Have a John Keats Autumn: Notice What You Notice

Here at the brink of the Autumnal Equinox, I went looking for a poem for autumn. I didn’t have to look far. According to The Guardian, John Keats’s “To Autumn” is “the most anthologized poem” by an English poet. I’ll let Mr. Keats himself tell you why:

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

(courtesy Wikimedia)

(courtesy Wikimedia)

As my former students would have said, “I know, right?”

This season, harvest season, reminds me of life’s cyclical nature more than Spring does. Both focus our attention on change. But I was a teacher for 20 years, and even six years past the classroom, fall still means school to me. And school means poetry. Sooner or later, no matter the class–Sophomore English, Junior English, American Studies, AP Literature–we “did poetry.” Or, as I liked to say, we exercised our Noticing Muscles.

My brand of poetry analysis? Read the poem. Notice what you notice. Notice what it makes you think about. Write about how the poet’s tools (words, images, sounds, etc.) make you think that.

My favorite question: “Did the poet really mean whatever I think he means?”

My favorite answer: “Intention is not the same as effect. You can’t know intention unless the poet tells you. Most don’t. So focus on effect.”

I won’t presume now to take Keats’s beautiful ode apart and tell you about its effect on this reader. Instead I’ll leave you with the thought of Noticing Muscles, the poem itself, and the hope that you’ll spend some time this slower season noticing what you notice. Happy Fall!

Home Is Where The Maki Is: When Sushi = Family

The Mate and I love sushi. Whenever we’re in our former city of Tacoma, we look forward to visiting our favorite restaurant, Fujiya, owned by Masahiro Endo. The food is close-your-eyes-in-ecstasy wonderful. But truthfully, we’re there for the people.

The first thing we see when we walk into Fujiya is our family holiday picture on the wall, along with a select few others. We know we’re home. It’s been home for 26 years.

We first met Endo-san back in 1990 when we first moved to Washington. Our new house had been built on an unstable slope, and that rainy autumn, some of that slope slid down to the yard of the neighbor at the bottom, breaking through his retaining wall. Endo-san is so proper and polite, he probably never would have complained, but his next-door neighbor intervened on his behalf, demanding that we fix the situation.

Of course we did. The Mate took Endo-san out to lunch at his own restaurant, where they agreed on a plan to pay for repairs. We had already discovered the restaurant, but that day we also discovered a friend.

Sushi is an expensive habit. We rationalized our frequent visits this way: ounce for ounce, it’s about the healthiest protein-fix you can get, especially when supplemented with the veggies that Endo-san would inevitably include in the free dishes he sent to our table. We always left not only full, but carrying leftovers (best breakfast ever!).

Thanks to Fujiya, it’s safe to say we raised our kids on sushi. You’re welcome, boys.

Open you mouth and your eyes...(courtesy Fujiya)

Open you mouth and your eyes…(courtesy Fujiya)

Over the years, we got pretty close to the staff and they to us–after all, they were helping to raise our children. We went to the ballet to see our favorite waitress, Izumi, perform. We attended the wedding of Endo-san’s amazing sous-chef, Juan. (Yes, some of the best sushi in the west is now made by Mexicans. I love it.) And when sweet, funny Annie was tragically killed, we all went to her funeral. (That was when I got my first hug from Endo-san, who in his grief finally got past his Japanese reserve. I’ve been hugging him ever since.)

It’s hard to describe sushi as soul food, pricey and not-for-everyone as it is. But Fujiya feeds our souls as much as our bellies. It’s our Soul Restaurant.

What’s yours? Can you share the story?

Thanks, Endo-san.

Thanks, Endo-san.

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Gift: Music From The Supposedly Destitute

Last week when I came in to work at the bakery, a colleague handed me a note. “Someone left this for you.”

“This” turned out to be a New York Times article about a group of musicians, all refugees, in a camp called The Jungle in the Parisian outskirts known as Calais. “For Gretchen,” was all the note said–unsigned.

I read the article, titled “Musicians in a Refugee Camp in France Record ‘The Calais Sessions.'” I was so moved by the story, I immediately went to the musicians’ website to buy their album.

I listened to one song before buying, but honestly–I didn’t need to. The idea of people crawling out of evil and hatred and misery and death to come together to produce music–that ultimate expression of humanity–that’s all I needed to know. That, to me, IS music.

I imagine some of you might feel the same way. To read more, and/or to order your own CD or digital version of The Calais Sessions, click here.

And to the person who left me that article? Thank you. You rock.

My Labor Day of Love: Sisyphus Meets Jacob

Pardon me for mixing and mangling myths and Bible stories, but this Labor Day has me thinking about the meaning of work when it’s done specifically and voluntarily for another person. See, Labor Day weekend generally includes my wedding anniversary (# 29 this year), and this particular Labor Day, I did not have to work at the bakery as I have for the past six years.

Wow, at home all day with my Mate! Except my Mate was sick.

So I decided to do some chores on his behalf. To be precise: I decided to load a ratty old tarp with branches and sticks and drag it from the portion of woods he’s been clearing for the past several years over to the site of his next burn pile.

Welcome to Wing Park! (Thanks, babe.)

Welcome to Wing Park! (Thanks, babe.)

Now, branch-dragging is something I’m on board with. I’ve been helping out on that front for a few years now, usually after windstorms. But lately, my Mate’s standards for “clearing” have gone from branches, to sticks, to TWIGS and CONES, people. Stuff you have to use a rake on.

Lately, this is how my inner monologue has gone when I’m helping out with this chore:

“Are you kidding me? Am we really doing this? Isn’t that tree just going to drop the same number of twigs and cones tomorrow?”

Herculean labor it is not. But Sisyphean? Absolutely. Humph. Grrr. Honestly!

But today, on my almost-anniversary, with my sweetie in bed sick? I raked the heck out of those twigs and cones. I even started pulling up blackberry vines–talk about a futile task! And it felt GREAT.

I love you THIS much!

I love you THIS much!

And I started thinking about that Bible story where Jacob works seven years for Rachel (after being tricked by his future father-in-law). I know, the situations are pretty different. But that labor-of-love thing? Yep. I was feeling it. Work done out of love is no longer work.

So Happy Labor Day, everyone. May you find the work that spreads love, whatever form it takes. And then, when you’re ready, may you celebrate with your version of this:

Worth every twig.

Worth every twig.

 

My Mountain, How I’ve Missed You: Nostalgeology 101

Since I moved from North Carolina to Washington 26 years ago, I’ve continued to miss 5 things: my parents, oak trees, GOOD fried chicken, Tarheel basketball, and NC-style BBQ. (OK, if pressed, I could come up with five or ten more–like friends, and dogwoods.)

Since I moved from Tacoma to Lopez Island six years ago, I miss about the same number of things. But #1 on the list doesn’t even begin to exist as a category of my southeastern nostalgia: The Mountain.

Here in the San Juans, we have occasional views of Mt. Baker–sometimes, from the ferry, downright excellent ones. A recent camping trip last month reminded me of what a lovely mountain Baker is.

Not bad, Baker, not bad.

Not bad, Baker, not bad.

But I knew Mt. Rainier. Mt. Rainier was my goddess. And you, Mt. Baker, are no Mt. Rainier.

From my first view of her as a still-North-Carolinian in 1981, she called to me. In 1986, I climbed to her summit–not to conquer, but to adore. (It was so damn cold up there that my adoration took the form of 10 minutes of exhausted gasping before heading back down, but still.) I’m glad I climbed before I was old enough to know better, and I wouldn’t do it again, but I still get a little shiver of love when I look up at her gleaming dome and think, “I was THERE.”

Adoration from below served me just fine for those 20 years in Tacoma. I saw her out my kitchen window while cooking. I saw her from the parking lot of the high school where I taught. I spent hours discussing which part of The Mountain was “out” at which part of the day, how she looked last night at sunset, or this morning at dawn. She was part of my daily life, my vacations, my identity as a converted Northwesterner.

Has it really been THREE YEARS since my last visit, with Son Two?!

Has it really been THREE YEARS since my last visit, with Son Two?!

Now, when I’m lucky enough to see her at all, she’s a tiny lump on the horizon. Not so tiny considering she’s 100 miles away, but still–hardly a part of my day.

Which is why yesterday’s all-too-brief ramble, introducing my Lopez friends to my Mountain, felt so sweet.

Even better: sharing my Mountain with friends.

Even better: sharing my Mountain with friends.

There are mountains and mountains. And then there’s The Mountain. My goddess. But I realize not everyone’s nostalgia is nostalgeology. For someone else it might be a precious old oak, or the feel of the air, or even the sound of a certain bird call.

Or is nostalgeology somehow more powerful than trees or birds? What do y’all think? What geological feature, were you removed from, would leave a hole in your otherwise happy life?

Meatza Or Prepples: What’s Your Favorite Foodword?

Probably I’ve been working too many hours next to an oven this summer, because I’m finding ridiculous amounts of joy in making up foodwords with my colleagues at the bakery. For example…

Prepples = apples prepped for pie

Meatza = obvious

Charden = what everyone’s garden turns into this time of year (unless it’s zucchini, but that doesn’t make a good foodword)

Loafening = making loaves slowly

Strompost = what we call our compost, which is taken home by the family of my colleague, Laura Strom

Plumble = a plum crumble (the best kind!)

Rhuberry Rasbarb Squares

Ready to be turned into plumbles, rhuberry rasbarb squares, and...blue -peach scones...bleach scones? Maybe not. (Photo by Stephanie Smith)

Ready to be turned into plumbles, rhuberry rasbarb squares, and…blue -peach scones…bleach scones? Maybe not. (Photo by Stephanie Smith)

I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea. Your turn now: what foodwords have you or your family invented?

 

Go Al: My Ironwoman Goddaughter Goes For Kona

I don’t usually re-blog myself, but this weekend my impressive goddaughter Allison is racing the triathlon she’s spent the past several years training for: the qualifying race for Kona–a.k.a. THE Ironman. The one in Hawaii. That one.

I thought I’d send her some cyber-love by re-posting her story, which I first blogged two years ago. For those of you who read it then–skim to the end for updates.

My Goddaughter the Triathlete: Why I Can’t Wait For the Fourth of July

Last year I wrote about my “godkid,” Allison Snow. My theme was the word itself, the concept. Today I want to write about Allison herself—or Al, as I call her. I’m busting with pride.

I first met Al when she was a student in my 10th grade Honors English class. She was a competent, but not a terrific writer; a careful, but neither avid nor outstandingly insightful reader. In short, I enjoyed her as a student, but would never have identified her as one of my faves. One snippet did catch my attention, however: she wrote her “Turning Point in my Life” essay about the death of her father when she was twelve. I did the math and realized that she was only fourteen, a full year younger than most of her peers.

The following year, I and five of my braver colleagues started a pilot “school-within-a-school” half-day program called International Business and Global Studies. Project-based, with a fully-integrated curriculum and student-centered learning (are you glazing over yet?), IBGS attracted students who were bored with traditional classrooms. To my surprise, Al signed up and became an IBGS star. I still remember Al’s semester presentation on Greece, which included artifacts from Tacoma’s Greek Festival, which she had attended, on a weekend.

Even more surprising, Al became a cheerleader. That serious young woman, shrieking “Card-inal Pow-er!”— really? Should’ve tipped me off: in her quiet way, Al made her own decisions about what course to pursue, regardless of expectation. Motivated. Purposeful.

Her own family learned this during Al’s senior year. I was on leave in New Zealand (let’s hear it for spouses with paid sabbatical!), and Al announced to her mom that she would like her graduation present early: a plane ticket. Then she got on the school’s office email (not having her own—remember those days?) and asked me for permission to come visit.

“A cheerleader?” my husband asked. “For ten days?” (Not that he was being judgmental or anything.) Little did he know that visit would turn into three weeks.

Al mtn.

Once Al arrived, she realized how ridiculously short her trip was for coming such a distance. In a super-long-distance call, she talked her mom into letting her change her return ticket. She used that time to explore most of the South Island with us, babysitting our young boys. By the time she left, she was family…

…except in one regard. Although fit, Al was never what I’d call an athlete. Yes, I KNOW cheerleaders have to be in good shape, but the mentality is different: they don’t train like competitive athletes do. Although The Mate and I had mostly retired from racing, we still considered our daily workout the same way we considered meals: essential. I don’t remember Al ever offering to go for a jog with me. Motivation and purpose didn’t seem to go there.

Fast-forward ten years: Al, now a young teacher (like me—I know, right?!) decides to try triathlon. The results: one and three-quarter hours. 167th in her age group. Proud of herself.

Aha. Motivated. Purposeful. Here’s what happened next:

In 2007 and ’08, more Triathlons. Her times come down. 2009, three of ‘em. 2010: four.

In 2012, Al becomes an Ironwoman, in a race that took 12 ¾ hours.

And in 2014?  Personal Best by thirty minutes in a half-Ironman. Thirty minutes! And last week: First place female.

Al winning

I’m leaving out a whole huge category of pride here, over Al’s career as a star elementary school teacher. Today I’m celebrating Al the Athlete, entirely self-created.

When I became a semi-elite runner, I had an athletic family pushing me, college coaches, a track club. Al has a coach now, and a team, but only because she went out there and got them, all on her own.

On July 4, I’m going to run our little island’s 5k Fun Run, the only “racing” I do these days. Al’s going to run it with me…and she’s going to kick my butt. And I can’t wait.

So here’s the 2016 update. She did kick my butt two years ago, but not as badly as she’d kick it now were I to try to race with her again. I’ve slowed down, and she’s sped up–a lot. This weekend, she’s going to test her tough, toned body in three sports, her eyes on that Hawaiian prize. I can’t be there to cheer–but I’m doing it right now, as you’re reading this.

Go Al!

Not sure who took this photo, but thanks for it!

Not sure who took this photo, but thanks for it!

Why Almaz Ayana’s World Record Makes Me Cry: You Tell Me

Why does watching a woman set a new world track record make me cry? 

Is it because I’m a woman runner myself, and I can guess how that might feel?

Is it because I’m so impressed by the abilities of my species, or my gender?

Is it because I’m so happy for that one woman, her teammates, her coach, and her family?

All of the above? None? I’m not sure. All I know is, I tried to upload NBC’s video of Almaz Ayana’s world-record finish in the women’s 10k on the first night of Olympic track & field, and all it would give me was this link. Still : watch it. See if it makes you cry. Then see if you can say why.

http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/almaz-ayana-shatters-10000m-world-record

Damn.

Damn.

Good Pie, Good Pie, Until We Eat Again

What’s better than pie? Pie with a nod to Shakespeare.

I’m traveling now, back east for my annual Girlfriend Get-together. Which means that, before I left, my summer life was even more hectic than usual. This is how I spent Friday, my “day off”:

Good pie, good pie.

Good pie, good pie.

I don’t know the folks whose wedding I baked for, only that they were both men. I baked happily in my own kitchen, putting the extra sweetness of good wishes in with the blackberries and nectarines.

That crazy rush behind me, now I’m sitting in the airport thinking about extra sweetness. It’s easy to find; even easier to increase. In a jostling crowd of strangers (even weirder-feeling when you live on an island with a year-round population of 2,400), I look for the little details that bring me pleasure.

That TSA guy has awesome dreadlocks. (I tell him so; he smiles.) That young red-haired woman is reading To Kill a Mockingbird. (You go, young woman!) That large family appears to be heading to Mexico, maybe on a family visit; I love the way the younger kids seem to be reassuring their elders. That Samoan-looking woman smiles directly at me; maybe she’s doing the same thing I’m doing.

Wherever you are today, whether you’re having a mad-rush kind of day, or humdrum-dull, or peaceful , or sad, may you find some sweetness, or bring some to someone who needs it–or both.

I’ll be back in a week.

 

Picking Your Pattern: On Dishes, Color, And Marriage

This morning’s poem from Poetry Daily got me thinking about small daily pleasures. I’ll share the poem in a minute. But first I want to talk about color, and dishes. And then, maybe, marriage.

For Christmas two years ago I asked my Mate to buy me a set of eight plates made by a wonderful local potter. Of course I wanted to choose them myself, or commission them, rather, and here’s what I asked Lydia the Potter to make: two green, two gold, two blue, and two red plates, all with different designs on the rim. Here’s what she made me:

I KNOW, right?

I KNOW, right?

Why not matching? Because, #1, I LOVE color, so how could I possibly choose? And #2, Lydia, like me, is an I-love-it-all gal, so how could I possibly choose ONE of her patterns?

Right??

Right??

That intense color, those simple-but-varied designs–they make me happy every single day.

My original “dish pattern” makes me happy too, but only when I think of the story behind it. first of all, here’s all that’s left of the set, which my Mate has owned since 1978:

Dictionary definition of "plain."

Dictionary definition of “plain.”

Okay, whoa. My Mate owned these dishes first? Almost 40 years ago? And yet I’m calling it my pattern? There’s a story here, right?

Right. I first met my Mate when I was 16 and he was 31. I was a high school student; he was a young law professor at Carolina who happened to be a good distance runner. He joined my parents’ Sunday morning running group and, being both incredibly magnetic and also very far from his own family, was soon adopted by mine. (I had a huge crush on him, but that’s another story.)

My Mate lived alone in a weird, cavernous house furnished with a hammock and one wicker chair. He owned a single set of dishes. All his possessions easily fit into his Tradesman van. Very convenient for a bachelor; not so much for a bachelor who has befriended a family of five. If we came over to his place for dinner, we had to provide our own dishes.

One day my dad told my sister and me to take his credit card and go to Best to get Ken some dishes. “What kind?” we asked, baffled. “A whole set,” Dad told us. My sister and I looked at each other. “You want us to pick out his dishes? What if he doesn’t want any?” “Oh, just get him something plain,” was Dad’s breezy reply.

So…we did. Good, basic, cheap stoneware, as plain as possible.

Fast-forward a year and a half. This man is now my boyfriend. Fast-forward another eight and a half: now he’s my Mate. And another 29 years later…he still is.

So, those dishes my sister and I bought our family’s friend? Turns out I was picking out my own wedding pattern. Who knew?

Now, back to that poem, by Nina Lindsay:

My Bare Feet

on the floor of our house, early morning 
make me immeasurably happy 
the slight chill counterbalancing the heat

of coffee spreading through the brain. 
Nothing, I think, could make me happier 
except—my bare feet

on the tight-wove wool pile of our faux-antique 
Persian rug, or my hands on this bowl 
or this bowl

or this one, 
or my lips on your lips, soft 
as air rushing out of the oven,

or my fingertips 
across the oven’s white enamel, 
its one nick.

Each morning I review my evidence—
and the floorboards turn imperceptibly darker 
and my hands keep the settling dust alight.

Should I talk about marriage now? Do I need to?