28 December 2009

Bethesda Urban Partnership and Bethesda Magazine!'s Essay and Short Story Contest

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
~ Toni Morrison

Of interest to all writers in DC, Maryland and Virginia. Posted on The Writer's Center in Bethesda's website:

The Bethesda Urban Partnership and Bethesda Magazine's Essay and Short Story Contest. Winners will be honored at the Bethesda Literary Festival, April 16-18, 2010. Deadline to submit is February 26, 2010.

Essay Contest
Topic: What is your approach to life? Reveal your personal philosophy.

Essays should be limited to 500 words or less. Submissions must be sent via email as Microsoft word attachments to essay@bethesda.org. The writer's full name, mailing address, phone number, and email address must be in the email and on the first page of the story itself. Submissions without this information will be disqualified.

Residents of Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia are eligible. The contest will take entries in two categories: Young Adult (grades 9-12) and Adult (ages 18 +). Writers must specify whether they are entering the young adult or the adult contest.
Questions? Please email scoppula@bethesda.org or call 301.215.6660.

Short Story Contest
Topic: Open

Stories must be limited to 4,000 words or less. Submissions must be sent via email as Microsoft word attachments to shortstory@bethesdamagazine.com. The writer's full name, mailing address, phone number, and email address must be in the email and on the first page of the story itself. Submissions without this information will be disqualified.

Residents of Montgomery County, MD and Upper NW Washington, DC only are eligible. The contest will take entries in two categories: Young Adult (grades 9-12) and Adult (ages 18+). Writers must specify whether they are entering the young adult or the adult contest.
Questions? Please email katryn.norman@bethesdamagazine.com or call 301.718.7787 ext 207
For more information, visit www.bethesda.org or http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/

First place: $500 and published short story & Essay in Bethesda Magazine.
Second Place: $250
Third Place: 150
Honorable mention: $75
The first place winner will also receive a gift certificate to The Writer's Center

Each second, third, and honorable mention essay and short story will be published on the Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Urban Partnership Web sites. Up to 10 finalists in each category will be honored during the Bethesda Literary Festival.

Young Adult winners receive: $250, first place; $100, second place; $50, third place. Bethesda Magazine will print the first place essay & short story.

27 November 2009

Sad Songs v. Happy Songs

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
~ Victor Hugo

As I mentioned in my last post, I debuted two new songs on Saturday at my annual St. Cecilia's Arts Festival. I have often been accused by my mother and at least one good friend, that I compose too much melancholic music. Even one of my closest friends and supporters joked after the show: "Wow. Between the Rain is your non-melancholic, happy song!?" I retorted that I had never said is was not melancholic ~ just that it was positive and happy in the sense that it was not about wallowing in one's misery or crying over the lost love. Between the Rain is a take on the theme expressed in songs such as Bless the Broken Road by Rascall Flatts ~ every heart break we go through opens us up to receiving the one we are meant for.

Another friend shot me an email a couple of days later and suggested that I try sitting at the piano when I am in a good mood and something wonderful has just happened and "see what comes out." Sigh. Well, I know these friends love me dearly and also admire and enjoy my music. And I am sure they do not want me to become trapped in my own talent.

But after reading that latest piece of advice, I began thinking [always dangerous!]. And it occurred to me, that as I mentioned in my last post, the artist not only works through his own suffering and brokenness through his art, but also enables the receiver of that art to work through theirs as well. Good art is almost always I would venture to say, universal. The audience should not always be conscious that they are listening in to someone else's story. They should absorb it and think "That is exactly how I feel [or felt]! Only I didn't know how to express it!"

That is not to say that any art that purely introspective cannot also do that, it is just that I believe that part of being an artist is giving the voiceless a medium to shout and sing and cry and basically get in touch with their innermost emotions and brokenness. And this leads me back to my friend's comment about writing "happy songs." Let me hasten to assure you, dear reader, I am not an angsty, grunge-esque artist. I do not wallow in self-pity nor do I uphold suffering for its own sake. But neither do I just compose music that sounds more like it is on Valium than the natural high of life.

I have nothing against so-called "happy music." But I wonder ~ does the audience really need my help processing good emotions? Happy memories? I know, I know! Perhaps they do. But so far, I find that my audience responds more to the music that speaks to their deepest fears, profound sadness and heartaches. And even when I am offering something more positive, there is still an element of the bittersweet. Which is how it should be, I think. However, that is just my opinion and perhaps I do need to break out of my minor key comfort zone.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

23 November 2009

The Sixth Annual St. Cecila's Arts Festival

Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle.
That is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.
~ Albert Camus

This past Saturday was the long awaited, much bally-hooed and always entertaining Sixth Annual St. Cecilia's Arts Festival! [Now you know dear readers, why I have been a bit AWOL lately.] We had performances ranging from Vivaldi's seriously classical Sicut Locutus Est to Monty Python's seriously funny The Beekeeping Interview. Our audience members hailed primarily from the Northern Virginia and DC area, but we had a few who flew in just for the event from Southern California, Kansas, New York City, and Connecticut. Fallen Sparrow and Bernardo and Katie Aparicio from Dappled Things were in attendance as well.

Sullivan was Stage Manager and also performed, reciting an original poem, one by Jonathan Swift and another by U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. Mr. Bob French also showed off his poetic prowess as well, with one original and two poems by Irish poet, Bryan Kennelly. Closely related was Anthony Smitha's enthralling rendition of Shakespeare's ghost monologue from Hamlet.

For classical music enthusiasts, the lovely and lyrical contralto, Imelda Franklin Bogue opened the show with Vivaldi's Sicut Locutus Est from his opera, Magnificat and The Saint Cecilia Players uplifted the audience with Kantori's Rejoice in the Lord Alway and The Virgin's Cradle [as we are getting close to Advent]. In the Broadway musical vein, we were energized by Gregory Grimm's Go Home with Bonnie Jean from Brigadoon and Michelle Jacobeen showed off her vocal range with the comic The Girl in 14G.

Yours truly did not escape the spotlight, but performed two new songs: Ashes and Dust and Between the Rain. I also acted with Sullivan in what has now become a traditional part of the evening: a Monty Python skit. This year, we decided to do the Rowan Atkinson/John Cleese The Beekeeping Interview. I think my character, Mrs. Henrietta Prawnbown, with her frumpy outfit, complete with thrift store hat with netting, was a hit. ;-)

Our Featured Artist this year was Acoustic Stew. I have known Mike Sirotniak, one of the players, for a few years and he has played solo guitar at my house several times, but I had never heard he and Joe play together. They took the stage and the audience's hearts with their incredible fret work and foot-stomping melodies.

In addition to the performing arts, we were very blessed this year to have the art work of none other than the Shrine of the Holy Whapping's Matthew Alderman. I am deeply grateful to him for sending us many of his magnificent drawings. Stay tuned: we will be sponsoring an art show in the DC area Spring 2010 for Matthew.

* * * *
You know, dear readers, I cannot write about an event without talking about the food! We served heavy hors d'ouevres during the intermission. The menu included Asiago Stuffed Dates wrapped in Bacon, Cheddar Sausage Puffs, Blue Cheese and Prosciutto Crostini, Chocolate-Cherry Shortbread Cubes, tipsy Chocolate Truffles [Baileys, Rum and Whisky] and may others, along with red and white wine, mead toddy punch and cranberry punch. Cooking for one hundred and fifty guests over two days is daunting even when you have a consummate crew helping [many thanks to Marlena, Kathy, Amy and Janet for their tireless work], so it is no wonder that tonight I am at home nursing flu-like symptoms. But it is totally worth it!

* * * *
The renewal of culture is a dire necessity. Over in Scotland, Seraphic mused recently that there are a group of people [I hope to heaven they are few in number!] who consider "literature, good grammar, clear speech, education and good architecture. . .as 'posh'." And therefore to be thoroughly rejected and derided. Such an ignorant and misguided rejection of culture is both puzzling and appalling, but it does not ultimately surprise me. Cultural and social philistines abound! Meanwhile, over at Hilliard and Croft, Christina laments that art "according to that [modern] world-view, isn't designed for the masses, it is there to cater to the ego of the artist."

It is appropriate then, that on the same night of St. Cecilia's, Pope Benedict XVI met with over two hundred artists to make the anniversary of John Paull II's Letter to Artists. Papa Benedict asks us "What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation. . . .?"

The answer is Beauty ~ for it can "remind us of our final destiny [and] give us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life." Artists ~ whether our medium is clay, canvas, stage, pen, voice or instrument ~ have a special gift and calling. One that carries with it a great responsibility. It is not just about our egos. We are "the custodians of beauty . . .[we] have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity." Even when we create the art we do as a way to find our way out of suffering or pain, it should never simply end there. It should reach out, break through the walls of another's heart and enable them to find their way out as well.

It is my hope that the St. Cecilia's Arts Festival provides a forum to do just that for the artists who perform and display their work.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

31 October 2009

Music for an Autumn Day

It is the stretched soul that makes music. . . .
~ Eric Hoffer

It is raining and gray outside. The kettle is whistling and the tea leaves are swirling in a dance of calm joy. It is the perfect autumn day and I have the perfect music to go with it. Because yesterday I struck music gold twice!

On my regular Starbucks morning stop before heading to the office, I was getting ready to pay for my Earl Grey Latte, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Glen Hansard. Well, not the real Glen Hansard, but his picture on an album. You may remember him and his singing partner, Marketa Irglova from the hit indie flick, Once [if you haven't seen it, get thee to Netflix right now and add it to your queue ~ you will buy the soundtrack soon after!]

Glen and Marketa have collaborated on a new album: Strict Joy. I immediately snatched it up and took it along with my latte to my desk and spent the rest of the day listening to it over and over while I typed up minutes and proofread and edited reports. None of the tracks have quite the haunting and mesmerizing quality of Falling Slowly or If You Want Me, but the album overall seems a well-thought out effort and both Hansard and Irglova's composing abilities still blow me away.

For instance, Fantasy Man contains the stark and beautiful The story of two lovers / Who danced both edges of the knife ~ a lyric that makes me shiver and wish I had written it! Another favorite is In These Arms with lines like You were restless / I was somewhere less secure. Back Broke is another favorite, with a great melody that weaves in and out, surging in just the right places and pulling you in: I came on your command / Don't give me false hope. Last but possibly the track I played as much Back Broke, is I Have Loved You Wrong for its sheer beauty and the longing ache of a lover who let her beloved go.

Later in the evening, wrapping myself in soft, fuzzy blankets and drinking vanilla chamomile tea mixed with a rather large shot of Maker's Mark to stave off any autumnal virus that might be lurking around, I pulled up my Netflix account and watched Cowboys and Angels which reviewers said was a nice, albeit cheesy, "chick flick". What can I say? I am a romantic and a push over for a good love story.

So there were definitely scenes that had enough cheese to make a pizza. But overall, I loved it! It was well done and the shots of the countryside in Utah were breathtaking. And the love story was beautiful ~ and amazingly for Hollywood ~ clean and closer to reality. But being a musicophile, I was struck most by the soundtrack. I searched everywhere, but could not find one.

However, another fan posted somewhere that he had bought Sasha Lazard's The Myth of Red as the song Angeli is feature in the film. What a voice! Myth is a great album along the lines of Mario Frangoulis or Amici Forever: classical opera mixed with pop ~ a genre I am particularly fond of.

So download these albums, make a cup of tea and relax with Glen, Marketa, and Sasha. It is the perfect day for it.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

24 October 2009

The Taste of Autumn

The autumn leaves
Drift by my window;
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold.
~ Autumn Leaves

woke up Saturday with rain a pounding a steady bluesy rhythm on the shingles. I sighed as I made a pot of Gingerbread Spice tea. Normally I enjoy a good rain. it enhances the coziness of being at home. But this Saturday I had plans to drive out to Delaplane with friends to pick pumpkins and revel in the fiery and golden mountainsides. Now we would have to come up with another way to get our autumn fix. I do not mind walking the fields in a light mist, but a relentless downpour is quite another!

My friends and I decided to spend the morning and early afternoon catching up on errands and what not and then convene at my place around five-thirty for dinner and pumpkin carving. The only requirement was that everyone had to buy their own pumpkins from the store [sigh] and bring a knife. [Mwhahahaha!]

The pumpkin is king of the fall vegetable garden. Its myriad shades of orange and gold and plump, meaty flesh fit right in with the textures and scents of the season: knobbly sweaters and fuzzy blankets; velvety cups of spiked apple cider and steaming bowls of soup. Being versatile vegetable , however, it is not afraid of starring in a custard as well as pie; a soup as well as a fresh-baked loaf of bread. It is a comfortable vegetable.

And one of my favorite comfort foods when evening temperatures suddenly drop is chili. It is economical to make, it is filling and it invites a crowd. And although I usually connect chili with snowy winter days , I recently discovered a recipe that included pumpkins and turkey. Now that combination screams autumn!

To prepare for our pumpkin massacre that evening, I shopped at the Falls Church Farmers' Market and picked up a Fairytale Sugar Pumpkin [they have such an interesting shape and colour!], a few green chilis, and some large, juicy tomatoes. Then I headed to the nearby grocery store to pick up ground turkey and fresh cilantro. Once I arrived back home, I picked the last of our green peppers and set about chopping vegetables and put them in a bowl while the turkey browned.

You will notice that the recipe does not call for juice of any kind: no tomato juice or apple juice or liquid of any kind. I was wondering how this was going to turn out to be chili without it but my fears were unfounded. The ripe, diced tomatoes plus the pureed pumpkin create their own "soup" base. With several dashes of curry and ginger added, and a bowl of sour cream and a plate of freshly grated cheddar on the table, a simple but hearty dinner was ready by the time my friends arrived, pumpkin victims in tow.

Now all that's left to do is dry out the pumpkin seeds and roast them!

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

19 October 2009


Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.
~ Plato

Whether feng shui is real or not, one thing is certain: once I re-arranged my boudoir last weekend, my mood immediately lightened, my soul was inspired and my writing vastly improved. The upside to living with a houseful of women is the opportunity for authentic community and deep friendships. The downside is limited space.

Ideally, one's boudoir should be a sanctuary free of the trappings of the digital age: no phones, no computer. Nothing that whirs, wheezes, beeps or generally makes obnoxious "machiney" noises. However, when space is at a premium and one is an event planner, poet, composer, avid reader, and general social butterfly, the tools necessary for such talents and pastimes must be accommodated. So into my cranberry-coloured sanctuary, I crammed a writing desk, dressing table [where I actually do my correspondence], dresser, stereo, computer, several bookshelves stuffed with the likes of Austen, Lewis, Tolkien, Kreeft and the like and a full size bed. I know, I know ~ I hear designers fainting in horror all over the place. But my dears ~ what else can I do?! Throw out a housemate and take over her room?

It is fascinating how an intimate space can reflect the inhabitants personality or current state of mind. One housemate keeps her room super organized and tidy. No frills and just what she needs in it ~ nothing more, nothing less. It reflects a side of her personality to a tee: pragmatic and efficient and always looking to improve her life and live as simply as possible. Yet, a cozy chair in one corner invites confidences and an attentive ear always ready to listen to the latest tale of woe and heartbreak. Another housemate always seems to have paperwork all over her room and sure enough, she is constantly looking to learn more about herself and life in general and an eagerness to share what she has learned along the journey.

And my room? Ah ~ at once very sanguine and melancholic: definitely a mirror of its bohemian occupant. Perhaps one would deduce a penchant for the romantic and slightly breathless and scattered from the various piles of clothes in different corners [Oh? So you don't try something on and it not fit your mood? I only have so much time in the morning to face the world with grace and awesomeness!] But amidst the ordered chaos I think you can also discern warmth, comfort and an overall invitation to relax and be at peace. A place where beauty and function co-exist. A harbor from which to sail on to the next great adventure. And isn't that what one's room should be after all? Sanctuary.

What does your room say about you?

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

18 October 2009

Ad Libbing Beauty

When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our Redemption, the language of their prayer - free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence - should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church's faith and unity.
~ John Paul II

Sigh. I just do not understand it. I forewent my usual attendance at St. John's Tridentine Mass [my first mistake] today and instead attended a Novus Ordo Mass at a local parish. When the organ began playing What Wondrous Love Is This for the Processional, I thought I was safe and could relax.

But then Father started off the Mass by rambling something that no one knew how to respond to. So we stumbled and hemmed and hawed and finally responded "And also with you?" with a question in our voices. Granted this priest was somewhere in his early to mid-sixities, so perhaps he was stuck in a liturigcal time vortex where the Mass is a form of entertainment and ad libbing and improv is encouraged to "engage" audience "participation." But this invariably turns out awful to the ear and painful to the soul. Half-way through the homily ~ which had some good points, but they were lost in the thicket of rambling ad-libbing ~ I wanted to pull my mantilla off and run groaning out of the church. This was obviously not an option, so I tried praying a prayer of thanksgiving that I was able to attend Mass at all, rambling or not.

And reminding myself to not forego St. John the Beloved again.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

15 October 2009

Love Is Kind

Don’t flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become.
~ Oliver Wendall Holmes

ommon courtesy is not so common anymore. The little polite phrases most of us were taught as children have all but disappeared from our daily conversations and interactions. Why have we stopped being polite to one another? I have addressed this topic before ~ focusing more on courtesy to strangers; now I wish to bring it a little closer to home and discuss proper behaviour towards loved ones.

One would think that such a discussion would not be needed; treating loved ones well seems so obvious. Sadly, such is not the case. Recently, this was brought home to me as I was the recipient on two separate occasions of very wounding and outright rude comments made to me by people I trusted. And while being on this side of the curtain now, I am sure that being a fallen human being, I have likewise said rude and hurtful things to friends and loved ones in the past as well.

Why do we do this? Now, one could posit that I was hurt because the words were spoken by those whose affection and good opinion I desire ~ the heart feels safe in the presence of loved ones and so does not protect itself as it does with strangers. While there is truth to that, in both these cases, the hurtful words I experienced no lady or gentleman would ever speak to anyone, let alone a dear friend or potential girlfriend. They are things that just are not said in polite company. Again, why do we do this? Does familiarity truly breed contempt?

Or perhaps, as Oliver Wendall Holmes points out, we somehow feel justified in “speaking our minds.” Things may be topsy-turvy these days, but I am pretty sure imprudent speech is still a vice and not a virtue. It is one thing to take a loved one aside and caution them about some potentially dangerous behavior [and even then, such ‘fraternal correction’ should be done with love, humility, tact and kindness]. It is quite another to make rude comments about their person, appearance, character and otherwise treat them as a comfortable old shoe. And old shoe you step on and throw into the corner after a long day. We should never be that comfortable with a loved one. If we would never think of saying X to a stranger lest we give offense, how much more careful should we be with the vulnerability of our loved ones, who have trusted us and let us in where no other may enter, save perhaps God.

Society today so abhors formality ~ but formality and courtesy are not the same thing. One can be exceedingly formal and still ride roughshod over everyone’s feelings. A friend once remarked that he was fine with throwing out archaic rules of etiquette as long as new ones were created in their place. Our society did one without doing the other and culture has suffered as a consequence. Courtesy oils the wheels of daily life. It is difficult enough as it is ~ we go about our day battered by bosses, co-workers, and obliviously rude strangers on the train. At the very least, we should expect a little more kindness and warmth from our loved ones.

So the next time you feel the need to “speak honestly” to someone in a way that would be hurtful and pointless, don't.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

08 October 2009

Stopping to Smell the Earl Grey

The atmosphere of home beats almost any other place.
~ Alexandra Stoddard

Sometimes you just need a slow morning. I needed one today. This morning, I woke up in plenty of time to catch the bus downtown, but all of a sudden I did not feel so well. So I called in and told them I would be in later. Then I promptly crawled back beneath the counterpane and snoozed for another solid forty-five minutes. I woke up refreshed and feeling a little better, made myself a cup of Earl Grey with local honey and fresh squeezed lemon juice. It was glorious.

Even better, I was able to indulge in the slower pace without guilt. There was nothing pressing at the office ~ everyone who usually needs me is away at a conference. I brought my little plaid tea cup upstairs to my cozy boudoir with its warm and cheery cranberry walls [don't let anyone tell you you can't paint your bedroom red ~ it is fabulous!], lit a deliciously scented candle and sat down to catch up on my personal coorespondance. When I was ready to head in, I felt better not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well. And it showed as I smiled more readily and greeted strangers I met in the bus, the train and on the street.

Granted not every morning can be spent in such a leisurely fashion. Or can it? Is it possible to excuse oneself from the insanity that passes for living these days? How does one deal with the million and one duties that claim our attention and make a slower lifestyle seem like an unattainable dream? Becuase you and I may be forced by current economics to live somewhere other than a bucolic small town, but that does not mean we cannot live like we do. For the past seven years, I bought into the smoke and mirros lifestyle that is part and parcel of the Washington area. But no more!

So, how do we slow things down? Perhaps it means rising a little earlier than usual [O! Perish the thought!] in order to relax with a cup of tea and your coorespondance. Maybe there is an hour or two in the evenings when you can make an appointment with yourself, close the door and do something creative, or take a bubble bath or read a book of Keats' poetry or do nothing at all! Personally, I am not at my best before nine in the morning. But after nine-thirty in the evening, I light a couple of candles, put Pandora on either my Josh Groban or Frank Sinatra station and read, write letters, work on poetry or a new song. I am always amazed at the energy and healing that takes place when you just slow things down to a more normal speed.

Because I assure you, my dear readers, that the current pace we are living cannot be sustained without some insanity creeping in. It is not normal and it is not healthy. And it does not have to be that way ~ no matter where we live.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

27 September 2009

Auditions Announced: St.Cecilia's Arts Festival

"Piano Jazz" by Brent Heighton

The St. Cecilia Group announces auditions for

The Sixth Annual St. Cecilia’s Arts Festival

Saturday, October 3rd from 10am - 1pm


Wednesday, October 7th from 7pm to 9pm


Show will perform Saturday, 21 November 2009 at the Lyceum at St. Mary’s in Old Towne Alexandria. Musicians and Singers: Please prepare 32 bars of the piece you will be performing and bring accompaniment on CD if needed. Actors and Poets: Please prepare 16 lines from poem or monologue you intend to perform.

To schedule an audition, please contact Mikaela D’Eigh, Artistic Director at mdeigh (at) gmail (dot) com.

06 August 2009

Summer Harvest

Earth here is so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest. ~ Douglas William Jerrold

It enveloped me as I climbed out of the car on Friday evening, road-weary and exhausted. Tired as I was, I could not fail to appreciate such a glorious summer night: warm, soft and sweet. Slowly, I drew in a deep breath and was immediately intoxicated by the scent of fresh mown fields, gently waving maples and pines and an unknown flower. As I closed my eyes and tilted my face towards the clear night sky, the few cars on the road could not drown out the nearby crickets’ song or the warbling harmony of frogs on a distant pond. I opened my eyes again to the welcoming wink of dozens of lightening bugs and the road-weariness slipped away as I headed towards the back door of my childhood home.

It felt good to be back. More than good ~ it was soul-satisfying. Circumstances at work and at home had kept me away since mid May, but I had finally managed to make it down. This trip was particularly bittersweet as I was bidding farewell to a dear family friend who is being deployed to Afghanistan in a few weeks.

On Saturday, I headed out to perhaps my third favorite spot on earth: Westmoreland Berry Farm. Once again, it did not disappoint me. Blackberry season is still going strong and the bushes were encrusted with large, dark gems the size of a small Roma tomato. It was hot and humid and I made the mistake of leaving the house a little late. Needless to say, by the time I finished filling my fourth seven pound bucket, the sun was directly above me, I was exceedingly tanned and feeling the tiniest bit grumpy from lack of hydration.

But it was worth it. The satisfaction that comes from picking the fruit oneself, in the midday heat, dodging June bugs and stepping gingerly around honey bees and having the most interesting conversation with a gorgeous snake doctor [i.e. dragon fly] ~ who I swear listened intelligently to my every word ~ made the pricked fingers, scratched arms and humidity-drenched skin a relatively cheap price to pay. And once I pop those same blackberries into a heavenly cobbler, the discomfort of a few hours will be forgotten with one bite.

The raspberries I picked are another matter entirely. Have you ever picked raspberries? I had not until Saturday and I told the girl at the country store where I paid for my berries, that I now had a great appreciation for raspberries. Next time you think that $4.99 a pint is too much to pay for raspberries, think of this. Not only are they small and a pain in the backside to pick, one must also battle bumble bees! Thousands of them! All noisily climbing in and out of tiny flowers on the raspberry bushes. I guessed correctly that the best time to pick raspberries was at six-thirty in the morning before the bees are awake and alert.

My berry-picking adventure this summer was not merely one of getting delightfully entangled in the arms of nature or returning to the slow rhythm of the country pace. I also learned something as I worked my solitary way down the rows. The juiciest, largest and ripest berries were almost always hidden underneath the largest clump of leaves and more often than not, on the prickliest branches. If I walked by too quickly, I missed them. Life and love are like that I think: if we hurry by, focused solely on our work or our daily, mundane duties, we miss out on the best and most beautiful moments and people. And be honest ~ what really is your hurry? The work will still be there; the meeting will go one without you; the world will not collapse if you do not get to the pile of laundry today. But someone may need a word of encouragement, a hug of sympathy, a listening ear or just a simple smile. What an incredible relationship you would miss out on by walking by! This week, reschedule that meeting, ignore the laundry and get out and enjoy nature and your community.

And then stop by for some cobbler.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

17 July 2009

The Bear Climbed Over the Mountain: Final

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in their way.
~ William Blake

We spent more time climbing over boulders the size of small elephants, taking pictures and “drinking it in with our spirit.” Then we turned around and climbed back up and made our way to the trail.

The trees in Swallow Falls Park are royalty. The majority are hemlock and white pine and most are over three hundred years old. The branches of the hemlock resemble lace ~ feathery and delicate. Touching the trunk of one such hemlock, I closed my eyes and was instantly standing in a virgin forest on the brink of discovery, the sound of both pioneer and moccasined feet approaching in the distance. I opened them again and almost wept in disappointment over being stuck in the twenty-first century.

I enjoy the convenience of hot showers, electricity and the ability to speak to loved ones miles away in an instance. But modern man is lacking. He has lost touch with his soul and a sense of the Divine. With that goes his respect for the beauty of creation and the duty to preserve it for the next generation. Thankfully, no all are lost and so we have state and national parks, which are preserved from the plundering of fool and knaves.

The sheer magnitude of the boulders jutting out over the trail continued to astound me. Some appeared to balance by an invisible thread, while others looked like giants had played a game of dominos. They exuded an unearthly quality. I was reminded of the standing stones of Avebury. Oh, to step into the Tardis and be there when they first broke off and fell to their current, moss-covered resting places!

We had not gone more than a few paces, when we veered off the trail again ~ this time to make our way over the rocky giants in the middle of the Youghigheny River. While Ames, Aurelius and Jeanette alternately skipped stones and threw basketball-sized rocks into the river, Marly and I lay on a flat rock smack dab in the middle and watched tiny whirlpools form and disintegrate around us. The science of it eluded us, but we remained there transfixed, laughing like children as we stuck our hands into the miniature vortex.

Everywhere, besides the rhododendrons, were mounds of lush green moss. It was detailed and felt rather stiff, unlike other types of moss I have encountered. It looked almost like a pine tree branch in miniature. The feeling of timelessness continued to envelope me as we hiked up the Youghigheny River. I wanted nothing more than to stay alongside her banks, exploring every nook and cranny. But around about then, yours truly began wishing she had packed at least one protein bar.

I was not a Brownie/Girl Scout long enough to learn the mantra of always “be prepared.” We had enjoyed a substantial lunch (Marly prepared her famous stuffed sandwiches) and had not thought I would be hungry again. But none of us had counted on being enmeshed in the beauty of our surroundings to the extent that it was now fast approaching supper time. However, I had not come all this way to let a little hypo-ness cut short our hike. There were still more falls to see. So on we trekked.

Swallow Falls was a little less exciting than Muddy Creek ~ but I will allow that I was really hungry by then and although I had voted to complete the rest of the loop, I no longer lingered. The amount of more scantily clad people doing belly-flops may have also had something to do with my reluctance to linger and gaze at the falls. There is a place for everything, including belly-flops. But here in this magnificent place, it just seemed just a little. . .crass.

And then we arrived at the last set of falls ~ Tolliver Falls. When we started at Muddy Creek, and I found out that they were tallest falls in Maryland, I wished we had began the trail from the other end ~ so as to build up to seeing the more majestic falls. But somehow, coming up Tolliver Falls at the end was the perfect ending. There was no one else around; the falls were tiny and the pool tranquil. I plucked a rhododendron leaf and placed it in the pool as an offering to Titania or perhaps the descendants of Galadriel. Adding to the air of mystery, was the distinct sound of music. It seemed to come from both far away and somewhere deep within the earth. We stood mesmerized and curious as we watched the water spill over ancient rocks and decaying logs, the spaces between giving back melodic sounds. Who was it that said music is the space between the notes??

Three days is just not enough time to take all the beauty that Garrett County has to offer and we are already planning a return trip either in the Fall [the colour there must be eye-popping] or in February [which is their busy season]. I cannot wait.

Titania and Galadriel and their subjects are waiting for me.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

15 July 2009

The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Part Two

The bigger stones give it character. The rock is what makes this waterfall.
~ Paul Collins

he whole reason we ended up in Deep Creek Lake to begin with was because a few years ago I came across a magazine article about the waterfalls in Garrett County. I had long since forgotten the magazine and the county name, but I knew it was somewhere in the far western part of Maryland. Thank goodness for Google!

So, now the love story [I told you I fell in love with a park]. Friday, we lazed around quite a bit (after a couple of us got our morning jogs and planks in) and then headed off to Swallow Falls State Park.

I love waterfalls. Granted, I have not seen many of them to date, but I certainly love the idea of them. There is something timeless, powerful and romantic ~ in the Byronic sense, not the tingly-luhv sense ~ about waterfalls that has always fascinated me. And now I was going to experience them up close and personal.

The map said that the trail began just past Muddy Creek Falls, so we headed in that direction. The Muddy Creek Falls are the tallest (measuring fifty-three feet) in the state of Maryland. It is the most incredible feeling, to stand on top of the falls, no more than a few feet from the edge and look down into the spray of icy cold whiteness as it pounds the rocks below. No fences. No guardrails. Just nature ~ unbound and unveiled. There is nothing lovelier.

Garrett County receives more snow fall than Fairbanks, Alaska, so I can only imagine Muddy Creek turns into a roaring Mr. Hyde of itself when the snow melts. When we were there, however, we saw only little pools etched into the smooth, flat stone at the top that told us the water level is usually much higher. I do not know how long our party stayed on top of Muddy Creek ~ time seemed to be in slow motion and there was just you, and the Falls and the moss-covered banks and an endless sapphire-blue sky. All I can say is God is an amazing artist and I gave myself over to embracing this particular canvas.

My fellow travelers and I took our shoes and socks off and stepped into water. Whew! Ice. Cold. And I mean ice. It felt wonderful. What struck me most was the power. You know the old cliché: still waters run deep. Well, these waters were not still. And where I was standing, it was not very deep. But the immense power of the current whipped my breath away. If it were deeper, it would have swept me along and over the edge. But even so, I felt profound respect and caution for the invisible power coursing over my ankles.

I did not want to leave; if we had spent our entire weekend just at the top of Muddy Creek Falls, I would have been content. (If I ever get married, I want to honeymoon there; yes, it is THAT awesome.) However, there was still a mile of trail to hike and three more falls to see, so we made our way down to the bottom of Muddy Creek. And promptly took a detour.

The bottom of the Falls is difficult to describe. I suppose it is technically part of the river bed. But it is completely made up of huge boulders. The Falls end in a small but deep pool surrounded by medium to large rocks. Several local teenagers use it as their watering hole ~ several, rather scantily clad ones were diving off the bottom-most rock shelf of the falls. It was the only blot on the landscape while we were there.

We made our way carefully over the boulders and down towards the very bottom of the river, where it forked and joined the Youghigeny River. The entire left bank of the river was covered with rhododendrons. I had never seen so many rhoadies in one spot and I certainly did not know they grew wild. You can take the Bahamas and any number of resorts: this is Paradise.

To be continued. . . . .

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

14 July 2009

The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Part One

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.
~ John Muir

ever has a truer word been spoken. And to think Muir penned those words in the 1800s ~ certainly not a time we in the twenty-first century think of as being “nerve-shaken.” Ahhh, yes ~ some things never change, do they?

As regular readers know, a small group of friends and I vacation together every year. In 2007 we stayed on the coast of New Hampshire, eating lobstah and wading in the ice-cold ocean. 2008 saw us in a cabin in West Virginia, which touts itself as being “almost heaven” and I would definitely concur. This year, we decided to stay local again, but went a little farther north. And I fell madly in love. With a park.

More on that later. We arrived while it was still daylight on Thursday. We were staying in a rental cabin this time (no house sound system, alas), and while it was comfortable and cozy, we hardly saw it the four days we were there. There was ust too much to do and see ~ and we did not see nearly as much if we had stayed more than four days.
After dumping our bags off, we trolled into the little town of Deep Creek for dinner. Somewhere, someone had read that the Black Bear Tavern was a good place to eat.

Wherever that was written and whoever wrote it must have had no tastebuds.

Ok, fine. I admit it ~ I am foodie. I have champagne taste and an imported beer budget. I use local, fresh Blue Ridge Dairy butter to cook my local, organic filet mignons. I have friends from New York City bring me a pound of Bayley Hazen blue cheese from Jasper Hills Farms whenever they come to visit, because regular blue cheese just isn’t the same. I am a foodie ~ hear me cook and relish!

I ordered a crab cake. It is Maryland, right? Maryland is known for its crab cakes. I should have had a clue when I asked the waitress if the fresh-water fish on their menu had been caught in the 3900 acre Deep Creek Lake and she said they flew their fish in. I ordered the crab cake anyway. I figured even though we were in the mountains, it was still Maryland and that meant it did not have too far to fly.

The crab cake wept. It practically apologized to me for its sorry demeanor. I looked around at my fellow table-mates and all were having a similar experience with their dinners: uber salty and mediocre. There was much ego stroking as one by one they expressed their anticipation of dinner on Friday as I would be cooking. Did I ever tell you musicians need love? Well, they do and so do cooks. ;-) We live in fear that someone will not eat our creations! I do not think this cook was living in fear ~ I think they had stopped living altogether. All I can say about Black Bear Tavern is: WT heaven. And no, I am not going to spell that out for you, dear reader.

Tomorrow: pictures and more thoughts on the trip.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

05 July 2009

A Frozen Fourth

Gazing on beautiful things acts on my soul,
which thirsts for heavenly light.
~ Michelangelo

While most people were planning how many hamburgers and hot dogs to grill and where to watch the fireworks this weekend, I was involved in two distinct, but related endeavors: getting together with my St. Cecilia Group Board of Directors on Saturday and shopping and cooking for an arts dinner on Sunday.

The Board meeting went quite well and several key decisions were arrived at ~ mainly related to the logistics for this year’s annual Arts Festival on November 21. More to come in the following months, so watch here for updates and announcements!

Sunday, I hosted a dinner to introduce some of my artsy friends to the Foundation for the Sacred Arts and the director, Ann Marra. The Foundation supports and encourages new artists who compose, paint or sculpt new liturgical art. Guests in attendance were Imelda Franklin Bogue, Richard Rice, Ligori and Mary Catherine Levri.

I kept the menu light ~ perfect for the Fourth of July weekend weather:

Prosciutto wrapped melon slices
Northern Virginia Gazpacho
served with French bread
Local seasonal greens and Jasper Hills Bayley Hazen salad,
with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette
Organic chicken, sautéed in a
Vermont Creamery butter, lemon, basil & white port sauce.
Served with seasonal vegetables and garlic whipped potatoes
Lemon and Basil Ice Cream

Lemon and Basil ice cream? Oh yes, dear reader ~ do not knock it until you try it! That quart of homemade goodness did not last in the freezer. It actually disappeared before the lemon ice cream. I decided to make ice cream for dessert as it was the quintessential American sweet, but being a creative foodie I could not serve plain old vanilla or chocolate. Our basil crop this year is phenomenal and since I was already making a lemon and basil sauce for the chicken, I searched Epicurious for a good recipe for both types of ice cream.

Whatever you do, do not boil the custard too long ~ it will curdle and that is not a pretty sight! Not to mention you will get less custard to freeze into ice cream. The lemon custard came out like a dream ~ smooth, rich and oh, so lemony! I was sure I had ruined the basil custard and was practically ready to pitch it out and start over again. But I kept straining it and the aroma was out of this world. So I decided to make a batch and see how it turned out. It raised some eyebrows, but as I said, it was the first to go.

The other edible highlight of the evening was Jasper Hills Bayley Hazen. Ligori brought me a pound of this heavenly blue cheese from New York. The dairy cows at Jasper Hills Farm listen to classical and jazz music during the winter months. I do not know the science behind this practice, but I am here to say that it works! The Bayley Hazen is the smoothest, richest, creamiest blue I have ever tasted. Alas! They have corrupted my taste buds ~ they refuse to let any other blue pass my lips! Thank goodness for foodie friends up north. You can only buy Jasper Hills Farm cheese in New York City at one or two markets. I am going to make this one last as long as I can!

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

26 June 2009

Little Green Children

I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from and Old Manse

ate was right. The feeling that overtakes one when you go out to check on the garden and to give all one’s little green children a nice long soaking drink. You train a light, caressing shower over each verdant row, telling yourself that soon, soon there will be flowers and then fruit, but not yet. Patience. Patience. And then to spy tiny fruit!! Ecstasy!!

Such was my joy last evening. I was chatting with a neighbor, with whom we enjoy a wee bit of friendly garden competition. I had not been able to visit the garden in the last four days or so (never fear, there has been so much rain here, we need to start designing an ark!) and I was already pleased as punch to see how lovely and green and robust everything was. But I was not expecting our tomato plants, in all their bushy glory, to have any fruit yet. But low and behold, there they were, tucked away beneath lush, protective leaves. Still so young and tender, they were still fuzzy. Ahhh!

There really is nothing quite like standing over one’s garden and breathing in the odour of “green.” And in this Nate is also correct: it is "a love nobody could share. . .who had never taken part in the process of creation.” I am sure if anyone had chanced by at that moment, they would have thought me quite a loon, standing in breathless rapture, clapping my hands excitedly over the voluptuous basil plants, cooing at the tomatoes and praising the green beans.

But I shall have the last laugh over dinner. ;-)

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

17 June 2009

The Human Connection: Unplugged

How we treasure ~ and admire ~ the people who acknowledge us!
~ Julie Morgenstern

hen one takes public transportation on a regular basis, one begins to notice a strange phenomenon: roughly 99.9% of one’s fellow passengers have wires growing out of their heads. As a staunch Doctor Who fan, visions of Cybermen spring into the imagination. On more than one occasion, I have found myself being slightly annoyed with those whose MP3 players (which are attached to said wires) have been turned up so loud that I can hear a distinct yet still vague beat ~ but no melody and no words. When one is trying to catch a snooze between stations, this is highly bothersome. But there is more here than meets the ear.

One of the cardinal (and unspoken) rules of riding the metro is to never make eye contact and heaven forbid don’t speak to anyone either! But even though these rules are understood by all, there is a level of non-verbal communication that still exists; some semblance of connection remains.

Put the headphones on and this tenuous thread is broken. How does one connect with someone who not only truly cannot hear you, but who is a million miles away in thought?! Plugging one’s ear with headphones seems as anti-social as plugging one’s ears with one’s fingers. I should know ~ I tried it today. Everyone else was doing it, why not me? An added incentive was a new pair of headphones and a replacement USB jack for my iPod Shuffle. (I misplaced the original docking station ~ it is lost in the Black Hole of my room for another three years I am sure!)

Everyone knows how much I adore music ~ it is more then the air I breathe. I could not live without it. But saying “Good morning” to the bus driver with an echo in my ear and keeping my eyes averted the whole commute (as is proper, you know!) I felt strangely disconnected from my surroundings. I wondered: “Is this how those other 99% feel too?” But then why continue to plug one’s ears and consequently one’s mind? Perhaps they have just become accustomed to the disconnection. Or perhaps they are already disconnected from themselves and their surroundings in other areas of their life, so this one does not strike them as odd. Or yet again, maybe they enjoy being slightly removed from the situation at hand. Now, I am not saying that exude effervescent sanguinity on either my morning (are you serious!?) or my evening (I once missed my stop because I was so exhausted I fell asleep!) commute. And there were days in the recent past when I wished with the fervency of a Ralphie Parker that I had my iPod with me to drown out the obnoxious Valley Girl conversations surrounding me. (What is it with that?! Where is Henry Higgins when you need him!?)

Now I am not so sure. For all the annoying noises or hair-pulling conversations, there is something to be said for staying connected, being aware of one’s surroundings and acknowledging one’s fellow travelers.
Otherwise, we become just big machines plugged into smaller ones.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

05 June 2009

. . .and Pretty Maids All in a Row

One of the most delightful things about a garden is the anticipation it provides.
~ W.E. Johns, The Passing Show

gardener is an optimist by nature. One has to be, or one would never plant another garden! This would certainly be true in my case. Last year I had a beautiful crop of tomatoes ~ each plant dripping with emerald fruit. I looked forward to frying some of the green ones and leaving the rest to ripen. In two days ~ 2 DAYS! ~ all gone. Stripped by those nasty little rats with bushy tails. I still have not figured out whether they were tree squirrels or ground squirrels.

But I did not let last year’s tragic loss deter me this year. As I mentioned on Tuesday, eight tomato plants went in on Memorial Day, along with five green peppers and several seeds: sugar snaps, radishes, arugula, swiss chard and three rows of beans ~ this after we said no more beans ~ three rows really is not enough for me to use for a dinner party. I knew the sugar snaps went in very late and will probably not grow, but I figured we had nothing to lose.

In addition to the vegetables, we put in at least six or eight basil plants. Basil is the crown jewel of the kitchen garden ~ rosemary comes a close second in terms of flavor and versatility. But basil is king. We had a little trouble with our basil plants last year as well ~ a tad wilted, very few leaves and stunted height. I am still not sure why. Other gardeners I talked to either had a huge crop of healthy basil or had the same experience I did, but neither group had answers.

So instead of bushels of basil being ground into oodles of pesto, I had to make do with spinach ~ which by the way, makes an excellent pesto too. This year, however, I am holding out hope (and organic fertilizer) that my basil will be better. And I have even more incentive this year. I have discovered a grilled chicken sandwich with fresh basil that will drive your taste buds batty.

The original is at Vie de France bakery ~ which unfortunately for me is located a short walk from my office ~ and consists of thin grilled deli chicken, mozzarella, fresh basil, and a smattering of pesto, all crushed between two slices of ciabatta bread. After having it for lunch three days in a row and turning my coworker into a fan as well, she suggested I come up with a version to bring in. So without further ado, here it is:

French Bread
Blue Dairy Mozzarella (or your own local dairy), sliced into thin rounds
1 beefsteak tomato, sliced
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin and sautéed in 1 T butter
Fresh basil leaves
1 Clove of Garlic
1 Cup of fresh Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano
½ Cup of walnuts (you can also substitute pecans or pine nuts)
Olive oil
Various herbs

If you are pressed for time, you can buy chicken already cooked, but I like to season my own. The same goes for the bread ~ there are several great bakeries in the area and Colin Cowie says that if someone else can make it better then you can, let them. ;-) I find bread making quite relaxing, however, so I make my own when I have an “at home” day. It is better if you let the chicken marinate in the herbs and olive oil overnight. Same could probably said of pesto, but I like mine fresh out of the processor.

What is that, you say? You have never made fresh pesto?! And it is too difficult?! Fie! That is no way for a foodie to talk! Now, go pick some basil (or trot along to your local farmer’s market tomorrow morning and buy some) ~ don’t worry about chopping it, the processor will do it for you. Put a bunch of it in, drizzle a goodly amount of olive oil (no I am NOT going to tell you how much, eyeball it) add some walnuts to taste, a pinch of salt, about ½ c of shredded parmesan or pecorino-Romano and 1 clove of garlic. Do not make the mistake of adding more than 1 clove. I love garlic and thought adding more would be a good thing. Alas, not so. And basil is a terrible thing to waste. If it seems a little dry, keeping adding olive oil until the pesto is a thick paste. Just the thought of it makes me want to break out into song.

Spread some of the fresh, homemade pesto onto the bread, layer the chicken, mozzarella and tomato and finish with a few whole basil leaves on top. I made this for dinner last night (minus the pesto) and almost died in basil ecstasy! Serve with a nice tall glass of sweet tea and your guests will think you are a culinary genius!

Here’s to a successful summer of gardening and cooking!

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

02 June 2009

With Silver Bells and Cockle Shells...and Wrens?

The best gardening books should be written by those...
who still feel awe at the miracle which follows
the setting of a geranium cutting in its appointed loam.
~ Beverley Nichols

La Belle's Garden went in on Memorial Day. Glorious! And already, the radishes have sprouted, along with one row of swiss chard, arugula and three rows of green beans. The sugar snaps have yet to put in an appearance, but hope springs eternal. It must. The sage is practically the overlord, rosemary his queen and Prince Oregano holding his own between them. However, with eight healthy and viral tomatoes growing like weeds on the other end, we shall see where the balance of power ends up. ;)

Forced abed the past two days with a very inconvenient case of strep, I managed to stumble out of bed this evening and visit the garden and give it a good shower. And lo, I had a visitor. The most curious and brave little bird I have seen in many years. He kept walking a little closer on his tiny little bird legs, then he would cock an eye and peer at me, and then fly to the other side of the yard and sit on top of the fence peering at me some more. I am not sure what he thought of me, but I think he liked the fact that I was wetting the dirt and driving out some worms. At least I hope so. I did tell him he could eat any bugs he found, just no seeds.

He looked sort of like this little guy:

Although he was a little more bluish-grey on top of his head. My neighbor thought I was out of my mind, chirping and talking to my tiny visitor. But said he would only get really worried if the bird began answering me. Why, that would be like living in the Wind in the Willows ~ how marvelous!

Alas, my wee friend flew away after I admonished him about eating any seeds. I think he was either offended, or very sly and just waited until I put away my watering accoutrements and came inside. I do hope he returns. He was very friendly sort of chap and quiet. Just the sort one likes to have with one while puttering in one's garden. ;-)

Oremus pro invicem,


27 May 2009

New Farmer's Market in Fairfax, VA

The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

For those of you in the Washington, D.C. area, another Farmer's Market is set to open in Fairfax County this weekend. As my readers know, I am a big fan of buying and eating fresh and local. An article in the Washington Post today says it best: ". . . there are four seasons and that until the advent of global trade, there were only certain times of the year when you could find, or at least afford, a juicy tomato."

Amen, brother! And anyone who has ever tasted a tomato fresh from the garden knows exactly what he is missing in the cold winter months when he is surrounded by nothing by monster tomatoes or hydroponic nonsense that passes for tomatoes.

In other green news, the garden is planted! More on that next time I post.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

22 May 2009

"How Does Your Garden Grow?"

Life is full of beauty. Notice it….
Live your life to the fullest
and fight for your dreams.
~ Ashley Smith

t has been entirely too long since I wrote to you, my dears. Not that I have stopped writing of course. Only that other duties have stolen my time and attention. The stereotype of the starving artist is all too true, I fear. So when one is offered a stable job in a time of great instability, one must take it ~ even if it does not make you spring out of bed in the morning and sprint to work. But then I was never that type of a morning person anyway. . . .

This morning, however, was my kind of morning. If only it were Saturday, then I could have spent as my being ached to. Temperatures are just reaching seventy-five and there is a pleasant breeze that counteracts the sun’s touch. A day best spent in the country amid blue birds and fruit trees and a tall glass of sweet tea.

Alas, I am chained to concrete and steel.

Tomorrow, however, I hope to work in the garden. My housemates and I are very late this year. Life has a way of exploding at the most inconvenient times and so our little patch is a battleground upon which the weeds seem to be winning against last year’s hardy sage, oregano and rosemary. I believe that my one roommate is feeling a tad discouraged over the loss of our tomatoes last summer ~ the rats with bushy tails carried every last one off and we could only shake our fist at the trees.

Gardening is difficult, back-breaking work. And more often than not, the fruit of your labors is non-existent. But something about getting your hands dirty; feeling the earth yield to the spade; inhaling the scent of dirt and heat and spray and plant perfume; watching the green shoots poke their little heads up and reach for the sun. The soul is fed, if not the body and memories are made that last a lifetime.

As many of you know, I grew up in the country. Just five acres but those five acres were my world. For several years, at least two to three of those acres were covered with vegetables: zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, sugar snaps, green beans, black beans, peanuts, squash, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers and of course, okra. I think we even grew watermelon one year. Some of my most cherished memories are those lazy summer days spent between the rows, squishing my toes in the soft mud, cooled by droplets from the old sprinkler, picking sugar snaps and eating them pod and all.

Something inside of me aches for the ease and innocence of those times. The ache becomes almost unbearable this time of year and on days like today. Perhaps that is why I garden.

To remember.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

25 April 2009

In a Manner of Speaking

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.
~ Emily Post

utting down on as much carbon emissions and gasoline usage as possible by taking public transportation as often as you can is something I advocate but had not until recently been able to do. Happily, a recent job change enabled me to leave my car at home and take the metro every day. I discovered that in addition to saving me time, gas and money, the switch also: 1) provides me with some much needed “think” time in the morning and evening; 2) greatly reduced my road rage; 3) potentially saves lives and limbs as I no longer wonder what happened in between leaving work and getting home, so engrossed in my thoughts I usually am; and 4) enables me to people watch. And let me tell you, colour matters! ;-)

Don't believe me? Take a ride on the Orange Line during rush hour ~ either in the morning or in the evening. Then take a ride on the Blue Line the next day at the same times. I have been doing this for five weeks straight now and I have noticed a marked difference between the manners of Orange Line riders and Blue Line riders. If you are so unfortunate as to be stuck on the Orange Line, make sure you get up and wiggle your way to the door AT LEAST two to three stops before you need to get off. Noone moves out of the way for passengers getting off at a stop on the Orange Line. And if you dare to clear your throat, or murmur a polite “Excuse me”, you get everything from out right glares to blank looks. But no movement.

My road rage may be gone but not my exasperation with stupidity and down right rudeness.

Riders on the Blue Line, however, are much more accommodating; some will even step off the train to let others off, before getting back on themselves. And I have observed this when riding in either direction ~ into the city or out of it. Now, grant you, the Orange Line does have more passengers on it, generally speaking. But that does not explain the attitudes of the people. Blue Line riders are just as tired after a long day, but they still smile and move out of the way. Even when they are packed in tightly during rush hour.

And as long as we are keeping score on rider manners, Blue Line riders are three times more likely to give up their seats for someone older or disabled. I have witnessed this myself. I have yet to see it happen on the Orange Line. But I will allow that I am not on the Orange Line all the time. In fact, I tend to wait an extra four minutes just to ride the more mannerly Blue Line.

So to all your Orange Line riders out there: take a moment and kindly let your fellow passengers through to their stop.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

03 April 2009

Caesar is rolling over in his grave!

What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

his past Wednesday a friend and I went to hear Mariza in concert for the second time in two months. At this rate, we will earn the title of fado groupies for sure! As anyone who has ever heard Mariza sing live, she delivers an incredibly moving and passionate performance every time.

Alas, I wish I could say the same for our pre-concert dinner. Neither of us had given much thought to where we were going to eat. The University of Richmond (where the concert was held) has a beautiful campus surrounded by large estates, ponds, lush green hills…and little else. We decided to play Russian roulette with his iPhone and found a little Italian place called Azzuro’s which touted itself as the “best Italian restaurant in the Richmond area.”

This may indeed be true, but I will reserve judgment until I have sampled some other Italian restaurants down in James River country. If it is true, it is a sad day for Richmond residents. To start, they brought us bread that I am certain was purchased from a grocery store three to four days ago: dry, flavorless and utterly unremarkable. I think sandpaper would have been a better choice.

For our first course, I chose the Creamy Avocado Crab Salad and my friend ordered the Oven Baked Scallops in Gorgonzola Cream Sauce. I was curious to taste the scallops as I myself have never baked them before. To give the chef his due, they were not unpalatable, but the scallops were a little over done and all I tasted was the gorgonzola cheese. I may end up trying a spoonful of gorgonzola with mine, but no oven baking. Scallops are delicate little creatures and generally like a short hot butter bath ~ five minutes maximum.

When I took a forkful of my crab salad I wondered aloud what the poor thing had ever done to the chef to warrant such crass torture. Its own mother would not have recognized it, drowning in a pool of mayo like some cheap chicken of the sea! Red onion had been added for colour, but it overpowered any other flavor, including the avocado, so that the battle for my taste buds and culinary respect was lost in one bite.

One would think this was torture enough, but no. We had already ordered our entrees and it was too late to turn back now. Yellow fin tuna for my dining companion and a chicken dish with artichokes for me.

Honestly, I do not think I have ever had a worse dish in my entire life (not including my mother’s chicken livers). I almost asked to the see the chef. Again, there was no sense of balance or respect for flavors and texture. Tomatoes and mozzarella covered the chicken in a red and white oozing mass ~ it looked more like a crime scene than dinner. And not an artichoke could be found in that swamp. None. A few mushrooms lurked about, but other than that…..whew. My friend did not finish his entree either. We literally could not eat another bite, our foodie sensibilities were in such shock. Dessert was unthinkable at that point. We just wanted to run far away!

The wine we each had was quite good, however ~ mine was a smooth shiraz that practically danced a pirouette on my tongue. But as my friend pointed out, the chef had not made the wine!

Mariza made it all better, of course. But just a word of caution ~ when in Richmond, avoid Azzuro’s and do some foodie research!
Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

25 February 2009

Lenten Leavings

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
~ Lao Tzu

I love Lent. It is a great time to take stock (again) of one's life and re-adjust what needs re-adjusting, relinquishing some goods in order to make room for others. That is what "giving up" something for forty days is about, a spiritual, mental and emotional spring cleaning.

Letting go can be a frightening exercise, but it is a necessary aspect of life. Either we willingly and lovingly surrender or we waste precious time and tears when things are taken from us. Sometimes letting go can be as simple as clearing our schedule to make time for loved ones. Plan a quiet dinner or simply be in the same room together. Sometimes it is making time for ourselves. When is the last time you took a retreat? Just you and the wind and God (however you define the Supreme Being). A year? Two years? Never? Maybe it is time to take a couple of days and head out of the city and re-prioritize.

Sometimes it is letting go of vices masquerading as virtues. For me this means spending less time agonizing over the plans for a sit down dinner for sixteen and to plan simpler meals with friends ~ where they actually get to see and talk to me, instead of watching the mad chef in the kitchen wear herself to a shadow getting every dish perfect.

There is, of course, a place for perfection and doing the job right. But this is a time to reconnect and enjoy the simple things in life. It is not a time for showy recipes and decadent desserts. Those things will be more appreciated on Easter Sunday ~ welcomed like friends after a long absence. It is a time for hearty soups and stews. Fried chicken and fresh baked biscuits. Chili and homemade cornbread. For the next few weeks, I want to let go and just breathe and refocus my time and attention where it matters most: my loved ones.

May this Lent be one of joy and peace for all my dear readers as well.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

11 February 2009

Food, Fado and New Fans

Worries go down better with soup.
~ Jewish Proverb

A fellow singer asked me the other day if I were Portuguese. She overheard me regaling my friend Jeanette with the details of the fado appreciation dinner she had missed. No, dear readers, I am not Portuguese. But as you know, I love fado. And I love to cook. It is a marriage made in heaven. And one which brings great rejoicing to my friends.

Introducing more of my friends to fado has been on my to do list for over a year now. Since the last Mariza concert, actually. But I did not want to simply play fado for them, or even tell them the history behind the genre. Such passionate and soulful music calls for a proper setting. And I could think of no better setting than to cook a (somewhat) traditional Portuguese meal. This meant doing a lot of gastronomic research.

The first thing I learned was that no matter what else I cooked, I must cook caldo verde, a staple of Portuguese cuisine. It means, quite literally, green soup and although I found several variations, the basic ingredients are potatoes, onions and kale. Sometimes cabbage is also included, but the recipe I chose did not include it. Several cooks suggested making the soup the night before to allow the flavors to seep into each other. The recipe calls for pouring the cooled soup into a food processor, but I have had two mishaps with a potato-base soup turning into glue that way, so I used a Cuisinart hand-held mixer and it was fantastic. I did everything but add the kale ~ which I left to do the next day before serving the soup. Two changes I would suggest to this recipe: one, add more salt. Two, saute or steam the kale in a little olive oil or butter before adding it to the soup. It came out a little too raw for my taste.

For the main course I came across a couple of schools of thought as well. More traditional Portuguese dinners consist of three main entrees ~ usually fish, pork or chicken and meat. In the interest of time and maintaining the sanity of the cook, I decided to make two entrees. This proved to be a wise decision ~ as I barely held on to sanity with just two!

So much of Portugal's identity is wrapped up in its coastline. It is still the economic lifeline for many Portuguese ~ as it has been for their great-great grandfathers. Portuguese tradition says that there are 365 ways to prepare cod, which is so plentiful it is practically the national fish of Portugal! So in deference to the Portuguese fishermen who are inextricably linked to pathos of fado, I made a gratin called Sailors Bacalhau Gratin. I used fresh cod (instead of salt cod) from the local fishmonger. If you make this recipe with fresh cod as I did, I suggest adding copious amounts of salt.

Both pork loin and chicken breasts were on sale, so I bought both. But I found a recipe for Chicken with Port Raisin Sauce that sounded absolutely wonderul, so I used that instead of the pork. It turned out to be incredible and the star of the table. To save time and sanity, brown the chicken the night before and then cook it the rest of the way about half an hour before serving. Chicken is so delicate ~ it can so easily become dry. This recipe did not dry out the chicken at all and the port-soaked raisins complemented the mushrooms. My friend Penafort even asked for thirds!

Coming up with a well executed dessert proved to be a challenge. There were some desserts with awesome names, like barriga de freiras (nun's belly) and papos de anjo’ (angel's cheeks). But as I was making this for the first time for my guests, I wanted to keep it simple, but still interesting. So I chose to make filhozes, Portuguese Cinnammon Doughnuts. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which recipe I used, but the one I have linked to has a dozen eggs, which is what my recipe called for as well. I had not made doughnuts since I was a Brownie in second-grade! I had forgotten how much fun that was. I think that my guests had as much fun watching me make them as I had frying them up. The oil may have been too hot as my doughnuts came out looking more like bear claws than little round puffs. But they tasted exactly like the recipe promised: solid but tasting like an eclair. I still have half a pitcher of batter left over and have been using it to make crepes, pancakes and the occasional doughnut.

While we all enjoyed either a twelve year single malt Scotch or a very smooth Reserve Porto, we watched the live concert Mariza did in Lisbon a couple of years ago. I have seen her three times in concert now, but it was a moving experience to see her perform for her countrymen. They understood not only her language but her heart. And it communicated itself to my friends watching. At the end of the evening, I had converted ten more fans.


Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela