Chasing Light

What do you do if you want to go somewhere and your family and friends don’t want to or can’t get away when you can? Deciding to explore the world on your own can be a daunting prospect. Thoughts of the drawbacks may cycle through your mind: having no one to rely on should problems arise, planning the trip all on your own, being a target because you are solo, table for one most of the time, or the possibility of being lonely.  The perks of being able to do what you want when you want wherever you want look attractive but will it be right for you. It takes a leap of faith to take on the challenge. As with most things — you don’t know what you don’t know. With a “you won’t know until you try it” attitude I took that leap of faith to France a couple of years ago and in the process learned a lot and among many memorable experiences a long afternoon and evening taking in the changing light of Mont Saint-Michel stands out.

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At first sight, the Mont is an impressive and awe-inducing structure. Its size dwarfing the people and vehicles on the bridge. This area is known for extreme tidal fluctuations and upon my arrival the tide was out and the light was muted from the gray sky.

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Boats become stranded on the sand and people can walk in the silty sand, with caution, during low tides.

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I walked up to the Mont on the bridge, explored the town and toured the Abbey taking my time admiring and capturing the almost 360-degree view from the top.

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The afternoon was turning into evening and the sky with billowy clouds was ever-changing. The golden hour was beginning. Different times of day bring different light to subjects. At sunrise and sunset the sun is near the horizon which creates a golden hue and cast long shadows. In the time before and after sunrise and sunset the light changes hue quickly. From blue to pink to gold in the morning and the reverse in the evening.

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The late afternoon sun added a beautiful golden tone to the walls.

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The surrounding countryside isn’t immune to the sun’s rays.

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The sky wasn’t the only thing changing, suddenly, I became aware of the sound of rushing water. The tide was on its way in, and when that tide comes in it surges in. The boats are once again floating on the water as the gold turns to pink.

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The speed of the incoming tide was creating waves.

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Engrossed in the phenomenon, I hadn’t noticed the sky beginning to darken when a drop of water hit my cheek. Then another and another and suddenly I was in the middle of a rainstorm. Not yet ready to leave this show of color and water, I pulled out my umbrella and went back to the demonstration of mother nature’s extremes. During the rain the lights on the Mont were lit, illuminating  the walls.

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Slowly the golden hour gave way to the blue hour.

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I left to grab some dinner and since I was staying nearby went back to get the full nighttime experience.

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The tide was completely up by this time and the water surrounding the Mont was reflecting the lights.  I said good night to the Mont-Saint-Michel and returned to my hotel. Contemplating my afternoon, I felt blessed and grateful for having taken that five thousand mile leap which landed on the distant shore that day. Being alone allowed me the unscheduled time to linger. If I had waited to go or been with somebody who wasn’t willing to stay and let the moments unfold and watch the light change, I would have missed out on the events that October afternoon. I never would have come to the conclusion that the Mont- Saint- Michel is a beautiful subject in all lighting.

Cheers,

Susan

 

Prayer before Thanksgiving

Table

Before the feast was expected to be perfect, responsibly sourced, cruelty free, gluten free, dairy free, nut free, vegan, Paleolithic meant early humans, ketosis simply what your body does when it starves. Feast and starvation are divides with plenty of middle ground.

Before the feast ever thought of being shot by a camera and able to evoke an inexplicable longing for something absent through the visual gesture of crisply edged pie and brown butter beans, sustainable meant the ability of family and friends to gather on chairs, some sturdier than others, year in and year out and be grateful for everything under the sun or snow like the way your mother is still present to pop cranberries with sugar over fire, the way her mother did, and share and your father’s face still lights up when he sees you. Organic meant the way we wove stories and listened until we were stuffed, as if that was cocoon enough to last all year against loss or loneliness, betrayal or hate, or the way the deep true story of the first Thanksgiving is undeniably braided with the deep true fate of the first humans to live on this land, as surely as my great aunt used to scrape the brown gravy-streaked plates white again after dinner.

Believing in the only weapon I trust, I bleed love through winter squash and garlic, bread and pie. I will lay the forks next to the napkins, hide the knives and pray so strong for peace for each hand that rises to fill an emptiness called hunger at the table in this land made for you and me. If we all share this prayer I’m certain this peace will create a collective warmth like the kitchen gets hotter when it’s filled with steaming potatoes and conversation, then a glow like vanilla votives in every window will brighten the night.

But that’s a prayer like wanting to eat without saying, first I must cook and forage, or if I eat all the feast I’ll never be hungry again.

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When we come to the table may we be so hungry we know we need each other. May we not confuse our need with anyone’s ability to fill it. May we be gentle with our expectations and may the critical voices in our heads go mute. May the brown bits crackle just the way you like. May you remember all the hands that worked in dirt and rain so you might have food on your table and may you be grateful for every small thing that fits in the palm of your hand. May you speak to someone who laughs at your punch lines and listens after asking, “How are you?” May the pie crust crumble with just the right flake to make you want to scoop up every last bit of that salty sweet and sigh and be grateful enough to walk back into the dark. May the owl sing as the full moon rises and may you lift your eyes to behold its shadow or hear it so clearly you believe it’s a sign for you alone and collectively you, and may you remember all that uplift until you gather once again.

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With gratitude,
~Catherine

 

What Luck!

Do you know that feeling of joy mixed with luck when you drop the lid to something on the floor and it lands messy side up? Photography can produce that response too. Lately, an osprey is the source of those emotions for me. First time I spotted it was a few months back, while on a bike ride, on the beach path. Approaching the pier where I turn around to head back, I noticed a hulk on top of a light pole. It seemed larger than a seagull and piqued my inner birder.

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I approached the pier and stumbled upon a lifeguard talking with a group, who seemed as interested as I, about the bird. In this makeshift class I learned the bird in question was an osprey (also known as a sea hawk by the way). The lifeguard also mentioned seeing it fishing at times from his vantage point of the tower on the pier. The prospect of this natural phenomenon occurring right on these shores, in this city, in front of my eyes was thrilling. I watched it for a while, but it didn’t go fishing that day. I was regretting my decision to leave my DSLR at home but thinking of the mantra I have heard uttered so many times – the best camera is the one you have with you – I pulled out my phone to capture this sighting.

Fast forward a few months, same ride, with my DSLR this time. I see the same sized hulk on the pole again. Could it be? Yes, it is! An osprey!

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Marveling at my luck at finding the osprey while having my bigger camera in tow, I wait and watch the bird as intently as the bird focuses on the water.

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Suddenly it swoops from its perch and dives towards the surf.

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Jackpot! It arose with a fish in its talons. My luck at being on that pier for that exact moment elicits awe and giddiness. If only the osprey could know its impact by simply going about its daily life.

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It flew out of sight, continuing on past oblivious surfers.

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The next week, same ride, carrying DSLR with a bigger zoom lens this time, I spot it. The osprey is back again!

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It is a sunny day this time and the light coupled with the zoom lens provided the opportunity to capture more details in the eyes and feathers. I think it spotted me.

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The osprey’s presence brings people together in unexpected and pleasant ways. Seems as though pointing your camera towards the sky grabs the attention of others. Many have taken to asking questions and we end up swapping stories of our neighborhood birds. This day, it hung around for a bit staring at the water and preening before flying off into the distance swooping towards the water without catching anything.

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Sometimes we get caught up in our routines; returning to the same locations doing the same things, and there is comfort in that, but it can also feel monotonous. If we take time for awareness, we might notice that even the same places are different from day to day: the lighting, the people, the animals are some of the elements that combine and interact to create a freshness. If you keep an eye out, inspiration can strike at any moment. You may be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, or maybe you always were and just didn’t notice it.

Sending thoughts and prayers to all impacted by the wildfires in California and gratitude  for the firefighters and first responders.

Stay safe,

Susan

 

The Weekend Dish – Easy Applesauce

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It’s apple season! I don’t know about you but this time of year finds me craving apples, in all their forms: raw, baked, pureed and pie too. Applesauce is a dish that is so much better prepared at home. Although, sometimes the convenience of the store bought variety wins out over the time it takes to prepare. But now that I have found this recipe, inspired by one of Julia Child’s recipes by the way, I have no excuse to buy applesauce instead of making from scratch, ever again! The apples don’t even need peeling and there’s no added sugar either. That’s a plus, plus in my book. There’s one more added bonus – your house will be filled with a glorious cinnamon scent.

I like to have a little fun (to me) photographing the patterns in foods, and apples also lend themselves as incredible subjects.

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The stars created when cutting apples laterally weren’t very prominent in these Fujis so I had some pattern creation fun.

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To the recipe:

Applesauce

  • 4 pounds of apples any combination, or all of one type, I used Fuji (since the skin is left on, I opted for organic) rinsed and cut into eighths, cut off the core and seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt

Combine all the ingredients in a large heavy pot with 1/4 cup water. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally – adding more water if seeming to get dry – until apples are soft and falling apart, 35-45 minutes. Uncover and let cool slightly.

Put cooked apples into a food processor or blender and whir until smooth. If it seems too dry, a bit of water can be added at this point as well.

There you go, ready to be enjoyed!

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I like it warm or cool and accompanied by meats, fish or oatmeal, even ice cream. It’s also great on Greek yogurt for breakfast.

Enjoy ~

Susan

 

 

 

A fig. A failure. A long wait.

Figs

Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and usually walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.

Kneading

I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,
Catherine

I’ll be sharing some of my favorite bread makers over on my new website, CatherineKeefe.com Come for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.

Love Locked Up

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Love lock on London’s Millennium Footbridge

Love can drive people to do crazy things. This seems to be the same the world over. The similarities among different peoples often takes me by surprise. Wandering the streets of a city, ready for discovery, is one of my favorite ways for unravelling a place. So, upon noticing locks bearing names and dates on bridges and chains around many towns; my interest was piqued, which translates to a click of the shutter.

Love locks on bridges, and just about anywhere a lock can be affixed, is a phenomenon spreading across the world. This expression of love involves affixing a lock, usually with the couple’s name and a date on it, to a structure and throwing away the key. Therefore locking one’s love in place for eternity. A romantic sentiment, indeed!

Paris was the location of my first encounter, on the Pont des Arts bridge. Click!

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Back in 2008, the pedestrian bridge was just beginning to see the effects of the love spreading. Click! In for a closer look …

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The practice became so prolific the bridge was becoming compromised by the excess weight and the locks were removed in 2015 and replaced with Plexiglass panels. In 2017, Parisians came up with a clever use for the removed locks. They auctioned off some of the lock clusters using the proceeds to benefit migrant charities, which you can read more about in this article.

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Love locks can still be found in Paris, however. Click!

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Couples have gotten creative in expressing and immortalizing their love throughout the city.

 

Finding all sorts of places to lock their love for all time. Click, click!

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Even locks upon locks.

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The phenomenon isn’t unique to Paris. It is spreading around the world, to the dismay of some. Many cities have made an effort to discourage the practice due to the negative effect on the structures. I witnessed the spread while in London and Aguas Calientes, Peru.

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Aguas Calientes, Peru

It has even spread to a bridge in my hometown. I think crazy or not this love thing isn’t going away any time soon.

Love ya~

Susan

 

 

 

This is so meta

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Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

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Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, check out the details on my new website: Catherine Keefe.

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
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~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

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This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe