May 15, 2013

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Lemon

Soup might not seem like an especially fitting spring endeavor, but in Brooklyn now, where it is sunny and 70 degrees one day and moody and cold the next, soup feels right. Especially when it is a bright, light one like this.

It would have never come into being were it not for the carrots at the farmer’s market, an especially young and sprightly looking bunch, unignorable in blightless, look-at-me orange. I grabbed three, not knowing what I would do with them, and hoping their end wouldn’t be boring or worse. Far too many vegetables spend their last days in my crisper drawers, giving up until they’re wan and limp.

I searched “carrots” on my Epicurious app, as I often do in this situation, and this rendering just about fell in my lap. It was my jumping off point. Simple, but still exciting, this soup has a warm, bracing hit of ginger along with a lift of lemon. I love it because it is so healthy (doesn’t it feel enlivening just to look at?), and because it saved me more than once. It was an easy snack one afternoon, plain and unadorned, and a fast hit-the-spot dinner one night, served over farro, and scattered with cilantro and mint. (I bought the herbs on that same farmer’s market run, and miraculously, I have kept them alive in their little pots out on the fire escape.) I dusted it with cayenne pepper, but a spoonful of Greek yogurt would have been a sultry companion, too. Half of the batch stands by at the ready in the freezer, ready to sweep in again at the next hungry moment.

I think this is why I’ve been blogging so little about cooking lately: they aren’t so much recipes I’m working with as they are components thrown together in various pairings. A bunch of sautéed kale appears with brown rice at dinner, then is scrambled with eggs the next morning. Leftover cooked grains go into a frittata, or to bulk up a soup, or get sautéed with herbs and nuts and served alongside roast chicken. When I do manage to get myself in front of the stove, I cook more than I need, and store the rest in the fridge or freezer. If it’s there and ready to use, chances are I will. It’s not a particularly exciting way to eat, and invariably my combinations involve garlic, soy sauce, and brown rice vinegar, but it’s working for me. It feels easy and simple and healthy, and there’s something reassuring about it. Without relying on our cookbooks or recipes, what happens when we just get down to practice of making a meal? As is often the case, we know more than we think.

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May 3, 2013

A Body as Full as a Canvas Sail

After my birthday, I spent a sunny weekend at my mom and step-dad’s that felt like a super dose of fun. I held my niece upside down, we buzzed our lips back and forth and played a game where I touched her on the nose and said, “boop!”, all of which made her break into a smile that revealed all seven of her tiny teeth. I had a birthday dinner with my family. My sister decorated the porch with branches of plum, magnolia, and forsythia blossoms cut from the yard. Pink, orange, and yellow tissue paper spheres hung from a string of red wooden beads pilfered from a box of Christmas decorations, and we ate barbecue catered by a charming pit master from the market nearby. It was the best potato salad I’d had in my life, and we sat outside drinking daiquiris until a thunderstorm rolled in long after it had gotten dark. On Saturday there was coffee, a long walk, and digging in the dirt with my mom. We made a new compost pile, and I carried the raised beds to their new home. When I lifted the short black walls out of the dirt, damp soil and worms clung to the sides, and I hoisted them over my shoulder. And while it sounds too convenient to be true, there are wild violets blooming in the yard and between the patio stones, and none of us remember them being there last year. I dug some up with a trowel and patted them down into the wet earth near the entrance of the vegetable garden, hoping they’ll spread. This is not an adventure tale, just the joy-filled details of a nine-month old, the world in bloom, being outside with people you love. But at the end of the weekend, as we rode the bus back into concrete midtown, I felt like sunshine was pouring out of my skin.

Sometimes I bemoan that my life in New York can feel like a Woody Allen movie, everyone sitting in restaurants talking about their feelings. But when I am able to really do––to be active and present in a fun physical process––it’s as replenishing as good night’s sleep or emerging back into the world after a spa afternoon. Moving raised beds, rearranging piles of squirmy worm-filled earth, and tucking demure, winking indigo blooms into a new spot of earth made me feel like my best self again.

What role does doing play in your life? It’s an interesting question for reflective, emotional people, and an especially tough one for anyone who battles the blues. Getting going can be the toughest part of any day. Spring seems to have breathed enough life into my bones so that my body feels full as a canvas sail. Doing feels natural and good, so that whether I’m pedaling my bike uphill, playing peek-a-boo, or sorting through bunches of spinach at the greenmarket, I feel alive, engaged, and happy. It could be considered like flow, possibly, but while flow can happen while writing or painting, mindful doing feels best to me when there’s some kind of movement.

One of my friends has a fear of not doing, and so adopted a challenge as a way to get over it. Every day, she has to do something she’s never done before. You can imagine how difficult this would be. When I last saw her she had a notebook open under the window with a list of numbers running down the left-hand column, one for each day of the month. There were more new daily doings next to numbers than not. It was not only impressive but inspiring.

I prize my usual Monday nights because I have no appointments. It’s my night to go to the gym and make a proper dinner without feeling harried and hurried. But this past Monday, I did something quite goofy and frivolous for the first time. I stepped off the F train at West 4th street after 7pm and it was still light outside. Walking west toward the water, the brightly-lit sex shops and karaoke bars gave way to narrow, leafier streets, with jewelry boutiques and darker, more den-like sex shops. The sidewalks were filled with women in their workout clothes and tiny little dogs, and under the marquee of a theater, people stood in small groups wrapped in dark wool coats and sweaters waiting for a performance. It was a part of New York at a time of day that is not part of my usual daily doings. It felt like village life in all those period BBC dramas I love, filled with characters and daily dramas in one small pocket of the world unlike any other. I felt curious and alive and nervous. I was on my way to my first tap dancing class.

I signed in on the second floor of a windowless studio on Christopher Street, and rifled through a tub of tap shoes marked “7-8 1/2″ on the outside. I found a shoe that fit, and then couldn’t find its pair, so resorted to wearing two different shoes. I fit right in. We were a collection of oddballs, overly loud theater kids who had grown up into overly loud middle-aged women, an elderly woman, stooped and nervous, and a young girl in her twenties dressed for her first session of Absolute Beginners Tap like she was auditioning for Flashdance. I rather admired her chutzpah.

Inside our little studio, we stood in front of a mirror and tapped our toes and heels against a scuffed wood floor. Then, in time to the slowest jazz you’ve ever heard, tried for simple combinations of shuffles and ball changes the long way across the room. We wound up against the opposite wall a crowd of exasperation and laughter. It was pure delight.

Is this spring fever, this affection for doing? The longing to get out of our heads and homes and into your bodies? Whatever’s brought it on, it’s a  welcome antidote to the hours our modern life requires spent in front of a computer, typing out characters and numbers and rearranging widgets. This is real movement, and doing, to the time of slow jazz and birdsong on a stage of sun and damp, blooming earth.

What will be your bit of frivolity and delight and doing?

April 17, 2013

What’s Right

On Monday night I came home from work feeling a little more alive. It can take a surprising slap of a disaster to do that. On the sidewalk, I looked into people’s faces. When the D train traveled over the Manhattan Bridge, I looked up from my reading and out the window––at the piers stretching out into the mirrored surface of the water, the tall buildings reflecting that golden hour of the evening. When I got home, I kissed Sebastian in the doorway a little longer and moved through a yoga class as my bedroom went from warmly lit by that orange-red sun to dark. Look up, the teacher said time and again, in tree pose, in crescent. There’s an optimism there.

Did you know we are genetically wired to remember negative moments more than good? It’s our DNA’s way of keeping us alive. We’ll remember the bitter snap of winter, the terrifying snarl of a wild animal. We have to work hard against this predisposition, which is why everyone from Buddhists to psychologists suggest we keep a gratitude journal. My blog posts have felt a little heavy to me lately, and I wanted to counter that by listing what was right. In light of recent news, looking for the good took on a new weight.

Today I am 31. I know! It sounds like such a grown-up age, one that comes with a mortgage and a mid-life crisis not too far behind. I still feel like a silly girl inside, one who sings impromptu made up songs and wants to take tap dancing lessons. I have a feeling that never goes away, does it? Last week, anticipating my birthday, I felt disappointed at how much this year looks like last. I live in the same apartment, in the same neighborhood I’ve called home for nine years. But last night I went to sleep thinking how different something can feel from the inside, even when it all looks the same. And this morning I woke up. I’m looking up at the horizon and working against every ancient cell that wants me to remember what’s wrong. Here’s what’s right:

The daffodils are blooming on the hillside in the Quaker cemetery tucked inside Prospect Park. My muscles are sore, whether from the first bike ride of the season or a yoga class on Sunday. I have muscles. Right now, I’m sitting on a chair, my feet up on a matching ottoman, slip-covered by my mom in white cotton duck and driven into Brooklyn in the back of her black minivan as a surprise for my birthday last year. Next to me, on a square table salvaged from the street, is a jade plant that’s been hanging on for years, despite improper care, and my little Copenhagen coffee cup. On my left is a window that looks out on to a parking lot. There is a vine climbing across the screen with popcorn kernel-sized red buds. These are just within the little dotted circle I draw around my day, and I haven’t even mentioned the spare and beautiful first pages of the novel I began on Sunday night, or the way the morning sunlight hits our living room or the new coffee shop I’ve started visiting, where the owners are in love and punk rock and relentlessly cheerful. I haven’t mentioned this space, which is a tribe that feels more important to me than ever. I haven’t even gone outside the circle of the past few days, or out into the larger circles beyond my little life, into our communities, humanity, the universe. As Melissa wrote recently in the comments, “We are mere specks in this universe. Our only task is to put good energy into it.”

But I will leave it there, in this small, sweet little circle filled with good energy and within which there is plenty right.

April 5, 2013

Easing into Spring

“May” by 5ftinf

At the vernal equinox, I stayed with a dearest friend in two bright rooms in the rear of a bungalow in Los Angeles. The setting felt like a tropical version of The Secret Garden: just off the street, in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood, was an L-shaped garden curling around the side of her house, so that from every window and through the screen door the view was close, fragrant, and green. I kept asking her to say the name of each plant, just so I could hear the extravagant words again. Kalanchoe. Bougainvillea. Ranunculus. Honeysuckle and jasmine perfumed the air like a grande dame, and riotous pink flowers climbed over head. Waxy, dark green succulents sat in orange clay pots along the brick walkway. I’m not one to talk about the energy of a physical place, but looking out her windows in the morning at all that lush growth, I felt something special there.

We went on a couple of hikes. The view was obscured by fog one day as we scrambled up a steep, narrow path my friend had never wanted to take alone. The way down was long and dusty, our sneakers slipping on the too-smooth surface. At one point I looked up from my shoes to see how much further we had to go. It was a long way and I groaned and cursed. Don’t look, my friend said. And then she said something meant as a practical piece of advice to keep me from skidding on my ass and knocking her down in the process, but which sounds really cheesy and instructive in this context. It was something along the lines of keeping my eyes on the next step.

We sat later in her garden with frozen pineapple vodka drinks (hello, California!), and  I thought again of that passage from Bird by Bird I had just excerpted recently on the blog:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I have been exhausting myself with thinking lately. If I see another article about 10 ways to live your passion or 5 steps to embracing abundance, or if I make another list of what makes me feel most alive, or write a mission statement, or craft a 5-year plan, I might just pack it up. This happens sometimes. I’m comfortable in my inner world, but sometimes it starts to get a little claustrophobic in here. It is too plush and confined, with way too many thoughts and feelings not acted upon. It’s like a Victorian drawing room.

And so it is spring! What a perfect time to get out of thinking and into doing! Only not so much. An encouraging April horoscope had me frozen in my tracks. Wait, what new path am I supposed to be forging? I am (and you, too, Aries sisters!), apparently, unstoppable during our “cosmic birthday” April 10. But for what purpose? Circulate, put it out into the universe, make those dreams manifest! I can’t take the pressure. That, too, feels exhausting.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I can think myself out of every problem. Lists are helpful to a point, but I keep forgetting the two bits that come after brainstorming: surrendering (full stop here to really think about that one) and putting one foot in front of the other. I get stuck in a giant, swirling whirlpool of ideas and plots about how to scale the mountain ahead of me, when what I need to do is close the notebook, and feel my way. Put one foot in front of the other.

On Tuesday night, another friend told me about the Taoist concept of wu wei, which she described as the action of non-action. It’s not doing nothing like a purposeless layabout; it’s “the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which––without even trying––we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”

I think this concept is hard for a lot of us. We are goal-oriented doers, achievers, and list-makers. If I gave all that up, how would I get anywhere? Tara Brach’s recent podcast on self-compassion broke this same wall down in such a startling way, I couldn’t embrace the basic idea. What would it mean to be OK just as we are? What the hell would happen if we gave up all the busyness of improving ourselves and our lives? I mean, honestly: can you even imagine? I’m afraid that releasing a vise grip of what looks like control will plunge me into complacency. But complacency is a far cry from “effortless alignment” or “great ease and awake-ness.”

I don’t have answers, but I hope asking the questions counts for something. I do know that perhaps more than ever, this spring feels like an opening. Not to leading with intellectual force, but taking a cue from subtler models, like the neighborhood crocuses who had a false start in mild January and are back for good this time. We just have to hold out hope for how natural the process of blooming really is.

Because how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
- Annie Dillard