Tuesday, August 31, 2010

School Schedule

Summer is officially over in Birdland, and I’m back at school. I have to confess that as much as I love the long days of summer, and the flexibility of my summer job, by the end of August I almost feel a relief to get back to a schedule. By the beginning of August I began to suspect that my bold plan to get organized this summer was, although earnestly composed, maybe just a bit optimistic. Let’s not talk about how much I actually accomplished. Instead, let’s focus on the new routine for the semester.

Waking earlier, I get to see the ruby light of early morning peek over the woods almost horizontally to hit the corn drying to gold in the fields. I walk down my little path to the barn to get a better view. Never mind that my path is a bit overgrown now; the Sedum I planted early this spring is about to burst into bloom. The tiny asters have already gone to seed reminding me that Fall is coming. The early morning coolness is another reminder, and I make a note to grab a light sweater for the walk to my office, but know that by ten o’clock I’ll have to take it off and try not to forget to bring it home. I wander over to check the quince tree—the fuzzy green globes are still small. It will be a few weeks before they ripen, swell and turn yellow and aromatic, perfect for a slow baking in a shallow dish. They turn rosy and transparent in the oven, releasing even more of their flowery aroma.

Ursula bounds toward me with a Frisbee in her mouth, ready to play. She is wearing the red bandanna I put on her so she won’t be invisible in the dark. Actually, it’s not a real Frisbee. My puppy wears them out so fast that I stopped buying them, unless I can find one at a yard sale for a quarter, like I did last week. Instead I prowl the thrift stores for picnic sets and buy the plates. They each last a few weeks before she destroys them. I tried using those wicker paper plate holders, thinking that they were biodegradable, but the first one lasted for two throws. Now I compromise with plastic, recycling the shards once she has chewed them beyond throwing. I get caught up in throwing her current Frisbee, which is more like a boomerang now than a circle, but then remember that it’s a work day, and go back inside after one last throw.

Inside, Ellis is having breakfast, almost ready for school. On the days I don’t have to leave extra early with my rideshare partner, I pack us each a lunch. My sandwich goes in the lovely cloth envelope my friend, Susan, made from a green and white dishtowel. One day I’ll have time to make a similar lunch kit for Ellis. I’ll put that on my list. Maybe I can talk Susan into making them to sell at the Market. We each grab our things and go.

In town I park off campus to give my day a buffer of a brisk walk in the morning and the evening. In different seasons I take different routes. In the spring I cross the park and then make sure I pass a house with three kinds of Magnolia trees, blooming successively. I take that walk until the petals of the last tree fall and get softly ground into the sidewalk. In all seasons I walk down the alleyway—a nicely meandering sidewalk cushioned between two busy streets. I think it follows the Boneyard, which dips underground at Scott Park. It keeps me away from the street noise, and I get to enjoy the flowering trees and nicely landscaped planters. At one end the sidewalk is bordered with Crabapples. I think about the Crabapple Jelly my grandmother used to make from her neighbor’s tree, pink, glowing jars with paraffin lids. These crabapples are smaller than the ones we used to pick, all except for one tree. One tree has gone rogue. Half of the tree has proper crabapples, like orangey-pink marbles, but the other half? The other half has let its imagination go, and doesn’t remember what the tree catalog said. It offers the sweetest apples the size of pink ping-pong balls. I pick a handful for my lunch when I pass and think about imagined limitations and the delicious taste of ripe fruit.

Grow in Beauty; Imagine Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in cycles and the fruit growing around town and in her own back yard.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Goodbye, YUKI

In Birdland I swear the clocks are wound too tightly and running too fast. How else can I account for a month’s passing so quickly? The other day we said goodbye to our Japanese friend, Yuki, after spending the day before down in Amish country. On the way to Arcola we stopped at Bryant Cottage in Bement to show off one of our county’s historic Lincoln sites. We must have been confused when we looked at the web page, since it’s not usually open on Wednesdays, but we found Marilyn in the yard, who was kind enough to guide us on a special tour of the house. It’s a small cottage, but nicely detailed, and we learned something about every aspect of 19th

Century life on the Prairie, from cooking on a wood stove and food storage, to entertaining important guests like Stephen A. Douglas in the fancy parlor, to bed keys and chamber pots. We learned about the origin of sayings and songs we take for granted, like “sleep tight” and “pop goes the weasel.” We learned about how much work it took to run even a small household, and Yuki and my youngest, Ellis, got to try lifting one of the cast iron cooking pots by the long handle. It was heavy enough even without being filled with hot stew, even without holding it from the end of the handle so you didn’t get burned. We saw the fancy stovetop with multiple sized burners, to fit multiple sized Dutch ovens and cook pots with insets to fit right into the hole over the fire. We saw a worktable with bins for flour and cornmeal, for potatoes and onions. Marilyn’s gentle descriptions helped us imagine the family at work and at mealtimes. She helped us understand the purpose of each small room. The cottage is furnished with period pieces and Marilyn let us know which were original to the house. Sites like the Bryant Cottage help us make instinctive and imaginative connections with our past. These connections help us understand who we are today.

After a lovely visit, we got back in the car and continued south to Rockome Gardens in Arcola. I remember being enthralled as a child with the sculptural quality of the gardens, walls, fences, decorations made of concrete inlaid with tiny pebbles and rocks. Parts of the gardens were in various states of decay—sadly, the large model train is in ruins, but still the flowers bloomed as a woman gently weeded the beds. We toured a dusty haunted house. I’m not fond of being frightened, and Yuki and I were reluctant to go in, but finally curiosity got the best of us. Ellis led the way, and the house itself was pretty corny, filled with puns and electronic surprises. No real fright, but lots of giggles at the silliness. We saw some nice shops and Yuki bought some souvenirs to take home. We visited the petting zoo and had a buggy ride.

That evening we had cake and ice cream with a few of the friends Yuki had made during his month in Illinois. We talked and laughed and took some pictures and recounted memories. Yuki passed out some presents from Japan, and made sure he had everybody’s address so he can keep in touch. Over the month, Yuki shared with us a lot of his culture. We took a trip to the Asian grocery and he made us a dinner of some deliciously savory pancakes with cabbage and green onion. One breakfast we had a rolled omelet, and he learned to make do with my round skillet since I didn’t have the traditional square one. He taught us a Japanese card game, “Baba Nuki” which his electronic translator called “Decaffeinated Joker,” and we taught him “Spoons.” We had our last lunch in a pancake house and played a few rounds of each. We met his bus where he reunited with other Labo kids, all dressed in blue Labo shirts with the Labo “Friend-Ship” logo, and started on his journey home. Yuki takes with him our friendship, and leaves us a little richer than he found us.

Share in Beauty; Translate Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in learning about various cultures. The website for Bryant Cottage is www.bement.net/bryant.htm.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day Trips

Birdland feels like a foundry, or maybe we’re standing right next to a blacksmith’s forge. I close my eyes and I can feel the steam rising as the smith plunges red hot metal into boiling water to cool it. Sweat beads our foreheads, rolls down our necks to soak our shirts. We’ve been taking day trips to escape the heat (a little) and because we can feel the end of our guest’s visit looming. Ellis and I, with our friends, Gayle and Joey, showed Yuki, our visitor from Japan, a little of the Windy City this week. We drove up hoping to take advantage of the free day at the Field Museum, and we learned a little something about free days. Imagine that other folks would have the same idea! After waiting in line for about 45 minutes, one of us snuck in to use the restroom and discovered such a crush of people inside that we decided to rearrange our schedule and try again later. Lesson learned: wait until afternoon to try out the free days at the museums. We took the 130 bus directly to the Sears…I mean Willis, Tower.

At the tower we waited again to buy tickets for the boys to the top, but Gayle and I succumbed to our acrophobia and waited below for the boys to be whisked to the top where they took pictures of their feet on the “Skydeck,” a glass ledge jutting magically off the side of the tower for an even more daring view of the city below. We walked around on the street below, craning our necks to see if we could find our boys. We could see people up there. Next time we’ll bring binoculars. Those boys found a lot to do up there, and finally returned after we called them twice to see what was up. “We are!” they said. They met us at the bottom of the tower with many photos of themselves sitting on thin air above a tiny city, of the number “103” in the elevator, of their fingers delicately lifting skyscrapers, pinching John Hancock, grasping train cars on the El.

We walked around the Loop, taking more pictures of buildings, pigeons, and public art, like Tony Tasset’s “Eye,” a giant sculpture of a very realistic eyeball next to a hot dog pushcart. The boys snapped pictures, while I contemplated Emerson:I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” I’m not sure that was what Tony Tasset had in mind, but it worked for me. After chatting with the hot dog vender, (He has been here since the eyeball went up; yes, he can hold the tomatoes on Yuki’s dog.) we ate our lunch, hopped another 130 bus and returned to the Field, where the crowd was much more reasonable now. We stayed until closing time where we contemplated a gigantic dinosaur, some elephants and their predecessors, climate change, and the beginnings of life.

The next day, the boys decided they’d spent enough time in the car, so didn’t join me for a trip to the Indiana State Fair to visit with my friend, Kim. She divides her time between her home in York County, Pennsylvania, and the U.K., and we haven’t seen each other for many years. We even lost touch for a while. Funny how friendships are sometimes like the plants that come up in the spring. You don’t see Daffodils or Ghost Lilies for a long while, and your attention turns to other things: Vegetables, Grape Vines, Peaches; then the dying back of Autumn and the quiet Winter. Just when you have all but forgotten them, they return, and you realize they’ve been living their own secret life all along, maybe have forgotten about you too. But the reunion is sweet, and you enjoy the visit. Kim and I spent the afternoon at the fair, and I have to say I’m impressed with Indiana’s offerings. They had a wonderful Pioneer Village, showcasing crafts, like quilting, rug hooking, and woodworking. We talked to a women hooking a rug, and she let us try our hand. She buys wool skirts from thrift stores to cut into thin strips for her rugs, which were artful and original. She hooked me, and I am going to forsake my September Birdland Art show to return to Indy for a beginner’s rug hooking class. In another exhibit area, we talked to beekeepers, who have a class nearby on the same day. We visited all the animal barns, of course, and ran into a friend from home, Linda, who was helping with the miniature donkeys. These convergences are always funny to me, and the trip took my mind off the heat, if only for a few hours.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in all kinds of arts and crafts. The Emerson quote above comes from his essay, “Nature.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

Summer Visitor

If you want to look at your home with new eyes, invite a guest to share it for a visit of significant duration. At Birdland we are hosting a teenaged boy from Japan for a month. It is part of a 4-H and Labo exchange. According to the Labo website, Labo is a family oriented organization for kids to improve their knowledge of English and learn about other cultures. Yuki is a friendly boy, Ellis’ age, with a generous smile and quick, but gentle sense of humor. Either that or he is too polite to tell me that my jokes are kind of dumb. He likes some, but not all of the same things my son likes. They play video games and board games, put together puzzles, and throw the Frisbee for Ursula, but Yuki favors baseball (he plays second base) while Ellis’ game is soccer. At yesterday’s preseason fun run with the cross country team, Yuki and I walked the dogs while Ellis and his friends ran a couple of miles. Yuki wasn’t interested in joining in the workout.

Before he arrived we listed attractions in our community he might enjoy. We were surprised at how many places we came up with, that we rarely visit ourselves. It was a lesson in not taking our surroundings for granted. So far we’ve visited the County Fair, Spurlock Museum, Prairie Farm, the mall (a place I usually avoid in favor of more local businesses, so it was kind of an interesting field trip for me, too) Lincoln Square, some toy and art supply stores, various farmers’ markets, and the new swimming pool. We’ve also spent more time than usual visiting with neighbors and friends. Ellis was at band camp for a week, so his friends, Joey, Michael, and James stood in as surrogate brothers to help show Yuki what an Illinois summer is like.

We haven’t yet exhausted our list, and still on the docket is a movie at the drive-in, a baseball game, some Chicago museums, the berry farm, Japan House, Allerton Park, the State Fair, and anything else we can come up with. But our first couple of busy weeks has shown us that down time is important too. Last night we stayed in to watch a movie, and Ellis said, “It feels good to stay home. We’ve been doing something every night, and I’m tired.” And then I remember that part of the goal of his home visit with us is for Yuki to get to know American culture, and experience the regular home life of a regular American boy. To that end, he’s been learning about simple chores—doing laundry, washing dishes, peeling apples, baking cookies. He and Ellis have been hanging out with friends, seeing movies, playing games, going to parties, kicking around town, throwing a Frisbee, and sometimes, being bored. And when I find boys doing nothing, slumped over on the couch, looking glum with boredom, I can scare up a good list of chores like nobody’s business.

It’s been fun showing Yuki new things, which helps us see things with new, more appreciative eyes. But at times I find that this perspective leads me to be more self-critical. We have shown our visitor the range of Illinois weather—from mild and pleasant to unbearably humid, and I find myself rethinking my decision to trade in my window air conditioners for the double-hung-windows-with-screens trick. On the mild days of low humidity, like today, the house is delightfully fresh and cool. On the days of monstrous humidity, the heat is grueling. My plan to limit mowing to once a month was stymied by the lawnmower, which broke down shortly after I began my July mowing. What looked to me like a charmingly natural yard in June, is now looking unkempt and scruffy, even to my eyes. What must it look like to our visitor? Of course it never rains, except when it pours, and a mouse has chewed a hole in the well of our dishwasher. Again. Yuki’s view of a rural American family will not be candy coated. He will see that the cobwebs grow fast in the corners and are slow to get swept away. He’ll see the dishes pile up a little, the weeds encroach on the garden, the dust collect on the furniture, but I hope he’ll also see that he is welcome in our humble home.

Walk in Beauty; Welcome Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdand near White Heath. She is interested in learning about various cultures and welcoming visitors. You can read about Labo, and hosting a visitor from Japan at www.labo-exchange.com/index.htm.

Kitchen Garden

This year’s Birdland kitchen garden is a simple affair. I’m always in a grading crunch during planting season, and this year was especially bad. I tend to try to juggle too many projects anyway, and invariably I drop some balls. The garden coop has only four crops: tomatoes, chives, peppers, and the star of the show, cucumbers. The tomatoes are a little affected by one of the blights, but still producing, if not growing as big as you’d expect. Enough so far to garnish my salad, but not enough for drying or sauce. The peppers are doing so well that a branch, laden with peppers of various sizes broke off the plant, supplying enough to stuff for a couple of meals. Or, perhaps Ursula got into the garden again. I’ve never met a dog so fond of vegetables and fruit. I caught her jumping up to grab peaches from the tree. I can imagine her wreaking havoc in the garden coop, but maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to blame her. I think I’d have found bites in the peppers if she were the culprit.

Some days when I harvest my few crops I lament that I didn’t plant more variety. But when I fill a bucket with cucumbers every few days I think I could live the whole summer on them. We keep a bowl of cucumber salad in the fridge, and have it almost every day—sometimes every meal. It is a variation on my Grandmother Nanny’s cucumber bowl, with onions and tomatoes. On special occasions she’d add in a few dollops of sour cream, but always vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar. Nanny sugared everything. Mine is based on her recipe, but a little looser, maybe a little healthier. Cut up fresh cukes, sweet onions, tomatoes, peppers, or any other fresh vegetable. Add vinegar. I use my biggest bread bowl, and add about a cup and a half of cider or balsamic vinegar (or any combination of the two), then water to cover. You can adjust the acidity to taste. Dribble up to a quarter cup each of olive oil and honey. Add any fresh herbs you like, chopped coarsely, and salt and pepper to taste. Let this marinate in the fridge and serve cold with a slotted spoon. I keep adding cucumbers for about a week as they ripen, then start again with a new vinegar marinade. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll add yogurt or sour cream. Sometimes this is my main course for lunch, with a handful of nuts or a little bit of cheese. Very satisfying.

The garden coop is such a tangle of vines and greenery that the cucumbers are easy to miss. Sometimes I don’t catch them until they are fat, golden, slightly prickly zeppelins, which are also good, but tend to get really soupy in the center. I have a little pile of the ripe ones now, which I’m dying to try baking, with a recipe I found in one of Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow books. She would split them, scoop out the seeds, stuff them, and bake them in milk. I’ve only had cucumber raw, and it seems somehow sacrilegious to my Midwestern palate, but her description was so poetic and satisfying that I’m going to try it now that the heat has, for a little while abated. I’ll bake them with chicken tonight and let you know how it goes.

The chicks in the aviary are growing, and one has started crowing, and another has a suspiciously cockerel-like tail. Their combs are getting redder, but nobody has laid eggs yet. I’m hoping for at least two pullets and looking forward to adding hardboiled eggs to my cucumber salad. Maybe I’ll plant some late beets to pickle with the eggs to make Nanny’s purple eggs.

Harvest Beauty; Marinate Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She loves to harvest fresh vegetables and eat them.