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“Attention is the purest form of generosity.” –Simone Weil

One of the things I feel like I know for sure about teaching is that what students want, almost more than they want anything else, is to be seen. Not as another teenage body in a chair, not as a type or known variable, not as a set of stories from teachers who’ve taught them before, not even as a set of strengths & weaknesses. They want to be seen, truly seen, for the more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts that they are, even they are simultaneously terrified of being seen this way, fully, all the way down to the bottom.

They, like all of us, long to be known. And attention is the beginning of knowing.

Sometimes I forget that attention can look a lot of different ways. As is often my tendency, I fall into the trap of thinking that I need to do attention the “right” way, or that if I can’t “fix” something, I shouldn’t even offer to help. But then I think about how attention gets paid to me: a colleague who heard I was at the doctor quietly checking in to see if everything was alright, Jill leaving a brand-new Carmex on my bedside when I had run out, Shiv noticing a Band-Aid on my toe and asking, “You hurt, Mama? You got a boo-boo? I kiss it.”

We think that attention is no big deal, but in a time when our attention is pulled daily, in a dozen different directions, when we struggle to pay attention to anything for more than twenty seconds at a time, real attention, true attentiveness, can be magic.

Magic like these counter-protesters, who showed up at Houston’s new Arabic Immersion School with signs and smiles to welcome children, the day after a dozen bigoted assholes had crashed the first day of school with their hatred and ignorance. What a powerful thing, to offer a different kind of attention. To say “We see you differently.” To say, “We see you for real.”

Of course, what we choose to pay attention to (or not to pay attention to) impacts us just as much. I have been trying to offer my attention to a more focused and limited number of people, projects, and concerns, to trim away those things that pulled my attention but didn’t offer me much in return. My hair no longer requires much attention from me, which is frankly so freeing that I wish I had shaved it all off sooner. My closet is filled only with clothes that fit me and that I enjoy wearing, which means a) fewer things in there and b) much less time spent managing wardrobe choices each morning. Our kitchen floor is never clean, but it’s clean enough. Our foyer still isn’t painted, still has the swatch of sample paint that I brushed into a square on one wall over a year ago, but you know what? It doesn’t need to be painted for me to welcome friends into my home, to light incense at the altar, or to play monsters/pirates/dinosaurs with my son. We cancelled our cable subscription. We say “no” to a lot of things, without feeling the need to offer some kind of reason. I leave much of the empty space on my calendar empty, which means that I have been able to do things like reach out and spend time with the friends whose attention does my heart good, to show up when a mom with an out-of-town spouse could use a couple hours of babysitting, or give a colleague in a tough situation a few hours of my listening. It means that when I come home from work, I can give my son my full attention, instead of my halfway. I can be present for and with my wife.

Of course, in order to give attention elsewhere, I have to give myself enough as well. There are three things that I know help me operate as smoothly as possible as a human being: meditation, exercise, and reading/writing. It may seem silly, but I’ve been using the Good Habits app for several months now, to track how often I’m doing each, and to hold myself accountable to the kind of “self-care” everyone seems to be buzzing about these days. In doing so, it’s become abundantly clear to me that my hardest, least-fun days are a direct result of me neglecting my own needs, and that it is really about making the time to meet those needs, not having the time. It all depends on what where we choose to give our attention.

COCONUT-CARDAMOM-ALMOND BUTTER

This recipe was inspired by my friend, colleague, & kick-ass middle school History teacher, Lea. She, knowing that I adore cardamom and consider it the most majestic of all spices, mentioned that she had, this summer while in Boston, discovered a magical almond butter that contained both coconut & cardamom as well. Since said magical concoction is nowhere to be found down here in Houston and is not available for purchase online, when I saw a recipe for coconut-almond butter on Food52, I knew I had to try and see if I could replicate the good stuff that Lea spent the summer eating with a spoon.

Well, I think I did it, and I think I’ll be doing it again, because I’m somehow almost already through the first batch? You guys, if you are a fan of these flavors, you gotta make this stuff. IT IS MAGICALLY DELICIOUS. I love it on toast (with apple butter or sliced pear, as seen here) & swirled into oatmeal…I think it would also make some kick-ass cookies. And, provided you have a food processor, it’s really a snap to make.

ingredients:

2 cups raw almonds 1 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut 2-3 T coconut oil 2 ½ tsp. honey 1 tsp. ground cardamom (preferably freshly-ground) A few pinches of sea salt

Toast the almonds first, in a 400° oven, on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Give them 8-10 minutes, until you can just smell them getting toasty and nutty. Pour them into a bowl immediately so they don’t get too dark. On the same baking sheet, spread the coconut out and toast it for 2-3 minutes. It will get golden very quickly, so keep an eye on it. Pour the coconut into the same bowl as the almonds and let it all cool down before processing.

Add the sea salt to the almonds & coconut and process for 5-7 minutes, pausing to scrape down the sides every few minutes. You may find, like me, that your mixture is quite crumbly—if so, mix in softened coconut oil, one tablespoon at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. At the end of the mixing process, add in the honey and pulse just a few times to fully incorporate it.

Store in a sealed jar—mine has kept for a week with no problem, but if you’re going to keep the butter more long-term, stash it in the fridge—just know that it will get stiffer when it’s cold, and you may want to warm it up a bit before trying to spread it!

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PECAN WEDDING COOKIES

July 6, 2015

We got married on Thursday, July 2nd, six days after the Supreme Court of the United States “It is so ordered” that we could.  Standing in our friend Mike’s judge’s chambers, with my mom and Shiv as witnesses, we said the vows we had written just a few nights before, exchanged rings, alternately beaming and fighting back tears. It took all of ten minutes and it was perfect.

We had come downtown a few days before, on Monday, to get our marriage license, not knowing at all how that would go. Mike had told us that he could issue a waiver for the 72-hour waiting period, if necessary. Jill made me put two hours’ worth of change in the parking meter. We walked into the building, went to the wrong office at first, giggled in the elevator, made it to the right place, and walked right in—there was no line. A clerk called us over, asked for our IDs & our money, and before we knew it, we were raising our right hands and swearing that all of the information on our marriage license was correct.  Bizarrely, wonderfully, shockingly easy.

As Jill so rightly said later, when you’ve been leaning into the wind your whole life, prepared to meet resistance, prepared to fight, that posture becomes invisible to you—until it’s no longer necessary anymore. We went to get a marriage license, and it was no big deal. Which makes it a huge deal.

Nothing is different and yet everything has changed. The first couple of nights following the SCOTUS decision, Jill & I kept getting goofily excited about the things we would now have access to: “You can collect my Social Security!” “We can file taxes jointly!” “I can have a FLEX account now, too!” Things that come automatically with a marriage license. Things we couldn’t have before.  Things that a lot of people take for granted.

People have asked, “Does it feel different?” and it doesn’t, really. It feels fun, and I grin like a nut whenever I see the ring on Jill’s finger, which matches the ring on my finger.  It feels like a relief and a wonder, that it all actually happened and wasn’t just a dream. But, you know, there’s still laundry to do and a VERY energetic toddler to parent, so perhaps what it feels like is a renewing of the commitment we have had all along, now with some pretty swell rights and a really fancy piece of paper.  The most humbling and wonderful piece of it all is the fact that so many people are so happy for us—genuinely, enthusiastically happy—in a way that’s made the past week feel like a celebration not only of a marriage, but of everything we’ve been gifted by grace.

PECAN WEDDING COOKIES Recipe via Saveur

I couldn’t resist putting together thank you notes + gift bags for the dozen friends who rearranged their lives to meet us out for dinner after our ceremony, plus Mike, who made it all possible (and took beautiful photos, including the one you see here), and Michael, the executive chef who accommodated our party on such short notice.

These cookies, a taste memory from growing up in the South, were the homemade component; I rounded out the bag with “Eat, Drink, & Be Married” wine stoppers & bottle openers, Lake Champlain chocolate squares (so good), and Shiv-friendly kazoos, mini bottles of bubbles, & toy dinosaurs. What, doesn’t everyone put toy dinosaurs in their wedding gift bags??

ingredients: 16 T (1/2 lb.) good-quality, unsalted butter, softened 6 T + 1 cup confectioners’ sugar 1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour 2 cups pecans, toasted & finely chopped* 2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 275°. Cream the butter & 6 T of confectioners’ sugar until fluffy. Slowly add the flour and mix until combined. Stir in the pecans and vanilla using a spatula. The dough may seem a bit crumbly, but it should come together when you work it a bit with your hands.

Roll the dough into approximately 1-inch balls; place on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake, rotating sheets halfway, until the cookies are slightly browned and firm to the (gentle!) touch. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks and allow the cookies to cool. When you’re reading, pour the remaining 1 cup of sugar into a shallow dish and roll each cookie in sugar until completely coated. Store in an airtight container.

*The original recipe does not call for toasting the pecans before chopping, but I much prefer the flavor that way!

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#lovewins

June 26, 2015

I’m usually pretty good with words.  They’re kind of my thing.

Today, though, I can barely form a complete sentence.  I keep bouncing distractedly from task to task, totally unable to focus.  I got halfway through folding the laundry when I went to unload the dishwasher but only got halfway through that before realizing that I was really hungry and needed to eat and then, while cleaning the counter, noticed that I’d failed to plug in the crockpot that I’d filled with a chuck roast an hour before.  I may or may not have bounced around Costco while whistling “I’m Getting Married In the Morning” to myself & loading my basket with a giant box Kleenex, of which I’ve already used an alarming amount.  Thanks a lot, SCOTUS!

Here’s the thing—it’s not like the world stopped being an awful place today just because I can now get married.  We still live on a planet that blooms with suffering, and in a country ripe with injustice, deep-seated and complex, to which many are blind.  Even within the LGBT community, there is much more work to be done: protecting transgender men & women from violence, making sure queer kids are safe at school, and ensuring that refugees fleeing persecution in other countries due to their sexual orientation or gender identity actually find the asylum they seek here in the United States.

I know all of this.  I know that this emphasis on marriage equality reifies notions of the “right kind” of gay, that there’s still a ridiculous wage gap based on gender, that I will have to raise my child inside a society where, as I write this, hundreds have had to gather for the funeral of a Senator who was shot inside a church because of the color of his skin, in an act some people “just really don’t feel comfortable” calling terrorism.

But still, I cannot help myself.  Today, I feel deep and profound joy.  Today, thirteen years and one kid and one bout with cancer and two years of long-distance and numerous career changes and dozens of hairstyles and the death of one parent and the aging of the other three later, the law of the land where I live—and which I love, though not at all blindly—says that I can get married to Jill.  That we will have access to the privileges and benefits previously, and according to the court wrongly, denied us.  That our son’s parents will have the same piece of paper his friends’ parents have.  Not that we will have something new, but that what we have long had is finally being recognized.

Last night, I had the pleasure of participating in the Poison Pen reading series here in Houston, which takes place monthly at one of the city’s best dive bars.  Standing out in the sweaty back courtyard, I read from an essay I wrote for Issue #4 of Sugar & Rice magazine, “Stolen Rides.”  The piece chronicles a road trip Jill & I took in the summer of 2011, to attend the wedding of my high school friend Kristen.  It was our first time leaving town after Jill’s cancer treatment, and her head was just beginning to bloom with the first of its post-chemotherapy hair.  Everything about our time together felt sacred and precious and blessed.

As a bridesmaid, I sat up on the altar during the ceremony, away from Jill.  But during the vows, I searched the pews for that fuzzy head and caught her eye.  They say that attending a wedding as a couple makes you feel like you got married all over again, and I guarantee that no one in the sanctuary that night felt the power of the words “in sickness and in health” more than we did.  I am so ready for us to finally get to say them to each other, in the presence of a judge and with our son as a witness.

Let’s get married, Jill Carroll.  I love you like crazy and it’s about damn time.

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RASPBERRY CRUMBLE BARS

June 6, 2015

Dear Class of 2015,

Graduating from high school is like having a baby in at least this one way; you get a lot of unsolicited advice. And in both cases, you figure out whom to listen to and whom to ignore—just like you learn in writing workshop who “gets” your voice and who doesn’t.

The thing is, I know you all well enough to know that you don’t need really need advice from anybody. You are some of the most thoughtful, reflective human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing; you have plenty of sound advice of your own to give. So instead, I’d like to share some of the lessons that I have learned from each of you. You know how you always hear teachers say, “My students teach me”? I thought I knew what that felt like, but our time together this year has blown all prior knowledge out of the water. Not only has this been my most meaningful year of teaching, it’s also been one of the most personally and professionally rewarding periods of my life. This, I have no doubt, is because of you.

Over the last nine months, you have reminded me what real vulnerability and risk-taking look like; you have inspired me to pour myself out onto the page, to do the very thing I asked you to do—step outside your comfort zone. Your willingness to tackle whatever assignments I threw your way, even in the midst of college applications and living full, vibrant teenage lives, pushed me to bring a matching level of integrity to class and to my writing. Your trust, enthusiasm, and warmth have brightened each & every day.

The greatest gift of all, though, is the way you have allowed me to see you—to see the way you struggle with families, with relationships, with illness, with disappointment. I am so moved by the scars you’ve shared: the missteps and misjudgments that you transformed into opportunities to choose the person you want to be. I have seen your indefatigable hard work, your dogged determination to grow as writers and people, your resilience in the face of life’s bullshit and people who judge without truly seeing. I have seen you care for each other so gently, and I have witnessed the deep love you share, the way you know the shape of each other’s hearts.

You won’t be surprised by this, but I’m going to break my own rule and give you some unsolicited advice anyway:

1) Trust what you know to be true about yourself, but don’t limit yourself based on an old idea of who you are. We are all constantly inventing and reinventing ourselves; give yourself room to be surprised by your own capacities, passions, and interests.

2) Find out from upperclassmen who the good professors are—the passionate ones, not the easy ones—and take their classes.

3) Don’t shy away from hard things or difficult feelings; you are built stronger than you know.

4) Figure out the difference between feeling lonely and being alone.

5) Last but not least, remember that the trick of your early twenties is to acquire the kinds of stories you’ll want to tell your children, students, nieces, & nephews someday, not the kind of stories you’ll have to explain on a job application.

Thank you for the pleasure of being your teacher. I am so unspeakably proud of you, and I love you very much.

RASPBERRY CRUMBLE BARS adapted from here & here

In one of Shiv’s current favorite books, The Hello, Goodbye Window, there is a line that reads “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” And since these bars are a little bit tart & a little bit sweet, I thought they were just the right fit for this bittersweet occasion.

for the crust: 1 cup AP flour ½ cup almond meal pinch salt 10 T butter, soft

Preheat oven to 375°.

Combine all ingredients with your fingers, cutting the butter into the dry ingredients. Dump the mixture into the baking pan and press into an even layer with floured fingers. Freeze for 15 minutes; bake for another 15 minutes; cool slightly.

for the filling: 12 oz. raspberries (~1 pint) 1/3 – ¼ cup sugar, depending on your preference juice & zest of 1 lemon 2 T flour

Fold all ingredients together with a spatula and allow the mixture to sit while you make the crumble topping.

for the crumble: 1/3 cup flour ¼ cup oats ¼ cup chopped almonds 3 T brown sugar 3 T butter, soft pinch salt

Once again, mix all ingredients together with your fingers until, well, crumbly. Gently spread the raspberry mixture on top of the pre-baked crust, then dot with clumps of the crumble topping. Bake the whole thing for another 20-25 minutes. Cool the bars as much as possible before you attempt to slice them—ideally, you would cool completely, but we both know that’s not realistic. If you’re willing to have more of a falling-apart-bar, these are delicious warm and I’m sure they would do well topped with ice cream. But since you’ll need to store them in an airtight container in the fridge anyway, I recommend eating at least one cold with a large glass of milk.

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