Sugar in her tea

IMG_2632-1 (1)I am rusty at non-required writing. Every day I get it done for work but when it comes to the optional kind, I am tentative and wary of beginning again.

That phrase in the title – sugar in her tea – I transcribed it today from interview notes for something I’m writing. A freelance gig at an agricultural nonprofit, it has to do with farmers in the developing world and how their lives improve when their income grows. To have sugar in one’s tea after years of drinking it black? That’s a small sign that farmer livelihood is improving. (There are more significant measures too, like nutritious food and peace of mind.)

It’s just Grace and I here tonight. We are talking a little but we’re quiet. Oh, Winston’s here too. Are we lonely? I’ll ask Grace. We are sitting in her room together.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “I think that maybe if it was like some Saturdays in the past when it’s just been the two of us all weekend, and we only leave the house to do errands, that can be lonely.”

She adds, “Sometimes when I’m lonely it doesn’t have to do with us. It might be because of being upset with a friend.” Knowingly, she looks at me and continues: “It’s not the household dynamic.”

In my own moments of loneliness, I try to tell myself it’s just a feeling and it may have no immediate origin. You just have to abide with it. It may not need to be fixed.

Meanwhile, I’m reading a book, Scary Close by Donald Miller. It’s about intimacy in general – being real and being close to friends, family, a partner. Its subtitle contains the phrase “dropping the act.” This is the kind of thing a person reads when she wonders if she knows anything, after years of adulthood, about what it means to connect, and how to do it well. Though there is something about the writer’s voice that is a little too proud of all the insights, there are some illuminating bits, and I am enjoying them, like this one:

One night they are sitting around a fire in the yard. His future father-in-law, who is reportedly good at relationships, “said if we took the logs from the fire and separated them out in the field, they’d go out within an hour. They’d just lie there cold. He said for some reason the logs needed each other to burn, to stay warm” (203).

I am drawn to that image — poetic and romantic — even though the objective part of my mind is wondering what are the thermodynamics that make this so.

There’s also a long part in the book about having a meaningful life, and Miller summarizes principles from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. There are three recommendations if you want to have what Frankl claimed humans wanted even more than Freudian pleasure: “a sense of gratitude for the experience they were having, a sense of purpose and mission and belonging” (182):

Have a project to work on, some reason to get out of bed in the morning and preferably something that serves other people.

Have a redemptive perspective on life’s challenges.

Share your life with a person or people who love you unconditionally. (183)

I have a good portion of all of these — project, perspective, people — though the winds have buffeted us and feelings of purpose, resilience, and love are still on the mend. That’s an up arrow, for sure, though sometimes the tender spots ache when we palpate them.

I’ve been thinking about having a project to work on, one that is mine all mine. Not for income. Not for housekeeping. Not for athleticism.

Rising in me again, in part because of my summer freelance writing project, is a belief in writing itself as worthy and desirable. Even though I’m a writing / speaking teacher, most of the writing I do in education is feedback on the work of others. Oh, and emails, but that’s every job. I had lost heart with my own writing in the last year or so, and the activity of writing, in addition to the conversations about writing, has done a lot to boost my writing ego.

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Nature section, Brookline Booksmith

I live near a bookstore now, and they invite patrons to bring their dogs along. Winston and I sometimes stop in to look at a shelf or two on our evening walk. Yesterday a book on mushrooms caught my attention, and then we scanned the Nature shelves. I fantasized about resuscitating my project on Elizabeth White, amateur botanist, and the cultivated blueberry.

A friend of Jimmy’s called me tonight, before sundown. He half jokingly said he was atoning for not having been in touch for a long time. I said I didn’t think that way at all. In fact, people live inside my head, not in a crazy way, but in a populated way. I think of them; they think of me. I know that.

Somehow all the parts of this meandering post fit together, though there is no beginning, no end. Having a good life, a meaningful one. Loneliness. Writing desire. People, near and far.

Be still, my research heart.

At least twice a week, I walk down the long hallway that is glassed on one side with giant windows that look out on the courtyard outside Hayden Library. I look, and I imagine sitting out at one of the tables and reading in the roofless room, enclosed on four sides and open to the sky. Sheltered/exposed. I look, but I don’t go through the door. And no one else seems to. We’re busy.

Finally, though, it’s a beautiful day, and I have an errand taking me to Hayden. Through Google Scholar I have found citations to three published articles relevant to my Elizabeth White project. I get coffee at the Clover truck. I head to the library and go through the door. Others have the same idea: there are two young women, with an open laptop, sitting at one table and talking, and there is another young woman at a smaller table, reading. I choose the steps, sit half in sun and half in shade, read a reprint of a pamphlet written by White, and drink the coffee. Already I am happy, like a bee among daisies.

Coffee done, pamphlet read, I head down to the library basement, where the old bound journals cohabitate on those movable shelves. Down there I whiff the minerals of concrete and dust. The air seems to hum, but only because it’s so quiet, and I know that fluorescent lights are supposed to hum. The semester is over; I am alone.

I find the call number for the citations in National Geographic Magazine. Frederick Coville, the USDA botanist to whom Elizabeth White offered her family farm, Whitesbog, as an experimental agricultural station in the 1910s, published three articles in that decade that will help me with my project. Two are on blueberries: one published before White discovered Coville, and one after White and Coville bred a cultivated blueberry that could be farmed. Another article is on the first World War and the U.S. government’s concerns with the food supply in Europe.

Old books have a sour smell, not unlike the tang of expired milk or the acid of bile. When I was a girl and I would open a book with this particular smell in the library and breathe it in, I would consider it mildly vomit-y. I love this smell, and as I open each heavy book I drink it.

Facing the National Geos are a stack of skinny newspapers. I slide one off the top; it’s Harper’s from 1869. Amazing, I think, that this treasure is out on the shelf and I am trusted to put my human hand on it. It flakes along the fold when I open it wide. Carefully, as though it’s a sheet of glass, I close and arrange it back into place.

My friend Rosemary, doing her own research this summer, offhandedly described her surroundings as “musty old archives,” and reported that our mutual friend, Susan, herself an archivist, first took umbrage at the characterization and then softened: “Perhaps we [archivists] should embrace it.”

Ah, friends, yes. For those of us whose pulse quickens as our steps shuffle down to the library basement, hands open leather-covered and cool pages, eyes delight in the accumulated dust, and noses inhale the sour cloud of old ink while eardrums vibrate with the hum of what is surely our own heart: embrace it all.

– What I am thinking about this week

Lee did not ask me or anyone to follow him in writing, but I read his post, and what can I do but be prompted?

Thoughts, especially written-down ones, propagate thoughts. That is one thing I am thinking about right now.

Today in the grocery store I stood in line near an old, yet very well groomed woman. She was tiny and precise: short, thin all over, ironed black shorts and ironed white summer blouse, black framed sunglasses proportioned for her face, short hairdo the color of dried grass with a little pink to it. She paid by check. “I don’t do bank cards,” she said to the clerk. It’s a family-owned grocery store, and they accomodate habits like these. In her cart she had two of many things: two boneless chicken breasts, two russet potatoes, two yogurts. I looked at her left hand, which was bony and veined of course, and she wore two or three bands on the ring finger, one heavy with stones. Her hand seemed to droop, perhaps simply from that fatigue that strikes us all at 4:30pm, but the view of those rings and all the food twins in her cart put this phrase in my head: heavily married.

Revision is an open wound. As long as a piece or project is underway and unfinished, it is susceptible to every influence that comes near it. That’s good, but also hard to experience, and manage. On this, I will have more to say in the future. Continue reading

– Ancestral division of labor

In doing some reading and note-taking on the history of agriculture for my blueberry project, I came across this.

The need to care for children helped create division of labor among hunters and gatherers. Men hunted, women gathered. Of the two pursuits, gathering was clearly more important. While the capture of a single large animal might have provided a clan of forty people with meat for two weeks, it was gathering that gave our ancestors a dependable diet — probably about seventy percent of their caloric requirements in the arid tropics. Though it has been generally assumed that hunting provided more food than gathering in the high northern latitudes (above 40 degrees), an American anthropologist studying tribes along the western Canada/U.S. border (45 – 48 degrees N.) found that even this far north, with plentiful game and declining plant resources, women provided seventy percent of the diet from gathering. (7)

Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney (U of Az Press: 1990).

While I know that many men cook and feed their housemates and families (as, for example, Bryan T., my childhood neighbor does his), the feminist in me did a little cheer when ancient women got that affirmation. Seventy percent of a population’s caloric requirements — that’s a lot of roots, seeds, nuts, and fruits.

– In the pines, in the pines

Pines2“What did you find out?” That was the question I was asked when Jimmy and I returned from our one-day field trip to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, to find Elizabeth White’s house, Suningive, and explore Historic Whitesbog Village, a state trust which preserves a turn-of-the-century company town built around cranberry and blueberry farming.

The question, innocent enough, made me bristle. It seemed to beg for information, and the purpose of the trip had really been about sense. Having spent a good part of the summer reading about agriculture, fruits, the Pine Barrens, and Elizabeth White and her family, I wanted to test my sincerity. Am I really interested in this subject? Is my curiosity powerful enough to bring me back here, to keep taking the next steps?

There’s something about the beginning of an idea that’s so fragile: just a few cells, stuck together, with a heart barely beating. One must hold onto it, without exposing it. That’s how I feel. The beginning should be conducted in the darkened room of privacy.

So the question — wow! That felt like an intrusion. Inside, I felt my will kind of clamp down around what I could say or reveal, wanting to keep it for myself.

Still, the question-asker is a kind of audience, and I had said enough about my impulse to write a biography of Elizabeth White that the audience deserved a response, an early communication. Continue reading

– Dream of kahare

Purple shellsI sit in a restaurant with two colleagues, a female one from my current job and a male one from a job I had 14 years ago. In my immediate view is what looks like an artichoke heart, but paler green. I hold it up to my mouth; I eat. I register “sweet, like fruit,” but my dream mouth doesn’t taste. Still, I sense that this is a discovery: a new fruit. It’s called a kahare, and I know this because I see the word on the menu in my dream. Kahare. Exotic — not from here — and delicious.

Waiting on my plate is something else, the color of black raspberry ice cream and the shape of a long, round-edged bar of soap and as smooth. It is intact; there are no bite marks. Continue reading

– Blueberries on my mind

Blueberries in handWhile I do not know what form this will take, I am embarking on a biographical research project. The subject is Elizabeth Coleman White (d. 1954), an amateur botanist and serious farmer who brought the cultivated blueberry to New Jersey in the 1920s.

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make the choices we make?

I’ve been thinking about those questions in the last month or two, after I made the commitment to myself to work on this and then started going public by testing the idea in conversations with friends as well as strangers.

No one assigned me to this subject. There is no writing contest of which I’m aware that has to do with blueberries or women farmers. I like blueberries, but I don’t grow them or even live near a patch of them.

I first got the idea to research Elizabeth White back in the summer of 2000, when I read a long article in the New York Times on New Jersey and its blueberries. In a 26-paragraph, three-recipe story, Elizabeth White appeared in a mere three sentences. Still, her story interested me enough that I saved that section of the newspaper. I dug it out several weeks ago, when I was sorting through some boxed clutter.

Article on blueberries

At the time, I was thinking that this might make a good subject for a children’s book, like Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian’s Snowflake Bentley. I even imagined a drawing of a woman, walking through fields in a white summer work dress that is stained indigo in places from squashed blueberries. In fact, I imagined that drawing so much that it started to seem like fact to me: a woman, rows and rows of blueberry bushes, hot sun, white dress, stains. Continue reading