Robert Frost has his birches, but I have . . . BEECHES In autumn stiff leathery leaves the color of cinnamon carpet the earth excepting new-penny copper beeches tenaciously clinging to their branches fragile and strong as spider silk They’ll still be there come spring by then frail and pale the color of sand till erin sprigs push them unceremoniously to the ground to join their decaying cousins November 2021
(My annual holiday story, originally published 12/21/2017)
A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.
C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.
At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.
We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.
Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”
It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.
After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?
But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.
Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.
It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.
That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.
My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.
My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.
Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.
Fleeting fall, first snow quiet sleepy gray November is autumn’s final fling A month almost forgotten when robins and cedar waxwings last birds of fall forage leftover berries before winter’s famine Leathery leaves drift on windless days to carpet the earth a portent of white drifts to come November means feasting contentment grace and comfort giving thanks for food, family, friends A time of remembrance for war’s end and hope for peace November is a state of mind --Carole Coates November 2021
Now that October has come and gone–how did it happen so quickly?–here is a poem I wrote to try to capture the fullness of the tenth month of our calendar.
WINTIRFYLLITH* Golden leaf coins cascade like heaven’s manna; night skies sparkle In October’s crisp air. Sandals and shorts give way to socks and sweats, iced tea to hot cocoa, salads to creamy soups. October is county fairs midway carnies competing for cash Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds cotton candy and caramel corn. Shelves lined with glass jars brim with summer’s vibrance waiting to fill winter-chilled tummies October is bonfires, football and camping hotdogs and marshmallows roasting on open flames hootenannies and folksongs, hand-holding lovers blanketed on hayrides under harvest moon; pumpkin patches and corn mazes sourwood honey, sweet-sour pomes haunted house frights and woolly worm races. Chattering chipmunks and scurrying squirrels clamp tiny jaws ’round walnuts and pecans. Candy corn adorns store shelves; ghostly creatures embellish roofs and yards. Smoky-sweet leaf scents crunched by boot-clad wanderers perfume October air, feed forest floors. Costumed spirits and ghouls crawl Halloween streets crammed with spooky décor for tooth-decaying treats. October is crow caws craft fairs and beer fests frosty mornings, hillside mists a foggy Hunter’s Moon. October is a mellow month like cat paws and clover, more night than day readying us for winter’s shivers. --Carole Coates October, 2021 *Wintirfyllith: Anglo-Saxon word for October meaning the fullness of winter, because the first full moon of winter comes in October.
Again, my writing has taken me where I did not want to go. I fear we are all too bombarded by this theme, and I promise to leave it soon.
* * * * *
Home is my sanctuary. It’s where I feel safe, protected, loved. It’s where I am inspired—reborn. But seasonal depression traipses after me like a needy two-year-old, and demands constant vigilance. I know only one ‘cure’—to get Out, listen to bird trills, see the trees wave in the wind, smell the grasses and, when spring finally teases me, the flowers.
If Home is my sanctuary, Out is my salvation. But these days, Out is nearly my undoing. The intensity of it drains me. Out, I am a one-woman SWAT team, always on alert for snipers.
On a walking trail, I’m constantly checking all directions at once, zig-zagging to avoid fellow walkers who seem oblivious to the need for physical distance. Veering far off the path when I spy a jogger gaining on me or a gaggle of young roommates filling the pavement and headed my way. The responsibility for communal safety seems to be mine alone.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com
In a grocery store, I turn into a one-way aisle only to see someone coming toward me. I stop dead, then wheel my cart around and drive it over two more aisles, down then back up the one between, finally returning to my starting point—only to find someone else illegally coming at me.
When I near the end of an aisle, I pause, then slowly ease my cart into the intersection, anxious that someone may be about to ambush me. I am reminded of the way my nervous Mother used to creep around a blind curve on our mountain road at two miles an hour, madly honking the horn all the way.
Sometimes, another shopper turns in my direction when another is not far behind me. Trapped, I twist and flatten myself against shelves of canned goods like a squirrel plastered to the ground to avoid the predatory hawk. I dare not breathe until the danger has passed and the air might, just might, be slightly clearer than it was a few moments ago.
It is exhausting. I return home—to calm and solace, not knowing when the grayness will again swoop down and envelop me. But knowing it will. And, inevitably, the answer is Out.
I am intoxicated by the thought of Out—just the idea of taking trash to the dump excites me, even though Out is fraught with danger and the perception of danger. While governments ease restrictions, the modified protocols are for others. We elders—‘the vulnerables’—are still expected to stay home. When we do hazard to venture out, we will be at greater risk than ever.
He is okay with that. He says we are warriors. Ready for battle, ready to die for ‘the greater good’ as he thrusts us into the fray. “Yes,” he acknowledges, people will die.
People like me.
That’s what warriors do. But how can I be a warrior? Warriors have weapons. I don’t.
She* sees today’s world differently. She encourages us to be meditative and connected—our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Reaching out to each other, not with hands, but with hearts—because our lives are in one another’s hands in ways they have never before been. Our physical distance demands our connectedness to be stronger than ever.
I can live with her take, considering this respite from normal as a sacred time in a sacred place, a time to step away from the chaos of the world and into personal commitment, a time to, as she says, “Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.”
I might even be able to stay sane at home.
_ . _ . _ . _
* She is poet Lynn Ungar. You can read the entirety of her touching poem here.
(Slightly modified from original essay published May 1, 2017)
Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.
For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with. Rhubarb pie is phenomenal, but really, how much of it can you eat? (Don’t answer that!) I hate to see any food source go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients. So I looked for more delicious ways to use rhubarb.
Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary, but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.
I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.
Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest! You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).
I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.
Rhubarb Syrup and Soda
Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.
Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)
Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.
At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.
Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.
Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.
* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.
Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.
**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.
But then again—rhubarb desserts are pretty special. Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.
When I started this blog (a little over three years ago!), one of my main goals was to write about modern homesteading. Since then, however, I also began blogging for Mother Earth News. (You can connect to many of those posts here). Since I couldn’t put the same posts in both blogs, Living on the Diagonal began to focus on personal essays, poetry, a philosophical musings, while modern homesteading got short shrift.
But I miss sharing that topic over here, and it feels a little like I’ve abandoned my original blogging idea. And if that’s what you were looking for, I have some good news. I think I finally figured a way to get back to it without encroaching on my Mother Earth News blog posts. My plan is to share modern homesteading tips, my modern homesteading philosophy, and my own learning experiences on this site, dropping them in every month or so. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to delve into single topics in more depth over at Mother Earth News.
To start (since we’re now officially in the winter season), I am linking you to several of my favorite soup recipes (previously printed here and on the M.E.N. blog) along with this perfect go-with, my prize-winning cornbread recipe. Simple and perfect for chilly winter nights.
And while you’re heating up those winter delicacies, I’ll start getting my modern homesteading writing act together.
Some of these soups take almost no time to prepare and some require a slightly larger time investment—mostly peeling or chopping, but all are simple, simple, simple.
The Gnome and I came across this favorite soup recipe way back from our earliest interest in twentieth- (now twenty-first-) century homesteading. We found it in the 1973 Mother Earth News Almanac, when it was a brand new publication. The recipe is so easy that it’s embarrassing, but, boy oh boy, is this Cheesy-Potato Soup, the perfect stick-to-your-ribs meal after a day of chopping firewood or cross-country skiing or whatever your favorite winter outdoor activity is.
It was during that same era when we discovered this delicious and healthful Lentil Soup. It’s also easy to make, still hearty but lighter than the others I’m posting. Best of all, one brief cooking session provides us with several hearty meals.
More recently, we’ve discovered the joys of soups made with winter squash. Either of the following recipes can be made with your choice of winter squash—butternut, pumpkin, hubbard, whatever. And the chili is equally delicious with sweet potatoes.
The yummy Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons could almost be dessert. You’ll need to cook the squash ahead of time or use purchased canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix).
This Slow-Cooker Winter Squash Chili is another real winner. You can start it mid-morning or after lunch, depending on which temperature setting you choose. Perfect for when you have a busy afternoon ahead. In this case, you start with raw potatoes or squash, peeled, and chunked.
Happy soup-making—and eating!
“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.
That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.
The best moment of my day is . . .
when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;
when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;
when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;
when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;
when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;
when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;
when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;
The best part of my day is . . .
when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;
when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;
when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;
when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;
when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;
when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;
when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;
when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.
The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.
With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”
And I give thanks.
They call them the dog days of summer, these days of July and August, usually the hottest and most humid of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). But I can already feel fall. The air has grown slightly less moist, hinting at autumn’s dry coolness, even when the thermometer doesn’t agree.
I hear it in the sounds of insects—different from early summer bug buzzes and chirps. And I hear the occasional thump when a premature nut hits the ground.
I see it in the trees. Their leaves grow simultaneously darker and paler, and occasional ones waft to the ground. I see it in the flowers, too, whose colors have changed from bright summery hues to the softer mauves, lavenders, and golds of fall.
Yes, we may still officially be in summer’s dog days, but fall is in the air. There’s something slightly wistful about these times when the old begins to fade and the new is just beyond the horizon. We become nostalgic for something not yet gone. While some of us bemoan the loss of barefoot days, summer picnics, tubing down a river, others are perking up at the prospect of football, fall foliage, apple cider, and hayrides.
By the way, do you know where the term ‘dog days of summer’ comes from? I always thought it had to do with the way lethargic dogs laze on country roads or under porches during our annual heat waves. I guess in a roundabout way that’s not far off. In fact, the ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer ‘dog days’ because they associated them with the star Sirius, the dog star. Our most sultry days coincide, more or less, with the time each year when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appears to rise just before the sun.
At this time in my life, the change of seasons brings a question to mind. It looms larger with each cycle—what changes lie in store with the next season? But, whatever is in my own future, my head knows that each season brings its own gifts. My challenge is to embrace them while they are here in all their fullness and, when the time comes, to let them go lightly so I can do the same when the next one rolls around.
(Well, this is embarrassing. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m not sure whether the following piece is mine or if it’s a compilation of some of my fellow writers. Logic dictates it’s mine, yet it doesn’t feel as familiar as it should. But since summer, in all its fullness, is officially just around the bend, I want to share. So, here goes—with sincere apologies if I’ve inadvertently plagiarized.)
Summer is the most voluptuous season.
Summer is like
. . . a rainbow, bright and colorful after a dark storm;
. . . . wide open spaces with no boundaries;
. . . imagination with endless possibility.
Summer is like like the blinding light of a camera flash, the scent of singed skin, the music of Beethoven; it’s like life at full maturity—gone is the perky innocence of youth as hints of age peek through its brilliance.
Summer is like lemonade—sunshiny bright, sweet and tangy, liquid in a sweating glass.