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.

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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.