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Category Archives: Musings

Reflections on James Baldwin & “White Liberals”

James BaldwinIt is interesting, and a bit disconcerting… how COVID-19 has helped create white headspace and newfound resolve around issues of racial justice. I can’t help but feel cynical about that development — I wonder, would large groups of white people care so much if social distancing rules didn’t generate new stores of spare time + a stronger, more visceral desire to physically gather and unite around a shared cause?

In the episode, “Why Now, White People?” the co-hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, examine similar questions. Referring to the large uptick in white subscribers to their content about race, they joke, “Code Switch. We’re like the gym on New Years Eve. Except for racism.”

So they asked a bunch of white folks about the new level of white participation in the fight against systemic racism. Respondents pointed to a variety of factors, including the blatantly racist actions of President Donald Trump, feelings of heightened vulnerability that have led to increased empathy during COVID, and the fact that anti-racism posts were trending among their white friends on social media.

In other words, an amalgam of factors that don’t necessarily amount to a significant shift in consciousness. Right?

I recently picked up James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Sonpublished in 1955, and it feels like they were written for this cultural moment. Is that a comment on the eloquence of James Baldwin or the ass-backwardness of the U.S.A.?

Perhaps a bit of both.

I have the impulse to copy and paste several of the long, ambling paragraphs of the last essay, titled “Stranger in the Village,” because it feels SO very prescient to the deeper reckoning with racial injustice that is currently taking place within so many white Americans.

Baldwin recounts his experience being the first Black man some children in a remote Swiss village had ever seen, which then leads to a conversation about the different relationships Americans and Europeans have with Black people.

“All the physical characteristics of the Negro which had caused me, in America, a very different and almost forgotten pain were nothing less than miraculous — or infernal — in the eyes of the village people.”

In other words, when the Swiss children call “Neger! Neger!” after him — the German word for Negro — they do so with the innocence of “genuine wonder” at a sight unseen, he argues.

In America, he goes on, it’s a different story:

“There is a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted “N—!” yesterday — the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.”

He asserts that colonizer and colonized remain separate in Europe, whereas they have always been mixed, albeit segregated, in America, forcing white Americans to consider their treatment of Black people in deeper ways.

I’m pretty sure this assertion about Europe is false, at least in the year 2020, based on what I know about the large population of North Africans and Muslims in France and Italy, how they are treated, and the rise of right-wing extremism on that continent.

But this essential, salient point about America — that every white American has to come to grips, albeit in varying forms and to varying degrees, with their participation in America’s ongoing racist history — feels like, however it’s come about, what’s happening with many white people right now, both the “liberals” who are blacking out their Instagram feeds, starting white fragility book clubs, and making a point to call out their privilege on Facebook, and the racists who are drunkenly waving guns at protesters outside their door.

Baldwin writes,

“At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.”

The historic effort of doing this, Baldwin says, have included a variety of violent measures, including segregation and “terrorization.” It has infiltrated American religious life, as explored in the article, White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots in U.S. Christianity.

(The article is not, as the title suggests, a critique of Christianity, but rather a commentary on the limits of churches as institutions, aka, their tendency to uphold the status quo, as well as another story in a long line of stories of individuals using the Bible to justify what’s convenient.)

Say nothing of the rise of racism and extremism in the U.S. and the prejudice that is propagated by our president, I’m struggling a bit with what’s going on on the “liberal” end, and I implicate myself in this. Hashtags of #justiceforbreonna mingle with #procrastibaking… It’s all so surreal… and again, I find myself asking, why now? What about the centuries of silence?

What I’m Reading on Juneteenth

Happy Juneteenth.

I attended a life-affirming “expression of solidarity” on Grand Avenue — a group of white parishioners at the St. Margaret of Scotland Church with Black Lives Matter signs, others that read “Fight Systemic Racism” and others saying “Racism Is Ungodly.” Most cars that drove past sounded their horns, waved, and shouted in agreement.

Here’s a few articles I have flagged for myself in my ongoing effort to educate myself about issues of racial justice. I’m keenly aware that my white privilege affords me the quiet space and time to do so, as well as the option to ignore this information altogether.

As we hold up signs, declaring ourselves to be allies, may we continue the inner work.

 

Reading Goalz

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I wrote this article about individualized approaches to reading instruction, I learned that an effective way to get students reading is to have them set “volume goals” for the number of pages they will read each week.

In Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, Kittle explains that reading should be taught a little more like math. In other words, out with selecting a novel for an entire class — reading is a complex a skill that needs to be practiced, over and over again, requiring individualized choice and pacing for each student.

Reading does not come as easily to me as it once did. I’m not sure why; I used to spend hours buried in classics like Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary.

I’m told that my grandmother realized I could read when I started dictating birdfeeder instructions to her at age four.

I am blessed to have what Kittle calls “a reading memory,” in other words, positive associations of pleasure with reading, such that I will go to great lengths to maintain “a reading life” as an adult.

This year, I challenged myself to read #52booksin52 weeks. I have since amended that goal to #40booksin2020, but let me tell you — I highly recommend setting a “volume goal”! It is so much fun and it shoots so much energy into your reading life!

(If you read 40 books in a year, you basically have to read 10 books every 3 months).

Here are some of the books I have enjoyed so far in 2020:

Thanks for reading. Back to my book.

Cultivating a Joy Practice

Sycamore Tree

During these tough times, tapping into our innate sense of joy and play can require, oddly, a bit of self-discipline.

Recently, I have taken myself on a date with a sycamore tree in a local park. I simply lie under its broad, curved branches and watch its large leaves move in the wind and sun.

I find a peace and contentment in the embrace of that tree that comes so naturally, without any effort on my part. No fervid prayer, no restless attempts at meditation, just me.and.tree.

Yesterday, out of curiosity, I logged a mood entry on Sanvello (great app!) just to see how I was feeling, lying there. The words that felt right were “creative, inspired, in love.”

Praise God for my beloved tree! What brings YOU joy today?

Beats/Beets

Beets My Pic

I have two offerings today… one was inspired by a vegetable garden; the other, by whatever algorithm Spotify uses to generate music that stirs a chord in me. Both — the fruits of the earth and that digital razzmatazz — inspire a small bit of wonder:

Beet & Goat Cheese Salad

  • Thoroughly wash, rinse, and pat dry raw beets; tear off bright green leaves and place in a salad spinner
  • Place beets in a baking dish. Rub with olive oil, salt, & pepper. Roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately one hour or until tender.
  • Let beets cool (approximately 10 minutes). Run under cold water and peel skin off.
  • Cut into chunks and place on top of fresh lettuce mixed with beet greens.
  • Add dollops of goat cheese.
  • Add any other raw veggies you like (such as celery or carrots) + lightly toasted walnuts or pignolis.
  • Dress with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, & pepper.

COVID-19 Choral Music 

I haven’t been to church since the pandemic hit, but I long to sing and hear choral music. I find catharsis in the gravity and somberness of these songs. What I mean is, they feel like an appropriate soundtrack for the times:

  1. “Wanting Memories,” The Concordia Choir, Beauty in the World
  2. “It Is Well With My Soul,” Audrey Assad, Inheritance
  3. Nunc Dimittis,” Paul Smith, Reflections
  4. “i carry your heart,” Eric Whitacre
  5. “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” The University of Utah Singers, A Jubilant Song
  6. Even When He Is Silent,” Texas All-State Mixed Choir, 2016 Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA): All-State Mixed choir and the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra

Peace,
Ginger

This Grief You Cry Out From

Black SquareYesterday I participated in a local march for Black lives.

As I screamed the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, Eric Garner, Mike Brown… with so many others unnamed… my eyes stung with tears and chills coursed through my arms and legs.

I have spent my entire career trying to learn and grow in my understanding of racial dynamics in this deeply broken country, and the BLM signs, the calls for justice, the rallying of my community… perhaps I should have felt hopeful, but it all felt like too little too late.

Last night, as another young man died in Atlanta, I broke down into sobs for all the deaths…

This morning I find myself drawn to Rumi’s poem, “Love Dogs”:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express is the return message!”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Amid my uncertainty about where this will lead, Goddamnit, I will keep crying out, not only through signs and chants, but through research, action, and humble listening.

I will embrace my sadness, my anger. You say “White silence is violence?” Then let this sadness, this anger, be my saving cup.

On Hospitality

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While Padraic and I were visiting family in Chicago for the holidays, we made a stop at the house of one of Padraic’s childhood friends, Paul. Paul’s mom, Karen, looked at me and said, “I made some spaghetti and meatballs for lunch — would you like some?” Paul said, “Tell us what you want — we have everything!” removing several types of dips from the refrigerator, three or four large tins of Christmas cookies from the garage, along with a random cheese ball. After Karen had served me the hot plate of pasta, she stood at the counter and drizzled melted butter over a tray of homemade cheddar biscuits. “How bout a cheddar biscuit?” she asked Padraic, who already held a generous glass of whiskey (Paul had insisted he have “just one drink.”)

We regularly visit Paul’s house when we’re in town, and it’s always like this. He and his mom always have an abundance of food on hand and they always whip it out as if it was waiting just for us. 

This last visit got me thinking about hospitality, and the notion that it’s something of a spiritual gift — some people seem to have a special knack for it, and others don’t. I’m not talking about “hosting,” be it a dinner party or a weekend gathering, which involves a prescribed amount of shopping and planning and cleaning and thoughtful preparation. I’m talking about people that keep homemade cookie dough in their freezer in case the neighbors drop by, people that regularly resupply their pantry so they can prepare a homemade meal for unexpected guests, people that shop and cook and manage their households in the anticipation of company and impromptu gatherings. 

I’m a good enough host, and an enthusiastic enough home cook, but my admiration for the gift of hospitality derives in part because it takes me by surprise — it is a way of living and being in the world that doesn’t come naturally to me. I pride myself on an economy and thriftiness that rather directly opposes the largesse and exuberance of those that possess this special gift, and their sweet-smelling homes with wide open doors. 

My routine is to carefully plan menus and grocery lists to ensure that everything purchased will get eaten by me and my husband and nothing extra will gather mold or slime or wrinkles. (Hah! You should see the inside of my fridge right now). I suppose there are many benefits to this (intended) pragmatic approach to cooking, but wasn’t it so much more fun to spend the weekend preceding Christmas Day baking far too many cookies than I could ever eat, knowing that they would be eaten by somebody, even if I didn’t know who? 

It seems that the holiday season brings out a spirit of hospitality in some of us, if only for a few weeks. We try it on for size, baking cookies, bottling eggnog… Then January hits, and most of us return to our pragmatism. 

Sometimes I justify my strict, survival-mode approach to meal-planning and cooking by telling myself that I am striving for a sort of minimalism so that I can make as much space as possible for writing and reading, and pursue my MFA and my job with a singularity of purpose. And then today as I was writing this I remembered that Anton Chekhov himself was known for his constant entertaining. No excuses there… the writing life has plenty of room for serving guests 🙂 

Writer or not, wouldn’t the world be a more festive, friendly place if we didn’t rely on the holiday calendar to justify spontaneous, exuberant cooking… if, come January, we approached the new year by renewing our spirit of hospitality along with our gym membership? 

Sleeping Baby Post

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As I tap this message on my phone, a warm, clinging lump of baby is sleeping on my chest. I’m seated in a gray rocking chair in a dark, Winnie-the-Pooh themed room. A white noise machine breathes steadily as I turn my head from side to side every so often, doing my best to deal with the crick in my neck, since her little head is resting nearly atop my throat. 

For this sixteen-month old I hold, so much comes and goes, and so quickly: feelings, desires, irritations, joys. Distraction is the key that turns her universe. One moment, a bouncing ball, the next moment, a blinking toy. Both sides of the toddler coin — the unceasing curiosity and the fragile temper — challenge me to find my inner Buddha.

There’s the yin and the yang: the way her eyes always catch the gossamer white butterfly that frequents the backyard — a reminder to Look. On the other hand, when she leans in unexpectedly and chomps into my arm, I’m pretty well forced to cultivate compassion and breathe into the discomfort, whispering, “Gentle” until she lifts her teeth out of my skin.

I’ve been reading two well-known Buddhist authors recently, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Chodron writes about the middle path, which describes a way of living in which a person does not move “right” or “left” in response to the moving tide of desires or fears. Instead, she does nothing, moving straight through them as they inevitably pass. 

The “middle path” obviously requires an attention span longer than a few minutes, and thoroughly contradicts the existential reality of a toddler. What’s interesting to me, though, is how many full-grown adults’ inner monologues resemble the behavior of toddlers. How many of us are, in our heads, making an angry mess, of dare I say, sinking our teeth into someone trying to look out for us? How many of us would break into tears or flail our arms, metaphorically speaking, if asked to sit with our hunger, our boredom, our exhaustion? 

So it turns out that “Haley Grace,” the little person in my charge from 8:30-5:30 before I return to my desk (or more likely, my kitchen island) to work through the latest writing or reading assignment of my MFA, has something to teach me. Gentle, I repeat, gentle… as I try to walk the middle path. 

Mountain Wisdom

Pic 1 Mountain Wisdom

When I think back on a recent weekend get-away to Asheville, North Carolina, I picture the four of us — my husband, Padraic, and I, and another couple, two of our closest friends — trekking up a steep dirt path on the Appalachian Trail, our sporadic dialogue muted by the thick prairie grass, the dense clouds overhead and the slope of mountains cushioning us at every side. This was a short hike on our way back to our friends, Allison and Nic’s, home in Nashville, but still, we took the pains to wind our way through a maze of gravel switchbacks, blocking out the road’s deep trenches, (which gripped at least one unlucky, abandoned vehicle), for the chance to be held by something soft and strong — and silent — in the midst of lives swirling with transitions.

Pic 2 Mountain Wisdom

Allison and Nic are high school sweethearts, and I’ve known them both since seventh grade. At this point in our lives, we’ve been through countless changes together: graduations, weddings, buying homes, landing jobs, changing jobs, moving across the country, picking up and moving again. So there’s something about a leisurely, circuitous hike through the mountains that can’t help but feel suggestive of the bigger picture — quite the literal version of “upward mobility”… No seriously: the rhythm of rest spots and overlooks, not unlike weddings in their capacity to present broad swaths of life from one dramatic vantage point, and the circuitous piece, of course, with the ups and downs and rapidly shifting views that somehow begin and end in the same, asphalt parking lot, with the panting dogs and the dubious bathrooms. Whether the parking lot represents the grounding force of friendship or marriage, I have no idea, but I do know that we are all slightly different on the way down than we are on the way up, and ambling sweaty and thirsty into the backseat of the car, there’s a joy to living so-called “real life” together as buzzing and blossoming life, on the side of a mountain.

Pic 3 Mountain Wisdom

In the evenings, the four of us roamed around Asheville’s city-center, snapping pictures at a local print shop of slyly Southern sayings like “Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit.” We sampled local beers and people-watched from the periphery of the famous drum circle, where I watched a fit, tanned, solo silver-haired woman skip and dip and lose herself in the drumming, beautifully alone in a circle of strangers.

Pic 4 Mountain Wisdom

Meanwhile, Padraic and I had a day to bum around Nashville while Allison and Nic were at work. We studied hanging sculptures composed of pill bottles, and abstract landscapes painted by Australian aborigines and canvases of thickly layered ribbons representing motherhood. With our heartfelt and respectful studying, a student of performance studies married to a student of philosophy, I confess that the art on the walls, with my honest reverence for it, sticks with me like the wildflowers on the mountainside – something beautiful and precious, designed with formidable intelligence, but so fleetingly experienced.

Last Pic Mountain Wisdom

More deeply seared in my memory was standing on one leg, upside down, after the art museum jaunt, holding a yoga pose next to Padraic on one of the hottest days of the summer. Trying in vain to focus on my “intention” and not simply grit my teeth through the intense heat, I watched a steady tap of sweat drip from our foreheads onto our mats. Which brings me back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and The Appalachian Trail, and hiking with Padraic and Allison and Nic, the taste of salt on our skin and the gulp of cool air when we reached the mountaintop. Perhaps it’s not the majestic views or the lovely little wildflowers that transform us, but the shared, steady suffering of the climb.

On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:

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Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter

Instructions

  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.

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Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.
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