Wherever you go, there you are

It is October. It is fifty degrees here in Seattle, and fall has descended. The leaves have started to change colors and drop, and there is the occasional smell of wood smoke in the air. The coffee shops everywhere are offering pumpkin spice lattes, and as some stores are merchandising for Halloween a tacky few are already on to Christmas. I am enjoying the crisp tang to the air and the rains are becoming more common again.

Fall has always been my favorite season and I really enjoy it although the seasons differ a bit depending where you live. Fall here feels different than a New York autumn like those of my childhood. Minnesota is yet another experience. I wonder if this time of the year brings many discernible differences for someone in a warmer clime like that of Texas. I may never find out as I don’t care for the heat.

I have been thinking about this lately as I try to stay mindful of my surroundings and the passing of the seasons is part of the awareness I cultivate. I’ve also been thinking about seasonal markers because of my haiku practice. I work with a haiku group that often assigns seasonal words for the haiku, but these seasonal words are collected from Japan. Some things remain the same, but many of their festivals and celebrations are different. They don’t have all the same flora and fauna that are in other places.

This year I think I’ll compile some season words that are specific to Seattle. As a transplant, I’m trying to notice what marks the season here. What makes Seattle itself and not somewhere else? I think these are valuable questions to ask, and I’ve noticed more clues since I’ve started wondering. Sometimes answers can only come once questions have been formulated. My brain is buzzing and my hand is up in the air. I’ve got lots to ask.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
264. Start asking some questions about the place where you live. What makes it unique to itself? How does your town and region mark the seasons? Is that different than somewhere else you have lived?


Love the one you’re with

Music speaks to me and I listen. You probably have songs that are deeply meaningful to you. Most of us do. This week one of the ones that has been stuck in my brain is Neil Diamond’s song I am… I said.  I grew up in New York state and I’ve been feeling terribly homesick lately. Neil says: “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home; New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.” I feel the same about Seattle. There are certain things I love about it, but it’s just not my native culture. I will always feel like a bit of an outsider here.

I go through this occasionally. I moved to Minnesota for graduate school and then to Seattle. I wanted to experience the country. Seattle is beautiful but it’s very different from the East Coast. Sometimes I find that incredibly frustrating, and I miss a lot of the places I grew up around. I don’t have a lot of money to travel, but I go to visit New York and Minnesota when I can.

I’ll probably never leave Seattle. Although I miss people from back home, and I don’t get to see my family as often as I would like, I have found family here. There are too many people and communities I would hate to leave. It’s a weird confusing feeling, and I’m sure many people go through similar feelings around the places they live.

I am sitting today in my living room typing this and listening to the sounds of the rain. It’s been raining all day. The leaves glisten and the air is fresh. I’m going out later to spend time with one of my best friends. As comedian Steven Wright says: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Seattle has its frustrations but it has its compensations, too. The weather is lovely today. The weather is lovely a lot of the time. I am reminded of the Zen phrase: “be where you are”. I am in Seattle, and it is good. Here I will turn back to the wisdom of music–if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Some days are easier than others. I am going to enjoy this rainy day and sip my coffee. Life is good.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
261. How do you feel about the place where you live? Are there compromises? Take a moment to think about your environment and how it affects you. For today, try to “be where you are” and “love the one you’re with”.

To the kitchen!

I have out-of-town guests this weekend, so I’ve been cooking even more than usual. This morning we had oatmeal with raisins and apples. My friend loves oatmeal and always requests it, and taught me to put in pumpkin pie spice. It’s a tasty variation. I eat hot cereal almost every day, so I’m happy to oblige. She could crave something far more complex, and I’m just not equipped to function much first thing in the morning. I think she knows this. Most people learn this pretty early on in our friendship.

I made some pasta for lunch, wilting some spinach in amongst the whole wheat spirals. Yum! My mother was a good cook, and so am I, although my culinary legacy has veered from hers. I don’t spend my afternoons wrapping bacon around oysters and water chestnuts, and you won’t find me making a tender steak teriyaki. I’m a vegan, so those foods don’t appear on my menu. I do love to cook for people, and that’s where we have a lot in common.

I also enjoy cooking for myself. At the moment, I’m a single person. Sometimes I get busy and since there’s no one to complain I’ll occasionally eat cold cereal and toast all day. It’s okay as a variation, but I think it’s important to cook. Cooking is cheaper than eating out, and it’s far easier to control the results. Just as I love to show my friendship by preparing meals for the people I care about, I think it’s good to show myself that I’m worth the nurturing that a hot meal can provide. Today I even baked.

I don’t eat sugar anymore, so I made myself a loaf of Irish soda bread. It’s quick, easy, and the recipe I use is healthy. Soda bread doesn’t require yeast, and doesn’t need to sit or rise, and it’s delicious with a nice cup of tea. Eating fresh baked bread makes me feel like I’m surrounded by family and friends, even when I’m all alone in my apartment. Buddha said that giving to the self is also giving. We remember to take care of others, but it’s so hard to treat ourselves with the same kind of attention. It’s time to fire up the oven and fix that.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
243. How do you like to show your friends you care? What makes you feel loved and cherished? Do that thing for yourself this week. How does it make you feel?  If you’d like to try your hand at soda bread, here’s my favorite recipe:

I like to add 2 tbsp. of caraway seed to the recipe, and I always add yellow raisins. If you want something more savory, you can leave those out. I’ve also tried making it by soaking the raisins in brandy and/or whiskey first (YUM) and one day when I was out of caraway I put in 1 tbsp. of anise (I may have increased the sugar slightly–I can’t remember). It was a nice breakfast bread that reminded me of the yellow anise biscotti I grew up with in New York.

Words, words, words

I grew up in New York State, although not New York City or Long Island. This is important to note, because like many of the people I grew up with, I am engaged in a great debate about boundaries. New York, like many states, has an area called “Upstate”, but even the people who live there cannot all agree on where that area starts. We all concede that Long Island and “the city” are not Upstate. Many city people think that Upstate is simply everywhere north of the city. Some even count it by subway stops.

Many of the people in Dutchess County, where I’m from, know that we’re not from Upstate either. I grew up in Wappingers Falls, one town south of the much-mocked Poughkeepsie. I grew up with New York City media, and although suburban, the culture of the area is not like the rural farming areas to the north of the county. The Metro North commuter railroad has a terminal in Poughkeepsie that takes you straight into Grand Central Station. Some New York City agencies, such as the Office for the Aging, agree—they extend the boundary up to Poughkeepsie. Some extend it even further north. There is no official consensus. This doesn’t really matter, but on the other hand it really does.

It matters because it’s an identity thing. People who are securely Upstate identify with their region, and people from the city are city people. The rest of us have an idea of who we are based partly on this nebulous geographical concept. In some ways this is absurd. On the other hand geography and culture do shape a person—I know I am a different person as a New Yorker than I would have been growing up as a Minnesotan. I’ve lived in both places—the distinctions are there. I also know that I am a distinctly different person because I have never identified with the label “Upstate”. I know who I am.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and though I still have a definite opinion—New Yorkers are very prone to definite opinions—I’ve also realized that in some ways it doesn’t matter. Words are just labels. This is important to know. People go around labeling people all the time, and we also label ourselves. There are some labels that are true to my identity—like writer, lesbian, and vegetarian—and many that aren’t. People who don’t understand me tend to assault me with inaccurate modifiers and faulty nouns. Sometimes I even do it myself, calling myself clumsy, or lazy, or other words that are untrue. When I am secure in my identity, the inept syllables fall into a pile at my feet, where they are easy to kick to the side. It’s so much easier.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
240. What labels do you identify with? Are there inaccurate modifiers and faulty nouns that others use to describe you? Do you describe yourself with falsehoods? Let them fall to your feet, and kick them aside.

Extra credit:
Does your state have different areas—like Upstate New York, Outstate Minnesota, or Greater Washington? Which one describes you?  If you’re really interested in the debate about Upstate New York, check out this cool Wikipedia article:

A little word snack

Here in Seattle it is easy to indulge my predilection for sitting in public and sipping coffee. Today I am having my cup of goodness in the local food co-op, Madison Market. I love this place, and it reminds me of one of the reasons I love Seattle. Food is a very personal and cultural thing, and I feel accepted in a place like the co-op. There’s something homey about being in a place where there’s other vegetarians, and people routinely eat tofu. I’ve belonged to a food co-op in every place I’ve lived, and I experience an immediate sense of belonging in each new one I join. Seattle, too, is full of vegetarians and people who think about what they eat. It makes me feel welcome.

When I miss New York, I seek out decent pizza and Italian desserts, and when I miss Minnesota I go to Ballard to get some lefse. Lefse is basically a tortilla made out of mashed potatoes. It’s a Scandinavian thing, and I got hooked on it while I was in Minnesota.

I’ve also fallen to the nostalgia of foods that Mom used to make. I’ve got recipes for some of her treats, but sometimes I take the easy way out. My mother cooked almost everything from scratch. I remember two major exceptions—Kraft macaroni and cheese, and Hamburger Helper. These days the Hamburger Helper contains vegetarian crumbles, but it still brings back the memories. Yum.

Another one of my food rituals centers around pierogis. Pierogis are Polish dumplings made from a pasta-like dough. They can contain many things, but our family makes them most often with potatoes and cheese inside. Once they’ve been boiled we fry them in a pan, and some people like onions on top. Pierogis are part of my Polish heritage, and I love them, but they are labor intensive. Each year my family gets together and spends most of a day making an enormous quantity of them. Then we eat and eat and eat. It’s a ritual I cherish, and it functions as an initiation for new members and friends of the family.

All this writing about food is making me hungry, so it must be time for lunch. See you tomorrow.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

166. Food can create strong feelings, memories and opinions. What are some of yours? Share these thoughts with someone else. Even better, share them over a meal. Remember to respect the feelings of others while you do this exercise.

He uses his hammer

I’ve been borrowing movies from the library, and I just watched the documentary The Internationale (Peter Miller, 2000). The movie told the story of the socialist anthem of the same name. It’s an interesting story, and I’d recommend it. I particularly liked the new lyrics by British musician Billy Bragg, which speak to the many struggles that people face in today’s world, and some ways that we can all use to cope.

“Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone.
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us,
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.”

The movie also got me thinking about Pete Seeger, who was one force behind the decision to change the lyrics. I’ve been inspired by Pete Seeger for many years, and it was nice to see him again in this documentary. I grew up in the same part of New York where Mr. Seeger lives and does his work for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization he and his wife founded to clean up the Hudson River.

I’ve seen him perform a number of times, and I feel lucky. Pete Seeger is one of those persons who radiates a Zen-like calm, and I admire all the work he’s done for the environment, and also towards the spread of folk music in this country. I hear there is a movement right now to get him nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, and I am not surprised.

As a person who eventually hopes to make her whole living from creative pursuits, I also admire anyone who follows a dream and makes it happen. Pete Seeger’s biography says that he fell in love with the banjo and it changed his whole life—it thrills me that it changed his life in a way that means he isn’t just some guy who plays banjo at the office Christmas party. Every person who takes a dream and makes it happen shows the rest of us that it can be done. It was nice to watch that movie and be reminded that so many different people have influenced my outlook. I’d thank them all if I could, but there’s not enough space on the internet to do it.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

151. Think of at least one person you admire (I have a long list). What have you learned from them? Tell someone else, and if you can, thank the person directly.

Links, should you desire them:



And lots of songs about trucks

I had a strange moment on Friday evening, and I’d like to share it with you. I was out country dancing, and had taken a break for a moment because I’d just done two really fast line dances in a row. As I caught my breath and watched the other dancers doing the two-step, I sang along with the music. This is when the weirdness occurred. I realized I was singing about farm equipment, and that I knew all the words. I thought about it a little more that evening, and I know the words to lots of songs about farm equipment.

I grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York. The state has plenty of rural regions, but the area I am from is not one of them. I’d never seen a combine or a grain elevator before I moved to Minnesota, and I certainly could not have told you what they were for. As I’ve learned to love country music, I’ve gotten even more familiar with these things. I think that’s great. I think that writers ought to know at least a little about a lot of things, and it’s interesting to hear the viewpoint of someone who has grown up with a different experience than your own. The song I was singing along with is called International Harvester, and it’s sung by Craig Morgan. It’s a great two-step song, and I think the lyrics are intriguing. The singer talks about how it feels to be driving down the highway at five miles per hour on his combine and have all the cars honking at him when he’s only trying to do his job.

I’d never thought about it from that perspective before. I’ve done a lot of driving on back roads, and I’ve gotten behind some of those slow-moving farm vehicles. I’ve also been stuck behind Amish buggies. I realized they couldn’t go any faster, but I never thought about how frustrating it must be to have angry drivers behind them. I love to have my world expanded like this. I can’t wait to see what next new perspective will cross my path. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

146. When was the last time you were exposed to a new perspective on life? Seek one out. One idea is to page through specialty or trade magazines. You can learn a lot by seeing what others focus on.