I’m lucky. I get to go on a vacation, not something everyone has the privilege of doing so that they can enter into a great un-doing or other-the-usual-doings in a new or old place. For us, it’s a particularly ancient place, on the cool shores of Lake Superior (truly superior!) by way of Ames, Iowa tonight, where we will luxuriate in temperatures 10 degrees cooler than the holy hell of the weather here, then Minneapolis, which is cool in multiple ways.
At this moment, the car is packed except for the vitamins, which would melt. The gas tank is full. I have a little cash in my wallet, and plans for a eat-as-we-drive dinner (hello, cold burritos!). Most of the errands, at least the ones I can remember, are done, and within an hour, we’re off. Within a two or three hours, we’ll remember what we forgot, shrug, and keep going.
But for this moment, I want to take in all that’s here and now: Shay the dog sleeping on the cool floor beside me, the wind ruffling Cottonwood Mel, grown so big that he fills two winds, and Dar Williams singing “Closer to Me” on itunes (aka WCMG’s private radio station playing my favorites all the time). The air conditioner sings its low-hum enchantment, and the glass of some fizz water and mostly ice is covered in the cold film of condensation. Stepping outside to ready the tarp for covering the new tractor, I’m reminded what it is to live in a giant Midwestern dryer, tumbling us with bouts of heat and wind. The mountains of clouds to the south tease us with the illusion of rain one day before melting away like everything else. The tomatoes in the garden hang on for life after a good watering in the dark last night, and the lilies sheepishly open smaller-than-usual petals just enough to exhaust themselves.
This is the life I’m leaving for 10 days, a good life although lately a hot life, in the hands of our son and a friend who will keep animals and plants watered and fed. This is the place I love to return to, and although even swimming in the pool last night was almost too warm to enjoy, it’s a place I always feel a little sad to leave. Then again, I always feel more than a little excited to hit the road and see what new homecomings each turn brings into view.
“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.
This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”
When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:
And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came
So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.
Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,” a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:
How long have you been lost? All your life?
Then you’re getting somewhere.
The walls don’t fall for those who think
they know where they are.
It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,
like what I sang out in childbirth, each call
a plea to open and let the new one come through.
Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases
slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket
where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.
Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,
about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp
orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.
Knowing the path has always been overrated
although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.
Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun
across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,
the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.
When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully
for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant
wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future
in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.
Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.
His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city
ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself
stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit
on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain
making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.
Okay, a confession: I wander through my days with great anticipation for the next meal. Even if it’s just a hot cup of strong tea and bowl of brown rice cereal, envisioning what I get to eat next is a great motivator for getting out of bed in the morning and getting off the computer in the evening. I just love food and always have, and eating is surely one of the most fun things a person can do sitting down.
No surprise that food looms large in all my memoirs and novels, whether it’s the hunt for the best fried chicken in Kansas (in the memoir, Poem on the Range), or a vivid description of the magical rotating dessert case in a New Jersey diner (in
About a month before the manuscript was to mosey on over to my publisher, I couldn’t sleep at night because the idea of including recipes kept waking me up. Luckily, Steve Semken, owner of Ice Cube Press, said yes, and then so did some marvelous food geniuses in our community: Nancy O’Connor, educator director of our long-standing food co-op, The Merc, and author ofThe Rolling Prairie Cookbook; Jayni and Frank Carey, who have gathered and created many quintessential Midwestern recipes, particularly in The New Kansas Cookbook;Janet Majure, not only my weight-lifting coach, but a cookbook author with an eye for good dishes; and Lauren Pacheco, Kris Hermanson, and owner of the Ladybird Diner, Meg Heriford, who happens to make some of the greatest pie in the cosmos.
Close to 40 pages of recipes later, the cooking and baking in Miriam’s 40-plus-year journey through America becomes recipes for some of our journeys too. Here’s a sneak preview of two recipes, each named for a character in the book: Batty is Miriam’s mother, originally named Matilda, nicknamed Matty, and then called Batty for reasons you’ll see in the novel. The Acadian Dream Inn is a resort on — where else? — Mount Desert Island of Maine where Miriam and her sister-in-law Cindy commandeered the kitchen to the delight of guests.
Batty learned this recipe from her parental grandmother, who died before Miriam was born. It was a dish the whole family, especially Miriam, loved, so Batty made it often. The smell of this baking filled the kitchen with such warmth and comfort that Batty was drawn to keep making on a regular basis long after she moved to the Southwest, and she even brought it to various potlucks, where others fell in love with the dish.
1 large green cabbage
1 lb ground beef
1 cup uncooked rice
1 large onion chopped into large slices
2 large cans stewed whole tomatoes
1 cup water
1/8 cup lemon juice
1/8 cup honey
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional but highly recommended!)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Boil or steam cabbage until soft enough to roll. While the cabbage is boiling, combine the rice and beef, and season with salt and pepper as desired. Lay out cabbage leaves, and roll in the meat/rice mixture, placing the meat at one end, rolling, then tucking in the sides. Place seam side down in casserole dish. For the sauce, brown chopped onions in pot until softened, add in stewed tomatoes and water, and mix well. Coat the bottom of a casserole pan with sauce mixture, place the cabbage rolls in, seam side down, and add in the rest of the sauce and water. Cover tightly with lid or foil. Bake for approximately three-four hours until done to your desire Add in lemon juice and honey and raisins in last half hour of cooking. Note: this dish can also be prepared in a crockpot.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipe by Lauren Pacheco, based on a recipe from Caryn and Lauren’s grandmother, Molly Prusak.
The Acadian Dream Inn’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake
Miriam and Cindy together created this recipe one year at the inn when they had too much zucchini. It turns out that the zucchini made for an especially rich, even sinful-tasting, cake that everyone loved so much that they kept it on the menu until the inn went under. Both Miriam and Cindy continue to make this on a regular basis just because.
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups unsifted, all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups zucchini, finely shredded
1 (10-ounce) bag dark chocolate chips, divided
Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.
Place the butter, oil, and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer until well blended. Beat in the eggs, vanilla extract, and buttermilk. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, dark cocoa, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the batter, and blend until well combined. Stir the shredded zucchini, and half of the dark chocolate chips (5 ounces) into the batter. Spoon the batter into a greased and floured 13” x 9” baking dish. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Transfer the cake from the oven to a wire baking rack and, while still hot, sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips over the top. Let them melt and spread evenly over the cake. Variation: dark chocolate frosting can be substituted for the chocolate chip topping.
12 to 16 servings
Recipe by Linda Wilson, from Jayni and Frank Carey’s The New Kansas Cookbook
Yesterday was an in-between day taken up with driving, flying, walking long underground vortexes of color and sound, flying some more, and a whole lot more driving to go from Lawrence, Kansas (aka Center of the Universe) to Plainfield, Vermont (aka Another Center of the Universe).
On such days, I try to be present for what sweetness might lurk in travel tensions, plus I’ve learned a few tricks from making this trip back and forth to Goddard College residencies over 40 times in the last two-plus-decades. I pack high-quality apples, a sturdy supply of magazines, a few good books (this time I’m re-reading Elizabeth Erdrich’s marvelous memoir, Miriam’s Kitchen), some energy bars (the kind that aren’t exactly candy bars but don’t taste like dog food either), antibacterial stuff to wash the seat-back tray in the planes, and a tiny Ipod-thingie with soothing music I can blast at 30,000 feet. I also have all manner of sinus remedies because planes can shake up a gal’s face some, and candied ginger for too much turbulence.
When the announcement at the airport says crazy things, like yesterday’s “Sorry, folks, but we’ll be delayed boarding the plane because the heater is broken, and it’s only 2 degrees in there,” I sigh, eat my salad early (having learned it’s a bad idea to eat too-rich food before being flung through space at 500 mph), and catch up Facebook. When my pal picking me up is so engrossed in conversation with me that he drives down beautiful country roads instead of aiming for the route to get us toward the college, I take photos of what I see along the way, including the most daunting sun dogs (my photos don’t do them justice) I’ve ever spied.
Once unloaded in the dorm, back out to the Wayside Diner for down-home goodness, and back to the dorm room, I morph into old routines of putting the socks and underwear in this drawer, piling the two mattresses in the room on top of each other for a higher and firm bed, and draping scarves here and there to brighten up the big blank room. Most of us who teach here have our assorted furniture-moving and, for the ones who drive, rug-unfurling habits to make our home for the next 10 days homey.
But in the middle of it all — a middle that extends from leaving the house at 8 a.m. and trying to shake off the dim or sparkling travel dust at 1 a.m. when I’m still friggin’ awake — there’s that in-between time, still potent with its varied nuances of color, light, temperature, and texture.
Truth be told, it’s always this way: we’re in between who we are and who we think we are, where we imagine we live and the real earth and sky we actually inhabit, the meaning of the work or relationships we inhabit and the greater mystery beyond meanings we label and box up. Landing is a continual process in travel and in life.
I find them irresistible: hand-sewn old quilt tops dreaming of a real life, a little like the Velveteen Rabbit before someone loved him to death (and rebirth as a real rabbit). Although I don’t possess the super power of finding a parking spot on Massachusetts Street at lunch time, I do have a knack for glimpsing incomplete quilts hanging on the back of a folding chair in a thrift store, or slung over a clothes line at a yard sale. If they’re not moth-tattered to shreds (have plenty of those quilts already at home), the colors please me, and the price is right, I tell them, “you’re coming home with me.”
Years ago, I fell in love with a massive quilt of stars hand-sewn by an old woman at her garage sale. “It’s made from those cloth sacks flour and sugar came in,” she told me, teaching me how many staples used to come in very useful packages. She said she had made it one winter in the 1930s
when she was very depressed, and she didn’t want it around anymore. I happily paid her for it, and since then, it’s filled a wall in our home, reminding me how we’re always recycling one another’s stories and efforts. Also, her dozens of six-pointed stars are, even if made in a time of doubt and despair, are to my eyes and faith, Jewish stars that remind me of community and spirit.
Six months ago, I found my latest adoptee in a massive thrift store — which recently absorbed an old Duckwalls (kind of like a Woolworths store but with more snow shovels for sale) — in downtown Council Grove, a thriving central Kansas town with a population of about 2,000. Council Grove is known for the Hays House, the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi, purveyor of fine fried chicken, and the spot where Ken and I got engaged in three sentences: “You want to get married?” “Do you?” “Let’s order dessert.” We were back in Council Grove last summer on our way elsewhere because, fried chicken. After we rolled out of the restaurant, we wandered through the thrift store, and then I fell a little in love.
I tend to pick up quilts, look them over well, tell myself I have too many projects and put them back down, wander for 10 minutes, return and repeat the process a few more times, and if I’m smart enough at the moment, take the quilt to the register. Luckily, I was smart enough, and after some months of the quilt top sitting in a pile of other projects not getting anywhere fast, I made it to the fabric store for some backing, then set it all up for another season.
On Saturday, feeling just better enough from a virus to want to do something with fabric sporting the color pink, I sewed on the backing after a frustrating time of laying all the materials on the floor to line everything up before a cat or dog would pounce on it all. Sunday, after opting for the cheapest and easiest way to bind a quilt — with ties instead of quilting — I bought some matching embroidery thread. That night, between checking the Superbowl scores because I wanted my beloved stepdad’s team, Philadelphia, to win, and watching a quirky Australian film about a giant satellite dish and the first moon landing, I finished up the quilt.
Now this cheery quilt is lounging on our bed dreaming of something I can’t fathom. All I know is that someone cut out hundreds of yellow, green, and pink diamonds, then painstakingly sewed them together to make this star within a star, which is also her story within my story. I’m sleeping under the layers of someone else’s toil, troubles, hopes, and harvests. I can only wish that all who sewed these forgotten quilts are resting in peace, and that the quilts they left behind know they’re found, loved, and giving people like me warmth, delight, and cover.