Friday, February 27, 2015

Tea with Strangers, and Gluten Free Morning Glory Muffins

I may have been socialized to tea by the center cabinet in my mother's kitchen, right next to the window, which always always smelled of dry goods, and contained peanut butter, measuring cups, a bag of rice, and a wide selection of Lipton and Celestial Seasonings teas.

I don't know why my mother drank tea--I suspect it was a combination of attempts at dieting, and wanting hot liquid that wasn't coffee (she was sensitive to caffeine)--but I always felt a little sophisticated when she'd make a cup for me, or better yet, when I'd make a cup for myself.  Maybe it was good marketing in those Good Housekeeping magazines that I'd flip through when my mother wasn't looking, trying to understand her.

Tea, however, didn't strike me as a particularly social occasion until I started reading British literature, anyway, and learned that it came with cakes, and crumpets, and conversation, and convention.  I was sold.  I began to swill Earl Grey, which my English teachers brewed in a great pot in the morning if we slept over, and sweetened liberally, or doused with milk.  I loved the heady floral scent.  One year, I took my mother to high tea at the Plaza in New York as a Christmas gift.  I must have been a freshman in high school.  The gift was at least partially selfish, I'm sure.

Somewhere in graduate school, I stopped drinking tea, and started drinking coffee.  Which--let's be honest--has different connotation, doesn't it?  We drink on our own, dashing out the door, and I'll wager that when you invite someone for coffee, you meet with an agenda.  You have things to accomplish, whether you admit it or not; you simply suggest that the business you conduct will take slightly longer than usual, may be a bit more collaborative, and may be handled a bit more delicately than you might in a conference room.  Case in point: my current job is the result of a series of highly caffeinated conversations.  (For the record: tea ordered in a coffee shop as part of an invitation to "coffee" counts as coffee, not tea.)

Tea, on the other hand, involves commiseration, empathy, intimacy, and trust.  An invitation to tea sends a different message, suggests that you might linger.  You may accomplish things over tea, but only in a rather desultory, meandering way.  It may take several cups to arrive at your destination, if indeed you arrive at all.  (I remember reading Three Cups of Tea, thinking that it was a poorly titled book.)

So I was pleased to learn that some of our students have decided to host a site for Tea with Strangers.  The premise is simple: you sign up, you show up, you have a two hour conversation over tea, you meet someone (or a few people) you likely may never have met.  You probably end up talking about more than the weather.  For a generation who lives on their devices at arms length from each other, it's a huge risk.  Sort of like a blind date, but without the safety of a movie or your plate to retreat.

I made these muffins a while ago for some people I don't know all that well.  (And photographed them in the basket my colleagues gave me for my birthday.)  They're delicately-flavored enough that coffee would overpower them completely.  But they would go very well with tea.

Who will you invite to join you?

Gluten Free Morning Glory Muffins

1/2 c. raisins
1 c. King Arthur Gluten-Free Multi-Purpose Flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ginger
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. xanthan gum
1/4 t. salt
1 c. peeled, grated carrots
1/2 c. grated apple (about 1/2 of a large apple) or1/2 c. drained crushed pineapple
1/2 c. grated coconut, sweetened or unsweetened
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
2 large eggs
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1 t.  vanilla extract
2 T. water

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease 10 cups of a 12-cup muffin pan, or line with 10 muffin papers.

In a small bowl, cover the raisins with hot water and set aside to plump.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, xanthan gum and salt.  Stir in the carrots, apple or pineapple, coconut and nuts.  

In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla and water. Add to the flour mixture and stir until evenly moistened. Drain the raisins and stir them in.

Scoop the batter into the prepared wells. Don't worry if they're nearly full. 
Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one muffin comes out clean.
Remove the muffins from the oven and, after 5 minutes, transfer them to a rack to cool.
Wrap any leftovers airtight and store at room temperature for several days; freeze for longer storage.
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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In the Time of the Butterflies

We huddled together on the platform, waiting in the relentless wind, as the dark-clad scarf-wrapped crowd swelled, gradual, silent.  Shifting their feet.  We could see only their eyes.

My daughter whined softly, nesting closer, asking when the train would come.  I told her again that we would have to be patient, that all of these people were waiting, too, that the train would come, that it would be warm.  My son leaned over the tracks, peering down the tunnel, looking for the lights, stamping his feet to keep from freezing.

It seemed like hours, even for me.

Finally, the train rattled up, sounding as cold as we felt, and pshhhhhhh came to a stop, squealing a little as it did.  The crowd drew closer, gathering around the doors, which remained shut.  A tall woman in a light brown coat pushed past us, determined to be closest to the door, muttering that she wasn't going to stand in the back.  I let her go, deciding that it was easier not to protest, but saying softly, so that my children could hear: "that wasn't necessary."  We all wanted a seat, but it was hard to be angry when my ears and fingertips felt numb.

I watched her lean impatiently from leg to leg, maybe feeling sorry for her.

"Why aren't the doors opening, mama?" asked my daughter, the words freezing and dropping to the ground as she spoke.

Hearing the small voice, the woman turned, backed up, gestured us forward.  "You go ahead," she said. "I didn't see you had the baby.  Go, it's okay."

"Oh, it's fine," I lied, holding my daughter to me, adjusting her Hello Kitty hat, making her look impossibly young, just because.

"No, no," she insisted, nudging us to the door.  "You should have a seat."

I thanked her, and moved closer to the door, which remained shut, looking at the empty seats inside and trying to imagine how warm it would be, if we ever got in.

At last, after several long moments of complete silence, the hydraulics hissed, and the doors tried to open, failed, tried again, and slid apart.  The crowd from the platform poured into the train as if a liquid, we at the front, oozing into the seats opposite the entryway.  The woman from the platform sat down next to us, realized that she'd had a seat, and said, by way of both apology and self-reassurance: "see that? We both got what we needed."

I nodded, pulling my legs in to make room for the man in the leg brace who declined my offer of a seat.

"And they wonder why I'm always late," she added, "they all live there, they don't know."

I nodded again, sympathetically, and looked away.  As we jerked forward, the kids commented on the scenery, on the fact that we were on a train, on anything that came to mind.  "She's cute," said the woman, now perhaps trying to strike up conversation.  She rummaged through her bag.  "Gotta put on my makeup," she said.  "Cause I didn't do it at home, and my boss makes us all wear it, you know," she trailed away, waving her hand dismissively, "fashion work."

"Mama," my daughter asked, watching all of this, fascinated, "what is she doing?"

"Makeup," the woman said, leaning in conspiratorially to tell her: "To make myself pretty.  You won't need any.  Not with those eyes."

"You're always pretty," my daughter replied, thoughtfully, as I'd taught her, "we're always pretty."

"Yes," I agreed, looking at the woman's slight age marks, her lovely nose, her dark eyes, her drawn caramel-colored skin with small brown pigment marks, to which she was now (unfortunately, in my opinion) applying a light powder, "she is pretty."  Because she was.

"I don't wear makeup at home," she said, "just for work.  I wouldn't do it if they didn't make me."

I wondered briefly where she worked, decided it was better not to know.

"What's your name," asked my daughter.  She does this to strangers routinely.

"Ima," said the woman.  "Can you say that?  Actually ..." she hesitated.  "Ima-coLAta.  Can you say that?  Ima-coLAta."  My daughter, under her breath, mouths this word, delighting the woman, who turns to me.  "Do you know what that means?" she asks.  "Immaculate.  I'm named after the Immaculate Conception.  Half Argentinian, half Italian."

My daughter, now mouthing the foreign word, begins thinking about other foreign words, starts to sing a counting song in Spanish, then "Una Paloma Blanca."  The woman closes her eyes.  "It's like a lullaby," she says. "You're going to put me to sleep."  She starts to line her eyes.  "Where are you going today?"

"The museum," my daughter tells her, unafraid of strangers.  "To see the butterflies."

"The butterflies," the woman responds, stopping.  "In the winter.  Yes, that will be nice, won't it.  To think about spring."

I think about the fact that we are going to spend more time on the train today than we are in the museum, wonder if my children know that this is an important part of the trip, not just the arrival, but the getting there.

"What's your favorite color?" my daughter asks.  This is another of her standard getting-to-know-you pick up lines.

"Well," woman says, thinking, "I wear a lot of black.  But I'm trying to break it up today with brown."  She looks down, fingering her coat.  "But you know," she says, pointing, "my favorite colors are really more like what you're wearing" -- she touches my daughter's bright jacket, a stand-out in the train full of dark blue and black -- "purple.  And your brother's, blue.  And your mama's is my son's favorite, orange.  He's an artist.  At Cooper.  He gets off where you will, at 9th street."

It's our stop.  Before we get off, the woman puts her arm on mine.  "Wait," she says.  "What are their names?"  I ask my daughter to answer the question, and the woman smiles.

"Goodbye, N. and I.," she says.  "Enjoy the butterflies."

You too, I think, pulling my children onto the platform.  You, too.
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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fluffy Saturday (er, Sunday) Meme

Mel tagged us all with a meme.  So I did what Mel told me to.  Because why not.

1. When was the last time you cut your hair? Did you like the haircut?

Too long ago.  October, maybe?  I'm due for another.  I always get the same cut.  Though it feels a little shorter every time.

2. Grapes with seeds or seedless?

Seedless.  Too much work to spit out the seeds.  But I wonder ... how do the seedless grapes feel?  #Englishmajorproblems

3. When was the last time you went to a fancy party? What did you wear?

Probably my husband's company party last January.  I wore a long black drapey thing with spaghetti straps and a sheer black scarf.  We didn't go this year, but it's probably for the best, since the dress doesn't currently fit me ... *sigh*

4. What colour is your bedroom wall?

Light green.  Not quite hospital color.

5. The worst smell in the world is…

Rotten eggs.  Or egg salad.  Or maybe white vinegar.  Or egg salad with vinegar.

6. Last thing you spat out.

A piece of cake that wasn't worth the calories?  Yeah, I think that's right.  Not my daughter's birthday cake, though.  That was AMAZING.

7. Do you sing when no one is around? What do you usually sing?

I sing whatever is currently in my head ... which is usually some form of rock or pop.  I can thank my kids for that.  Today, it's "Una Paloma Blanca."  Don't laugh.
8. Your least favourite name (and it’s okay if it’s Melissa; I can take it).

Heather, maybe?  There were simply too many of them when I was growing up.  They're better now, though.  I know several.

9. Did you like the food served at the last dinner party you went to?

Last dinner party I went to was my book group.  The two guys who hosted are talented cooks.  And they make it look effortless.  There was Thai soup, and sesame noodles with edamame, and some fabulously decadent concoction for dessert involving caramel and chocolate and whipped cream.

10. What is your most prized possession? Would you kill a unicorn in order to save your most prized possession?

Wow ... that's a tough one.  I don't think I have a prized possession.  Certainly, if I do have one, it's not worth killing a unicorn for.  (Um, Harry Potter much, Mel?)

Mel asks us to pose some questions, too.  Here are mine.

1. What would you do with $5000 and eight weeks to spent it however you want, without any other responsibilities to worry about?
2. What is your least favorite chore?
3. What do you wish you had more time to do?
4. Where is the career you'd least want to have?
5. What would you do for a living in another life?
6. What superpower would you want: flight or invisibility?
7. What was the last book you read?  Was it any good?
8. Which would you be: Anna, Elsa, or Olaf?
9. Describe your ideal day off.
10. Pose your own question and answer it.

Cut and paste the questions onto your blog and answer them, and then pose 10 of your own.  Or not.  Or just commiserate in the comments.
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Friday, February 6, 2015

Filling the Vessel: Sweet Potato Coconut Soup

Last weekend when I was on retreat with freshmen, I found myself in conversation with the Associate Director of our learning center and some other students on the topic of procrastination.

I admitted that I never could procrastinate; that I always did things immediately when they'd been assigned, or figured out how to start them and finish them well before the deadline.

I was the only one at the table, and my colleague asked me to what I attributed my behavior.  I speculated that it was my father's influence; that growing up in a home run by an ex-Marist brother, who was an old-World Catholic father, made for structure and order.  But I know there's more to it than that.  Yes, my father expected perfection of me.  But I internalized those expectations easily.  They fit.

I joke about my Type A tendencies, but the reality is, it's probably excessive.  I alphabetize my spices and books (by genre).  When I turn off the lights on a multi-switch panel, I want them to be facing the same direction.  I like my shoes lined up neatly, facing out.

It's compulsive, pure and simple.

During my brief stint in therapy for depression, I was also diagnosed with anxiety.  And while it was partly situational, it's also part of who I am.  I keep things in order because order keeps anxiety at bay.  Order is my coping mechanism.

When I look back now at my experiences in front of a classroom, or even my oral exams in graduate school, I recognize it there, too: pages and pages of notes and preparation, to the point of overpreparation, which led to my inability to communicate.  I've gotten better at that, too, with a little more confidence, but when I step into a new situation, I have to be vigilant.

Because if I concentrate too much on form, I have no room to consider content.  If I'm too stuck on order, I can't be where I am; I am too busy thinking about what needs to come next in order for the whole thing to not fall apart.  I worry about the vessel, to the extent that I'm unable or unwilling to fill it.

I've noticed these tendencies come creeping back into my life when things become stressful, partly reinforced by the fact that in a very small number of hours each day we need to make sure that kids get fed, lunches get made, we get out the door on time to drive the kids to school and before care while getting to work on time, laundry gets done, we pick the kids up from their separate schools/aftercare, homework gets done, dishes get done, dinner gets made, and the bathrooms don't get too completely disgusting (trust me when I say that I'm much less compulsive about that than you might imagine).  Non-procrastinator that I am, I try to do as much as I can in advance, so that I'm not doing it at the last minute (e.g. cooking for a few dinners at at time), but I still wind up feeling like somehow I've lost interest in (or perhaps time for?) the things that once interested me: art, music, poetry, fiction.  I don't go to the movies. I don't go to museums.  I don't go to the theater.  I barely get in one yoga class a month.  I manage one book a month, which I read because my book group expects me to show up having read it (thank god for book group).  The weekends somehow vanish into things that the kids need to do, or more preparation of meals, or more laundry, or a rare (it seems) hour of exercise.

But if you know anything about anxiety, you know that you can't just tell someone to "stop worrying so much," or "let it go" or (that advice that IF survivors love) "just relax."

The difference between now and when I first started going to therapy is that I see the signs; I know why I feel like a sumo wrestler is sitting on my chest.  It happens when I'm feeling a lack of control over life, and am trying to bring order to it, losing all of my time to the bringing of order instead of to the living.

What I have to figure out, in my own way, is how to fill the vessel instead, cracks notwithstanding.

Are you the kind of person who worries about the container, or can you focus on filling it?  Are you able to do both?

Thai Sweet Potato–Coconut Soup
I'm going to make this soup for one of our friends who will be in chemo next month.  The broth is thin, but you can add anything you want to make it a bit more hearty: rice, vegetables, some shimp or chicken or tofu.  It's the sort of soup that will look equally lovely in a beautiful bowl, or in a cracked mug.

8 c. vegetable broth
2 (14.5 oz.) cans coconut milk
3 (1") pieces fresh ginger
2 shallot bulbs, halved and bruised
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1 t. lime zest
1 stalk lemongrass, cut in chunks and bruised
1/4 t. salt
3 sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1 lb. cooked shrimp, tofu, chicken (optional)
cooked rice (optional)
Squeeze of fresh lime juice
Chopped fresh mint, for garnish
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

In a 6-quart pot over medium heat, bring the broth, coconut milk, ginger, shallots, lime leaves, lemongrass, and salt to a slow boil for about 20 minutes (don't overdo it or your coconut milk will separate). Decrease the heat to low and continue to let the flavors mingle for another 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove the shallots, lime leaves, and lemongrass with a slotted spoon or a sieve (it's actually hard to catch all of the bits unless you use something fine enough to capture them). Add the sweet potatoes, turn the heat back up to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup in small batches in a blender or right in the pot with your stick blender until smooth. Reheat, ladle into soup bowls over the protein of your choice, add a squeeze of the lime juice, and garnish with the mint and cilantro.

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Color: Lentil Stew

I couldn't listen to the radio this morning.

My car is usually tuned to NPR during my commute, in both directions.  Though I read the NY Times headlines (and sometimes the articles) from the electronic version delivered to my inbox, filling in the embarrassing gaps with The Skimm, and grazing more leisurely on the relevant items in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, NPR is mostly how I get outside my bubble.

But there are some mornings when the additional stimulus is too much.  I don't want to know what's going on.  Today, as I drove through the sparse snow falling on a world drained of color, I listened to the silence, or more accurately, to the sounds of being in my car on the way to work: the heater fan, the constant hum of my tires on the road.  I wallowed in February-ness, thought about pulling over to stand in the snow, wondered what would happen if I didn't show up on time, wondered if they'd wonder where I'd gone.

As I made my way across the top of one ridge, I was reminded of Frost:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
I wonder how he felt about February.

I was thinking the other day about how I seem to have surrounded myself with artists, with people who are careful observers of color and form and light and texture.  Our circle of friends includes a textile artist/weaver (who can also make art out of pretty much anything), several painters, graphic designers, a potter, photographers.  People who actually make art for a living.  I wonder if this is unusual, or if everyone has as many artists in their lives as I do.  And I wonder, sometimes, how this happened.

Am I drawn to them because I need their lens on the world? Because I need the color on the landscapes that I flatten into monochrome?

Is art like closing our eyes, and seeing the color that we can't see with them open?

Colour fades away
Tell who are you for anyway?
Fades to grey
I dream so exciting
But, I, I feel so bold ...

Red Lentil Stew
Adapted from the Kinfolk Table, this stew offers a good contrast to the monochromatic-ness of February in New Jersey.

1 c. red lentils, picked over
2 t. coconut oil
1 lg. onion, finely chopped
1 t. salt
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. minced fresh ginger
1 T. ground cumin
15-ounce (425-gram) can diced fire roasted tomatoes
2 slices of lemon
3 c. vegetable stock
chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

Rinse the lentils well under cold running water until the water runs clear.

Melt the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and salt and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, cumin and cayenne and saute just until fragrant, about a minute. Stir in the tomatoes, lemon slices, the stock and the lentils.

Bring the stew to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the lentils are just tender.

Serve the stew over brown rice and sprinkle it with the chopped cilantro.
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Monday, February 2, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: Bright Spot

I've said this before: I'm not a huge fan of February.  It's too full of painful milestones, even if they do get a little more weathered with each passing year.  And the godforsaken snow, which, true to form, fell this morning in a slushy mess that made shoveling feel like throwing boulders.

Happy Freakin' February.

But there's a bright spot: my daughter was born the day after Groundhog Day, on a year in which we had so much snow that there wasn't even anywhere to put it.  We were lucky; had she come a day earlier, we might not have made it to the hospital at all, considering the blizzard that engulfed the Northeast.  (As it was, she made her way into the world in about three hours.  Four years later, she's as impatient as ever.)

The morning of her arrival dawned icy and bright and blue, and, not sure whether or not I was in labor, I went for a walk.

I turned around about halfway down the street.

Somehow, it's fitting that my daughter has fallen in love with the queen of snow and ice herself, a woman who learns how to use her powers, rather than hide them away.  I made a card for her, and I can't wait for her to open it tomorrow morning.


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

Happy 4th birthday, N., my blizzard girl.  Here's wishing you a life full of bright spots, the dazzling light that is possible only after a snowstorm.

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