Ordinary Extraordinary

A couple of years ago I found myself driving baby Stella to Boston Children’s Hospital at 3 in the morning in pouring January rain, gripping the steering wheel super tight as other cars passed me on the Mass Pike, and I remember thinking, wait—what the hell are these other people doing on the Mass Pike at 3 a.m.?

And then I popped out of my narrow world for just a moment, where I’d been feeling put-upon by the fact that I was required to stick my baby in a carseat in the middle of the night in order to get her the scheduled surgery she needed. And I saw all the other cars. And I remembered that as hard as things were for me, that wasn’t extraordinary. That was ordinary. Life asks so much of us, all of us, so much of the time. And I sat there, hunched behind my steering wheel, in awe at the quiet strength silently underlying this sweep of cars on the slick, wet road, underlying the love of every parent, every person.

I’m not supposed to be writing this right now. I’m supposed to be doing something else. But if I always did what I was supposed to do, I would never pop my head up and see the other cars, the other faces, connect with them. Joy makes us pull our heads up from our screens and look at the sky, look each other full in the face for a moment. And it’s okay that we have to spend a lot of time with our faces in our screens, and working our way through checklists and performance reviews, and washing the dishes and folding the laundry (again). It’s okay that life asks this perpetual labor of us—so long as when joy calls us, we listen. (Gawd I’ve been watching too much Call the Midwife, haven’t I?)

A lot is asked of us, and we live in a brutally demanding moment. There’s no end to the need to resist, to mobilize, to work for justice. There are days I’m surprised to look up and see that my Facebook feed hasn’t left physical welts on my body. We’re shelled by a near-daily cascade of horrors. We’re worried for ourselves and our friends and neighbors. I sometimes feel like I’m running around with a paper towel that’s already soaked up everything it can hold, but I’m still mopping with all I’ve got. (I wrote about that for parent.co too, if you need a moment of validation!)

For a long time after Trump was elected, this blog felt like a rather shallow enterprise to me. There’s so much to be done. I guess I forgot to look at the title of my own site. Yep. Still gotta eat. We gotta keep strong, people, gotta feed the resistance. So here’s something to feed your bodies. Bring it to a table where you can look into the faces of loved ones—or strangers—and feed one another with your eyes, your hopes, your plans.

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Slow-Cooked Hoisin Chicken with Slaw

Adapted from a pork recipe at The Kitchn

For the chicken:

3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs

1/2 c bottled hoisin sauce

1/4 c soy sauce

3-4 coin-size slices of fresh ginger (you’ll fish it out at the end)

2 T chopped garlic

Mix all this in your slow cooker and set it to low for 6 hours, or high for 4 hours. If you have a long work day (all hands raised!) this will be fine on the “keep warm” setting for another 3 hours past cook time. Whew. It falls apart into shreds which you can either serve over rice, scoop up with flatbread, or just plop it on the plate.

For the slaw:

1/2 to 3/4 head green cabbage, finely shredded

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup peanuts (I like salted here), chopped

1/2 c peanut or canola oil (anything neutral here)

1/4 c rice vinegar

2 T toasted sesame oil

2 T soy sauce

1 T sugar

I like to combine the first 3 ingredients ahead of time and throw them in the fridge. You can use bagged slaw here, but the fineness of the cabbage shreds does kind of make the whole thing more light and delicate. If you’ve got a mandoline and a moment, go for that. I try to maybe make the dressing ahead and set it in the fridge too. Then I can just chop the peanuts and toss everything together when it’s dinner time. Last time I forgot the peanuts and the children were not happy! They like lots of peanuts.

For a hearty variation on this slaw, use red cabbage, more sesame oil, and black sesame seeds instead of peanuts.

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Nowhere is Somewhere

We just passed the 2000 mile mark on our summer road trip, having tearfully hugged our hosts in Ames, Iowa this morning (their pets also warranted long goodbyes from the girls) and pulling away, waving our arms out the windows, slick with rain showers. It stinks to have soul mates scattered around the country where you can’t see them as regularly as you’d like, but it’s beautiful to get to see them at last and well I guess I’ll celebrate the privilege just this minute before lamenting the loss. 

For a few days at least we merged laundry loads and dish duty, doling out popsicles, walking the dog, finding appropriate firefly containers. We took walks and stayed up too late, encouraged by one another’s presence to wend through thorny topics. Grief, career changes, the fog of midlife, parenthood all tumbled over one another. All lightened for being shared. 

Almost two weeks on the road now, away from the pressures of daily routines, and we’ve spent lots of time in the wide open green Midwestern landscape, wading in rivers and riding carousels and picnicking (oh the picnicking!). Lots of time for reflection, it seems, but when I go inward it’s just an echo chamber. Nothing in there. No pressing desire to rub words together or fathom the universe or even draw up plans for a bigger garden. Just nothing. Am I  finding wide open spaces because I have nothing to say, or do I just need a break from saying and doing and listing and thinking? The nothing that is–that’s the gift I’m getting on this trip, though I chafe against it. Standing around holding my white elephant of quiet. 

I feel a little like the tadpoles we caught in Squaw creek–between one thing and another, becoming, but with no idea what to expect from eventual frogginess. 

If you’re going to be wide open, I can heartily recommend bouncing around the Midwest into the arms of family and friends who know you to the core, whose love bears all kinds of shape shifting and reinvention. It’s been wonderful so far, and we’ve got two more stops to go. Flyover country, people call it, but we’re not flying. We’re present for every mile. Maybe all this openness is to remind me that there is no nowhere. Everywhere is somewhere, especially when there’s love there. 

Chicken and Egg

“You’ve gotta stop reading those mommy blogs. That’ll go a long way towards making you feel better.”

Kev and I were walking on the bike path, and although he’s the one with terminal cancer, I was the one complaining how rotten I felt. I wasn’t writing enough, achieving enough, making enough money. And worst of all, I’d gained weight. The horror! Kev wasn’t totally off-base in invoking “mommy blogs” as manufacturers of discontent. The culture of keeping up with the Joneses is ever more elevated by the cult of Pinterest-perfection, poisonous clickbait, and curating our “Fakebook” lives. He was telling me I cared too much what other people thought. And he was right.

The culture of “mommy blogging” (tho let’s acknowledge how poor that term is) does give us a few things that are truly valuable, one of which is that the space of caregiving is seen and the voices of caregivers are heard. At a birthday party last weekend, a grandmother who is raising her preschool-aged granddaughter had me bristling when she said she “couldn’t understand” parents who “say bad things about their children” on Facebook. What things, I wanted to know. You know, like posting pictures of terrible messes they’d made, or saying how frustrated you were with them. They were going to grow up and see all that negative stuff about themselves, she said. “We need to think about the children,” she said. And sure, she’s part right too.

But we’re always thinking about the children.

We need a place where we can vent, kvetch, engage in a collective eyeroll, and also take down the notion that if your life’s a mess, you’re doing it wrong. Facebook has been a place for us to do that. We don’t live in the Bronx of Grace Paley’s day, where the kids could roam the streets, grab a snack from anyone’s kitchen, and a mother needing a cup of tea from a compassionate neighbor could find one down the hall. I’m living far from my parents and sisters, and my college and graduate school pals are dispersed around the country. The demands of two-income families mean I don’t even see my marvelous  tribe of local mothers very often. Hence Facebook. I can’t yet cede that space to some future need for my offspring. I need that space. I need the benefit of the doubt, the acknowledgement of imperfection and messiness and difficulty of parenting and thinking and art-making and living. Being seen is a great gift we can give to each other. So I’ll cross my fingers and hope later that delete really means delete.

The dog pulled me along the path ahead of Kev, chasing a chipmunk. I wanted to explain my restlessness, my urgency to make changes in my life. “I just want to feel like I’m making progress,” I whined to Kev.

“Progress toward what? How can you make progress if you don’t know what you’re trying to move towards?” he countered.

I thought then about the needs I was bouncing between: self-acceptance and self-improvement. We want to feel better and we want to be better. But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Some Personal Truths:

  1. I have accomplished some things.
  2. The things I’ve accomplished have been tremendously collaborative and not the sort of things that give a person much of a public profile.
  3. Not that I want that anyway. I think.
  4. I am eating a cookie right now.
  5. I believe in making the unseen work of caregiving seen and appreciated, in having collaborative work acknowledged and celebrated.
  6. This would be a largely self-serving glorification, since most of what I do seems to fall into that space.
  7. I haven’t reached my potential.
  8. Yet.

I didn’t always thirst for change. We had a hard couple of years when J was in cancer treatment, Stella was a sleepless newborn, and J had a scary period of unemployment. Last night on our date night J reminded me of a particular weekend four years ago:  Kev collapsed onstage at their rock show. J resuscitated Kev, stayed much of the night with him at the ER, then got up at 6 the next morning, took his last chemotherapy dose (hopefully his last ever, knock wood), and worked an all-day event for his job. I was stunned even by the retelling of these feats of stamina. “I think I’ve compartmentalized a lot of that,” I said to J. He nodded. People contort themselves into all kinds of positions for their many roles, and for many kinds of love.

When things finally stabilized after all that turmoil, we were so thankful to still be clinging to the life raft that there wasn’t a chance in hell we would rock it.  When change came to me a year ago in the form of job loss, I was terrified at first. But as I moved forward into it (this time, it must be said, with a financial safety net–let’s not pretend that doesn’t make a huge difference), I found joy both in picking up old threads and in launching myself into learning new things. Change was enlivening. But it’s life, now, isn’t it? Fits and starts. Weather.

As Kev and I were talking and walking along the path I saw a large robin’s egg shell and picked it up. It was an amazingly well-preserved, uncracked piece, a smooth, blue, beautiful thing. I thought of the girls immediately and wanted to share it with them. I put it gently into my jacket pocket. Later I forgot, and shoved my phone in there, smashing it to bits. Nothing to show.

 

Kindness Soup

With so much bad news out there, sometimes the holidays felt like an exercise in cognitive dissonance to me. Gun violence, climate change deniers, the ever-present din of misogyny and racism (Jesus, the Tamir Rice grand jury), the unbelievable waste we generate as American consumers, infuriating corporate recklessness (fracking and DuPont are contributors to the landscape we revisited), and yes, the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants—all these broke through my attempts at Holly Jollyness and made it seem . . . not hollow. Just dissonant instead of harmonic. Disconnected instead of joined. Did this happen to you, too?

I still had plenty of moments where that menacing soundtrack receded and the joy shone through, and I’m extra grateful for those. Watching Sophia lay her head in her grandmother’s lap as they chatted on the sofa. Overhearing cackles from the kids table. Cousins giving rollerskatinIMG_5247g lessons in my parents’ basement. Stella’s giggles of delight with the dog. Chatting and laughing with J and my folks by candlelight after the power went out and turned off the TV for us. Those were all worth driving many miles for, and we’re so glad we did. I still somehow ended the holidays needing an injection of hope, something more to cling to than my resolutions to organize my pantry and drink more smoothies.

Many miles later, still stuffed with Christmas cookies and breakfast sausage, tired and laden with gifts, we pulled into a driveway covered with two inches of ice that even our neighbors couldn’t tackle for us. The next morning I set out with the girls to fill the empty fridge and chip away at the driveway, while poor J took to bed, the latest victim of the stomach bug that always seems to find us on this trip. In the midst of this harsh re-entry, our smiling neighbor Cinzia showed up. Her little boy was pulling a red wagon, delivering lentil soup. IMG_5330.JPGThey just figured we had come home to an empty fridge and could use some.

How beautiful and perfectly unexpected! This, to me, is the truest expression of kindness: filling a need that you had to look carefully to even find. The soup was amazing, so I pressed her for the recipe, then promptly made and delivered a batch for a family dealing with an illness. (We made oatcakes, too, of course.) I’m presenting it to you here with this instruction: find someone who needs it and share it with them.

It’s so small, this gesture. I’m not saying it’s enough, and I’m not saying it’s all we have, but I am saying it’s a step worth taking in a long and perpetual journey to healing the world. If you’re looking for hope, it’s possible to manufacture some in your own kitchen, in your own heart.

The kids, of course, are hope machines. They overflow with hope and joy and possibility, and they’re the reason for not giving up on any of it, and they’re the hope for fixing what’s gotten so twisted and inhumane.IMG_5254 I found a much-needed dose of January hopefulness when I brought Sophia and her friend Sophie to their Local Chorus rehearsal. I choked back tears listening to 40 little kids singing “this little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine” and “when I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me” and then laugh with joy at they way they belt out: “It’s the hammer of justice! It’s the bell of freeeeee-edom! It’s a song about love! between! my brothers and my sisters! Aaaallll over this LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND!”

You know, the word Amen can be translated as “let it be” or “so be it.” Well, Amen to all that.

People of January, let’s find some kids to listen to. And let’s make some soup for people. Keep your spark alive in this gray time, and look, look, look for ways to fan the flame.


Kindness Soup

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miracle of mirepoix

You have your marching orders. Make and share. Cinzia’s a marvelous, intuitive cook, so she gave me this recipe as just a list of ingredients; I’ve adapted the quantities and such, but it’s a very flexible recipe and could handle plenty of variations. As written, it serves at least 8.

1/3 cup olive oil (I probably should’ve gone for the 1/2 cup, since Cinzia wrote “lots of olive oil” and she is Italian)

2 cups chopped onion

2 cups chopped carrots

1.5 cups chopped celery

6 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

3 cups lentils (I used french green lentils, but brown work too)

15-ounce can diced tomatoes (Cinzia used chopped cherry tomatoes, which I think would be sweeter and fresher!)

2 tsp sea salt

2 quarts water (or 1 quart vegetable broth and 1 quart water)

5 sprigs of fresh thyme tied with string (optional)

Saute the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until your house smells heavenly, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 3 more minutes or so. Add the lentils, tomatoes, salt, water/broth, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, partially covered, for an hour (or if you are using a dutch oven with a nice heavy lid, you can put that lid on and transfer your pot to a 350 degree oven). Share.

 

 

Why the Personal Matters

As someone who writes poems and essays that mine and share personal experiences, keeps a personal blog, and is still revising that essay for Modern Love about the worst thing that ever happened to me, I found Laura Bennett’s Slate piece (about the popularity of women’s personal essays online) mortifying. I briefly wanted to lay my head down on my desk. And then I got that kind of queasy feeling I used to get as a child when grown-ups would say to me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Years ago, my friend worked at an inpatient psychiatric ward for women recovering from severe trauma. (“Did it have yellow wallpaper?” I wanted to ask.) One morning she was walking down the hall and one of the patients held up a newspaper and pointed to a headline. “Hey!” the patient called out, “Who wants to see something really triggering?” My friend was amazed to see a horde of women flock around the newspaper. These women were all in the most difficult stages of processing their trauma, so fragile they needed hospitalization. Yet they wanted to see something described to them as triggering.

Why do we do that? It’s not as simple as this, but I can imagine a Stone Age ancestor looking at a body at the bottom of a ravine; we see the rockslide, the twisted limb; we realize what happened and program ourselves to avoid the same fate. And then we tell the story to the rest of our tribe.

What if you’re the one who slid down into the ravine, but you made it out? That’s a story that needs telling too. We need to know that it is possible to make it out of the ravine—and how. That we’re not alone, that it’s survivable. Why do we write our stories of trauma? Sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you is the best thing that ever happened to you—not because you can monetize it, but because you survived it. You kept going.

We’re not in the Stone Age anymore, but we still need stories. Our families and tribes are atomized in a way they’ve never been. We look to the internet as a medium for connection, and often find shaming instead. In a world full of snark, should we be surprised that sincerity is currency?

I don’t think we need to make excuses for the personal essay. I have great hopes that they can break down stereotypes (and, yes, taboos) and create empathy and connection. One story at a time is the best way to do this. When we see one Syrian toddler washed ashore, or one teenager dragged out of her school desk by a police officer, we can no longer ignore their humanity and the fact we are all in this together. Now, finally, it’s personal. Our humanity pushes past prejudices and fears to do the hard work of forging real community. Homophobia, xenophobia, racism are all fed by our separation from each other, our silence (this is why coming out was important and Harvey Milk knew it). Desegregation movements receive such violent pushback partly because segregation allows us to demonize one another.

And one more thing—I’m tired of everything I write about being dismissed asmommy blogs and women’s lit and food porn. People have been coming together and feasting around tables for thousands of years, but we’re going to dismiss the power of a shared meal? Let’s stop pretending that’s some kind of social critique and see it for what it is—an attempt to belittle and silence the domestic sphere, still largely animated by women.

You know what I say to my kids? (And I got this from a blogger, actually, Glennon Melton of Momastery.) I tell them: We can do hard things. Because I want them not to be afraid to tackle things that seem difficult. Reader, we can do hard things. We can tell stories that are hard to tell, that have a cost and a benefit. We can empathize with people in situations very much unlike our own. We can survive, find our voices, and use them to make change.

>We can do hard things, like changing the world our kids will grow up in to be a more tolerant and civil place, a more empathetic place, a place where it’s safe to be ourselves. The personal essay is one small but important part of a larger social justice project. It’s a Truth and Reconciliation commission, a reckoning for rape culture and racism and misogyny and transphobia and fat-shaming. We are taking our confessions outside the lockbox of the confessional because we don’t need the priest’s power to forgive us. But we do need each other.


Great reads this week:

Poet Deborah Landau talks about Authoring one’s life “line by line,” beautifully articulating the need to stay present, without simplifying the hard parts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter asks, Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?

Reports from the Medical Maze

This week finds us wading through the medical maze again. I drove my friend Kev to Dana Farber Cancer Institute for his bi-weekly slate of appointments. Kev’s been living with terminal colon cancer for six and a half years, which is a whole heckuva lot longer than anybody thought he would, back when he was diagnosed. But he has persisted, and on the drive out, we talked about that. How to persist.

We talked about therapists and social workers, and the gift of learning how to stay in the present moment, and plan for the future but keep it at bay. You can write your directives about hospice care, then turn away and go back to your life, knowing that you’ve done what you need to do, and when the time comes, the plan will be there. But for now, you’re waking up, taking your meds, and taking a walk on the bike path in the dappled sunshine. And it’s good to have your head in that, and in maybe getting a bagel. Kev made a short film about learning to view his cancer as a really obnoxious roommate. It’s dizzying to me, thinking about the journey it takes to get to that perspective.

Kev is on about his sixth experimental treatment. Ever since they ran out of approved chemotherapies to slow the progress of his cancer, he’s been raising his hand and saying yes to clinical trials. He’s done a couple “first in humans” ones, and put up with a range of gruesome and humiliating side effects which made for humorous anecdotes, shared in our backyard while we watched the kids play on the swings. Though he’s not the type to say it aloud, I think doing the trials is a way for him to find meaning in this suffering. Perhaps he can help the next person.

We talked about how when the diagnosis first comes in, there’s this huge wave of scenarios that wash over and through you; a tidal wave of panic and preparation. Kev recalled the day he went in to the hospital for his symptoms, calling a friend to say he wouldn’t be able to be the videographer at her conference the next day . . . “because I was in the hospital and they weren’t letting me out.” Amidst the thoughts of health care proxies and second-opinion surgeons and hemoglobin levels, the thing he could manage was to call Nicki and let her know about the video thing.

I remember packing Sophia’s lunch for preschool, not long after J was diagnosed, trying to keep my attention focused on peeling carrots and making a nice sandwich—all the while imagining having to make decisions about an unconscious husband in an imagined hospital bed. How far away is that hospital bed? How does one live, not knowing its proximity?

IMG_4997The truth is, Kev and I could’ve been run down by an unfriendly Mitsubishi box truck on the streets of Boston yesterday (and nearly were). The truth is, we don’t really get to know when or how death is coming for us, only that it will come. And sometimes, if you’re Kev, you know quite a bit about what it might look like when it does, since you have to reckon with it on a daily basis.

Kev lives with this knowledge, and whenever I spend time with him, he reminds me how to un-grit my teeth, let go of the illusion of control, and try to stay present. Be here now, kid, talking to your friend Kev, who you’ve known for 20 years, who knows you as well as pretty much anybody. Listen as he says again, “it is what it is. You can’t control it.”

We can’t completely control the progress of disease in our bodies or the trajectories of distracted drivers. But we can choose our perspective. Panic or acceptance. Fear or presence. Usually, traveling the road between them. Hopefully, with a friend.

Home Grown

Today will forever be known as the Great Carrot Harvest of 2015.

We tried to grow carrots last year, but either they just didn’t take, or everybody was waaaay too impatient. There was also the fact that Stella was two and liked to pull out the plants, pet them lovingly, and then smush them back in to the ground. Her favorite part of planting the garden is tucking the seeds in gently under a blanket of softly patted dirt. She must’ve figured a little extra TLC couldn’t hurt. Also, FULL DISCLOSURE, I did not remember to water the garden practically at all, and everything got kind of spindly and desperate looking.

But not this time! This time we dug deeply, watered well, waited and waited and waited . . . this was the hardest part. Only a few slim, inedible slips of carrot were sacrificed to their curiosity along the way, and it wasn’t hard to chalk up those brief seedling lives to science. After awhile we actually got used to summer, to running outside without jackets on, the porch door banging behind us. The tomatoes sprawled out everywhere and we forgot about the carrots. Now there’s a tang in the air and the tomatoes are looking hung over in their little tomato-cage drunk tanks. And somewhere between racing the dog around the yard and rejoicing over her sight-reading victory at the piano (I tell you, it’s been a big day), Sophia remembered about the carrots. Could we pick them?

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Yes. Yes we could.

And we got Stella in on the action too, running them into the house and piling them up, then scrubbing them endlessly and serving them up with dinner.

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They’re not beautiful specimens (the carrots, I mean), and they taste a little green–I know, we should’ve left them in longer for the cold weather to sweeten them! We just couldn’t wait any more!–but they’re food that the girls have had charge of from seed to table.

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I’d like to say they tore into them like they do the occasional box of sweet peanut butter cereal. Actually their enthusiasm waned after eating a couple stubby ones.They moved on to asking if they could put more butter on their bread after they’d licked off the first bit. But they were proud, piling them into bowls on the table and gracing them with a label just as homegrown as their veggies.

There are a lot of days the Tyranny of Dinner gets me down, and I wonder why I don’t just give up and sling box mac into us even more often than I do. Why plant the garden, haul the farmshare, hand over the salad spinner to the little one when dinner is already late, bite my lip with impatience while a small hand painstakingly measures a cup of flour. But I do these things to share that flicker of real joy I get from feeding our friends and family. So so so many days we don’t get there, and I don’t see the payoff. Today it was there, like a lost sock restored.

Tomorrow they’ll probably go back to protesting the “green floaty thingies” in their soup, and I’ll either practically tip over, wan with ennui, or slink to the kitchen in a fit of dish-clearing pique.

But not today.