Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—The yoga of brunch

Recipe for a Restorative Brunch

  1. First, work hard all week. The kind of work that requires both mental and emotional effort. The kind of work that leaves you stranded at the end of the day, spent and a little confused. You love your work. But where are your friends? Where is the rest of your life?
  2. Email two friends and say "I miss you. How about brunch?
  3. While waiting for an answer, mull on the word "brunch." Love how it already feels like food in the mouth. How it is the kind of meal that is neither a work-a-day breakfast or a utilitarian lunch, but a meal in-between. Brunch is a time-out. Brunch implies you will throw caution to the wind. No oatmeal for you; no PB & J. Brunch is a little mischievous; brunch is just out to have fun.
  4. Your friend emails back: "I live for brunch."
  5. Wake to a rainy day. Make a long to-do list, a list so oppressive it makes you just want to go back to bed. Put things on the list you've already done, just to have the pleasure of crossing them off.
  6. Go to the Daisy Cafe on Magnolia St. The cafe will be busy, but not too busy. There will be the companionable clink of coffee mugs and juice glasses. The steamy scent of bacon and coffee. The waitresses flow through the room in a choreography both elegant and efficient. Your table will be ready in a few minutes. Sit on the bench and watch the other patrons at brunch—how they smile at one another, how they talk leaning close.
  7. Your friend arrives with her two-year-old son, a boy so adorable he makes you all gushy inside. He has recently arrived here from China, and everything is wondrous to him: doors, windows, coffee creamers, you. When he smiles, a big bright overwhelming joy blooms in your chest.
  8. Sit in a booth. Look over the menu carefully but know that you will order what you always order: "The Ol' Twosie," from the kids menu-- a couple of slices of orange-cinnamon french toast, two small slices of bacon, a single perfect poached egg. You order the happy bacon and egg, Farmer Ben's, because really, you can taste the difference.
  9. Your other friend arrives, from her shift at the fire station overnight. Now the table is complete. You talk and talk. You talk about everything. The food arrives and you continue talking. The waitress comes by to refill coffee. You laugh, the boy laughs, you pick off each other's plates. You sit back, and stop talking. You listen.
  10. The check arrives and sits there unnoticed for a long time. You linger. Brunch is all about lingering. You love the word linger; there's something sensuous about it, something about yearning fulfilled. Where else in your life can you linger, the to-do list growing fuzzy, insubstantial? The booth has become a friendly cave—comfortable, warm, and safe. 
  11. You finally pay the bill, get up, gather coats and hats, bustle out into the street. Someone looks at her watch: "geez, look how late it is, where did the time go?" You grin at one another. You know where the time went. It tip-toed away for a little while to leave you in peace.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Practice Thursday—The yoga of reading

Abbe passing judgment on  Jamaica Kincaid

No, my dog Abbe--talented as she is--does  not know how to read. But she does like to sleep on books, which I'm afraid is a habit she's picked up from her mother. 

Here's my confession: though I'm an English professor, a writer, and someone who has built a life with words, I feel as though something has short-circuited in my brain and I no longer know how to read. I'll still hold a book in my hands in bed, but only as a prop; I know it's time to turn off the light when it thumps on my chest. 

Oh sure, I can decipher the words on labels and instructions readily enough, and I can read magazines like nobody's business; current and past issues of Bon Appetit, New Yorker, More, The Bark, and People (yes, People, people! You're my friends, I can trust you right?) lie stacked about the house, on every surface, all in various states of being consumed. And yes, I can still read  my students' work with great interest, and I'll read blogs late into the night, in the way that blogs are read, skipping here and there, following the path on which  they lead me. 

My beloved, decrepit  Elwyn....
But a book? A real, live, full-length book? It's a struggle. I rarely find myself deeply involved in a book's story, voice, ideas for more than a half hour at a time.  It makes me nostalgic for the person I once was, who would love a book to death, who would remain oblivious to the call of the world until I swam up to the surface, dazed and changed.

I'm recalling my younger self because I've been re-reading E.B. White with my students (yes, dear reader, how lucky am I to have a job like this?). Elwyn has always accompanied my inner self—my favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web; I must have read it at least a dozen times. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that E.B. White, as an essayist, would also be one of my favorite writers in later years, that I would read his essays over and over, trying to learn how to be both so vulnerable and so strong on the page. 

Recently I went back to read Charlotte’s Web again—my same battered copy that has somehow stayed with me all these years, with its soft corners, its torn cover—and I saw that this story is really a Buddhist tale, a lesson in mindfulness. It’s about being truly content with whatever and wherever you are. It’s a narrative of kindness and compassion. Consider this passage that comes at the very end, after Charlotte has died (yes, I cried again!):

"Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything."

The true moral, for me, emerges in the last lines of the book: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I'd like to believe this is true: that friendship and writing go hand-in-hand, that the writers we love best befriend us with their words.

And perhaps that's why I'm mourning the loss (perhaps temporary?) of my former reading self. My students tell me not to worry; that I'm just learning to read differently, that there is no good or bad involved here. Our reading brains evolve with what we're reading. And I love the blogs I'm following (in fact this post is inspired by my former student Brandi and her post about the artifact of the book, as well as blog conversations with current students); these online authors feel like a whole, chatty community of new friends, always willing to talk. 

Still, I'd like to remember to practice the yoga of reading: to stretch my reading mind every day, with words that speak to me alone. An intimate conversation, punctuated by meaningful silences.  Even if it's just a poem whispering in my ear. Even if it's an old, familiar friend calling me over for a long-overdue chat. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Soup

  "Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup? Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give a hearty sustenance and cheer? …. Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don't catch steak hanging around when you're poor and sick, do you?" —Miss Manners
We had a week of inclement weather here in the Pacific Northwest, an occasion that often leads to a giddy hysteria when a few inches of snow falls. Coincidentally I was feeling under the weather (a phrase particularly evocative in this corner of the world; the weather can literally feel like a lid), so I didn't mind staying home all week, resting, catching up with myself.

Unfortunately, sometimes it does take something like a mild illness or unexpected weather to force us to slow down.

One of my favorite ways to rest--even when I'm ill--is to make soup. I love to cook anything, but soup, from beginning to end, is soothing. I listen to The Splendid Table while I cook, with Lynn's voice, the way she says fabulous, a fine companion. When I'm in the kitchen with Lynn, I have no desire to be elsewhere.

Soup tells me improvise (I rarely follow a recipe to the letter). Soup doesn't rush you. Soup has no grand expectations. Soup will accommodate almost anything you choose to include. Soup simmers. Soup asks you to sit, to wait, to mull, to consider. You can eat one bowl, and then another, whenever you like.

"Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite." —Auguste Escoffier

I made four different soups this week: Chicken-barley with sweet potato; rice and red lentil with caramelized onions; coconut braised beef stew; and black bean chili from the Cafe Beaujolais cookbook (it's the soup Julia Child ordered when she visited the restaurant on the Mendocino coast.) I've made this chili for years, and it always reminds me of when I lived just an hour away from the restaurant, at Orr Hot Springs, where, in the winter, I made huge vats of soup for whoever would stop by and eat.

But my favorite soup this week was the Chicken Barley. I combined several different recipes in my head, and just started pulling things out of the refrigerator. The soup made itself up as I went along, I was in the zone, and with Lynn laughing and encouraging me--fabulous!--I ended up with a pot of something nuanced and delicious and wholly my own. I slurped it up, felt the "Jewish penicillin" making its way to all the clogged places.

Would you like to try it? Do you need a little chicken soup? I'll try to re-create the recipe for you here. Eat, darling, eat (my Jewish grandmother is in me always...)

Brenda's Under-the-Weather Chicken Barley Soup

Chop up a large onion and 3 or 4 garlic gloves, dump them in a large pot with couple of tablespoons of olive oil set on medium heat. While they're softening, chop up about 4 celery stalks and 2 large carrots. Add these to the pot and give a good stir. Rummage around for dried tarragon, thyme, and basil--add about a tsp. of each of these (maybe a bit more of the thyme), along with some kosher salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Stir, smell, adjust seasoning as your nose (if it's not too congested) dictates.

Drag out that bag of barley that's been sitting at the back of your cupboard, waiting patiently for its moment to shine. Measure out a cup, rinse it well, and add it to the aromatics in the pot. Give a good stir.

Chop up about a pound of boneless chicken thighs (I find thigh meat works better in soup, but use what you like best), and add these to the pot that is now happily turning into something delicious. Give a good stir and let these ingredients all get to know one another for about five minutes.

Add a box of chicken broth (preferably low-sodium) and about three cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and let everything simmer for about a half-hour. In the meantime, peel and chop up a large sweet potato (or two), and a handful of fresh parsley. Add to the pot, and continue simmering for about 15 minutes or until both barley and sweet potato are tender.

Turn off heat and stir in a dollop of vinegar (I used rice vinegar, but tarragon vinegar would be delightful). Vinegar is the secret weapon of soups. It gathers up all those disparate ingredients and brings them to attention.

Let the soup sit for about an  hour. Let everything mingle, marry, combine. Find a magazine. Turn on your favorite music. Ladle the soup into a big white bowl. Sit down with a cloth napkin. Make the dog sit with you. Eat, darling, eat.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Practice Thursday—Kindness

I've kept this business card on my refrigerator for years (our fridge doors often become archives of our better selves, don't they?) I'd known of the Plato quote for a long time, but once I saw it coupled with this goofy dog, created by local artist Jesse Larsen, the exhortation seemed easier to take in, perhaps even to enact. 

A dog knows how to be kind, because kindness is her essential nature. A dog sets kindness as the default setting. 

Last year, my dog Abbe and I trained to be a Delta therapy dog team and passed the evaluation by the skin of our teeth (actually Abbe did great; it was me that almost got us flunked!). I had visions of us working together in nursing homes, hospitals, children’s programs, bringing comfort to those who need it. A simple act of kindness.

My dog is perfectly suited to this work: she trusts everyone, loves everyone, looks everyone deep in the eyes when she meets them. She knows how to simply be in someone’s presence. 

But now, months later, we’ve yet to volunteer anywhere, save for one disastrous stint in the library where children read to my dog. It turned out Abbe was quite ill (she would need surgery just a week later), and so she trembled and cowered in the corner, afraid to be pet. These children were already good readers, did not really need my dog and me, and so I left, knowing we wouldn’t return. 

Abbe, a day after surgery

Abbe, 2 weeks later
 After Abbe's surgery, I called a few places to rustle up other jobs, but no one called me back, and I gave up. 

And yet, Abbe now comes to work with me every day, sits in my office guarding the doorway, her tail thumping hopefully whenever anyone walks by. Students stop and squeal with delight; colleagues will get down on the floor. If I let her off the leash, she runs the length of the hall to seek our her best friends, nosing into offices that have no windows, no light. Everyone is always happy to see her. I bring her to class with me, and students who rarely smile, smile. They call to her, and Abbe sits under their chairs, gently snoring as our lessons progress.

In a world where so much of our communication is disembodied, I worry sometimes that we forget to be kind. Abbe is the embodiment of kindness, an ambassador. 

She reminds me to be kind to myself as well. It's been suggested more than once that I should create a pretty office hours sign for her—The Dog is In—placed just at snout level, as most people can receive much better counsel from her than they might from me. 
 (If anyone feels inspired to create such a sign, please feel free to send it to me!)

I started bringing her to work when she was a puppy, afraid to leave her too long at home alone. And I missed her. It was a selfish impulse, but one that has gradually turned a little more selfless. Now students I don’t even know will come by to seek Abbe out, and they bring their friends. They ask, Can I pet your dog? And I always say, That’s what she’s here for.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Airports (and other in-between places)

I travel a lot for work, which means I spend a lot of time in the Seattle airport. Often I'll have at least a two-hour layover after the short puddle-jumper flight from Bellingham (beats spending those two hours in Seattle traffic), and so I've come to know the best place to get coffee (Diletantte), the best place for a snack (Dish D'lish), the best place for a quick manicure (Butter), and the best place to just sit and do nothing at all (in front of those windows you see above.)

But it's hard to do nothing. Since SeaTac now has free Wi-Fi, I inevitably find myself hurrying to a table, frantically flipping open my MacBook to see what has transpired in the  world during my 45-minute absence. Everyone around me is doing the same thing, either looking at a screen (more likely a phone screen now) or talking on their cell phones. 

Sometime it makes me feel desperately lonely; I rarely use my cell phone (a bottom-of-the line Tracphone, the dumbest phone in existence) but I'll check it anyway just to see if anyone might have tried to reach me. I confess that sometimes I'll put the phone to my ear and pretend to make a call, just so I look the same as everyone else: needed, important, connected. (Okay, now you know how dorky I really am, just in case you missed that before...)

I'd like it to be different. I'd like to remember to simply look out those windows and clear my mind before the next stage of the journey. Once, when I pulled my gaze away from the computer, I saw a team of window cleaners carefully polishing those myriad panes. They dangled in harnesses, moving in a predictable pattern, spraying soapy water, then scraping clean with giant squeegees. By the time they finished, the first windows must have been dirty again, but they kept at the task anyway, so that those of us inside—oblivious as we often are—would still have a clear view when we decided to look up. 

Sometimes I'll remember that an airport makes an excellent arena for walking meditation. I'll gather up my things and walk at a steady pace through the central terminal and into terminal A, where they've displayed all the best art.

I'll synchronize my steps with my breath, noticing my footfalls on the carpet, the weight of the rolling suitcase on my arm. I'll notice the mosaic pillars, the photographs, the artifacts in the plexiglass cases. I'll notice the people hurrying by, the full range of human emotion displayed—from fear and frustration to excitement and love. The children are the best; they look up at me and smile, or solemnly gaze back at me from the shoulder of a receding parent.

After a few minutes of this I feel connected again, though all my connective devices are safely tucked away.

It's good to remember the in-between places (there are so many after all—the gaps between here and there), and how we're always offered this opportunity to take a breath, re-connect, simply be in the world again. I love this quote from Gunilla Norris: 

Help me to love a slow progression
to have no prejudice
that up is better than down or vice versa.
Help me to enjoy the in-between

Friday, January 13, 2012

Funny Friday

"At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities."  —Jean Houston

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Practice Thursday—Acceptance

This is my dog Abbe the day she arrived in my home five years ago: Jan. 3, 2007. Almost four months old, and a 7 lb. bundle of energy and curiosity, she didn't understand me too well, and I didn't understand her. She didn't understand collars and leashes and commands to sit. Neither did I. She didn't understand why she couldn't just pee in the corner and gnaw contently on the doorframe. I didn't understand how to get these points across in her language. We walked in the park while it snowed, and her little paws iced over. We made a lot of mistakes. We both thought the other was kind of goofy, so we accepted the mistakes with good humor. We didn't hold them against each other. 

She got sleepy a lot. She could go from full tilt to full out snore in less than a minute.

 Now, we understand each other much better. For instance,this past New Year's weekend, I traveled with Abbe to Port Townsend, stayed in a little apartment by the bay. When we arrived, Abbe clearly asked me for something. And I understood, after a few daft minutes, what it was she wanted. I then fulfilled her need—it was a simple one after all—and then we took a nap. 

We had traveled from Bellingham, by car and by ferry, bought groceries at the co-op, and Abbe had waited (not so patiently) all that time to get out of the car. I brought in our things while Abbe sniffed out the place, then immediately headed to bed. I put the lavender eye pillow on my face, tried to settle into a nap, but Abbe whined—a distinct, urgent whine—from the kitchen. 

I got up. She got up and stared at me intently. I moved toward the sink and Abbe moved with me, hurried around to plant herself squarely in front of me, whined again. Of course: water. I filled her water bowl, set it down, and she lapped it all up, gulping as if she were dying of thirst. Back to bed: now we could all relax. She settled herself against my legs, let out a sigh. No reproach. No, why didn’t you take care of me earlier? Just happiness that now she’d gotten what she needed. No more, no less. 

I would like to be so accepting. I’ve found often I don't really know what I need and so become vaguely dissatisfied with everything I receive. I mutter in my head a list of grievances. Whining, but not the clear, unambiguous whine of my dog. No, this whine is petulant, childish. And if I do finally receive what I think I need, it is tainted with this aura of complaint.

So now, in 2012, with little Abbe as my guru, my intention is to recognize when I am whining and to turn that whine into something clearer, more conducive to exchanges of truth: no grudges, no miffed complaints.

In yoga I've learned to listen to the truth of my body, but also to what my heart so clearly communicates. It can be so nuanced, this listening: you need to grow very quiet and concentrate at that edge between striving and acceptance, the boundary line between productive and unproductive pain. The other day, as I tried to push myself up from full belly into a hovering plank, I involuntarily let out a loud “ooof” as I found myself stuck on the ground. I started laughing, my neighbor started laughing, and soon the entire class was laughing at this simple truth, this acceptance: the pose is hard. All we can do is try.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday--A Desert Place

During Winter break, I spent three marvelous days in Desert Hot Springs, a town about 20 minutes north of Palm Springs. Though I grew up in southern California, Palm Springs had never figured much in my imagination; I thought of it (when I thought of it at all) as only a place full of bronzed women, aging movies stars, golfers, and martinis. I somehow never connected the word "Springs" with actual springs: rejuvenating waters that simmer underground.

I once spent four years (in the wild, mixed-up '80's) living and working at Orr Springs, a hot springs resort in northern California.

We maintained a 150-year-old bathhouse that had a huge redwood hot tub, an outdoor soaking pool, and four private rooms that housed old porcelain clawfoot tubs. Hot mineral water from the underground springs poured continually into these tubs, and you could sit a long time--listening to the river, the rain, the slap of wet feet on the bridge--perfectly content with yourself, your life. You felt coddled, like an egg: full of potential. 

Since then, I've sought out hot springs all over the world, a connoisseur of the bath, of rejuvenation. But I never thought--until now--to just hop on down to Palm Springs and see what kind of respite it might offer.

Though it ended up taking me forever to get there (cancelled flight; endless delays; lost cell phone--it started to feel like a mythical quest), I arrived 24 hours after my scheduled time and entered the gate at Hacienda Hot Springs, where my old friend Rhea was waiting for me. The minute I caught a whiff of the dry desert air and all the unfamiliar (yet familiar) smells--sage, rosemary, mesquite--I felt the stress of travel melt away, one layer of the crusty self already sloughing off. The air, though cold, felt drier, more expansive, than my soggy northwest home.

This shedding just kept going during my three days at the Hacienda. Rhea and I immediately got into the rhythm of sauna, hot pool, eat a little something, snooze, hot pool, snack, sunbath, maybe a little walk. The swimming pool, at 95 degrees, allowed us to float a long time, while the palm trees kept watch. We talked and talked: that lazy, slow, meandering talk that two women who have been friends for thirty years can have while floating in a body-temperature pool, glasses off, layers of the inauthentic self dissolving.

We walked up the hill to a weird open-air museum, and the minute we walked in we both felt a little, ahem, altered: as if there were some kind of drug in the air.

 We found out, from an overly helpful park ranger, that indeed "there is no place just like this place anywhere near this place..." We stood atop the largest warm water aquifer in the world—water full of an exact combination of healing minerals that infuse the air as well. We stood right on the San Andreas fault line, on a tectonic plate that extends all the way to Japan, divided from the rest of the country. 

It's only on fault lines that an oasis springs up, where water can escape from its underground well and nourish palms, grasses, animals, people. Only where there's a rift can you find the respite you seek. 

We kept walking up the hill to check out the totem we saw looming there.

He is called "The Traditional Helper," and is part of the Trail of Whispering Giants that spans in its quiet way across the country: totem after totem whispering whatever it is we need in that particular place. Up close, his face--with its intricately carved nooks and crannies--seemed sorrowful, deeply etched from witnessing so much suffering. We hammed it up a bit, put our palms together and pretended (or pretended to pretend) to beseech him for help; he suffered our irreverant gaze and helped us anyway. 

Back at the Hacienda, inside those adobe walls, protected, we watched the full moon rise. We sat in the hot tub with our cups of tea. We heard strange birds singing and smelled lemon trees putting out their many varieties of lemons: thin-skinned, thick-skinned, knobby, and smooth. When you pick these lemons, they smell like the flowers that precede the fruit. 

You pick them and pick them and there's always more; you pack them away in your suitcase, hoping to slice them open at home to release just a little bit of that respite into your day, remind yourself of what it means to take a deep rest in the desert air. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Practice Thursday

I intended to have today’s post title--Practice Thursday--mean that every Thursday I will write something about practice: what I've practiced in the week past, what I intend to practice in the near future, etc.  But looking at it now, the phrase seems an exhortation to practice Thursday, i.e: to practice being Thursday, to get inside the frame of mind of that particular weekday. And right now that seems like a much better idea.

Thursdays have always had a kind of insouciance about them: still part of the work-a-day world, but already leaning with sidelong glances to the weekend. Thursdays still work, still keep to the task at hand, but do so with a certain ease. Thursdays smile to themselves, say hello to strangers, hold elevator doors. 

Thursdays don’t take things so seriously. Thursdays know that days follow days, and what weighed on us so heavily at the start of a week just may evaporate by the weekend. Or if not, you’ll learn to live with it. Thursdays hum. Thursdays do a little salsa dance down the hallway.

Well, I didn’t too well at practicing Thursday today. Thursdays are technically my day off from being physically at work, but if today is any indication, Thursdays will look more like this photo, scattering in every direction. 

Or it's a judging day: Look at the way those coaches and team captains scrutinize every move, looking for flaws. I want Thursdays to look more serene, and maybe some days they will, but often our days "off" turn into simply a heightened version of being "on.”

 I started off with all good intentions. I woke early, ate my oatmeal, took my dog Abbe for a long walk in Cornwall park. I watched her plume of a white tail as she scampered ahead of me, or saw her tongue-lolling face as she sprinted toward me across the field. It's hard not to be happy in the presence of a face like this:

We got home in time for me to change into yoga clothes and head to the studio. And that's when things started to veer from that Thursday state of mind. Everything about yoga irritated me today: the too-hot room, the unfamiliar crowd, the nearly naked tattooed dreadlocked man who slapped his mat right in front of mine, his ripe odor filling my nostrils. In the first pose, his big bony foot hovered right at eye level. 

The teacher had us do all the hard poses, the ones that make me feel fat and awkward, not lovely and gracious and full of good will toward  the world. I had to keep folding into child's pose, listening as everyone around me bent into balancing chair. I left with a tweaked knee and aching back,  grumpy as a tired toddler.

I then took this grumpiness out into the world with me, as I went into high gear: answering dozens of emails,  shopping, reading manuscripts, eye doctor, Petsmart, groomer, food co-op, quick dinner: a day that could have felt productive and fine, but that had me squinting as I drove in the rain, scowling at people, my shoulders hunched up to my ears. 

Ah well, even through all that, I still know I have this girl waiting it out inside me, one who knows that it's all practice, no matter how often you fail (or think you fail.) 

In his book, Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music, concert guitarist Glenn Kurtz describes his first lesson in the New England Conservatory of Music. He goes, in fifteen minutes,  “from concert guitarist to beginner.” His teacher hears how Kurtz has honed his mistakes over and over through the years, and must now return to the basics of technique: scales. Doing so is torturous, because now Kurtz’s ear is attuned to every flaw: “Everything feels like a mistake,” I complained to Aaron." His teacher responds:
“Mistakes are never serious....The danger lies in repeating mistakes, practicing them.”
It’s easy to keep repeating our mistakes, to actually practice them. So now I aim to practice what’s worth practicing, to let the mistakes--or the bad days-- be “one-off’s,” as the British say. And as Kurtz’s teacher tells him: “Find out what’s important to you, and practice that.” 
What do you find yourself practicing: intentionally or inadvertently? Does this practice serve you?