A Summer Opus

“But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?” 
― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Two weekends ago, fresh from school madness, I left Atlanta for a few days in Wilmington with one of my best friends, Hannah. We planned it as a quiet weekend. We both needed to write, to think, and given our history and the familial nature of our friendship, this kind of solitary togetherness is almost always attainable. 
Hannah and I were roommates in grad school, and for a little over a year, lived in a darling little house on Metts, cramming our beautiful and mismatched things that somehow fit together, into every room, building a kind of private kingdom of words and laughter, of late night reading, and a merry fire, of purple orchids, and early morning writing, and impromptu Sweet and Savory jaunts. 

It began with the house. It was imperative that we found a certain kind of house, on a quiet street, with overgrown trees and Spanish moss. A place to write. A place with its own little soul. Eric discovered it serendipitously, while riding his bike through Forest Hills. We lived among books chiefly. We lived with two children (Hannah’s half brother and sister, with us for the year), who are almost teenagers now. They were five and seven at the time. There was a porch with a long black table and red rocking chairs, a stained glass window in a nook where we set a bistro table, green cabinets, and a checkered kitchen floor, and a skylight in the downstairs bathroom. There was an oak tree that obstructed the view of the backyard, which was long and narrow like a football field, with azaleas growing on both sides. 

Half way through the yard, the grass was so tall we never let Aaron and Kan play in it. Or if we did, we never admitted it to anyone. Our landlord had someone come occasionally to trim the unruly azaleas, and mow the back and front yards. He was old and kind and a bit deaf, so we never managed to communicate that we needed the second half of the back yard mown as well. Eventually, we let it go, feeling slightly chagrined only when looking across the fence to our next door neighbors’ perfectly scaled and manicured yard, complete with a goldfish pond and lily pads. By the fall, the man stopped coming, and it was months before our landlord fresh from a chemical peel face lift combo, paid us a visit (rumor was we were keeping droves of pets at the house; in actuality just one, a Maus of a kitten), and decided to hire someone (her lover, I think?) to take over. Our old gardener had gone on. 

December was my favorite. The children and I sensitive to winter temperatures indulged in tuning the thermostat to summer, till a $400 plus gas bill ended our run; Hannah and I decided that the only responsible thing to do was woolen underclothes. That did the trick. Sometimes we slept in sweaters, scarves, and socks, because we were student-poor, first-year-out-of-graduate-school-poor, which meant the heating bill had to be quartered, so other things could be afforded.  

That year, before all our friends ran off to their homes for the holidays, we decided on a Christmas party. Now you have to understand, Hannah does nothing by halves. In this case, the menu was out of a fairy tale book. Goat cheese balls crusted in pistachios drizzled with honey, a leg of lamb marinated in rosemary, garlic, and red wine, cheeses and fruit and dried nuts, six kinds of bread, figs wrapped in prosciutto, Caprese salad with gleaming red tomatoes and fragrant basil, bowls of pomegranate seeds to be dropped in glasses of champagne. I remember panicking, while Hannah stayed cool. We pulled it off somehow. Since then, every party I host lives in the glowing shadow of this one.  Hannah, the kids and I, in our Christmas best, ribbons, and collars and such. Tables laden. Glasses never empty. So much laughter and gossip and fun. Beautiful, clever Kan, shy, sweet Aaron. They charmed everyone. After most people were gone, a few of us sang carols on our porch. Tom played the guitar. Some of the café lights began burning out, and you could spy a star here and there. 

This past weekend was in some ways the same, or perhaps I always try to live back there when things were slightly simpler. We picked strawberries, went paddle boarding, read outloud late into the night until one of us fell asleep. Maus is still there, and now there is a Seamus. We are as much sisters as before, perhaps with longer stretches of silence. We wrote, though for me, it was glacially, disappointingly slow. We read through two books one night, because they were in conversation with each other. We washed the porch, walked to the end of Shell Island, cooked together. A friend gave us fresh eggs from her chickens, and we made a simple frittata of tomatoes, parsley, and a creamy burrata. Another day we made spiced Italian meatballs with spring peas, butter, boursin, and more parsley. We hunted for peonies at the farmer’s market. 

It’s like each visit is a continuum of that time, that this strand of history plaits unbroken through all the folds and rivulets of my life, bright and elemental, this year of difficulty and magic and mirth. And if we drive by the Metts house, from the corner of my eye, I see them, those two girls, black-and-gold winged, waving back at us. 

Eating with Strangers

Jesse and I have been in China less than a week now, but already it feels a month has gone by. We have seen so much, absorbed so much. We have walked so much. We have eaten beautiful food, and we have had lovely conversations with both friends and strangers. And we have both landed ourselves in hospitals in two different Chinese cities (for what seems like the same nasty respiratory infection). We have only now just arrived in Nanjing, where we will call home for the next four weeks, and because of our illnesses we have not had a chance to settle in. 

And so for a while longer, we live in the space between here and there, between home and away. 

Once the illnesses subside, we should be able to get our bearings, to unpack our suitcases, to discover our favorite brand of Chinese candy at the supermarket. Soon. Soon. 

The best meal I have had so far has been in Beijing, in a tiny little restaurant we found after hiking the Great Wall. Our guidebook directed us to the place, which had no English sign, just a wooden sign outside the door. Inside, the restaurant was small, packed with only locals–and, to our great surprise, one other foreign couple, who had also found the place using the same guidebook. We ate with them–Karen and Declan, we learned their names were–and the food was beyond delicious: long, thin dumplings stuffed with pork and chives, pork and coriander, pork and onions. Fried pork balls. Canned soda. We feasted. Everything, our whole meal, was less than $10 USD.

The four of us sat in a back room with two other tables of Chinese diners. Someone at one of the other tables was smoking, and the air in the room was close and hazy. The walls were yellow, the lights fluorescent. There was no draw here except the food–the place was not near a single tourist trap, it had no special vibe or atmosphere, you wouldn’t post a selfie while eating there. You just came for the dumplings. And the dumplings were to die for. 

Karen and Declan are from Ireland but have been working abroad in Australia for the past two years. We caught them in the midst of their long, roundabout way home through Asia. What a life! Our conversation was lively and delightful, and at the end of our meal we parted ways, wishing each other good luck and safe travels, and Jesse and I walked off into the dark night, toward our subway stop, and I thought how wonderful to be in China, how wonderful to be here, to be eating this food, to be standing in places where people have stood for so long, to be eating with strangers. 

The Sacrament of the Ordinary Life

“It was like one of those dreams when you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need. Who would have thought that the moon could dazzle and flame like that?”

                                                                                                                         Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I begin the summer break with a sense of relief – grades turned in, semester wrapped up as seamlessly as possible, my Out of the Office reply set, because I am not teaching any summer classes. Normally, this would cause a panic, especially coupled with the fact that my husband has also just been laid off from a wonderful job that he loved. So, we are both at home at least for a few days (he’s already interviewing). It’s bittersweet. Most days we feel like our time together is so limited because of the demands and nature of our work (both of us in creative fields). Now we have time, accompanied by anxiety over the future. It’s hard to come to halt from the daily onslaught of activity, to rest, to genuinely savor this gift of time that we’ve received. 

In a matter of hours, I’ve come close to a panic attack, worrying that now without a rigorous schedule in tow, I will have an unproductive summer. Perhaps fall into one of those TV watching stupors for three months, and emerge with only a quarter of my gray matter still functioning. Confession: I am a thinker and a doer; though a free spirit and an artist, this first-child wiring in me drives me to achievement and performance. I like projects, streamlining processes, solving problems. I know what this says about me: I like to control my world, to understand it, and fashion it according to my own vision. My poet-self, which is antithetical to all of this, loves mystery and meditation, embraces rest and the present moment, searches for beauty, is inward and quiet, and therefore often relegated to the alpha personality. 

With the risk of sounding like I have a multiple personality disorder, I find my two divergent impulses to often be in conflict. And though I need the alpha self, I find that the most authentic part of me, the part that isn’t always in survival mode, is the one that seeks long stretches of silence, where words sing only on the page, where I allow for the things to work themselves out in my mind at their own pace, where I can discard all expectations, including my own. 

This leads me to the idea of sacrament. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or neither, the word sacrament most likely evokes liturgy or communion, practices most common in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, as a way to connect with a God and in our material reality find ways to manifest that encounter. I am neither Catholic, nor Orthodox (though I appreciate the beauty of each of these traditions), however I believe that it is a basic human need to infuse our lives with a sense of the sacred. I do believe there is an inherent sacredness in being human, and that we all possess intrinsic dignity and value. 

However, as I stay connected to global events, I am saddened by the many human rights violations that point to how this deep sense has been lost.  I think most of us are overwhelmed by the degree of need in this world, and sometimes when faced with the magnitude of the issues surrounding us, it is much easier to shut down emotionally.

In response to all of this, I want to stay awakened, and not distracted or numbed. To impart joy and a sense of sacrament into my daily activities, cleaning my home, writing, caring for my niece, cooking a meal. I don’t want these things to be duties, but delights, done in a spirit of giving for others. I see how a simple meal turns into sacrament if made with a sense of awe and pleasure, if shared with someone in need. 

It’s easy to scoff at the small and the simple. To think that the act of listening when a friend is in pain doesn’t mean much in light of the collective pain of our world. But I choose to think that it does. As this summer unfolds, I’d like to try doing this differently. I’d like to pause for the perfume of a newly ripened apricot, to listen to the warbling of water outside, to learn the lightness and laughter and grief in the voices of my friends. I want to throw open a heavy gate into my private world and perhaps invite those whom I’ve shunned from a place of false intellectual superiority. I want to let myself laugh more, because I’ve grown tired of being too serious about it all.

And I am going to make more dishes like this one, where cheese, fruit, nuts, and honey flirt and play. The mellow sugariness, the bite of salt, the tart chevre. Such a perfect, glamorous, simple dish. 

Caramelized Apricots with Goat Cheese and Pistachio Recipe (makes 10 halves)

Ingredients
5 apricots, halved {not too ripe, firm to touch}
5 tsp brown sugar
5 tbsp cream cheese, room temperature
3 tbsp soft goat cheese, room temperature
2 tbsp pistachios, chopped
1 tbsp honey

Directions 

1. Turn the oven to broil {500 F}. Move the oven rack to the top shelf.

2. Wash, then cut the apricots in half and place them on a baking sheet.

3. Sprinkle the tops with 1/2 tsp of brown sugar. and broil for 10 – 15 minutes. The brown sugar should caramelize and turn light brown.

4. In a small bowl, mix the cream cheese and goat cheese, with a fork or whisk.

5. When the apricots have cooked, remove them from the oven. Place a dollop of the cheese mixture on top of each apricot, followed by a tsp of chopped pistachios, and then drizzle with honey. Serve warm.

(Adapted from Flourishing Foodie)