Archives for category: Essays

George Washington crossing the Delaware River by Sully

When I was a kid, my family went on vacation to Gettysburg. Most kids probably would have preferred to go to Disney World, but I was the kind of kid who watched the History Channeland in the weeks before the trip I had heard that Gettysburg is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in America, and the ghost of George Washington was occasionally seen riding around the battlefield on a horse.

My fascination with ghosts was born on that trip as I gobbled up staple-bound collections of local ghost stories and lay awake at night convinced that George Washington was going to ride through my spooky hotel room. I never saw George Washington or his horse, but I did meet a reenactor who looked remarkably like George Pickett and picked through barrels full of bullets that were still being dug out of the ground and walked up Little Round Top to the place Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (my second favorite Civil War officer behind Robert Gould Shaw) held the line against a regiment from Alabama even though his men had run out of bullets.

At the time, I was disappointed that I didn’t see a real ghost, but looking back on it now it’s obvious to me that even if there weren’t specters behind every tree, the battlefield-turned-national-park was haunted. In ghost stories, ghosts are like actors in a shadow play forced to repeat emotionally charged scenes from the past over and over without deviation. As I talked with reenactors immersed in their roles and ordered pheasant pot pie at a tavern from a waitress in hoop-skirts, I could feel that the monuments and tourist traps were just ways of dressing up the phantasmagoria. No ghosts are needed when the living are willing to play the roles of the dead.

This morning I finished reading Hauntings by James Hollis, and it may have been the hardest book I’ve ever read. At less than 200 pages, it wasn’t a thick book, but it took me almost two attentive weeks to read. When I finally reached the last page, I felt like I had pushed off the bottom of an ancient seabed two weeks ago and was only just then breaking the surface and gasping for air.

Hauntings is about authenticity and how to hear the voice of the soul over the stories and legacies of the past. I picked it up hoping for insight into the psychology of a character, but Hollis is a Jungian analyst, and most of the book is taken up with practical advice on how to quit being a ghost in your own life, repeating the scripts of the past.

It is a trope in ghost stories that the key to liberating a ghost is to figure out some task that was left uncompleted and help them do it, but the hauntings that Hollis describes work in reverse. An unconscious life, he said, defaults to a quest to carry out an agenda that haunts us. A man with a disabled mother assigned the role of the caretaker carries out that role with his mother, his wife, and then his adult daughter. A scientist assigned the role of lab assistant by her illustrious father continues the role as an adult by marrying an equally illustrious man from her father’s generation. A poet who buried his father with an untold story is compelled to repeat the story in every poem he writes.

In Hollis’s experience as a therapist, liberation comes when life gets in the way of our ability to dance the dance. The caretaker burns out. The husband dies. The poet can’t bring himself to tell the story one more time, and suddenly they are like a ghost standing in the wreckage of a razed haunted house unable to figure out what to do with themselves now that their ability to repeat themselves has been taken away.

In the stories, an outsider is often needed to hear the story one last time and give the ghost permission to leave the old place behind. This permission frees the ghost, who is then left to figure out the way to heaven or oblivion on their own. Ghosts, apparently, come equipped with a compass and the ability to read it because ghost stories with happy endings usually end with the ghost disappearing, and I’ve never heard of one coming back to ask for directions.

In reality, finding someone willing to save you is the easy part. If you haven’t gotten it yet, I can direct you to a dozen bloggers who would be thrilled to sell you an e-book or a video series or conference that will give you permission to break with the script and dozens of others who would be more than happy to provide you with another script to replace the script you lost. But if you find yourself sick of your career as an itinerant ghost traveling from story to story and house to house, reenacting battles in someone else’s war, you will find nothing but silence, and that is the most terrifying thing of all because following directions is easy. It is much harder to stand alone in a house no longer lit by the cool light of ghost stories, feeling in the darkness for a match.

How scary it might prove to conclude that I am essentially alone in this summons to personal consciousness, that I cannot continue to blame others for what has happened to me, that I am really out there on that tightrope over the abyss, making choices every day, and that I am truly, irrevocably responsible for my life. Then I would have to grow up and stand naked before this immense universe, and step into the largeness of this journey, my journey (James Hollis, Hauntings). 

I’ve been in California for almost exactly four years now, and it’s finally starting to grate on me that I haven’t done a lot of the touristy things everyone is supposed to do. I’ve never ridden a cable car or walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve never had a Mission burrito. I’ve never seen the Wave Organ or that plaque commemorating the time Janis Joplin did something or another (was arrested, maybe?) in Berkeley.

And, until a few weekends ago, I’d never been to Sutter’s Mill, the place where gold was first discovered in California, prompting the gold rush that would eventually lead to statehood.

Sutter's Mill Reconstruction

Sutter’s Mill Reconstruction

I went to Sutter’s Mill expecting a tourist trap and was pleasantly surprised. There were more bikers than tourists in Coloma, and most of the people we saw were more interested in rafting or camping out on the grass under a shady tree than thinking about history. Not that I blamed them. It was a cool 90 degrees in the shade and so humid it was easy to believe the American River had crawled up its banks and died.

I was grateful, though. It meant that we had the interesting stuff all to ourselves.

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Summers in New England were magical because suddenly, out of the ground that was frozen six months of the year, there was food everywhere. My parents had a garden and some of my earliest memories are of grazing on snow peas picked off of vines that were taller than me. The rest of the year most of our fruits and vegetables were frozen, but for a few months there were snow peas and eggplants and raspberries and zucchini (which I hated) and mushrooms and fresh herbs growing in our backyard and, once when I was two, hot peppers that my dad claims I ate off the plant without crying.

One summer my father took my family to go fruit picking in the neighborhood where he grew up. I was dubious about this idea because my grandparents’ neighborhood was dominated by a mall, and my grandparents and all their neighbors (except for AT&T) had postage stamp sized plots that were fenced in with chain-link fence. But he surprised us and pulled into a street a few blocks from my grandparents’ house, and it was all wild grass and a line of trees so dense we couldn’t see what was beyond them.

We waded through the grass and the trees with our fruit-picking gear and came out on the other side into an abandoned orchard. The trees were ancient but heavy with peaches and pears left to ripen by someone long gone on the branch.

I recently finished an interview with Carlo Matos that will be published on Paper Tape in the fall. We talked about his fifth book, The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco, which is currently looking for a publisher. Most of this book isn’t about California, but some of it takes place in Merced. After finishing the book, you’re left with the feeling of how tenuous human settlement is in California, especially where the California sections of the book are set, in the Central Valley on the eave of the housing bust.

I’ve been trying for the past four years to articulate the anxiety that I hear whispering like a soft breeze. Nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. Nothing lasts.

In New England, I was surrounded by the ruins of stuff dead people had made. My parents’ house is on land that was part of a farm once, and there were continual reminders in the wall built to hold up a bank and the tree that was half crab apple and half cherry until we got sick of picking inedible, wasp-infested crab apples off the lawn every fall. My father once dug up a grave stone that had been buried in the backyard. I learned to ride a bike on a path that had been trodden hard by cattle pulling barges from lock to lock, then trains rumbling over railroad ties before it was paved over for bicycles. Stone walls crisscrossed the woods like the echo of someones who pulled their rock harvest long before my ancestors got there.

 

 
 
 

California is famous for ghost towns, but time moves differently here, seeming to swallow human action before the gesture is finished. Turn your back for a hot second, and your work is erased. The ground opens. Cities vanish. The people who lived here before the Spanish came say the gods throw boulders at each other from volcanic mountain tops.

How strange it is that this is the place where refugees settle, seekers come to find truth, and actors and entrepreneurs come to leave their mark. Here where the land erases everything.

Photo Credit: Jenny Mackness
It’s a dark day. The kind of day when the fog hangs low like a gray quilt blotting out the data center behind my house. I like days like these because it feels like the whole world is a garden extending out from the one my neighbors keep around the squat house under my kitchen window. On days like these, I try to forget that I live in the city and pretend that my attic apartment with its slanted walls is a tree house perching in the palms.
In December the sun sets early in Berkeley, if it ever manages to rouse itself and burn through the fog at all. For a week now it’s been hibernating, and the darkness has driven me to my kitchen like a small animal overcome by the urge to build a pantry and put by.
Tonight, I’m roasting a chicken. It’s a big bird, more than two people can eat in a single meal, but we’ll use every bit of it. Something about winter makes me treat food as if of my pre-grocery store ancestors have taken up residence in the dark corners of the house, watching to make sure I don’t waste a mouthful. Even the chicken bones will spend the evening simmering in water to make the broth that tomorrow will be made into a stew, and on the rack under the chicken I’ve slipped the platpan to make the most of the hot oven, seasoning the pan while the chicken roasts.
Photo Credit: L.Richarz
The platpan is a small cast iron skillet that looks like a crepe pan except for seven indentations the size of perfectly round silver dollar pancakes. It’s a pancake pan, a gift from my in-laws, so my husband could continue his family’s Christmas tradition of eating little Swedish pancakes called platar on Christmas morning.
We have been married seven years now, but (don’t tell anyone) we’ve only made platar once. Making platar is a lot of work. Each pancake must be measured out exactly to fill the small holes, and a hungry person on Christmas morning can easily eat dozens.
The first year we were married, huddling around the stove felt right, peeling the little pancakes off the hot platpan and eating them out of hand, just the two of us in a tiny New Hampshire kitchen buried in snow.
Then the platpan was put on a shelf. For seven years, I came up with excuses not to make platar. The first few years we spent Christmas with relatives hundreds of miles from our kitchen. Then the years came when we celebrated Christmas under a pile of that summer’s moving boxes. Almost every year the platpan was dutifully packed away and unpacked as we went from place to place until we got to California where spending Christmas morning standing in front of a hot stove was unthinkable.
In this apartment, the platpan has taken up residence in the cupboard of misfit cooking implements, leaning on its side against the cast iron dutch oven that doesn’t quite fit with the stack of $2 IKEA nonstick pans, a tangled mess of cookware packed into that cupboard so tightly it forces the cupboard door open unless I’m feeling patient enough to sit on the floor and take everything out of the cupboard and put it all back in again.
Usually, I do my best to pretend that cupboard doesn’t exist, but on Thanksgiving afternoon there were too many potatoes to cram into the pot that’s just fine for two people though not big enough for four, and so I was forced to confront the cupboard of misfit cooking implements, and confronting the cupboard of misfit cooking implements meant confronting the platpan.
Photo Credit: robbplusjessie
A lot has changed in the past seven years. Among other things, I’ve learned something about cast iron skillets. Brand new cast iron skillets are ornery, the only cooking implement I know of that fried chicken will stick to in an inch and a half of oil, but something happens to a cast iron skillet over time. The heat and oil build layer after layer into a black patina so smooth you can fry an egg on it without sticking.
For years, I’ve felt like an unseasoned cast iron skillet during the month of December, rigid and ornery and cold, as if every holiday was an attempt at seasoning that dripped off in the warm California winters and fell to the bottom of the oven and smoked. I went through the motions of Christmas, waiting for Amazon to process my orders or standing in line at big box stores, putting up a Christmas tree (except for the one year we didn’t).
Then, this year on Thanksgiving afternoon, I found the platpan, the gray color of an untried skillet with only a few brown battle scars from that first Christmas meal. Holding the platpan felt like holding an interruption, as if seven Christmases had been buried deep in the cupboard of misfit cooking implements under a pile of $2 IKEA nonstick pans and forgotten.
On Black Friday, I dusted off the platpan and brushed it with oil and slipped it into the oven. For the rest of the day I took it out and wiped it down with oil and repeated the process again. And again. And again. Ever since Black Friday, I’ve been seasoning the platpan, watching the color slowly change from gray to a deep russet brown.
Photo Credit: Sarah Sosiak
This year like all the others didn’t feel like Christmas, but I started saying, “Yes.” Yes to the Christmas lights over the arch between the kitchen and the living room. Yes to the little plastic Christmas tree we bought on sale at CVS last year. Yes to Christmas movies and cranberries and cookies and the Christmas straw goat and the RAM garland my husband and his roommates made to decorate a college apartment. And, yes, yes to platar on Christmas morning.
Then this evening I paused while writing this blog post about Christmas to take the platpan out of the oven. The chicken is roasted. The oven is cold, and the chicken bones are seeping into tomorrow’s meal. For the first time I could see a hint of the platpan as it should be, black and glossy smooth. I realized this is how traditions that mean something are built, not slapped on in a factory like the coating on a $2 IKEA skillet but layer after layer, one tiny pancake at a time.
Nana Agda’s Platar 
Recipe courtesy of Claudia Harding who says, “I often added 2 more tbs of flour because the boys liked them to be more like regular pancakes. And they liked maple syrup on them. Traditionally they are served with lingon mixed with cream.”
7 eggs
1/2 c. ice water
1/2 cup melted butter (with more to grease the pan)
2 T. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
Mix the ingredients but do not over beat.
Heat the platpan over high heat with a dab of butter in each ring.
Put about 1 T. batter in each ring of the platpan. Turn heat down. 
Turn cakes with wide knife when crusty-edged.     
If you liked this story, don’t miss Nikki Kallio‘s tomorrow, the next stop on the Holiday Blog Tour.

Photo Credit: Kalavinka

If you are visiting from the Holiday Blog Tour, welcome! This story is my contribution to the tour.
I am waiting for a train to San Francisco. The morning commute is over. The man who was playing fiddle music at the entrance to the station when I arrived has packed up and gone home, and there is a small crowd of students, artists, and businessmen waiting at the platform. 
I am going to the farmers market at the Ferry Building. Last time I went to the farmers market, I had just arrived from Boston, and I hadn’t been in California long. I went to prove to myself that there was a place where lettuce grew all year round. Though I knew that much of what I ate in winter in Boston came from California, there was a part of me that still believed lettuce in January was just an elaborate sleight of hand enabled by hydroponics and cold storage.
My third Christmas in California is coming soon, and I have gotten used to year-round farmers markets and grocery stores filled with local produce almost every day of the year, but Christmas will be here in a little over two weeks, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas.
I ride the escalator out of Embarcadero Station and step out onto the sidewalk in San Francisco. The guys selling handmade leather bags and prints of the Golden Gate Bridge in fog are setting up their booths along the street to the Ferry Building, and a few men in matching black pea coats wait in line to climb on a high platform and get their shoes shined by a laughing man in a newsboy hat. Dozens of people sit on the sidewalk holding matching green 99% signs across the street from a news van parked in front of a police van and a man with a guitar setting out a cardboard sign that says: You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to help a fella.
The last time I came for the farmers market, the plaza was full of tents. Today, it is empty enough a skater flips his board and takes big turns. I buy a few of the season’s first meyer lemons and a spring onion from one of the farmers and take a spin through the Ferry Building where shops have put out chalk board signs advising shoppers to get their holiday turkeys early, but it still doesn’t feel like Christmas. I wonder why as I walk out past the long line of people waiting for rotisserie chicken from a food truck. Is it the spring onions?
My first Christmas in California, I was woken up by a small combustion engine, sat up in bed and pulled aside the blinds, expecting to see a gloved hands pushing a snowblower. Instead, I saw two men in t-shirts with leaf blowers sweeping away palm fronds and rose petals. Some metaphors practically write themselves—an icy dream dissolving into flowers–but to wake up in spring when I was expecting winter felt like falling. I got up and opened the door on the living room where the tree and the straw Christmas goat that had journeyed with us across the country were waiting, and it was Christmas morning. Today, I no longer mistake white rose petals on the wind for the first big flakes of snow, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas.
Where is Christmas in this market? Is it sleeping in one of the artisan’s stalls guarded by the police officers who stand on the walls around the plaza? Or maybe they’re just here for the chicken or the man sitting on the sidewalk holding out his hat, yelling: At Occupy, they took everything…These socks are the same ones I’ve been wearing all week. 
Ahead of me, I hear a flute and stop to watch a man who looks like a leprechaun play what I thought at first was a pan flute, but is actually a flute shaped like a fish. 
Long ago, he tells me. Long before you were born when I lived in Europe, I met a man from Bolivia who taught me to make these Isoka flutes. He showed me these—He waves at the table where he has displayed a small selection of flutes in bright colors and then points at an ovular one—but I invented the fish myself.    
As he talks, he plays, punctuating his words with trills on the fish, music he sends out to passersby who walk on without stopping for him or for the man with old socks but maybe for the chicken.
Wonderful, he says. Toot. Toot. Toot. Wonderful for a child.
When I pass the man with the guitar again he is singing Christmas carols. 
***

The Holiday Blog Tour continues tomorrow with a post by Thelma Reyna.