By the Ocean

This week is my last week on vacation, my last week before the new semester begins. 

I’ve been on a sort of perpetual vacation since May. I’ve traveled more this summer than any other summer in my life. First, the time in China and then a week in Maine with my family and Simona (pictures, recipes, and videos to come!). 

It’s funny, but now that I’m home, I’m finding myself in love with the little seaside town where I live–in love with it in a way I’ve never been before. When I first moved here, I thought it was a beautiful place. Everything was fun and new and exciting. Everything was a delight, a discovery. I came here for grad school and meant to stay for three years.

Fast forward almost ten years later. I’m still here. And in between then and now, I’ve felt a range of emotions about this little city. I’ve resented it. Felt trapped, stuck. It was too Southern, too small, too hot. We were too far from our families. 

But over the past couple years, my feelings toward my home have softened. Shifted. 

Now that I’m back, I’m realizing that I haven’t been looking at this place with clear eyes in a good, long while. Funny, how months away from this place can bring me home feeling entirely different. The city hasn’t changed–it’s me. 

Now that I’m back, I’m seeing this place the way a tourist would. I’m delighting in the ocean, the turquoise waves and the broken shells and the pier. The bike paths that lead me from campus, where I work, to the shore, to the waves, to the forever ocean, in six short miles. 

It’s been raining for days now, our yards and streets flooding, but today the sun broke through. I got in my car and drove to the beach, to a little seafood shop selling local fish, mussels, clams, and shrimp. I bought a beautiful fillet of snapper and a couple bags of mussels.

I thought about a bike ride to the ocean we took a week ago with a friend. We sat on the sand and watched the waves, and I realized, somewhere very deep inside my bones, that it is not an accident that I have not been able to leave the ocean. I grew up twenty minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, for all but the first four years of my life. And I have stayed about that far from it. There is something in this view, in the crashing waves, one after another, in the salt spray, in the gritty sand, in the blinding sun, there is something in that vista that I crave, that I need, that sustains me. 

So today I bought my fish, a piece of fish so fresh it smelled of nothing but the sea at its best, and walked to my car in the sun.

I thought to the beginning of this summer, just before the semester ended, when Simona wrote a post about sound and listening and fish tacos. I decided to revisit the dish, using recipes from the August issue of Bon Appétit for fried fish tacos this time. It felt fitting, a beginning and an end, the wrapping of one semester and the beginning of another. I am still in the same place, physically yes, but not very much is the same.

 

When I came home this afternoon, I pickled jalapeños and made hot sauce with gorgeous red Fresno chiles. I made slaw and cut into a ripe avocado. And fried up the snapper that not that long ago was swimming not too far from where I live.

And I loved it.  

Fish Tacos
Adapted from 
Bon Appétit

Make the batter by mixing the following ingredients:

1. 1 cup all-purpose flour
2. 1 cup white rice flour
3. 2 tsp. salt
4. 2 cups club soda (plus more as needed)

The consistency should be thick enough to coat the fish, without being lumpy or too thick. BA recommends the consistency of “thin pancake batter.”

Dip chunks or slices of skinned fish in batter and fry until golden and done (about five minutes). Top tacos with cilantro-lime slaw, avocados, pickled jalapeños, and hot sauce.

Click here for pickled jalapeño recipe.

(Hint: these are super easy and fabulous.) 
 

Welcome Home

I remember a day the week we left for China, a bad day. It was hot—unseasonably hot. Way too hot, way too early. I had errands to run, a chiropractor appointment, books to pick up on campus, a hundred thousand items on my to-do list and a rapidly shrinking window of time in which to complete them all. The night before, I hadn’t slept well, and I woke up to a distressing text from someone I loved very much who was in trouble. I panicked. Called her therapist, who suggested I call the police, which I did. Put in the call to 9-1-1 on my way to the chiropractor.

She was okay. Things turned out fine. My fears weren’t realized, much to my great relief. But by mid-morning, I was jarred. My nerves felt frayed, jerky. For this point in the semester, the very end, as I was catapulting toward China, the feeling was not new. Spring 2014 had been the hardest semester I’d ever faced, for a number of reasons, the workload, the preparations for China, the added weight of the budgets and the checklists and everything that goes along with making sure twenty people have the time of their lives in China for a month. And my dear friend, who was struggling, whom I was trying to help. Stay, please, stay.

After the chiropractor appointment, I ran my errands on campus. Acted like a perfectly normal person. Smiled to everyone I saw. But I felt like my body wasn’t able to contain me, wasn’t able to keep all of the emotions in one place, as if I might tumble out of myself, spilling all over the concrete. The sun bore down on me, as if it the sky were sinking down, ever closer, ever hotter.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and spent. As soon as I walked in the door, the air conditioner cold, I stripped off my clothes and fell onto the couch, facedown, and sobbed. I sobbed like I was breaking. I was breaking.

I remember repeating, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.

Jesse brought me water. Something to eat. I calmed down, cooled down. Rested. Dressed myself. And pulled it together.

Got to China. No one died. No one was lost. I think, even, some people did have the time of their lives.

And two months later, I am back. I am back in the same house, with the same living room, the same job. But I am changed. Those two months were healing for me. There were tears—so many tears—there were hours of writing, and talking, and thinking. About my life, about what I wanted to be the same when I got back, and about what I wanted to be different. About how much I can—and cannot—help other people. About how much I needed to help first myself.

How much I need to be good to myself. To care for my body and my soul. To nourish myself, physically and spiritually. I am back with a peace and a calm inside that I haven’t had for a good, long time. I am back with a strong desire to listen to my body, to listen to my spirit, and to give myself what I need, when I need it. Everything else has to be secondary.

These last two months, I’ve taken nine flights. Nine times I was told to secure my oxygen mask on my own face before helping anyone else. Nine times. And it has begun to sink in. It is not selfish to turn my phone off when I go to sleep. It is not selfish to take the time to exercise, even when I have other things I ought to do. It is not selfish to feed myself well, to take the time to cook a meal, to chop the vegetables, it is not selfish to love who I am becoming, to appreciate myself and what I am good at, it is not selfish to surround myself with beauty, it is not selfish to live a life of desire, to seek out what I love, to seek out the people I love, to collect in this life what makes me happy.

The day after I returned from China, my sister-in-law brought me to a nut and seed milk class with her at a beautiful space called Grub, where two lovely women talk about how important it is to listen to our bodies, to give ourselves what we need, and what nourishes us. They talked about the joy of food, how eating transcends a collection of nutrients and minerals, the act of fortifying our bodies, about how it becomes an act of love.

I thought about my semester, the healing that began in China, and how I would like that to continue. It struck me that food could be a primary vehicle for communicating with myself—my self—hello, dear one, what delights you today? And how may I provide that for you? What will make you strong? What will empower you and others?

Since then, I’ve been making coconut milk and hemp seed milk at home, and these simple acts have been bringing me such delight.

I bought a huge bag of hemp hearts at Costco. Hemp hearts, or hemp seeds, are tender and nutty, sweet and earthy, almost like a tiny, earthier pine nut. I’ve been putting them in my oatmeal in the mornings, in addition to making milk with them. (They won’t get you high, by the way, in case you were wondering. They will give you a ton of nutrients, though.)

As I walked out of Costco that day, the sun bright but not overbearing, cradling a bag of hemp hearts in the crook of my arm, the man who checked my receipt at the door said, “Enjoy your hemp.”

I pulled on my sunglasses and smiled, genuinely happy. “I will.”

Hemp seed milk
Recipe adapted from GRUB

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup hemp hearts
  • 4 cups water (filtered)
  • 2 dates
  • pinch of salt (preferably sea salt or Celtic salt)
  • maple syrup to taste (optional)

Directions

Blend all ingredients in a blender until the dates are fully broken down. There’s no need to strain the milk, though you can if you want to.

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. 

“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