Choosing Simplicity (When Applicable)

As the summer winds down, a funny thing has happened for the two of us. For as long as I can remember, the academic calendar has provided the framework for my sense of time. The year was a double marathon of two semesters, split on either end with recovery time: the intermission of winter break and the longer pause of summer. Even after I finished graduate school and drifted from the semesterly ebb and flow, my husband’s academic schedule held it intact as the background music for our lives. But since he finished his doctoral coursework in the spring, we’ve been cut loose from its contrasts for a while. Our pace held steady as we worked through the summer, and the impending change of seasons won’t hold as much significance for us this time around. Back-to-school sales and the return of students to campus don’t register as much from where we stand. I take note momentarily, then carry on as usual.

What’s left is the sense that the end of summer is a time for reflection. Even if the temperature is the only thing that changes for us between here and September, I can’t shake the urge to take stock of what I’ve learned in the previous year and what I hope for in the year to come.

A little over a year ago, I settled into this space with a question or two about simplicity. What is it, exactly? And how does it work? And is it really even possible?

Of course, I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did catch sight of a common thread as I wondered aloud about simplicity in different contexts, from eating to writing to making a wedding. It’s a thread that’s become even clearer as I make my way through the book I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bird by Bird.

It’s that most things, from eating to writing to making weddings, are not particularly simple. It would be naïve to imagine that we could ever simplify our feelings about the daily rituals, momentous occasions, and creative errands that shape our lives. Each is layered with memories (our own and others’) and colored by place and time, culture and nostalgia. And even if complexity is often a source of stress, it is also a source of richness and depth.

The opportunity for simplicity, then, is in the process, and we get to choose when and how we’ll make it work. Even if I can’t simplify how I’ll feel about writing on any given day, I can know when and where I’ll write, what tools I’ll use to do it, and what I’ll do before and after. And while we can’t simplify our own and others’ feelings about life cycle events, we can seek out opportunities to simplify the material aspects of the occasion. And although every dinner will not be simple, we can discover simplicity in the fact that a meal may be composed of whatever is at hand and that we’ll have a chance to try again at about the same time tomorrow.

My task, I think, for the coming year, is seek out those spaces where simplicity is possible and to find beauty, too, in the spaces where it isn’t.

A Little Walk

process_header

Flowers by Plenty of Posies. Photo by Wonderbliss Wedding Photography.

On the night before our wedding, I woke up when Brian came to bed and thought, “I can’t believe we got married and didn’t go to bed at the same time!” Then I walked to the hotel bathroom with its mysteriously and perpetually wet floor, flipped on the light and realized, no. It didn’t happen yet. That was just the rehearsal dinner.

When I woke up again, in the morning, it was grey and raining a little. “It’s supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day,” I thought, and got dressed for coffee with the wedding team. Some logistics, vegan waffles, gossip in bed and a hot shower later and it was time to get ready.

A lot of the time, I try to want the minimum, take care of my own needs, be the helper. But on your wedding day, people don’t really let you do that. If you say, “Oh do her makeup first,” when it’s 3:00 PM and becoming clear that either you or your sister-in-law, but not both, will be getting her makeup done, nobody’s having it. So you sit down in the chair and someone brings you a bottle of water. Being able to feel fine about that feels freaking awesome.

While we were getting ready, my sister-in-law Wendy, a practical, hilarious class act, as both my sister-in-laws are, called down to order champagne. She possesses that innate understanding that some practical people have of how to celebrate—what to splurge on, where to pin a corsage, when to have another drink and when to call it a night. It’s a skillset that my parents and I lack, but that somehow my brother ended up with. All my in-laws have it, and I find it absolutely thrilling.

The guy on the other end of the phone told her, “I’m sorry, we only have sparkling wine.” (Who knew the Holiday Inn were such sticklers about authentic, Champagne-region Champagne, what with the baby poop in the lobby and all.)

“That’s fine,” Wendy said, in her quick, deadpan voice.

“Well, I don’t have a price list here. My manager will be here in an hour, so I can call you back then.”

“Well, why don’t you just figure out a price, and if it’s not reasonable, just . . . make it reasonable,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

My sister-in-law Karen looked at her approvingly, “That’s my kinda girl.”

My friend Allison’s wide-set baby mammal eyes trained on my face as she applied foundation and blush with little white sponges. I drank bottled water with my mouth in an O shape to try to avoid rubbing off my lipstick.

Around 5 PM, the photographer told us that she’d been down to the wedding site and the clouds had broken and the sun was out.

I hadn’t allowed enough time for getting ready and we had to start over on the hair a few times, so we ended up arriving at the ceremony about 15 minutes late. We pulled into the farmer’s market parking lot just as my cousin Ricky and his girlfriend Amanda arrived with their dog Buddy, a giant “man in a dog suit” kind of dog.

“Is it ok if we bring Buddy?” Amanda called out.

“I think I saw a sign saying no dogs in the pavillion?” I replied.

“Oh we asked someone, she said it’s really up to you.”

“Then sure!”

Who doesn’t want a man in a dog suit at their wedding?

The chaos, cheer, and rule-breaking of my family already in full effect, I felt heartened. We may not know how to class things up, but we know how to make things irreverent, which I think is equally important.

We walked through the gravel towards the market. Wendy and I held hands. When they dropped me off at my waiting area, Karen looked over her shoulder and said, in her 80’s movie star voice, “Don’t worry. You’re just takin’ a little walk.”

I watched them find their respective husbands and start down the aisle to the Peanuts song. The flower girl walked to her “mark” (the day before, at my panicked request, my friend Ted, a film director, had graciously taken over directing the rehearsal) and took the ring bearer’s hand. I started to walk out behind them and Ted stopped me, whispering, “Wait a second, we’re building a dramatic pause for you.”

The music changed to the traditional Here Comes The Bride. It was funny the things I ended up feeling traditional about. We didn’t have a cake or toss flowers or do the garter, but I wanted that song, and I made sure to have something old (my necklace), something new (my dress), something borrowed (thread and time from my friend Kara, who helped me hem my dress by hand, watching Pretty Little Liars on the internet, just like they did in the olden days), and something blue (my eyes.)

I went to my mark, and though my instinct is always to rush, I thought, “Molly, this is the one time it’s ok to make people wait.” Which is probably really for the best, given I rarely wear heels and my dress was nearly floor length.

I walked past the decorations, which I’d helped to coordinate but which were made into reality by friends. These friends who amaze me all the time with their creativity and art had made the space so beautiful, so much better than I’d envisioned it, and I’m pretty sure I started crying right then.

I made it (slowly) down the few steps to the area where everyone was sitting, and the first things I saw were a little kid and Buddy the dog sticking their heads into the aisle and I thought, “Yup. This is my wedding.”

Brian was standing all the way at the end of the dock, so he walked up as I walked down, and we met where the water meets the land. My friend Andrea was our officiant, and looked so beautiful that I got choked up like it was her wedding day.

I had to laugh at myself a little as she read the ceremony, which I had written, clearly in a time of great trepidation, for the whole thing is kind of a pep talk saying, “don’t be scared! You can do this!” But it turned out that once it was happening I wasn’t scared.

My friend Kallista read a poem about an old man saving toads in the road, because “they have places to go, too,” which Brian referenced a few days later as he carefully saved a large slug from getting stepped on. My friend Q read a passage by Pema Chodron and Brian’s brother Mike finished it up.

I’d partly picked that Pema Chodron piece because it talks about a pilot saving his passengers, and Brian’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that made airplane engine parts, starting in the foundry and ending up head of sales, loves pilots. But when I looked to see if he was enjoying it, I saw his eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a frown, holding back tears, a pose he maintained the whole ceremony. I recognize that sensitivity because he passed it on to Brian, and it regularly breaks and melts my heart during funerals, weddings, and tv commercials alike.

I cried all during my vows, which I hadn’t thought I would. But with all those people there, showing up and making this day, how could I not be cracked open?

By midway through the reception, I became the “I love you, man!” guy from Wayne’s World.

I told family members I’ve never said it to before that I love them. My mom’s cousin Tamison, whose house we’ve stayed at about half the Thanksgivings of my life, whose house we’d stayed at, in fact, two nights before and who, incidentally, gave my friends and I her bed to sleep in, who spent the following day making 30 pies with us and then took us swimming, replied, with her signature wild grin and Mary Louise Parker-esque lack of jaw movement, “WHY?”

And I said easily, because for that one night everything felt easy, “I can’t help it, I just do.”

She seemed satisfied with that and replied, “Well, I happen to be very fond of all my family members, even the ones no one else likes!”

Which satisfied me.

When the reception was starting to wind down, a group of us went swimming, stripped down to underwear or nothing. The moon was almost full. I went in first (unlike me, but this night I was brave) and looked back at the glowing bodies wading through the water, like bathers in an old painting, or people performing a baptism ritual, or sirens.

When I was still in the midst of wedding planning minutia, my sister-in-law referred to the impending wedding as “the happiest day of Molly’s life.” I thought that was a ridiculously romantic thing to say. Why would a day that’s just about me and Brian be the happiest of my life? I love lots of people in lots of ways, not just him. But that, it turns out, is the point.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm honored to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend's wedding later this summer. The only problem is that being a bridesmaid costs approximately one million dollars and I'm a starving grad student.

My friend isn't a wedding-crazy bridezilla who expects us to pony up for hair extensions and matching "bridesmaid" bikinis for pre-wedding pool time (that's totally a thing---I saw it on television). She's been so thoughtful that she's even arranged for family members to host us in her hometown since she knows we all have to pay for plane tickets to get there. The expenses that go along with traditional weddings just add up -- for everyone involved.

At this point I've adequately scrimped to get the dress, the shoes, the plane tickets, and the wedding gift. Unfortunately, her bachelorette party is coming up in a couple weeks and it's a weekend trip to her family's vacation house. Between the plane tickets, the dinners out, etc, I don't see how I can swing it. This is one of my very best friends and I hate the thought of not being there for a big event in her life though. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

It appears to be a trend that, instead of a night out of debauchery, bachelorette parties are now days-long events.  Should we blame The Hangover?  Perhaps not---in general, it is pretty great that women are asking themselves, "How do I really want to usher in this new phase in my life?" and what they are coming up with is having their closest friends around them for a weekend, soaking up support and relaxation before all the bustle of the wedding begins.  It's sort of a last hurrah before joint couple vacations happen.

But that's what this is: a vacation.  You stated you are sad not to be there for a big event in your friend's life, but the event is the wedding. This is a vacation, that your friend has invited you on, that will be totally centered on her.  I hope I can adequately explain that I have zero judgment about this practice.  I have been invited on many such weekends in the past few years, as ladies getting hitched have decided they'd prefer a fun time away with their friends rather than a sure-to-be-slightly-embarrassing "bachelorette party".

Many of us cannot afford vacation, however.  We simply don't take them.  A "weekend away" is not a reality for us, or if it is, it is rare and hard-won.  People from income brackets and lifestyles that give them actual time to take vacations and the funds to do so take week (or month) long vacations, and then consider these little weekends away to be just something you do with your Saturdays and Sundays.

Which must be nice.  But those of us without that kind of life spend our weekends at the laundromat, planning meticulous weekly meals that fit our tiny budget and shopping for them, and, often, working our second job.  Most of the time, it feels okay to do this.  This is the life we either chose because we believed in it, or are willing to accept, at least for now.  However, it goes from feeling fine to feeling like shite when all your friends are on a weekend vacation while you are wondering if you have enough pennies to splurge on the tiny box of fabric softener this week.

So, where does that leave you?  You have two choices.  The first one is: you stay home, sit with your disappointment, and work hard at not turning it into resentment.  Perhaps you can offer a special night later in the month with your friend that is just the two of you---you can cook her dinner at your place, present her with a thoughtful homemade gift, and talk about the coming changes for both of you as she embarks on marriage.

You'll have to work together on managing the fact that you can't show up for your friend in the way that you want to, because of your different lifestyles.  This is going to keep happening.  We always want to give more to our friends than we can, and often it is because it is impossible to be at the same place at the same time in our lives every step of the way.  She sounds very thoughtful and understanding, so forgiving yourself for not going on the weekend will be tantamount.

The second choice is you ask for help.  If this is just too important to miss, you must lay it all out for your friend.  You tell her you can't afford the dinners out, so can you all cook dinner at the place where you are staying?  Ask her if she has some frequent flyer miles you can use to get out there.  Let her know how much you want to be there, but you simply can't do it on your own at this time in your life.  If she can help you, I'm sure she will, and it will bring you closer to work on raising the funds together.

Either way, you have to be really vulnerable and truthful with your friend about your financial situation, and your desire to be there for her.  I really believe she is going to be understanding either way, so the hard realities will be all your own.  Your love for your friend is non-monetized.  This is only one weekend, and it sounds like you are a friend who will be with her in the grander sense, for much longer than that.

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

Embarking on a new decade

This week I'm celebrating a birthday, my 30th birthday in fact.  I long ago discarded the idea that I should be at a certain pinnacle or milestone by a particular age; I remember vividly watching the Olympics, and seeing teenager after teenager accomplishing ‘what they had worked their entire lives’ for, and a little voice in my head reasoned ‘screw it’. But starting a new decade has brought a sense of introspection as I consider the years before, those to come, and particularly, myself. A lot of great stuff happened during my 20s.  I lived with my two best friends for a year, graduated college, moved away from home, got engaged, moved back towards home, got married, visited 5 countries, moved out of the country, moved to the middle of nowhere, started writing, and most recently, put pink highlights in my hair.

But then there’s a lot that hasn’t changed, my family is still as awesome as ever, I have the same best friends, I’m still ridiculously in love with the same boy, I still email my sister random things I found on the internet, and I still have more shoes than most people I know. These are things that are not likely to change with birthdays.  And in many ways, neither am I. I’ll be the 30 year old rocking plaid together with polka dots because they make me happy.  I'll be the 30 year old who gets excited about stickers and never misses a chance to dance in the rain.  I’ll be the 30 year old who thinks making the bed is a waste of time and photo booths are the best thing since sliced bread.  None of that changes when the calendar ticks over.  So I’m good with 30.

I’ve never had hang ups about the number of candles on a cake.  Maybe it’s because I have great role models, women who age with gusto and grace; maybe it’s because each year seems better than the one before; maybe it’s my natural optimism.  Whatever the case, while 30 is just a number, it’s also a step into a new decade; a new period, one that I’m terribly excited about.  As the anniversary of my birth draws closer and closer I’ve been thinking more and more about the woman I want to be.  For the most part she looks pretty much identical to the gal in the mirror, but there’s little things I’d like to get better at, more habits I want to develop to really become the best version of myself.  And I’m excited for that.  I’m excited to push myself, to learn more, to keep growing while I keep laughing.

A few years ago one of my friends told me about something she had seen on the internet---a blogger made a list of 30 things she wanted to do before she turned 30.  It seemed like a lovely idea, so I started making a list. Now, days away from the deadline, most of the items remain undone.  I never learned how to tie a bow tie or brushed up on my Italian.  I didn’t visit a national park or bake a pie from scratch.  I haven’t read Shakespeare and I haven’t learned all the dance moves to my favorite Blues Brothers song. But that’s ok, because there’s a lot of things that I’ve done in the last couple of years that weren’t on that list- things like writing this column and finding a job I love.  And the most important thing, regardless of what’s written on any list, I’m headed into a new decade happier than I’ve ever been.  So maybe next year I’ll bake a pie.

Thirty is, of course, not old, but then I don’t know of a number that is, unless you choose it to be. My grandmother is 90 years ‘old’, but she’s got quite of bit of youthful spirit.  For me, age is a number, and a blessing.  Not everyone has the opportunity to age, so I’ll always be thankful for another candle on my metaphorical cake.  Who knows, if I’m lucky enough to get to 90, maybe I’ll celebrate the same way as 30, with silly hats, silly straws, cupcakes and champagne, and the most important---with people I love.

Cheers to 30.

Don't unpack the coffee-maker yet.

eternally nostalgic

On the first day in our new apartment, we got locked out.

He had done all of the moving, from the bookshelves to the suitcases of clothes and the food to the curtains. Every time he reminded me, I reminded him that "I did all the packing", as though that were somehow the same -- as though one needs to equalize the burdens of transition. While he was lugging our lives' belongings up the new windy staircase, I was presenting my research on wartime sexual violence at a conference in Canada and putting the finishing touches on a conflict assessment in Pakistan.

What is it that grounds us in a new home? Is it our feet on the ground, physically through the new doorway, keys in hand? Is it the first story that you tell about it, the first memory you make?

My initial answer has always been that a home needs to look like a home in order to feel like a home -- whatever that means. From Sudan to Guatemala, I have always been a fervent unpacker. Once my feet are on the ground and I have shut the door behind me, I need everything to find its rightful place. In this vision of settling in, it is irrelevant whether my belongings are as sparse as a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush or as weighty as desks-and-shelves-and-curtains. My usually vast patience for transition and uncertainty evaporates the second I am graced with the perception that I have arrived somewhere and, once that perception sets in, the cardboard boxes need to be out of sight, as do all tokens of impermanence.

This is why, on my first night back from the conference on gender and armed conflict, I was building a desk, still in my slacks and blouse.

What if it is the first memory you make that grounds you in a new home? The first narrative that emerges that can guide all the other stories along?

On the first day in our new apartment, we got locked out. I departed for my conference from our previous home, zigzagging a carry-on suitcase past cardboard boxes waiting to be transported. That was the last time I walked out the door of that place, parting with that site of memories. I did not even have keys to the new place; they, like all our life belongings, were with Elijah, patiently supervising the move in my absence. At the end of a day of lugging and carrying and lifting, he came downstairs to let me in ... and the door closed behind him. That is how I found myself on my new patio, still in heels, googling locksmiths. It was our first night in the apartment, and we essentially had to break in.

"How do you usually open this door?," the locksmith asked. We just stared. "I have yet to open it," I admit. He looks at me dumbfounded.

"You two don't live together?"

"We just moved here," Elijah offers. "Idiots," is written all over the locksmith's face.

Locksmiths learn an awful lot about a couple's life, as it turns out. They know, for instance, how her conference presentation went and, if they eavesdrop carefully enough, they may also know a thing or two about the patterns of wartime sexual violence. They know he paces on the patio, exhausted from moving, frustrated that this is how they have to make their new beginning. They know she taps her foot because it is too early to appreciate the humor of it all. An hour later, she crosses the doorway of the new apartment and adds the carry-on suitcase to the pile of items that need unpacking in the foyer.

Memories of homes in which I have lived are attached to patterns of light. The early Saturday light hitting our bed in Somerville, the Jerusalem light flooding the window seat in the afternoon, the light on the tin roof in Bogotá, reflecting onto my face as I sit at the kitchen table. Watching the light move through this new home, finding its sunny corners and cozier coves, is how memories start.

But truly, what grounds me in a new home is not the fervent unpacking -- though I can admit that less than a week into our stay here, there is not a piece of furniture that has not been assembled and a cardboard box that has not been recycled. It is routine that I find grounding. The start of a story is, in part, marked by that first moment of memory and in part by new light gracing unexplored spaces. But the next chapters, the threads that tie it together and let the patterns emerge, float out of the small motifs of daily life. New stories begin with an exhale, as though we are trying to breathe life into a new home. This is why I asked Elijah not to unpack the coffee-maker quite yet. I am trying to hold on to that moment of brewing the first pot of coffee, finding a corner in which to read, and opening one of the books on my summer reading list.

We are still bruised. On our second day here, I hit my head on the mantel so hard that I still have a bump on my head to prove it -- and this was before the first grocery run that would have supplied the frozen peas to stick onto my head and take the burn away. Our knees are bruised from bumping into furniture in the night. I still walk with my hands outstretched, feeling around for the new space, squinting in the dark. I do not have the seamless routine of 'home' quite yet, of knowing where the sharp edges are, and where the light switches are hiding, and which cables not to trip on, and how to stick the key in the lock smoothly and unlock it with the confidence of someone who repeats that motion every day. I am holding on to that first cup of coffee and to the exhale that will accompany it.

Home begins with light, with a story and a memory, with an exhale. Home begins with a cherished ritual.

Even Vera Wang Can't Save Me Now

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm going wedding dress shopping with my mother tomorrow. I didn't really want to go and still feel ambivalent about it. My mother can be a loving, generous, supportive person.  However, her insecurities can easily and unexpectedly be triggered, turning her into the Witch of the West. She can be mean and offensive in the most passive of ways, making it difficult to call her out on it. I fear she'll hurt my feelings at some point and take the joy out of the moment.

I also realized recently that she's not a selfish woman but definitely self-centered: everything is about her. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of attention, and I don't ask for much from others, but I do feel the moment I try on wedding dresses for the first time should be about me.

This all makes me sad because I want a relationship with my mother and I want to share these special moments with her, but I've learned that she's so limited and I don't want to be too disappointed in the end.

I decided to bring a friend along for protection, (so sad that I need this) but I'm not sure it will be enough. And with 13 months left until my wedding, how do I continue to protect myself and set appropriate boundaries, while trying to connect with her through this experience?

Thanks,

The Naked Bride

 

Dear Naked Bride,

This is your homework, for the rest of your engagement: practice saying no.

Start small, with someone who wants you to give them money for some charity you’ve never heard of (“Not today, thanks”), or the person who asks, “can you watch my dog while I go in this store really quick?” (“No, I cannot, sorry”), or your co-worker who wants you to finish their work for them (“I can’t get to it, unfortunately”).  No, no, no, and, guess what?  No.

Then when you need to put up boundaries with people you really do care about, like your mom, you’ll be able to do it with a little more grace, because you have practiced.  It won’t come out in an adolescent rage fit in which you bring up every little way she’s hurt your self esteem since you were six.  You’ll just say, “No, I’m not wearing that hideous doily of a veil that’s been in your family for 6 generations.  I totally get it if that is disappointing to you.  But it’s not going to happen, so let’s talk about something fun we can do together.  What song do you want to dance to with me at the reception?”

It’s really sad, but true, that we have to manage our expectations quite a bit with our parents, once we are adults.  We get to this point where we can see them for who they really are, how far they’ve come, but also what their limitations are.  We want our parents to be superheroes, but they aren’t.  They’re just people.  Who had children.

Weddings are ritual events, and all good ritual is acts as a cauldron that brings out everything in people---all the ways we are transcendent beings striving to love one another in the face of impossible struggles, and all of the little wounds that are still festering, and cause us to react in unflattering ways.  They show us who we can be and also where we still need to work.  Rather than seeing this wedding as one day in which you pledge your love to your partner in front of your loved ones, start seeing it as a whole process of creation---you are actually going to become a different person through bonding yourself to another.

So yes, your mom is probably going to hurt your feelings in this transformation process.  But the ways in which she does will give you so many clues to where you are still growing, what sensitivities your partner can help you with.  The best thing to do, rather than protect yourself from all those barbs she’ll throw at you, is to catch them mid-stream, as they are flying at your face, and inspect them.  Ask yourself, “can I use this?  Can I bring this to my partner and let it draw us closer as we go through this together?  Or do I really just not need this shit right now, and need to say a hearty NO?”  Then decide whether you can take that on right then, and use it in your becoming, or not.  As the time draws nearer to the celebration, you’ll be saying “no” all over the place, as you’ll really have to focus all your energy on fighting your way out of the cocoon.

Weddings and marriage are not the smiling photo shoots we see.  They are deep transformative acts, and they unsit all of the important relationships in our lives, especially the ones with our parents.  In the end, however, hopefully it all helps us fly.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Don't Forget Jerusalem

word traveler

Five days in Israel don’t seem a long time, and indeed they are not. Nonetheless, Israel State is quite small (barely bigger than New Jersey), so you don’t need weeks to visit the most important sites. The only essentials are a car (a GPS is unnecessary, directions are clear and easy so a good map will do) and lots of curiosity. As I prepared to come back to Milan, I started thinking about the best things I saw (or felt, or tasted), and I realized that when there’s too much on the table, it’s best to make a list to avoid forgetting. And this is definitely a trip I don’t want to forget anything about. So, not necessarily in order of importance, here’s my list.

1. Coexistence of many religions. As a Catholic, what I felt wasn’t only the spirit of my own religion; it was a universal feeling, of acceptance, of struggle and hope. More than a pilgrimage to the roots of Catholicism, I thought I was learning a very important lesson about many ancient faiths.

 

2. Oranges and lemons. Juices are not cheap (life isn’t cheap in general, mostly as costly as in Italy, or at least this was my impression), but for the equivalent of $4/$5 you can get the most flavorful juice. I found it very helpful after a long day wandering in heat, or even for breakfast. It gave me the energy and the salts I needed.
3. Feeling that you are part of something historic and important. It’s not easy for foreigners to understand what living in Jerusalem means, and what being a part of those religions’ history is. Struggle, triumph, being a victim or a victor. Longing for peace and compromise for it. Places that belong to everyone and are equally important to everyone.
4. Old city shopping. How good it feels to just wander around inside the Old City walls. After the first day there, I was happy–I was actually able to find the same places again, and it felt like a victory! From Muslim to Christian to Jewish symbols, the challenge consists of getting past the more touristy places and looking for the hidden corners. So, instead of buying any memento along the Via Dolorosa, with its countless souvenir shops, I bought candles and rosary beads in the ancient site where Jesus was kept imprisoned, a cave below the ground level where taking pictures is forbidden, and at least I felt that I was contributing a little to the site’s maintenance.
5. Real hummus. How delicious! Abu Shukri restaurant was suggested on the guide (I rely on Fodor’s, the best!) as the place where they make the best hummus in town, and it definitely was. It’s in the heart of the Old City, and while it lacks in decor, it has a local clientele that confirms its superior quality. I got hummus with pine nut, and Husband opted for hummus with . . . hummus (chickpeas).
6. Friday night walk. On Friday nights, the city is full of life. We walked to the Western Wall, and this is what we found. Families gathered in prayers and children chanting all together.
7. The parades of monks, nuns and other religious types in their various robes and hoods.
8. The zest for life. Jerusalem is not only what you see inside the walls of the Old City; outside the walls it’s a very young and vibrant place, full of life, restaurants and shops. As far as I could see, the best time to enjoy the pulse of life is on Thursday nights. Listening to live music and watching dances on the street while eating shawarma (a mix of meats wrapped in pita bread, so yummy) was relaxing and fun. On Fridays nights instead, everything is closed, as the population gets ready for Shabbat, the day of rest. So don’t expect to find anything opened on Saturday morning. The only place we found for breakfast was a service area on the highway, on our way to Nazareth, and it was packed!
 
 

This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. It’s inadequate, incomplete. And it’s only about Jerusalem. All of the other places we saw (Bethlehem, Nazareth, Tiberias, Haifa) deserve their own lists. I am looking forward to another trip there, I feel like there’s so much more to learn.

Burmese Children

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Before leaving to Myanmar, I had read so much online about it. Mostly, I was concerned about traveling safely in a country where traditions are so different and the political situation quite unstable. We all have heard a lot about Myanmar lately, and not all of it is good news. It seems that Myanmar is heading toward a more democratic government, but still in the outer provinces, those areas that are out of reach for tourists and seem so forgotten, ethnic fighting is happening. While gathering handful information, I learned that Myanmar is quite a bit more conservative than other countries in Southeast Asia, which means I packed t-shirts with leaves and long pants for those days. Knowing that the medical system and the pharmacies are still underdeveloped, I stocked up all the medicines I thought I may need. I learned that banks don’t exist, not to mention ATMs, and that dollars should not be folded or crumpled, or they will not get accepted anywhere. Last but not least, a friend of mine told me that during a trip over there a few years ago he tried to discuss about politics with his Myanmar guide, but there was no way the guy would even start to express his opinion about anything, and he mainly remained silent and looked embarrassed. Therefore, I decided it was wiser not to get involved in a political discussion in public. These tips being absorbed, I considered myself quite prepared to live a nice trip in a mostly mysterious country.

But nobody, no blog, no article, no friend, had prepared me to the real experience and the feelings I would feel once there.

Some journeys leave you the same way you were before, they give you memories of fun things, wild landscapes, or even new recipes. You take tons of pictures, and maybe sometimes you know you will never look at them again. They are stored in your computer, and that’s enough.

But other journeys change you, for they are really meaningful–they touch your heart so deeply you instantly feel will never fully recover. It’s a weird and precious feeling, and this was the first time it happened to me. I started to think: Was this place waiting for me? Will I be the same person again when I go home? How can I tell my family all the details? Can I leave Myanmar and go back to my country like this was a regular fun vacation? Is there anything I can do to give back to these people what they are giving me?

Before leaving, I had also gathered information about orphanages and schools, and learned that Burmese kids are not even eligible for adoption. Myanmar isn’t the only country in the world with such rules, but still my heart skipped a beat when I read this. The only thought that adoption is not a possibility made me feel powerless, impotent. In Myanmar there are some orphanages, and sometimes international foundations are taking care of collecting donations or organizing volunteering experiences (for instance http://www.burmachildrensfund.org.uk/). They support the future of these children in various parts of Burma, and provide kids with shelters and education.

One day Husband and I visited a school at Inle Lake. These students were from two to six years of age, and they had families to go back to at the end of the day. They looked happy, they screamed and laughed all together while the teachers were quietly watching over them. We were strangers at first, but it took them a few minutes to show us how they would push each other on the swing.

And that’s when I started to wonder–those poor children who don’t have parents or don’t know who they come from, can they be this happy? Coming from a Western country, where human and natural rules are quite different, I realized I shouldn’t judge the situation with my old eyes. Instead, I should keep my eyes open while I was there, learn as much as possible about these people and maybe change my way to consider things. It didn’t take long to learn the most important and shocking lesson–Burmese are so welcoming to foreigners, and they are even more welcoming to their own people. There might be severe ethnic fighting going on in some areas, but to me that’s an unfortunate, huge mistake. I saw something inside them, something special I had never seen in others before. I saw families, made of mothers, fathers and children who may be quite unaware of what’s outside their country, but who are still happy, they KNOW how to be happy and enjoy the simple things in life, some authentic way of living that we think we have but in fact we have lost. I had never, ever seen and felt this peace inside myself. So, putting aside my initial reaction towards the adoption issue, I wondered. Would adoption be the best choice? Growing in a natural and beautiful and uncontaminated environment, where relationship bounds are tight and pure, growing in your own country and having the chance to know it and make it better in the very near future… isn’t this the better option? After all, there are so many other ways to help, if we really want to.

I’m not sure what the answer to my questions might be, but I’m sure of one thing–Myanmar is a country that can change you deeply. I changed over there. Like a snake, I left my skin behind, and soon was ready to get warmer under new sun rays, free from the past, eager for a new future and willing to learn how to make a day out of a single smile.

These are more links of interest, to support children in Burma, or just gather information.

The Burma Orphanage Project: http://burmaorphanageproject.org.uk/about/

Myanmar Orphanage: http://www.myanmarorphanage.com/

Stichting Care for Children: http://www.careforchildren.nu/en/

"For millennia women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for the conditions of peace that favour life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."

Aung San Suu KyiOpening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing China (1991)

 

Easter Eggs

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This year, Brian had an idea to make Easter baskets for our parents, which was really fun and made me feel all right about Easter, which has never been my favorite holiday. I am working on a story about the two of us shopping for Easter basket materials. I am going to make the illustrations out of cut paper, but I also needed to figure out how to do the text. I decided to try hand writing it.

I didn’t like the way that the black ink looked because the contrast between its light and dark parts seemed too harsh. I got some grey ink and also a new brush at the art supply store. Funny visit to the art supply store. Everyone in the paper department was really grumpy, and downstairs, the woman checking me out told me how moths ate her paintbrushes so she has to keep them in the fridge (she was really sweet and sassy and seemed so old school NYC like an Annie Potts character in an 80s movie) and then I am pretty sure one of the employees pooped on the floor. Pretty sure.
Clean desk and new art supplies! The brush is wrapped in brown paper. She was so careful with it.
Also got some new paper for an animation I am going to make, a video for a friend’s band. I never let myself buy fancy paper because it feels like cheating but I decided this time it’s ok, this video can have a little more of a collage feel to it. The two white papers are going to be snow.

The writing isn’t perfect but I think it will work, and I like the grey ink. When I showed Brian this and said, “What do you think?” he said, “It looks like Apu from the Simpsons.”
 Tracing eggs.
Egg outline. (I don’t know where that weird owl came from.)
Eggs in progress.
A pretty nice egg.
 I really like this egg.
The first egg I made. I rejected it for being insufficiently egg-like.
I tried to make a replacement but I didn’t like that one either.
So I decided the original egg would do. (Practicing egg-ceptance.)
More to come in the future!

White Smoke in Rome

word traveler

It is hard to express the immense emotions that filled my heart when I passed by St Peter’s square on April 13th and saw the white smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Witnessing the Pope election wasn’t the purpose of my trip to Rome, and yet that was the part that made it incredible.

My mom and I arrived in St. Peter around 6.30 PM of a rainy Wednesday afternoon. The sky was getting dark, my boots were soaked with rain, and my mom’s mood was high as I kept coughing and sneezing. But the day had been great, so we stopped by the square hoping for some more good luck. Honestly, we never thought we could see the white smoke at our very first attempt, since this usually takes up to a few days. We found a spot under the colonnade, so at least we wouldn’t get wetter, and I fought for some space with a French girl who was fierce and quite determined to have more square inches than needed all for herself. But again, the pain was worth it. We waited until 7.10, and when the smoke appeared out of the chimney of the conclave room the first thing that came to my mind was that sometimes the color can be confusing, as it looks grey more than white or black. By the seconds my doubts vanished and reality became clear---the white cloud grew bigger and bigger, people started screaming (my mom right into my left ear!) and the Catholic Church had a new Pope.

Almost an hour passed between the smoke and his appearance. An hour filled with great hopes for the future. Nobody knew the new Pope’s name yet, and people were guessing, talking and gesturing excitedly to strangers and whoever was around. Would he be from Europe again or from another continent? Would this Pope warm young hearts just like John Paul II? Would he give us words that we will always remember and pass on to the future generations like Pope John XXIII? His speeches were poetic, sweet, simple, and yet contained innovative elements. I wasn’t born in 1962, but the words he pronounced at the opening of the council are still famous and precious: “Returning home, you will find children. Give a caress to them and say: this is the caress of the Pope. You will find some tears to dry, so say a good word: the Pope is with us, especially in times of sadness and bitterness.”

As Pope Francis started talking from St. Peter’s balcony, it was evident from the very beginning that he will be no traditional Pope, and this couldn’t make people happier in such time of crisis. His name did the rest. Francis explained later that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, “teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.” He also said his family’s international roots---his parents were born in Italy and then moved to Argentina---means that the “dialogue between places and cultures a great distance apart matters greatly to me.” As simple as he seems to be, Pope Francis even surprised the owner of a newsstand in Buenos Aires with a phone call to explain that he will no longer need a morning paper delivered every day. All good signs that we may eventually have some good surprises in the future.

Mom and I strolled happily back to our hotel, floating among a crowd of pushing people with smiles on our faces. Part of me feels turned on by this event---lately my faith has been kind of latent. At the end of April I will be going to Jerusalem with my husband, and what was planned as an exciting trip in a land we have never seen and we have only heard about is slowly becoming in my intentions an opportunity to discover the deep roots of my religion.

What was meant as a nice trip to our country capital definitely ended with a pleasant surprise, and filled my heart with hope and new blessings. More pictures from Rome on www.alicepluswonderland.blogspot.com.

On Steubenville

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Yesterday, in Steubenville, Ohio, two teenagers were found guilty of rape.  Two sixteen-year-olds were tried in juvenile court for the rape of another sixteen-year-old last summer. It’s a sordid case that’s captivated many because of the way it came to light through social media and YouTube. The case has inspired conversations about many things including issues of consent, acceptable Internet use, potential conspiracies, and the power held by high school football players in Steubenville. The last part is probably hard for some people to understand, particularly those who aren’t familiar with the fervor that surrounds high school football in some parts of the country. I grew up directly across the Ohio River from Steubenville, Ohio, and went to an equally football-crazed high school in Wellsburg, West Virginia. When I went off to college and told people stories about the role football played in my high school and community, I was always rewarded with agape mouths and disbelief.

We had pep rallies every Friday of football season, regardless of opponent or game importance. These pep rallies took forty-five minutes, and happened during the instructional day, the last forty-five minutes before dismissal. However, their impact was greater than that as both the players and the members of the marching band were dismissed from classes even sooner, in order to prepare. Before we were dismissed from our classes to go to the rallies, the band marched through the school’s hallways as a signal that it was almost time, effectively ending class. The routine was always the same, the coach spoke, the cheerleaders cheered, the dance team danced, the band played, the players marched in (hand-in-hand and in matching ties, slacks, and blazers), and the football captains made “speeches,” which were the same every week, a simple “Beat [name of that week’s opponent].” The coach spoke again. The crowd cheered. We were dismissed.

The rallies weren’t mandatory, but virtually everyone went. Sometimes I chose to go to the alternate activity, a study hall, to join a handful of other students, primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses (who considered the rallies blasphemous). I didn’t have any meaningful reason as to why I skipped some of the rallies, other than that on some days I wasn’t in the mood for all the pageantry and noise. I wish I could say it was some sort of principled stand, but it was more apathy than anything, and sometimes simply the nerdy wish to get some homework done before the weekend.

I remember one football Friday in particular when we had a two-hour delay because of snow, yet we still had our pep rally. This meant that classes that day were, if memory serves, about 23 minutes long. I knew that was insane then, but as a teacher now, it feels really, really insane. Yet none of my teachers seemed to notice or mind.

When I was in tenth grade, sometime in the first couple weeks of school, the football coach (who had been my ninth grade health teacher), came into my study hall, and said, “Nora, you’re coming with me.” I grabbed my stuff and followed Coach. He explained that he wanted me to work with him in his office during that study hall period and knew I would do a good job. I was a pretty cynical sophomore, but I felt honored in spite of myself. Coach was as big a celebrity as our county had. For the next three years I spent my study halls at a table adjacent to Coach’s office, doing a mix of my homework and his errands. I don’t think the school’s budget allocated money for him to have an administrative assistant, so he simply lined up students (all girls, in my memory) each period of the day to be there should he need help with anything clerical. I didn’t really mind because I gained a quieter place to study and his errands allowed me to stretch my legs and sometimes chat with friends I saw in the halls. Now, whenever I wish I had someone to help me make photocopies of tests, or put up a bulletin board, I realize that Coach’s influence meant that he could command certain benefits no other teacher could.

Our football team was very good, and often a contender for the West Virginia state championship, just like Steubenville’s is a perennial contender for Ohio's.  The stadium was and is huge, and it was often a ton of fun to go to the games. Everyone from town was there, and it was festive and communal and often exciting. Places shut down on Friday nights, and the biggest radio station in the area played all of the games. I liked hearing my friends in the marching band play. Something about being at the games with my friends, bundled up, cheering, and drinking hot chocolate, felt quintessentially wholesome and American.

Of course, at a macro level, very little of it was actually wholesome. The football program took resources away from other sports and other educational programs. The players were treated as heroes, which often led to disappointment for them when high school was over, not to mention bad behavior during high school spurred on by their lionization. The culture of the school was a social pyramid with the players and cheerleaders on the top, with little room in the social stratosphere for the appreciation of those with non-athletic talents. But when the team was winning, we were all in something together, and people were willing to forget the other stuff for that fleeting feeling.

Well, for Steubenville, that fleeting feeling has been eclipsed by a horrifying story. It’s a dark mark on a grey landscape. In the Weirton-Steubenville metro area, the steel mills have all shut down, and the unemployment rate has gone up in the last two years when it’s gone down elsewhere in the country.  The average household income hovers right around 35k a year. High school football, for many, has long been the bright spot on that grey landscape, but now the whole country knows that football simply can’t be its savior.

 

 

 

 

An introvert in the kitchen

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By Magdalena MacinskaIllustration by Akiko Kato

The kitchen is home to an introvert like me. Perhaps because of the nature of cooking---as much as it can be a solitary, contemplative act---it connects me to the people I am cooking for.  I feel excitement and anticipation as I wonder if my family will enjoy this new recipe and the relief that my cake will provide a safe and pleasant conversation topic at a party.

No words are needed in the kitchen. The bubbling sound of the water boiling, the rhythmic chopping of vegetables tells me that I am in a process that has a purpose and yet is beautiful in itself. If I want to, I can play in my mind the images of the dish I am making, or I can simply meditate on the texture of the slippery dough and breathe in the scents of herbs.

We used to have a big kitchen where, during the holiday season, the whole family would gather to prepare food for the festivities. Everyone was working on their own dish, at their own paces. I never felt as cozy and relaxed with my family as in those moments. I would listen to the happy hustle and bustle and feel part of something big.

Things changed after I lost my mother. I have a much smaller kitchen now.  Even though I could still cook together with my siblings, I usually do it alone, and not just because of the size of the kitchen. Cooking has become about being in control, about coping with the fact that the person that used to whisper recipes in my ear is no longer there and I have to find my place in this new constellation. Sometimes it even turns into a quiet competition---the way introverts compete, with actions not words.  I remember  how one Christmas my ambition drove me to come up with a roasted goose for dinner, which meant figuring how the damn bird would defrost when it didn’t fit into the sink and how to sew the wings to the body before putting it into the oven, as the recipe said.

The kitchen is also the place where I learn to match expectations with reality. I might spend hours rummaging in the refrigerator or looking through cookbooks for a perfect recipe, but once the pot is on, once the doors of the oven close, I am with what there is here and now. Proportions will go crazy, tastes will get confused and dough won’t grow. In the end, the food becomes what I manage to make of it that day, not what the name says.

And then there are those moments when I open the cupboard and the comforting scents of tea and coffee lure me into the world of small pleasures. It is time to sit down, to stare outside the window and just be. Or better yet, call someone to have a cuppa with me, an introvert’s way of saying that she needs to give and feel some human warmth. . .

Paper Hearts

In the Balance

I love my wonderfully magnificent husband.  He loves me right back.  Today, however, I will not be receiving anything heart-shaped from Kay Jewelers.  We will not be spending $250 on dinner at a restaurant where we typically eat for less than half that price.  Although it is entirely possible that I will gorge myself on chocolate treats (this is essentially known as “Thursday” in our house) and while it is fundamental to our marriage that we demonstrate love openly and frequently, it feels forced to do so specifically on Valentine’s Day. Aside from the fact that the Holiday originates in the veneration of a Saint (which is not really our thing), Valentine’s Day has never seemed terribly significant in our lives.  Perhaps it is this way for many married people, couples that have been together for a while or couples that came together a bit later in life.  I said, A BIT.  But before you decide that I am the exact opposite of fun or light-hearted, please know that I have certainly done the whole shebang for Valentine’s Day at various points in my illustrious romantic career.  I have coordinated and participated in elaborate spa getaways, decadent meals, surprise concerts - you name it – as well as the giving and receiving of delicately packaged items.  I do also recollect from my dating years the buzzy thrill of a person asking you out for Valentine’s Day - a sure sign (much like the first road trip together) that the relationship has bumped up to the next level.  And we haven’t even touched on my experience working in retail flower shops for days on end to prepare endless vases with floral expressions of love.  I have been there.  I have done that.

It should also be noted that I am in full support of the tradition of children crafting Valentines and learning to formally display affection for others.  I think it is ridiculously sweet to introduce any mode of creative correspondence, particularly for children growing up in the age of the iPad mini.  When parents and teachers of young children are sensitive about distributing classroom Valentines, it presents a genuine opportunity to learn about inclusivity.  I recall concrete lessons from my early elementary years about making each of my classmates feel exceptional.  For many little ones, the template for empathy comes from this kind of social experience. 

I think my primary issue with Valentine’s Day is that like with so many things in our culture, we have decided (somewhat arbitrarily) that this is the single day each year that we publicly acknowledge the love we have for the people around us.  I am much more concerned with keeping my relationship fresh and conveying appreciation during the daily slog.  It is not tremendously complicated to throw money at one of the many clichéd offerings on February 14th.  The real labor of love, in my view, is to make eye contact and tender a bear hug during the morning greeting; to remember to ask your partner how the big meeting went today; to not finish all the ice cream yourself.  Enduring love means being the one who gets up before dawn with the baby because your cohort doesn’t “do mornings.”  It means not freaking the fuck out even though this has got to be the 794,375th time you have picked a ball of socks up off the floor.  It means never, ever, ever checking out mentally or emotionally.

I haven’t picked out a card or made reservations anywhere.  I will be wearing regular, nondescript, cotton undergarments all day.  But I hope he will consider my abiding commitment to nurturing our life together a most treasured and heartfelt Valentine.

Lessons from a Valentine's Day...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it seems a little corny to be wishing you a happy valentine’s day, but this is one of my favorite holidays. While some people see it as sappy and romantic, or commercial and forced, and granted, it can feel that way sometimes, I prefer to see it as a celebration of love among family and friends.  It’s an opportunity to recognize people who are important to us openly, and also an opportunity to recognize people sometimes a bit more secretly.  After all, who isn’t flattered by secret admirers?

My fondest Valentine’s memory though was a gift from my mother.  I was 12, and she woke me up early before her call shift at the hospital to give my gift: 3 pink Bic razors with a small can of shaving cream, all wrapped up in red tissue and in a small gift bag with hearts on it.  It couldn’t have cost more than a few dollars and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I had been begging to shave my legs, like all the other girls at school, for months, and I thought she would never say yes.  Turns out, my mom was more progressive (or perhaps more understanding of the need of junior high vanity) than I thought. . . It meant the world to me, and every year, I think of how excited I felt that she really took to heart what I had been wanting.

Here is the way I try to celebrate an extra touch of love on this day:

  • Give valentines to everyone: When you’re young, hopefully in school they’ll get you in the habit of including everyone in Valentines.  Want to know why? Because it’s such a nice feeling when you’re included; and it’s such a sad feeling when you’re not.  Try to make room for as many people as you can in your Valentine’s day heart.
  • Wear at least a little bit of red: Nothing over the top, but having a little touch of red, even if it’s somewhere not everyone can see, will put you in the holiday spirit and remind you to be extra loving towards those around you.
  • Be weary of set Valentine’s menus at restaurants: In my experience, these never turn out for the best, neither in food, nor in your enjoyment of the evening.  If you go out, find a restaurant that treats this as a normal day, or prepare a celebration with a group in a non-traditional spot.
  • Leave a surprise for someone you admire: Valentines are about relationships, but not everything has to be defined as a couple.  You can feel admiration for someone and not necessarily feel it in a romantic way—just don’t confuse the two for them.
  • Be extra mindful of anyone you care about in “that way”: No matter how much people say they might not like or not care or not endorse Valentine’s day, I think everyone ends up holding out a little hope for it in the end.  So if you are with someone, make the effort to do something a bit more meaningful.  It doesn’t have to be serious, and it doesn’t have to be heart shaped boxes full of chocolates (unless they like it)—but do something that shows that you’re thinking about them and appreciate them in your life.

Wishing all my love to my darling Valentine,

Mom

Hungry Hungry Humans

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, Is it me, or does everyone and their uncle have a food allergy/aversion/snobbish avoidance these days? I've found it increasingly difficult to share meals and prepare food for others without objections from gluten-free, only-eat-local-everything, on-a-cleanse, vegan, paleo-diet friends and family members.  I used to crave the communal intimacy of a shared meal, but now it seems "what I'm not eating" dominates the conversation (and makes my allergy-free, trying-to-stay-sane self question if I really should be eating that dairy/gluten/egg-rich muffin). Am I being insensitive?

Signed,

Eating the Damn Muffin Already

Dear Eating The Damn Muffin Already,

I wish you were my dinner guest.

Recently, we had a couple we were getting to know over for dinner.  I had baked a delicious dessert, since they were bringing the food.  The meal was saucy take out, rich in butter and spices.  When I brought out the salted caramel cake I had made from scratch, I was shocked that neither one of my guests were willing to try it.  They demurred, saying that "Sugar is poison, you know", and that they are cutting it out of their diet completely.

Stunned, I set my cake back on the stove, and, due to the calls of my toddler, who had been promised a special treat in honor of our guests and had even helped to bake it, I cut the members of my family slices and passed them out, leaving our guests to watch us consume a whole bunch of homemade poison.

Their choice to eat greasy take out and then refuse cake baffled me, but everyone deserves to do whatever they want with their body.  Really what bugged me were their terrible manners.

We live in a time of shifting ethics about food.  There used to be a cuisine that was considered "American", that everyone was expected to eat.  In an age of growing education about where our food comes from, who benefits from our consumption of it, and how to best feed our bodies, people are making more informed decisions about food than ever.

This is a really positive thing.  I would like nothing better than to use only local ingredients, from companies that respect the land and pay their workers a living wage.  I want to serve my family healthy food that will help our bodies grow strong.  However, I am not willing to give up the common decencies of community to do so.  My motto is "People are more important than things."  And that includes my current food philosophy.

So, what to do, if you have been invited over for dinner, and you know your hosts do not eat the same way as you?  First of all, ask what's on the menu, and what you can bring.  If you are a strict vegetarian, tell them so ahead of time.  If you have no food allergies, but would like to eat a certain way, offer to bring a salad or special gluten-free bread, and make that the focal point of your meal, eating sparingly what your hosts have provided for you.

Sharing food is such an important part of community building.  Another vital aspect of community is truth telling.  So, if you're on a diet, say you're on a damn diet.  Don't couch it in New Age terms, and definitely don't judge other people's food choices, especially not in their home.

So, to answer your question, are you being insensitive by not loving all the new diets people are trying?  Well, unless you are placing a pig on a spit in front of your vegan friend or inviting your gluten-free buddy over for Bread Fest 2013, nope.

If you find yourself irked by Macrobiotic Mary on your friend list, why not do something with her that is not centered around food?  I'm sure you can agree on an indulgent movie to watch together, to make up for the decadence missing in her diet.  Just make sure you order exactly what you want at the concession stand, and stand by your choice.  But get the small popcorn---she’s not going to share.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Like Water

walnuts

By Judith NewtonHer book, Tasting Home, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

“How do you peel a walnut?” my daughter asked as she looked, not too happily, at the mound of nuts on the kitchen table.  We’d spent three days in the kitchen laboring over the twelve dishes we’d planned for a large buffet, and chiles en nogada, or chiles in walnut sauce, were the final stage of our cooking marathon.  That very evening some forty faculty and students from all over campus would be arriving to celebrate our new multicultural graduate program, and if any dish could instill a sense of community it would be chiles en nogada.

Making simple recipes like tacos de crema, macaroni with serrano chiles, and refried beans had been easy and even pleasurable, but the chiles in walnut sauce were posing a challenge. I’d combined Frida Kahlo’s recipe with one I’d taken from the Internet, and the latter called on us to peel the walnuts before pulverizing them for the sauce. “Mom,” said Hannah, rubbing at one of the walnuts, “this brown stuff isn’t coming off.” “This is a window into the lives of generations of women,” I said, ineffectually scrubbing another walnut with my fingers. “Can you imagine how much time they spent working in kitchens?” “I love cooking with you like this,” Hannah had said when we first began. “I love it too,” I’d said. Our years of cooking together and of struggling through difficult recipes had created a strong sense of solidarity.

We decided not to peel the walnuts, since Frida’s recipe didn’t call for it, but we did roast the two dozen poblano chiles and then pulled off their skins. Then we chopped a picadillo out of shredded meat, fruits, nuts and cinnamon, and, cradling the chiles in our hands, began to stuff them with the sweet and savory mix. We were treating those chiles as if they’d just been born, but, despite our labor, they were developing some ugly splits. We decided not to flour them, coat them in egg mix, and then fry them in hot oil as Frida’s recipe required.

“It’s too risky,” I said, entertaining grim visions of the chiles bursting their sides and spilling their colorful innards into a smoky pool of oil. Did Frida fry her own chiles, I wondered. Then came the sauce---easy, sweet, and cool. Four cups of (unpeeled) walnuts pureed with cream cheese, Mexican crema, cinnamon, and a fragrant half cup of sherry. Finally, seeds from six pomegranates and sprigs of parsley to go on top.  Red, white, and green---the colors of the Mexican flag.

I had been thinking about a Mexican novel for the entire three days, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I’d been imagining Hannah and me as Tita and Chenca, two characters who spend much of their lives in the kitchen. A takeoff on nineteenth-century Mexican romance, Like Water is a novel about love and also a novel about politics, the latter being represented by the Mexican Revolution and the ongoing struggle of Tita and her sister Gertrude against patriarchal culture.

Each chapter of the novel is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish---the grinding, the toasting, the chopping, the boiling, the frying, the cracking of eggs–is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes as central to the story as romance and revolution. Cooking, indeed, becomes an emblem of the domestic work that makes romance and revolution possible. It is the force that keeps women and men alive not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.

Cooking is like that, always there, and if it is as it should be, it not only nourishes our bodies but gives us the comfort of feeling loved, cared for, and secure. Eating what is cooked and served in a caring way evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.

Like Tita and Chenca, Hannah and I were laboring in the service of politics and love. The new graduate program was meant to be revolutionary---cross racial, multi-cultural, and oriented toward political activism not just inside, but outside the classroom as well. And I had done enough organizing by then to know how cooking for others, not just from duty, but with generosity and lightness of heart, can develop and sustain those ties of feeling that are, at bottom, what make political community possible.

In Like Water for Chocolate, food is given magical force.  Quail in Rose Petal Sauce invites Tita and Pedro to enter each other’s bodies both spiritually and sensuously as they sit at the dining table. It prompts Gertrude to run away with a revolutionary, sitting behind him, naked on his horse. The Chiles in Walnut Sauce provoke the guests at Tita and Pedro’s wedding to make passionate love. Magical realism like this suggests the power of emotion, of the unconscious, and of cooking as emotion work in the day-to-day activities of our lives.

Like life, the novel is full of mothers, those who nourish and those who do not. The bad mother, Elena, controls Tita, insists that Tita serve her until she dies, and forbids Tita to marry Pedro, the man she loves. Cruel, repressing, she is the mother who denies. Even after death, she reappears, forbidding Tita to be happy. Like a force of nature, she returns again and again, suggesting the lasting influence of how we are mothered.

But Tita finds good mothers to take Elena’s place---Chenca, the cook who tends to Tita in the kitchen, and Dr. John and his Indian mother, Morning Light, who feed Tita healing foods after Elena brutally entombs her daughter in the Dove Cot. Tita herself becomes a nurturing mother to Esperanza, her sister’s daughter. Like Tita I, too, had found alternative mothers---in Dick, my gay ex-husband, in my women friends, in colleagues I had come to love. But most of all I had found mothering in being motherly---to Hannah and to my political community. Cooking for, and eating with, others had all but eclipsed those days in my mother’s house---the shame, the lost identity, the spilled water on the floor. Like Chenca, I wanted to pass on, to Hannah and to others, the recipes, the utopian practices, the ways of being and of labor that make history more than a tale of struggle; that make it also a love story, a story of caring for others.

* * *

CHILES EN NOGADA (Adapted with permission of Marilyn Tausend from adaptation by StarChefs.com from Cocina de la Familia: More Than 200 Authentic Recipes from Mexican-American Home Kitchens by Marilyn Tausend with Miguel Ravago. Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc: New York, 1999.)

Marilyn Tausend kindly informs me that the secret to peeling the walnuts is to use fresh walnuts, right from the tree if possible. Meat: 2 lb beef brisket or 1 lb beef and 1 lb pork 1 small white onion cut into quarters 2 cloves garlic 1 T sea salt Picadillo: 4 T. safflower or canola oil 1/3 c. chopped white onion ½ tsp cinnamon ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper 1/8 tsp ground cloves 3 heaping T. raisins 2 T chopped walnuts 2 T. candied pineapple 1 fresh pear, peeled and chopped 1 apple, peeled and chopped 3 large, ripe tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped Kosher salt to taste Chiles: 6 fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded with stem intact Walnut Sauce: 1 c. fresh walnuts 6 oz cream cheese (not fat free) at room temperature 1 ½ c Mexican Crema ½ tsp sea salt 1 T sugar 1/8 tsp cinnamon ¼ c. dry sherry Garnish: 1 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley ½ c. pomegranate seeds 1.      Cut meat into large chunks; remove excess fat. Place meat in large Dutch oven with onion, garlic and salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil.  Skim off foam if it collects on the surface. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is just tender. 2.      Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the broth. Then remove meat and finely shred it. 3.       Warm the oil in a heavy skillet and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until pale gold.  Stir in shredded meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, pepper, cloves.  Stir in raisins, 2 T walnuts, and candied pineapple.  Add chopped pear and apple and mix well. Add tomatoes and salt to taste.  Continue cooking over medium high heat until most of the moisture has evaporated.  Stir now and then.  Let cool, cover, and set aside.  The picadillo may be made one day ahead. 4.      Slit the chilies down the side just long enough to remove seeds and veins, keeping the stem end intact. Drain chilies on absorbent paper until completely dry. Set aside. Chiles may be made a day in advance 5.      At least 3 hours in advance, place 1 c walnuts in small pan of boiling water.  Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain the nuts and, when cool, rub off as much of the dark skin as possible.  Chop into small pieces. 6.      Place nuts, cream cheese, crema, and salt in a blender and puree thoroughly.  Stir in the sugar, cinnamon and sherry.  Chill for several hours. 7.      Preheat oven to 350 F.  When ready to serve reheat the meat filling and stuff the chilies. Place chilies, covered in warm oven.  After they are heated, place chilies on serving platter, cover with chilled walnut sauce and sprinkle with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Republished with permission from Tasting Home

All we need to know about dinner and divinity

Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is one of those favorite books of mine that I haven’t finished yet. I’d like to make it to the end one day, but I’m certainly not in a hurry. I’m savoring it bit by bit, with full confidence that the author herself would approve of my slow read. It’s a book I know I’ll keep returning to even after I’ve finished it, much like the simple, beautiful thought at the heart of the book itself---that the end of every meal is the beginning of another. It’s a book that deserves, in my opinion, a genre of its own. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s not a cookbook or an instruction manual or a food memoir. I’d say it’s a sort of philosophy of food.

A browse through the table of contents is enough to make you cry: “How to Catch Your Tail,” “How to Paint Without Brushes,” “How to Light a Room,” “How to Make Peace,” “How to Build a Ship,” “How to Be Tender,” “How to Weather a Storm,” “How to End.”

You’d think it’s a book about food, and it is, but it is also a book about everything. Adler will start you off with an egg, then catapult you into the heavens, and finally bring you back down decidedly onto the earth. For example: “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.”

I have a tendency to favor beginnings over middles and endings, but the opposite is true when it comes to food. I love the eating and drinking and savoring and lingering. I love a kitchen in action, with peels and cores strewn about the counters and several pots simmering on the stove. In the case of food, it is the beginning that catches me off guard. Why is it that dinner so often feels like a challenge to reinvent the wheel?

Some very wise friends sent us off with this book as an engagement gift, as we set out to establish a life---and a kitchen---together. From the very first pages, it has cut right through any anxieties I may have had about how we would feed ourselves. It’s the idea that eating well has nothing to do with extravagance, that cooking well has nothing to do with fancy tools, and that dinner has everything to do with where you left off in the last meal, or in all the meals that have come before.

I’ve never been much of a planner when it comes to meals, and as far as I can tell, thank goodness, An Everlasting Meal lets me off the hook. In practice, this means that the first inkling of dinner begins with the simple practice of getting a pot of water on the stove to boil and an onion in a skillet to soften. Then, and only then, is it time to start rummaging around considering what’s for dinner.

What comforts me most about this approach is that it begins with doing, rather than thinking. It’s one of those rituals buried in the everyday that, once you’ve realized it’s there, offers both a steady anchor and a comfortable stretch of rope for creative drifting.

The Birthday Tradition

mind the gap

A few years ago, I invented something called The Birthday Tradition.  Despite my opinions on my birthday (namely, that it is the best holiday of the year; that I am allowed to be giddy for a week or so before and depressed for a week or so after; that “It’s my birthday!” is a respectable response to any question and/or comment directed at me in the time period listed above), I did not actually institute the Tradition on my birthday, but on my boyfriend, Zack’s.  I’d already moved to New York by then, and he was still living in San Francisco, finishing up a building project at his job before joining me.  I came back to San Francisco for the holidays and for his birthday.  Feeling mushy (booze, old friends and too many gingerbread men, aka crack, will do that to me), I began espousing my love for Zack. “He’s one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met,” I said, “but he also can talk about anything and everything, for hours, even if he’s just humoring me.  He looks super sexy when he’s rock climbing and has successfully taught me how to build IKEA furniture.  Kinda.”

“Well,” our friend Matt jumped in.  “If we’re doing that, I wanna say why I think Zack is awesome.”

“Me too,” said our friend Colette.  “You guys can’t get all the credit when he ends up crying.”

And the Birthday Tradition was born.

We do it every birthday, and every person is required to say their bit, even a friend’s new girlfriend or boyfriend who met the birthday person moments before.   There’s a lot to love about people, whether you’ve just met them or ate their crayons in kindergarten.  That’s the point of the Birthday Tradition:  we so often think the things we love about people, little or big, but rarely actually say them. Sometimes it’s nice, surrounded by loved ones, to be reminded of why the love is there.  It makes it that much more concrete, and that much harder to break.

We’ve done the Tradition for every birthday I’ve attended for the past three years.  I’ve said I loved a person’s brilliant sock collection, their offbeat sense of humor, their impeccable sense of self, their cooking and their party planning and their unfailing kindness and their loyalty and their karaoke skills.  Which is why I was so devastated when Zack told me, as his first birthday in London was rapidly approaching, that he thought we should skip the Tradition this year.

“But why?” I said, extending the final syllable, clutching my hands to my cheeks and sliding to the floor writhing as if a hot ball of fire were about to burst from my belly button.

“Most of the people coming out are friends from grad school,” he said.  “It’s kind of like asking your colleagues at work to say something.  I think it’ll be more awkward than fun.  Also, the British aren’t really mushy like that.”  (This is true: I’ve witnessed one marriage proposal in England.  It took place in a pub, and the matter of fact question was followed by fish and chips)

Begrudgingly, I accepted Zack’s wishes.  That night, though, as we readied ourselves to go out to the pub in which we would ring in his birthday, I was struck by regret.  Zack, of all people, needed the Birthday Tradition.  I brought in our roommate, and together the three of us, with our two cats as witnesses, did a mini Tradition.  It was the smallest the Tradition had ever been, but it was lovely.  Then we went to the pub and got drunk.

As the next day, Zack’s actual birthday, drew to a close, we ate cake at our flat, and watched as snowflakes the size of my nose slowly blanketed the world around our windows.

“It was a good birthday, right?” I said, snuggled up to Zack on the couch.

“It was,” he said.  We’d just talked to his parents in California, and his voice, like them, was far away.  A birthday is a time filled with love, but it’s often that kind of love that makes you miss the people you love the most.  I snuggled in closer, and squeezed him hard.

And then the email came.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ZACK, said the subject line, and in the email a single line of message, the word “Love” followed by the names of all of the New York friends we’d left behind.  He clicked open the attached Powerpoint and found, on the first page, the words, “Happy birthday, Zack!  We are so bummed that we can’t celebrate with you this year so the Birthday Tradition has gone digital.  We miss and love you, The Gang.”  Next to it was a not so flattering picture of Zack asleep with a pizza box on his belly.

Every page was made by one of our friends, and every page featured a heart felt message and several embarrassing photos, many taken years ago, reminders of how long the friendships had endured.  Our friend who is currently in Thailand even submitted his response, and a lump formed in my throat as Zack clicked through page after page of messages of love.  Zack, whom I’ve seen cry less times than I can count on one three fingered hand, blinked back shiny tears.

It is not the birthday of the Birthday Tradition, but nonetheless, I would like to say why I love it.  I love it because the more positives in the world, the better.  I love it because it makes me feel grateful for my friends, and reminds me that they are the buoys that so often keep me afloat.  I love it because it’s easy, and simple, and kind.  I love it because I love to see people blushing, and I love it because it’s fun to watch the newbies squirm.  Mostly, though, I love it because it could show, even from an ocean away, that the love was still there, steadfast and strong.