Mushrooms in the Middle

The longish process of planting shiitakes:
we had big hopes, E and I
This is a story about an oak log, a bag of shiitake mushroom spores, and two women over three years. It’s also about hope and growth and joy and surprise. But most of all, this is a story about friendship.

“There’s always hope, Julia!” My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, clutching the 4-foot long oak log.

I knew exactly what it was. Three years ago to the month, almost to the day, E and I took a road trip to a mushroom farm, about an hour from where we live, to buy shiitake mushroom spores. And a few days before that, E called and asked me what I know about growing shiitake mushrooms (“nothing”), and more importantly, was I interested in a joint venture of growing shiitake mushrooms together (“yes!”).

At the mushroom farm, we bought a ziplock bag full of small plugs that had been dusted with shiitake spores. These delicate plugs sat in the backseat of my friend E’s car as we wended our way home down the Maine coast. In the backseat of the car, on a hot May afternoon—way hotter than the early season would suggest—the mushroom spores sat while we drove and while we went out for a nice lunch in beautiful coastal Damariscotta. And while we were at lunch, the bag got all condensed and mushy and cloudy and moldy looking.

When we got back to the car, we looked first at the bag and then at each other, remembering that neither one of us brought the recommended cooler we both meant to bring along.

“Oops,” said E.

“Oops,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve taken them to lunch with us.” E suggested.

I nodded my head, thinking she was probably right and wondering if there was any hope we’d ever get any mushrooms. I know E was thinking the very same thing.

On the way home, we planned. The next Saturday would be mushroom planting day. It sounded like a longish process, this shiitake mushroom planting, and we knew that we would be enlisting the help of MEH (My Engineer Husband) and E’s husband M. The mushrooms would grow at E’s house—because she had a lot more land and also a very shady area (shiitakes need that) under some pine trees. We lamented the fact that I didn’t live next door—because if I did, we joked, we would start a business called Mushrooms in the Middle. And the mushrooms would live between our two houses.

We had big plans, E and I….for feasting on shiitakes until we were so sick of them that we would take all our many excess pounds of mushrooms to the local farmer’s market, and then eventually in about a month or two we would produce so many mushrooms that we would really truly have a business called Mushrooms in the Middle, and we’d be famous, and we’d probably be on the Oprah show as famous women entrepreneurs or at least on the Today Show and we’d get to meet Meredith Vieira. Okay, we never actually talked about any of that (beyond the name Mushrooms in the Middle and the feast and maybe the farmer’s market). I started to talk about it, but my friend E is a lot more sensible and less fantastical than I am and she simply said:

“Let’s wait and see, Julia.” In that matter-of-fact tone she always uses when I dream big and get way ahead of myself like I do about almost everything in my life.

Anyway, E dropped me and the spores off at my house. To be honest, I can’t remember if we really talked about this, but I remember thinking to myself that if E got custody of the mushroom babies (yes we did call them that) for most of their lives, then I could at least take care of the babies for a few days.

So, there they sat: the spores, in my refrigerator, for several days. Every time I (and more especially MEH) looked in the refrigerator, we wondered what delicious new snack we’d purchased that we forgot all about. Then we remembered: the next Saturday was “mushroom planting day.”

Which, as it turns out, was not a simple process. Without writing an instruction manual for planting shiitake mushrooms (although I probably could write a better one than the one we used), it involves many large (6-8 inch in diameter) oak logs, a drill, paraffin wax, a mallet, LOTS of water to soak the logs in, and something to prop the logs up on. Thank goodness M, E’s husband, has a big pick-up truck that he was willing to use to haul freshly cut oak logs.

On that Saturday morning, MEH and I were supposed to go along to get the logs—we were going to meet M and E at the wood farm (I think it’s called a woodlot, actually), but we got lost on the way to the hard-to-find place, and we gave up (okay, it’s embarrassing, but that’s really what happened!).

Instead, after a few attempts via cell phone to locate the place (we failed), we instead met up with E and M at their house. It was a little quiet for a while, because I think we were all a little grumpy: E and M because they had to do the job alone, loading the logs, and MEH and me because we were pretty embarrassed and frustrated that we never found the woodlot.

Our baby mushrooms
(the spore plugs)

Anyway, we had the logs, and we drilled holes in them—a LOT of holes all over each of about 15 logs. Then we pounded the little spore plugs into them, then we covered each of the little plugs with melted wax. Then we soaked the logs in water. Or at least that’s the order I think we went in….what I really remember is that it was a long, long, LONG process. And we had several points of discussion. For instance, whether the logs were really freshly cut (we decided they weren’t) and whether we soaked the logs before or after drilling the holes (I don’t remember what we decided or even what we did) and whether we really had to cover the spore plugs with paraffin (we disagreed about this, E and I), and how hard we should pound the plugs in or whether we should drill bigger holes.

Did I mention there were FOUR of us making these decisions together? And during each of these brief decision points, we would look at each other, E and I, and realize even though we were in charge, we were far from shiitake mushroom growing experts. And did I mention that it was hot and we were tired and grumpy?

Finally, we weren’t so careful about anything, maybe even including each other, and we rushed to get done.

“I think that’s good enough,” said E.

“Me too,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve gotten fresher logs,” E mused out loud.

“Maybe so,” I agreed. “And maybe we should have gotten better directions.” (Doesn’t the writer always want more information and better directions?)

“Maybe so,” E agreed.

And we both nodded our heads—and I wondered if there was any hope that we would ever get any mushrooms. I think E was thinking the very same thing.

Still, we finished, although not to our complete satisfaction, any of us, because in the end we all made compromises we maybe wish we hadn’t. Then, we put the logs away, and MEH and I went home. And all my thoughts of Oprah, and the Today Show, and even of being an entrepreneur at the farmer’s market and maybe even having a shiitake feast, and, yes, even getting one shiitake mushroom, had pretty much been dashed by then.

But at that point all we could do was wait. Supposedly, said the guy at the mushroom farm, by mid-summer we’d have all the mushrooms we could eat. Supposedly the next year even more, he said, from all the tendrils growing below the bark of the oak log. All we had to do was wait. All we could do was wait. So we waited. And waited. And no mushrooms grew that summer, or the next summer. Then one day sometime after the second summer, E called and said, “Let’s have lunch, I have some news.” (No, this is not the big announcement you think it is, still no mushrooms!)
The big announcement was that E and M were moving to a new place—about two hours away, to a beautiful coastal village. Of course I was sad, no question. But what about the mushrooms? Believe it or not, it came up because the biggest part of the announcement was that they were selling THEIR house and OUR mushroom logs.

And if that had happened, this would’ve been the end of the story because it was already two years after we planted them, and there were still no mushrooms. Neither E nor I really believed we would ever get any, ever. We talked about moving the logs, but MEH and I really didn’t have a place to put the logs at our house, and even if we did we might not have taken them because no one wanted to lug those 15 or 16 logs, covered with bugs and who knows what else, in the back of a pick-up truck!

But it’s not the end of the story because even after E and M moved, and more time went by and E and M couldn’t sell their house because of the bad economy (that was bad), their daughter decided to live in the house while she became a teacher (that was good). But by then, when I heard this news, I didn’t give the mushrooms a second thought, and I doubt E did either. We were just thinking about the house and E’s daughter.

And then more time went by, another whole year in fact. And all this time, now three years since the planting, E and I shared our personal joys and triumphs and tribulations as friends do—her mom’s and my brother’s deaths, our good-byes when she moved to her new-old house and the enjoyment of both our gardens and her ordeal with not being able to find her well (they eventually found it), both of our indecisions and decisions about career changes, joys and worries and achievements of our kids, her husband’s very-successful new business, and my husband losing his job, not to mention countless cups of coffee and lunches, and rainstorms and snowstorms, and horrible heat waves with visits to her new house and the beaches nearby.

Two of the most beautiful things
you’ll ever hope to see!

And then one day, two days ago, I was sitting and writing my blog at my desk, and I saw a car pull into the driveway. Then I heard MEH talking to someone on the porch. And I ran out, and there standing on the porch was my friend E, who had driven two hours in a fancy concert-going outfit to see a friend in a farewell concert and on the way there dropped by her old house to visit her daughter. And in her fancy concert-going outfit, on a whim decided to look at the mushroom logs, which she hadn’t done in a about a year or more.

And there, on the log, now cradled in E’s arms, against her very bosom in her lovely concert-going outfit, were TWO SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS!!

My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, beaming. “I had to come straight here to show you!” E said. “It just proves, there’s always hope, Julia. Never give up hope!”

And both of us stood there, with tears in our eyes, and we marveled at the two small beautiful mushrooms on the log before us. And I knew E was right: you never can give up on hope!

What joys and hopes and adventures have you shared with your friends? Do friends enrich you as a writer, like they do me?


Flying Solo

Photo by Alistair Morris, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Alistair Morris, Flickr Creative Commons

I wrote this in January but didn’t have the heart to post it. Last month, my dad died, and I thought about this . . . written during another period of mourning. It seems fitting to post now, and maybe in another few months I’ll be able to post what I’ve just written about my dad. Today, please join me in celebrating the life of Eva Thompson.

When our kids were growing up, my very good friend Eva and I sent emails to one another when we were worried about something. We called them Worried Mother Alerts, almost immediately shortened to WMAs. If I got an email from Eva with WMA in the subject line, I’d open it right away, knowing she needed some support. She did the same for me.

When our kids were younger, it was always small stuff. School and teacher struggles. Heartbreak after one wasn’t invited to a beach party; anxiety after one was invited to a co-ed overnight prom party. One didn’t get a part in a play she had her heart set on, one was taking a solo train trip.

As the kids got older, the stakes got higher.

Once, while studying abroad, Eva’s daughter was stranded in Europe, traveling alone at night, and she’d lost her credit card. By the time I got the WMA, Eva had already come up with a solution, but she needed to write to someone who understood her worry and fear. I did. Eva was there for me, too, when my daughter moved across the country to San Francisco after finishing college.

Two worrying moms always seemed better than one. It certainly lightened the load. Made us feel like we weren’t quite alone in our fears. Like we didn’t need to worry as much as we thought we did. I think, although I never verified this with Eva, that I was the bigger worrier. I certainly had a more vivid imagination about what could go wrong—being a writer and all, Eva frequently said—and I was the bigger crier. Eva said she’d only cried twice in her whole life.

Eva would talk me down, tell me everything would be okay. She was always right.

Soon, we expanded the WMA. When my husband was laid off from his job and suffered from depression, I reached out to Eva with a WWA (Worried Wife). And when Eva received her cancer diagnosis four years ago, I sent her this email:

I’ve added you to my WMA list, flying this one solo.

That’s the day I came up with the WFA (Friend).

Eva wasn’t a big one for phone calls. We’d meet for lunch or coffee once a month or so, always arranged via email, occasionally texts. In fact, I only ever talked to Eva on the phone three times over our twenty-some-year friendship.

Once when we got our lunch places mixed up—she was on one end of town, I on the other. Once when I was trying to find her house after she moved. And once when she got the news that her cancer treatment wasn’t working, and they’d told her she had about six months to live.

Eva cried that day.

I cried, too.

And I cried last week when I heard the news I’d been dreading —my friend Eva had died. I sent texts to a few good friends to tell them, but it wasn’t quite the same. They’d never met Eva, just knew I had a friend who wasn’t doing very well. And they didn’t know anything about the WMA. I’d never really even told my husband about it—I don’t know if Eva ever told hers—not about the formal program, anyway.

To be honest, the WMA never entered my mind when I first heard about Eva’s death. But this morning I woke up sad and full of worry. My daughter called yesterday to tell me she’s moving four hours away. It’s a move dictated by her studies, not her first-choice location, and I cried when she told me—so she did, too—worried about me. I’d felt lucky that since her move to San Francisco, she’d returned to the east coast and was a quick two-hour hop from home. Now, she’d be way far up in the tippy top of Maine.

Eva’d have understood.

I felt selfish after I cried. Here I am, I’ll be fine. My daughter, too. So, I’ll drive a little farther to see her—is that so bad? As my daughter said after she told me: “It’s not like it’s San Francisco or anything, Mom.”

It’s the kind of thing Eva would have written in her return email.

But it wasn’t that. It was the realization. The letting go. Knowing that I’ll never again get an email from Eva with the WMA subject line. That I’ll never again be able to send a WMA email to her and share my worry . . . or sadness.

WFA. My good friend Eva died, and I miss her so much.

Eva would’ve understood. And now all I can do is cry.

….and Meanwhile in the Writing….

Beautiful, anomalous purple pea flowers

This year, in the garden, we were the most organized we’ve been in years. We cleared the debris left from last year’s garden, we tilled the soil, we added compost. We planted seeds, soon after the last frost, as advised on the packet. And then we waited.

Powdery mildew on the squash plant
The seeds came up, but they were less than enthusiastic. It was a cold spring, so we never got the arugula we’d been waiting and hoping for. It bolted too early. Same with the bok choy. Then too much rain. And so some seeds were washed away. Other places, mushrooms and mildew grew where they shouldn’t have.

Then there were the flat-out anomalies: purple and pink pea flowers where there should only be white, a viola flower among the carrots, “volunteer” cilantro and morning glories everywhere.

Viola among the carrots
And meanwhile in the writing…as with the garden, it hasn’t gone as planned. (Although I’m very organized, with lots of plans and ideas.) Distracted and distractible. Dribs and drabs. At times untouched. At times missed. Sometimes loathed and resented. It sits on my desk, in the computer, mildewing and growing mushrooms.

Mushrooms in the potted peppers
How does your writing grow? Are you, like me, distracted and distractible, by life’s ups and downs? Or are you on course: steady and dependable, no matter what?


The Envelope Please….And the Award Goes to….

ME! I’m happy to announce that last week, I was presented with The Versatile Blogger award!

Ado, who blogs at Momalog, presented me the award, giving me—as she calls ither “stamp of approval.” But why does this make me so happy? It’s because through blogging, I’ve had the opportunity to write everyday while making friends with other writers like Ado—and you—who read, comment on, and retweet my blog posts! It’s nice to have made such good writer friends!
To formally accept this award I need to do the following:

1. Thank and link to the blogger who gave me the award.

2. Share 7 things about myself.

3. Share this Award with at least 15 other bloggers.

4. Contact these bloggers to let them know that they got the award.

Here goes, a BIG thank you!

Thank you to Ado @AdoTheMomalog who writes Momalog, a funny, heartfelt, entertaining, really well-written blog that ALSO has some very cute pics of her two little girls and places she goes—check it out! Thanks again, Ado!

7 Things About Me

1. Even in the winter, I prefer to wear slip-on, clog-style shoes. I don’t own even one pair of heels.

2. I love coffee, but I hate flavored coffee.

3. My favorite flower is any one in bloom in my garden or any one in a vase on my table. My favorite weed is dandelion—they’re beautiful!

4. My passion for gardening comes from my two grandmothers: one who gardened and picked wild mushrooms on the banks of the Yellow Creek in Ohio, and one who lived in Manhattan but gardened and picked wild berries at her lake house in Putnam Valley, NY.

5. I love long car trips and train rides. I hate flying.

6. I have crawled on my hands and knees through the Great Pyramid of Giza, taken a boat excursion down the Nile River in Uganda, visited rain forests on two continents, and lived in houses within view of both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans…and I was born in France; I’ve also lived in Kenya, Uganda, and Belize (and of course the U.S.); I’ve visited Canada, Mexico, England, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt; I’ve lived in 5 states; and I’ve visited 31 others plus Washington, D.C. I consider myself a Third Culture Kid.

7. I started as a pre-med Zoology major and ended up getting a degree in Journalism. I attended three colleges, switched majors four times, and got married before I finished college. (Did I mention that my parents both have PhDs from Harvard, are college professors, and that my father almost disowned me?)

15+ Versatile Blogger Awards

I hereby present The Versatile Blogger award to these wonderful bloggers—whose blogs I check every day to see if they’ve posted something new! (And you should check in on them, too!)

Cynthia Robertson, Writer, who blogs about “Thoughts on all aspects of writing and getting published, book reviews, and the occasional rant.” I love Cynthia’s writing tips; she’s an amazing writer who is incredibly supportive and encouraging!

Melissa Crytzer Fry who writes (and posts amazing desert pictures) at what I saw…a springboard for creativity and awareness,” is not only one of my favorite blogging writers, but she is also a wonderfully supportive, encouraging, and funny writer friend.
Jen Walker at My Morning Chocolate, “Delicious Inspiration for People who Wake Up Thinking about Food,” who guest posted here on my blog yesterday! I share Jen’s passions for food and writing.

Natalia Sylvester, whose blog is “finding truth through fiction.” Natalia is an amazing writer who writes consistently strong blogs, and sometimes we seem to communicate via ESP about what we blog about!
Christine or CM Grote at Random Thoughts from Midlife, writes (and posts amazing photos) in “A journal — reminiscence, rambling and rants.” Christine’s garden is incredible, she posts great daily posts (like I try to do), and she writes great blogs about self publishing.
Nina Badzin blogs and writes about “The Writing Life. Married Life. and Motherhood.” I look forward to Nina’s blogs because they are so well written, and full of humor, spot-on life reflections, and great advice, too.
Leah Singer at Leah’s Thoughts, which is “A journal of musings, essays, life lessons, recipes and whatever else comes to mind…” Leah and I are frequently on the same wavelength, and I love every blog she writes. Her photos are wonderful, and I love hearing about her adventures with Sophie.

Jolina Petersheim at The Happy Book Blog, “Adding a splash of Technicolor optimism in a world turned to gray.” Jolina is a writer with a strong voice who writes with humor and poignancy, and I often leave her blog with a smile or tears or both!

Erika Marks whose blog is…“On Writing, Publishing and Other Delicacies.” Erika is a wonderful writer with a big heart who I have a strong Maine and birdwatching connection with. She is another supportive, encouraging writer; and she has a book coming out this October!
Another of my favorite blogs is “Scraps & Scribblings” from Amanda Hoving at Amanda’s Wrinkled Pages. I can count on Amanda to make me think and make me laugh, always. Amanda was the first one who encouraged me with 1K writing hours!
Hallie Sawyer, at Write for Me, “An aspiring author blog about writing, books, and her life.” Hallie offers wonderful reflections on the daily life of a writing mom and is a great supporter of other writers. She frequently gives me fresh ways to look at my writing habits.
Aisha Iqbal who blogs about “Musings of a Pakistani-American on marriage, motherhood, writing, and more.” Aisha is a long-time blogger who blogs about her young son, cooking, current events and, of course, writing. She frequently makes me laugh and remember what it’s like to be a mom to a very young child!

Liz, who blogs at a belle, a bean & a chicago dog: an autobiography of marriage, parenthood & life, in general. I can always count on Liz to make me laugh! Liz also blogs about social networking, and we enthusiastically got our iPhones at about the same time. Her photos and blogs of her girls are priceless, and she recently vlogged for the first time!

Kenneth Hopkins at Kid Stuph, “wisdom from the mind of a grown up kid…” I love Kenneth’s reflections on life and fatherhood, with humor and a lot of heart! I often find myself nodding my head in agreement to his observations of life.

V.V. Denman, “Christian Writer, Avid Reader, Random Blogger.” V.V. blogs about a wide variety of subjects; all her blogs are well written and entertaining. I love her writer riddles!

Milli Thornton who blogs at Fear of Writing (home of the 10K Days!) about “putting the fun back into writing” and about travel at Milliver’s Travels. Milli has a positive outlook on life and is an enthusiastic advocate for writing and writers.

Thank you to all these wonderful bloggers for entertaining, informing, befriending, and encouraging me! Who would you give a blogger award to? Always looking for new blogs to follow!!