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.

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?

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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)

Good Reads From the Week

FullSizeRender (7)For a longtime was I only reading the same handful of websites, and the internet was starting to feel like a small, somewhat dull place. Lately I’ve been shaking myself up, and searching out great content that I may have been missing. Here are a few of my favorite things from this week:

A round-up of advice about success and generally tearing it up from a bunch of different women. I especially like the idea of the slow burn; success takes a long time and it builds gradually. It’s easy to feel impatient and from that impatience start to believe you are a failure, when really we need to chill out and just keep chipping away.

This examination of why some people are always late rang very true–a little uncomfortably true.

This tiny house of my dreams is a thing of beauty. I want to move into that tiny, sun-filled loft and never leave.

Mark Strand on creativity:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention…We’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

A moving essay about anxiety and taking risks and trying to figure out if you want to be a parent. There are a seemingly infinite number of resources and opinions for parents, and there’s a great community online for people who don’t want children. But I’m hungry for more conversation about how and when to decide.

The Dainty Squid’s new dye-job is making me crave some neon locks.

For reading material you can hold in your hand, I just started Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones which is sharp and bright and raw; I highly recommend it.

What did I miss? Please share the favorite thing you read this week.

How to Get a Beach Body

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As I mentioned yesterday, I spent last week at the beach. I grew up in a tiny beach town, and nothing could be more beautiful or perfect for me than the ocean. Sun, sand, salty-air, an entirely unstructured day. There is, of course, one dark shadow looming over the beach for most adult women–bathing suits. I largely stopped wearing two-piece bathing suits late in elementary school. The site of my shame has shifted over the years: My thighs in pre-teen years because of the confusing stretch mark, my breasts, large and victim to gravity in middle school, (I was almost 30 before I discovered bathing suits with underwire and bra-sizing. Get on that shit, people.) and later of course my belly.

When I got married, I wanted to take the upper hand on the cruel narratives playing on loop in my head. (My family calls these “old tapes,” an adorably out-dated turn of phrase, sure to confuse the young millennials.) Wearing a bikini at our pre-wedding cookout and the honeymoon–events centered around people loving me!–seemed like the ultimate safe spaces to tackle on these shitty narratives. So I rocked and (mostly) loved being plump in a bikini.

Eighteen months later, heavier, those two-piece suits felt more like a taunt. Wearing my bikinis felt impossible–gross. And wearing my one-piece felt like acknowledging my own failure–like a scarlet letter of gluttony and laziness. But some small part of myself knew that was bullshit, an old tape.

Fuck it, I thought. I’m wearing the bikini.

And so I did. Those first few days were fraught with insecurities and over-thinking and a few misplaced tears when my husband compliment my one-piece. (You mean you hate my bikini?!) And so I started writing a post in my head about the pressures of having a “bikini body,” the double standards for men and women, the pervasiveness of perfectionism, and the messed up ways that perfectionism prevents us from experiencing things–like a care-free day at the beach.

But an interesting thing happened. Day after day I lathered on sunscreen and pulled on my bathing suit, sometimes a one-piece and sometimes bikini, and gradually the post in my head started to grow stale. I still felt vulnerable with an exposed belly, nervous as a plus-size woman in a bathing suit. Who was I to jiggle and take up so much space at the beach? But the fierce narrative about the bullshit surrounding women’s bodies and bathing suits? Bit by bit, it somehow felt less raw.

I was still trying to find a way to speak to my experience throughout the week when I stumbled on a quiet passage in Yoga and Body Image that tore me open. In this book, Kate McIntyre Clere writes a moving essay about navigating the baggage we all carry about our bodies, and the desire to carve out a healthy and happy space for her young daughter. Contemplating a beach day with her daughter, Miro, she summarizes a possible conversation:

I am not feeling great about my body this morning. I don’t feel so great about wearing a bikini today. You know, Miro, sometimes my mind really believes these thoughts and it makes me feel really bad. So then I have to say to myself, it’s okay. Bodies change shape all the time. I’ve got a choice and I’m not going to let these thoughts ruin my day at the beach. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves!

Upon reading this passage, I started scribbling in the margins frantically. What if you could acknowledge the pain of living in an body, a body that may never be officially “good enough,” but still go on to love your day at the beach?

Sometimes, in an effort to confront negative body image messaging, it can easily feel like we’re left with two options: love your body or hate your body. And so we tell ourselves we will love our bodies–once they are perfect and we no longer hate them.

But what if there was a middle way? What would happen if we acknowledge the moments or the days that we struggled to love our bodies? What if we said to ourselves: I know this is hard right now, but there’s a whole world out there to enjoy and, fuck it, I’m going to enjoy it?

Wearing bathing suits for eight days straight was at times intense. It started off raw, sometimes painful. But gradually, somewhat unconsciously, I found my way to a truce. I know I don’t want to hate this body, but I don’t know if I can yet love it the way I want to. But what if I embrace this in-between–to neither love nor hate this body, but let both co-exist? And to let myself be in the midst of this messy soup of feelings and fears and joy. This new kind of vulnerability didn’t necessarily come easily in Mexico, but gradually the allure of a pleasant day at the beach overpowered the old tapes playing in my head. And the scales tipped–in my favor.

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.

Breath, the Body, and Our War on Ourselves

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I don’t remember exactly when I first started to hate my body. Do any of us? I remember standing, looking naked in the bathroom mirror during middle school, and deciding which parts of myself I wanted to keep, which parts I would trade in. My straight nose and hazel eyes were okay. My pimply chin and my breasts, red with new stretch marks, were awful. I knew I was supposed to hate my body, and how could I not, considering how rapidly it had changed. I had been a puppy-like girl with comically overlarge feet, tall and clumsy–a clumsiness that came from long limbs and a near-complete lack of self-awareness for my own body. What sweet heaven. Suddenly I had breasts and zits and hair in all sorts of confusing places. In puberty our bodies become alien to us, and sadly I think that for most women they remain forever foreign–dark and dangerous places that have us trapped.

Employing some twisted logic, I think I was, even then, trying to give myself an alternative narrative. My body was betraying me, and I hated it for that, but I on some level I knew my body needed to remain home. So I found some safe places. My eyes, the birthmark on my right ankle shaped like Ireland, my height. I might not be beautiful, I was telling myself, but these individual parts were okay. And there was comfort in that, even as I was carving myself up and marking whole body parts for “discard.”

I also don’t remember when I first stated hating my belly, but in this war on my body she has become mortal enemy #1. I remember analyzing the girls in my high school, and longing for their tiny waists. I remember noticing, with sadness and jealousy, that a friend’s belly carried her weight in front, rather than to the sides like mine. She didn’t have “love handles;” she could hide it better. It gave me a perverse sense of pleasure when, years later, I gained enough weight that I started noticing it in the front, too. And years after that, when I was skipping meals in the dining hall, I remember laying in bed and resting my fingers in the space between my belly and my sharp hip bones, thinking how good it felt, and wondering how good it would feel to be just a little bit smaller.

Every outfit I have chosen, every day for over 15 years, has been assessed first and foremost for how well it masks my belly. My sense of fashion–this very personal sense of self in our capitalist world–has always always been shaped by trying to hide this “problem area.” I’ve read many a style guide for “apple shaped” bodies, cheered the return of slightly-higher rise jeans, and when I stand before the mirror, now fully dressed, my eyes have a laser focus on my stomach, to assess how it looks, always within the range of not-that-bad to catastrophic.

Sadly, I don’t think this story is unique. I tell you all this to share with you a recent realization on my part, from a beautiful weekend retreat at Kripalu Center, out in the Berkshires. But first, try something for me. Wherever you are reading this, take a deep breath. Breath deep and, with your breath, fill up your belly. Pay attention, for a moment to what it feels like to breath into your belly, and then pay attention to what it feels like as you soften and release the air. What sensations did you experience? How do you feel?

I hope your experience is different from mine, because I’ll tell you what I experience–nothing. It’s like someone gave me a shot of Novocain first. I have been practicing yoga and meditation, off and on, for years, and “Breath deep into your belly” is the equivalent of a layup; it’s a tool to warm you up, loosen you up, and get you centered. If you’re rattled or distracted, it’s a simple drill that can help you get your groove back. But, to stick with my basketball metaphor, for me it’s a Harlem Globetrotter-esque dribble-between-the-knees-and-shoot-from-halfcourt move. Focus on breathing into my throat? Breath deep to fill up my chest and lungs? There is a tangible sensation to all of these ways of being and breathing for me. But to breath deep into my belly, I can experience only as a void.

How can we wage decades long wars against our bodies, and not carry that hatred and anger and sadness in our bodies themselves? I can’t even look at myself without fear and derision for my stomach; how could I honestly feel what is happening here, what I’m feeling there. I’ve pushed my belly, emotionally, as far away as we can push anything that is physically attached to us, and, again, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve ignored it and hated it like some kind of poor orphan child living under my stairs. And during years of on-again, off-again yoga practice, when “breath deep into your belly” was an empty experience for me, I assumed that I wasn’t concentrating the right way, that I was just breathing wrong. Again, the narrative I told myself was try harder, be better.

I don’t know how to fix this, exactly; I’m still living with the enemy, working towards seeing it (myself) as neutral, normal even. Good, even. How radical would that be? A voice in my head whispers, if you make it (your belly, yourself) small enough, you will like your belly, yourself. But I know that’s bullshit; I want to reject that narrative. The survival technique I came up with at 13, to carve myself up into good and bad (where at least there is still some good), isn’t working anymore. The new project is to like my whole self. Even writing that feel strange–simultaneously like an inspirational poster in a guidance counselor’s office, maybe with cats, and also like a lie. Maybe some meditations where I breath into my belly, sending love and kindness that way will help. Certainly more yoga, which helped me see the tangible effects of the cruel narratives I’ve been telling myself all these years. And, I suppose, openness–to myself, to the world, to breathing.

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?