January 4, 2013

Themes (and a Salad!) for the New Year

Happy new year, friends! I hope you were able to dedicate some time to yourself over the holidays away from work and obligations to be decadent and indulgent. I rode a train north to Massachusetts to meet my family in Northampton. It snowed on Christmas Day, my niece wore no fewer than three hand-me-down Christmas ensembles, and I felt restored to myself, just for having a wide open expanse of time. Some of what I learned included:

  • Being able to go and stay offline––for days!––feels like the rarest and most glorious kind of luxury
  • I love the Mindy Project (and Dr. Danny Castellano)
  • It can take a full week for the stress and anxieties of work to lose their grip on you
  • If someone offers you a shot of innocent-enough sounding pink gin (which is actually the vile combination of gin spiked with bitters), do not kick it back
  • A long winter walk can ease just about any kind of hurt
  • Grown adults can sit in a circle and be entertained for hours by the smiles, squeaks, and flirty expressions of a five month-old
  • It feels good to set time aside to dream
  • Another rare and glorious luxury: slipping into an outdoor hot tub surrounded by packed snow, bare tree branches stretching over your head
  • I am a woman who wants to wear a furry hat

Over the holidays I watched the documentary The Queen of Versailles, a movie about David Siegel and his time-share business and family. One scary scene brings you into a motivational sales meeting. The man at the front of the room, in sort of creepy Tom Cruise in Magnolia-like fashion, tells a crowd of time-share sales reps that they are just like doctors, like nurses, like firefighters. “Vacations save lives,” he tells them. Well, I had to give him that. Studies do show how vacations encourage physical and emotional well-being, and right now, fresh from time with my friends, my family, and to myself, I feel it. I feel optimistic and grounded, lucky, loved, and centered.

I haven’t been one for resolutions lately. Last year, I gave myself a theme to repeat to myself like a refrain: Back to Basics. With its simple encouragement to stay tuned in to what matters, it’s one I’d like to keep up this year. I’d also like to wear more flattering v-neck t-shirts and read more books. But I think my strongest thematic influence this year, which I will share at the risk of sounding like Iris McKay, is inspired by the two archetypal feminine cards in the tarot deck: The High Priestess, who is complicated and confusing to me, but who stands for potential, mystery, and the magic of the unseen world, and The Empress, who is as wonderfully straight-forward as a woman lounging on a chaise in a woodland scene, wearing a flowing gown and a crown of stars can be. All of my intentions for the year, though, are bound up in a bigger one: to be with what’s here right now. It’s a resolution I could make for a lifetime.

In the spirit of fresh starts, and because you, like me, are probably craving vegetables right now, I also wanted to share my current favorite winter salad. It’s as simple as can be really, and more a template than a recipe: any roast squash will do, some chopped apple, the nut or seed of your choice tossed with lots of shredded kale and a sweet-tart apple cider vinaigrette. Before the holidays I was sprinkling this salad with a bit of blue cheese, but if that feels too hedonistic, I think some pomegranate seeds would be just lovely.

If you feel like sharing, my questions are manifold: what themes/resolutions/intentions are you thinking about for the new year? What vibrant, healthy meals are you making right now? And what did you learn on your winter vacation?


December 22, 2012

Fight Back with Normal Life

I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White

My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.

The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.

In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.

I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.

It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.

As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.

There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.

And I am grateful for that.

December 14, 2012

Lemony Sardine Pâté

My affection for sardines needs no introduction. And my love of pâté? That requires no explanation either. When I saw this recipe, I knew it was one after my heart.

The laziness in me is obviously a fan, too. Because if you keep a can of little fish in the cabinets, and have a lemon in your fruit bowl for French 75s, and leftover thyme from a fall-flavored shepherd’s pie, you have everything you need to whip up a quick and unexpectedly elegant little snack when friends came over. This was out on the coffee table with two fat wedges of cheese, and I dare say––with much surprise––it was the most popular nibble on offer.

And what better time to debut my little fishies table runner! For years I’ve admired the classic Sill (or Blue Herring) print fabric from Almedahls but never bought it. Do you ever do that? I put off buying something I truly love or really need, checking in on it online, or searching for it again and again on Ebay with no purchase ever taking place. If it’s not a matter of not having room in the budget, then why? Perhaps, a friend once suggested, it’s a way of punishing ourselves with a pinch of denial. Blasted Puritan roots! Well, lately I have been in the kind of full-on pleasure mode that would send John Adams reeling, buying beautiful versions of the things we need: a reading lamp for my nook, new napkins, a soft throw over the back of a chair. As my friend Amy recently wrote, you will never regret buying the best version of a practical thing. And I’d raise her: you will never regret buying a beautiful thing that you use every day. A cheerful sheet set, a little bud vase in a just-so shade of blue, a spoon that makes morning oatmeal a delight. Our purchases need not be expensive (though sometimes, like the bike of your dreams, they can be), but it brings vast amounts of pleasure and a prepared feeling of togetherness to know, yes, I have a set of eight matching napkins for dinner, a blanket for my friend’s shoulders when she sits in front of our drafty window, and the right light to curl up with the last pages of Little Women. In my two weeks of ownership, I’ve reaped $36 worth of pleasure from the spare graphic design of this runner draped across our table, and it’s the kind of thing we can take with us, wherever we call home.

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December 6, 2012

A Simple Christmas

We have more evergreen branches and pine cones in our little apartment than we have surfaces to put them on. After Thanksgiving I carried a pair of clippers into the woods behind my mom’s house to snap off the fragrant, feathery branches of a fallen white pine. They went into a garbage bag, then into my brother’s trunk, then into a taxi cab, and then were slung over my shoulder and carried up the steps to our second-floor apartment. They are draped on top of a mirror (still holding some of last year’s Christmas cards tucked around its edges), on windowsills, and in vases on the dining table and the bedroom, with a line of pine cones in front of the television. They are a very long way from home.

In that sweet week after Thanksgiving before December hit, I caught the same “make things!” bug Molly did. I bought cheapo squat candles from the grocery store and wrapped them in brown paper bags. I had been inspired at an overpriced restaurant. The candles on our table stood inside slim glass holders wrapped in thin brown paper. The light was pure warmth and the idea was dead simple, just my kind. I made them one afternoon while watching the final season of Lark Rise to Candleford. (My, is that Gabriel smoldering. But don’t tell me what happens!)

Now on a crafting roll, I bought charming, old-fashioned scrapbook paper and watched The Goodbye Girl (watch it! so good!) on Saturday, looping the cut strips into long paper trains for our tree. It’s a giant douglas fir that stands tall next to me in our living room corner right now in front of a street-facing window. It smells like heaven and nearly touches the ceiling. We carried it home Friday night, Sebastian leading the way holding the heavy base and me trailing behind carrying the light crown. I still have a sap on my jacket.

It does not escape me that three years ago, we couldn’t afford a tree.

I loved what Elizabeth said about Little Women being the inspiration for her holidays this year: “simple and charitable, but also festive and merry and creative.” I feel the same way, and keep slowly turning the pages of that book wanting its sweet perspective to inform my life for as long as possible.

And after such a long crafting lull, I’m using the quiet joy and creativity of the season to get out of my head and use my hands. It feels good to be creative in a new way, to not rely on the will of my intellect to twist a sentence until it suits. That’s been feeling hard lately. But crafting warm golden light and handmade decorations and artfully placing tree branches around our little home seems an important part of creating the atmosphere that is my favorite part of this season: one of warmth and generosity, care and homemade mirth. For me, the sweetness of this time of year is all about the feeling of it, the way all the sensory abundance adds up to something singular. There is a woodland tree in our living room! I light the candles when I get home in the evenings and drink saison. There is something slow-simmered on the stove, and a last-minute invitation for someone to come over and share it. If we can slow down to hear it, there’s a hush.

And I still have one more garland to go. Cranberries are up next.

I’m of course interested to hear how you all keep your holidays simple and meaningful, and what traditions mean the most to you. Please share!