March 18, 2015 - 2 comments
A friend of mine became a father last night When he spoke, in his voice, I could hear the light Of the skies and the rivers, the timber wolf in the pines And that great jukebox out on Route 39.
–Bruce Springsteen, “Valentine’s Day”
You were born today, ushered to the outside via fluid and effort and love, cheered on by a village full of people obsessively checking phones and laptops for email updates from your dad. The framework of you turned this day from ordinary to extraordinary.
I listened to Waylon Jennings with new ears, thinking how you will get to hear him for the first time someday, the way his voice opens and echoes with knowing, like a well-worn piece of leather: full of feeling, but never sentiment. After the dreariest morning, the sun finally came out and the day of your birth became one of the best that a Houston spring has to offer, breezy and blue; I thought of you someday, barefoot in the grass, giving name to cloud shapes, face sticky with popsicle. I thought of all of what’s ahead. You don’t know what pineapple tastes like. Or what it feels like to fall in love. You haven’t yet felt your stomach drop out on a roller coaster. You’ve never read a poem! Or been to a baseball game! Or seen the ocean! Baby peanut, there is so much good stuff ahead, you don’t even know.
Of course, the world you just arrived in is inexplicably ugly sometimes, and the work of being a person inside of it can be daunting and draining. Your little tiny personhood is so fresh and so new and so miraculous, but the fate of human hardship is your birthright and eventual destiny. There is, I’m afraid, no way around this. But the good news is, so too will you inherit the astonishing beauty that this existence has to offer—moments that will take your breath, full of finger-tingling connection and warmth that spreads through your chest, feelings that cannot be explained. It is our most ordinary and our most precious miracle, this life, and it is what we have to offer you.
The thing that is both weird and amazing about being a baby is that people love you before they ever know you. I am one of those people. I love you because I love your parents—because I know that they are two of the absolute best human beings this world has to offer, that they make an incredibly good pair, and that they will give everything that they have to the raising of you. I have watched them nest and prepare and worry and ask questions and beam with joy at the thought of you. I may or may not have screamed and cried and literally jumped up and down when they told me that you existed, tiny zygote of hope and uncertainty and life-altering potential. Honestly, I’m crazy about you, and we haven’t even met yet.
Welcome to the world, sweet peanut. It is a wild, strange, and woolly place, but you’ve got yourself some excellent tour guides, and I think you’re going to like it here. I’ll be the auntie who gives you books on your birthday and who always has snacks in her bag.
“It’s too good, Ms. Mehra,” they said. “This one’s just too good.”
They were talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a five-page stunner of a short story with a dystopian premise that, though it was published in 1961, still feels all-too-imaginable. Set in 2081, Vonnegut imagines an America in which all are finally “equal,” an equality achieved through whatever means necessary by the United States Handicapper General. Any citizens with above-average strength, intelligence, or talent are weighted down (in some cases, literally) by handicaps that keep them from achieving anything beyond mediocrity. It’s a brilliant piece, and my Creative Writing students—seventeen high-school seniors—balked at the notion that they were being asked to imitate it.
“Don’t worry about trying to be Vonnegut,” I told them. “What I’m interested in seeing is whatever your vision of a plausible dystopian future looks like.”
Dystopia is by no means a new genre, but it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly within the world of young adult (YA) literature. The Hunger Games series is the most well-known, with the Divergent trilogy close behind; Lois Lowry’s The Giver is older (published in 1993), but was recently made into a film. And there are plenty of others: the Legend trilogy, the Uglies series, the Delirium trilogy, Matched and its sequels, Feed, The House of the Scorpion, and The Maze Runner series are among the best.
Personally, I don’t think this popularity is an accident. Since my first year teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to eighth graders, I’ve been convinced that there’s something about our particular time period that creates the need for dystopia as a genre. All good literature is reflective of what is, of the truths of the human condition and human behavior, but good dystopia goes beyond simply holding up a mirror; it holds up the mirror and it issues a warning.
It may sound hyperbolic to say so, but I’m pretty sure the reason dystopia has become so popular is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between it and reality. A large chunk of Antarctica is melting, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and there are giant TV screens in Beijing that project virtual sunrises because the air is too thick with smog for residents to see the actual sun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about the fact that, by 2016, it’s predicted that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than the remaining 99% .We could talk about the militarization of the police force. We could talk about the (lack of) internet neutrality and privacy. We could talk about our intense dependence on technology and pharmaceuticals. We could talk about species extinction. We could talk about human overpopulation.
I have received such wonderful feedback on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” an essay I wrote for Guernica Magazine, which was linked to on NPR (!) over the weekend. People have written me to tell me that they saw their family in mine, their lived experience in our lived experience, and reading the piece was tremendously affirming; others have written to say that they found the piece confronting, and that reading it was uncomfortable and forced them to examine and reevaluate their own perspective. Both categories of response are gratifying, as I could not ask for anything more than for my words to both uplift and challenge. This is what I want when I read, so it is truly moving to hear that I have done this for others.
At the same time, I know there are lots of people—many of whom, I’m told, have made their opinions known in the public comments section the NPR website (I’ve followed the first rule of the internet and kept myself from reading any of them)—who want to write me off as an easily offended, holier-than-thou, fill-in-the-blank. This is the byproduct, I was reminded by a very wise friend, of “directing attention to things many, many people would just as soon ignore, and some will openly deny in spite of empirical evidence.”
My students rocked their assignment, like I knew they would. Because, contrary to popular belief, teenagers pay attention. They are keen observers—and critics—of the world around them, and the adults in it. I am heartened by their willingness to look at, and talk about, unpleasant things. I am inspired by their sharp-sightedness and ability to self-critique. Spending class time with them, reading their work—I am humbled and hopeful. Because nothing can even start to get better until we look the ugly stuff square in the eye.
I know this is ostensibly a food blog, and I still love—and love to make—food as much as I always have. But, let’s face it, NPR or no NPR, I have a very active two-and-a-half-year-old who wants to choreograph my weekend (“Dance, mama!” “Hide, mama!” “Run, mama!”) and I want to let him. I swear we could—should a windfall of extra cash magically appear—employ someone full time to do laundry and keep our house even marginally clean. There is always so much grading, and there are friends to whom I wish to give attention and none of this is a complaint, truly, rather an explanation for why you’ve got a picture for one, but not both, of the recipes mentioned here, and why I am linking to them like a lazy-bones instead of recreating them in my own words. Maybe next time?
The more important thing to know, though, is that I have made this ratatouille recipe twice and it’s brilliant. Aside from a lot of chopping, it’s very hands-off, as it cooks slowly in the oven and makes your house smell amazing. It’s dreamy with bread, of course, but also works well as a side to whatever meat you might be grilling or broiling or pan-cooking. Shiv liked it mixed in with “noo noos,” a.k.a. noodles, the beloved food of all toddlers.
Speaking of noodles, I had a half-container of mascarpone that a friend pawned off on me and wanted to use it for something savory. This baked pasta recipe proved a wonderful starting point for a few substitutions: first, I subbed in cooked broccoli for the mushrooms, and second, when making the sauce, I added a bit of flour to the pan after browning the onions but before adding the mascarpone, to thicken it and add a bit of body. Jill loves non-tomato-sauce pasta, so this was a big hit with everyone. I actually pre-made the pasta the night before we were going to eat it, let it cool, then covered it with foil and stashed it in the fridge. Heating it back up in the oven the next night made dinner very easy, and we had leftovers for a few days—always a win!
Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.