Post-Valentine's rose petal jam

Each year, my sweet T brings me red roses for Valentine's Day. As our years together have grown in number, so too has the size of the bouquet; somewhere around a decade, it went from 12 to 24 stems. 

I always feel a bit sad when the heads start to droop and the petals begin to brown and wither. Part of me wants to toss them at the first sign of decline, while at other times I'm prone toward resuscitative efforts or preservation. 

Five years ago, unwilling to part with my roses but unable to store more dried petals without starting to feel like Miss Havisham, I wondered what it would be like to make jelly with them. What resulted, after not a short and sweet process, was lovely. A transparent, cardinal red jewel with a distinctly herbal tang and elements of sweet and tart, thanks to the addition of sugar, apple, Meyer lemon, and red currants.

I'm a good jam maker, but jelly is tough. I don't like the taste of synthetic pectins but you need to add some in this case. I try to take a light hand with liquid pectin which has less of an aftertaste but often results in a jelly with inconsistent wobble. It's weird, but I'd rather my jelly be too loose than too stiff. I'd rather spoon than grate, you know?

It's been a long while since I've made rose petal jelly, but this year's bouquet was so beautiful, and our first V-day of ordering take-out and watching a movie in pjs so just-what-we-needed, that I decided to make some Love Letter Jelly (that sounds awfully X-rated in some respects; sorry, but jelly is more accurate than jam).

I doubled the recipe since I received 24 stems this year but came to find that I only had one envelope of liquid pectin. Alas, I now have loose jelly. But it still sings with the unique taste of rose, a taste that becomes really magical atop lemon curd and warm bread; that is my favorite way to eat this jelly. 

The process is a long, involved one, but I can manage that once every five years or so. 

rose petal trimmings; you want just the velvety red parts!

rose petal trimmings; you want just the velvety red parts!

the red leaches from the petals into the water...

the red leaches from the petals into the water...

fading further

fading further

ethereal petals in rose red water

ethereal petals in rose red water

rose syrup

rose syrup

On the arts and their value

Ensconced in a transparent plastic chair with file cabinets of sheet music on one side and a colorful array of instruments on the other, with bleats and squeaks and scales and low frequencies radiating from studios all around, I turn a page in my book and smile. Mozart, the resident dog, ambles over for a scratch behind his ears.

Although I've little musical ability, in Middle C each weekend, as I wait while Jack and Oliver finish their lessons, I feel at home. The test notes and amiable chatter and warm ups and expanding lung capacities are individuals at practice in a place that both challenges and nurtures them. I gravitate toward places like that and the people who both work and learn there.

I felt a similar homeyness during the AWP conference earlier this month, despite the fact that literally thousands were in attendance, and I knew approximately five. Armed with my schedule, badge, and a bag of books -I never go anywhere without reading material; do you?- I made my way from panel to panel, toggling between the convention center and the elephantine Marriott across the street. Lost among friends, really. And happily so.

This is not to say that all musicians and writers and artists are nice, expansive people. Good grief- of course they aren't. Some are egotistical and competitive, and others are pathologically shy. Some are troubled while others prefer words or paint to people. Many have wrestled with periods of feeling awkward or different. Many still do. Some have experienced abuse or trauma or stunning loss. Many are delightfully eccentric, some fit every stereotype.

I've often wondered just how mental health, creativity, and intelligence co-exist, for many have written of "madness" as creative fire, of angst as a torturous fuel, of tragedy and loss as a sort of generative phoenix. A spherical spectrum seems to fit the bill of any synchronicity better than a linear one. 

Most every artist I've ever encountered relishes or at least feels the utter need to get at the root of who they are, who we are, and to express those selves in some way. Communities of artists are like multi-celled organisms undulating toward kernels of truth and understanding, toward justice and inclusion. The arts push the boundaries of what is and should be accepted, what is and should be normed. They teach us empathy, allow us to better understand the beauty and strength in difference, usher in respect and tolerance, and diminish fear and hate.

It is not hard to understand why dictators seek to control messaging and especially artistic expression. So really, stay sharp right now in the face of alternative facts (bullshit), lies messaged as news (also bullshit), the spread of fear versus hope (carnage, anyone?), and attempts to quash the humanities (the Trump admin's desire to cut the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, disallow peaceful protests, etc). 

Politics aside, this post is actually a piece about me and the gratitude I feel for the arts.

When I was a young child, my parents (who both studied art history in college and have collected art for decades), sister, and I often played two games: one was an artist and artwork flashcard-based gig (more fun that it now sounds), and the other was a sleuthing game in which the player whose turn it was donned a blindfold, reached into a paper bag to pluck a cardboard object from a large assortment, felt its curves and angles, size and stature, and ventured a guess as to what it was.

I attended summer arts camps and took drawing and painting lessons for years. I have spent more than a night in Corning, NY, because my father wanted to see the glass museum there and specifically a piece, Jay Musler's Cityscape, in it. I remember that our B&B smelled like tequila and lime and that the proprietor was a zany woman who sang "Customers, come here!" when we knocked on the wrong door. Cityscape remains vividly seared in my mind, a stunning piece of glass rendered meaningful in a gifted man's hands.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

And yet, with all that steeping in the arts, I wasn't comfortable expressing myself artistically until my thirties. The general aging process has helped, but I wouldn't be nearly as complete a person as I am (and let's be clear, it's a real work in progress with more work to do; likewise it's not painless!) without open artistic expression which began with cooking, segued into photography, slid easily into blogging about those things, and has evolved into so much more.

I don't consider myself a Writer yet (though I aspire to be such), but I do know that writers and artists and those who truly appreciate them are my truest tribe. The sensitivity and openness, the shared experience of some struggle and the gentle embrace of what has challenged each of us, the multitude of identities lived and loved and celebrated...all of those things are treasures, gifts, and each time I experience, witness, or grow from relationships forged in and around arts communities, I become more me. More of the me I want to be. More of that fully unhusked kernel of self truth.


Ten-minute freewrite from today, based on a prompt by the inestimable Jena Schwartz.

I bought one and stole the other, and not in that order.

Eyes, they are called. Oculi. Thick wooden rounds incised and painted with a star and crescent moon. Affixed to the bows of the wooden fishing boats, dhows, so common off the coast of East Africa. Looking out and across the sea to ward off evil spirits and danger.

I was in Lamu, a town on Lamu island, in Lamu archipelago, in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Kenya. My boyfriend? Lover? Amorous pen pal? I still don't know if ever we figured our terminology out. It didn't really matter, although it seemed to, then.

Anyway, he, a Peace Corps volunteer, and I, the pal to his pen, had flown east on a tiny puddle jumper for a few days off the mainland in a mysterious, enchanting place.

I was falling in love/lust/wanderlust romance with the tan, pony-tailed man who'd brought me here, who fed me fresh fish curry, and held my hand as we walked throughout Lamu town with its erratic electricity supply and dark corners and the joo-eece (juice) stand near our inn. 

But I'd flat-out given my heart to the creaky boats that listed dramatically when the tide went out and stood back to attention when it rolled lazily back in. The dhows. And that is how I found myself scouring blinding white beaches for their skeletons one August afternoon in 2001.

I told him I wanted an eye to remember our trip. Like so many men who, when faced with a "problem" work like hell to "fix" it, he did. We finally found my treasure, hanging from a tetanus-promising nail coming loose from the dhow's sun-bleached, time-worn hull.

But whose was it? Not mine, certainly. But could it be? We wrestled with this quandary for what was probably not long enough. Romance won, the promise of memory won. He pried it loose and placed in on my palm. Possessively, my slender fingers curled around it. Mine.

In town later, I bought another. To "cancel" out my theft? To make amends? Have a matched set?

Neither love nor lust made it, but the memories did. And so did my eyes. They hang on my library wall now, tokens of adventure in what seems a lifetime ago, under a framed photograph of a working dhow, floating upright in an azure sea.