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EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

–Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Kid fell asleep tonight as soon as we got home from the gym, too tired even for dinner, asking “Hold you, Mama?” and after less than five minutes on the couch, his little snores began.

The air feels different tonight.  One of the most important people in my life is in a hospital room right now, sitting by her mom’s bedside, the unfolding of today’s story but just one page in a whirlwind of a book that didn’t even exist a few weeks ago.  Life can do that, you know.  I know.  I know the way the texture of the air changes: with a diagnosis, with the appearance of paperwork, with the utterance of just a few words by someone wearing a white coat.

We forget, though, don’t we?  Too easily.  We are pushed, and we push ourselves, to heal, to “feel better,” to move on.  But being cracked open by grief, fear, and uncertainty creates a certain kind of sight—it’s not a gift, mind you, but perhaps an opportunity—to see what we otherwise miss.

Burdens are plenty in this world and they can pull us down in lamentation.  But the good Lord knows we need to see at least the hem of the robe of glory, and we do.  Ponder a sunset or the dogwoods all ablossom.  Every time you see such it’s the hem of the robe of glory.  Brothers and sisters, how do you expect to see what you don’t seek?  Some claim heaven has streets of gold and all such things, but I hold a different notion  When we’re there, we’ll say to the angels, why, a lot of heaven’s glory was in the place we come from.  And you know what them angels will say?  They’ll say yes, pilgrim, and how often did you notice?  What did you seek?

–Ron Rash, Above the Waterfall

As I carried my sleepy boy from the car to the house, we stopped to look up, the sky dark but still bluer than black, the night clearer than usual, the stars charting their constellations.  “Look, bub,” I said, “the stars are so far away, but still they send us their light.”

“They sharing it,” he said, nuzzling his cheek against my shoulder.  “They share the light with us so we can have some, too.”

And by that light, tonight, I glimpsed a few stitches in the hem of the robe.

SALTED PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP GRANOLA BARS

recipe slightly adapted from Standard Baking Co. Pastries, via Remedial Eating

I got to this recipe via Instagram, when Shauna Ahern commented on Molly Hays’ photo of granola bars, asking for the recipe.  Molly obliged with a link, which I promptly followed.  Following the recipe yielded a very large quantity of the sturdiest homemade granola bars I’ve ever encountered; I mailed some to the aforementioned friend, took some on a road trip, fed many of them to my not-so-small child, used them as my contribution to book club brunch (where I was asked for the recipe by several), and consumed a good handful of them myself, as mid-morning and pre-/post-gym snacks.

Note: these are not “health food” granola bars in the sense that they are unapologetically sweetened and filled with naturally caloric & fatty things, like nuts and nut butters.  I am okay with this, but you might not be.  Think about them as wandering in the territory just shy of dessert, but a good distance from the town of overly virtuous.  And if it helps, know that we really only eat half of one of the rectangles pictured here at a time, with even a nibble or two serving as a nice foil for a cup of tea or a sweet-thing-after-dinner that successfully allows me to avoid hitting up the ice cream in the freezer.

As Molly notes in her original post, these are swell to have around if you have a child experiencing a growth spurt.  Bonus points for how well they hold up in lunch bags!

ingredients:

I found this rule of thumb from Molly’s post helpful: “I’ve fiddled with these bars endlessly, and have found most any substitutions work, so long as the following ratio is adhered to: 3 cups sugars (liquid + solid) : 9 cups grains (oats + germ/seeds) : 4 cups “chunks” (walnuts + chocolate chips) is a good balance, for a sturdy final bar.”  I will add that you could easily use dried fruit instead of chocolate chips, to make these more “breakfasty.”

1 cup salted butter (I only had unsalted, so bumped up the salt in the dry ingredients) 2 cups packed dark brown sugar 1 1/2 cups crunchy, salted peanut butter (I used a mix of regular peanut butter & almond butter) 1 cup light corn syrup or brown rice syrup (I used a mix of corn syrup & honey) 2 tablespoons vanilla extract 8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats 2 1/2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts 1 tablespoon kosher salt 1/2 cup wheat germ (I used flax seeds) 1/2 cup sesame seeds (I used hulled sunflower seeds) one 12-ounce package mini chocolate chips (I only had regular sized chocolate chips, used about 1/2 cups)

oven: 375°

Melt butter in a medium-sized bowl; stir in brown sugar, nut butter(s), liquid sweetener(s) of your choice, and vanilla.  Mix well and set aside to cool.  Butter concoction needs to feel cool before you mix it with the chocolate chips, so that it doesn’t melt them! 

Line a rimmed baking sheet (13 x 18” or as close as you have to it) with parchment paper, then butter the paper (also helps to dot the sheet with butter before laying the paper on top, so it will stick). 

In a very large bowl, stir together all of your dry ingredients: oats, nuts, salt, seeds/germ, and chocolate chips.  Pour in the cooled butter mixture and stir very well to combine thoroughly.  I used a spatula, then finished off with clean hands – you want the oat mixture to be very well coated, because any dry bits will keep your granola bars from sticking together. 

Spread the mixture out on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and distribute evenly.  Cover the top of the mixture with a second sheet of parchment, and use a rolling pin or the bottom of a measuring cup/water glass to level out the mixture and press it firmly into the pan.  You want the mixture to be tightly compacted.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the edges are golden brown.  Allow the mixture to cool fully—I left my sheet pan in the oven overnight—before cutting into bars.  According to Molly, these keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3+ weeks, but I made them a week ago and we only have 5 left, so you’ll have to take her word for it!

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INDIAN STYLE SWEET-AND-SOUR BUTTERNUT SQUASH

January 14, 2016

Y’all, I’m so bad at waiting. It’s one area I really have not made any improvement in as I’ve grown. I’m still impatient as I was when I was a kid.

When I was little, my dad would take me shopping for my mom’s birthday or Christmas present, only for me to come home and almost always be unable to wait to tell her what we had gotten for her. Guess what, Mama?

For the first few years of our relationship, I almost always ended up giving Jill her birthday present in June (her birthday is July 25th). That usually meant that I would also end up buying an additional present so that I’d have something to give her the day of. I am an enthusiastic, impatient mess.

Waiting for feedback from supervisors and agents, waiting for a loved one’s test results, waiting in line, waiting on traffic, waiting on a particular day to arrive, waiting to see someone, waiting for a letter to arrive or a pot to boil or a flower to bloom…you name it, I stink at it.

I’m not sure if there’s an inherent virtue in being able to wait, though patience is certainly a necessity in situations involving students and small children…I may never know, really, the gifts of calm and anxiety-free waiting. But I know that it’s probably good for me to have to wait, even though I hate it so much. It’s almost always good for us to have to practice doing things that we’re not good at, even though we would really rather not have to. All of this waiting doesn’t seem to be helping me get any better at doing it, but it is an important reminder that I am, you know, not the center of the universe, and that there is very little that I can actually control.

But, as Shiv would remind me, I can control my breathing. Deep breaths, Mama – don’t you love it when they apply the lessons we’ve taught them TO US? (Like maybe you got that concept a little too well, son?) I can continually bring my mind back to things that matter much more than my to-do list, like the faces in the photographs festoon the walls of my work cubicle. I can look down at the bracelet I’ve been wearing since I got it for my last birthday and be reminded that the greatest of these is all around me, if I can just stop and be present to it. I can think of the men we’ve collectively mourned this week, tremendous artists whose deaths remind us that it can all change in an instant.

INDIAN STYLE SWEET-AND-SOUR BUTTERNUT SQUASH

This dish is my mom’s creation; to get her “recipe,” I watched her make it and took notes, which meant I had to eyeball most of the quantities (though she did, graciously & uncharacteristically, measure out the water for me—thanks, Amma!) So, as you make this dish, feel free to tinker with the amounts of spice/flavorings. And if you’d like to substitute in another hard squash for the butternut, I think acorn or kabocha would work well.

For a meal, you might enjoy this sabji/sabzi (vegetable dish) alongside some aloo tikki; it’s also wonderful drizzled with a little plain yogurt and wrapped up inside warm naan or pita. This is also a great dish to make ahead of time, as it warms up easily and also thaws/freezes well.

ingredients:

~2 cups cubed butternut squash 2 cups water 2 T vegetable oil 1 T tamarind concentrate (substitute lemon/lime juice to achieve a similar sour note, though the flavor won’t be exactly the same) 1 T brown sugar 1 ½ tsp. fennel seeds ¼ tsp. each of ground ginger, cloves, cumin, coriander, & salt generous pinch each of cinnamon & cayenne

optional: fresh cilantro

Heat oil over medium in a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid. After 1-2 minutes, add the fennel seeds, stirring them occasionally until they are aromatic and light brown. Add the squash to the pan and toss to coat.

Toss in all of the spices/seasonings, then the water, stir and cover. Allow the squash to cook for 15-20 minutes, checking at the fifteen minute mark to see if the squash is tender. Once it’s reached your desire texture (I like mine really soft), stir in the tamarind and brown sugar, then cook with the lid off until the liquid has evaporated. Garnish with fresh cilantro, and serve warm.

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MEYER LEMON FOCACCIA

December 15, 2015

This week is exam week, a.k.a. that time of year when survival is contingent upon an elaborate system of Post-It Note Lists, both tangible and virtual. To-Grade, To-Finish, To-Make, To-Buy, To-Write, To-Email, To-Plan, To-Watch, To-Return, To-Visit, To-Listen-To, To-Pay, To-Donate, To-Schedule, To-Bring, To-Do, To-Do, To-Do.

My flurry of notes and lists often serves to buffer me from the world outside of my little circle of concern—like, if I am busy being stressed out about how busy and stressed out I am, then I convince myself that I am excused from paying attention to other people’s despair and anger and sadness and pain, because “I just have so much going on this week.”

It’s not that I don’t legitimately have a lot going on—I do—but let’s be clear—the majority of it I brought upon myself. And also, I am going to survive it just fine. What’s really at stake here is my ability to hold onto myself and who I say I want to be, which is easy enough to do when the lists are short and the days are long. But when I get caught up in the shape of my own circumstances, I become a version of myself that I really do not enjoy being around (nor, I suspect, do other people). I become small and petty and stingy and grumpy and boring.

Another calendar year is about to come to an end, and if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I am a much better version of myself when I devote a considerable amount of brain space, time, and energy to people other than me. Being patient with my son. Practicing kindness with strangers. Trying to find ways to make someone’s life just a little bit easier, to let them know that they are seen, to acknowledge their suffering. Looking people in the eye. Calling them by name. Sending poems in the mail—for no reason, for every reason. Not acting rushed or checking my phone when a student wants to share with me or ask me for advice. Being fully present. Giving of myself. It may sound cheesy or small, and I certainly don’t meet the bar every day, but these are things I can do. And they make my lived experience so much more satisfying.

There’s science behind it, because of course there is. I listened to this On Being episode last month—an interview with Adam Grant, professor of psychology at Wharton who studies the effects of generosity in the workplace. Hearing him explain his research helped explain some of my own practices and habits, putting them in a context that served to make me more conscious about practicing generosity as a deliberate way of moving through the world.

As someone who works with teenagers, I am given regular reminders to practice what I preach: to work to not fall into that category of “hypocritical adult.” I believe in teaching literature as a way to cultivate empathy, and empathy—that soul-expanding practice of trying to imagine what someone else might be feeling—inevitably leads to generosity. It also builds perspective, like when Shiv had to have blood drawn for an allergy test last week and I had to hold him still while he squirmed and cried big hot tears and wailed “No, no, no!,” the fear bright in his cheeks and tense in his body, and I thought, How on earth do parents with chronically sick kids do this?  And so much worse, and every day?  Or to be unable to feed my child, to witness the pain of his hunger, and have to somehow explain to him why it is so.  To travel as a refugee, through treacherous conditions, unable to protect my baby, uncertain of every future moment, met with derision and hate.  These are hells that scale my to-do lists right back down to their appropriate size.

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I hope to squeeze one more post in before 2016—I’ve been meaning to share Jill’s mama’s amazing cornbread recipe with you for ages now—but in the meantime, here’s (but of course) a list:

-You should make the Meyer Lemon Focaccia you see pictured here. (Isn’t it funny how, like, 8 years ago, none of us had even heard of Meyer lemons? Oh food blog internet explosion, how you’ve changed us.) Please note, if you plan to make this, that the dough needs to refrigerate at least overnight but up to 2 days, so it’s a great option for those of you who like to plan ahead. The actual baking/assembly comes together quickly, the recipe yields two smaller focaccias, presentation is lovely, flavors are bright; it’s a fine candidate for a holiday spread. I am planning to make this again on Sunday for our annual tree-trimming gathering, along with other appetizers, cookies, & champagne!

-The Bitter Southerner (which is so spot-on with its branding, consistency, & quality that it’s no wonder they have such a following) has put out its Best Southern Albums of 2015 List—I know, I know more lists.  But I can’t wait to dive into this one. The 2014 version of this list yielded many hours of listening pleasure into the new year.

-For those of us with little people in their lives, or big people who love thoughtfully crafted and beautifully illustrated stories, this list of The Best Children’s Books of 2015 from Brain Pickings is a delightful read in itself, and it offers wonderful gift ideas to use now or tuck away for future use.

-Cookies I’ve got my eye on this year: cardamom pistachio cookies, chocolate puddle cookies, lebkuchen, nutmeg logsSwedish rye cookies, whole wheat shortbread cookie.  Food52 put together this very fun Cookies of the World Map, with 46 recipes, should you need further inspiration.

Tidings of comfort & joy, my friends!  xo

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TO MY MOM ON HER 48TH WEDDING ANNIVERSARY

December 8, 2015

Dear Mama,

Today is a hard day, I know. You said in a text message this morning that “[from] Diwali on is kind of rough,” and I know what you mean; though your grief is its own creature, it is a cousin to mine, and they both seem to show up on our doorsteps this time of year.

In July, it will have been ten years, a number that I’m struggling to wrap my mind around. Ten materializes the distance between the time when Papa was still in our lives and now. That stretch of ten contains so much: I finished grad school and started teaching, Jill fought cancer, we adopted Shiv, you retired and moved to Houston, to fully occupy the role of grandmother.

What can’t be measured but remains constant is Papa’s absence. Having to learn, unwillingly, to work around the blank space of him. Fearing that we would lose our sensory memories of him—his voice, his smile, his smell. Realizing that we have managed to live without him, somehow, a task that seemed so impossible and has now become routine. Is that supposed to feel like a victory? It doesn’t.

What I can feel good about is what we’ve done with ourselves, you and me, without him to referee us. There are times when I think to myself, Papa, we could use your help here!, but those are pretty rare, and I’m proud of us. He would be, too—I know that for certain. In those early days and weeks when he was gone but it didn’t seem real and it all had happened so fast and you went back to work (how?) but it was still summer for me and I could barely manage to shower each day let alone imagine a time when I would ever feel anything but completely devastated, it was hard to be around you. It was hard for you to be around me. That was an extra curveball, because usually we were pretty good at comforting each other (just as we were good at driving each other nuts), but when it comes to grief, the same rules never apply. You couldn’t stand for me to be sad. I couldn’t stand for you to be sad. You weren’t you without him. I wasn’t me without him. We weren’t us. There were supposed to be three.

I was so worried about you for so long, for all of those years between Papa leaving and Shiv arriving, worried about you alone in that big house, worried that I wasn’t visiting enough, worried that you would always sound terribly flat and far away and tired in your bones. I tried not to tell you when I was feeling sad, because that just seemed to make it worse. We didn’t know how to talk about him. We didn’t know what to say. So I wrote it all to Papa in letters instead.

Then I started to write my book, and so I needed to ask you questions, questions about meeting Papa for the first time and falling in love with him, questions about what it was like to learn to be married to a person you barely knew. He began to take shape again for me; I could close my eyes and see him, hear his voice. I asked you what he would think about certain things, and we would try to guess together. I learned how to make foods that he loved—many from you, some that I taught myself. We talked about what we missed the most, told each other (and were jealous!) when one of us had a dream in which he appeared. One day, I handed you the fat stack of letters that I had written him, and you read them.

Before Shiv came, you were so worried that he wouldn’t. You were so worried that something would go wrong—that “realist” streak of yours that Papa’s optimism always balanced out. And so, when that baby boy arrived in the world, we gave him the same initials as your husband—SCM—and you fell in love all over again.

This story is not some neatly balanced equation, of course; there is no fixing grief, only the changes in its shape and new points and edges to adjust to. Tonight, Shiv and I sat in your kitchen eating Vietnamese takeout, a weekday stop-gap anniversary celebration (we’ll do better this weekend, with a proper Italian sit-down meal of which Papa would have approved), and as he was getting sleepy, Shiv slid down from his chair and said, “Nani, hold you,” his signature phrase so sweet we all dread the inevitable switch of its pronouns. So you held him. And I thought, as I have many times before, what a gift it is to witness his fierce love for you, and the delight you take in him, and how not dissimilar your spoiling of him is to your spoiling of my dad.

And I wished, for the millionth time, that Papa could be here to see it.

I love you. So much. Nito

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