Contained in the Voice

“Sound has a direct influence on our human biology and thus influences our health. This is because every cell in our body has its own vibrational frequency. Human cells are composed of atoms and molecules that resonate according to their mutual harmonies. Many cells together form tissues and organs that are part of a biological system. This system then vibrates according to new harmonies …Sound is the creative principle, and must be regarded as primordial.”
                                                                                                                                   Dr. Hans Jenny

The soul is contained in the human voice.
                                                                                                                                  Borges

We are a culture that privileges seeing above its other senses. In many ways, technology has turned us into both objects and subjects of the gaze. Most of us move through reality heavily reliant on our visual sense as an interpretive guide of our relationship to the world. I am in no way saying this is a negative. For those of us fortunate enough to have a keen sense of sight, reality is a veritable feast for the eyes. The natural world, people’s faces, written text, photographs, skyscrapers, endless beauty.

However, the danger in this over-privileging of sight over the other senses can cause an internal deprivation of experience. Even as I write for this blog, I am already stripping the experience of food to its visual appeal only, because what makes food viscerally desirable and alluring is found more in smell, in texture, even in sound. One of my favorite things is the crunch a fresh carrot, a potato chip, or an apple makes in that first bite. Consider the murmurs of frothing milk, the drip of coffee, the sigh of a fresh artichoke as it becomes unwrapped petal by petal to get to its mysterious tantalizing heart. 

Listening is a lost art. I sat this past week through student presentations, all on heavy and important issues, from domestic violence, to racism, to immigration. I realized after a couple of presentations that I was only half listening. This was not because my students didn’t have my full attention, but because in seeing them, in noticing their micro expressions, the clenching of their hands, their shuffling through index cards, the vulnerability etched on their faces, I would forget to fully engage aurally. In this case, my sense of sight commandeered my ability to fully listen to their stories, to hear the modulations of their voices, to enter their words as one might enter a room. 

I began to close my eyes as they spoke. It was rather amazing to listen in the dark, to hear the honesty in each voice, the secret aches that emerge only in the tremulousness, the chords that they strike when they expressed excitement, fear, longing. 

It takes a great deal of practice to fully control and modulate the tonalities of daily conversation, which means that the deepest authenticity of a person is in their voice. In the ways that we have infinite registers of thought and emotion, our voices too span crescendos and decrescendos to match. What a gift it is to be given the space to speak, to give word and sound to our internal paradigms, to have a witness to our story. How beautiful to create those sacred spaces for others, to offer meaning and immediacy in each encounter. To discover the both essential and marginal poetry of every human life. 

I notice the hunger in every person to be heard. I notice that very few still know to ask questions, to express a genuine interest in another, to listen without calculating their follow up response, or drifting into their own life and plans. Very few know how to redirect their senses outward. 

I want to become a reader of voices, to engage all of senses in every encounter with the world aground me, to bring the totality of my being in the present moment. I want to develop a further sensitivity to the voices of others, to give wide spaces to the people I love to unfold themselves out of their chrysalises of grief and desire, and to weave narrative meaning into the empty spaces of this world. 

Because my work as a professor entails so much verbal engagement with others, both on the speaking and the listening side, most days by the time I arrive home, I crave as much quiet and personal space as possible. Unlike most extroverts, I recharge in silence and aloneness, through meditation, prayer, and reading. Darren who is a designer spends most of his days creating and strategizing in front of a computer. I arrive home depleted of words, he arrives home with many words to share and spend in conversation. He is also wired as a counselor, so he finds a great deal of meaning in asking questions and listening. After being married for a while we have found a way to mitigate the potential perils of our situation. If I can cook for about an hour or so in silence, or perhaps with some Van Morrison in the background, by the time dinner arrives, I am recharged to listen and engage. 

This past Thursday it was tacos and sour beers in our apartment’s Zen garden, which is really a courtyard with fountains and strategically placed patio furniture. It is one of our favorite places to sit in the evenings. There are rarely other people there, so we feel like it belongs to us. We sat in silence for a while, which is one of the best things about being friends, the freedom to speak only what is important to us, and we never feel the compulsion to fill spaces with words. We ate far too many tacos, stained our clothes, laughed. It was that kind of a summer day when only street food and cold beer will suit the mood. 

The recipe for fish tacos is below; you can use any kind of white fish you fancy, or  salmon is also brilliant with this spice combination. While cooking, I ate slices of toast with Le Delice de Bourgogne, because cheese makes all things better.

Chili-Orange Sole Tacos with Avocado Coleslaw 

Makes about 8 tacos
Ingredients:
For the sole
•    1 teaspoon orange zest
•    2 tablespoons orange juice
•    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for cooking
•    1 teaspoon chili powder
•    1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
•    1/2 teaspoon cumin
•    1/2 teaspoon coriander
•    1/2 teaspoon paprika
•    2 large garlic cloves, minced
•    1 tablespoon brown sugar
•    1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
•    1 pound sole fillets 
•    Corn tortillas
For the coleslaw
•    2 cups shredded green cabbage
•    2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
•    1/3 cup sliced red onion
•    2 tablespoons sour cream
•    2 tablespoons orange juice
•    1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
•    1/2 teaspoon cumin
•    Salt
•    1 avocado, diced
Directions:
For the sole
1.    In a small bowl, combine orange zest, juice, olive oil, spices, garlic, sugar and cilantro.
2.    Place sole in a zip-closed bag and pour mixture over, coating all sides. Refrigerate for about 1 hour.
3.    When ready to cook, heat a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat in a nonstick pan. Place sole in hot pan and cook for about 2-3 minutes per side, depending on thickness and desired doneness. Flake apart.
For the coleslaw
1.    Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the cabbage, cilantro and red onion.
2.    In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, orange juice, vinegar and cumin. Season with salt, to taste. Pour over cabbage and toss well.
3.    Add the diced avocado to the cabbage mixture and toss lightly. Refrigerate while the sole marinates. Stir well just before serving.
To assemble
1.    Place cooked sole on warm corn tortillas. Top with coleslaw.
2.    Garnish with additional cilantro, jalapeños, and spring or green onions if desired.

Extended Family

“Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.

What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.

But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.

When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who has six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”

– Kurt Vonnegut 

Nine years ago, Jesse and I–still newlyweds, married eleven months–packed everything we owned into two cars and a U-Haul and moved 568 miles from the city we both grew up in, the little city where we’d met in elementary school. Five hundred and sixty-eight miles, a ten-hour drive from the state we’d called home most of our lives. A day trip away from all of our family: my parents, his parents, his sister, his mother’s sisters, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, his grandfather, my grandmother, who all lived within about an hour’s drive. 

I’d gotten accepted to grad school in Wilmington, North Carolina. And we were ready to leave Florida, ready to leave the long, humid summers, the mosquitoes, the theme parks and tourists. We were ready to strike out on our own, to make a little life for ourselves where neither of us had ever lived. 

Our families helped us move, and we all rolled across the bridge to town on June 6, 2005, in a summer downpour, our little caravan–Dad driving the U-Haul, Mom and I in her car, Jesse in his car, his mother and sister in their family van, and Tom driving my Mustang. 

After dropping things off at our new apartment, we all went to dinner at Flaming Amy’s, a local burrito joint where the walls are decorated with pictures of Elvis and Hendrix, and where pink plastic flamingos flock. I remember that moment so well. The big chocolate chip cookie we ate. The light coming out after the rain, the pink light and warm yellow reflections on the puddles in the parking lot. Everything had changed, and everything was exciting.

We planned to stay in Wilmington three years, long enough for me to finish school and for us to figure out where we really wanted to be.

Fast forward to 2014. Tom is gone. Our families are still ten hours away. And we are still here. A little older now. I am often longing for those theme parks, for the intensity of the Florida sun, for the bright colors and pulse and hum of the bugs and the feeling I get when I see a building I looked at when I was seven years old. What I really miss, though, when I miss Florida, is being with people who have known us all our lives. I miss Tom. I miss my parents. I miss the family Jesse has left.

Every Thursday night here in Wilmington, we have dinner with our friends Warren and Sharon, and their two kids. In a stroke of good fortune, they live in our neighborhood. When it’s warm, we can walk. Or, they’ll pile their kids in a wagon and walk to us. Or, S.–who is now almost six, I can hardly believe it–will get on her scooter, the strap of her pink helmet firmly fastened beneath her chin, and she’ll show up on our doorstep a few paces ahead of her little brother and parents. And she’ll grin at me, and everything in that moment is just right.

We eat dinner together, and it’s rarely fancy–it’s what we have on hand, it’s often pasta or something I can throw together quickly. (Sharon makes more elaborate and beautiful things.) Sharon will make a beautiful dessert, something sinful and chocolatey, or we’ll just make break-and-bake cookies. I am almost always dressed in yoga pants. I don’t think the kids know I wear anything but yoga pants. And we talk, and talk, and talk. And S. will usually tell us about her day at school. D. will wax poetic about whatever it is that toddlers murmur about. We will catch up on the week, and whatever we’re thinking about, whatever dreams we’re afraid won’t come true, or what we’re disappointed in, or what we’re thrilled about. We’ll talk about how much we love summer nights. We’ll talk about football. We’ll talk about nothing. 

This past week, we grilled chicken and ate green beans and baked sweet potatoes from our weekly produce box. We drank ciders. I perched myself on the swing set and chatted idly with Sharon as Warren finished the chicken on the grill and Jesse helped S. and D. defeat evildoers with lasers. 

It was one of those moments I realized I was home, after all. Yes, six hundred miles away, but home nonetheless.

This weekend, Becki and Vicki visited for Easter. We went to church Sunday and saw a dear friend we hadn’t expected to see. After services were over, we all went to lunch–pizza, because apparently everything else is closed on Easter, who knew? Vicki, Becki, and Jesse ordered Mexican food, because, you know, all bets are off when you’re at a pizza joint for Easter dinner. My friend, her significant other, and I split a pizza. It was raining outside, one of those cold, drizzly, miserable rains. But we were all inside and warm and enjoying our food, and we laughed and forgot the weather for a bit. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family, about extended family, and about food–specifically, sharing food. Sharing a meal. There is something very primal about it, about sitting around a table with people and sharing something so basic, so elemental, so human, as a meal. There is the family you are born into, and there is the family you collect. Jesse and I were both so lucky to be born into loving, safe, supportive families. And we have been lucky still to have collected a tight little group of people we consider our extended family, and while genetics do not connect us, we are still inextricably linked. We share food with them, we laugh, we tell them our dreams, and we listen to theirs. They have held us together in our darkest moments. 

And so, this Easter weekend, I am thankful for our family, for the people who are connected to us by blood, and for the people we have chosen, and who have chosen us.

Warren hams it up for the camera...
Warren hams it up for the camera…
...but can't keep from smiling for long.
…but can’t keep from smiling for long.

Toujours, Provence!

“Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?”
― Peter Mayle

To live in the South means that you’ve engaged in a benign acceptance of the tangle referred to as seasons. Spring and Summer, capricious as they are, have flings with frost, with storms where the weather drops below wintery ranges. You learn to accept it, petals in snow, pollen frozen to the car, 40 degrees in the morning, 74 by noon, 79 by 3. It’s exhausting to plan a wardrobe of choices that can accommodate the fickleness, my car a repository for sweaters, sandals, emergency nail polish should I have to in fact brave the sandals. 

When this confusing kaleidoscope of weather sets in, accompanied by newly acquired allergies, I sink into books of faraway places, places that on the page are both achingly familiar and new. For the last couple of years, it’s been Under the Tuscan Sun, an enchanting incursion into setting up house in Italy. If you’ve watched the film, you might know about the poppy fields, the sunflowers, the house named Bramasole, but other than that, the two have nothing else in common. (Hence, if so inclined, read this delicious humorous book that will have you start packing with its first chapter.)

This year, I’ve picked up another one, to while away some of the minutes I can snag between grading essays. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, with all the humorous reflections you would expect from a true Brit living in France (read: the charming chaos ensues), and unexpected things: the recipe for the perfect fox cassoulet. (I admit feeling a bit offended!) 

This past weekend was unbearably hot, pool weather really, humidity to make the lungs ache. It a busy weekend too, one with little breathing room, so as Mayle waxed about boar pates, choucrutes, Sanguete delapin et oignons  a “crêpe” of rabbit blood and pearl onions,  I created my own Provence in our midtown Atlanta dwelling. We began with a Saturday brunch with dear friends, in which a caramelized spring onion jam was folded into fluffy eggs with mushrooms, spinach, and a goat cheese ricotta blend. We topped those frittaa slices with Campari tomatoes, small, pearl-like, and incredibly sweet. 

Next were crepes. We filled them with whipped cream, fresh berries, jams, drizzled honey. For added protein, small spicy saucisson, some apple flavored, some andouille. There were mimosas and pomegranate bellinis, and coffee with more whipped cream. We had the French doors open, and true to Southern weather, the breeze that stole in was morning cool, and brought in the fragrance of cherry trees and dogwood. Later, I did get a bit of a sore throat from the pollen, but the fragrance alone was worth it. Our brunch extended like a true European meal over a couple of hours, followed by a few more hours of more coffee and conversation. I felt like myself again. 

Before we set off to run errands, we piled the dishes in the sink, left all the glasses strewn on the counter – things that would normally bother me – and went into the courtyard to lay in the sun and read. I continued with my Provence book, read parts of it out loud to Darren. We drank light sour beers and leftover champagne. I wore a hat. It really was a bit like the French countryside with the fountain whistling its song in the background. 

Sunday was yet again, busy, exhausting. Always too many things to do, too much to think about, to explore, to plan. Church, budgets, cooking for the week, exercise,  lesson plans, more grading. Everyone it Atlanta was at the Dogwood Festival, so the Midtown streets were filled with people eating cotton candy, sipping ices, carrying balloons and other paraphernalia suggesting a carnival-like day.

Once the day permitted us, we hid in our home away from the onslaught, and only left again for one brief trek to the supermarket for prosciutto and a baguette. We made luscious sandwiches, a cultural cross between French and Italian. It was our way of inviting the twilight and the cool into ourselves, of gaining quiet, of absorbing the activity of the day, sorting it into its categories of meaning, laying it to rest. 

I packed my Provence book along with my school materials. It is a boon, something to carry with me through the week, a house to walk into when the world throws frost and pollen at me, when students yawn through the elegance of Woolf, when I need a few minutes of indulgent escape. 

The recipe was taken from the Cozy Apron, and made with love and a few tweaks, a baguette instead of Ciabatta, and I used raw sunflower seeds for the vinaigrette. It was a dreamy indulgence, especially accompanied by glasses of sparkling rose.