Small Moments: New Growth

Robert Frost has a poem that begins “Natures first green is gold” and I always think of it this time of year.natures first green This brand new spring green exists for a few weeks each year before it deepens into a richer green, and I think this baby growth is the most beautiful color we see all year. In this brief moment, everything is full of possibility and promise. Even the branches without any leaves are just days away from bursting with new life and joy.

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In the Kitchen: Shakshuka

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At the Tea & Trumpets residence, my husband does almost all of the cooking, in large part because he is an excellent cook and enjoys the process. When I cook, the food usually turns out edible, but there’s generally a lot of chaos in the lead up. Recently I was roasting us a whole chicken, and when we took it out of the oven my husband pointed out that I’d cooked the thing upside down. Three weeks later I tried to roast a chicken again and, taking it out of the oven I exclaimed, “Look at that chicken, beautifully right side up!” Which prompted my husband to point out that it was, in fact, upside down—again.

My trouble with chicken anatomy aside, I’ve been cooking more in the recent months. In efforts to be more mindful about what I eat, I realized that I need to be more actively involved in preparing my food. (I’ve also been working on educating myself on where my food comes from, but more on that later.) This week I successfully made a dinner that we liked so much I think it will be making its way into our regular rotation! This might be the only time you see a recipe on this blog, but I was so pleased with the results I had to share.

Shakshuka is both fun to say and eat. It’s a Middle Eastern tomato-based dish with eggs and feta cheese, all cooked in one skillet (easy clean up!). It’s delicious, hearty, quick and inexpensive. What’s not to love? I mostly followed Smitten Kitchen’s recipe, with a few variations.

Oversights that worked out just fine:

  • I didn’t have real garlic, so I used a bunch of garlic powder instead
  • I didn’t have parsley because I was tired and I couldn’t find the fresh herbs in my grocery store
  • I forgot to add the ½ cup of water until I’d already been simmering everything for 10 minutes. No worries! This dish could not be more forgiving. Added the water, cooked the whole thing for another 10 minutes.
  • I’m a little afraid of runny egg whites, so after adding the eggs, I baked the whole dish for 10 minutes, rather than let it cook on the stove top.

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My one improvement on this dish and general cooking secret: Chickpeas. This is not a radical change; lots of people make this dish with chickpeas. But here’s the issue with adding chick peas to almost any dish—from the can, they have an unpleasant texture and can sometimes taste a bland. Unless you sautee them first.

Add some olive oil and onions to a pan on medium, let the onions soften, and add the chick peas. Let them cook for about 10 minutes, until they start to get ever so slightly toasted on the outside. This step gives them a great texture and a nice toasted, almost oaky flavor. I’ve used this in pasta and quinoa dishes, and now Shakshuka. Anytime I see a recipe that calls for chick peas, I do this first. (Whenever I’ve skipped this step in the past, I always regret it.)

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So there you have it, my secret cooking skills: upside down chickens and roasted chick peas. Do you have any kitchen tricks and/or disaster stories to share? If you try this dish, please come back and let me know how it went!

How would 15-year-old you judge your life?

15 year old me

15 year old me

I read this article today about a 32 year old woman who suffered from dissociative amnesia; she went to bed one night and woke up believing that she was 15 again. This lead to a lengthy (and amusing) conversation in the comments about what 15 year old you would think about the current state of affairs. I turn 30 next month (which I have a lot of feels about), so the whole question really got me thinking: How would 15 year old me think about my life right now?

15-year-old me wanted to live a bold, creative life. She dreamed about living in France and writing novels and having grand adventures. She was also really angry, but she hid that anger from most people, including herself.  She was earnest and a dreamer. I put up a good sarcastic front, but I’m still very earnest at heart.  I’m slowly learning to do the things I dream about.

My 15 year old self would love that I live in the city. That I still drink tea and read a lot of books. She’d be amazed at all my brilliant, warm, talented, funny friends. She’d be surprised at my present-day ease with my peers, and the realization that I’m funny and a good story teller. She’d be happy to know that being alone isn’t overwhelmingly scary anymore, but a calming retreat. Calm would be a new experience for her, in general. She’d love to learn of all the places I’ve visited, she would flat-out refuse to believe that running was something I enjoyed, but she’d think yoga was cool. She’d love feminism. I imagine she’d be pretty shocked that I am married, that I’ve been with the same person for 11 years.  And she’d probably have to pinch herself, just like I do, at how lucky and fun and beautiful the whole thing is.

15 year old me wasn’t that worried about her body, so she would be heartbroken to learn that negative body image stuff has taken up so much space in my life over the past few years. She’d have a hard time accepting that I am not a full-time novelist or radical professor or bookstore-and-coffee- shop owner. She’d think my job had its perks, but when she found out I wasn’t writing or pursuing creative projects—well she’d think I really let myself down. She’d want me to own more clothes and would be very pleased with my asymmetrical haircut and recent interest in bright lipstick.

Overall she’d probably tell me things were pretty great, that I should worry less and write a lot more. How about you?  What would 15-year-old-you say about your life?

Travel & Bringing Home with You

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I travel a lot for work. For the most part, I enjoy this; I get to see new cities, eat different foods, and meet new people. Last year I visited Florida, Georgia, DC, Las Vegas, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. The rolling hills in Tennessee took my breath away, and I ate like a king in Charleston (which I think is one of the greatest food cities in America). It only took about three days in the south before I was saying y’all–a phrase I would desperately like to import to Boston, and thinking of the pelicans at the beach in Miami still make me smile.

But it can also be hard to spend so much time on the road. Hotel rooms and restaurants can start to feel impersonal after a while, and I find myself craving the comforts of home. Mornings are the hardest, when I miss eating breakfast and drinking tea with crazy bed head and in my oversized flannel pants; breakfast in the hotel restaurant often feels like another moment where you have to be “on,” or at least presentable. And they never have good tea.

As you may have noticed from the pictures I’ve posted to the blog so far–I drink a lot of tea. And I’m picky about it. It’s obviously not popular like coffee in America, so it’s usually not made correctly. (Too many people have been subjected to my mini lecture about the proper ways to make a cup of tea, and I’ll spare you, but the essentials are this: put the tea leaves in before pouring the boiling (not just hot) water in the mug.)

I think it is our Irish heritage, but my family always drank a lot of tea. My nana used to make a cup before dinner each night, and let it cool down throughout the meal, to drink when she was done eating. It was part of the ritual of dinner, just like my grandfather’s mile-a-minute delivery of Grace. Many an afternoon, my aunts and uncles would sit around the kitchen table, drinking tea, and having long conversations. I was often more comfortable with adults than anyone my own age at the time, and I loved lingering at the table with my own cup of tea–which was then more sugar and milk than tea. When I would visit my great aunt, who lived in a beautiful condo outside Harvard Square and always seemed to me the most sophisticated and kind woman, she served her tea in china cups and a real tea pot.

In college, that beautiful, crazy time when all your best friends live just down the hall, I played host by offering everyone a hot cup of tea (made with my contraband electric kettle), and spent many nights reading novels or writing bad poetry and sipping tea. And when my family moved to semi-rural Maine, and our favorite brand of tea was hard to come-by, I would buy it in Boston and bring it home for visits, to much applause and, of course, a quickly-made fresh cup.

In short, a good cup of tea always reminds me of home, and it’s no surprise that it’s one of the things I miss the most when I travel. So you can only imagine how pleased I was when a dear friend gave me a cheery mug for my birthday last year, and I found a way to bring this piece of home with me. The mug in question is hard plastic, so I can squeeze it into my suitcase (which I am almost always sitting on to zip shut) without fear of it breaking. Remembering the trusty kettle from college, I bought a smaller version online, and packed it together with a tin of my favorite teas, and now I have an ever-ready kit for having tea on the road. These days my hotel rooms feel a lot more cozy, and I savor my mornings full of bad hair and a quiet cup of tea.

When you travel, do you bring a piece of home with you? Or do you like the adventure of experiencing something totally new?

Small Moments: Flying

I never get tired of staring out the window in planes. When I was a little girl on the way to California to see family, I famously looked out the window at a sky full of the tops of clouds, and said, “Mom! I didn’t bring my boots, and look at all the snow!!”

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I’m in Chicago now, where there’s plenty of snow, and I still don’t have my boots. I think I prefer the cloud-top snow.

(Photo: Somewhere above Pennsylvania)

On Stealing Time

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As those of us in the northeaster dig our way out from Snowmaggeddon 2015, I have to admit I’m missing the sunshine from last week’s vacation. My husband and I took each other to Mexico for a Christmas present, and it really felt magical. We spent the week sitting in the sun, reading books, swimming in the ocean, and eating tacos. I might have cried a little bit when it was time to leave. We were lucky enough to be staying right on the beach and I declared before we even boarded the plane that I would be waking up early one day to watch the sunrise. My husband smiled, a little doubtful that this would happen, but mostly relieved that I wasn’t asking him to wake up at 5:45 in the morning on vacation, too.

Each evening I would diligently set my alarm before bed, and each morning I would hit snooze for 30 minutes before shutting it off entirely. This is not a pattern unique to vacation; I cannot count the number of times I’ve signed up for an early morning yoga class or planned on writing, reading, or going for a walk before the work day begins, only to spend the morning hitting snooze and reveling in just how soft and warm my bed can be. I don’t think there’s something inherently bad about this; I don’t think that morning people are better or more moral than night owls. But on those mornings that I do manage to sneak out of bed early, and start my day with yoga or writing or just a quiet cup of tea before the maddens begins? It always feels like I’m unwrapping a treasure. So I continue to set my alarm ambitiously early, and occasionally google “how to be a morning person” while dreaming of a lifetime or quiet, productive, peaceful mornings. And my bed continues to be it’s softest and most alluring between 6 and 8am.

This was my predicament on the second to last day of vacation, hitting snooze, trying to convince myself to stay in bed, to get out of bed, telling myself, “Just five more minutes and I’ll be ready.” (“Five more minutes!” has become a bit of a joke in our house because of my consistently slurred, sleep-drunk delivery of the request to my husband when it’s time to go to work.) And then I thought–in a that striking way that only happens when you’re half dreaming–if you really want something you have to be willing to get a little uncomfortable in the process. And the sharpness of it pushed me out of bed.

If I’m sitting on my couch, comfortable, the likelihood that I’ll get up to make a cup of tea is directly tied to how badly I want that cup of tea. I mean, this is obvious, when we think of it in regards to the mundane. But what about other desires, the wants we carry around in our heart, that whisper to us in odd moments–when we’re in the shower, when we’re feeling brave after a glass of wine or two, when we’re setting our alarm clock, full of the promise of a tomorrow? I hear them, and I keep waiting for the convenient times to respond. I’ll go to yoga tomorrow, when I don’t have as much work to do. I’ll write later, when I feel more inspired. I’ll meditate when I don’t feel so stressed and frantic. I’ll see the sunrise when I’m not sleepy.

I once had a great professor in college who gave an inspired lecture that must have been under-appreciated by the room full of 19 year olds staring back at him for whom time was infinite, but his words still stayed with me ever since. I thought of him that morning on the beach. Rich Murphy told us: If you want time to be creative in life, to write or paint or make any kind of art, you have to steal it. The world will not give you this time; you have to steal it.

The beach was cold that morning, and the sky was so overcast that I never saw a sunrise. Just a gradually brightening grey sky. In other words, it was very different than what I expected, than what I thought I wanted, when I shuffled down the hotel stairs to the beach–and I was so very glad to be awake. To be uncomfortable, stealing time, writing in my journal on a rainy morning at the beach.

Small moments of gratitude

Monday’s are hard. Monday’s in the winter, when all you want to do is stay curled up in your warm bed, are especially hard.

Today I’m grateful for the time I stole back in bed, sipping my tea, holding off the mad dash of the week for just a few moments more.

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What are you grateful for today?

2014: My Year in Books (& the year I saved myself by reading)

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As already established, I’m a bit of a nutjob New Year’s resolution enthusiast. Some years I have many (eleven this year) and other years I take a minimalist approach. Last year I had only one: Read 55 books.

I went into 2014 feeling depressed: I was unhappy professionally and adrift personally. I didn’t like my job, and, because I spent all my free time watching House Hunters and reading crap on the internet, I didn’t know who I was outside of my miserable job. Life felt empty, and I was floundering for meaning and joy. I knew something needed to change, because I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize or particularly like–and that someone certainly wasn’t happy.

There were lots of things I wanted to change: I wasn’t working out, I was drinking too much, I was spending more money than I made, I ate a lot of candy, and I probably wasn’t calling my mom enough. But I also knew, fragile as I was, I wasn’t going to change everything at once. And as much as I craved a major life overhaul, I felt it best to focus my energies. What, I asked myself, used to bring me joy, outside of my work and my relationships with the (beautiful, crazy, smart) people in my life? And I remembered the little girl, blankets piled high even in the summer to block out the flashlight, reading (and sweating) far past her bedtime. And the teenager who underlined her books and excitedly ran into the kitchen to read lines out loud to her mom and aunt. And the college freshman with e.e. cummings poems taped to her wall, who felt electric and alive and a little scared reading the crazy priest sermon in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten how to read for the pure joy of it. I’d stopped reading almost entirely; my books were turning into decorations.

So I printed out a calendar for January 2014 and I set a goal–50 pages per day–and I tracked my progress. A month in, and I could feel myself waking up. The refreshing sort of stretching and yawning and tingling that happens after a good, long nap. I like to think that we all have a thing that brings us a joy and acts as a benchmark of a well being. My best friend is an incredible athlete, and if the world feels crazy or scary or dark, she goes running and feels brave and sane and strong. Another best friend is an artist, and practicing her art wakes her up; the happier she is the more she draws (and the more she creates, the happier she is). In 2014 I learned that I’m a reader, and if I’m not reading then my whole world is out of synch.

So I set out to bring balance back into my world with the ambitious goal of reading more than one each week. This past year books pulled me, page by page, out of my depression. They were a lifeline to something I wanted to be part of–something that gave me meaning and purpose and, best of all, joy.

Fifty-seven books later, I thought I would share my some of my favorites with you:

Favorite novel:
Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
I read this book early in January, but it held onto this top spot for the entire year. It’s so delightfully unexpected and the language pulled me in and did not let go. It’s a true literary novel, with a rich and complex and lively plot. This book was like coming home to reading, and finding out someone has left the light on for me.

Runner Up: The Known World by Edward P Jones

Favorite memoir:
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
A book about a long, arduous & solitary hike should be about as monotonous as that hike itself. But this book is so vibrant and warm and full of triumph. It made me feel incredibly grateful to be living, and I may have gone on a spent the summer daydreaming about my own hiking adventure.

Runner Up: Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (Haters gonna hate. This book is beautiful and smart and insightful.)

Favorite YA:
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a beautiful story about first love, but for me it was also about the first time you loved a story. Reading it felt intoxicating in a way that only reading as a small girl has felt. I stayed up until 3am reading this book, and as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start over again at the beginning because I couldn’t bear to leave these characters.

Runner Up: Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas (I have a soft spot for YA fantasy books. Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure. If this is your thing, go read some Sarah J Maas; she is perfect.)

Favorite non-fiction:
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
The eternal student, I love a meaty non-fiction book, but they are rarely page-turners. This book about Vladimir Putin, written by a Russian journalist who has been observing and reporting-on Putin’s Russia for decades, was incredibly compelling. Gessen is a brilliant writer and Putin a fascinating subject; I could not put this book down. Bonus: Reading this will make you feel very enlightened and worldly, considering how active and menacing Russia has been lately.

Runner Up: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (If you want to learn more about Jim Crowe South, the NAACP, and the legislative battles of the Civil Rights Movement, especially after Ferguson, please read this book.)

Most joyful book:
Hero Worship by Rebekah Matthews
This book has the distinction of being the only short-story collection I read, and is therefore in a category all its own. And the category I’ve placed it in, “most joyful,” will likely confuse almost everyone, because I can never describe this quite right, but here goes:

Jacques Lacan has this idea that real joy is always a little bit painful. Think of a moment of ecstasy; it’s such a raw moment that you can’t actually stay in that place. And lurking at the edges of joy you can feel the discomfort; they are always a little twisted together.

(And maybe this is why, in my sadness I had turned away from reading, from something I loved so dearly–I knew it would make me feel electric and alive, and in that there is always also discomfort. Maybe I was just too afraid of any pain, even bundled up as it was in goodness.)

Hero Worship is painful and sad and lonely while also being hopeful and sweet and compassionate. Perhaps it is this combination of things, that are both disparate and also make up the very nature of our human experience, that made me feel excited and alive and a little bit uncomfortable while reading it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Continue reading

Baby Fresh for 2015

I am a giant fan of new year’s resolutions. I know a lot of people make them, most of us ditch them, and the gym is always close to empty by February 10th. But I love the promise and hope of earnest intentions, the nobility of trying to be our best selves, and the clean slate of January 1st. I had a friend once tell me that she’s careful to shave every New Year’s Eve, because she likes to enter the new year feeling fresh and clean “like a baby.” We laughed our asses off but, also, these days, I always shave my legs (already a rare occasion) on New Year’s Eve.

For a variety of reasons, I found myself in a bit of a funk on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, and I was tempted to wallow and spend a lot of time plays “Threes” on my phone. However, I really wanted to make something special out of this self-help loving girl’s High Holiday. So I rallied and began what can only be described as a a mad cleaning and purging frenzy. (This is where I should confess that I’ve been obsessed with Tiny Houses lately, and this was not my first mad purge. Recently my husband pointed out that I have too much crap to live in a tiny house and, never one to back down from a challenge, he came home two days later to find every item of my clothing and most of my shoes strewn across the floor, including a “goodwill” pile large enough to sleep on. A few days later, I spent 25 minutes scrubbing my (seriously disgusting) bathtub and celebrated after by rewatching this guy.) Continuing with this theme, on New Year’s Eve, I threw away a giant trash bag of cosmetics, some of which I’d been hauling around since college (I think? I don’t actually know where most of that stuff came from.), recycled mountains of paper, and discovered an alarming number of dust bunnies.

For years my philosophy has been: Just slam the drawer/closet door shut and look the other way. This has resulted in a mad accumulation of crap, and the only thing keeping me on this side of hoarder-dom was a period in my recent past where I moved every year for about ten years, the itty-bitty nature of my current apartment (only so many closet doors to jam shut), and the patient insistence on the part of my husband that I have “way too much shit.”

The trouble with the just-shove-the-door-closed approach is that nothing ever actually feels clean. Best case there’s always clutter, worse (and more likely) case you have a giant pile of clothes taking up half of your bedroom floor because you’ve run out of room in that closet and the door hasn’t actually closed in months. My new approach is glorious: I’m just throwing everything in the donation bin, the recycling basket, or the trash heap. Turns out I don’t miss any of it! And I found a ton of things, like my most favorite boots from Christmas last year; they were buried behind a yoga mat, my wedding dress, and my L. L. Bean tent in said closet.

Sometimes we gravitate towards things, and we don’t know why or even that we’re doing so. I didn’t know, when I first started sorting through my clothes, that I was angling for a month long house-cleaning and crap-purging project, but I’m so glad I got sucked into this insanity. Because for the first time, maybe ever, my house is really clean. As in “everything has a place” clean. As in “this feels very grownup and I like it” clean. I often focus on some serious self-improvement projects to start the new year; it’s a ritual that I love. For the first time, however, I’ve entered the new year feeling clean and ready, slightly less burdened from the crap we all carry around, and breathing a bit easier as a result. (Seriously those dust bunnies were gross!)

How about you: How has the energy of the new year affected you? Eight days in, how are your resolutions feeling?

ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue

I first wrote this almost two months ago but resisted finishing or posting it because, you know, feelings. And vulnerability.

I had something of a come-to-Jesus moment this week. I was in the greater DC area, on a business trip. (Before I travelled regularly for work, this sort of thing sounded, if not glamorous, at least very exciting. Now I know it mostly involves frantically trying to get to your meeting on time despite getting lost five times along the way, finally reaching your destination and having to desperately search for parking, trying to send a professional email explaining that you are running a few minutes late–all while still looking for parking–and, due to auto-correct, signing your name “Lottery”. And then later getting a little bit drunk while marathoning HGTV or Law & Order: SVU in your hotel room.)

Anyway, for this business trip I had packed my standard Professional Outfits, a handful of structured dresses that I think make me look like a responsible grown-up who also has friends that went to art school. You know–professional but in a cool way. These are some of my go-to confidence building outfits.  Here’s where I tell you that I’ve been steadily gaining weight since getting married this past summer, and you all instantly know where this is going.

I found myself sweating profusely as I tried desperately to zip up my sharply tailored Ann Taylor dress, unsuccessfully sucking everything in, practically pulling a muscle in my shoulder as I flailed around for the zipper, and ultimately ripping it off with a deep sense of shame and frustration. At the last minute I’d packed a dress that I feel deeply ambivalent about: a bright clown-nose red number that looked much less bright when I saw it online,  but I kept out of laziness and a sense that it wouldn’t wrinkle in a suitcase (but mostly out of laziness). When I realized that none of my other clothes even fit, I threw on this bright red dress of shame (which, true to my theory, had not wrinkled in the suitcase) and ran out the door, already late for my first meeting of the day.

That night, on the phone with my husband, I found myself crying about my ballooning weight and my rock-bottom sense of self-confidence regarding my body.  I have a hard time talking about weight, body-image, exercise or my relationship with food.  (So much so that this was the point in my essay where I took a break from writing: right when I have to talk about weight and body image.) On one level, I am a proud feminist; I hate the ways in which women are valued according to their body; I think that culture’s obsession with women being *small* physically is directly tied to an attempt to keep women *small* in all sorts of other ways. I have watched loved ones wage war against their bodies and stood helplessly from the sidelines.

On the other hand, I’d love to walk into any store, knowing they carry my size. I’d love to assess new outfits, not by how well they hide my belly, but how colorful or sequined or comfortable they are.

From both of these perspectives, what I’m longing for is an ability to not give any fucks about my size.

My come-to-Jesus realization was that: ignoring my rapid weight-gain was not the same thing as not giving any fucks. In fact, I care deeply, in a repressed way that only a lonely hotel room in suburban Maryland can unearth. So I’d like to spend some time in this space talking about body image, weight, exercise, food, and the tangled relationship I have with all of those things. I’m hoping that committing to writing about these things through the lens of feminism and self-acceptance and a continual effort to be a bad-ass will help me shed some negative baggage.

If I were to set a goal, perhaps it would be that when I thought of my body, it would first be from the perspective of this poem, by the ever-brilliant Mary Oliver:

“As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious
and full of detail; it wants to polish itself; it
wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in
the world that can hold, in a a mix of power and
sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas,
ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.”
-Evidence