I’ve heard the reports. Negative abysmal temperatures again tonight. Let’s just pretend, shall we?
Let’s say we’re in that cottage by the ocean. You know the place. We’ve just unloaded the car and are hurriedly running around to see what’s changed since last year, claiming bedrooms, putting the sheets we’d packed only hours ago onto welcoming beds, pulling back the curtains.
Then running out the door (let that screen door slam) and down the sandy path to the dune above the beach. It’s late and getting dark, but we can still see enough to see how steep the slope is. Kick off those shoes. They’re safe. Unleash the dog. He knows the way. Hit the sand with our bare feet and it feels cold, but not enough to stop us.
Let gravity pull us down that dune. Let the ocean pull us across the high tide line of wrack, driftwood, charred wood from someone else’s beach fire.
Look! The sun’s just setting and the gulls are quieting. Is that a seal or a wave? Too dark to tell.
The dog’s already ankle-deep in foam. The ocean’s laughing. The waves are kicking up a fuss, reaching and receding, frizzling and falling over itself in excitement that we’re finally here.
Everyone else is leaving; they must have dinner plans. But we? We have potato chips and hot chocolate in the cottage, and we’ll get to that by-and-by. We have all the time in the world.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
–E. E. Cummings, Copyright 1952, © 1980, 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings
Bird at the Window
Beyond is a brightness
I am not equal to
Yet what I see
Turns into what I want,
And to bring nothing but this body
To pass through
The one thing between
Myself and what I crave,
Almost done, the world a ruin
Of leaves, winter at the throat,
My song over and over until
So familiar I can do
What I am about to do
While you who rise from the table
And walk from room to room
Will remember only the sound
Of what cast herself through
All that glass, instead of the song
That was sung until finally
You would ask to know more.
–Sophie Cabot Black, Poetry (June 2008)
In 1956, Gavin Maxwell was traveling in southern Iraq when it occurred to him that he would like to own an otter (his beloved dog had recently died). Though he had a flat in London and traveled widely, he also had tenancy of a remote house in Sandaig, on the western coast of Scotland, and he thought an otter would live a happy life there, encircled by the ring of bright water.
He knew nothing of raising an otter, and the first one he adopted died after a short time in his care, before they even made it back to Scotland. And then he found Mijbil. The first encounters are delightful, with Mij curling up with Maxwell in a sleeping bag for the night. Maxwell describes Mij’s antics in the London flat, his affectionate and curious behavior, as well as his destructive tendancies. We see Mij in harness and leash, being walked on London streets, or playing with toys or in the bath.
Soon after, they travel up to Scotland and Mij is slowly given freedom to explore the land and water around the house: an otter’s paradise of streams, waterfalls, ocean, and fish. It’s all as sweet as a fairy tale.
But we know that all fairy tales have dark underpinnings, and so goes the story of Maxwell and his otters. Because, of course, otters are wild animals and, though darling and affectionate when young, they grow up to be adult wild animals, who have sharp teeth and claws, and unpredictable natures.
The first book in the trilogy, Ring of Bright Water, describes the best, most hopeful years of the endeavor. Other otters are adopted. And Greylag geese. Maxwell furnishes and renovates the previously empty house. He buys and renovates a boat. He marries (briefly). He has friends come to help care for the growing menagerie. He writes. And he writes beautifully.
One of my favorite passages is from early in the book, about the elver migration he witnesses at Sandaig, and another is his description of his neighbor’s children and their encounter with a rush of herring fry in the bay:
The sun was very low; the shadow of the house lay long and dark across the grass and the rushes, while the hillside above glowed golden as though seen through orange lenses. The bracken no longer looked green nor the heather purple; all that gave back their own colour to the sun were tge scarlet rowanberries, as vivid as venous blood. When I turned to the sea it was so pale and polished that the figures of the twins thigh-deep in the shadows showed in almost pure silhouette against it, bronze-coloured limbs and torsos edged with yellow light. They were shouting and laughing and dancing and scooping up the water with their hands, and all the time as they moved there shot up from the surface where they broke it a glittering spray of small gold and silver fish, so dense and brilliant as to blur the outline of the childish figures. It was as though the boys were the central decor of a strangely lit baroque fountain, and when they bent to the surface with cupped hands a new jet of sparks flew upward where their arms submerged, and fell back in brittle, dazzling cascade.
Alone, that passage is beautifully evocative, but it’s the next part that I can’t forget:
Then I saw that a hundred yards out on the surface was ruffled by flurries of mackerel whose darting shoals made a sputter of spray on the smooth swell of the incoming tide. The mackerel had driven the fry headlong before them into the narrow bay and held them there, but now the pursuers too were unable to go back. They were in turn harried from seaward by a school of porpoises who cruised the outermost limits of their shoal, driving them father and farther towards the shore. Hunter and hunted pushed the herring soil [fry] ever inward to the sand…Beyond them, black against the blanched sunset water, rose the towering sabre fin of a bull killer whale, the ultimate enemy of sea creatures great and small, the unattackable; his single terrible form controlling by its mere presence the billion of lives between himself and the shore.
The layers on layers, the way each each action has a reaction, the way one thing leads to an inevitable other. The story of “Ring of Bright Water” ends on a hopeful note. The next two books in the trilogy tell of sadness and disaster heaped on disaster, but I still can’t forget the golden early days when even a mad idea seemed like a good idea.
Our books for month 1:
- H ~ The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, by Catherynne M. Valente
- M ~ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, by Dylan Thomas
- R ~ The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, by Gavin Maxwell
We’d love to know what you read. Please leave a comment telling us about it!
The category for the coming month is:
We’ll see you back here on March 9!
This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category on the 9th of each month.
The buoy bell was a housewarming gift from M’s family when we bought this little chunk of Vermont all those years ago.
Back then, if you remember, the house was up near the road. Far down the slope of a yard stood some ancient apple trees. M took an old hank of rope, threaded it through the top of the bell, looped it over the branch of one tree, knotted the rope. And there she still hangs.
Over the years, the tree has grown older and rangy, the house has moved down the slope, the goat fence has arrived (followed by the goats). And there she still hangs. Silent witness until the wind whispers up and shakes everything in its path.
The other day there were rumors of snow. We’d been fooled a few days earlier when the blizzard that silenced Boston decided to hug the coast. School was cancelled in anticipation of two feet of snow and nothing happened. The day was cloudy and quiet.
Then, in that next wave, the wind came up in long steady strokes and set the bell to ringing and ringing, announcing the coming storm. I could see the wind rustling the high thin branches of the trees, but it was the bell that told me that something worth noting was happening.
You’d think we’d be driven mad by the sound of that bell out there, but somehow it’s faded into the background and we have to actively listen to hear it. The way you can stop hearing the train that runs behind your house after awhile. The way you can miss the quarter-hour tolling of the grandfather clock you grew up with. The way, when we first moved here, our land smelled like a pine forest where we’d pitch a tent, and every day seemed like vacation, and now it just smells like home.
The way the thing you treasure most seems lost to you, but is all along sitting in the palm of your hand, warm and waiting to be noticed.
Second semester’s here and you know what that means, right?
You guessed it: rehearsals for the annual high school musical have begun! This year’s production is “Drood” (or “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), based on the unfinished Dickens novel. It’s written by Rupert Holmes.
Yes, THAT Rupert Holmes.
Fortunately, this production doesn’t include any references to piña coladas or personal ads. It’s more about murder, mystery, and several unsavory characters (all exceedingly more palatable). It also features a different ending every night (voted on by the audience). What could be more exciting for a group of actors than to not know which numbers they’re doing at the end of the second act until after intermission? Can you imagine that pressure? I’m glad I’ll be in the audience and not on that stage…
The cast list was announced yesterday. H is Princess Puffer. She runs an opium den. A stage parent can be proud of that.
Below is a recording of one of Puffer’s songs. Come to the show May 14-16 to hear H and her fellow cast members do it even better.
Sunday morning, making waffles.
You can’t do this stealthily if you’re going to use the egg whipper. And you can’t make these waffles without the whipper.
This is the first in a (probably irregular) series of posts that will include sounds and images recorded at the same time and location.
A recipe is a list.
A recipe is a blueprint.
A recipe is a map.
The thing about an old family recipe is how it can help you reconstruct a memory and make it present. How just reading it is like reading a memoir of your own childhood, written as you lived the moment.
A recipe is an artifact.
A recipe is a thumbprint.
A recipe is a photograph.
An old family recipe is a thing. A scrap of paper, an index card, a notebook page. It was scratched out on the back of a paper bag, or on the top sheet of the pad that sat by the telephone. It was ripped out of a magazine. It bears the evidence of being handled. It’s splattered, creased, greased. It preserves your mother’s handwriting, and your grandmother’s annotation: “From Shirl.”
A recipe is a whistle.
A recipe is a signal.
A recipe is a telephone.
The recipe is a practical thing. It directs and points. If it’s a good recipe, it stands by your shoulder and tells you just how much to stir that batter, just how dark to bake that bread, just what shape those cookies should be. Have always been. It tells you when you can trust your own judgement and when you must be exact.
A recipe is a thread.
A recipe is a story.
A recipe is circle.
The old recipe is a connection between the you that was and the you that is, between the people you loved and who loved you enough to cook for you, even when they are no longer here. If you’re lucky, it draws a thread from you back to a person so distant in your past that you never knew her. But she cooked this recipe for her little girl, who maybe grew up to be your grandmother.
An old family recipe is one tale in the long manuscript of things that made you you. It’s a story you recite as you follow it. It’s a story you put into the hands of your own children and tell them, “Eat this. Taste this. Remember this. Tell this.”
My sister and I are working on a project this year. We’re collecting our favorite family recipes, along with those of our extended family, to create a bound memory of tastes. Some of these recipes (like the one on this page) are childhood favorites, and some are ones that we’ve developed as we’ve lived on our own, feeding ourselves, our friends, and our families. If you’re reading this and you’re related to us, you’ll probably be hearing from us; we want your recipe memories, too!
In the meantime, let’s start with our grandmother Martha’s Mandelbrot (also called mandel bread). Mandelbrot is Yiddish for almond bread. It’s a twice-baked cookie, pretty much the Jewish version of biscotti. It’s nutty. Not too sweet. Something you’d make to serve with coffee when the “girls” came over for mahjong. Or something you’d hand a teething toddler. Or something you, if you were me, would bake on one of your wistful days when you could have used a hug from your grandmother.
1 cup whole almonds
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Toast the almonds in your oven or in a dry skillet.* (If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry; it’s not hard. Read how to do it here.)
- When the almonds are cool, grind them in a food processor to the texture you like. I like small crumbs, not powdered but not big chunks. I like to see flecks of nut in the mandelbrot.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground almonds.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla.
- Combine the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix gently until all of the flour is absorbed. This should form a pretty stiff dough. You need it to be stiff so that you can form logs with it. If it’s too wet, add more flour. If it’s so dry that it won’t hold together, add a bit of water.
- Divide the dough into three equal portions.
- Form each portion into a log about 6 inches long and and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter (you don’t have to be a stickler here; use whatever length and diameter sounds good to you!).
- Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and put on a cookie sheet or sheet pan. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and as long as overnight.
- 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Unwrap the logs, place them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet (spaced at least 3 inches apart), and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven and slice the loaves while they are still warm. Slice to whatever thickness you like. I sliced mine about 1/2 inch thick.
- Return the slices to the cookie sheet, either on their sides or edges, for a final bake. The mandelbrot won’t rise during this second bake, so you can kind of crowd them together on the sheet, as long as they aren’t touching.
- Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until they’ve turned the shade of light golden brown you like.
- Remove from the sheet and let cool on a cooling rack.
The mandelbrot will easily stay fresh in a cookie tin for a week. They also freeze beautifully.
* Martha’s recipe makes no mention of toasting the almonds; this is how old recipes change as they travel time, I suppose.