May 5, 2020: This Week

With gyms closed, I’ve been walking early in the mornings while it is still cool, meandering around the neighborhood. Before, walks were quick and crammed between appointments. Everything pre-COVID now seems like it was rushed, with productivity the prize. This morning, as I took my time, I noticed the jacarandas and palo verdes are in full bloom, leaving purple and yellow flowers everywhere. Under some of the older, more established trees, the blossoms are so thick, they resemble snow.

Snow in the desert in May. Living during a pandemic has left my thoughts dizzy. Tasks that require creative thought must occur first thing in the morning with several cups of coffee and a quiet house – or they won’t be accomplished at all. The heat of the day strikes by noon and by late afternoon, everything has gone limp and tired like the thirsty Thai basil in the garden. This is the time for naps and cool glasses of ice tea that have a thick layer of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Neighbors are leaving the last bags and boxes of lemons and grapefruit at the curb with small handwritten signs. “Please take.” I’ve heard of this happening with zucchini in the Midwest in the middle of the summer. In Phoenix, it’s citrus, and by early May, we are so tired of citrus. The freezer is full of juice and zest. Loaves of lemon bread have been baking since January. Our canning pantry is full of marmalade. Even the bees have moved on to the blossoming mesquite, which sends a layer of neon green pollen across the garden.

Restrictions are being lifted this week locally. By the end of the week, you can go get a haircut or eat out at a restaurant. We won’t be doing either anytime soon. Arizona is 51st in the number of individuals who have been tested for COVID, which is a bellwether for poor public health leadership. If you don’t know how many people are sick, how can it be suggested that we are on the other side of the curve? Leftovers and hats make more sense.

This week, we’re cooking baked bean falafel from the delightful Nadiya Hussain. We’re harvesting tomatoes and peppers from the garden. We’re watching “Baptiste” on Masterpiece Theater and I’m reading Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking.”

We’re dreaming of summer vacations camping in the pines, reading from hammocks, fishing for trout, star gazing. We’re dreaming of having the kids around the dinner table again, home from California and college. We’re dreaming of seeing friends and family, of hugs and cocktails and laughter that will once again fill our home.

Be Like the Saguaro

I’ve noticed more bloggers are transitioning from blogs, or long Instagram posts, to emailed newsletters. This requires subscribing to another service and maintaining yet another way of communicating when I’ve got this little here blog, which I already pay for.

Sure, this space is a little dusty. I used to post daily, and sometimes multiple times a day. Now, I’m lucky if I get a couple posts up a month. There are several newsletters I now look forward to receiving. One is Affirmation Chickens, and the other is what Meleyna is cooking. Both offer delightful and personal insights to what is happening in their homes.

I like the idea, but I’m not ready to make the jump. So, I”m going to replicate some of that spirit here.

This week:

The tomatoes are orange, not quite red. This weekend was hot. The peppers, basil, rosemary, and dill are flourishing.

The geese and ducks are still at the lake, but I’d guess they’ll be gone soon. The saguaros are starting to bloom–a reminder that we should all be more like saguaros with our crown of flowers and arms open for life.

I completed my Proverbial Quilt, with a pattern by Denyse Schmidt. I’ve long admired how she looks at quilting differently. It was a pleasure to play along in this international quilt-a-long. Next up, these adorable honey bee blocks.

I’ve got Woodland Loafers on my knitting needles. I look to Mason Dixon Knitting’s March Madness to introduce me to the latest and greatest. This year didn’t disappoint.

The pandemic keeps us at home and it is beginning to feel psychologically like this is just how we live now. The idea of only seeing my family ever again on a small screen makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. We’ve been crying a lot this week over the loss of Gigi.

I’m cooking recipes that just feel good. I’m hesitant to say these are comfort foods because they aren’t heavy. It’s too hot already for mashed potatoes or cornbread slathered with butter and honey. Instead, tonight we’ll barbecue chicken, with salad, and fruit.

To end on a happy note, today is the 40th birthday of my best friend. Meg and I have been linked at the hip since we were teens on the high school swimming team. Her dad served as the officiant at our wedding. Her mom passed away earlier this year and it still doesn’t feel real. I’m so fortunate to have her family as my family. I know this birthday will be bittersweet without her mom there to celebrate with her.

Love you, Megs.

Gigi Bear

This week our dog Gigi died. She’d been sick since January, which in retrospect was amplified by having teeth removed. She’d been diagnosed with pancreatitis in February and we spent 6 weeks slowly nursing her back to health. She completed a considerable round of medications and became accustomed to being hand fed pieces of rotisserie chicken. (Dark meat only, please.)

Last week, after having returned to her dog food and gained some weight, she started showing strange neurological signs including scream barking and pushing her head into corners. Tests showed she likely had meningitis, with the only confirmation coming from a spinal tap — which we were not willing to put her through. She was in obvious pain and there is no longterm treatment for this.

Holding a beloved pet, trying to keep your voice steady and calm, and whispering your last words of love to them while they die is among the most difficult, painful experiences I’ve had. With Gigi, this was further complicated because of COVID. We were lucky to be able to be with her in her last moments and while they asked us to wear masks, in her last minutes I pulled mine off and pressed my face against hers. I don’t know if it was more for me or her, but I wanted her to be able to see my face and not be scared.

I inherited Gigi (and her older sister Grace) when Jason and I married. They quickly became my dogs and Grace continues to be my sidekick. Happy Gigi memories include her bullying Nelson to establish herself as the alpha, which was hilarious considering she weighed all of 9 pounds, and the fact she loved to swim. During the summer we would visit family with a pool and Gigi loved to get in and hang out on a raft. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who loved heat and water.

She also loved baby carrots, walks with her sister as long as she was at the front of the pack, and in her final days — being held.

I don’t think the loss of a pet ever gets easier. I will miss that sweet little dog until my last days. For now, I’m grateful for these last weeks at home with her, and being here now with Grace as we transition to a one-dog home.

We didn’t need the loss of an animal on top of managing a pandemic and other trying family concerns, but here we are. Hopeful today is brighter.

Hold your loved ones close. Again, again, I am reminded how fragile and temporary this all is.

Life in the Time of COVID-19

Today marks week 6 of working from home. Life has changed in some ways that feel permanent. Our eating habits have improved. We’re being intentional and cautious about going to the grocery, planning meals, and food economy. Sleep and concentrated thought are a luxury. The heaviness of what is happening around us keeps me from being able to focus on reading anything of value. I lose count knitting. I toss and turn between 2-4 am.

I’ve found peace in sitting outside mid-afternoon and watching the white clouds float overhead. This spring has been one of the most beautiful I can remember, but perhaps that’s because we’ve all been forced to stop and notice. Yesterday I watched hummingbirds come and go, monarch butterflies flitter, and quail bobbing along with their head feathers dancing as they searched the edge of the garden for seed.

The tomatoes and peppers are still green, but the basil and dill are in full bloom. This week spring will morph into early summer as the temperatures will climb over 100. We’ll put out water for the birds, refill the feeders, and close the windows to keep cool air inside. I’ll miss the sounds of the garden from the kitchen.

We’re staying connected to others as we can. We join neighbors nightly at 7 pm to bang pots and pans in the driveway, a global celebration of those working on the front line. I’ve joined others in my quilt guild by sewing and handing out masks to loved ones and others in need. We’ve checked in on those who live alone on our street, and picked up groceries for those who can’t get out of their homes. And we’ve been blessed with bags of citrus from neighbors’ trees, swaps of loaves of bread and dozens of eggs, going back and forth across the street as people have extra and others are in need. We’ve met people in our community we didn’t know before and been delighted to witness their generosity.

This weekend, feeling stir crazy, we took a long drive north to hike and wander. I don’t remember ever feeling so fortunate to be outside, away from home, adventuring with my husband. On the radio, a talk show host reminded listeners that this is the first time we’ve ever had to all slow down like this. Rediscovering the simple joys: watching the clouds, listening to the birds, meeting the neighbors, going for a drive: I’m thankful.

Birdsong

Prickly Pear Party

Last year, a neighbor gave me a sock full of birdseed. She loved her birds, and I would too. Was I at this point in my life? Apparently I am. I placed the sock in one of our ficus trees within view of the dinner table and we’d watch in awe as tiny birds in a dozen jewel tones would arrive momentarily in view to have a snack.

One sock became two. During the hot summer months, I also filled up a large automatic dog watering station near the feeders too. Soon, birds were dipping into the water to cool down and have a drink between bites to eat. It was all delightful.

At Christmas, my mother in law gave me a new feeder. It’s a small metal box with a chain you hang from foliage. Inside, you place a square of greasy suet. This attracts larger birds, who are mostly shades of brown but have the same voracious appetites as their younger, more colorful finch cousins.

Recently, my husband moved the feeders from the ficus tree to outside the kitchen window. The socks hang from a series of black metal hooks that are pushed deep into the earth below the window. The suet box hangs behind them from the branches of a climbing pyracantha, which is in full bloom with thousands of bright red berries.

All of this to say, I look forward to sticking my hands in a sink of warm, soapy water after dinner and listening to the birds outside of my kitchen window. We had no idea so many varieties lived in our neighborhood. It is a simple joy.

I’ve also become the woman who has a jar of homemade jam or chutney in her purse to give away. I’m not sure how or when this happened, but as I write this, I realize I handed out five jars yesterday, including to our favorite bartender at the sushi restaurant last night. I’ve given him enough jam, the transaction didn’t seem strange to anyone, including my shy husband who’d rather we just not make conversation with everyone, everywhere.

This time of life is comfortable and peaceful. Our family is healthy, we are enjoying our work, we have extra time to spend traveling and seeing friends and making tiny jars of jam with whatever fruit is in season. And the birds continue to fill the feeders.

A Simple Happiness

I grew up in a home where the garage shelves were heavy with pickles, beets, and jam. Our vegetable patch in the backyard always needed weeding. Come January, we’d climb the citrus trees. We had one small peach tree in the corner of the yard that would produce every few years. And every few years, my dad would stand over that little tree and rub his hands together, anticipating pie and crumble. We loved the good peach years.

I grew up in a home where Mom sewed my clothing. I went to elementary school in culottes and jumpers. My Girl Scout badges were sewn on my sash promptly and properly. Holes in jeans were mended. Pants were let out. I begged my mom for store-bought clothing. I wanted to be like all the other kids, in bold name brands that were so popular in the 80s and 90s.

I grew up in a home where we spent the summers riding our bikes to the library. I couldn’t wait for the summer reading program. There were goals and stickers, and those poor librarians probably had small flasks of something strong for when they saw me coming in the door.

I grew up in a home where things were not perfect, but they were so, so much better than what my parents experienced. It’s remarkable to look back on childhood with adult eyes and see the sacrifices made for our wellbeing. Of course, as children, we had no idea how hard our parents were working, how desperately they wanted time to themselves, how much of their young lives they spent watching us live the childhoods they wanted.

I grew up in a home where we were told every day that we could be whatever we wanted, that we were loved, that we were safe.

And I grew up to be a brat. I was a brat to my parents and my brother. I wanted to have and be more. I wanted the things that I thought would make life better, easier, cooler. This unhappiness followed me like a dark shadow for too long.

Today, I have a home where the garage shelves are heavy with pickles. I’m learning to sew clothing, and consider frugality a virtue. I’m a frequent flyer at our library. And I’m trying to build a place where my stepchildren know they are always loved, they can be anything they want to be, and they are safe. They also loved handmade gifts, waffles before a day on the beach, and prefer to buy their clothes second-hand.

This is the legacy of Rex and Karel. May we all be so lucky.

Where Old and New Meet

My cousin Cale was given this quilt after my grandparents died. It wasn’t one my grandmother used; it was kept on display on a high plant shelf above the kitchen. Cale’s puppy didn’t show such deference and sooner than later the hand-stitched heirloom was in pieces.

Cale, abashed, asked me if I could do anything to fix it. “It’s just so soft.”

It was soft. The fabric had been used for a generation before being tucked on a shelf, and I didn’t blame him for wanting to use it, or for his puppy not knowing better. Accidents happen and Grandma Maxine would have been the first to smile at her grandson wanting the quilt to live on.

It took a bit of cutting away tiny stitches…

and a bit of creative patching…

I cut away three of the four corners and patched them with new fabric, and backed the quilt with flannel. This beauty will live on for yet another generation.

We miss you, Grandma Max.

~K

Spring

Spring is in full bloom in the desert. Snowbirds have flown home, school children are antsy for summer, yellow palo verde blossoms are in the air. Baseball training grounds are empty, stale popcorn in the seats and dreams of the World Series carried forward to a new year.

As the temperature climbs, the garden grows. Bright green pea shoots reach for the tomato trellis, stretching their arms inches per day. Pale coral squash blossoms open and close to the beat of the sun. Tiny white flowers will transform into peppers, and yellow ones into tomatoes. The basil multiplies. The citrus sag under the weight of fragrant new life and the heat of the day.

In this season of life, as friends turn 40 and 50 and 60, I watch with curiosity as relationships strengthen, and others dissolve. Babies are born. Parents and spouses die. Marriages come and go. I wake in the night worried about friends, worried about worry, restless with the state of the world. I carry their heartache with me, wondering how I am so fortunate.

Casseroles baked, letters mailed, cookies delivered on platters with hugs that may not be wanted but are needed. I am thankful for what we can do. As sure as the weather changes, I am reassured that we need each other.

Growing Community

Last weekend, while wandering Miami, Arizona after a lovely walk through Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a girlfriend and I stumbled upon a community demonstration for hydroponic gardening. We were “just in time for the tour!” Elvin Fant was leading several others through an old building downtown that was once owned by the copper mines.

Gardening in Miami, and its neighbor towns in the Copper Corridor southeast of Phoenix, is a dangerous proposition. Once a booming mining community, today the towns are littered with tailing pools and other remnants of the industry. The smelter smokestack was removed just last year in neighboring Superior. Commemorative t-shirts are available at the Circle K for $20.

That Circle K is one of the largest convenience stores I’ve ever been in. They don’t just sell the typical sodas and gas, but also a counter for hot sandwiches. The Copper Corridor is a food desert. The largest grocery is Wal-Mart, and that’s 25 miles away.

Elvin discovered that the Safeway next to Wal-Mart was closing, and the owners planned to leave the 27,000 square food building vacant. The retiree, who still owns a local mechanic shop in town, found this infuriating. How could they leave that space vacant and where was everyone going to get their food?

The Vietnam veteran did some research and discovered hydroponic gardening. Within a year, he met with hydroponic researchers at the University of Arizona, secured an intern to write grants and help with planting and research, and secured two vacant buildings in town. Today, he’s growing food for his community and evangelizing to all who will listen about how easy it is to grow your own food when the earth is poisoned. He has more than 60 volunteers who help, and several local restaurants buying his produce.

They’ve also created a classroom and have regular community discussions and demonstrations about growing food.

He’s growing food in both locations, selling worm farms to neighbors, and has organized a community garden that feeds the local food bank. The man is a local hero. I felt so fortunate to spend some time with him, hear his excitement at watching this work grown, and amazed at how quickly he was able to get his idea off of the ground.

If you are in Miami, stop and say hello. You can support the Cobre Valley Indoor Farms work here.

A Season of Rebirth

Grandma Max & Pap

Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. My late Grandmother Maxine would have us to her home in Tucson for a simple meal after church, and we’d all enjoy chocolate. She loved chocolate, and it was her annual sacrifice for Lent.

I think of her often, how she’s molded who I am today, and how I wish I was more like her. She rarely complained. She rarely missed church. Her family was always her first priority. She was a child of the Great Depression, and this made her a practical, frugal adult. Our Christmas cookies often came in recycled cottage cheese containers, for example. She felt no shame in this.

That said, she loved beautiful things, for which she also felt no shame. She loved American Indian jewelry. I was lucky to inherit several pieces when she died; I still get choked up when I wear them. I wore one of her necklaces when we were married, and always wear a piece of her jewelry for important book events.

This week, as the world watched Notre Dame catch fire, I thought of her. My grandparents traveled to Europe on vacation in their late 70s. Her heart would have broken to see a place of worship in flames, especially during Holy Week. However, I think her spirits would have been lifted, as mine were, to see Parisians fill the streets to sing hymns in response.

My grandparents also spent many years living in Louisiana, and knowing my practical, ever-loving grandmother — her charity would have gone to the Baptist churches burned by an arsonist earlier this month. I can see her writing that check to meet her budget –$12, or $18, or whatever she could give.

I miss her dearly. When I sit in silence, I feel her presence, nudging me back toward church, pushing me toward closer relationships with my cousins, giving me the eye when I put the cottage cheese container in the recycling bin.

How lucky I have been to have these strong, faithful women in my life. As we celebrate Easter this weekend, I am thankful for them. It was, after all, a strong and faithful woman who told everyone of the resurrection.

Happy Easter, Passover, weekend to you and yours.

Kelli