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Cook Happy Project Week Twelve

Good Morning. 

Hope you are well. 

I have developed the practice of picking a word for the year every January. This year’s word is “rise,” drawing on the idea of starting anew, rebuilding, looking forward. For me, the word “rise” conjures an image of a bustling and vividly colorful market, maybe in India somewhere, rich with smells, sights, and activity. I can often be negative and pessimistic, so this word, with its upward momentum and invigorating energy, helps set me on a more positive course mentally and emotionally. I try to remember to return to this concept of “rising” when I feel discouraged, reciting the word as if it were a mantra. 

In the past few weeks I have also been contemplating the word “shed.” Shedding myself of habits, relationships, even mindsets that no longer serve me. Loss is OK when I think of it as a process of shedding, of dusting myself off to reveal the alert, bright, budding life within. Maybe loss is even a positive thing when viewed this way. 

In my kitchen, I am shedding any expectation of complex and grandiose projects (although there is a place for that, perhaps, under different circumstances. I recently learned that a co-worker and her partner attempt new and intricate dishes every weekend, with the help of spreadsheets.) For me, right now, I am keeping it simple.

The fruits of that mindset are moist and enjoyably tart lemon raspberry muffins, recipe below, requiring two large bowls and a spatula–no electric mixer. And for a lip-smacking snack, a half pound of spiced pecans. Again, keeping it simple … I invite you to try this recipe, shedding any detailed and meticulous instructions, let your hair down, smell the fresh spring air, and enjoy breakfast for dinner. 

We can find abundance in simplicity. The beauty of fresh fruit peeking through a thick batter. The zinging scent of lemon rind on a rasp grater. Watching nuts brown to a candy-like consistency in the oven. 

There’s beauty to be had in this life, even though this life is hard. I shed what no longer serves me. I invite you to do the same. Peace to you this week, and always. 

Ginger

Raspberry Lemon Muffins
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
⅔ cup canola oil
1 ⅓ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup raspberries (or really any berries, fresh or frozen)

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners (or generously grease the cups if you don’t have liners).
  • Using a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
  • In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the milk. Add the oil, brown sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, and almond extract, whisking to combine.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet; mix, using a spatula, until just blended. (Be careful not to overmix.) Fold in the berries.
  • Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins.
  • Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, approximately 25 minutes. (You may need to bake a few extra minutes if using frozen berries.)
  • Transfer tin to a wire rack and cool for 15 minutes or so.
  • Turn the muffins out and serve warm or at room temperature with a generous smear of butter.
  • Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Spiced Pecans
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Small Plates

Ingredients
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
8 oz chopped pecans

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Line a small rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  • Using a medium saucepan, combine butter, curry powder, salt, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, and brown sugar over medium heat. Cook for approximately 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the spices are fragrant.
  • Add the nuts to the saucepan and stir with a spatula until they are evenly coated.
  • Spread them on the prepared baking sheet in an even layer.
  • Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until they are a deep golden brown.
  • Slide the foil onto a wire rack and let cool completely before serving.

Cook Happy Project Week Ten

Happy Sunday to you.

This week my musings will be short and sweet, as I am juggling some other work projects.

Even so, I made time to unwind in the kitchen yesterday, preparing a slightly tangy, herb-rich batch of chicken salad, following Cristina Ferrare’s recipe in Big Bowl of Love (and cooking the chicken using the Whole 30 “perfect chicken” method) as well as an easy orange streusel cake that uses an entire navel orange, rind and all.

I have also been enjoying a new nonfiction book called Tastemakers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, by Mayukh Sen. Each chapter focuses on a different pioneering woman cookbook writer, charting how she exhibited resilience and strength through her love of food and the culinary arts.

I can relate to these women. I find that cooking fortifies and strengthens me, especially when the going gets tough–partly why I chose to commit to this little blog project every week.

And so I will close with these lines, from Kristene DiMarco’s sung version of “I Am No Victim”:

I am no victim.
I live with a vision.
I’m covered by the force of love, covered in my savior’s blood.
I am no orphan.
I’m not a poor man.
The Kingdom’s now become my own, and with the King I’ve found my home.
He’s not just reviving,
Not simply restoring,
Greater things have yet to come.
Greater things have yet to come.

See links below for cookbooks where you can find the recipes.

Cheers to a passion for home cooking, the cultivation of resilience and faith, and greater things yet to come.

Cook Happy Project Week Nine

Good Morning!

  • I easily find and joyously create abundance.
  • I’m all I need to get by.
  • I reach up, I feel love, I bring it to my heart.
  • I love my life.
  • Change arrives; I can flow.

These are some of my favorite mantras from an album called Mantras in Love by the group Beautiful Chorus—a succession of sung phrases that ground and energize. 

I’ve been a fan of the group and their album, Hymns of Spirit, for a while, but this disc was new to me. 

Cooking, for me, is an activity that manifests a sense of abundance arising from the everyday. This past week, for example, I spontaneously got into a festive spirit for the Super Bowl (though I am the farthest cry from a football fan) by mashing some avocados into a lime-rich guacamole and composing mini taco bites with filo shells, ground beef, shredded cheddar cheese, and homemade tomato salsa. I have to eat—so why not delight in the preparation, creating something beautiful and flavorful? This, I believe, is “easily finding and joyously creating abundance.”

Cooking with care for myself also reinforces a feeling of independence, of personal responsibility, of the notion that I am “all I need to get by.” I especially feel this when I pack a healthy homemade lunch to take to the office. 

This week, I commit to filling my head and heart with affirming, positive mantras–I have yet to figure out the week’s culinary adventures, so stay tuned until next Sunday. In the meantime, I share these bite-size recipes to accompany the nuggets of wisdom above. 

Peace.

Guacamole
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
4 ripe avocados
½ medium white onion, finely chopped
¼ to ½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions
1. Halve the avocados and scoop out the flesh into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher until you achieve your desired consistency (I like to have a few chunks).
2. Add the onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and continue to mash until all mixed. 
3. Place an avocado pit in the center so the dip doesn’t turn brown. Enjoy!

Tomato Salsa
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
8 Roma tomatoes 
½ cup red onion, finely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, loosely packed, then finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Instructions
1. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds; remove them with a slotted spoon. Immediately run them under cold water; then peel off the skins. (This should happen easily; if not, place back in the hot water for 15 to 20 seconds). 
2. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise, remove the core with a spoon or a mellon baller, and dice them into small pieces. 
3. Prep other ingredients and mix together in a bowl. Place in a covered, airtight container and ideally place in the refrigerator several hours before serving. This salsa will last 3 to 4 days in an airtight container in the fridge.

Taco Bites
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
Homemade tomato salsa (see above)
Guacamole (see above)
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ pound ground chuck
2 tablespoons taco seasoning
¼ cup water 
Mini filo shells (frozen section of the grocery store)
½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded small

Instructions

  1. Make salsa and guacamole.
  2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the canola oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the ground chuck, breaking the meat into fine bits with a spatula. Brown until the beef starts to form a crust and most of the juices have evaporated. 
  3. Sprinkle taco seasoning over beef. Add water and cook until all the water has evaporated and the meat starts to sizzle. Continue to break into small pieces with the spatula. 
  4. Place a bowl under a mesh strainer and pour the beef into the strainer to remove excess oil. Discard the oil. 
  5. Heat the filo cups according to package directions. Cool. 
  6. Assemble filo cups, filling with ground beef, then guacamole, salsa, and some cheddar cheese. Enjoy!

Cook Happy Project Week Eight

Good Morning and Happy Sunday! 

This week I veered from my typical M.O. and created a custom culinary concoction without using a recipe. I discovered there’s something uniquely satisfying about making something tailored to my own personal tastes. It’s a very practical mode of cooking with the end-goal of consumption top of mind, a form of authentic self-care, ensuring that I had a healthy, hearty homemade lunch to take to the office every day … and one that I knew would be a pleasure to eat.

Let’s be honest—my “concoction” was really a matter of assembling as opposed to cooking. I sought to create my own Mediterranean rice bowl based on the one I like from Panera, and the process involved little more than chopping some vegetables, cubing some feta cheese, making a pot of brown rice, and combining it all in some Tupperware with a dollop of sour cream and store-bought hummus, plus Kalamata olives and roasted red peppers out of the jar.

I also made a bowl of polenta topped with a scoop of mascarpone cheese, maple syrup, and toasted pecans, a dish I found in Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch. Like the Mediterranean bowl, the cooking instructions for this meal are satisfyingly simple, and the result can be savored for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in-between. 

This improv process in the kitchen gets me thinking about what it would mean to toss out the rule book in other areas of my life. I am quite the planner and seem to thrive on structure, but I often catch myself getting angsty over the precise way I am to spend the next window of time. Perhaps it would behoove me to see where the day takes me and let inspiration strike, both in the kitchen and beyond. 

Then there are other areas of my life that seem to beg for more definition, for a recipe of sorts. Case in point is my discovery of a specific seven-step prayer process, outlined by the Catholic writer Matthew Kelly. I will go ahead and share it here, related in a tangential way to the notion of cooking happy–it is its own path of meaning-making in a noisy, clamoring world. So here you go. This week, a recipe for prayer, and a not-so-specific guide for two nourishing meals. Take care and talk soon. 

Love,
Ginger

Seven Step Prayer Process 
From I Heard God Laugh: A Practical Guide to Life’s Essential Daily Habit

  1. Gratitude: Begin by thanking God in a personal dialogue for whatever you are most grateful for today.
  2. Awareness: Revisit the times in the past 24 hours when you were and were not the-best-version-of yourself. Talk to God about these situations and what you learned from them. 
  3. Significant Moments: Identify something you experienced today and explore what God might be trying to say to you through that event or person. 
  4. Peace: Ask God to forgive you for any wrong you have committed against yourself, another person, or Him, and to fill you with a deep and abiding peace. 
  5. Freedom: Speak with God about how he is inviting you to change your life, so that you can experience the freedom to be the-best-version-of-yourself. 
  6. Others: Lift up to God anyone you feel called to pray for today, asking God to bless and guide them.
  7. Finish by praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Homemade Mediterranean Rice Bowl 

Ingredients
1 cup brown rice
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red onion, sliced
Any other veggies that appeal to you (e.g., cucumber, peppers)
Parsley, chopped 
Feta cheese, cubed 
Roasted red peppers from the jar
Kalamata olives, pitted
Hummus
Sour cream

Instructions

  1. Cook the rice: Bring 2 cups of water to a boil with ¼ teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup rice and bring back to a boil. Cover with a lid. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 45 to 50 minutes or until water is absorbed and rice is tender. Remove from heat and allow rice to sit (covered) for 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork. 
  2. While rice is cooking, prepare your veggies: halve the cherry tomatoes, slice the onion, chop peppers, cucumber, and parsley, if using, cube the feta, slice the roasted red peppers, and pit the olives, if necessary (easier to buy pitted olives). 
  3. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, using the portions you prefer!

Breakfast Polenta Bowl
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch

Ingredients
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup polenta
1 cup whole milk
Mascarpone cheese
Maple syrup
Pecans, chopped and toasted

Instructions

  1. Toast some pecans by first chopping them and then warming a non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the nuts, stirring them and shaking the pan at regular intervals for a few minutes, until they are fragrant. Transfer to a bowl. 
  2. Prepare the polenta: Bring 3 cups of water and salt to a boil in a large pot. In a small bowl, stir together the polenta and the milk. Gradually stir this mixture into the boiling water. Stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until polenta is thick and creamy, approximately 25 minutes. 
  3. Assemble the bowl: top creamy cooked polenta with a dollop of mascarpone, some warmed maple syrup, and chopped pecans. 

Cook Happy Project Week Six

Hello!

We’ve made it through another week. And sometimes that is a legitimate accomplishment, is it not? 

I join the rest of the globe in mourning the death of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, author, and mindfulness master. A friend shared this article with me about how he continues to be a powerful teacher in modeling how to die, to let go, to relinquish the illusion of control. He continued to savor life even after he suffered a massive stroke and his health significantly declined. There is power in that. I think about how the God of my understanding intended him to live each and every one of those days with limited cognitive functioning, and how he demonstrated great humility in enduring that.

I find it takes much courage and discipline just to be present in the here and now. I catch myself exiting the present moment in a million, fidgety ways, from chewing gum to pacing to popping in earbuds … But cooking and baking in the comfort of my own kitchen centers and grounds me in a way that many other activities can’t.

This week I found my zen sweet spot grating sweet potatoes for a sweet potato pone, and pressing water out of, then cubing, a slab of tofu for “Baked Tofu With Green Beans, Shiitakes, and Peanut Sauce,” a recipe from the book School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week. Slicing, pressing, peeling my way to peace of mind …

Unlike last week, when I savored all things familiar, experimenting with these two dishes allows me to expand my culinary horizons. I am interested in building a bigger repertoire of healthy, high-protein vegetarian meals, as I find myself, in my newfound singledom, veering away from cooking with meat. (In the past, I have enjoyed scrambling tofu like eggs and serving it with this easy stir-fry recipe. Highly recommend!)

As for the pone, I have always been attracted to Southern cooking and would love to learn more where that came from. Despite the fact that I live in Missouri, the South seems far removed, even foreign to me, which makes whipping together a pone as novel to me as baking something markedly French, such as croissants or a quiche Lorraine. (Note: Pones are much easier!) 

I hope you find a bit of inspiration from these two easy, nutrient-dense meals. That might include the revelation that dousing roasted vegetables in a simple peanut sauce can make even shiitake mushrooms and tofu palatable to younger eaters. Or that swapping your morning bowl of cereal with a slab of sweet potato pone, topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream, is the kind of simple pleasure that kickstarts a cold winter’s day, counteracting the daily doldrums. And of course, I hope you can find a path to stillness throughout the coming week, pausing within the busyness to ground yourself in the here and now. 

Cheers to eating mindfully and living wakefully.

Love,
Ginger 

Baked Tofu With Green Beans, Shiitakes & Peanut Sauce 
Adapted from School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week 

Main Ingredients
1 lb extra-firm tofu, drained
⅓ cup low-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 heaping teaspoons freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ lb (12 oz) green beans, trimmed and washed
½ lb (8 oz) shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Peanut Sauce Ingredients
6 tablespoons peanut butter
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
4 teaspoons sesame oil
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
¼ cup hot water

Instructions 

  1. Drain the tofu: Place 3 paper towels on a plate; top with the tofu. Place 3 additional paper towels on top of the tofu and top with something heavy, like a cast iron skillet. Let it stand for 5 minutes. Change the paper towels and repeat for 5 more minutes. (It’s important to remove extra moisture so the tofu will caramelize in the oven! And it’s definitely worth it to buy the extra-firm kind.) Cube the tofu into uniform bite-size squares. 
  2. Grate the ginger, mince the garlic, and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar, and whisk to combine. Wipe clean and slice your shiitake mushrooms. Carefully fold in the tofu pieces, green beans, and mushrooms into the bowl with the sauce. Gently toss to cover everything in the marinade. Let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. 
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the tofu, beans, and mushrooms in a single layer andd roast for approximately 30 minutes, until the tofu is caramelized and the vegetables are fork-tender. 
  4. Make the peanut sauce while the tofu and vegetables are roasting. Simply combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.
  5. Drizzle sauce over tofu-vegetable mixture to serve, and enjoy 🙂

Sweet Potato Pone
Adapted from the Food Network

Ingredients
Baking spray or butter for greasing the pan
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 
⅓ cup lightly packed light brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
3 large eggs, beaten
½ cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated orange zest, plus 3 tablespoons juice (from about ½ orange)
6 cups peeled and grated sweet potatoes (approximately 3 medium potatoes)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. 
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, brown sugar, and molasses with a spatula, or better yet, a spurtle
  3. Add the eggs, half-and-half, and vanilla extract, and stir to combine once more.
  4. Add the cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg; stir everything once again. 
  5. Add the orange zest and juice, then fold in the grated sweet potatoes. 
  6. Pour the mixture into the greased baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for approximately 40 minutes. 
  7. Remove the foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the top is caramelized and set. 
  8. Serve topped with homemade whipped cream 🙂

Homemade Whipped Cream
Adapted from the Food Network 

Ingredients 
1 cup half-and-half
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Instructions

  1. Place a super clean mixing bowl in the freezer to chill for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Beat the half-and-half and confectioners’ sugar together in the bowl for approximately 2 minutes, until stiff peaks form.

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

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.

A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

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