Monday, December 22, 2014

Poetry Monday: "Homemade Eggnog"

Long ago, when I was in undergraduate school, I spent a lot of time yearning for a kitchen.  I missed baking bread.  When the holidays approached, I missed baking cookies.

Luckily, I had a friend, an older guy, who had had his college career interrupted by the war in Vietnam.  He returned to school to finish up, and our paths crossed in 1984.

He had a small house that he inherited when his mother died.  So a group of us would go over periodically.  We'd play Trivial Pursuit and watch old movies on TV.  At Christmas, he offered his kitchen.  We made cookies and homemade eggnog.  We helped decorate his tree.

I've lost touch with him.  I've lost touch with so many people.

I try to remember that I've stayed in touch or recovered connections with lots of people too.  And there are new people to walk beside.  Tomorrow, I'll have some of them over in the middle of the day.  And in the evening, I'll go out to look at lights with another friend.

Thirty years from now, will I be missing those people too?  Or will we still be getting together on Dec. 23, a tradition started long ago?

Twelve or thirteen years ago, I was thinking about lost friends and homemade eggnog, and I wrote the poem below. 

Now I'm tempted to write a different version.  When I wrote the poem below, I had yet to rediscover so many friends through Facebook.  The ways we might have betrayed each other seem much less dramatic than the ways we are betrayed now.  I might write a poem about how we should cherish the homemade eggnog while we still can, since we're not sure of when our last Christmas might be.

Or maybe I grow tired of these melodramatic endings.  Maybe I could just write a simple poem that proclaims the joys of butterfat.

But I won't revise right now.  Below is the poem as I wrote it, years before Facebook, years before anyone had cancer.

Homemade Eggnog

Back before we knew the fat grams of every food,
back before we worried about salmonella and other exotic
sounding creatures lurking in food, waiting to poison
us, back when eggs were the perfect food, not
cholesterol time bombs. Back in those innocent
days, we make homemade eggnog.

We do not cook the eggs. We separate
yolk from white, just as we are apart
from our families. We beat sugar into yolks
the color of sunshine, some sweetness
into the darkness of solstice days.

We whip air into the whites, we beat
them into a frenzy, the way that exams have stirred
us up, the way that school plots of our own devising
pump us full of the air of our own self-importance.

I pour cream into the mixture, cream clotted
with the richness of butterfat. In later years, I will create
cooked eggnog with skim milk, a pitiful
affair, thin and runny, not worth remembering.

We blend the fluffed whites into the sugary concoction.
Carefully, we fold until the separate ingredients
cannot be teased apart again. We dip out cups
for everyone and toast our eternal friendship.
I feel nourishment seep into every cell
as I fix the faces of my friends into my brain.

I cannot imagine a time when I will forsake
eggnog as too fatty, when I will be too busy
to create from scratch. I cannot dream
that I will lose touch with these friends, cannot fathom
the many ways in which we will betray each other.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Solstice Satisfactions

This morning, in the pre-dawn dark of the day of the Winter Solstice, my father-in-law and stepmom-in-law drove away.

What a dramatic sentence!  But the story that precedes it does not justify that sentence--a classic creative writing mistake. 

No, the story that precedes it is that they came and we had a lovely visit and they decided that Sunday is a better day to travel than Monday.  They had thought they might the whole trip from South Florida to Memphis in one day, but yesterday, they began to reconsider.  It's a long trip to make in one day.

So, here I am, with my holiday visitors come and gone (my mom and dad last week-end, in-laws this past week-end) and the holiday still to come.  We celebrated Christmas yesterday--and we get to celebrate it again on Thursday.

I go to work tomorrow, and then it's time to use the rest of my Paid Time Off before the year ends and the days off vanish.  I will not return to work until Jan. 2.  We will not be traveling, which is odd for us.

I plan to get some writing done, of course.  I hope to make the final decisions that need to be made with the memoir/essay project--perhaps the draft that's ready for the final edits will be done by 2015 after all. 

We will have friends over here and there.  And of course, there will be church, more church than usual.  And I need to get my online classes ready.

I am so looking forward to this holiday time.  Even better, I feel like I'm getting a bonus time, since I've already had such a wonderful holiday time with my family.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Of Time and the Creative Process

The first time I ever wrote a research paper was in the eleventh grade, back in 1982.  Let us take a moment to think about how different it was then.  I typed the paper on a typewriter.  I had to leave space for the footnotes, which means I typed the same page multiple times.

When I was done with that laborious process and turned the paper in, I felt such a lightness and freedom.

I haven't ever felt that feeling in the same way again, but that doesn't keep me from expecting it.  With this past week, which meant that I turned in grades for 3 online classes and finished up my administrator duties for Fall quarter, I expected that feeling too.  But the finishing of each task just seems to bring more tasks--no time for euphoria. 

Still I want to capture some of the highlights from this week while I still remember them:

--First, a funny moment.  On Thursday morning, my spouse told me that he dreamed that I was pregnant.  I said, "That would be a Christmas miracle indeed."  I'm 49.5 years old, after all. 

My spouse did an imitation of Abraham/Zachariah, those men in the Bible with wives who conceive long after the time it's possible:  "What do you mean?  My wife is old . . ."  (imagine this said in a Yiddish accent).

I had spent the morning writing about Joseph and the Virgin Mary, so I was startled when he channeled Zachariah, not Joseph.  A bit sobered, I said, "So, we're different characters in the Advent story now?  Are we that old?"  Yes.  Yes we are.

--The graduation speeches Thursday night seemed more meaningful to me.  The speakers focused on failure and on trying again.  In some ways, not traditional speeches, but I appreciated the message.  I feel like I'm surrounded by people with positive publication news, while I barely find time to write a bit here and there, much less send proposals out.  I needed that message that just because I'm not successful now, it doesn't mean I'll never be successful.

--But I did untangle and reweave a part of my memoir/essay project that I had been dreading.  It's the end of the book, where I talk about dead dictators and King Herod and inspirational leaders like Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.  The reweaving was not as hard as I thought it would be.

--Before graduation, I was talking to one of the artists at school.  I had brought in some of my canvases to fill up the broad expanse of wall in my new office.  I painted them in 1998, and part of me wondered if they're too old, if I should be hanging more recent work.  Then I felt the despair of realizing that I'm not doing much in the way of visual arts these days--despair and a bit of self-castigation.  So easy to slip into evil guidance counselor mode:  "You're not living up to your full potential."

Anyway, later in the day, when the artist was in my office, she asked about the canvases.  She said, "That one is quite striking.  You've really got something there."  Here's a bit of what it looks like:

She didn't have to say something positive.  Now I didn't expect her to tell me how awful a painter I am; she's not that kind of person. But the fact that she gave me some praise--well, that gave me hope that maybe all is not lost for me.

--I also had a colleague who told me that she assumed that I would be a dean some day, and then a higher position.  That, too, cheered me.  She looked in the direction of my bookcases and said, "I'm assuming that's what you want."  I thought about talking about how I yearn for my poems to be showcased in a book with a spine.  I thought about talking about my memoir/essay project and how I want to be my generation's Kathleen Norris--but then I'd have to explain who Kathleen Norris is.  Instead I simply smiled and nodded.

--Most weeks I am very good at saying the time that it takes is the time that it takes in terms of my creative work.  Will my work ever be known far and wide?  Will I be seen as an important voice?  I also think of doors that have opened that I couldn't have anticipated, like my blogging for Living Lutheran.  So, I will keep my focus on the work and hope for the best.

--I am also aware that there are many people out there who would be envious of my other jobs:  an administrator, an online teacher.  I also take time to feel gratitude for those aspects of my life.  After all, if I didn't have those, I'd likely be running myself ragged to pay the bills and have no time to write or paint or have much of a creative life at all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Zen Kristin Attempts to Stay in the Christmas Moment

I find myself fighting back the blues this time of year.  It should be the happiest time of the year, as the Christmas season is my favorite time.  But already, I'm thinking of all I will be missing in January.  And I'm haunted by Christmases Yet to Come, when loved ones won't be here.

I summon my best Zen Kristin, trying to live in the present moment and not get swamped by the past or sunk by the future.  I am not talented at being Zen Kristin.

This year, when I feel pangs ("Oh no, by this time two weeks from now, all the Christmas lights will be gone!"), I use those feelings as a reminder to appreciate Christmas elements now, while they're here.

So, I've been making a concentrated effort to go out on a walk every night.  We choose a different street and go out to enjoy the lights. 

Instead of trying to bake every Christmas treat I've ever loved, I've relished the Christmas cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the bet I lost.  Will I make more before the season is over?  Maybe.  But if I don't, that's OK.  I can always make them in March, for an out-of-season treat.

I've accepted that I won't play every Christmas CD that we own.  That's OK.  It will be a future Christmas season before we know it, and I'll play them then.

We don't really have space for a big tree, so this year, I bought several smaller trees.  Wherever I turn, a tree twinkles at me.  The lights are what I like best.

However, last year I really missed seeing our collection of ornaments.  So this year, they're displayed in a different way.  I have a big bowl of glass ornaments.  I have some ornaments that my grandmother made out of yarn and plastic canvas--I put them on the ledge of the non-functioning aquarium that's built into a wall.  For a time, I tried to buy a Christmas ornament during every trip.  Now I've hung them over knobs and put them on shelves.  Every time I turn around, I see evidence of a good life, both mine and others.

When it's time to put these things away, I'll miss them--but part of what makes them so special is that they're not on display year round. 

Should I work on having revolving seasonal displays?  Or just enjoy more flowers year round?

These are questions for another day.  For today, there are groceries to buy and some straightening to do in advance of the next wave of visitors.  And at work, some training on English placement tests and graduation. 

And of course, pausing occasionally to stay rooted in the Christmas moment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing in the Small Scraps of Spare Time

So much grading, so little time for anything else.  In these dark (literally, not so much figuratively for me personally) days of December, let me hold fast to the idea that even little actions move my life-as-writer trajectory in the direction I want to go.

And let me also remember the wonderful e-mails I've gotten from students.  In the online environment, it's so hard to tell how one is doing in terms of teaching.  I had an abundant number of students write to tell me that I was one of the most engaged online teachers they've ever had.  In a way, I'm happy.  In a way, I'm sad--I have ways that I intend to try to be even more engaged--and most teachers do less???

One of my all-time favorite e-mails of this term asked what other literature classes I'd be teaching and what classes (taught by me or others) did I think would be of the most use to him in his goal to write work worthy of being taught in a class.  Yet a different student wrote to ask me if I'd consider teaching the Shakespeare course, because he'd love to take it, but only if I taught it.

Why do I take such delight in that vote of confidence?  I suspect we all know why--it's a variation of that old song--if I could teach Shakespeare, I could teach any aspect of literature!

Even though yesterday was primarily grading and bill paying and shopping of the we-must-get-this-done variety, I still managed to do some writing:

--I finished the Gabriel in Miami poem.  You, like Gabriel, may scoff at the idea of a virgin in Miami.  Can the one who is pure of heart really be in such a place?  Where does Gabriel find the virgin?  In a real estate developer's office, of course.  It's in accordance with the Advent/Bible message that you are likely to find God in the places where you least expect to find anything holy.

--I am slowly returning to my memoir.  My goal for the holiday break is to finish the rough draft that I've been toiling over so long.  I had thought I would include a monthly gratitude post throughout the book.  Then I thought I really didn't have enough material for once a month, so maybe a gratitude post for each of the four sections of the book.  Yesterday I decided to scrap the whole idea.  The rough drafts that I had seemed to have very little to do with the rest of the book.

As I look ahead to 2015, my goal is to write more poetry.  On Tuesday and Thursday morning, I want to write a poem--and if I don't, then I'll expect that I will write a poem on Saturday or Sunday morning.  Two poems a week--my goal is usually one poem a week.  But it's too easy to go into a steep slide if I miss one week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Main Dish Recipe for Busy December Days

Perhaps you are like me, a tad exhausted from all the grading you've been doing at the same time you've been fighting off a cold at the same time you've had an uptick in delightful activities.

Perhaps you have an event to attend, a potluck, and you know that everyone will be bringing cookies and someone should bring something with nutritive value.  Maybe your household needs something for dinner with nutritive value, something that will provide sturdy leftovers to take with you for lunch the next day.

But maybe you don't feel like cooking--yet you also don't feel like having one more restaurant meal or one more assemblage of take out food or one more chicken from the deli.  You need a recipe that doesn't involve much more effort than opening jars and packages and dumping them together.

I have just the recipe.  I first discovered it in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu Cookbook, which my mom and dad gave me for Christmas in 1988 or 1989.  It's infinitely adaptable:   if you have a different size jar, that will work; if you don't have an ingredient, no problem; if you only have 12 oz. of pasta or if you don't have time to marinate, that's cool.

Pasta with Marinated Vegetables

Feel free to adapt the following list to your own tastes and what you can find/afford.  Combine the following in a bowl and marinate several hours or overnight or not at all:

1-2 jars or cans of artichoke hearts
1 pound of sliced mushrooms
1-2 packages of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced if large
1-2 jars of roasted red peppers (or roast your own, if you have time)
1 C. (or more or less) sliced black olives (any type works, from gourmet to regular)
1 tsp. (or more or less) of the following:  oregano, basil,
several cloves minced garlic or a sprinkle of garlic powder/salt
1/3 C. olive oil
2-4 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar

When you're ready to assemble, boil a pound of pasta, something smallish, like shells or penne.  Drain when done and mix with the veggies.  You can top with grated parmesan cheese if you wish and if you're serving hot.

Tastes great at room temperature and straight out of the refrigerator.  In terms of food safety, it's perfectly safe to leave it on a buffet table for hours at a time or to take it for lunch and to leave it at room temperature for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Calendars

We had a great 24 hours with my mom and dad--literally 24 hours.  What can one do with 24 hours?  A lot, as it turns out:

--The plane arrived at 2 on Saturday, and we hung out at the house for a few hours.  We listened to Christmas CDs.  We relaxed.

--We had a perfect early dinner:  steaks grilled, jacketed potatoes with the perfect amount of coarse salt, and steamed broccoli.

--Mom and I went to a cookie swap.  It's the 3rd year that my friend has had a this cookie swap, and it's one of my favorite holiday events.

--We left that event early to get to the Broward Symphony.  True confession:  I much preferred the Broward Chorale concert the night before.  I wanted holiday music! Call me bourgeois, but if you put on a concert two weeks before Christmas, there should be holiday music.

--Still I'm glad we went.  My parents, who are classical music fans of the first order, enjoyed the concert, and my spouse really wanted to go.  We heard a fairly new symphony that was rooted in The Lord of the Rings.  It was interesting music with fascinating effects done by instruments that usually don't get to shine in symphonies.

--We came home and ate some Christmas cookies.  We turned on our pool toy, the disco ball with colored lights that gives a fascinating light show in the water.  Then we went to bed.

--On Sunday, I had Christmas cookies for breakfast. 

--We went to a wonderful interactive church service and then we had brunch.  The food was perfect.

--Then it was time to get my parents to the ship.  We had no trouble at the entrance to the port.

--And then it was all over.  There was that deflated feeling, that "Wait, why can't we have more time?" feeling.  There was the happy feeling that I wished we had had more time, that we all get along well.  There was the usual week-end feeling, that Sunday sadness that the week-end is coming to an end.  I put myself to work, catching up on e-mails and packing my gym bag and thinking about lunches and getting some grading done.  We took a walk in the evening and enjoyed the abundance of holiday lights.

--I wrote a poem once based on just this very type of week-end.  I'll paste it below.

Advent Calendar

Orion, that winter visitor, reminds us of our frosty
obligations. Now is the time to prepare.
We dig in the cupboards for the cookie cutters,
creatures enough to create a healthy genetic
mix for the holiday planet we will create.

We remember anew the joy of the well-seasoned
skillet, so versatile as we fry the meat
and cook a well-crusted cornbread.
We strive for abundance, to be prepared
for the unexpected visitor, the waylaid
traveler who might arrive without gifts.

We rediscover the joy of bread baked
fresh in the morning. We afford
the extra splurges that festivity demands:
exotic nuts, dense pastes, sweet icings,
breads heavy with butter and spices.

We could not maintain this pace
all year, but for a month, we pretend
we can handle the additional load.
We try to ignore the yearnings from the stomach’s
pit, the one that wonders why every day
can’t be filled with goodies cooling on the hearth,
a household bathed in the fragrance of baking bread,
the comfort of cake.