Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Uncertain Aura of Snow

The weather forecast says six to ten inches of snow. Reality might be anywhere from flurries to a couple of feet. One thing that I have loved about the neck of northeastern New York that I moved into is that people tend to prepare for the worst. Sometimes, schools close before the storm even starts.

This year, however, has been a bit different. Saratoga County has received a lot of snow, but unlike much of the rest of the state and parts of the nation, the dumps haven't been more than the "state birds" (also known as snow plows) can handle. Unlike other less snow-hardy parts of the U.S. where I've lived in the past, the roads in New York are plowed early and often. As a result, while my friends across the country are reporting snow days (codes for days off from school, work, or other obligations), we haven't had one that I can recall -- as yet.

That might change tomorrow. And it might not. Despite the forecast, the flakes haven't started to fall yet. They're not supposed to until after midnight. Which leaves me in an odd quandary.

Tomorrow is mapped out as a day of creative multi-tasking at its finest. At 11 a.m., I've committed to reading a piece at an open mic event being held by the college department with which I'm affiliated in celebration of African American History Month. At Noon, I'm scheduled to read at a storytelling event being sponsored by the Academy of Lifelong Learners, also affiliated with my college. At 1 p.m, I'm hoping to get on the road to North Creek, a town about 60 miles north of here, for an extended writing date. And because I am so dedicated to doing my workouts, I had high hopes of going for a morning swim at about 9:30 a.m., before the craziness began.

But the prospect of a "snow day" has loomed large all day. With it has come questions: How much do I prioritize preparing for these readings over all of the other things that compete for time and attention? How do I handle rescheduling if there is indeed a snow day? And, of course, anxiety: Why did I commit to so much?

That latter question is complex, but in a nutshell the answers lie in beliefs, values, and desires. The first commitment I made was to the Academy of Lifelong Learners. I received an invitation more than six months ago, when nothing was on my schedule for Wednesday, February 5. It was quite easy -- and quite pleasurable -- to say "Yes."

The second commitment only materialized this past Friday, but the roots of desire run deeper. The celebration of African American Heritage is part of a series of diversity related events that began in September and are continuing through June. My research on hip-hop and my work with hip-hop educators -- along with other issues -- has raised my level of awareness of how mainstream, predominantly white society continues systematically to disempower the disenfranchised in general and African Americans in particular. As many political activists, community organizers, and politically aware educators have shown, a "war" continues to be waged in the United States and across the world between those with political, economic, and social power and those without. We all are complicit with this war. As a result, one has a choice of joining the battle against the oppressive forces of society or sitting back. In joining the battle, I wield what I feel are my most powerful weapons: my ability to write and my ability to teach. So, when offered a chance to read what I have written out loud in order to teach via art, I am most delighted to comply. So when a rather last-minute announcement was posted about an open mic, I asked if I could read right at 11 a.m. so that I could head across town -- an eight minute ride (one of the side benefits of living in a small town) -- in time for the Noon session. The organizers responded with an enthusiastic yes. So I was on.

The third commitment is one to myself. The writing date is structured time off. I concluded recently that the only way I was going to complete a long delayed writing project was to lock myself into a room for two or three days simply to write. Hotels serve a vital function for writers in this respect. For a fee, one receives a room, a shower and/or bathtub, linens, a desk -- and most importantly, privacy. At my first-ever writers' workshop in 2003, one participant -- a writer for the Christian fiction trade market -- noted that she always went to a hotel, usually in a place away from her hometown, to finish her books. The prospect of adapting such a practice is beguiling to me, but with the tightness of my household budget, I have just tried to seclude myself without leaving home.

Over the weekend, however, I discovered that I could rent a room for a very affordable rate. I consulted with my husband who deeply desires an end to this project and a return to sanity for his wife and decided to take the plunge. To be honest, my schedule is so packed right now that I didn't think it would be possible to get away at all. But I looked at my calendar and saw that I was free of commitments from 1 p.m. Wednesday through 9 a.m. Saturday, and decided to take the plunge.

It seemed ideal, until the forecast. Now, as midnight approaches, I am wondering: Will there be a reading for African American Heritage? Will there be a reading for the Academy of Lifelong Learners? Will the plows work as well on the roads north of Saratoga as they do here? Will it be safe to drive in order to write?

Saturday, February 1, 2014


I just spent the past half-hour trying to cull our seed order list. This is a ritual that my husband Jim and I have gone through for the past three years. Planning a garden on the eve of Groundhog Day can be a little like making a Christmas list. Yes, we've been good in such a multitude of ways: Good gardeners, good penny savers, good farmers-in-training. We are aware that weird weather and all sorts of unanticipated critter explorations can nullify even our best-laid plans. But we've got a good track record going of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and storing. We sort of feel like we're ready to jump to the next level.

Which brings up a somewhat curious dilemma: How best to handle herbs?

I've always enjoyed raising herbs. My first backyard garden in Seattle, started in 1994, featured small vegetables thriving in a small ten by twenty foot space, and pots upon pots of herbs. I loved the savory scent of rosemary, lavender, basil, calendula, nasturtiums, sage, thyme, oregano, cilantro, and parsley that poured out of these pots

along with the rich green and tiny flowery buds that the herbs would produce. Often the herbs in Seattle's more temperate climate would last outdoors well into the dim days of the Pacific Northwest winter. Then, spring would come and I would start over.

I moved to Hawai'i in 1995 for what I thought would be a year. The first thing I did was go to a local garden store to get some herbs that I could raise in containers on my lanai. The second thing I did was apply for a space in a community garden near my apartment, and to my amazement, my name came up in the lottery very quickly. In that garden, I quickly learned something interesting: there isn't really such a thing as an annual in Hawai'i. Basil, nasturtiums, and cilantro -- among other herbs -- will bloom all year.

Blooming all year is sometimes a mixed blessing. The community garden board members quickly got on my case when it seemed obvious that my nasturtium wasn't just growing prettily in the form of small round variegated green leaves with sprightly yellow, orange and red flowers but rather was turning into a vine that was climbing over and out of my garden and daring to venture beyond. No amount of twining or trellising could control this adventurous plant. I had enjoyed the peppery taste of the leaves and flowers in Seattle in salads. In Hawai'i, I quickly tired of these tastes, and to this day, I cannot bring myself to grow that plant.

Living now in upstate New York -- a region with four distinct seasons and very late last frost (May 13) and first frost (September 20) dates -- presents a new challenge. Several herbs that are considered perennials in places like the maritime type climes of Seattle -- lavender, rosemary, tarragon, among them -- act often more like annuals here. I have learned, for instance, that rosemary -- an herb that I once thought was impossible to kill -- is fairly sensitive. Below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, it will start to shiver, wither, and die. Brought indoors, it doesn't always do much better. As some of my farmer mentor supporters have helped me to understand, plants of the Mediterranean like this one expect a cool, rainy winter. They love the hot summer sun, but from November through March, they want to be misted on, drizzled on, not soaked but kept somewhat damp. The wood burning stoves and electric heaters that warm so many homes where we live are not kind to rosemary.

We discovered this in 2012. We had purchased packets of seeds, and my husband, proving wrong the wisdom I'd gained from a Seattle gardener years ago that plants like rosemary and lavender really don't grow easily from seed, had managed to propagate several small happy rosemary and lavender plants. We kept the plants in containers on our outdoor deck through the summer and early fall, meaning to re-plant them but always being too busy to do so. As the weather turned cold, we followed advice and put the lavender into the ground along with some thyme, oregano, marjoram, and sage, and covered the plants with a thick layer of mulch. They bounced back last spring, and I have hopes that they'll do a repeat performance this year. The rosemary, however, we brought into the house. My hope had been to keep it in the mudroom -- which is about 35 to 55 degrees on all the but the coldest of days. I figured that those temperatures coupled with regular mistings would keep it alive. Jim, however, had other ideas and brought the rosemary indoors along with a pot of sage, cilantro, arugula, and other cool-weather loving crops. He placed them in one of the driest rooms of the house, our main sitting area, which gets a lot of dry heat from the wood burning stove. We were comfortable, but the herbs were not, and slowly they withered into dryness.

One small sprig of rosemary did survive, however, and with help from a new seedling that we purchased from one of the local farmers, it bounced back beautifully last spring and summer. We harvested it liberally, and left it outdoors until late November when we brought it, several pots of lemongrass, a young sage plant, and fresh pots of oregano and marjoram into the mudroom. My plan had been to let them all stay in the mudroom through the winter and to give them regular mistings. However, when the temperatures started dipping consistently below zero, I began to worry about the plants and brought them indoors. They have since migrated upstairs to the bathroom where there's south-facing windows and something of a damp environment, thanks to the shower, and to an east-facing room that I use for yoga. They are all doing okay. We are remembering to water them, and I just bought a mister for 96 cents that I intend to use in place of the glass that I've been using to clumsily toss water over the leaves. We harvest from them several nights a week to season our meals, and I have hopes that they'll all be ready for the outdoors when spring rolls around again.

Jim, however, has other fears. Every winter, he notes, we lose more of these plants than we manage to keep. His answer is to order more seeds. He wants to do a mass planting of "all of the herbs we like" year after year so that we won't consistently lose so much. I'm fond of herbs, but the proposal makes me a little worried. There's the price tag, of course: a packet of good organic and/or non-genetically modified seeds from a reputable supplies is about $4, with taxes and shipping. Ten herbs are $40. Beyond price, however, emerge issues of labor and space. Do we have time to plant and tend so many more herbs? Where will we put them? Is this approach to planting anew a sustainable one, or a crazy one?

I consider these questions as I look at my winter survivors. I want to nurture them, care for them, do my best to help them make it to spring so that they can soak up the sun, fresh air, and pollens from our winds and growing bigger and better again. Can I care for them as well as a flock of newcomers?