The sun is hiding like a child playing hide and go seek. These mornings, darkness greets my lumbering body coercing its way from sleep. Along the linoleum floor in the kitchen, my feet pad and slap, as my arm reaches for the light switch.
It is morning. It is night.
Darkness stands like two bookends to each day and the sunlight has become the book I’m reading voraciously. In a week I will stumble into the yawning maw of another year. It befuddles me in the way that only the end of the year creep can. I’m doing a dance with a buddha’s hand, a different one, mind you than the one who invited me onto the floor.
We survey each other. The end I’d planned for it is not the one I’m planning to tackle after all. Sometimes it’s important to change course or let the food continue revealing and inspiring.
In poetry, the poem is often found in revision. At times, the initial poem ends up being a pre-write only, an exercise for getting at the main thing itself. Sometimes all that remains of an initial poem is a single strong line or the solid bits, underlined scraps and pieces strewn throughout. Sometimes it involves starting from the end of the poem and writing backwards. Does that make the initial poem a failure- not at all. It is a necessary thing and the departure from the original is just as important as the initial stab.
The buddha’s hand and I survey each other and I now understand what I had originally planned no longer serves.
Instead, I wait. We continue the dance.
I put the poem in the drawer for a day or two and then pull it back out, reading it again with eyes that bring a new day’s light and the two bookends of darkness as filters.
The waiting mouth of the open trash can or compost bin.
We’ve all been there. We don’t like to linger in this location often or tell people we’ve visited it even on occasion. Nope, this destination is for other people, right? I’m right there with you. Failing is not something I want to be known for. Samuel Beckett once admonished to “fail again, fail better” and I’ve taken those words to heart. It’s the fear of failure that sometimes stops us from trying to accomplish the exciting and oft-perceived impossible. To tackle the impossible and make it to the other side- that is worth a fail or two along the way.
I am enamored of it. The alchemy and chemistry of sugar, water, lemon juice and fruit bubbling down into a thickened burbling consistency quickens my pulse. In our house, we treat jam like a guest and give it its just desserts. A smear of jam on a thick crusty slice of levain bread with a pat of unsalted organic butter kind of makes me want to swoon. So it’s no great leap to consider the possibilities of making jam from scratch as something worth trying out.
In my head, before I’d even begun the process I imagined myself standing with a wooden spoon in hand, stirring a simmering pot. Those cooked down spoonfuls of condensed fruit would be something special. Rows of jam jars glistening from the kitchen light hitting them upon opening the pantry would be reminders of joy sequestered for the days ahead.
Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start at the first batch.
A few weeks ago, I shared a recipe for Morado Jam. Walking by a neighborhood bodega, these concord grapes surprised me. Those orbs of bright flavored childhood captivated me from my spot on the sidewalk. Upon leaving the store and tucked into my Strand bookstore canvas bag, I began scheming how to make the most of their precious existence, began mulling how I might extend their life beyond this week and into the future. A basket of figs and a glass of Pinot later, it all came together delightfully in a mish-mash of purple flavors and textures stewing in a heavy pot on the stove top. The first batch filled my kitchen with a heady aroma of figs infusing the flavors of grapes. It made me stop and inhale slowly. After checking temperatures and spooning a tad bit onto the salad plate in the freezer, and notably without a context of what to look for really, I began pouring the jam into the glass jars waiting eagerly on the wire rack. After removing them from the canner, they looked sloopy. When cooled, the liquid sloshed around slowly but that give I’d been looking for had not come. I saved the first batch with the advice of a friend whose expertise in such things was much appreciated. I saved them with pectin.
The second batch thickened into its own purple brocade and I felt ready to give out these jewels, excited about the outcropping of fruit tended by my own hand. We trekked across the city, off to a party in the East Bay. Beck brought a six pack of Ranger IPA and I went armed with a jar of jam. Once we arrived, an elaborate spread was being prepared. Dips from a local Russian market spooned out into small wooden bowls sat next to a plate of tiny slices of pumpernickel. On the cheese platter sat several artisan cheeses from the farmer’s market next to an oozing slice of honeycomb and two jars of artisan jam. Do you see where this is going?
The host and birthday boy of discerning palate received the homemade jam and hugged me, welcoming us into his apartment. I thought he would keep the jam to enjoy for later, so when he plopped the small jam jar next to the two jars of artisan made jam, I didn’t sweat it. One of the guests decided to try my jam and cracked the seal of the lid, emitting that pleasant popping sound. She stuck a clear plastic knife in the jar and it came up empty. She tried again. Round and round she swirled the knife, much to my rising chagrin and the words “maybe we need a metal knife for this one.” She scooped out a section of jam and nibbled on her cracker quietly.
I tried to make a subtle beeline for that small jar of purple jam as subtly as I could as guests talked on about working in the Bay Area and Occupy. Up, out of the honey soaked plate, I pulled the jam jar and began mixing it with the metal knife. I probably looked strange to anyone checking out the cheese plate. I wanted to impress the host, his palate, his guests.
Off to twitter I went and sent a private message to a friend who runs an artisan jam company in Florida. I’d given her a jar of jam recently at a conference and she’d remarked the previous week, “I cracked open the Fig this morning, YUM!!! Really tasty with my crusty sourdough bread, thanks so much again for sharing!!” In my private response to her, I thanked her for her comment and asked if she was just being nice. What I’d tasted seemed more like candy than jam. She revealed a great truth:
“The flavor was excellent, it was overcooked in terms of texture, but it was made with love! That’s what’s most important.”
Failure in the kitchen shouldn’t keep us out of it. If anything, I’m comforted by the image of Julia Child in the movie “Julie and Julia” getting frustrated with onion chopping at school and then another scene that shows her with a mountain of onions to chop until she can get this skill down cold. Even the best chefs you could ever imagine have failed at some point in the kitchen. It happens. Then you move on and try again until you’ve mastered whatever feat or food is your teacher in that moment. Failure can lead giving up, but it can also lead to tenacity and that is a worthy personal descriptor. This foible has piqued my desire to try and then try again. To “fail better” next time. I’m just getting started with jam.
And this time I’ve got an extra hand and that same tenacious drive. This time I’m making Buddha’s Hand Marmalade.
“Let’s do it again!”
Sometimes you give in. Sometimes you don’t. I looked behind me, up the tall sturdy ice slide from which we had promptly whizzed to the bottom and I politely declined.
The guides had been very kind and quite firm: “Keep your arms and legs inside the sled. You will be going fast and this is for your safety.” The drop in front of us plummeted many stories down. I gulped and channeled the same ferocity and courage reserved for roller coasters. My mouth opened and said, “yes” when my younger cousin Michael declared he wanted to slide down the notorious ice slide. Our moms both looked at him and looked at me. It was decided in a moment’s earshot of the squeals of delight shooting down.
This particular December, we’d journeyed up to Quebec to truly experience Christmas decked out in snow, and adorned in ice crystals. In Montreal, we explored the underground city and became familiar with the barista at a local coffee shop where we would order hot chocolate and linger, listening to the lilt of French slip into English with such ease.
Michael and I had taken upon ourselves to make proper snow angels wherever we found unmarred and pristine patches of fresh snow. Our moms watched on, happy to see their kids happy. While it could easily and often be said, everything is bigger in Texas, we had never encountered so much snow or a similar kind of cold that seeps into the core of your being. During that trip I became a walking presence with two eyes barely discernible from the scarf wrapped around my neck, my mouth, my ears and under an ear flapped toboggan. A horse carriage ride around town was its own sweet torture.
A few days later, we packed up and headed for Quebec City by train. Once we arrived, we checked into our hotel and got settled. I slid the curtain back, entranced in the environs as a view of the St. Lawrence river showed massive chunks of ice lazily drifting down the river. I sat transfixed at the frozen beauty. Not far from the hotel, a formidable ice slide stood as sentinel as if beckoning the adventure seekers. Michael spotted it and I knew one thing now on his agenda in Quebec City.
When given an opportunity to reckon with an ice slide that towers above you into the sky, you don’t say no. The guides had been very kind and firm, but inside my head as they drilled down to keep our legs and arms inside, I considered the poor person who had not heeded that bit of counsel and perhaps severed a foot or hand. My overactive imagination psyched me out by the time we had climbed the stairs to stand at the top and peer down below, two crows clad in black ready to alight, our moms mere specks against the austere white backdrop.
At the front, Michael eagerly crawled onto the sled and I manned the rear with arms wrapped tightly around his waist and legs tucked like vices around our shivering bodies. When they tipped the sled forward and released it, two things came to mind: sheer terror and exhiliration. Those two make interesting bedfellows. The wind slapped my face under its scarved and hooded appearance, pushing my skin like fingers molding clay. Michael screamed in delight, our song of victory and conquest. Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the bottom of the slide. I played the part of the brave older child- the teenager, as our moms pressed in asking about the harrowing experience and describing their view of the drop. From his mouth came the words:
“Let’s do it again!”
I promptly and ever so casually said no and we began our short trek back to the hotel. Along the way, a small hut accosted us with the smells of coffee and maple mingling together. The moms ordered up cups of hot coffee. Michael and I celebrated our adventure with fresh out-of-the-oven Beaver Tails. If you’ve ever had a Maple Glazed doughnut, it is a mere shadow of the goodness of that hot piece of flat fried dough slathered in a steaming maple glaze. I chewed slowly, letting each bite warm me up and savoring the tantalizing flavor. My tongue pushed the glaze down into my mouth, tearing off a bit of dough. If ice slides involve a beaver tail, I’m in.
And if I might have my say on holiday desserts to conjure up maple memories, I’d have to give in and cut a small slice of Maple Custard Pie. If I close my eyes, I might see a sled and hear squeals in the far distance.