The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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Homeschooling: Herbal Marshmallows

Floppy and I have been working through this book, a sort of children’s herbal.


I have mixed feelings about herb books. Part of me loves them, loves the wise-woman magic of making medicines and cosmetics and foods and rituals from plants. One of my failings as a parent is that I don’t do well with Floppy’s little injuries and illnesses. I tend to get irritable with him for having gotten sick or hurt — a blame-the-victim mentality if ever there was one, but to be fair, he usually gets boo boos from doing things like tearing through the house at top speed after having been told 10 times to cut it out. But I think some of the irritability is really just my own frustration with not being able to fix it, not being able to help. I’d like to have a repertoire of wise-woman tricks — even if they are only placebos — at the ready to care for my loves. I love the idea of having a witchy little apothecary of things I’d grown or collected to share in difficult or painful times.

Also, Floppy loves this stuff, in much the same way I did when I was his age. The natural world has magic in it, and making aromatic herbs into mysterious things that you can tell magical stories about is appealing to him as it was to me.

On the other hand, a lot of the medical claims they make in books like these are, you know, pretty much totally unfounded. I get the feeling that most of the adult people who are “into” herbs don’t have a very high standard for scientific rigor of medical claims, you know? And, well, fair enough. Even if you want to be intellectually rigorous about it: There are a lot of legitimate reasons for herbalists to be cynical of science as it is actually practiced, such as the fact that scientific studies of herbal medicine — as with every other kind of medicine — don’t happen unless someone stands to make a lot of money, and are biased in various ways against herbs that cannot be used to make anyone any money. Also, it’s very hard to research herbal medicine and traditional folks beliefs of all kinds, because these things work — if they work — synergistically, embedded into systems that are hard to study. You can’t isolate one active compound from a traditional herbal medicine practice and do a randomized controlled trial on it without feeling like you’re searching for the needle in the haystack. For example: Imagine an herbal compound for blood pressure and cardiac health, let’s say, that works when one part (which part? that’s a whole study right there!) of the whole plant is brewed into a tisane given to you by your herbalist, but does nothing when the compound is isolated from the plant and synthesized into a swallowable pill given to you by your pharmacist. Some plants are perfectly edible, delicious, and nutritious, when consumed by a healthy, non-nutritionally stressed human as part of a balanced diet, and fatally toxic when consumed in quantity by a hungry human. Some medications — not herbs, plain old Western medications — do nothing when the patient doesn’t know s/he’s taken them. This stuff would be terribly difficult to research with enormous resources. But there are very few resources to study herbal medicine traditions, and there never will be.  

So I understand why herbalists are cavalier about science. Nevertheless, using a medication — any medication, even one made out of a plant and brewed up into a mild herbal tea or applied as a wise-woman poultice — that I has nothing more than folk wisdom to recommend it, or even ensure its safety, gives me the creeps. And teaching my son to do this strikes me as unscientific, unthoughtful. So I have mixed feelings!

I’m resolving this in the short-term by sticking to those portions of the book that feature food herbs and somewhat schlocky-sweet magical stories. With which we are having an excellent time!

This week, we made marshmallows using real marshmallow root:

I was SO excited for these marshmallows. I’ve always wanted to make marshmallows with the actual botanical, and the recipe had no gelatin in it, which I also liked, because I dislike the fetid smell gelatin gives homemade marshmallows. But, truthfully, these turned out more like meringues than marshmallows — whipped egg white is the main ingredient — and Floppy thought they were disgusting. I think they might be good floating in hot chocolate — but haven’t tried that yet,

After we stuck the marshmallows in the oven, we read a silly little story about two children exploring a garden where the spirits of herbs grow and beg humans to use them. Floppy thought this story was wonderful, magical and inspiring, and after we read it, he wrote a little plants-and-magic tale of his own. A successful evening all around!


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On Printing Poetry (and Being Supportive)

I’m taking a letterpress chapbook printing class. I’ve wanted to learn printmaking for a long time, for a project I have in mind, and the opportunity came up to learn in this way, so I grabbed it. Everyone in the class is printing a chapbook of poetry, for a practical reason. Setting type into paragraphs isn’t a good beginner letterpress exercise, because one error and you have to redo the entire paragraph. Which, at the rate I set type, might take me 8-12 hours. For one paragraph. So the instructor doesn’t let you set prose. Poetry it is: Make a mistake in typesetting, and you only have to fix one line.

There’s another restriction set by the instructor, too, which is that — given that we are publishing an edition of 20 copies of each chapbook — the poetry set has to be free of problems with copyright. Either you own the copywright, or you have permission, or it’s in the public domain. I’m setting my own poetry, but I’m the only one. The other women in the class — the class is all women, except the instructor, this time — are setting various things.  Some Gerard Manley Hopkins, some Victorian doggerel, some other things I haven’t kept track of. But this was the interesting thing to me: There are eight women in the class. Two are setting their husbands’ poetry, one woman her boyfriend’s poetry, and one woman the poetry of a friend.

Here’s the thing: I’m a feminist. I’m a skillful apprentice writer and poet. I’m a talented behavioral scientist. (Does that sound arrogant to you? Maybe so. I’m also a little bit arrogant.) Not only that, I’m used to being extremely well-supported by the men who care about me. My husband is a stay-at-home parent for our son. He makes nearly all of my meals. He does most of the child care and always has. He does most of the housework. In the most fundamental sense, he supports my career.  In fact, almost all of the men I’ve loved have been feminists, all of the men I’ve ever loved have cared about me and wanted my success in whatever endeavor I put my mind to.  I’m privileged to be able to say I’ve always been very well supported by men.

I’ve been well supported by men (and women) specifically as an artist and scientist. I’ve received lots of encouragement and praise for my writing and scientific work from male teachers and colleagues. I’ve received excellent criticism, extended, time-consuming, focused criticism over multiple drafts  of my writing, from male poets at my online poetry workshop, and detailed reviews of my scientific work from male scholars and editors. All of my mentors, of both genders, have always done their jobs for me and given me tremendous opportunities (although with my sample n = 1 I can say that the female mentors have always been more generous, and occasionally the male mentors have hit on me, which the female mentors never have done). Male editors have published my poetry and my scientific work. Male judges have awarded me prizes. The men who love me have — when I’ve asked — read manuscripts, made copies of grant applications, run things to the post office at midnight to meet a deadline. I’ve had plenty of privileges given to me by my betters and loved ones (of both genders) as an artist and a scientist, and I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

But I really, truly, cannot imagine any man in my life taking it into his head to learn to typeset so that he could set a chapbook of my poetry. If they had that kind of time or energy for art, it would be their own art they would be investing in. (And rightly so!) That kind of support — the kind of support where someone believes in your art or your ideas to such a degree that they take your success on as a personal project of their own — is not support I’ve ever received from anyone, with one exception. When I was a little girl, 9 or 10 years old, my favorite aunt, also a fine poet, submitted my poetry to literary magazines and contests. The accolades she worked for on my behalf were my only publication and prize credits for poetry until I was well into my 30s. It took that long for me to develop that kind of drive for myself.

I’ve  provided this kind of support to a few artists I’ve known and cared about, mostly men, sometimes lovers and sometimes “just” friends, gifted people who captured my imagination and whom I wanted to prod onto a wider stage. Not because anyone asked me or expected me to, but because I loved and admired the artists and/or loved and admired the art. Because I wanted the best for them.  And looking around my letterpress class, half full of women setting their beloveds’ poetry, I know I’m not alone.

Recently I approached a male poet friend about a possible collaboration, and he turned me down in a way that was mysterious to me for a long time. He suggested that I had the talent to do this work for myself, ought to develop the confidence to do it for myself, and therefore didn’t need him as a collaborator. I was mystified because my sense was that confidence had nothing to do with it. (I have my insecurities, but not so much about writing.) I wanted to collaborate because I like to collaborate — I like the energy of two or more people writing and making art together, encouraging each other, challenging each other. I get more done in groups and pairs than I do on my own, because it’s so artistically satisfying to work in collaboration. What did confidence have to do with it?

But then I remembered this brilliant article, that I’ve always assigned students to read when I teach about the psychology of gender. Maccoby’s point is that gender is not mostly learned from parents and families. It’s learned on the playground, from other same-gender kids. What do little boys teach other little boys?

That life is about dominance, about victory, about success, about who wins at King of the Hill. So the men I’ve known have mostly been focused on their own careers, their own ambitions. When they think about others’ careers, it’s mostly to compare and figure out how to get ahead. They might like me, love me, care about me, be in love with me, but they certainly don’t have time to typeset my poetry. No wonder my friend assumed if I wanted to collaborate it must be because I didn’t think my work could stand on its own. Why else make the effort?

But what do little girls teach other little girls on the playground? That life is about love, relationships, braiding hair and telling stories, who likes you, who you can be kind to in return. So I know lots of women that work in groups, or that get personal gratification and enjoyment out of developing and promoting other people’s art. Think of Julia Cameron and her former husband Martin Scorsese. They’re both famous. But he’s “one of the greatest directors of all time.” And she’s “most famous for her book The Artist’s Way,” which was “written to help people with creative artistic recovery.” He makes masterpieces, and she makes masterpiece-makers. 

Scorsese and Cameron weren’t married long, but they were married at a pivotal moment in his career. Would he be “one of the greatest” without her midwifery? Maybe he would. But how many men would be the artists or scientists they are today, without the personal investment of the kind of women who would learn to typeset so they could publish a book of his poetry?