mulberryshoots

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

criticism . . .

a well stone in Gloucester, MA. - in the book, a wellstone is a talisman about relationships, past and present

a well stone in Gloucester, MA. – in the book, a wellstone is a talisman about relationships, past and present

Criticism is sometimes hard to take but it can be invaluable. Depends though on how we react to it. I asked some acquaintances to read the beta-version of my book, “Uncommon Hours” this summer. Maybe it was who I asked to read it in the first place that was the problem. I didn’t know what their reaction would be and I purposely picked people with backgrounds different from my own. I received reactions from two of them last week and was surprised in a way that I had not expected.

One reader, resented the heroine having a second chance at happiness and taking hold of it. She also thought the descriptions of the surroundings and food were “tedious.”

The second reader spent pages using light green ball point ink on yellow legal pad paper (barely legible) to complain about the amount of time it actually takes to drive from Gloucester to Charlottesville, Virginia (ten hours instead of fifteen hours); and remonstrating about whether the ages of two children added up properly with other characters in the book. There was no mention of Maria Sibylla Merian at all, whose personal accomplishments 3 centuries ago serves as inspiration for the female protagonists in the book.

botanical engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian (1711) . . .

botanical engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian (1711) . . .

Each of the heroines in the book represents a female dilemma in our culture; self-doubt and blame, insecurity, being unhappy even when one has what she’s always wanted; feeling “unlucky” in life, etc. “Uncommon Hours” is about enabling women to reach out for happiness from within rather than succumbing to hopelessness or waiting for someone else to do it for them.

Fortunately, there were other reader reactions that were much more positive: “I felt like I was in the room with Jessie.” and “you have to keep going because I know other women who would love it too!” So there’s been a gamut of reactions to something that I made up and put down on paper . . . which is what writing is to me.

There’s so much noise around what w-r-i-t-i-n-g means these days (b.s. about ‘craft,’ rituals to get one to write, workshops, agents, buzz,)  that it’s hard to just settle down and recognize that it’s solely up to me as the writer to convey to the reader what I’d like them to understand. Plus, it’s really easy to give up on making that happen when you’re tired of going through the manuscript any longer and feeling impatient if/when the reader doesn’t “get it.”

It’s my job as much as I am capable, to make sure that they get it. Period.

Yesterday, one of my most loyal readers came over and went through her comments with me: there were fewer grammatical/typo corrections than I had feared. And she only had one place where the paragraphs might have been reorganized. Most importantly, she liked the book. In fact, she liked it a lot. I thought about what we might have in common for that to happen: we both have leanings towards New Age stuff: the Tarot, horoscopes and destiny (which neither of the criticizers above mentioned, much to my surprise.) She also really understood the metamorphosis that the heroine, Jessie, went through in the plot to enable herself to be happy, released from her self-imposed bugaboos at long last.

All this feedback has caused me to reflect about the old adage, “if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?” meaning that if you create something but don’t put it out there for other human beings to take it and react to it from their own experience and perspective, (even if they don’t “get” what you were trying to do or don’t even care if they don’t get it,) does it ultimately matter? And my answer is “yes.” The tree conundrum presumes that it’s man’s hearing that counts, not the tree in the forest in the context of Mother Nature. Whether a human is within earshot is irrelevant, it seems to me. BUT, I also feel that it’s important to put our work out there even if some or a lot of people might not react to it in the way that we intended.

Having gotten through my initial defensiveness in reading the negative feedback and wanting to put the book away in a drawer, I’ve instead begun thinking that it’s my job to make the book shine so that the reader has to get it and not the other way around (arrogantly waiting for readers to get it because I wrote it and if they don’t, then “tough.”)

Huge, right?

So, now I’m going to go back and see what alterations I might make to the book so that more readers will understand what I’m up to than the way that it stands now. Taking responsibility for these improvements has directly been a result of reading this article in the New York Times today about how another writer responds to reviews.

Here’s a link to an interview of  how that writer reacts to reviews. Edifying in the part about whether she’s done the very best she could do to impact the reader in the way the writer intended.

Rocky and Bach . . .

morning glories

If someone were to ask me which composer’s music I would listen to on a desert island, I’d have to demur and say that my two favorite composers are Bach and Rachmaninoff. In a way, they’re the two most romantic composers I can think of . . . but that would depend upon whether you feel like I do that Bach’s music is deeply romantic or not. In any case, imagine my excitement when I discovered earlier this summer that Rachmaninoff had composed a piece for the piano transcribed from Bach’s Partita in B-flat for violin! Immediately, I wanted to learn how to play it myself and vowed to learn it after finding the piano score.

But, truth be told, I’ve been pretty lazy this summer. I meant to start practicing it when the summer began but outside of reading the first page, haven’t done much more than that. Today, with the weather cooling off finally and the air conditioning getting a much-deserved rest, I’m going to sit myself down at the piano and try to figure out how to play this piece.

A long time ago, I was taught to learn a new piece by playing a few measures of new music one hand at a time and repeating each hand separately a few times. Then slowly play both hands together. Then repeat a few times until the notes are in your head tonally and in the muscles of your hands kinesthetically. At least that’s what I think is going on.

This piece is so much fun because of its repeating leitmotif (B to E) that sounds like a horn calling us to the Hunt. It’s also very playful with that leitmotif crisscrossing through the whole piece, sometimes with the left hand and then with the right hand while the toccata-like melody skips relentlessly all the way to the end. Toccata means once the piece starts, it retains the same rhythm all the way to the end without breaking it up.

Here are some fun examples of this piece played by two women pianists from Eastern Europe.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6RdBNCNKAI
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAIxlZAPjqw

Hope you will enjoy this glorious music on this bright, beautiful summer’s day!

 

“sparking joy” in our own living room . . .

one of my favorite indoor plants - a maroon leafed oxalis plant that has pale pink flowers when in bloom. . .

one of my favorite indoor plants – a maroon leafed oxalis plant that has pale pink flowers when in bloom. . .

Hey, you know how it’s all the rage these days to pare down, simplify and only keep what “sparks joy” when you pick it up and look at it? Even Deborah Needelman, the Editor in Chief of the New York Times Fashion magazines wrote about it yesterday in her editorial.

Well, I looked around today and decided to do a major pick-up-the-piles-of-stuff-and-sort-it-out this morning. But what sparked it as an enjoyable task rather than feeling like a drudge was to recover and recoup wonderful plants that I’ve had scattered outside for the summer and place them in our living spaces indoors. The maroon oxalis plant, one of my favorites, is now a central figure in a little living room still-life graced also by a tapestry “heron” pillow from France that C. gave me a few years ago.

cyclamen corms . . . still surviving

cyclamen corms . . . still surviving

I’ve also kept a pot of multi-colored miniature cyclamen that bloom and then go bust since a few Christmases ago. They’re sort of in a “bust” mode right now but I love the shape of the pot so much that I put it in a place of honor near the kitchen window where I can water it from below and keep an eye on it. Usually the plants out of sight suffer more than they ought to.

And since we returned from our mini-trip to Halifax, we’ve placed our two canaries closer to us in front of the mirror where they can see themselves and go crazy thinking they’re more of them than there really are. We’ve noticed that they tend to sing their heads off after the 7 o’clock evening news has finished and G. and I look at each other in wonder at the incredible volume their song produces at that time of night. Go figure!

It feels so satisfying to “spark joy” with things I’ve had for such a long time and also refresh our living space without feeling the need to go out and buy anything more than what we already have. Plants especially are satisfying to do this with because they’re alive, just like us. And revive with tender care, just like us too.

(Come to think of it, though, I’m really wanting to replace our electric stove that we’ve had for about twenty years! Maybe in the Fall.)

beginning haiku . . .

blue heron for facebook

I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind about writing haiku for a long time. One reason is that it expresses feeling in few words.

Another is remembering a Japanese woman who started painting calligraphy at the age of ninety-one (“you can do it!”) and was deemed a National Treasure of Japan at the age of ninety-five during her “late period” of work. So I suppose it’s never too late to be creative in new ways.

Today, composing haiku has stepped forward and here’s one for today:

                                 “My light is undimmed,

                                  on heron’s spindle legs, stand. . . 

                                  for life sweet and dear.” 

 

 

a midsummer night’s movie binge . . .

camillestyles-80-Edit
Last night, we had dinner and then watched the tail end (the best part) of “Moonstruck” on Channel 91 of all places. The movie that came on afterwards was “Love Story” with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. I couldn’t believe I was watching it for the first time EVER! (Read online that one of the groups at Harvard still shows it to incoming freshman as a bonding exercise while they jeer and make fun of the movie.) I was struck by how fresh and beautiful Ali McGraw was in this film. Read later about her troubled 3rd marriage to Steve McQueen but that’s another whole long story.)
Next on this random TV station we don’t normally watch after “Love Story” was “Falling in Love” with Meryl Streep and Robert di Niro when they were oh-so-young and trim! That’s one of my all-time favorite films because of the way material of about falling in love by chance with someone outside marriage is handled so delicately and with such astute sensitivity. Streep almost runs into a train while desperately wanting to see him before he leaves town in the middle of the night – and fails. Plus, Robert de Niro’s hesitation as he walks towards Meryl Streep in the train at the end of the film is just priceless.
I continued the romantic love movie binge today by briefing “Oliver’s Story” – a sequel to “Love Story” with Candace Bergen which was a pale shadow of the original film with its overly repetitive music theme composed by Francis Lai (who also composed the unforgettable music theme to the French classic, “A Man and a Woman” in 1968, two years before “Love Story” in 1970.
Then, mid-morning, “Julie and Julia” came on – and once again, I observed Meryl Streep’s finely tuned facial expressions which showed her love for her husband, Paul Cushing Child played by Stanley Tucci and for her long affair with French cuisine.
Anyhow, although I have not been a Meryl Streep fan per se for a long time, her portrayal in “Falling in Love” made me seek out another unrequited life/love movie she starred in with Clint Eastwood called “Bridges of Madison County.” Oh my, how the grown children overreact and remonstrate at the beginning of the movie whilst they start reading their mother’s dying wish to be cremated and her ashes strewn at the bridge where Robert Kincaid’s ashes were scattered decades before. But “who was Robert Kincaid?” I am struck once again how the brittle shell around a family’s life is just a thin partition between what’s known within and what else truly mattered to people in their lives outside that cocoon.
So my list of favorite romantic movies that slowly unfurled on its own without much interference from me includes: “Moonstruck,” “Falling in Love,” “Bridges of Madison County,” so far. “Love Story” et al. didn’t make the cut, but I might go back and watch “A Man and a Woman” – which I loved with Jean-Louis Trintingeant and Anouk Aimee (va va voom!)  I’ll also reflect on other movies that might be added to this shortlist later on.
It’s amazing what one can do to entertain oneself with some unexpected serendipity on TV, Google, a subscription to Amazon Prime and some quiet down time (with a recuperating ankle) during what feels like a very long, hot summer.
Postscript: to jog my memory of other movies I have liked as much as these, I went through the top romance movies in the last ten years and then the top romance movies of all time. Guess what? “Falling in Love” isn’t even on either list! The only other movie I can think of right now that I enjoy seeing repeats of is “Notting Hill” with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.  Then there’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (again with Meryl Streep) and “Out of Africa,” (MS too!)
Hmmmmm. . .  will have to think about this further.

simply keeping it simple . . .

my de-cluttered kitchen "sparks joy"!

my de-cluttered kitchen “sparks joy”!

I was thinking that having day surgery is a blessing in disguise. How’s that, you might ask? Let me count the ways:

  1.  It’s not serious or it wouldn’t be day surgery. However, it does contain potential pitfalls for recovering from anesthesia (getting air back into your lungs, dry throat) and elevating limbs to avoid blood clots. So you still have to be careful and watchful during recuperation.
  2. Just being minimally at risk makes you appreciate everything that you have and don’t want to take for granted: a loving, thoughtful husband; good wishes of people around you who offer help with carrying things or doing the laundry (our tenants who live on the 2nd floor); friends who offer to come by with a pizza and greek salad the next night you’re home; well-wishers from all over the place you had least expected.
  3. Peace and quiet convenience. I ordered a Coleman camp chair  for $22.00 that is spacious and comfortable with a pillow on its seat. It has a mesh cup container built into the right hand arm and a compartment for books and the TV remote on the left side. A large wooden board on the sofa beside my chair serves as a platform for more books, my phone and my laptop computer. And my legs are elevated on a stool with a cushion in front of me. Handy dandy!
  4. Nice food: As a way to fill up the time before the surgery (and clean out the fridge) I made some light soups (cucumber and potato) and put them in the freezer. We have been eating lightly because it’s the middle of August, but it feels good to know that in the freezer, there are rib-eye steaks on the bone, chicken thighs and extra-large shrimp on hand. We still have corn on the cob, tomatoes, squash and green onions from the local farmstand that we’ll replenish this weekend. Tonight, we’re having dinner with a neighbor who’s taking six hours of Medical Boards today – will experiment with the homemade egg pasta I made yesterday with some shrimp scampi sauteed in garlic and fresh rosemary tonight to celebrate her milestone.
  5. Good will: I feel content with my life. Stopping ever so temporarily over a physical procedure has made a difference in the way I feel about the future. I no longer feel hidebound to certain responsibilities anymore. My kids are grown and able to take care of themselves. And I’m free to live without striving for anything any longer. Just live simply and enjoy the day.
  6. In fact, I almost feel like I’ve faked my own death and am free to run away to Mexico to sip margaritas with fresh lime juice and eat tacos on Tuesdays!

summer supper . . .

DSCN0114

On Tuesday while waiting at the hospital, I looked through an “Organic Life” magazine that had what looked like a quesadilla with scallions on it. Since I’ve been home, I wanted to make some scallion pancakes for a light supper. So tonight, I used some flatbread that I had in the fridge, spread the flatbread with a little sesame oil and lard, chopped up a gorgeous handful of thin, fresh green onions, sprinkled some sea salt before crisping two halves in a skillet with a weight on it. (Next time, I might use flour tortillas which are thinner and less bread-like.)

The rest of our supper was fresh corn on the cob and bowls of cream of potato soup that I took out of the freezer earlier in the day. George brought in a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes from our plant outside on the deck. Yum!

making homemade noodles . . . first try!

 

camillestyles-80-Edit

So my ankle is feeling pretty good after day surgery on Tuesday. I’m been able to get around with a slight bit of weight bearing which helps enormously in getting around.

It’s a cool summer morning so I thought I’d take this quiet time while G. is out tuning pianos at one of the colleges to unpack the Philips electric pasta machine and try it out. In the intervening time, I’ve been reading two fabulous cookbooks on homemade pasta with incredibly delicious sounding recipes with simple ingredients: “Flour + Water: Pasta” and “Mastering Pasta,” both of which I recommend if for the inspiring photos within alone.

I’ll also summarize what I’ve gleaned for myself after watching YouTube videos of how to use the machine and from reading other blogs about making pasta at home:

a.  In the flour measuring cup, I’m using half “OO” flour and half “Semolina” flours. I ordered these online from Amazon earlier in the week and they arrived yesterday. Used 1 cup of mixed flours.

"OO" and "Semolina" flours

“OO” and “Semolina” flours

b. In the liquid measuring cup, I’m using three egg yolks stirred in bottled water added halfway up the cup with a teaspoon of olive oil.

c. I rinsed out the insides of the machine and turned it on; then added flours as it started to rotate and gradually added half cup of egg yolk/water liquid. It ran for three minutes without the mixture looking like a dough.

the flours, egg yolks, water and olive oil mixing in the machine

the flours, egg yolks, water and olive oil mixing in the machine

d. On the fourth minute, the pasta started to extrude through the lasagna plate that I had attached to the machine. As it came out, I cut it off after about 5-7 inches and laid it curled up on a plate.

lasagna noodles extruded from machine . . .

lasagna noodles extruded from machine . . .

e. When all the lasagna noodles were extruded, I turned the machine off and hand cut the noodles into pappardalle width noodles; then let them rest. After a half an hour, I might take a rolling pin and roll the noodles out a little thinner. (I looked for my old fashioned pie crust roller to cut the edges but couldn’t find it.)

handcut noodles "resting" . . .

handcut noodles “resting” . . .

Of course, the proof of the pudding (or the pasta) is in the cooking and eating of it! I will wait and see if rolling the noodles thinner with a rolling pin is in the cards, and then store them until we cook them up for our first dish – maybe tomorrow when our neighbor joins us for supper after taking her medical boards.

I thought maybe a saute of fresh scallions, mushrooms and baby spinach with a little freshly grated parmesan might be worth trying. Stay tuned for follow-up photos! One recipe of these wide noodles with a veal ragu looked really good too.

By the way, cleanup of this machine takes some effort as I did it by hand rather than putting the parts in the dishwasher. I’ll probably make a double batch of noodles next time around and freeze extra batches to make the whole production worthwhile!

Spinach fettucine and ramen noodles are next on the list!

 

 

a ‘screw loose’ . . . and fresh noodles!

homemade pasta
In case you’ve ever thought I might have a screw loose, you’re right! The ankle I broke a couple of years ago was mended with two plates attached with thirteen screws. One plate was in the back and another one on the side by the four-inch incision. And a pin that held my tibia and fibula together. I asked for the pin to be removed a year later because it felt like my foot was glued together.
But recently, I felt like my ankle wasn’t holding up – that is, when I stood up in the morning, it felt unstable and that I might teeter over any moment. Plus, there was a noticeable “point” that I could feel with my finger right under the skin. Not a good sign, right?
So I had an x-ray Friday and sure enough, the side plate apparatus will be removed this coming Tuesday. Having major surgery is no fun but it should be more like restorative surgery than adding more metal to the pedal. I don’t look forward to the anesthesia, shots and needles that it will entail, and especially the overdosing of oxycontin the nurses give you when it’s not needed. Last time around, I worried more about the painkiller effects than anything else.
The orthopedic surgeon said I’d be in a splint for 2 weeks and a boot for 6 weeks – which means getting up and down our three flights of stairs to where we live will be an exercise in ingenuity again and of course no driving for 8 weeks since it’s my right foot. We also retrieved my arm crutches and wheelchair to get ready for ambulatory care this coming week.
Yesterday, we cleaned out the freezer completely and stocked it with freshly purchased rib-eye steaks, chicken thighs and shrimp that I can cook easily supplemented with a dozen ears of farmstand corn, squash, salad greens and fresh eggs in the fridge. A large pot of cucumber soup is in progress on the stove this morning. Also plan to make a pot of potato soup that I’ll freeze along with the cucumber soup base – nice and light for the summertime that we can eat later on along with a fresh zucchini frittata or spinach quiche. I was thinking that it might be useful to shop and cook this way for times when we won’t be going to the grocery store every day or so anyhow. Plus, it feels good to know exactly what we have on hand so that I’ll be able to cook from our pantry and fridge even while fresh veggies and fruit are plentiful right now in the middle of the summer.
Knowing myself, I thought about a project (or two) that I might undertake while I have limited mobility for a few weeks: and that is to teach myself how to make homemade pasta. Too bad for the non-gluten folks, but I’ve ordered some Italian “00” flour and some semolina flour to experiment with. Fresh mushrooms of different varieties with some fresh spinach and pine or hazelnuts might be a good combo – and of course tomatoes with fresh basil too.
One of our tenants is taking her Medical Board exams on Friday and I’ll make something simple and tasty to celebrate at our supper together afterwards.
Light and right! That’s a good way to look at it, I suppose. Anyhow, that’s what’s come from a screw coming loose in the wrong place. I’ve always loved fresh noodles and now, I’ll be able to make all kinds of them (fettucine, papperdalle, angel hair) and experiment between reading cookery books and trying them out in our kitchen.
No biggie in the larger scheme of things.
P.S.  The day surgery was uneventful and I was told I could bear some weight on the ankle which helped a lot getting up the stairs to where we live! Have been browsing through two fantastic cookbooks featuring handmade noodles and am inspired as well as a little daunted by what it entails.
At first, my reaction was that the Phillips pasta machine wasn’t “purist” enough – that is, it didn’t allow the dough to rest before it was extruded. Plus, I couldn’t figure out how to make flavored pastas, such as with fresh peas, spinach or carrots, for example. But I kept reading in the books and also searched online where I found some ideas that might work with the electric pasta machine after all. For example, buy bottled vegetable juices and add to the flour. So, I’m going to wait a little longer, read the Phillips recipe book and see if making wide lasagna noodles will allow me to use a pie crust roller to make pretty wide-cut noodles like pappardalle and spinach fettucine. More later.

“Focus and CROP!” to get to one’s inner truth . . .

"focused and cropped" . . .

“focused and cropped” . . .

Yesterday at lunch, my granddaughter conveyed some advice she received from a mentor who used a photography metaphor that is apropos to life in general:

“Focus and crop!”

As a result, she decided to drop one major at school and focus on an internship that she applied for next summer.

I can really identify with that because it’s so easy to get distracted in life doing things that you don’t sincerely want to do but feel you should because “it would be nice.” I think people can tell when there’s a twinge of resentment or perhaps a lack of whole-heartedness in putting forth social niceties. So why keep doing that?

What also seems to be coming more in focus for me is that it’s not what others do or don’t do; or how they do it that’s truly meaningful. It’s how I feel towards them that’s more important for me to get a firm handle on. Otherwise, one can be flung back and forth in a morass of flotsam and jetsam depending upon what other people do – reacting rather than being still and grounded in oneself.

It seems to me that being honest with oneself is truly what matters in order to “focus and crop.” A lot of people can’t do it: be honest, that is. To me, it’s NOT someone else’s behavior and whether they might change or not that is the precursor to making important decisions in my life. Rather, it’s the quality of the emotional connection you have inside yourself towards that person that one needs to measure and ground oneself to, whatever that might be. Cropping out all the concomitant noise that can contain envy, competition, judgment or even a habit of self-punishment can make the picture much more clear – even if it’s not what we’d necessarily prefer to see in our heart of hearts.

So I guess focus and cropping are two different things. Focusing on what’s truly within (including the good, the bad and the ugly) is one thing. Cropping out all the other crap (pardon my French!) makes the picture more legible in a second step of the process.

Sometimes, we may feel initially that the emotional connections we have with people are not strong enough or have been so worn down by time and circumstance that there’s just not much there any longer. Only we ourselves know whether there is a deep reservoir or only a trickling mountain stream within. After awhile, what feels at first like a trickling stream opens up into a deep reservoir the size of the Mississippi River. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the depth of maternal love, even after a lifetime of missed opportunities. Least of all, myself.

Life doesn’t have to be that hard if we can be honest with ourselves within. That’s where the focus and cropping really helps!  Great advice! Thanks, A.!

 

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