Old Chunk of Coal

“I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” (I’m listening to this Billy Joe Shaver song while I write as the late Johnny Cash sings it on the album, Unearthed, produced by Rick Rubin and released by American Records two months after Cash’s death in 2003.)

2010 has brought many messages in bottles to the shore of my lively spring here in the longleaf woods. There has been a bubbling up, a falling from the sky, a cracking open of worlds.

Genuine wayfarers in the virtual world have traveled inbound on the ultra-high-speed rail of my optic nerve and were delivered from the main station deep in my consciousness out through my bloodstream to all points, especially my heart.

They arrived from the neighborhood just down the road in Tallahassee and Lakeland, from Phoenix, from North Carolina, Ohio, the Texas hill country, wild Alaska, the beautiful coast in California and especially The City of Angels, from Japan, Wales, India, Spain, Oklahoma, Iowa, the English countryside, Oregon, Nashville, Pennsylvania, Washington state, Boston, a steady stream of good cheer from Wisconsin, Maine, dear Ontario, lately and most welcome New Hampshire and the pond of unknowing, and even by-God-New-York-City, shedding star light through that remarkable worm hole between virtual and real and dusting me with light on each and every pass.

Blog comments, e-mails exchanges, the occasional phone call, an entire virtual Advent village from a dear friend in Wales that I can peek into every day and hear the music in all its traditional otherworldly loveliness; there have been photographs floating into my real world post office box – especially treasured is the photo of that mill in Ontario and the words written inside (no longer strangers, indeed); and then only yesterday, inside a plain brown wrapper, unannounced, a beautiful book arrived, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, sent by my world-traveling friend in Moose Pass, Alaska. She knew I would love and appreciate this book (and her) and I do.

We have been through a lot together in 2010. As my old friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove, North Carolina might say, we have shared joys and sorrows. We have been open and vulnerable with each other, and on occasion have bound each other’s wounds, and celebrated our common urges to create. And we have respected each other’s silences, comings, goings, and meanderings; the madness, the messiness, the breaking open and the breaking through.

There have been so many gifts this year. I have been rocked back on my heels by your writing and general fineness of character and spirit. Your encouragement to me via comments and also by private email has kept me from turning the computer and all my half-written stories into a big old shredded fishing reef out in the Gulf. Thank you.

Let us go forth, now, into this new frontier, 2011. With you all as my companions, my fellow travelers, and guided by my muses for this year: John Updike, Don DeLillo and that man in black, Johnny Cash who is excavating sixteen tons of memory and story from my subconscious. There are others, and there will be others, but these are my teachers and spirit guides in this astonishing moment.

With your continued help and encouragement, like old Billy Joe Shaver, I’ll keep on polishing this rough-edged self, and maybe I’ll be a diamond some day.

My advice for the year? Buckle up your seat belts. It’s going to be another wild ride. And I daresay we wouldn’t have it any other way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByqVPLdOTJI

Lunar Eclipse on the Gulf Coast

Lunar Eclipse 12-21-2010

Click on the picture to see my point-and-shoot photos.

It’s been a long time since I stayed up half the night to watch a natural event. Found out last night it’s been way too long.

When you’re a kid, you don’t think anything of doing what Buck did on a warm July night 65 years ago at the age of 8 when he stayed up most of the night reveling in a total lunar eclipse. He quickly discovered that he would get a crick in his neck if he tried to stand and stare up at the sky, and the heavy dew in the grass would get him wet if he lay down on his back in his parents’ yard.

Buck’s solution was to get one of his mother’s quilts and spread it out on the grass. Then he stretched out, arms behind his head in a classic pose of childhood wonderment, and watched the whole show, from start to finish.

Last night, Buck and I decided to just stay up and read until it was time to watch this rare combination of a total lunar eclipse occurring on morning of the winter solstice, rather than to sleep for a couple of hours and then stagger out into the cold from a warm bed. I doubted my own resolve to leave the bed.

I downloaded Don DeLillo’s 2007 book, Falling Man, onto a Kindle application for my lightweight ThinkPad Edge laptop. Time passed quickly and my mouth grew increasingly dry as it always does when I read DeLillo. I was glad to be biding time to view a spectacular sky show rather than awaiting the Armageddon-like experience this spare, devastating book explores. The Kindle app, which I set for a 125%, sepia-toned page, provided just the right texture for DeLillo’s perfect paragraphs.

At about 12:30 cst, Buck and I pulled two patio chairs out onto the concrete deck surrounding the swimming pool. I eyed the pool warily, thinking how easy it would be to become engrossed in standing, staring up at the eclipse. Two or three backward steps. Plop. Hypothermia in an unheated pool. It’s Florida, but we have had a string of sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and the water had that milky, gelid look of frigid liquid.

Buck watched for a while through his big binoculars, and then returned to the warm bed. “Call me if it turns blood red, and take out your softest pillow to prop up your neck so you can get a good angle.”

I made a pot of Lady Grey tea, pulled down a red Christmas mug that has “You better jingle all the way” written in black script around the top of the cream-colored inside, and stuck a gingerbread biscotti into my jacket pocket, then headed back outside to experience the wonder.

Two nearby-owls kept me company. I more than halfway expected a chorus of yipping howls to erupt from the neighborhood coyotes at the crescendo of the eclipse, but all I heard was the distant drone of airplanes and, due to a trick of wind, the high whine of a long-distance truck on the interstate highway several miles away.

I dipped my biscotti into the hot tea, leaned back into the pillow, and watched the show. The glittering stars were exquisite; the eclipse mysterious, gorgeous.

Stretched out there in the patio chair, eyes on the sky, I felt something reluctant, hesitating, something hard and parched curled up inside me begin to soften, unfurl and become fragrant again, like that dry gingerbread biscotti dipped into the hot tea.

For some really great photo streams by professionals and gifted amateurs, click here for the Wired Science page.

Full Immersion

I was baptized in a little Baptist church in Miami Springs, Florida when I was only six. The water was very cold. It smelled like chlorine. The baptismal pool was on a miniature stage behind the choir loft. Usually, heavy curtains were drawn across it so no one could look at it. But on baptism nights, wavelets from the pool flickered weird shadows on a mural of Jesus standing in the River Jordan.

A white choir robe was pulled over my head for the immersion. It felt so heavy, there might as well have been concrete blocks attached.

The preacher put one big hand on the flat of my back and with the other pinched and covered my nose with a large white handkerchief. I was terrified, immobile, as he expertly pushed on my back, causing my short legs to lose their footing, while pushing my head down under the water with his other hand at the same time.

 “Jesus said, ‘Suffer not the little children to come unto me.’ I baptize thee, Mary Beth Jones, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

I was sure that my old, sinful, six-year old self was about to die right then, but I emerged, spluttering,  flailing,  and surprised from the cold pool. At that moment, it was easy for me to believe that Jesus had saved me. Despite the best efforts of that preacher to drown me, Jesus saved me. Hallelujah, I was born again.

Tuna to the Max

One more food picture recap from the week.  Early in the week, Buck and I ate roast chicken and then beef stew. After that, we were ready for seafood. I went to Joe Patti’s on Thursday and bought shrimp, cocktail crab claws, beautiful yellow fin tuna steaks and 10 sea scallops.

The tuna was a little embarrassing. Buck came by where it was bathing in an olive oil and cracked pepper marinade and did a double take. It looked like enough food for a small army.  Not only were the steaks way too much for the two of us, but Joe Patti’s had thrown in a chunk of lagniappe, what they called “white tuna,” but is in fact escolar. It’s the small oval piece you see on the grill.

Well, I went ahead and cooked it all. Worked out fine, too, because tomorrow evening we’ll have a modified salade niçoise, with the tuna, boiled egg, scallions, Harold’s potatoes, and a few bites of Feta cheese, all on a bed of salad greens.

There probably won’t be any more food photos until Christmas Eve, because I’ll be getting ready for our Italian-style feast and will be eating Chinese take-out or some other ready-made until Friday.

Our menu?  Grilled vegetable antipasto with herbed Chevre and crostini, meatballs with parsley and parmesan, marinara sauce, garlic bread, Frank’s Caesar salad, and Louise’s (Harold’s wife) chocolate platter extravaganza, along with lots of dry red for the adults and fancy coffee for everybody.

We’ll pore over the mountain of New Yorker cartoons I’ve been cutting out and saving all year, and have a blast. We’re looking for a group of 12 with ages ranging from 12 to 73, and not a shy one in the bunch. The house will be rockin’.

Who Knew?

Who knew that bronzed sea scallops would make such a scrumptious supper when paired with fresh from the ground turnip roots, smoky collards, stone ground yellow cornbread, a rough and ready scallion, and vintage Dewars and water with lots of ice in a wine glass?

 

 

May I be the first to testify:  I know it now.

Gratitude Adjustment

Sometimes a person has to be reminded about gratitude, even a person like me who has a naturally grateful heart.

At first I was happy when our friend Harold called to say he was on his way over to bring us something. Usually at this time of year, his wife, Louise, makes huge batches of mostly chocolate candy that she artfully arranges onto a pretty platter and sends out to folks like me who hardly ever have any sweets in the house, much less bake any themselves. The tray Louise sends out is ostensibly for The Grandchildren, since she knows I might try to pass off steamed broccoli flan as cupcakes to the poor things.

However, the sordid truth is that Buck and I eat them. Not all of them, of course. Not so many that I can’t rearrange the tray so it looks like nothing is missing. But Louise’s tray of dark chocolate fudge, milk chocolate fudge, butterscotch fudge, pralines, chocolate-dipped cherries, white-chocolate pretzels, chocolate peanut clusters, and chocolate-dipped pecans, plus thin waffle cookies and garnished with the most adorable chocolate mice you will ever eat. . . well! You get the idea. Who could resist a teensy-weensy morsel or five?

So, by the time Harold arrived, my mouth was already watering, thinking of the nice afternoon I would spend at my desk with a pot of Lady Grey tea and a little saucer (kind of a variety pack) of chocolates. I peeked through the window, looking for the tell-tale large round tray.

Instead, I saw Harold wrestling one large and three small plastic bags to the door. He was pleased as punch and ready for a Christmas hug.  Just-picked collard greens from his garden were inside the big bag. The smaller ones held just dug white turnips, pungent green onions and small Irish potatoes.

On his wait out, Harold turned to say, “Louise got them pecans you sent her yesterday, and she’s got the whole kitchen turned upside down choppin’ them and puttin’ them in some of her candies. She told me if I’d wait an hour, she’d have your tray of sweets ready to go, but if I’m going to hunt this afternoon, I had to come on now with the greens. I’ll get them sweets to you before those Grandchildren are due to come over.”

After Harold left, I found a Hershey’s foil-wrapped chocolate kiss and let it dissolve in my mouth while I started the process of washing, chopping and cooking the greens Harold had brought us. I had hoped to spend the afternoon sitting at my desk, but here I was standing at the sink.

My arthritic hands were already a little sore from addressing Christmas cards and too much time at the computer keyboard. The huge sink-full of big-leaved collard greens loomed large. Each leaf has a large vein down the center. I took out my chef’s knife, freed the vein from each leaf, stacked the halves into a large pile and then chopped them into neat squares.

Gradually, the furrow that had developed in my brow began to dissolve, replaced by the steady beating of a grateful heart, and a gentle chiding from its voice.

Tonight, I’ll cast-iron-skillet bronze the scallops I picked up a couple of days ago at Joe Patti’s and serve them with velvety collard greens, boiled Irish potatoes, buttery turnip roots and crisp green onions.

Harold not only grew and hand-delivered superior nourishment to us today; he gave me something to think about, too — how so often gifts come disguised as work.

 

Christmas Changes, We Grow

I have always been a tabula rasa when it comes to children, since I never gave birth to or raised any. Heck, I’m still a kid myself, and hopefully always will be. I’ll be turning 60 in June next year, a real mind-blowing experience for a baby boomer babe.

When I married Buck almost 27 years ago, he had one toddler grandson. Now there are seven, with one great grand and another on the way.

These days, Christmas shopping is easy. All we need is money in the bank, a check book and a pen. Actually, that’s pretty nice, because the time saved from shopping has allowed us to send out personal Christmas cards for the first time in years. It feels good to reconnect with some special old friends and connect in a personal way with new ones.

Even a tabula rasa knows it’s a nice thing to have a little uncommitted money in one’s pocket. Nice for children; nice for adults. I vacariously enjoy the feeling they will have, with a little green largesse to spend on whatever they choose.

But I have to say, the shopping part in the old days was fun, too. We used to get detailed Christmas wish lists, mostly handwritten, some typed, from the little kids. I found some of the archived lists today, and smiled at the sweet-cute-funny lists.

Here, a sampling:

Complete Calvin and Hobbes comic book collection

Something cool for my room

Cellphone cover

Hilary Duff CD

Oriental Dress and Chopsticks

Sparkly Purse

Sparkly Belt

Star Wars blasters

X-Box 360

Nintendo DS

Harry Potter wand

Harry Potter costume

Harry Potter firebolt

Dance Dance Revolution for PS2

Army outfit

Fake shotgun

Nintendogs

Shrek superslam

Narnia

Video camera

Polly Pockets

White bunny

Care Bear grumpy bear

Gold locket

White and red clothes

Pink gloves

Hot pink nail polish

Art stuff

Barbie guitar

Earrings

A unicorn

Aquarium

Snow cone machine

Ah, I feel a flush of nostalgia. It was fun to shop, wrap and watch the little guys open their presents.

But, it’s fun, too, to see the teens and post-teens eyes light up when they open a card that holds a check, and to hear them say “Yes!”  No massive paper mountains to recycle, just hugs, with plenty of time to share fancy coffee drinks that we will invent together on Christmas Eve.

Big-Ass Beef Stew

I had the hungries for a cast iron kettle full of beef stew yesterday and ran across the recipe claim for an “Ultimate” beef stew from celebrity chef Tyler Florence that calls for an entire bottle of red wine. As a cooking liquid, not for drinking. Sheesh. That just rubs me the wrong way. Seems like a hell of a profligate waste of wine.

Nonetheless, I carried a step-ladder from the pantry to the bar, climbed to the top step and hoisted down a dusty bottle of a wine whose label was perhaps more tasty than the contents.

Big Ass Syrah.

Yep. That’s it. I originally had three bottles. Two were still way up on that high shelf. It’s not bad, actually. Just a little light in its loafers, not the kind of flinty gravitas I prefer in a glass. So, if an entire bottle of red wine was going to be sacrificed on the altar of culinary experimentation in my kitchen, it was going to be this one.

Chef Florence’s recipe called for browning the beef – I cut up a chuck shoulder roast – and then braising it in the wine, broth, smashed garlic, thyme and bay leaves. After a couple of hours, I added carrots, new potatoes, pearl onions and, at the last minute, little green peas.

By the time Buck came in from the deer woods, (where he is filling pages of a legal pad with chapters of his book and not really noticing whether Bambi’s granddaddy shows up), Maggie had already swooned by the front door from the smells emanating from the kitchen, and Buck almost did when he came in.

This was the best beef stew either of us had ever eaten: tender, fragrant, silky. We ate a bowl of it with warm Cuban bread on the side and a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir. We’re having more of that Big Ass Beef Stew tonight.

Garlic-Butter Rubbed Roast Chicken with Oranges and Red Onion

How many ways are there, really, to roast a chicken? I have known the basics of turning out a tender, succulent bird that fills the whole house with the warm-fuzzy aromas of classic comfort food forever and a day, so when I saw Martha Stewart Living magazine tout “The New Roast Chicken” in a January, 2011 cover story, I was skeptical.

The recipe selections run the gamut, from Paprika-Rubbed with Roasted Garlic and Crisp-Skinned with Rosemary Potatoes, to Garlic-Butter Rubbed with Roasted Oranges and Red Onions, Beer-Can Roasted with Fig-Jam Pan Sauce, Tandoori-Marinated with Cucumber, Lime, and Chiles, and Inside-Out “Stuffed” with Mushroom Dressing.

I decided to give the Garlic-Butter Rubbed with Roasted Oranges and Red Onions a try. We pick up a rotisserie chicken from the local supermarket from time to time, and they will do in a pinch. We also cook individual boned chicken breasts sometimes. If you’ve ever eaten a home-roasted chicken, redolent with whatever batch of fresh ingredients you rub, slather or baste onto it, or shove into it, you’ll be forever disappointed with any other cooked chicken (home-grilled excepted).

Before roasting the chicken, (a Greenwise, from Publix), I massaged butter, crushed garlic and fresh chopped thyme leaves onto the breasts, underneath the fragile skin. Wedges of red onion, navel orange and thyme still on the stem went into the cavity. More onion and orange wedges were spread around the chicken in the pan, and it went into the oven.

The caramelized onion and orange were fantastic. They looked awful, but tasted great.

I wouldn’t say this method of roasting a chicken is new under the sun, but it sure was good. I think I’ll try the Beer-Can Roasted with Fig-Jam Pan Sauce next.

Piece of a Story from a Fragment of a Dream

Story fragment from a dream I had December two years ago. . .

I’ll never forget the day I met the now famous Episcopal rector and surgeon, John Robert Stanforth. I was traveling,  and had stopped into this marvelous old waterfront church to rest for a few minutes in the cool dark interior. Who knows? Perhaps even to pray.

Dr. Stanforth was distraught  that day, a mop of unruly bright yellow hair betrayed  his English roots, and a sharply tailored suit closely followed every move of his trim, kinetic body.

“So it’s begun, has it?” A challenge was in his sarcasm-tinged voice as he walked toward me. “Aren’t you  the early bird.”

In my dream, John Robert Stanforth is a gifted surgeon and a wealthy man, about 58 years old. Some 15 years earlier, he helped fund a waterfront rescue mission to help homeless men, women and families. Because of his guidance and help, training and education programs were developed, including an apprenticeship concept that became a national model. Stanforth left medicine, attended seminary and became an Episcopalian priest.

An unlikely coalition of wealthy old families and formerly homeless working poor prevailed upon him to become rector of a church they would build on the site of the original mission. A new mission, dormitory, family housing, and training facility had been completed in town, close to sources of work, and the owners of the original land were willing to donate the site for a new church.

But now, due to schism in the whole church, it was to be closed and the contents auctioned. The day I wandered in off the streets was the day Dr. Stanforth and the vestry was to meet with the auction company representative.

When I walked through the narthex of the church into the vestibule, I felt as though I had entered another, more ethereal world. The ceiling was a cerulean blue dome, painted with stars so lifelike it seemed like a planetarium. A lovely mural depicting people of all ages and all walks of life holding their arms up as if to embrace the source of light was painted on the back wall. Each of the 14 stained glass windows, seven on each side, was beautifully crafted. Each told a story.

Stanforth must have seen me studying the stained glass windows and the remarkably intricate carved wood writing desk in an alcove, and assumed I was the auction company representative.


There was another church in my dream, or maybe it was a second dream in the same night. It was really strange. It seemed to represent the “new face” of the Episcopal Church (at least one branch of the tree anyway). It was charismatic, voluble — parishioners were talking out loud, discussion, arguing and adding commentary during the service.

A huge grand piano was in the front, center area at ground level; almost like a theater in the round. The choir was located in a brightly lighted alcove space, over on the left side. They were on nearly vertical risers and were dressed in bright white robes with shiny gold accents woven into the neckline and cuffs. They sang abstract sounding non-theist hymns to the universe, to my ears like geometric shards of sound, a chaotic, atonal assault.

Buck and I had come to the service on a last minute impulse to see what was going on with the lot there. We weren’t dressed for church. I had on my usual “at home on a cold day” sweat pants and black t-shirt.