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in the dirt again

The end of snow here means the beginning of my annual pull between opposing forces—my desire to grow things in the terrible dirt of my backyard and my miserable luck at same. To get you up to speed from an earlier post:

The next year—last year—I persevered. I planted a second rose, Miss Edith, even though what remained of Miss Antonia was uninspiring at best. I bought a variety said to be hardy enough for winters here, just like I had with the first one, but this time I went with one that offered a pale yellow bloom. Edith thrived in a way Antonia never had, growing nearly three feet in one year. Antonia gave up a few small blossoms and then gave up the ghost, but Edith’s glossy green leaves and tall canes didn’t give me a single flower. I chalked it up to the dismal summer we had here last year, which ruined crops raised by professionals. I still took it hard. 

And this spring, I brought home yet another rose. Miss Iseult went straight into the hole left behind by Antonia, and Miss Edith went straight back to work, growing more healthy canes and thick leaves. It was a summer to die for here, sunny and hot with plenty of rain. If Edith were going to cough up any flowers, I would have thought this would be the year. Still nothing. “Maybe she’s a tomboy,” I said. “Maybe she’s really an Edmund. Or an Emilio.” Maybe she was offended that I didn’t give her a proper companion, as Miss Iseult never bothered to add an extra leaf before taking her own dirt nap.

Miss Edith did surprise me last year with one bloom in late September. She spends her summers playing rough-and-tumble games with the neighborhood boys and is more at home in canvas sneakers and dungarees. (Isn’t dungarees a great word? Let’s bring it back, you and me.) I’m holding out hope that by the end of the summer she’ll trot out at least one more flower. It’s the perfect end to a summer flick, isn’t it? The tomboy shows up in a dress and lipgloss and all the boys go silent.

I meant to dig up the remains of Miss Iseult months ago, and to plunk the next hope-of-a-rose in her place. (Miss Olivia, Miss Ondine, Miss Ophelia….) The dismal spring rains brought all my gardening failures to the fore. It was pointless to spend any more money on rose bushes for this place. I should plant spruces and boxwoods and let them bore me to tears with their ugliness and determination to thrive away no matter where they’re planted. In disgust, I left Miss Iseult’s corpse where I’d planted her last year, in the spot vacated by Miss Antonia.

When I came back from PEI, Miss Iseult had leaves. One cane poking through the earth, and leaves rimmed with russet. Not a weed setting up shop at random. And Tuesday, this happened.

A blossom fit for a boutonniere, if that. But to hell with comparisons to anyone else’s roses. Miss Iseult is not only alive, but also quite a lady. That’ll teach me to give up on anything in this world, ever.

roll the bones

I find myself slowing down as I write this, fixing to say goodbye to this particular corner of the internet until January. There’s nothing I would have liked better than to feel calm and reflective while the year grinds down and the planet’s internal clock ramps up on the slope toward summer and sunlight. Instead, I have an internet security issue, a post-surgical cat who won’t eat and who doesn’t care that his antibiotics require something in his tummy, a collection of chessmen that do not add up to a chess set, and a to-do list a mile long. Oh. And a self-imposed deadline for the book, too.

This is the best shot I got. Seriously, he’s like a movie star without her makeup.Maybe I can get reflective next week. By then I’ll be into the new routine, and hopefully the cat will have a rumbly tummy that will have him attacking his crushed and waterlogged kibble with vigor. He has to wear a cone around his head to keep him away from his stitches. This is bad for photography: He’s embarrassed and will not look at the camera with it on, and it’s clear plastic, so you can barely see it. He came home from the vet without a single yowl, and calmed down when he detected that he was home again, a place where there is not the slightest indication, visual, auditory, or olfactory, of puppydog.

Something you never want to hear from a medical professional is “Never,” especially in response to “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Maybe they’ll write his case up in a veterinary journal and call him Patient B; this is the kind of thing that makes you wish you’d given your cat an ordinary name like Fluffy so that, when disease-naming time comes, “Fluffoma” seems like the right thing to do. I always knew he was a special beastie. But he is just as affectionate as ever, pushing his head at my hand for attention and a good hard rub, and more, more please.

And then the chessmen. I will tell you more about them some other time, but here is something I’ll carry with me. We unwrapped them slowly, layer of tissue and bubble wrap after layer. I love spindly chessmen even though I don’t know how to play; I just like the look of them, and these are very spindly chessmen. Myron set them up on a board and asked if I’d take some pictures. I turned on the camera, got one shot, and then the battery died. Like my pumpkin baby back in October, it was a lucky shot. The whole image is good, but here’s the business end:

early 19th century, Nuremberg type—I’ve been corrected ;)This was a year my eyes were open for lucky shots of all kinds. Chance meetings with wonderful people, books chosen for their covers, story ideas emerging from the ether. The cat is sick, but cats get sick, and he is doing as well as can be expected considering we don’t know what’s wrong with him. Bodies are only slightly less mysterious than the universe is, and time, and existence. Next year is a gift already wrapped and under the tree; I have no idea what’s inside, but I’m giddy to know it’s there and waiting for me. Besides, I’m not quite done with this one yet.

what not to rush: tarka dhal

Last month I wrote about getting myself psyched for the oncoming storm(s) by delving into soul-warming long-cooked food. The steam on the windows is just one emotional cue for me. Add in minimally processed ingredients, long periods of time in between stirring to grab a book or a craft project or a sheet of stationery and an envelope, home fragrancing you don’t have to plug into the wall, and the luxury of avoiding that five-pm-what-now-ohgod-must-feed-everyone neurosis and what you get? A real reason to make time for this, whether you can do it during the day or whether you squeeze it in on a weekend. Last week Heather and Jo requested this dhal recipe, but I can’t take credit for it. It’s adapted from a recipe I got from another Heather I know, this one here in Ottawa. LocalHeather does amazing things with simple, fresh ingredients, and I’ve stolen plenty of recipes from her. The sweetness of the cooked onion and the fresh bite of cilantro make this dish craveworthy, even though it’s not the most visually appealing thing you’ll ever eat. Myron loves it as an excuse to eat lots of naan and rice, but most of the time I eat the lentils by themselves.

Things to know: There are as many dhal recipes out there as there are websites, so if you like this one, I suggest you search for others to explore other ways of making it. Often restaurant tarka dhal is pureed, but I like the slubby natural texture in this recipe. You might want to go easy on the spices until you’ve had a bowl, just so that you can determine what’s missing for you. I almost always double the recipe because it reheats like a dream. Finally, I’ve made this with shredded spinach or tomato added along with the onions. I like both of those variations, but try it this way first.

Tarka Dhal (serves four to six)

[note: To wash red lentils, place them in a large bowl, cover them with water, swish your hands through the lentils, let them settle at the bottom of the bowl, and pour off the cloudy water. Repeat until the water comes away clear.]

  • 9 oz/250 g red lentils, well washed and drained (this is just under a cup and a half, if you don’t have a scale)
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground roasted cumin
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon ground celery seed
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger 
  • pepper, cayenne, or curry powder to taste (optional)
  • 1 medium onion
  • peanut, canola, or other neutral oil (or ghee, if you have it)
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic (a great time to use really good garlic, if you can get some), chopped with ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • basmati rice or naan (optional)

1. Place the washed lentils, cumin, turmeric, and ginger in a heavy pot. Add pepper, cayenne, or curry powder, if using. (Remember that cayenne will intensify the longer you cook it.) Cover with five cups of water. Stir well. 

2. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook 20-25 minutes. The lentils will begin to disintegrate in about ten minutes. Skim off any foam that rises. Cover, reduce the heat as low as you can, and continue to cook 30 minutes up to three hours. Stir often enough to keep the dhal from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more water as needed. 

3. Meanwhile, slice the onion into thin half-moons. In a skillet, toss the onion with just enough oil to coat. (I sprinkled a bit of my homemade curry powder on the slices.) Cook them gently until they brown, but don’t let them get too dark—just pleasantly soft and sweet.

4. When the lentils are done to your satisfaction, stir in the onion and kosher salt to taste. Wipe out the skillet for the next step.

5. To make the tarka (topping): In a cleaned skillet, add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil or ghee and heat on medium. Add cumin and coriander seeds and cook until they sizzle—think of it as “steeping” to get the flavor from the seeds into the oil. Add the chopped garlic, cook for around one minute more. The garlic should stay white or light gold; don’t let it get brown! You just want the flavor of it to get into your oil. Pour the tarka on top of the finished lentils, put the lid back on the pot, and let the flavors meld for a few minutes. Stir everything all together, taste for salt, and serve with basmati rice or naan, garnished with cilantro if you like. 

force versus power

I’m coming down from two—okay, four—well, to be honest, six—weeks of low-grade but constant stress. I held it together pretty well, if I say so myself. Canada Post, however, did what Canada Post does. Armed with tracking numbers I watched as my camera slowly made its way near me—but it only ever came near, even though the tracking number, properly applied to the proper field on the proper website, made the website say “Successfully Delivered.” 

Lies. I stared at those words for days while I called every possible source of information. Finally, a break in the clouds—a gentleman named Paul, who actually listened when I spoke, tracked down my package (misdelivered to the wrong address; that could have gone very badly) and before I knew it, the camera was in my hot little hands. Did I care that the SD cards we had at home didn’t fit it? Well, yes, I did, but not enough to let it ruin my night. I charged the battery, and the next day I took off for my friend Tammy’s vegetable market in Ottawa’s Greenbelt, with the right memory card.

The next week is going to be loaded with gray and rainy days, but Saturday was glorious, crisp and clear. I knew if I wanted to start learning what this camera could do, I wanted to be where the colors were. The market was full of pumpkins, earth-covered potatoes, brilliant apples, and onions swathed in purple and copper skins. Shot after shot, I tested. I have so much to learn, more than I even know I need to learn. I had put the camera away when a young family with two small boys came by. Tammy told the parents that I had my camera with me and then brought me over to a pallet of pumpkins, where the parents valiantly tried to get both youngsters to look at me at the same time. I was just a stranger trying to get their attention, and it didn’t work. I took a bunch of shots, enough that a few of them would turn out kinda-lucky. Nothing great, but a memento of the day. 

I gave up and walked to the rear of the market, tucking away the camera for the day. People streamed through, packing bushels full of potatoes and butternut squash to put aside for winter. I noticed the smaller of the two boys still sitting amid the pumpkins, and I pulled my camera back out. Those other photos were staged, fake. This time, I caught a moment.

spot the sweetheart! Where else do you wear a pumpkin hat?This is what happens when you stop trying so hard. I know this rule. I don’t often remember to live by it, because I worry that I’m going to leave something out, that someone will be hurt, that I can’t get everything done that someone else might be able to do. I wonder if it’s even possible to really live this way, or if moments like this are bound to be rare no matter how open to them I am. I’ve been visited by so much beauty and good fortune that it seems impossible that I missed any on my way here. Either way, it felt good to come home, to see this image on my monitor, and to put it here for you. It feels like the start of something good.