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Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.

-Flannery O’Connor

It seems straightforward enough, the injunction to “Love thy neighbor.”  As is true of all oft-repeated phrases, we hear and speak it without pausing to think about what it actually means or entails.  It sounds good, so it must be right, must be something we can all agree to, can all agree to do, and to teach our children.

Loving my neighbor is doable enough when it looks like being gracious with my colleagues, patient with my students, and forgiving of the sins others commit in traffic.  But all of that’s the easy stuff, the “givens.”  Not being an asshole takes effort, to be sure, on some days more than others, and for some of us so than others, regardless of the day.  But not being an asshole is kind of the baseline for living inside of society and relationship; “love thy neighbor” in its fullest expression asks us to go past the bare minimum of human decency.  Way past.

I am in the midst of teaching Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” surely one of the most impeccably crafted pieces of writing in American history.  (If you’ve never read it, you should.  Find the full text here.)   For King, loving his neighbor meant affirming the humanity of those who refused to acknowledge the humanity in him.  All men created equal meant equal on all sides, meant not falling into the trap of those who opposed him and resisting the temptation to demonize or lash out while still—and this is important—doing his utmost to highlight and bring an end to the injustice all around him which was, of course, put into place and perpetuated by his neighbors.

This week has been full of news stories that make it really, really hard for me to think about this loving-thy-neighbor business.  I want to indulge in the feeling of hatred instead, or at the very least, a sense of superiority and self-righteousness.  I want to draw dividing lines, “us” and “them.”  But even if and even when those feelings are justified, I know they are not productive.  They do not provide a way forward.  They are not going to help me or anyone else grow.  They are not what I want to model for my son.

I’m still, and probably always will be, working out what it means to love my neighbor while also being mad as hell about things that matter.  What it looks like to be heartbroken by the actions of some of my human neighbors and at the same time remind myself that their lives have as much inherent value as mine.  That they are just as human as me, as my loved ones, as my child.  I know this to be true even if I don’t always believe it.

HAZELNUT LINZER COOKIES

These beauties were made using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen; I haven’t reproduced it here because a) there’s no way I could get the wording/instructions any better than Deb, and b) the only adaptation I made was to use jam (some strawberry, some apricot) to sandwich the cookies instead of chocolate-hazelnut spread, since I am apparently the only person on the planet who does not care for Nutella.

Love, of whatever shape, nature, or structure, is probably the best thing we humans have going.  It’s this unaccountable miracle, and I, for one, welcome the chance to celebrate it.  As silly of a holiday as Valentine’s Day has become in the mainstream, I am happy to use the day as a chance to take stock of all the things love has given me, the ways it continues to expand my human capacities, and how grateful I am for the gift of its presence in my daily life.   

Shmoopy as it sounds, this weekend I hope that you feel present to the love in your own life, no matter what you are or aren’t celebrating.

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EGGPLANT-LENTIL STEW

February 2, 2015

As seems to happen from time to time, I took a longer-than-expected hiatus from blogging.  And as has become my custom, instead of discussing the circumstances co-occurring with this hiatus—which are not interesting in the least—I’d like to just jump right back in, like a conversation with an old friend that stops and starts over the course of weeks, months, years, but feels somehow natural and continuous.

I went to a funeral today.  The father of two  former students died very, very suddenly, and we gathered outside, in the cold, to remember him.  I didn’t know the man well outside of knowing his children, but to the extent that they are a reflection of and a credit to him, I do.  Given the circumstances, it is impossible for me not to feel zoomed into their shoes; they are a handful of years younger than I was when I lost my dad, also suddenly.  That handful of years is a distance, though, a flight of stairs’ worth of footing that I had and they don’t and still, still, the unmooring.  The despair.  The heavy, daunting work of grief and the seeming impossibility of absence.  I can imagine–and I can only imagine–what this feels like for them.

Death is where Judaism really gets it right, I think.  One of the things I love about Judaism is its pragmatism, its sensibleness; Judaism knows that what you need in the face of mind-numbing loss is someone or something to tell you what to do.  You need ritual.  You need rules.  You need to hear the same prayer you’ve heard recited your whole life, only this time it’s being recited for your father, and that means something.  You need some kind of structure, because making a decision—even one as seemingly insignificant as figuring out what to wear or what to eat—feels like an impossible uphill.

Jewish funerals aren’t sentimental.  Today’s service contained no explanations, no assurances that everything would be alright, or indication that this death is anything other than tragic, awful, and hard.  And yet, and also within the service came affirmations of God’s goodness: despite circumstances, despite loss.  If God is only good when God is good to us, then what, indeed, are we worshipping?  As it says in the Book of Job: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Death is the condition we are all bound by, but seem much too easily to forget.  And while I do not think it healthy to live in fear of death, I think it essential that we live in remembrance of it.  To acknowledge that we are, in fact, entangled with death all the time, whether we let us ourselves see it or blind ourselves to it.  Lessons don’t offset the loss, but that doesn’t mean death doesn’t have things to teach us.  I saw it today in the faces of my students as they sat in support of their classmates, as they let their parents hold them at the gravesite, as they enacted the very beauty and terror that are the poles of human existence.  It’s always both.  It’s always, always both.

EGGPLANT-LENTIL STEW

adapted from this recipe

This has become my go-to meal to gift to new parents or to deliver to a grieving household.  It freezes well, so there’s no obligation to eat it right away, and it’s vegan, which makes it friendly for almost everyone.  Pack it up with a nice, crusty loaf of store-bought bread, a green salad, maybe some goat cheese.  Makes a big batch so you can keep some at home, too.

ingredients:

water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth

1 medium-to-large Italian eggplant

1 cup green lentils

1 yellow onion, diced

diced peppers of your choice—depending on desired heat level, you could do anything ranging from very mild bell peppers to Anaheims, poblanos, jalapenos, or (much spicier) serranos .  We always have fresh peppers from the garden, the heat levels of which vary, so I usually taste a bit and then gauge from there.  Keep in mind that removing the seeds & ribs from the peppers will also turn down the heat!

1 twenty-eight ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen organics fire-roasted kind)

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup pomegranate molasses

Handful of fresh mint (you can do cilantro instead—different flavor profiles, but both work with the stew!)

½ tsp. ground cumin

¼ tsp. smoked paprika

¼ tsp. crushed red pepper (again, balance/adjust this against the amount of fresh chiles you’re using)

Salt

Olive oil

Peel the eggplant in strips, then cut into planks length-wise and score each plank with your knife, making a cross-hatch pattern.  Place the eggplant on a baking sheet and salt, letting stand for 30 minutes before rinsing, squeezing, and dicing.

If you plan to make this on the stovetop (as opposed to the slow cooker), you can par-cook the lentils in water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock.  Let them simmer for about 15 minutes before draining & reserving; they should still be toothy.

Meanwhile, sauté the onion in a good glug of olive oil, adding the peppers after the onion starts to soften.  Toss in the garlic last, and let everything get fragrant over medium-low heat, adding in the spices last.  Turn off the heat and pour in the tomatoes, stirring to incorporate.

To bring everything together, you can use a slow cooker (cook on low for 4-5 hours), or a large pot on the stovetop (simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour).  Either way, you want to layer everything together; tomato mixture on the bottom, topped with some lentils, topped with some eggplant—repeat.  Pour in enough stock/broth/water to cover it all, drizzle in the pomegranate molasses, and let it do its thing.

After cooking but before serving, taste for spice and salt; you’ll almost certainly need to add the latter.  If the stew lacks “zing,” add a bit more pomegranate molasses.  Top with the fresh herb of your choice.  As is the case with all soups/stews, this is even better the day after you make it.

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WEARY EYES & LONGING HEARTS

December 15, 2014

It’s sort of an awful time of year to read blogs.

Holiday perfection pressure only emphasizes the performative nature of what we bloggers do—curate and arrange the pretty parts of our lives and share them with you in an aesthetically pleasing format.  Here are all of the things you should be baking!  Here are all of the things you should do to avoid gaining weight this season!  Here are all of the holiday traditions you should be cultivating with your kids!  Here are all of the things you should buy for the people in your life to demonstrate your love for them!  Here are all of the books you should have read this year, the photos you should have organized and turned into scrapbooks, the goals you should have met, and on and on and on.  Keep Christmas in your heart but be sure to look good while doing it.

I’ve had several conversations with good friends in the last week or so about attempting to remain balanced and focused this time of year.  In addition to the general cultural pressure to “do” the holidays a certain way, this time of year often brings work-related stress (hi, I should totally be grading right now) and family-related stress (and by “stress,” I mean “drama”), but for those of us who want the holidays to mean something, it can be tricky to figure out just what that is or looks like.  Even—or especially—for those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, as the fulfillment of a promise, it can be hard to hold sight of the center.  For an excellent meditation on this, I highly recommend this thoughtful New York Times commentary from Arthur C. Brooks.  We have a “healthy hunger for nonattachment,” Brooks writes, smartly diagnosing the malaise that many of us feel this time of year.

Shiv picked a book off of his shelf tonight—a pop-up book about animal habitats that was originally mine—and I noticed for the first time my name and “Christmas 1989” written on the front page, in my dad’s handwriting.  It nearly took my breath.  The “most wonderful time of year” is also the time when many of us miss what we miss the most.   

Advent leaves room for these sets of conflicted feelings, which is one of the things I appreciate about it the most (to be fair, I also really love the decorations and the singing.  I really, really love the singing.)  Hymns sung during this season speak of weary eyes and longing hearts, and there’s no shortage of those these days.  To echo what I wrote last week about resisting the easy, lazy, convenient, but inevitably inaccurate answer, I want to say that just because I’m not writing about being angry doesn’t mean I’m not angry anymore.  I am learning, I think, that anger is a lot like grief; you have to give up on the idea that it’s going to go away, that you are ever going to solve it.  Instead, you learn to make room for it in your life, to let it change you, which is what I am trying to do.

I am also trying to be mindful about what I actually want to do when it comes to Christmas and festivities and food and celebrations and presents, versus what I feel like I ought to do.  Shiv helped me make some treats this weekend, which we have and will continue to gift to various special people in his/our life.  We have friends coming over in a few days to help us decorate our tree, and  I’m planning to repeat a very boozy and successful eggnog experiment from last year.  I ordered a ham for Christmas, and I’m thinking about doing a leek bread pudding alongside, but Shiv doesn’t have any special Christmas pajamas or even Christmas outfits (gasp!), and there’s no wreath on our front door, and we haven’t put the stockings out yet, but you know what?  Baby Jesus gonna get born without any help from me.

HOLIDAY LINKS:

I made a big batch of this kumquat marmalade a few weeks ago when our neighbors offered to let us harvest their backyard tree; I’m including jars of it in the gift bags we’re giving Shiv’s teachers.

Also going in those gift bags are these not-much-to-look-at but crazy-delicious walnut shortbread cookies from Mario Batali.  My friend Peggy’s husband, Doug, brings these to events all the time and they always disappear quickly.

These burnt-sugar espresso shortbreads that Tim posted at Lottie & Doof are totally worth the trouble.  I also want to try the beautiful rosewater shortbread cookies that Heidi posted on 101 Cookbooks.  Are you sensing a theme?  I really love shortbread.  

This is the crazy-good eggnog we served last year.  This is a Pinterest board with every cookie I’ve ever posted, plus a few other fun homemade gift-able-things like Chex Mix and homemade Irish cream.

Last but not least, to set the record straight, I did make turkey pot pie last week; I just didn’t write about it.  I used this recipe, tweaking it a little bit (white wine instead of sherry, fresh onions & carrots instead of frozen), and it was delicious.  I love anything with a biscuit crust, and this recipe would work just as well with chicken.

Wishing y’all some merry mixed in with everything else.  xoxo—Nishta

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I CAN’T BREATHE

December 4, 2014

I don’t know what to say.  I was planning to blog about turkey pot pie this week, but my God, who the fuck cares about turkey pot pie when we are living inside of, as my friend Mark put it, some kind of midnight?  How can I write about re-purposing Thanksgiving leftovers when I am so unspeakably angry that I don’t know how to think about anything else besides Eric Garner, gasping for breath on that New York sidewalk?  About how I live inside of and am implicit within a system that makes it possible for the man who killed him to walk free, without having to face trial?  About how mind-boggling it is that so many people I know don’t seem to give a shit?  About how profoundly grateful I am that my son cannot yet read the news?  About how Jill turned to me last night in bed and said “I would say we should move, but I don’t know where to.”  And I said, “No, we have to stay.  We have to stay and fight.”

For many years, I was accused of being a Pollyanna: optimistic to a fault.  I grew up inside a lot of privilege, protected for many years from most of life’s truly awful things.  Those things existed for me in a mainly theoretical way, in the way of a kid who read a lot, and empathized a lot, and cried a lot, but who didn’t have much more than feelings at stake.  I cared and despaired and I went about my life.

Much as I liked to think I wasn’t naïve, I certainly was.  And I’m probably not alone in saying that it was grad school that disabused me of my self-conception as a worldly and sophisticated person.  I went straight from undergrad to an MFA program and quickly became aware—was made aware, by some brutally honest workshop critiques—of my tendency to wrap things up into nice, neat little bows: pat endings & pretty morals, easy answers and “everything’s going to be okay.”

I was also, no surprise, someone who avoided conflict like the plague; I liked being liked, even (especially) on the page.  Unconsciously, I suppose, I didn’t want to upset anyone—I didn’t want to tell unpleasant tales.  Or if I did, I wanted them to have hopeful endings.

Except now, looking back, I think that I have been guilty of confusing hope with wishful thinking, a distinction beautifully meditated on in this post by Debra Dean Murphy.  I am learning, in these heavy days, that my desire to focus on the positive comes with a price.  When I tidy up endings, I do violence by sawing off and discarding the pieces that do not fit.  When we prefer to post the heart-warming photo of the tearful young, black protestor embracing the white police officer, we draw our attention away from the deeper issues and fool ourselves into thinking they can be solved with a bunch of hugs and fuzzy feelings.

“We must acknowledge—with eyes and minds wide open—the world as it is if we want to change it,” Charles Blow wrote in his column this morning.  “Reality doesn’t bend under the weight of wishes.  Truth doesn’t grow dim because we squint.”

I feel like a woman with new sight, and that sight comes with a heavy burden, a burden I know many others have carried long before me, and long before that.  I do not yet know what to do with this sight except for to keep looking, and listening, and asking questions, and resisting the easy answers.  For once, I am not seeking succor or balm.  I believe these wounds need to fester, need to be made visible and brought into the light for a while yet, before they can heal.

 

all images in this post courtesy Amanda Raney

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