Birthdays and Such…

I’ve just celebrated another birthday, and I am sad and a bit in crisis. Sad because I am 32, and though all the people older than 32 out there will most likely be offended, I need to clear the cobwebs from my soul …32 sounds ever so old to me. It sounds so old that I’ve decided to remain 28 (this is the crisis part), and so really, I just celebrated my 28th birthday, thank you very much! and intend to do so for the next decade or so. I know, I too want to be the kind of person that embraces her age gracefully, that behaves her age equally gracefully, that with dignity and gratitude welcomes each new year because it makes her wiser and such. Despite knowing that I probably should be this person, I relinquish the should and admit that right now I want to throw a tantrum that I am not 19 anymore, that my metabolism has slowed considerably in the last decade, that people have much higher expectations for my list of accomplishments, that without a minimum of 8 hours of sleep, I cannot wake up fresh faced and energized (and even with 8 hours this is all debatable). 

Though my life has been wrought with so many changes, relocations and dislocations, more friends than I could ever count, most of whom are in other states, and my own insatiable wanderlust, I really do hate change. Even the coming and going of a birthday disturbs some internal rhythm, making my life feel unraveled and chaotic. Perhaps, this is the crux of this birthday too. All around me, things are shifting rapidly. The blur of this summer with my sister’s diagnosis, Darren’s new job, the PhD program I’m finding myself in happy but anchorless, my small group of three and a half years coming to a beautiful sense of closure.

New priorities, new schedule, a whole new set of expectations and obstacles. Each change washes over me anew, and I brace myself, dig heels in, try to withstand the tug and push. Each day has been a frantic search for the things that make me feel safe, cooking, sitting in my green chair surrounded by my favorite books in a  stack on the floor, phone calls with my mom, afternoons with Shiloh, laughing with my sister over funny and slightly dysfunctional childhood memories, and Darren reading to me in the evenings from various cookbooks. This past two weeks, it was from Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem, one of the most comforting books, replete with Jewish and Palestinian history, examinations of traditions and customs, and photography to get lost in. I’ve fallen asleep to the micro history of za’atar, or more recently the spatial rendition of a Jerusalem market.

I guess in the end, I am comforted by food and all that it symbolizes. I love the rituals Darren and I have, breakfast at the kitchen counter, a French press, toast with over-easy eggs, or rice pudding with pecans and lots of cinnamon. Lunch is rarely a meal we have together, but then there’s dinner. Most evenings, I cook; occasionally we get take out from our favorite Lebanese place, Café Agora. Often we eat on the couch, plates in our lap, talking, laughing, maybe catching up on a show we both like. I love spending time with friends over a meal, because sharing food feels like we are entering into a very intimate reality with each other. Food makes us more open and vibrant, maybe because it awakens our senses and pushes us into the experience of our bodies, thus making us more present to ourselves and to each other. Sharing a meal and conversation is familiar, yet always a thrill for me.

Today, we spent the afternoon with dear friends and their perfect mini schnauzers. We made three kinds of pizza and a gorgeous salad with apple slices, walnuts and dried cherries. Chad and Darren watched football, while Tiffany and I sat in the dining room and laughed and talked for hours over too many glasses of Gewürztraminer, and we lamented all the changes of each other’s lives, empathized, then laughed some more. It felt so safe to spend the afternoon doing ordinary things like cooking, watching football, and walking the dogs. We’ve done this many times before, either at our place or theirs, but today it meant more, like the untangling of one firm strand from such a complicated web of relationships and responsibilities.

Earlier in the day, I cooked an Ottolenghi recipe, which you could find here, dear reader. I guess this would be a good place to mention that I intend to cook my way through the Jerusalem book, although this recipe came from one of his earlier ones, called Plenty. It is the second time this week that I make this dish (this time it’s for you, Erin!) because it is the most perfect way to cook an eggplant. I am happy now just thinking of it, looking over the photographs. It’s a recipe that will make you fall in love with the humble aubergine, if you’re not there already. It’s a recipe that might one day make me accept that I am 32 (!!!). Yes, it’s that amazing!

Changing Seasons

I feel it happening, somewhere in my bones, the change from summer to fall. Summer is still roaring, the temperatures often above 90, the humidity frizzing my hair and causing makeup to weep off my face, the sun bright and baking. Somewhere, though, the seed of fall has cracked open. Maybe it’s the early morning air, the coolness that’s creeping in. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new semester: new faces, familiar faces, essays I’ve read and essays I’ve not yet read. I can feel it, the change that’s going to come. I’m savoring every moment of summer while it is still with me, but at the same time anticipating the crisp breezes and the smell of cinnamon and dead leaves drying on the lawn. Making pots of chili and baking apples and sitting outside with a hot cup of coffee and a book.

I also feel the change in a more symbolic sense.

There have been a few times in my life when I felt great life changes before they happened, when I knew something was coming before knowing just what, when I could tell something had altered inside of me, knowing that the alteration would eventually ripple its way outward. I remember coming back to Wilmington after my first trip to Congo in 2009. Everything felt shifted. Something in me was moving somewhere, and I wasn’t sure where. Friendships that had seemed vital to me lost something, felt increasingly more hollow. The church we felt was home felt less and less so. I felt unmoored.

In 2011, it was the month in San Francisco. I came home from that more centered in myself, more alive to my own internal being. Maybe it was the fog in the Inner Sunset, where I lived that month, maybe it was the fog that grayed everything out and gave me permission to be introspective, to be alone, to be quiet. Every time I took the N-Judah to downtown, I could almost tell you the exact street where the fog would lift and the sun would break through, and I still remember passing the bakery where that happened, and the park just past it; I stared out that train window and watched people play Frisbee with their dogs, the grass impossibly green, the sky impossibly blue, the houses pastel and perfect, and I knew life was delicious in ways I had never imagined.

When I came home from that month away, I had only a few months before we received Tom’s diagnosis. I would learn that life is painful in ways I couldn’t have imagined either.

Now, in 2014, after China, after those two months on the other side of the world, I am back home, and I am different yet again. I don’t think even I myself will understand it for a good, long time. I am more excited by things—by the blueness of the ocean, by the taste of eggplants. I am feeling bolder, feeling less apologetic for what I think and what I love. I am feeling decisive.

I have taken up cycling. My sister-in-law is training for the biking portion of a triathlon, and she’s letting me train with her. We get up early to ride a nearby neighborhood with wide paths snaking by houses we’ll never afford. The sun is buttery, beautiful at that time of day, and I breathe deeply as I work the bike, as I see what my legs can do, as I learn to balance myself and the bike. It feels good, it feels deeply good. Because I like the changes, I love every change I’ve made, and I feel more myself now than I ever have been in the past.

Last night, Jesse’s band played a show on a nearby island, and I stayed home and cooked and read and took a bubble bath. I made myself chapatis and baba ghanouj. I ate a peach that was sweeter and juicier than any I’ve had in a long time. The peach was a shocking color, so rich and so bright. The juice ran down my fingers, and I sat at our little kitchen table, eating alone, and I felt very happy.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Baba Ghanouj (Creamed Eggplant)
From World Vegetarian

 Ingredients:

1 large eggplant
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt

 

Directions:

 Prick eggplant with a fork and roast in a 450-degree oven until collapsing and very soft inside (mine took an hour). Peel and roughly chop the eggplant. Blend or process eggplant with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, until creamy and smooth.

More Real than Anything Else

I’ve been reading a great deal of Tomas TranstrÖmer lately. His poems tend to linger with me for days, their meaning and genius unfolding slowly, sometimes catching me unaware in the middle of something I am doing. It’s been so astonishing and fresh, his words, his voice calling across the room, becoming familiar somehow.  Though his images are so often wintery and sparse, my oppositional nature gets a mad hankering for him in the summers. So, I’ve carried him with me these last three months, lived inside his joy and melancholy, which has run parallel to my own. 

I mentioned in a previous post that this summer has carried added gravitas for my family and me. However, these last few of weeks have been filled with unexpected sweetness and fun in the shape of three trips, one to Michigan to visit Darren’s family, one to Maine with dearest Erin, and one to Jamaica with my mom (photos, videos, and stories forthcoming for all three). With my wanderlust satisfied and purring in a corner, I am happy to be home, to gather myself a bit and find a measure of grace and creativity before the PhD begins full force, and I will look up and it will be Christmas. I am afraid this will happen. The years of my MFA were a bit like this, the inhale before the plunge, and then May three years later, a summer storm, passionate, tumultuous, exquisite, nerve-wracking, and over quickly. Perhaps it’s silly to say this, but time has been slipping from me, and no matter how I try, I cannot hold on determinedly enough to stretch it and savor it. T.S. Eliot’s line, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” lingers and mocks me a bit. 

My hope for these next few years of study (and I may regret this in a few months) is that they linger, that their pace slows. That there is time for ideas to bourgeon within me, that my words would earn their meaning, but seem effortless. I want to live inside the space of each poem I write without feeling rushed or self-conscious or worried. I am aching to learn so many things, to try to unearth new ways to say some of the same things that obsess me, to find fresh forms and inspiration through the community of others who are like-minded. To feel gratitude. To say no to distractions, and even to the slew of great and wonderful things that claim my attention often, to which I give in. 

The truth is that I am not good at saying no or knowing my own limitations. I usually find them when my body has collapsed from fatigue, and I can’t articulate a coherent thought. I am so aware that the next few years will demand a single-minded intensity and dedication from me that won’t allow for the fragmentation in which I comfortably operate. It al begins this week, with orientation and books and writing syllabi. I am a mess of nerves and happiness. 

In the meantime, this weekend has been relatively quiet. Farmer’s market trips, sleeping in, movies, cooking, writing. After traveling, it’s sweet to just be home with my husband and books and beautiful Bolivian coffee and Romanian pastries. I love our life, our routine, the delight and ache of being newly married. Coming home from traveling and slipping back into its comfort is like receiving these gifts renewed. A bit like the person in this poem playing/listening to Schubert:

I.

In the evening darkness in a place outside New York, a viewpoint point where
             one single glance will encompass the homes of eight million
             people.
The giant city over there is a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy seen
            from the side.
Within the galaxy coffee-cups are pushed across the counter, the shop
           windows beg from passers-by, a flurry of shoes leave no prints.
The climbing fire escapes, the lift doors glide shut, behind  police –
locked doors  a perpetual seethe of voices.
Slouched bodies doze in subway cars, the hurtling catacombs.
I know too – without statistics – that right now Schubert is being played
in some room over there and that for someone the notes are
more real than anything else. (Tranströmer)

And while summer lingers, I am still seeking its bounty and flavors. This week yellow nectarines, heirlooms, aromatic basil, topped with prosciutto and Bufala mozzarella for what has become my favorite summer salads. 

Recipe:

NECTARINE HEIRLOOM SALAD
Ingredients:
•    3-4 nectarines
•    2 heirloom tomatoes
•    1 ball of mozzarella di bufala
•    1 small bundle of basil
•    6-8 slices of prosciutto
•    1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
•    1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
•    Sea salt
•    Freshly ground black pepper
Directions:
•    Rinse and dry the lettuce and rip larger leaves in half.
•    Slice the nectarines and tomatoes into wedges.
•    Assemble the salad by scattering the tomatoes and nectarines at the bottom of the bowl
•    Tear the mozzarella over the salad.
•    Tear leaves of basil over the salad.
•    Lay slices of prosciutto throughout the salad.
•    To make the dressing, whisk together 1/4  cup of balsamic vinegar with 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil.
Season salad with sea salt and black pepper. You can also layer these beautiful ingredients on top of endives, for some added crunch and texture. Happy eating!

“I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” M.F.K. Fisher