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Making Plans

I’ve been making a lot of plans lately. Lesson plans, life plans. Today I’m taking a step back, using poetry to muse about control, spirituality, and the inspiration of the natural world, with a few shots of my Iceland vacation thrown in.

Making Plans

Remember in July,
when we stood still in our hiking boots,
waiting for the geyser to gush?

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Even that was a plan you made
and clothes I carefully laid
and bills we carefully paid
so we could dig our heels in the brown ground,
say “Wow”
When the earth flaunted its do-as-it-likes

Carefully stepping around wet stones and
“hugging the mountain” when the altitude felt too high

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We breathed in Earth’s overflow
witnessed Her grace

But over a Gull, or lobster soup,
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we mused over plans for home,
or lunch,
stealthily strategizing.

Meanwhile, glowing chunks of blue-white ice floated idly toward the Atlantic
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Aggressive waterfalls thundered down cliffs
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the gray Atlantic met with pebbled beaches
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And we took pictures, eager to clap
For this jazz.

Then

Surrender came in a flash
when I stripped off my coat and scarf and laid in the moss-grass of a mountain
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suddenly remembering that memorial service photo of Carrie’s mom,
basking in the sky on Colorado grass
Before ALS hit.

Today I wonder if I’m a fool
to think that the plans I’m making
bear a contrast, rather than a pale resemblance to
the sprinkling of volcanic ash on a glacier
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Perhaps I’ve been duped
by the strangeness of ash on ice
the drama of cascading water
the glow of blue lagoons

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Yes, I think I’ve been duped.
I’m “a theatre person”; I should understand
the planning that goes into the artifice.

“Whipped cream on a brick,”
a dance teacher once said,
of a ballerina’s lithe posturing
to look like she does as she likes.

Still, it’s a nice thought,
And one that I think I’ll hold onto,
That when the geyser errupts,
She’s just letting it go,
on a whim.

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Eating The Veggies: Two More Recipes

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Green beans aren’t my favorite vegetable, so I’m always grateful when I find a recipe that makes them more flavorful. This Ina Garten recipe combining chunks of red onion and colored bell peppers with the beans manages that, as does the following recipe adapted from the Whole30 cookbook. In Eating The Veggies I posted a few too many potato recipes, in my opinion, so here’s some good ole green stuff:

Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers

  • Heat a large pot with water and 2 tablespoons Kosher salt over high heat. Meanwhile, prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl and stick it in the fridge to keep it cool.
  • Once the water boils, blanche 1 pound green beans for 20 seconds, then immediately plunge them into the ice water bath for about 1 minute, and then drain in a colander.
  • Heat some cooking fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat — I used a combination ghee butter and olive oil (disclaimer — cooking with olive oil is technically against the Whole30. Oh well.) Fill the skillet with 1/2 to 1 onion, red or yellow, sliced into thick rings. Let the onions soften and become translucent, maybe caramelize a little.
  • Add 8 oz sliced mushrooms and start to soften them, adding more olive oil if necessary.
  • As the mushrooms continue to soften, add 1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips and let it soften with the mushrooms.
  • Add the green beans to the skillet for a few seconds and season to taste with salt and pepper. 

Oh, and this celery salad

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Reading in Iceland

Written on June 29, 2016:

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I am currently traveling — lots of hiking, biking, reveling in Iceland’s beauty marks — but in flight, or in the lull of a long day (the sun sets at midnight here) I am engaging in my favorite form of travel, flying through the pages of a good book.

I decided to dive into some travel writing: “The Best American Travel Writing 2002” edited by Frances Mayes. As Mayes writes in her introduction, “reading and travel have a natural symbiosis” — reading about a variety of foreign adventures while on an adventure of my own puts me in the traveling mindset — a mindset characterized, in my experience, by a closer clinging to the present moment and a mental, as well as physical experience of dislocation that allows for greater self-reflection, spontaneity, and once again, that in-the-moment mindfulness  thing. (Such an elusive and aspirational practice, at least for me, when muddled with to-do lists and daily routines).

Perhaps reading and travel are “symbiotic” in the way that they transform readers and wanderers by first transporting them. And this process of transformation is built upon the liberty, the privilege, of reflection and mindfulness. Mayes seems to draw on this principle in her selections. She writes:

“Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip.”

If the highest purpose of travel (and naturally, the mark of good travel writing) is to, however subtly, transform the psyche of the traveler, this Mark Twain quote, also a part of Mayes’s introduction, comments on one way in which travel broadens consciousness:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So where does 2002’s “Best American Travel Writing” take its reader?

My favorite essay, so far, is Michael Finkel’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void” originally published in National Geographic Adventure.

It follows a lone traveler piled into a truck driving across “the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara.” The void itself, the “giant sand sea,” is fascinating — its disorienting quality attracts an eclectic group of passengers, from a drunk to a widow to an American named Beth who just wants “to feel the wind in her face,” provokes reactions ranging from bliss to terror, and serves as an ever-shifting landscape of haunting, unpredictable beauty. Finkel writes:

“Many of the tourists are on spiritual quests. They live hectic lives, and they want a nice dose of nothing — and there is nothing more nothing than the void. The void is so blank that a point-and-shoot camera will often refuse to work, the auto-focus finding nothing to focus on…”

There’s a strong statement about modern society — that Westerners with hectic lives will haul themselves across the Saharan desert just to bliss out on endless sand, to envelop themselves in a place that represents emptiness and nothingness… Finkel continues,

“After a fortnight of wind, Beth came to a profound decision. She said she now realized what her life was missing. She said that the moment she returned home she was quitting her Internet job and opening up her own business. She said she was going to bake apple pies.”

By contrast, “Forty Years in Acapulco” from Men’s Journal chronicles an eighty-nine-year old Polish immigrant named Mort Friedman whose idea of paradise is stalwart routine, reclining by a pool in your finest swimwear at a hotel. This is not travel as self-discovery or spiritual quest but travel as self-affirmation. The routine of “wak[ing] at nine-thirty; putt[ing] on a brand-new bathing ensemble… fly[ing] down on American Airlines on the same date every year” enshrines all of the achievements that earns Mort his yearly trip.

A third essay, “The City and the Pillars,” describes New York’s immediate response to September 11, 2001, emphasizing the instinct of New Yorkers to throw themselves into a daily routines, such as shopping for groceries or cafe owners hosing down sidewalks, in a stubborn protest of the horrific reality of the towers. Adam Gopnik writes,

“The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. On the afternoon of that day, the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.”

One downside to reading a collection of travel essays, if you’re reading it cover to cover, is that you occasionally get stuck in a destination that you don’t find exciting, or you find yourself a passenger on a journey that wanders a little too long — in my case, “A Rio Runs Through It,” by Rod Davis from The San Antonio Express-News. You’re obviously jolted from place to place, occasionally leaving you with that feeling of the void: there’s too much and therefore nothing to focus on.

So how are my first four or five days in Iceland affecting my psyche?

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, the density and crispness of the language, and the friendliness of the people, the answer that first comes to mind is that I’m experiencing a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of the U.S.

For example, in a country where most foods, save sea food, have to be imported, and everything but a hot dog is startingly expensive, I appreciate living in a country rich in access to cheap produce (notwithstanding the obvious problems with our agricultural industrial complex).

And as beautiful as the Icelandic landscape is, I find myself reminded of certain remote parts of Montana or Oregon, and feel gratitude for the tremendous diversity of the American landscape, East to West:

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That being said, the lack of visible poverty in Iceland, except for two homeless men in Rekjavik, points out the visible poverty in the United States and our complacency toward it.

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On a more personal level, the gift of time has given me the chance to reflect on the balance between teaching and writing in my life, and how, in an ideal world, I’d like the balance to tilt. Who knows — maybe enough geysers and hot springs and glaciers and waterfalls will convince me that I need to ditch it all and start baking apple pies. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

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Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

“Healthy Dish of the Day”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.56.45 AMA cheesy frittata packed with spinach, a pea salad dotted with pieces of feta and mint — two of my favorite dishes from “Healthy Dish of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year,” a Williams Sonoma cookbook by Kate McMillan. It’s a book for celebrating the seasons, for embracing the variety and abundance of seasonal produce and the color and vibrance of healthy cooking.

In addition to “seasonal vegetables,” the introduction proclaims an emphasis on “lean proteins… whole grains and good fats…” Each month’s recipes start with a calendar of meals, accompanied by a brief explanation of reoccurring themes and ingredients for the season. In my view, the calendar would be far more useful if it was organized around using up ingredients in successive recipes. Instead, it’s a way to whet your appetite at a glance, with each day’s dish calling for its own separate set of fresh, aka expensive ingredients. Take the first and second of March — a “spicy vegetable hash” calling for both sweet and Yukon gold potatoes, jalapeño pepper, plain yogurt, lime wedges and fresh cilantro, among other things, right next to “stir-fried pork and sugar snaps with soba noodles,” requiring Asian sauces/vinegars/oils, green onions and fresh ginger in addition to the title ingredients. Especially with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, you’d think Ms. McMillan would repeat more of them and organize the meal plan accordingly. Then again, it does bear the Williams Sonoma brand, so frugality may not be a fair expectation 🙂

That said, the monthly calendars can just as easily be used as a source of inspiration for ingredients to try. Say you’re visiting your local farmer’s market in March. A quick peek at the March spread might nudge you toward more generous helpings of swiss chard or fava beans, as opposed to that helpless feeling when confronted with large quantities of fleeting, seasonal produce. The large amount of recipes — it’s practically a tome — means that every five or six suppers receive their own full page photograph, which makes perfect sense but is still a little disappointing, in this digital age where food blogs display ten or twelve process photos for a single recipe. You can’t help but gravitate toward the dishes that are photographed. On the plus side, each recipe is accompanied by a note that either summarizes the essence of the dish — “fluffy ricotta-and-artichoke-stuffed ravioli sit in a pool of light, fragrant vegetable broth” — expounds on its nutritional value, provides historical context or suggested variations.

Here’s a brief sampling of each month’s themes and ingredients:

January

The emphasis is on root vegetables and “warming spices, such as turmeric, cayenne, curry paste and red pepper flakes.” Traditional comfort foods are made healthier with alternate cooking techniques, such as pan-searing instead of frying, and the abundant use of rich and creamy vegetables. As you might imagine, stews and soups are a natural way to create healthy food out of comfort food: A version of minestrone uses extra vegetables and low-sodium chicken broth, and “Asian-Style Chicken Soup” transforms your basic chicken noodle into something greener, spicier and more piquant. A vegetarian cassoulet replaces the traditional pork and breadcrumb mixture with meaty mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, beans, celery, carrots and potatoes.

February

McMillan encourages the reader to infuse winter dishes with color and fresh produce, and to pay attention to the flavor enhancing properties of sauces and garnishes. Winter’s inclination toward meat and potatoes is acknowledged, but the protein and carbs are lean — scallops, salmon, lentils eggs, quinoa, barley and whole-wheat penne. I’m especially keen to try the “Moroccan-Spiced Roasted Vegetables and Quinoa” and the “Roasted Salmon with Avocado-Grapefruit Salsa.” Oh, and “Broccoli Rabe and Olive Pizza.” Oh, and “Cauliflower Steaks with Caper-Anchovy-Garlic Sauce.” Okay, I’ll leave it at that.

March

The March dishes place spring’s green produce center stage — asparagus, snow peas, arugula…the list goes on. A platter of grilled endive and asparagus, boiled fava beans and orange slices tossed with orange juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is an unusual, textured take on a spring salad. On March 31st, McMillan tosses blanched asparagus, baby carrots and sugar snap peas with angel hair pasta, tomatoes, fava beans and Parmesan cheese.

April

The emphasis on green, seasonal produce continues, alongside grilled meats and spring herbs like dill and chives. “Roasted Asparagus Farrotto” takes the nutty, magnesium-rich grain farro and cooks it (with olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted asparagus) in the style of risotto. Here’s the pea salad whose praises I was singing earlier:

 Pea, Feta & Mint Salad

3 cups shelled English peas
2 T. olive oil
2 T. minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
1 T. red wine vinegar
3 oz crumbled Feta cheese

1) Blanch the peas for 1-2 minutes in a pot of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. Immediately transfer them to an ice water bath. Drain and pat them dry.

2) Toss the blanched peas with the olive oil, mint, 1/2 tsp. salt and a crackling of pepper. Just before serving add the vinegar and the cheese.

May

May celebrates lighter, al fresco dining — think salads, fish, grilled pizzas. Polenta is also frequently used as a foil for spring veggies: on May 1st, McMillan braises artichokes and serves them with shallots, peas and fresh herbs over a bed of polenta. On the 29th, she roasts asparagus and cherry tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of parmesan cheese, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta. Apparently polenta contains “cartenoids,” which is good for your eyes and heart.

June

June presents simple combinations of fresh summer vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. I’m into the June 15th salad that mixes roasted peppers, eggplant and zucchini with goat cheese and crisp red leaf lettuce. And the idea of grilling whole wheat pizza dough and topping it with nothing more than a simple salad of mixed greens, sliced plum tomatoes and parmesan shavings. Or on June 27th, brining pork chops in cider vinegar, brown sugar, berries and red pepper flakes and serving it with grilled plums, peaches and nectarines.

July

Corn and tomatoes get their due in July — tomato and arugula frittatas, scallops with avocado-corn salsa, smoky grilled chicken and corn, tomato and bean salads with toasted bread crumbs… McMillan also suggests grilling traditional summer dishes to vary flavors — for example, “Ratatouille on the Grill.”

August

“Vine vegetables” are recycled throughout the month, such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. For example, eggplant is broiled and puréed with Greek yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, mint, salt and pepper, then spread across grilled Naan and topped with grilled red onions. On the 22nd, zucchini and peppers are julienned and sautéed, then served with buckwheat fettuccine, melted goat cheese and fresh herbs.

September

More tomatoes and zucchini, and a transition into fall with light soups and stews. A grilled portabello burger with tomato-ginger jam and sautéed red onions looks particularly scrumptious.

October

This month’s meals emphasize the expected assortment of fall produce such as pears, apples and butternut squash showcased via more pastas and whole grains. For example, there’s a roasted butternut squash whole-wheat pizza with goat cheese, Parmesan and arugula, and a whole-wheat flat bread with caramelized shallots, Monterey jack cheese and thin slices of grilled chicken and raw apple. Here’s the recipe for the spinach frittata:

Frittata with Spinach, Roasted Peppers & Gruyère 

8 large eggs
2 T. low-fat milk
Salt and pepper
2 cups baby spinach
2 olive-oil packed roasted red peppers, drained and chopped (or a cup fresh)
1/4 cup shredded Gruyère
1 T. unsalted butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. finely chopped yellow onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. fresh parsley

1) Whisk together the eggs, milk, 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Add the spinach, peppers and cheese.

2) Preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil in a 12-inch ovenproof frying pan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes and the garlic for an additional minute.

3) Pour in the egg mixture, reduce heat to low and cook until the edges are firm, about 4-5 minutes. Lift the edges with a spatula, tilt the pan and let the uncooked eggs run beneath. Cook 4-5 minutes longer, until the eggs are almost set.

4) Broil the eggs for about 2 minutes, until the top sets and browns slightly. Transfer the baked frittata to a flat serving plate and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temp.

November

For heartier, fall fare, more protein is mixed in during November, such as turkey, pork and lamb. Star produce items include cranberries, pumpkin and dark greens. For example, on the 29th, McMillan stir-fries lamb with broccoli and mushrooms and on the 25th, she fries chard, eggs and polenta in olive oil and tops them with a yogurt garlic sauce. But even in November, the produce has a fresh, crunchy flair, including an apple-jicama relish for “Pulled Chicken Sliders” and a pineapple-avocado salsa for Mahimahi.

December

McMillan suggests lightening the rich foods of the holidays by using olive oil as a substitute for butter and root vegetables (again) as complex carbohydrates. In addition, whole grains pepper the menu, such as “Spaghetti with Collard Greens, Hazelnuts and Caramelized Onions” and “Kale, Turkey Sausage and Barley Stew.” I’m also drawn to a dish of seared scallops garnished with shredded brussels sprouts and prosciutto.

The great thing about cooking with so many vegetables is that most of these meals can be enjoyed year round, even though it’s ideal to enjoy produce at its peak. I made the October frittata this spring. Happy eating, and healthy cooking 🙂

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

On Writing and Feeling

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains By Santoka Taneda English version by John Stevens If there are mountains, I look at the mountains; On rainy days I listen to the rain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Tomorrow too will be good. Tonight too will be good.

I received this poem in my inbox today and feel compelled to share it. Like many, I aspire to and struggle to live more purely in the present moment. With that struggle in mind, what a serene thought it is that “tomorrow will be good,” and so will today, and tonight, simply because what exists exists, and we are here to enjoy it. I find the poet’s simple, sparse language to be startingly articulate; in its simplicity, it deepens and subtly shifts my thinking about what it means to live in the moment, reassuring me that however scattered or anxious my state of mind, there is an inherent simplicity in having presence of mind. We simply need to be receptive to what surrounds us — “if there are mountains, look at the mountains.” The world does its work for us and we are here, simply enough, to receive the world.

There’s a mantra that I cling to, although I can’t remember where I encountered it, that “There is no pain in the present moment.” When I find myself rushing mentally, I am reminded that so much of human pain is sheer anticipation, cognitive chaos, the firing of neurons generating fear and angst, pain that does not exist apart from the ruminator’s overactive thought process. Which leads me to consider the discipline of writing. I’m sure that the same synapses that cause unnecessary, self-generated pain are the impetus behind beautiful and insightful streams of words. From that perspective, it’s not ideal to strictly limit one’s focus to what is immediate and concrete, but rather to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts that deviate from the moment and channel them into something concrete of their own, such as an outpouring of language.

If writing is a way of embracing our stray feelings and thoughts, allowing us to attend to the present moment of our own, individual, internal worlds, then I could do a better job of it. When a friend of mine recently challenged me to think about how much raw feeling is connected to my writing pursuits, I realized that I could better fuse the part of me that loves the creative act of laying out words on paper with the part of me that is sensitive, susceptible to a surplus of feeling. Sometimes I forget that writing is a tremendous receptacle for pain and joy and a whole range of feelings in between, and when I’m feeling down or up or somewhere in between I don’t think to turn to the page. How great it would be if instead of dumping, or sighing out our feelings of pain into something escapist, we could energize and invigorate ourselves, and validate the feelings we are having, by giving our feelings a voice. Here’s to writing from the heart.

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