Painting of Christmas cookies on green and red tablecloth.

Christmas Eve. 8″ x 8″ watercolor pencil and white gouache. Sharyn Dimmick

My mother will turn 85 on New Year’s Day 2015. She has begun announcing that this is our last traditional Christmas celebration, complete with tree, wrapped presents, homemade festive meal, assorted guests and family members, cookie-baking marathon, cut boughs of holly, etc. It is time for a change, she says.

I had always assumed that I would step in and take over the family Christmas traditions. For many years I have increased my contributions to the Christmas labor. But, this year, I had an unexpected number of music gigs in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and a wild week where I both attended concerts and played them. I went north to sing on the radio and to visit my best friend. I went to a local party. And amidst all that I stood by to receive shipment of my new “Clueless” CD.

Clueless  CD  CoverThe CD was shipped December 10 from Oasis Disc Manufacturing via UPS with two-day shipping. The first notification I got said it would be delivered on Monday December 15 (NOT two-day shipping). Many emails and phone calls later I got a notification today on December 19 that it was on a delivery truck. Lo and behold it got here this evening and is available for purchase at long last. here this evening. In the meantime, Oasis offered to re-manufacture the CDs at no cost to me and to ship them this coming Monday. This means that I will eventually receive 600 CDs instead of 300, but it also means that I cannot get them to anyone but locals by Christmas or Chanukah: Now that the CDs  have arrived I will carry a number of them around in my guitar case and backpack. I will also offer them for sale at Down Home Music and at CD Baby where you can get my 2009 release “Paris” and hear full-length versions of most songs, plus clips of the cover songs. Soon I will begin the process of getting full versions of the songs from “Clueless” up on CD Baby as well. For now you can hear a couple of the songs for free on Reverbnation.

What I have learned from this is that Oasis comes through for its customers, even in situations where they are not at fault and UPS — well, let’s just say that my brother who worked in shipping for a number of years recommends Fed Ex for deliveries.

Anyway, as Christmas approaches, my participation has been limited to buying a few gifts (in October and November), and making ginger cookie dough (yesterday). When I feel better I will be making my famous cocoa shortbread and possibly a new cookie. Mom beat me to making pfefferneusse, Russian tea cakes, dream bars, apricot bars and sugar cookie dough, but I might make up a batch of Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies anyway because my brother and I fell in love with them the first time I made them. I will put some Christmas music on as I lounge about today, awaiting the arrival of the “Clueless” CDs and hoping to put in a brief appearance at a music party this evening.

painting of pomegranates, limes and December sunrise.

December Still Life. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Saturday morning I have one more gig at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, if it does not get rained out. Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning I will be assisting my friend Elaine in preparing for her annual Chanukah party. I will spend Christmas Eve Day with Johnny, eating salad and tamales from Trader Joes, after serenading the morning commuters with Christmas carols. I return home in the evening to rest before assisting Mom with the last Dimmick Christmas feast marathon the next morning. All traditions come to an end, changing in subtle ways before they become part of the ghostly past of memory. No one can remember what year I started buying Straus whipping cream or what year we stopped making homemade caramels or what year I put candied ginger in the pfefferneusse or what year I invented the shortbread.

Whatever you celebrate and wherever you are, I wish you the happiest of holidays. Happy Solstice, Yule, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa. Happy holidays I have never heard of or can’t keep straight in my head. May you know the joy of feasting, of companionship, of bright light in a dark time, of joyful music. Best wishes to all who read The Kale Chronicles, whether you have been here from the very beginning or whether you just popped in today. May you enjoy your winter festivities and the love of all beings dear to you. Love, Sharyn

Clueless  CD  CoverPlease excuse the hyperbole — I am practicing supporting my music with better marketing efforts. As I mentioned in the November post I took part in Maia Duerr’s course “Fall in Love with Your Work” this fall for the second time. The signal realization for me this time around was that I had wanted to become a performing singer and songwriter at age eleven and that I still wanted to do that. Maia gives students in this class an opportunity to sell work on the Liberated Life Project Marketplace website, which inspired me to create, “Clueless,” a new EP (reduced length CD) of three original love songs I had written in 2012. “Ingenue” describes the experience of falling in love despite “a lifetime of love gone wrong.” “The Werewolf” talks about “the alcohol werewolf blowing my safe house down,” worrying out loud about potential problems in a desired relationship and “Clueless” details mishaps of courtship where both participants trade off being “clueless” by not understanding one another, not picking up hints, etc. That one, like “Ingenue” has a happy ending — it is always a positive, enlarging event to fall in love because it opens the heart.

This new E.P. marks the first time I have released a recording of all original material. I might as well be known as Sharyn Don’t-Call-Me-a-Singer/Songwriter Dimmick because I am always saying that. As a songwriter, I value my own material and I sing it myself, which technically makes me partly a singer/songwriter, but, as a singer, I like to sing all kinds of songs, from traditional Scottish and American ballads, to hymns and Christmas carols, to 19th century classics like Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” to iconic songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” to lesser-known contemporary gems like Shelley Posen’s “No More Fish, No Fishermen,” a lament for the decline of the Newfoundland fisheries. Because I wanted to present some new music this year and because the songs on the “Clueless” album hang together well I decided to release them as a solo acoustic project, an album with no overdubs or guest musicians.

Photo of cover of Paris CD by Sharyn Dimmick.

My previous recording, “Paris” covers a wider scope of my musical interests. The inspiration for that recording was the title cut, also called “Paris.” When someone I thought might be more than a friend took off for Paris without me and did not send me so much as a postcard from the trip a song was born as I mulled over every visit I had made to the City of Light, from a hitchhiking trip when I was twenty to a visit to a lover’s family in the 1990s. When I wrote the song I knew I wanted people to hear it, including my zen and writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg — I figured if I put it on a CD she would have to listen to it.* The recording features two other original songs, “The Wallflower Waltz” and “Morning Shanty,” which I had recorded previously on a cassette recording called “I Am Your Winter Lover” in 1998. I filled out the CD with songs I had known and loved since childhood: “Barbara Allen,” “Bringing in the Sheaves, ” “Big Yellow Taxi” “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I sandwiched “The Battle Hymn” between Richard Thompson’s “We Sing Hallelujah” and Leonard Cohen’s wonderful anthem “Hallelujah,” recording the three songs as “The Hallelujah Trilogy,” backed by a group of singers I called “The Hallelujah Chorus.” I also employed musicians to add fiddle, banjo, second guitar, concertina and harmony vocals to some songs, and dubbed in my own harmony parts on others.

I am pleased to announce that Bay Area readers (or those traveling through town) will have an opportunity to meet me and to hear my music in a live performance at the December 12 Open Mic at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, 1606 Bonita St.. I will be the featured performer for December and will sing a 20 minute set. If you are in town, please come to hear me. You might even be able to take home a copy of the “Clueless” EP.  I will also be singing the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Banks of Fordie” on the radio this week on “Traditional Ballads with Sadie, streamed at www.kggv.blogspot.com or live at 95.1 FM on Thursdays 7:00 to 8:00 PM Pacific Time.

Be sure to check out other offerings from the Liberated Life Project Marketplace. Here Jill S. talks about her lovely note cards of architectural details and dahlias.

* After the “Paris” CD was released, Natalie confessed to me that she only listened to the tracks she liked best and skipped the rest. I extracted a promise that she would listen to the entire CD. She did and then wrote me a lovely review on CD Baby. Later she featured the lyrics to “The Wallflower Waltz” and stories about me in her book, “The True Secret of Writing.” She has continued to be a staunch supporter of my music and a good friend.

Clueless  CD  CoverJohnny made the first move: he called me from the hospital on the evening on October 6 to say that the silence between us was over. Two days later he expressed the hope that we could become friends. I spoke about my sadness at this idea and asked for a little time to process it. Then I went to see him in the hospital the next day after little sleep, many tears and several conversations with friends. We did not discuss our relationship that day, but talked about songs and such.

I was afraid that I would suffer from unfulfilled longings if I tried to become friends with Johnny. In our next long conversation I asked if he would share with me his reasons for deciding we weren’t right for each other. He did so and we talked about each one in turn, not trying to resolve things, but discussing his concerns.

As time passed I became less afraid: I reminded myself I didn’t control outcomes, that all I could do was be honest and present. I adopted the attitude that I could just take things a day at a time, see what happened each day, take responsibility for my part in present and past interactions.

Johnny and I continued to talk every day. One night we had a deep conversation about the distressing events of the summer, from my moving out to his health crisis and hospitalization. We both cried on the phone. I remembered a saying I had heard from a contemplative nun: “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

Then one night I called Johnny to ask for some advice about sequencing the three songs on my upcoming “Clueless” CD. I had chosen the songs, arranged them and practiced them for a couple of months preparatory to going into the recording studio. I had made a painting for the front cover, featuring a self-portrait with two-tone hair and a portrait of Johnny. Johnny gave me his opinion about the order of the songs, all of which I had written in 2012 when I was falling in love with him (My personal notation for them is “sweet song,””scary song,””funny song” and, collectively, “The Johnny Songs”). Later I decided to put them in a different order and he told me he had independently come to the same conclusion.

Checking in as I went, I continued to discuss the music project with Johnny. I called him right after I left the recording studio the first day to tell him that we had gotten two takes of each song in an hour and a half. He asked me to play them for him over the phone, so I turned my computer speakers way up and held my cell phone to a speaker. Johnny listened and made comments, telling me which tracks he preferred and why. He also identified several potential problem notes in one song and I wrote them down to check with my recording engineer the next day. When I completed the recording and mixing I felt frustrated that I couldn’t play the master for Johnny, but I had come down with a slight virus and needed to rest.

Our many conversations revealed to us how much we cared for each other. Working on my music project together reminded us how well we could work together as a team. It is not that we are in a hundred percent agreement with each other, but we listen and genuinely want the best for ourselves and for each other. Johnny, who had felt torn between his attachment to me and his objections to certain behaviors and traits of mine, came to choose our great affection for one another over his objections. He said that he let go of his concerns about our differences and found more room to love me. I had let go of him earlier in the summer, but it did not affect my love for him, only the form that that love might have taken: I am grateful that he opened up the conversation again, which allowed us to come back together. We announced the renewal of our commitment to one another in classic modern fashion — by changing our Facebook status. One lesson I learned along the way is that the relationship I have with Johnny is between me and Johnny: I can ask other people for opinions, but no one else casts a vote in the relationship.

As I say in the song, “Clueless”: “You might be a clueless woman. You might be a clueless man. ‘Cause love has been confusing ever since the world began.” Love has been confusing and difficult, even wounding, but love finds its way through life’s obstacles if we apply enough patience and self-awareness, and loving, after all, is what we are here to do.

Yesterday I went out to see Johnny and paid a visit to my former vegetable garden, which has only gotten wilder. When I looked out the back door I saw a field of tomato blossoms covering the entire paved area. Buried in the understory were a whole colander’s worth of Principe Borghese and Sun Gold tomatoes. The tepee of Scarlet Runner beans was still standing and the pods were dry — I picked all that I could find. I carted home more butternut squash of varying sizes, leaving green ones and blossoms still on the vines that took up the other half of the yard. Chard had reseeded itself and the kale had never died. I picked leaves from both plants. I have plans to make a butternut squash lasagna with bechamel, perhaps this weekend. The bounty reminds me of the harvest festival aspect of Thanksgiving and the crazy weather in California that has squash and tomatoes blossoming in November.

As December approaches my new E.P., “Clueless,” is at the manufacturer’s, awaiting the final draft of the cover and CD art. When I receive the discs I will make a special announcement here. You will be able to order CDs from CD Baby or from Down Home Music in El Cerrito or from me directly or from the Liberated Life Project Marketplace. The Marketplace will operate for a limited time from November 30 2014 through January 2015 and will feature gifts and services by a diverse selection of artists, musicians and other professionals. Look for cards, metal sculpture, a book about happiness, coaching sessions, classes and more. Buying gifts or services in the Marketplace supports independent artists like me and people who are aligning their lives and their values to offer you the best that they’ve got. Check it out.

I am thankful every week and every month and every day for those of you who continue to read The Kale Chronicles as it transforms itself again and again.

Formerly green tomato.

Formerly green tomato.

I began writing this month’s Kale Chronicles on an October afternoon, following a morning of rain showers. The rain is a major blessing in drought-stricken California. My thirsty vegetable and mint plants drink in the rain, as they have drunk in the abundant sunshine of October. The two-tone green tomatoes have unexpectedly turned orange and are on their way to red. The poblano peppers on one plant continue to grow, while the other plant is forming fruit as its blossoms die. A few tomatoes that fell before they were fully ripe are ripening on a windowsill in the breakfast room. I will have a small harvest from my seed-grown vegetables.

With the return of damp weather to punctuate a bright autumn, my thoughts turn to butternut squash soup. I originally published this recipe for kabocha squash soup in 2011, an adaptation of the soup I usually make from butternut squash, my absolute favorite of the winter squashes. I start making this soup each year when the weather gets cool and continue to make it until spring warmth returns. Butternut squash keep a long time on the counter or in a cool garage or cellar and one large or two small ones will make a lot of soup. All you need else is water, onions, fresh ginger, tamari, a bit of thyme and dairy or non-dairy milk to suit.

Poblano and flower.

Poblano and flower.

My personal lesson for the summer and fall parallels the experience my friend Saundra wrote about in her Wonder Woman blog post: that in times of trouble I must make self-care a priority, whatever form it takes. In my case, I must meditate, seek conversations with friends, practice music, attend 12-step meetings, do spiritual reading, attempt to get reasonable amounts of exercise and sleep. A surprising outcome of taking better care of myself is that I draw all kinds of gifts into my orbit: a friend offers to make a performance video that I can put up on YouTube (Stay tuned! I’ll tell you when it is done). Another friend sends me a music CD that I want in exchange for feedback on the CD. Even the passers-by at my busking gigs buy more CDs and increase their tips to me. And I hatch an idea for a new short-term music project: next month I will go into the studio to make a three-song E.P. (short CD), recording the songs I wrote in 2012. It will be called “Clueless” and I hope to have it for sale by the end of next month. I am only manufacturing three hundred copies to start so be sure to let me know in the comments field if you would like one for yourself or for a Christmas or Chanukah gift (Manufacturing a small run makes it possible for me to make new music available without incurring the large costs of a full-length project). I continue to busk and offer full-length “Paris” CDs for sale at CDBaby, Down Home Music and via email.

My daily experience continues to be that people are kind to me and supportive of my projects and of my efforts to improve my life and relationships. Oh, sometimes there is push-back, but there is often a way to step out of the conflict by focusing on what I need and not what the other person is doing.

I am continuing to seek what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” ways to earn money that are consistent with my gifts and ethical stance. For inspiration I am currently taking an expanded version of Maia Duerr’s course, Fall in Love with Your Work. In the spirit of generosity, I have created a new page on The Kale Chronicles called “Writing Prompts.” Look for the page link up in the left-hand corner at the top of the blog post. Each month I will feature some of the prompts or writing topics I learned to use in fifteen years of work with Natalie, plus prompts inspired by the current season (sort of like your serving of writing fruits and vegetables for basic nutrition). I will be glad to answer questions about writing practice and grateful to have referrals to students in the East Bay who desire to learn Natalie’s deep teachings.

 

This September there have been a couple of sightings of my old vegetable garden in San Leandro. First I heard that butternut squash had taken over the entire yard. I asked about the beans, but my informant hadn’t seen any beans. Then I got an email from someone else, explaining that my garden had fed her all summer, that she had eaten green beans and tomatoes and butternut squash and given beans and squash away to neighbors of hers. I am happy that people were able to eat the produce I grew since I could not eat it myself. I still longed for some of those butternut squash and put in a call to my former landlord to ask if I could pick some squash (Johnny is away for the time being).

Poblano peppers.

Poblano peppers.

Meanwhile in my new container garden here in foggy Kensington one of the poblano pepper plants has finally fruited and a single principe borghese tomato is slowly turning red in the sunny days of September. The other tomato plants are full of pale pink and green Amish paste tomatoes and more borgheses and a mystery tomato from my sister-in-law’s Vallejo garden, currently a two-tone green job. Will the tomatoes ripen before the plants die? Before it rains? Will I bring the green tomatoes inside to ripen? Will I make a green tomato chutney? Stay tuned for the October tomato and pepper report.

The landlord called back. He said, “I know who planted that garden” and granted me access to pick produce there. When my friend M. and I drove out we found the wildest of gardens: all of the hard surfaces had been obscured by foliage. Squash vines snaked everywhere: from where I had planted them along the back fence line they had crossed the entire yard and begun to climb up the back stair. All paths and spaces between rows had vanished and I had to step carefully through unripe squash to remove ripe squash from the vines that also bore squash blossoms, tiny green squash and full-sized green squash.

Buried beneath green leaves ripe principe borghese tomatoes crept along the ground close to the house while ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes lurked in the understory and green ones grew through the side fence. Some of the weeds I had worked to eradicate found new openings where the green beans had been. I cut the three small heads of purple cabbage that I had planted in February, but left chard and kale growing by the back fence. I did not find any Amish paste tomatoes or basil or pepper plants in the tangle, but I could not reach large portions of the yard in the amount of time I had. I did find some dried bean and pea pods, picked what I could and shelled about half a cup of mixed black-eyed peas and pinto beans while I waited on the BART platform to go home. M. hauled most of the butternut squash we picked in the trunk of her car, but I carried a token specimen in my backpack. along with a Tupperware container of tomatoes and the shelling beans.

Butternut squash.

Butternut squash.

As I write this, I am roasting principe borghese tomatoes in the oven with olive oil and a little garden mint*. Pinto beans and black-eyed peas are soaking together in a big pot. Small slices of peeled butternut squash share the oven with the tomatoes. I propose to make a soup to honor my gardens, here and there, the honorable labor I did, the lovely San Leandro sun and fertile soil, the strong heirloom seeds that survived my inexpert care and the lack of rain,  the compost of coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and the occasional chicken head. I will flavor the soup with chiles to honor the poblano plant and its late-borne fruit.

The local library has recently yielded up treasures, including The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart and The Heart of Zen: Enlightenment, Emotional Maturity, and What It Really Takes for Spiritual Liberation. I read them and write about them and work at becoming aware of my habits and my reactive emotional patterns, watering my life with sitting meditation and compassion meditation in the hope of bearing sweeter fruits from new seeds while extracting learning from the old bitter ones. I begin to advertise writing practice classes again — perhaps this time I will find more students. I continue to practice music and to busk in the BART station and Farmers’ Market, practicing gratitude and patience, saying with Leonard Cohen each day, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before The Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.'” I wish you all a fine fall.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

* This is the first year I have raised this variety: they are very pretty, about the size of cherry peppers, but I don’t especially care for their flavor, either eaten raw or oven roasted — they are not sweet enough to suit me, but they are a drying tomato so I will dry some and report back about that next month. It may be that I just have not discovered their secret(s). I had wanted a paste tomato, a drying tomato and tomatoes to eat raw and chose accordingly from recommended heirlooms. Plus, I had to have the Sun Gold hybrid cherry, the most delicious tomato I have ever tasted (Those I grow every year).

One Thursday evening and Friday afternoon this month two different neighbors dropped by with gifts of pears from their trees. I said thank you and put them on the sideboard. Pears do not keep long unless they are picked green, so Sunday morning after breakfast I started peeling them and cutting them open, cutting out bad spots. Some of them had rotted from the inside out and went directly into the compost can.

On Friday I had pulled a few recipes from the pear section of the huge recipe binder on my bookshelf. Depending on the state of the pears, I could make clafouti or pear tart tatin, but I had my eye on some pear pecan muffins, which would also use the last of the pecans in the shell I had sitting around. I have been eating said pecans at the rate of two a day, cracked and broken and stirred into my favorite summer breakfast of polenta with fresh peaches, mostly because of the time it takes to crack them and pick the meats from the shell and cartilage. Making the muffins gave me the excuse I needed to cover the breakfast room table with newspaper and crack all of the remaining pecans.

I had researched methods of shelling pecans on the internet. Some people boil them. Some people take the to other people who shell them. Some people use side cutters and pliers or build machines to crack the shells. What I learned was that I had been using a nut cracker incorrectly my entire life: I always put the nut in and squeezed as hard as possible —  generally, hard enough to break nuts in half. Instead, a couple of online sources suggested rotating the nut several times and applying just enough pressure to crack the outer shell without damaging the nut. Oh. I was intrigued.

I tried the new method, concentrating on cracking the ends of the nuts — one YouTube video presented removing the ends as the key to easy shelling. I had limited success with this maneuver, usually ending up with the ends of the nuts breaking in the shell. What did happen, though, is that I got absorbed in the task of shelling the pecans, forgetting about time as I turned the nuts, cracked off pieces of shell, pried nutmeat from shell with a curved pick. I forgot my coffee. I forgot my thoughts.

When I finished shelling the nuts and had moved on to another kitchen task — measuring flour, perhaps — I had the thought that if I would take the care in dealing with people that I took in shelling pecans, my relationships would go better — if I retained an open, curious attitude about what would work best and tried to do things gently so as not to hurt anyone. I heard my teacher’s voice, or her teacher’s voice, reminding me that anything you do can take you deep.

Naturally, this insight was fleeting. As I looked for the millet that I wanted to add to the muffins I came upon difficulties: I had to look in a cardboard box that was balanced precariously on some glass jars. The box itself contained other glass jars. Trying to keep it balanced while sorting through its contents, while standing on a step ladder, proved impossible. My mother informed me that the glass jars in the box only contained beans and suggested another location in the cabinet. I looked there with no success and then moved the ladder across the kitchen to look in a bin in another high cupboard. Because I could not see into the bin I had written a list of the contents on a post-it and stuck it on the side, but, when I climbed up, the post-it was gone and I had no alternative but to reach over my head to lift the heavy bin down to see what was in it. I found this irritating in extreme, that my contents label was gone. And, of course, the millet was not there. I said a few words about how I had tried to find a solution and someone else had undone my efforts.

This happens everyday, of course. Someone undoes my efforts and I undo someone’s efforts, each of us not knowing what we are doing that is messing with someone’s solution or desires or plans.

Eventually, I found the millet and put a half cup of it into the muffins. I have never cooked with millet before and it provides a satisfying crunch.

A few days ago, after two months of searching, I found some guitar lessons on YouTube that will help me improve my guitar playing. After nearly two years of busking I am bored by the sameness of my arrangements: because I play many of the same songs everyday I have started to hear what I am doing and to long for other options. Anyway, I finally found lessons and exercises from three different teachers that feature Travis picking, a style that I never studied formally or extensively. When I first found them and played through the exercises as best I could I was ecstatic: the exercises were challenging for me, I had to take them slowly and work to get them right. In my initial enthusiasm I researched tips for successful music practicing and learned that it was more effective to practice twice or three times a day for a shorter amount of time than to use the long sessions I had been using. I also learned that it was good to practice every single day, even for only ten minutes.

Following this advice, I divided my practice sessions. The first time I tried this I was late getting home from work and had to jam one practice session in shortly after arriving home so as to get it in before dinner and have a break before session number two. That evening I worked rigorously on the exercises in session one. What I noticed when I began session two is that I wanted to play, but I did not want to practice the exercises, that, in fact, I wanted to play anything at all as long as I did not have to play by any rules. Hmm.

Today, I was back at rigorous practice in session one. And during session one I noticed the comments of voices in my head. The loudest one wants to tell everyone I know how hard this practice is for me. She wants someone to listen to her. Another one calmly reminds me that I chose this set of exercises and this practice routine to improve my playing and relieve my boredom and give me more choices of how to play. The third voice gently suggests that I take breaks. The last one cautions me to be patient and to pay attention to what I am doing so that I do not practice mistakes.

All during this period from June to now as I transition into a new life back in my old location I have been nursing a few tomato plants and three pepper plants that I started from seed back in March, April and May. I have transplanted seedlings to buckets, staked them, watered them, watched them. They have grown taller, but the tomato plants have a tendency to wilt here in the fog. As of this afternoon I have small green tomatoes, both Principe Borghese and Amish Paste varieties and, miraculously, at least one flower on each of the pepper plants. Let us hope that September will provide enough heat and clear days to ripen them all. I’ll let you know at the end of the month — perhaps I’ll even find my camera by then and add a photo or two.

In February I started a garden in bare, neglected ground. Over five months I dug out green plastic netting, dog shit, pieces of asphalt, mallows, too many weeds to count. I added compost, coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps. I carted home pine boughs and pine needles, sticks and leaves I found in the gutters. I bought plants, I was given plants. I raised tomatoes and peppers from seed. I planted squash and beans, basil and tomatoes. The Sun Gold tomato took over almost an entire fence line. I added sunflowers and blue sweet peas.

With the miracle of sun and water, things grew. Two-inch squash appeared on the butternut vines, more than one, more than two, as the vines reached out into the yard for more sun. The beans and tomatoes were awash in blossoms, the green beans too tiny to pick yet, the shelling beans swelling. I was so happy and proud of my first home vegetable garden in sunny San Leandro. I fed friends chard and kale and gave away extra tomato seedlings.

And then I had to leave, not an easy decision. A situation arose that I could not live with and we could not come to an agreement about it. There is plenty of love left, but nothing to do with it at present, just as there were plenty of vegetables in the garden when I left and no one to tend them. Unless my ex-landlord or someone Johnny knows steps in to take care of it, the garden will die. In its death as in its life the bean roots will nourish the soil, fixing nitrogen. The plants will go back to the soil which gave them part of their life. I had custody of the garden for a brief time, enough time to grow things, but not enough time to gather in the entire harvest.

June finds me back at my mother’s house, sleeping on a sofa, my belongings in the capacious living room in boxes and bins and garbage bags. My mother and brother have been working on the never-refinished hardwood floor of my old bedroom and I can’t move my stuff in there yet. I brought with me several tomato seedlings and three pepper plants. One of the pepper plants appears to have a broken stem and may die soon. The other two are sitting outside in a copper bowl, waiting for me to find somewhere to plant them. My sister-in-law brought a large, healthy-looking tomato seedling from her house and we must find a place for that, too. We put three tomato plants in cages in two large buckets. I have many seeds left, but nowhere to plant them: I’ll find a pot for some Thai basil and perhaps some other herbs, but I will be beginning again in the foggy land in the path of the Golden Gate.

Meanwhile, I blanch and scrape citrus peel — I had saved peel for five months in the freezer and there is no room for it here. To save it, I have been working for three days, blanching and scraping lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit rinds. As I write, the orange peel is done and beginning to dry, the lemon and lime simmers on the stove and the grapefruit in the refrigerator awaits its hour-long sugar bath. The methodical scraping of pith with a steak knife was meditative, the long hours of labor calming the mind: it was good to have something simple to do, although after twelve hours or so I would be glad to see the labor ended. I thought I might be canning tomatoes and beans this summer — instead I am harvesting citrus peel for baked goods. As I blanch and scrape, perhaps I will leach any bitterness from my soul and let my heart rest in the sweetness of life, the sweetness of each tiny blessing. I am grateful to be able to read and write, to smell the clean, sharp citrus in the air. I am grateful for my readers, friends and family and grateful for a sweet life that I had for nearly two years.

Those of you who are kind enough to follow The Kale Chronicles as it morphs from a twice weekly blog to a monthly blog will have noticed that it did not make its May deadline. It was inevitable, given some things that are going on and it may be rocky here for awhile. I have not had time to take pictures, much less paint them in the last week or so — I have barely been able to attend to the garden (I just spent an hour on my hands and knees, pulling out burr clover).

But I harvested at least half a basket of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes tonight from the plant that has dynastic ambitions — having taken over as much of the fence line as possible (I think), it has shifted its focus to growing out over the patio. Johnny said it had to be cut back, but I am not going to do that. Perhaps I should have put in more stakes or a tomato cage, but it is too late for that now. It swallows up and shades everything in its path with abundant foliage and hundreds of yellow blossoms. It is the biggest tomato plant I have ever seen and I fear to think of what my Amish paste tomatoes and my Principe Borghese plants are going to look like — both of them have larger tomatoes than the Sun Gold.

I have pepper plants hardening off and chard that is bolting. We can eat lettuce from the garden now, as well as chard and kale and tomatoes. I set out some new Thai basil seeds because the Thai basil I planted before is underneath the giant tomato. In the process of digging to enrich the soil for the basil I discovered concrete about a foot down at the end of one of the bean rows. Uh-oh. I have not yet determined how far the concrete extends (I’m not that fond of digging).

My green bean plants have little tiny green beans and the Scarlet Runners do too. My pinto beans and black-eyed peas seem to have hybridized in a giant tangle: when they started out they looked like bush beans, but then the bush beans grew tangled vines that refuse to take to the supports I gave them. Meanwhile some of the butternut squash plants are growing through a row of green beans and I can no longer walk on what was a path in that part of the garden. I think that I saw some tiny butternut squash tonight, although I have seen no squash blossoms, which makes no sense — the only things in blossom are the tomatoes and various beans.

I need to know a lot of things. I need to know how to confine indeterminate tomatoes (and perhaps how to prune the non-bearing branches). I need to know how to encourage the butternut squash to fruit and how to protect the squash as they grow. I need an advanced placement course in staking and supporting plants because muddling through it on my own was not adequate (I have raised indeterminate tomatoes before, thank you very much, but only in ten gallon buckets, where they stay put, where, in fact, they were spindly and only produced a few handfuls of tomatoes. I love the abundance, but I am afraid we will not be able to walk in our yard by August and I feel sorry for the other plants that have no chance and no space to grow. I need to know what particular horrible garden pests or diseases have been plaguing my red cabbage plants, which may not be long for this world, although I have not had a single cabbage.

I sort it out as best I can. The garden is my refuge from other difficulties and I love going out and picking or cutting things to eat. Last night I made a chicken salad that incorporated cherry tomatoes and lettuce from the garden. I also used plain Greek yogurt, Madras curry powder, lemon juice (lime is better), celery and golden raisins.

May highlights included a visit from my best friend and her husband on the day that twenty-six mph winds blew the tomato trellis down and ripped stakes through the ground and my guest appearance with Johnny’s band, Johnny Harper and Carnival, in Sebastopol. I sang “Evangeline” by Robbie Robertson, which Emmy Lou Harris sang in “The Last Waltz.” The band has been doing a special series of shows featuring the music of The Band, while incorporating some of Johnny’s original compositions. Johnny is hard at work on a CD, to be released in October if all goes according to plan.

I hope you all are enjoying your late spring/early summer.

Sharyn (aka The Kale Chronicler)

Manzanita. Ink and watercolor. 8" by 12". Sharyn Dimmick.

Manzanita. Ink and watercolor. 8″ by 12″. Sharyn Dimmick.

I am obsessed with the garden. Johnny has taken to calling me “Farm Girl” (I have never lived on a farm although I had great uncles and grandparents who farmed). Since I last wrote I have planted both Teddy Bear Sunflowers and Mexican sunflowers, plus the blue sweet peas. The first sunflower leaves are just breaking through the soil and the sweet peas are what I call “invisible plants” — that means “I know they are there even if you can’t see them. Please water them, honey.”

The monstrous Sun Gold tomato plant is gargantuan now and full of blossoms and small green tomatoes: I do not know when they will begin to turn orange, but the heat wave we are having now might help them along. Soon they will have sibling tomato plants, which are hardening off in the garden as I write. I planted Amish paste tomato seeds and Principe Borghese seeds, but I did not label them, so I will not be able to tell the plants apart until they fruit. The leaves, however, are different colors, so I can be assured I have two different kinds.

So far I have been unable to produce peppers or Russian tarragon from seed in three tries and one of my varieties of basil failed to germinate. When the  basil plants get bigger I’ll be able to tell which one I have and I will plant some more somewhere. I will also plant more lettuce in the shade of other plants.

The scarlet runner beans have begun to climb up their improvised tepee, but nothing is in flower yet except the tomato plant. The butternut squash have their first real leaves. The cabbages are much larger, beginning to crowd one another, but there is no sign of heads forming. I have not grown cabbage before.

One of these days I will have an herb-planting day and put in dill, oregano and chives. I will also add some green beans to fill in the gaps in the bean rows. I want to plant more and more, but I am watering by hand and it already takes almost an hour to get around the garden with my tea kettles and milk bottles.

MK's Breakfast Strata. 12" x 12" gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

MK’s Breakfast Strata. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

When I am not in the garden (I don’t sleep there!) or fussing over seedlings I still busk, cook, sketch, etc. I recently left the plants to Johnny’s care and some fortuitously-timed rain and went for a long weekend in the lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The event was called Ballads on the Mountain, hosted by a friend who likes to call herself “Mary Kingsley.” Twelve women assembled to sing traditional ballads from the Francis James Child collection and to eat up a storm. Kingsley’s red kitchen produced meal after meal. One of my favorites was new to me: breakfast strata, a savory concoction of eggs, cheese, sourdough bread cubes, meat and vegetables. We had a wonderful one with chicken apple sausage and mushrooms, which I’m going to share with you here and then cook for Johnny when the weather cools off again. I don’t have any problem with eating this dish for lunch, brunch or supper either, believing in breakfast served all day.

Mary Kingsley’s Breakfast Strata (adapted)

12 slices dry sourdough bread, cubed

8 eggs, beaten

3 cups shredded cheese

2 cups sliced mushrooms

12 oz sliced chicken apple sausage

3 Tbsp prepared mustard

1/2 tsp salt (optional)

1/4 tsp cayenne

olive oil for greasing pan

Toast your bread cubes in a 250 oven until dry and perhaps a little golden in spots. While the bread toasts you can saute your mushrooms. Set aside bread, then bump your oven up to 325. Lightly oil or butter a 3 quart rectangular baking dish. Place half of bread cubes in baking dish. Top with half of the mushrooms and half of the cheese. Top with half the sliced sausage. Repeat layers of bread, mushrooms, cheese and sausage.

Whisk cayenne, mustard and salt into beaten eggs. Pour eggs over other ingredients. Press down with the back of a wooden spoon to make sure all bread gets moistened.

Bake uncovered for 50 to 60 minutes until puffed and set. Enjoy.

Food notes: The recipe MK sent me included variations, one with sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus. When I saw this, I immediately wanted to incorporate sun-dried tomatoes into my own strata. I would also like it with peppers. MK actually made one with mushrooms and leftover broccoli for a vegetarian. The original recipe also calls for 3 cups of milk, which MK eliminated. Since I didn’t miss it, I have eliminated it, too. If you add it, you’ll probably get a more custardy texture, rather than the firm, dry, one that I enjoyed, with crunch from the bread crumbs.

Painting notes: When I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or singing, I was staring out the window at a manzanita. Hence the painting. The other painting attempts to capture the strata and some of the many reds in MK’s kitchen.

Spring crops are in! Fresh Batavia lettuce rosettes at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Last Saturday I stood in line for a three-pack of strawberries and a couple of large artichokes, food that hardly needs preparing: I sliced the strawberries over homemade waffles made with spelt flour and sour half and half and steamed the artichokes to eat with lemon butter. This easy cooking joins the long-cooked stews on the cooler days and keeps me from heating up the kitchen on the warmer days. We have had some of each in March, eighty-degree afternoons, fifty-one degree sunrises. Sheeting rain yesterday morning kept me from singing at the Berkeley market but allowed me to walk through the Bay Fair market with Johnny instead. I bought more artichokes, some sugar snap peas, cilantro, new potatoes. Johnny bought onions, scallions, red peppers (where did they come from?). The other day a man walked down our street with strawberries from Salinas and I bought half a flat for two dollars a basket. Johnny says they aren’t as good as the farmers’ market strawberries, but it was an impulsive buy to cheer up my sweetie who has been working hard on his first album.

I have been working hard, too. I played a private St. Patrick’s Day party on Saturday March 15, in addition to my usual busking. For that I had to practice up several Turlough O’Carolan tunes on the Celtic harp and refresh my memory of some “Irish” standards of the type that one only sings on St. Patrick’s Day (I was heard to grumble through the house, “I never will play ‘The Wild Rover’ no more”).

Photo of seed packets

Heirloom seed packets.

The day after the gig I whisked myself off to Santa Rosa to visit my friends Suzanne and Scott. Suzanne and I had a date with the Seed Bank in Petaluma, a haven for heirloom seeds. Suzanne staked me to a portion of them as a late birthday present and I quickly doubled the stake to get an English trowel and more seeds. It’s hard to describe the bounty of seed packets at the Seed Bank, over 1200 possibilities. I carefully chose varieties of basil and tarragon, snapped up some black garbanzo beans from Afghanistan, bought Blue Lake green bean seeds and Scarlet Runner beans. I deliberated over kinds of sunflowers and bought a blue and white sweet pea mix. I chose a French variety of lettuce and an Amish paste tomato. I could not get sugar snap peas or Genovese basil — apparently everyone in Northern California is planting those at the moment. But the peppers were nearly my undoing: an entire rack of peppers stood before me and I wanted them all, habaneros and jalapenos, cherry peppers, Thai peppers. I limited myself to poblano seeds and a packet with a beautiful illustration of a red bell pepper.

Much of this bounty is still sitting in packets in the breakfast nook because every time I have had time to plant things outdoors I have needed stakes or there has been rain. I lie awake nights thinking where to put things. I did manage to plant a couple of half rows of black-eyed peas and pinto beans and put together a small A-frame of scavenged pine boughs and bamboo for the scarlet runner beans. I planted some runner beans today, plus Blue Lake green beans, butternut squash and two varieties of basil (Thai and Ararat).

Tomato and tarragon seedlings

First seedlings

Last week I started seeds of two kinds of tomatoes and Russian tarragon in cardboard egg cartons. I started a second set when anything failed to germinate after six days and was jubilant an hour later when the sun came out and the first green bits poked up out my potting soil in tray number one. I have never started seeds indoors before and this small victory feels like magic. This morning I squeezed three new egg cups into my tray, each containing a poblano pepper seed.

The in-ground crops look good. We cut a few leaves of chard one night to go with a dinner of sweet potatoes and sour milk cornbread. The kale and two of the red cabbages are growing large. The Sun Gold tomato is a leggy green monster now with four sets of yellow blossoms already — perhaps we will have home-grown tomatoes by May. I am anxious to have tomatoes, tarragon and pepper plants to add to the garden, to plant lettuce and herbs and flowers, but I have to wait for drier weather. Not that we don’t need the rain in California. We do.  I wait impatiently for the intersection of a free day and a dry day and I hack a three-foot high sheaf of flowering weeds out of the side yard so that they do not invade my vegetable patch.

It excites me to grow some of our food. I prepared the ground of my mind for this by subscribing to a farm box and converting myself to seasonal eating several years ago. Then I managed a small organic garden in an after school recreation program where we successfully grew beans, peas and tomatoes. We planted cleome and borage and lemon verbena, a true geranium, pumpkins: I watched a visiting child snap the one small pumpkin off its vine during a Hallowe’en party and I was let go before everything bloomed.

Hills and trees from Bay Fair platform.

Bay Fair Landscape #1. 5″ x 7″ ink and watercolor. Sharyn Dimmick.

I started some garden sketches for this post but the rain has interrupted my garden sketching as well. Instead I sketch strangers on BART trains and the view of hills and trees from the bench on the platform. The sketching exercises come from the new edition of Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color, a beautiful book with a gallery of paintings as well as lots of fun things to do. I feel happy with my life when the days contain music and sketching and cooking and gardening and writing. Sketching calms me and engages me, a meditation of the moving hand and eye, tethering my restless mind to the paper and the scene in front of me, just as busking tethers my mind to chords and lyrics, my hands to the fingerboard, my feet to the floor, while my voice rides the breath. In kitchen work, the anchor is my chopping knife, my whisk, the spoon in my hand, in gardening it is the trowel or fingers twisting weed stems as I thank them for breaking up the soil.

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