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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Coming to Fruition

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The world is full of coulds, woulds, and shoulds. Some of which exist in truly meaningful ways.

But many of them:

Oh, I really should…

If I just could…

I really would…

They only seem to perpetuate invisible barriers.

Who says I should?

Who says I can’t?

Then why don’t I?

Who says I can't climb a tree?

Who says I can’t climb a tree?

We all have dreams, and there is no good reason these dreams cannot be part of our reality. No matter how big or small. No matter how silly or strange.

You want to do something?

Then why don’t you?

I know it is not that easy. In fact, just a month ago I felt trapped by my own invisible barriers.

Terribly trapped in a silly conundrum.

I wanted to pick fruit, but yet everything seemed to stop me.

Chokecherries grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open. Their tart fruits have a single small pit and make you pucker at the first taste.

Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open.

The fruit beckons from a far.

It is wild.

Yet that is not what stops me.

I know it well. Its name: common, genus, and species.

Leaf patterns and ecology.

Even uses and recipes.

What stops me is fear.

Fear that regulations might state that I cannot pick there.

Fear that those trees might belong to someone else.

Fear that I might be confronted with threatening words and gestures.

Fear that someone might come with questions,

Whatcha gonna do with them?”

“Um, eat them kind sir….” (please don’t eat me!!)

“Howsya know them berries ain’t gonna kill ya?”

“Er, I study these plants, you see, ma’am. I’ve even taught about them.  Plus I always double check my identifications.”

“Why go to all that trouble, when you can just buy some fruit at the store?”

“Well you see, I can’t buy these in the store. And I really like them.  I think they might be better than anything you can buy in the store.”

“Why don’t you just give me MY berries, and we won’t have us any trouble…”

“Am I getting mugged? For wild fruits?”

“Why don’t you just get the hell out of here…”

“Is that a shotgun? Oh shit…”

These delusions seem to quickly escalate out of control. They became paralyzing. Keeping me from doing what I wanted.

But because it was something I wanted to do, somehow in my mind, it must be wrong.

I created a barrier, to keep me from doing what I really, truly wanted.

That barrier was fear.

The day I overcame that fear, I was with my husband, out alone for a North Dakota drive. We were stopping along little lakes, thinking about future places for family camping and seeking out a nice little fishing hole for the afternoon.

First, I saw a chokecherry tree, then about three more.

Beautiful and bountiful.

I discretely picked some and put them in an empty water bottle.

Then I saw some rosehips, and always having wanted to make rosehip jelly, I collected another pint or so of them.

I felt so sneaky and cautious. I was on high alert.

Certainly, I was doing something wrong.

All the while, Hubby was getting out his rod and tackle box and began searching the shoreline for a good place to test the waters.

“Rachel, you had better come see this!” He hollered.

I was convinced he had found a sign that stated the area was a protected nature preserve, and that anyone found disturbing any animals, plants, or rocks would be fined $10,000 and spend up to a year in jail.

My heart sank.

Walking toward him, holding my breath, I failed to see what he wanted me to see.

Black Currants.

All along the shoreline.

Bushes loaded with the earthy, rich sweetness of black currants.

I must have been dumbstruck, because he had to urge me on,

“We have some plastic bags in the car. You should go get some.”

Excuses ran through my head.

Someone must have planted these here.

No, someone’s grandpa planted them here 120 years ago.

I’m sure of it.

Heck, the lake is probably even named after him.

BUT WAIT- BLACK CURRANTS.

I looked again, thick along the shoreline, into the trees.

And on and on.

I looked for evidence to show they had been picked before (and by extension, it would be okay for me to pick some too.)

Indeed. Some branches and clusters showed signs of picking.

And since I didn’t think there were many bears around that had been gorging themselves on currants, I took a gamble that humans had indeed been picking these currants.

I would not be thrown in jail if I picked these fruits.

On I went down the shore. Bag in hand. Ready to work.

Picking currants is not easy work. The fruits are barely noticeable from overhead, as they cluster beneath the leaves.

Black Currants

Black Currants (Ribes americanum) thrive along
stream banks, in moist ravines, wet meadows, floodplains, and woodland edges.

Two hours of bending, sitting, kneeling, and gently pulling the leaves back yielded just over a quart of berries and a criticism came to mind,

“That’s an awful lot of work for just a couple berries.” 

I silenced the critic within by popping a few more fruits into my mouth.

I was overcoming that barrier.

Even the point that a truck came down the dirt road, I resisted the urge to jump into the bushes to hide.

I acted as though I paid no mind.

But I was focused on my breathing, so to not have a full blown anxiety attack.

I destroyed the barrier.

I no longer had to dance around with the shoulds, coulds, and woulds.

“I would love to collect wild fruit to make jelly, someday.”

“I know I could identify them, afterall, I taught ethnobotany for two years.”

“I should just get enough courage to go do it.”

“Or maybe I shouldn’t bother.”

No more.

I tapped into my strengths and knowledge.

I found a resource and harvested it.

I overcame the barrier. And opened a door.

I found a truer, happier version of myself.

I ventured into new possibilities.

Soon I saw opportunities all around.

In campgrounds, parks, fairgrounds, vacant properties, and along the roadside.

Suddenly the world offered a bounty of crabapples, chokecherries, Chokecherries

rosehips, currants, wild plums, buffalo berries, American cranberries,High Bush Cranberries and wild grapes.

Wild Grapes

Even cultivars of raspberries, apples, grapes, and plums came our way.

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The world is full of possibilities. What a valuable lesson and sweet reminder. A bounty that will last far into the future.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

– Paulo Coelho

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Recovering a Sense of Time

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Recovering a Sense of Time

Words don’t always come easy. Sure, there are times when they flow on to the page.

But, there are other times that the words we want to write are simply hijacked, by the words we need to write.

It is a reminder that writers are a conduit for words to take form in reality.

The words on my mind are not light. They are not easy.

That does not make them any less important or true.

I shiver as I think about writing something so deeply personal.

About something that makes me so distinctly different from many.

But these words, they have been residing in my mind for far too long.

It is time they become part of my pages.

It is time to let go of the illusion that, “Because I am not like others, then that must mean there is something wrong with me.”

It is time for me to share what it is like to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It is not pretty, but it is what I struggle with everyday.

It is my reality.

This is the work that I do.

This is what consumes my energy and time.

Though my reality is not always clear.

Day to day, year by year-

My sense of time is scattered and fragmented, split, and ill-defined.

Hours, weeks, months, they seem arbitrary and seemingly linear.

They are not viable representations of the time that exists in my mind.

Once yesterday becomes part of the past, I plunge further into the future and my history becomes a bit longer.

Yet, the memories are free floating in time.

With no anchor.

Such memories emerge throughout the year.

Some come through as emotions or physical pain.

Some are triggered by emotions or sounds.

Others make it through as a vivid reel of memories with no emotion attached.

Each sensation is haunting.

Like a manifestation of misunderstanding.

These struggles, I thought had overcome.

I thought I had overcome the fear of being awoken in the middle of the night by violent outbursts.

I thought I had overcome the rage that comes along with being a survivor of sexual assault.

I thought I had overcome the sadness that is so real in losing a home.

I thought I had overcome the confusion that surrounded the chaos.

I thought I had learned to talk, accept, and forgive.

I thought I had gotten better.

But I had only shoved each experience away as a fragmented collection of features.

Quickly shoving it deep into my baggage, straightening my shirt, standing up straight, and choking out: “I’m fine.” “Really I’m fine.”

Over and over again, until I believed it.

And so the cycle continued.

Each traumatic memory is unique.

Like the time that I found myself in solitary confinement.

Or the time that I saw my mom get thrown to the ground, heard her skull crack, and had to fight with all my might to keep the same (or worse) from happening to me.

Or the time I hid with my brother and sister, trying to keep warm after the electricity was purposely cut, trying to convince them everything was okay.

Or the time that I was called a slut, pushed down onto a pile of someone else’s dirty laundry, and had to use every bit of martial arts training to get the hell out from underneath that sorry excuse for a boyfriend.

Or the time our house was on fire and I called 911, only to be redirected to the local fire hall… who’s line was busy.

Or the time the police broke down my door, guns drawn, only to find that they had the wrong house, and the suspect next door was already on the run. 

Each of these happened.

And they are only a brief fraction of the chaos I speak of.

Each event was real.

Each one is in need of excavation and repair.

Because the common thread running through all these incidents is the fact that I did not feel the emotions that were a natural response to the trauma.

I disconnected, but continued to move forward.

I did what I needed to do.

Without feeling.

Working through through these events is not as simple as setting aside time to do so.

Recovery does not happen in real time.

A certain stance, movement, phrase, sound, or smell can trigger the sensation that an event is indeed happening now- complete with a full set of physical responses.

Escalated heart rate, shortness of breath, hot chest and face, cold hands and feet.

The urgent need to respond, sweating, dry mouth, ringing ears, a full heightened sensitivity, intensified reflexes.

Sometimes for no reason at all, in the current reality. For everyone else, everything is okay.

For me… I become consumed by the displaced anxiety, fear, anger, despair, sadness, and rage, each living out its shelf life in the wrong place and time.

No matter it is an inaccurate interpretation of reality- it feels real.

And it is TERRIFYING.

Each day is new, even if it feels old.

Old feelings and responses need to be sorted, assigned to their appropriate site of origin, and be contained.

Filed away in a safe place for later reference.

It is almost certain that it will be connected to another incident in space and time.

As each displaced memory is restored, categorized, and filed away, new path ways open.

New possibilities emerge.

New perspectives allow me to experience the now.

With a crisper and clearer lens.

And a better sense, of what was then.

And what is now.

A Page from the Past

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A Page from the Past

This week I will be going to high school. I’m a bit nervous and it feels strange. It is for a student’s assignment. She was required to interview someone and present a speech about them. Some how, she chose me. I will go to listen to her speech and answer any questions.

In ways, I am looking forward to it. So much of our interview led to conversations of success: what I studied in college, what some of my favorite past times include, how I enjoy spending my time, and what I do for a living. But it also triggered something within. I was surprised to find myself in a surreal sense of being after the interview. Had I really lived this life of mine? How did it all seem to work out so well? What about all the craziness and uncertainty that led me here? Did I really tell her that the best thing I did for my career was quit my job!? Did I really agree to go to a high school class!? Shit, I did.

My experience of high school still haunts me. By no means where those the best years of my life. I began working during my sophomore year, and was living independently by my senior year. School was a daily obligation in which every else seemed to be living a normal life. Mine seemed to be caving in on itself- and I was struggling to get out alive. That is where my addiction began.

I have known it for some time, and it remains difficult to reconcile. In fact, over two years ago, I wrote a letter to my seventeen year old self. Every word of it still rings true today. I think my seventeen year old self is a little frightened to share her story with other high school kids. It is hard to believe that such success can emerge from and be part of truly difficult struggles. They are not separate. They belong together. And amazingly enough, they are a part of who I have become. And it still feels strange.

Dear Self of 1999,

I’ve seen the work you are doing. You are working so hard- to make money, to be accepted, to understand, to dream, to forget, to hide. I see how stable you look on the outside. You hold yourself as a professional, yet you are a child. You work long hours and have profound insights to how things could be better. You see the world with wide eyes and a strong heart. You commit yourself to excellence, as if you are trying so hard to prove something. And yet, you are not able to appreciate how young you are. I know you feel far older than 17, but that is because you had to step up. You have an ability to take charge on a moment’s notice. It is as if you set fear aside. Or perhaps you let fear become your motivator. Either way, it has gotten you far in just a few years.

I remember how scared you were. How alone and worthless you felt. Rejection doesn’t even scratch the surface.

It is no wonder acceptance feels like a god send.

It is no wonder you are delighted to get to know people who might give you some sense of what “success” might look like.

It is no wonder you cling so tightly to the arms of your boyfriend.

It is no wonder that his arms are so strong. He tries so much to protect you and provide you a place that feels safe. He offers you a space you can rest your head after nights of on-going battles. In his arms, you can rest easy. You can let some of that fear go. You can express your frustration, shed your tears, and let go of shame. He helps you stay strong.

I know it is hard for you to understand, but as “normal” as this spot feels for you, it still is not healthy. You cannot depend on your parents, even though you are still so young. Instead you depend on someone else, someone who seems more stable. Yet you are desperately trying to take hold of your life by saving money, planning furiously, and trying to prove that you are “worth” something.

You see though, you don’t have to try that hard to prove it. Because your worth is based on who you are, not what you do. But I understand, what you do defines you as separate from your family- because when you are part of the violence, control, dependency, despair, and illness you feel shame and embarrassment. You feel as though you are bad. But you are not. I promise.

The praise and acceptance you get at your jobs tells you different. It tells you that because of what you do, that you are good. You mitigate these disparate messages by dissociating- splitting your self in two on your way to and from work. Shuttling your mind toward and away from cycles of struggle and success. As you build this defense, ruin continues. Chaos ensues and with great intensity. You feel it all around you and fear what the world knows of it. You fear your scars will be noticed, detailed and all.

The saddest part is that by employing these defenses, you are putting little pieces of yourself away in a box- hidden and misunderstood. Soon you will begin to miss these pieces of yourself. You will blame the one you love for not letting you be you. You’ll become scared again and feel unstable again. You will think you are free from your familial responsibility. It will be good, you need to know you can stand on your own two feet. You will need to know how not to let others drag you down. In time, you will learn so much.

I am proud of you. You are brave. You are strong, compassionate, sincere, creative, insightful, beautiful, and talented. This is who you are- appreciate the world around you. Each moment. Each person whom you admire. Each taste of egg drop soup from your favorite restaurant. Each conversation with your grandpa, each time you harvest blackberries. Enjoy your words, your art, and your gift.

I think of you often.

Self of 2011

All things are possible, with tomatoes

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Some days are better than others. But any day with tomatoes can be a good day. Because when it comes to tomatoes, all things are possible.

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

With or without tomatoes, one thing remains certain each day, that there is something for us to learn.

The day my boys and I went out to the garden to bring in summer’s first big haul of tomatoes, we learned just how heavy a tub of produce can weigh. Good thing there was three of us.

(This was the small tub.)

photoMy oldest son learned that he was not going to be rewarded for picking the green tomatoes.

I learned that grilled green tomatoes are equally divine as their fried counterparts.

Later that night, as a family, we had the opportunity to truly witness the fruits of of labor. Six varieties of tomatoes had yielded nothing short of a bounty and in just a few days of steady summer heat. Our counter tops were full and we were blessed with tomatoes.

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

We had a plan, sort of, to savor every ounce of homegrown goodness.

Cherry tomatoes were for fresh eating. They sat in a bowl. Ready for snacking. They went fast. Even though my youngest son preferred the mellow and sweeter flavor of yellow pear tomatoes. To his despair, those have another purpose.

Yellow Pear Tomatoes

We grow the profusely abundant yellow pear tomato with one purpose in mind, to make yellow-tomato basil jam. Yes. Jam. It is sweet and savory and delivers a strong essence of summer. We first came upon this recipe in the wonderful cookbook Preserving the Harvest.  Last year, I learned that it is best to prepare this divine preserve in small batches. The two hour cook time for a double batch simply does not work. This year I learned that using Greek Basil takes the jam to a whole new level of delight. While the recipe is time consuming it is not difficult. The hardest part is waiting to enjoy this. But it is the darkest days of winter that benefit most from a little sunshine in a jar.

Next on our priority list was to use the very very ripe tomatoes as soon as possible. I paired the tomatoes with garlic, onions, kale, and a pinch of red pepper and served it over grits for dinner. I am, at heart, a girl of the southern states. Grits are a part of that, but the dynamic flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to a sauce and topped with crispy kale leaves… ooh goodness. I felt like I was home.

Along side of the dinner preparations was another preservation project for late summer months: tomato juice. I cut and cored my tomatoes, put them in a pot with a little onion, salt, and celery and mash and boil, mash and boil until it is all a pretty red mash of savory goodness. Then I add a handful of parsley for an extra boost and let simmer for a bit.

Tomato juice in the process

Tomato juice in the process

Typically I prefer to use the yellow lemon boy tomatoes for this juice recipe. But it is a good way to use up lots of well ripened tomatoes up quickly, so this was a bit of a mix. I then strain the juice through a sieve and bring to a simmer again. The tomato juice can then be frozen for later use, cooled and enjoyed, or if I plan on preserving it in a water bath canner, I test the pH and add lemon juice to ensure the juice is acidic enough for safe canning.

In less than 24 hours we had taken care of at least half of the tomatoes. But there were still more. We needed to act fast, or the invasion of fruit flies would begin. But the next day would be a new day. image

As we started our new day, I was thinking about tomatoes and teaching. After all, we had begun our first official week of homeschooling. It hit me then- Tomatoes can be a teaching resource!

I led my first grader through the process of sorting the tomatoes. We talked about plant varieties and characteristics. We distinguished Cherokee Purple from Black Krim based on the fruit shape. We distinguished Champion from Better Boy based on color variation. Thus leaving the Lemon Boys as the last option for those left behind through process of elimination.

We began counting our categories, using a simple spreadsheet to track our data.Tomato Spreadsheet

And then weighed the total of each variety. We even got to venture into decimals. The boy clearly got it when he said, “So 6.25 pounds of tomatoes is a lot like $6.25, right?” Right on my boy, right on! If tomatoes were currency, we may be rich.

When it was all said and done, we were able to determine which tomatoes we had the most of by number and weight. And even toyed with the idea of averages. On average, the Champion tomato weighed the most, followed closely by Better Boys and Black Krim. Cherokee Purples came in close behind. The lemon boys had by far the lowest average weight per tomato.

We had good fun, and I gained confidence in my homeschooling abilities.

We sliced two tomatoes and shared them for a snack when we were done. Because what fun is tomato math without taste testing.

The next day, we tackled another priority on our list– salsa making. Twelve pounds of tomatoes went into the salsa. DSCF4440

Along with peppers, onions, corn, white wine vinegar, coriander, salt, and cilantro. Oh how I love the cilantro!

imageWhen the salsa was done, I was astonished by the flavor the variety of tomatoes contributed. But I was so sad to see how pale the salsa was. Sure I used yellow tomatoes, orange peppers, and sweet corn, but the finished product was so less than vibrant. Then it hit me… I had forgotten one ingredient I had added to last year’s recipe: paprika. Paprika makes the salsa red. Well, this year, we’ll just have to learn how to love a flavor loaded, color muted salsa.

Finally, our tomato harvest became manageable. We prepared what was left for dinner, returning to our love of tomatoes and basil. Because some pairing never grow old.

DSCF4470Tomato salad with basil along with grilled eggplant, chicken artichoke sausage, and garden fresh kale, topped with balsamic vinegar. (Not pictured: fresh mozzarella cheese.)

This cycle will continue for the next few weeks as tomatoes ripen. This weekend we will likely prepare another batch of jam and some yellow tomato juice. We’ll likely try something new like homemade ketchup and eventually we will begin canning crushed tomatoes for winter spaghetti dinners. Along the way, we will have some fun. Enjoy the bliss of summer’s end. And learn something new, everyday.