We practice like this. Monday 31st August.

we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

“Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching.” So Maria Popova introduces Ross Gay reading his ODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT. He seems to be becoming the resident poet on my blog, as I slowly wend my way in and out of his The Book of Delights.

Gardening, cooking – they keep me going, slowly, moment by moment, gesture by gesture. What you bring into being passes away, gets gobbled up by hungry humans or rats, or simply lives as long as it’s meant to. You start again. Or not.

Writing is more complicated…

Things I can eat: green beans (but no dried beans), cabbage, most berries, butter, eggs, cheese, bread, flour, rice, eggplant, lettuce, watermelon, grapes, celery

In the high potassium – stay away from – category I’ve figured out a little bit is fine as long as you stay with low potassium for the other meals.

green beans steamed lightly and tossed with a mix of red miso and mirin, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Actually you are meant to grind a larger quantity of the sesame seeds and then mix the powder into the dressing. But sesame seeds are on the bad list, so an adaptation. When I returned from living in Japan in the early 80s I desperately craved Japanese tastes, and used to make this salad a lot. Try it, its very addictive. It’s from a Japanese recipe book, in English, I got in Tokyo

I came across this lamb and green beans stir fry recipe on line quite by chance and thought, well why not give it a whirl? as i had all the ingredients on hand. I used a lot less lamb but otherwise more or less followed the recipe. I liked the balance of flavors in the recipe. That Szechuan slow burn!

I love Lucinda Williams. I love Bill Buford. So what a gift to find “Delta Nights,” a long profile of LW by BB – first published in The New Yorker in 2000. It probes and reviews intricately but with a mostly light touch, though sometimes not so light, you can feel the sabre’s piercing twist. It’s far from  hagiography though Buford’s fascination with his subject can be felt throughout, a pulsing vein. He is great on the language and music of the songs, on family history, the South, romance and melancholia. My only hesitation is that his take on romance and melancholia leans a little towards a grown-up-boys-own version. A woman might have written this differently, might bask differently in the music, feel slightly different reverberations. 

It happens that I recently read Buford’s Dirt, which I enjoyed as much for the writing as the stories of Lyon and foodthough it didn’t grab my attention in the same way as his earlier Heat. What made me sit up though is when he got onto sauces, and I wondered: when did I stop making the classic (read French) sauces? When and why did they slip out of the repertoire? Not just mine, more a generational thing. I suspect it was part of the turn against haute cuisine, against butter, against flour, and particularly against their combination in sauce-making; and then also a turn towards Asia. I do, however, remember some of the occasions which provoked their making: sub-Proustian moments in that they lack the melancholic longeur of memory, but similarly somatic, insistently sensuous. When I visited London in the early 1980s a film maker I’d met in ’79  at the epoch-making Women’s Film Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival invited me to lunch and cooked asparagus for which she whipped up a hollandaise sauce. Those colors – the emerald greenness of the asparagus, still crunchy, and the pale but glistening yellow sauce, and the way they merged in the mouth. Back in Australia I made it all the time – for a while. A velouté sauce with fish – that I had at a simple pavement café near the Gare du Nord  – tormented me for years, I could never get it right. Then one day I did. I made it for a friend in Sydney, and for some mysterious reason all the elements cohered, magic transpired. The taste, the texture, it was perfect. And unrepeatable as it turned out. Though it occurs to me I’ve been making a variation for my fish pies. Maybe, after all, there is no mystery.

The sauce that’s got me currently in its thrall is mayonnaise. Whipping it up is such a pleasure, and so it’s mayo with this and mayo with that. Most surprising and ingenious is the mayonnaise marinade for barbecuing.

We tried it first with chicken thighs and peaches. Immediate conversion!

a week later – pork tenderloin with blackberry-habanero jam mixed into the mayo marinade

This idea has been around for a while but it creeped me out, the idea of all that oozing sticky richness. In fact it works brilliantly, both to adhere to its object and to prevent sticking. And it doesn’t taste of mayonnaise once cooked (though it easily accepts the mix-in of other flavors). I first read about it, about the scientific basis for its success, in a very clear explanation by J. Kenji López-Alt , but if you can’t access the New York Times there are lots of other good sites.

To continue the saga of help and friendship in the garden I have to tell you now the serendipitous story of how it is that Steve Ilott and I met and became friends and garden collaborators.

There is a better photo of Steve’s potting shed in “Turning something sweet into a savory delight. Friday, May 1” but it’s minus Steve

I had been here in San Diego just over a year when I landed up in hospital and out of action for 6 weeks. My large film history class was saved by Vickie and Stephen O’Rearden who stepped up and took on the daunting task, relieving me of worry about the stranded and abandoned students. It turned out that Vickie and Stephen are wonderful gardeners and Vickie is a voracious novel reader and Italian cook; we became friends and over the years they have helped me out on more than one occasion with caring for the garden, attending particularly to pruning, when I have been incapacitated.

Throughout 2001, when the front yard remained a yard but also a space of potential and fantasy, I became obsessed by roses. I had never grown a rose in all my life, but now the time had come. Eventually as the year came to an end I had whittled my list of hundreds of desired roses down to twenty five. The list included some old roses (Madam Plantier, Madam Alfred Carriere, Souvenir de Malmaison, Reine des Violettes, La Reine Victoria, Rosa Banksia, , Quatre Saisons, sometimes called Autumn Damask, Sombreuil, Cecile Brunner), four David Austen (including Graham Thomas), climbers (New Dawn, Altissimo, Sombreuil, Mme Alfred Carriere, Mme Plantier), Hybrid Teas (Barbra Streisand, Secret) Floribundas (Intrigue, French Lace, Sunsprite), miniatures (Gourmet popcorn, Jean Kenneally). 

In the new year my rose list was complete (in so far as a garden list is ever complete; the concept of a final garden list of any sort—things to do, plants to buy, tools to save for—is oxymoronic, garden lists are never final or complete).

At the time this is what I wrote:

“Even though it is finalized, and even though it is fantastical in so far as there is nowhere in my garden for any roses to go, I have been carrying my list around with me just in case …. in case of what I do not exactly know, but it is precisely what you never know that sometimes produces rabbits out of hats. And last week something truly magical happened: a rabbit out of a hat, a rose out of thin air. 

Steve’s garden, so different from mine

Vickie and Stephen invited us over while Jeffrey was here and to meet Milane and Steve Ilott. Their house is very close to the street, and the narrow front yard is bordered by a chain link fence through which are threaded brown twiggy canes. They tell me it is Zepherine Drouhin. I hope I can see this in bloom in the spring as it made it onto my list primarily on the strength of a disparaging but engaging description of its color as a “a Pepto-Bismal shade of pink.” You pass through the house and onto a patio perched on the edge of a canyon. It is a garden which speaks of years of devotion and gradual development as they have terraced and planted and nurtured. Everything is there, but spaced out, breathing – fruit trees, roses, orchids, natives, a small grassy patch, a thicket of four o’clocks. We wander and talk and drink and eat and at last get to coffee and somehow I confess my rose list. Ok, they say, read it out loud.

I begin, and as I read it suddenly feels to me as though I am reading an obscure cross word puzzle or some writing in a foreign language, it lacks both logic and rhythm, it seems to be a muddle of floating signifiers, all bobbing aimlessly in the air, unattached to anything of any real significance.  I am about halfway through when I reach Madame Alfred Carriere. “Stop a moment” says Steve Ilott. He gets up and leaves the house. I stop, everyone stops talking, and we are all a little embarrassed, bemused. In a few minutes he returns from the cold, carrying something in each hand, a six inch pot with a stubby rather dead-looking plant in each. “Here,” he says, “is Madame Alfred, and here is Quatre Saisons.”

Steve has rooted a number of these plants from cuttings (it is much easier, he says, to root these old roses, and also legal as they are not patented), and he has a number of them in his car to give away as New Year presents. Not to me, or at least they were not destined for me, since when he set out he did not know me. “Well,” he says, “this is serendipity and serendipity is destiny.” I am speechless. This is sympathetic magic, my list has magicked into being desire, at least a few of my floating signifiers have landed. 

I sometimes tell Steve that I am like the proverbial drowning sailor he saved and so is responsible for forevermore. Those roses were only the beginning, plants have kept coming ever since, plants nurtured in his potting shed. Also advice and inspiration, and garden gifts, like the frog that sits in the bird bath, and the extension pruners – to reach Madame AC’s exquisite blooms, waving around near the roof line, but also to keep her in check.

Over almost twenty years his plants have come and gone and the changes owe so much to him. When he retired last year, at a time when again i was somewhat incapacitated, he would come early in the morning once a week, and after weeding, Jeffrey would poach us eggs. I so miss this ritual since CoVid. I miss all the feasts, the pleasure of feeding Steve and other friends. Though he usually has to put in a bit of work for his dinner, as in the photo where he is shelling beans with Jeffrey.

Of the two roses Madame Alfred Carriere remains, a sprawling climber festooned with blooms, but Quatre Saisons is gone. She is the most divinely smelly of all roses (Rose of Attar is made from QS) and also excessively thorny. I loved her, loved walking by and breathing the air around her. But when I installed the grey water system and moved towards an urban orchard at the front most of the roses were shovel pruned, and given away. Jason Chen took QS but he had to dig her out. This proved to be a bigger job than expected. She had truly taken root at Herman Ave and was not happy about leaving. But she adapted well to Jason’s garden. This is the way with gardens, they change; and this is the way with friends: they exchange – plants and seeds and ideas.

And now, though there is more yard to table news and more comments I really want to respond to, I’m out of oomph. Since beginning this blog, well earlier today actually, I got some bad, though not entirely unexpected, news on the health front. At last got to see the vocal folds/cords guy and the speech therapist. Seems both my vocal cords are paralyzed. The official diagnosis is: Bilateral Voice Fold Paralysis. This means that they don’t either open or close properly. You need them to open in order to breathe, and close for speaking and swallowing. If it were just one (either opening or closing) and if it were only one vocal fold, it wouldn’t be so bad, but what i got is a double whammy. The damage is irreversible, he says, I will never get my old voice back, but will work with the therapist on breathing exercises etc to help with speech. He says he could do something to help with breathing but this would diminish speech even further. It’s to do with nerves and could have been caused by a number of things such as surgery, radiation, a lymph node pressing on a nerve, cancer treatment …

If there is one thing I’ve learnt through this long engagement with cancers it’s that what the West considers medicine is not the only way to stay alive. In addition to the garden I take inspiration from both my Tai Chi and Feldenkrais engagements, and my friend Elana, a recent convert to Feldenkrais, has urged me on along this path of alternative therapy, thank you for the reminder Elana, when i was feeling so bereft of hope. I know that my friend and Feldenkrais teacher, Liz Sisco, well be a guide.

we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth

5 thoughts on “We practice like this. Monday 31st August.

  1. So sorry to hear the news of the vocal cords Lesley. Especially after reading such a vivid account of the roses in your garden and the usual delicious looking plates of food.
    Since covid, our local tai chi group meets in our shared garden behind the flats where we attempt to maintain our inner peace amongst the detritus of urban living, including dogs, rubbish chucked out of the windows and noisy neighbours music.
    Still we persevere.
    Sending you all good wishes from London and the scent of my lovely Munstead Wood rose.

  2. love these Lesley – planted today and as it is spring hopefully everything will take root and grow over next months. its supposed to be a rainy spring. I have the exotics I inherited which are just coming out – dark blue irises, bluebells, insane white plum blossom, hellebores from white to purple , and natives – some of which are dodoneas, eremophilas, poa, hardenbergia (a little electric blue creeper), but the one I have to have and cant get until next autumn is scented sundew or Drosera aberrans, a tiny weird rusty red thing with tiny white flowers that looks like a cross between a fungus and a moss and eats insects. I have 2 roses I love which are starting to leaf and hopefully flower – an old lilac coloured one and an old heavily scented red. Fingers crossed they are happy & bloom accordingly. I have lots of bees. xxx Judy

  3. Thanks Lesley, for the beautiful romp through the kitchen and garden and garden friendship. Sad to hear the news about the vocal chords, our mysterious bodies fail to amaze. It sounds distressing and I hope that you also have some balm for that. Edie and I have been cooking our way through Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons cookbook and haven’t found a recipe yet that we haven’t really liked. I mention it here as there are some wonderful recipes with cabbage and celery and eggplant that I would be happy to send you pictures of or even transcribe if you like. Let me know. In other news, it looks as if our friens Dominic will be foreman on a chicken coop construction project – to house 3 or 4 chickens we arecplanning to welcome this fall. Wish us luck! Kisses to Jeffrey. Missing you so.

  4. I miss those evenings in the kitchen working, as you call it, for my dinner. I am sorry about the vocal chords, Lesley. These news are big and hard and give me pause. I hope technolgy and therepy work their magic soon. Sending love.

  5. That’s tough about your vocal cords, but inspirational friendships and food and gardening. I myself am not a rose lover. I can appreciate them, but I used to get so furious in Perth with the Swan River suffocating in blue green algae because of all the phosphate fertiliser people were using on their roses. But I love your mix of food and flowers – all productive – all beautiful. I’m battling the turkey rhubarb in our garden – just a bit at a time. It produces the most infuriating tubers that lodge themselves in the root systems of other plants, under rocks or in the clay – grrr. On the other hand, it’s ridiculously satisfying when I finally manage to dig them out! Also been visiting various public gardens. The Grevillea park nearby which is only open a few weeks a year, was particularly beautiful. You would have loved it. Hugs across the ocean xx

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