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Archive for August, 2011

Hurricane Irene — which hit the Boston area as a weakened, but still formidable Tropical Storm Irene — has moved out of this area leaving plenty of downed tree limbs, relatively minor flooding, and a lot of people who are holding Hurricane Parties to amuse themselves.  One can only hope that those folks are staying off the roads and refraining from drinking and driving, so that public safety officials don’t have to clean up DUI accidents as well as storm debris.

While some people are wondering what all the fuss was about, Ben and I were remembering the last storm to focus on the New England coast with real fury:  Hurricane Bob, which occurred twenty years ago, nearly to the day.  Bob made landfall on August 19 and continued into August 20, 1991.  We were living across town at the time, and our then-ten year old daughter, Emily, hunkered down with us while we did a family craft project by candlelight, listening occasionally to the battery-operated radio.  Later, Ben brought our camp stove out on the porch, and I cooked supper, which we ate with candles.  We all went to bed early (which we tend to do when camping – how much can you do when nightfall comes early?) and awoke the next morning to find the power back on.  While there was certainly tree damage, we felt that – like today – we had escaped the worst of it.

We were, at the time (as we have been today) more worried about our beloved Isles of Shoals and our friends who worked on Star Island.  The island manager at the time, Tony Codding (having evacuated all the conferees) had the genius idea of putting the iconic island historian, Fred McGill, on the radio telephone to answer the calls of the nervous parents of the summer workers (called Pelicans) who wanted to make sure their children were safe.  Star survived that blow, as we trust it will do this one, and late-summer conference center life will shortly resume on Star for those who seek a retreat and escape from the bustle of the ‘real’ world.

More than Hurricane Bob or Irene, though, I remember Hurricane Gloria.  Gloria, which occurred in September, 1985, made three landfalls, one of them in Connecticut, where I was living at the time.  I resided in Stony Creek, a hamlet of Branford, on the shoreline.  Stony Creek was one of those remarkable places…a town that felt like it had pulled off the Maine coast and plunked down on Long Island Sound.  Old-timers hung out on the docks, making disparaging remarks about the young, monied folk who moved into town.  Things moved slowly, and a nightly routine for me involved walking down to the dock, fishing pole in hand, to catch a few baby blues as darkness fell while catching up with the local gossip.

When Gloria hit, I was working part time for radio station WELI in New Haven, hosting an arts and entertainment show and participating as a reporter in special coverage events from time to time.  I was asked to go out and report on the storm from Stony Creek – an interesting place for ‘color’ coverage, given its shoreline location and low-lying areas.  Standing outside with my portable broadcast unit (remember, there were no cell phones at the time) I heard a huge roar of wind and then a crack behind me.  I turned to see an enormous tree limb land about eighteen inches from where I stood.  That did it:  I talked to the studio producer and said that I thought it better to go inside to the volunteer fire station, which was doubling as an emergency shelter, rather than further risk life and limb with any more live reports.

Gloria did more than $900 million in damage, and plenty of it was in Connecticut.  Power went out in Stony Creek for five days and our radio station offered non-stop coverage on food safety and spoilage, what stores were open for supplies, gas stations with power in the area, and more.  Talk radio can be an important lifeline in such situations, and I was glad to have the chance to contribute to such an effort – although stunned to have nearly been killed in the storm due to my own stupidity.  Hurricane Gloria, along with the late October, 1991 no-name storm on which the book “The Perfect Storm” was based, will always stand out in my mind as the strongest hurricanes I’ve weathered.

I’ve always loved the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy ‘sees’ her life passing before her eyes as the tornado hits, including Miss Gulch pedaling by on her bicycle.  During the height of Hurricane Irene, as with other such storms, I looked to the sky, watching birds struggling to take flight against the sheer force of nature, marveling at what nature can unleash to chasten us.  I view it as Mother Nature issuing yet another reminder about who’s really in charge.

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I just heard about a new show that’s debuting on the Food Network called “Pioneer Woman.”  In it, an Oklahoma home schooler and rancher shows you how to make chicken fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes with cream cheese and butter, while herding kids and cows.

It should have been me on the screen.  For years, Ben has jokingly referred to me as Pioneer Woman, particularly while we go camping.  I love to go hunting for stuff that’s edible in the area where we camp, and frequently come back with treasures:  wild blueberries, raspberries, wild garlic, and more (we will not mention the time that I found poison ivy berries and thought them a delicious edible, and chastened, was sent to the stream to scrub my hands with sand!).

There’s something just restorative about being in a raspberry field (from which I just returned, with nearly two pounds of gorgeous, organic raspberries).  Later today, these berries will be turned into jam, which we – and my catering clients – will feast on all fall and winter and spring.  Tomorrow I’ll probably be back in the field for more, which I’ll turn into a crisp, or mix with gooseberries, currants, and blueberries to make four-berry preserves.

Doing all this reminds me of the years when we walked my grandparents’ farm, picking wild strawberries or potatoes, as we ran after the horse-drawn plow…or days spent near Glacier Park with my friend, Connie, harvesting huckleberries or picking cherries from trees growing on the Flathead Reservation.  It’s an incomparable delight – the combination of being in nature, harvesting the goodness that the sun, wind, rain, and soil provide, and knowing that we can provide for ourselves and our families with what we harvest.

And my pioneering adventures in campgrounds have brought other memories to mind.  I like to jokingly say that I won my husband’s heart on a camping trip.  It was our first together, and I was not about to settle for beans and franks (although we like them) or something out of a can.  I produced appetizers, chicken with a peach-sauternes sauce, rice pilaf, a hot veg, salad, and some dessert I can’t recall.  Ben, and our daughter Emily, were snowed.  On another trip I made a complete lobster dinner at the camp site, and then followed it the next morning by providing blueberry pancakes (picked in Acadia Park) and sausage to the family, all during a driving rainstorm.  And I loved doing it.

I travel with a camping kit that I wish was stored in a chuck-box…but I make do with a couple of stackable totes, and bring a complete array of spices in small containers, olive oil, worcestershire, and all the condiments you’d need to produce really good camping food.  And it all comes out hot at the same time – four or five dishes.

I know all this started when I was a tiny girl visiting my mother’s Uncle Arthur and Aunt Laura, on their farm.  The low blueberry bushes kept me busy and fishing for sunfish and catfish in the pond did as well.  So even though my mother would have none of camping (“too low class,” she sniffed), I come by this yearning for the preparation of food in an outdoor setting honestly.

Yep, I’m the real Pioneer Woman, at least in our family.  And as for that new TV show — well, it should have been me.

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We went to see “The Help” last night at our wonderful little movie theatre, the Lexington Venue.  It was as full as I’ve ever seen it, full of folks about our age, baby boomers in an upscale Boston suburb, who wanted to see what Hollywood had done with Kathryn Stockett’s novel based on a particularly sad time in our U.S. history.  I expected to hate the movie, and had squirmed in making a decision about whether to see it.  I’ve had enough anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism training and work to set off my internal radar with cheery, do-gooder versions of other peoples’ histories, and I was afraid that this movie would fall into that hole.

But it did not.  Some have called it a little too upbeat, but I squirmed in my seat as I saw mean-spirited women take on their maids to make sure they did not behave in a manner not befitting their status, watched other characters cast their eyes down as hard-working domestic workers were demeaned and dissed.  And I was transported back to the time when I recalled – as a young girl — the assassination of Medgar Evers, Jack Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

More than that, I thought about our own ‘help.’  My mother had grown up with parents who believed that African Americans were less than others.  She once handed out a stern warning to her mother, I remember, when Gram referred to the “niggers” across the street, telling her that such language was not OK while I was around.  She knew, I suspect, that she couldn’t change her parents, but she wasn’t about to let them launch a verbal attack in my presence.

When I was five and we lived in Akron, Ohio, my mother decided that she would like to go back to work, at least part time.  She signed up as a substitute teacher, and often, she got called to come in to school.  She had hired a woman name Elizabeth Baileys — large, Irish, a little rough around the edges, always wearing a blue maid’s uniform — to come and help clean the house and look after me when she wasn’t there.  On days when Mom was at a school, I’d walk home from school for lunch (as we did in those days) to find burned tomato soup and a peanut butter sandwich on my plate.  I didn’t mind, though…in fact, I got to like the burned soup, which developed when Mrs. Baileys would turn the heat on the stove and then go off to clean something, forgetting what was on the fire.  She would sit and talk to me while I ate, send me off to school again, and continue her work.

When we moved to Connecticut Mom began working at Planned Parenthood of New Haven as a volunteer, and later, board member.  She would meet women who wanted access to birth control.  Some of them needed jobs, and she would hire them to help at our house.  She’d pick the women up at the bus stop, bring them out to the house, they would clean some and talk some to Mom about ways to get better jobs, and she would share recipes for ‘economical and healthy’ food, like Sloppy Joes, food that would help stretch a dollar and feed a hungry family while getting a few servings of vegetables in at the same time.  They came and went, some with curlers in their hair (as in the film, “The Help,”), some disappearing into the social welfare system or moving away.

And then Zula Simmons came to our house.  I don’t know where Mom met Zula.  She was elderly, moved slow, and reminded me, when I saw the film, of Constantine (beautifully played by Cicely Tyson).  Zula had served all her life as a domestic worker, and I think she was grateful for the job at our house.  I don’t know that she had much energy left to clean, but she was a presence.  My mother had been hit by psoriatic arthritis and diverticulitis, and her health was not good.  I was in high school and though I was the center of the world, so I expected attention.  I’d come in the door and be greeted by Zula, shaking her finger at me:  “Now your mother is sleepin’ down the hall.  Don’t you make no noise and bother her!  She needs to rest!”  She scared me enough to pay attention — I was not going to take Zula on — so I did as she said.  She was in charge while she was there, made dinner for us, did the laundry, kept me in line, and when my father would come home from work, he would drive her to the bus stop, and off she’d go until her next date at our house.

It was a difficult time.  Our high school had a race riot, with the Italian kids fighting the Black kids, that made it into major news outlets.  On a trip across the country the summer of the Watts riots, we saw groups of restless people gathered on street corners.  The Viet Nam war added yet another element of heat to the mix.  And through it all, there was the help in our house, keeping things moving, keeping the child in line, adding a level of stability.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Zula, just as Skeeter wondered about Constantine in Stockett’s novel.  I hope that she was able to end her days with some dignity and grace, but I fear that she lived in deep poverty and privation.  And now, early in the morning, I drive through the town where I have lived for the last twenty-some years and I sometimes watch the current generation of help get off the bus.  Few of them wear uniforms now, as they walk to the large, elegant houses where they raise other women’s children and cook, clean, and do the laundry.  But they are here, and they, too, call for us to know their names and tell their stories.

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Last night we drove in from nearly a week on the Ile d’Orleans, a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River opposite Quebec City.  This was the fourth time we had been on the island, the last time four years ago when – very suddenly — we found ourselves not going to Star Island and determined to spend a week somewhere that would be interesting, relaxing, and in sight of water.  Last time, we stayed in an apartment rented by a lovely Quebec couple, Lyse and Gus Droin, but the other times we’ve come, we’ve camped, and we love it.

So we made another camping reservation with Camping Orleans, acquired roof racks for the Prius to save on gas, pulled out our gas lantern and cooking stove, and packed off.  We knew that it was likely to be the last big family vacation with Abby before she graduates from high school next year, and we wanted to make it a good one.

It was.  My family laughs at me for turning rhapsodic after we cross the Canadian border and locate ourselves in some charming area – usually, either Quebec or the Maritimes.  I love the absence of obnoxious billboards, the politeness, the signs in French first and then English (or only French), the charming villages, and — on Ile d’Orleans — the simply remarkable produce that is there for the asking. My foodie friends will start nodding their heads and perhaps, drooling, as I continue.

Ile d’Orleans is known as the garden of Quebec, for good reason.  The island’s rich soil and temperate climate support farming on most of the island.  Here, strawberries aren’t just around for a few weeks, nor do they have hollow white cores.  They grow, sweet and delicious and juicy, all summer long, joined by blueberries and raspberries and currants.  So literally, every 50 yards or so, another stand has the signs up:  “Fraises.”  “Framboises.”  “Bleuets.”  Our objective is to buy early and often, and eat these goodies all the time, accompanied in the evening by chocolate from the St. Petronille township’s Choclaterie de l’Isle d’Orleans,which is also terrific.  We found potatoes, squash, tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce, garlic, leeks, onions, kale, all along the roadside at small stands, all over the island.  And we delighted in these goodies.

But there was more:  fabulous homemade breads and pastries, freshly butchered lamb and duck and foie gras and bacon, really fresh eggs, pates, and of course, maple syrup.  We also enjoyed Charlevoix cheese — a kind of cross between camembert and brie — and another — the first cheese made in North America — from Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orleans, which you could wash down, if you wished, with biere d’epinette (spruce beer, and no thanks, I passed on that one).  We also returned home with samples of the other alcoholic beverages made on the island:  award-winning rose wine, along with Kir (an aperitif), ice cider, and ice wine from the Vignoble Isle de Bacchus, one of many vineyards and orchards on the island.

Lest you think we came home having gained tons of weight on the trip, we did not.  There are beautiful paths for bicycling and walking, swimming to enjoy, and walks to Montmorency Falls and through the Centre-Ville of Quebec, not far away.  For those who treasure locally-sourced food and want to see local farming endure and prosper, Ile d’Orleans is worth a visit.  For those who are fans of North American history and want to visit the site where battles on the Plains of Abraham were planned from across the St. Lawrence, this is your island.  If you love to paint or draw and want beautiful sights to inspire you, from nearly any direction, come to this place and be inspired. And for those who wish they were in France but just can’t make it but want the charm and the language close at hand, drive north for a day, and it’s yours.

I love coming home, but there are so many reasons to fall in love with our neighbor country to the north.  Life is slower there, and hard, but — I dearly hope — rewarding.  While we love using our high school and college French — and you really do need it on the Ile d’Orleans, along with a French-English dictionary — for the most part, people are very patient as you work to explain, en francais, what it is you’re wanting to do or buy.

I’ve just come home again, but long to return.  And, as the official Quebec motto says, “Je me souviens.”

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A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece called “Sound Stew” about the amazing week on Star Island, coordinated by Carl and Cheryl-Anne Sturken, which focused on music and sound, in many, many forms.  I’ve decided that a follow-up is in order, given that I recently returned from another conference which celebrated music in many forms.

I refer to the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network (UUMN), an organization dear to me for its mission and work serving professional musicians and those offering music ministry within Unitarian Universalism.  For years I served as the liaison from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to this organization, trying to help the group focus on mission and goals, strengthen their programmatic offerings, and develop a strong relationship with the UUA.  They succeeded and – while I wasn’t looking for it – they captured my heart.  This organization became my organization, and when my time to serve as liaison ended, they honored me with a lifetime membership.

And so I continue to be part of UUMN, serving now as their Director of Communications, and as a Good Officer as well. I know the UUA is a small denomination.  But if that fact leads one to believe that its musicians will be small, second-rate, or less than other faith communities (or artist communities, for that matter) might offer, the assumption would be wrong. I continually marvel at the talent that makes each gathering of the UUMN bubble and pop with energy.

Here are composers who write moving contemporary music for worship and the spirit (bless you, Clif Hardin) who I would match up with anyone. Here are fabulous jazz performers, singers who might as well be appearing on Broadway, conductors who are absolutely first-rate, and those who come equipped with toy pianos and some gizmo I’d never seen (and which I am probably mis-spelling) called a binocular that emits amazing sounds. And here are worship leaders who are as skilled as any I’ve seen – fine preachers, superb liturgists, people who really get what good worship is and know how to bring it.

More than that, they are fabulous to be with — warm, inspiring, talented as all get-out, and dedicated to enriching our Unitarian Universalist faith through their good works and artistry.  Many of them — way too many — are dramatically underpaid, working without benefit of health care or church-supported pension plans.  Far too many could tell stories about the ordained clergy in their congregations treating them like “the music people” rather than like colleagues.  Some have been working at their churches for more than fifty years (here’s to you, Alfa Radford) and soon will retire; others have come from or moved to ordained parish ministry (David Glasgow and Jason Shelton, among others), some oversee music programs in their churches that keep them employed full-time and bring them to Eastern Europe to conduct their choirs (Beth Norton, for instance).

And a growing number are seeking credentialing from the UUA to acknowledge the effort and study they have devoted to becoming highly skilled and excellent music leaders, just as we so honor our religious educators and ministers.

All of these people contribute their own unique pulse and rhythm to the annual UUMN gathering, all of them help to weave a fabric that is diverse and rich and inspiring.  Through some amazing piece of good fortune, years ago, I got thrown into the same room with them, and it’s been pretty much a love fest ever since. Long may it continue, for (as the beloved hymn says, this sound ragout helps to move us “to a more profound  ‘Alleluia!'”

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On Tuesday night, Abby — who we often refer to as “Slim Sunny” for her nearly 5’10” stature and her cheery disposition — returned from two amazing weeks in New Orleans.  She had come up with the idea of taking this trip, participating in the Rustic Pathways program.  She had earned some of the money needed to make the trip, and worked to come up with rest of the financing for it.  She so wanted an experience that was different from what she viewed as her routine life in a small New England town.

And she got it. Her time was filled with work cleaning a building that’s being re-opened as a charter school and insulating homes that are being restored post-Katrina.  And in doing this work, she got a peek at the trauma some of NOLA’s residents — survivors, really — have experienced.  She found that one resident, who has been waiting for a very long time for help with restoring her home, became intensely frustrated and angry when the youthful workers in her house weren’t behaving the way she wanted.  She ordered them out of her house.  That night, as the kids debriefed, they met with St. Bernard project coordinators who explained that one of the unfortunate side-effects of the trauma from the storm is anxiety and depression that sometimes gets focused on the folks who are trying to help.  It was an important lesson for these high school students, although a difficult one.  Several days later, however, the kids were back at it in another house, insulating once again, and the home owners came by, thrilled at the work being done.  They wanted to bring the teens cold drinks (and did), wanted to cook for them (alas, no time for that).  But the two experiences helped Abby see some of the challenges that New Orleanians are continuing to experience, even five years after the storm.

There was more.  They watched parts of Spike Lee’s excellent documentaries on the storm (When the Levees Broke, If God is Willing and da Creek don’t Rise), had a sobering tour of the Lower 9th (how, Abby wondered, could there be these concrete steps to nowhere, and why were there all these empty spaces where homes used to be and now, nothing?)  She saw houses with the marks on the front that showed the visits from safety personnel in the weeks and months following the storm, spray painted on the outside.  Including one that said “1 person, 1 dog” – presumably, dead inside.

She heard jazz at Preservation Hall and in the French Quarter, ate beignets and red beans and rice (on Mondays, of course), visited Tulane (she might be interested), learned sissy-bounce dancing, and even saw a Mardi Gras Indian.  She made wonderful friends from around the country – and now is mourning separation from them — and has said, over and over, “I’m so glad I did this.  I miss New Orleans so much.”

It was one of those life-changing experiences that gets under your skin, I think to myself.  Similar to the one I had during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, when I lived with a family in Greece.  I remember thinking, after that summer, “I’ll never view the world the same way again,” and in fact, that remains true.  Immersion in another culture, even for a relatively brief time, can open your eyes to a different way of being in the world.  That’s happened to my girl, I think, and it’s a blessing.

Slim Sunny is glad to see her Lexington friends, it’s true.  She has reunited with her cats, her comfy bed, my cooking, and sleeping late in the morning.  Yet she yearns to go back to the sweltering, humid heat of the Jazz City and its survivors and dreamers, who have captured her imagination and her heart.

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