Stewed Rhubarb

My mom has been on my mind lately. A lot.

I presume this is primarily because I’m pregnant, and her absence from my life—it’s been more than eight years now since she died—is more conspicuous than it’s ever been. I’ll soon become a motherless mother. I would give almost anything for this to be different.

Though I sometimes assume, in a melancholy sort of way, that I should be sitting around during my inevitably sleepy afternoon hours thinking of mom, or flipping through old photos to rekindle memories, it’s only at night, during sleep, that I seem to embrace thoughts of Cabby. Virtually every night now, she visits me in my increasingly vivid dreams. In these running pictures, she’s in various states of sickness and health; sometimes I seem to know that she’s dying, sometimes I’m aware that she’s already gone, and the visit is as if from a ghost. In other dreams—the variety that are both my favorite and the ones I find saddest—it’s as though the cancer had never taken hold, and I relate to her in a manner I would deem “normal,” which is to say act without the fear of losing, or awareness of having lost, her.

In more wakeful moments, though— especially when I catch myself looking into the second bedroom we thought we needed for a baby when we moved two years ago (“Things,” as mom’s and my favorite poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “take the time they take”), where the last quilt mom made hangs, presiding— I sometimes wonder what she’d make of Chris’s and my imminent move out of the City. I imagine she’d be pleased, in her quiet but obvious way. Certainly she’d be more willing to visit Kingston than she would have been to come to Brooklyn. But I also wonder if she’d have words of caution for me. For her, the suburbs never scratched at the rural living itch that followed her throughout her adult life. When I knew her, she was lonely and always felt out of place. Our white bread Westchester town was a supposed compromise of my dad’s love (and need) of the city and mom’s yearning for the country that never satisfied either of them; whether it’s true or not, I’ve long attributed a hunk of their reasoning behind separating to this unhappy tug-of-war. While we’re heading north beyond the burbs, I can’t help but wonder if she’d be nervous for us, for me as a new mom, as a woman with a life about to change and refocus dramatically.

What I do know is that Cab, as everyone called her, would be unabashedly excited about the garden I plan to build in our new backyard. Afternoons this time of year always found mom changing out of her work clothes and into tattered old cottonwear to dig in her  garden, reveling in the time alone, the fecund spring air so full of greens and damp browns, and the satisfying exhaustion that follows physical work. She may have planted peas by now, the only crop in the garden whose sowing ever interested me, and would soon be making a trip to the local gardening store to walk through the humid, loamy air of the greenhouses, pulling a rusted Radio Flyer wagon behind her, searching for tomato starts and buying bags of fertilizer.

She was never much of a cook, but my mom loved to eat, especially from that garden. And it was growing up, during summers, that I first understood that simple, fresh food, left mostly alone, is very good. There was no dogma, only a working mom who hated a hot stove.

We grew up without air conditioning—mom never believed in such modern conveniences as air cooling devices, answering machines or microwaves—and so summer cooking took her no-fuss approach to dinner to a whole new level. Minimal time over the range’s heat was the name of the game.

The fat peas never made it out of the garden—we (well, mostly I) ate them out of hand, standing barefoot in the soft, sun-warmed soil of the garden, pulling the sugar snaps off their curling vines, sometimes peeling back the fiber than connected the two sides of the pod to reveal the peas nestled neatly in that gentle curve, sometimes popping the sweet things into my mouth whole. But most of the produce from that small plot did come indoors; that woman never let a hot summer night go by without a plate of thickly sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, accompanied by a humble, WASPy “dip” of heavily dilled sour cream, mayonnaise and milk, grace the table. I hated raw tomatoes as a kid, but I ate the cucumbers by the fistful. Some nights, there’d be simply steamed summer squash and zucchini, heavily buttered and sour creamed. Pole beans were similarly steamed and buttered. My mom, who walked many miles a day in order not to put on weight, never shied away from dairy fat. God bless her.

Dessert (a course we never skipped in my house) in those hot, humid days was most often a popsicle or two eaten on the back steps while swatting at bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Occasionally, we piled into the car to head to Friendly’s in town, or Ben and Jerry’s a bit farther north. My older brother, Pete, usually got a peanut butter cup sundae, my dad—the most severe and shameless ice cream addict I’ve ever known—changed his order with the times (there was a major frozen yogurt phase) and his mood, and my preferences evolved with age. But mom never faltered: a coffee hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and walnuts. I usually got the maraschino cherry on top, as she saw it as extraneous to the whole point of the thing—the decadent creamy goodness below.

 

I love to think of mom eating. Though she never had sophisticated taste, she knew just what she liked, and she consumed it lustily. One of her favorite treats in spring was rhubarb. We had a small plant in the front yard, but she heavily subsidized her supply of the slender pink and green stalks at the local Grand Union, unconscious, and uncaring, of provenance. And while I’m a bit fussier about sourcing, mom was right; while there are certain things (like apples) that should never be bought from a supermarket shelf, others—like rhubarb—hold up just fine to shipping and chilling, and one can hardly tell a difference in taste, especially when the food has been cooked.

These days, it’s fashionable to turn rhubarb into elegant tarts, shrubs, and even slice it raw into salads. But the only way my mom cared for rhubarb was stewed. I didn’t know how she prepared it, but, when I was young, I recognized well its tangy pink scent as it permeated the house. Though stewed rhubarb, in my (and, especially, my husband’s) opinion, is best chilled, mom could never wait that long for her first taste. After dinner was done and the dishes washed, she’d spoon up a big bowl of the slippery, soupy, rather unattractive stuff, top it with a healthy glug of heavy cream, then sit in the family room in the rocking chair (for some reason, the only place she ever ate rhubarb) and knock it back, spoonful by spoonful, practically moaning with pleasure.

Then she’d go back for seconds.

 

I didn’t much care for rhubarb then (though over plenty of vanilla ice cream there was, and remains, no fruit I’d ever turn down), but I delighted in the particular pleasure she took in the strange plant. Every spring, without fail, she’d remind me, taking a brief break from slurping to “whew” as if winded, that rhubarb makes you sweat (note: it doesn’t make me or anyone else that I know sweat, but she swore it was a Bergen trait, like the dreaded shapeless chin that makes us all instantly recognizable as family).

IMG_0981I’ve come around to rhubarb in a big way, and I turn giddy (and utterly disregard budget constraints) when it appears at the market in spring, loading up on the first overpriced stalks by the bagful. Though I’ll happily eat rhubarb in any form, I’m particularly partial to rustic crisps (heavily topped, of course, with vanilla ice cream) and rhubarb roasted with dry white wine, vanilla and a hit of sugar (a la Molly Wizenberg’s adaptation of a Canal House recipe). I also go fairly apeshit over a rhubarb pie (my stint working with Melissa and Emily Elsen at the then newly opened Four and Twenty Blackbirds was very helpful in feeding that yen). But, without fail, when rhubarb appears each spring, a batched of stewed—in honor of mom—comes first.IMG_0983

Early this morning, in the park with Pico, I caught a breeze that carried a scent so redolent of spring in the ‘burbs that I nearly burst into tears. I became instantly sad about leaving Brooklyn, sad about mom and the Grammy my kids will never know, and turned generally nostalgic. I returned home to a pile of papers that needed grading, but, in such a mood, knew I needed to cook and write. I settled on the bundle of rhubarb I purchased earlier in the week on a jet-lagged early morning visit to the Union Square market. I thought, briefly, of roasting the rosy stalks as I like to do, but catching a glimpse of mom’s quilt as I washed the breakfast dishes convinced me that stewing was the only thing that would suit my state of mind. I chopped the stalks into rough chunks, put them in a saucepan with a little water, and sprinkled them with sugar. After bringing it all to a boil, I gave a quick stir, lowered to a simmer, and sat down to write. I can smell, now, that the rhubarb is ready. I won’t make it to lunch without downing my first, warm bowl.

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Tell it Brave

After a whirlwind four days of revising, editing, and finessing a cookbook proposal with my fine lady friends over at The White Moustache, my eyes were tired from staring at track changes, my body sore from too many hours in a stiff-backed chair. I needed a day off.

The morning cooperated, giving me a pale cerulean sky and cooler temperatures than we’ve had all week. I meandered through the Union Square farmers market, its abundance garishly bright this time of year. Rosy-hipped apricots made it into my bag, as did Romano beans, destined for a slow braise in plenty of olive oil. I picked up ramp tops,  like dill flowers but tightly budded and startlingly pungent.  I filled a sack with the first new crop apples, a sharp reminder that summer’s end is around the corner. Then I read. And read and read and read. It’s been a long time since I’ve given myself a day with a good book (and, oh, what a good one this is).

Speaking of books, I did a good deal of my summer reading last week (the one before the editing blitz began).  Chris and I (along with all my in-laws) were at my favorite place: tiny, remote Isle au Haut,  which sits downeast in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The views look like this:DSC03295And this:DSC03196And this:DSC03226I’ve been going to Isle au Haut my whole life. There are pictures of me taking my first steps in the living room there, and learning to read sitting atop a weathered picnic table on the front porch. My mom’s parents had the good sense to buy a modest house on a striking spit of land in the 1960s, and the ever-expanding Bergen clan has been divvying up summers on the Island ever since.

I don’t lean towards hyperbole when I say: it’s paradise.

As kids, we were given the run of the place. We’d spend hours playing on the rocky beaches, overturning flops of seaweed to hunt for tiny crabs. We’d ride our bikes for endless hours up and down the church boardwalk, and hurl crab apples from the back of the blue Jeep pickup at roadside targets. Our lemonade stands earned us enough money to make out like bandits at the tiny town store, filling plastic sandwich bags; sour penny candies for me, Fireballs for my brother, Pete. There was ice cream every afternoon, and, some nights, we lit sparklers in the salty fog.

It was also the place I saw my mom happiest.

Since she died back in 2008, the Island has come to hold a different kind of meaning for me. It’s still my wild place, where I stay barefooted all day, clamber over rocks, eat too much sugar and swim until my lips turn blue. But now, it’s where I go to commune with my mom, to access her memory in a way I can’t in my day-to-day life in Brooklyn.

On the Island, it’s utterly obvious to me how true it is that daughters become their mothers. While we were running wild as kids, mom found solace in not having to do much parenting. She used the time to sequester herself from the busyness of her life as a mother, wife and teacher. It used to drive me crazy how she’d read or lie out on the rocks for hours on end, not wanting to be disturbed. These days, all the things I found tiresome about her behavior as a kid, I adopt myself while on Isle au Haut. I read endlessly on the porch and use binoculars to spy on the pleasure boats moored in the thorofare. I make my back sore crouching on the roadsides to pick enough blueberries for a pie. I spend a lot of time with the dog. I’m rendered reticent, shutting the world away, protecting my memories. My time there is about restoration and reflection. With few distractions, I do a lot of thinking, and usually a lot of writing, too.

This summer, I found my well of words dry. It’s been a year packed with so much tumult that I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to say about it all, even in a notebook, to myself. So instead, I read.

First up was Stir, Jessica Fechtor’s new memoir about (among other things) enduring, and recovering from, a brain aneurysm. My dear friend Sally recommended it to me a couple of months back– she said she couldn’t put it down, and that it left her weeping. Another of my oldest friends, Theo, gave it his endorsement too. I picked up a copy, and squirreled it away for vacation.

I don’t know Fechtor’s writing the way fans of her popular blog Sweet Amandine do. And I admit, her language didn’t move me. But her story did. It struck deep,  and has stayed on my mind.

I connected with Fechtor on some basic levels– divorced parents, disillusioned doctoral student, a love of cooking, yadi-yadi-yah. The stuff of personal blog fluff won’t hold my interest. But what will is a young woman trying make sense of what it means to have a whole lot of Big Life Stuff, the kind that really runs you off track, happen at a young age. An aneurysm. Repeat surgeries. A miscarriage when all you want– when the only way you feel you can really reclaim you status as a living being after so much loss and fear– is to make new life.

What do you do when your knees have been taken out from you again and again, and how do you express what it feels like to start to re-enter your own life, tentatively at first, then desperately, gulping at it like water when you’re parched? How do you begin to tell about it?

With two parents gone, a desperate desire for a child in their wake, infertility treatment and a miscarriage under my belt, I’m craving stories like Fechtor’s, stories that get right to the heart of the matter. An ardent lover of artful writing, I sometimes find myself relieved when personal prose is stripped down, when the story itself shines through and wordsmithing is let to rest.

Today, I found out Stir made it onto the NYT bestseller list, which got me thinking. What is it about these stories that’s so resonant, that keeps us buying those books at the till?

Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I see where she was coming from, really I do. And mostly I agree with her; a  good metaphor, for example, can do wonders. But the explosive success of memoirs like Fechtor’s in recent years (um, Wild anyone?) has me wondering if what we’re longing for are ways of talking and writing about our lives with the varnish sanded off.

I’m talking about the difference between the kind of conversation you have at a fancy restaurant and kind that emerges when you crack a bottle of wine with a good friend and talk long and deep; the way you speak to a lover in the middle of the night, with the lights still off, when a heavy mind is keeping you from sleep.

Unpolished. Raw. Bone.

The success of Fechtor’s story, I think, is a testament to a growing hunger for that kind of storytelling. It’s the same thing driving Anna Sale’s brilliant Death, Sex and Money and her gutsy, empathic approach to interviewing, born of her own life-rocking moments in her late twenties (I was lucky enough to hear her tell her own story out loud at BAM this past May).

It’s no coincidence that this kind of shift is being driven by women. For decades now, we’ve been drowning in the “woman-as-warrior” narrative, “leaning in” and trying to have it all. And that’s important; it’s given all of us opportunities and public spaces that weren’t there before. But stories like Fechtor’s, Sale’s and Strayed’s take a different approach entirely; they’re about feeling nearly broken, and using whatever’s at hand, a bricolage of sorts, to rebuild, re-imagine. They’re about deriving strength from the fall, too, rather than just the climb. They’re about finding a way forward knowing what you know,  unable to un-see what you’ve been shown. There’s no naivety there, only guts.

It’s all got me thinking about what I want to say, and how.

Because I think we want– no, need– to tell it brave.

 

Feeling Tentative

I wrote this on July 23, the morning we took off. I was having some tech problems then… so here it is, late (and after the fact). Update: I’m still not ready. In fact, I’m feeling grumbly about being back inside after a mostly barefooted week, spent doing little more than waking, reading, cooking, swimming, napping and staring out at the boats. Feeling ready, OH SO READY, to be moving on from ultra urban living. Here’s what was on my mind a week and a half ago:IMG_0190

I’ve been thinking about returning here a lot, lately. I’m nervous, though. Too much time has passed. But I have so much to say. It’s been a big year, such a BIG YEAR.  So many things have happened. I want to tell about them, but I’m not sure how yet. I’m not one to keep things quiet (though sometimes my husband wishes I’d keep them just a little bit quieter), but I’m also feeling tentative about telling them in PUBLIC, as in the world of no-filters, anyone-can-read-it public.

We leave for Maine in two hours. Two nights in North Berwick with beloved family on their incredible homestead, and then a week on Isle au Haut with Chris’s family. A night in Portland on the way home (a.k.a. Oysters at Eventide and a four-year-old’s birthday party). I’ll have ten days with no screens, no connection. I brought a notebook– I always write like mad when I leave the City. This trip, no doubt, will be no exception.

Maybe I’ll be ready when I get home.

Maybe…

Saudade

It’s our first ninety-degree day here in Brooklyn, and I just gave Pico a bath on the roof. And while I was busy cracking up while he pushed his soapy flank against me wiggling to avoid the hose’s chilly “shower” setting, I found I wanted to cry.

Weird, I know.

I just couldn’t stop thinking, I’m here, on this beautiful little strip of privacy and light and sky, on top of my home. My HOME. I love this place. I love that I can pad up here barefoot and give my dog a bath on the roof and… in three weeks, we’ll have moved out.

Walking back downstairs, I was overtaken with what the Brazilians call saudade. It’s a term that’s tricky to translate, but essentially means an intense feeling of longing and nostalgia, one that often sets in even before a loss or departure has occurred. It’s a decidedly romantic feeling to give a name to, one that fits in perfectly with the Brazilian big-heartedness and intensity of emotion so beloved to me. My friend Olivia interprets its meaning this way:

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I don’t do well with change. That is, perhaps, a gross understatement. I tend to totally unhinge with change. I work myself up into a tizzy anticipating the feeling of being unsettled and the time it takes to readjust, to re-nest.

I am a serious needer of nests. And this little apartment– all 475 square feet of it (counting the hallway that doubles as my kitchen) –has been the only steady nest in my life in the past decade.

See, in the stretch of years between when my mom got sick (fall of 2004, the same autumn I started college) and when my dad passed away (February of 2011), I moved nearly constantly. For the first four years it was the habitual change of dorm room, the move off campus, and back and forthing from Boston to New York every couple weeks, plus two summers that took me abroad first to France, then to Ontario, and then a semester in South Africa.

When, in my final semester, I moved home to my childhood home to take care of my mom as her body finally caved to pancreatic cancer, I imagined (per doctor’s speculations) I would be hunkering down for six months at least, maybe more than a year.  I ordered seeds from Johnny’s and told my mom she could watch from the window as I breathed new life into her overgrown vegetable garden.  So you can imagine my brother’s and my shock when she slipped away just a month later. The morning after she died, I woke early and sowed some of the seeds I’d bought in trays of soil. It was only March, and far too early to plant outside. But I needed new life to counter death.

Two weeks later, after a frenetic (some might say manic) stretch of going through 22 years of accumulated memories and stuff, I fled.

Amherst, in Western Massachusetts. Uruguay. An apartment in Brooklyn, but with a travel-heavy job that had me on the road monthly. Brazil. Brooklyn again. Then a friend’s floor in Brooklyn. Isle au Haut, Maine. Portland, Maine. Brazil, round two. Western Massachusetts again. I became peripatetic.  The moves seem a blur. Some were “moves” in earnest– station wagons and UHaul trucks– some merely extended trips. It seemed I was always packing or unpacking a suitcase. I kept my toiletry bag stocked (a habit I maintain to this day). It was always my own doing, that going going, but I wasn’t holding up well.

A month after completing a dreamy, immersive semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, I began looking for apartments to buy in Brooklyn. I needed to be in a place with friends and family, people who would hold me accountable. I hadn’t imagined Brooklyn was where I would land– I craved open space and quiet– but it was the epicenter of my social and work lives, a place that had, against my intent, become something like home. I hoped the people I knew there would keep me from running again. I hoped that having a place to call my own would force me to stick around, learn to ride out the urge to hit the road again. I couldn’t say then– and still can’t now– exactly how I knew I needed to stop roaming around, I just knew. It was time to build a sense of place again, to belong somewhere.

A silver lining to the awful hand I had been dealt in the years previous was the sudden inheritance of three lives’ worth of careful savings, mom’s, dad’s, and my dad’s dad’s. Three deaths within three years, three sets of plans and dreams liquidated. I hadn’t been able to touch the money since my mom died, but the urge to root finally trumped the strangeness and guilt of spending their money for my own life.

I set my price low (low by Brooklyn standards, that is).  I didn’t need much space, but I demanded light, a workable kitchen, and, if at all possible, outdoor space. I was shown some awful apartments. One was not only dungeon dark, but oddly laid out, and seemed to me it would be impossible to entertain in; all the space was taken up by the foyer. No one needs a foyer as far as I’m concerned, especially not a twenty-five year old. Another apartment was plenty big, but so low and dark that, even in mid-afternoon, all the lights had be flipped on. One was flooded with light and sat on the corner of two beautiful blocks, but the kitchen was smashed into a tiny corner. I began to lose hope, my mind wandering back to the drawing board.

After a couple of weeks more of obsessively scouring listings online (which, a word to the wise, are few and far between in January), I saw something that caught my eye; a picture of a building’s entrance surrounded by a black iron gate and flanked with flowers in bloom. I recognized the flowers, remembered having passed them innumerable times on walks down Washington Avenue. I’d always been struck that, on a street so busy and so ill-kept, someone had thought to plant and tend flowers. An act of defiance. A splash of color amid the debris and shuttered storefronts.

The apartment was small and idiosyncratic, but I fell in love with it immediately. Exposed brick walls, eleven-foot ceilings, three enormous windows and skylights to boot. It was on the top floor and faced an interior courtyard, which equalled hard-to-come-by quiet. The “kitchen” (what there was of it) was fitted into the narrow entrance hallway, but I could envision how a little rearranging and a cheap new countertop would give me enough space to chop and sear for a crowd. There was plenty I would want to change, I knew, but I looked forward to the opportunity to make the place my own, bit by bit. The decked roof– an area I would share with only one other person, a neighbor I had yet to meet, but someone who had taken the care to build planters that surrounded the deck with what I was sure would be greenery in the warmer months– sealed the deal.  I made an offer that night.

I was sure I was settling into 4RL for a good long stretch. Five years at least. I was in a long distance relationship with a weak foundation, one I knew at my core wouldn’t last. And I was gathering the courage to start life on my own again from the safety and steadiness of my newfound haven.

Fast forward two and a half years. I’ve ripped out ceilings and put in heavy beamed shelving. I designed an entirely new bathroom that’s anchored by a very old sink. The kitchen has been rearranged Tetris-style so that I have more counter space and everything, miraculously, fits. I never re-installed the smoke detector I took down after, on my first night in the apartment, I set it to beeping incessantly from searing a steak on the stovetop. I’ve hosted dinner parties for twelve, a Hurricane Sandy refuge for blacked-out friends, and enjoyed countless quiet hours alone. And when, nearly two years into my living there, the fact that Chris and I were ready to move in together snuck up on me, I had some more shelves built and a slim pot rack hung along the kitchen wall and our family of three–two “grown ups” and a Boston terrier– happily squeezed in. I had thought the apartment was finished before,  but, post-Chris-prep-renovation, when my brother dropped by for a beer, he commented that it finally seemed complete. He was right; Chris has had that effect on so many aspects of my life.

And now, we’re going. It’s only a few blocks, so we won’t have to deal with the unnerving meta-effects of uprooting (new friends, new dog park, new supermarket, new zip code, etc.). I know eventually that will feel like home too, in new and unexpected ways. We’re going for plenty of good reasons, with all sorts of bonuses on top (read: soon-to-be-husband, dog, bigger kitchen, across the street access to the dog park, butcher and cheesemonger neighbors- yes, seriously). Yet though we haven’t packed a single box yet, I’m feeling, even in anticipation, the intensity of  the loss of this place.

Perhaps the time to feel the nostalgia pre-emptively is, in itself, a gift. As Toni Morrison wisely said, “It is sheer good fortune to miss someone before they leave you.” I didn’t have such luck with either of my parents; their exits from my life crept up too fast. But with the home I made in their wake, I’ve been given the gift of time. To rebuild, to recuperate, and now, to take off.

Fridays for One

I love Friday evenings. Work is done for the week, I usually don’t have to schlep into the City, and Chris works late at the restaurant. Sometimes I have dinner with my bodacious neighbor, Jasmine, which usually means to two of us, totally wrung out from the week, taking stock of our respective fridges and coming up with some sort of hodgepodge meal to be eaten in sweatpants while Pico jumps around or sniffs timidly after Jasmine’s sweet cat, Oona. There’s always a bottle of wine. Often two. Sometimes a bourbon to finish. We do it right.

But more often than not, Friday night finds me home alone. And frankly, I love it. As any New Yorker knows, truly quiet alone time is hard to come by in these parts.  I’ve claimed Friday as my own, hiding out in my apartment while everyone else is out celebrating the start of the weekend. I find it delicious to eat a bowl of ice-cream in bed, watch an episode of something decidedly not up Chris’s alley on Netflix, and nod off early.

I find this particular Friday night especially precious. After a runaround week and a very busy day– packing and marketing and getting stabbed a few times by the seamstress who’s altering my wedding dress– I was ready to take a load off by the time I came home. I’ll be surrounded by people (albeit people I adore) every minute for the next week. My chance to squeeze in solo time was at hand.

I snuck in some yoga on the roof while the golden hour crept over the Manhattan skyline, chatted with my lovely (and, sadly, soon to be former) next-door-neighbor Becca for a bit, then came downstairs to get some dinner going.

We hit the road for the Outer Banks tomorrow morning, so it’s a clean out kind of a night.  Fava beans left over from Chris’s event Tuesday night (seeing as I couldn’t be bothered to pop each bean out of its skin, I steamed them for a few minutes to soften the whole package up– seriously, fava fans, loving these guys doesn’t have to hurt ), crumbled up some terrific raw goats milk feta we picked up last weekend in Philly at the charming Green Aisle Grocery, tossed in the remains of some quinoa cooked in chicken broth I made for dinner when Jasmine was over Tuesday, poured the last of a jar of ramp vinaigrette I’ve had lurking in the fridge for a couple of weeks over the whole thing, then hit it with a healthy pour of fruity olive oil and some fresh cracked pepper.

fava dinner fava bowl

I sat by the window in the big leather club chair that belonged to my dad  and ate. Peacefully. Alone. It doesn’t look like much, and it probably could’ve benefitted from a handful of parsley or some lemon zest. But I didn’t have either on hand, and wasn’t about to go out to buy them. But I’m telling you, it hit the spot. And really, who cares? No one was here but me.

Fast Food for Slowing Down

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Things have been a little nutty around here lately. The recycling bin is overflowing, our kitchen/dining room/desk table is a hodgepodge of to-do lists, exam reading and bills to pay. To make matters worse, sweet Pico impaled his mouth on a stick last night in the park, and has been down for the count ever since. With a move on the horizon, new projects ramping up, exams to study for and wedding to prepare for, crazy has become the new normal. Chris and I have barely had time to fit in the repeat runs to Home Depot and the plumbing store, so you can imagine what’s happened to our rhythm of cooking and eating together at home.

In two days, we leave for a week of vacation on North Carolina’s Outer Banks with Chris’s family (my soon to be niece and parents-, sister- and brother-in law ), where I imagine we’ll be spending quite a lot of time cooking big, if simple meals for us all to share. But until then, it’s leftovers and trail mix from the glovebox as we run around checking things off the to-do list.

But even when things are chaotic for us, one ritual remains. Breakfast. I’ve been a devoted breakfast eater for years now (I’m proud to say I come from breakfast and ice cream for dessert-eating stock). Breakfast has been habit for me for as long as I can remember, but as I’ve gotten older and life feels less and less structured and dependable, I find I rely on the ritual of sitting down in the morning to keep me feeling sane. It’s a way to snatch a little peace and quiet before the day runs away.

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Pico sleeping off the pain, utterly unconcerned with the chaos.

For Chris, things have looked quite different until recently. When he lived alone, the first thing he did in the morning was walk Pico the two blocks through Gowanus past the Italian bakers waking up and the auto mechanics chatting outside their shop, to the neighborhood coffee shop where he’d order a cortado and a pastry (usually a bran muffin, at least the man had some health sense about things). He  quaffed the coffee on the short stroll home, and picked at the muffin before and after his shower, and then again on his way to work.

This was one of those things I just had to put my foot down about. Given our sometimes misaligned work schedules, we usually only sit down for dinner at home a couple of nights a week. But I felt strongly that we needed something to anchor us to the table, to home, to one another every day. (More to the point, I feel a little nervous about leaving the house before I’ve had my coffee; it’s really not a good idea for me or anyone I might encounter.)

And so, each weekday  since we’ve moved in together, Chris and I sit down at the table over coffee and a light meal. NPR’s Morning Edition patters away comfortingly in the background. Chris grinds the coffee (yup, he actually grinds it with a hand grinder) and I get breakfast going. Then we slurp the strong, black stuff we brew from our respective mugs and eat in silence, each of us reading, taking our time chasing sleep from our systems.

Sometimes breakfast is oatmeal, especially in cooler weather, sometimes Swiss mueslix, sometimes even a green smoothie (especially if we’ve had a particularly indulgent evening the night before). But more often than not, it’s a handful of granola, some plain whole milk yogurt, and a bit of whatever fresh fruit we happen to have in the house. I try to have granola on hand all the time (I’m a bit of a compulsive larder re-filler, running out of my staples feels as unnerving as surprise service changes on the Subway). It takes just moments to fix a bowl, and the comforting constance of the meal gives me a sense of heading off into the potentially haywire day with a solid, grounded start.

I found a few free minutes between tasks today, so I tossed a batch together to take on vacation. This granola is leaps and bounds better than any boxed cereal you can buy (except for the sweet stuff I love to put on ice cream. We weren’t allowed sugar cereal growing up, so I went hog wild when I spotted the cereal bins in my college dining hall. I’ve been in an only mildly successful recovery program from Cap’n Crunch, Golden Grahams and Cracklin’ Oat Bran…atop ice cream or, in moments of supposed virtue, frozen yogurt… since I graduated.)

It takes less than five minutes to put my granola together, especially if you keep the ingredients in stock in your pantry  (it helps that all of these foods have long shelf lives, all which can be extended by storing them in the fridge). And as long as you set yourself a timer reminding you to check on the trays and rotate them every twenty minutes or so, you can get on with anything else you might need to tackle while the good stuff bakes.

It’s this kind of homemade fast food– simple, reassuring, even predictable– that I rely on for everyday nourishment and to slow down the crazy, too.

I base my recipe loosely on Molly Wizenberg’s Fifth. I sub a cup each of raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds for two of her recommended four cups of nuts, mostly for economy’s sake and also because I tend to keep a lot of seeds around to toast and throw into salads. As for the nuts themselves, I particularly like pecans or cashews in this recipe. I also like to  add lots of unsweetened dried cherries (add after baking) and a few more big pinches of salt (Start with her recommended 2 tsp. and taste again after baking. If you prefer a saltier crunch, add while the granola is still warm and somewhat sticky). Play around with this recipe and see what kind of crazy quilt morning meal you can come up with for yourself.

 

 

 

 

Taking Stock

Wow. It’s, uh, been a while since I was last here. And I was a little nervous to come back again. But after a few false starts this warm May morning, I decided to peek in and have a look around.  I’ve been pretty worked up these past few months, and now that I’ve found  a moment to breathe, It’s time to take stock.

I was pretty sure I was going to let this whole blog thing die. There are some old ghosts lurking here and, frankly, it feels like this writing belongs to another life. A lot’s happened since I last posted (yup, that’s October 2012 you see there on that last post, Hurricane Sandy-weirder-than-sci-fi-apocalypto-week). After so long,  why bother returning? Why not just start over, clean slate?

Here’s the thing. I miss writing. I haven’t been doing much of it lately. Not this kind at least.  I’ve been doing a hell of a lot of the kind of writing that makes me procrastinate with Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge and other people’s Instagram and checking my email (again) and finally sitting down to write a few tortured paragraphs toward completing my dissertation proposal. Which is all well and good in that, hopefully, eventually, it’ll be born into something fruitful, something I can be proud of. But it doesn’t give much back to me in the way of satisfaction.

What’s more, when I do that kind of writing, I don’t seem to want to do any other kind of writing. Or reading. When the academic brain is on, my creativity goes into hiding. Sure, balance and all that, but that’s never been a forté of mine. This is the only way I seem to be able to do it; a thirteen week sprint where I read and write only dense theory-laden, argumentative (and kind of obnoxious) stuff.

This is not good. Exhibit A: One day a few weeks ago Chris innocently asked if I’d read something in The New Yorker, and I snapped back, “Why do you ask? You know I don’t have time!” Turns out he was asking about an article I had, in fact, managed to read on a commute in to school. Not only had I read it, I had marked it up with stars and notes, finding it relevant to my dissertation research. That, apparently, is exactly why Chris was going to recommend it to me.  “I just thought it might be useful,” he said, rightfully irritated.

I’m always sure, when I’m in the thick of the semester, that I’ll feel that awful low-level anxiety FOREVER, that the “you’re-never-really-done-I-could-read-one-more-chapter-and-actually-have-a-day-off-this-week-but-am-too-glassy-eyed-to-read-anymore-but-are-you-sure-you-really-have-time-to-watch-Parenthood?” feeling will persist in perpetuity and I’ll end up an old, cranky, laptop key-handed monster. The thing is, of course,  just as fast the chaos escalates those early days of the term, it ends.

photo 2

Yesterday was the end. Finally. Sure, I have a few meetings to go to, and a final to grade, but my own work is done for the year. Spellchecked, double spaced, turned in. In fact, my doctoral coursework is over altogether. I went to my last classes this past week, and sent in my last written assignment yesterday. In retrospect, those two years went by in a flash. But they sure felt like a slog when I was in them.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the past two years (okay, four semesters, I’m counting in academic units here). An awful lot has happened.  Despite all my misgivings– which very nearly convinced me to cut and run– I’ve stayed in grad school. There’s been quite a bit of travel, with London and Ireland last summer and frequent visits to the Barbecue belt on the highlight list. And there’s been more personal excitement than I can possibly squeeze into a readable post. I finally caught the attention of a man I’d had my eye on (rather shamelessly) for years. Turns out he’s leaps and bounds better than I imagined he would be (and trust me, I’d set the bar high in my mind’s eye). His deep dimples and sparkly gray-blue eyes still charm me just like they did that muggy April night I first met him. It’s funny to think about that night now. It preceded everything that’s been written here by more than a year. We’ve been attached at the hip now since January of last year, and we’re getting hitched in September. We’re buying an apartment together, too. We’re not going far, just around the corner. We’ll lose the glorious roof here I love so much,  but we’ll gain a bigger kitchen, more room for friends to visit, and, in a major victory for Pico (the man came with a pup), across-the-street-access to the dog park. No farm yet, but I’m not complaining. We’ve got it pretty good.

There’s been so much looking forward and planning and juggling of logistics these past few months that I haven’t been very attendant to what’s happening in the here and now. To real purpose or the small moments of pleasure. I’ve just been trying to stay afloat which, for me, usually takes the form of putting my head down and plowing ahead. Good for productivity, not so great for, well, anything else. I wasn’t the only New Yorker who adopted a gruff Puritan attitude these past few months; during the brutal winter we just finally emerged out of, we were all just trying to make it through without frostbite and hoping that, one day, it’d be spring again. Not that it’s an excuse, but at least there’s a sense of solidarity.

But there’s a sure change in the air. I spent yesterday taking a long walk, playing in the park with the dog, napping, making granola, reading for pleasure. Last night, I slept straight through for the first time in weeks. I woke up rested and actually excited for Saturday. After months of seeing Saturdays as an “opportunity” get work done while Chris was up at the restaurant, I had a day with no to-do list. The weather report said it was due to be 80 by this afternoon, and from the bedroom window I could see that the leaves of the courtyard vines had all burst forth from the week’s rain.

Before Chris headed off to work, we made breakfast, drank coffee, walked the dog. I went to the market, excited to finally pay attention to cooking again but skeptical; there’s been nothing but ratty kale and root crops for months now. I was greeted with a pleasant “so there!” retort to my gloomy expectations. I found ramps and nettles, watercress and asparagus and sorrel. Funny how those first green things can bring such a wave of relief, a promise of hope. We know the deep freeze of winter carries the promise of abundance, but until we see it again, finally taste it, it’s hard to believe.

photo 1

The other sure sign that the crazy has finally wound down? I come back to my own writing. Every term, like clockwork, and especially when the years is over in full.

This morning, I got the old itch to put some words down just because. I thought about starting over, I really did. I could come up with a new title for a site, divorce today’s writing from all that came before it. But I realized I didn’t really want to. After years of jumping around in short chunks, huge changes and big grief, it  feels good to have some proof of continuity, of making it through. Of settling in. The old posts here may seem as though they belong to another life, but the fact is they don’t.

The world we live in now makes it so easy to edit and revise the way we’re seen, and the way we think about ourselves. Post, cut, undo, delete, unfriend. But life doesn’t work that way. There are no real take backs. And thank god. We’re given the gift of memory which, if we’re lucky, lends a little to the way we act in the nows, the whens, even the ifs. So even if it hurts a little to peer backwards, I’m taking it all along with me.

 

 

 

Thinking about Sandy

First, forgive the odd formatting here. Internet is slow and funky right now. Aesthetics aside…

Here’s an email I sent to my friends and family this morning while watching the news. I’m not sure it’s decent writing, or even right. But I needed to get some words on paper. 

A note about the start: Our family and friends used to wake up all the time with emails from my late father. He slept little, often waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to tap away on his keyboard. Though he was an early convert to email, he always wrote letters. He, like his own father, was a prolific writer, and rarely kept quiet about his opinions, especially if current events were tugging at his heartstrings. We poked fun at him, but despite the electronic medium, emails like these were my dad’s way of working things out of his head and also of keeping connected.

So here goes.



I feel oddly like my dad this morning. The country’s feeling things, big things. Or at least New York is. And all I want to do– or maybe all I can do– is write about it. 

I’ve had a lot of words floating around in my head. Vulnerability. Empire. Community. Nature. Family. Mortality. Resilience. Urgency. NeedWant. Prayer. 

I got lucky. For a few days, we were cooped up. That’s the worst that happened. In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Trouble (who drove down “for the storm”, arriving Sunday morning and sticking it out with me until Thursday) and I cooked, read, hung out, eventually took walks. We fed some friends. It wasn’t particularly scary or hard. My apartment is on such high ground it’s not even classified in the evacuation zones for flooding. We had some trees down, a few awnings blown over. We never lost power. Never lost water. My radiators are crankily spewing hot steam.
Now I’m sitting safe and warm in Pleasantville (feeling a bit guilty, I admit), the little suburban town in Westchester County where I grew up. Old friends’ families have welcomed me and others with open arms, cooking constantly and pouring wine to sooth frazzled nerves. 
I took Metro North up yesterday, after a surprisingly easy bus ride from the Barclays Center to Grand Central. I was fortunate that I wasn’t trying to commute during rush hour. You’ve seen the photos of the lines. Instead, I walked right up to the queue of busses, got on, and was on 42nd and 3rd just twenty-five minutes later. Amazing how fast busses can move when there aren’t any functioning traffic lights. 
The Lower East Side and the East Village are empty. A few intrepid bars have opened their doors and lit tables with candles, inviting neighbors in for a little nip of something or maybe just a chat. One restaurant in SoHo found a way to fire up some food and is handing out free soup and salad. There’s no electric, no water in most places, no cell service. And it’s getting really fucking cold.
And then you hit Midtown, and it’s as though nothing has happened. Cabs are lined up (we’ll see how long that lasts– there’s little gas to be found). Tourists carry armfuls of shopping bags. People are rushing around on their smartphones, being rude to one another and trying to get to work. Columbia, from its hill on the Upper West Side, restarted classes on Wednesday (Wednesday!), while NYU and Pace are out of commission indefinitely. If not dealing with tremendous water damage, they’re scrambling to figure out how to get power up and how to get drinking water to students living in dorms. That old Uptown/Downtown divide seems to be roaring back. 
Looting has begun. And don’t even get me started about Staten Island.
Getting off the train in the suburbs yesterday was like an alternate universe. Things seemed normal. Husbands waited to be picked up at the train station. SUVs filled the roads. Much of Pleasantville has power (though a good third of the town is without). The only sign that anything was even slightly off was the paper sign hung on the Shell Station down on Manville Road that read, “Sorry, no gas”. Never a better time to have a bicycle.
We are, it’s obvious, nowhere near “getting back to normal”, whatever that means. The footage on the TV in front of me right now is of utter devastation. Those waiting for gas are snapping. Yesterday, a man pulled a gun when another cut in front of him in line. I’ve been listening to helicopters fly day and night over my apartment toward Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island. People are just getting in to Breezy Point to survey the fire damage.  Bodies of children were recovered in Staten Island marshes. Much of downtown is without water– not only drinking water, but they’ve been told not to touch the bodies of water around them due to so much untreated sewage overflowing into the waterways during the storm. 
Volunteer brigades are finally beginning to organize help. Until now, it’s been neighbor to neighbor. Volunteer hotlines have been so overwhelmed with offers for help they haven’t been able to dole out tasks. In the coming weeks, it’s going to be a rush to get clean water, food, blankets and coats to the displaced. But with gas in short supply, even those with cars are having trouble getting to people in need. Again, there’s been a better time to have a bike.
And yet, we’re hosting the marathon on Sunday. Our cops, our cleanup efforts, our clean water, our hotel rooms. All going to be diverted to the race. Not to making sure the most vulnerable are okay. I read a column this morning that called it “a desperate run from reality”. I agree. I’m angry at Bloomberg’s insistence that the marathon must go on, even more enraged when the rest of his response has been so terrific. 
New York wants to believe this is going to be over by this weekend. But estimates say power may not be fully restored until the weekend of November 10th. Maybe longer. Subways that run under the East River and the Staten Island Ferry are suspended indefinitely. They’re still pumping water out of the car tunnels.

Not everyone agrees with me, I know. “We need to get on with our lives,” cry the supporters of the race. But I get so ticked every time I contemplate even the amount of bottled water that’ll go into setting up water stations, let alone the other resources that are going to be diverted away from emergency relief. 

My dad, in addition to being a morning muser, was a morning runner all through his adult life. He ran New York a number of times, and loved the race passionately. Whether we watched on TV or near the finish in Central Park, he always wept at the overwhelming “human spirit”, as he called it, the concentrated outpouring of collective energy and the way the City turned out in force to root all the participants along.  But this year, I think, he would have supported a decision to cancel the race and set our sights on recovery. 

I wish, for once, New York could be humble enough to say, “we’re not okay”. To put the call for help in front of the proud chin. We’re in dire need of team spirit, absolutely. But if you ask me, our team, right now, shouldn’t be about stopwatches and Under Armour and making it to 26.2. On Sunday, we need the City to turn out as usual. But not for the Marathon. We need to drum up all the human spirit we can to ensure the safety and health of New Yorkers and Jersey-ans who desperately need help. 

Anyhow, just felt like writing. I’m hoping you’re all okay.
Love,
Sara
—-
A note. My step-mom, who runs an international aid organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times yesterday that suggested we should use this moment in New York to recognize how much of the world is in turmoil at any given moment, and how many people don’t have access to government help of any kind. Trouble, when I told him I felt powerless to do anything the other night, pointed out that it’s probably a bit of “not in my backyard” syndrome. He’s right. Just look at the photos of the damage wrought on Cuba and Haiti by Sandy. New York and New Jersey, in the grand scheme of things (though I don’t feel comfortable playing the “my tragedy is bigger than yours” game) got off easy. 
But New York City is my backyard. It’s my home. A City with a monster ego is taking a humbling beating. I don’t mean to belittle the larger struggles that go on every day. And I’m the first to admit that we, in the U.S., especially those of us who’ve lived lives of privilege, exist in a bubble of perceived invincibility most of the time. 
I guess, in this pre-coffee morning rambling, all I’m really trying to say is this moment, right now, feels like a wake up call. To pay attention to each other and environment around us, and to understand that everything and every one of us is part of a larger whole. 

Pull on your boots

Here’s a dangerous thing to do when you’ve just begun a doctoral program in a major city: read a memoir about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Some of you probably know which book I’m talking about. It’s that book that’s been in every shop window for the past several months, displayed prominently with its stark white background emphasizing the scuffed up leather hiking boot with red laces up its front  (that one, over to the left there). It’s called Wild, and its author is a bona fide BAMF named Cheryl Strayed. 
The book seemed to have been chasing me all summer. I read a book review about Strayed in the newspaper. I saw the cover of Wild on a flyer at the general store on Isle au Haut. Its cover caught my eye on the way home this summer in a bookstore in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then again during my first foray into the NYU bookstore in late August. 
I finally caved, got myself a copy, and promptly got utterly lost in its pages.
Every time I came up for air I was startled to find that I wasn’t on the PCT myself. That it wasn’t me hiking and huffing and grunting out the grief over the losses in my own life. Instead, I was on the subway. I was in my apartment bedroom. I was on the bus, in a coffee shop, in my windowless cubicle at school. 
While Strayed was writing about searing heat and moldy tents and blisters, I was trying to get myself reacquainted with the scholar’s life. Not the cook’s life, or the reporter’s life, or the traveler’s life, or the farmer’s life, all of which have been cobbled together to make up my life for the past few years. But I was tripping myself up by comparing myself to someone else. As my friend Molly always calls it, comparing one’s insides to someone else’s outsides. Which meant, instead of asking myself, oh, approximately every half hour, “what the hell am I doing?”, I needed some mini escape plans to keep myself from plotting the big one (the big one being quitting grad school practically the moment I started it). 

That’s Molly, and ridiculous dinner making
shenanigans, as if you couldn’t tell.

 First there was the weekend to cook a whole pig at a food writers’ conference near Albany. Then there was the weekend in Cambridge, MA with a friend who will humor me with hours-long walks and then get ridiculous with me while we cook dinner together (hint: synchronized swimming legs, hot pink leggings and frilly aprons). And then there was the hiking weekend with a bunch of goofy, funny and lovely guys from college. I got to play den mother for a night and make a lot of dirty jokes. I got to clamber over rocks and moss and slippery logs. There was red clay mud and the smell of dusty dry leaves and the cold hitting balsam. There was drizzle and sunshine and stars. There were views and sweat and sore thighs. 

It’s primal stuff, getting out into the woods, into the kitchen, or scribbling down thoughts that have nothing to do with school. Out of your head and into your body. Spending time with new people that get you out of your day to day. Makes you think. Makes you laugh. 
Pulling pork for an event Upstate.
Courtesy of Cook ‘n Scribble and
Maria Cerretani

Of course, coming back to the City every Sunday night (or Monday morning if I really stretch it) is jarring. Driving back into the endless stretch of lights and traffic, I always feel the mountain of the week looming in front of me. How can I live the life I want to live, and how does this crazy city fit into it? What does striking balance mean? When do I make the choice and break the molds, and when do I remind myself to hold my damn horses and remember that making sure I can take care of myself in the world (a.k.a. working) is actually really important. And that getting to a place where the meaningful work is yours for the taking demands time and plenty of grunting along the way. At least if that kind of thing matters to you. I know it does to me. 

Which is what brought me to grad school in the first place. I’ve been wrung out by the past few years. There have been days of awe, traveling and learning and encountering strange and fascinating people and places along the way. And there have been days of total, crippling agony. Grief and loss, the rug pulled out from under my feet, rage and bitterness and coming pretty close to throwing up my hands in defeat. But I got offered a chance to “park it for a while”, as a wise friend called it. To hold steady for a few years. Find a professional home, one with a lot of support and encouragement and a real push to stretch and grow and strive. Hopefully I’ll come out on the other end with some letters at the end of my name, the credentials to teach, some more publications to add to my portfolio and a stable of talented people in my corner.

Driving up to the trailhead in the Catskills

Because, though the instant gratification of a day spent in the garden, swimming in a lake, hiking in the woods or rolling out pie dough always tugs at me, I want a life that demands more than that. More introspection, more excavation. For all I like pushing up my sleeves to get my hands dirty, I love grabbing a pen and my tape recorder too. I love words and stories, teaching and learning. The elusive stuff. The stuff that fills in the cracks between the tangible. It all matters.

Cheryl Strayed and her Pacific Coast Trail? It’s probably not for me, except via stories (which, of course, I’ll keep reading. For the stories that get me out of my head. For both escape and grounding. For the narratives that point towards everything that’s bigger than we are). I’ve taken some very long walks myself– some literal, some figurative; some voluntary, some not so. But enough of them to know that there are times to cut ties and set yourself into motion, and there are other times to stay still, stick it out. Right now is the latter I think. And as Strayed wrote in another of her books, the only way to get the long slog kind of work done is to “get your ass on the floor”. Be humble. Be dogged. Cultivate patience. Do the harder thing.

So where does that leave me? Here, in Brooklyn, on a Monday morning. Still in school. Very much so.

Pity party over, Sara.

So I repeat, like a mantra: Stay on your toes. Do the best you can. Pull on whichever boots the moment demands– the sassy polished high-heeled ones for date night in the City, the rubber ones for the mudflats at the edge of the sea, or the rugged weathered ones for the woods– and get at it. All of it. Climb and plod, think and walk, let it all be a part of the really long walk of your life.

Feed. Write. Ask.