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Friday, November 2, 2012

Thinking about Sandy

First, forgive the odd formatting here. Internet is slow and funky right now. Aesthetics aside...

Here's an email I sent to my friends and family this morning while watching the news. I'm not sure it's decent writing, or even right. But I needed to get some words on paper. 

A note about the start: Our family and friends used to wake up all the time with emails from my late father. He slept little, often waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to tap away on his keyboard. Though he was an early convert to email, he always wrote letters. He, like his own father, was a prolific writer, and rarely kept quiet about his opinions, especially if current events were tugging at his heartstrings. We poked fun at him, but despite the electronic medium, emails like these were my dad's way of working things out of his head and also of keeping connected.

So here goes.

---

I feel oddly like my dad this morning. The country's feeling things, big things. Or at least New York is. And all I want to do-- or maybe all I can do-- is write about it. 

I've had a lot of words floating around in my head. Vulnerability. Empire. Community. Nature. Family. Mortality. Resilience. Urgency. NeedWant. Prayer. 

I got lucky. For a few days, we were cooped up. That's the worst that happened. In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Trouble (who drove down "for the storm", arriving Sunday morning and sticking it out with me until Thursday) and I cooked, read, hung out, eventually took walks. We fed some friends. It wasn't particularly scary or hard. My apartment is on such high ground it's not even classified in the evacuation zones for flooding. We had some trees down, a few awnings blown over. We never lost power. Never lost water. My radiators are crankily spewing hot steam.

Now I'm sitting safe and warm in Pleasantville (feeling a bit guilty, I admit), the little suburban town in Westchester County where I grew up. Old friends' families have welcomed me and others with open arms, cooking constantly and pouring wine to sooth frazzled nerves. 

I took Metro North up yesterday, after a surprisingly easy bus ride from the Barclays Center to Grand Central. I was fortunate that I wasn't trying to commute during rush hour. You've seen the photos of the lines. Instead, I walked right up to the queue of busses, got on, and was on 42nd and 3rd just twenty-five minutes later. Amazing how fast busses can move when there aren't any functioning traffic lights. 

The Lower East Side and the East Village are empty. A few intrepid bars have opened their doors and lit tables with candles, inviting neighbors in for a little nip of something or maybe just a chat. One restaurant in SoHo found a way to fire up some food and is handing out free soup and salad. There's no electric, no water in most places, no cell service. And it's getting really fucking cold.

And then you hit Midtown, and it's as though nothing has happened. Cabs are lined up (we'll see how long that lasts-- there's little gas to be found). Tourists carry armfuls of shopping bags. People are rushing around on their smartphones, being rude to one another and trying to get to work. Columbia, from its hill on the Upper West Side, restarted classes on Wednesday (Wednesday!), while NYU and Pace are out of commission indefinitely. If not dealing with tremendous water damage, they're scrambling to figure out how to get power up and how to get drinking water to students living in dorms. That old Uptown/Downtown divide seems to be roaring back. 

Looting has begun. And don't even get me started about Staten Island.

Getting off the train in the suburbs yesterday was like an alternate universe. Things seemed normal. Husbands waited to be picked up at the train station. SUVs filled the roads. Much of Pleasantville has power (though a good third of the town is without). The only sign that anything was even slightly off was the paper sign hung on the Shell Station down on Manville Road that read, "Sorry, no gas". Never a better time to have a bicycle.

We are, it's obvious, nowhere near "getting back to normal", whatever that means. The footage on the TV in front of me right now is of utter devastation. Those waiting for gas are snapping. Yesterday, a man pulled a gun when another cut in front of him in line. I've been listening to helicopters fly day and night over my apartment toward Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island. People are just getting in to Breezy Point to survey the fire damage.  Bodies of children were recovered in Staten Island marshes. Much of downtown is without water-- not only drinking water, but they've been told not to touch the bodies of water around them due to so much untreated sewage overflowing into the waterways during the storm. 

Volunteer brigades are finally beginning to organize help. Until now, it's been neighbor to neighbor. Volunteer hotlines have been so overwhelmed with offers for help they haven't been able to dole out tasks. In the coming weeks, it's going to be a rush to get clean water, food, blankets and coats to the displaced. But with gas in short supply, even those with cars are having trouble getting to people in need. Again, there's never been a better time to have a bike.

And yet, we're hosting the marathon on Sunday. Our cops, our cleanup efforts, our clean water, our hotel rooms. All going to be diverted to the race. Not to making sure the most vulnerable are okay. I read a column this morning that called it "a desperate run from reality". I agree. I'm angry at Bloomberg's insistence that the marathon must go on, even more enraged when the rest of his response has been so terrific. 

New York wants to believe this is going to be over by this weekend. But estimates say power may not be fully restored until the weekend of November 10th. Maybe longer. Subways that run under the East River and the Staten Island Ferry are suspended indefinitely. They're still pumping water out of the car tunnels.

Not everyone agrees with me, I know. "We need to get on with our lives," cry the supporters of the race. But I get so ticked every time I contemplate even the amount of bottled water that'll go into setting up water stations, let alone the other resources that are going to be diverted away from emergency relief. 

My dad, in addition to being a morning muser, was a morning runner all through his adult life. He ran New York a number of times, and loved the race passionately. Whether we watched on TV or near the finish in Central Park, he always wept at the overwhelming "human spirit", as he called it, the concentrated outpouring of collective energy and the way the City turned out in force to root all the participants along.  But this year, I think, he would have supported a decision to cancel the race and set our sights on recovery. 

I wish, for once, New York could be humble enough to say, "we're not okay". To put the call for help in front of the proud chin. We're in dire need of team spirit, absolutely. But if you ask me, our team, right now, shouldn't be about stopwatches and Under Armour and making it to 26.2. On Sunday, we need the City to turn out as usual. But not for the Marathon. We need to drum up all the human spirit we can to ensure the safety and health of New Yorkers and Jersey-ans who desperately need help. 

Anyhow, just felt like writing. I'm hoping you're all okay.

Love,
Sara

----

A note. My step-mom, who runs an international aid organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times yesterday that suggested we should use this moment in New York to recognize how much of the world is in turmoil at any given moment, and how many people don't have access to government help of any kind. Trouble, when I told him I felt powerless to do anything the other night, pointed out that it's probably a bit of "not in my backyard" syndrome. He's right. Just look at the photos of the damage wrought on Cuba and Haiti by Sandy. New York and New Jersey, in the grand scheme of things (though I don't feel comfortable playing the "my tragedy is bigger than yours" game) got off easy. 

But New York City is my backyard. It's my home. A City with a monster ego is taking a humbling beating. I don't mean to belittle the larger struggles that go on every day. And I'm the first to admit that we, in the U.S., especially those of us who've lived lives of privilege, exist in a bubble of perceived invincibility most of the time. 

I guess, in this pre-coffee morning rambling, all I'm really trying to say is this moment, right now, feels like a wake up call. To pay attention to each other and environment around us, and to understand that everything and every one of us is part of a larger whole. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Pull on your boots

Here's a dangerous thing to do when you've just begun a doctoral program in a major city: read a memoir about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Some of you probably know which book I'm talking about. It's that book that's been in every shop window for the past several months, displayed prominently with its stark white background emphasizing the scuffed up leather hiking boot with red laces up its front  (that one, over to the left there). It's called Wild, and its author is a bona fide BAMF named Cheryl Strayed. 

The book seemed to have been chasing me all summer. I read a book review about Strayed in the newspaper. I saw the cover of Wild on a flyer at the general store on Isle au Haut. Its cover caught my eye on the way home this summer in a bookstore in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then again during my first foray into the NYU bookstore in late August. 

I finally caved, got myself a copy, and promptly got utterly lost in its pages.

Every time I came up for air I was startled to find that I wasn't on the PCT myself. That it wasn't me hiking and huffing and grunting out the grief over the losses in my own life. Instead, I was on the subway. I was in my apartment bedroom. I was on the bus, in a coffee shop, in my windowless cubicle at school. 

While Strayed was writing about searing heat and moldy tents and blisters, I was trying to get myself reacquainted with the scholar's life. Not the cook's life, or the reporter's life, or the traveler's life, or the farmer's life, all of which have been cobbled together to make up my life for the past few years. But I was tripping myself up by comparing myself to someone else. As my friend Molly always calls it, comparing one's insides to someone else's outsides. Which meant, in addition to asking myself, oh, approximately every half hour, "what the hell am I doing?", I kept planning mini escape plans to keep myself from plotting the big one (the big one being quitting grad school practically the moment I started it). 

That's Molly, and ridiculous dinner making
shenanigans, as if you couldn't tell.
 First there was the weekend to cook a whole pig at a food writers' conference near Albany. Then there was the weekend in Cambridge, MA with a friend who will humor me with hours-long walks and then get ridiculous with me while we cook dinner together (hint: synchronized swimming legs, hot pink leggings and frilly aprons). And then there was the hiking weekend with a bunch of goofy, funny and lovely guys from college. I got to play den mother for a night and make a lot of dirty jokes. I got to clamber over rocks and moss and slippery logs. There was red clay mud and the smell of dusty dry leaves and the cold hitting balsam. There was drizzle and sunshine and stars. There were views and sweat and sore thighs. 

It's primal stuff, getting out into the woods, into the kitchen, or scribbling down thoughts that have nothing to do with school. Out of your head and into your body. Spending time with new people that get you out of your day to day. Makes you think. Makes you laugh. 

Pulling pork for an event Upstate.
Courtesy of Cook 'n Scribble and
Maria Cerretani
Of course, coming back to the City every Sunday night (or Monday morning if I really stretch it) is jarring. Driving back into the endless stretch of lights and traffic, I always feel the mountain of the week looming in front of me. How can I live the life I want to live, and how does this crazy city fit into it? What does striking balance mean? When do I make the choice and break the molds, and when do I remind myself to hold my damn horses and remember that making sure I can take care of myself in the world (a.k.a. working) is actually really important. And that getting to a place where the meaningful work is yours for the taking demands time and plenty of grunting along the way. At least if that kind of thing matters to you. I know it does to me. 

Which is what brought me to grad school in the first place. I've been wrung out by the past few years. There have been days of awe, traveling and learning and encountering strange and fascinating people and places along the way. And there have been days of total, crippling agony. Grief and loss, the rug pulled out from under my feet, rage and bitterness and coming pretty close to throwing up my hands in defeat. But I got offered a chance to "park it for a while", as a wise friend called it. To hold steady for a few years. Find a professional home, one with a lot of support and encouragement and a real push to stretch and grow and strive. Hopefully I'll come out on the other end with some letters at the end of my name, the credentials to teach, some more publications to add to my portfolio and a stable of talented people in my corner.

Driving up to the trailhead in the Catskills
Because, though the instant gratification of a day spent in the garden, swimming in a lake, hiking in the woods or rolling out pie dough always tugs at me, I want a life that demands more than that. More introspection, more excavation. For all I like pushing up my sleeves to get my hands dirty, I love grabbing a pen and my tape recorder too. I love words and stories, teaching and learning. The elusive stuff. The stuff that fills in the cracks between the tangible. It all matters.

Cheryl Strayed and her Pacific Coast Trail? It's probably not for me, except via stories (which, of course, I'll keep reading. For the stories that get me out of my head. For both escape and grounding. For the narratives that point towards everything that's bigger than we are). I've taken some very long walks myself-- some literal, some figurative; some voluntary, some not so. But enough of them to know that there are times to cut ties and set yourself into motion, and there are other times to stay still, stick it out. Right now is the latter I think. And as Strayed wrote in another of her books, the only way to get the long slog kind of work done is to "get your ass on the floor". Be humble. Be dogged. Cultivate patience. Do the harder thing.


So where does that leave me? Here, in Brooklyn, on a Monday morning. Still in school. Very much so.

Pity party over, Sara.

So I repeat, like a mantra: Stay on your toes. Do the best you can. Pull on whichever boots the moment demands-- the sassy polished high-heeled ones for date night in the City, the rubber ones for the mudflats at the edge of the sea, or the rugged weathered ones for the woods-- and get at it. All of it. Climb and plod, think and walk, let it all be a part of the really long walk of your life.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sometimes, I write in other places...

...Like this one. A lot of similar themes, ideas (food, love, life, you know...) So keep your eyes peeled!

Thinking Cookbooks on Cook 'n Scribble

photo by Leslie Hassler

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reasons to Believe

Change is on the horizon. I felt it so strongly yesterday, driving north along the eastern seaboard. Pulling onto the residential streets of Brooklyn, travel weary and over-caffeinated, I noticed the first dry leaves scattered amid the car tires. A week from today, I leap into a new adventure as a doctorate student in food studies. I've been wrapped up in logistics and planning, fretting and cleaning and trying to put everything in order around me, trying to stave off the inevitable messiness of life. It's always a losing battle. I should know by now, but it took a weekend away in Frederick, Maryland to lend a little perspective. I got a good long run in along back country roads, walked around a beautiful historic town, took a great yoga class (the teacher made me cry when she said "in this time of changing winds, it can be hard to find your balance"), and listened to a lot of oldies. But the real reason I was down in the mid-Atlantic was my dear friend Meredith.

This past weekend, she and her beloved Dan invited their nearest and dearest to gather around them and celebrate their incredible love story, their deep friendship and the start of their new chapter as husband and wife.

Barn from my run-- Frederick, MD
In my head, I've been imagining the toast I would have given to them. In front of a hundred people, it might not have come out like this. But here's the gist:

Mer and I are soul sisters of sorts. We knew we were meant for each other almost immediately when we met. It was a beautiful October day, and we were sitting at a patio table a month into my freshman and Mer's junior year of college. We were both pouring a lot of our energy into reproductive rights and sexual health at the time, and both had plans to deliver babies for a living. She had a smile that stretched from ear to ear, a bustling, infectious energy, and like me, a mom sick with cancer. Unlike me, though, Mer had already been seasoned by the rigors and roller coaster of care-taking, grief and fear that come with long-term illness. I was new to the game. I didn't know then how much her resilience and arms-wide-open approach to life would guide me through my own waves of grief and change.

Downtown Historic Frederick
We spent time cooking together and taking walks. We, along with a whole crew of wacky, fun-loving outdoors folk, got naked as part of Tufts Wilderness Orientation. We studied together. We checked in on our families daily, taking care from afar and going home often. We talked about how the fear of losing the people and structure that we've come to take as givens makes us want to fill up our lives with more love, more life.

On Valentine's Day of my sophomore year, Meredith sat with me for hours while we tried to coordinate  an ambulance dispatch to my mom's house in New York from our student center in Massachusetts, then drove me home in the middle of the night so I could be with my mom in the ER. The next afternoon, Mer was supposed to take a huge statistics exam. But the moment I started to fret over my interrupting her near perfect academic record, she shushed me and calmly explained to me that she'd talk to her professor about what had happened. She was sure she'd understand. Meredith's always had a little more faith than I.

Years have passed since then. Between the two of us, we've accrued two bachelors degrees, lost three parents and stood fast alongside eighteen years of cancer's and loss's Big Life Lessons. We've both loved a lot, and said bittersweet goodbyes. Separately, we've traveled. We've cooked. We've gone for runs, long walks, hikes. We've both done a lot of yoga. We've read novels and planted gardens and worked on farms. We've drunk a lot of wine. We've sat in chilly movie theaters and watched chick flicks and fallen asleep early. We haven't once lived in the same city since Mer graduated from college in 2006.

And through it all-- all the loss, and reeling, and grief and joy-- we've both hungered for love. The kind that builds you up and fills you out, makes you burst with a sense of belonging and recognition and compassion. We've yearned to nurture and also to be cared for. We've looked for kindness and humor, sharp minds and good looks. And we've both doubted its existence.

But two years ago, when she least expected it, Mer met Dan. The first time we spoke about him, her voice sounded different, calmer. She was already sure, she told me, using the words kismet and beshert. And this past Sunday, she married him.



Mer at her Tish, sounding ever so sage
on matters companionship,
love and marriage
There was an incredible presence of love, contentment and community under that tent, as the rain poured down over the vineyard. There was a lot of talk about God being present. I'm still not sure what I think on that matter, but I do know there was a palpable energy, a force-field of sorts, surrounding Dan and Mer and, indeed, all of us under the pavilion roof as they made their vows. I cried. A lot of us cried. And as soon as the ceremony ended, the rain stopped and a rainbow arced over the back fields. A sign of luck and love from those not with us if ever there were one (I was far too busy making friends to go snap any photos). Inside, we sang and danced the Hora and drank lots of wine. Feeling a little overcome, I walked barefoot in the rain-wet field and looked up at the stars.

Mer, Dan and a handful of us stayed up late into the night. We laughed a lot, so hard our bellies hurt. New friendships were formed (not surprisingly, as the two of them only associate with the creme-de-la-creme of the human race, as far as I can tell), the ring of love radiating outward from the newlyweds.

Never, in my life, have I felt such faith. That things have a way of working themselves out, and life takes shape, curveballs and all. We can go along for the ride, or we can resist. Love morphs and ebbs, but, like matter, it doesn't ever disappear. Not really. As long as we invite it in and tend to it kindly, it'll tend to us as well.

So here's to Mer and Dan. To many, many happy years. Thank you for reminding us all of the reasons to believe.




Friday, August 17, 2012

Popping the Maine Bubble: Post Vacation Blues

At 4:30 this past Monday afternoon, a beautiful summer day, I was sitting in Western Massachusetts at my desk, reunited with my laptop after a week and a half of (blissful, and very necessary) separation. And I was panicking.

I'm was not ready to be back. Five days later, as the rain patters on my apartment's skylight in Brooklyn, I'm still not.

Trouble digging into his first ever crab
roll at Days
Just the day before, Trouble and I were sitting in a secluded spot in North Berwick, Maine, gorging ourselves on a wood-fired meal of braised chicken raised on site by my dad's cousin Pete, his wonderful wife Rebekah, and Rebekah's baby brother (and fellow food-writer/agent-sharer) Joe Yonan. Pete showed off the expanded gardens on the homestead, in a state of full late-summer boom, and then gave Trouble, me and Don and Samantha behind Rabelais a tour of the extraordinary house he built by hand. Rebekah and Joe had prepared an eye-popping feast, and neighbors and friends contributed sides, drinks and desserts. The conversation was easy, the afternoon hot and still (until a heavy downpour drove us stragglers indoors). Pete's sisters, Bonnie and Wendy, showed up en route north from New York late in the evening, having come from visiting Bonnie's daughter in the Bronx and my step-mom in Westchester County. We laughed and opened more wine, talked about youngest sibling-hood and the woes of freelancing. It was a wonderful, wonderful way to end a week in Maine.


the beehives at Pete and Rebekah's
North Berwick homestead
Pete and Rebekah's gardens
and greenhouse
Before that, Trouble and I had tentatively eased off Isle au Haut, lingering as we drove south, not wanting the luster to wear off our week of vacation. We stopped in Belfast to eat bar food and watch the Olympic soccer final, then passed Trouble's son and his friend off to another family (who was taking them for yet another week of Maine barefoot fun) and headed south to Portland. On the way, we popped into LL Bean to check out camping gear and then stopped for Maine popcorn shrimp and I fed Trouble his first crab roll at Days in Yarmouth. In Portland, where I was studying when we first met, we ate oysters and drank cocktails, then revisited Miyake-- the site of our first date-- for an extraordinary succession of sushi courses.

Already, it seems worlds away.

Our little boathouse-cum-garage and dinghy on the thorofare
But backing up. Isle au Haut. Right. That little spit of rock and pine 7 miles off the coast of Stonington, Maine in Penobscot Bay. I've been going since I was nine months old, missing only a couple of summers to teenage poutiness and busyness. My mother's parents bought a bright old cottage by the water back in the 60s, and it's been in our family ever since. To me, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the world. More importantly, it's like sacred ground.  The little Isle contains so many family memories of parents and grandparents, firsts and falls, berries and pies and pancakes and lobsters and bee-stings. It's cold-water swims and starlit nights and sparklers on the porch. It's unbearable mosquitoes at dusk and foggy mornings that turn into brilliantly blue afternoons. It's long talks over tea and wine, games of Scrabble and Monopoly and lots and lots of reading.
The view from Mt. Champlain, the Island's highest point

It's the only place I know where I can fill up the days with nothing more than a good book, a long walk, and lots of cooking and eating. A nice swim is icing on the cake, but on a rainy day, even that seems like too much effort. It always takes a couple days to recalibrate the body and mind to the slower pace and nosedive in stimulation, but once you've gotten into Island Mode, it always seems as though the world's always been bare feet, blueberry stains and long, plan-less days.

The bunkhouse with our little blue Jeep Comanche
Black Dinah-- this way!
















This year was a supremely lazy one. The spring and early summer have been so jam packed with travel and logistics that it felt perfectly delicious to just rest. I didn't get as much exercise as I thought I would and didn't get through half the pile of books I had lugged along for the trip. We went to my friends Kate and Steve's fabulous chocolate shop, Black Dinah Chocolatiers, several times for coffee, pastries and chocolate. I let Trouble and my brother, Pete-- who joined us for three nights midweek-- take the helm at the stove as frequently as they were inclined to, and I happily washed and dried dishes as often as needed in return.  I baked fewer pies (but more crisps) than I usually do, and wrote almost none, save a few scribbled notes here and there. But we all took naps, Trouble competed in his first triathalon, we saw a few shooting stars, and we read aloud a lot.

Jason's lobsters, hands down the best
in Maine (and the world, if you ask me)
I could tell you about the meals we had (and there were some really triumphant ones, including a batch of cochinita pibil slow-cooked by Trouble in anticipation of Pete's arrival and eaten in "hippie tortillas", or the blueberry crisps and pancakes, lobster straight from my old friend Jason's boat, or even the fried calamari we made with freshly Island-caught squid our final night), but I don't much feel like it. I'll let some of the photos speak for themselves to give you an idea.

On Isle au Haut, the meals feel as essential to the day as brushing your teeth much more than they do any sort of hype-worthy climax. On the Island, everyone cooks-- there's no other choice. No restaurants. No bars. Just home kitchens. And we like it that way. But furthermore, when it comes right down to it, especially when I'm trying to maximize my time hiking in the woods and being barefoot on the lawn, I don't want to be stuck poring over recipes. I'd rather breakfast on ripe peaches and blueberries and have a cold lunch of leftover cole-slaw and pork than fuss over something new.
Leaving the Island on the Miss Lizzie in morning "pea soup"

Molly Wizenberg's August 9 post on Orangette resonated deeply with me. She was describing a few summer treats she had whipped up, but then followed up with this: "It was all tasty. But to be 100% honest, none of it made me feel like writing about it. The truth is, I think I like a bowl of raw blueberries, or a few slices of peach, or a pile of plain roasted zucchini, more than anything interesting that I could make or bake from them. The Life Lessons of Molly Wizenberg, age 33 3/4".

Being on Isle au Haut is one big life lesson, at least when "life" means this tech-crazed runaround existence we all seem to be so caught up in these days. On the Island, life slows down. WAY down. The mail boat comes and goes, measuring the hours. The sun rises, the gulls call, you make coffee and listen to the lobster boats chug out of the thorofare. And then, somehow, before you can even quite remember how you've passed the day, you're turning off the last light to fall into the deepest kind of sleep, uninterrupted by planes or lights or the rush of far off (or nearby) highway traffic.

But here's the startling thing. You leave the Island, and so much of that seems to slip away. Some of the magic remains, as long as you stay in Maine, but for me, crossing the border at Kittery back into "lower" New England is a surefire reminder that fall is coming near. Today, as Trouble as I wound back through the roads of Western Massachusetts, having taken as many diversions as we could, we found ourselves looking at each other with a quiet sense of dread. I looked up from the book I was reading aloud in the passenger seat.

"I feel like the summer's over," I said.
Me pedaling the generator bicycle in the
Mass MoCA Airstream installation

"It is," Trouble replied, eking out a half smile.

We stretched out the feeling a bit, with Trouble skipping out of work early one day for ice cream and an early movie (we saw Ruby Sparks, our plan B when our first choice was sold out-- I loved it!),  and then, the next, for a long drive across Massachusetts and into the Berkshires to visit Mass MoCA. It was all fun, and felt spontaneous and fancy-free, but it wasn't quite Maine. The bubble had burst.

I know I should be grateful for the time we had. For the peace of mind and the break from the whirring of the world. And I am. Really. But right now, back to my apartment and cooking for one, with the air conditioner pumping away to keep the oppressive heat at bay and the school-year just around the corner, I can't help think about how fleeting the time and places we hold most dear always seem to be. And wishing-- though I know it's fruitless-- that we could hold on a little bit longer.





Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When the Dust Settles and You Dare to Peek...

July has been a tough month. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised I've been feeling this way, as I've never been much for high summer. As young kid, I used to pine wistfully after the pale green anticipation of spring, or yearn ahead to the nestling excitement of autumn. I loved going back to school and buying school supplies and the cool crispness of the air. The long, humid, unstructured days of July? Not so much.

There's something about the kick-back languor of summer that I never quite trusted. Would it pull me through to September's reassuring days of regimen? Would the mosquitoes quit their incessant buzzing in my hot, still bedroom at night? Would people ever stop telling me I should enjoy the freedom and just go play already?

This year, I've been feeling that same unease again.

I was away for most of the month, traveling and working in Brazil.  But even before taking off, I had felt that things were left undone, ends untied. The peas were just starting to come up in the garden, and I wasn't going to be around to harvest them. The tomatoes were becoming gangly, but in all my rushing around getting ready to go, I hadn't had time to trellis them. And the night before I flew, I had an argument with a family member that struck right down to bitter bone, leaving me feeling lonely, wrung out and then, inevitably, defensive.

Then there were the weeks away, busy and isolating and moving almost every night, with nothing to do but keep my eye on work, work, work. There was no structure, so I tried frantically to build some. I had a co-author to manage and a to-do list I desperately wanted to check off by the time I returned to the States. But Brazil isn't a place that's particularly conducive to getting from point A to B in any sort of direct way. Instead, she seems to take joy in first telling you to take off your seatbelt and throw caution to the wind, then throws large speed bumps in the road and pops you up out of your seat, cracking your head on the ceiling and leaving you, bewildered, wondering why you put yourself on this crazy ride again and again (this actually happened while I was there, but it also feels like an apt metaphor for the big, sassy country down there I've so come to love). You might get where you're going, eventually and somehow, or end up at another destination entirely. There's no telling. I've never encountered another place that makes it so clear that any sense of control we think we have is an illusion.

When I landed back in New York at the end of the trip, exhausted and feeling terribly isolated, it all melted down. I found myself immediately heaping the blame for the discomfort and fright I had been feeling on the people I loved most. And then, of course, I felt worse.

Brooklyn, upon my arrival, was stupefyingly hot and humid (as she's wont to be in late July). I don't take the heat and humidity well (one might be wondering right now-- why do you go to Brazil, then? My answer-- why do any of us repeatedly put ourselves in challenging situations? I firmly believe we go-- albeit unconsciously-- seeking the lessons we need to learn again and again until we learn them good and hard). The night after I got home from Brazil, I was walking towards my apartment along Prospect Park after having a beer with a friend when the sky turned a dark, moldy grayish yellow and the undersides of the leaves began to show themselves. Then the rain came pelting down, as though someone had just upturned a bucket over the block. I opened my umbrella, futilely trying to shield my face and my leather purse from the driving water. As I struggled against the tugging gusts, a man walked up beside me, a wide smile spread across his lips. "May as well surrender, don't you think?" he said, looking at me with water dripping from his eyelashes.

Back home, after I wrung out my dress, I thought about what the man had said. Perhaps he was right, that what I needed to do was just give in and let the storm chew me up and spit me out. Let up on my loved ones a bit and just feel whatever it was that was emerging rather than running myself ragged trying to fight it back.

Then the phone rang. Too soon. Before I had had a chance to let any of those thoughts sink in or declare a truce with myself. And there was conflict, again, staring me square in the face. Before I knew it,  I had blown things up again, the lightning cracking outside my window a mirror to my electric and impulsive reactions, hot and unexpectedly aimed.

A couple days later, I drove north to Western MA to see Trouble. It had been a month, and I had felt so distant from him during my peripatetic travels and his busiest of work months. One final, tempestuous storm raged as I drove northwest through Connecticut. I turned on my brights and set my windshield wipers on their fastest tick-tock and charged on through.

I curled close to Trouble and slept more deeply than I had since I left. I hadn't realized how badly I just needed touch, familiarity, the woods, and how the absence of all those things had made me feel edgy, had caused me to unleash my careless tongue onto dangerous planes.

I spent my first two days in New England in a sort of relieved haze, exhausted but glad that I didn't have to hold it all together anymore.

By day three, after an impromptu day-trip to Vermont through golden-hued back country roads and a good sweaty run, I felt that old antsy-ness rising. I felt ready to work, to engage again. After coffee and sending Trouble off to work, I sat down to write. But it didn't come. I got up, folded laundry, brushed my teeth. Still, nothing. So I pulled on a pair of shoes and went outside, still dressed only in pajamas. By the edge of the driveway, the highbush blueberries caught my eye. The branches were hanging heavy, dark dusty purple orbs low and exposed.  I hadn't known Trouble had berry bushes when I began dating him, or even when I first took stock of the yard. And though he told me once, I had completely forgotten.

Excited, I hurried back inside, grabbed a container, then set to cleaning the bushes of all their ripe fruit. As my fingers worked, my mind began turning. Thoughts came to rest like feathers that had been caught up in maelstrom, suddenly carried down on a soft, still summer evening. I was pleased with the bounty that had presented itself to me without my asking for it. Fortified by the harvest, I tentatively headed back to take a peek at the vegetable garden.

When spring emerged, I had started on the garden. I had envisioned a perfect square and straight rows, mulched and weed-free and giving forth more vegetables than I could manage in the kitchen. But I had left for Brazil just as the days were heating up and the garden called for my attention, and I felt guilty and disappointed in myself for not having tended the patch more attentively after building the beds, spreading compost, turning soil and sowing seeds with such care. I wanted not to look, ashamed at my abandonment of something I had begun with such vigor and intent. Then I thought of the blueberries and their surprise generosity.

I made my way back through the yard. The small plot (which had never quite become a square, but had been tilled into a rather Texas-shaped thing) was overgrown with weeds. The peas had gone to seed, and a few thick stalks shot up where the sweet tendrils had once climbed. At first I was overwhelmed. Then, as I came nearer, the bright, fire-tip hues of ripe fruit caught my eye.

The tomato plants were lying on the ground (no one ever got around to taming them into vertical submission with twine or cage). I picked several handfuls of sungolds and salvaged a few striated red heirlooms into my t-shirt. Further encouraged, I picked my way gingerly among the weeds to examine the other rows.

There were, too, green beans hanging from their wily stalks. Some lay on the ground, a bit dustier for neglect, but still slender and fully formed. I went back inside for a colander.

I picked all the ready specimens, then saw a good deal of flawless parsley and snipped that too. A row of salad turnips appeared bed-headed, but despite the muss, the white spheres had emerged from the soil. I pulled a few and examined the cracks that had heaved through some of them in their overripe state. Instead of despair, I found myself imagining the bitter greens scrambled with eggs and jars of spicy kimchi.

The romaine was all long gone, and many of my herbs hadn't taken in the clayey, shady patch. But the nasturtiums were big and thriving and the eggplants were getting ready to fruit. I discovered some sorrel, too, which had soldiered through amid a circle of weeds that seemed hellbent on smothering it back. I caught myself laughing out loud as I snipped off a few of the pale, oblong leaves, thinking of sweet pea and sorrel soup.

I brought everything back inside to the cool kitchen and laid the food on the kitchen counter, then went outside to gather the eggs from the coop. I separated the berries from the beans and the tomatoes, then filled a bowl with cold water to revive the greens from the shock of having been harvested. The motions felt fine, familiar and useful, slowly waking me from my July funk.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead, smearing garden dirt across my brow as I went. And then I sat down to write, suddenly full of lucidity. Despite the neglect, my garden had pulled through. Maybe because she knew I needed it. But more likely, because love works like that. You send it outwards in some direction, hoping it'll come back to you immediately, and in just way you've imagined, clean and uncomplicated and endlessly comforting. But it never happens that way. Instead, all the feeling and labor you pour in comes around and opens to you just at the moment when you've thrown up your hands. When you finally surrender. To the rain, to the distance, to the heat and weeds of summer. Sure, the beans may be a bit dirtier for wear, and some of the tomatoes, inevitably, will rot on the ground. You may even have to pull back the weeds to find the lemony snap of sorrel, and remember that, at first, she appears to be a weed herself. The reward is in the reassuring surprise that the heart you put in usually waits to come back around to tap you on the shoulder until it sees the window of vulnerability. That is, when you can finally taste the sweet on your tongue. And, as it so often happens, just when you thought it was lost.




Monday, July 23, 2012

Brazil, July 2012, Em Breve

Estou cansada. Excuse me, I meant to say I'm tired. Muito. Very.

For the past three weeks, I've been in Brazil (now you're saying "poor baby". I know, I know).  I'm here to work. Together with chef and activist extraordinaireTeresa Corção, I'm plugging away at my first cookbook (Okay, I'm not really plugging away. I'm not much of a plugger. Work on this book so far has been more like fast and furious spurts and then lulls that make me anxious. Needless to say, Brazil, as much as I love it, can test this New Yorker's patience), which documents the foundational role of the manioc root (also known as cassava, yuca and tapioca, depending on where you are in the world) in Brazil's diverse cuisines.   

Luckily for me, I've folded my passion for food, stories, history and travel into my (nascent) career. And I've been afforded some incredible adventures because of it. But still, trying to cram in enough to give me fodder for the next six months of work on the book, coupled with being on the road and switching languages constantly, has left me tuckered out.

Now that I'm at the tail end of the trip, though, I realize I haven't written a single word about my time here.

So here's the whirlwind synopsis of my travels with a map to help with the geography: Teresa met me in the Rio airport after a red-eye from New York. We got on another plane to Salvador de Bahia. We spent one night there, supping at Beto Pimentel's legendary Paraiso Tropical, then spent the night at our host Chef Tereza Paim's house before hitting the road for the interior. We drove and stopped to eat, drove and stopped to talk, drove and stopped to shop. We visited the riverside city of Cachoeira and then spent the night in a small pousada in Valença, Bahia. The next day we drove some more. Visited more. Ate some more. We waited two hours in a seemingly endless line of cars to take the ferry back to Salvador. We spent one night back at Tereza's place, and squeezed in a visit to an international chocolate festival. The next morning, we drove to  Cira's little roadside stand to eat what is widely considered the best acarajé in Brazil (I concur). Then to Praia do Forte, where Tereza has a home and a restaurant. Welcome respite with some time  on the beach, a gorgeous meal at Tereza's restaurant. I even broke out my rusty capoeira moves in the street (aided by a good dose of Cachaça).


The next day, it was an early flight back to Rio. Four days of meetings down at Teresa's restaurant in the city center (where I am always treated like a queen and fed exceptionally well). Work work work. Not much time to explore the city. Plus, it was rainy and cool. Then off again we went, this time to São Paulo, where we were meeting with a publishing house. Sampa (as SP is often referred to) is a hideous, smog-filled city. BUT, their culinary scene is one of the best in the world. We ate four extraordinarily good meals-- a beautiful, traditional Brazilian lunch at Mara Salles's Tordesilhas, a gorgeous parade of plates flaunting the simplicity of Kappo cuisine at Kinoshita, had a late lunch at Neide Rigo's house in the leafy Lapa neighborhood, and one of the most artfully executed (and generously gifted) meals of my life at Alex Atala's D.O.M. The next morning, stuffed and giddy, we caught a bus to the south of Minas Gerais. One night in the small city of Pouso Alegre, Minas Gerais (where we learned how to make pasteis, or small wonton-like snacks, of manioc starch and cornmeal) and then to the absurdly beautiful mountaintop town of Gonçalves, where chef Tanea Romão of Kitanda hosted us in her lovely little house and fed us ridiculously good and simple food. Then back to Sampa by car, then a flight to Rio. Two nights in Rio. Work at the restaurant. Then a 36-hour blitz to step into the activist circles in Nova Friburgo, a mountainous region about 2 hours inland from Rio, where Teresa and her Ecochefs group are trying to pilot the first CSA in the state of Rio. Then back to Rio, where we've been testing recipes, transcribing Alex's introduction and planning out our tasks for the next six months (task one should be, if we're to be logical about the whole thing, procuring book contract).


We ate a lot. And very, very well. We saw a lot of manioc being harvested, processed, packaged and cooked. We ate quite a bit of it, too. Right now, the whole trip feels like a blur of overstimulation, one I can't make much sense of at the moment. 


I have a couple days to catch up on sleep, walks, reading and writing, a nice little buffer to have before transitioning back to life in the States. I've got a small back porch in the flat I'm renting for this last stretch, surrounded on three sides by (slightly) tamed jungle. I've been sitting out here a lot. Hummingbirds keep coming to visit me. I always think they should get tired, seeing as they're always moving and flapping those wings with such extraordinary frequency. But they don't. I'm the one lacking stamina, at least in relative terms.


Maybe when I get back to New York and have a few days of space between this big, crazy, beautifully colorful country and me, I'll have more reflective things to say. But for now, I'm going to hop in the shower and head up to my friend Simone's house for one last big Brazilian lunch.


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