Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer Harvest

Okay, so last week went about as well as could be expected, what with a doctor's appointment and a medical issue.

But the good news is, by Wednesday night, things started to turn around--probably because a friend stopped by on short notice and we went out for pizza--and by the weekend I was back in the pool and back on the bike and back to being myself.

Because I confess, at one point during the whole... whatever that was... I started to think, "Am I just being a lazy wimp?  Do I just need to pull it together and cut the crap and stop whining and get cracking?"

In a word, no.  Now that I'm back to feeling like myself, I can definitely say, I was not feeling like myself there for a couple of weeks.  Funny how, once the tide turns, you start to think, "Okay, yes... this is what it normally feels like to be me... I can get stuff done if I feel like this...".

But one of the good things that did happen last week was the garden took off a bit, because we had a bit of a heat-wave.

I hardly dare say this for fear I will jinx it, but the tomatoes actually have appeared.  See?

I really don't want to say too much about them because, again, the jinx, but the top pic is of Polish linguisa and the bottom is of a charmingly-named variety called "Mr. Stripey."  (Who could resist that?)  Both are heirlooms.

Meanwhile, it's going to be Round Three for pesto-making this week (I've begun giving it away, I have so much of it):

The heat wave wreaked a bit of havoc with the cucumbers though.  Too much sun and it was simply impossible to give them enough water to handle it.  So I lost a couple of those, but there is this wee gherkin of hope:

The broccoli is, in a word, bitchin':

And I've been having regular helpings of kale for the past week.

This week, there will be carrots on the menu as well.

My neighbor dropped by and we chatted.  She asked me what this particular flower was, and I sagely told her, "I have absolutely no idea.  Obviously some kind of lily."

The story behind this startling feature of my garden: one year, I ordered a bunch of things from a garden supply company.  As a "bonus," I got a "free bulb."  (Yes, just one.)

So it arrived, in a little plastic bag, with absolutely no indication of what it was or how it should be planted or cared for.

So I said, "Good luck, Bulb!" and planted it.  For the past two years, this has been the result.  It smells amazing, and if you saw the stem, you'd say it looks like it belongs in a rain forest.  Apparently, I planted in the absolutely perfect spot.  It's an odd feature of my garden, what with there being just the one, but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

And I must say, it's so dramatic, if I had several, my garden might start to look like Land of the Lost or something.

So all this to say, in the end, there were some good things about last week after all.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Unbeliever

“People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” -- Albert Camus (Stockholm, 1957) 

Earlier this week, I had the chance to reread 20th-century French novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus' lecture, "The Unbeliever and Christians" (if you click on the link, you can read the lecture). 

In 1948, Camus was invited to speak at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  While this might not seem all that surprising, given that he was by that time a very famous novelist and philosopher, it is somewhat surprising given the fact that Camus was an outspoken atheist.

In fact, Camus' atheism is the cornerstone of all of his writing and philosophy.

So let's pause a moment and take this in: in 1948, a monastery of priests in (at that time, predominantly and devoutly Catholic) France wanted Camus, an atheist, to come talk to them for a bit.  (In his November 6, 2013 essay, "A Secular Saint," Jason Berry notes the enormous influence that Camus' thought and writing has had on many people of faith, including Sister Helen Prejean.)

Camus' lecture "The Unbeliever and Christians" is one of my favorite, not simply because of its content, but because of the way in which Camus negotiates the terms of his intellectual exchange with the priests who have invited him to lecture:
"Inasmuch as you have been so kind as to invite a man who does not share your convictions to come and answer the very general question that you are raising... I should like first to acknowledge your intellectual generosity by stating a few principles."
Camus thus begins by acknowledging the intellectual kindness and generosity implicit in a willingness to open a dialogue with someone when you know for a fact that s/he does not--and will not--share your beliefs.

This is typical of Camus' approach.  In his conception of debate, profound intellectual disagreement never negates the need for kindness and respect--for the recognition of generosity and the claims of hospitality.

I think we live in a world that all-too-readily glories in the intellectual smackdown, where the ostensible goal is always (or at least often seems to be) to prove another person wrong--to make him or her look or feel "stupid" or "small."  We think that to do so somehow "proves" that we have "won" a moral or intellectual victory over others.

Have we, though?

I often think of Camus when I witness this tendency.  In 1944, Camus publicly disagreed with fellow-novelist François Mauriac.  In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Camus advocated the execution of Nazi collaborators and former members of the Vichy government; Mauriac (a devout Catholic) opposed the imposition of the death penalty and argued in favor of mercy and reconciliation.

In the ensuing months, as the trials unfolded (and degenerated), Camus would publicly state in an editorial: "We now see M. Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.”

Can you imagine a prominent public figure in the world today having the courage to openly, clearly and publicly state (and about a highly controversial political issue, no less), "He was right, I was wrong"?

I kinda can't.

Several years later, Camus himself was publicly attacked and intellectually ridiculed by his former  friend, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  After the publication of The Rebel in 1951, Camus found himself on the receiving end of a very public and very unpleasant intellectual smackdown--it would have a profound effect on his life and his career as a writer.

As the epigraph to this blog post suggests, Camus simply could not endorse a political world-view that ignored its potentially personal, human consequences.

Given a choice between an abstract conception of "justice" and the personal fact of his mother's existence, he would choose his mother.

Although he was ridiculed for openly expressing this opinion, I think Camus had the courage to articulate a feeling that most of us in fact share.  We regularly endorse and believe in abstractions such as "justice," "freedom," "faith" and "hope" (to name only a few), but we often think about them in very depersonalized ways.

If we personalized them, would we see them differently?  Would they seem more or less ethical?  This is the question that Camus constantly probes.

Camus insisted that intellectual ideas and philosophical abstractions must always be personalized, if we truly want to understand their ethical impact and make informed decisions about what to endorse and how to behave.

In short, we need to see the people who will be affected by the implementation of our ideas and political values.  We need to consider the implications that an act of "justice" might have on the life of someone's  (possibly your own) mother.

This highly personal approach resounds throughout Camus' 1948 lecture at the Dominican Monastery in Latour-Maubourg:
"I believe indeed that the Christian has many obligations but that it is not up to the man who rejects them himself to recall their existence to anyone who has already accepted them."
In effect, Camus argues that it is not his place, as an atheist, to "call out" Christians for "not being Christian enough."  (I think the movement known as "New Atheism" could perhaps take a lesson or two from this attitude.)

He refines this point a bit, however.  Camus insists that if he calls out Christians for their ethical behavior-- if he "allow[s] [himself] to demand of [them] certain duties"-- it is because he believes it is "essential" for everyone to practice these duties, whether or not they identify as Christian.

He then offers a somewhat startling premise (startling for an atheist, that is):
"I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it."
In effect, Camus is stating: "I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe what you believe, I'm saying that I cannot."

How different would our daily dialogues and debates be if they started with this simple premise? 

This assertion leads to Camus' third and final principle:
"I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all.  On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."
In short, Camus argues, "I'm not here to change you; I'm here to talk to you."

He then proceeds to criticize what he believes is a lack of ethical action on the part of Christians in the wake of various forms of political violence.  As he points out, "Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun."  Camus chooses to join the forces of dialogue.

As I think about the world we live in today, I find myself feeling--as Camus did--a "deep longing" for the kind of dialogue that operates on a premise of respect, a dialogic framework of the kind articulated by Camus himself.

I think that we underestimate the value of a conversation premised, not on effecting an immediate change in (someone else's) perspective, but on understanding the beliefs and apparent values of our interlocutors.

I think we often seek the "reconciliation that would be agreeable to all" (a noble effort, obviously), but we do so without first hearing--and understanding--who people really are and what is on their minds.  I think this is why our (supposed) reconciliations often fail.  

Don't get me wrong.  There are a lot of things about the world that I would very much like to see changed, and I feel a deep conviction that the changes that I believe in would be good ones.  I'd like to think that they would make the world a better place.

But lately, I try to regularly remind myself that maybe the people I disagree with also think that their ideas would make the world a better place.  This doesn't mean that I agree with them or agree to a world in which their ideas hold sway: I will still continue to think and act and vote in accordance with my own beliefs and principles.

It simply means that, if and when I listen to them, I actively try to refrain from demonizing them as "evil" or "ignorant."  I let them be who they are and speak their minds--and then I object, if I feel I need to object, on the grounds of my own personal experience and understanding.

"The only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."  I'm fascinated by this idea; I confess, I don't really know if it's feasible or if it's just too simply, impossibly idealistic.  I suspect that, in many ways, Camus and I are both guilty of profound political naivete.

But I also think that what is being played out (and played up) on social media and in the news media is not genuine dialogue of the kind that Camus envisioned on that day at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  And that saddens me.

In the end, like Camus, I believe that the goal of dialogue--and of life--should be, "if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it."

Sunday, July 19, 2015


The title of the post pretty much says it all. 

I've been somewhat side-lined by a cyst.  (I'll pause so that all the writers and English majors out there can enjoy the alliteration there.  It's all we have sometimes.)

I'm off to the doctor next week to see what, if anything, can be done about what seems to have morphed into a mean little ovarian cyst.  Stupid thing simply won't go away, even though I have repeatedly shouted "BEGONE!" in the direction of my left ovary.

Actually, I haven't done that, but it's about the only remedy I haven't tried at this point.  That, and flinging myself sideways down the basement stairs. 

But I decided the other night that, given the choice, I'd rather take the hit and have to deal with illness in myself than illness in my kitty cats.  That was stressful.  Because at the end of the day, they're far better at comforting me when I'm feeling ill than I am at comforting them when they're feeling ill.

But never fear.  I went blueberry picking yesterday.  I said I'd go, by god, and go I did.  And actually, it wasn't difficult or traumatic--the symptoms of this blasted cyst come and go, so I'm learning to seize the opportunities to do what I want when they ease up a bit. 

So that I don't feel completely run-down and useless.  I haven't been able to swim or bike for about a week and eating has become an exercise in annoyance, so those things can tend to get a girl down.

But I made yet another batch of pesto and a batch of potato leek soup, that I made from a batch of homemade chicken broth that I made after I made yet another batch of ravioli this week.  And I cast on another sock.

For a while, I was using the time to wade through a stack of critical articles on Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, but then a bit of a mental fog rolled in (yet another symptom) with a crappy, crampy backache (ditto: symptom), so I got... sidelined.  I confess, it's been hard to read during all of this, for whatever reason.  I just don't have the focus.

But today, I'm going to try. 

I confess that one of the down sides to being downsized in July is my innate sense of superstition when it comes to the month of July.  Next week and the following week are anniversaries of some unhappy events in my life, and it's impossible for me not to go through the month of July with those events on my mind.

As I told a friend, I just kinda hold on and hold my breath until we get ourselves out of July.  Because it is traditionally my month of no luck.

I found a poem by Mary Oliver (quoted in part below) that reminded me of Julys gone by.  It summed up how I had been feeling this week when I was feeling down: I was longing to get back to a life "much the same," "resonant and unremarkable."

And that's my continued wish for this week.

Storm in Massachusetts, September 1982

A hot day,
   a clear heaven—then
      clouds bulge
         over the horizon

and the wind turns
   like a hundred black swans
      and the first faint noise

I think
   of my good life,
      I think
         of other lives

being blown apart
   in field after distant field.
      All over the world—
         I’m sure of it—

life is much the same
   when it’s going well—
         and unremarkable.

But who,
   not under disaster’s seal,
      can understand what life is like
         when it begins to crumble?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Happening Now

It's been a mixed bag here lately.    I'll start with the negative, so that we can at least end on a more positive note.

Tomato plants are dying.  One by one.  Day by day.  It's like a friggin' Agatha Christie murder mystery out there in my garden, and all because of the black walnut roots that are still left in the soil from 2011.

Black walnuts contain juglone, a substance that's toxic to all kinds of vegetables and plants.  Basically, the juglone gets into the plant's vascular structure and blocks it.  Plants can sometimes tolerate a certain amount of juglone, but as they grow, the juglone has an increasingly crippling effect.

This why they can seem fine for a while, but then, right when they're getting big and blossoming, plants will suddenly die of juglone poisoning.  Even if you uproot a black walnut tree, the roots will continue to leak juglone into the soil; if black walnuts fall into the soil, they can remain hidden until they sprout--all the while, leaking juglone into the soil, which surrounding plants draw into their roots.

I like Gothic fiction.  In a sense, black walnut trees are the gothic vampires of the plant world.   So you'd think I'd like black walnut trees.  But I don't.

Then, the food allergies acted up again last night.  Or at least I thought it was food allergies, which is why I blasted myself with benedryl and then wondered why it didn't really work all that well.

I figured it out when I woke up at 3 a.m. with a raging ovarian cyst.  This is the same thing that sidelined me a couple of weeks ago--and it kind of explained why I seemed to be having an allergic reaction to foods that I've been known to eat without incident.

If I tried to communicate how frustrating the histamine/hormone problem I've been dealing with for the past several years has proven to be, all that would come out of me is one long, piercing shriek of frustration, so I'll refrain.

It's an exercise in patience.  And mine is wearing thin.

So let's shift gears and accentuate the positive now, shall we?  Although I wasn't able to bike yesterday or today, on Saturday morning, I biked for more than 25 miles.   So that was good, especially since I swam a mile and a half on Thursday.

In retrospect, this may be the reason why my body went into mega freak-out over the weekend, but probably not.  I suspect it simply freaks out because it wants to.  It is my body, after all, and that kind of sounds like me.

I painted the bedroom.  Thank heavens that job is done.

I got a line on a research idea on Atwood's Alias Grace.  Not sure what I'm going to say, but I at least have a sense that I'll have something to say.

I made a nice little batch of pesto ravioli this morning; given the little blast of warmer weather we had over the weekend, I think I'll be making pesto again this week.

Because I felt like I needed a pick-me-up, I also made homemade fig newtons today.  They're quite lovely.

And I plan to hit the blueberry patch again, by god, I can promise you that much.  I don't care if I look like a doubled-over version of the little girl from The Exorcist, I will pick more blueberries this week.

It's July, and July is Blueberry Month, and I will conduct myself accordingly.

Because in the end, I think it's best to remember the wisdom of Sugarland.  "Psssh--It happens."  And when it does, just "let go laughing."

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Buckling Down

I decided that this is the week I really need to buckle down and start working on my research and writing.  Because the 4th of July has come and gone, which means we're midway through the summer, which means I need to buckle down and start working on my research and my writing.

So here are a few images to showcase the extent to which I'm buckling down.

Let me explain:  I got up first thing this morning, courtesy of Juno, who meows di-rectly into my ear if I sleep past 6:05 a.m.  Based on the worried look on her face I can only guess that she somehow thinks that if I sleep until 6:15, I must be at death's door, which means that she in turn will starve.

So, I got up.  If you're a writer, you probably know that first thing in the morning is the perfect time to write because everything is quiet and calm.  I know that's certainly been my experience.  So this is what I did:  I picked that big basket of basil you see pictured there.

For the record, I would like to point out that the basil needed to be picked because if it wasn't, it might bolt and go to seed and that would wreak havoc on my summer-long pesto-making agenda.

And once you pick basil, you have to make the pesto right away, so that's what I did next.

In the process of making said pesto, I decided that instead of always using pesto as a sauce, I would mix it with ricotta cheese and make a ravioli filling. 

Once I decided that, it was important to see if others have had the same idea (they have), so this involved a brief stint of Googling.  But it was well worth it, because now I know that my idea is quite feasible.

This means, of course, that I'm going to have to make homemade ravioli again.  I'm postponing that until tomorrow, though, because I'm buckling down on my research and my writing.  As evidenced by the following:  after I finished making pesto, I went blueberry picking.

Because yes, it's blueberry picking time.  There's just no way I could not go blueberry picking for an hour or two.  That would be madness, I tell you, sheer madness.  And the best blueberry picking time happens to be first thing in the morning, when they open.  Which, coincidentally, was right when I finished making the pesto.  So it was meant to be. 

Because I have blueberries, I then had to make that blueberry salsa that I really like.  You have to get cracking on that, because it needs to sit for a while after you make it so the flavors meld.  You can see what I mean if you check out the picture of it up above.

Did I mention that I'm going to repaint my bedroom?  Before I could do that, I needed to fix a couple of spots on one of the walls, and since the spots were pretty small, I knew that doing it right away would in no way interfere with buckling down on my research and my writing.

While I was doing that, though, I had a moment of interior decorating angst.  Given the color I'm planning to paint the bedroom, there is a good chance that the dresser I have in there will no longer match.

This meant that I had to go back to Googling to see if I could find a dresser that would.  Thank heavens I did--from that point on, it took only a few brief moments for me to commune with myself in order to decide whether or not I in fact "deserved" a new dresser in my soon-to-be-newly-painted bedroom. 

I'm happy to report that I decided that yes, indeed, I do deserve a new dresser, and one has now been ordered.

This means, of course, that I've now committed myself to getting the bedroom painted before the furniture guys bring this new dresser.  Luckily, I'm pretty certain that job will in no way interfere with my plans to buckle down on my research and my writing.

Did I mention that the swimming pool reopened?  If I'm going to be buckling down, I really need to make sure I get an hour or two of exercise in--I want to have a sound mind in a sound body and all that.

So now here it is, nearly 4:00, and I confess, I'm a bit flabbergasted.  I haven't managed to get any research or writing done in the last 10 hours.  I really don't know how that happened, given the extent to which I've been committed to buckling down.

While I try to figure out how that happened, I think I'll listen to a little music.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Talking About the Weather

I'm not going to lie: I've been feeling a bit under the weather since Saturday, so I haven't had the energy to blog.  (Or bike, but we'll let that pass and hope for better things for tomorrow.  Fingers crossed.)

We had a weird little storm last week that wreaked some havoc on my street.  A power surge blew out my neighbors' GFI's (all of them) and the surge protector on their computer (although the computer itself was okay).

It also took out the frozen yogurt machine at the ice cream place down the street.  (No vanilla or coffee until further notice.)

It took out one of my light switches.  And as near as the technician and I can tell, it probably pushed my failing internet connection over the edge as well.  All I know is, I had no internet at all on Monday.

On the plus side, the rain and the warm weather that come with thunderstorms have been greatly welcomed by the garden.

Tomatoes couldn't be happier.

I can't believe how well my sage did this year.  Usually, the bugs wreak havoc on it, but this year, I surrounded it with geraniums, and that did the trick.  Begone, bugs!


  I have all kinds of peppermint.  There's a garter snake living in there, though, so I'm reluctant to pick it.  (I know it's not a cobra or an anaconda, but still.  It's a snake.  You reach in there.)


 The clematis is INSANE.

 Seriously, INSANE.

I see homemade pesto in my future.  

Because we're coming up on the 4th, I decided to try out a new potato salad recipe.  It's a lemon and dill potato salad, and I think it's quite nice, in part because that's my homegrown dill (and chives) in there, and my homemade mustard is part of the base for the dressing.

While preparing it, I chilled to the Eagles.  I think they're perfect music for getting ready to take it easy on the 4th (although I know that if you're reading this and you don't like the Eagles, you won't agree with me).   Good to listen to when the weather isn't cooperating--and even when it is.

Lighten up while you still can
don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy