7/22: Meditation with Chime Audio and Peas

It’s 4:00.

They’re done. Two hours of care, teamwork, tools, technology, bright lights, kindness, humor, and exalted privilege unfathomed and unattainable by most of humanity from Eden til today.

Goggles off. Stand up in a light cloud of endorphins and automatic pilot. Gather stuff. Thank everyone. Receive their shower of good wishes plus two pain pills with glass of water (tilt head to swallow; do not swish). Weave along in gingerly fashion to bus stop, climb aboard, sit still, get off at home corner. Take stairs one at a time. Open door. Ease shoes off with toes and kick them into closet; there’s no reaching up or bending over or lifting allowed. 

4:30. Unpack Excel spreadsheet schedule in clear page protector, antibiotics, pain medication, antibacterial mouth rinse, instructions, gauze, styptic black tea bags. Set cell phone timer for every fifteen minutes from now to midnight, with orchestra triangle noise. Ting!

Open balcony door — or not. Dowel is on the floor holding it shut. Hm. My toes can’t budge it. Maybe the kitchen broom can sweep it out of the track? Nope. Wait, the broom handle works… there. Open door.

Get bag of peas from freezer. Wrap in washcloth. Hold cold side against face. 

4:45. Pleasant tiny orchestra triangle sound. (Ting!) Cold compress interlude is up. Put peas in freezer. Stack bedding on chair to sleep with head elevated. Go fetch hassock and… uh. No stooping. Well, ok. Tilt head way back, and kneel on floor. Lean back against hassock. Inch hassock across floor to chair. Sit with feet up. 

5:00 (Ting!) Fetch peas out of freezer. Put on face. Set up little card table with paper towels, bowl, water, and Bible.

5:15 (Ting!) Peas to freezer. Change to night clothes. Spread out sheets and pillow on chair. Sit. Fall fast asleep.

5:30 (Ting!) Get peas. Put on face. Fall asleep.

5:45 (Ting!) Peas to freezer.

Read antibiotics label. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Where can I find a clever six year old? Oh say: this outer lip is flexible and bendy. What if I press it down while turning cap, then firmly flip cap up? Agh! Where did they go? Here’s one on the floor. Here’s two on the stove. Lift up stovetop; any here under the burners? Gotcha! Spread out pills on paper. Count up. Thank heavens — all here. We’re good for 6:00. Put pills back in bottle. 

Sit. Fall asleep.

6:00 (Church bells sound effect.)

Church? What? Oh. Bells = antibiotic dose 1. 

Tilt head. Swallow antibiotic dose 1 with large glass of water. Do not swish. Jot down the time in the correct Excel column. Spoon some bone broth back along tongue on right side of mouth. Do not swish. Take out peas. Sit. Fall asleep.

6:15 (Ting!) Drink some water. Drop pea package in bowl. Fall asleep.

6:30 (Ting!) Wake up. Forget all about peas. Back to sleep.

6:45 (Ting!) Hey where are the peas? Are they coming or going? Oh look, they’re here in this bowl still nice and frozen. No need to get up even. Put on face. Open Bible to John 14. Fall asleep.

7:00 (Ting!) Hey where’s the Bible? It was right here. No, really. I was just reading it.

Peas are getting slushy. Back to freezer. Oh, there’s the Bible. It fell under the chair. Well, in a couple of days I can bend over and pick it up.

7:15 peas on 7:30 peas off 7:45 peas on 8:00 peas off 8:15 peas on 8:30 peas off 8:45 peas on

9:00 Wind chime alert. That means 9:00/3:00 pain pills. Wiggle up out of blankets. Lumber to kitchen. Peas to freezer. Grope for stove light. 

Take out pain pills. How do you open this? No instructions here on the box or label or directions. Tinker and fuss with cap. No good. Should have planned this. Wait, the cap shows a very tiny picture: a numeral 1 and two tiny triangles facing each other, and then numeral 2 and a twisty arrow. OH and there’s a tiny triangle on the lid, and a matching tiny triangle on the bottle. Then when they’re lined up, press down and twist and… thank goodness. Go me! Tilt head. Swallow pills with water. Do not swish. Jot down time in correct Excel column. Spoon some plain yogurt back along tongue on right side. 

9:15 Sit down with peas. Think of the words for Orthodox evening prayer. (No hymns or chanting; no singing allowed for at least the next two weeks.) Concentrate on words for about a minute. Watch words swap around and unravel and float away. Fall asleep.

“Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” 

Wake up. Where did that quote come from?? Oh, it was one of the Desert Fathers. Well, this makes a pretty good cell right here. Wall, table, chair arms, hassock, blankets, triangles and bells and chimes. There’s no place else to go. It’s all here: me, sins and fears, aches and pains, remaining teeth, sterile membrane, sutures, a new graft made of bone from somebody’s dear deceased loved one. It’s all me and all yours, Dear Jesus, to direct any way you will, with tonight and tomorrow and after. 

9:30 peas off 9:45 peas on 10:00 peas off 10:15 peas on 10:30 off 10:45 on 11:00 off 11:15 on 11:30 off 11:45 on.

12:00 (Ting!) Midnight. Eight hours of cold packs is over; peas back to freezer.

Just 3:00 am pain pills left tonight plus water and snack plus antibiotic dose 2 at 6:00 in the morning plus water and snack. Oh, and first dose of this antibacterial mouthwash here, that I can’t get the cap to turn for. How do you open this? Any instructions? Well, tomorrow’s another day to figure it out.

Stove light off.


Cover up.

Yours, Jesus. 


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7/20/21: Garden Update

Here are tonight’s big happenings in the dirt outside the window.

Captain Wing has persuaded the smokers at the smoking bench to donate their cigarette ends for a good cause, as one of the ingredients in a batch of tobacco slug repellent. He’s going to spray it only on the outside wall of the raised bed, because crawling up the wall is the preferred slug method for entering the garden. My own vote for safety’s sake would be that soaked nicotine solution sounds pretty potent, and we amateurs should not spray it on slugs or anybody else. But Captain reads up on this sort of thing and knows how to handle it safely, so that will be his research & development department. He just hand-picked 15 slugs from the roses at sunrise, so he is all motivated and qualified for this.

In related developments, I roped Mr. I. into roping the lavender. The lavender plants are doing so well that one of them is now six feet wide and splitting down the middle. So Mr. I. volunteered to hold up a triple armful of flowers while I skittered around with a bunch of old shoelaces tied together and managed to brace the whole cloud of it up to a bamboo post. This was very nice of him because the lavender was full of bumblebees, but they were too tranquilized with lavender fragrance to even care.

After watching all that, Mr. I’s cat decided that I might be a safe person, or at least a fragrant one, and for the first time ventured closer. While I crouched down in the lavender and pretended to ignore him, Kitty gave me a good sniffing over. Maybe some day we will be friends.

Last night I chopped up and cultivated three fresh new strips and planted a heap of calendula and marigold and collard seeds from the Goodwill thrift shop seed sale. Today the squirrels saw all that fresh soft dirt. They figured that someone must have buried acorns there, so they charged right over to search for them. That was actually pretty clever on their part.

Mr. G. decided to crush up a bunch of eggshells for his tomato plants, so we are all waiting to see how the tomatoes like that.

Mr. P’s potted lilies are a wild success this year. At sunset they have a wonderful romantic show-stoppy scent that stops people right in their tracks on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room.

The lilies are here!

Celery & leek harvest is done. Every time I buy celery or leeks I cut off the bottom few inches and root them in water and plant them outside. The celery has tiny white baby’s-breath type flowers, and the leeks have nice puffball flowers on leggy stalks that last a very long time. Anyway they got so tall that they toppled over, so now they are on the balcony drying out for soup stock.

Neighbor M. taught us that honeybees really enjoy having access to both fresh and salted water. So she has set out lots of little dishes of water, some plain and some with salt, all around the garden wall. Each dish has a stick or stone so the honeybees can enjoy their sip & dip and then get themselves back out and fly away safely.

Mr. N. came over to ask whether I ever practice my Russian any more. I said “Sure, I’m practicing Russian right now,” and reached in my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, which happened to be playing Akathist chants by the monks at the Valaam Monastery. He liked the sound of the monks very much, and freely credited organized religion for at least coming up with some nice ritual music.

Back in Research & Development, Mr. Wing has tracked down the perfect organic compost, and finished spraying all of our plots. His stringent testing on two sets of ginger plants indicate that after 10 days the treated ginger will grow 50% taller, so what’s not to like about that. Maybe we will get bigger slugs, and they will be easier to see sooner. The formula for this organic garden mix sounds supremely healthy, so I told Mr. Wing that I will take a pinch of it to add to my next batch of daikon radish kimchi. Mr. Wing was deeply concerned by this until I explained New Yorkers and our sense of humor, and then he found it pretty funny.

Last autumn Mr. Wing loaned me his flower planter and nasturtium vine to keep in my studio. On Christmas it actually had a little flower on it. This year after months of experimenting with optimal nasturtium growing conditions here & there, Mr. Wing found that the nasturtium in the pot grows much better than all the other nasturtia that are just roving free with their little feet in the dirt. So now he is fighting off squirrels, bunnies, and of course slugs from the planter, and is going to loan it to me again for this Christmas. This week the sunset imparted a nice backlighting, so I slid along the dirt on my stomach through the tomato plants and succeeded in snapping this picture below. Whether the vine grows this Christmas or not, we’ll still have the photograph.

There is something significant about this wacky garden. It’s not the flowers, and certainly not the harvest; we’d save plenty of time and money buying our carrots at the grocery store across the street like normal Americans do. No, the remarkable part is that these are people with major family responsibilities and jobs and pandemic stress and health issues and relatives in distant countries to care and worry about, plus a blogger who wakes up every day feeling discouraged and despondent. But folks still show up daily at sunset to talk over bags of laundry and garbage and to crush egg shells and tie stuff up with shoelaces and sniff lilies and pet cats and donate cigarette butts and hear Russian monks sing their hearts out to the Virgin Mary. It’s just the way it is.

planning ahead for Christmas

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7/11/21: Sunday

On Friday there was unexpected discouraging news, out of nowhere. It was a whole new burden of anxiety about the future.

So that night I came home and thought Well, what pieces of the future can I tend to right now? And there were lots of small right-now things. Watering the garden, making green-leaf juice, simmering soup stock, washing the floors, and making a special plan to go right to sleep at sunset and just work on chores all day Saturday.

Then this morning, it seemed a nice idea to hide from the sunrise and avoid all that anxiety by just going back for a long Sunday sleep. But it seemed wiser to get up and walk straight to the park and just sit on a bench by the creek and watch the water.

Then on the way back I got lost in a cul-de-sac street. There on this new unfamiliar corner was a tall fence with a handwritten letter signed by the members of the family who lived in the house in that yard. The note invited passersby to eat the raspberries growing on the fence, to help ourselves and pick all that we liked. “We love to share! Please enjoy!” I took two berries and a picture of their fence, and wrote down the names and the address, to leave them a thank you note this week.

the great raspberry giveaway

Tonight at Dollar Tree bargain store. In the parking lot between the car wash and the nail salon, some wonderful violin music was ringing out of the sky with an orchestra background. It took a while to recognize it as a melody sung by Andrea Bocelli, the Italian track of “Perfect Symphony” with Ed Sheeran. People hurried past, probably figuring it was some car stereo somewhere. But I walked all around the parking lot trying to figure out where this music came from. Finally after enough circling around I ended up near two young men hanging out with some sound equipment at a car hatchback. One was playing an electric violin of some kind. When he finished the song I dropped my donation in the basket and said “Dollar Tree has an orchestra? And do all of these people even realize that the music is you?”

The men were all smiles, but they didn’t follow my English kidding around.

“From Italy, one month in America,” said the violinist’s companion. “This my brother. Two kids, no green cards.”

“Say, that sounded just wonderful,” a driver called out, holding some bills out his car window. “You know what you do with talent of that quality? You thank God for it, is what.”

“It sounded straight from heaven,” I told him, pointing at the sky.

“That’s exactly where it’s from,” the driver said. He started talking to the men while I headed home.

Tomorrow it’s up early to make phone calls and start dealing with this new future problem. But this was a good Sunday.

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7/10: Fourth of July in the old neighborhood

What were they called again — caps?

It’s a roll of pink and white paper. Set one on the curb away from the grass. Take a toy cowboy gun (the kind with the handle made of fake mother-of-pearl), hold the barrel, and whack the handle down on the cap paper so it makes a loud pop. Our parents thought those were safe enough even for small girls. Small girls were also allowed, when the adults were standing right there alongside, to hold very still with their arms straight out and hold up a sparkler. It was scary but it felt like a magic trick, to handle something beautiful like fire, and all we had to do was hold still and not be afraid. 

(Safety interjection: Be afraid! Sparklers burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. 900 is hot enough to melt glass. That’s according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Sparklers account for roughly one-quarter of emergency room fireworks injuries.” The Commission recommends handing the kiddos a glow stick instead.)

We girls didn’t set off firecrackers or any of that. That was only for the boys and dads, and we didn’t like the noise anyway. Besides, in the daytime we all had something bigger going on: Fourth of July was the Republican Day Picnic.

We kids were excited about the picnic, when the car with the loudspeaker and the flags drove through town the day before inviting everybody. We didn’t know what a Republican was, but maybe it’s from the Bible, like the Publican and the sinful man praying in the Temple, but you add Re- meaning “all over again” to show that these aren’t ancient publicans, they are modern day publicans. How do people know that they are Republicans? Dad said it is never polite to ask, because with that kind of talk people can feel hurt and upset. But the neighbors said right out loud that you can tell who are Republicans by looking at their sidewalk. They said the N. family up the street were the only Democrats around. We all liked the N. family, nice people with a good garden and the same American flag out front as anyone. But when the town made the sidewalks the workmen checked a list, stopped their wheelbarrow and cement roller at the N. family property line, and left the N.’s with an old sidewalk with moss and grass and tree roots growing through it so on a bicycle you have to be careful. But for all the other houses they made smooth white sidewalks cut into concrete squares like glittery fudge. So anyway, as far as we could tell, Republicans gave away sidewalks, and gave away food at free picnics. 

The picnic was always the big news of the day. Before the picnic, Mom always got us up and out early before the sun was warm, to arrive before the traffic. The picnic was huge! Hundreds of people drove their cars in from everywhere to the beach park. (Was that Salisbury Park? They call it Eisenhower now. But our park was on the shore, and the map says that Salisbury doesn’t have a shore. There’s a text out to one of the relatives for editorial comment. Waiting to hear back. -m)

The picnic was a grand sight, with blocks and blocks of folding tables and umbrellas and transistor radios and volleyball nets and barbecue equipment and ice chests. 

One year, the older boys waded out in the water and spread out a long net. Then they walked in holding up the net, to show us that it was full of tiny little silver fishes. It was amazing to find out that the water was full of little animals. We all ran up to look at the fishes and then the boys put down the net in the water and let them go again.

For the potato sack race, Dad pulled up a potato sack over his right leg and my left leg and held it up, and explained that we had to hop together. The parents and kids had fun trying to skip and hop together, but it was a lot of trouble for just a way to run a race. Then the men and boys played tug of war with a rope, and the boys and girl played volleyball. Then there were running races. The men went first and tried running, and their wives clapped and made jokes at them. Then the bigger boys had some fast races. Then there was a race for all the children. The adults lined us all up, and showed us that up ahead the boys were holding up a cord. “First one to reach the cord is the winner. On your mark, get set, go!” I ran and ran and ran and beat all the children, and stopped exactly right at the cord, and the whole pack of kids trampled right past me and past the cord, so I got knocked over and came in very last. People shouted at me “Why did you just stop and stand there? What were you thinking!” Well, I was thinking “Hey, I won at something!” 

The men barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers on toasted buns, and corn on the cob wrapped in tinfoil. All the housewives brought food for a dozen people — watermelon and potato chips and pretzels and ice chests of lemonade with gnats falling in and chocolate cake with frosting and popsicles colored red white and blue but no devil eggs because they have maynaze mixed in and if they sit in the sun and you eat one, you are asking for trouble.

After lunch, everybody drove home. At home it felt unusual to have a holiday with no church at all, but on the 4th we really were allowed to just run around and have fun. The boys looked for ways to blow things up. They started with a special kind of paper; they could put it in the sun and aim a magnifying glass at it, and the paper started to smoke and then ashes crawled up out of it, twisting around like a live snake. Then they set off pink and blue firecrackers in the middle of the street. We girls went to the grass strip down by the corner and picked a lot of white clover flowers and wove garlands and ropes to decorate our houses for the day.

tiger lily, purely decorative
July 4th tiger-lily, a safer sparkler alternative

During the afternoon all the neighbors walked over to German Delicatessen for special foods for their celebration. That was one time when Mom said I could have chicken loaf. To her, chicken loaf didn’t make sense when we had real chicken in the fridge. But I liked chicken loaf; it was soft white loaf all ground up and pressed into pretty round slices with seasonings, and at German Deli I always put my nose on the display glass to look in at the chicken loaf. So every 4th of July Mom said okay already, she bought me my own little batch in waxed paper to nibble on under the cherry tree out back. And every year I read the Eleanor Estes story about the Moffats, and how Jane went to the beach on the 4th of July and the kids collected treasures to put in a cigarette-pack pirate chest, and they got Jane to give them her favorite blue ring, and when the kids buried the chest the tide came in and her ring was washed away and she missed it and wished she had it back.

At sunset the older boys took out their bigger fireworks, and they traded and swapped with each other and planned who sets off what when. At dark the families sat up on our steps and watched, and they set off their fireworks in the street. Most were firecrackers. Some were cherry bombs, and one of the guys set a cherry bomb in his family’s metal garbage can to make it sound louder, but he got in trouble with his Dad for denting the can and for making a ruckus. One time there was even a Roman candle that flew up into the sky like flowers. Maybe the people on planes to Idlewild Airport looked down and saw the colors too.

Finally our big day was over. But even lying in bed the kids could keep watch out the window. There were always sparks and lights from other people’s fireworks. The colors and flowers were beautiful even in dreams with snakes of ash and fishes of silver and Jane’s blue ring washing in, treasure safe and found again.

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7/4/21: Summer Garden

July Fourth

Around the United States this holiday kicks off summer. Around here, it ends rainy season and begins two months of stainless blue skies and dry 75 F degree days. According to our local plant expert, in summer we have the same plant growing climate as Rome, Italy.

Zucchini with potential

True, the last few years for at least part of the season those summers have heated up, and those stainless blue skies can be dimmed by wildfires from as far away as Siberia. This year the ground is dry enough that even the official city display will be virtual with no spectators allowed, and all personal fireworks are illegal. Many of us are hoping that everybody shows some sense and finds other ways to celebrate. Two neighbors have already come to me to report that they are leaving their doors unlocked tonight, so I can come wake them up if need be. They have a touching trust that I will be more alert than they will.

Those neighbors don’t know that every year on the Fourth, at bedtime I wash up and change clothes, and take promenades every few hours during the night inside the building, and to check out the windows and off the balcony. That calls to mind Thomas Merton’s description of firewatcher duty at his monastery (The Sign of Jonas, epilogue), roving upstairs and downstairs and all around the grounds to make sure the night was safe. “Now is the time to get up and go to the tower…. where the night is wonderful, where the roof is almost without substance under my feet, where all the mysterious junk in the belfry considers the proximate coming of the three new bells, where the forest opens out under the moon and the living things sing terribly that only the present is eternal….”

But this morning brought a welcome cool breeze, so most of the day was reworking the garden for the summer. That meant grubbing out the spent California poppies and snapdragons and calendula. It meant cultivating and weeding, trimming the mint, and planting 10 new additions from the garden nursery holiday sale: six crimson sweet melons, two tomatoes, and two marigolds. It’s also gathering leaves from carrot, turnip, mint, spring onion, celery, and sorrel plants; those make green juice, and the pulp goes right back on the garden as mulch. There were new potatoes to gather. And of course a 40-foot raised bed always needs water, most of it carried down four floors in buckets from dishes and hand laundry. I have no gardening knowledge of my own, no idea what plants to buy or how to raise them. I just made up a few rules: buy more topsoil than it seems you will ever need, every February; pour on green juice pulp and plain vegan dishwater; and devote 20 minutes a day or more all season long.

Tomato newcomers

It’s a blessing that this patch is not off in some specialty community garden elsewhere. The real benefit is having it grace our own environment, steps away from the kitchen and right outside the windows. Besides, the real crop is conversation among people who live side by side. Stick a trowel in the ground, and neighbors come right over one by one on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room or smoking bench, or they call down from the balconies, with lots of cheerful commentary and questions. These neighbors were the real reason for putting in a garden at all. It serves as a conversation piece, and in these two pandemic summers the community has paid twice as much attention. It’s touching that they show such an interest, stepping outside every day to see what is new and to call my attention to this or that new blossom or sprout. If only more of them would feel free to try their hand at gardening. If they did, we could renovate the grounds of this whole complex and make it a real oasis. 

Red potatoes with flowering leek

But at least there’s this patch. On this garden day there was plenty of time to think back on gardens created in the past, in other cities, and how they transformed rapport among the neighbors. Today that inspired my resolve to garden again, on an even larger scale God willing, no matter where my future home might be.

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7/2/2021: Kimchi

Kimchi was the special seasoning touch in some wonderful rice fried up by our dear neighbor; she handed out packages of this ambrosia to us fellow tenants. She also used to play us classical violin on the street, baked a cake for a family mourning the loss of their mom, and stealthily delivered a carful of topsoil and packs of seeds to my vegetable patch. But now we miss her company; she became a nurse, and works 12-hour shifts on Covid care for elders living with Alzheimer’s. That gives her Walking National Treasure status, if anything does for anyone. At the store in the refrigerated section there was something called Firefly Kimchi (7 ingredients — no additives), so I bought a jar for her. At this version of “sweets for the sweet” her thanks were so heartfelt that the other day I left her another jar, and this time bought a second jar for myself. 

It was a bold move. Sure, I always add a little naturally fermented sauerkraut when making cole slaw. But for the most part I could never stand salty or sour or bitter tastes, or hot spices of any kind, or raw garlic, or more than a drop of ginger. But fermented kimchi has such a good health profile. At worst I could try a little bit and then take the rest to my neighbor. So for breakfast I dished up some hot sprouted boiled chickpeas with coconut oil and poached egg and turmeric, put the kimchi on top, and took a daring taste. 

Gosh! All those strong flavors balanced out perfectly. The meal felt sustaining and solid but light. Since then, kimchi starts the morning off right. It goes with all kinds of breakfast foods — sprouted lentil vegetable soup, jasmine brown rice, leeks in bone broth, bitter melon (kû guā). A few days of kimchi even calmed down my cravings and stress-eating of sweets. That settled it: now I wanted to learn how to make my own.

I couldn’t wait to share this adventure with our Korean and Chinese neighbors. My telling them “This kimchi is great stuff” is of course comical, as if one of them ran up to me to say “Cookies and milk — a natural go-together!” But all of them were happy for me, and ready to share ideas. 

For a first summer-weather attempt at kimchi making, one neighbor recommended the video “Quick-fermenting radish water kimchi with apple broth (Dongchimi),” with capable and sympathetic hostess Ms. Emily Kim, (“Work hard, stay humble”) on her Maangchi cooking channel.

First off, this venture was going to call for some proper fermented fish sauce. I consulted with two especially tech-savvy food-informed young ladies, one with strong roots in Korean culture, the other with encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cooking. “What brand of fish sauce can you advise me to buy?” I asked them. “Without your help I might come home with glop that is all MSG and sugar.”

The two gave me a serious philosophical look.

“Mary,” said one. “MSG makes the WORLD go round.”

“Sugar too,” said the other.

The Wing family were happy to weigh in on my fish sauce quest as we shared the daily chore of watering the vegetable patch. (As I explain to the neighbors, in our garden enterprise Captain Wing is the brains of the outfit and I’m the brawn. He finds this hilarious.) Anyway, Mr. Wing was delighted by my new discovery of fermented vegetables, a staple of billions of people for thousands of years. He shared the tip that to round out the taste, I should add thin slices of a sweet juicy Asian pear. He also decided that on the next family trip north of town to the real Chinese grocery, they would buy me some real fish sauce. 

Then a quick search on line found a Bloomberg.com writeup of Mr. Cuong Pham and his amazing success story crafting artisan Red Boat brand sauce, made only of black anchovies and salt fermented for one year, sold at specialty stores. At the peak of our staggering heat wave I did my grocery shopping at 11:00 one night, and started browsing the various fish sauces. Say! There was Red Boat, way off on a tippy top shelf. I bought two bottles, then texted the Wing Family. “Hello! It’s very late, but if you are available I have something to hand through your door.” 

It was nice to walk home in the dark and see a bright rectangle of kitchen door light pop open beside the garden, and the Wing Family inside waving hello. They looked pleased by their Red Boat doorstep delivery, and the news that it turned up at our regular grocery store. 

I watched Ms. Maangchi’s water kimchi video. Then I made a much less elegant tiny test batch. I sliced a cup of daikon radish, and shook it up in a Mason jar with a little fish sauce and salt to ferment on the counter all night. Then I simmered and blended and strained two apples and a sweet onion to make the stock. In the morning I poured the cold stock over the daikon, added raw garlic cloves, raw ginger, spring onions from the garden, paprika, and cayenne, then covered with a very light loose plastic lid. It’s been fermenting in the fridge ever since. It’s only an elementary first attempt, but to me it tastes fine. Dongchimi is bracing and light as a hot-weather flavoring for meals. 

But best of all, it’s a real conversation starter with the neighbors. Now they go to every kind of trouble to send videos and to greet me with instructions, recipes, stories about Grandma back home and her pickled vegetable expertise, and encouragement. After my little fish sauce gift, the Wing Family swiftly retaliated by bringing me bitter melons from the real Chinese grocery, along with a special treat to go with that breakfast dongchimi — six pí dàn, preserved duck eggs. 

I hope to learn and practice, work-hard-stay-humble, and treat the neighbors to a fermented vegetable product that will taste good to them. They are certainly good to me.

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6.30.21 Cat

Neighbor took a well earned vacation. Very first time away, leaving Cat.

Cat is almost a year old. Born in the woods, raised by feral mom, no socialization to people. Cat adores his owner, but any sign of any other human will send Cat vanishing under the furniture. That means any opening or closing door in the building, any voice or footstep indoors or out, any sudden sound like a car door or basketball. Poof, gone.

Spoiler Alert for Day 4

My three day mission: ignore Cat. As Cesar Millan would say, No touch, no talk, no eye contact. Scoop litter in bathroom. Wash and refill water dish in side hall. Go to kitchen, and pour dry kibble. In living room, fill treat mouse with treats. Then, sit on the floor and curl up for a 20 minute nap. Repeat every 3 hours. That way Cat would get a good leaving alone, but would also know that someone was still paying attention to his various little needs.

Day One, four visits. No sign of cat. I didn’t even look around for him, but did hum the whole time so he’d know I wasn’t sneaking up. Took nap each time. Left.

Day Two, visit 1. During food dish top-up, a speeding blur streaked past my heels. I could only hope it was Cat. Took nap. Left.

Day Two, visit 2. Scooped litter, left bathroom and started other chores. During nap, caught the sound of scuffly noises in litter pan, testing my craftsmanship.

Day Two, visit 3. Scooped litter. Moved on to water dish while scuffly noises came from litter pan. Put down fresh water. Proceeded to kitchen. Heard tiny lapping noises coming from direction of water bowl. Topped up kibble, left kitchen. Took nap while crunchy noises came from kitchen. Clearly, Cat is seeing this as a dialogue. Finished nap. Left.

Day Two, visit 4. Started routine, with sounds of Cat kicking litter around and lapping water. In kitchen, topping up kibble, suddenly found Cat peering his nose and one eye around door frame. Ignored him. Faced the wall. Held cell phone behind back. Took a photo of Cat. Texted to neighbor as poltergeist proof. Took nap while treat mouse jingling noises came from under furniture. Left.

Day Three, visit 1. Finished chores. Cat stepped into view to stare into kitchen. Filmed stare. Texted video to owner. Took nap. Cat stared from behind sofa. Ignored him. Left.

Day Three, visit 2. Finished routine. Settled down on floor for nap. At the sound of a door down the hall, Cat took an impressive flying leap right over my feet. Did not catch on video. Napped. Left.

Day Three, visit 3. Routine. Nap while using feet to block path to litter and water. Cat stared from behind furniture. Finally crept closer, stepped over feet.

Day Three, visit 4. Routine. Nap. Cat stared from behind furniture. Crept closer. Spent five minutes sniffing and batting at shoe soles, then batted treat mouse around three feet away until someone downstairs honked a horn. Vanished.

Day Four, visit 1. Routine. Nap, while holding Cat’s treat mouse. Cat inspected shoe soles. Batted treat mouse. Nuzzled hand.

Day Four, visit 2. Cat met me at the door, talking a blue streak. Talked back at him. Routine. Pretended to nap during shoe sole inspection, while holding both treat mouse and comb. Cat batted at mouse, nuzzled and groomed comb, then nuzzled my hand. Filmed with other hand. Texted video to owner.

Day Four, visit 3. Cat met me at the door, chatting away. Routine. Pretended to nap while holding a soft bristle brush. Cat groomed himself, then jumped in my lap to nuzzle cell phone during filming.

Day Four, owner returned.

Yesterday I came home and found a gift at my door, a favorite movie on DVD. It turns out that Cat has an Amazon Prime account and can write thank you notes and sign his name.

On a weekend next fall during Neighbor’s ideal camping season, word on the street is that Cat and I will get together again. We plan to ignore each other and catch up on our naps.

Update: Just paid a little visit to Neighbor, because he has a new set of popsicle molds, and invited me over for frozen pops made of Greek yogurt blended with blueberries. So we sat around licking our treats, and finally Cat emerged from hiding. I held a brush out, and Cat did the rest. It was very nice to see that he seemed fine with having me around, and prefers to sit right between the two of us. Apparently he has decided that being part of a pack of two test-driven humans feels even safer than a pack of just one.

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6/29/2021: Unusual Weather

This week, before 6:00 am the air has been pretty pleasant. With protective sunhat and the right clothing, one could walk right into the sun for half an hour or so, then loop back home and hide out for the day after taking a picture or two.

This is record breaking weather, totally unprecedented. Yesterday afternoon in a nearby town the temperature rose to 119 F (that’s 48.333 C, for the rest of you), and ours got to 111 F, or 43.888 C. It was too hot for me to walk, or even hang out at the bus stop and commute to work, so that meant taking a vacation day. That may sound comical to the rest of the country, and certainly the rest of the world. But around these parts we are are not used to that sort of thing. 

I had all these good intentions of arranging with one of our local churches or public cooling centers, and to volunteer handing out cold drinks or helping people to settle in. But the heat knocked me all off kilter. It took some concentration even to walk a straight line down the street for those dawn strolls. My pulse was rapid enough that I kept lying down in the dark bathroom to time the beats for 60 seconds, then falling asleep before the minute was up and waking up an hour later. Towns around us were losing power, and cars were breaking down on melting highways; that made staying home seem wise. In all humility, it seemed a fair goal to just stay out of the emergency room myself and not cause some overworked paramedic extra fuss. 

Few people here have an air conditioner or even a fan. So for three days I turned on the computer only for a bit before dawn and after dark. It was a good time to wash down and shine up the kitchen, go through closets, and declutter old paper. Every 30 minutes I drank water, soaked my head and feet, and took a quick basin bath and put on wet clothes. For meals, the best menu idea was kimchi with grated raw vegetables and some cold beans. At one point I hand washed all my bedding after 4:00 pm, then sat on the balcony in the shade in a tent fashioned from wet sheets, with a pillow streaming water on my head. That made for a wholesome interlude. So were naps with rice milk cartons full of ice. 

As usual, I kept toting all my wash water down four flights to pour on the vegetable garden. But this time I hauled the buckets after dark. Turns out, Bucket Lady is by now a recognizable fixture around the complex. On Day 2 those neighbors who own air conditioners, even people who don’t even know me, were leaning outside to holler at me to get into their homes for a cooldown break. So before each visit I washed up and brought my bowed psaltery and a clean bedsheet and sat on various floors playing medieval tunes, to the amazement of various household pets. One sturdy protective 60-pound cattle dog has always barked at me; but he was deeply impressed when his owner ushered me right indoors. The dog seemed to see this as instant VIP status; he approached courteously with lowered head for a sniff, then every few minutes sidled over for a back rub. 

There’s still wildfire season to contend with, but now the temperature is lower and the wind is blowing in from the water. That is a lot to be grateful for. Last night, leaving the last pilgrim stop, I told my host “It’s been wonderful meeting and visiting with neighbors. This has turned out to be a delightful Sunday after all.” He looked at me with compassion and said “Mary? It’s Monday. Soak your head some more.”  

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6/27/21: Ghosted

My old friend ghosted me.

A few years ago he stopped writing back; not answering his home email, or the email at his business. Not answering the phone. Not returning calls. He didn’t even return the message I left in his second language; I wrote out the script, got a couple of native speakers to coach me until it sounded just right to them, left the voicemail, and waited eagerly for his reply. 

It’s not unusual. People are busy, they start families, they move away and move on. His temperament and mine were implausibly different. He had a large creative life in broad brushstrokes, and it’s a wonder that he bothered to keep in touch with me at all. But since we parted ways in 1992 he reported his whereabouts, making sure I always knew where to find him. Even his sweet warm-hearted devout Catholic mom sent me a Christmas card and a family letter every year. Naturally, life being life, he weathered some exhausting setbacks and losses. But always he landed on his feet, and with resilience and a positive outlook would re-chart his course, make new plans, and charge ahead. He started his own company, designing high-quality products for a niche customer base who needed his services and could not pay market rate. For 20 years he worked day and night. His clients adored him. I got to witness him in action, working hard while engaging their hailstorm of banter in two languages at once. Next, he called to let me know he was moving again, teaming up with a large established organization with the resources to sponsor his idea and make him manager. Their collaboration sounded ideal, with a real financial incentive for all his hard work.

Last time I called him, he told me a detailed story about upper management, and how it took over and mass-produced his ideas with disappointing results, and left him and his guidance on the sidelines. The top brass, it seemed to me, failed to grasp that the unreproducible ingredient in the method was the intuition, charisma, and rapport of its founder. In one sense I was an unqualified listener, someone with no ideas worth stealing who had never been courted by any organization. But I recognized an established precedent: pioneering founders are too often rejected by their own good cause (even St. Francis was sidelined by the Franciscans, and John of the Cross imprisoned by his own Carmelites). During that call I listened hard, scanning around for the wellbeing of other areas of his life. I was sorry to hear that an important relationship was over, and very concerned to hear that his mother, who he cherished and revered, had passed away after a long illness. For the first time, he sounded weary and disillusioned. Fortunately, a trip to his town was in the works the following summer, and I looked forward to extended time with him. But by then, I somehow wasn’t able to track him down. 

Every few months I look him up. He’s right there on Linkedin, and on his business website, and in listings here and there of accomplishments and achievements, even rocking with his band on You Tube in 2016. Then, a search last Sunday turned up a poignant discovery. It was a lovely Catholic memorial notice for his father, back in the old hometown. The obituary listed the whole rich dynasty of descendants. It mentioned that Dad was pre-deceased by his late wife and by his late son.

Late son?

Memories have surfaced ever since. He was 24 when we first met, 31 years ago in the fall of 1990. Our group house placed a newspaper ad, looking for a roommate. His was the last interview appointment. The doorbell rang after supper. I answered to find a tall fit extremely handsome young man in a leather jacket with long thick curly hair and glowing blue-green eyes. 

   “Scarf trick,” were his first words to me. He whipped off a gray cashmere scarf and made knots appear and disappear again while holding both ends the whole time. Then from his knapsack he handed over a double pan of still-warm homemade brownies, and the five of us talked until midnight. It felt as if he’d always lived there.   

The new roommate had a good Biblical name starting with Z. But to his friends he was simply Z, or Zorro, Zuzu, Zagnut, Zippy the Pinhead, Zeppo, or Zooropa. Z was a recent music institute graduate. He was always in motion and talked a great deal about an eclectic range of topics, particularly his projects and plans. He worked at two jobs, some contract landscaping, glass engraving at a studio, splendid calligraphy in three languages, artisan micro-brewing, crafting traditional musical instruments out of culturally authentic hardwoods, and of course music theory and practice.

But Z was not joking the time he picked me up at a Catholic church after a social mixer. The parish hall was rented out that night by a Christian language and culture group promoting international friendship. When I got into his van he sat a while, silently studying the organizers getting into their cars. I wondered what he was waiting for. “If I start a world service non-profit,” he asked the thin air, “Can I buy a car like that too?” He then spelled out for me the make of the founder’s vehicle, its optional luxury features, and the price range of such an optimized model. “Thaaat’s niiice,” he concluded in a robotic vocal-fry bass voice that probably came from some space alien movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “That’s nice” was a catch phrase used among his friends, when they encountered some form of malicious ignorance or hypocrisy.

I felt hurt and embarrassed that he seemed so unimpressed by my new group, and disappointed a week later, right before my group’s next party, when Z showed up at my bedroom door and said “It’s your life, but I hope you don’t go back to that group.”

   “What!” I’d been looking forward to that social. “Do you think I’m stupid or something?”

“I believe you know the answer to that question,” he replied. “I can only repeat that I hope you stay in the house tonight, and that you are here when I get home.” He headed out to his weekend music gig. I stayed home.

Two weeks later, he sat me down quietly to explain. During that time, he and his musicians had driven by the parish hall, done some observing, researched the group. The group was not at all the international Christian friendship project that it professed to be. In fact, they soon moved their operations out of the parish hall for parts unknown. His intuition had been right.

Those protective instincts extended to my faith. He didn’t seem to pay attention to religion himself, but after life with his devout mother he recognized the similar trait in me. He believed that I had some special spiritual connection with God, one that earned his absolute respect. By association, even his drinking buddies from home picked up this protective behavior. One night a group of them were on the balcony below my bedroom window enjoying some beers and swapping recollections of high school days and their high-spirited youthful pranks. Getting into bed, I turned out the light and overheard one of them saying “Hey, that’s her window. We got to break this up; she’s probably praying the rosary.” In a flash they were down the steps and gone, taking the beers with them. 

The friends were equally serious about protecting me when he briefed them before taking me along to a “Yes” rock concert at a packed stadium. “You can not take your eyes off Mary tonight,” he warned them. “She’s never done this before. She’ll be pretty overwhelmed.” No wonder: this was long before cell phones, and if we were separated I couldn’t have found them. For a moment I froze at the first sight of 14,000 excited spectators and first sound of a rock concert sound system. For the opening notes of “Rhythm of Love,” the four men linked arms around me and rushed me up and up the stairs through the crowd to settle me safely in our row.

On quieter nights, when he had no music gigs and no date, Z would play me selections of music while explaining the finer points of each musician’s technique and style. One night the topic was Joe Walsh; but the nuances of guitar licks went over my head, and my tutor could see that it was time to call it a halt. I had to go to bed to catch an early plane flight, so he headed out to a night of practice at his studio. At 3:00 am I was getting up when he was getting home. He washed up and changed and grabbed a mug of coffee, and we hit the road. It was 4:00 am, summer solstice in a northern city. A first firestreak of dawn sparkled on the river, fragmented into rubies in a skyline full of metal and glass. The streets were deserted as he cut through downtown. 

   “Here’s one,” he remarked, and punching some buttons on the stereo system he picked out a Joe Walsh song for me.

The song swept me in right away. It was poignant and reflective, with wonderful shifting key changes and harmonies. The city of rubies arranged itself to fit the song like a music video with us in the middle; a perfect moment of shimmering chords in shimmering light. 

Tonight it’s summer solstice in another northern city. The sunset is flaming in the windows, announcing a heat wave tomorrow. Cleaning out some files I found a diary note about a valentine he engraved and sent me from overseas. The original was lost when I moved away. But in memory it’s beautiful; a red heart motif with hand-drawn calligraphy, ending with wishes for “…All the love that you deserve. It will come. Your friend forever, Z.”

Typing this, I sat and wondered: What could that song have been, that he picked out for me in the car? My mind reeled around, rummaging the archives of memory, and suggested that the lyrics mentioned a second hand store.

A quick look turned up a Joe Walsh song called, in fact, “Second Hand Store.” For the first time in 30 years I sat back to listen, and the lyrics wrung my heart. 

Maybe somehow I can track down someone from Z’s family? There are dozens of stories to write down and share with them, nice ones; maybe his nieces and nephews would like a letter like that as a keepsake. And there’s a whole address book of people left to care for and check on while we are here, living our lives. And there’s prayer. He believed in mine, and he believed in me.

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Tuesday 6/8/21: The Grass is Greener from Inside the Window

Now and then from the windows of our city bus system, the eager curious passenger can catch swiftly fleeting flashes of waterfront. What a view! Mountains, water, tall trees, bridges and boats. It must be nice to stand right there and take it all in at ground level.

So today at the office I took a lunch expedition, forging a new route to some nearby waterfront. There were lush patches of beach roses in pink and white, feathery wild fennel just blooming with its gold compound flowers, wild blue rosemary and lavender, California gold poppies, and right here some sweetpeas and skyline.

Trouble was, this charming scene was a thicket on broken unstable concrete, all of 12 inches away from speeding cars on a service road to the interstate. There was no time for a proper camera angle, so it was nice that the picture caught anything at all before I scrambled out of there.

It was like reading Heidi, where our heroine is exiled to the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. Yearning for a view of her beloved Alps, and being too small to see out the windows, she sets out from the house determined to keep marching along until she gets to some scenery. But she finds that life on the city streets is not the sweetness and light that she expected.

That was like the waterfront today. There was none. It’s all cranes and jackhammers tearing the hillside apart. Cars scream past in acceleration lanes every which way. There’s no sidewalk or traffic lights. There were only crumbling rusted steps leading up and down and around through weeds with blowing trash and graffiti. At one time, this waterfront with its breathtaking mountain view must have been paradise. In the 1930s, it held a lot of tiny wooden family homes and little gardens. Those are all plowed under now. Maybe when all the construction has gouged out the shoreline they will build a park with a bicycle trail? But today it’s all stanchions and underpasses to a huge bridge with deafening noise, and people underneath trying their best to get some sleep without some tourist traipsing through. One of them called out to ask very politely whether he could buy a cigarette. I called back a heartfelt apology, explaining that I don’t smoke.

“That’s all right, Miss,” he assured me. “Actually, you don’t look like a smoker. You look like a… I think a gardener. That right?”

“Right you are,” I waved. Gardening with a camera for the time being.

It took a while to beat around the bushes to pick out the most likely looking old stone staircases, and bushwhack under and over and around and back to the main avenue far up the hill. It was a good lesson on where not to walk again. Good workout, too, even for the hippocampus — to get a little lost for a while and figure out the best way back.

And, there’s a view of sweetpeas to remember it by.

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