Dear Semi-Abandoned Readers,

On August 28, 2013 I fell while taking out the compost, injuring my right wrist. It has taken me seven weeks to get a proper diagnosis and a cast: two hairline fractures, a sprain (stretched ligaments) and tendinitis. I can only type with my left hand, which needs to perform all other hand functions (dressing, bathing, eating, holding the phone, etc.). This is why you have not heard from me lately.

My “cooking” consists of pouring bowls of cold cereal and milk and spreading peanut butter on toast. I mooch cooked food off friends who cook, eat whatever my mother prepares for the family dinner, microwave attractive leftovers and carry on as best I can.

The blog will return when I have recovered full use of my dominant hand. Meanwhile, there is plenty to read in the blogosphere, judging from my inbox.

Be well.

Sharyn

This month my friend Bob Chrisman died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a writer and zen student that I met many years ago in Taos, New Mexico. After awhile he stopped coming to Taos but we corresponded and talked on the phone and saw each other during his occasional visits to California. I always assumed I’d visit his house in Kansas City someday to see its multicolored rooms, but low funds kept me home in the Bay Area. During our last conversation Bob told me he was thinking of going to a retreat in France in 2014. Bob had always told me if I became homeless I could come live with him in KC.

Beyond that, my beloved is troubled, struggling with demons for his very life and happiness, unable or unwilling to communicate with me for much of June and July. I sort through a basket of grief, pain, anger, despair, loneliness — it is like one of those cooking shows where they give you a basket with tuna, rutabagas, cinnamon and bananas and tell you to make a main dish in thirty minutes. Where do you start?

You start where you are. You taste your ingredients and smell them, look at the texture. Are the bananas green or ripe? Is the rutabaga woody or tender and sweet. Bob’s death sent me to my meditation cushion each morning at 5:30 to recite the Heart Sutra. It is an unexpected gift from Bob: I sit and I cry, but as the days go by I am calmer and quieter in my crying. I find myself voicing a wish that my heart fill with love. I also find myself angry and reactive, hurting, but in those moments I turn to the page to write or tell my friends how I am feeling. Telling the feelings airs them out somehow and I see that I do not want to act out of anger if I can avoid it. The quiet space each morning helps me go on, as does the support and fellowship of like-minded people.

It is traditional to say the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days after someone’s death, so I will be at this for awhile, gathering strength and peace from the cushion. In the meantime, I continue my life, which feels too spacious today. My life is never the frantic scramble of many American lives since I left the regular workforce against my will a few years back. In fact, I work six days a week, usually, but my work consists of one or two shifts of singing in public for tips. When I am not working or traveling to work I have lots of time, time to sit and write and read. If Johnny calls, I have plenty of time to talk with him, time to listen.

I have Sundays off, unless there is a singing gathering. Today I didn’t even get dressed: it is a typical Bay Area summer day, shrouded in fog, the trees dripping this morning. By afternoon it has only lightened a little. The summer markets are full of their glory. Last week I bought green beans and basil, corn on the cob, ollalieberries (a form of blackberry), peaches and ten pounds of Gravenstein apples. This week I spent all of the money I earned at the market on a pizza of the first red and yellow bell peppers and green onions. I ate it for lunch and dinner yesterday and for lunch again today. It was delicious, even if I had to forgo peaches and beans to get it. I bought it on impulse, wanting to treat myself — it’s not often that I permit myself a sixteen-dollar splurge these days. It didn’t hurt that the vendor plucked a big roasted tomato and put it in my hand and then showed me every pizza he had for sale so that I could choose one. I’m not sorry I splurged — I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I were rich, I might eat this pizza every week, or get back to making them: Sunday is the only day I can make pizza now, the day when I have enough hours to wait for the sourdough crust to proof. As it is, I’m grateful to have had the treat.

Last Sunday I had a different treat: I heard about a documentary movie about back-up singers. I checked the show times and headed out the door to the theater. taking a ten-dollar bill. I bought a ticket and walked down the street to get a dollar coffee toffee ice cream on a sugar cone. Let me say that these treats are rare: the last movie I saw was in May when Johnny and I saw “On the Road.”

Of course, I’ve just been to France. I could not have gone there without scholarship money and a work scholarship. I saved the air fare out of my monthly earnings which range from $300 to $500 a month, depending on how the busking trade is going and how many CDs I sell. Every month I work first to pay my phone and internet bill, then to get a monthly bus pass, then to afford a pair of twenty-dollar shoes (I wear out a pair of shoes each month due to my odd gait from cerebral palsy). Strings, food and treats come next, and money for savings to afford the next airline ticket. I borrow books from the library and listen to the radio or play CDs I’ve loaded into iTunes. I sing with friends. I talk on the phone. I pick up the windfall apples from our neighbor’s tree and will dry them in my dehydrator. Meditation is free, only taking time and effort.

I continue with things that take time and effort. I make the effort to open my heart, to tolerate my anxiety and grief. I take plenty of time to rest, although I look hollow-eyed with dark shadows. I know that everything changes, quickly or slowly, that one season follows another, that apples and pears are early this year in California. I am grateful to be alive and grateful that my suffering is not greater, grateful for moments of respite and hope, of companionship, grateful for the comfort of books and music and occasional delicious food. I hope July finds you well and, if not, that comfort is available to you.

Villefavard Roses, 5"x7" watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Villefavard Roses, 5″x7″ watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

If I do not know it from my zen and Vipassana meditation, I should know it from my habit of seasonal eating: things change all the time and not always in ways that we expect — too much rain or sun disrupts crop production, or bees mysteriously die off and the crops are lightly pollinated. I had hoped to announce a big change today, one that would affect my life every single day, but the timetable for that has been changed. I am not trying to be mysterious or withholding, promising to tell you something and then not telling you, but since the planned change involved other people I am not at liberty to speak about what was going to happen, but has not. Plans are not going according to schedule and the schedule is not going according to plan.

Yesterday I sang at the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley. It was a bright, hot day and some new crops were in. I saw fresh apples! Pink Ladies and Pink Pearls. Blueberries and blackberries and strawberries are still abundant. Suncrest peaches and apricots and now Santa Rosa plums fill the bins at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. I drank tomato juice and two bottles of water as I stood and sang. When I was done I ate a cup of caramel ice cream,  and a raw Thai salad cone from the vegan stand. I wanted to buy peaches or maybe blackberries, but I needed to hurry to catch a bus and contented myself with picking up a basket of Sun gold cherry tomatoes and a pound and a half of fresh green beans: perhaps I will make a pasta of them or a pasta salad for the Fourth of July potluck and barbecue that I always go to.

Justine's Kitchen. 5" x 7" Ink and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Justine’s Kitchen. 5″ x 7″ Ink and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

In other news, I have been asked to assist Natalie Goldberg at her December retreat in Taos, New Mexico. This is a great honor, and the first time I have served at a long retreat. Many of my old writing pals are slated to be there. So, having just returned from France, I need to start saving air fare for New Mexico. I went back to “the day job” on Friday, singing in the BART station for tips.

France. This year it rained a lot, so I didn’t have as much chance to paint, sketch or swim as I did last year. Nevertheless, I have chosen images from my French sketchbook to illustrate this post. I hope you enjoy them.

It is the last day of May. I have worked my last shift of the day and have time to reflect on the changes that May has brought. First of all, spring produce has crept into our diets, even in reduced circumstances: in May I have bought cherries, apricots, peaches, strawberries, and, last week, blueberries, bargain blueberries in a large Ziploc bag that I have consigned to the freezer for future pies, muffins and waffles. Last week the Berkeley Farmers’ Market had its first bunches of basil, although they were gone by the time I finished singing my two-and-a-half hour shift.

No matter: Mom bought a large basil plant at Trader Joe’s. It sits on our breakfast room table, soaking up sun from the bay window and producing large green leaves, large as the palm of my hand. Now, I know that the Italians prize small, tender basil leaves, but I will work with monster basil if that is what we’ve got — I just have to remove the veins and stems and tear it into small pieces. Last night I made my first pesto of the season, a hybrid of walnuts, garlic, olive oil, torn basil and feta cheese, pounded in a mortar and stuffed into slits in boneless skinless chicken breasts. I handled the stuffed breasts carefully with tongs, browned them in a skillet and set them in a broiler pan on a sheet of heavy-duty foil to bake in a 325 degree oven. While they baked, I made sourdough-buttermilk biscuits for strawberry shortcake, seasoned some whipping cream with sugar and vanilla, stir-fried some bok choy with garlic, steamed some fresh corn on the cob. This was my first attempt at stuffing chicken breasts and I had a little difficulty cutting even pockets of equal depth, but that did not affect the flavor.

Earlier in the week I cooked a pork loin, slathered with peach chutney and wrapped in filo. I adapted this from something I saw Rachel Ray do once with chutney and puff pastry. Puff pastry is easier to work with than filo (it’s thicker), but I did manage to get part of the pork loin wrapped in pastry. I rolled the pork loin in the chutney-smeared pastry on a piece of cheap foil — that’s how I learned my lesson about using the good stuff when I cooked the chicken breasts later.

But before I even got to rolling up the pork loin I had to solve another problem: my jar of Frog Hollow Peach Chutney had only a tablespoon or so left in it and I needed perhaps half a cup of chutney. After halfheartedly consulting some online recipes for a chutney that would use the frozen peaches that we had on hand, I realized I could just read the ingredients on the Frog Hollow jar and fake it, guessing about quantities. So I took about a pound of frozen peaches and chopped them into bite-sized pieces.  I threw them into a sauce pan with some minced fresh garlic, a seeded jalapeno, a goodly grating of frozen ginger root, some organic sugar and some cider vinegar. I discovered that Frog Hollow Farm uses dried cherries in their chutney — no wonder it is so good. Not having dried cherries, I substituted a handful of dried cranberries. I cooked the chutney until it was thick and had darkened in color, stirring in the last of the jarred chutney and adjusting for seasoning (I had to add sugar a few times). I only made enough for the pork recipe, but I was impressed enough with the results that I may make it again.

I am still singing in the BART station five mornings and five afternoons a week, with Saturday singing shifts at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market three weeks out of the month. My busking income is rising slightly, my public repertory of popular songs getting a little larger. Last week I received a hundred-dollar tip from a woman who had occasionally tipped me a dollar: she handed me a CD of her piano music and a small, pale blue envelope.

“Put it in your pocket.” she said. “It is a lot of money.”

As I finished out my shift, packed up my gear and walked to the bus stop I enjoyed speculating about what “a lot of money” might mean. I was pretty sure it would be at least twenty dollars and fantasized about it being a grant of several thousand, with which I could complete my second music CD (about half done).

A hundred dollars is a lot of money to earn busking in one shift. Earning one hundred per shift is not typical. Neither is earning the sixty-four cents I earned during another two-hour shift later in the week. I came home laughing: since I started doing this seven and a half months ago I had never earned less than a dollar in an hour or two. I count myself lucky when any shift produces “double digits.” aka ten dollars or above, and a day when both shifts bring in double-digits is worth celebrating (cheaply, of course). Costly coffees and restaurant meals are rare in my life these days, but I get to work without a boss, except the one in my head. In May, my daily average hovered around nineteen dollars. I am debt-free and have managed to parlay some of my earnings into a plane ticket to France next month, where I will spend two weeks working and studying with Natalie Goldberg in Villefavard. No Paris sojourn this time around because I have a big project in July: watch this space for details at the end of June.

Will I paint again? Will I even sketch? I don’t know. I would like to find another “Nature Sketch” book like the one I took to France last year. I do expect to resume the Riverdog Farm produce box in July 2013 after a nine-month hiatus.

Also in May, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak and read from his new book, Cooked. I look forward to reading the book at some point and to owning it down the road. He read us a section on death and fermentation, cheeses that smelled like body odors and the back ends of cows — highly entertaining. Anyone who likes reading about food and culture will enjoy his books.

Thank you to all of you who are still reading The Kale Chronicles, coming to you once a month at this juncture sans illustrations and proper recipes. Tune in at the end of June for further adventures and a preview of a life-changing July event.

Not so much has changed since I wrote my March blog: I am still busking in the Berkeley BART stations twice a day five days a week, plus singing at the Farmers’ Market some Saturdays. I get up and eat breakfast, often flavored oatmeal cooked in milk, but sometimes leftover pie or scrambled eggs with cheese or vegetables, fresh cinnamon rolls, Shredded Wheat with sliced strawberries now that spring has come.

I am almost always home for lunch, which I generally eat with a pot a black tea, served with milk, English-style. Today I had tacos from some leftover poached chicken, simmered in green salsa, with sour cream, shredded cheese, romaine lettuce and cilantro. Yesterday I ate leftover rolls and Cotswold cheese, a blood orange and a sliver of leftover coconut custard pie (It was a pie-for-breakfast day).

Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Ever since my younger brother moved home my mother has taken over most of the cooking — she seems to think that Bryan will starve without her intervention. I sometimes cook for Johnny: Friday I cooked him an impromptu gumbo, featuring andouille sausage, leftover shrimp, chicken and fennel, not unlike the Mumbo-Jumbo Gumbo I’ve written about before. Tonight I helped prepare a simple supper of spaghetti, grated cheese, Italian sausage-flavored Prego from the jar. I ate my pasta mixed with leftover sauteed bok choy. Mom fixed a bowl of fresh blackberries with sugar and, voila, c’est tout.

I am still buying bags of “cosmetically-challenged” Moro blood oranges from the Farmers’ Market and eating them out of hand as snacks. I still buy Farmers’ Market carrots, which are sweeter than supermarket ones. I still buy fresh walnuts in the shell — not much has changed, although last week I bought a few fresh sugar snap peas to snack on.

Original ink and watercolor painting shows people around breakfast table.

Second Breakfast at Vicki’s. 12″ x 12″ ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomorrow I am taking a morning off my busking day job to attend a pre-dawn Morris Dance event in Tilden Park. I will assist my friend Vicki at the grand May Day breakfast after the sun has been danced into the sky (You last heard of Vicki when I mentioned attending the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast at her house). Perhaps I will bring back some food stories or recipes for May. You never know. Anything can happen.

What I completely forgot to mention in my March post because I was running around going to Natalie Goldberg‘s readings for her new book, The True Secret of Writing, is that I am featured in the book: the chapter on Practice contains a story about me, a snippet of my writing and the words to my song “The Wallflower Waltz.” Those of you who are interested in writing or meditation practice (which is the true secret of writing) will want to read this book. Natalie, of course, is best-known for her book Writing Down the Bones.

In March 2013 I was sick for a week (just a run-of-the-mill virus) and on the road for the better part of a week in the back seat of a car to and from the Bay Area to Seattle. By March 11 I was back at my “day job,” busking in Berkeley BART stations two shifts a day: I leave at 7:15 in the morning and often return from my second shift around 5:00 PM, although I have been known to get home as early as 3:30. I sing about three hours a day, all I can manage without wearing my voice out.

I come home for lunch between shifts. Lunch is leftovers from last night’s dinner or toasted cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat. Yesterday I had leftover (canned) turkey chili, leftover cornbread and a leftover roasted yam with a few raw vegetables on the side. We generally have a pot of black tea with lunch, shielding the milk pitcher from Ozzy the border collie who is quite fond of his “tea” (milk served in a saucer).

Last week I bought a bunch of carrots, a sack of blood oranges and two pounds of walnuts at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. I no longer buy these things to whip up exotic meals: I buy them to supplement my diet that is less rich in fresh fruits and vegetables than it was a mere six months ago. Mostly, I eat the oranges out of hand: I’ve eaten three of the five with my lunch this week and one at the bus stop as a snack. Carrots can be breakfast ingredients (I’m still making Sawsan’s carrot cake oatmeal around once a week ) as can walnuts: the nut rule is almonds if I am in a hurry and walnuts if I have the spare time to crack them and dislodge them from their shells. Yesterday I fixed my boiled-in-milk oatmeal with dried cranberries, homemade candied citrus peel from last winter and fresh walnuts.

In fact, much of my culinary creativity goes into modifying my morning oatmeal. This morning I ended up throwing a couple of tablespoons of Nutella into it and reminiscing with Johnny about the chocolate cereals of my childhood, formerly known as “Cocoa Puffs” and “Cocoa Krispies” (“Count Chocula,” a late comer, doesn’t count). I added almonds for crunch and tossed in some slivered candied citrus peel, mostly orange. I enjoyed Nutella oatmeal as a change, but I probably wouldn’t eat it more than once a month, not being a chocolate-for-breakfast fiend.

In case anyone has missed my previous post on oatmeal and/or polenta for breakfast I normally cook half a cup of rolled oats in a cup of milk with a pinch of kosher salt. To this I add fruit, nuts, syrups, in various combinations: I have drafted granola to add texture. I have made a syrup of fresh ginger, dried apricots, lemon peel, sugar and water and added two teaspoons of the fruit and syrup to my oats. I sometimes combine chopped dried apricots, chopped almonds and flaked coconut. I have used many dried fruits: sour cherries, cranberries, raisins, apples, pears. I have used walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans and hazelnuts. I have included candied ginger. I have added maple syrup, palm syrup, turbinado sugar, homemade cherry syrup.

Food Notes: If you have them, fresh hazelnuts would be delicious in Nutella oatmeal in place of the almonds, or in addition to them. Please experiment with whatever fruits and nuts are grown in your area.

I have been thinking for several days about a blog update for February 2013. Somehow I thought I would have time to paint a painting and to post a variation on the sweet potato flapjacks from Rufus’ Guide. I made the pancakes as suggested and Johnny and I enjoyed them for breakfast. I only made one substitution, which was to swap in a cup of whole wheat pastry flour. The thing is — and it may have been the whole wheat flour — I had to keep adding liquid because the pancakes were thicker than I like them. By the second day I had run out of buttermilk and the batter was still too thick, so I beat an extra egg into it and thinned it again with regular 1% milk: this produced thin, light pancakes with beautiful markings on them from the butter I fried them in, the interiors a pale orange hue. I would have loved to paint them. Maybe I will paint them someday, but not tonight with the clock approaching bedtime. Go and look at Greg’s version. Mine are thinner and lighter is all. If you like thick flapjacks, follow his recipe. If you like pancakes to be more like Swedish pancakes, use my adaptation.

Why couldn’t I paint? Well, February is full of holidays, both official and personal: Johnny and I both have birthdays this month, there was Valentine’s Day. We have been together six months and so had our half-year anniversary this week as well. Then, I decided to busk twice a day five days a week because I am just not earning enough, so now I go out every morning for two hours and every afternoon for another hour. Add in travel time, rest time, meals, a writing student, cat care for a friend, writing practice. I am rarely in my room long enough to start a painting and if I am I am talking on the phone, renewing my Craigslist ad or answering business calls or email.

Still, I probably could have eked out a painting except that Johnny had a family emergency that left us in limbo for days and culminated in the death of someone very dear to him.

So eat your pancakes, friends, or your Lenten fish. Rejoice that you have loved ones around you, if you do. Remember that this is the only life you get as far as we know. Do your best to enjoy it, the blue sky of California or the snow crystals in Illinois. Celebrate what you can and mourn what you must. I’ll return to you when I can. As always, I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read the chronicles, especially those of you who have stuck around during the declining frequency and the dearth of pretty pictures and recipes.

Sweet Potato Pancakes (adapted from a recipe posted on Rufus’ Guide)

Roast three small orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (sometimes known as “yams”) or use leftover cooked ones. Cool and mash them — just break them up.

Whisk together:

1 cup unbleached flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

2 Tbsp cinnamon sugar

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp mace

Combine:

1 and 1/2 cups buttermilk (add more buttermilk or sweet milk as needed)

2 beaten eggs

mashed sweet potatoes

Stir wet ingredients into dry until just blended (you want to eliminate any soda lumps)

Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat. When hot, add butter for frying.

Scoop out 1/4 cup portions of batter and fry in butter until bubbles appear and pop. Flip and fry on second side.

Keep pancakes warm in oven while you fry enough for everyone. Serve on warmed plates with warmed maple syrup and additional butter as desired.

When I began this blog in 2011 I was receiving a box of produce every week from Riverdog Farm and sometimes supplementing my produce box with additional items from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. I was painting watercolors of food subjects twice a week to illustrate what I was cooking, eating and buying. In October 2012 I discontinued my produce subscription because I could no longer spare the twenty dollars a week it took to bring all of that fresh, organically-grown produce into the house. Mid-October I took up a career of busking at the local BART station, playing and singing for tips and the occasional CD sale. By November I had added shifts at the Farmers’ Market on Center Street.

Guitar Case. 5"x 7" Pen and Ink drawing. Sharyn Dimmick

Guitar Case. 5″x 7″ Pen and Ink drawing. Sharyn Dimmick

For three and a half months I have been singing and playing guitar in public places, earning whatever passers-by choose to pay me. I do not recommend this as a way of making your living — if I did not live at my mother’s house I would certainly be on the street for more than a few hours a day. I play for two or two and a half hours a shift, seldom repeating a song, and only taking breaks to drink water, answer questions or sell CDs. I arrive promptly for my shifts, thank everyone who throws so much as a penny in my case, sing my songs in a different order everyday so that no one gets bored with hearing the same one as he or she hurries to catch their train or buy their potatoes.

I am not the greatest guitar-player in the world, but I am competent: I can accompany the types of songs I sing. I have found that daily performing takes me back to songs I learned early in my life when I spent hours listening to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell records. I play the fingerpicked standards that all guitar students learned to play: “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” which I first heard the year I lived in Ireland, and “Railroad Bill.” I play Bob Coltman’s “Before They Close the Minstrel Show” which I first heard when I was a graduate student in folklore in North Carolina. I play James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which I learned in high school from some other women who played the guitar. While I have a deep repertoire of traditional folk songs I find that many songs I love are too slow for public playing: people will tolerate Joni’s “That Song About the Midway” and Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” occasionally, but they seem to like a steady diet of acoustic blues and Bob Dylan songs.

Most musicians will tell you, to quote my friend Carol Denney, “Practicing doesn’t usually make you worse” (It can if you practice your mistakes so many times that you learn them by heart: then you have to unlearn them). It is unlikely that I have gotten worse from the daily practice of my craft in public — I now know I can play and sing for two and a half hours standing up by myself. I might get tired. My guitar might go out of tune and require retuning, but I now have the stamina to play for two and a half hours without stopping.

Back in a former life, I used to wish I was “a real musician.” I defined “a real musician” as one who plays everyday. I am perilously close to achieving that status now that I play six days a week in public — if I practice at home on the seventh day I have become “real” for that week.

Harmony 3. 5" x 7" pen, ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Harmony 3. 5″ x 7″ pen, ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Does it make me happy? Yes and no. I am itching for new repertory and must make the time to develop it when I am at home. I am hungry for new guitar skills (Fortunately, I am paired up with a man who can teach me licks and tricks in our spare time). I have fallen in love with the guitar style of Dave Van Ronk, plus some old guys from the 1920s whose records he learned from. At the same time, it is dispiriting to play for two hours and receive two dollars and a quarter on a day when I debuted two new songs and I gave it my all. January has not been kind to me as a busker.

The lack of fresh food means that I have few recipes to write about: every now and then I cobble together a delicious green fish curry or a curried apple, carrot and romanesco soup, but I eat a lot of pinto beans and spoon bread, scrambled eggs, peanut butter and jelly. My Farmers’ Market purchases last week were limited to two bunches of carrots, one of which I ate, Sawsan-style, grated into my morning oatmeal. The other bunch serves as crunchy food at lunch. I cook breakfast for Johnny when he’s here, make soups and bake bread, but I miss the variety of greens and citrus and roots that I complained of seeing too much of another January: now I see it as a wonderful and challenging abundance from which to work. I do sometimes look in on the wonderful blogs of others, but I don’t have the amount of free time I used to have.

I have acquired a writing student, who will start working with me in February for four weeks. I am excited about teaching Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice again.

I appreciate anyone who stops by to keep up with my story here, any subscribers or casual readers who have wondered at my long absence. It took me most of January to locate my camera battery recharger, without which I had no hope of illustrating anything. I leave you with some drawings of my old Harmony guitar, my constant companion in this latest phase of my life.

Dear Kale Chronicles’ Readers and Friends,

It has been a long time since I sent you an update, much less a painting or a recipe. As Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, baking a last batch of Russian teacakes, a traditional holiday cookie for us, consisting of butter, finely chopped walnuts, powdered sugar and enough flour to hold it all together. I had bought fresh walnuts in the shell from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and shelled them earlier on Monday evening while listening to Christmas carols on public television. Unfortunately, I had not consulted the recipe for amounts and had shelled just 1/2 cup when I needed 3/4 cup: as soon as I looked at the cookbook I went back to shelling nuts and wielding my chef’s knife.

It was an all-cookie Christmas this year, supplemented only with batches of Betsy’s delicious Italian Glazed Almonds. I did not have funds available for purchasing gifts in 2012, so I made them, Cocoa Shortbread and Pfefferneusse, Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies, thin Moravian ginger cookies. For several days I busked in the Berkeley BART station in the morning and baked in the afternoon and evening, preparing a silver tray of cookies for my friend Elaine’s Chanukah party, packing a waxed cardboard box with almonds for another. When I wasn’t baking I was borrowing a guitar from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars who kindly lent me a Johnson to play while my beloved Harmony went to the guitar doctor, who treated her for a couple of serious cracks, rehearsing with Johnny for a gig at Arlington Cafe in my home town or giving my annual Christmas music party for which I prepared butternut squash soup, Mexican corn soup, Swedish rye bread and Finnish cardamom bread.

I remember standing at the bread board chopping resinous walnuts, seeing the chopped nuts in the metal measuring cup, the knife blade against the wood, thinking “This is not so bad a way to spend the evening.” True, it was late and I was behind on Christmas preparations, but I focused on the pleasure that a fresh tin of powder-sugar dusted cookies would bring my mother, Johnny (they are his favorite) and my sister-in-law who threatened to kill Johnny on Christmas Day if he had eaten them all. As the knife flashed through the nut meats, as the butter and sugar whirled in the mixer, as I rolled the cookie dough into small balls in the quiet night kitchen I thought how lucky I am:

1) My mother and brother are healthy and here to celebrate Christmas with this year.

2) I have a pleasant and safe home to live in.

3) I have found someone to love who loves me back.

4) I, too, am healthy.

5) My lone guitar has been safely repaired

6) Johnny and I played a gig together in my hometown to generally favorable responses and both ended the evening in the black financially.

7) Friends came to hear us play.

8) My song about our courtship, “Clueless,” continues to be a runaway hit and fun to play.

Honestly, I can’t remember more of those midnight thoughts now. Suffice it to say that I thought of my patient readers who have put up with my long absence from the blogosphere.

Just in case anyone has not had enough cookies over the past month or has never made Russian teacakes at home, I’ll share the recipe with you, slightly modified from that presented in our Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Russian Teacakes

Soften 1 cup (two sticks) of butter — I use one stick salted butter and one stick unsalted.

Shell and finely chop 3/4 cup fresh walnuts

Combine butter with 1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract in electric mixer until creamy.

Slowly add 2 and 1/4 cups sifted flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating flour completely before each addition.

Mix in chopped nuts.

Chill dough as necessary. If you work late at night in a cold kitchen you will not need this step (or want to wait for the dough to chill either). Before baking, preheat oven to 400.  Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes until some color shows on the bottom edges. Roll warm cookies carefully in powdered sugar — they are delicate and will develop mangy-looking spots where the butter comes through. Let cool and roll again, or sift or sprinkle more powdered sugar to cover each cookie. Store in airtight tins for up to a week or two. (Mom recommends providing other cookies for the family to eat if you want to keep Russian teacakes on hand very long).

Food notes: the fresher the walnuts, the better the cookie. ‘Nough said. If you live in the South you could try making them with local pecans. If you prefer to bake exclusively with unsalted butter you will want to add 1/4 tsp of salt to your sifted flour. I use unbleached flour in these. Mom likes all-purpose. I have never tried them with a whole-grain flour — part of their attraction is that they are snowy white and ethereal. We only eat them once a year….

Painting notes: The reign of the emperor’s new clothes is long. You’ll know I am painting again the day you see a new painting here. Also, it has been so long since I’ve taken a photo that I cannot find the charger for my camera battery. Oops.

Writing classes: I will be teaching a six-week writing practice group on Tuesday nights in the East Bay starting January 8, 2012. My teacher Natalie Goldberg developed writing practice as a way to help people get their real thoughts on paper. For more information, see my ad on craigslist.

Happy New Year to everybody! See you again in 2013. –Sharyn

I believe I mentioned in a post at the beginning of November that I would take as my November themes solvency, National Novel Writing Month and gratitude. Shortly after that I began to experience a hurricane of self-doubt and wrote a post about my inability to work on The Kale Chronicles without the weekly infusion of a box of organically grown produce.

Several kind readers responded with comments telling me that they enjoyed my writing and would be glad to read it anytime, telling me not to worry about providing recipes, advising me to let the blog morph into whatever it would. I am more grateful than I can say for the kindness and support of my readers and thought I might compose a brief status report.

1) Solvency. I have continued my weekday morning busking at the Berkeley BART station, playing and singing two hours for tips. Thanksgiving Week was good to me — I sold three CDs that week and my daily earnings rose above $10.00 per day (when I started busking in mid-October I sometimes earned less than $5.00). I have had two weeks of double digit earnings and believed I had crossed a threshold when I ran into competition at the station this morning and earned only $3.50. C’est la vie. I have managed to cut my debt down to $249.06 and will keep chipping away at it until it is gone.

2) NaNoWriMo. Despite the Thanksgiving holiday and time off for recurrent back pain I did manage to complete the 50,000 words of writing required during National Novel Writing Month. I am well-trained in the art of sitting down and putting words on paper and my experience served me well. For your pleasure or idle curiosity I include the first day’s work on the memoir below. The memoir, which deals with my life with cerebral palsy and my struggles with money, love and work, is called “Broken.” The third section, which begins below, is called “Whole.”

Whole: Green Hat Incident

Wearing a green gown is unlucky in ballads: bad things happen to women in green dresses. They get raped (“Tam Lin”) even if they fall in love with the rapist later. Women put on a green dress to signify that they have been forsaken. Just before the Earl of Aboyne’s lady falls into a year of woe and dies she dons a green gown with red silk trimming to greet her returning lord.

One day in Ballad Group (in 2011) I happened to notice that Elaine was singing a song about a woman who wanted to get married who had sent her petticoats to be dyed green when she sent her shoes to be mended. When she finished the song, I wondered aloud why she would be dying her petticoats green and commented to the others that wearing green in ballads was generally a bad thing. After some discussion, Johnny Harper, who sits next to me at Ballad Group, reached over and tweaked the lime green hat that I was wearing.

I turned to him and said, “Green petticoats, not green hats.”

The session went on: when we get together to sing ballads we sit around a table full of potluck food. We eat and chat for a bit and then we go around the table widdershins (counterclockwise) for each person to sing a song. We sing for three or four hours and then pull out our calendars to schedule the next meeting.

Most of the ballad-singers are women. We had Malcolm for awhile before he moved back to England. Bill comes regularly and Ed Silberman sometimes drops by toward the end of a meeting. The group has been running for more than ten years and Johnny is, in fact, a Johnny-come-lately, brought a year or so ago by Marlene, who has been with us just a few years herself. The core of Ballads has been me, Elaine, Mary O’Brien, Sadie Damascus and Toni Gross, all “women of a certain age.” I started the ballad-singing session over ten years ago so that we would have a place to sing the traditional ballads that make other people yawn, cringe, head for the bathroom or remark unfavorably on our choice of repertory.

Ballad group is not where you would go to flirt with the boys. I once brought a date to Ballad Group — I thought he was a date, anyway — because I wanted to share something precious with him. I had sung him “Barbara Allen” at my house one day. He had listened through the whole thing and enjoyed it and I had invited him to Ballad Group to hear us sing. He came. Then we went out to eat afterwards. Some months later he told me he was “trying to be friends with me.”

When I got home, I turned the incident with Johnny over in my mind.

“He flirted with me,” I thought. “He’s never done that before. Maybe he likes me.” I wanted to call up the other members of the ballad group and see if they had noticed anything, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I did the next best thing: I checked him out on Facebook — I became friends with him (sent him a friend request) and read his profile: he was single and interested in women. Good.

The incident — after all, he had touched me — left a spark. I lay in bed that night unable to get to sleep, touching myself while I played it over in my mind. I think I sent him an email called “Good Behavior,” praising him for bringing his acoustic guitar to Ballad Group that afternoon (he often brings a red Telecaster and a small amp, going electric at the Ballad Group the first day he showed up). He claims that he can play certain things better on the Telecaster because he can bend the strings more easily. That may be true, but I love it when he plays his Martin, so I sent him a note about it. I thought the subject line, “Good Behavior” was mildly flirtatious — I was trying to respond in kind.

Johnny never replied to the email. He continued to come to Ballads and he continued to sit next to me, but he never made another move. It’s true that every now and then we would say something to each other: once I pointed out to him that Sadie required a lot of space: she had come in, commandeered two chairs — one for her and one for her junk (projects) — and things were spilling off her lap onto the floor below. He looked and laughed, but he never flirted with me again. I told myself that he was just a flirty guy and it had been a thing of the moment, signifying nothing, but I recalled the spark I felt when he touched me and felt it wake me up, preoccupy me through a long night. I wrote about it the next day and then nothing happened.

Several months later, in May, I was preparing to make a trip to France to study with Natalie Goldberg there. While trying on clothes to take to Paris I decided I did not want to be a fat lady in France and instituted a routine of long, daily uphill walks to take off some weight and firm up in the five weeks before my departure. Exercise, while not my favorite thing, has a way of opening up things in my life because it forces me to pay attention to my body.

Meditation retreats are great opening experiences, too, because you take several days to be with your own thoughts and feelings whatever they are. You minimize distractions — you don’t talk or watch T.V. or check Facebook or make phone calls. At Natalie’s retreats you are allowed to read and write, but you are not supposed to be reading mysteries to take you out of your life but “literature” to study writing and teach you things you did not know.

Travel also opens you, unless it shuts you down. You are seeing new sights, eating new foods, encountering new customs, hearing new language and trying to speak it. You have no home to go to when traveling, although you may have a home base, a hotel room or a backpack that you take with you everywhere.

I spent a week with Natalie in Villefavard, France and then I spent a week in Paris, five days with other people from the retreat and two nights on my own. Although I had roommates, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets alone, taking long walks. Once I found a good bakery I went out for breakfast early every morning alone and sketched at my table while I waited for my croissant and hot chocolate to arrive. In the afternoons I would walk about the city. On my best day I walked along the quays all the way down to Shakespeare and Company and spent hours in the upper room sketching and writing. I may have gone from there to the Cafe de Deux Magot where I sketched again and ate a salad, following a Natalie itinerary of places to see. I had dessert at Cafe de Flor next door, a concoction of coffee ice cream and whipped cream.

In Villefavard I swam everyday in the small lake. One evening I went for a long walk along a lane. My time in Paris became an extended retreat, a way to be with myself, isolated by language: when I was out I would speak in my halting French. When I was in, there was often no one to talk to: I was alone in my shoe box room at the Hotel Bastille Baudelaire or sketching on my bed at Hotel du Quai Voltaire while my roommates toured or slept.

I had been home just a day or two when I had the thought that maybe Johnny would like to get together to play music. Musicians usually like to do this. I had repertory he had never heard, including original songs: at Ballads we are constrained by the rules, which require us to sing traditional ballads, or at least traditional songs with no known author. Once a year we can bust out our Bob Dylan songs, our Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, our hits by Linda Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones: when I founded the Ballad Group I decided we could have the month of April as a safety valve, a pressure release, that we would have a free-for-all every April where we could sing anything we chose of any origin. I had hoped that allowing us one meeting to let our hair down would help us stick to the straight and narrow the rest of the year.

But this was July — April was far away. The thought to ask Johnny to get together had come up in my daily morning writing and I followed that thought by sending him an email.

3) Gratitude. I have fallen down a bit on this, having been experiencing several flavors of fear this month in its stead. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I have been able to explore all of my feelings in writing, grateful for my kind and patient readers and grateful for the presence in my life of Mr. Johnny Harper.

I still can’t say when I will be back with regular posts or paintings. My back is still troubling me but, as wise people say, “This, too, shall pass.”

– Sharyn

Painting Notes: Still no painting — apparently, the emperor found something else to wear at the back of his closet.

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