Tuesday, March 18, 2014

they will keep coming back to you

For me, one of the best parts of visiting far away friends and family is having my coffee made for me. I mean, I guess this is beside the obvious benefit of seeing said friends. My normal routine when I'm home is to get the coffee pot ready the night before and set the timer so that it's brewed by the time I wake up. Staying with friends (or, as was the case last week, having friends stay with me) means that I don't have to think about coffee the night before, because my friends make it for me. (It is occurring to me now that maybe this is something to look for in a husband - someone who will make my coffee? Noted.)

A few weeks ago I stayed with some dear friends in Seattle who made my coffee for me - nice and strong, too. The first morning I was with them I welcomed the coffee but refused breakfast. I had a banana and was eager to get out the door and downtown for the last day of my writing conference. The second morning was different. It was a cold, rainy Sunday morning, and I'd just slept more than 10 hours after 3 long days at the writing conference. I wandered downstairs in my pajamas, hoping there was still some coffee left. Parents were puttering around the kitchen while the kids played around them. They would soon be heading off to church for the morning, while I would stay back and watch rain from their window and contemplate a run (but instead wrap myself in a blanket and read one of the books I'd bought during the conference and allow all the new ideas from the past few days settle in). On the counter, my friend had assembled breakfast options: some rhubarb crisp and two different kinds of oatmeal, which she makes in big batches to nourish her family for days on end.

And that's what I wanted to tell you about, because this oatmeal almost outdid the strong coffee that was waiting for me that morning. I know what you're thinking - oatmeal is usually pretty boring, especially before it's sweetened with raisins and brown sugar. But this oatmeal was special. To make it, my friend had sliced fresh ginger root and added it and some cardamom pods to water, and set it to boil. When the water bubbled and rolled, she added the oats, but also some shredded carrots (and I think she told me she put coconut milk cream in there, but I'm not sure when that happened). I heated mine up with raisins and sugar. It was warm and homey and filling, just like my stay with these friends. And I realized that my friends are on to something here because when you feed your guests this kind of food and have the coffee waiting for them in the morning, they will keep coming back to you.

I've recreated the oatmeal a few times since I've come home. Here's a quick recipe in case you want to try it for yourself (and some future houseguests).

Warm and Homey Oatmeal (yes, I just made that name up)
1 3/4 cup water
sliced fresh ginger
a pinch of salt
a piece of cinnamon stick
a few cardamom pods
a few whole cloves*

Bring these all to a boil over high heat in a covered pot.

1 cup oatmeal
1/2-ish cup grated carrots
handful of raisins (I used regular, golden would be great, too)

Turn burner down to medium. Bring mixture back to low boil, and cook for about 5 minutes or to your preferred consistency, stirring occasionally. If you plan to use some as leftovers, I'd leave on the thinner side because it thickens as you let it sit.

Makes 2 servings (approximately).

*I haven't tried the cloves yet, but the idea came this morning. I plan to try it next time.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

aching to know what it's like

When she got up to read her essay, I missed her last name because I was admiring her haircut. There was something funky and familiar about it, the kind of short, choppy cut I'd get if I knew I could pull it off. Her haircut, her style, the way she carried herself like she knew she could hold the attention of an audience of one or one hundred - it was all familiar to me, but in an aching, desperate way. She reminds me of Janelle, I thought. I looked down to read her last name. Yoder.

I bet she's Mennonite. A few minutes later, as she introduced her essay, she explained that she'd been raised in a conservative Mennonite home in Ohio. Bingo, I thought.


In my best friend's wedding, I was the maid of honor and Janelle was a bridesmaid. I had grown up with Heather, had known her since before either of us could read, back when you pick your friends from the small pool of people who you can find by running out your back door over the summer. Years later, Heather graduated from a high school a year before me and left for Baltimore and then Kenya with a Mennonite missions program for young people. There she met Janelle, her teammate, a friend whom Heather had to leave home to find but then did everything new and exciting with: slept in the same dormitory-type room and talked about their first real loves and lived in a hut in Kenya. I heard about Janelle, and then met her and immediately knew why Heather liked her. She was fun and spunky and unafraid of being different. Set next to my preference to blend into a crowd, I'm surprised Heather even remembered me. And I'm sure that's what I was afraid of: being forgotten. In terms of friendship with Heather, I had more than ten years on Janelle, but growing up and leaving home seemed like a it came with a whole different set of rules.

This is what came rushing back when I saw this writer stand to read her essay. This and knowing that I envied Janelle and this woman not only their spunk, but their belonging. Though I also identified as having grown up Mennonite, I was not really Mennonite. And for some reason, I realized, I'd always felt left out because of it.

Being Mennonite, I like to explain to people, is like being Jewish: it's both a religion and a culture. So while my parents chose to be part of a Mennonite church when I was very young, they don't come from Mennonite heritage. Which means that of all the extended families of grandparents and grandchildren and cousins (growing up, it seemed like my mom was always surprising me with news of who was really related to whom at church - Amy and the Wismer boys are second cousins? I never knew!), my family just stood by itself on the periphery. A little lonely bush next to the family tree that was church. To make matters worse, my dad stopped coming with us to church when I was in early elementary school. Single-parent families in Mennonite churches weren't too common, especially one created from a father who'd rather stay home on a Sunday morning.

I guess it might sound a little strange to say that I felt strange to NOT be Mennonite, but understand that in Southeastern Pennsylvania, little brick Mennonite churches abound. Mennonites were (are) everywhere. The Rices, Yoders, Myers or Meyers or Moyers, Detweilers and Friesens, they were all Mennonite. I went to a Mennonite summer camp and to retreats and volleyball tournaments that gathered Mennonite youth groups and I even went to a Friday night social type event at a Mennonite church during high school sometimes. I should probably also clarify that while yes, there were some aspects of this upbringing that sheltered me, I didn't grow up in a plain Mennonite tradition where women where coverings on their heads and certain social activities or clothing are restricted. My life was pretty normal, as were my Mennonite friends. Normal except that they seemed to flourish from the richness of their Mennonite heritage. My flourishing seemed to lag, with my family's questionable church attendance and mixed background. (I guess here I should add that I do have a little true Mennonite in me - my Mom's mom's mom was a Moyer, a Mennonite. Unfortunately, she did some things that a Mennonite woman shouldn't do. She wasn't banished or anything but, well, the fact of her Mennonite-ness seems like it kinda gets cancelled out or something.)

I can guess how Janelle and this writer and other young women who grew up belonging would respond to me - they would say that while I was trying to belong, they were trying to escape. Belonging has its calloused underside, rough and bumpy from rubbing against what threatens to steal your identity. I think that is the reason for the funky hair cuts, the mysterious glimmer in their eyes, the decision to devote themselves to vocations that emphasized beauty, creativity, uniqueness.

I listened to the writer read her essay, the story recounting her own attempt at a certain kind of belonging. It left me aching to know what it's like.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I wish you could have been there with me.

To experience the rush of winding through the crowds of 12,000 writers carrying bags fills with books and pens and notebooks. To stop for coffee and a scone on the walk from my hotel to the Convention Center, the only real decisions ahead being which panels to choose from. To laugh with me at all the cliches - the mysterious young man in a long black peacoat who sits in a chair, opens his moleskin, and looks around to make observations about all the other attendees, or the young, hip panelist who used the word "narrative" and the qualifier "sort of" after every other word (i.e. he had a... sort of difficult time living out his narrative when he had these... sort of hallucinations...). To discuss excitedly the reading Gregory Martin did of his Stories for Boys and the book on aboriginals in Australia that Amanda Webster is writing.

When I left Seattle, I walked through the airport wheeling behind me my carry-on, heavy with books and journals I'd acquired, while my heart - eager and hungry for what is next - pulled me forward.

I wish that because now I am back and real life has gotten its hold on me and forced me to settle into its regularity and commitments. I am thinking about groceries and cleaning my toilet and when I'll make time for lunch with my friend who works down the block instead of what books I want to read next and the new ideas I have for free writing.

At the conference I wore a badge on a lanyard around my neck to enter the convention center and gain access to the panels and speakers. I hung my pass up on the mirror above my dresser when I got home, knowing I wanted to keep it but not sure why I felt a need to display it. Now it's there as a reminder that I have access. The invitation to that kind of excitement and motivation is a standing one - I'm trying to hold on to this even while I wash dishes and sit in traffic.