July is a month of opposites. The intoxicating thrill of hot weather casts a spell of electrifying delirium, but also a stupefying and mind-numbing glaze. Office workers are scant – all having escaped to the lake by Thursday at 2 pm, or at the very least, cool basements – while university students flit by on their bicycles, the breeze they make the only form of respite. The children are still riding the high of freedom from school, before the melancholy of late August sets in.
This year is even stranger: with no festivals or large public gatherings, the time feels mushy, unmarked by these events. Making plans with friends would have been framed by these things (“I’ll see you after Folk Fest” “Let’s go to the festival together!”), but without these milestones, the days feel untethered. While there is a longing to gather, to press skin against skin, there is also a love and consideration given in the act of staying apart.
In summer, teaching yoga is usually difficult. Attendance is lacklustre because everyone wants to be outside or has BBQ/sangria plans. Years of indoctrination into a school year’s rhythm that dictates we take summers off has resulted in this idea that we needn’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t learn anything in July and August: it would be antithetical to the institution of summer.
This year, the tone of the yoga classes has had more gravitas: due to the lockdown, studios had been closed for over two months, if not longer, while some have permanently closed their doors, succumbing in large part to a different sort of virus, aka the untenable cost of commercial rent. Coming back to teaching in the height of summer has had a morose tinge – a dissonant energy when backdropped by long bright days. I sense a grim sort of gratitude from the students, a deeper understanding that we need to savour this, because it could all go away again in an instant.
July is the month that strawberries ripen in Manitoba. The strawberry season is a mere 2-3 weeks, assuming the weather cooperates. Going to a u-pick farm is a bit of a competitive sport, and this year is no exception. This is my second year of going to the u-pick, and fortunately I emerged, with my partner-in-picking, successful and relatively unscathed (except for red-stained fingers)! For days after, strawberries take priority over everything else and I live, eat, and breathe strawberries: eating them raw, in granola, making strawberry cake, freezing them to be enjoyed in the winter months, and making batch after batch of jam. I close my eyes at night and all I can see are strawberries. These special days are perfumed by the berry, and the sound of the jam bubbling on the stove is my life’s music. I am thrilled with the resourceful alchemy of creating preserves that’ll be enjoyed for the rest of the year and gifted out to family and friends, making the most of a day that I had spent squatting in a field amidst nature’s bounty, underneath the prairie sky.
July is also the month that one of my teachers, Michael Stone, suddenly and tragically passed away in 2017. It is also the month before my teacher and friend, Jonathan Austman, took his own life, one year ago (August 1st, 2019).
July is a month of polarities, indeed.
As I get older, the contrasts of life feel more complicated. One feeling ripples and braids out into a million more, like roots searching for water through the soil. How is one thrilled and mournful at the same time? Joyful yet laden with grief? Letting oneself feel this multiplicity is difficult enough, never mind trying to communicate it to another.
Getting older has also meant experiencing more endings: deaths, favourite businesses closing down, old ways of doing things disappearing (don’t think we’ll be eating a birthday cake that someone has blown the candles out on any time soon!) – leaving things behind is destabilizing, especially if the path forward is unclear, as it most often is.
Uncharted territory can be exciting and expansive for some, but for me, the strangeness and instability of the past year has knocked out most of my creativity. Any ideas I have had seem to float out of my lips, hover, and then drift down through my fingers before I can catch them, disappearing into the cracks in the ground opening up underneath me. Just as the days stretch and blend to get lost in unmarked time, inspired thoughts drift and elude being caught.
Michael would often talk about how creativity isn’t limited only to the Arts, but actually becomes most interesting – and necessary – when applied to how to live your life. This is the kind of creativity I crave and need the most: ideas to navigate and solve issues like, how do I continue a career that is getting crushed down to the bone by financial, social and political factors? How do I continue a practice that honours my past teachers without dogmatically repeating the statements of ghosts? How do I love my partner and give him my full presence when we spend 23 hours of the day together? How do I, how do I…
Then again, it doesn’t always make sense to innovate. The ratio of fruit and sugar has to stay within a certain range for a strawberry jam to set properly. There are some laws that are immutable.
So I keep stirring the jam, as it bubbles away. I stir, because I don’t know what else to do, and because it prevents the jam from burning, because it’s an act of maintenance, that prevents things from getting worse. I make the jam in a huge tin pot, that Jonathan handed down to me, years ago.
I hardly use this pot. In fact, I once almost got rid of it because it was too big for everyday use. I kept it though, because it was a nice gift, and at the end of the day, you can never have too many pots.
Last year in July, when I had gone strawberry picking, I had the fortunate problem of making too much freezer jam that I was running out of space. I brought some jars to the yoga studio and shoved them into the freezer there – not only to set, but also to give away to teacher-friends. I had labeled each jar with the person’s name, and emailed them to let them know to pick it up. At the time, Jonathan was away on holiday. For some reason, I didn’t leave him a jar. For the past year, I have racked my brain for memories, but I can’t find an answer as to why. I suppose it worked out, in some regard, because he never came back to the studio. It would have broken me more to have had to take home a jar with his name on it.
This year, as I stir the jam in his pot, I wonder what he made in it. I have an inkling it wasn’t his pot to begin with, so I wonder a little more, about its origins and various owners, and of how we think things belong to us, when they actually don’t.
I am canning more jam than is humanly possible (or advisable) for me and my partner to consume in a year. So there’ll be a lot going out to family and friends, which brings me much joy, as feeding others is definitely my love language. And while I’ll never make food for Jonathan again, his pot will be put to good use. The gifts of his life will be passed on, in innumerable and creative ways.
Strawberry basil lime jam
Adapted from Everything I Want to Eat, by Jessica Koslow
3 kg strawberries, destemmed
1.84 kg white sugar
1.5 limes, juice and skin
5-8 sprigs fresh basil
De-stemming strawberries is an excellent form of awareness practice: cutting exactly where it needs to be cut to keep as much fruit as possible, and to do it in a steady rhythm. It’s nice to set yourself up comfortably for this task: since I hold a paring knife in my left hand, I have the garbage can to my left, and the pot to catch the strawberries on my right.
After de-stemming, pour the sugar over the strawberries in the pot. Using a potato masher or a large wooden spoon, mix everything together. Since my pot is tall, and I’m not, I set mine on a chair so I can lean over it and press down to mix the crystalline granules with the whole fruit. At first there will be a lot of resistance, but soon enough it’ll magically combine to a shiny, bright red globular sludge. Cover the surface with parchment paper and let it sit overnight to hydrate – this will reduce the amount of cooking time.
The next day is the big day! Remove the parchment paper and put the pot on the stove over high heat. I keep the lid on until the berries reach a boil, at which point I take the lid off so the moisture can begin evaporating. All jam recipes talk about skimming the scum off the top. I really don’t understand why. After a while, that foamy stuff will collapse back into the jam, and become indistinguishable. Why fret over the foam? Admittedly, I do some foam-skimming to pay homage to jam-makers before me and to let the jam know that I am taking care of it and love it and will never abandon it.
Then, squeeze in the juice of 1.5 limes and throw in the skins as well. The pectin from the lime skin will help thicken the jam, because as you have noticed, we will not be adding pectin to this jam! Pectin is a naturally occurring soluble fibre found in fruits and vegetables, and isn’t something to get your shorts all twisted about, but there is a beautiful simplicity to the jam-making process if you can reduce the amount of ingredients and really let the fruit shine through.
Now, the waiting begins. This is a good time to throw a few small plates in the freezer for your Plate Test (more on that later) and to wash 5 x 500 ml mason jars (or 10 x 250 ml, or some combination of the two sizes that amounts to 2.5 L volume). Arrange your glass jars and lids (lids off the jars) on a baking sheet and stick them in the oven at 250 degrees F for 20 minutes to sterilize.
(Note: if you are very serious about jam-making and canning, feel free to cross-reference these temperatures / times with other websites that Mother Google offers.)
When you feel that the jam has reduced in volume by about 15-25%, throw in the whole sprigs of basil. As the jam thickens, you’ll want to stir the pot more frequently to prevent sticking and burning on the bottom.
When the jam has reduced in volume by about half, you are getting close to the desired consistency. Careful, as it gets thicker, it’ll start to bubble up like lava! This is the time to begin doing Plate Tests: dribble a teaspoon of jam onto a plate from the freezer, and then put it back in the freezer for one minute. Take it out, and slide your finger through the middle of the jam. If the jam comes back together, then it needs to keep boiling and reduce more. If the jam stays apart, then it is ready to go in the jars!
Once the jam is at the desired consistency, use tongs to remove the limes and basil sprigs. Ladle the jam into the jars, leaving about 0.5 cm of space from the top. Screw the lids on with a light firmness, and then turn the jars over for 20 seconds to help push out air. You want to fill the jars with swift steadiness, so the jam doesn’t cool down too much.
With the jars on the baking sheet, stick them back in the oven at 250 degrees F for 25-30 minutes. This is to sterilize the jam so that they can be kept at room temperature for the next year until you crack open the lid (at which point, keep the jar in the fridge). The pressure from the heat might have loosened the rings of the lid, so when you take them out to cool down, very carefully tighten the rings again, and stay around (again, make sure you let the jam know you love it and won’t abandon it) to hear/notice for the lids to pop and the vacuum to seal. If they don’t, you can simply store those jars in the fridge. A fridge that has its back wall lined with jars of jam is a beautiful thing.
Enjoy, and share with loved ones.