Saveur Magazine, a poem by Carolyn Forche, and Dave’s . . .

Posted by admin on Thursday Oct 28, 2010 Under Uncategorized

. . . Birthday.

I cut this poem by Carolyn Forche out of the New Yorker (which appears once a week in our little rural mailbox under the catalpa trees) and keep it by my desk.


A night without ships. Foghorns called into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea wrack, through heather and torn wool
you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life:
the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost,
there since the era of fire, era of candles, and hollow-wick lamps,
whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide,
the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook.
You say to me stay awake, be like the lensmaker who died with his
lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when the bees swarm, be
their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond,
seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out
for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines,
and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this.
That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing
to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.

Carolyn Forche

Go toward the light always I tell myself.

I met Carolyn Forche a couple of times many years ago—once at a workshop in Washington and another time I interviewed her for Public Radio.

At that workshop late one night, word traveled that Carolyn Forche had arrived. Since she had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award a few years before, everyone was excited to meet her, me included. What I envisioned was a week of discussing image and form, lyric and language.

That did not happen.

Forche had just returned form El Salvador and was overwhelmed by the horror of the civil war, the atrocities she’d seen. Conversations quickly turned to her experiences. How do poets respond to their times? we asked. She said it was incumbent upon writers to bear witness.

I was working for Public Radio (my way of bearing witness, I suppose) by the time her collection The Country Between Us came out. Her difficulty, in spite of her fame, in finding a publisher for this volume was a part of that interview. It seemed Forche was being censored, and in fact, the author Margaret Atwood finally used her influence to get the volume published. The book later won the Lamont Prize and Forche’s poem The Colonel is as important today as it was then.

Flash forward thirty years.

I was pouring over Saveur Magazine, trying to come up with some ideas for Dave’s birthday dinner when I read an article about a meal in Lebanon.

Dave’s family lived in Lebanon for a year, so the title caught my eye. I was moved by the idea of friends told to gather “whether there was a cease-fire or not”, their way guided by votive candles, lighting the blacked-out street and stairwell.

I think of my friends sometimes as those votive candles, lights that guide me through dark moments, and the article made me want to give them the same experience as the author—who turned out to be Carolyn Forche.

In the clear light of day, however, I realized I would need a staff to prepare such a feast. With twenty-nine trees to plant and two huge boxes of bulbs from White Flower Farm sitting on the porch waiting to be planted, I had to settle for a more pedestrian stew.

Forche’s meal ended, she said, with “something that tasted like an orange cloud.”

Here’s my version for my friends of that citrusy experience.

Jane’s Lime Cloud Pie

1 generous cup of fresh lime juice
1 heaping teaspoon lime zest
2 cans Sweetened Condensed milk
2 beaten eggs
1 pre-baked Graham Cracker pie crust. Any recipe will do. Just don’t use the already made version that’s been sitting on the shelf who-knows-how long-with-a-ton-of-preservatives.

Beat eggs. Add Sweetened Condensed Milk, lime zest, lime juice. Stir until smooth. Pour into pie crust. Bake 18 minutes. Let cool.

At this point, you can cover it with sweetened whipped cream ( about a cup) or sweetened sour cream. You decide.

Refrigerate for 3 hours before serving.
P.S. If you want another version, use lemon instead.
P.P.S The stove is a vintage Wedgewood from Reliance Appliance in Berkeley Ca.

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The Chilean Miners

Posted by admin on Thursday Oct 21, 2010 Under Uncategorized

The morning after the incredible rescue of the Chilean miners, I was taking my daily walk around the property, checking on the cattle. At night we hear coyotes and even an occasional mountain lion shriek. Since we have a heifer expecting a calf, I worry. I found the little herd up in the Buckeye grove, munching away on new grass.

I stopped for a minute, listening to the contented breathing of the cows, and looked up at the Sierras—the mountains John Muir called the Range of Light—

photo by Pat Cassen

and felt I was taking in the air and seeing the sky in a whole different way.

Was there anyone anywhere in the world who was not awed by the strength of those miners, living 2000 feet below ground in 104 degree heat? No light? No sky?

I suppose there was one man, watching this from above—the poet Pablo Neruda—who was not at all surprised that simple, working men would show us the way out of a dark, deep hole, literally and figuratively. Certainly, it hasn’t been the titans and CEOs of mining industries.

In Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize speech—Toward the Splendid City—he tells of his own dark journey and how working people, cowboys not unlike these miners, saved his life.

Maybe you saw the movie The Postman a few years back? It was based on the novel A Burning Patience by Antonio Skarmeta. The title came from the last paragraph of Neruda’s speech:

“I say to the people of goodwill, to the workers, to the poets, the whole future has been expressed in a line by Rimbaud. ‘Only with a burning patience will we reach the splendid city which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind’.”

In the garden later that evening, I looked up again, thinking how the miners must not be able to get enough of light and sky. I hoped for a long while the mining companies would stop using their workers as disposable machines, that these men would now be afforded light, justice and dignity.

Then I went back to my ordinary tasks—planting the lettuces—but with more gratitude than usual.

I’ll leave you with part of a Neruda poem for all women who are now planting their bulbs and winter greens.

Ode to the Woman in her Garden/Oda a la Jardinera

Yes, I knew that your hands were
the flowering clove, the lily
that you had something to do with dirt, with the earth’s flourishing…
I saw you dig down, dig down,
to push aside the stones
and finger the roots,
I knew right then
my farmer girl,
that not your hands
but your heart
were of the earth,
that you
were making
there of your own…

photo by Jeff Cuzzi

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Oprah’s Book Club Selection and the First . . .

Posted by admin on Thursday Oct 14, 2010 Under Uncategorized

. . . rain of the season.

I’d just finished washing up the supper dishes and had settled into the rocker by the window, my favorite chair. Actually, it’s everyone’s favorite chair around here, including the cat Dudley. I picked up my book and wondered for a minute where Dudley was. I chalked his absence up to the weather. He must be out hunting, I thought. It’s been so warm.

For the past week, we’ve been having those ninety-degree Indian Summer days we get in California this time of year. Dry, dusty, still. However, no sooner had I found my place in my book—Freedom—than a slight breeze picked up, and the leaves on the ancient, black walnut that shades the front windows began to rustle. The weather was changing, but I didn’t think too much of it. I just enjoyed the cool air on my neck.

It was true that rain had been predicted up in the high elevations, and when I’d gone up to the garden to pick basil for dinner, I’d seen enormous cumulus clouds forming over the serrated ridges of the Mineral Kings. In the sunset, the clouds had turned all shades from rose to tangerine. Still, it seemed unlikely that rainy weather would reach us.

But that breeze, I thought, looking up from my book, was stronger now. Different.

I had just gotten to the place in Freedom where Walter, an environmental activist on a business trip, has been sent to the local steakhouse by a receptionist at his hotel.

Here are Walter’s thoughts when he is handed the menu:

“Between the horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pig and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy-cow factories, and the fuel squandered by the globalization of produce, there was little he could order in good conscience….#@%*,” he said, closing the menu. “I’m going to have the rib-eye.”

Hey Dave, I said. “You’ve got to listen to this.” Since we’d been in exactly the same town on some drive south, probably in the exact same restaurant, and in precisely the same mood, I thought he’d be amused. “We are not alone,” I told him. Dave set his ipad down on his lap where it glowed.

And then we both heard it—a sound like a few, small pebbles hitting the roof. In no time, it seemed more pebbles were falling, harder and faster.

Rain, we said, jumping up from our chairs and running to the door.

How to describe that smell. Those first, few minutes of rain hitting the parched ground? And the sweetness that followed—all that water.

We stood on the porch a long time, just breathing in the damp air, watching the rain pour from the eaves, listening to the thunder rumbling in the distance.

The next morning we woke in a cloud. I took my coffee outside and wandered around the lawn in the mist. It was like swimming in a cold lake after a long, hot walk.

lupine at granite basin

photo by Pat Cassen

Autumn, which seemed almost impossible to believe in a day ago, as if the heat and dust would never end, was here.

Soon the oak leaves will turn yellow and fall to the ground, and the black walnut leaves will tumble like bright, gold feathers. When I stand at the kitchen sink and stare past their bare branches, I’ll be able to see high up in the mountains, see the snow covered peaks, and know that next summer the lupine will be waiting for us by the alpine lakes.

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Let Your Life Speak

Posted by admin on Thursday Oct 7, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Another wise person I find myself turning to right now is Parker Palmer. In a small book Let Your Life Speak (small book/big ideas), he writes about how the Quaker saying “Let your life speak” has guided him. At first he interpreted the saying to mean he should do REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS. Think Martin Luther King or Gandhi. Only later he came to understand that he should actually listen to his own life, not force it to say what he thought it should say, not force his life to serve his ego. This, Palmer says, is the only way to find a true vocation, and vocation, he points out, comes from the same Latin root as voice.

And that, folks, is what I’m searching for now— a vocation (and a voice) that suits my new life, not my younger life. This one.

Too often, we let the loudest voices around us drown out our own, those voices that tell us to do something important. Behind those many exhortations is an insidious subtext—you aren’t important, you don’t matter.

There’s another thing. In the short term, it can feel easier to listen to those loud voices. That is until you totally burn out and have no idea who you are anymore, until you start to feel like an extra in someone else’s movie. Ever been there? I know I have.

Except for the burn out part that I remember so well, it would be easier even now to believe the voices that tell me that it doesn’t matter what I do. Organic gardening? Big deal. It’s just vegetables. Getting those novels out to the world? Who cares. But when I let my life speak, I hear something different. Not in a shout but a whisper, I hear a voice say, “Stand up. Be a citizen even if you are just a storyteller. Stop hiding.”

The only problem is that as soon as my life speaks, I start arguing with it, demanding that it tell me HOW I’m supposed to do things, insisting on success for my endeavors.

Needless to say, my life clams up!

I don’t know how to take the next step, I wail. What should I do?

Nothing but silence.

But you know what? Just this morning as I was canning tomatoes, and after I had all but abandoned hope, a quiet inner voice finally piped up and said, “You can figure it out.” I swear.

Okay, Jane, I told myself, kind of taking over for that quiet voice. You had no idea what you were getting into when you moved up to the ranch. Didn’t have a clue. Had no idea you could can tomatoes, kill rattlesnakes with a hoe, make your own mozzarella cheese or check a 1000 pound Longhorn steer for an eye infection.

Don’t you think you can figure this out?

We’ll see won’t we?

There is a wonderful interview with Parker Palmer on PBS with Bill Moyers. Enjoy.

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