August 1, 2013
Let me start by saying that I am not here to cast aspersions in wide swath or make pronouncements or tell anyone what to do. I’m just trying to tell the truth about things—my things—to myself, but also aloud, because when I write here, it allows me to work things out from a often-jumbled start to a kinda-sorta finish. And from time to time I hear from a reader, someone who says that my sharing has made a difference for them, so I figure I’m going to keep doing it.
Three weeks ago, Jill and I flew to Santa Fe to spend three luxurious nights, just the two of us, in the beautiful vacation home of a friend. We slept in, people-watched at the Saturday market, drove many miles through the stunning, quick-changing landscape, went out for nice dinners, read books, rode horses, climbed a seven-hundred-year-old pueblo, and had the most amazing spa experience of our lives. It was magical and decadent, but what made it magical and decadent wasn’t actually any of the things listed above.
It was the quiet.
I am not so good at being quiet; it’s not my default setting. So when Jill and I set out for an all-day’s driving adventure, heading out of Santa Fe toward the mountains, I fiddled with the dial of the rental car radio, looking for music. (I always listen to music when I drive, unless I am listening to NPR or an audiobook/podcast.)
“Could we not listen to anything today?” my introvert and cultivator of silence requested. “Or at least classical or something without words?”
I resisted. It was a visceral, not intellectual response. I could appreciate the idea in theory, even see its rightness, but it made me, quite literally, physically uncomfortable. I honored Jill’s request and was squirmy for a while, annoyed. Then, as we drove and drove, the absence of music metamorphosed into the presence of silence. I started to relax; I turned off my phone. The temperature dropped fifteen degrees as we changed elevation, so we rolled down the windows and listened to the sound of the tires on the highway we had mostly to ourselves. It was glorious.
Allow me to make a bold statement; the way we live is kind of nuts. Or perhaps more precisely, the way we are expected to live is nuts. And what’s really nuts is how we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not nuts, because so many of us are doing it that it seems normal, the way things are. The way, even, perhaps, that they are supposed to be.
I am not one of those people who thinks technology is evil; far from it. Technology isn’t the problem, it’s our (my) relationship to technology that’s the problem. We joke about “being addicted” to our phones, but—aren’t we? Facebook and Twitter have both, in distinct ways, been valuable in my life, to connect with friends, meet new ones, and be exposed to and share all kinds of interesting things, but I place too much value on them. I check them obsessively; there is some irrational part of me that equates my self-worth with the number of responses I get (or don’t get). While I love the immediacy of being able to send a text message or an email, I don’t love the “timer” it sets off in my head of “Why haven’t they written back?”
When did we decide that we have to respond to everything right away, as if the world would end if we didn’t? And why do I feel like every beautiful meal or item that appears in my kitchen needs to be photographed and shared, as if to prove to everyone that I have beautiful things in my kitchen, so therefore I am worthy? There is the sharing that springs from the genuine desire to share, and then there is sharing that comes with a sharp attachment, a desire for affirmation and validation; I do not think our “everything on display all of the time” fishbowl culture brings out the best in me, mental-health wise. (See also: “Is somebody saying something awesome about my book on the internet right now? They aren’t? Why aren’t they???” And so on.)
Lest I’m misrepresenting, it isn’t as if I have some kind of scary, bad issue that interferes with my life; I play with my kid (a lot). I have face-to-face conversations, interact with other human beings “live,” think about other things, get work done, and am generally quite happy. But in spending those hours in Santa Fe “unplugged” from my usual, digital routine, and in subsequently returning to that routine, I have felt the cost of it much more.
My ability to be present—to just be—is rusty. I’m accustomed to constantly distracting myself: sliding the arrow to unlock my iPhone and see what updates it may have for me. I’m all for goofing off sometimes, but, my God, think of what I could do with all of that time added up! More books, more sleep (heck yeah), more writing.
I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water here, and I don’t believe in giving things up cold turkey. But I want the experience of glorious quiet, of long hours for my thoughts to swirl and then settle, of a contentedness that comes from being plugged into things that really matter (hint: it’s not how many people liked my photograph on Instagram), and not just once a year when I’m on vacation.
So I’m going to turn off my phone more often: a lot more often. I’m working on taking better care of myself in general, and this is one very big piece of that. I’m pretty excited to see what happens.
Before I forget: I made a designated page for The Pomegranate King, where you can find information about purchasing the book, links to reviews/press, and details about upcoming readings & signings (Houston: August 19 & Memphis: September 26!)
STUFFED EGGPLANT WITH LAMB AND PINE NUTS
very slightly adapted from the Jerusalem cookbook
Also on the list of “things that make me better when I do them” is caring for others. Thinking about someone other than myself, and contributing to that person in whatever way I can is one of the quickest ways I’ve found to pull my head out of my ass and get some perspective.
There’s a line from an old Indigo Girls song: “Here in the South, we fix something to eat.” And indeed, no matter the occasion, it’s what we do. My friend Ruthie just had a new baby boy, so after Jill, Shiv, & I enjoyed half of this eggplant, I took the other half over to her.
Notes: I had big ole’ eggplants on hand from the Farmers Market, but I think you could substitute smaller ones easily; because mine were so big, they required two roasting pans. Jill is not a fan of cinnamon in large doses, so I cut back on the amount in the spice mix and did not place whole cinnamon sticks at the bottom of the roasting pan (the original recipe calls for 1 T cinnamon & 4 cinnamon sticks). Finally, my eggplants cooked through in about half the suggested time than the recipe calls for, and because I wasn’t paying close attention, my sauce all but dried out. Next time, I’ll preemptively add more water (a whole cup) to the pan at the start.
3 large eggplants, ends trimmed & halved lengthwise
1 lb. ground lamb
2 small onions, finely chopped
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 ripe tomato, diced
3 tsp. superfine sugar (I ground regular sugar in my mortar & pestle)
2/3 cup water
1 T sweet paprika
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
juice from ½ a lemon
1 tsp. tamarind paste
salt & pepper
Nestle the eggplant halves, skin side down, into a large roasting pan or pans. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt & pepper. Roast for ~20 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Remove from the oven and reduce the oven temp to 375°.
While eggplants roast, make the lamb stuffing by heating 2 T olive oil in a large frying pan. Stir together the cumin, paprika, & cinnamon and add half of this spice mixture to the pan, reserving the other half for later. Add the onions to the spice mixture and cook over medium-high heat for about 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato, 1 tsp. of the sugar, 1 tsp. salt, and some black pepper to the pan. Continue to cook and stir until the meat is cooked through, about another 8-10 minutes.
Blend the remaining spice mix with the water, lemon juice, tamarind, remaining 2 tsp, sugar, & ½ tsp. salt. Pour this into the bottom of the eggplant roasting pan(s). Spoon the lamb mixture generously on top of each eggplant. Cover your pan(s) with foil, return them to the oven, and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the eggplants are completely soft.
If you are feeling up to it, you can check the eggplants a few times and baste them with the sauce at the bottom of the pan. However, you may have a one year old to chase after/dance around the kitchen with, in which case this dish will still taste good even if you don’t baste.
Serve warm. We cooked up a batch of bulgur to go alongside, and that worked nicely.