Daffodil Day

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People often ask me why I like living in Seattle so much—especially once they hear that I never planned to move here, that it took me nearly three years to decide I would. What made me stay? What is it that I love about the city?

This could be a very long conversation (nature + community + civic values + emphasis on quality of life + libraries + farmers’ markets + boats + independent businesses + did I mention libraries? + parks + cafes and bookstores + European sensibilities + lakes and Sound + mountains + neighborhoods + slight introversion + climate + community, again).

But rather than explaining, I like to give examples that demonstrate what I love about this city. The sort of details that make my heart happy. Daffodil Day is one of them.
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Daffodil Day takes place every spring, on a day in March. On that day dozens of volunteers from Pike Place Market—including all the children in the market-run preschool—pass out daffodils to people walking by on the street. On street corners throughout the downtown core, they are giving out flowers. To anyone who wants them. Flowers. For free.

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The flowers are purchased by the Market Preservation and Developmental Authority from local market growers—9,000 flowers. Apparently this year there was some worry that, with the early spring we’ve been having, the daffodils might have come and gone before Daffodil Day, but they managed to work it out. This Friday there will be Daffodils in downtown Seattle.

Because, of course, Daffodil Day is also the first day of spring.

I always try to be downtown on Daffodil Day, because it’s so much fun to watch,  to see people carrying around their flowers, happy to have them.

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It’s a little funny to see people’s reactions. Some come running over, delighted for the flowers. A few people are wary: flowers? For free? What’s the catch? But most people know about Daffodil Day. Most people smile. Some come back for extra flowers.

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Last year, when I was downtown, I ran into my friends Jenise and Mike. They are both involved with the market community, active in volunteering, and that day they were passing out flowers. Did I mention community is a big part of what I love about Seattle? We’ve got a good one here.

It was fun to watch them in action, giving out flowers, making people smile. Seattle had a long, dark winter, it’s true (not so long this year). When spring comes it feels like a celebration. People smile, they start chatting to strangers on the street, the sunshine feels like an absolution.

Seattle celebrates all that. It’s one of the (many) things I love about this place.

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This Friday, March 20th, there will be flowers in the city—bought from local farmers, given out for free, a celebration of this new season, of beauty, of community. If you happen to be around here, I suggest you go downtown. It’s a lovely thing to see.

The action starts around noon (11:30 for the kids). Locations are listed here.

Happy (almost official) spring. Around these parts we celebrate it. I hope you do too.

—Tara

PS. And if you’re in Seattle and want to come celebrate the launch of my new book, that’s taking place at Elliott Bay Book Company (another amazing part of our community). March 24th, 7pm. Open to the public! More book events here.

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Spring Comes

About a year ago I was out in Port Townsend, staying in an old house that belongs to a dear friend. She and her husband bought it years ago, when it was falling to pieces and filled with junk and—through great effort—cleaned it out and brought it back to life. It’s now one of my favorite places on earth. I often spend time there when they travel, looking after their small white dog who likes to go on walks. Port Townsend is a quiet town with great views of mountains and sea. It’s a pretty perfect place to be a writer.
Last winter I was writing as hard as I could. I had a book deadline looming and I had saved the very hardest chapters for my time in Port Townsend. I woke early, took the dog out, made endless cups of tea, and tried to push through this difficult material. It was dark and cold in Port Townsend during the time I was out there—so cold I wrapped the pipes on the old house to keep them from freezing. I cried a lot.
I took a break one evening while I was out there, to have dinner with friends who live in town (they offered to cook; I accepted with alacrity). It was so nice to step back from the computer and be around humans again. But when my friend asked what I was working on and I told him, he looked at me quite seriously. “I wouldn’t trade places with you right now for ANYTHING,” he said.
It actually made me feel better—and made me laugh. When one is doing something really hard, it’s good to be affirmed that the thing you are doing is indeed hard. When you are going through dark days, it’s nice to have someone say—“How can you even see in here?” It doesn’t change things, but validation can feel like warmth.
And all through the week that I was there, I read the book Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed. It’s an astounding collection of questions and advice that speaks to our broken humanity, how we struggle, how we fail, how we love and lose and try so hard. It really is beautiful. Every day I read one chapter in the morning, before I started writing, and one chapter before I fell asleep at night. Each time I did I told myself: You need to try to be this brave and honest on the page. I wasn’t sure I was accomplishing it, but I was trying.
This all came back to me last week, when I was again out in Port Townsend, again in that lovely house that feels like a second home to me now. I remember being propped up in bed with my laptop, a view out the window all the way across Puget Sound to Mount Rainier in the far distance, a cup of tea and a box of kleenex at my side, trying to put everything I had on the page, my whole heart. Those days seemed hard and maybe a little dark then, but now I see them as sacred. I was scared—so scared—but trying with everything I had.
The truth is that writing a book is a scary thing—and writing a personal book is even scarier. The other part of that truth is that it may also be the best thing you do. Not the easiest thing, mind you, but easy things are not what we gain and grow from; hard tasks often give great rewards.
For me, this was one of those. I had to dig deep, I had to pull on everything I’ve learned about the craft of writing and people and life, and I had to put it all on the page (and then I had to seriously edit and rewrite, because that first draft you cry over is never what a good book is built of).
My deep, dark writer’s secret is that I wasn’t happy with my first book—I could never make it into what I wanted, though I tried and tried. After that experience I almost stopped writing entirely. I’ve hoped to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but that first book broke me in a way I wasn’t sure I was cut out for. I would make a very good kindergarten teacher instead, or perhaps landscape designer. I really almost walked away.
But I am so glad I didn’t, because this second book, though harder in some ways, was the book I needed to write. I was very careful choosing what to write about, very deliberate. It needed to be something I thought was important, a story worth struggling over. I considered and discarded a couple of book topics on the way. But this one stuck and wouldn’t let me go. And I know now why it did. If you read it, maybe you’ll be able to see too.
And that is the most exciting part. These days spring is coming to Port Townsend—when I was there last week daffodils were flowering, plum blossoms and yellow forsythia. The dark days of winter are over, and my book is almost out in the world. The book I labored over, the one I tried so hard to get right, the one I’m really excited to have people read.
Sometimes it’s all about getting back on the horse that knocked you down and trying again. Sometimes you buy the old house full of junk and work hard to make it beautiful. Sometimes you struggle and try and it’s so worth it in the end.
I’m glad that I did. So glad.
I’ll be telling you more about the book in the weeks to come, but the early reviews are coming in. You can read more about it here. You can even order a copy (order through Book Larder for a signed copy). And, depending on where you live, you might be able to see me read from it. We’re planning events—they’re not all listed, more are in the works (and if you have any suggestions for places I should come to, feel free to let me know).
I really am so excited for this book to be out in the world, to have you read it, to meet and talk to you.
In the midst of winter it all seems dark and bleak, but if you struggle through, spring comes.
Read more about Orchard House Order a copy (Book Larder for signed copies)
See the events already planned(more to come!) PS. Sorry to say–the comments function is currently down on the site (it’s not you, I promise:-). We’re trying to fix that as soon as we can. Thanks for your patience!

What’s Blooming

One of the most lovely parts of working on this book I’ve been writing, about which I will tell you much more soon, has been getting to know the gardening world. It’s not just what is going on in my garden—there’s an entire network and community of passionate garden folks. I hadn’t realized how many garden blogs are out there (if you have any favorites, please let me know). I’ve been poking around for months now, learning more, being charmed by the enthusiasm and impressed by the knowledge (intimidated, sometimes; I have much to learn).

One of the blogs I have been following, May Dreams Gardens, hosts an event each month where people share what is blooming in their garden. We’re having a very early spring here in Seattle, so I thought I might show you what is going on in the garden at Orchard House. Usually February is a slow month outside, most of the action happens indoors, with seeds being started for the vegetable garden, but this year things are taking off outside. Come along and join me, won’t you?


The camellias are in full bloom. I wish I could tell you that I liked them, but I don’t. When I was growing up, camellias were used in landscaping around hospitals and churches. I’ve always thought of them as institutional flowers.

Also, they turn brown and fall off and look like corpses. Corpse flowers.


But the garden came with camellias—more than you can even imagine. One of them has gown into a massive column fifteen feet tall. The camellias are not going anywhere.

What do they say about learning to accept the things you can’t change? I’m trying to make my peace with camellias.


Much more exciting are these snowdrops. I had never seen snowdrops before I moved to Seattle, but they are one of the first flowers to pop up. I gathered all the snowdrops that were planted in the garden and massed them at the bottom of the kitchen stairs. The sight of them means spring is on the way.


This is also exciting, though it’s not exactly blooming. This week a neighbor was getting rid of a massive rhubarb plant, something I’ve not had the best luck with growing. I volunteered to give hers a home and every day the leaves unfurl more, and the red stalks begin to shoot up. This year I might finally get a decent rhubarb crop. I’m very excited about that.


Across the path from the rhubarb, our Indian plum is starting to blossom, earlier than it ever has. When we first found the garden, this was one of the plants we thought was dead. But nature is persistent and it has come back.


In the vegetable garden, the winter broccoli is starting to flower, although that’s not what most people mean when they talk about blossoms. You can eat the flowers, and the bees love them. That’s purple kale in the background. In another month or two that will bloom as well and the whole vegetable garden will nearly vibrate from all the bees drawn to their flowers.


Across the lawn, tiny little tulips are starting to poke up. They look a bit worse for wear. I think they should have stayed down another month or so.

And daffodils, the early soldiers of spring, are marching along as well. They’re so very cheerful, not cowed by chilly spring temperatures.

Sadly, the dreaded dandelions are also starting to bloom in the meadow. This year I’m hoping to turn them into something useful and make dandelion wine. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Our first fruit tree to bloom in the orchard is this pluot, which has yet to bear any fruit, even five years in. It might be because it blooms so early—when it’s usually still raining quite a lot in Seattle—and there are few pollinators around to help. Some people say bees are not attracted to pluot blossoms (a cross between plum and apricot), and you should graft a branch from a plum that blooms early to attract pollinators. I need to see what I can do about that.


One of the best things blooming in the garden right now is daphne, which has an intoxicating scent. We have a massive bush and it perfumes the air. Daphne can be hard to grow, but this one rewards our neglect with the most intense fragrance. It’s hard to believe such tiny flowers have such a huge scent.


On the edible side of the garden, the arugula is about to start flowering. The blossoms are spicy and last year there were so many I brought some to a friend who has a pizza restaurant. He uses them to top the pizzas.

Some day I will tell you how we grow arugula, which is one of the few really smart things we do in the garden. This is about one quarter of the arugula patch. On a mild year, like the one we’re having now, we have  salads all winter long.

There are some things flowering in the garden that I do not know the names for. Like these small white flowers that grow on a creeping ground-cover sort of plant.  As I said, I have much to learn.

I know what this is—a flowering quince, with all the thorns that go along with it. Still, I love the color. There was a flowering quince in my childhood garden, I have a soft spot for them.


And we end the tour on camellias as well. Did I mention we have four varieties? That’s too much for someone who does not love camellias. I’m trying to learn.

Maybe they’re not so bad after all.

For more What’s Blooming posts, see here.

Hope your week is off to a good start.

—Tara

A bottle of wine, a pot of ragu

I’ve been holding onto this bottle of wine for quite awhile. Not because it’s extraordinary, but because it’s special. I’ve been holding onto this plastic cup too, which is perhaps just silly. Both of them make me smile.

My neighbor gave me this bottle, and the cup, when I was busy packing to move out of the first house I lived here in Seattle—a place we call The Treehouse. One day, when I was surrounded by packing boxes and bubble wrap, my neighbor popped over from next door with a bottle of wine, a plastic cup, and her own bottle opener—”In case yours is already packed,” she said. She told me to stick the opener in her mailbox when I was done using it. In the midst of packing madness, it was the sweetest gesture. I’ve kept the bottle ever since. It gives me more pleasure to see it in my cupboard, to be reminded of this kindness, than it would have to drink it.

You might think, from this story, that ours was a friendly neighborhood, but that was not true. When I first moved there I met the neighbors on either side of me. None of the other neighbors introduced themselves. It would be three years before the people who lived across the street said hello.

I thought it was my fault. I wasn’t living there full-time, I didn’t own the house, I was younger than most of the other residents in the neighborhood. I figured no one wanted to invest in getting to know a person who might not be there for the long haul. But I showed up for the annual block party anyway—and was surprised to see our normally quiet and deserted street full of people. I met many neighbors that day. And then I didn’t see them again for an entire year—not until the block party the next summer. No joke.

Ours was a neighborhood without much of a heart. At least not one I could see.

Then my neighbor moved in. She had come from Mexico, along with her young son, to work at a large foundation here in Seattle. Soon after she invited me and some of the other neighbors for lunch—for a type of tacos she made on an outdoor cooking set-up she had brought from Mexico. It was a flat-ish wok with a gas burner below and she said this sort of cooking descended from farming implements and meals that were made in the fields. I will be forever sad that I didn’t ask to take pictures of that meal; I didn’t want to freak out these new people with my food photography obsessions.

At that luncheon I met two families who lived down the block. I discovered I had mutual friends with one of them. We talked and laughed and sat around the table and ate these delicious tacos, and the kids played and the afternoon rolled by in the most pleasant way. In return, I invited her and her son over for dinner and we made fresh pasta. A few weeks later, I saw the dads of these families helping to install a basketball hoop for my neighbor’s son, and soon all the kids were playing in her driveway. Now, when people came home from work, instead of going straight into their houses they stopped and watched the kids or chatted and said hi. The next summer, my neighbor made her special tacos at the block party and I helped her cook them. Those tacos, that gesture, had fundamentally changed the nature of the place. She had created community where before there had been none.

After I moved away, I didn’t see my neighbor much. Life got busy, the garden happened, and I didn’t have nearly the time I’d had before. We tried to get together a few times, but she was often traveling for work. I regret not trying harder now, and was sad to hear that she was moving back to Mexico. I came back to help her pack. Surrounded by her packing boxes and bubble wrap this time, I told her I thought her actions had changed the neighborhood. She laughed.

“It’s a cultural thing,” she said. “We laugh when we watch American movies—they’re all about someone going through a hard time in a house alone. In Mexico, that would never happen—if you were going through a hard time, your brothers and sisters would come get you—maybe you wouldn’t even WANT them to, but they would come get you. You would never be alone like that.”

I think of that often. How isolated we can be. I think of it especially in the winter here in Seattle, when people have the tendency to hibernate. I haven’t seen my neighbors in weeks.

I finally opened the bottle of wine my neighbor gave me. I used part of it to make a big batch of ragu sauce, the sort that simmers on the stove for hours and hours. It’s the right time of year for it, and as the grey day passes and the sauce smells better and better, you get excited for dinner.

And then I invited the neighbors over. It took a little courage—some people are naturals at entertaining, I am not one of them. And inviting anyone to do anything makes us a little venerable—what if they say no? What if they don’t have a good time? What if they judge us, or like us less afterward? But I thought of my neighbor, who changed an entire street with an invitation to tacos, and I plowed ahead.

A bottle of wine, a pot of ragu, it’s meant to be shared.

Sometimes a meal can change everything.

—Tara

LUISA WEISS’S RAGU SAUCE
Serves 8-10

The ragu sauce I make comes via my friend Luisa Weiss’s wonderful book My Berlin Kitchen. It’s a recipe from her Italian family friends, and I’m grateful for her years of perfecting it and passing it along. I sometimes add more wine, and I sometimes add finely chopped up mushrooms (especially if I don’t have as much meat as I should), but this is the sort of recipe that will win you friends and impress your neighbors.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion
2 large carrots
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1/2 cup red wine
1 28-oz can peeled and crushed tomatoes
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper

Finely mince the onions and carrots, or chop them in a food processor (but don’t overprocess so they turn to mush). You want a similar consistency to the ground beef.

In a large pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until soft but not colored (about 7 minutes). Add the carrots and cook another 2-3 minutes.

Add the beef and the pork, stirring to break up the meat so it cooks evenly and breaks down. Raise the heat a bit and continue to stir until the meat is fully cooked but not browned and any liquid at the bottom has evaporated (up to 1o minutes).

Add the wine and stir, simmering 2-3 minutes, before adding the tomatoes and the salt. Stir to incorporate and allow to return to a simmer before lowering the heat to its lowest setting. Put the lid on the pot and let cook low and slow for 5 to 7 hours, stirring only occasionally (the fat will separate and rise to the top, stir it back in). Luisa says the flavor really comes out with the longer cooking time. Make a day of it. Your guests will thank you.

You can freeze the ragu, or use it in a lasagna, or serve it with pasta or polenta. Make sure to let it cool completely before freezing.

Planting/Harvesting

This is my nephew. Though I am most certainly biased, I think he’s the cutest stinker on the street.

He already doesn’t look like this anymore. Now he’s four, but I miss him at three (and two, and one). Kids, they are amazing.

On this day we were harvesting garlic. The green stalks had put out their shoots in the spring—garlic scapes. Now the cloves were ready for harvest. One sunny day, the little guy and I went out to pull them up.

Some of them were quite hard to pull. He had to get down low and yank. But he didn’t want any help. He wanted to do it MYSELF.”

No matter how many bulbs we pulled, he seemed utterly surprised by each and every one. Seeing the swollen bulb emerge from the earth, with it’s funny fringe of roots, was a revelation, every time. Kids, they are amazing. Such pure wonder.

And every bulb needed to be inspected, these funny, lumpy bits with dirt still hanging on them. Every one of them seemed like a marvel.

But here is the thing I think is interesting. Garlic gets planted months before harvest. If you do it right, you slip your cloves into the earth in the fall, where they sleep all winter long, not putting a shoot up until spring (if you forget, or are too busy, as I sometimes have been, you stick them in early spring and hope for the best).

That means all winter, when the garden looks forlorn and forgotten, the garlic is sleeping. When the weather is right, when conditions are prime, the garlic will begin to do it’s thing. Until then, the bulbs are biding their time.

I think life is like that—so many seeds get planted, but often it takes time for them to be ready. In ln relationships, in careers, it can be months before things are ready to grow and bloom. I’m seeing the results of things in my life now whose wheels were put in motion years ago. Life, it turns out, is not so much an instant gratification game.

I like to think about this in winter. In this season of quiet and introspection, when so much of nature goes into hibernation (including, if you live in Seattle, people), what are the seeds I want to plant? What should I be investing in now, if I want to gather a harvest later?

It’s a metaphor, but it’s a powerful one.

I don’t know what I was thinking about when I planted this garlic almost a year ago—what I was hoping to harvest in my life. I was probably thinking of summer tomatoes and how garlic would go well with dripping red fruit and toasted bread. Maybe I was thinking of aioli, of the harvest feast I want to host some summer for my friends. Usually I am thinking of how I want to share these things with the people in my life. Friendships are also things that must be planted and tended.

This year we grew two kinds of garlic—a Spanish Roja and Polish Hardneck. I plant them in the same bed I grow strawberries and sorrel plants. They all seem to get along. I always mean to plant them in September or October, but often I am slipping mine in late. They still grow, though perhaps smaller at the end. Nature is generally forgiving and always does her best.

In these darker days of winter, that is what I am thinking about: what should I be planting now?
In my life, in my relationships, in my career: what do I want to grow?

—Tara