Monday, January 23, 2012

Yes, I did give myself a year and a half. "20" just sounded better.

Letters mean something to me. You know this. If you follow Pillow Book much at all, you've probably read this more times than you care to mention. I've talked about how much joy cards from my grandmother give me. I've shown you pictures of letters that I, at one time, wished to be love letters. I've encouraged you to write more, whether that be in letter, blogpost, poem, or short story format. I'm pretty sure at some point in the past few months I've even suggested you write a letter to yourself, something I had never actually done...Until yesterday.

Last week I mentioned Jeanne Oliver's (if you haven't checked out her blog yet, you really should; somehow reading about - and seeing pictures of - her fulfilled life will give you a renewed appreciation of your own), "Creatively Made" e-course. One of our journal prompts in yesterday's "class" was to "Write a letter to a ten years younger version of yourself." I include mine below, not because it's beautifully written - because it definitely is not -, but because I want to encourage you to take the time to do it for yourself. Just write whatever you're thinking, even if the thoughts and phrases seem disjointed even as you write them. Give yourself a time limit. Don't put pressure on yourself to be eloquent. Just start writing.

Dear 20-year-old-Liza,
First lesson you need to keep in mind is that only the foolish say "I'll never." Truth is, there's a reason the "walk a mile in another's shoes" cliche is a cliche. Over the next ten years, there will be moments where you think the future is clear, that you have it "all figured out." Guess what? You won't. You know what else though? These moments and these decisions don't define you. They don't put you on an irrevocable path of misdirection. They are what they are. They are decisions that you know you put thought or your heart into. They are moments when you had to make a decision and you made one. They are moments that you will question, despite knowing you cannot change them. They are moments that will bring heartache, and doubt, and frustration, but they exist alongside those that make you laugh and make you feel like you're really living. You will want answers and want to feel that the cumulative experience was "destined," was "meant to be." Deep down you won't believe this. Don't let that make you feel like a bad person. It's okay to see randomness.

You won't really feel like the person you know you can be until much later in your 20s and it may take a certain person or personality to really draw it out of you. That person may not be a forever fixture in your life, but your acceptance of your gifts, your acceptance of yourself, will be. Until you get there, really live your life. Explore job opportunities and if you don't get the one you want - or into the school you want - remember that you can always do something else. A good portion of the time, our realities are what we choose to make of them. Try to "be" in each day. Try not to see these "Plan B" moments as inferior; see them as alternatives. Commit yourself to whatever you're in, but always keep in mind that you are never "stuck." You are smart and resourceful and willing to take chances. Trust that. Have the confidence to explore "could be"s and find inspiration in something everyday. Keep lists of short-term and long-term goals, goals that exist outside of daily obligations. Make these goals solely for yourself; don't dream for others or with others in mind. Be willing to put things on credit cards if need be, but if the bill reaches $1000, cut them up. Know that exercise will seem more and more like a burden as you get older, but that pies and brownies will seem more and more like a good idea. You will start to really like coffee. You will wish you didn't have to work. You will have a high standard and have a hard time accepting anything less. You will move home and you will be grateful for mundane moments with your family. You will always remember funny things your Dad said even if you never write them down. You will really be "in" your life.
A little project I'm super excited about...

I'm a huge fan of most anything that has a bunch of carbohydrates...particularly for breakfast. I decided yesterday that I needed a little additional sugar to throw on top of my weekly bread choices.

Slow-Cooker Pear & Apple Butter
2 1/2 pounds Bartlett or Anjou pears (about 5) - I used the two not-quite-ripe ones I bought at Houchens the previous day

2 1/2 pounds McIntosh or Gala apples (about 5)- I used whatever kind I stole from Mom's refrigerator

1 cup packed dark-brown sugar - I used light

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 cinnamon stick - I used ground cinnamon. How much, you ask? About that much.

Peel, quarter, and core pears and apples. In a food processor, finely grate fruit (in batches if necessary), then transfer to a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Stir in dark-brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon stick. Cover and cook on high, 4 hours.
Remove cinnamon stick and reserve. Transfer mixture to processor (in batches if necessary) and process until smooth. Return to slow cooker, along with cinnamon stick, and cook on high, uncovered, until mixture is thick and browned, 4 hours. Discard cinnamon stick and let mixture cool. Transfer to airtight containers and refrigerate, up to 3 weeks, or freeze, up to 3 months.
What would you say to your 20-year-old self?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"A witty saying proves nothing." ~ Voltaire

Most of you have probably heard me mention Jeanne Oliver before. She is the photographer/designer/vintage collector who we featured in the Christmas issue of FOLK Magazine. And, she is just a lovely, lovely person. I am currently taking her e-course, "Creatively Made," a four-week online class that encourages participants (over 500 of us worldwide!) to explore talents that we wouldn't normally take the time to consider or cultivate. We watch videos posted by Jeanne or other guest artists from around the country. We post our own creations, ask questions, and just trade funny quips on the Facebook group page. We say nice things to each other, constantly reminding one another that there's more to each of us than just our day jobs, our families, and our obligations. We write and take pictures and see new purposes for objects we would typically overlook. We give each other something to look forward to.

Our first "assignment" for the class was to create our own "creativity journal" from repurposed old books. For one of mine, I cut the front and back covers off of a book I knew I would never read; made the pages from old wallpaper, cardstock, pictures/magazine images/newspaper articles/ticket stubs that mean something to me, images from old cookbooks, and pages from various old books; bound it with baling twine; and added various decorative creations for effect. On the second, I just picked a book I liked (I love the color and the bird on the cover and the haikus and silly messages inside), kept the pages in tact and just added some of the things previously mentioned.

Creatively Made

One thing I love about special projects like the "Creatively Made" course is that they simply make me feel more inspired about life in general. I try to more consciously create beauty or fun around me. I do things just because they might make me laugh. I feel more engaged with even the simplest of tasks.


"Orange you glad you came to dinner"...

My thought process went as follows:
-I see a lone little orange on my counter
-I just brought in an orange shirt from my car
-The joke about "orange you glad I didn't say banana"
-I have apricot jam I need to use
-I have sweet potatoes too
-I saw an orange scarf on Pinterest that I think I could make
-I'm not at work today so I will have time to cook
-Themed dinner parties are fun
-Ask Mom and the Morgans if they want to come to "Orange you glad you came to dinner?"

So, in essence, the thought process was: "that might be fun."

Apricot Dijon Pork Chops (the apricot creates an orange glaze)
Sweet Potatoes (I won't explain this one)
Baked Beans (Kind of orange)
Homemade Bread (I was going to tint my butter orange, but didn't have time)
Orange Juice Cake (The gooey center is especially good)

Scarf tutorial on Pinterest

Before working on the journal, I started going through some of my books, looking for covers, passages, or pictures that I might want to use. In so doing, I came across my dad's copy of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and conservationist, Louis Bromfield's 1955 publication, From My Experience. I didn't want to tear it up, but I did start flipping through it. This caught my attention...

"Considering the general insignificance and unimportance of man, the pleasures of agriculture are perhaps more real and gratifying than the pleasures and even the excesses of the purely mathematical mind (which are certainly not pleasures to be underestimated). If the pleasures of mathematical debauchery or orgies in physics are to be treated as limited, it is only because they are denied the great mass of humanity and because all too often they induce and create the deformities and limitations of the incomplete man. Rousseau was in many respects a fool and at times a humbug and a liar but he had something in his conception of the Natural Man, something in which even the great wise and cynical mind of Voltaire, an infinitely more intellectual and sophisticated man, found a perpetual source of envy.

The greatest creative and intellectual vice of our times, and a factor which causes increasing distress and even tragedy, is the overspecialization which man has partly chosen and which has been partly forced upon him by the shrinking of the world, by the incredible speeding up of daily life and the materialistic impact of technological development upon our daily existence." (12)

A man after my own heart. One day I shall use Rousseau in passing while talking about sustainable farming.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I'm sorry, Bob Ross.

John Singer Sargent once said, "You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh."

The editors of the Awe-Manac add: "Sketching creates an intimate connection with your subject even if you're not a skilled artist. Practice with permission to be imperfect."

Whatevs, Awe-Manac, my lined notebook paper with unmeasured pen-drawn grid screams sketching perfection...
The fruits of my draw-a-tree-each-day-in-January project.

I give myself no more than ten minutes. I use whatever I can find to write with (I usually see about 16 pencils in every junk drawer...until I actually need one). I pick a tree near my home or at the farm. I work until I'm laughing, bored, or reach my time limit. And, I can't lie; I enjoy this. It adds a little structure to my day. It makes me feel artsy (artsy and talented do not have to go hand-in-hand). It's what Vivian Swift told me to do.

For what it's worth, here's one of Sargent's unfinished sketches (he became frustrated with it and quit):
The Bead Stringers of Venice
I would've become frustrated with this, too. So amateur. ...

One of the reasons I like the Bead Stringers so much is that it reminds me of a more spirited, yet strangely sadder, version of James McNeill Whistler's 1871 painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (commonly referred to as The Whistler's Mother). I was sitting outside a professor's office on the 17th floor of Patterson Office Tower (history department at UK) in a very mundane blue plastic chair a couple of years ago and my favorite professor walked by, did a double take, and told me I reminded him of the whistler's mother. I loved it.

"Things that keep you warm in January...
Hot chocolate, ice cold champagne. Not in the same glass, but on the same afternoon." ~ Vivian Swift
Know what goes well with champagne?...Truffles

One of my resolutions for 2012 is to try new recipes each week. I was pretty pleased with this unexpectedly easy one (although I still insist my sister's are much better). I ended up rolling mine in powdered sugar, cocoa, coconut, or chopped pecans.

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
3 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually beat in confectioners' sugar until well blended. Stir in melted chocolate and vanilla until no streaks remain. Refrigerate for about 1 hour. Shape into 1 inch balls. Roll truffles in ground walnuts (or any ground nuts), cocoa, coconut, confectioners' sugar, candy sprinkles, etc. To flavor truffles with liqueurs or other flavorings, omit vanilla. Divide truffle mixture into thirds. Add 1 tablespoon liqueur (almond, coffee, orange) to each mixture; mix well.

Other recipes I've tried this week:
Coconut Cream Pie with Whipped Cream Topping (instead of meringue) - Definitely recommend!
"Pioneer Woman" Pie Crust - My favorite pie crust recipe I've tried yet
Potato Gnocchi - In my opinion, not worth the time!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Once and Future Carpenter

Yesterday we buried our beloved horse, Cotton (his full racing name was "Cotton's Last Hope"). This was the horse that Dad raised, the one he trained and carted across the country (along with his wife and their two loud little girls who enjoyed playing "who brought the skunk?" ... while romping around in an attachable camper separated from front seat sanity by a mere sliding glass window) to race, the horse that has been a farm fixture for 31 years, the horse that symbolized so much more than "longtime pet." This horse gave the farm life and, in the past 14 months, gave me a sense of purpose. Cotton made me feel connected to Dad, as though with each stall cleaned or each bucket of feed prepared or each hug and "you're a good boy" given, I was standing in the barn beside CLT, asking him what I could do to help or listening to him tell some story I should've taken the time to write down. Cotton helped me realize why Dad loved this farm so much. For that, I am truly grateful.

Even if I am sitting here crying my eyes out as I type this, the purpose is not to be dramatic. In fact, I know there is terrible beauty in yesterday's events. Mom made the decision because it was the best thing for the horse. He was simply old; he couldn't see well, he had lost a lot of weight, he had arthritis. Last year when the vet had to come check on him, he implied that he probably didn't have a ton of time left. Mom didn't want to see him suffer or struggle through a tough winter or be left hanging on, but not really living. So, yesterday she made the exact decision Dad would've made. She and I put the racing blanket on him that he won in the 1984 Hope and Dreams Derby, we fed him a huge bucket of sweet feed, we walked him over to Dad's plot and she told me a couple of stories about a wonderful man and the horse he loved, and we hugged him as he lay there in the barn lot adjoining the field he had called home for many happy years. It was the humane thing to do and the right way to do it, even if it was incredibly sad.
So, in one way, I felt like a connection to Dad, one I have desperately clung to over the past year, was disappearing. It just broke, and continues to break, my heart. There's no better way to say it. In another way, however, I smile somewhat coyly, the way I remember Dad doing, when I think about the similarities between the two jokers. When given the chance to be in the cozy barn or in the field last year, Cotton always chose the field, no matter the weather conditions; Cotton, who was a pretty even keel horse, would neither instigate trouble nor take crap from the other horses; Cotton knew the farm better than I do; I feel like if he could've talked, Cotton would've been sarcastic a good portion of the time; He was tough as nails, but didn't mind hugs and pets and silly little comments. He and Dad were a good match.

In the midst of the sadness, I therefore remember these things: we did what Dad would've wanted; we took care of Cotton over the past year and a half in a manner that would've made Dad proud; both are buried in the barn lot they loved; and, I'm exactly where I need to be. Wendell Berry writes about it and CLT always implied it...this is the stuff that matters.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Terrible Beauty and Blue Ivy

I'm rereading When Wanderers Cease to Roam, taking in the illustrations, memories, and quirky musings one month at a time. I love so much about the January chapter...the way Swift makes the bitter seem surprisingly thoughtful, the barren somehow unsuspectingly full of life, the muted grays, richly vibrant. Most importantly, I love how her words and sketches seem like a secret to which only she and the reader are privy; the thoughtfulness, the life, the vibrancy, a pact between two best friends.

A few pages into the January chapter, Swift describes "Small pleasures worth staying home for"...
"*Sipping a cup of lapsang souchong tea that tastes like January: Deep, Dark, Bitter ~ Like smoke from an ancient fire.
*A blizzard: Big fistfuls of snow falling from the sky for 10 hours ~ Beautiful and terrible, but mostly beautiful.
*Remembering bluebirds and warmer days: A kingfisher on Key West, an Abyssinian Roller on the Sahara, Peacocks in the Jordan Valley.
*Sewing in the company of a cat.
*Humming a sad song on a solitary walk on a cold day ~ but not feeling sad."

Here are a few of my own...
*Spending a Sunday morning eating Beer Bread French Toast and drinking a pot of surprisingly perfect coffee (despite doing the exact same thing every morning, sometimes it's just a lot better than others)...and doing this just for myself. Why should we have to have guests to enjoy a special breakfast?
*Opening the curtains, sitting on my love seat, the one just big enough for Wendell and me, and using the natural light to read a few pages of WWCTR and The Essential Agrarian Reader.
*Cleaning out closets and bookshelves and feeling a sense of relief, rather than sadness, to see moments from - and artifacts of - a different life carefully placed in Goodwill-bound bags.
*Looking out the double sliding doors to scope out trees I want to draw today, doors that are given character by evidence of puppy nose curiosity.
*Writing in my Caroline-gifted "Q&A a day 5-Year Journal" with the Fran-gifted ink pen that I absolutely adore.
*Humming a sad song on a solitary walk on a cold day ~ but not feeling sad.

My new pen:
That's right, the pen is comfortably resting on top of The Art of Piddling (the hard copy of Pillow Book).
And yes, that is one-shoulder, black-leotarded Beyonce on the cover. I am still firmly convinced that she, Jay-Z, and I would be best friends. Congratulations on the new arrival, pals.
What are your small pleasures worth staying home for?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Yeah she's a trifflin' friend indeed.

In the last post I mentioned that I'd be showing off some new stationary. Get ready to be impressed/feel ashamed of any homemade gift you've ever given....
Caroline MADE me a collection of these for Christmas (and sent me this great little 5-year journal; each day has a question like "Do people change?" or "What was the best part of your day?" I can't wait to sit down with a cup of coffee and read my responses in 2017.) She took newspaper articles and blacked out any words that had nothing to do with fun or intrigue or the recipient's implied awesomeness. So, for instance, this one has "vibrant, dapper, soul and dance." She then used thread and some sort of magic paste to attach them to construction paper and cardstock. Voila. Greeting card worthy of one's favorite penpal.
Not only do I love both the effort that was put into the cards as well as the aesthetics of the end result, but I also love that when arranged on one's kitchen table, they kind of look like a Piet Mondrain painting. Remember this Dutch painter associated with the De Stijl movement?
Well, maybe not. But, I bet this looks familiar...

The reason I will forever know Piet Mondrian: art class at Cumberland County High School. I don't remember the exact assignment, but I do recall picking Mondrian as my artist of interest (probably less because I loved philosophical cubism and more so because I liked the way his name rolls off the tongue). Thanks, Mrs. Cash.
Speaking of art, let's get back to the "Caroline is wonderful" point. Here is her much more articulate response to the "What kind of art do you enjoy" question that I posed - and foolishly tried to answer - a few weeks ago. She even seamlessly incorporates Kanye, a feat that only further highlights her coolness and writing aptitude. Bitch.

December 5, 2011

Sitting right next to me, waiting to be tucked into a special envelope and stored away for a good long while, is a letter from my grandad (only one ‘d’). The letter is not dated, but it is a thank-you note for some Christmas handkerchiefs (and a pencil holder from me), and my best guess would say the note is from around 1989. But in noticing it sitting next to my keyboard, I realized, or perhaps reaffirmed in my mind, what art I enjoy most: the art that gives its observer a keen sense of the life and livelihood of its creator, or in some cases, of its subject. To me, handwritten letters are an art form. And to be a bit more precise about the artwork that strikes me most, I love art that presents – to my eye or ear or heart – a life and livelihood full of JOY.

When asked “what art do you enjoy most?” my first inclination is to think of visual art, and, in turn, of Renoir. His are the paintings I make my way toward first when visiting the Art Institute. The “why” of this inclination can be summed up by a painting depicting a lady wearing a red hat. That punch of color in her ensemble is unforgettable. I love paintings that include rich, vibrant colors. Colors exude a sense of brightness, light, life…gaiety. I am attracted to those artists who see life through a jovial lens.

The thick, glossy paint that Renoir used also fascinates me. Not because I know anything about the composition of paints, but because it is often easy to see his brush strokes through the build up of coat upon coat of thoughtful curves and lines. His work is not that of a minimalist; there are many blended colors and details. And even though these details may not be fine, they are given careful attention. Stand close to one of Renior’s paintings, and you will see these many thoughtful brush strokes, the flick and bend of the creator’s hand. Their shine makes it seem as though the paint has not even yet dry! I love looking at this artistic map of the author’s process.

Music is also an art form that is important to me, and Kanye West, one of my favorite contemporaries. I heard an episode of “Sound Opinions” about a year ago that included a review of Yeezy’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” In the review, Greg Kot made a comment along the lines of “Kanye doesn’t like himself very much…nobody really says that kind of thing in pop music. He’s just so honest.” The remark resonated with me, and started to get at the crux of why I so enjoy his music. Beyond the catchiness and the fun and, in some cases, the beauty of his music, as silly as it may sound to say it, I feel like I know Kanye; I get him. I know the South Side of Chicago because it’s where I work. I know the feeling of loving your parent so deeply and can understand the sadness that accompanies the loss of one. I have felt the joy that his early songs evoke – a joy that comes from being young and things working out and of promise – and I, too, have felt the lows that he so openly displays to his fans in his more recent albums. His may not always be an art form that is full of joy, but it’s full of a realness that I appreciate.

I went to the Art Institute today, and saw a photography installation called “The Three Graces.” The exhibit was based on the statue of the same name, as each photo showed a trio of women – some young, some old, some dressed all alike, some wearing nothing at all, some serious, but many showing women – friends, quite often – being silly or hamming it up for the camera. The photos were mainly casual snapshots, all black and white, and many somewhat old. I loved the exhibit because it made me want to either come up with a story about the subjects, or simply guess as to who was the pretty one, the funny one, or the shy one of the trio. I wondered why on earth there were so many of three women standing around completely naked with their friends. Or if they willingly put on the same hideous dress. The photos made me think of my own photos with two friends. Which Grace would I be? This collective wall of female friends, sisters, mothers, and daughters seemed to celebrate womanhood, and the love shared between those women whom we love – women just like the one who prompted me to write this piece.

Yes, I like art that reminds me of the beauty – in scenery, in a beloved outfit, in an important friendship, in devastating loss – that can be found every where, every day in life.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I wish "Making cheese and drawing trees" didn't rhyme nor make me giggle. My blogrights should be stripped.

I give myself a "B-/C+" on last year's resolutions. I didn't make cheese or attend a concert/lecture every month. I didn't break a horse or make my mom's sourdough bread. I never made time to visit friends who I wouldn't typically see.

I did, however, host a murder mystery party at my house. I ran a half marathon. I at least attended my Mom's "how to make sourdough bread" class at the Extension Office. I submitted a poem and a few essays to several publications. I read some fiction. I spent 11 days in Europe with my best friend.

Here's my list for 2012:
Make cheese. Yep, I'm putting it on there again.

Run another 1/2 marathon (I've signed up for the Derby mini, now I just need to find the motivation to train)

Start a savings account just for a house and/or cafe

Make a decision about the dissertation

Get an Avett Brothers interview for FOLK

Write more letters (make sure you check back; I'll be showing off some of my new stationary in the next post)

Read more...AND finish books that I start

Try a new recipe every week (I have homemade beer bread in the oven right now)

Have more play dates with my dogs

Return phone calls (especially to Caroline) in a timely fashion (I have no idea why I am so bad at this, considering I always feel so warm/cozy, inspired, and happy after we talk). I just hate the phone for some reason.

Stick to the "Decluttering Agenda" I saw on Pinterest (so far I have dusted the top of my kitchen cabinets and cleaned out my kitchen "junk drawer.")

Drink more water. Yuck.
From Vivian Swift's, When Wanderers Cease to Roam...

Why have I stayed in one place so long? Could be because all the while I tried to think of somewhere else to go - somewhere unusual and busy - all my new furniture and all my old memories were fitting in perfectly here. Who I used to be, and who I always wanted to be, seemed comfortable together in this quiet little Village on the Long Island Sound, and that's as good a reason to stay put as any.
What it takes to get through January is what it takes to get through life. It takes a winter mind.

Whenever I would wonder "Where do I go now?" the only good answer was: "Don't go. Stay put." And every month there was a good reason to do just that. In January I stayed because of my winter mind.
How to winterize your mind:

One: See the sun rise and set everyday. The average night is 13 1/2 hours long. We spend most of January in the dark. Don't miss a minute of daylight.

Two: Learn how to draw a tree. Now is the best time to see what a tree really looks like. Draw one a day.

Three: Put something beautiful in your room so that it's the first thing that you see when you wake up.

Four: Mend something with your hands. Sew it, glue it, nail it, fix it.

Five: Seahorses, ladybugs, woolly bear caterpillars, and dragonflies do it - Hibernate. Life is but a Winter Dream.

I'm off to take the bread out of the oven and draw a tree. Happy 2012!