Friday, June 26, 2015

Nostalgia for the Intimacy of Letter-Writing

Every move requires a re-evaluation of what has been lost in leaving. I look back nostalgically at what I have left behind as I look forward to new experiences in a new place. As I was unpacking boxes in our new (to us) house in Arizona, I came to the boxes of hundreds of letters I have saved. For years I kept copies of many of the letters I sent as well as the letters that I received from friends and family. These letters I placed in three-ring binders to serve as journals describing all the moves we've made, the places we've lived, many of the experiences we've had, as well as the experiences that friends shared. The letters in those binders span the years of 1986-2014, though as we resorted more and more to e-mail, the letters became fewer.

I decided to reread all those letters, and the experience has turned out to be bitter-sweet. I am reminded how I once had friends with whom I could write not only about my daily goings-on but also about literature and ideas. My friends described their environs--Denham Springs, Louisiana; Billings, Montana; Pensacola, Florida; Butterfield Lake, Minnesota; Huntsville, Texas; Corpus Christi, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Wichita, Kansas; Crescent City, California--as I described mine in every move: Bryan, TX; Cloquet, MN; Waverly Hall, GA; Belton, TX; Atlanta, GA; Abita Springs, LA. Over the years, though, the letters grew fewer in number as the moves, family duties, and age pulled us further apart. And e-mail took over the slower and more thoughtful pace of letter-writing.

But because we took the time to write engagingly, the letters read like an epistolary novel, a novel of my life intersecting with words the lives of my friends. We might have lived far apart, but we shared intimate details of our experiences. 

I miss those exchanges. Facebook does not compensate for a well-written letter of 5-6 pages, single-spaced. We might not have seen each other for years, but words on a page created an intimacy a post on Facebook is unable to duplicate.

Reading these letters, I am thankful for the record--all those details of my children's lives I described as a  young mother to my friends I had forgotten in the whirl of daily living, working, and moving from state to state--but I also mourn the loss of those connections over time. I seem to have moved one state too far, out even past my past, beyond friends and family, into the unknown of approaching old age.

Technology may have shrunk the world, but it has nearly destroyed the intimacy and art of letter writing. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Compensation of Public Lands and the Perspective of Geologic Time

the Little Colorado River in the Round Valley, an area surrounded by a landscape shaped by ancient volcanic activity
We are still living in temporary quarters with two cats in the Round Valley of Arizona. The temporary quarters are confining, being a small, one-bedroom, modular home in an RV park, but we try to escape as often as possible into the public lands for which we are so grateful. Some of the lands are state-owned; others are federally-owned, supported by our (shrinking) tax dollars. Without these accessible natural areas, we would be more seriously second-guessing our move. Nothing clears the head more, I think, than being able to get away from the clamor of  civilization, the jostling of strident voices trying to convert one to a particular view of the world. This past week, in a discussion of gun laws, a state senator from Snowflake, Arizona, suggested that perhaps we should have a law that requires people to attend the church of their choice. Either she has forgotten or willfully ignores the fact that folks settled this country to get away from governments with such religiously restrictive laws. (Of course, that didn't keep some of them from restricting local policies to their own religious views.)

A morning climbing an ancient cinder cone and contemplating the hundreds of thousands--the millions--of years this landscape spewed lava and volcanic boulders before that legislator placed her feet on this ground helped put those ridiculous words in perspective. From Springerville to Show Low, one drives through an ancient volcanic field of cinder cones, while to the south are Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir-covered mountains, the remains of older volcanoes.

Yesterday morning, a bright, cool and pleasant Sunday morning, we drove west on U.S. Highway 260 to Apache County Road 4128. From that county road, we turned into a dirt road which took us to the foot of a tall cinder cone covered with native grasses rooted in soil weathered from ancient basaltic rock. A trail labelled "foot access only" but originally created by some gas-powered vehicle, soon turns into an almost vertical ascent up the sides of the tall hill. Not having done any serious exercising since before Christmas, when I was on my elliptical machine almost every day, the hike was a strenuous one for me. I stopped often to catch my breath and made it to the top to survey the grassland-covered volcanic field to the north and west and the White Mountains to the south and southwest.
trail to the top of a cinder cone in the Springerville volcanic field
 Over 400 cinder cones and lava flows dot the Springerville volcanic field. According to an issue of the Arizona Bureau of Geology and Mineral Technology Field Notes, the area that we now call the state of Arizona underwent about six episodes of volcanic activity, stretching over millions of years. The sixth and most recent episode created what's visible in the Springerville volcanic field, and some of these latest eruptions occurred within human history, one such eruption being "at Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, between the growing seasons 1064 and 1065 A.D." 

Today we had the trail to ourselves, and judging by the lack of footprints on the path, this particular trail is not traveled a lot. Below are some photos I took from the top of the cinder cone.
view of the Springerville volcanic field from the top of a cinder cone south of U.S. Highway 260
looking toward Springerville and Eagar, AZ, with Flat Top and Escudilla Mountains in the distance--note the basaltic boulders in the foreground that were spewed from the cinder cone and deposited here at the top rim
Here I am standing on the rim of the ancient cinder cone, with the collapsed center (or caldera) of the cone visible in the foreground, from the center to the left of the photo. Beyond are the White Mountains, with snow still visible on some of the peaks.
After spending some time at the top of the cinder cone, we decided to descend and drive further up the dirt road to a parking area and kiosk describing the Grassland Wildlife Area through which a 2.6 mile moderate trail loops.
description of the Grassland Wildlife Area
The trail begins in flatter topography and ascends over juniper-covered hills, crossing dry creek beds before descending again to lower grasslands dotted with water tanks and what seemed to be natural springs. Numerous footprints in the dirt revealed this path to be more popular than the cinder cone path we climbed earlier, but we met no one on the trail. The evening before, on the trail along the Little Colorado River near town, we had encountered young people yelling "White Power!," but here we heard only bird song and the sound of the wind through pasture grasses and evergreen juniper. A pair of red-tailed hawks rose on updrafts, and mountain bluebirds lit up the landscape with their vibrant color and hovering flutter above the grass.
trail through the grasslands and over juniper-covered hills
view from a higher spot on the trail--On the right, evidence of an enclosed water shed
The trail descends into what must have been an old ranch home site, for a log-sided house and log-sided barn are located in the Grassland Wildlife Area, along with several water tanks. One water tank which seemed to be fed by a natural spring was fenced in, keeping out large animals but providing habitat for the mallards and the buffleheads that we saw there. At the home site, the trail  joins a road that leads from the home site, past a closed gate that prevents vehicle access (except for land managers with the key), and then on to the parking lot and beyond.
corral and barn
signs of a once-working ranch
On our hike, we read some of the geological story that the rocks and erosion seemed to tell. Here we found in the dry stream beds and along eroded areas of the hillsides hints of a geological time before the last volcanic eruptions. Among the occasional volcanic rock were smaller, weathered rocks of sandstone, granite, and metamorphic slates and quartzite.

At the end of our hike through the grasslands, we decided to drive up Arizona Highway 261 toward Big Lake. The road is closed during winter, but we thought the road was now open. However, seven miles into the steep drive that switch-backs up the mountain, we discovered that the road was closed, though we noticed several vehicles going around the metal gate to continue to Big Lake. We stopped, however, at the picnic area and overlook that provides a wonderful view of Round Valley and the towns below, and then drove up to a parking lot and access to several trails in the Apache National Forest.

trails in the Apache National Forest, off of Arizona Highway 261, in the mountains above Eagar and Springerville
We decided to walk the Apache Vista trail, which ends at an overlook to the valley below and the horizon beyond. The trail begins on a vehicular-created road and then diverges to a footpath which is at times a little difficult to follow. Once again, we had a trail to ourselves, and we wondered why more people weren't out this afternoon, now past usual Sunday-morning church hours, taking advantage of these public lands open to us all. The only other life forms we saw were birds and a lone pronghorn antelope curiously watching us at the edge of an open grassland area. (We saw a herd of pronghorn earlier as we were leaving the Grassland Wildlife Area.)
Beyond the rim, a view of the Round Valley below--here, an open area of grassland
trail through Ponderosa pine
At the end of the Apache Vista trail, with a view of Escudilla Mountain
We returned to our two cats and our temporary quarters, refreshed after a morning and afternoon in the wonderful landscape of eastern central Arizona. Maybe we can be happy here.

More info on Arizona geology:

rocks from the Springerville volcanic field that illustrate geologic time: Top, volcanic rocks, some very light, from the top of a cinder cone, that tell the story of the latest volcanic eruptions; bottom, older rocks from an earlier geologic time, granite, sandstone, metamorphic rocks that have undergone immense pressure and heat

Monday, March 16, 2015

Moving On: Another Stop in the Journey We Didn't Imagine 38 Years Ago

With this latest move we have now lived in the South (Louisiana and Texas), the Midwest (Minnesota), the Southeast (Georgia), and the West (Arizona). At the age of fifty-seven, I had imagined that our next move would be into retirement, and with that in mind, I had been receiving automatic notices from about houses for sale near Duluth and Grand Marais, Minnesota. I had been entertaining the thought that we would return to the area we had enjoyed so much as a young family, the one state to which we had not returned to live a second time. But life is always delivering surprises, and here we are in Apache County, Arizona, in an area that gets an average of 12 inches of rain a year and near two towns with a combined population of less than 5,000. Gardening here will be vastly different from gardening in southeast Louisiana, with its 60 inches of rain a year. Already I am receiving advice from our real estate agent --be prepared to transplant seedlings rather than sowing seeds directly, as it's not unusual to get a freeze in May. I think there is a small greenhouse in my future.

Every move brings with it frustrations and delights. The nearest town with big box stores or an adequately stocked natural foods store is an hour's drive away. The largest cities are a four-hour's drive away. The little towns in which we are house-hunting have nothing to offer like our little cottage on its acre of land in Abita Springs, Louisiana, tucked away privately as it is on a dead-end road yet within walking distance of the Abita Brew Pub, the Abita Cafe, the Tammany Trace, my doctor's office and my dentist, yet within a fifteen-minutes' drive to a Target, World Market or Home Depot. And I will surely miss the English Tea Room.

The economic crisis of 2008 did not hit southeast Louisiana as badly as it did other parts of the country. As our real estate agent drove me around these Arizona towns, she pointed out the "failed golf course" and the many empty lots around the fairway. Lots that had once gone for $80,000 were now being offered for $20,000 or so, she said, and one man had recently purchased the golf course and remaining lots, perhaps hoping for another boom in the area's economy when the lots could then be sold for a good profit. 

One of the two towns in the area seems to have most of the commercial base and the other most of the population. The second town is spreading out into the juniper-covered foothills of the White Mountains. People retire here or buy a second home or cabin to escape the extremely hot weather of Phoenix (reaching the 90s already in March!) for the cooler air of the White Mountains. But there are signs that the towns have seen better days. Many businesses are empty, for sale, or falling into disrepair. We were excited to see a nice coffee shop with great online reviews, only to discover that the shop has recently closed. One man at the RV park where we are temporarily living  told us that he could recommend only one restaurant in town. (Fortunately, we discovered that his recommendation was short-sighted. There is at least one other good restaurant, but it seems that the food is too spicy for a lot of people; Tom and I have really enjoyed eating there, however.) 
street view
The area has other offerings, though, to offset the lack of commercial enterprises and the disappointing (for us) housing market. The nearby White Mountains have lots of hiking trails (though the Wallow Fire of 2011--the largest forest fire in Arizona's history--burned hundreds of acres of Ponderosa pine), small lakes suggest opportunities for future kayaking, ancient Indian ruins provide a peek into the archeological history of the area, and the landscape is a textbook for anyone interested in geology. Also, there are many recreational areas within a one-to-six hour drive, with Utah and New Mexico within that driving range.

This past weekend we took a tour of the Casa Malpais ruins near Springerville, Arizona, which can only be accessed by driving along private ranch roads and thus are open to the public primarily through these tours offered by the Springerville Heritage Center. The city of Springerville purchased the site in the 1990s, and the Heritage Center has a nice room-sized museum that displays the artifacts that were discovered during archeological digs. The Zuni and Hopi tribes seem to have some say in how the site is administered, as our tour guide told us that the tribes allow digging only in previously disturbed areas. Both tribes claim the ancient inhabitants--mid-1100s to mid-1200s--as their ancestors. The Spanish stamped their presence on the area with the name by which the ruins continue to be known: "Casa Malpais," or "House of the Badlands," the badlands referring to the jumble of volcanic rocks in which the ancient homes were built.
Casa Malpais ruins from the top of the ancient volcanic flow that rims the Little Colorado River plain
ruins of a great kiva
Then, yesterday late morning, we drove to the trailhead of the South Fork Trail at the end of County Road 4124 and hiked three miles along the South Fork of the Little Colorado River before turning around at a dirt road that crosses the river. Four more miles would have taken us to trail's end at Mexican Hay Lake. The day was cool and our jackets unnecessary, though we carried them tied to our hips. The trail begins at a picnic area where camping is no longer allowed, we assumed, because of the danger of burned and falling trees left by the Wallow Fire of 2011. While the trail begins in an area green with Ponderosa pine, it soon enters great burned areas of dead trees, with a tree here and there having miraculously escaped the conflagration.  Pre-fire descriptions of the trail describe the hike as shady and cool in the summer, but not much shade is left now. Pussy willow and wild rose line the banks of the river while charred Ponderosa pine and Douglas fire loom darkly on the slopes.

South Fork of the Little Colorado River, with remains of the Wallow Fire of 2011
We took our binoculars and did a little bird-watching, identifying western bluebird, American kestrel, dark-eyed juncos, American robins, and the ever-present ravens. I also learned a couple of very important lessons: 
  • Don't just look up and down the trail before dropping your pants in an area with little cover; look across the river, too!
  • Don't grab wild rose for support on a steep trail slippery with mud.
On the first lesson, nature had been calling for quite a while, and I finally answered the call, asking Tom to act as lookout as I peed behind the trunk of dead Ponderosa pine. What we didn't see were two older gents crossing the river from the other side....and even more embar-assing, they were folks we had met on the Casa Malpais tour the day before!

What are our chances we will run across these guys again in this area of about 5,000 souls!

Thus we end our first two weeks in the Round Valley of the White Mountains. 
Tom leans against a Ponderosa pine on the South Fork of the Little Colorado River
pollinating bee-like fly on a pussy willow bloom

Monday, February 23, 2015

I Don't Know What It's Like to Be Black (But I Know What it's Like to be Human)

When I was in second grade, our public school system in Texas was integrated. In the class photo of that year (1965-1966), there is one black face in the class of nineteen students, and because I recorded the names of my classmates, Sidney Lewis is acknowledged there. I don't remember much about school desegregation, but I can recall a little of what I felt as a child then. Because we sang "Jesus Loves the Little Children" often in our Southern Baptist church, and because I was a serious and sensitive child, I took to heart the verses of that song: if Jesus loved all the little children, no matter what their skin color, I should, too. I loved to hear my grandmother tell the story of how once when I was three or four years old, I demonstrated that naive and innocent attitude toward race. Passing a well-maintained brick home in Dayton, Texas, my grandmother mentioned with some surprise that such a home was owned by "colored" people. According to my grandmother, I piped up from the back seat, "What color, Grandma?"

Such innocence is no protection from the corroding effects of racism, however. Only years later did I recognize the racial stereotype that would assume a black person couldn't afford such a home, and that was after I had confronted my own racial prejudices. I don't particularly fault my grandmother. She was a kind woman, with never a harsh word for anyone. She was also poor, as poor as some of the black folks who lived in a segregated community just four or five miles from my childhood home, and like many people do, she compared her life to those she thought to be less fortunate. In this comparison, she didn't fare so well.

I recall the local name of that black community--at least the name I heard white folks call it--with a great deal of reluctance: "N***er Hill," a place name for black communities that whites used all over the United States but more poignant, it seems to me now, since another nearby community had the dignity of being named after a prominent white settler and was mainly populated with white folks, Barbers Hill, the town in which we all attended school. Even as a child I hated the word "n***er," and I often repudiated its use in my presence. I can barely type the word, even slightly camouflaged, without feeling a need to negate it, to erase it, to deny its existence. And I did hear that word often used casually. I had even heard it argued that the word was just a corrosion of the Spanish word for "black," and thus wasn't a bad word. Why should anyone be offended by it? Unconvinced even as a child, I figured if folks hated being called that word, then it was argument enough for not using it.

But avoiding using humiliating terms to identify race or ethnicity, avoiding separating with language those not like us as "other," is easier to do than to avoid thoughtless actions that arise out of a racial acculturation.

In second or third grade, I teased a classmate of mine in that manner that children often do, chanting a rhyme linking her romantically to another classmate: "Rita and Robert sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G; first comes love, then comes marriage; then along comes Rita with a baby carriage." I don't remember my classmate's response, and I would have forgotten the event altogether except that years later she reminded me of that moment and told me how she had felt. A black girl, she had interpreted the childish taunt in a way that astonished me. She saw it as racist, and she carried that hurt into our high school relationship. In that taunt, I linked her to another black boy, assuming that a black girl would, of course, be linked with a black boy and wouldn't feel any differently than we white girls would feel if arbitrarily linked to another white boy in this childish rhyme--chagrined, perhaps, but not deeply hurt.

My friend and I were neither close enough nor sophisticated enough nor emotionally mature enough to explore just why that childish taunt had such a lasting impression on her and why I seemed so utterly clueless. I can only imagine what it was like to be a black kid in a majority white school during those early years of desegregation. I can only imagine how every thoughtless word that emphasized difference or that raised the spectre of some stereotype had an extra poisonous sting. But I do know this: I never forgot my friend's angry recollection of her hurt. Years later as a mother, I told my children again and again to be careful of their words and actions, to treat every child kindly, no matter the child's race, ethnicity, or background. Once, to highlight the seriousness of my words, I told my son that God could forgive angry words, but a child could be hurt to the quick and not easily forget. "I would rather you curse God," I said, "to take his name in vain, than ever to call a child an ugly name." Thus, when an acquaintance taunted me that she was going to say "n***er, n***er, n***er" in the presence of my preschool child--as an 'antidote' to what seemed to her an overindulgent sensitivity to the word--one can, perhaps, imagine how I felt.

In junior high school, racial tensions seemed to escalate. As these were the early 1970s, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, I suspect that the troubled times had something to do with the anger we witnessed in our black classmates, but there might have been causes closer to home of which I would have been typically clueless. These tensions boiled over during physical education classes when we played dodgeball, a game in which kids are divided into teams and given balls to throw at one another. If a ball strikes you, you are out of the game. The team that strikes out the other team's players wins the game. Some of the older black girls were also good athletes, and they discovered that they could win the game, especially if they worked together. They began throwing the ball with great force, and they seemed to target some of the white girls. My sister, just a year younger than I, was a particular target, as she was quicker on her feet than I was and more athletically inclined. It was much more of a challenge to eliminate her in dodgeball than it was to eliminate me.

I remember becoming really angry at the use of force against my sister. She and I tried to argue with our black classmates that their force was uncalled for, that we didn't hold any particular animosity toward them because they were black. Why should they be angry with us? Though my memory may be clouded by the years, I think we were the only white kids to challenge them directly, to try to talk about the issue with civility. (And I think this was the time when my black friend told me of her earlier hurt, as an example of the divide between us, of my own unacknowledged racism.)

Wiser teachers might have helped us all negotiate these racial tensions more successfully. Instead, one of the (white, as they all were) teachers took me aside one day and told me that though she and other teachers sympathized with us, they could not openly side with us. At the time I thought this was a weak response, but as time passed I thought of how our black classmates could not have been totally unaware of the adult sympathy for us and lack of it for them, of how even the adults they were expected to obey and to admire were allied with forces they must have interpreted as inimical to them.

The lessons in racial disparity kept coming, though at which point in my life I drew conclusions from these experiences varies. Layers and layers of experience and contemplation intervene between the child and the moving-past-middle-aged adult that I am now.

For a short time in junior high, I had a crush on another black classmate. He teased me, and I was surprised at how I welcomed his teasing. I felt the wild and unmistakable rush of sexual attraction and felt.... ashamed. Should I be so attracted to a black boy? And yet I also developed a shame of being ashamed. How I often wished, as the years passed, that someone had been there to assure that younger me, to help me tease apart and to face these contradictory reactions, the deeply ingrained racial prejudice in the one and the perspicacity of the other.

One last experience in high school illustrated to me the rocky road of racial parity. The black classmate I mentioned earlier, the one who had been hurt by my childish taunt, was an academically studious person, as was I. Throughout our school years, a certain number of us had become known for our academic achievements; obviously competitors, we all seemed to be faring fairly equally in that recognition. In 11th grade, students were eligible to become members of the national Honor Society, and I'm sure that all of us in this academically-talented group expected to be recommended by our teachers. Thus, it came as a shock to me that I failed to be in the group that year. Perhaps unfortunately, we had a pretty good idea of our grade point averages, and I knew mine to be some points higher than that of my black friend, who made the cut. I secretly suspected myself of being a victim of academic affirmative action, a feeling not assuaged by a teacher's telling me that they could only recommend 10% of the 48-member class to the society, and since my boyfriend--a fairly recent addition to this school where my own father and his siblings had attended--had the best grades in the class, his presence knocked me off the top ten percent. It was obvious, then, that grade point averages were the salient point, except in the cases of me and my black classmate.

Then my black friend approached me. She, also, knew that my GPA was higher than hers (and perhaps had heard through school gossip of my own poorly concealed disappointment). She sympathized with me for her making the cut when I didn't. I would like to write now that I threw my arms around her neck and told her that she deserved the honor more than I and that I was proud of her. Well, this was high school in the South in the 1970s, and I was not a demonstrative person to begin with. I stiffly acknowledged her words and told her that everything was fine. And, of course, the following year, our senior year, I was admitted to the National Honor Society.

This story may seem trivial, but it represents again how such small events can influence us long-term and reveal how deeply divisive is our racial acculturation. I was sorry for my friend, sorry that she felt the need almost to apologize for her award; sorry that I wasn't more generous and sympathetic; sorry that her pleasure in her achievement was lessened by the suspicion that she hadn't fully earned it--when she did deserve it surely as much as I did, grades notwithstanding; sorry that race colored everything. Sorry that a gain for one seemed inevitably to be a loss for the other. Sorry now that even today, almost fifty years after desegregation, we too often have neither the words nor the emotional stamina to confront the issue of race head-on, to recognize how we all suffer in this inability to listen to one another without self-interest and defensiveness.

Many years later, I had the privilege of being in the minority on a majority black community college campus, working with students and colleagues who were black or ethnic minorities in the wider culture. I write "privilege," and I mean it, for I had opportunities that I had never had before to really listen to minority voices. One colleague refused to let her children watch Disney movies because she felt that Disney reflected primarily a white culture that would distort her children's sense of self-worth. She even disliked The Lion King; the racially and ethnically identifiable voices of the evil hyenas might have been a factor though her reasons were more sophisticated than that. As a mother who refused to give her daughter Barbie dolls, I could understand her decision. One student told me she had not been around white people much at all; I, as a tutor, was somewhat of a new experience for her. Other voices were heavy with the weight of experience, of countries and families left behind, of parents who had sacrificed everything for this one child to succeed, of children whose parents' failures they had to reject in order to succeed themselves. Others reminded me, in their faithful financial support of minority academic foundations, of the importance of wealth accumulation and distribution to the success of a minority middle class.

I was introduced to Indian music and to Bollywood. I learned that black women could watch Jane Austen movies with as much enthusiasm as I did. When I went shopping for a book for a colleague's new baby, I learned how difficult it is--even in large chain bookstores--to find books without predominately white faces. Oh, I previously knew these things intellectually, but experiencing these things daily as a minority seemed more intensively and emotionally felt. My voice was not the loudest in the room.

One of my colleagues and friends, just two or three years younger than I, described to me her lonely experiences as the only black girl in her public school class in mid-west Georgia. Her parents had enrolled her in the school at about the age I was when my school in Texas was desegregated. For many years, she had only one friend, a white girl whose parents accepted her into their home and who allowed their daughter to visit hers. She recalled the many indignities she had endured and wondered what she would have done without that friend. Her brother, unable to ignore the testosterone-laden racial taunts directed toward him, fared even less happily and got into fights. Now the mother of a young son, she hoped to spare her child that kind of pain. When Barack Obama was elected president, we watched a broadcast of the inauguration between tutoring sessions. My friend told me to mark her words: now that a black man was president, racial hatred would become more public. Why was I not surprised at her prescience? It arose from lived experience.

A friend of mine once told me something that really changed my life. Our friend and I came from similar backgrounds. Both of us had Cajun ancestry, we grew up in the rather strict confines of the Southern Baptist church, and the edicts of that religion still strongly influenced our early adulthood. Before he came out to us--though I had suspected his sexual orientation for some time--we had established our mutual friendship and ethics. We camped together, vacationed together, visited each other over the years as we moved many states apart, wrote letters to one another. I thought we knew each other well. Except for this one unspoken detail.

When our friend came out, when he told us of his struggle in coming out to other friends and family, he reminded us of that mutual love and admiration. "My friends and family know me," he said. "I stand before them the same man I was before they learned I was gay. How, as loved ones, can they not hear and accept--or at least attempt to understand--my own experience?"

I often think of my friend's words when confronted with difference. The loudest voices in the room are the voices of the dominant culture, be it white, Protestant, male, or heterosexual, and too often when we think we're communicating, we're just hearing our own echoes. Why can't we just shut up and listen?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Leaving my Louisiana Garden

"I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation."
 Paisley Rekdal, "Happiness"
I am leaving my Louisiana garden. Tom and I are moving to another state, a state with much less rainfall and a cooler, drier climate. I leave this garden with some sadness, as it has provided me with entertainment and comfort as well as the beauty of flowers, the spice of herbs and the nourishment of food. Perhaps it's for the best that I am leaving in late winter/early spring, before regret can reach full flower in the azaleas of mid-March, the daylilies of May, the zinnias of late June, the tomatoes of July. 

Right now the garden looks abandoned, because it has been since late November. Except for gathering winter greens, I let the garden go for December and most of January. During a sunny spell last week, I began weeding the patio garden, which was full of chick weed, and adding pine straw that I had raked in our north lot. Violets are already beginning to bloom.

The real estate agent who came by on the weekend was very likely not impressed with the winter yard and gardens, as the grass was brown, the ground thoroughly soaked by more than 3 inches of rain; a stinkhorn was wafting its nauseating odor near the edge of the patio (an annual event this time of year); the herb beds were bare of greenery except for the rosemary bush, the bolting arugula, and the pervasive chick weed that no amount of fall weeding seems to curtail; and empty flower pots were stacked near the garden hose and faucet. The agent's effusive compliments over the photos I later sent her of the garden in its summer glory suggested that the contrast had been noticed. 

We have bought and sold several houses over the course of some 32 years --seven houses, counting this one--so we have some experience in preparing a house for sale.  We have re-painted walls and front doors, de-cluttered, re-arranged furniture for staging, swept and mopped and dusted and cleaned. But I can't hasten spring or make the bright annuals I usually plant from seed flower in February.  We will be gone this year before the ground warms up enough for zinnia seeds. though the azaleas may just be budding as we pull out of the driveway. Any residual radiancy of my garden will be for the benefit of strangers as we head to a less hospitable gardening habitat.
rosemary and black-eyed Susans in July
summer abundance, 2014

Monday, January 5, 2015

A New Year: The Garden I Have Now

early January, aloe vera blooming
In April of 2011, I moved to southeast Louisiana to join my husband, who had been hired as a wildlife refuge planner (Natural Resource Planner) for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tom had already been working in Louisiana for ten months. In the almost four years since I have lived here (twenty-five years ago we lived in another Louisiana town while Tom finished his PhD at Louisiana State University and I taught there in the Department of English), I have really enjoyed year-round gardening and recording my gardening experiences on this blog. I first began the blog in 2007--in a different town, in a different state-- as a way to keep myself connected to the world--to demonstrate to my children that even though I had given up on my career, such as it was, I hadn't given up on living and creating a meaningful life beyond a paycheck. In these past four years, I have been involved in social justice issues (creating and writing a blog for a social justice group, attending meetings of the Louisiana legislature, educating myself and then writing letters to local leaders against allowing hydraulic fracturing in our parish with its sole-source water aquifer, among others) and in helping encourage transparency in local government (attending and taking notes at the Planning and Zoning Commission meetings in our small town and publishing those notes on the Facebook page of our local "sustainable growth" organization). Many of my friends here are far more politically active than I am, but I am happy to have done my part--as long as that part did not take me away from my garden too long.

And despite the very wet weather we experienced the last week of the old year and the cooler weather we're experiencing now, the garden is still producing. Our loofah experiment was mixed. The plants grew very quickly, taking over the bamboo trellis Tom built for them and then spreading past the garden and into the yard. The fruits grew huge, but as they were still green when we had our first frost, we were afraid we would lose the entire crop. However, Tom managed to harvest several large fruits that had matured to the fibrous texture of bath sponges, and he is now trying to cure them out. This requires peeling them and soaking the spongy interiors in a solution of bleach and water. The hot, humid Louisiana climate made them moldy, but we will be able to salvage some of the loofahs for sponges.
The arugula, mustard mixes, and dill that I planted in the fall are doing very well. Home for the holidays, our daughter suggested that I make an arugula pesto to serve with pasta. I found a recipe online and was very pleased with the result (recipe below).
arugula, mustard, bronze fennel
Our winter garden also includes garlic, which won't be ready for harvest until June, green shallots (onions), and looseleaf lettuce and mesclun mixes. The radishes we planted did not do very well this year. And while the gourd plants grew very promisingly, most of the gourds dropped off the plants and rotted in the humid Louisiana weather. I managed to salvage a couple of gourds, one which I emptied of its seeds and made into a decorative box for my daughter and the other which I painted and kept intact as a musical shaker.

Usually at this time of the year I begin planning my spring garden, but this year we're expecting some big changes in our lives, and so I am enjoying the garden I have now.  

Recipe: Arugula Pesto (Original recipe here)

4 cups packed fresh arugula
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup pure olive oil
2 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted, plus 1 tablespoon (I used pecans because that is what I had on hand)
1/8 teaspoon vitamin C (optional) (I did not include)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl, and bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put the arugula in a large sieve and plunge it into the boiling water. Immediately immerse all the arugula and stir so that it blanches evenly. Blanch for about 15 seconds. Remove, shake off the excess water, then plunge the arugula into the ice water bath and stir again so it cools as fast as possible. Drain well.

Squeeze the water out of the arugula with your hands until very dry. Roughly chop the arugula and put in a blender. Add the garlic, salt and pepper to taste, olive oil, 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts (I used pecans), and the vitamin C, if using. Blend for at least 30 seconds. In this way the green of the arugula will thoroughly color the oil. Add the cheese and pulse to combine. The pesto will keep several days in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.

Pull out before dinner to get to room temperature. Before serving, add the remaining 1 tablespoon toasted pinenuts (or pecans or walnuts).

Recipe courtesy Michael Chiarello

Read more at:

gourd box with a crocheted surround that I made
bottom of the gourd box--I made up the pattern as I went along, so I'm glad the crocheted bit turned out as well as it did.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015: Preparing for Changes

The new year of 2015 is just hours old, and we have had our annual dish of black-eyed peas. This year, Tom served up the peas (seasoned with turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, salt, cayenne pepper) with arugula  and tomatoes over rice. This was a very tasty dish and, I hope, a harbinger of a good year. We know it will be a year of changes, some of which we have hints of already, others which remain yet to be identified. Our daughter will finish up a nine-month teaching practicum in environmental science and will be transferring to another university--perhaps to another state than the one in which she currently resides. She has begun to submit applications for further graduate study. Our son will be researching to discover the focus for his PhD work in aerospace engineering. And we have changes in sight, as well, which I will be writing about on this blog as the year progresses.

Several of our friends are preparing for changes, too: our daughter's boyfriend will be moving to the Northwest to work after finishing his undergraduate degree in December; our best friends are hoping to sell their house in the Northwest and move to Texas to be closer to family. 

But the year is yet young, and all of those changes, while visible on the horizon, are for another day's worry. Meanwhile, I am thinking of all the good things I have enjoyed this past year: another year of gardening in a state where gardening is a year-round possibility; another year of relatively good health; another year of travel and of seeing places I had not seen before and enjoying again places I had visited in the past; a year of being involved in social justice projects, of investing time in trying to make this place where we live a better place. 

It has been a good year. I hope this next one will be even better.

Below, a few photos from 2014

from Bayou Cane, looking across Lake Pontchartrain toward New Orleans (our daughter and her boyfriend)

anole shedding its skin on a potted poinsettia at the edge of the patio
Afton, WY
Jackson, Wyoming--view from Teton Pass
Fossil Butte, near Kemmerer, Wyoming
Campo, Colorado

Friday, December 26, 2014

Year's End Stuff--Crafts and Cookies

Except for raking pine needles to mulch my flower beds and to improve the paths between my herb beds, I did not do much gardening in the late fall. Tom and I harvested all the peppers we could before that early freeze in November, and we made habanero pepper jelly for the first time. Two batches included habanero peppers, apples, and rosemary; one batch included habanero peppers and green peppers. All batches turned out to be quite tasty, and we made so many pints that we could give several jars away to friends and family.

After weeding, mulching, and canning, I abandoned the gardening and spent most of my time making things--which meant that for weeks, my dining room looked like this:

The latter half of November I was busy making Christmas presents--plush, shaped pillows for my grown children and my daughter's boyfriend. The project started out simply, as projects do: I had seen a cat-shaped pillow in a catalog a couple of years ago, drew a rendition of it, and thought I would try my hand at creating a cat-shaped pillow for my daughter.

I finally set about doing so in mid-November, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. For the past several years I have been collecting second-hand wool sweaters at Goodwill stores, washing and drying them to felt the wool, and then cutting up the wool to store for projects. In the past, I had made several folk art quilts with the felted wool--see here, here, and here--but I wanted to make some smaller items before setting off again on a quilt project.

I first drew a large pattern--and pieces of the pattern--for the cat pillow.
One of my goals for this project was to use as many recycled materials as I could, so in addition to the felted wool from second-hand sweaters, I used material cut from an old, stained linen tablecloth as backing for the wool pieces. I would be embroidering and appliquéing the wool so needed some kind of closely-woven backing to stabilize the wool.

The project took me longer than it might had I used a sewing machine for some of the simpler sewing because I did it all by hand.  I re-learned some things I had forgotten about sewing (clipping rounded corners to prevent puckering, for instance), and I made some errors that I happily did not repeat in the projects that came later.

Here is a finished version of the cat. In retrospect, I would have made the nose longer and would probably have chosen white wool for the cheeks instead of  light tan.
close-up of the mouse (stuffed separately to give it a 3-D effect--but I didn't attempt to stuff the tail)
When I make something, especially if it's something for which I have created the pattern--whether a hand-sewing project or a crochet project--I tend to make multiple versions. For instance, seven years ago when I began crocheting hats of my own design, I made a LOT of hats; when I created a pattern for crocheted Santa gnomes, I made not one but THIRTY of them. And then I usually don't repeat the project again. After creating the first cat pillow, I knew I had to make something else in a similar vein, so I made a Grumpy Cat pillow for my son and a fox pillow for my daughter's boyfriend.
Grumpy Cat pattern (minus an ear)
Grumpy Cat, front
The "Give a Damn" pennant is a pocket for the smaller flag, which can be taken out to make a different statement.
back of Grumpy Cat
The decorative sashes cover up imperfections in the assemblage of the pillow.

My daughter's boyfriend creates video games, so I wanted to make a pillow that reflected that interest. I drew a fox design that might be at home in a video game and that is also a little reminiscent of the simple and playful features of amigurumi .

pocket on the back of Mr. Fox
Finally, on the craft front, I had a wacky wreath to make for the Raucous Wreath Auction at the Holiday Party held at the Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs, Louisiana. For my wreath, I used some crochet methods I had developed in creating earrings and broaches out of bottle caps. Recycled plastic caps helped shape the wreath; recycled Abita beer bottle caps completed the decorative bit. The final result was a little cuter than wacky, but the winning bid on my wreath was $55, which I designated as a contribution to Doctors Without Borders. A couple of days after the auction, I saw John Preble while shopping at a Rouse's grocerty store, and asked John how much money was raised: "over 18," he said, and I assume that meant over "$1800," as the auction brought in about $1500 last year.
Wacky Wreath I ("Not My Grandmother's Crochet"): the crocheted wreath I donated to the Raucous Wreath Auction at the Abita Mystery House Holiday Party
back of the wreath: You can get a peek at the recycled plastic caps I used to create the wreath form.
Never satisfied with making one of something, I followed up my Abita beer bottle wreath with a wacky wreath for me to keep, using materials left over from previous projects. When I was creating my art car from 2003-2008, I ordered a lot of second-hand buttons on e-bay, and I also collected beads and baubles that I thought I could use in spiffing up "The Lady." Consequently, I have a craft closet and metal files full of stuff I'll not be able to use in a lifetime of craft.
Wacky Wreath II: made of red veggie mesh bags, wooden beads, pony beads, jingle bells, glass ladybug beads, old metal buttons, Mexican milagros
Finally, as Christmas approached, the holiday members of our household, which had increased from two to five as our son, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend arrived, I began baking. For most of the year, we cook fairly simple foods, relying on our garden to supply a lot of our vegetables. And I generally don't bake desserts except for holidays. At Thanksgiving, I usually bake a sweet potato pie or two and maybe a pound cake, and for the Christmas holidays, I bake cookies, two recipes which are family traditions--old fashioned teacakes and gingerbread men. For the past few days, I have been baking a different cookie batch each day, filling the cookie jar and watching the jar empty over the course of that day and the next. Today I baked my final batch, gingerbread men. After cutting out several batches of typical gingerbread men, I turned the batter over to the younger adults and let them create their own strange gingerbread creatures, results which can be seen in the photos below. Also included at the end of this post: recipes for the four kinds of cookies I baked this year.

All in all, it's been a good year for us. There were the usual disappointments, of course, and worries, but I try not to dwell upon those, especially as the unknown quantity of the new year approaches. It's best, I think, to imagine new and happy possibilities rather than to dwell on mistakes, disappointments, and sorrows of the past. In our case, new possibilities may include moving again, as our government continues to cut services in response to Tea Party and Republican pressure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had several severe budget cuts, and while no one is being let go, there is the possibility that more budget cuts could eliminate many of the planner positions for wildlife refuges in the Southeast region. Just before last year's government shut-down, Tom and many of his colleagues were told that the budget cuts could affect their jobs. Rather than letting people go, the USFWS has tried to eliminate positions by attrition and by moving people to other, better-funded positions. Rather than wait for the hammer to fall, Tom decided to be pro-active and to apply for planning positions with the U.S. Forest Service, which seems still to have funding to pay people to write the Congressionally-mandated plans for national forests. But those are concerns for next year.

Meanwhile, we will enjoy friends and family here, a few kayaking paddles on nearby bayous, and holiday cookies from my year's end baking.

Gingerbread men--I used a very dark, organic molasses for this year's batch

Gingerbread aliens

Rolled Ginger Cookies
1 cup butter (or shortening, if you're into that)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 cup molasses
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
5 cups sifted, all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I always add a little more)
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2-3 teaspoons ground ginger (I add 3)

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg, molasses, and vinegar. Sift together the dry ingredients; blend into the butter mix. Chill for 3 hours. Roll dough 1/8 inch thick for crisp cookies, a little thicker for gingerbread men, on a lightly floured surface. Cut in shapes. Bake at 375° (on greased cookie sheet) for 5-6 minutes. Cool slightly. Remove to rack. Makes about 5 dozen cookies, according to the original recipe. Note: I use Red Hots (or cinnamon candies) for the buttons, raisins for the eyes and mouths of the gingerbread men.

Teacakes with Lemon Glaze (a family favorite for three or four generations)
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter (or oleo, if you prefer)
2 eggs
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons vanilla (I add 2)--can also flavor with nutmeg or lemon
flour (4-6 cups)

Mix ingredients in order given. Mix enough flour to make dough stiff enough to roll out (4-6 cups). Roll dough on lightly floured surface. For crisp cookies, roll dough thin. We like our cookies a little thicker and cakier. Cut cookies to shapes and brush with lemon glaze. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes.
Lemon Glaze: Mix together 1/4 cup lemon juice with 3/4 cup sugar. Brush mixture onto cookie dough before baking.

Ranger Cookies
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
2 cups oatmeal
2 cups cornflakes
1 cup coconut flakes
1/2 cup pecans (chopped)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter (or shortening)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla (I add a little more)

Roll in balls and press out on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350° for about 9 minutes. Makes 4 dozen.

Cranberry Crisps (similar to the Ranger Cookies)
1 cup butter (or shortening)
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/3 cups dried cranberries
1 cup coarsely ground walnuts (I use pecans)

Cream butter and sugars. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Combine oats, flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder; gradually add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the cranberries and walnuts (or pecans). Drop by teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350° for 12-14 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield, 5 dozen
Ranger Cookies and Cranberry Crisps