Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Our First Bed

For the past few months, I've been collecting cobblestones from whomever had them to give away. The lion's share I gathered from a couple down the hill who had stowed away their own pile for a garden project they decided never to complete. I received a few more from another neighborhood connection, and additional car load from a generous person in an adjoining neighborhood. These cobblestones used to be San Francisco streets. Most of the stones are basalt, but there are few very regularly shaped granite stones, too, which may have served as curbs rather than pavers. When the houses in my neighborhood were built in the '30s through the 50's, the old stone streets were torn up. This neighborhood used to be full of family nurseries that sourced the flowers for the downtown markets. But in the decades of infill and resulting asphalt streets, the new residents often found uses for the old stones. Almost every house on the west side of my block, including my own, all built in the early 1950s, has retaining walls built from cobblestone and mortar. These stone walls have held up soil for decades, and most, including those in my property, are still in good shape.

They're beautiful: dark gray shining near black when wet with rain, the joints and mortar home to velvety moss, and they are heavy with history. So, when I set out to built a long raised vegetable bed in my yard, a bed in which I hoped to grow the historic and open pollinated varieties that I favor, those plants that tell stories, I knew the bed needed to have the dignity of San Francisco cobblestone.

Scott told me, "I love to move soil." He was as excited about the cobblestones as I was. I married him last month.

Just after we got home from our honeymoon, Scott and I dug out a trench that cut into a gentle sloping portion of the yard. My step kids helped with the digging. We lined the trench with galvanized 3/4" hex "gopher wire." Along the bottom of the bed we laid branches and trunks of shrubbery we've cleared out in the yard, creating a sunken hugelkultur bed. I tossed fertilizer over the wood to kickstart its decay. In the next couple weeks, we puzzled together the stones to create walls that were as even and attractive as possible (no mortar, in case we want to move or change things), returned the original soil to the bed, and added 30 cubic feet of purchased organic garden soil, enriching with worm bin contents and compost. Scott understood how to make the walls beautiful; I knew how to layer the soil.

To protect the bed from marauding birds and Indiana-the-dog's curiosity, we installed hoops we made out of PVC. We cut 1" PVC in short lengths and sunk it into the soil along the bed's edges. Then, we bent 10' lengths of 3/4" PVC into hoops, inserting each end into a 1" anchor. We snapped a single length of 3/4" PVC along the center-top of the hoops, providing some more strength. Over all of it, we draped the lightest of ag-fabrics, just enough to provide protection, and using PVC snaps, attached it to the top of the frame. Along the sides and bottom of the frames, we are using small spring clamps so we can easily open the sides and access the interior. We sheet mulched around the edges of the bed. We built something beautiful.

We are still on the lookout for more cobblestones. We've been edging the main garden pathway with them, and what we've completed looks right. It looks like it belongs here. We are short enough stones to finish the project right now, but we have plenty of time.

The stones are here. We just need to keep digging.

More about San Francisco cobblestones:

Cobblestones Unearthed on Vermont Street

A History of Paving Blocks Along San Francisco's South Beach Waterfront

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Knee on Ice

I'm laid up on my couch with a glass of wine and an ice pack. On Friday, one hand in Scott's and the other hand hanging on to my stepson-to-be, grinning while trying to pull both along the just zamboni-ed ice, I fell and landed, full-force, on my left knee. At first I laughed, but as I shakily skated over to the side of the rink and caught my breath, shock hit my gut. I almost puked from pain. I tried to skate around the rink a couple times with little relief; I had to go sit in the bathroom and wait for the adrenaline-y nausea to pass.

The skating was part of a day off from cooking four of the five days of my break. For the first part of break, I worked at a tick-tock rhythm to make sure a Thanksgiving feast for the five of us was on the table Thursday; then, on Saturday and Sunday it was waves of tasks to fill the chest freezer with leftovers: a rich carcass stock, a couple turkey lasagnes of fresh spinach pasta sheets, freezer bags of meat packed in its own drippings, turkey pot pie. And then, back to work.

I mourned leaving my house to limp back to work on Monday. I sincerely love my job. But, I also love my home and feel like I get to spend so few days enjoying what it provides me. It felt good to stretch my cooking muscles this weekend, to put together a whole spread with all the parts that hopefully complement each other. But I don't have a single winter vegetable in the ground, and I still haven't built the gopher-wire lined beds that I will need for any of the good things my hands itch to grow. I haven't placed an order for the couple bareroot trees on my list. My kitchen gets some of my attention at least; my garden gets too little of it.

This weekend, before my fall on the ice, Scott and I had a half an hour or so to fix a leak in the roof. We climbed up a borrowed ladder, helping each other make that last stretch between the top step of the ladder and the edge of the flat roof. When we finished tarring the seam, I didn't want to crawl down. The city sprawled out like a jewel box in front of us, from Twin Peaks on the left edge of the view, a tiny corner of The Golden Gate peaking over hills, Bernal up close, The Mission tucked behind it, then The Castro and The Haight, the Park. In the distance straight ahead, the Marin Headlands. And scanning to the right, all of downtown, the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. Oakland. Seeing it all nearly gives me goosebumps each time, and it's the view I get from not just the roof, but the backyard, too. It's my gardening view.

Tonight, as I sit here with ice on my still very sore knee, a book and a computer, I'm skipping out on something I really enjoy—my weekly Tuesday night date with a pottery wheel—but I need the book and the computer more tonight. I need to not leave my house. I need to be close to my own kitchen, to have my dog at my side, to look out my window to the distinct view that my house offers of the city. I need to sink into my home and place that order for fruit trees. I can't dig a garden bed because my body still hurts too much. But I can plan. I can dream. I can be inspired by the words of others who are writing up feelings I understand so well.

This is what happens to a cook when she spends so many hours gaping at the contents of the pan before her, waiting for doneness. It's not unlike the way a gardener watches her tomatoes ripen. Both end points mark the moment at which a vegetable contains as much liquid sweetness as it ever will. When perfectly cooked, a wedge of white turnip will drip juices as if its light purple veins run with fat, and its tissue will soften and taste like butter. On the raw side of things, an utterly ripe tomato at the end of August swings low on its vine, opalescent and suntanned gold at the shoulders, its voluptuous flesh nearly falling out of its skin. 
To me, becoming a cook meant being able to spot that point and know the time came to stop—to pull it, slice it, and put it on a plate. Raw or cooked, that is the vegetable finale. And to me . . . it looks pretty much like happiness itself.
Amy Thielen, Give a Girl a Knife 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Me and Eustace

I’ve struggled with my faith for decades. There have been times in which I have had a hard time believing there was a God.

Here’s a little background. For fifteen years, I was a member of a church in southern California. I loved a lot of the messaging, but the longer I was a member, and the harder I worked as I became more and more involved with the leadership of the church, the more frustrated I became. This lovely old building housed a community that had become consumed with only the well-being of the lovely old building. All of the church’s efforts were either to preserve the building or bring more people to the building. When I left that church, I left believing that a church was not a place for me to find God.

A couple years after leaving the church, my life changed dramatically. My husband received a job offer that he couldn’t turn down, and we decided together to move north. We sold the place I had bought when I was 25 and the house we had bought together when I was 33. I left the school where I had worked for over 17 years and entered into an uncertain job market. We left our strong group of friends, a collection of supportive neighbors, and all sense of stability.

We left what was comfortable and we stepped into the new. In this new life, my husband soon decided he wanted to become someone different, someone who didn’t have room in his life for me. He left. In this new life, I lived in a rental that never felt like home and didn’t have a garden—to those of you who know me, this is like missing a limb. In this new life, I didn’t find myself in the classroom, but in a library, and in an interim and therefore, to me, very tenuous position. Everything was new. Everything was hard. Nothing was comfortable.

But, surprisingly, I did have peace. In the whirl of changes that flew around me, it became easy for me to see where I needed to go. Here are three things I knew:

1) I liked myself. I liked my creativity, my sense of humor, my need to have my hands in food, dirt, or clay, my hunger to write, and my curiosity. My ex-husband hadn’t liked those things about me. I knew I needed to surround myself with people who loved those things about me.

2) Kindness was my siren. I surrounded myself with kind people—family and friends that I had known for years, yes, but I opened my heart to people I met everywhere, in classes, at work, at parties, at the pottery studio, everywhere. If I could smell kindness on you, I’d make you my friend.

3) I needed to dig in and make a home here. After my ex-husband left, my Southern California friends asked me to return. “Come back,” they said. “You’ll get a job in no time. Return to what’s comfortable.” But, I couldn’t go backwards. Right away I knew deep in my bones that San Francisco is where I needed to be and where I needed to buy a home. So, in the divorce, I asked for a percentage of what I would receive through years of spousal support in exchange for receiving it in one lump sum. I took my savings, that chunk from the divorce, and a gift from my parents, and I put a down payment on house on a sunny hill with a real back yard in which to garden and views of downtown and the Bay Bridge. I worked to make connections with my neighbors right away and have fallen in love with my corner of San Francisco.

Each of those three elements was incredibly clear to me. I liked myself. I needed kindness. I would make a home. I had no doubt.

Why was I so clear? Why did I not run back to Southern California? Why did I not crawl into the misery of self-hate and despair?


Is that feeling of being okay when you have little on which to lean grace? Is grace not pride but confidence? Is grace God?

In the two years since my ex-husband left, I’ve come to know God in a different way than I did beforehand. I’ve received that grace, and I feel like I’ve become even more of who I am. I’m more me.

I was thinking about how to describe what my move and divorce has done for me, and I was reminded of a scene from one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In this book, The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, the character Eustace has crawled into a dragon’s cave, found a gold bracelet, put it on, and woken up having become a dragon. Among other problems—the largest of which is the difficulty and loneliness of being a dragon—the gold bracelet is cutting into Eustace’s dragon-sized arm. One night, he goes to the lake and starts scratching at the skin around the bracelet, trying to shed some of it for relief. Aslan, a lion and the novel’s Christ figure, arrives and terrifies Eustace. Aslan tells Eustace to let him help.

Here’s how Eustace tells the story from there:

“I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away  . . .

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off . . . . And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.” (109)

That’s such a great description. I feel what Eustace is saying. I’m swimming in the delicious nowadays.

Life isn’t easy for me now, but it is good and it is rich with peace.

This December, I’ll be marrying a man who loves the same parts of me that I love, who is the kindest man I’ve ever met, and who is making my home even more of a home with the addition of two incredible beings who will be my stepchildren.

I haven’t yet found God in a church. God is not a building, even though I find God in my home. God is not other people, though I find God in others. I am not God, though I find God in me.

God is grace. God is peace. God didn’t tear my life up—my ex-husband and I did that to ourselves. But, God tore me open so I could re-find myself.

Friday, September 01, 2017

When It Gets Hot in San Francisco

My neighborhood today reached 103.1 degrees Fahrenheit. My house, despite the fact that it's on the sunny side of the city, is like almost every other building in the city and has no air conditioning, because, come on, it's San Francisco.

But, when it does get hot around here, certainties arise:

When you try to go to sleep at night, moths and other unidentifiables gather around the pool of light that shines upon your book or reader because every window and door that doesn't lead to the street is wide open to let in whatever air that is moving. You fall asleep slapping away insects.

You have to ask your trusted friends for deodorant at work because you've got BO by 9am.

Your pets, as accustomed to the temperate weather as you, flatten into fur covered puddles on the floor.

Grandparents and children sit in camping chairs on sidewalks of very busy streets to read the newspaper and do homework because it's too hot inside their apartments.

You can go a whole day without seeing a hooded sweatshirt.

You, one who never orders fruity drinks at a bar, choose drinks that are based on juice because they sound so damned refreshing, and they are, but then you remember that you don't order them because they go down so fast and whoops, you are a little drunk on heat and fruity beverages.

The chile pods on your pepper plants ripen all at once.

You think that waiting in an hour-long line at one of the famous ice cream shops is a great idea.

In other words, when it gets hot in San Francisco, it's pretty great.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Freezer and a House

Years ago, I bought a chest freezer for $100 from a coworker's mother who was downsizing. That chest freezer has saved me much money and given me even more pleasure. When I lived in southern California, I bought whole butchered lambs and pigs from my district's FFA program. I made apricot nectar from my overloaded trees and froze quarts of it. Last year, my friend and I split a goat from his family friend's farm and we stored both his portion and mine in the chest freezer. When I began looking for houses in San Francisco, the chest freezer's placement was something I considered at each open house and viewing. When I saw this house late last spring, I knew exactly where it would go: a garage corner where the freezer wouldn't get in the way of a car or foot traffic. This chest freezer is part of what makes my house my home.

My good friend X recently quit her job at the school where we both have worked and moved away from San Francisco with the goal of strengthening her writing and finding a city in which she felt at home and where she could afford to purchase a house. My house was a landing spot for a few days after her lease ended but before her year of travel began. Her presence added energy to the already happy home. Her poodle chased Indy. X joined me and Scott for dinners and breakfasts at the round oak table, loud with good conversation and laughter. She's traveling now, having already hit the country of Georgia for a month, then returned (landing here again for a day), and set out for a road trip with her dog across the country. I miss her something awful, but I know that when she's back around, this place will be a welcoming port for her.

In October, another friend will visit me. My brother and his girlfriend are also coming to stay for a while. Others will be here, too. This fall, this house is filling up. Housing others is part of what makes my house my home.

My parents didn't frequently have house guests in the houses in which my brother and I grew up; instead, they had house residents. In various times in various places, we had the following people stay with us for extended periods of time: a Nepalese missionary, a Hungarian couple who was temporarily in the US for work, a Mexican foreign exchange student, an Iraqi torture survivor and refugee, and a down-on-her-luck woman who my mother met at the supermarket. My parents modeled to me that wealth in space meant the responsibility and opportunity to share that space.


When I first moved up to the Bay Area, I added FishLine to my phone in order to see what the local fishermen were bringing in so I could shop for fresh, local, sustainably-caught fish. I intended to make a regular habit of this. Instead, my habit became checking the app, drooling over what had just come in, but not having the time to drive to Pillar Point Harbor—just above Half Moon Bay—to purchase off the docks.

Last week, I changed that. I had a free Friday, the app told me one boat had just come in with King Salmon, so I filled a cooler with ice packs and drove down to buy a fish. When I found the boat in the harbor, no one was on it. The harbor was almost silent except for the foghorn and birds. The water planed like glass.

I hung around the boat waiting for someone to show up, and someone eventually did.

"You want to buy?" he asked.


He used a long pole with a hook to pull out a fish from the boat's huge ice bin.

"This is the smallest one I've got. It's about six and a half pounds."

"Small is what I want." It was—I had never broken down a whole salmon before and I didn't want to learn on a huge one. I paid cash for the fish, half of what I would have paid for the same weight of filleted fish in the grocery store, took a picture of its shiny eye looking back at me, then placed it in the cooler and drove home.

I watched about fifteen how-to videos on YouTube, then dove into filleting the fish. I ended up with six lovely fillet portions, two salmon burgers from scraps, two quarts of rich salmon stock made from bones and head, and a whole lot of sashimi-nibbling while I worked. I vacuum sealed everything we wouldn't eat that night and placed the sealed portions in my chest freezer.

That night, Scott and I split a hefty fillet portion. It was rich and buttery, tender and absolutely delicious.

Since Friday, I've been checking my app daily. The sablefish are calling me. I haven't had the time to make it back, but I'll return. My chest freezer has plenty of room. It can handle much more.

My home has plenty of room, too.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Blackberry Season

I returned Thursday from what was, for me, a mammoth road trip across the northwest, from here to Montana to the San Juan Islands. In central Montana and eastern Washington, grain fields reflect the sun. Light bounces around, ringing through the softly rolling hills of Washington and the mountainous architecture of Montana. In both places, grain elevators mark settlements like church steeples. At one stop to stretch my troublesome legs, I picked a ripe just-dried wheat head off a plant. I tore the long tail off the seeds and ate the grains. They tasted like nuts and good bread and sun. It's no wonder that my souvenirs from the trip are bags of different flours and grains.

But, there aren't grain fields over the Lolo pass from Montana to Idaho where the Nez Pierce made a famous escape, nor are there many grain fields on Orcas Island where plums and pears grace square orchards and feral apples mark the cedar forests. There are, however, lots of blackberries, just like here in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay. If there's water, there are Himalayan blackberries.

This trip was an important, beautiful, and mostly fun trip, but it wasn't an easy one. It was a trip for me and my boyfriend to learn each other's families better. As such, there were the brambly tangles of comforts, joys, and tensions that come with family. There were thorns too. My winding veins took another jab at me and clotted for a second time in my left leg. A show my boyfriend planned to play in Bozeman didn't happen because of the venue's disorganization and poor communication. We had some really sleep-deprived days. On the other hand, there were family feasts, leisurely bike rides, long hikes, swimming with happy kids in bodies of water, all the campfire foods, beautiful sites, and lots of laughs.

Once home, I discovered a series of challenges, ones that shouldn't necessarily weigh on me, but collectively have been really hard. I'm still tired, and I guess that has made everything stickier. It took a lot of effort today for me to even take Indy for a walk.

We did walk, though. After a stop by a neighborhood block party where Indy let little kids pet his soft ears and only barked once at one of the other dogs, we wound our way back up the hill and into the park. The blackberries are really ripe on a particularly sunny hill, and there are lots of them. I took out a poop bag—unused, of course—and began to fill it with berries. Indy expertly picked out the low ones.

While we picked, a family came by and began harvesting fruit off of a nearby strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. They talked quietly among themselves as they picked. To me, strawberry tree fruit pales in comparison to blackberries. The fruits are mushy and a little tangy, but mostly bland, no wildness to them at all. Indy, a fruit hound, won't touch them. Yet, the family seemed happy with their mild bounty and Indiana and I were happy with ours. I picked a pound of berries that were so ripe they were practically juice by the time I got home, where I promptly turned them into syrup* to pour over pancakes or vanilla ice cream, or to mix with booze, sparkly water, or both.

My fingers are still stained after a couple washings. I have some jabs in my arms. They'll heal quickly though. They won't even scar. The stains and blood are worth it to have the jars of goodness for myself, and more importantly, for those I love.

*I use Hank Shaw's easy and delicious blackberry syrup recipe which I modify slightly by adding lime juice to heighten the wild flavor.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

First Week of Vacation

I kept the windows down and the sunroof open all day on Tuesday and I took every farm road I could, singing loudly to songs I wanted to listen to. I gulped cow manure air, alfalfa air, horse sweat air, vineyard air, golden oak-studded hill air. I wandered through Luther Burbank's garden because our imaginations are kin. I picked blackberries to stain my fingers and eat memory.

It was a good day.