Monday, June 30, 2014

a night of wedding dancing is the best night of the year

Those who know me should be able to spout off a few basic facts pretty easily: I love coffee, I am an introvert, I talk about Pennsylvania with romantic nostalgia. I also love weddings, especially the dancing. Lucky for me, my friends keep getting married. So not only do I get a few good nights of dancing in each year, but I've also learned a lot about how to navigate the dance floor.

Here are the characters you'll find and how to dance with them:

The two girls who wish they were in the club: These two women are friends and have stuck together the whole evening. Their dresses are a just a little too short and too tight, and they are wearing heels that are just a little too high to be classy. Even though there are available men at the wedding, they have chosen to dance just the two of them. They help each other perfect their club-dancing moves. Song: Fancy by Iggy Azalea. Leave them be, they are enjoying their small world that is revolving around them.

The white man: He is in his element when a classic rock song comes one. At this point shirts are untucked, sleeves are rolled up (if they weren't already), fists are pumped, air guitars are played. Even though I am white, I still don't get it. Song: Don't Stop Believing by Journey or Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses. Sing the lyrics if you know them and try to enjoy it. That's all they really want, is for people to love this music as much as they do.

The young skinny guy who is dancing alone: His moves consist of the robot and making some swirly motions around his head with his hands. His demeanor is self-serious. Nobody else knows who he came with or how he knows the bride and groom. He semi-secretly wants to be the center of any dance circle that forms. Song: Midnight City by M83. This is actually a tricky one. You will either want to steer clear if he is on some kind of substance (or you think he should be), or he may actually be really fun to dance with.

The kids: Everyone is secretly jealous of them because they don't need moves, they just run around and have the time of their lives. Parent's pick them up and spin them around. They are up past their bedtime and loving it. Song: They can dance to anything. DANCE WITH THEM.

The single woman in her thirties: She is well-dressed and well-put-together but has a limited number of moves, which includes raising her hands when someone is in the dance circle and bopping back and forth with her palms facing out at her bust line.* Song: Anything by Beyonce. Especially pre-2005. Don't feel sorry for this woman and her dated dance moves, this is one of her best nights of the year.

*If you didn't catch on, this is me.
**Photo via a fellow instagrammer who attended a recent wedding with me. Please don't sue me.

Friday, June 27, 2014

re-reading psalm 84

Happy are those whose strength is in you,
    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

The last morning of my visit with my sister in North Carolina, I got up while the house was still. Through the cracked door of my sister's room I saw that her side of the bed was just pillows and blankets. The rest of her family was still asleep. I texted my sister, assuming she was running,then drank coffee and laced up my shoes for a run. The roads around her house were long, mostly narrow and meandered through newly constructed housing developments and up and down rolling hills until they met one another. Some had sidewalks bordering the asphalt, but most were lined with just a margin of gravel and then green grass that grew without a human to tame it, not regularly anyway. The land that had managed to avoid being turned into housing grew wild with tall grass and trees, whose branches and leaves covered me from the steamy sun. This feels like home, I thought to myself. Like the roads in Pennsylvania that I ran along in high school, and rode my bike along in elementary school, that my parents drove me along all growing up. It was good to know that my heart can hold the memory, the feel of this place. In whose heart are the highways to ... 

It helped me to know I could always find my way back.

*   *   * 
How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord of hosts! 

For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.

I like my sister's house. Where my apartment is small and cut up into pieces to make distinct rooms, hers has lots of open space. The kitchen opens into the eating space opens the living room opens into the dining room. On a few mornings, I sat on her deck with my coffee in the quiet. One morning it was warm and sunny and birds showed off how beautiful they are there. The next morning it was misting, which seemed to muffle everything and keep everyone but the full frogs in bed. But even more than the house or the yard or the neighborhood was the people who filled it. I cut vegetables with my sister in that kitchen; I made friendship bracelets with my niece in the eating space; we played games at the dining room table. I heard my niece laugh time and again, one of the millions of things I love about her. I watched my nephew nap on the couch, hoping he'd feel better than he had the night before, imagining what an incredible young man his sensitivity and intelligence will make him. I could stay here for days, I thought to myself. I could live here. And yet somehow there is a place for which I might trade thousands of days at my sister's house in North Carolina to live in for just one day. 

There is a place that is that full of goodness, that much like a home.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

a new breakfast, a small grace

Every once in a while, something enters your life and changes it in small but significant ways. Have you every experienced this? A new idea or way of thinking of rhythm for life comes along and breaks up the monotonous forward motion toward who knows what. Sometimes these small graces are just that - something good and pleasant, like gentle rainfall to cool us in the heat of day, like the kind words that we needed to hear.

The hopeful thing is that though grace is gentle as a light rain, it is also sturdy and powerful, like a jackhammer that breaks up hard stone. It might wreck what's in place, but for something new to grow there. It is both water and weapon.

Maybe that is a rather sentimental introduction to a recipe, but it's true, isn't it, that sometimes we are stuck, and the breaking-in is something that is entirely not of us, and so something that begets gratitude. I have been stuck in some food ruts, and have experienced varying degrees of desire to change them. I eat the same semi-healthy items for breakfast almost every morning, and was mostly ok with that. But the other night, I started reading through a new cookbook I ordered and was newly inspired to buy and eat lots of veggies. One simple dish was a saute of red onions and spinach (which I made for dinner last night). I was inspired again this morning, and had just enough time to saute some more slices of red onion, then add kale and let it simmer slowly until it got nice and soft. I tossed in a few toasted walnuts at the end. And it was hearty and sweet and earthy and wonderful.

I wonder what other small graces might be coming my way. Breakfast reminded me to be open, and to be ready.

Red Onion and Kale Saute with Toasted Walnuts
(inspired by The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone* by Deborah Madison)

  • 1/2 red onion, cut into chunky but uniform slices
  • two large handfuls of chopped kale (you can include the stems if you want, since it's cooked down quite a bit)
  • a handful of toasted walnutes, chopped
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • lemon (I didn't have this on hand but I imagine just a squeeze would be good)

Let oil heat in skillet. Add red onions and saute, stirring occassionally, about 5 minutes. Onions should be soft but not yet dark. Add kale and cover for a few minutes. Then stir, and add just a little bit of water and cover again until water is evaporated. Repeat this process until kale is at desired softness. When it's done, add salt, pepper, lemon (if using) and walnuts, stir and serve.

*I'm not a vegetarian or planning to become one - especially after visiting North Caroline (the best bbq this mid-atlantic/socal girl has had!) - but am always aiming to eat a more veggie-rich diet. I highly recommend this cookbook for anyone seeking to do the same!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

to be a good writer is to have a big heart

But the paramount job requirement if you want to be a good writer is to have a big heart. ... Big-heartedness can mean a lot of things, including an appreciation of beauty, a capacity for joy, the ability to find the humor in life, a reflexive sense of compassion, and the ability to connect with other people and see in them what is good and laudable. Show me a piece of writing that really moves the readers, and it'll typically have many or all of the previously mentioned virtues... but most of all it will convey that the writer is someone with a capacity for caring.
via here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

los angeles, my home

I arrived in Los Angeles in the dark at night. I waited at the baggage claim wondering how I'd recognize the people picking me up, hoping my description of myself (tall, with a green hooded sweatshirt) would be enough for them to identify me. Somehow we found each other, and I found my luggage, and we hopped in a car. I wondered what role these strangers would play in my summer, my life. They asked if I was hungry and wanted to stop at a taco truck. I wasn't hungry, I said, unsure of what I was saying no to. They explained to me what a taco truck was. At that point I didn't know that even the tacos themselves - something I previously thought universal, unchanging - would be unfamiliar to me: flat, and without cheese and lettuce, and you could get them with tongue.

The next morning I saw LA by the light of its warm, constant sun. Above the porch I sat on were Morning Glory blooms. Their deep indigo flowers climbed on their vines, and, desperate to like my new home, I declared them my new favorite.

The next few days and weeks are a blur to me now. All I remember is how different everything felt and looked and sounded to me. The tacos, and also poverty and Spanish and the rhythm of summer and the heat, the sun. It didn't rain for the first five months I lived here - the longest I'd ever lived without it. I realized I didn't really know what I was saying yes to, and what I'd left behind.

This was 10 years ago, and sometimes my home still feels as foreign and unknowable as it did in those first few weeks. It's still not in my blood, and I don't know if it ever will be completely. But I've learned that love doesn't always have to be entire and exclusive. There are many things here I've learned to love. Including those flat tacos. Including the brown hills and mountains, the cloudless, unending skies, including the Spanish and all of the other languages you hear like music in your head. The jacaranda trees (a different, lighter purple than those Morning Glories, and perhaps my real favorite, now that I've had a chance to really decide). And the palm trees that line the freeway to LAX, reminding me where I am and hastening me to return from whereever I might be going. And 10 years in, I've listened to them every time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

i just keep rushing on

Watching me in the kitchen could make a very good lesson in why not to multi-task. Last night I roasted beets, baked scones and made a quick veg and egg scramble for my dinner, all at the same time. Oh, and I washed the dishes as I went.

Multi-tasking for me is usually about being resourceful. My plan is that the beets would get roasted while I did dishes and prepped the scones, then the already-heated oven would bake the scones while the beets cooled and I made my dinner. The thing is, I was roasting beets (1) by a new-to-me method and (2) for a friend's bridal shower, so while they are just beets, they really deserved more attention. Instead of checking on them once or twice, I whisked dry ingredients, then wet, and then grated freezed butter into the dry, yada yada yada. And then, just as planned, the buzzer for the beets went off just as the scones were coming together. But the thing is, that freezed butter in the scone batter wasn't supposed to melt much. Oh, and I should have mentioned that the scones were (1) my first batch ever and (2) also for the bridal shower. So yes, they deserved more attention, too. When my oven buzzer goes off, it doesn't take a break, it just keeps buzzing. So that was happening while I precariously shape and patted and cut the scone batter, soft dough covering my fingers and a trickle of sweat forming in the middle of my back. I was rushing to get things done instead of taking my time and using some wisdom. For example, I could have put the scone dough in the refrigerator while I tended to the beets. Instead, I hastily flopped them onto the cookies sheets, pulled the slightly-shriveled beets out of the oven, pressing on one to feel if it had softened enough, and adjusted the oven's heat and shoved the scones in, hoping I'd spaced them out right and forgoing the cream I was planning to brush on top.

Here is what I got: the beets taste ok but look a little dark in places, taking away from that beautiful deep red color that is most of the fun of putting them into something. I had to say a little prayer when I shoved the scones in the oven because I was really not sure they would survive. I'm a big avoider, so I almost couldn't bring myself to flip on the oven light halfway through their baking time, but when I did, I was relieved to see that they looked kinda like scones. They aren't the prettiest ones you've seen, but they taste how they're supposed to. And my dinner was edible. So no casualties. But I keep thinking what pretty little scones I might have made if I'd taken my time, and willing those beets to look pretty and taste good when I mix them with feta and toasted pecans tomorrow morning before the event. I can go slower, I keep telling myself. I can take one thing at a time. But instead I just keep rushing on.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

quick reflections on a trip to North Carolina

I just got back from a long weekend in North Carolina with my middle sister and her family. Andi is just 18 months older than me. We spent a lot of our childhood together, and people got us confused all the time because we look and sound a lot alike. Now, we are separated by 3,000 miles and the directions our vocations/roles have taken us (she's been a mother for nearly 8 years, a wife for 13, while I'm pretty accustomed to single, working-in-an-office life). But thankfully it takes a lot to truly separate sisters, at least in our case. Being with her is always like being closer to home, wherever we meet up.

She and her family moved to Durham almost two years ago, and this was my first time visiting them, save the drive down when they moved. North Carolina was beautiful and green and familiar in its rolling hills and summer cicada sounds. I love how wild nature is on much of the east coast -- here, green is often summoned then manicured, like a lot of other things. I took this photo on Sunday morning while I drank coffee on the back deck and waited for others to wake up. There was a slight drizzle in the air, and the sun slept in like everyone else. These trees, the friendly birds, bull frogs, the slower pace all convinced me that it's taking care of my family. I can trust them there.

For me, it was good to get away from Los Angeles and the many things that shape my life, at least for a short time. It's good to take note of what was not missed:

  • high heels
  • driving in traffic
  • a regular schedule and planning ahead
  • sitting in front of a computer
  • responding to email
  • doing dishes (sorry for being lazy about that, Andi!)
  • netflix
  • my running routes
  • making so many of my decisions myself
  • hearing lots of different languages (I heard some, but I have to say that I felt relief at less diversity - it happens)
  • sorting through mail
It was such a gift to visit family and to see how they are growing where they've been transplanted. There is something hopeful about new beginnings and seeing where they have led.

Monday, June 9, 2014

the God of small things

I was getting a snack from the vending machine at work and happened to glance at the table of books. It is usually stacked with those small thick mass market paperbacks with the author's name in huge block, books that I imagine someone bought for the beach and cleared out of their house when they moved a few summers later. And I usually ignore these. But sitting there like it knew I'd be looking for it was a book with a title that I needed to understand. I picked it up and turned it around to read the back cover. And here is a confession: I stole it. I bargained that I had a few books I'd drop off in exchange for this one (which, another confession, I haven't done yet).

Then a few days later I was at a bookstore, in line to buy some used books (I can't be helped), and I saw a coffee table book that featured authors' bookshelves. The name of one of my favorites caught my eye, and what else was on his bookshelf but the book I had recently stolen from the work breakroom. I took it as a sign (the God of small things indeed) and started reading it a few days later.

Reading this book required a change of pace from the previous few books I'd read, which were nonfiction narrative and moved fairly quickly. This novel is full of imagery and poetic language, and its structure is complicated, jumping from the present to the past to the further past as memories are evoked. The beginning was slow for me as I adjusted to the depth of concentration I needed to grasp this book. The action picks up at the end, and so did my focus, so I read the second half within a few days.

Something I really loved about this book is that it took trips into the past to tell the beginnings of each character's story and how they fit into the Story this book tells. The author is particular about when she gives you these bits of information, inviting you to deeper feeling and opinion about characters at specific, strategic points in the Story. She also spends a lot of time with scene-setting, making some of the places in the Story (a house, a river) into characters, too.

There are so many beautiful passages that, if given time, I could sit and read over and over. Here is one that I earmarked:
Being with Chacko made Margaret Kochamma feel as though her soul had escaped from the narrow confines of her island country into the vast, extravagant spaces of his. He made her feel as though the world belonged to them -- as though it lay before them like an opened frog on a dissecting table, begging to be examined.   
In the year she knew him, before they were married, she discovered a little magic in herself, and for a while felt like a blithe genie released from her lamp. She was perhaps too young to realize that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous, acceptance of herself.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

who will watch your things while you pee?

The idea of a day alone at the beach is, in theory, wonderfully refreshing. You come and go as you please, watch the ocean play along the edge of the sand and listen to its rumbling with only the soundtrack of your own thoughts, read a book or journal or pray with no one to interrupt you with their thoughts. No one to tell you that you should put on more sunscreen or you will die of skin cancer.

But then the day starts and you find that being alone is a bit more complicated and conspicuous than you'd anticipated. When you stop at a cafe for lunch on your way, the waiter asks how many at your table and you say one. And then once you are seated, another waiter comes and asks you if you are alone and you confirm that yes, you have chosen to come to a restaurant by yourself. You forgot your magazine in the car so you look at your phone, at the plant next to your table, at other people. The waiter comes to take your order and, used to interrupting conversations to ask for the order, he looks a little lost. And when it's time for the check, he has to apologize for it taking him too long to get it, since he is accustomed to his customers being caught up in conversation, not noticing the minutes between the plates cleared and his return.

Later, at the beach, you spread out your things, deftly handling the big blanket by yourself. The wind is kind and helps you lay it flat, and you are thankful. But an hour in, you encounter a new problem: the coffee and water you drank at lunch needs to come out. You look at the people around you and try to decide if you need to bother asking one of them to watch your things or if that would be stupid, over protective. You never think about who will watch your things while you pee when you plan to be alone. You stand up, put on your shorts and take your purse (your wallet, keys and phone), and when you return, you are grateful to see all of your things still there. Then an hour later, there is a new problem: you are getting red and should put on some sunscreen. Your legs, your arms, your chest, these parts you can reach. When it comes to your back you try the best you can to reach in different contortions, trying also not to look to desperate as you accomplish this task meant for two people all by yourself.
*    *    *
Growing up, I looked to my oldest sister to teach me most things in life. She taught me how to diet, how to give myself a facial, how to twirl a baton. In the summer months, she taught me how to sunbathe: 30 minutes on your stomach, then 30 minutes on your back, just like that so that you'd be evenly darkened all over. She taught me to spray lemon juice in my hair so the sun would lighten it. And I followed her loyally, unquestioningly. But then she went somewhere I couldn't follow (life partnered, familied, peopled). She never taught me how to be a thirty-something person who is alone.
*    *    *
After a few hours on the beach, you decide to go home. You put on your shorts and shirt and shove the rest of your belongings in your bag. The wind is merciful again, not whipping your blanket and the sand its accumulated all over as you fold it up. You grab your chair and place it on your shoulder and walk through the sand and up the stairs toward your car. On the way, you stop in the ice cream shop you've been to every time you come to this beach, and it's busier than expected. There you are with your purse, your beach bag and a chair, walking precariously through the store, dodging kids and candy displays. When you pay for your ice cream you have to put everything down to reach for your wallet, then pick everything up again to walk out and realize you can't eat the ice cream while holding all of your things. There should be a class, or maybe you could write a book or a blog post, you think, because going to the beach alone is something you need to be prepared for.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

feasting with kids during children's church

"Thank you God for giving us houses to live in so that we can have lots of toys to play with and lots of food to eat. Amen." - Joshua, age 4

They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. - Psalm 36:8