Friday, May 31, 2013

Hanuman, Anandam, Memory, and Chickpea Ratatouille

Each month, my yoga teacher focuses on a different asana to deepen our practice, and this month's theme was hanumanasana.  Hanuman, according to Hindu scripture, was the deity who reunited the lovers Sita and Rama, symbolizing the role of public servant, and seeker of truth.  We're also thinking about the second of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and last night, my teacher was talking about the things that keep us from anandam, from bliss: the things that keep us from uniting with the truth.

One of these things, according to Patanjali, is reproducing memory, living as if what was true then is also true now.  Or distorting memory in ways that link it with other thought patterns.

I guess that's one reason that yoga has been recommended as a treatment for PTSD: to help us get closer to the truth of now, rather than inhabiting a past that our minds can embellish.  If we are focused on our breathing, on the position of our bodies in space, it's a lot harder to rehash the things that caused us pain; we are too busy with the process of reunification of self.

Mel posted the other day about refusing to get on an emotional roller coaster, and I could have sworn she was talking to me.  I've recently gotten back on a roller coaster that I thought I'd never get back on again.  It's a ride that takes me right back to where I was two years ago, with twists and turns and plummets into the depths that make me -- even now -- dizzy and sick: I have a strong visceral reaction to living in this space of memory.  I did it because I thought it would bring me closer to the truth.  I did it because I want, desperately, to do the right thing.  But sometimes it's hard to know what the right thing to do really is.

There have been a few times over the past few days when I look down at my daughter and realize that she is becoming this little person; I find myself wondering where this small, articulate little one came from.  I've been with her from the beginning, of course, but I will admit to being a very distracted parent over the past two years.  People have asked "are you enjoying your time at home?"  And I would have to answer, "well, sort of, but it's hard to focus on enjoying your time at home when you think you're supposed to be somewhere else."  It's hard to focus on being at home when you never know if and when you'll get a job, and you live in constant limbo.  (Sort of like being pregnant after infertility and loss.  Yes, you are happy to be pregnant, but you also know that at any moment you may lose everything, so you try hard not to attach at all.)  It's hard to focus on being at home when you feel like you're treading water.  It's hard to focus on being at home when you are depressed.  It's hard to focus on being at home when you feel like you are going to leap out of your skin at any moment, because this is not your life.  It's hard to focus on being at home when you are still stuck in the memory of what happened to you when this all started.

And now, I feel sad that I've squandered the time I had, the gift I had.  Not on purpose, but because I couldn't be present for it.  Still on the roller coaster, I try to drag myself back to the now, and notice the amazing little one before me.  Because she is what's real.

Om anandam, sachit anandam.  Welcome bliss.  Be present now.  And be gentle when the memories come.

Chickpea Ratatouille
This Mark Bittman dish from the April 2013 issue of Vegetarian Times is the sort of thing you can prepare and then step away from, so that you can spend more time being where you are, rather than where you think you're supposed to be.  This is not my mother's ratatouille.

1 lb. small eggplant, cut into large chunks
28-oz. can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
3/4 lb. zucchini, cut into large chunks
1 medium yellow onion, sliced (1½ cups)
2 red or yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded, and sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1 t. salt
¼ cup olive oil
2 15 oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onion, bell peppers, garlic, salt and oil in large  roasting pan.

Roast 30 to 40 minutes, or until vegetables are lightly browned and tender, and some water has released from  tomatoes to create a sauce, stirring occasionally.

Stir in chickpeas, and roast 5 to 10 minutes more, or until chickpeas are heated through. Stir in parsley, and season with salt and pepper, if desired. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Sound of One Woman Clapping: Perfect Moment Tuesday

On the last Monday of each month, my lovely friend Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, a blog hop/writing prompt that offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  Everyone is welcome to join.  Hopefully we don't have to all be on time.


I've actually had some really good news over the past month.  And I've had quite a few perfect moments, and even perfect hoursBut I've also been dealing with some difficult, soul-sucking and stressful things.  And eating my way through them, despite struggling not to.  So I've been grateful for the turn in the weather that allows for runs on weekend mornings and my body which seems to be letting me go a little farther again, despite the ankle that still isn't quite healed.

I took my medium-length loop on Monday morning, before our town's annual Memorial Day parade, and towards the end, I slowed down to cross a busy intersection.  That was before I saw the convoy.

They were coming from the armory not too far down the highway: all kinds of trucks, jeeps, an old Army car that looked like it was something out of the Sound of Music, even a small tank.  I knew they were headed to the parade staging area in the shopping center.  But they were like a mini-parade of their own, with no one to appreciate them.  And something about the scene made me start clapping.

There I was, hopping up and down, trying to keep my heart rate up, clapping for my own private parade convoy of antique Army vehicles, driven by people who were old, and young, in all kinds of dress.  Many of them waved back appreciatively, some honked horns, and some probably laughed at the crazy running woman on the side of the road who was jumping and clapping.  To be perfectly honest, I was feeling particularly grateful for the freedom to run, and barbecue, and celebrate summer, all of which I think are perfectly acceptable things to celebrate on Memorial Day, because in some places, going for a run would mean navigating land mines, and celebrating anything would put you at risk for execution.

I was the sound of one woman clapping.  And it was, for the moment, enough.
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Starting Somewhere

I have barely written here lately, second-guessing and silencing myself.  There is too much going on in my head, and in my life, that I feel I can't talk about.

Which is weird, right?

Because this is the one space where I talk about everything, isn't it?  Except that it's not.

I have lived most of my life busily cocooning myself away from the world.  Maybe I didn't do it on purpose at first, but after a while, after I discovered how much vulnerability could hurt, it was easier to disconnect entirely.  Like many other bloggers I know, I was one of the misfits in elementary school.  I didn't care about what most adolescents seemed to care about, and so I had few friends in high school.  I had some good friends in college, where for perhaps the first time, I felt I really belonged.  Then I went to graduate school, and found myself unable to establish friendships, alone except for my then-boyfriend, who, in retrospect, probably preferred being in his own little cocoon, too.  And returned to my home state, where I didn't connect deeply with my colleagues, for any number of reasons I gave myself, and because I let my job become my life, I didn't have many relationships beyond it, either.

Really, it's a miracle I met my husband.  But I met him online, so perhaps it's not that miraculous or surprising after all.

Fast forward eleven years, and though I feel like I have a network of amazing, loving, supportive friends now, I find myself shut almost as tightly as before.

I was talking with one of these friends the other day about this cocoon-history I have, about getting into the habit of being alone, and letting that alone-ness spiral out of control, until even when I do talk with people, I'm not there.  And thinking about how strange it is that I've chosen to blog at all, given how I tend to operate.  And wondering what it means that I've even shut down here, that there are things I feel like I can't even say to the semi-anonymous audience behind the screen, worrying about who might find me and judge me: employers, community members who trust my leadership in civic organizations, friends, family.

My friend suggested that it's not at all unreasonable that I'd blog, because it's a safer way to be open, especially if you don't know most of your readership in person, and when you don't post about controversial things (which, typically, I don't).  And she said that it's a good first step towards leaving the cocoon behind, even if it's not a complete metamorphosis.  But what about the excuses I make not to write?  The self-censoring, to the point of silence (I don't want to post about children because I'll hurt my infertile and childless readers, and I find those posts among the less interesting ones anyway; I don't want to post about food because I'm not really a food blogger but I don't want to NOT post about food because maybe new readers find me only by searching for Vegetarian Tortilla Soup; I can't post about my job search; do I really want to post about what I rehash in therapy)?   What about the bold assumption that I have nothing of importance to warrant stealing away your reading time, when there are so many other things out there to read?

I guess, like everything else, you have to start somewhere.  So here I go again, fingers to keyboard.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Karma, and Ginger Chocolate Kisses

Like most people, I often use the word karma all wrong.  We tend to think of karma as some magical external justice system: people who do good things, get good things coming to them eventually.  People who do bad things, well ... you all know the saying about the bitch.

And I confess, I've always liked the idea of karmic justice, the "you'll get yours some day" approach to people who create misery and suffering in other people's lives.  It's comforting, especially when there doesn't seem to be any hope for justice in the current situation.

But recently, I've been mulling over a terrifying thought: what if karmic justice doesn't happen?  What if, sometimes, bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to people who behave in truly morally reprehensible ways?  It's not that I haven't always known this might be possible, but maybe I chose to ignore it.  Because, you know, that just doesn't fit with my perception of the universe.

Karma, the way the Buddhists mean it, anyway, isn't about predestination.   It's about intention. Which sort of turns the common perception of karma on its head.  Instead of things happening to you, it's about the way you do things, and the way you are more likely to do things because of the way you've done them.  It's about the development of habit.

A long time ago, when the Tibetan Buddhist monks came to visit us, they talked about how people can only give what they have.  People who have no joy can't give it.  And too bad for you if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have to endure these people.  The practice of karma demonstrates how this works.  You practice ill will and greed, and that's pretty much what you end up with.  You practice good will and generosity, and you will become more good-willed and generous.  We're planting behavioral seeds.  Of course this makes sense.  Not in the "fake it 'til you make it" way, but in the mindful, cognitive behavioral therapy way.

We don't experience karma; we do it.

I have been struggling with karma for a long, long time.  With the concepts of punishment and justice.  Torturing myself with the possibility that maybe, if deeds went unpunished, they were warranted.  That I could have acted differently.   But really?  Sometimes people act in really awful ways, and get away with it.  And there's not a thing we can do about their behaviors.  They will never be brought to justice ... at least, not for our charges against them.

So maybe karmic justice isn't about people getting their just desserts.  Maybe it's about choosing to live in a way that creates the kind of heart we want to live with, and the world we want to live in, even if it's not the world where we live right now.

How do you respond to/deal with the injustices you see or experience in the world, the ones that are perpetrated by human beings?

Ginger Chocolate Kisses
These are Heidi's, of course.  I tweaked few things, but she is the goddess of just desserts.  And many, many other things.

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
2 c. spelt flour
1 t. baking soda
4 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. fine grain sea salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1/4 c. unsulphured molasses
2/3 c. fine grain natural cane sugar
1 T. grated fresh ginger, peeled
2 t. candied ginger, minced
1 large egg, well beaten

Preheat the oven to 350F and place the racks in the top and bottom third of the oven. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper.

Finely chop the chocolate and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt into a large bowl.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat; remove from heat and stir in the molasses, sugar, and fresh ginger.   Let this mixture cool before proceeding; you don't want to cook the egg or melt the chocolate!

When the pot is cool to the touch, whisk in the egg and add this mixture to the the flour mixture.  Stir until just combined and fold in the chocolate.

Roll dough into 1/2 tablespoon-sized balls. (Heidi suggests rolling them in sugar, but I preferred the ones I didn't roll in sugar.  Use your judgment, of course.)  Place dough a few inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until cookies are dark brown and puffy (they will likely deflate just a bit after you remove them from the oven).  Let cool on the sheets for a minute or two before removing them to cool completely.  Store in an airtight container not more than a few days, or freeze.
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In An Instant

(Warning: this post may be upsetting to readers who have had experiences with fires, or with the loss of a home in a disaster.)

I watched a house burn down today.

My daughter and I were headed to a local playground about a mile and a half from our house when we heard the sirens.  Fascinated by emergency vehicles, she asked what they were.  I speculated on where they were going, said they were going to put out a fire somewhere, help someone who needed help, and kept walking, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the slight breeze that finally smelled like spring.

Until I realized we were walking directly towards a pillar of thick, brown, billowing smoke.

I don't understand the human fascination with disaster, but I know that it has sway over me, too.  "Oh," I said, "that's where the fire trucks are going.  Do you want to see them working?"

My daughter bounced in her stroller.  Yes, yes, she said, excited.

And so was I, sort of, until I saw the house.

I'd run by here countless times, looked at the jogging stroller on the porch.  Small children lived in this house.  The flames engulfed one entire side of the facade, roared between the roof and the chimneys, taunted the firefighters from under the roof.  There seemed to be no stopping the burning.  I watched in horror, unable to swallow, hoping that they had gotten the kids out. 

A female firefighter walked by with a sooty-faced infant on her hip.  The baby couldn't have been more than a year old, if that.  She regarded the open-mouthed crowds silently, seemingly content with her current place of safety.

In Spanish, I asked some of the women next to me, who were talking rapidly into their cell phones, if they knew the people who lived there.  Yes, they said.  The pregnant lady, over there.  She lives here.  With her son.  And the baby.

The mother had gone into labor.  As the ambulance pulled away, I felt sick, knowing that it had been too soon for that pregnancy to end, wishing desperately that I could do something, feeling awful about witnessing this disaster, and yet not knowing how to pull myself away.

I asked two other women, standing next to their store across the street from the blaze, if they knew anything.  They told me that they'd heard a bang, that they came out and the entire lower floor was on fire.  That the mother said she had been putting her baby down for a nap, and that she'd left the four year old downstairs.  That they'd found her standing right outside the house in shock, watching everything they owned burn.  That the mother had asked the little boy if he'd done anything, that he'd denied again and again, and finally, tearfully, confessed to playing with a lighter.  "Mommy," he'd asked, "am I going to jail?"

Oh, god, I thought.  The four year old.  A little four year old kid, responsible for a horrible mistake, a mistake that led to the burning of the rental where his family lived.  What would the landlord do to these people, who had already lost everything?

I asked N. if she had seen enough of the firefighters working, and she shook her head.  But I couldn't stand still any longer.  I started to ask people if they knew how we could help the family.  Could we get them clothes.  Food.  Things for the baby.  Anything.  God, anything.  And it would never be enough.

The smoke continued to billow into the air, and as the firefighters sprayed the house from the inside and the outside, the roof began to cave in.  Pieces of it were flying off from the sheer force of the water stream.  I could see through the walls now.

No one knew the family, no one knew how to reach them.  No one knew who was in charge.  People suggested I contact United Way, or the Red Cross, but didn't know if the family would be in touch with those agencies.  It was clearly too chaotic, with the fire still burning out of control, for us to make any logical plans.  But it was hard for me to walk away, feeling like I'd witnessed disaster and done nothing about it.

When I was growing up, my biggest, deepest, darkest fear was not nuclear war, or even the dark.  My greatest fear was that our house would burn down.  I woke up screaming in the night, flames licking the corners of my imagination, smoke choking me in my sleep.  I saw the stairs burning, the curtains, taking away my escape routes, leaving me stranded.  I saw everything we owned, everything that brought me comfort, turn to ashes.

Now, thirty years later, I watched the nightmare come to life before my eyes, and I felt powerless to stop it.  I could only imagine the nightmares of those children.  My heart hurt so much it was hard to breathe.

It's astounding how much your whole life can change in an instant.

Finally, N. pulled me away, ever the pragmatist, telling me she'd seen enough of the firefighters at work.  We walked the rest of the way to the playground, where I felt like we were living in some strange parallel universe, Muzak drifting from the outdoor mall nearby while children squealed with laughter, climbing and sliding and running around.  Shoppers walked by laden with bags of clothes from the outlets, completely oblivious to the devastation happening not even two blocks away.

It shook me, the parallel universe, perhaps even more so than the fire.  "Don't you know?" I wanted to scream.  "Don't you all know what just happened?  That two little children and their mother have no place to live?  That she may be giving birth to a baby that might not live?"

But of course, they didn't.  And it was only by coincidence that I did.

What was your deepest, darkest fear as a child?  Have you ever seen a house burn down?  What do you do to help people when you feel completely powerless?

*A group of people in my town have been trying to track down the family and offer support.  This story is not over yet.  At least, I hope it's not.
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Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Other Mothers

On Friday night, when I was driving home from the grocery store, I noticed that the gas station on the corner had set up two tents, which were filled with flowers and balloons.  At first I was confused, but then I realized, of course: Mother's Day.

We know how tricky this holiday is, for motherless children, for childless mothers, for the bereaved.  And honestly, though I love the homemade cards from my children, I don't like the pressure to buy balloons and flowers and candy.  I am uncomfortable with the iconography of motherhood that Hallmark offers up, even for those among us who had perfect pregnancies and exactly the number of children we wanted and managed to strike a perfect work/life balance and have fabulous relationships with our own--still living--mothers.

Like I've done in most years past, I'm choosing to celebrate Mother's Day (misplaced apostrophe and all) by celebrating my own Other Mothers, some of whom have no biological children of their own, but who have been mothers to me when I've needed them most.  And I've needed a lot of mothering lately.

Here are the Other Mothers I'm honoring in my heart today:

J., who came when it felt like the walls were finally closing in; helped me to find a door; and may--though I haven't yet asked her--even let me and my daughter adopt her.  Whose arms and heart are so open.

The other J., who invited me to be part of a group of amazing and inspiring women, who checks in on me periodically, despite the shitstorm in her own life.  Who has given me the gift of her own vulnerability as a parent.  Who is really an astonishingly strong and powerful mother.

Mel, who has been my patient blogging and writing mother, though I am a recalcitrant blogging child.

Lori, my wise mother-across-the-country, the one who reminds me to listen to myself, who always knows exactly the right thoughtful, thought-provoking, reassuring but also daring thing to say.

AmarJyothi, who teaches me, each time I am on the mat in her class, how to mother myself.

C., who reminds me how to be the mother I want to be.

N., who brought me tea and chocolate and made me rest during the worst of my pregnancy losses, who can no longer look across the driveway into my window, but still mothers me from the West Coast, and pokes me to go to bed, via Facebook.

E., who was my first professional mother, who taught me, by example, that the most important thing about working was protecting your integrity.  Whose voice I still hear when I doubt my decision to leave my last position.

There have been others along the way.  But today, I wanted to say thank you, for giving so generously of yourself, for mothering someone who shares no biology with you.  Because really, in the end, that's not what motherhood is about at its core, is it.  It's about the unselfish gift, of life, of love, even when the giving is not easy.

And to those of you who do this for other people, whether you are mothers to your own children or not, consider yourself hugged today.

Who are your Other Mothers?
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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On Vulnerability, and Blueberry-Mango Lavender Shortbread Bars

The visiting minister who gave the sermon at our church this past Sunday said that every minister has one sermon that they keep preaching over and over again, with different scaffolding, different illustrations, different stories to drive the point home.  I think that the same thing goes for many writers: that is, that we're trying to exorcise our demons, to write our way out of a problem that we, too, are stuck inside, in one way or another.

This minister's one sermon, she said, was about the spirituality of imperfection: the profound connection that can result in willingness to be vulnerable with others, and with ourselves, about who we really are, instead of who we think we ought to be.  We've heard this before from people like Brené Brown, whose Ted talks and books and appearances on Oprah have catapulted her into the public eye.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the sermon (because for those of you who aren't UU, that's how we roll: we talk back after the minister talks, even if we do let said minister have the last word) was when it was useful to be vulnerable, given the tendency to overshare in social media.  Though the question was really more about Facebook, the question applies equally to bloggers, and about whether the kind of vulnerability Brown describes is really what we're doing here.

When Brown talks about being vulnerable, with sharing our stories of shame, she says that we can't just be vulnerable with everyone.  In fact, there are several kinds of people we want to actively avoid:
"1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.

2. The friend who responds with sympathy ("I feel so sorry for you") rather than empathy ("I get it, I feel with you, and I've been there"). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: "Oh, you poor thing." Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, "Bless your heart."

3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can't help because she's too disappointed in your imperfections. You've let her down.

4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: "How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?" Or she looks for someone to blame: "Who was that guy? We'll kick his ass."

5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: "You're exaggerating. It wasn't that bad. You rock. You're perfect. Everyone loves you."

6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: 'That's nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!'  "

Basically, Brown says, we need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it.
 In real life, I can attest to the fact that Brown's assessment feels pretty accurate.  Even as an adult, even in the past year, I've had my share of being vulnerable with the wrong people--not people who tore me down, but people who didn't value the gift of my vulnerability.   People who came back with "oh, yeah, that happened to me" ... except it didn't, because I'm not you, I thought.  I walked away from those conversations feeling hurt, strangely violated, strangely tossed aside, wishing that they'd told me instead, from the very beginning, that they didn't really want to hear my story.  But of course, that's for me to judge, not them.

Of course, we don't all share everything online.  There's a lot I don't tell you, or that I tell you only in veiled ways.  I am not my blog.  But our blogs are the places where some of us do feel we can be vulnerable.  Why is that, given what Brown says about the privilege of being empathetic?  And does it matter to us whether our audience has earned the right to hear our story, if that story is difficult or painful in any way?  It certainly matters to us when people tear us down; so how do we walk the line between productive (for ourselves and for our readers) vulnerability, and self-preservation?


Then there are others of us who blog (and, for that matter, live) like we have our shit together.  These are the people whose DIY projects and food dominate Pinterest and Foodgawker.  They're the people who win all blogging awards, who have gazillions of followers.  They're the people whose statuses you hate to read on Facebook.

Mel wrote this week about the tricky business of admitting that we don't have our shit together,  and I think this has a lot to do with vulnerability.  She talks about the fact that we are drawn to confidence, to people who seem to know things.  Smart doctors.  Well-recommended dentists.  Bakers (oh, yes, for me this hits home ... I rarely eat a mediocre cupcake on purpose).  And she suggests that perhaps we look to others who "have it all figured out" because we don't.

I don't know.  I think I actually feel better about people who openly don't have their shit together.  Do I like to read a well-written novel?  Hell, yes.  For as much as Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel has its flaws, I found myself practically weeping over the beauty and cleverness of her prose, telling myself I could never be that good.  But on the other hand, as a writer, I like reading other writers that struggle, that help me to do it better.  If I'm seeing a doctor, I like to know that she has gotten good medical training, and that she's had some success with patients.  But I also know that I'm not every other patient, and I appreciate when a doctor is honest with me about a course of treatment.  Maybe we'll try this, and if it doesn't work, we'll try that.  A chocolatier recently opened a little shop in a town not far from me, and I've already made friends with him.  He was making truffles a few weeks ago, and posted to Facebook something along the lines of "I have these truffles that are not very good yet; come taste them and help me figure out how to make them better."  So I did, of course.  I had a great conversation with him about taste and texture and mouth feel of a truffle.  I learned a lot.  And I was glad he was willing to stumble out there in public.  And yet, you don't do that with everyone, do you?


Recently, I joined what our church calls a covenant group.  These are basically once-a-month small group meetings outside of the regular church service where the members choose a topic, or series of topics, to discuss over a period of several months.  The members of the group covenant with each other to show up, to be respectful and supportive, to listen, to contribute, to value the contributions of others.  It's a lot like a vow of empathy, the way Brown might describe it.  And because of that covenant, the group becomes a safe place to be vulnerable.  I will admit, I have not become completely vulnerable with my covenant group.  But I do feel like I can trust more of them with my authentic self now, and I'm grateful for that.  I am drawn to those relationships.  I need them.  I need them even more than I need beautiful DIY crafts and perfect pictures and stunning prose.  I need to feel like it's OK to be imperfect.

I intended to make these bars from Flourishing Foodie for my covenant group when I hosted last week, but I got a little sidetracked, because I couldn't find fresh apricots in the store, then (after I'd bought the canned ones) realized I didn't have enough apricots.  It's also the wrong season for fresh lavender, and we didn't have any Grand Marnier.  And the powdered sugar went everywhere when I turned on the mixer because someone who lives in this house and who is under three feet tall likes to turn things on and walk away, so I had to add more powdered sugar after the fact.  And when I cooked the mango, there were little fibers in the bars that looked like hair, which was sort of embarrassing.  I disclosed all of this information before I let anyone eat one.  But everyone thought they were good anyway.  And maybe sometimes good enough is exactly what we need.

Where do you feel like you can be vulnerable?  If you blog, do you feel like you can be vulnerable on your blog?  Or do you feel like you need to have your shit together?  Are you drawn to people who are imperfect, or who make living look easy?

Blueberry-Mango Lavender Shortbread Bars
makes 16 squares
adapted from Flourishing Foodie, who adapted it from Baked Explorationsby Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

12 T. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1" cubes
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 t. finely chopped dried lavender
1 3/4 c. flour

1 c. canned apricots, chopped
1 c. fresh mango, chopped
1 c. fresh blueberries
1 c. white wine
1/2 c. of water
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. honey
1 T. Triple Sec
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. chopped almonds
3 T. unsalted butter, chilled, cubed
2 T. oats

Leaving a 1" overhang, line a 9 inch square baking pan with parchment paper. You can also coat it with cooking spray if that makes you feel better, but it's not necessary.

Place the powdered sugar in your electric mixing bowl, and drop the butter in.  Stir gently a few times to coat the butter so that the sugar won't fly everywhere when you turn the mixer on.  Using an electric mixer, starting on a very low speed and pulsing gently, gradually working up to a full-on high mixing level, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add the vanilla and chopped lavender.  Beat again until combined.  Add the flour and mix on low speed, until everything is combined.  Place the dough into the pan and press flat. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling.  In a medium saucepan simmer the apricots, blueberries, mango, wine, water, sugar, honey, and Triple Sec on low to medium heat.  Stir occasionally, and cook until the liquid has absorbed (45 - 60 minutes).  You may have to vary the heat as liquid begins to evaporate.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place the crust into the oven and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

In a bowl, using your fingers, rub together, the flour, brown sugar, and butter. You want the mixture to lightly clump together.  Add chopped almonds and oats.  Set aside.  Once the shortbread has cooled, spread the filling over it, and top with the crumble. Bake for 25 minutes or until the top has just lightly browned.

Let the bars completely cool on a wire rack, in the pan, before serving. Once they have cooled, pull them out with the parchment paper and slice into bars.
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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thinning the Canes

It was obvious, when I walked out to the garden today, that it needed to be done.

The wintered-over raspberry canes were already bending and leaning, tangling into the dead grasses and new weeds, providing a good host for Creeping Charlie and poison ivy.  I have a mortal dread of poison ivy, and I don't like experiencing mortal dread when all I want is berries to make pie.  Besides, the dead canes are like unnecessary dragons to fight when I'm trying to get to the branches that bear fruit.

I both love and hate thinning the canes.  On the one hand, it's a task that makes me feel like I've accomplished something significant.  It's productive.  At the end, I've got something very concrete to show for my time.  On the other hand, it's a painful activity.  Some of the canes have visible, obvious thorns, especially towards the roots.  You can be careful with those.  But some of them look deceptively innocent, and it's only later, long after you've gone in and washed up and had your glass of cold water that you realize your fingers are full of tiny needle-like prickers that bury themselves deeper and deeper, poking at you when you're typing, or washing dishes, or doing other things that shouldn't hurt.

Mike Pennington [CC-BY-SA-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
I know what you're thinking.  I could do it with gloves, but I don't have good gardening gloves right now anyway, and I kind of like doing it with my bare hands.  It helps me to be more sensitive to the possibility of life inside the canes.  I'm more gentle with my bare hands than I'd be with a pair of gloves.

It's a tricky business to know which canes are still alive, and which are the standing dead.   Our raspberry bushes have a two year cycle, kind of like Monarch butterflies: some bloom in the spring, and bear fruit in June along the entire branch.  These dry out over the winter, die, become hollow, and are less fierce by the following spring.  Others only sprout in the spring, sending up long stalks into the stratosphere seemingly overnight; if we're lucky, they bloom and bear smaller, less voluptuous, but still sweet fruit in August and September, winter over, and become the early bloomers and bigger producers the next year.  Though sometimes the older canes appear lighter in color and more brittle to the touch, you can only really tell which canes are alive in late spring, after the leaves start to unfold, and even then it's not always a given that the barren canes are dead.  Sometimes, you tug at the ones that seem dead, and they tug back from the root, green, unwilling to give up their earth.

I am arm-deep in the tangle of branches, the sun is warm above me, not quite beating down yet like it will just a month from now, and my daughter orbits me in the grass, singing, picking dandelions, and sometimes screaming "aaaaah!  beeee!  BEEEEE!  gnaaaaaaaaat!! AAAA!  GNAAAAT!" which I am ignoring probably more than I should.  I toss the canes into a neat pile, stacking them in parallel so that they're easier to transfer to the garbage bin later: another opportunity for them to scratch me and lodge their prickers in my skin one last time before they go to the curb.  Minutes--an hour--pass without my notice.  I am absorbed in this work, this important work that will give me better fruit, and better access to the fruit, when it comes in just a month.

Have I told you?  Lately, I've been thinning my own canes, too.  The ones that I can't touch.  The stalks of my past lives.  It's long overdue, this thinning.  And it's a more long-term project, not something I can finish in a day, not something I can stack neatly in a pile and put out at the curb. It's probably something I'll have to do at the start of every growing season, or maybe to start my own growing season.

Like the raspberry branches, some of my canes are thorny.  I can see the thorns as I approach those memories, those feelings, and I'm gentle in the pulling; even though I know they're dead, I also know that they can still hurt me.  There are some, too, that are surprisingly thorny--those are the ones that leave barely perceptible prickers.  And some are still alive; I tug at them, and they don't give.  Despite their wintering over, they need time, still, to bear fruit, bitter and seedy as that fruit may be, before they die.

Unfortunately, there are no gloves for this kind of work.  You just have to do it: take a deep breath, don your courage, and dive in.

The afternoon shadows lengthen, and I decide to pack it in for the day.  I survey my work: I can see the earth again, and there's no poison ivy, or at least not yet.   The dead canes and weeds fill a garbage can.  My hands and fingernails are dirty, and my arms scratched and scarred.  I am already finding small prickers buried in my fingertips, bits too small to tweeze out.  But I'm also pleased to see just how many live canes I've found, to see the silver buds opening into silky green leaves, and am already thinking about the colanders full of ripe, red berries, and fresh raspberry pie.
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