Monday, February 28, 2011

Yard Work

It is not spring. One look at the calendar confirms it, but on this Saturday morning you could fool anybody. The branch is ringing with overlapping bird calls and the sky is baby blanket blue. The breeze is so slight as to not seem a breeze at all, but something like the close breath of a lover. There is no resisting the pull.

In shorts and a t-shirt I take a book outside to the deck and start to read. And in less than ten minutes I start to wheeze.

I am allergic to the ligustrum bush that grows at the corner of the house just off the edge of the deck. Eight or nine feet tall, its thick leaves stay beautifully green all year and it requires no attention except the occasional pruning to keep it from completely obscuring the bedroom window nearby. Said beauty and self-sufficiency are what have kept it alive for the ever-how-many years it’s been since I discovered that its pollen, inhaled into my respiratory system, result in a significant decrease in breathing function.

What I always do, in response to the ligustrum’s attack, is to sigh, gather my things and go inside. Without thinking. But today – What is it about today? – I don’t. Today I sigh, gather my things, go inside and make a decision. Today is the last day that I will be hindered, hampered, prevented, precluded. Today is the day I act.

Mama and Daddy are outside, too, duct-taping hose pipes together to irrigate some newly planted grape vines. I cross the yard and make my request: I ask Daddy, sometime when he has time, not necessarily today, just sometime, to take his chain saw (It’s a big bush.) down to my house and cut down the ligustrum bush.

"What about now?" he asks, just as I knew he would. "But I’ll tell you this. If you just cut it down, come spring it’s going to sprout back up. Why don’t we just pull it up with the tractor?"

And so it is that the John Deere 7810, with the harrow still attached and a chain with links as big as ham hocks attached to that, rumbles into the yard at Sandhill to pull up a bush. It takes less than three minutes. Total. And how many years have I wheezed and sighed?

Later, when the blue in the sky has faded to chambray and the shadows are falling from the west, I go back outside with my book and start to read. And continue reading. No wheezing.

I take a deep breath. Another one. How lovely to sit in the sunlight, feel the live stillness of the afternoon, absorb the silent tension of the earth about to be awakened. I close my book and consider the lesson of the ligustrum. Are there others that need to be pulled up? Not pruned, not trimmed back, not cut down to sprout again, but pulled completely out of the ground and dragged away to die. I wonder what attitudes or expectations have been cutting off my breath for years, what postures I’ve taken or defenses I’ve maintained in fruitless attempts to catch my breath, what fears have made me hold my breath.

I am reminded that the Hebrew Bible uses the same word ("ruach") for both breath and spirit. What have the ligustrums of doubt and anxiety done to my spirit? What have I missed? What have I lost? Why was it so easy to just get up and go inside?

For a moment I feel smothered with regret, suffocated by anger at myself and my failure. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

Something draws my attention to the spot where the ligustrum used to be. Its roots were wide, but not deep. The ground is barely disturbed, turned up just enough to welcome my trowel and some new growing thing. I raise my gaze from the hole and realize how different now is the view. The horizon has opened. I can see the road. I close my eyes, lift my chest, expand my lungs. And, in the calm, I feel my breath, my spirit rise.

Copyright 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Making Soup, Making Life

Making soup is therapeutic.

First, you gather the vegetables, potatoes dense and slightly rough, carrots gnarled and wrinkled, celery stringy and still carrying dirt in its pockets and onion slick beneath its papery skin. You peel the potatoes and carrots watching brown and orange curls of skin fall into the sink beneath the long strokes of the vegetable peeler. They pile onto each other like children wallowing in autumn leaves.

Then you chop. Cubes of potato and onion, discs of carrots, demi-lunes of celery. The solid sound of metal moving through organic matter. Chop. Chop. Chop. The knife gets stuck in the potato every now and then, its starch making glue on the blade. You stop, wipe it off and begin again. It moves through the celery with the rapidity of a sewing machine making a long seam. Little mountains grow on the cutting board, little mountains of effort.

Next you take a heavy pot, one it takes two hands to lift, one that reminds you how strong you are. You fill it about a third of the way full, maybe with water, maybe with broth or stock. It depends on what you want to have when you are done. You scoop the vegetables up with your hands and drop them into the pot smiling with each satisfying splash. They slide into the liquid and into each other. They look like jewels.

You might add some salt and pepper at this point. Maybe some bay leaves. It’s your soup. Season to taste.

You turn on the heat – medium low at this point –, cover the pot and leave it for a while. Fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty. Maybe thirty. Just depends on how long it takes for the vegetables to become tender but still crisp. While you wait you clean up the mess.

Once the vegetables are ready you decide what kind of soup it will be. Does this soup want tomatoes? Does it want chicken and noodles? Does it want beans? Does it want the leftover corn and green beans in the Tupperware container that falls out of the refrigerator every time you open it?

Put it in, turn up the heat, cook a little longer. However long it takes. This is soup. It isn’t souffle.

When it’s ready, you get a bowl, a big bowl and fill it up. You watch the steam rise in silver wisps. You resist the almost irresistible urge to taste it right away. You will burn your tongue. You know you will. You lean down to smell it, to feel the steam hit your cheeks. You put your hands around the bowl. It is too hot to hold. You remember reading that the reason Japanese tea cups have no handles is that the Japanese know that if the cup is too hot to hold the tea is too hot to drink.

You distract yourself by finding a spoon, a napkin, maybe some crackers or a corn muffin, something to soak up what will be left at the bottom and unreachable by the spoon. Finally, just at the moment when you are sure you are going to die from anticipation, you venture a tiny sip from the edge of the spoon and, yes, yes, the soup is cool enough to eat. To eat, to slurp (if you are alone), to be drawn not just into your mouth and belly, but into your very veins, easing away not just hunger, but anger and loneliness and frustration and fatigue. Ah, soup.

Making soup is therapeutic. Because it’s a lot like making life. You gather the makings and trim them to fit your pot. You turn up the heat. You throw in a few surprises at the last minute. You wait while all the flavors meld. And then you fill yourself with it, with all of it.

And you remember – Please, please remember. – that it’s your soup, your life. There is no recipe. Only a matter of figuring out what it craves.

Copyright 2011