30 March 2012

Breaking The Smith

Tobias watched his hands shake, considering again the dread he felt facing the forge. His breath steamed in the crystalline air of an early winter. The cold outside sent sluggish spikes of pain through his belly, belying the intense heat of the almost white-hot coal. The smith picked up his hammer and tongs, spitting into the blaze.

"Another winter of this," the rugged hulk of a man muttered, "and I'll throw myself into that forge." He sighed heavily in a sort of barking cough. The knot in his belly failed to disappear.

Tobias hefted the tongs in his left hand. The Jovian weight of the hammer tugged at his right hand and arm, but was no match for the bulging muscles shaped by years of pounding metal. Hands rough and large, scarred by embers and red-hot iron. The smith stared at his hands as if seeing them for the first time. The resentment he felt for his hands flared bright in his mind. Today it felt like hatred.

Tobias choked back an oath. His hands were always dirty. No amount of scrubbing with sand or, when he could get it, pumice could seem to clean his hands. Nails perpetually grimy and creases in the skin like trenches filled with graphite. He simply wanted clean hands.

If he never again had to breathe in the fumes of smoldering coal and burning straw, Tobias reckoned he could be a happy man. The only way he knew to fix that was to find another trade. The village, he knew, wouldn't let him. They needed the things he made, that was true. But not as many of the villagers were willing to help out now and again. Not as many would want to get soot ground in their skin to do something useful.  The smith scratched the back of his head with the tongs, wondering at the willingness of others to have someone else be saddled with the dirty work.

"No more," Tobias grunted, "no more. The hammer and the anvil about near to killin' me, and I reckon I've had my fill."  The words sounded loud even above the low roar of the forge.  Red highlights flickered on the burnished iron of the anvil, impish eyes beckoning the smith from where he stood.  The anvil. Tobias squinted at in a sudden burst of desperate inspiration. He had been between the hammer and the anvil near all his life since he became a man, and his heart was sick from it. The horn of the anvil seemed to glow, and Tobias knew what to do.

He walked over to the anvil, dropping the tongs and transferring the hammer to his left hand. The right hand he laid on the face of the anvil. The cold iron stung the palm of his hand, which trembled slightly as he raised the hammer high over head. His breath held when the hammer reached the apex of the arc. Slight spasms coursed up and down his arm.

Tobias drew in a lungful of the freezing winter air. The hammer began to swing down, slow at first then blurring into a dark silver arc. The hard steel crashed into the back of the smith's right hand. The cracking of bones mimicked the crackling of the coals. Tobias bellowed, a gored ox falling to its knees with blood spraying out to stain his apron and coal-dust blackened snow on the ground around the stump on which the anvil sat. The big man fell to his knees, screaming and crying, with tears tracking silver runnels through the coal dust on his face. He began to smile. Blinding pain laced with sweet relief flooded through his gut. The smile turned into a laugh.

"I'll not be a smith no more, Lord, I'll not be a smith!" he shouted, "I'm free!" He passed out.

Folks from the village began to crowd around, drawn by his screams, and frightened by the enigmatic smile of the giant with a ruined hand.

28 March 2012

Weak Tea

There is a peculiar taste to tea brewed from the second or third pot on old leaves. Copper, fear, regret, blood: all things that pass over the tongue, sometimes choking them down.  Other times, swallowed with a sigh and dreaming of fatter times and headier brew.

How thin can it be cut? How slow can it be poured? The kettle heats, the water over the leaves, again and again in a Zeno's paradox of liquid. The second thinner than the first, the third thinner than the second.  There is no fourth cup. The spirit has not the resolve to even try, because the heart could not endure it. Staring down the prospect of a fourth cup from old leaves spikes the mouth with bitterness before the hand could think to raise such a travesty to the lips.


There are days where bleary eyes and trembling hands consider such a thing.  Because the tea leaves can only be spooned out so far. Dividing half by half by half is absurd in the light of abundance, but abundance doesn't last. It gets lost under a mounting wall of bills. The cheap and plentiful becomes costlier and scarcer not because it ceases to exist; it is because the sluicing effects of money diminish when that revenue stream dries up. The flood becomes a trickle. The trickle becomes elusive.

It is the cold, grey light of diminishing that shines on the tea tin, pot, and cup. Mental calculus of how many more cups can be extracted from smaller amounts and repeated boilings.  There is metallic-sounding laughter in a far corner of the mind, with a voice saying "Two brews, same leaves, means no new tea bought until the end of the month." This offers cold comfort.

This is what it comes to, sometimes. Weak tea, staring at the bottom that is not usually seen. Not usually, in those weeks of Fat Tuesdays. But the tea gets drunk, all the same, because that is all there is in the cup.  That, and the memory of strength.

21 March 2012

We Are All Mona Lisas

I had some thoughts today, of the Life/Universe/Everything variety, and as I don't have much room in my head these days for extra thoughts (big though my noggin my be) I thought I would lay them upon you, dear readers.

Out and about today to run errands and shove some groceries down my neck, I was privy to some intriguing insights as I trolled the aisles of the big box and later as I chewed thoughtfully on my beans and rice.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and genders in between, insofar as I can claim any sort of life wisdom I humbly offer the following for your edification and delight:

For men: If a lady smiles at you, don't automatically assume they want to engage in carnal relations with you. While that is within the realm of possibility, it almost certainly of low probability. You should, however, smile back. As a minimum she was being nice, and you should return the courtesy. Your day will be better for it.

For women: If a gentleman smiles at you, don't automatically assume he wants you to engage in carnal relations with him. While that is within the realm of possibility, it almost certainly of low probability. You should, however, smile back.As a minimum he was being nice, and you should return the courtesy. Your day will be better for it.

For adults: If a child smiles at you, smile back. Wave if you can.  It matters not why the child smiled at you, only that they did. The universe has chosen to favor you with a kindness. Enjoy your good fortune. Smile.

The first two I gathered by inference while people watching. The last one was by the grace of a child's smile. Here endeth the lesson.

20 March 2012

Kitchen Goddess

I dream of you standing
in the light of the windows,
I see it caress your face and know
the heat of this solitary kitchen
will transform my heart to hearth

18 March 2012

Sunday Meditation #19: Silence and the Saint

Saturday night was a curious mix of sound, celebration and intent.  At the local tavern, St. Patrick's Day festivities were in full swing. A block over, in the community hall on the town common, the sounds of what may have been Tejano or mariachi music thumped loudly through my window. I had no desire to be at the tavern and I have no idea what they celebrating at the hall; perhaps a fundraiser or a wedding reception.

I'm pretty sure that the people at the tavern were not really celebrating the life and memory of St. Patrick. I didn't really expect that they would. But still, the thought of faux-Irish music and green beer...well, it gave me no reason to want to be there. As with many "holiday" celebrations in this country (Cinco de Mayo also comes to mind) the rapacious nature of consumer culture turns it into yet another overbearing push involving overindulgence in alcohol and food, stretched taut over a paper-thin surface of incomplete understanding. Green cardboard shamrock hat, anyone?

The other celebration or party, with the music, was more of a puzzle. While I wished they would turn down the volume (too much bass is not cool and only makes my head hurt) I was more interested in the reason for it.  If I had not had my daughter with me for the weekend I would have sauntered over to the hall to peek in the windows, see  what was going on.  I could hear the shouts and squeals of children or young people, so my guess was a big party for family and friends. I don't know if any saints were involved.

Earlier in the evening I had put my daughter to bed after watching one of her favorite shows on the food channel. We had snuggled up on the couch with her collection of stuffed animals, she tucked in under a blanket. She declared that I "made a good footrest," some of the highest praise I've received in the months of my unemployment. We enjoyed our slice of time there, just us, no bother, no worry, no noise and clatter.

That which I truly want to celebrate has no need for the loud and the crass and the intoxicated. As I lay on my bed with the music vibrating through the walls, I wondered what Saint Patrick would really think of this day, and I wondered at my own desire to celebrate something meaningful.  Then I had it. The gift I received today was the quiet time with the blood of my blood. Blessings abound in the silence between our words, and I prayed again in gratitude for the quiet.

17 March 2012

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona dhuit!

Happy St. Patrick's Day, from my Irish heart to yours. Blessings to everyone!

15 March 2012

Serendipity, with Anchovies

What do you get when you combine spare time, a chance encounter with a recipe once forgotten, and a ten-day-old baguette?

A delicious dinner, of course.  I had it tonight, in the form of pasta ammuddicata, via a re-reading of an essay by John Thorne titled "Pasta With Anchovies". Ammuddicata is an Italian dialect (exact one, I am not sure. Calabrian, maybe?) word meaning 'bread crumbs' and that picture above is of the ones I made out of the aforementioned baguette. They are sauteed in a little bit of olive oil until golden brown, then sprinkled with some hot pepper flakes.

They are so much better tasting than they have any right to be.  I was eating them right out of the bowl.

But I get ahead of myself.  The recipe for pasta ammuddicata seized my attention today as I read the essay. It has a total of six ingredients, one of which (salt) I ended up not using: anchovy fillets, olive oil, bread crumbs, red pepper flakes, salt, and spaghetti.  I recalled that I was intrigued by the dish a long time ago, when I first read it.  For some reason, I never seemed to have stale bread worth turning into crumbs.

That is, until today.  The remains of a baguette purchased ten days ago, at the request of my darling daughter.  We purchased it at the French bakery just down the street, and she thinks of them as a real treat.  Which, frankly, they are because the bakers there know their craft.  The drawback is, the baguettes are just over two feet long, and as much as me and my offspring like bread, we can't eat the whole thing at a sitting.  Nor would I try.

So I had almost half left, and some little voice told me to leave it in the wrapper, sitting on the counter. "I might need it" I heard the voice say.  Sure enough, I did. Inspiration in the form of pasta ammuddicata!  This version calls for bread crumbs to be sprinkled over the pasta at the eater's discretion. The baguette was, by this time, as hard as a stick of locust wood.  I put it in a heavy plastic bag and beat the hell out of it with a hammer, sifting the crumbs through a colander.

All I needed was some anchovy fillets and spaghetti, which I garnered on a quick shopping trip.  Back in the kitchen, I fired up the stove and set to. Lately I have been stressed out and scattered by life, and it felt good to focus, to get into the zen of it. With six ingredients and very little fuss, I had a feast in very little time.

The pasta went into one white ceramic bowl, a salad into another, and the ammuddicata into another.  I sat at the table on my porch, enjoying the early evening of a perfectly lovely day.  The simplicity of it enhanced the taste, and I chewed contentedly.

Early flowers perfumed the air. My heart felt at peace, my stomach felt full. Dinner should always be so good.

12 March 2012

Bowing My Head, Saying Hey-Men!

Sunday, March 11, 8:50 PM. Spring night, cool breeze, calm heart.

Unplugged a little bit this evening. Paid attention to what I was eating tonight, instead of the computer screen. It makes a big difference in the quality of the meal, I can tell you. There is something to this practice of mindfulness I have been ruminating on as of late.

Mindfulness.  I paid attention to the grains of rice in my bowl, the flecks of parsley in the gumbo, the savor of shrimp on my tongue and between my teeth.  Time slowed down. The house breathed around me.

As the spoon gathered up the last goodness in the bowl, uncovering the bottom of white porcelain flecked with green bits of herbs, I had a quiet revelation. In the here and now, I am humbly grateful for two things (not the only things, to be sure) in my life: good gumbo and deep love.

In the midst of the storms of my life, gumbo nourishes my body, and love...my friends, Love it is that nourishes my soul.  Between the two of them, especially love, I believe I am going to be well fed in this life.

It's good, that's all there is to it.

11 March 2012

Sunday Meditation #18: Time Away from Love

Struggling in the midst of chores, I wonder: why do we spend so much time not doing that which we love to do? How is it that the balance of life always tilts away from the heart?

It is the reason this meditation is so short.  I was so caught up in maintenance I had little time for wonder.  There is so much more I wanted to write about, but it wasn't meant to be.

If I could, I would write most of the time.  I would imagine great things, and then sweep the floor.

10 March 2012

The Heart Knows Holi

Breeze brushes crocus,
Celebrants raise powdered hands
Color blooms, heart fills

 March 8th, 2012, 8:34 PM. Alone at the table. Night, window and breeze.

09 March 2012

Making Omelets

Sitting down at the battered companion he called a dining table, fork in hand, slow tears seeped into his vision. He gulped another mouthful of tea and wept in thanks at the savor of the eggs.

Sunlight waned outside in the deepening evening.  The lamp on the table flickered in argentine lambency. He watched the flame dance in conversation with a breeze slinking through the open window.  The omelet disappeared under the insistent bulldozer of his appetite.

Wiping his face on the linen napkin he had carefully placed on the scarred wood, the old man finished the dinner.  His breath scraped over his teeth to fill his lungs.  Holding it, he counted ten slow exhales and grieved over the inescapable violence of needing to live.

06 March 2012

Road Along The Sea

This life can be as a road along the sea, hugging the cliffs like curves hug a snake. The drive can be anything you want it to be, if only you know what you want and what you need. Driving with the top down at high speed when you feel confident, or maybe when you forgot where are the brakes, you round a curve at the bottom of the hill with the hood of the car pointing up and out over infinity.

You don't know what to do.  You can't see a guard rail, or feel the wheels on the pavement. It gets quiet there, and slow. For a slice of infinity you ponder the Was, Now and What May Be. What is it you have done with this life, and what will you do should you find the road again?  What can bring you back?

Take a deep breath. Let go of the steering wheel. On this road, there is love, if you care to look.  Better yet, if you care to feel.

Love will bring you back.  Love will put up the rail, stop the fall, get the wheels back on the pavement.

Love will do these things, if we let it. We just need to let it take over and drive.

01 March 2012

Shelter for the Traveler

The tick of the clock overlays the bacon-frying-sizzle of wheels over wet pavement. Train horn sounding in the distance as I sit alone in the living room of my parent's house, gazing at the Saint Christopher medal hanging on a chain around my neck.  I am not Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, nor am I devout of any persuasion, so the medal seems incongruous. It is a gift from someone very close to my heart, and thereby has become something sacred in its own quiet way.  I treasure it for that, knowing this gift was given out of love.

It is late evening.  I have returned from a day at the hospital where I was helping tend to my ailing mother. My father is staying at the hospital with her overnight. She should be home tomorrow, if things continue their positive course. It is my wish, my hope, that she also receive blessings on her journey.

I have to pause a moment, listening to the clock and the train.  My right hand steals to the medal.  I run my fingers over it, the golden metal of it feeling warm and slightly slick. Closing my eyes, I hear rain falling on the roof to add its own counterpoint to the rest.

My head rests on my left hand, the medal clasped in my right. It warms to blood temperature, almost as a living thing.  I breathe, I rest, and my heart grows light and warm to know that someone watches over me on this road I am traveling.