being present

More Yellow

 

Lured by a large percentage coupon code in my email, I click through to one of my favorite clothing websites. A certain sweater caught my eye immediately. It was a classic, fair isle, all-wool pullover – something I knew that I would wear again and again. It was stunning and just my style. I hesitated. It wasn’t the price or the fact that I really didn’t need a sweater that had me second guessing the purchase. It was the color. Yellow. A very pretty, golden, almost butterscotch shade of yellow. The problem? I don’t wear yellow. 

I turn my laptop so my husband could see the monitor. “Do you think I can wear this?” I ask. 

He glances at it briefly and then turns back to his newspaper. “You can wear whatever you want,” he replied.  

“But…will it look good on me?” I wonder out loud. 

*** 

In my mid-twenties, I had some medical issues that were not responding to traditional medication. My mother suggested that I see her physician who also practiced acupuncture. On my first visit, Dr. Lo handed me a questionnaire to fill out. I answered questions about my favorite foods, my preferences of temperature and seasons, and my favorite hobbies among other things. When I finished circling answers and filling in blanks, I received my treatment and went home. The following week, before we started, Dr. Lo suggested that I might have better success in alleviating my symptoms if I made some specific dietary changes. As an aside, he added, “You need more yellow in your life.” 

His statement struck me as strange, but I didn’t pay much attention to it at that time. Still, somehow it stayed with me. When contemplating a paint color for our living room, a friend suggested a buttery yellow. Normally, I would have dismissed the idea entirely. Then Dr. Lo’s words immediately popped into my head. Maybe yellow would work. 

With a day off from work ahead of me, I bought two gallons of yellow paint. I taped off the woodwork and poured the paint into the tray. Paintbrush in hand, I hesitated. I worried that this gamble would not pay off and that I would be wasting precious time and money on a color that I would have to repaint. As I rolled the paint onto the walls, the room was slowly transformed before my eyes. No longer gray and drab, the yellow paint was warm and felt like sunshine on a cloudy day. I smiled and kept going. When the paint was dry, I pulled the tape down and stood in the center of the room, thinking about Dr. Lo’s words. Maybe I did need more yellow in my life. 

*** 

Winter arrived late and hard this year. The furnace runs constantly, trying to keep the cold out of our old house. Our sweet dog, Hazel, usually anxious and excited for her daily walks, is slow to cross the threshold into the brisk air.  

I get it, girl, I do. I don’t want to go out there either.  

I pick up my phone to check the weather app: 8 degrees, feels like 0. Looking out the window, I am hoping against the odds. No sun in sight. I sigh. The gray is getting to me, wearing me out one day at a time. I put the kettle on and set about making tea to warm myself up. In the corner of the counters, I find a lemon. I slice it into wedges and squeeze the juice into my mug. The bright citrus packs a punch, leaving a pleasant zing in my mouth.  

Fortified by a small taste of summer, I pull on my boots, wrap myself up in a long down coat, throw on a hat and gloves and walk the dog.  

*** 

It’s snowing and school has been canceled again. I spend the better part of an hour cutting up a fabric color card into little tiles, each one a different hue. My daughter organizes the swatches in a clear divided box, putting them more or less in rainbow order. She comments, “I never knew there were so many shades of pink.” Neither did I.  

I smile and pull out the swatch for “melon,” the perfect grapefruit-y shade for my next quilt. I shuffle through the remaining colors, looking for complimentary hues to round out the palette. Immediately, “ochre” jumps out at me. The deep gold almost glows and is beautiful with the warm pink. I settle on a couple more:  “pesto,” a dark herbaceous green, and “roasted pecan,” a rich, orange-y brown. These are not my typical color choices of bright, clear blues and greens, but, somehow, they feel right today.  

*** 

The three-day weekend has grown to six days. Outside, the snow is falling so slowly that I can count the individual flakes. The house is quiet for a short while before the girls are up, making breakfast and watching Netflix. After my shower, I consider throwing on sweats. But as I glance over the sweater shelf in my closet, I change my mind. I put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and then pull my new wool sweater over my head. I look in the mirror, surprised at how good this sweater makes me feel. I am still not sure that it looks good on me, but I know it is the right color. More yellow, indeed. 

 

Words and image by Erin Harris.

Sourdough: A Love Story

As a kid, weekend breakfasts were cooked by my dad. Mom was more of a juice and toast person, allowing us to fend for ourselves on those slow mornings. But not Dad. His breakfasts always included some kind of meat (venison steak, if we had it), eggs, and sourdough pancakes.

The quart jar of sourdough starter had a permanent place in our fridge, and we all knew to not toss it out no matter how nasty it looked. It was Dad’s. I would watch, as he refreshed the starter the night before, dumping the slurry into a bowl, mixing in some flour and water, giving it all a good stir, and covering it with one of Mom’s dish towels. The next morning the mixture would have easily doubled in size, and bubbles would pop and dance across the surface. He would refill the jar, leaving enough of the starter behind for the pancake batter, and stick the jar back into the fridge until the next time.

I never questioned this process until I was older, and I finally knew enough about cooking to ask him where the starter came from and how it worked. Turns out he had made it some fifteen years ago.

He explained to me that sourdough starter is a wild living yeast, and like all living things it needs a few simple essentials to thrive: a bit of water, some flour, warmth, and a little love and attention. He went on to say that there had been times when he had ignored his starter and would find it cold and separated, lost in the back of the fridge.  

But the starter was forgiving. If he spent some time nurturing it with what it needed, within a few days the starter would be thriving, vital, and alive again.  

He never used the starter for much more that pancakes. Everyone who loved him or called him a friend had eaten those pancakes at my folks’ table. When he passed away ten years ago, my sister and I passed out jars of his starter to those who came to celebrate his life, along with his pancake recipe.  

He gave me my jar of starter when I got married. I admit, it didn’t get a lot of use until I had children and pancakes became part of our breakfast rotation. My boys would tell me mine were not as good as Grandpa’s, and they weren’t, no matter how many lessons he had given me. It was the love and the joy he got from preparing a meal for those he loved that made the difference.  

A few years back I decided I would try my hand at sourdough bread. Try as I might, I could not produce a loaf that was decent without adding a bit of commercial dried yeast to the dough. Then one of the local artisan bakers in Seattle offered a sourdough bread baking class and I eagerly signed up. It was a day full of bread lingo: hydration, pre-ferment, leaven, bench rest, and stretch and fold. Everyone left with a beautiful sourdough loaf and directions for making our own starter.

But before I could leave, I had to tell the instructor about my dad’s fifty-year-old starter. His response surprised me: “Throw it out, start over, there’s nothing of your dad left in that starter today.” He went on to explain that I would never get the hydration right to produce a good loaf. He suggested I keep my dad’s starter for pancakes, but for bread I should make my own.  

For the next few years, Dad’s starter sat in the back of our fridge neglected. It separated and lost all its bounce. I would use it a few times a year when my boys were home, but for the most part I lost interest.  

But then, this past fall, while browsing the cookbook section of my favorite bookstore, I stumbled upon a beautiful sourdough cookbook. I stood in the aisle, turning the pages and thought of Dad’s starter, dormant in our fridge, cold and neglected. Suddenly, determination set in. With book in hand, I headed home, eager and excited.  

Using my father’s starter, five pounds of unbleached flour, a bit of water, and my mother’s old dishtowel, I went to work. Each night, I would use a bit of the starter from the day before (discarding the rest). I would feed it with love and persistence, and within a week I was pretty sure I had a starter that was close to being 100% hydrated*.  

It danced, it bubbled, it puffed up proud and beautiful, and it smelled amazing.

It also produced a beautiful loaf. My husband slathered butter on his first slice as I danced around our kitchen.  

The baking instructor was right; there is nothing left of my dad’s starter in that jar today. But there sure is something left of my dad in the process. Late at night, I can feel him in the kitchen with me as I feed the starter to sit out overnight, covered with Mom’s worn dishtowel. He is back, early the next morning, right beside me, reminding me to hold some back for next time before I mix up the dough. He hangs out all day as I stretch and fold the dough every hour or so, and he lets me know when the dough has done its thing and is ready to rest. And I know for sure he is there as I take the hot loaf out of the oven.  

One night, after spending months baking my way through two cookbooks, I decide it’s time to experiment a bit. What should I make next? I listen closely, and I hear Dad giving me some suggestions.  

“I think we should try pizza, with maybe some sautéed morel mushrooms on top?” he whispers. I can almost see him standing beside me, smiling with his bright, blue eyes crinkled.

“We might have to wait until spring for the morel mushrooms, Dad,” I say, “but pizza sounds perfect for dinner one night this week.” 
 

Words and image by Cathy Sly.

*100% hydration is when your starter is made of equal parts of water and flour. Because my dad would just eye it, going by the consistency he wanted for pancake batter, I had no idea what the hydration was of my starter. Today I measure mine by grams, with a digital scale; feeding it equal parts of starter, water and flour. 

Stories All Around Us

Tristin arrived in my driveway on a Thursday afternoon to pick up some free junk I had placed at the curb. I waited for him to go away but he lingered even after loading up his car. I could see him making phone calls and looking exasperated from where I stood at the kitchen window. I knew I would have to find out what was going on despite hoping the issue would go away. After all, it could be my kid. 

“Do you need help?” I asked tentatively. He wasn’t sure, maybe a jump start? That sounded easy enough, so I repositioned my van and we gave it a try. But it was no good, his car just wouldn’t stay started. I packed up the cables and asked if there was anything else I could do. 

 “Do you have someone you can call?” I asked. He assured me he did and that as a AAA member, he could easily get a tow. 

We talked about gardening. It was the worm composting bin that had brought him to my house; he and a friend were starting a micro greens endeavor.  

“I wanted to do something since I’m not in school, like something good for the world, you know?” he said.  

I returned to the house, gave my husband an update on what he thought was a possible serial killer or thief when Tristin knocked on the door. 

“Um, sorry,” he mumbled. “So, my phone died.” 

Even though I really wanted to get back to my life and stay uninvolved I asked, “Would you like to borrow mine?”  

I helped him figure out his membership information, our address, and other details, and after fifteen minutes he finally got through to the tow service. While he was waiting, his dad arrived in a shiny Range Rover, and I could see Tristin physically shrink as his father and I chatted about kids, driving and education. 

“I told his mom to send him to military school but he’s an ‘artist,’” the father said. Tristin cringed at the idea of such a structured environment and I inwardly agreed that it would be a bad match for someone more interested in sprouting seeds and keeping his hair long and curly. 

I soon excused myself, and left them to wait for the mechanic. An hour later they were gone. 

*** 

Marcy came by last week from the locally owned home improvement store to measure for window blinds. Friendly and talkative, we were quickly comparing notes on children, college and degree choices, along with pet stories.  

I confessed my worries about my children’s future, as two of them have started the college search, and was grateful to have another grownup to talk to. Working at home, I sometimes go days without talking to anyone outside my family, and I sometimes crave doses of conversation to balance out the solitude.  

Marcy mentioned that after her appointment with me, she had three medical tests to fit in, all before her husband’s health insurance ended. He was let go after a long career with the same employer and the loss has made him scared, irritable, and depressed. I wondered if that could happen to my husband. Could this story become mine? How would I react?  

I keep listening and learned that Marcy has two Siamese cats and a new puppy, and her son took eight years to get a two-year degree, but now he’s got his act together. “It just took the right girl,” Marcy noted. As a mother of a male teenager who hates to leave his room, this was reassuring. 

She worries about her elderly mother who lives alone in Florida and how much longer she will be able to fly to Pennsylvania with her own elderly cat, also a Siamese. 

If felt good to hear someone being honest and sharing her real feelings and concerns. So often we meet people who are wary and closed off. But here in my home, while she measured for window treatments, I connected with another woman – a wife and mother, a daughter, a human being. I was grateful for the chance to be honest and real, grateful for the chance to connect.  

*** 

Yesterday I bought this week’s groceries. My clerk’s name tag read “Jaxsin” and when he asked, “How are you doing today?” I knew he actually wanted to know. He paused, made eye contact, and gave me a smile.  

I returned the question and he quickly confessed that he was “jonesing to get a new tattoo” right after work while he had the money. It wouldn’t be his first (he pulled up his sleeve so I could see the treble clef on his inner arm) and it would be small in comparison with the Millennial Falcon on this thigh. I loved his honesty and nerd pride. 

I confessed that I had just had some ink added to an existing tattoo, my third. I was glad that I hadn’t wasted time on my phone in an effort to just get through the mundane task of buying food. I prefer to keep to myself, but Jaxsin definitely liked an audience. He kept up the chitchat while he scanned my items and it felt good to look him in the eye and really listen to him. 

“That’s cool, you have tattoos. Now you can’t tell your kids not to,” he exclaimed.  

I wished him good luck and walked past more strangers on my way to the car, each of them with their own story. Not everyone is open and willing to share with a stranger, but when we take a risk and listen, when we share a little of ourselves, it can be powerful. We all want to be seen and heard. How can we step out of our comfort zones? Make eye contact? Really listen to someone who might need it? After all, everyone has a story to share. 

 

Words by Megan Fraser.