Sunday, August 28, 2011


Yesterday we got the outer edges of the hurricane Irene, 200 miles to the east of us.  The winds were steady all day, but not a problem right here.  Still, this morning, what a relief for plants, trees, birds, creatures, and people that Irene had gone on her way.  Here's a photo of the zinnias from my garden that I picked the night before, in case the zinnias were ruined.  But they are doing well.  The day, mostly indoors, did make me think about interruptions, and I dug out a poem I wrote during an ice storm in January 1988 in Saxapahaw.  Enjoy.

 These interruptions come: ice on the
twigs and branches or on the electric
wires has caused a power outage.
The village, though it’s still light,
deals with darkness. The houses
were not built to let in light, but
they can do without electricity.
The log in the woodstove still hums
and cracks, putting out heat, if not
light. The gas range warms toast
and a tea-kettle. The woodstove will
keep the tea warm. At nightfall
there are candles, the flashlight,
and a kerosene lamp. All strong
enough to read by, as is the daylight
right beside the door, but I will use
this time to savor the moment any
interruption gives.

Perhaps life is just that:
interruption. The divine interruption of
the gods, if we have the wits to see it
for what it is.
The interruption itself
gives us only a temporary dislocation,
a brief reminder of what we do and do not
have. Then the lights return, and we
experience relief. Creatures of routine
that we are, we welcome back the evidence
that things are back to normal. The refrigerator
resumes its hum; the page of the book
is easy to see again. The kerosene lamp
is now extraneous. But something lingers
in the consciousness. We almost feel like
turning out the light to recreate that
darkness we saw something else by. The glow
from the wood fire was more potent then;
even the tea in its red kettle held more meaning.
To eat toast in the dusk of late afternoon,
to suspend the usual; to allow in the new,
the unprecedented thought was pleasurable,
nourished our spirit some way we do not quite
understand now that we are back to the way
a book turned down at the place, a red teapot
sitting on a black woodstove, the next pine
log on the stove mat, and the sooty shovel handy
for rearranging an occasionally irrepressible
fire–have their ordinary look back.
Outside the trees are iced; twigs, pine
fronds, the webbed juniper; individual grass
blades; the leaves of turnips and spinach;
stalks of green onion; wild privet bent
to the ground.
Everything is still ordinary;
still its same grey or green or brown self.
Except that down from the sky came ice,
and rain that iced what it touched. Drops froze
under the eaves and coated the steps. I took
the dog her food, and saw the grey-white look
the deeper woods have, and are likely to have
tomorrow when the light returns. Full light,
when it comes, will cause a radiance among
all those iced limbs. An iridescent momentary
beauty. Not quite natural; beyond routine; yet
given, inexplicably, when seen; or missed
because of the preoccupied condition of the mind
accustomed to things that stay put and are,
in some sense, known, or at least, familiar.

It is the unfamiliar I am learning to
have courage about; the moments not
easily shrugged off. Another point of view
would call them epiphanies, find them
sacred, even these dark ones, and even
when no place can be found for them
in a just order of things.

But I wonder
if the gods don’t laugh at us when,
time after time, they cause us a small but
significant interruption, and all we can
think about is getting the lights back on.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Reward of Healthy Aging

These are my hens in a photo taken last April in the afternoon of my backyard chicken workshop by Sarah Cress.  They look very clean then, a little more bedraggled now as the summer wears down, but as raucous as ever when I'm picking figs.  they get the spoiled and bird-pecked ones.


 I realized this weekend that I’m more attuned than ever before to my past, my present, and my future. It’s a curious sense. As if past, present, and future were somehow blended in me now. I don’t feel there is any hurry, in one way, to do the work I need to do, and yet each day I feel I must keep to the plan for each day and do the chores I’ve noted down as urgent. If I don’t mow now, it may rain again, and I’ll be back where I was, having to wait for it to dry out. Or if I don’t pick the vegetables and make the stews for the winter, I’ll be wasting time and money, which are closely connected for me.

I don’t want to have to earn money to buy food–beyond the minimum–so, by growing and preserving food, though it takes time now, I "earn" both good food and time later, when I want to have as much time as possible to write and publish my books.

Will people want to know about me after I die? It’s hard to believe, but I think they will. Am I about to start living with that consciousness, too, now? Maybe.

Bach’s cantata this Sunday morning is about getting ready for Judgment Day. ["Give an Account of Yourself. Word of Thunder."] It’s vigorous, joyful. I guess, in my own way, that’s what I’m doing–getting ready so that, when I or anyone else looks back on my life, they can see that I did my work, fulfilled my purpose in life as I saw it. There will be people who misunderstand, who don’t "get it." But my own opinion of myself and my accomplishments is what I count on. A few others will "see." I hope to get enough books published to have a small, interested audience, which will slowly increase, even after I die, or maybe especially after I die.

When I look at all I do in one day, how I move, with relative ease, from my writing to the farm and preserving work, I feel grateful that I can manage so much.

When I think back on my life, all my passions, to love and to care for other people, to put other people’s work into print, a basically kind and pleasant personality, but determined, and as Daphne Athas said, "indefatigable." Not giving up easily on people I loved or projects I thought were important, though learning not to let people manipulate me and letting go when it felt time to let go, of people, of projects. I got the Roadmap classes funded between 1981 and 1990, kept Carolina Wren Press afloat, threw myself into Russian projects and visits. My life is relaxed and calm now, comparatively. Now the passion goes into my writing and growing food to sustain that. I’m glad for all that is behind me, my past. I carry it lightly now, but all that I learned from that voyage in the world I must tell now, find words and forms to tell it.

Is it presumptuous to think people will want to know all about me and read my books when I’m gone? I don’t think so. Does it change anything if I assume this? In some ways I already have assumed this. In my will I said I wanted to have this house turned into a museum. That was outrageous on the face of it. But this goes farther. I think now I can be a model of a life well-lived, as well as carefully recorded and documented in all my writings.

Not a perfect life. I have my weaknesses, errors, my blind spots, but a life worth emulating. How to live well and happily and feel that you are living the exactly right life for you, the life that fits you like a glove, that feels like it was "meant to be." You feel you have a purpose, and you’re living it out to the best of your ability. Doing your work, being honest in your relationships, loving, forgiving, where that is possible, keeping your inner eye clear. I do see better than ever, both myself and other people, and I’m still learning. Interruptions and surprising turns still come, and I cope. Fortunately I have coped so far with both my body’s problems and new emotional challenges that come along.

I think sometimes about how my neighbors have and still do help me. Tuddy, with his mowing, Robert, taking care of my machines, like the mower, and they and Emma also seeing to the hens when I have to be away. Many other people help me in myriad ways. I am pretty independent, but not wholly so. But that, too, is very much part of how I live my life.

I think it took me this long, seventy-four years, even to get this glimmer. I’ve had other glimmers before, of course, but this one is truly a reward for aging well. The result of these new insights, or renewed insights, is that I can conceive my life as a whole better now and see the threads running through it, the strands of meaning woven together.

A knot is tied, or maybe a braid of all the various activities and projects, loves, children, books, poems, garden, animals, chickens–all of it. It’s me and my context, my place in the scheme of things, my part in the universal order. Not that I know the details, but I sense my place better, or more of what has been in me from the beginning has risen up so that I’m more fully conscious of it.

My basic plan isn’t changing. It feels like what I’m doing now is what I need to be doing. It’s getting reinforced though with a stronger sense that I’m on the right track and that it all counts–everything. I go on being who I am, the writer and the human being I am, with my struggles and coping, when they come, and my simple enjoyment of the food I grow, cook, preserve, and share.

It’s reasonable for me to be less active in the community and see fewer people, have less social life, write more, give the farm more attention, be more whimsical. I’ve adapted in these months to having so much time alone. I think I can keep my morale up now, and keep doing the work, and I think I’ll be able to do it and even finish it before I die.

From Judy’s journal entries of August 20-21, 2011.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer is Spaghetti Sauce Time

This is a photo taken by Vera of a church on the Volga River not far from Kostroma.


I've been making stews, soups, and spaghetti sauce with my garden's glorious bounty of tomatoes.  I had to remove a turtle who was nipping them a week ago.  I put him near the wood pile, but today I found him or his friend in the orchard, trying madly to get through the chainlink fence into the garden. I didn't help him.  I've never seen a turtle work so hard.  So I left him to it.

I put the plants off the ground in cages this year to help with such problems as turtles, but the cages fell over because the plants were so heavy with fruit.  So I hammered stout sticks in the ground to support them, but along came a big wind and blew even those over, mostly.  Then I'd planted this Russian variety of a winter squash (Kabochka, which is Russian for squash), and I didn't provide enough space or climbing place for it, and it decided to run over the tomato plants, including the few remaining upright ones.  Still, every time I go out, I find tomatoes to bring in.  So here is a recipe for spaghetti sauce.  I recommend Roma tomatoes, but any will do, especially freshly grown in your garden.


Judy’s Vegetarian Spaghetti Sauce
 In a big pot, e.g., a Dutch Oven, saute 2 or 3 large (or equivalent) chopped onions and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon ground black pepper.

Add 1 or 2 large chopped sweet bell peppers, stirring occasionally.

When these are soft, add 2-3 minced garlic cloves.

In a few minutes, stir in one small can of tomato paste, watching it so it doesn’t burn.

Add cut up tomatoes, either from your garden (Romas are my favorite) or from 3 large cans.
You can add a little water (about the same amount as the tomato paste–I use the can to measure and get the extra paste out).

As this simmers, add 2 T parsley, or more, if fresh
2 T oregano, or more, if fresh
2 T sweet basil, or more, if fresh
1 Bay Leaf
Pinch of thyme, or more, if fresh
Salt to taste

Simmer at least one hour, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick.

You can blend it to make a smooth sauce, but I love the chunks of tomato in it, as is.

Serve over any kind of spaghetti pasta. My favorite is Vermicelli, with slices of Mozzarella cheese, then the sauce on top.

Make it in the summer with as many fresh ingredients as possible, and then freeze it for the winter.

Note: Tomatoes are now said to be especially healthy, helping prevent certain cancers, reducing cholesterol, risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, even diabetes. Per AARP magazine [July/August 2011], tomatoes contain "lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that works by neutralizing free radicals (errant oxygen molecules that cause cellular damage in the body)."  So eat more tomatoes! Be healthy, happy, and wise.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Foster Robertson: Thoughts on Being an American Poet

Foster Robertson, photo by Holly, 2010


Foster and I met in 1967, toward the end of my graduate school years in Berkeley. She was studying Art History, and we got to talking, walked home together, liked each other. I shared a poem called "Bougainvillaea Vision," and she gave me a photograph of red Bougainvillaea. I gave her copies of a little family/friend newsletter I did called The Kanga-Roo News. Out of that grew our poetry magazine, Hyperion, which Paul Foreman and I edited, after we met because of Foster. She and Paul live now in Austin, where they’re having a terribly hot, dry summer, with fifty consecutive days of temperature above 100 and no rain. Her garden is a desert, and she’s a devoted gardener. Of course, she’s grieving. She wrote, after answering the questions below: "Levertov is someone I am reading just now, not an influence. To name poets who have influenced me seems like naming the stars of the sky." She closes the note:

I came for something.
I left with something.
They were not the same something.

She published a book in 1970 (San Marcos Press), called Soundings. She wrote once in a poem the words "the earth of ordinary intercourse," a phrase I’ve never forgotten, also this, in her poem "Thanksgiving, of Indians."

Inside a cavity of flesh
a petal
carved of hours of sunshine
So, herewith, the thoughts of Foster in Austin during a difficult American summer. Judy

Foster Robertson: Thoughts on Being An American Poet

1) When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Around the age of sixteen was when I started writing. I wrote to communicate and to share experiences, to share perceptions of wonder, insights, and troubles.

2) Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

The list the poets who influence me would be very long. When I started writing Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson were among the poets I read most thoroughly. Recent resources include Czeslaw Milosz, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Josephine Miles, Denise Levertov, Rilke, Robert Creeley, Tao Qian, and Su Shih among hundreds. I explore contemporary American poetry with mixed regard, often finding treasure in new work, but not as often finding a contemporary American poet I treasure whole and return to frequently.

3) How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

Flora and fauna encountered immediately and everyday are essential to my work. I avoid the first person point of view and aspects of consumer culture which would inhibit access across cultural divides.

4) What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Expression of the subject through object and action are the goal.

5) Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

American, European, Chinese, and Japanese poetic traditions celebrating the natural world and friendship.

6) What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Pursuing publication.

7) What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

I explore the varieties of the human condition through reading fiction, studying art history, and reading writing on literature by writers.

8) What is ‘American poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘American’ poet?

American poetry is the collective, un-selected gathering of all poetry written in America in the American idiom or translated into English.

9) What is the current state of American poetry, as you see it? How do you think American poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

American poetry may explore more musical sound patterns.

10) How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in the U.S. and/or at an international level?

Song writing is influential and occasionally deeply poetic. Lyric poetry is the unnoticed garden that rests the core.