Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Yeast of Life is Sour

Sourdough starter showing off it's action.
Ignore the tomatoes muscling in for a picture.

It's summer and a lousy time to be baking. But I have a creative compulsion and a fear of poverty that motivates me to make things. Don't ask me how that's supposed to help since I don't sell these things. And many of the "things" I make, aren't edible or wearable - even the things that are supposed to be edible or at least decorative.

But in the midst of our September heat wave, it seemed a good thing to make some sourdough starter. After paying for breads in the store and not really being satisfied with it, I wanted to give it a go myself.

Sourdough starter is a living thing. My youngest daughter now 30 years old played some kind of a game where the kids checked some sort of technology to feed or tend to their imaginary characters? What those kids needed was some sourdough starter. There is stirring and feeding it. Then making something with it. You can share it with others. The game of Starter as a Living Being (lots of living beings) in a bowl or jar that is growing when on the counter or put to sleep in the coolness of the refrigerator, is way more real than the techno game. And, there is more sensory involvement.

The first thing I learned was that the rottener it smells, the better the tang. As an old farm girl, this had echoes of silage. I think silage was described as sweet. Okay, this was sweet in a rotten kind of way. Who eats rotten?  Well, the dog for one. Maybe there is something primeval about this living blob that demands curiosity. Who eats funk? I remember how my kids love rotten cheeses. Okay, there sometimes is a good funkiness to edibles, I guess.

Don't let the funky smell in the kitchen scare you, I think, as I walked into the kitchen recently. Of course, I had to be sure and checked to see if the compost container (a used quart yogurt tub) was overripe or something was foul in the kitchen garbage. But no, it was the starter being busy.

I also learned that some people have definite ideas about whether to use bought yeast, a "natural" yeast or someone else's starter. I'm too soon into the process to have an opinion about this yet.

I am also thinking there are lots of people who won't eat yeast for their health. Good self-care is my idea of personalize medicine. I respect dietary limitations.

I have learned that for some reason, the rye flour makes a tangier and bubblier starter than when I made it initially with the unbleached bread flour.

The first sourdough bread was made with flat beer. I think I was the only person in the house to willingly eat it. Partner tried it to be polite, but isn't eating it on his own volition. Housemate encourages anything that is homemade as opposed to bought/factory made, but hasn't really helped herself to it. Honestly, the bread didn't have that tang I was looking for, either. But it did have something.

Partner's said it was a passive bread. I think he meant passive-aggressive bread. He described the taste as bland until swallowed, and then, there was a pungency to the flavor on the backside. 

I didn't experience the bread like that, but that is what makes food so interesting. 

We don't always think that visually things are experienced in inherently different ways from person- to-person and assume that people see what we see, unless we know we have a profound visual impairment. But taste? We know growing up in families and in community know how different taste can be perceived, because someone may love a particular food (you could fill in any food) and someone else will seem repulsed or neutral about it. We wonder how that could be, but it is so pervasive these differences that we instinctively know people experience taste very personally.

Round two on making something with the starter meant that I decided to "feed" it with warmed then cooled milk and rye flour in equal parts and let it sit on the counter for at least 24 hours. I let it go 36 hours. Some experts suggest really letting it go for several more days to really give it tang.

The second attempt to use this rotten, living yeast colony feeding on flour, milk and yeast was with a cinnamon sourdough bun recipe. Two weeks ago Partner, in passing, mentioned a hankering for cinnamon rolls before I even thought of sourdough starter. So this time, maybe I could find a way of using the yeast in a way that would, hopefully, be more pleasing. And, this time the funkiness was way more active and exciting.

Good news. Bad news. 

The good news is that Partner liked them. Housemate liked them. I texted a picture of the rising buns on a pan, and one of the kids managed to find their way home to visit on a Saturday night. I sent an extra one home with her. I liked them, too. But, goodness they were sweet!

Bad news. I love how forgiving food is in my world. I rarely can follow a recipe. This time, nothing fatal. I rolled the widest part of the 9" x 15" (except it was longer than that)of the dough and cut 1" circles from the log of cinnamon rolls. So, there should have been 9 larger, with more spirals in them, rolls from the log of dough. I cut back on the baking time in hopes that this wouldn't over bake them.

So, the bad news was... there was no bad news really. Just worry about my inability to follow directions. I tell people I can't hear directions given aloud. But I don't seem to be able to follow written directions, either. 

And, the sourdough starter was given another cup of rye flour and water to replace the amount taken for the recipe. So, the starter has been given another chance at making something new.

I just have to remember to stir it every few days in the fridge... And what's the worst that can happen? I have to make new starter, which means allowing a bowl of yeasty life to grow on my kitchen counter. That is about as much responsibility as I want for life right now.

Yeasty edgy cinnamon goodness

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Sorting through the ash

How interesting, a draft from 2014. It is now 2016.

International Day of Prayer 2016,
Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont, MD

Mom is getting ready to turn 75 and Dad died the summer of 2012 with father-in-law 6 months later the same year. The truth seems to be that I never seem to relax. I seem to be waiting for the next shoe to drop.

A beloved member of the mediation group died of cancer May, Friday the 13th, 2016. His memorial service was earlier today, the same day my grandson had his first recital playing the guitar. No way to attend both events. The widow encouraged me to attend to the living.

From 2014:

It's been two years now since Dad died. I wasn't sure what to expect.

As it turns out, there is a slow thaw around his death for me. It gets complicated by the family dynamics of kids doing their things and mom recently having, what I refer to as, her dry run at having a stroke a few weeks ago. She's returning back to work - she's 73 years old, and driving.

I was feeling a bit edgy last week. Friends have had elders and parents die within the past few weeks. I attended a funeral for a co-worker's parent.

The truth is: as my own children are finding their way and settling a bit, I can relax enough to feel. My grandson turned seven-years old in May and recently spent a few nights with us without his parents. After seeing him biweekly for his first four years of life and then losing much of that time with him as a result of a divorce and other family dynamics, this is indeed tender time.

It is a tricky thing these defense mechanisms. I'm reading John Gottman's book called The Science of Trust. For me, it is a slow read because I am trying to take it all in.

One of the ideas is that if we experience things negatively, then we keep using that lens and dismiss the positive.

This is such work for me (a positive, hopeful view) as I feel like the Other Shoe is always dropping. How does one experience mental illness, addiction, physical illness, poverty and death as positive?

As the thaw takes place, what I am aware of is how much I am afraid to love. I don't want to be hurt. I don't want to lose my beloveds. Death is that sharp edge always waiting around the corner to steal away Life.

Writing continues to be a struggle. But what is the point of living if there isn't life to live? Music and making cards seem to be my best hope. Work is work.

On my Fridge is a quote from Leonard Cohen:
Poetry is just the evidence of life.
If your life is burning well, 
poetry is just the ash.
Here's to the ash!

And back to 2016:
Here is to Vic! 

And to the living, 
beloved Grandson.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Journey to the International Day of Prayer's Chapel This Year

I was on my way home from a several day journey taking me from home on Sunday, May 1 to Florida and then on Wednesday, May 4 returning to see my grandson and daughter near Philly that afternoon and evening. On Thursday, I returned from Pennsylvania to start back to work that afternoon in Frederick, Maryland. I love my work, but I needed a break.

May 5 is also the International Day of Prayer. I decided that an hour of prayer and meditation before entering back into the not-vacation mode would be good. Coming down Rt 15 from Pa into Md, I wondered where could I worship and pray?

I figured my fall back would be the Basilica at Emmitsburg or the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes where Mother Seton had her vision of Mary an exit or two further down the road. I called a colleague, who is a minister, to see if her church was open on the auspicious day. But I got her voicemail.

My van drove past the exit for the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. When I went to the Grotto, I was surprised (and had forgotten) that it no longer is a quaint little quiet spot for reflection, but a tourist center, with two large buses in the outer parking lot today and a store by the bell tower.

I turned around and headed back to the highway and continued thinking, maybe I just needed to pull along side the road at 11 a.m. and take my chances. Prayer can be anywhere. The Catoctin Mountains are beautiful. The Blue Ridge mountains represent home in so many ways for me. I find myself exhaling a little more deeply when I am near them. Besides, I didn't want to spend my time driving around looking for a place since I had to be in town for work at 12:30 p.m.

As 11 a.m. arrived, I had not heard from my friend. The roadside shoulder off Rt 15 hardly seemed to be the prayerful place I was seeking. At 11:01 a.m., I found myself pulling into the Catoctin Mountain State Park's Manor Area. The Visitor Center was closed. A lone car was sitting there. No one was in the first picnic/play area. No cars were in the furthest parking lot, either.

I parked and got out of Partner's vehicle, a Dodge Journey, aptly named Pegasus. The air was chilly, the sky cloudy, and a light drizzle kept trying to get established.

Ah, today's chapel is here:

And here:

My family roots on my mother's side lived a few miles from here. I know my grandparents walked this area. My youngest daughter held a birthday party at the park one year. Memories that are deeper than my own lifespan live in these woods. Connections to these spring-fed mountain waters and rocks resonate in my bones.

I had come from a re-baptism in the ocean waters while on the Florida trip just two days prior. The feminine water pulsing in those waves was salty and gritty. In contrast, the peewees and the thrush were singing here with a crispness and sharp echoing in the woods that no electronic music could recreate. The babbling brook uttered its' own song.

I prayed and sang and did a walking meditation in these old woods alive with spring. I tried to take in everything that I saw and heard and felt. Lots of green. Familiar friends, the trees were comforting.

When I left the park, families with children and older couples were in the other parking areas. Life looked ordinary and normal. I returned to work.

The next day, a friend who knew about this side trip, said with great excitement, "Do you know where Catoctin Hollow Road is?" I couldn't place it. But after a wracking of the collective brains in our household, someone got a map. It was the road beside the park off Rt 15. A body had been found by morel hunters just off the road.

Was the dead body there the day before when I was? 

It grieved me to think that while I was walking the banks of the creek, a 1/2 mile away there probably was a body dead in the woods. I can only hope it was a naturally occurring death and fresh on Friday, May 6. But I am aware of the violence in the world. There certainly have been times of great violence in the world. But the chilling and increasing ease with which people are killing each other frightens me.

No word on the cause of death yet. But as I looked at the pictures I had taken with my little camera phone at the park that day, I noticed a photo where at the bottom of a tree someone had knifed in the word/name: DANA.

For most people, Dana is a name of a person. For Buddhist and mindfulness practitioners, this has a different meaning. Dana (pronounced like the name Donna) is the practice of giving freely a donation to teachers who teach on how to end unnecessary suffering (the dharma).
Look towards top of beech in picture: dana
Yes, of course. The trees stood witness to something in the woods down the road. The birds are singing of spring in the midst of the world's turmoil. The babbling creek upstream, in its unformed words, rhythmically flow from the mountain springs to the salty ocean without thought about how. But we too, can stand witness to and sing of and swim down towards our final destination called home as we put our hands together in prayer celebrating, lamenting and giving, what is ultimately, only ours for a brief span to time, back to the earth. It is our seemingly unique gift as humans to do this act in this particular form: praying in all manner and in all ways.

I have to laugh at how playful the universe can be. Maybe I say this just to amuse myself in the midst of the hardness of life. But how can I take myself so seriously when the trees look tatooed with the message I need?  Where the exposed roots seem like outstretched arms, perhaps a version of the multi-armed Buddha of Compassion? This tree certainly gave its bark freely to carry the word Dana. 

Although, I do wonder how Dana is doing these days? Did she/he cut it into the bark her/himself as a declaration of existence to the world? Or, did a lover mark the tree in hope of eternal love for each other? These, too, seem like acts of prayer. 

I bow to the teachers and the teachings and the community of living things everywhere! May there be peace, love and humor in the world, just the way the world is.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dog fur

Back in November 2015, I wrote this piece and never posted it. Before I add more to the collie story, this part needs to be told.

What brings joy?

After 16 months of a reclaimed granite counter sitting outside in front of the garage, it finally got moved inside. (Long story, not for here.) Hooray! 

This meant that I needed to clean and rearrange the office to create a desk with it. Actually, Partner and some co-workers moved the granite onto two two-drawer file cabinets, and wha-lah! A desk. Now my job was to clean it and set it up. 

I think this would be a happier moment if I didn't feel like crud. A low-grade cold has been settling in for the past two days. I put off cleaning flower beds for the winter because of the sinus pressure.

With the desk set up, I needed to clean the floors. This required bent over, nose-dripping scrubbing. 

I began to feel weepy. Why?

Maybe I feel worse than I let myself know. Maybe it is the dog hair from Finn swirling around the edges and being caught up in items stored behind the cabinets. He'd passed over last January, but those fluffy collie fur bunnies still showed up in odd places.

I've been looking at collie porn on Facebook. That means I look longingly at those beautiful pictures of well-groomed dogs with stately smiles. But the stronger experience of looking at those pictures is the strong felt-sense of soft fur. I miss Finn's softness.

Pictures don't capture the work involved. In and out several times daily for potty breaks, regular feedings no matter what, grooming, vet visits, etc. He was a rescue dog with lots of quirks. But Finn was a companion. Always there. Nosing me in the leg for a pet or snack.

Last night, I went to sleep on the recliner. Partner had been in bed for a few hours. Reading, I fell asleep.

The dream was set on a familiar farm. The farmhouse had a wrap-around porch. I was down the lane at the barn. I saw on the hill a coyote-wolf cross. It was coming toward me. Frightened and nowhere to go, I stood. This creature turned into a collie. Then there were five beautiful collies. They seemed ready to come with me in a pick-up truck. A very pregnant collie was directly in front of me.

I awoke in a scared, racing-heart kind of way.

The collies were beautiful and comforting. It was the fear of the wild coyote-wolf coming toward me that affected me.

Who knows what is basic physiology of the the mind/body - racing heart/panic and dream imagery?

I awoke enough to go to bed and snuggle with Partner.  While dread of the wild coyote-wolf cross was with me, so, too, were the beautiful, gentle, soft collies. (Ironically, those fuzzy collies are called rough collies.)

I could never have predicted the power of having a collie in my life a few years ago. I miss Finn.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Sometimes, there are just no decent words that capture the times.