TODAY’S PORTRAIT: Mlle. POPPY

Summertime, the season of flowers!

So why not portraits of flowers? For me, flowers have personalities, individuality, presence. And when it comes to taking photographs, they have as much or more of those qualities as humans. They have other good qualities as well — like being cooperative, and never fidgeting or being difficult about “my best angle” or “the sun is in my eyes!”

One of my favorite flowers is the poppy. Here, then, to lead off a summer series of Flower Portraits, I happily present Mam’selle POPPY:

IMG_1943

The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted poppies, huge paintings to stop you in your tracks if you pass one on a wall. She said why she did so: Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time…  I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

Of course she also said: I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”

Well, yes, we’re agreed on that point — but I don’t hate flowers! And, I certainly believe, neither did she. I am SURE she had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she said that. Who could hate such a gorgeous, self-confident, radiant beauty as Mlle. Poppy!

(Why does she present herself to me as a young French girl? Because that is where I have seen her and her brilliant red companions by the multitudes punctuate the golden wheat fields of Burgundy, a scene that never fails to take my breath away.)

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Cold Maidens, Smorrebrod, and the “No-Skoal Zone”

Smorrebrod, Tiny ShrimpIn T2T’s last post I wrote about our recent Dinner of the Cold Maidens, in which we introduced  South African friends to the lavish and delicious open-face sandwiches known as Danish smorrebrod. An important part of the feast is its invariable liquid component, the eau-de-vie known as aquavit, chased with (preferably) Danish beer. But it isn’t just the spirits and beer that are different; it’s also the ceremony that goes along with them, known as the skoal.

Any Danish dinner guest, at any time, can initiate a skoal. He or she simply lifts their glass of aquavit, catches the eye of another guest, and the two — without breaking eye contact — send the aquavit down the hatch. Then, with a smile or without, they chase the fiery spirit with some cool beer. It’s a mark of friendliness, a tribute to a visitor, whatever you’d like it to be. Here’s the famed Danish actor Max von Sydow (when he was young, blond, and gorgeous, not that he’s hard on the eyes now that he’s old and silver) performing a skoal:

Max von Sydow: Skoal!

(I call it Skoal and Smoulder and would be thrilled to be sharing a toast with him.)

Aquavit and beer flow freely at a Danish dinner party, and the skoals keep coming. There is, though, one person at the dinner who is exempt from returning the toast, and I wondered “aloud” if any of you could guess who that would be.

Well, there were ingenious guesses, but none hit the mark. So now, in case you are invited to such a party within the next few days and don’t want to commit a social misdemeanor, here is the answer:

(Take your last chance to think who cannot be skoaled, and why —-)

Still no clue? It’s the hostess! Why?

Aquavit is really powerful stuff, almost pure spirits. One aquavit is fine and heart-warming and gives you a glow, at least I find it does. Two, however, are enough to put me to sleep, and have done so. That’s how, after a wonderful lunch with the Hub at then-restaurant Aquavit of lamented memory, I went to a movie theater for Woody Allen’s New York Stories but never actually saw the film.

Now as a practical matter, we could do without any particular guest at a smorrebrod dinner. We could perhaps even do without the host. But someone has to stay sober to cook and serve dinner. And so it is that etiquette exempts the hostess. Light-hearted, fun-loving, accomplished drinkers the Danes may be. But they are above all, a practical people!

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Dinner of the Cold Maidens —

Or, if you prefer, the Dinner of the Smorrebrod Virgins.

No, not the outdoor temperature, nor yet the status or amorous nature of the participants. Smorrebrod Virgins are young women, mostly unmarried (hence the name), who make the delectable open-face Danish sandwiches that are as glorious to photograph as to eat. The other name for such women, Cold Maidens, is because the sandwiches they turn out are generally eaten cold.

Swedish smorgasbord is reasonably well known in the US, even if it’s rarely eaten outside of Swedish communities, say, in the Midwest. But because Danes, being sensible people, mostly stayed in Denmark (at least once the impetuous Vikings had departed),  the Danish specialty of smorrebrod is not nearly so well known here.

Smorrebrod sandwiches are small slices of bread lavishly smeared with butter,  and topped with any of a vast array of tasty tidbits. I was initiated into the process of making them at least 50 years ago by a Danish friend who periodically got homesick. She trained me in the art so that we two could stand in for professional Smorrebrod Virgins to produce a Danish feast for our All-American husbands.

Alas, these days our Danish-and-American friends are far away in Maine. Our smorrebrod sandwich feasts are fewer and farther between. That’s why recently, when South African friends here in Northampton who love adventurous cooking and eating were casting about for something a little bit different, I inveigled the women into undertaking a gig as Smorrebrod Virgins. While the husbands chatted over wine in the living room, the women gathered in our tiny kitchen. I had done all the shopping and prep work and assembling of garnishes.

The butter was soft, spreaders at the ready. I demo’d the first of our six varieties, and we were off. My maidens proved to be naturals. One after the other, with lightning speed, out came the platters. The order of service is set by tradition, with fish beginning the feast. First came the herring with hard-boiled eggs:

Smorrebrod: herring and eggaccompanied by tiny shrimp:

Smorrebrod, Tiny Shrimp Next came ham with vegetable-mayonnaise salad:

Smorrebrod: ham with vegetable salad

and rare roast beef with frizzled onions:

Smorrebrod: rare roast beef, frizzled onions

I even attempted, with much trepidation, my friend’s adaptation of traditional Danish liverpaste, with sauteed mushrooms. It proved to be a hit:

Smorrebrod: liverpaste with mushrooms

Last of all traditionally comes the cheese, in this case Havarti, garnished with radishes.

Smorrebrod, Havarti with radishes

This was a relatively modest dinner. We only had six varieties out of  infinite possibilities. Dessert was simple. We finished off with local strawberries and whipped cream.

Oh, I didn’t mention yet, did I, what is unfailingly drunk with smorrebrod. Aquavit, an eau-de-vie most often flavored with caraway, served by the thimbleful in pretty glasses, is chased with Carlsberg beer. The beer is fine, but you have to watch out for the aquavit,  it’s a killer — 

There’s a nice custom that goes along with a smorrebrod feast. Anyone at any time can elevate his or her aquavit glass, catch the eye of another diner, say Skoal; and without disengaging glances, both down their aquavits in one long gulp. There’s only one exception to this pleasant practice. Can you guess who is the one person who cannot be Skoaled?

Think about it — and think about what kind of sandwiches you would choose to make for your own smorrebrod feast — Google will start you off nicely, but really, the sky, and your imagination, is the limit!

 

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Appearance and Deception —

We were happily wandering in a lovely area of the fabulous gardens at Chanticleer, in Wayne, PA, when we came across a dark stone Hermit’s Pool with fast-running water:

At the Hermit's Pool

It took a while for the shock to register. The photo reminds me of one of British poet Stevie Smith’s simplest poems. Simple — but thoroughly chilling.

Not Waving, But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

A reminder, if we need one, that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. It’s a kindness to look again.

Posted in Doubt, Life and Death, Poetry, Wisdom | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

“To Touch the Heart” —

(Note: It’s probably best to look at this post AFTER you’ve eaten a meal!!!!)

It’s been said for ages that the way to a man’s heart— or a woman’s, for that matter —  is through the stomach.

In that spirit, we set out with visiting fellow blogger and dear friend Jen of Random Acts of Writing to Oriental Flavor, the one and only dim sum restaurant in nearby Amherst. Jen had never had dim sum before, so we were tickled to be able to to introduce her to the delicious little snacks that are served as dim sum, a meal also known as yum cha.

(The literal meaning of dim sum is given by Wikipedia as “touching the heart”, as it was originally just a snack, not a full meal. My own personal translation of yum cha is yummy tea meal, although an actual Chinese-speaker would probably disagree.)

Here’s how our yummy tea meal touched our hearts that day, as Jen experienced it for the first time:

Place Setting

Chopsticks and a pot of jasmine tea, and we got down down to business, first plate:

Har Gow

Har gow, Crystal Shrimp Dumplings glistening in their translucent ivory rice flour wrappers around a chopped shrimp filling. Next came fried shrimp balls, same shrimp but very different taste:

Fried Shrimp Balls

and with them came pork shu mai:

Pork Shu Mai

In the twinkling of an eye, the view changes:

Yummy Shrimp Ball

Yum Cha! Followed by crepes of tofu skin rolled around a pork, shrimp, and shiitake mushroom following:

Stuffed Crepes of Tofu Skin

I’m getting hungry all over again! But however willing the spirit, sooner or later the flesh has had enough. And so it was for us. Room enough for two desserts:

Fried omochi balls with sesame, filled with lotus paste

We shared a pair of omochi sticky rice balls wrapped around sweet lotus paste, and fried with sesame seeds. Then, for the grand finale:

Egg Tarts

Tender egg tarts in flaky pastry. We groaned a little, but polished them off anyway.  And here are the happy friends,  bellies full, hearts touched, smiling from ear to ear in our first ever selfie:

Yum Cha! All’s well with the world!

Zaijian!

 

 

 

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It’s All Connected, Even the Dragons —

I woke up this morning and found I was thinking about dragons.

Photo by Cocomino

Photo by Cocomino

A little strange, when I think how the sun was shining on hot pink rhododendron blossoms and the sky was blue and brilliant. Nothing fierce or dragon-y in sight — Nevertheless, it was dragons I was thinking about, and a quote that somehow had dragons in it that’s been important in my life, but I couldn’t think exactly what it was. So I hopped out of bed and hustled to the computer and asked Mr. Google. He came up with something from G.K. Chesterton that involved fairy tales, fear, and killing the dragon. Definitely NOT it! So I asked global search on my MacBook and found it, in the words of poet Rainer Rilke:

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

 –Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

His words have been a talisman for me over decades. When I’m lonely, tired, anxious, fearful, they’re a reliable refuge, because I believe they’re true. More than believe — experience has taught me that they’re true. Opportunity and growth both often disguise themselves as fearful, or so I’ve found. It’s remembering it that’s difficult. But this morning — without even being lonely, tired, and the rest of the etceteras — the talisman came to me.

Why? A little bit of thought and I realized why: it’s all connected.

French Monastery Dragon

This is the remembered photo of a dragon that began my train of thought. Not a Western dragon, upright and wicked, waiting to challenge St. George in battle. He’s an Eastern dragon, sinuous and graceful, a symbol of wisdom and power, and he’s atop a wall surrounding a Buddhist monastery in France. I don’t know the name of the monastery nor exactly where it is, somewhere in central France, probably in Burgundy. Because that’s where the cherished friend lives who visited that monastery and took this photo and sent it to us, because once upon a time the Hub was a well-known collector of dragons!

The friend recently was able to visit us from France for the first time in about ten years. Considering the ages of the Hub and me and the fact that we no longer can travel to France, this may be the last time we will see him in the flesh. His visit was a great gift to us. So now we see what a straight track the train of thought is traveling on. The dragon’s connected to our friend in France, Rilke’s connected to the dragon, dragons connect to fairy tales and princesses, which are the stories I have always loved. More? Take a look at this dragon, which sits on the lamp base on my desk in the bedroom, where I see it every day:

French Dragon

Quite a Western dragon, although hardly wicked or menacing! Now, where did this dragon come from? From France, from a fabled church in the ancient city of Troyes, with its medieval half-timbered houses still intact, and two marvelous museums. And who told us — decades ago, when we were driving  from Aix-en-Provence to Bruges — to be sure and stop at Troyes on the way? You got it! Actually, then — not such a surprise that “connection” began my day. Which brings me to a song I’ve known from my youth. Probably you know it too, if you’re American; and maybe even if you’re not. It’s an old recording of the Delta Rhythm Boys in a wonderful rendition of Ezekiel’s text about the dry bones. The thought train arrives at its destination:

This version leaves out the promise (which is included in the text) of the dry bones rising again to walk around, walk around. (You can find plenty of other Youtubes that include it.) Even without it, though, you just know from the lilt of the music there’s some kind of resurrection wrapped up here. I love the way their version rises up the scale in connecting and goes down in disconnecting. Love it because it reinforces the idea in my last post that we don’t simply grow UP, we naturally conclude by growing DOWN. Whether your bones are young and flexible or old and creaky — have a listen and maybe dance around a little bit in your suit of bones while you rejoice.

It’s all connected — and it’s all good!

 

Posted in Happiness, Loneliness, Memory, Music, Personal Essay, Quotes, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

“Growing Down”: Moving from MORE to LESS

Remember when you were, oh, say, six years old? And then, just a few months after your birthday, you were already counting, “I’m six and a half. In just three months I’ll be six and three-quarters. I’m growing up!”

Growing up. That was always the goal. To be double digits, to be sweet sixteen, to be twenty-one — Sometime shortly after twenty-five, numbers drop out and growing up is measured instead by status and possessions and activities. In homes and cars and jewelry and stocks, in moving higher up the corporate ladder, taking more and longer and farther vacations. Whatever the measure, growing up means having, and doing, MORE and MORE and MORE.

Same holds true even in working out at the gym. I came late to free weights. I was 60 when I began my first workouts with my first trainer. Much to my amazement, it was exhilarating. The sense of strength in my own body, the pleasure and power of discipline and control, of measurable effort and measurable results. The more effort, the more rewards. From two to five to eight-pound weights, then to ten and sometimes twenty.

Free Weights

 

The formula always held: more repetitions, more weight. The more you work out, the more you progress. “You’re the strongest 65 year old in this gym,” said my trainer one day. Wow, did that feel good! I swelled (modestly, internally) with pride. And figured it would go on forever.

Then we moved, and the new gym was okay, but I didn’t find a trainer I really was inspired by, and the winters were harder so I skipped more sessions, and I got older. Mostly, I got older. Rounding 70, I wasn’t moving forward very much, but I was certainly holding my own. And I was sure that the slippage was my own fault. I wasn’t doing enough. If I did more, I’d be gaining more, right? Because growing is always up, isn’t it?

And then we moved again, and I was 75. I had a small heart attack. The miracle of modern science fixed me up right away with a stent, and I didn’t even pause for very long. I was right into cardio-rehab, on the treadmill and lifting weights again. These are only two and three-pounders, I thought. Baby weights. I can do more than that. And I could. Before I finished rehab, I was back doing five-pound weights. But, cautioned the instructor, that’s probably it. Do more reps if you want, but don’t push the weight.

Free Weights, in the Gym

Along about now you’re probably waiting for the punch line, for the triumph, for the ten-pound weights again. Moving forward. Guess what? That’s not the way it goes down, guys.

(A digression.) One of my favorite books in the world is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Brave, serious, adventurous Alice has always been my heroine and role model. At one point in Looking Glass country, the Red Queen grabs little Alice by the hand and yanks her along, running full tilt, crying “Faster! Faster!” When they stop, though, Alice sees that they are in the same place they began. She exclaims, “Everything’s just as it was!”

Alice and the Red Queen

“Of course it is,” said the Queen. “What would you have it?”

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

That’s where I am now, friends. I am now 80, and I dwell in the country of Old, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. Here we have stopped growing UP and have begun to grow DOWN. “I’m not getting older,” I joke, “I’m getting shorter.” And I am. “Five foot two, eyes of blue” has become five foot one, and the blue is faded. If we live long enough, we all grow shorter. We all begin growing DOWN. I do my exercises with five-pound weights, and I’m happy to do so. Not only will I not be increasing to eight pounds again — I will feel lucky if when I am 81 or 82 I’m still able to hoist those five-pounders. It takes a whole lot of effort to stay in the same place. Red Queen, you were right!

But what I really want to tell you is, It’s okay. It’s all okay. Friends used to have that as a kind of mantra, It’s all good, they’d say. Pooh, said I to myself. But now that I’m here, whaddya know? It is okay, it’s all good.

Growing DOWN instead of up means, at least to me, simplification. Letting Go. Uncluttering. I don’t need so much, I don’t want so much. I don’t bother with useless frills like “he hurt my feelings” or “what do you suppose they think of the way I look.” Most things don’t MATTER the way they used to. I’m alive this morning, and I take a deep breath, and am grateful to do so. Liberation! That’s what I’m talking about. Not of the body — because that’s all too likely to be experiencing, what shall I call it? Slippage? But liberation of the spirit. Free to be me, as a reality. Hey, that’s not bad.

Which is why, my young friends, who are busy doing more and more exciting things, looking forward, striving, achieving — this post isn’t for you in the here and now. It’s really for you to keep as a talisman, kind of. One day, far in the future, when you arrive in this country, maybe you’ll remember and say Aha! So that’s what she was talking about so long ago, and you’ll be reassured that yes, it is okay, yes, it’s all good.

For you, my midlife friends, the same message, only the reassurance may come in handy sooner.

In an odd kind of way (and I’m only discovering this now, right in this moment), growing DOWN instead of UP is simply a different perspective. It’s disconcerting like all new learning, but it’s interesting. It’s an adventure. In the end, what keeps life worth living is the adventure. Here we go, through the Looking Glass to Wonderland.

Posted in Challenge, Etcetera, Freedom, Health, Personal Essay, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 36 Comments