Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

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We’re home!! And it was wonderful, magical, challenging, expensive, enchanting, familiar, exotic, and as always, life-changing and perspective-changing. It was a terrific adventure.

But first things first, my apologies for being extremely quiet over the last two months. The updates dwindled because of extremely challenging, very precarious events taking place at work which came to a head, spilling fourth drama the likes of which I have never seen in my professional life before. It caused anxiety and stress that I also have never experienced in my professional life, and a lot of uncertainty regarding the future. HOWEVER. It seems the storm is passing and things are really looking up, so now that the flurry of crazy has died down, I’m looking forward to directing my mental energy back to the things that make me really happy, this blog being one of them!

OK. With that out of the way…

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It was marvelous, guys. I could write about the wicked financial hangover we’re nursing (…we knew it was coming, and feel it was worth it, but it still hurts!), or the inevitable let-down of returning to every day life (not as bad as last time!), or the very real challenges that the three of us encountered that make up the experience of travel…but I won’t bother, because all of those things pale in comparison to the graces upon grace that we were given daily, and the seeds that have been planted in our souls from these experiences, preparing to bloom and ripen over the coming months and years. I sincerely hope you don’t get terribly bored of seeing travel pictures and hearing travel stories, because that’s going to be a major theme of my blog for a long time to come!

We started our trip in London, staying in a beautiful apartment in an award-winning, eco-friendly building in Elephant and Castle, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that won our hearts immediately. This was the view from our bedroom:

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We stayed in London for four days, and it was fantastic! We did a lot of sightseeing, catching up on sleep, walking, riding the busses and the underground…but the downside was that London was in the middle of the the worst heatwave they’ve ever had and we were hot as HELL. Poor London just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with heat like that, and our apartment, the busses, the tube, basically everywhere, didn’t have adequate air conditioning. We were sweating buckets and remained sticky the entire time. Still, we did the best we could and saw some glorious sights:

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Possibly our favorite London experience was getting to eat at St. John, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by renowned chef Fergus Henderson. Who I met. Who I got to thank. Who I kind of fangirl-fawned over as I gushed to him, and who graciously thanked me and told me he hoped we enjoyed our lunch. Guys…it was basically the highlight of the entire trip. I almost cried several times after returning to my table, but forced myself to hold back the tears remembering I was wearing mascara. Oh, the food was outstanding, by the way! I’m planning to do a second food retrospective post for this trip, so you’ll get to see what we ate!

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We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

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Both were lovely. This was the most touristy thing we did, and it was fun but I wouldn’t do them again (at least not by chartered tour bus). This was a challenging day because we were all very tired and Sister was worn thin, but we still got many fun memories out of it and I will definitely remember it fondly.

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Husband and I got to do a day exploring London on our own while Sister rested, and we had the best time! We visited ancient tea shops and ancient perfume shops (surprise, surprise, Husband bought his very first grown-up cologne and it’s MAGICAL). We visited the London Transport Museum, to Husband’s delight, and we visited my beloved Twining’s tea shop, to my delight.

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Then in the evening we ate at this lovely place, a beautiful pub. There is so much beauty in the U.K., it’s almost unbelievable. Everywhere you look there is something ancient, eternal and charming looking back at you. The details make all the difference, and we were constantly looking at each other and saying things like “This is REAL! It isn’t Disneyland…it’s REAL!” It sounds so silly, but the beauty, the details…they fed us. They fed us right up, filling starving parts of our souls that we didn’t even know needed nourishment.

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After London we took the train to Holyhead (home of the Holyhead Harpies, for you Harry Potter fans!) and stayed in a lovely B&B. I took an evening stroll by myself and was rewarded with these vistas.

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The next day we took a ferry to Dublin and, after a near-disaster regarding return-ferry scheduling that Husband heroically solved, we spent seven hours in this remarkably and stunningly beautiful city.

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We decided immediately that next time, Dublin is where we’ll be coming, sorry London! We’ve had enough of you! Dublin was just…comfortable. Next to the hustle and bustle of London, Dublin was like your grandpa’s easy chair…we felt we could sink into it with a hot drink (a real Irish coffee, perhaps) and just stay indefinitely. Alas, we had to return to Holyhead…but thankfully we got a stateroom on the return journey, and one with a fantastic view:

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Mostly we slept, though. Then, of course, we got to Conwy. OH, CONWY.

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If you read my (long) post about Wales you’ll know my love for Conwy. I can’t possibly reiterate it here, but suffice it to say, Conwy is my most favorite place on earth. If any place feeds the starving parts of my soul, it is north Wales, and Conwy might as well be the capital.

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Of course, there are other stunning towns in north Wales, like the almost absurdly picturesque Llanwrst:

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We spent a few days in the north just taking in the splendor, and then said goodbye to Conwy at it’s lovely little train station:

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Now we are home, jet lagged, still needing to do laundry, unpack, prepare for the work week (I return tomorrow!). But I’m going to ease back into the grind, and I have a handful of changes that I’m going to be making to improve my quality of life. Last August I wrote a post called “First Fruits,” discussing the “fruit” that travel bears in the weeks after returning home. I’m already seeing these first fruits, but I’m looking forward to the harvest, which will come in time. Of course, it feels so good to be home. Traveling is exhausting and it’s wonderful to be in my own bed again, with my own sweet kitty curled up next to me. We are so lucky and so grateful, and we’ll definitely bask in this glow for weeks to come.

 

 

The World Keeps Turning

The World Keeps Turning

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When I was twelve I developed an obsession with dragons—the monsters of European legend—full-winged, long-snouted, fire-breathing mythical beasts. When I say obsession, I am not speaking in hyperbole. I had books about dragons, and posters of them. I had dragon necklaces, earrings, candles, statues. I had an incense holder shaped liked a dragon, mouth open to let the steady stream of smoke issue forth. Grandma cheerfully and enthusiastically bolstered my dragon collection, surprising me with tiny figurines, beautiful decorative candles, and many other dragon-y things. One weekend in eighth grade I visited a bookstore in Sacramento with a friend and her dad. Browsing a table of shiny new paperbacks, my eye came to rest on a book that would change my life: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Intrigued by the title I bought the book, brought it home and started reading it in slow spurts, flipping through to find parts that attracted me, skipping much of it. It was a dense tome of historical fiction—no dragons to speak of—about the reign of medieval King John and his relationship with the princes of Wales.

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The writing was beautiful, and the book remained a treasured item, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready for it. Over the next few years I often thumbed through it, seeking out the passages I’d come to enjoy reading, revisiting parts that sparked my imagination. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally finished reading Here Be Dragons cover to cover. By then my obsession with dragons as literal creatures had faded, but Sharon Kay Penman had fueled a new passion—dragons as people: the Welsh people, who proudly fly a red dragon on their country’s flag. The sweeping, epic tale told with Penman’s signature meticulous historical accuracy was the single most entrancing piece of fiction I had read (except perhaps, for Harry Potter). A few months after moving to San Francisco and settling into my new room at Grandma’s house, I bought a language book (we had no internet) and taught myself Welsh. Actually, I taught myself Welsh pronunciation to the best of my ability. My intent was to decode the mystifying Welsh words and names scattered liberally through Penman’s book—“cariad,” “Adda” “Llewelyn,” “LLanfiar,” “Gwenwynwyn,” “Powys,” “Tangwystl,”—or to make sense of long proverbs the characters sometimes utter (“Y mae dafad ddu ym mhob paridd”). How on earth does an English speaker make sense of these bizarre strings of consonants?

So, I taught myself. I taped words for the days of the week, colors, and numbers on my wall like in a child’s bedroom. On the computers at City College (where I had enrolled in a Culinary Arts program) I began planning a solo trip to Wales, mapping out all the places of historical significance I wanted—no, needed!—to visit, the places “my friends” had touched and built.

Because you see, I had read this book so many times now that these people (who called out to me that day in the bookstore when I was twelve), were my friends. They made me care about them. They taught me things. They weren’t just names in a textbook. They were people with faults, hopes, dreams, loves…such is the magic of well-written historical fiction. Not only did I consider these historical figures my friends, I had begun to devour more books about their lives, and about medieval Welsh history. In a local bookstore I found the next two books in Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy—Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, both equally engrossing. I celebrated Welsh victories, I cried over Welsh tragedies. I held the land of Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) close to my heart, valuing their unique culture and language, lamenting their centuries-past conquering by English king Edward the First.

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In early 2012, after I had moved out of Grandma’s house and into an apartment with my husband, Grandma had a series of significant health crises that would culminate in her never returning home. Otherwise alone in San Francisco, I was run ragged for weeks visiting her in the hospital, helping move her to rehab facilities, staying with her…only to see her slide back into acute illness (she developed life-threatening C. Diff in the hospital) and enter the ICU. This was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with Grandma’s mortality, and the experience traumatized me. I remember the three-month span as agonizing. Unfathomable. Exhausting. I almost never stopped crying. There was a period when we believed her death was imminent, so I kept my cell phone next to my head in bed as I waited for the call I was certain would come any moment, to give me the worst news I could imagine. Up until this point, I had understood Grandma’s mortality as an intellectual concept only. I knew she would one day die because all living things die. But I hadn’t understood it emotionally, and I couldn’t bear it.

Coupled with this trauma was the immediate necessity of cleaning out her home of fifty years and preparing it for the rental market. Gutting a place that had been my home, that contained some of my most cherished childhood memories, was agony. That’s the only way to describe it. I turned to my literary friends for comfort.

I re-read The Reckoning, which tells the life story of Llewellyn the Last, the final Welsh prince who was conquered (and murdered) by Edward the First’s forces in 1282. His death was of extreme significance. It signaled the end of Welsh independence for all time. He was profoundly mourned. His death wasn’t merely the fall of a beloved leader, it signified the fall of Wales. Penman deftly retells the aftermath, including a true anecdote of a bard named Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch who wrote and performed an elegy for Llewelyn in the days that followed. The elegy is long—this was an era that revered spoken poetry as entertainment—and conveys a grief so raw, so painful, and so haunting that it instantly resonated. I felt the bard calling out to me from the page, speaking to my unexpected grief at the devastation of life as I knew it, especially in one particular stanza:

“See you not the ocean scourging the shore?

See you not the truth is portending?

Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that world is ending?”

See you not that world is ending? Grandma was dying, something I couldn’t understand, and her house (my house!) was being packed up and disposed of…and my world was ending. I thought at the time that if I could have tattooed the entire elegy on my body somewhere I might have (an impossible feat). They were the only words that spoke to my pain, my confusion, my seemingly inconsolable grief and despair.

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But you know what’s funny? For a poem considered to be one the greatest examples of Welsh poetry and European literature of all time, the entire elegy is almost impossible to find. In those dark days, I scoured the internet, finding most of it in an ancient e-book someone had scanned and nowhere else. Even today when you Google it you might only find pieces of it, or articles dedicated to its historical significance…but not a translation, end-to-end. In the years following, I tried to revisit it several times, but it was difficult to track down. This piece of poetry had been my one comfort in my darkest days, but it was elusive, and I felt like the only living person on the planet who cared about it.

God works in mysterious ways. Grandma didn’t die in 2012. She stabilized, and then moved to assisted living in Roseville, improved and lived another five years. We occasionally talked about that terrible time, how upset I was, how horrible it had been…and how transformative it had been for me. After some time had passed, I realized I could now conceive of a world that didn’t contain Grandma. I had been abruptly forced to consider that reality, and never having considered it before, I had believed the world was ending. But I now knew what it was to feel the worst grief and pass through it, and I told her more than once while discussing her eventual passing that I knew I would be ok when the time came. I wasn’t saying it merely for her sake, but because I knew it to be true. I would be ok. I knew that day would come now, and I understood that life would move on.

So it has. Painfully. Sometimes with despair and lamenting and disbelief. But it has.

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In 2016, my husband and I traveled to Wales. My dream trip to the land of Y Ddraig Goch became a reality. I wanted to hear with my own ears the language I had stumbled through alone, never having heard it spoken by a real person. I was elated and humbled at the prospect of visiting the graves of “my friends,” the places they touched, the views they gazed at, the craggy mountains they loved. That spring Grandma was healthy, and we kept up a steady correspondence of written letters and phone calls, sometimes several of each per week. Leaving the U.S. on my first international trip was exciting and daunting in equal measure…what if something happened to her while I was so far away?

We started in South Wales, in Cardiff, the capital. While the signage of the country was in both Welsh and English (which delighted me), I heard almost no spoken Welsh. No matter. I’d heard that Welsh was more widely spoken in the North…and that made sense. The North, Gwynedd, was home to my friends—Llewelyn the Great and his wife Joanna, his grandson Llewelyn the Last, and countless ladies and men who lived and changed the course of empire. We took the train to Conwy in North Wales and after checking into our motel, walked to the center of the beautiful, ancient walled village.

Turning into the little square, he appeared just like that. Right in front of me, like he had been waiting for me the whole time—Llewellyn the Great, perched atop a column, painted in vibrant color, beardless but with a mustache in the medieval Welsh fashion. My friend. Crown atop his head, sword and shield at his side, he looked every inch a prince. My prince. I carried the words that spoke of his grandson’s death in my heart—a heart now bursting with happiness, longing, the joy of reuniting with someone you love. I had cherished the story of his life and was comforted by the elegy for his grandson’s death. I might have been one of few people that cared about the elegy, but his homeland loved him as I did—certainly more so!—and I was thrilled to be there.

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We visited many lovely places on our trip, and our last day in Conwy we took a final walk around town, window shopping and enjoying the sunshine. On a whim, we stepped into visitor’s center that we’d missed our first day. It only contained a few rooms but was beautifully maintained. Husband veered left immediately to gaze lovingly at some maps, and I wandered into the far rooms, gasping with delight at detailed timelines depicting the lives of so many of my “friends.” The last room was dimmed, and I stepped into its silence alone, sitting myself down on the bench in the center. My jaw hit the floor. My eyes filled with tears.

On a series on silk banners in white lettering atop a deep purple background, spangled with the nighttime sky, was the elegy. Huge, the banners took up an entire wall, and were lovingly lit like a precious treasure in a museum. In the dim silence, the room felt like a chapel. Indeed, it was a holy place for me. In both Welsh and English, the elegy was displayed in its entirety—the lament of a nation, a people, a way of life…a lament because their world was ending. I read each word as silent tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that the world is ending?”

But it didn’t end. Almost a thousand years later I was here, visiting these words. Hearing Welsh. Seeing Wales. A year later Grandma would pass, and I would remember this lament and reflect that it did indeed feel like the world was ending. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And it won’t.

There is a Welsh word with no English translation that I’ve treasured for a long time—“hiraeth.” The literal meaning is something like “nostalgia,” or “homesickness,” but the common understanding is deeper. It’s used to indicate missing a time of life, an era, or a person, while being grateful for their existence. It’s a bittersweet concept, the merging of gratitude and loss. It’s hiraeth I feel now, remembering Grandma. The days of inconsolable tears and frantic, panicked grief have dimmed, the hole she left remains. What fills it is the missing. The gratitude. The loss. The remembering. Hiraeth contains sadness, but it hints at containing joy, for what would we be wistful for if not for joyful places and times? Why else do we miss things? How else could I be homesick for her…homesick for a person?

In a few weeks I’ll be in Conwy again, looking up at my friend, the Welsh prince. I might visit the elegy, if it’s still there. My inner twelve-year-old will revel in the abundance of dragons, my inner thirty-year-old will remember the letters I wrote Grandma on the last trip, heart brimming with hiraeth, knowing I can’t write to her this time. And so passes the world, though it does not end, even if it feels like it might. I’m looking forward to this new adventure with people I love in a place full of friendly ghosts who remind me–

“Have you no belief in God, foolish girl?

See you not that world keeps turning?”

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Remembering Anthony

Remembering Anthony

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We were bumping down a mountain road, bracing ourselves in the back seat of my aunt’s car as she and my uncle screamed at each other in English and Spanish. The day was overcast, the road was decrepit, and my stomach was rumbling, ready for the treat that awaited us. This was my husband’s first trip to Puerto Rico and his first time eating this particular island specialty. As we pulled down the main strip (such as it was) of Guavate, we began to spy whole roasted pigs in lechoneria windows.

A few minutes later the four of us sat at cement picnic tables, our Styrofoam plates piled high with lechon, morcilla (blood sausage), plantain, rice and avocado. I was thrilled. I had wanted to visit this place (the “lechon capital of Puerto Rico”) since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain visit it on his show “No Reservations.” Now I was there enjoying the food he talked about, sitting amongst the people he spoke warmly of…I was following in the footsteps of someone I respected, and finding the “good stuff” was a tiny dream come true for me.

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals of one’s life.”

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In the early-2000s, Mom came home from the library with a book-on-tape. She popped the first cassette into the tape player (yes, it was literally a book-on-tape) and listened to it while she single-handedly renovated our entire home like a one-woman army. One afternoon, as she was making dinner, I wandered into the kitchen and heard a New York accent issuing from the old, grey boom box that had once been mine.

“This is a great book!” Mom told me, “It’s about a chef who travels around the world in search of the perfect meal!” Intrigued, I perched on a step stool, soaking up “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.” Some stories were exciting, some disgusting, some enthralling…but what struck me was the fervor with which this man wrote. I was in my mid-teens and came from a family that appreciated good food, that cultivated my adventurous palate. But I hadn’t heard anyone outside of my family speak with such palpable excitement about food…food and other places. Other cultures. The way Anthony spoke about Vietnam, the reverence, the love, the obsessive level at which he described eating phở for example, was totally fascinating and exciting to a teenager just about to embark on the great adventure of leaving home.

“The world is amazing,” he told me. “The great big world that you are about to step into— it is full of incredible foods, and people, and adventures. I demand that you enjoy it.”

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

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When I moved to San Francisco, I listened to this book (again, on cassette) as I painted my new bedroom. His enthusiasm was infectious. I had never sampled much of what he rapturously spoke of. I’d never eaten Vietnamese food, never had a bowl of phở. I’d never eaten Indonesian food, and didn’t know what bun cha was. Until now, I hadn’t cared. I was planning to enroll in the local community college, complete two years of general ed and then transfer to U.C. Santa Cruz to study environmental science. My family members are currently laughing, I’m sure, but as an eighteen-year-old with zero self-awareness, that was what I thought I’d do. My first semester at City College was a disaster. I hated academia, and knew immediately that pursuing a four-year degree wasn’t for me. Eyes streaming, I stood on the steps of the science building, talking to Mom on my cell phone, explaining that I just couldn’t go on.

“Well what DO you want to do? You can’t do nothing,” she said, in a sympathetic tone. I gazed over to the cafeteria, to the buildings that housed the award-winning culinary arts department.

“I want to join the culinary program.”

“But I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”

And so I embarked on my culinary journey which was life-changing, formative, and essential for the person I would become. Part of that transformative experience was formal education, but part of it was something happening in my personal life which I attribute to Anthony. After “A Cook’s Tour,” I received “Kitchen Confidential” as a birthday gift and devoured it. It was overblown and full of bravado, but I loved what he had to say about restaurants and I loved hearing the story of his life.

I kept returning to “A Cook’s Tour,” though. Again and again I returned to chapters Anthony wrote about finding “the good stuff.” Until then I had been intimidated by a lot of the good stuff. I hadn’t tasted dim sum, Vietnamese food, or Korean food (which I was convinced I’d hate). I had no memories of eating Indian food. I didn’t want to eat offal, I wasn’t attracted to stinky, sinewy or weird things. I didn’t like oysters, and I hated blue cheese. And I didn’t think any of this was a problem.

But Anthony, in his strident, sarcastic, and genuinely buoyant way admonished me. With my attitude, I’d be the schmuck eating McDonald’s in France. Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost. I was never a picky eater, my parents saw to that. But I wasn’t as adventurous as I’d thought, either, and I didn’t yet see a reason to be. I hadn’t yet fallen deeply in love with food, and Anthony was changing that. He was teaching me chapter by chapter what the good stuff was, where to find it, and why.

“Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone… Bad food is fake food… food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.”

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After reading the chapter on Vietnam in “A Cook’s Tour” about seven times, I ventured out into the city alone one evening, ending up in a Vietnamese noodle joint on Clement street where I had my first bowl of phở. It clicked. I got it, Anthony. You’re right. Chase the good stuff! The real stuff. It is always worth it. The stuff that grandmas make. The stuff that poor people feed you if you visit them in foreign lands, offered with a generosity of spirit that underscores the emptiness of corporate greed. The stuff that white Americans shy away from. The things you’ve never heard of. The good stuff! Make your life rich with it! Share it with others! Don’t settle for anything less.

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

This moment in a relatively dingy Vietnamese noodle shop on Clement street didn’t just change me, it changed my family. Case in point: every time my Dad would visit San Francisco, and I’m talking every single time since we moved to the Sierras in 1998, he’d make a lunch stop at a beloved burrito place. This ritual was iconically Dad. We teased him about it, his burrito obsession, feeling that we could all never eat another burrito again and die happy.

Anthony changed this. The next time Dad visited, I asked him if just maybe we could get Vietnamese noodles instead of a burrito? Dad was gracious. We drove to Clement. He had never had phở, and instantly adored it as much as I did. The next time my sister visited, we took her. She too fell in love. And just like that, the decade-long burrito ritual was usurped, wholly and completely, and Dad has seemingly never looked back. We developed a new ritual, a new tradition for the three of us that lasted for years…it continues to this day! It was Anthony who urged me to try the good stuff, and to share with bubbling, surging enthusiasm the joy of the good stuff with the ones I love.

There are many things I began to love because of Anthony, and many things I learned. I learned to love blue cheese, oysters, and Korean food. I learned to love the challenge of surprising or intimidating foods. Yes, kimchi smells like compost, but I learned to devour it. It was the good stuff. I learned the names of chefs, like Fergus Henderson, who had changed food culture. As I planned an imaginary trip to Wales, I penciled in a stop at St. John, Henderson’s London restaurant and the birthplace of nose-to-tail eating. I learned why nose-to-tail eating was significant, and that Henderson’s bone marrow and parsley salad revolutionized food. This summer, along with my sister and my husband, I will eat at St. John because of Anthony.

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

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In 2006 I flew to Philadelphia for a trade show with Mom and our family friend, Abby. On the flight, I had the (somewhat breathtaking and intimidating) fortune of being seated next to a tall, blonde, very long-haired, astonishingly handsome man in his twenties. In her bubbly way, Abby introduced herself to him, shook his hand over my lap, asked what he did, and was delighted to discover he was a chef. “OH! Vanessa’s in culinary school! You should talk!” Heart aflutter, I acknowledged that I was indeed in culinary school. With some prompting from this kind and stunning man, I admitted that my current inspiration was Anthony Bourdain.

“Hah! Well, I like him. He’s interesting! He’s no chef, though. And that’s why I like him. He doesn’t claim to be.” My face fell. Talk about a backhanded compliment. It was instant disappointment. Gone was any flutter of intimidation. I wasn’t about to argue the point with someone clearly more experienced than me, so I said something like “Hah…yeah. He…doesn’t.” We went quiet for the remainder of the flight. I declined to exchange contact information.

A few days later I found myself, breathless once again, being seated with Mom and an old family friend named Ashok, at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain had headed as Chef de Cuisine for many years. Mom had orchestrated this surprise with Ashok knowing that I loved Anthony, and I was taken totally by surprise. By this time Anthony was no longer at the helm, having hit the big-time with a Food Network show four years prior. However, I thought there might be a chance that someday I would meet him, and if that came to pass I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having to admit that I ate at Les Halles and ordered a burger. How embarrassing! I scanned the menu for a dish to be proud of…and bingo, there it was. The tripe Les Halles. I’d never had tripe and Anthony himself said that he thought it tasted like “wet sheepdog,” but *this* was the good stuff! This was the kind of eating he encouraged!

It was sensational. I loved it. Five months later at Christmas, I opened a package to reveal a photo in a gold frame. It was a picture Mom took of me standing in front of Les Halles, the gold lettering shining on the window behind me, a moment of delight on a wonderful day. I still have that photo Mom kindly framed for me. I was so proud of that experience, and so grateful for it.

No relationship is perfect, and my relationship with Anthony (such as it was) waxed and waned. Around 2007 I dabbled with vegetarianism, venerating the example Mom had set for me with her two decades of vegetarianism. The strident, somewhat ignorant and utterly obnoxious opinions about vegetarianism Anthony was famous for spouting began to grate on me, and by 2010 I’d heard one too many of his hypocritical criticisms for vegans and vegetarians. A friend who was opening a restaurant in San Francisco called me offering two tickets to a talk Anthony was giving in the East Bay that evening. I refused them. Despite my gratitude for his significant influence on my life, I accepted that Anthony was just a human and that I was beginning to lose respect for him over this issue alone.

Don’t get me wrong. His vocal, often obnoxious ad hominem attacks on other food personalities never failed to delight me. Because you see, he had shaped my food values. He had taught me that good food takes time. That hard work and honesty make a good cook. That gimmicks, and corporate interest and phony people aren’t to be idolized. That chefs endorsing huge corporations can’t hold a candle to your grandmother’s cooking, and never will. And with his razor wit (or perhaps ham-handed wit) he eviscerated the likes of Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, and Guy Fieri, all soulless slaves to their Food Network corporate overlords. He refused to bow at the altar of Alice Waters, something I commend him for to this day (having myself worked for chefs who did time at Chez Panisse under Waters and confirmed his claims), wrote a blistering but accurate critique of her in “Medium Raw,” and hosted an astoundingly good documentary on the real talent behind the Chez Panisse phenomenon, Jeremiah Tower, which aired in a “Parts Unknown” time slot. He detested dishonesty, cults of personality, and undeserved accolades. He was quick to call out people he felt were phony, or who used anything other than authentic food or culture as their primary motivators. In this era of the “celebrity chef,” I applaud him for this. It didn’t make him a lot of friends, but it earned him a lot of respect.

As the years went on I, and millions of others, enjoyed his many international adventures on “No Reservations.” But his chief achievement, in my opinion, is the show that came after this: “Parts Unknown.” It is the single most beautifully produced television show of all time. Certainly the most sophisticated travel show of all time. With “Parts Unknown,” Anthony used cuisine less as a central theme and more as means through which the culture, spirit, and experience of people are made known. He is always gracious to his hosts. He is always generous with his deep, poignant commentary. He is always gentle with his questions, that in their simplicity seem to evoke answers painfully genuine, answers that could never be scripted.

Anthony made himself the go-to man for how to see, and what to see, and where to see it. Before any trip, real or imagined, his shows are the first thing consulted to ensure nothing essential is missed…to make sure the “good stuff,” the places where the locals go, is included.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

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But for me, Anthony’s spirit, enthusiasm, and values have transcended the page and the screen. They came to rest in my consciousness, speaking to me subtly in ways I didn’t even realize until today when I learned of his death. Often when cooking a beloved family recipe, I’ve caught myself thinking “If I got the chance to host Anthony for a meal, which family recipe would I make for him? Which meal best characterizes our family? Best showcases our heritage? Which would he enjoy the most?”  When enjoying a meal in a hole-in-the-wall, locals-only restaurant in the Caribbean, or eating the thing on the menu that sounds alarming at first glance, my husband and I will look at each other and say, smiling, “this is so Anthony Bourdain!” Recently I suggested we eat at Swan Oyster Depot soon, not because it’s a San Francisco institution but because “Anthony Bourdain said it’s one of his favorite places in the whole United States to eat!” When planning vacations, we shun resorts. Because of Anthony, we know that you don’t go where everyone goes…where the hoards of doughy tourists flock, drinking cocktails with mini umbrellas in them. We avoid those places. We seek out the real, the overlooked. The good stuff. That is our value, and it’s a value we hope to pass on to our children.

His New York accent and attitude, his liberal use of sarcasm, and his love of 70’s punk bands like The Ramones all contributed to making him feel like a relative of mine. Indeed, this death doesn’t feel like a typical celebrity death. It feels like a friend dying. He was a friend, he just didn’t know it. My sister put it succinctly today on Instagram: “Our family’s love language is food, and he helped us love each other even more.”

He did. Whether we were griping about his unfairness to vegans, admiring his stand against fast food (with the notable exception of In-N-Out!), or laughing at his colorful descriptions of snooty food personalities (“Pol Pot in a muumuu” comes to mind, again taking aim at Alice Waters), we were always talking about him. He cropped up all the time in conversation, underscoring the fact that no matter how we felt about him at any given moment, we cared about what he had to say. We often respected it. We wanted him to keep telling us where to go, what to see, and why. We turned to him to show us the way to the good stuff.

Part of the shock I felt this morning when I read the headlines and burst into confused tears, feeling like a train had just run me over, was that I had believed he would continue to be there. I believed that the arc of his life was success. That the ex-heroin addict, ex-cocaine addict with previous suicide attempts, extreme depression and insatiable workaholism…I believed that the story of this man’s life was that he had transcended that. I expected that he would continue to comment poignantly on the lives the less fortunate, to turn white America’s attention away from itself and break down xenophobia one bowl of noodles at a time. I wanted that. I wanted this sarcastic, brilliant writer, teacher, and friend to keep going. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t.

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”

The irony is that the person who could provide the most poignant commentary on his passing…was him. That’s not true of everyone who commits suicide. He was able to cut through the bullshit and speak to the deep, dark pain always lurking in shadowed recesses of the human heart. I imagine what he would say now. There would be self-deprecation. There would be joking sarcasm. There would be commentary that makes you sit, silent for a long time after the credits start rolling. Would there be regret? It is maddening that we will never know. He has passed into parts unknown, where we cannot follow.

It’s very easy to react to victims of suicide with anger. Indeed, this cruel and misplaced response is often the reaction we turn to to protect ourselves from just feeling our actual pain..but in allowing ourselves to feel our actual pain, we remember the beauty this man brought to our lives more fully. We’ll never understand why it had to end this way, it wasn’t supposed to end this way! But it did. And I’m extremely grateful for the way Anthony shaped me, and the values he instilled in me.

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

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*all photo credit to NPR and CNN.

Pools, Pies and Other Happy Things

Pools, Pies and Other Happy Things

Hi guys! Hope you had a lovely weekend. It sure did feel summery for the first time in my neck of the woods. It was hot enough to take a dip in the pool for the first time, but I contented myself with reading by the pool yesterday evening instead, lounging luxuriously in a chaise, a bag of new library books at my side.

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I want to share what I’ve been up to lately, which isn’t terribly much, but even so makes me feel like life is moving a light-speed these days! It’s nuts. I remember the heavy, dragging, almost hopeless feeling of slogging through the winter months (reflected in many of my January, February and March posts), feeling like they would simply NEVER end. Now, the days are flying by and I’m trying to keep up with it all!

The main item on our plates at the moment is health and weight (I know, SNORE). I have good news on this score, finally! I know you have patiently read through many posts of mine where I complain about food, cooking, wanting to get fit and lose weight, and all kinds of thoughts on that topic. As it turns out, I’ve finally developed a food routine that works for me, and I’ve lost nine pounds in the last five weeks, just from altering my eating habits. Husband and I are both adding in regular exercise starting this week (expensive gym membership is cancelled and use of the free gym in our complex is being embraced!). This is a fun and gratifying journey, and I hope to continue until I hit my goal. I’ll share more about what I’ve been doing food-wise in a future post. 🙂

As you know, I have a weakness for things from the 1970s. I also have a weakness for embroidery, which I used to do often for fun while watching T.V. with Grandma, or listening to an audiobook. I’ve been wanting to start embroidering again, and happened to stumble upon the greatest find ever while browsing e-Bay last week: Jiffy Stitchery Crewel Embroidery Kits from the 1970s, unopened, listed by the hundreds online for delighted embroiderers/mid-century fanatics like me to purchase!

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Some designs are more complicated than others, some are PAINFULLY iconic of the ’70s vibe (brown and orange owls, anyone?) and most are just adorable. Because they’re very small designs (they all end up fitting into a 5”x7” frame when completed), they can be done in an evening or two. I ordered myself one for around $8 and completed it over two evenings:

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Oh! It makes me so happy! I can’t justify buying up a whole bunch of these at once, but as they’re inexpensive, I’m definitely going to be getting more here and there to do in the evenings. It’s so nice to have a fun craft to do while watching a movie or listening to music. It makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something while relaxing at the same time!

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After all those months of saying I was going to make a pie, I FINALLY did! I made the strawberry balsamic pie from the Four and Twenty Blackbirds cookbook. Husband generously said it was the best pie he’s ever eaten. As all I did was copy a recipe, I can’t take credit for that but it WAS unbelievably scrumptious and even amid this weight loss journey, I was happy to make room in my daily calories for a few pieces.

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Saturday I made homemade Thai iced tea with coconut milk, and visited two different libraries for all kinds of wonderful books and DVDs. While my stack of books is too huge to share in its entirety, these are two books I’m really looking forward to. I began The First Muslim this weekend and am finding it fascinating. I picked it up because I realized that I know almost nothing about Muhammad or the history of Islam, so I think it’ll make me a more educated person. So far, it’s beautifully written. I haven’t started The Year Without A Purchase yet, but it looks so promising!

The next four weekends are filled with get-togethers, camping trips (for Husband), friends, and summery activities of all sorts and I’m reveling in it. I feel more invigorated and motivated than I have in a long time, and so thankful for that. Husband and I have many other things going on behind-the-scenes that are strengthening our relationship, and it feels good to be in the midst of what feels like a renewal, of sorts.

What do you have going on these days? What are some things currently bringing you joy? Take care, all! ❤

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To London, With Love

To London, With Love

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Sitting in the back of our MiniCab, we craned our necks to take in every detail of the landscape flying past. I hadn’t realized how far Heathrow was from London proper. Our driver, who had been so patient as we delayed and delayed, waiting in the endless customs line to enter the country, zipped down the freeway through construction detours, weaving carefully and quickly through traffic snares. I’m sure my eyes looked like saucers. It was like waking up and having the whole world as you know it reversed, the uncanny valley of familiarity meeting otherness.

We sped past farmland, neon yellow with flowering mustard, football stadiums, and eventually row housing that looked alarmingly decrepit. Entering London, we pulled to a stop just as a pedestrian smashed in the window of the car next to us, shouting. The light turned and we sped away before we could see what happened. I hadn’t known what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it. Ancient buildings filthy with centuries of grime shot past, miles and miles of hyper-urban landscape swarming with people who didn’t look at all like myself, more hijabs than I had ever seen in one place, above-ground trains, unfamiliar signage and crossing signals, and the sheer immensity of London intimidated me…in fact, it terrified me.

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Before we exited the cab at the Citizen M hotel, I was convinced I hated London. I was fearful, so nervous. Just the cab ride had given me real culture shock. I had expected something thoroughly Anglicized, romantic, quaint, something Victorian, something posh and refined. Maybe I expected a village, but instead I had gotten something like New York City—overwhelming urban sprawl that I hadn’t fathomed. I’d known about London of course—it’s types of crime, it’s population density, it’s demographics. That’s what’s so silly about my unexpected reaction. I knew London wasn’t those things I had been expecting! And it’s embarrassing to admit that I was at all taken aback by such things, but I’m being brutally honest here– I was. It was like meeting a blind date who’ve you’ve only seen a tiny, pixelated picture of. Suddenly you see them in the flesh and regardless of what they’ve told you about themselves, they are nothing like what you anticipated. I wanted to hide in my hotel. I was afraid of so much otherness, so much that was unfamiliar.

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Husband was ecstatic. He wanted to walk, to dig into this place and get to know it. Knowing I hadn’t traveled all this way to sit in my hotel being afraid, we walked to a tea shop I wanted to visit, and ate savory pies at a fancy restaurant. Following a route Husband made up as we went along, we passed the Royal Courts of Justice, the London School of Economics, strolled by Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. We walked and walked and walked. And as we walked I relaxed a bit, amazed by the sights, sounds, smells, all the differences large and small that made this place “other.” Endless monuments, endless beautiful architecture, endless accents of many types. I was impressed by so much of what I saw, but I was also unable to form a real opinion—I felt like a toddler, taking the whole of creation in for the first time, with no frame of reference through which to judge it or to orient myself.

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And then, when it looked like I was beginning to soften, I had a bit of a meltdown. After many hours of walking, and after Husband’s thoughtful warnings that we had a long walk still ahead of us, I became very physically and mentally weary and began to crack. It was in the theatre district that I started to panic. Swarms of people were out on the sidewalks, ales in hand, enjoying the warm late afternoon sunshine. I perceived that it was growing late and I was exhausted, quickly getting hungrier and hungrier. Husband showed me how far we had wandered from our hotel—we were at least an hour’s walk back. I had had just enough novelty and suddenly felt overwhelmed, stranded, frightened, and alone for no good reason at all. I actually started crying a little (I’m not proud of this memory). I moaned and groaned, and was a thorough pain in the ass for poor Husband who was having a ball and couldn’t see what the matter was! Patiently, he led the way back to our hotel as I seethed in high dudgeon and anxiety that continued to bubble up, despite the good time I’d had over the last few hours. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but it was near our hotel. Our jet lag kept us up very late despite our exhaustion, and when we came-to it was noon.

I woke up knowing that I hated London. I had wanted to befriend it on my terms, ones I had imagined for it, and it had failed me. Nevertheless, I was willing to try again. I regretted sleeping in so late. Still, we had enough time to walk over to the Tower of London by way of Borough Market and take a tour, before meandering leisurely back to catch a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the nearby Shakespeare Globe theatre. This second day, rested and well-fed, the vastness of London—cobblestones, wide streets, enormous bridges and seemingly endless sprawl—was less of a shock.

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We had a wonderful time! I got a picture with the first female Beefeater, we ate sausages and cake, drank ale and tea, saw the burial sites of people like Anne Boleyn. As I stood in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula I closed my eyes and imagined– my soul remembering a time and place never seen, manifesting love for people never met, missing memories never had. So many sights in London make you feel this way. London holds the present in its palm, but gestures at the vastness of yesterday, reminding you that you are merely passing through…that it alone will remain. This experience was so different compared to the day before. Well rested, I was better oriented. I felt safer, I had a mental grasp on the place I was in. The crowds of people I felt were pressing in on me the day before were, today, just people enjoying the sunshine.

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That evening, we climbed into the balcony of an historic theatre, roof open to the warm night air, and spent the next four hours transported into another world—one of hilarity, beauty, and utter magic, the evening stars twinkling overhead. We left the theatre and grabbed huge bowls of pasta across the street, unable to find words adequate for what we had just experienced. “That was, hands down, the best performance of any kind I have ever seen in my entire life,” Husband proclaimed. I smiled in total agreement as I devoured spicy fusilli. Something had clicked that day. First impressions aren’t always accurate. I had given London a second chance, and it had wooed me. I began to “get” London. It was working its magic on me, but I had to approach it on its terms, not mine.

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We boarded a train the following morning and spent the next few hours whizzing through impossibly beautiful English countryside dotted with sheep, low stone walls and hedgerows bisecting green meadows spilling over with blooms. I realized why England is known for its lush greenery—every nook and cranny, where in America there would dwell a weed, here bloomed a flower. At the base of stop signs, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, every growing plant turned a colorful face to the sun. We disembarked in Cardiff, Wales and in unseasonably warm sunshine we sat in the verdant and charming Sophia Park sipping tea, falling in love all over again—with Wales, with the United Kingdom, with traveling, with each other.

Wales was one of the best adventures of my life. I won’t go into it because I could write a novella about my love affair with Wales, so I’ll save that for another time.  Trust me when I say, we fell HARD for the Welsh people, the Welsh countryside, the Welsh language, and everything Wales had to offer. It was a visit to Middle Earth for us, and it nourished something deep inside the quiet parts of our sleeping souls we didn’t know we needed.

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I boarded the train back to London on our last day in the UK and sped back to the city that made me feel a thousand different things. For the second time, we walked. We walked to the Houses of Parliament, walked to the London Eye, walked to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 ¾. We stopped for the second time at Twinings on the Strand (established 1706!) and spent a small fortune on tea. This time around, I wasn’t anxious. London, after such a short and volatile romance, had us both at its mercy. I accepted it on its terms, not mine, and its generosity overflowed. I teared up again flying westward, leaving pieces of my heart behind. I had always ached to experience Britain. Now I had, and despite my anxieties of various kinds, I had fallen as deeply in love with it as I always thought I would.

Some people hate traveling. There are several I know in my immediate family alone who could gladly die happy never having left home again. And after lifetimes of hard work, why should they leave home to spend money elsewhere and be uncomfortable for a brief period of time? Travel isn’t easy. It’s hard on the bank account and hard on they body. If you’re like me, travel can spark anxiety and strangely agoraphobic episodes! The unknown and unfamiliar can be legitimately terrifying, even when there isn’t any real threat present. Being in unfamiliar places can be threat enough to a person prone to nerves at the best of times. But here’s the thing…

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Stepping far outside our comfort zones forces us to adapt and reveals parts of ourselves we might not know exist. I didn’t expect to react to London so negatively. After that first day, I didn’t expect to ever thaw towards it, either. But in a remarkably tiny space of time, I not only had all kinds of preconceived notions quashed, but was forced to reflect upon what those preconceived notions meant about me, about what makes me uncomfortable and why. I got to reframe my discomfort, and ultimately let it go when I realized that much of it was baseless and silly. And that was liberating and rewarding.

The upshot is that I have absolutely zero qualms or anxieties about our forthcoming trip. London is far too old, far too big, and far too complex for me to ever fully “get” it, but I like to think that we are friends insofar as a person can befriend a place. I’m looking forward to introducing Sister to it, and to seeing Husband (London’s fast friend) reunite with a place he appreciated from the beginning. I’m excited to see parts of it I haven’t seen, taste things I haven’t tasted, and step once again outside of the familiar—the place where true adventure begins. We’ll reunite on its terms, not mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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One Year Later

One Year Later

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It has been a year since I last saw your face, felt your arms around me. It might as well be at once a moment and a decade. A lifetime. The person you last hugged goodbye, twice, is gone. That person hadn’t experienced the loss of you.

It was a strange year, putting aside the wound that was your absence. The effects of grief are unexpected, unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable. My sense of time was completely altered. I experienced strange lags in my perception of time passing. In May I kept thinking we were still in March, and that only a week or two had passed, just to be jolted into the present abruptly each time I needed to know what the date was. In August my mind was still hovering around late May. In October, I was discussing something that I had experienced a few weeks prior with Husband, only to realize that six months had passed since that event. I was constantly caught off guard by time’s passing. I lived in a bubble, life happening around me. It wasn’t until November came, and with it the anchor of the holidays that my subconscious began to live in the present.

I’ve been taking comfort in the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay—

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.

There are a hundred places where I fear

To go,—so with his memory they brim.

And entering with relief some quiet place

Where never fell his foot or shone his face

I say, ‘There is no memory of him here!’

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”

Sometimes only poems will suffice. I am often prone to dramatics, but I stand by this sentiment. Time doesn’t bring relief. It has brought me the strength to expand my capacity for pain. It has brought me the ability to think about it less, think about you less. The pain stays the same.

I wept in the bath last night, a place that’s now a refuge when I want to cry but don’t want to disturb Husband…not even for his sake, but for mine. I often want to cry without the added burden of telling him that I’m ok, of thanking him for his generous comfort, of engaging at all with someone else when I honestly just want to be privately miserable for a while. I laid in the hot water, a little too hot, and savored that particularly sharp sensation around my heart, an awl being run through my ribs, and I reflected that when you first died it was like getting an anvil dropped on me. I imagined Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, the anvil smashing me comically so that I am flattened like a piece of India rubber.

At first, the anvil was way too heavy to move. Impossible. I just assessed my injuries and screamed for help—no help could fix the problem, but some help did provide a lot of comfort. Such loving words from family and friends and their support in my darkest hours I never expected and cannot express adequate gratitude for. I have the most wonderful friends. I have the most wonderful family. I have the most wonderful spouse.

And after a while, I got used to the anvil—I got strong enough to carry it through my day. It didn’t get lighter. I got stronger.

And life does go on. My days are full of laughter, often. They are full of trivial problems, and mindless minutiae that is both important and utterly meaningless. I enjoy what life brings me—good food, good friends, perfectly ordinary days with ordinary happiness. Most of the time I’m really well, and I am content in my heart with everything that has come to pass. How could I not be? Your death wasn’t unfair. It was a picture of justice—that we will all, each one of us regardless of merit, be consigned to the earth once more. Or, from another perspective, that some good and loving people get to live long, long lives with relative health and much happiness. What could be more just? But there is a hole in the world that you once filled. I will (and do) remember you with joy, but…

The transformative process called grief isn’t done with me yet. I wouldn’t feel half so bad if it had only taken you from me, but when you passed it also robbed me of all the spiritual certainty I had cultivated specifically for times like this. The rug was pulled from under me, and suddenly everything I was so sure of—everything I shared with Husband—was gone. Ideas and beliefs long held flickered out, having once been so comforting, now only filling me with bleak horror. Unable to hold them, another pain emerged…that of spiritual separation from Husband as I realized that I’m no longer certain of anything at all. I’m certain of the existence of God, and that Christ is his Son. Beyond that, I am going through motions with blind faith, hoping beyond hope that God approves. At first, this fall from grace was almost as agonizing as the pain of your absence, but now…

I’ve settled into an almost-apathy, a patience that comes from believing God will show me the way in his own time. I’ve learned that this too is part of the process, that I am still in the MIDDLE of this, not the end. C.S. Lewis, in his brilliance, puts it so succinctly:

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

I’ve come to almost envy the certainty of atheism, and the irony therein—that they often accuse people of faith for believing because it is comforting at the hour of death. If only they knew! I have found exactly zero comfort in the complexity of the afterlife, the many possibilities of where you could be now, where your consciousness has gone. The complete and total silence from you does nothing to make me feel you’re “watching over me.” Eastern thoughts once held have crumbled into ash, because I cannot fathom the cruelty of having to do this more than once, or that you’ve reemerged somewhere to be recycled ad nauseum. The consolation of the familiar in Catholicism is a meager but distinct comfort…even if, as I said, I’ve been marooned on the island of “I don’t know.” My heart, my intuition, has shut down. I am fumbling through the wreckage of my spirituality blind, led by logic (which is a poor guide in matters of faith, but better than none when all others have abandoned you). And logic brings me to Aquinas (or perhaps Aquinas, in his Aristotelian logic, leads me to his own theology) , but it doesn’t ignite my soul. My heart is not moved, for it is broken. How lucky I was at one time to ever have had my soul ignited by spiritual certainty, and what I wouldn’t give for that now. I hold on, knowing only that God is guiding me and that I must trust in Him.

So, this is where I am a year later. I am no longer stunned. I am moving around, I am searching for joy. I’m attempting to redefine who I am without you to fill one half of me, my darling soul-twin. I am making plans for the future—happy plans! I am experiencing happy things. And I’m dragging the anvil of your absence behind me, uphill and over dale, without the map of spirituality I had crafted for myself, that loved ones had helped me to create. I am moving, I am gaining ground. And I though I am lost, I shall be found. That is my one prayer these days—“Lord, help me to know what you want for me.” He is as silent as you. He works in mysterious ways.

I love you. I am thinking of you always. I hope one day we shall see each other again, my best of friends. I used to believe that we could. Now all that I know is that creation is vast and unknowable, and that you are somewhere in it. May I find you again, so I can tell you how much you have been missed.

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Hello Lent.

Hello Lent.

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“Lent is a time to renew wherever we are in that process I call the divine therapy. It’s a time to look at what our instinctual needs are, look at what the dynamics of our unconscious are.” –Thomas Keating

I’m scheduling this post to go up early, before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, to give any readers who want to participate in Ash Wednesday/Lent fully but weren’t aware it was upon us (hey, you never know!) a heads-up. Mardi Gras will be celebrated by bringing doughnuts to my team at work, and an early Valentine’s Day dinner at home with Husband. Hope you all have a wonderful run-up to Ash Wednesday!

Lent. Where to even begin? Lent is my favorite liturgical season. It resonates. It’s powerful. The secular world feels it too—lapsed, or cafeteria, or wholly secular Christians go to Ash Wednesday services and give things up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation, and yet masses are often standing room only. What is this phenomenon?

People who have never encountered Lent often think of it as a time of somber misery and self-sacrifice, and in some ways that’s true. It certainly can be. What they don’t understand, which is indeed a profound and resonant irony, is that we CRAVE this time of reckoning. I think one explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that the human soul craves a memento mori in a world that bombards us with the lie that immortality is achievable and suffering is avoidable…that life is about looking and feeling good, so we should chase those things forever on a nihilistic hamster wheel.

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The thing is…our souls know these messages are false, and like cleaning house after a raucous party, we crave the harsh soul-scrubbing and deeply personalized asceticism Lent offers us. It’s the antidote to the slow-acting poison of an “I’m ok, you’re ok,” culture, a materially driven culture, a nihilistic culture that leaves us, even subconsciously, cringing interiorly at its crass falsehoods.

There is nothing in the secular world that does this. No time or holiday or event that grabs our shoulders, stares into our eyes and says, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering you can’t escape. You’re going to weaken, and die, and decay. And that’s ok. Your suffering isn’t for nothing. The arc of life isn’t a tragedy. You don’t need to be a slave to your body’s desires and cravings. You don’t need to be a slave to your heart’s desires and cravings. You can do the hard, good thing and in doing so, you’ll sanctify yourself and the world. Now go do it.” There is nothing in our culture that does this, because this message is inherently counter-cultural. To be told to lay down the transient material to free ourselves to choose the good– an objective, not subjective, good– that is counter-cultural.

I was so pumped for Lent last year. I had prepared very consciously, had a list of spiritual practices I was going to adopt, things to give up, things I was going to begin. Lent began on March 1st. On March 13th Grandma died.

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It was such an interesting experience—having to put down the mantle of self-imposed discipline and symbolic mourning, and pick up the mantle of actual mourning. Actual death. Every single goal, every single plan, every single hope and idea went directly out the window. I ate ALL the sweets—cake, chocolate, doughnuts…I spent a fortune on eating sushi for dinner almost every night for literally weeks. I didn’t pray. I didn’t talk to God, or Grandma. I just sat in my house, first in a stunned shock and then in an agonized bereavement. At the time, I thought my Lent had been a total failure. Looking back, it was the most real, painful Lent I hope I ever experience. I had thought I knew what I needed to do to temper my soul, but God had other plans, and I was swept along by them as in a current, with no choice but to yield.

I didn’t want to make too many plans this year, but it’s always good to decide on concrete goals rather than general, wishy-washy ideas so that you have something measurable to hold yourself to. Many of my goals are going to be tucked away in my heart, where only God can know them, and likely I won’t even share them with Husband. Husband has these too…silent promises known only to him. These goals aren’t secret, rather, they are sacred…kept safe in quiet corners of our souls where they can germinate in this winter cold, and hopefully bear fruit by Easter.

I can tell you a bit about them, though: I always try to do the hard-and-fast traditional abstinence from meat (not just Fridays!), desserts, treats of various kinds, and expensive or indulgent meals. We don’t eat t a lot of meat, so I’m expanding this to include dairy for myself. I often begin new spiritual practices, or dedicate myself to old ones that have fallen away. Husband and I try to prioritize charitable giving in ways that are most feasible to us. Bad habits get tackled and extraneous demands on our attention are pruned.  Not everyone’s sacrifices and penances look like this, and that’s ok. We do what’s calling us, what is placed on our hearts, and despite what it might look like from the outside, there isn’t a hierarchy of holiness determined by self-imposed suffering. It’s not about suffering– it’s about a quiet transformation.

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A few final thoughts on Lent:

We love Lent the way we love having a sparkling clean house. Scrubbing the toilet isn’t fun, but the result is always worth it. To put a more nuanced point on it, Lent shows us that the process of scrubbing– the sacrifice, the painful, un-glamorous, tedious, hard part– is the part that does the most good. The clean toilet, or whatever metaphorical object you care to replace it with, is just a pleasant addition to the value you gain inwardly in doing the hard, good thing. In the end, you want to be a person to whom “keeping a clean house,” comes naturally and without constant struggle. Practice makes perfect!

Lent is a time for personal retreat from the things the world wants to inundate us with, distract us with. The world wants all of your spare time to be spent on Netflix, and Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter, and bad food, and anxiety, and obsessions, and lies. Lent offers us a retreat from these things, because these things aren’t spiritually enriching, and they don’t define us. It is weird to say to my Facebook groups “I’m checking out for Lent, see you in six weeks!” but it feels so good. And if that’s too much retreat from any given thing, that’s ok. Sundays are mini-feasts and technically don’t “count,”so if you care to observe them traditionally by revisiting whatever it is you’ve put aside for six days a week, that’s fine! The one exception to this is if you are trying to break or build a specific habit, in which case Sunday indulgences could compromise the overall goal.

Despite all this talk about tempering ourselves during this time, Lent is a really profound time to think about the world, and to orient our perspective so that we no longer appear to be at the center of it. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. At least two of these direct our attention to the world outside our own heads, outside our own experiences. All three do, in fact, but if you’re new to fasting I can tell you that you think about yourself A LOT while hungry. But even this type of self-focused thinking can help us to reflect on the world around us– how many people in the world feel hunger all the time, and how lucky am I that I only feel this way if I choose to?

St. Benedict warned his sixth century monks that during Lent, they shouldn’t be taking on anything that is truly burdensome or harsh. This isn’t about setting ourselves up for failure or pain. This is about reevaluating our place in this cosmos, our relationship to God, and what we need to do to bring about order from disorder.

Keep an eye out for my next post, “20 Thing To Do For Lent,” a short list of ideas for preparing your home and your heart for the upcoming season, as well as ideas for things to take on this year.

Whatever you choose this season, whatever you take on or give up, whatever changes you make, whatever resolutions sit nestled in your heart, may they all be graced with guidance, love and mercy. May you have a blessed Lent!

 

 

*Photo credit in this post goes to Senior Airman Jensen Stidham for his beautiful photo of a little girl receiving ashes at the Shaw Air Force Base, February 2015.