Archive for February, 2010

The Quiet Center . . .

A few of us were chatting companionably around Roz’s elegantly appointed table, sipping tea and nibbling on her freshly made scones, lemon shortbread and Petits Pain au Chocolat. We weren’t just nibbling, we were inhaling them faster  than the air we breathe and Joyce and I put forth an edict that is permissible to lick one’s fingers at an “elevenish”, which is exactly what we were doing. As we were talking, the conversation roamed to our travels and how we get where we are going with mapquest, GPS, handwritten instructions and the fine art of how we manage to often get lost in spite of such help.

Roz and I have known each other for some time, but our friendship hit an unexpected high when we realized that we were both admirers of Victoria Magazine, both in its present state and in its more revered past life. I remember the moment of enlightment when the realization came and we squealed with delight like two acquaintances that suddenly discover they are cousins twice removed.

Victoria Magazine folded several years ago, much to the dismay of its loyal readers, and reappeared with a similar format, though not quite as rich, in my view, in content. It is rather like becoming reacquainted with someone who has been away for awhile and returns somehow changed. Someone who remains your friend and whom you love, but where there is just something different.

Victoria Magazine published many books over the years and a few managed to make their way onto my shelves.  The Quiet Center; Women Reflecting on Life’s Passages from the Pages of Victoria Magazine is one of these books.

Image from amazon.com

The Quiet Center actually has taken on the added role of artwork. It sits on an easel for all to see because I love the artwork on the cover and because it reminds me of a cousin, who sits posed in a picture with my sister and me that was taken at a wedding once upon a time. The photograph and the dust cover make perfect companions on the shelf, close to my reading chair, in a quiet center of my own.

For some reason, the book called out to me today. I was sipping on tea, reflecting on Roz’s gathering, enjoying the quiet of the library and there it was, a treasured friend, faithfully near, inviting me in, taking me off the mapped out path I was on and I was soon quite lost in its pages.

The Quiet Center is a compilation of essays of noted women writers. The essays graced the pages of Victoria Magazine over a decade and the book has graced my shelves for more years than that. It quietly speaks through the voices of such writers as Madeleine L’Engle, Carol Shields, Catherine Clavert, Jane Smiley, and Judith Thurman.

Ms. Thurman was just added to my list of authors and books that I want to read.  I was not acquainted with her until this week when I came upon her name in research I was doing on Isak Dinesen, a pen name of Karen Blixen. Judith Thurman authored Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, which was the biography that brought forth the movie Out of Africa and which brought Thurman into Isak Dinesen’s home in Denmark. The estate, Rungstedlund,  is now a museum honoring her life and her writing. Noting Thurman’s name on several of the essays, I started reading one, “Pansies for Remembrance”, which was sitting conveniently in the middle of the book.

Thurman’s well crafted story weaves the theme of pansies and rituals and remembrances of her mother’s appreciation of pansies, her friend Beatrice’s scholarly mother’s advice on writing and, of Dinesen, who was known for her floral arrangements as much as for her writings. Thurman writes of Dinesen’s gardens and her bedroom, where she slept during her stay, and of Dinesen’s birthday, which is April 17 –  the perfect time of year for a bouquet of black pansies.

I was lost in The Quiet Center, reading an essay and then wandering back to the table of contents, where someone else’s name would catch my eye and off I meandered to another story, my inner GPS unplugged, my map fallen somewhere under the keyboard, and my thoughts circling through pages and pages of well written themes. I was lost in words as I found my way back to the quiet center of myself where it is so very lovely to have memories of friends gathered and of writings well put.

Where is your quiet center?


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Thyme and Black Pepper Crackers

I love recipes from The Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and have wonderful successes with them. Ina Garten’s  recipes are all fairly easy and she has not disappointed me yet.

I have made these crackers for a several occasions this year and they have been enjoyed. After recently making them for a party, I was asked for the recipe, and since I was writing it down anyways, I thought some of you might enjoy them as well. These are adapted pretty much word-for-word from The Barefoot Contessa. They really do mellow and taste even better the next day and are more like a savory shortbread than a cracker. Some cheese, grapes or pears, and you have an easy appetizer – or something for an “elevenish” is ready for the eating. They hold up well and the dough can be made weeks before a party and frozen until ready to cook.

The first time I made them, Tom came in begging for a taste. They smell wonderful.  We both sat munching on them and it was interesting. First bite, no big deal. Second bite, hmmm. Third bite , a new taste addiction was born. We couldn’t decide what they reminded us of. Would you believe Cheezits – only 10 times better (and no preservatives, additives, food coloring).

Thyme and Black Pepper Crackers  (Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, Back to Basics)

Image, which I just love, from chimeraobscura.com/mi/category/cheese/

¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 oz grated Parmesan (1 c. works. Use only freshly grated

1¼ c. all-purpose flour

½ t kosher salt

1 t. chopped, fresh thyme leaves

½ t freshly ground black pepper

Mix butter in electric mixer for 1 minute until creamy.

With mixer on low, add flour and combine until the mixture is in large crumbles, about 1 minute. If dough is too dry, add about 1 t water (I always need to add the water, sometimes up to 1 T of water)

Dump the dough onto lightly floured board.

Press into ball then roll into a 9 inch log.

Wrap log in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 4 days.

Can also be frozen at this point. Defrost overnight in refrigerator.

To cook:

Preheat over 350˚

Slice log into 3⁄8 inch think pieces

Place slices on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper

Bake 22 minutes, turning pan half way through

The thinner you cut the roll, the crisper the cracker will be. Be sure to adjust cooking time if you make thinner.

One recipe makes about 24 crackers.

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Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen has been dominating my thoughts, the television screen, my Google log. I turn each electronic on and there she is, invading my space.

It started with Babette’s Feast, a foreign film whose existence I discovered only late last year. Babette’s Feast is an Academy Award winning adaptation of a story which was written by Isak Dinesen. As you know, Isak Dinesen was a pen name used by Blixen, a Danish Baroness who is most famous here in the states because of Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in Out of Africa.

I finally watched Babette’s Feast last night compliments of my friend Donna who lent me the video before she herself had a chance to view it. I have the most gracious and generous friends and Donna is one of them. So, while the rest of the world was watching the Olympics, I was watching a 1987 foreign movie with subtitles, shushing Tom as he went out the door. You can’t talk when there are subtitles – you may miss the words.

Babette’s Feast is set in the Jutland, Denmark, during the last part of the 19th century. It revolves around two sisters who chose taking care of their father and his flock of spiritual followers in their small, poor village by the sea over love and fame. We follow the women through their early adult years, in which they were considered great beauties, their stoicism as they each in turn give up their future with great loves, their middle years, in which a mysterious French woman, Babette, arrives at their door, fleeing the French Civil War with a letter of introduction from one of the long ago suitors, and, finally, to the great feast Babette prepares for them and their now old and bickering flock of followers. Babette’s gift to them for their willingness to take her in comes when she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery.

The movie is slow and it takes some time to appreciate the characters. The feast, ah, the glorious feast and the villagers pact to not enjoy it for fear of what evil it may bring, this is worth taking the time to watch the movie. It would be a great one to see with a discussion group after on all sorts of levels; literary, cinematically, gastronomically, spiritually.

The movie finished, I surfed the stations for a few minutes, and what do you suppose I came across? Karen Blixen burying Denys Finch Hatton on that lovely rise in Kenya. I have seen Out of Africa many times. I know this ending and I love the scene where she is invited into the men’s clubroom as she is just about to leave Kenya, her farm to be sold, her return to Denmark, the respect the men finally, reluctantly give her as she tosses down a whisky. What she endured from men to reach this point.

Karen Blixen is one of many authors I would have liked to have met. Her family wealth and prestige allowed her to do some remarkable things, like have a farm in Africa, but, her spirit and determination and her words took me to places in time I would not have otherwise been to.

I read Out of Africa after first seeing the movie so many years ago now. It is beautifully written with those descriptive passages we either get lost in or abandon. I got lost in them, as I often do with pages in a book, and now want to read about all about Babette’s Feast through Blixen’s words.

In my quest to find out more about the book, I spent some time traveling the information highway, all while sitting in my robe, sipping on hot tea, occasionally looking out the windows at the latest snow and welcome sun, and was soon immersed in the life of Karen Blixen.

Karen Blixen was a strong,  independent woman, a pioneer of sorts in her lifestyle, as well as a traditionalist in her storytelling. Would it not have been quite lovely to sit in her parlor sipping on tea near Copenhagen, or coffee from her Kenyan plantation, and listening to her tell a story or two?

Karen Blixen wrote in this room, Ewald’s Room, as she called it, surrounded by her many artifacts from Africa and her books. She wrote first in English, then translated her work to her native Danish. I wonder why as I wish I could sit with Karen, in Ewald’s Room, and ask her myself.

Karen Blixen is buried, on her estate, in Denmark. A few clicks of my mouse and  it appeared, her serene gravesite under a stately beech tree, the national tree of Denmark, and, seemingly, a favorite of hers as it is written that she planted many of them in her time. I think that this must be a very lovely spot to be. Someday, I will get to Copenhagen and I will take the train out to her home, now a museum, and I will wander the grounds and see her flowers and find her grave.

Someday, too, I will find her farm in Africa, and Denys Finch Hatton’s burial spot.  I know the area will all now be built up and out and all around – the area fittingly named Karen.

For now, I think I will put my computer screen to sleep and go upstairs to wash my hair.

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The writing on the wall

From Google.

Pen and ink, gliding along a pure page of white, cool to the touch. I wonder at the pains it took to compose a letter, a diary entry, a book in the not-so-distant past. I think of our founders in Philadelphia, their pens scratching parchment to give us our freedom and then I wonder at the new kind of freedom these some hundreds years later where we barely eke out our thoughts and touch a keyboard and there they are for all the world to eternally see.

I wonder, as so many of you do, what the keyboard and IPhone and its ilk will mean to the personal signature. I like my signature. My name on a line in my very own style and script, set to rise to the beat of the pen in my hand. Sometimes bold, sometimes shaky, always my own imprint. Have you ever signed a consent for your own emergency surgery just minutes before being wheeled to the operating room?  Pain, fear, uncertainty – and your very own John Hancock? I looked at mine once, in those timely moments before being anesthetized, and it was there, apprehensive and frail and tentative, but, it was mine, definitely mine and it carried the coding of years and years of Palmer perfect penmanship.

What will signatures look like as time goes by? How will our children’s children be defined?  Children have a way of marking their character long before adults recognize it, but I do wonder how will they make their mark?

Image from Google.

. . .  and what brought this about?  My Mrs. Thurston post and conversations about learning to connect the letters together, aka handwriting, penmanship, cursive, that childhood rite-of-passage that so many of us of a certain age can  remember.

From Google.

I loved forming o’s and the drill that followed connecting them rhythmically across the page and especially loved the mmmmmmm’s and nnnnnnnnnn’s and those special Palmer r’s, with the little crook atop and long sweep down to hang perhaps an s upon.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

No idea of what I’m talking about? Try writing the letters above and string them together and see what happens. A word? A sentence? A signature?

Really want to have some fun? Try using pen and ink, but don’t blame me for ruining your manicure.

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That certain something in the air!

Captured, 4:15 pm, Tuesday! I told you all something was in the air! It was just too sweet an occurrence not to share with you this afternoon!

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Graue Mill

There is a change in the air.  Something different.  Something you almost miss, but when you chance a look, there it is, and it makes you hopeful. Monday was like that. It snowed again and the cutoff awoke to a freshly laundered blanket of heavy snow. The whir of snowblowers filled the morning air and the scraping of shovels against pavement left no doubt of another winter’s storm.

The day was grey. Often, after a snow, there is a certain brightness that permeates, even when there is no sun, but, today – today was one of the greyest days I can remember. The snow hung heavy on the limbs of trees and the air was cumbersome.  Throughout our yard and along the road, fallen branches, victims to the snow’s force,  lay mute. I kept hearing the thunk, thunk, thunk of clumps of snow pelting me in staccato beats like bullies on the playground as they slid from the trees along the streets to my destinations.

One large lump of snow pulled me out of my stupor as it hit the moon roof of my car and I remembered noticing something the day before – that something different,  change in the air type of thing, and so I headed up York Road to the Graue Mill, parked the car, grabbed my camera, and trudged along, the busy street and me, dancers in the snow.

On Sunday, driving past the mill at Fullersburg Woods, a quick glance was all I needed to see that the wooden boards had been removed from the windows. The mill is shuttered come winter, the doors secured, the enormous wheel silenced. A sign is posted to come in for the last of the season’s ground corn meal as boards go up over the windows. On Sunday, the windows were once again exposed and I was filled with hope as yet another sign of winter’s wane appeared. It will be still awhile before the Graue Mill opens, but, the simple sight of the window panes, catching the day’s reflections, is yet another clue that change is in the air.

I ventured across the busy mid-day street and down the partly shoveled path, past a few folks walking their dogs,

camera ready, clumps of snow now thumping an erratic beat upon my head, and tried to put some color into this bleak and heavy Monday.

Fullersburg Woods is a wonderful place for taking a walk with someone, stopping to hear the creek flowing, cross-country skiing, or visiting the mill and museum in warmer weather. Established in 1852, the mill played many rolls in the development of this part of Du Page County, the most notable one being as agent to the Underground Railroad.

I thought a bit, as I walked back to my car, of all the roles this old house and mill played in the settling of the area it presides over like a family matriarch – the provisions and cornmeal and safe haven to the oppressed – and now teacher of history and geography and science – and the day suddenly didn’t feel quite as grey and the snow, still pummeling my head, didn’t fall quite as heavily as I dodged the assault and headed for home, stopping a moment to check these tracks left in the snow and to appreciate the subtle changes taking place all around – even in the snow.

Anyone want to venture a guess at who was with me in the snow?


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Mrs. Thurston

Mrs. Thurston taught fourth grade at Roosevelt School. Going into her classroom on the first day of school was intimidating. She was said to be mean and thought to be very, very old. The truth was that she was strict and somewhat stern, but fair, and I was to be in her last class.

I liked Mrs. Thurston. She was not like some of my other teachers that I truly loved, but I liked her and I respected her and looking back through the halo of time, I realize she was one of my best teachers in a pretty substantial list of wonderful educators.

My 4th grade room was in one of the older parts of the school on the second floor. An upgrade. Our desks were in stationary rows and were bolted to the floor. They were wooden with a round hole in the corner for an inkwell, though I am just young enough (oh, how good that feels to say) to have not used an inkwell, though ink pens with cartridges were my first writing tools after crayons and pencils. Even as a young girl, I liked to put pen to paper and loved the glide of the pen and ink on a notebook. My hands were stained until Bic pens were born, and even then, there were telltale leaks.

I was in a school district in the suburbs of Chicago where neighborhood schools were the norm. Most moms were at home, we walked to and from school, most of the way in a “patrol line” and if you lived less than eight blocks away, you were expected to go home for lunch except during inclement weather. I hated inclement weather. Not for snow or cold or rain, but, because I loved going home for lunch, where leftovers awaited from dinner the night before, or a Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pie, a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, or a fried bologna sandwich would be waiting.

Like all of my grade school teachers, Mrs. Thurston came to my house for lunch one day. Teachers liked to be invited to the homes of children for lunch and my mother and grandmother liked to feed anyone and everyone – the perfect eating storm. Teaching was a respected profession in my home. I, all respect aside, was terrified. First, there was the drive to our house, all of six and one half blocks away. The six and one half blocks was important. I don’t know why and since we were just one house from the closest corner, that half block designation, always pronounced with special emphasis by my mother, always puzzled me.

I survived Mrs. Thurston’s visit – and the car ride home and then back to school – and I survived fourth grade, where we learned long division and how to write cursive and where every day, after lunch, when the final bell rang and we were all secure in our bolted desks, our afternoon class would begin. There we would be, in five straight lines, hands on desks, feet firmly planted on the floor, except, of course, for mine. I always did have feet that dangled. Well fed and either sweaty or rosy cheeked from the walk back and romping on the playground, we soon settled into the afternoon lessons.

Mrs. Thurston would usually open the current chapter book and sit in a chair in the front and I was mesmerized as she read us the Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum and I cowered at the terror rendered by the wicked witch, felt the slumber of the poppy field, and imagined the magic of the ruby-red slippers. I still remember as Nick and his sister Penny – the first time another Penny entered my education – helped to search for a rare shell in a book called The Lion’s Paw by Robb White. It was during those segments of time that Mrs. Thurston told us some history of our school. We learned about the little schoolhouse originally sitting where the playground was and how she petitioned the Board of Education to install special flooring in our classroom that depicted a map of the United States.  Since we sat in stationary desks that we more or less grew into between September and June, my desk would have put me securely in the middle of Nebraska. That didn’t sound very exciting to me, but I felt a sense of pride that a teacher would fight for what she thought would bring geography closer to her students.

In that fourth grade winter of 1960, Mrs. Thurston took us each day to Squaw Valley, California and the Winter Olympics. She brought us special stories and newspaper articles of our athletes and I especially recall hearing about Carol Heiss, who won a gold medal for figure skating.  Mrs. Thurston made us believe that if we worked hard and believed in ourselves, we could do anything we set our minds to. Now, I knew even then I would never be an Olympic skater, or even manage to remain upright on ice skates, but, I also knew that I would always try to do my best and smile like Carol Heiss and that knowledge and perseverance were the keys to success.

Mrs. Thurston wasn’t mean, nor was she old, but, to me, she will always hold a gold medal in fourth grade education.

Carol Heiss, 1960 Gold Medalist - Google

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