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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Positive Negativity


     Monday night, just after sundown and as the Strawberry Moon was rising, Gretchen and I made our way down the boardwalk at Massengale Beach. The high tide that coincided with the full moon and summer solstice was washing against the steps and sliding in to lick at the dunes. The moon’s reflection on the water showcased brilliant whitecaps, sparkling evidence of the power of the ocean. A couple and their two children wading in the shin-deep water were buffeted around by the oncoming waves.
     A cool onshore wind blew salt air into our faces as we settled onto the deck and organized our modest picnic of steamed shrimp and wine. Blanket and chair situated, I opened the wine and filled our glasses. We turned our faces to the moon and breathed in negative ions, the invisible, feel-good molecules so abundant in water environments, especially the ocean, where waves stir up the water, releasing the ions into the air. When we breathe them in, negative ions increase levels of serotonin in our brains, which in turn boosts mood and helps relieve stress. If you ever needed an excuse to go to the beach, now you have it.
     As the moon rose, its reflection on the water grew wide, and the night was bright with it. We soaked up the moonbeams, talking and snacking and, well, just being in the moment, fully present for the most part, while the experience washed over us and took with it most of our consciousness of anything else. We lingered late, and as the tide began to recede, I climbed down the stairs and stood in the surf and wiggled my toes. I don’t remember being any happier without Clint.
     The Creator gave us this incredible gift, this healing force of nature we call the seashore. I call it my church. It’s open 24/7 and absolutely free of charge. There are no restrictions of any kind for admission. You just have to go. It’s as simple as that. Whatever your belief system, your spirit will be fed. If you open your heart to it, you will come away rich in peace and loving kindness, or if you prefer, filled with The Holy Spirit. Others may describe being in touch with the essence of God within. It doesn’t matter what you call it. You don’t have to call it anything. Is simply is.
     Just don’t do what Gretchen and I did. We left our phones in the car, and when we finally packed up to leave, it was almost midnight. The park closes at 10. Whoops. I drove to the gate, knowing we would find it locked. But living on The Island is a lot like living in Mayberry. I simply called the non-emergency police number (which every woman, wherever she lives, should have programmed in her phone), and told the dispatcher we were locked in Massengale Park and needed to be let out. Within minutes a nice officer drove up, opened the gate, and without a word, waved us through. 
     It was those negative ions, I just know it.


© 2016 cj Schlottman

Author's note: If you linked here from Facebook or Twitter and have a thought about this post, please leave a comment here on the blog. I'm in Facebook timeout again, and I won't see your comments there.  








 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hiding in Plain Sight

I don’t know what to say. Yesterday’s massacre in Orlando has me distracted and angry and sad. I didn’t turn on the TV yesterday until nearly 11 o’clock I was stupid enough to keep it on most of the day. I am saturated with the blood of it, the senselessness of it, the utter evil of it. I have stared at Omar Mateen’s face, trying to see the darkness that surely lived behind it, but he looks like a regular person, not a terrorist. That’s the thing. Evil doesn’t necessarily announce itself when it walks in the room. 
I turned on my computer and began searching for sites where I could learn the difference between Islam and Islamic extremism, and my eyes were opened. Why did I wait to long to educate myself? Have I really been slinging the word, sharia, around without actually understanding the meaning of it? 
During the aftermaths of the terror attacks in Paris, California, and other locations around the world and in the US, I was able to distance myself in a healthy way. I was aware of the dreadful circumstances but didn’t allow it to penetrate and overtake my unconscious. I felt pain and sorrow and anger but wasn’t overcome by it.
Is this because I have a gay friend who works for Disney and lives in Orlando? I immediately wondered and worried about him. Thankfully, he posted on FaceBook yesterday that he decided to stay in on Saturday night. He may be safe, but he lost friends and acquaintances in the attack. He may be alive, but he’s not okay. His heart is broken and mine is broken for him. 
I had trouble falling asleep last night. Every time I thought I was settled and ready to center myself for sleep, an unfamiliar restlessness came over me. I felt the need to move my body, turn over or reposition my legs. I finally sat up and started reading, but keeping my mind on the book was next to impossible. My grandmother would have described my state this way: I was as agitated as a worm in hot ashes. I finally resorted to a sleeping pill.
I oversaturated myself with negative energy. That’s what I did, and I don’t understand why I did it. Did I think things would get better if I just waited long enough? There must be a name for that kind of sick attraction to tragedy. I suppose that’s the next topic I should explore on the internet. 
So, when I got up this morning, I vowed not to turn on TV. Instead, I began nesting. I went out on the front porch and watered my maidenhair and foxtail ferns. I dragged the hose up on the porch and watered my ferns in hanging baskets and my Christmas cactuses. Then I went out back to the deck and watered all the plants out there. The hibiscus hasn’t a single flower today, not one. It’s clearly in mourning. I told the orchids everything would be okay, murmured reassurance to the asparagus fern and the pale pink pentas. I even went out in the yard to the shady spot where nothing will grow and spoke to the Irish Moss I planted there out of desperation. I cleaned the grill and stowed it in the store room. The heat index was in the upper 90s, and sweat was pouring off me.
I didn’t care. I came inside and started fooling around in the kitchen. I thought about sharpening my knives so they’ll be ready the next time I’m moved to chop up something, but Gretchen is nesting, too. She was in the middle of mixing up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, so I got out of her way and sat down in the den to cool off. 
Have I really made this about me? I suppose I have. I bruised my soul yesterday, allowed myself to be bombarded with the worst of bad news, and today I just can’t do it. I can’t be part of it. I don’t even want to sign in to FaceBook because it’s too painful.
Doubtless, many bloggers are writing about this horrible thing that happened to all of us. The victims and their families in Orlando are not alone. Millions of people across the world are standing with them, trying to imagine their suffering and offering support and love.
I count myself among them, but for now, I’m offering my support and love from behind the curtain of my little world here on my little island. 
I’ll be out soon. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Zen of Cleaning Crabs

  Since I was a young girl growing up on Saint Simons Island, I’ve been catching and picking blue crabs, the tasty crustaceans with bright blue claws and olive green shells that are plentiful in these waters. Before I was old enough to cook and clean them, my mama taught my three brothers and me how to catch them using a stick and a line. For the uninitiated, you’ll need a “stick” about three feet long. It can be a broom handle sawed in half or a slender board—whatever you have on hand to which you can tie a length of heavy twine. You’ll also need some raw chicken necks or backs. It’s an old wives’ tale that you should let them sit in the sun until they’re smelly. Would YOU like to eat a crab that just ingested spoiled chicken? 
To finish out the equipment list, get ourself a five gallon bucket and a dip net. Tie a piece of chicken to the loose end of the line and, at low tide, find yourself a spot on the beach near a inlet where you can wade out knee deep and stick your pole in the sand. Throw the chicken out into the water—and wait. You may even want to walk back to your chair and pull a cold one out of the cooler. If the crabs are active, you won’t have to wait long. Gently pull the line toward you until you can see the chicken. It there are crabs greedily attacking it, continue to pull it until you can scoop them up in your net. Go slow and you won’t scare them away. They're greedy little monsters, and they'll follow that chicken practically to your feet. 
        There is no greater thrill than watching children catching crabs. Their squeals of feigned fear and pure delight will stay with you forever. Imagine your children or grandchildren, brown as berries from the sun, taking turns wielding the net, scooping up the crabs and running to shore with their catch. And yes, there were the arguments about just whose turn it was to hold the net and just who let a big one get away, but they were happy, so very happy. 
        We had a Boxer named Toma who would wade out, sit down in the water up to her chest, and watch over the kids. Once, when out of the innocent curiosity only a Boxer can have, she stuck her muzzle into a jelly fish and her whole face swelled up like a manatee. I had to take her home and dose her with Benadryl, but she was okay. We were all okay. We were all happy. 
        I got off on a little tangent there, didn't I? So, here's the story I intended to tell in the beginning.
        
  On Monday of this week, Crab Man called from The Village Pier, where he puts in traps nearly every day. (You can’t crab with a stick and a line at the pier.) He wanted to know if I were interested in buying his catch, and I thought about it for a moment and said I did. I refused a bucket about a week before because I didn’t have time to process them, and I’d had a taste for them ever since. It’s a lengthy operation, getting blue crabs from the ocean into a crab cake or some other delicacy, but nothing makes for better eating.
  I parked my truck and, flip-flops slapping at my heels, walked out onto the pier swinging a bright orange Home Depot bucket. I found Crab Man half way down the dock, and when I peered into his catch, I smiled. There, waving their claws and bubbling at their mouths, were 15 big blue beauties. I paid him ten dollars, we exchanged buckets, and I drove home with the air conditioner blowing full blast to keep the crabs cool and alive. I don’t cook dead crabs, and neither should you. 
  I stowed the bucket in a cool corner of the kitchen and hauled out my biggest boiler and set it on the stovetop. When the water was rolling, I sprinkled it liberally with Tony Chachere’s seafood seasoning. (There is no other.) And then I emptied the bucket of crabs into the pot and covered it with the lid. I know, I know. Where’s the Zen in that? It’s not the most pleasant part of the job. They struggle for a few seconds, but I rationalize away any guilt by telling myself death is almost instantaneous. And then there’s the end product—succulent, sweet deliciousness.
  Twenty minutes later, the crabs had turned bright orange and were floating in the water, a sure sign they were done. I dumped them in the sink to cool and cleaned up the splatters of crab water that inevitably spew out of the pot onto the ceramic cooktop. I hate that thing. It’s a pain in my ass every time I have to clean it, and the only reason I have one is that that there’s no gas line on our street, and I’m unwilling to have a tank buried in my back yard. Learning to live without a gas range is the biggest challenge I faced when I bought this wonderful house.
  When the crabs were cool enough to handle, I set about pulling off the claws and depositing them in a bowl. Then I tugged off the backs and broke the skeletons in half in order to clean out the innards. 
  This is when the Zen kicks in. While performing this chore, I can’t think of anything else. I am completely in the moment, concentrating only on removing the long fingerlike gills and rinsing out the spongy goo that is the stomach. I give them a final rinse with the kitchen sprayer and put them in the bowl with the claws. Some people experience a sense of fulfillment when ironing or mowing the grass or shelling a basket of butter beans. For me, there is great satisfaction in the sight of a bowl full of crabs, clean and ready to pick.
        Since the trash man wouldn't be coming for a week, I bagged up all the shells and body parts and stowed them in the freezer until Sunday night. You ain't lived until you've let crab sit in your garbage bin for a week in hot weather. If I were the trash guy, I wouldn't go near it.

  Traditionally in our family, picking crabs has been a joint effort. Everyone gathered around the old card table that Harry almost blew up with his chemistry set. We spread newspaper over it and, and using nut crackers and picks, we all worked together. When we were older, there was beer involved. After Clint and I married, his children and grandchildren became part of the process. Bowls filled with crabmeat quickly, and to a person, everybody in my family has fond memories of those times. No, we were not a family who ate as we picked, dipping the crab in melted butter. Hell, if we had done that, the slow pickers would have been out of luck.
  There’s an art to extracting the meat from a crab carcass, and not everyone is gifted in that way. When my brother John was alive, he sucked at it. Even after he was a grown man, someone always had to pick over his bowl for bits of shell. His wife Lisa, on the other hand, is one of the best pickers I’ve ever known. I’m pretty good at it, too. Once I picked out 36 crabs by myself because everyone else was out fishing with Clint. Then, as now, I didn’t mind and in fact enjoyed the solitude and the Zen of it all. 
  When the picking was over, Mama would make a big dish of crab au gratin or a pot of crab soup—whatever we had enough crab to make. Sometimes we had both.

  Back to Monday. I spread newspaper on the coffee table and gathered my equipment. Vodka was involved. Using the same nut crackers and picks Mama bought half a century ago to shell pecans, I got down to work. I picked out the bodies first, because they’re the hardest. The cartilage that separates the compartments of white lumps of meat is tricky to negotiate. Over time, I’ve developed a feel for them, which is a good thing because these 68 year old eyes ain’t so sharp any more. Some would call it tedious work, but as I’ve already explained, I get lost in it. It takes me completely outside myself.
  If you’re picking crabs by yourself, frequent breaks are necessary. Your fingers get shriveled and a little numb, which can result in sloppy work. Can’t have that. Coincidentally, breaks were necessary about the same time my drink needed a patch. Funny how that works.
  Bodies out of the way, I attacked the claws. Child’s play. Using a dish rag to protect my fingers, I pried them apart. In most cases, the cartilage that separates the big side into two hunks of dark meat came out in one piece. Yes! Then all I had to do was crack the hard shells and remove the contents. 
  Once I was finished and my fingers came back to life, I made two passes at the bowl of sweet goodness to check for shells. Hey, I never said I was perfect. It’s almost impossible to find every tiny piece of shell and cartilage, but it’s important to try, a matter of pride, really. Sloppy picking makes for less than appealing crab cakes.

  A dozen large crabs will render about a pound of meat. If you pack it into a two-cup measure, you can be certain it’s a pound. Good to know because many recipes call for crab by weight. I had a little over a pound, so there was enough to make crab cakes for dinner with enough left over for crab au gratin appetizers (recipe from Bennie’s Red Barn) for the next night. 
  I used a recipe for crab cakes I’d never tried, and to be honest, it wasn’t my best work. Next time I’ll fall back on the tried and true recipe that’s served me well over the years: a pound of crab, a finely chopped onion and a couple of sticks of minced celery, two eggs, a little chopped parsley and some Lea and Perrins (no substitute). After it’s all mixed together, form into small patties and sauté them in a little butter and olive oil over medium heat. Crab is rich, so don’t make them too big. Be patient and don’t try to cook them too fast or turn them too soon. The bottom needs to be brown, not burned, and holding together when you turn them, or you’ll have a mess on your hands. Besides, the onion and celery need time to cook. 

        I hope everyone who reads this post will have a chance to go crabbing the old fashioned way, then get the family together for cooking, cleaning and picking. You'll make wonderful and lasting memories. It makes me feel good in my feelings just thinking about it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman
   






   

 

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Spotless Oven

My oven is spotless, shiny on both sides and in the bottom. The racks are still soaking in my sink, but they will also be spotless before I sleep.
“Why,” you may rightly ask, should you give a tinker’s damn about the state of my oven? It is cheeky of me to assume my oven could ever be of any possible interest to you, but I’m going to tell you anyway. 
Here’s why:  I believe all special occasions should be celebrated with food, preferably something sweet and gooey. So, this afternoon, I set out to bake two lemon meringue pies, my grandmother’s handwritten recipe, which has nothing to do with sweetened, condensed milk, on the counter before me. One pie in honor of my stepdaughter Kristy’s visit, which begins tomorrow, and one in celebration of my friend Melissa’s successful semester in pursuit of her BS in Nursing.
The prep work went swimmingly. I carefully measured out the flour and sugar, zested and squeezed the lemons, poured out a little salt, and cut off two tablespoons of butter, placing each ingredient in its own bowl or ramekin just like on TV. It took me years to learn it’s the only way to ensure a good outcome. I once made a pecan pie and forgot the sugar, so you’ll understand my ramekin fetish. I separated the eggs, employing the wildly popular Natalie Dupree method which involves bare hands. I’ve entertained my granddaughters through the years by allowing them to mess with raw eggs. It’s one of the reasons they love me.
It was time to go to work, so using my 30-something year old Kitchenaid, I beat the egg yolks until they were light and fluffy and added the sugar, flour and salt. I poured the mixture into my favorite sauce pot (also my grandmother’s) and began cooking the custard, stirring constantly, just like she did. 
Satisfaction is making a custard without a double boiler and having it turn out perfect. By the time it was stiff enough to pull off the heat and add the butter, I was sweating like a whore in church despite the countertop fan blowing in my face. I tucked a dish towel into the pocket of my blue and white striped apron to use as a brow mop.
So far, so good. Next I pricked the pie crusts, the only thing about this recipe that isn’t from scratch, and baked them for a few minutes. When they were cool, I spooned custard into each of them and turned back to the Kitchenaid to beat the egg whites and a little sugar into stiff peaks for the meringue. With a great self-congratulatory sigh, I piled it on the pies and made little designs on the top with a spatula before putting them on a baking sheet and into the oven.
After five minutes, I peeked. The pie on the left was browning at a faster rate than the one on the right, so I donned my oven mitts with seashells printed on them, pulled the rack toward me and turned the baking sheet 180 degrees. I slid the rack back into place, only it didn’t slide. It balked, it hesitated, so I gave it a little shove. Mistake, big  mistake. The rack didn’t move a micron, but the baking sheet tilted up and deposited both pies face first into bottom of the oven. 
A lesser woman would have had a come-apart at that point, but not me. I cussed. I cussed the oven and the racks and the baking sheet. I cussed the heat and the sweat pooling in my bra. I cussed just about everything about the miserable turn of affairs, but I didn’t cry. I pulled up a stool and scraped up the sticky mass and shoveled it back into the pie shells. By the time I pulled my head out of the oven, my naturally curly hair looked exactly like Brillo and sweat was running into my eyes and down my back. I started the cleaning cycle and stuck the racks in a sink of hot, soapy water. Then I did what any self-respecting cook would do. I scooped some of the wretched pie into a bowl and ate it. It was delicious. Anyone who tells you they wouldn’t have done the same thing can’t be trusted.
With all of that out of the way, like the true Southern Belle I am, I washed my hands, pulled off my apron, smoothed my gray linen dress and I went into the bar, where I carefully measured out a jigger of Ketel One and poured it over a few ice cubes in a Lismore roly-poly tumbler. I dropped in an olive, picked up a cocktail napkin and took a ladylike swig. I sat the glass down, lifted up the decanter and topped it off, just because I could. 
Tomorrow morning, I’ll have drive to the Winn-Dixie for more pie crusts so I can start the process all over, but for now, I’m lounging on my leather fainting couch in the sunroom, admiring the brilliant red of the hibiscus blooming on the deck and watching hummingbirds zoom in to feed just outside the window.
Life is sweet.


Copyright 2016 cj Schlottman

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Happy Birthday, Clint

Author's note: Please leave your comments on this page. I'm taking a break from Facebook, and I want to know what you think. 
Thanks.


Today would be Clint’s 82nd birthday, and I wish he were here to celebrate. I wish he had stayed healthy and strong and virile, so we could grow old together. I wish we were celebrating at fabulous restaurant, drinking fine wine and holding hands across the table. But he’s not here. It’s only me.
I’m here, in the now. I have my memories, precious and dear, and I hold them in my heart. There is a place in my soul were Clint lives on. We are together in a way impossible in life, I think. There are no misunderstandings, no arguments (which were seldom), no illness and helplessness, no crippling stress. I no longer fear his inevitable death and the emptiness it left in my life. 
When he died, I suffered in such a way my body turned on me. My fibromyalgia was worse than ever, and I never slept through the night without pain. I had a series of autoimmune disorders that began before he died. I had eosinophilic gastritis and was on steroids to control the pain for almost a year. I suffered stress-drive atrial fibrillation six months before he passed away. I was exhausted from trying to hold up the plane, prevent life from taking its course. 
After Clint died, I had an ugly rash called lichen planus. I lost my balance and my memory and was nauseated for two years. I went to work one day and didn’t know what to do. In short, my body and my brain shut down, forcing me to stop, to live in the moment, miserable though it was.
It was four years after losing the love of my life when I began to believe my life could go on, that there was room in my life for happiness if only I would embrace it. That was two and a half years ago, and I was in the throes of Parrish’s severe mental illness. He was in a hospital in Atlanta after his first suicide attempt, and I was wondering what I could do to make life easier for him. 
In the very act of getting outside myself, I made a decision that was good for both of us, and we moved home to Saint Simons Island, my hometown. The first year and a half were rife with the stress of caring for Parrish. So often during that time, life seemed to consist of a series of roadblocks to happiness, but through it all, I became conscious of a sense of being grounded, a feeling I never knew in Macon after Clint died. 
Parrish’s sudden death set me back, and I fell into a deep hole of depression, wondering if I would ever find a way to climb out. His death reactivated my grief for Clint, and I spent months hiding from my losses. I sprinkled Old Spice on their sweaters and wore them around the clock. They wore the same scent, and the smell brought them back to me in a soothing way. I drank too much and didn’t eat right. I rarely slept and binged on Netflix until my vision was blurred. I could not see past my pain.
Then, last fall, I remembered meditation, its centering power, its ability to put me in the moment. But I had to learn all over again. I got out Parrish’s copy of 10% Happier by Dan Harris and read it in one sitting. I bought Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness and followed the instructions and did the exercises in order to refresh my long-neglected practice. 
I began to meditate regularly and include Metta Prayer in my daily life. I set realistic goals, hoping to meditate for only five minutes at first. Some days I meditate for longer, but no matter how much or how little time I spend in the practice, I am more centered in the moment and more capable of letting go of the negatives in my life I can’t change.
I remembered good habits I had let fade into the background and began frequent walks on the beach. Implausibly, I had forgotten the beach was there for me, the place I turned to, as a child and a young woman, for solitude and reflection and healing. In a real way, my walks are a form of meditation. Breathing the salt air alone is comforting.
After years of chronic pain, I am comfortable. I don’t wake in the night with burning pain. My thinking is clear and reasonable, and I feel good about my life. I look to a creative future I once thought impossible. 
Clint would be very happy.