those tender sprouts, however miniscule and vulnerable, that bring new signs of life to the winter’s loamy floor, unfurl their banners on the tiniest twig of the smallest shrub. The mere sight of one small tip of leaf can bring an upsurge of life to the dormant veins of even a hardened person who’s waited through the dark and chill for newness to arrive.

Did the long freeze of January kill that little sapling that I found? No, here’s the faint, alluring swelling of a bud, the blushing edge of a leaflet, soon to open wide in exuberant yellow-green shouts of Spring. Has the ice of the short days and long, long nights wholly buried and killed my favorite herb, both branch and root? No, I see a hairline stripe of promising verdure in the bony bark of its woody little stem. Life is a bold, determined act, and with its brazen call brings out the denizens of Earth, first the bud and then the bloom, one small broken seed shooting out a multitude of growing things at the conjuring wave of the Green Man’s hand. Like him, I cannot help but grin when the world begins again to wake in leafy laughter.

Pastorale

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Mormor's swing, tucked into a corner under the maple tree that in springtime was full of naturalized trilliums, bleeding heart, wild currant, Scilla and other northwest treasures, and in summer, covered with Clematis durandii from foot to arbor . . .

This coming week I get to have consultations for bids on redoing our yard landscape! As I’ve plotted the Q&A lists extensively over time, I have been more and more recollecting my mother’s gardening style and values, and beyond that, returning to her father’s–Gramps’s. Their influences remain deeply embedded in my own ethos of gardening, to be sure.

I won’t be able to strictly replicate either of their styles or efforts, nor should I, since neither the climate and conditions of my current home nor my own personal imprint would make it useful or meaningful to do so. But what was truly valued by both of them in the general sense was upheld in their methods and the lovely and personal and hospitable outcomes of both because it was about combining the sensible and practical with the sort of building and design that would enable them to do more of the tasks of gardening that they each enjoyed, and fewer of those that they didn’t. In short, they were both ‘sustainable’ garden advocates long before there was such a popular trend, and they still both chose plants and arrangements and additions to the yard that suited their sentiments and likes.photoFor Gramps, of course, there was a strong influence of frugality that came from being first an immigrant (and even before that, presumably, from being raised by typically scrupulous Norwegian savers) and then a hard-working General Motors employee (he worked on the crew that produced the first amphibious vehicles). After all of that he was an independent farmer, mainly of sheep, and then also a longtime carpenter and home builder. He was never in any get-rich business, and he appreciated old-fashioned things and earthy things, so it wasn’t a stretch for him to look with his carpenter’s eye and see in his shed the makings of all sorts of fine pasture fencing, outbuildings, picnic tables, benches and more.

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Gramps's compost bins, quite beautiful in their own right and certainly very practical, as well as the models for Mom's own bins later . . . and, perhaps, mine yet to come . . .

His idea of plantings began with the practical as well, so if there was any space at all there was always a beautiful kitchen garden with corn, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, rhubarb, and all of that sort of loveliness, and between that and his fishing trips and raising lamb there was a lot of good eating. But beyond raising fine fruit and vegetables on his property, furnished with rich home-cooked compost from his lovely row of hand-built bins, Gramps did have a graceful nature-inspired aesthetic sensibility, capitalizing on the canopy of majestic Douglas-firs and filling in with the native understory treasury of dogwood and trilliums (the source, of course, of Mom’s first ones), azaleas and rhododendrons, ferns and primroses and bleeding hearts and yellow and fuchsia-colored wild violets. For a person who gruffly eschewed frivolity in the main, he had a mighty tender, bleeding heart of his own when it came to the beauty he saw in nature, and he capitalized on that very well in his garden.

His daughter learned from it, and being more overtly sentimental, added yet another layer of appreciation for those marvels and jewels of the natural world that she could nurture to their fullest expression in her own garden and yard, wherever she lived. She adopted her father’s practical and often laborious attentions to getting the most out of the existing landscape and quickly put her own imprint on it and enriched it over time to the degree that her yard was always rightfully an enviable small park for visitors’ delight. By the time I finished college and then spent three years working near to and therefore boarding with my grandparents, thanks to the ridiculously affordable living there–then finished grad school and started working near my parents’ place and moved back to take advantage of the ridiculously affordable living there (anybody sense a theme? I blame the genetic link to Gramps’s frugality)–I had a much greater appreciation myself for both what it took to create and maintain such glorious properties and how much respecting nature’s own local inclinations would be a value-added approach to healthy, sustainable, logical, creative and gorgeous design.photoI had the bonus, while living at my parents’ again, of not only the privacy and flexibility afforded me by their frequent travel for his work, but the opportunity to practice my own incipient garden design skills both while following Mom around and learning the names and natures of things and while taking things into my own hands whenever they went out of town for any length of time. First of all, having learned a couple of useful things about how to treat some of their plants, I practiced my sculptural pruning skills on them, opening up the lacy umbrella of a laceleaf maple, making faux bonsai out of some of their smaller evergreens, and limbing up tree trunks to clean and open up the space for all of the pretty understory things Mom had brought in as starts from relatives’ gardens, from her trading with friends, and from various nursery expeditions over the years. It was during this time that I especially fell in love with trees. The craggy Garry oaks native to that area are a fairly uncommon yet extraordinarily lovely and impressive variety and I nurtured a seedling or two myself along the way in hopes that sometime long after I’m dead they too will be magnificent and grand old trees sheltering their homes and their denizens like the massive ones already in town.photoHere in Texas, it’s the two stately post oaks and that lithe red oak in back that endeared our home to us at first notice, along with our two splendid Bradford pear trees. There’s quite the community of sweet oak seedlings sprouting in their shade, and I hope very much that I can manage (with lots of help and advice from the local experts, of course) to relocate a number of them to foster a natural-style mini-grove in a back quadrant of our property over the many years to come. That will help create a fitting foundation for the whole wild, native and well-adapted collection of plants intended to fan out from all of that into the rest of the property. Fun times ahead!

In addition, I love to incorporate some traditionally indoor materials into my gardens so they feel a little more like an extension of the house and invite leisurely visits. I’m thinking of things like the burnished brass chandelier you’ve seen tiny glimpses of in previous garden photos, a little cozy kitchen-style seating on the patio, and a bench or chairs for shaded stopping on the front porch as guests arrive for a gathering. But although I see lots of lovely yard swings around town and love them, I never see people sitting in them–it’s almost always too terribly hot and often very bug-pestered here–so there won’t likely be an investment of money and labor to create a swing like the arbor swing (above) that I designed and my brother-in-law built with my semi-able assistance, to surprise Mom with a little long-fostered-wish fulfillment, while she and Dad were off on one of their longer expeditions.photo

Still, I do want our yard to invite exploration and to be particularly attractive from all angles inside our air-conditioned house, year round. So many possible ways to accomplish that, that I am excited to see what I can learn and be inspired by, even from a first conversation with each of the landscapers who will visit here this week. I suspect I’ll need to be getting out all of the tools I have, and then some, and it’ll take a bit of a while to get the whole project well and truly underway. I know I’m a little rusty at some of this, having lived with tiny yards for quite some time before buying this house, and will have to relearn much and discover many new things in my new climate. But oh, how invigorating to begin!