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

 

 

 

One way to thank a veteran

Why is it that the smallest gestures become so rich when repeated as tradition?

I ponder this as I prepare for my annual fall pumpkin bread baking custom.  The recipe is splattered with egg stains, penned upon by an enthusiastic child baker, and smudged with speckles of pumpkin from years of sitting too close to the mixing bowl.

It was a first grade teacher, Mrs. Franklin, who began the tradition when one of the original Backyard Boys was in first grade.  Mrs. Franklin guided the class through a baking lesson.  We parents thought she was teaching counting, and adding whole numbers, introducing fractions, building reading vocabulary, and instilling patience.  But of course her instruction was far deeper than that.  Did she realize the impact of her pumpkin bread lesson?

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That day in first grade, each child took home a small loaf as a gift to their families. The bread was so much better than any pumpkin bread we’d ever tried, and the joy on the boy’s face when he realized he could bake a gift was so gleeful, we began an annual fall tradition of baking and giving Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread.

We started close to home, that year, baking for sisters and cousins and grandparents.  The next year we branched out, sharing pumpkin bread with neighbors and friends.  The man next door who fought in the Korean War was touched. “I’ve never been remembered on Veteran’s Day before,” he said when we knocked on his front door and proffered the still-warm loaf.

Whenever we shared the bread, we always heard two things a few days later.

“That pumpkin bread was so good, we ate it all in one day!”
“Can I have the recipe?”

The Pumpkin Bread recipe began to take on a magical aura in our house as the never-fail-to-please item to take to new neighbors and friends, to potlucks and as hostess gifts to parties.  We loved to make it.

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Knowing that Mrs. Franklin wouldn’t mind, we added on to the tradition by photocopying the recipe and including it with the bread.  The recipe wasn’t beautiful anymore but it bore its badge of frequent use with good humor.  Like love and wise lessons from first grade teachers, Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was soon travelling far from its original source.

Lynn began a pumpkin bread-giving circle in Kansas City.
Mustafa took it to his family in St. Louis where it’s now a fall tradition in his home.
Bharti made it and sent it to her family in Mumbai.

As the cousins grew up and moved away to college they knew they could count on a Backyard Sister Fall Care Package that always included pumpkin bread nestled in tissue paper.  It arrived safely and fragrant from California to  Washington, D.C., and Boston, to Chicago, and Iowa City and Tucson, Arizona.

Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was even snuck into Pauley Pavilion in the interior pocket of a giant khaki raincoat as a fall treat for the UCLA Men’s Basketball team.  When the Backyard Boy left home to play basketball in Malaga, Spain, he received a care package in time to celebrate his first Thanksgiving in Europe with the taste of home.

Even though we’ve never actually met you, our loyal readers, I see no reason why we can’t share the recipe.  I’m absolutely positive that Mrs. Franklin would like that.  So, with love from her, and from the Backyard Sisters, here it is.

Bake it soon, with a child. And when you get a chance, walk with it, still warm, to someone who served our country. Say thank you. You can’t imagine what kind of goodness you might be sowing there among the brave acting as if all you are doing  is sharing bread.

With pumpkin and spice,
~Catherine

 

Audacity To Hope

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Face to face. One on one. Human to human. I begin every class I teach by stopping at each desk and asking students individually, “How are you today?”

I usually get a thumbs up, or two thumbs up on really good days. Thumbs down appear in the midst of midterms. Sometimes I get shrugs, or horizontally wavering thumbs.

Today, in two classes of 36 students representing a variety of majors and grade levels, I hesitated when I walked in and saw:
Tears.
Faces flushed with anger.
Shoulders shuddering with sobs.
Faces drawn pale white in anger.
Terse lips.
One girl holding her head in her hands.

“How are you?” I asked, in a more gentle voice than usual. Thumbs were replaced by words:
“Confused.”
“Confused.”
“Sad.”
“Angry.”
“Brokenhearted.”
“Confused.”
“Mad.”
“I feel like I need to apologize and hug people who look different from me.”
“I’m energized.”
“Hopeful.”

For the first time in 16 semesters, I almost didn’t go to school today. I wasn’t sure I could be professional, be worth whatever bits of $48,310 annual tuition students pay for one of my 50-minute classes about writing. Yet it seemed exceedingly important that I honor my commitment to be present.

I didn’t teach to the syllabus. Instead, I offered students the chance to leave without penalty, or to stay and process the election together. Four of 36 walked out the door. The rest sat in a circle and we listened to teach other.

Several cried.

One told of a grandmother with illegal status who woke up this morning afraid to leave the house.

One wondered how pundits could get the outcome so wrong.

Another said that she, as a Muslim, felt a new responsibility to be a model of love.

Many said that they felt numerically overpowered by older voters who didn’t know what they were doing.

“I hear you all,” I said. Then I read to them from this piece I wrote in a hurry before I left home:

I have no words for you today.

I have no words because to me today marks the beginning of a new time when words seemingly don’t matter.

How can I teach you that knowledge of rhetoric can create equal power, can create equal active agency, can level the playing field of your ability to be heard when, in the end, words cannot overcome the truth that at any time we may discover, in the darkest recesses of our hearts, our capacity to be a scared, angry, vindictive, hateful, selfish people.

This is not the time to be hateful and vindictive.

For me, today is a day for sadness.

I mourn the seemingly acceptable loss of civil discourse.

I mourn the gains of hate speech as tolerable public conversation by a presidential             candidate who has now become our president-elect.

I mourn the rise of hatred and suspicion for those who are different from us, and I             remember whoever we are, there are always “those who are different from us.”

I mourn the seeming stumble of progress toward hope for a fair, just and equal             country.

I mourn the forgetfulness that none of us can have everything we want, and the reality that we must be willing to compromise so those who have less than we do have a chance to earn a living wage.

I mourn the memory of a time when we felt united in our sincere work to bring             “liberty and justice for all.”

I mourn the victory of the bully. I mourn the silent.

Let yourself feel sad. Or glad. But let yourself feel. Then gather your energy.

Harvest the skills that uplift humanity: rigorous thinking, deep inquiry, articulate communication, respect for differences of opinion, of perspectives, of points of view, the deepest well of patience you’ve ever imagined.

This class is called Composing Self: How and why writers create a self for rhetorical purposes.

What is your purpose beyond your self?

Today is an open gate. Ask yourselves: What passes through? What will we shut out? How, in the end, will we decide to respond to uncertainty?

I paused to turn on music.

What kind of world do you want? Say anything. “World” by Five For Fighting filled the space. It was a cheesy choice, I know, but the best I could do in my mourning state.

I asked the students to answer that question. What kind of world do you want?  I listened to the tip-tap of keyboards, then gave everyone a chance to speak their vision:

“Acceptance of all races.”
“Economic opportunity to work and make a living wage.”
“Acceptance of all religions and sexual identities.”
“Polite disagreement.”
“More listening.”
“Optimism.”

“What can you do today to call that forth?” I challenged them, warning that it might take them out of their comfort zone. “This kind of conversation takes me out of my comfort zone,” I admitted.

“I’m on much more solid ground talking about rhetorical discourse and ways for you to improve your writing rather than improve the world. But I think this is the conversation we needed to have today.”

Class ended and I gathered my things, sending them out with one final directive.
“Talk to each other, especially someone with different views. Listen to each other. Hear.”

“Thank you for doing this,” one student said on her way out.”Yes, thank you,” said another.

“We need each other,” I said as much to myself as to those who pay me to think aloud.

Usually students stream away from the classroom, silently checking their phones. Today they paused outside in the hallway. Some in groups of two, others clusters of three or more. They were talking to each other. Face to face.

I walked outside the building and stumbled onto an impromptu protest. Students holding signs, chanted and marched through campus, then streamed down the streets of Orange toward the small circle in the center of town.

“You do not represent US”
“Not my president.”
“No justice. No peace.”
“Love not hate.”
“We are defined by how we rise.”

I almost stayed home today and missed what’s happening next. And I have a feeling, no, I know, we will all figure out a way to come together and be stronger for it.

Dear Ross

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Dear Ross Gay,
I saw you laughing on Saturday. You threw back your head and pierced the cacophony of the giant bookfair at the LA Conventions center with the uninhibited rumble of your joy. I didn’t stop you, and I didn’t introduce myself because there was a small circle around you and I felt like an outsider.

I didn’t even know your name until a few months ago.

I always tell my students, “You’re not born knowing everything, so don’t be ashamed about what you don’t know today. But not knowing isn’t the same as not learning.”

I get so confused about the way I’m learning poems and poets, so slowly it seems to be a drip, and with such wide gaps I feel like an imposter to even call myself a reader of poetry, much less a writer. How do I learn all the good poets in this lifetime?

Who first mentioned your name? I wish I could personally thank that friend, along with you, for writing. You’re hardly an unknown what with that 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Deep congratulations on those recognitions.

And now, thanks to someone I can’t remember, I have your Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, co-written with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudea book I return to often, and gift to friends who are non-poetry readers. I trust they’ll learn to love the form after reading you.

I met your words in 2015, but you’ve said so much before. In conversation with Elizabeth Hoover at the Furious Flower Reading Series, she pointed out that Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude seemed invested in different concerns from your first two books, notably,  “exploring violence and masculinity.” She said your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude “feels like those investments are very much in the background.”

You agreed and reflected on why that might be:

Simply, I’ve been gardening a lot and working on orchards and working with people in community in a place that is…it’s sort of allowed me to think differently.

You’ve allowed me to think differently about trees, and grief, and plums. I wonder though, do you wish us to excavate your past poems to find this present joy? Can we learn how to be this gracefully grateful without living through your violence and pain?  Am I cheating to sing joy with you if I didn’t first hold your sorrow?

For those who haven’t met your words, I give them a taste of fig from your mouth:

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. You can read more about Ross Gay on his website.

Dear Ellen

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Dear Ellen Bass,
I am the woman who passed you in the hallway this morning at the LA Convention Center, and stopped you mid-stride to say thank you.

Yesterday in your talk, “Embracing a Poetics of Joy,” you said many true things.

The world needs poetry, but I don’t think it needs anyone particular person to write it. So if you don’t love it, do something else.

I do love it, the way you love it; the way all the writers I know and admire love it, the way, if we’re lucky enough and work hard enough, we might tweak the world a tiny bit for another and help unfold more tender awareness of each other.

I know it’s not an obscure poem, yet I still meet people who have never read your Gate C22. It’s poem that changed the way I travel through airports watching people walk, holding hands or not holding hands, kissing or not kissing, leaving or returning with joy or regret.

For them, I share your gift of reading that poem aloud.

Yesterday, you also said:

It’s an honor to put my pebble on the altar of poetry. I’m joyful that I still get to walk up to the altar.

Thank you for doing all the hard work that carrying that pebble entails. I’m joyful too that you walk to the poetry altar.

With gratitude,

Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.You can read more about Ellen here: Ellen Bass | Award-winning SantaCruz-Based Poet And Educator