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We didn’t know about the flowers.

We arrived in London on August 4 at the beginning of a two-week European vacation. In an effort to keep ourselves awake after an overnight flight, we hopped on an open-air bus tour. It was a magnificent sunny day. The Tower Bridge, the church spires, the Houses of Parliament, and the dome on St. Paul’s Cathedral all stood out in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. What a welcome.

As the bus rose up the hill past the Tower of London, we caught a glimpse of something red in the moat below. I tipped the view finder on my camera and lifted it high over my head so that I could capture an image:

IMG_1788 When we got back to the hotel, I downloaded the photos from the day. The poppies around the base of the tower were lovely, but at the time we didn’t realize how monumental they were. As it turned out, the spectacular installation that was just completed today (November 11), had just been started.

The next day, we returned to the Tower on foot, much more informed about the poppy project and hoping for a closer look. A large crowd had gathered along the wall; they were waiting, it turned out, for a ceremonial appearance by the Beefeaters.

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The red coats, the brilliant ceramic blooms, and the significance of the display combined to powerful effect. One stem for every soldier from England and the Commonwealth whose life was lost in The Great War. Every flower was placed by hand, for someone who fell in a field in Belgium, or in a trench in France, or in a haze of mustard gas. Young people fighting for an ancient alliance, giving their lives for a new century and a new world.  We are all the beneficiaries of that sacrifice. We didn’t know about the flowers, but we will not forget.

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Last month, we brought our French exchange student to New York City to see the sights.  There, at the foot of another tower–this one brand-new and gleaming in an autumn sky, we saw another memorial.

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Again, a moat–or, more accurately, two moats–waterfalls, in fact. Rather than the protective boundary of a Medieval castle, these pools define spaces that are no longer occupied. Around them are low walls listing the names of nearly 3,000 people, most of whom perished on a single day as part of a war for which they had not enlisted.

The monument is striking. There are signs encouraging visitors to touch the engraved letters, and on that day, many people did. Fingers traced the grooves, brushed across the titles of engine companies, counted the firefighters from individual ladder trucks.

Some names were marked with flags or small mementos. And in some names, there were flowers. Roses, their stems clipped short so that the blossoms stood just above the surface, and the bright pink color reflected off the smooth stone. IMG_0117

We didn’t know about those flowers, either.

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A Room and a View

When I tell people that I have an amazing view from my apartment in New Haven, they usually respond with some skepticism. As in, “Really? What can you see in New Haven?”

My poor part-time city. It doesn’t get a lot of respect as a scenic destination.

My apartment faces north. And, it is on the 26th floor of one of the tallest buildings in town. And, I have floor-to-ceiling windows that make my tiny space feel much bigger than it actually is.

And, dominating my vista is a spectacular geologic formation. East Rock is a 200-million year old trap-rock ridge. Its peak is 366 feet above sea level. It is comprised mostly of diabase, a mineral compound that oxidizes when exposed to air (I looked it up), turning the face a beautiful shade of reddish-brown. All of the non-rocky surfaces are crowded with oak, elm, and maple trees. Since we’re in Connecticut, and it’s October, you can imagine the colors out my window this week. But why just imagine, when I can share the sunset view from my living room on Monday evening?

IMG_0145What can you see in New Haven? Well, I can see this.

And also (because I seem to be beginning most of the sentences in this post with the word and), just to give you a bit more perspective on the whole “Views in New Haven” concept, consider the following. This is the view from East Rock looking downtown.

IMG_0147This photo was taken one week before the sunset shot above. You can see across the top of the Yale campus and out to Long Island Sound.

I love my part-time city.

The Thing About the Coffee

I have a thing about my morning coffee.  It’s been mentioned in previous posts, and here it is again. A 4-shot latte. Usually called a “quad venti,” because I usually get it at Starbucks. Otherwise, it’s just a large four-shot latte. The point is, I order this beverage. By talking to a person. While smiling and usually while making conversation about the weather or some other relevant topic.

When I started my new job last year and rented my new apartment, a lot of my favorite people asked me about my coffee thing. Now that I’d be walking to work, didn’t I want a Keurig, or an espresso machine, or some other handy appliance?

No.

I absolutely do NOT want a coffee-making toy. I am way too much of an extrovert to make my coffee all alone and walk to school for half an hour without speaking to anyone. One of the reasons I decided to live downtown and walk to work was specifically so that I could find a coffee shop (or more than one) where I could stop every morning and talk to someone. Where people might get to know me a little, and might recognize me and say hello when I opened the door. And also, that they would make me a nice strong latte.

I am happy to say that my morning routine is exactly what I envisioned.  Because sometimes, in both large and small ways, we get to make our lives happen. The  coffee thing is kind of small. But it is really nice. Today, it was pouring out when I left the apartment building, so I drove the whole 1.9 mile route instead of walking.  But I stopped for coffee anyway. And when I walked into the cafe, the barista smiled at me and  said, “4-shot latte?” And I said, “oh, yes, please.” And then we talked about the weather.

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 

 

That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

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This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.

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There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Teaching The Boy to Cook

Tonight I made green risotto. I’m sure there’s a recipe out there somewhere for this dish, but here in our kitchen, dinner emerged as the result of a discussion between me and the Boy about what to do with a bright, aromatic bunch of fresh late-season basil.

We make pesto on a regular basis. Today, it just seemed too mundane for us to turn a lovely bouquet into a batch of the same-old, same-old. As an improvisational cook, I am delighted to share a deep enthusiasm and knowledge with my son about the possibilities for a meal. He is developing a strong sense of the way ingredients come together, of the flavors that complement each other, and of the techniques that elevate a simple idea into an elegant presentation.

In the past few years, The Boy has learned knife skills, essential ratios, herb profiles, the uses of kitchen tools, elementary sauce preparations, and complex food profiles. He can make a chiffonade of herbs. He can make a roux, expertly varying the level of color depending on the intensity of the stock he plans to prepare. He can make a marinara sauce and a tomato cream sauce. He is my go-to person for tasting dishes as they simmer, and his recommendations for spicing are spot-on.

He’s an extraordinary apprentice and collaborator, this son of mine. When we pick up our CSA share at the farm, he eagerly suggests ideas for how to use our cornucopia of the week. He enthusiastically tries everything. Last week, we got a really big watermelon in the crate. I decided to make an agua fresca (see below for the super-easy recipe). The Boy was my first taster. Today, we stopped by our excellent local cafe so that I could get a cup of the best latte in town. There was French onion soup on the menu. The Boy had himself a cup, liked it, assessed it, and gave me a full rundown on how we should make our own onion soup (fewer chunky onions, more herbs).

Which brings us back to the green pesto tonight. When I was out shopping this afternoon, I tossed a bunch of fresh oregano into the shopping cart. I told the woman at the wine store what I was making, and she pointed me to a fabulous Montepulciano. Back at home, I pureed the oregano with the basil, a couple of tablespoons of butter, and two cloves of garlic in the food processor. When I mixed it into the simmering arborio rice, the aroma brought both guys from distant corners of the house.

Checking the risotto

The boy (who also knows how to uncork a bottle of wine), followed every step of the preparation. Served with a fresh loaf of bread, some local cider, and the beautiful wine, we had a great comfort meal on a rainy night. Everyone was happy at our house.

Agua Fresca: To start the process, I placed a big metal colander into an even larger metal bowl. Then I removed all the flesh (with seeds and everything) from a large watermelon, and placed it all into the colander. With my hands, I squeezed the juice out of the melon chunks. Once most of the juice had been extracted, I pressed the rest of the pulp against the sides of the colander with a potato masher, then discarded the drained flesh and seeds of the melon. I added the juice of two fresh limes and a pinch of sugar to the juice, then poured the results through a funnel into a glass pitcher. Mixed with seltzer, this makes an easy and refreshing beverage!