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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!

a bit of rapture

Perhaps, our life isn’t a string of moments,

each one no more or less important
than another, as the Buddhist poet implied.

But I was talking abour gratitude and thirst.
I get to park my ancient green Subaru

under the linden trees, near the privet hedges,
with their sweet white flowers.

                                Richard Widerkehr                                                                                                        

It’s been a summer of busyness and unplanned grief, so far. My sister has received a painful and scary diagnosis, and as my family habituates, we have all rallied. My parents have travelled to us several weekends in a row, to be of help and support. We have spent most days together, my sister and I, amongst boxes, filled with trinkets, ornaments, books (Steven, Miriam, and Shiloh are moving to a new home). A life fragmented and in containers. While packing we’ve remembered so many things attached to a particular plate, or painting, or game. Things we were, and used to do, all the glittering pieces that have served as markers for time passed, for emergence of new talents and gifts, for soul education, God-discovery, self-discovery, for the ethos of our family.

I am reminded again and again of how much of living slips past us, our minds elsewhere, our anxieties distorting our views. I know how much time I waste in allowing obsessive thoughts to obstruct what is happening around me, in me. How focused and absorbed I can be on the elements of my life that make me feel out of control, that don’t align with my expectations. My sister’s illness has more profoundly woken me to my own shortsightedness. I don’t mean to preach or be didactic, I don’t want to turn this into a grand metaphor. I think I just feel humbled and afraid. I also feel awakened to the tremor and vitality of every day things. Waking up with aches in my body from lifting boxes, carrying things up and down stairs, running after my niece whose chunky legs have carried her through each room, to each window, and nook of the new house.

This morning, I’ve made coffee and ate crumbling chocolate biscotti. Such a pleasure! I don’t want to ignore even that moment of cleaning old coffee grounds out of the filter cup, where I wipe down the counter from spilling some of those luscious, brown kernels that smell like earth and sun and some other unnamable essence. I want to be here and present and receive this grace of my life as it unfolds, as it comes to me in, often pedestrian, ways that hide its intrinsic rapture. 

 I remember a Buddhist reading that said that we often run from the present moment because of all the pain it contains. I have often experienced that, although, I find that we also run from the present moment, because underneath that initial pain and discomfort there is such wild joy, and our smallish souls don’t always know how to hold it and bear it alongside everything else. I guess I don’t ever want to be too sophisticated for that kind of unmasked ecstasy, too comfortable and pedantic to inhabit the moments when that blossoms within me.

Take yesterday, for instance. After days of moving, and weeks ahead with more work to do, we paused. Miriam whisked me away for a pedicure. It’s hard to express what those 30 minutes contained, hot towels wrapped around our legs and feet, as we laughed and read each other snippets of celebrity gossip, drank our iced coffees. Life since her diagnosis has felt void of playfulness and small pleasures. The weight of illness has pressed and clamored against all of this, but yesterday was a small victory. Pedicures, followed by Thai food with our husbands, followed by digging for the blue-ray player, and huddling in their new family room amongst the disarray of boxes and furniture, with wine and ice cream and a very bad action film that we mostly made fun of.

And of course, food, because it slows everything down. Last week bliss came in the boon of heirloom tomatoes from the market. I whipped goat cheese with some cream, made a fragrant oil with fresh basil and mint, toasted a few walnuts and voila! a simple appetizer, or in our case, breakfast of hardy tomato slices, topped with goat cheese, a drizzle of oil and the said walnuts. It’s the easiest, loveliest thing in the world, and it speaks the language of summer. 

Eggs en Cocotte

Some of my best childhood memories begin at my grandparents’ s house, my father’s parents, whom we called Bunu and Buna, which are the root words of bunica (f.) and bunicu (m.) (meaning grandparents in Romanian), a diminutive meaning good, or the good one.  It’s so fitting that we called them that, because in my fortunate childhood both sets of grandparents were safe and beloved people, their homes, kingdoms of wonder that incited both fear and delight. 

Bunu and Buna lived in a house about 5 km away from our home. We often walked there, my sister and I, hand in hand to be safe.  Or if we had money, took the tram, though that was a less than pleasant experience, as my I was afraid of some of the beggars and pickpockets who rode the trams and particularly liked to give small children stern lectures and sometimes more, regarding our “egalitarian government” who made everyone such varying degrees of poor, there was no equality even in that. Most often we would give them our money, saved for that drippy cone of soft serve banana ice cream, or later (after the fall of the Communist regime) the ever elusive, ever expensive, ever worth fighting one another for every bite, the Twix bar, come to us straight from the exotic Hackettstown, New Jersey.

There would have never been Twix bars at my grandparents’ house, because they were poor, old-fashioned, no nonsense people, who woke and went to be bed, as the expression says, with the chickens. People who mostly grew their own food, whose only frivolity was a flower garden, and elaborate desserts that my grandmother spent days making at Christmas time. They made their own soap, and my grandmother knitted dresses, sweaters and scarves, from wool and occasionally mohair, which was harder to obtain. She loved to needlepoint and on plain white muslin would embroider landscapes and people with thread she dyed in an array of colors. My favorite one was of a young girl herding her geese on the shores of a lake.   

Though neither of them had more than four years of primary education, they were learned people. They read the Bible and various poems and hymns in the evenings, sitting with their cups of rose hip or chamomile tea and quiet, buttery lamplight. From the other room in the midst of our child’s loud squealing, we could hear their voices drifting, sometimes reciting psalms, sometimes praying. They loved each other deeply, fiercely, in that quiet way people of a different generation loved each other, without great displays of passion, but with the affectionate twinkling glance, the occasional teasing, the holding of the hand or the arm, the conversation of any and every small thing. 

When we were small children, our cousins and us would gather there for playtime in a large swing my father, grandfather, and uncles built for us, a swing that for us was a ship, a house, an airplane, a realm of monsters and fairies. I was captain, teller of adventures, scriptwriter for our plays, sometimes a fairy, a wood nymph, sometimes the various monsters (zmei) or knights from our collective imagination. This time was my precursor to writing. I was bossy, energetic, and tough, and to my mother’s chagrin, without an ounce of girliness in me. 

When we tired of the swing, we would run through the garden, hide amongst the tomato stalks, incur my grandfather’s wrath, who dearly loved all living things, especially is grapevines and tomato plants. And with good reason, to this day I’ve never eaten tomatoes like his, grown in a dark, rich soil, ripened under summer’s unforgiving sun, the size of grapefruits and cantaloupes, although to my child’s imagination, the size of pumpkins, or watermelons. Sometimes, we would pick them off the vine, not waiting even for salt, and ate them like apples in the shade of the house. Other times, if our impatient bellies allowed, my grandmother would chunk them, along with fresh green onions, crumbles of salty feta, and a little bit of oil, and we would eat every bite, arguing for who got to dip the bread in the remaining juices. Such pleasure!

If we had been good a few days in a row (which wasn’t very often) we would be allowed to get the eggs from the chicken coop. This was a mostly scary affair, as the hens were territorial and not unwilling to peck our small hands. Some, after laying an egg, would do a tour of the coup crowing loudly and proudly to the others. This was the opportune time to get in there as thieves, and walk away unharmed with our russet, robin’s blue, or golden boon. But more often, the smart and adaptive hens would sit on their eggs, clucking angrily when they saw us, greedy-handed children, and we had to be as gentle and invisible, to get under them and sneak out those beautiful eggs, still warm, truly fresh. 

They would get cracked in a pan of searing oil, so that the yolk stayed soft and runny, and the whites would form a crunchy crust, which I loved. We dipped bread in the yolk, bit, dipped into a steaming cup of chocolate, bit. Bliss for our small, sunburned bodies, our aching bellies, and sometimes aching arms and legs from all that running and playing and mischief. 

To this day, I can’t eat an egg without thinking of my grandparents, of their stern affection, of their generous feeding of so many of us. They cared for us when our mothers went back to work, their care a benevolence that allowed discovery, adventure, and a little trouble even. My grandfather would sometimes join our games, chase us playfully with a big stick, threatening to punish us for eating fistfuls of unripened grapes. I’ll cut off your head like a snake’s! he would say, and we would scatter laughing, pretending he was our dragon, descended from the mountain to eat us. 

I feel such happiness even now thinking of that time, though my grandparents have passed, and missing them has lost some of its ache, though none of its joy. I am in my kitchen cracking eggs into ramekins en cocotte, nestling them upon sliced onions, and fragrant basil leaves. I bake them long enough for the whites to set, but for the yolk to still be soft. We eat them with toast and tomatoes and Brebis sheep’s cheese. I tell my husband these stories, and for a moment we are both there, at that table set outside under the walnut trees, with my grandmother slicing tomatoes at dusk, and we lazily shoo the flies away from all that juice that stains our lips, and fingers, and clothes. 

The recipe was inspired by this one from Food52, with adjustments, such as basil instead of arugula, and a splash of milk in each ramekin for added airiness. This dish must be eaten with toast, tomatoes, and salty feta.