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I was cold. I was so cold, that I was in tears. It’s something that gets into my bones, my muscles. It might only be fifty degrees – not “cold” by any measure of temperature, but it has gotten into my psyche and I am in tears.

I don’t mind real cold: that icy, biting, sub-zero wind that freezes earrings and nips at the nose. You can bundle up against that kind of cold: gloves, muffler, hat, down jacket, silk long underwear. It’s the cold that seeps into your joints when you aren’t paying attention that cripples my mind and spirit. That’s a devil I have a hard time fighting with until my bones are warm again.

The other cold can be cured with hot cocoa and laughter.

I poured myself into that deep scouring I promised the house when I retired. My heart was not in it. Motions, just going through the motions – but my bones warmed and my muscles began to warm up. The zen state of cleaning emptied my mind.

He asked if I wanted to go for a walk. My impulse was to say, “No.” He tempered it with a suggestion:

“Why not drive down to the promenade and go walking?”

I needed to fire up my car anyway: it thinks cold weather is an excuse for the gas line to freeze or the battery to die. Luckily, it has a new battery and I poured an additive into the gas tank to keep it starting on cold mornings. Still, driving it every day is insurance against a frantic call to AAA for a jump – right? Even a drive as long as 1.5 miles.

We parked in a two-hour zone, behind a Ford Escalade. We walked down the street, to the elevator (we have a public elevator, outside, located on the side of a cliff). On down to where the walkway meets 7th Street and Singer Hill. We turned around and I adjusted my knit muffler to cover my ears as the icy wind was buffeting us.

Clouds were moving in from the southwest, but the view to the north was clear: Mount Saint Helens, Mount Washington, and other Washington State Cascade snow-covered peaks. Now, heading south, we could watch sea birds dip and dive beneath the wide Willamette Falls. No one else walked the promenade.

Graffiti marred some parts of it – I hope chalk was used. This promenade, the stone pillars and the concrete rails – these were created by artisans during The Great Depression. They have been renewed, remodeled, but the fact of the labor of love done by men who merely wanted to earn a dollar or fifty cents a day to feed their families remains. Perhaps some of these vandals could work that hard, knowing their labors would buy only a loaf of bread and a night’s lodging for a family of five. Respect is earned by understanding. By labor. By having our eyes opened to the struggles of others.

The promenade is scarcely a half-mile long. By the end, I unwrapped my muffler. My ears were still chilled, but no longer icy. We crossed the VA parking lot and walked the sidewalk over to The Highland Stillhouse, a public eatery and whisky house. We’ve been going there since they opened: situated across from a view of Willamette Falls, with a Scottish menu, beer, whiskey, and old homeland music piped in (Irish mostly, but we won’t tattle).

We ordered a plate of pretzels (two large pretzels, heavily salted) and two beers. Two more beers. I should remember the beers, but what I remember is the conversation and the connection between my husband and myself. The laughter. The serious pokes. The political differences laid aside in our united effort to change the world through discussion. The sense that my Scots mother was there (she was, after all, the person I learned how to drink and save the world from).

She was not first generation Scots. John Melrose emigrated during the Civil War. He had to sign papers agreeing to not choose sides in the American Civil War. But neither was my father first generation Irish: the Cusicks came across in the early 1700’s. We’re a mix of nationalities, identifying with those two primarily.

We talked about genealogy: his family is primarily German, but identifies strongly with the small bit of Irish. We’re both Germanic. I own two sets of wooden shoes from the Dutch family line – but no note on who owned them or why they were kept. Note to self: make notes for my heirs, Our heirs.

We walked back on High Street. There’s so much architecture to look at: clapboard homes and Victorians. Trim hauled around “The Horn”. Garden wonders – at least two gardens with “Pesticide Free” signs. We live in a temperate zone, despite the wintry chill in the air. February is our best chance at deep snow here, and it is rare. Green things are pushing up through the soil and Camellias are staring to bloom,

Perhaps we’ll get a few inches of snow on Saturday. Maybe we will be lucky and get over ten inches. If we do, we’ll go snow shoeing.

If we don’t, nothing is unusual. Life is beautiful.

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I broke out of my comfort zone this evening and went to an established writer’s group. I’ve attended one other, but in the company of a friend, and a very long time ago. This time, I was going in solo, with no idea how the group was organized or who else would be there.

I am an INFJ, and come across as very reserved if I don’t know you. If I know you, or I feel comfortable, I can be easily mistaken for an extrovert. I suffer anxiety, just thinking about going into a strange situation. I sometimes cancel plans with besties because I suffer anxiety. But this is part of the Retirement Plan: “Finally Write Those Novels Stuck In My Head” Or in my Documents, or the manila paper folder marked “stories” in my filing cabinet.

Despite the cold air (wow – we got down to actual freezing here the past couple days, nothing like the sub-zero temps of my youth but certainly cold enough to keep my older self cocooned inside the house), I drove down to the library and found the meeting room. It was a scary crowd inside: two elderly women prone to talking too much and three elderly men who didn’t talk at all. By elderly, I mean a lot older than me. Okay, maybe the same age as me. Maybe even a decade younger, but no more than that.

The syllabus stated this was for writers of all levels. I wasn’t surprised to learn the facilitator is a published playwright or that she has a novel “out there” in search of an editor. One member has published, or is in the process of publishing, his memoirs. No one else claimed to be that accomplished (I have a couple published poems under my belt from my twenties). (I have scarcely written down poetry since then, although I thinkin poetry – hardly anything to be proud of.)

Cutting to the chase: I was the newbie. There were “scheduled” readings on the agenda. A very approachable facilitator. One member had Parkinson’s, so his wife reads his writings for him.  There were five readings tonight, and I remained in my reserved role, biting my tongue in order to see how others responded, and feeling out the group.

The first writer read a short story, which was more of an introspect and philosophical vignette than an actual story with a plot. Well written, nice use of imagery and words. Thoughtful, with a little humor tossed in.

Number two read from an historical novel he is writing that covers the history of his ancestors and the history of Old California while jumping back into the future to relate the story to his own ife’s path. That’s a great way to tell history. He researched dates & events, lined them up with oral history, added his own story-telling flair. He’s at 25,000 words, so this is truly a first draft. He gets to 80,000 words (his goal) and he will have a nice historical novel, small publishing, and a great genealogical book for his family.

Guy with Parkinson’s wrote a sweet vignette of someone he knew back when. It’s a nice, full-circle tale, lots of imagery and setting. A collection of his writings will be a great collectors item, small press, and very humorous.

I’m not making light of those – I have a number of such books in my own collection. Treasures. Small histories. The sort of literature that future histories will rely on to rebuild our history. These are needful writings, they just probably won’t make the authors a lot of money- but is money the goal? No.

A middle aged man (hey, he came in late, so couldn’t be counted in the “within a decade of me” third paragraph) was the next in line. He didn’t read from paper, but from a lap top (showing our generation gap). He had a problem reading out loud: enunciation. Remember that word from your youth or your brief acting career? “E-NUN- CI-ATE”

It means: speak slowly and clearly. Do not run your words together. Do not elide syllables. Give emotion to the reading.

He’s writing a YA novel, but doesn’t know it is YA (Young Adult). He’s hoping adults will read it as well. I could hear some of it and guess at the premise, and it has promise. He’s also on his first draft. I was reminded of several YA novels I have read (I love YA). The only problem I have with his work is his presentation. We can’t all be public speakers and I have no idea how someone will judge me.

The last writer was clearly an amateur. She read from prose she wrote in 2015, very unpolished. No desire to polish it up, but this is a group with no judgment. I can deal with that. Polished, she told a story of an encounter – a vignette of a moment in life with a stranger. I truly think the vignette should make a comeback in story-telling. It should be writing 101.

I offered nothing. I am working on my own YA novel, a sci-fi fantasy, another YA novel, and two children’s books. I have a lot more ideas in my manila file folder. I have tons of unwritten poetry that resembles the late Mary Oliver’s poetry. My only published poetry dates back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. All I want to do is hone my writing skills and maybe – just maybe – score a published novel out of it.

Would be nice to score Pulitzer or a movie contract or…

Yeah. A lot of that happens posthumously. I’d like it to happen in my lifetime.

I’ll be going back. I’ll take a sample of at least one idea I am honing. I will enunciate when I read, and inject the passion of the dialogue the way I did for my children when I read “Peter Pan” aloud for them (which is, honestly, the very best book to read aloud to children – especially the first chapter where Mr. Darling is calculating the cost of a child. Read it aloud, I beg of you.

Oh – what is in this for me? I don’t know. Connection? Community? Nothing? They meet every first and third Wednesday. I figure I need to give them at least three tries before I decide if this is for me or not. I didn’t have any instant bonding moments, but some things take time. I’ve waited this long – I can wait a little longer.

Your thoughts?

 

I met up with my friend, Diane, on Saturday. She called me because she wanted to give me something (very mysterious). We went to a preview of How to Train Your Dragon – The Hidden World first. It’s cute, the animation is great, the plot is a little too predictable, and the twins – Ruffnut and Tuffnut- are in excellent form. Children will love it. Lots of laugh out loud moments, and maybe there’s even a little bit of tear-jerkery going on, too. No spoilers: I have grandchildren who will want to see this first.

I dropped Diane off at her home and she presented me with the surprise, but not before telling me that it was something I “would need to fix.”

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It’s acrylic on canvas with a great big white blotch in the horse’s ears. Diane stated that she couldn’t wait to see what I would do with it, so I must assume she didn’t think I was merely going to fix that white blotch.

She’d be right. That horse.

I’ll admit to a bit of cheating here – I pulled up a horse photo in about the same pose on the Interwebs  to use as my model for fixing this. Surprisingly, the horse on the canvas isn’t TOO far off.

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The head needed to be longer and the ears needed to be repositioned, and the eye re-sized and correctly placed. Unfortunately, I can’t black out the old ears, so we’ll have to pretend they are shadows in the stall. I can come close to the browns. It’s a rough outline that needs a lot more work but now that I have it outlined in acrylic on the canvas, I’m rather excited by the challenge. I’ll try to stay true to the original (I don’t want to repaint the entire thing!), but I’ll also try to make the horse more life-like.

No promises.

Stay tuned.

 

 

I have been meaning to tackle this subject for some time now as I have been re-creating my own version of suet cakes for some time. Recently, I found a better way to do that (suet cakes), plus I had occasion to make one of those pressed seed cakes that have no suet in them. More on that later.

Those of us who feed the birds know all about suet cakes: you can purchase them for as  little as $0.99. They have names like “Woodpecker Mix” to “Sunflower” and even “Insect”. Nearly all of them are a little bit of suet, a little bit of the seed or insect mix, and a lot of cracked corn chips. The cracked corn usually ends up discarded at the bottom of the tree because the birds don’t particularly care for it – at least in my yard.

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store bought suet filled with cracked corn

I suspect GMOs in corn products. I don’t want to feed birds with GMOs. I can’t find any pre-made suet cakes that are marked “certified GMO free”, not even those approved by Audubon. So I have been melting down store-bought suet cakes, draining the suet off, and pouring it over my own blend of nuts & mealworms.

I tried rendering my own suet. You can ask for unrendered suet at your butcher’s, or purchase it online. Rendering is, well, not for the faint. It stinks. There’s tissue & blood. It stinks. You don’t get much out of it for the price and work involved. I crossed that idea off my list.

Then I found a source for pure rendered suet with no additives!

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One cake of already rendered suet melted down and poured over my own mix of mealworms and hot pepper flakes (not too hot) makes about two such goody-filled suet cakes. Better yet, the squirrels really don’t like this: no tasty fillers or nuts! The mealworms are available at any feed store & are pretty cheap. I haven’t tried live mealworms.

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I do all this in a vintage double boiler I picked up at a thrift store or a yard sale long ago. I rarely clean it as I store left over suet inside of it. Its only use is to render bird food.

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suet-mealworms-pepper flakes. That’s it.

The woodpeckers have been working on this for the past couple of weeks. I have two such suet cakes hanging out: one hidden for the smaller birds and this one for the many woodpeckers. The squirrels haven’t touched it.

Squirrels. If there are also nuts or cracked corn or any other filler in the suet cakes the squirrels in my yard (all 95 of them) make short work of them. I have – very rarely – been able to find suet-and-insect cakes that contain no fillers, but they tend to cost more. One squirrel can decimate a suet cake in a few days – the clowns that frequent our yard can do it in two.

Which brings me to recipe #2. I started buying those pressed insect-and-seed cakes that don’t contain suet. The squirrels love those. They distract the wee beasties for a short period of time (two days, I believe is their record for devouring one of those.

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They cost more ($7 and up) so I don’t buy very many of them. I’ve yet to attract woodpeckers to them (they go for the suet cakes first). And… I’m primarily interested in feeding birds, not squirrels.

However (cutting to the chase here), I happened to have a bag of stale nuts I needed to get rid of. I washed the salt off and bagged them, thinking I’d find a way to feed them to the squirrels. The original plan was to add them to the suet cakes, which is all well and good, but the hanger I have is for the large seed cakes as pictured above. The cakes I made for the squirrels floated in the bottom of that hanger.

Brilliant me: I read the ingredients (gelatin?). Ohhhh. Light bulb. I can try and make my own seed-and-nut cakes to fit that big hanger AND use up the stale nuts and old walnuts.

Rather than research it on the Internet, I simply jumped in with a couple packets of Knox plain gelatin, a home-made mold, and a press of those old nuts, sunflower seeds, and mealworms. Prepare the gelatin by sprinkling the 3 packets onto 3/4 cup of cold water, let sit while you boil the other 3/4’s cup of water, combine and stir to dissolve the gelatin. Mold into the mixture of nuts. Press into the homemade mold and refrigerate.

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(Aside – I refrigerate the suet cakes as well. It makes getting them out of the mold a whole lot easier when they’ve hardened).

A couple of hours later – Ta da! Voilá! It stayed stuck together and filled the cage.

Five minutes after coming back into the house, my effort was stamped with Eastern Gray Squirrel approval. I expect it will be gone by tomorrow morning, but this is a lot cheaper than buying the damn squirrels food. I have a couple gallons of old walnuts and gelatin is cheap.

 

 

Not quite a “spree” as I move rather slowly these days, but-

I attacked the kitchen a week ago. We bought the house already remodeled: the cupboards came from our neighbor’s house. The windows had vinyl Venetian blinds. We have done nothing to change the kitchen in the 17 years we have lived here: it’s too small, there’s little storage space, it’s too dark. I’ve threatened to paint the wood-stained cupboards to lighten it up. I hate the Formica countertop even though it is a blue shade (my favorite color). There’s no tile back-splash behind the sink (and, indeed, there’s probably dry rot in the countertop wood). We won’t discuss how I felt about the Venetian blinds.

Those, at least, are gone. I climbed onto the countertop and took a flat-head screw driver to them. And I am amazed at how much light those windows let in!

I will have to buy hardware and install normal kitchen curtains before summer, but that is beside the point. I actually like the dark cupboards with the natural light!

Well, and a new countertop and stainless steel sink. That’s a project for down the road – once I start pulling out that sink, I may find there’s dry rot in there and that thought is scary. Our son-in-law the plumber declined to even look at the sink because he’s worried about dry rot. My husband is not “the handyman you think I am” (his words to me – except I already knew that. You don’t live with someone for nearly 40 years and still have very many fantasies about their superpowers left).

Some tips: rubbing alcohol removed dried on grease & dirt (we don’t have a range fan installed & the range is against an inside wall – venting would have to come through the floor of my studio. NOT.) I use Amway’s LOC to clean walls, a trick I learned ages ago as a young woman. You don’t need to use very much & it cleans cigarette residue as well. I mean years of cigarette residue. I do not sell Amway & this is the only product I purchase. I use very little of it.

And never, ever, install vinyl Venetian blinds in a kitchen. Please.

I started thinking about my friend, Mary S., yester-eve. I’d just gotten off the telephone with my brother, lamenting the fact that my youngest suffers agoraphobia and has cut most of her family off. She’s told us, in no uncertain terms, that interacting brings on “too much stress” and she needs to stay away for an indefinite time, perhaps forever. She’s told her siblings who were not raised with her, her cousins, and what few friends she still has that I know as well.

This is juxtaposed against the last time I saw her, shortly after her first, “please don’t contact me” plea: we had a good visit. She hugged me tight and whispered into my ear, “I love you, Mom.” It’s a treasure I hold to my heart knowing she may never overcome what she is dealing with.

Mary never did.

I first met Mary, or was even aware of her existence, when I was seventeen and a Senior in high school. She lived two blocks away, in a low brick house surrounded with a wrought iron fence (I could be making the fence up). Mary’s husband had committed suicide in the basement of that house. Mary was home when he did it. She never left the house afterward.

Well, not until they carried her out.

Mary was in her mid-sixties, older than my parents. Her husband, I suppose, had been a friend of my dad’s. Dad knew everyone, and even his enemies respected him. Maybe it was through the Lions’ Club or the Elks, but Dad kept in touch with Mary in the ensuing time after her husband’s suicide. They had no immediate family, but a niece in her twenties lived with Mary.

I need to stop here. I can’t write about Mary S. without hearing her whisper in my ears, “Oh, screw that!” Mary loved Neil Diamond. Mary swore like a sailor. Mary told things like they were, even if they weren’t like that. She was one sassy old lady.

Mary’s niece had to go on a trip and Mary needed someone to stay with her. See, Mary not only could not leave her house, but she could not be alone in that old house. It was a conundrum that could only be Mary S.

And, in a way only my father could, he volunteered me to stay with this strange agoraphobic old woman who I didn’t even know existed. There I was, standing on her doorstep, nervously waiting to introduce myself.

We watched old movies. She cranked up Neil Diamond until I thought my eardrums would never recover and the police would soon be knocking on the doors. We laughed. We danced to Cracklin’ Rosie, Sweet Caroline, Cherry Cherry, and Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. We were free spirits inside a house with a history, a ghost of a husband who decided he couldn’t take life anymore so he turned a revolver on himself.

Mary S. hated guns. She hated being outside. She was terrified of being alone -in that house – but she would not leave that house. She knew she was mentally ill, but she couldn’t – wouldn’t – seek help.

I spent two weeks living with her. We had a crazy blast. We wrote long letters to each other when I went away to college, letters that gradually dwindled to nothing.

Then she was gone, an old woman who died afraid of her shadow, but still rocking to Neil Diamond. Forty-five years later, I miss Mary S. Forty-five years later, I miss my own daughter. Forty-five years later, I cannot find the words. At 17, she was my first elderly friend. She was fierce.

And she would roll her eyes at me, slap my wrists and say, “Don’t tell people about me. Turn up Neil Diamond. I want to hear Song Sung Blue one more time. LOUD.”

 

I struggle with words these days.

A season – no more.

Empty

of my words.