20 November 2007

Inspired by the Gift of a Sage Wreath

I am blessed, though that is not nearly strong enough a word, by the friendship - again, an inadequate word - of two men I would not want to imagine life without.

Friendships come in all shapes and sizes. The friends we spend the most time with are not necessarily our closest confidants. My two special guys have incredibly demanding careers, including commutes that take one from our Bolton Hill neighborhood into D.C. and the other from Mount Airy into Bolton Hill, so while one or the other is usually nearby, there is little time for the face-to-face interaction that typifies most close relationships. We don't even e-mail. Instead, we spend hours on the phone as they drive and drive and drive. Hence, time spent together at dinners and celebrations, even neighborhood meetings, is truly savored.

It's odd for me that this is OK, as I thrive on doting on my friends, particularly feeding them. I generally believe the fires of friendships need to be stoked, that a constant diet of virtual or phone contact can never substitute for being in the same place at the same time. But because these gentlemen are as essential as breathing, the compensation for not being able to see them often is the comfort of knowing their love is like the Wi-Fi network in my house - always surrounding me and always available to tap into.

One of these gents recently left the gift of a homemade sage wreath on my doorstep. The wreath was accompanied by another present, a beautifully-penned, heartfelt note explaining the offering followed in the tradition of his Italian grandfather, who would craft sage wreaths for those close to him experiencing challenges. The wreaths apparently always brought relief to the recipients. Why and how, I am not exactly sure, though doubtless there's anyone who doesn't benefit from knowing that someone else is thinking of him or her and has taken the time and care to handcraft an exquisite gift, particularly one that is so meaningful to the giver, who in turn knows it will be just that to the receiver.

While not every nice thing needs to be dissected to be enjoyed, my curiosity about the sentiment behind the wreath got me Googling - frustratingly, to no avail. I inquired of the giver for additional clues and he mentioned the possibility of a connection with the French beaujolais nouveau celebration held the third week of November every year. But plugging that into Google also proved fruitless, so I let it drop.

Last week, while reviewing my Thanksgiving menu, which always includes a self-concocted cornbread, leek, and shitake mushroom stuffing recipe perfected a few years back by a cornbread recipe supplied by my buddy Keiffer, I realized this year's stuffing would be even more special with the addition of the now-dried sage from the wreath to supplement fresh sage from my garden. That sparked my curiosity again, so I got on the phone and called several wine shops, including Chesapeake Wine Company, owned by Mitchell Pressman, who lived just a few doors from me when we were kids.

I do not drink much in the way of alcoholic beverages. As a formerly overweight person battling to stay thin, I simply have no wiggle room in my daily caloric intake. Alcohol consumption is directly linked to certain cancers so rampant in my family. And as a foodie and a frequent hostess, I'm totally embarrassed to know next to nothing about wine. My other special gent and his partner always supply my dinner party wines - sumptuous wines, I am told. I rarely imbibe, unless it's Champagne (a few sips of that and I am invariably told I ought to drink more often, that I'm a lot more fun).

Wine shops intimidate me. I venture in only to buy essencia orange muscat for my poached quince, Manischewitz concord grape for my poached pears, Pikesville rye for my honey cake, and Kahlua and Amaretto for coffee and ice cream. I know only the basics, and I probably know less than I think I know. Again, for a foodie, it's embarrassing.

When Mitchell answered the phone and I announced myself, he was amazed - seems my name had literally just come up in conversation a few days earlier, though he could not recall why and with whom (stuff like this never surprises me, and those who know me understand every nuance behind that statement). After a brief chat about the wreath (no, no knowledge of any connection to beaujolais nouveau), I headed down to visit with him in what I found to be his fantastically warm and welcoming shop at the American Can Company in Canton.

After Mitchell and I hugged hello and caught up on the last, oh, 40 years, we got to talking about folks like me, who are curious about wine, but much too intimidated by the vastness of the subject to even approach it. He said that even though he's been in the wine business for 30+ years, and even though no wine is offered for sale in his shop unless he himself has tasted and approved it, he still considers himself a novice.

That statement not only rocked my world, it changed it.

I don't merely like to learn something new, but rather conquer it, so consequently, I only consider learning the skills I am confident I can quickly master. Cake decorating is a perfect example. In 1996, in the space of less than a year, I went from knowing nothing to being able to skillfully copy Martha Stewart Weddings Magazine cakes, down to the fondant and gum paste flowers. In 1981, I bought a brand new five-speed VW Jetta, never having previously touched a shift knob. Granted, dropping ten thousand dollars on what economists call a commitment device pretty much guaranteed I would learn to drive a manual transmission quickly. But that is the speed with which I have a compulsion to learn. I've been this way since childhood. I want to know everything and I want to know it now.

Mitchell's comment forced me to realize that I have continuously and profoundly deprived and limited myself. I've wanted to speak Spanish, design with Photoshop and CADD, write with a calligraphic flourish, grow the more exotic orchids - and understand and appreciate wine - but my fear of not being quickly proficient has put the kibosh on a whole lot of learning.

There's not a day I am not supremely grateful for the talents with which I am blessed, but the flip side is the frustration with what does not come easily - musical instruments, foreign languages, crocheting, catching a ball, etc. I am reminded of these blind spots every year at this time as I choose the skills I'd like to acquire in the coming year.

Tick-tock. Life is short. Do it now. But I'm not this driven and impatient in all areas of my life. My friends know me to be instantly and endlessly available to listen and give counsel. I knit with ultra-skinny yarn and teeny-tiny needles. And I need look no further than the amaryllis bulbs on my windowsill to note that progress in the garden is often imperceptible.

Hmmm, but what's this?

Every gardener knows success is not even guaranteed, so I'm not sure how to explain what keeps me with my hands in the dirt year after humbling year. Even after 30+ years in my garden, I, too, am still a novice.

Wow. What a kick in the fanny.

With that, it's clear I have no excuse left not to learn about wine, no matter how long it takes to voyage from Manischewitz to Malbec. And it's time to start chipping away at the wish list. Yes, it will take aeons to master certain subjects, in some cases a lifetime. But there's so much to be learned, however slowly and in whatever way I can. The journey of a thousand miles beginning with the first step will be an ever-present mantra.

Since everyone will soon need an understanding of Spanish, if time/money prevents me from taking a class, then I should at least be going on-line for vocabulary words. Other people learn Photoshop every day; I just need to declare I will be one of them. And with only twenty-six letters and ten numbers to form, my steady hand certainly can grasp the basics of calligraphy.

Learning something new compels us down other avenues we can't even yet visualize, just as my curiosity about the sage wreath detoured me into Mitchell's wine shop. Those two hours re-connecting with an old friend led me to grant myself permission to not always be an instant expert. One gift leads to another if we let it.

The gift of a sage wreath hit its target by cheering me up, but then unexpectedly set me on the path to losing my fear of the fermented grape.

May the gift continue to bear fruit.