Characters That Haunt You: Doris Lessing


      Doris Lessing died.

In November of 1972, I sat on the concrete stoop, or rather, the pad that passed as a porch on our little house in Belton, Texas, and I mourned as monarch butterflies filled the sun-filled air in front of me. They were leaving for the winter; I was simply leaving. I could feel tears wet on my face.

Behind me, the house was filled with boxes and furniture ready for the moving van that would come the next day. I’d left the white cord macrame curtain I’d tied in the wide front window. My gift to the house.

We, my sons and I, were moving to Germany to join my solder husband. The three years in Belton had filled themselves “to the brim” if one could say years could be filled like coffee cups. They had certainly been full. We’d moved from our first dark and cramped house to this one, filled with windows and light and while small, a happy house.

People say I do too much now, but ya shoulda known me then.

We built a big vegetable garden across the street in an empty lot; bought fresh milk and meat from a woman in the country; I churned our butter and baked all our bread; and in the meantime, worked in the women’s movement and politics and started college and had a job in art therapy and raised the sons.

Well. Even in that shorthand, I guess it’s fair to say “filled to the brim.”

I sat, watching the butterflies, seeing my life as constant movement, wondering how I’d ever make sense of it all. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook lay open in my lap. I’d already read The Four-Gated City; Martha Quest, the lead character who was always wandering, was as familiar to me as my own skin.

I don’t remember the character names in The Golden Notebook although the book still sits on my bookshelf along with several of her other books; but I remember the vision of notebooks. On that day, with butterflies and tears in my eyes, I decided to begin keeping a journal. Writing about sitting on that porch with butterflies filling the air and grief in my heart was the first post in the first notebook from over forty years ago. Now, there are shelves and shelves of notebooks.

And I remember Doris Lessing. And feeling her death brings up another grief, one, perhaps, as much for myself. Life, for humans and for butterflies, is so short regardless of how much you manage to press into it and how many years you live. She was ninety-four. I’m almost seventy. It’s a weird thing to be almost seventy and I keep reminding myself of the fact. Which doesn’t change, as Lessing was well aware.

Regardless of what she wrote and the many books she published, she was the real character. As, I suppose, I am in my writing. But not having her ahead of me is a little scary. Or, perhaps, just empty.

Click on this link for guidance on writing about your own characters:

Weekly Writing Challenge: Family Risotto

This weeks writing challenge from WordPress was to do something you haven’t done before on your blog: if you write fiction, write a poem; if you write nonfiction, write fiction; if you use one photo, try out the gallery….do something different.

I’ve been getting a nudge to write about cooking. Food is one of those process things…and it’s spiritual too. When I cook, I cook with love. And I cook to please my family, to make the end meal of the day something special. Cliff cooks with the same intent, only his love is cooking on the grill and mine is trying something different. Tonight, I decided to make risotto to go with a chicken dish. It’s fabulously good, it’s fun to make, and my family loves it.

Most people think of risotto as difficult. It’s not. It just takes time and persistence. Here’s what you need:

1 c. of Italian style rice. Usually the label will have something on it about risotto. It’s a heavier grain that absorbs a lot of liquid. I like Arborio Rice.

2 t. of oil and 2 of butter. I don’t always add the butter but you can.

1/2 cup chopped onion

3 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock. I use bullion in water but a special bullion. You can add salt and pepper but I don’t usually as the chicken bullion stock is already salty.

I suspect anyone who cooks knows how to cut up an onion, but this was a pretty cool shot, so I used it. I like using sweet onions, those big fat ones with the yellow skins.

Another reason I like making risotto is cooking it in my porcelain-coated cast iron pot. What genius thought of porcelain over iron?

And then after cooking the onions a bit – last night I also added a couple of cloves of garlic – you toss in the cup of rice and brown it all together for a couple of minutes – let’s say 2 to 3 for those who need specifics.

Browning rice and onions/garlic. See how nicely they do in a great pot?

All the while this is going on, I heat water in the teakettle so I can dissolve the Better Than Bullion chicken broth concentrate. It really is better than bullion cubes and has a great taste. And it’s always on hand.

A tablespoon or so of bullion mix and two cups of water. The recipe calls for a total of three cups, so after adding the first cup of water, I just fill the cup again.

Okay. Now it’s time to pour a cup of the hot bullion water into the rice and stir. And stir. You don’t really have to stir it constantly, but you do have to pay attention and get back to it often. Just stir. It might be nice not to have to multi-task for a short time anyway.And after you’ve stirred for awhile, it looks like this.

Then add another cup of bullion, stir again until it looks like this, and add another cup and do the whole process again.

Finally, all three cups of liquid are absorbed and the risotto will look something like this.

Test (take a bite) and see if the rice is soft. It might need a little steaming time with the lid on or you might need to add a little more liquid.

Until it looks like this on the spoon.                                                                              And there you have it: restaurant grade risotto at home. From start (heating the oil) to finish (eating) it takes about 45 minutes. As I said, patience and persistence.

And an appetite!

Or as Julia Child so famously said, “Bon Appetit!”

(so wha’da ya think? ready to take on a foodie blog??)



The Weather Report

The sky casts a sheet-metal pall over the backyard this morning. We knew it would come, this first cold front of the season, but the sudden whirl surprised us, none the less.

A fan of yellow beside the neighbor’s house announces one tree’s leap into autumn.

The news says there’s a foot of snow in Harrison, Nebraska. Likely they weren’t quite ready for that even with a lifetime spent in the upper and unpredictable High Plains. Snow. In early October. A trace, maybe. Yeah, they could expect that. But a foot?

The cold crumpled my shoulders and a musty sigh, mourning my absence, escaped from the storage closet as I pulled out my red fleece shawl, its first morning in nearly eight months since spring came early and warm. A good friend, it comforts my shoulders during morning musings and waits across the chair back, arms wide and welcoming, whenever I return throughout the day.

Last week, we saw the first red splash of maple leaves, a bell-rung harbinger of fall. After a summer of drought, and scarce rain after, the vision signing the normal turn of earth and seasons felt comforting.

Just now, the wind lifts the top oak branches outside my window, a delicate lift like a ballerina’s plié, then drifts off to find some other, more willing tree to trouble. From my childhood’s memory, I hear Joe Kenney, the weatherman in Lincoln, Nebraska say “variable winds,” but I prefer ballerinas, dancing a minuet, played by a harpsichord.

We always know these changes are coming and yet, when they do, we are surprised, and lift our heads like school children, popping up, alarmed. Did we wait too long, too long?

I still have a backyard to clean, the garden needs putting to bed, and the last of the tomatoes picked. After the heat of summer, they picked up troubled heads, unwilling to leave all their promise unfulfilled, and put on more – handfuls of grape tomatoes that reached enough ripeness to use and some hard green tennis balls that may never ripen, even wrapped in newspaper,  relegated to one more batch of fried green tomatoes. My son will be pleased.

The world turns and we with it.

Fall is here.


Weekly Writing Challenge Revolt!

The first line in the instructions! The first! And it stopped me cold. It seemed a simple Weekly Writing Challenge: learning to use the “Post by Email” tool to create a post. Okay. I like new challenges.

So I clicked on the link and I read, “”Before you can publish by email, you must generate a special email address. This address is unique to you and must be kept secret (anyone that knows the email address can publish a post to your blog).”

I already have five email addresses: one for home, one professional, two schools, and a yahoo address that I’ve had forever. Five. And one more to keep track of? No. Not today. I don’t need email posting that bad. I suppose I could have used the old Yahoo address, but it mostly collects spam now – not the perfect answer.

Perhaps if this challenge had come, say, three weeks ago, I might have been up to the, well, challenge. However, I’ve just come home from a ten-day vacation and it’s taken me two days to catch up with email and clean out my inbox….over five hundred email. That’s not counting the two school accounts which I haven’t approached or Yahoo. That’s just my two private email. And as I began deleting, here’s what I was thinking: my sister’s retreat center in North Kohala.

Hawaii Island Retreat

  My room behind the french doors opening onto a balcony on the left – the blue room, much the same color as the walls in my office here at home.

Here’s the other thing I was thinking: an evening trip to the beach where sea turtles clamber up to sleep the night, one sticking its head into the bushes as a curtain, I supposed, just beyond where the women are standing. It’s a keeper shot.

So as I sorted and deleted and deleted and highlighted and marked the I’ll get back to that soon, mostly I remembered Hawaii. Mostly I just deleted. I get way too many newsletters and extras of every sort and style, including the daily electronic New York Times and USA Today.

And I receive several blogs in my inbox.

The first I stopped to read was the one titled, “Killers Don’t Wear Flip-flops.” Now. That was a definite stop here and think about that!!! sort of moment. And the blog lived up to its promise. I’ve linked it just so you can read it.

Teresa has the gift of offering humor, something sorely lacking in the New York Times news, quite frankly.

The other blog I read, “22 things I learned on birthday vacation” made me wonder what I’d learned on my vacation without a birthday….that list, well, I don’t have one. Not yet. But it seemed a good idea.

But I have written the DPChallenge, anyway, about in-boxes and email, just in an off-the-track sort of way which has more to do with NOT doing it than doing it, but it’s written. And I’ve posted a couple of the Hawaii photos. A good excuse for showing them, all in all…..


Enter the Sounds in Silence

The Mission of Junipero Serra, Old Town San Diego

The ceiling fan blade whirrs, almost a silent presence; a few locust hum their last songs. No birds sing in this summer of drought except for a few melodies raised the morning it rained a bit. No sirens this morning, knifing through the streets.

I like this room where I sit each morning, savoring the silence, before the day pushes me into something else. I could have easily been a cloistered nun: make bread, read, pray, write. Okay okay, so it’s probably more rigorous than that, but maybe….

I’m a big fan of Sor Juana de la Cruz, a 17th Century Mexican writer and nun. She liked silent rooms, too.

One of the many pieces of paper I’ve saved is an article from the January 1st New York Times titled “The Joy of Quiet.” The author, Pico Iyer, writes, “Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer, and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music…it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as ‘that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.'”

At the bottom corner of the newspaper sheet, I wrote a Marshall McLuhan quote: “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.”

I’m getting ready to go for a visit with my siblings and my departure date is coming fast. I’m excited. It will be fabulous and fun; we’re going to my sister’s boutique hotel, Hawaii Island Retreat, which I’ve not seen since it was built although I did live in Hawaii some years back. The morning sounds will be different: the myna birds chattering conversations, the soft surration of raindrops on banana tree fronds, the maahaa-maahaa of baby goats.

But I’ll be gone ten days.

I’m gathering bits and pieces to take with me: a flash drive with current writing projects; a little pad of Post-it tabs; the requisite morning journal and books. I have lists.

This morning in my journal I was wondering at having all these bits of myself. I wrote, “Writing is what I do every day and having all my pieces helps me feel safe, I guess.”

I guess.

But Hawaii has always anchored me, the land in my blood in the same way the Kansas high plains are in my blood. And I’ll find my place, a place to sit, to listen in the silence.