Monday, January 24, 2011

Time of the Preacher

'I could cry for the time I've wasted,
But that's just a waste of time and tears.
And I know just what I'd change, if I went back in time somehow.
But there's nothing I can do about it now.
I'm forgiving everything that forgiveness will allow,
And there's nothing I can do about it now.

For the most part, I wouldn't consider Willie Nelson a role model for my children or grandchildren. Willie's is a life unto itself, fully lived and the results can arguably, I think, be said to justify the means. What price music? Look at the geniuses and near geniuses throughout musical history. Most of the price for lives lived unconventionally has been borne by the artists themselves. The rest of us reap the reward. The talent and beauty that vanishes with the vessel may be our loss, but, then again, maybe that's all there was? Who's to know? At any rate, Willie Nelson defies that logic and that stereotype. A search on Amazon yields 2606 items related to Willie Nelson and music; this doesn't include clothing, pet food, movies or TV. I've been a fan since Red Headed Stranger days, falling in love with the Tale of the Preacher in the year of '01, Luckenbach Texas, and wringing my hankie through some of the saddest songs in any musical literature. I can forgive 'Angel Flying too Close to the Ground' and that fling with Julio Inglesias as musical outliers every time a snippet of past musical genius comes to mind.

Such is the case with 'Nothing I Can Do about it Now'. As a piece of music, its downright catchy, uptempo, foreshadowing the phrases 'wild and restless spirit' and 'set to the rhythm of the wheel'. The singer is shaking the dust of that place, that woman, that part of his life, off his boots and making tracks. Maybe its bitter, maybe its good riddance, but either way, it's over, it's past; the slate is wiped clean with the mantra, 'nothing I can do about it now'. Pretty standard country music sentiment; the kind of theme that works much better in movies than in real life.

But when the song came to mind last night, I looked up the lyrics and came to a different interpretation. Perhaps that's the benefit of age on my part, or perhaps the genius of great song writing, that folks at all 'phases and stages' can pull their lives out of the lyrics. There's more than a little constructive wisdom in Willie's last verse. What, after all, is to be gained by counting 'all the time I've wasted'? Why add insult to injury; why cry again? We can file our mistakes for future reference, but not future regret. Knowing what you'd do differently is armor for the future, not a weapon; its good defense and really dangerous offense. Maybe Willie is being flippant, but I don't think so. There are worse philosophies to carry around with you than the last phrase because it contains a magic word: forgiveness. Whether we inflict pain, we suffer pain, we bring pain upon ourselves; forgiveness is the solution. Perhaps we should forgive "all", but we'll be doing good if we manage to "forgive everything, that forgiveness can allow", because true and full forgiveness is beyond our human scope. 'Nothing we can do about it now' isn't morally neutral, isn't a cop out, or shirking of responsibility; its the only way we can avoid despair about our failings and go on with our lives with hope.

Its not 'Whiter than Snow', but, hey, its Willie Nelson.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't Look a Gift Horse...

Times are tough all over: public or private, gardeners tend to tighten their belts and set aside grandious plans for follies, blue slate patios and three tiered fountains. I was reminded of this general resourcefulness in a conversation last week with one gardener from down near Lenexa. We first sold plants to this children's garden last year, a typically challenging year one experience with cancelled orders, unanswered phone calls and various other misunderstandings. When the bid came over the email transom earlier this winter, there was serious discussion about how we should respond. But, we hate to leave any greenhouse space unfilled and we've been doing this long enough to realize the second year is always an improvement as grower and gardener get better acquainted. In this case, the gardeners are bound and determined to carpet the ground with flowers, even as the orders for individual, designer, high dollar cutting raised plants are pared down. Not to worry! Back to the drawing board, or in this case, the proverbial egg before the chicken: the humble seed.
Lisa is serious about the Children's Garden. Last year she told me she covered her driveway with drying seed heads of assorted annuals, even though she was pretty certain her neighbors didn't appreciated the blowing debris. When I heard that, I was convinced her seed saving mania was frugality in the interest of greater beauty and gladly delved into memory to come up with candidates for flowers with the biggest bang for the least buck.
Cheap posies come in multiple guises. I covered one of those bases by ordering several thousand seeds of some of the most beloved of cutting garden favorites. In wholesale quantities, a generous swath of cosmos, whether feathery leaved Sonatas or neon bright Cosmics, will set one back not much more than a five spot. A packet of a thousand zinnia seeds of modern breeding are easy to lose in the car, but you'll never lose them in the garden! A scratch in the soil, a hoed row, a sprinkling before a shower, and you'll have the ineffable pleasure of discovering emerging seedlings and a devil may care attitude if the grandkids, family pet, or mower man take out a dozen or more in the normal course of summer events. That's one way to cover some territory.
But the fun really begins later. NEXT year, mother Nature takes over the garden design and the human gardener can decide how much of a control freak he or she desires to be.

I am a tardy gardener. For better or worse, the green things in my yardhave a running start on their supposed lord and master. In the big circle bed out front last year's coneflowers and balloonflowers are duking it out with aging clumps of daylilies and Autumn Joy sedum I planted to provide balance in the fall. The daffodils have proliferated to such an extent that one cannot fit a trowel between them. If I had it to do over again, I would go for a monoculture of daffodils somewhere in the yard, much as I enjoy their long season of cheerful bloom when I come home to an otherwise unkempt abode. I used to dream all winter of the perfect plant to ring the circle bed, but then the coneflowers filled in all but one quadrant, and now another helpful volunteer is stepping up to the brick edging the bed. This cuphea, a relation to 'Rumba' and 'Flamenco', exhibits all the vigor of its passionately named siblings, making up for small blooms with sheer plant volume and toughness. You can hoe out as many of these seedlings as you want, but you won't get them all, so its just easier to go with the flow. Around the pergola in the back yard, I have ceded one whole side of the border to the cupheas; they keep the weeds down; they are drought resistant; and they can be mowed off where ever the mower man thinks they intrude.
Unlike the cupheas, which only come back where they have been planted, a verbena bonariensis will soon colonize every empty corner. Don't get me wrong, I love this plant; it weaves beautifully among other stemmy bloomers, whether annual or perennial. The mauve, or violet, or aubergine, hue, take your pick, blends with every color, hot or cool, and clashes with none. The plant stands and is hardy well past an initial frost. I would happily recommend verbena bonariensis to anyone, except for that whole rather frightening ability to carpet any bare ground. If you are vigilant and ruthless with your hand hoe early in the season, the seedlings that escape will provide a pleasant accent later in the summer when other annuals flag.
The giant back perennial border was designed with volunteers in mind. It is far from water and so deep and wide that I always planned it to be minimum maintenance. One massive weed flinging orgy in the early summer and one unpleasant itchy pruning in the fall is what it gets. In between, I cut out the elms and mulberries, mow close, and enjoy the opportunistic arrangement of the perennials from afar. There are hardy hibiscus for deep into the summer heat; miscanthus of various persuasions for catching autumn light; penstemons, echinaceas, and rudbeckias to approximate the prairie roadside; and purple poppy mallow and hydrangeas for shock value. I have terrible eyesight; my aim is to enjoy this bed from my bath on the second floor!

Speaking of rudbeckias: I have a weakness for them. A huge swath of the garden around the pond has been sacrificed to the volunteer rudbeckias. Most of them are the simple, black eyed Susie variety, but over the years, I've planted 'Prairie Sun' with its green gold eye, and 'Cherokee Sunset', a double with shades of bronze. Each year, a new variation of the black eyed Susan appears in the catalogs and every year I have to have a flat to introduce somewhere in the garden. Never mind that some years the caterpillars take them, or that they leave a spot barren of bloom in mid summer. For six weeks in June and July, they are the glory of the garden. Daisies forever!
Finally, in all my praise of volunteers, some caveats. Be vigilant if you fall in love with 'Little Bluestem'. Be wary of potentilla. Shun cattails in the water garden. Never cease to prune out 'Autumn Glory' clematis or trumpet vines. One, or at most two, volunteer asters is all that should be tolerated. Cleome will become a prickly thicket. And any petunia that comes up the second or third year will be a pale shadow of its ancestor. Weed it out!!
Being a gardener is hard enough; welcome the freebies Mother Nature dishes out. They've proven they can live in your world and you should reward some of that spirit and vigor. Use your artist's eye and your surgical hoe. And use all your extra time to make new gardens!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Somewhere between Playboy Magazine...

...and what all the dog did today" are the words that came to mind tonight as I contemplated the events of the past week and mulled over that favorite source of inspiration, the overheard airplane conversation.
Some folks in sandals and t shirts had the seats behind us; we noticed their casual dress, their good humor and their completely inappropriate attire for the subzero wind chills expected in Kansas City. They worked their crossword; they talked airport delays. I wasn't surprised when one of the travelers told her compatriot about some magical fruity elixir she drank at night that both "got her head together" and relaxed her to sleep. I was brought up short though with her declaration that the freshest food was to be found at WalMart. After all, all the turnover led to faster restocking, in her opinion. This got my attention; eavesdropping thus far had predisposed me to believe these passengers never passed through the doors of the giant retailer.
A bunch of us WalMart types learned all the finer points of skin care, practiced our runway walk, and discovered all we needed to be a trophy was enough bling on our wrists. We weren't fooling the dude from Project Runway; the model scout in the big black hat lost her enthusiasm after one good spirited group skipped and strutted. Doesn't matter how many forks there are on the side of the plate: meat and two sides just takes one.
I'm pretty tired of pretentiousness being the main feature of the menu. The idea that we all have the food equivalent of Robert Parker's palate is absurd. My mama simmered round steak, carrots, potatoes, an onion and a can of tomatoes for hours on the gas range; she added no more than salt, pepper and a bay leaf. Nothin' fancy, but it was my favorite dish. Nothing "fresh" either, but then, we didn't eat 'fresh' food out of season in past generations, even the one just past like mine. Was our table unhealthy somehow because it was simmered, stewed, baked and sauteed? We had canned pears, frozen strawberries in Jello, applesauce, all bourgeois food bought at the local Jewel store. I'm sure there were delis aplenty on the streets of Chicago, but they weren't sanctified food emporiums back then. No, local food meant walking the aisles of the IGA or A&P nearest you.
And "slow" food? I can't think of anything more time consuming than home made fried chicken. First, you cut up the chicken...and in my case, you discarded the back. How many people even realize chickens have backs? Multiple wings, legs and cutlets, but not backs. I could never see taking up space in the skillet for a piece with no meat. Besides, there were always telltale signs of guts attached to the back and I didn't like those either! The cook has some discretion. Copious plumes of flour, salt and pepper accompanied the breading of the chicken, even when shaken in a plastic bag, a method neither my mother nor my grandmothers used. Both my grandmothers fried a mean chicken; somehow they kept a deep and hearty crust on each piece. Home made fried chicken in no way resembles the Colonel's; the skillet imparts a definite top and bottom to the chicken and the crust is more like the crumbled top of a strudel than the even terrain of a donut. When the first piece of chicken lands in the skillet, a geyser of steam and oil coats everything in a two foot radius. There is an art in deciding how many pieces fit in the skillet in order to cook the thick pieces thoroughly, yet not turn the small pieces into unrecognizable brown sticks. At the same time, putting a second round of chicken into the same oil runs the risk of the last few pieces tasting charred and the kitchen becoming uninhabitable. I don't know how many years of frying chicken it takes for a wife to become the equal of either her mother or mother in law, but it doesn't matter anymore. The men in our family now fry the chicken, in deep oil fryers out of doors. Fried food is only for "special occasions"; such are the demands of current wisdom and fashion. So much for "slow, home cooked" food; a quick saute is much less hands on than the hours we used to spend on entrees back before the term entree was common usage.
Would that platter of fried chicken, a bowl of potatoes riced by hand and puddling with butter and sides of sweet corn, bagged last summer from our own field, and green beans from the rows next to the soybeans, qualify as slow food? No doubt. The hands on treatment by gardeners and cooks epitomize the connection valued by proponents of that method. Would this same menu draw ire from other slices of the food pie? Oil and butter prevail. Nothing fresh on the whole menu. Healthy? Well, for growing kids and folks working outdoors, you betcha. But not for calorie counters. What to do?
Like the farm wives on the trophy wife tour, or the WalMart shopper drinking concoctions from her blender, there has to be some solid ground in this quicksand. Like Cal Smith in the old country song, "Somewhere between Playboy Magazine, and next Tuesday night's PTA, Somewhere between a honky tonk queen, and what all the dog did today......", there is room for WalMart, canned beans, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken in the local food fight. We can find some tasty meals in our mother's and grandmother's recipe boxes and not feel guilty about it at all. There should still be "us, somewhere between lust (for the perfect provender) and sitting home watching TV" ( and eating frozen pizza bites).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Back to the Future...and back

What a trip down the Rabbit Hole this has been. After an absence from my high school Alma mater of nearing 40 years, people have looked me up in the JC Senior High yearbook. Surely I remember? My aunt has penned, printed and bound a memoir of the Renkens of Greenberry Road, with stories I have not heard and photos I have seen hung in my grandmother's rogue's gallery or glued on black scrapbook pages. Blake has an office in the building opened while my mother worked for Farm Bureau; we brought two little girls for their grandma to show off years ago. On Monday, those same girls, their husbands and yet more little girls and boys chattered and roamed like they owned the place so their grandpa could show them off. As a farmer, I have a highly developed sensitivity to cycles and seasons; as a card carrying citizen of a small town, I am a firm believer in the power of lineage, the intertwined network of relations and marriage that constitutes the ties that bind. I don't really have roots, personally, in this town, but my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents do, so that's reason enough to dig down, sit back and enjoy the connections and coincidences that result.

Laura has been worrying about my folks' scrapbooks. Any number of them reside in one of the lovely walnut corner cupboards my grandfather crafted for his dining room, now part of the "library" in the old part of the house at Redbarn. Indeed, the front room of the house is the same temperature as the wintry scene outdoors and from the open cupboard emanates the unmistakable smell of aging pages. I satisfy two missions with my request to look at old pictures: I verify the safety and condition of the photo albums and get the opportunity to reminisce about the contents of whichever album surfaces first. Ben is with me on this visit and I figure he is the one farthest removed from my childhood, but before we get a chance to look at the pictures, he has vanished to the old dairy barn and my parents' home styled observatory. From there, Ben and my father progress to the workbenches of the ham shack in the basement. My dad's equipment has a provenance and heritage known only to himself; many of the pieces have received transplants from other machines long laid to rest. I'm certain many would qualify as "one of a kind". I regret that I failed to become the ham operator my father hoped I would become, but Ben got his operator's license, speaks the language and can empathize with the challenges of making these antiques communicate with other antiques.

But while they are gone, my mother pulls a manila envelope from the shelves in the dining room. One of the picture albums covers a summer trip to South Dakota, but the other flips open to a postcard album of Utah and a black and white 5x7 of a smiling group of women and children. Laura and I are there, circa 1964, and the folks pictured are some of my mother's not so near cousins from Eden, Utah. My great aunt Charlotte is in the picture; she was my grandma's sister and black haired well into her old age. Uncle DeLore ran Hereford cattle, irrigated alfalfa, and slept in his recliner after an accident breaking a horse when he was 80. The Salt Lake Valley was this child of the Corn Belt's first experience with the magic of irrigation. Uncle Delore showed us the ditches and the gates; I was fascinated by the logistics of moving water and sharing water. I didn't know at the time, but my father told me the water moved through town as well; on designated days, folks could lift the gates to water their fruit trees and gardens. I felt we were indeed visiting a garden of plenty with the roosters crowing each morning right in town, the sweet cherries fresh from tree to the table and the supper of a rainbow trout, head attached, that I still remember.

My Utah relatives were all Mormon, so we traveled to Salt Lake City to visit the sights. I knew nothing of the history of the Latter day Saints before this visit, nor of their beliefs. The idea of a new prophet, a new book to the Bible, and the like struck me as fantastical, but I was impressed even then by the work ethic of the Latter Day Saints and their appearance of good humor and generosity. I knew my grandfather had various epithets for Mormons as a whole and thus surmised there was more than one side of the story. But it would have taken a less sensitive or romantic soul than I to stay untouched by the story of the pioneers with their handcarts trudging across the mountains, or the women and children freezing through the harsh winter in Florence, Nebraska or the final pronouncement by the implacable Brigham Young that 'This Is the Place'. I may not have been convinced by the theology, but I knew a compelling tale when I heard one!

But, back to the manila envelope. The contents were stories of my mother's grandmother: a copy of her handwritten autobiography, and the stories of her husband's family. My grandmother's name was Berthe Stallings and her parents were Charlotte and Joseph Stallings. Joseph converted to Mormonism in Pennsylvania, left Nauvoo under duress, lost his first wife in Winter Quarters near Council Bluffs, married multiple times, including Charlotte after her husband died. They followed Stephen Markham across the desert to Salt Lake City and arrived in 1850. They are listed as 'pioneers'. Charlotte lived to a ripe old age after innumerable hardships and raising a huge family. Her granddaughter wrote her story separate from her husband's; Joseph's story includes anecdotes of his conversion, but Charlotte's is full of descriptions of her household, her love of chickens, and the practical jokes played by the wives on their husband. It doesn't take much imagination to read between the lines. Charlotte's life is not only bonafide history, but could just as easily be a 400 page pot boiler. I read page after page to my mother, astonished and delighted at the discovery of these ancestors and their very close connection to the history I'd read.
Berthe's life was, no doubt, repeated many times over across the nation. Her husband was chronically ill; she raised three children to adulthood, but lost four or five as children or infants in 1903, 1904, and subsequent years in the early 20th century. The pages chronicle visits to and from relatives, long distance travels to California, including a visit to the Rose Parade. She comes across as a sterling example of every church lady you've met, making doilies, serving on relief committees, serving her community and church. She had "only" five grandchildren, a circumstance endemic to the era her children lived through, but a great contrast to the norm of her parent's.
My mother's experience is the American experience during the latter part of last century. My grandfather worked for the Federal Highway department and they moved several times before settling in Missouri, far away from kith and kin. She seldom saw her cousins, aunts, or uncles. She told me she doesn't know how her mother and father met back there in Utah. I know a little more about her childhood now; I've seen the pictures her parents took of the Christmas tree and the gifts Virginia Ann and Dean received each year. I know their address in Kansas City and the fact that she grew up on the same road as my father only because their home on Greenberry Road was the only suitable house for sale in Jefferson City right after the war.
And now I can tie my parent's albums with the black and white glossies of the Wasatch and the Mormon Tabernacle, the snapshots of little Julie and Laura riding Uncle Delore's pony and playing with kittens to the names in those type written pages from Utah, the names matched with grainy photos of grim faced elders. I am encouraged to keep jotting down the anecdotal evidence of memory and experience, however fuzzy or inaccurate. I'll try to keep the photos from molding and fading into shadow. Someone, sometime, may want to know.