My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.


inside the block

A week ago Sunday I made myself a second cup of coffee and settled myself not into my spot at the end of the couch against the bay window, and not onto a warm patch of bayside sand while my children splashed, but into a patio chair on my friend’s terrace in the East Village. It was the last day of a sweet and chockablock week in the city, and after so much time climbing slides and eating bagels and chatting with strangers and boarding ferries and buses and subway cars, it was good to exhale. My son finished up his second bowl of corn flakes inside and called out to me his plans to make Minecraft weapons from an old egg carton. My daughter stacked and unstacked and restacked flower pots. I sipped my coffee and lifted my face to the hot May sun and took in the Sunday morning sounds of the East Village (church bells, bus brakes and engines, mourning doves, my son’s spoon clanking merrily against his cereal bowl). It’s easy to forget that the city ever slows down, but it does.

My friend’s terrace looks out over the inside of the block, a motley vista of fire escapes and ivy and air conditioners and unlikely trees. It’s such a comfort to me to look out over these bones and muscles of city living. It’s not a quiet place to live, of course, and daily life with small children anywhere is full of questions and bumps and tears and fart jokes and throwing, so much throwing. But sometimes there’s a moment when the exigencies have been deftly met or benignly ignored, when your children are immersed in their own work and you are not needed. I guess that’s going to keep happening, isn’t it?

Sunday though, I didn’t fret about how fast they’re growing. I looked at bricks I’d looked at a hundred times and wondered for the first time whose hands had laid them. I noticed a pigeon in a flower pot and wondered if she had a nest there. I saw an empty six-pack on a fire escape and smiled, thinking of that passage from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about the people who go to early mass:

Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things.They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late – until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

We’re home now. Horseshoe crab spawning season, one of the most magical and curious times of our year, is upon us. I wrote a post a couple weeks ago but never finished it and thus didn’t post it, in which I talked about how much I like easing past the first lusty weeks of spring, all frogsong and snowdrops and cracked open windows, and into spring proper. But in our week away another shift happened. The daffodils that were just past peak are now fully wizened on their stems. There’s a fine film of pollen on everything and we keep the windows open 24/7 except when it rains. And of course the farm goings-on are full tilt.

Here’s to spring’s wild rumpus! Here’s to my Mother’s Day breakfast in bed and a long solo morning, to our favorite beach bar opening back up, to muddy kids and hungry red knots and strawberries just around the corner. To picnic dinners at the bay and all the baby pigs and even to mosquitoes. To the familiar feeling of it all. To home!

(I may pop back in here and add some of our NYC photos, because I know I’ll be glad to look back on them. But for now: hello again!) 

(joining Karen and company)

Pigheaded hope


It is, almost unbelievably to me, nearing ten years since I left New York City. When I lived there I worked as part of a small anti-poverty non-profit, accompanying families as they dealt with the compounding instabilities of housing crises, school frustrations, health issues, family separation, convoluted legal and criminal justice systems, and social isolation. These situations were simultaneously acute and chronic, in ways that left me sometimes angry, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes all fired up – but never desperate. I didn’t feel desperate because families took me in. We sat at kitchen tables drinking coffee and eating pork chops and laughing at toddlers. We read books and flew kites and made s’mores and clung to one another on ice skates and ate pie. I didn’t feel desperate because we took those struggles and worked to craft something beautiful and constructive and necessary from them: poems, speeches, books, campaigns, relationships. I didn’t feel desperate because I didn’t have a right to wallow or to pity or to sensationalize; I had a responsibility to bear witness, and not only to what was hard but also to the incredible knowledge and tenacity and resourcefulness I saw. I didn’t feel desperate because I was part of a community that shared an extraordinary ethos rooted in relationship and respect, and a vision of a world where every person is known and treated as a whole human being.

Frontinella communis 1

There’s a ghost. Mine. She’s pretty quiet these days, not too sad. But she still walks the fields of our old farm in Virginia, and I think maybe she always will. Blackberry juice stains her lips and fingertips. She crouches low in the grey half-light of dawn, studying the Frontinella communis and Florinda coccinea webs spangled with dew. She stands, puts one hand on my son’s shoulder, points out the wild persimmons ripening against a cloudless October sky. She stops to scratch my goat Lulu under her jaw, and then she’s off again, skirting a vernal pool filled with tadpoles, kicking off her sandals, crossing the creek. I keep her company sometimes, late at night usually, too late. These hours are untrustworthy. Good for writing, terrible for making decisions. These are the hours when the deep disappointment and disillusionment in articles like these (about the challenges of making a living at farming) resonate. Eventually, though, I sleep, and in the light of day, that sorrow evaporates, is replaced with a steadier, more discerning take on our story and on farming in general. My rested self finds the articles too grim, the blame too pat. My rested self is not angry. Sad about what we left behind? Sure. Probably always. Regretful? Probably not. We could have done without the financial albatross of a farm we sank a ton of money into and then struggled to sell. But what about everything those acres gave us? What about the hard-won but enduring lessons about how to (and how not to!) run a business with the person you love, efficiently and compassionately manage a crew, make sound decisions about equipment and markets and infrastructure? What about the food we coaxed from the soil to fuel our bodies and fill our baby’s belly? What about quiet nights on the back porch with a beer, listening to the CoolBot hum and the crickets sing? What about the high of a good day at market, when you’re running on four hours’ sleep and three cups of coffee and the heady potpourri of Ambrosia muskmelons and basil and the steady passing back and forth of tomatoes, cash, recipes, well wishes? What about the barter economy among food producers, our tomatoes for your strawberries and honey, our tractor to till your garden in return for a lamb shoulder from your freezer? What about the easy generosity of other farmers, the potlucks and equipment loans and shoptalk? What about trying your damnedest, getting some sleep, and trying again tomorrow? In the end, whether we’re hilling potatoes or writing grant proposals or soothing away nightmares or waiting tables or waiting on test results or teaching declensions, that’s what we all do, isn’t?

I am grateful for every bit of that. I wouldn’t unlive any of it to protect myself from the heartbreak of walking away from our farm. I do wish for: more discussion about the economics of farming, easier answers to hard questions about the costs of good health, every belly full every single night.

whelk egg case

I’ve been thinking about all this, about these places I’ve called home, about the fire inside me. In this season of my life I’m not facilitating writing workshops or speaking at the United Nations or hustling tomatoes or helping anyone cook their way through a seemingly interminable eggplant glut. I am at home, nursing my baby, roasting vegetables, learning about bivalves and monarchs and hawks with my son, thinking (and thinking and thinking) about how children learn and about what my role should be. This season is, all at once, quieter and more contained and so much deeper than everything that came before.

I have chosen not to share much about our school plans here. And maybe that’s a mistake – so much hangs in the balance of that decision, and I’m so unsettled by that knowledge sometimes. The mama hive is rich with guidance, solidarity, and reminders to take a deep breath and just put one foot in front of the other. Maybe I should be articulating my biggest doubts here and asking for your help! But something in me feels this is not the space, at least not now, to talk about the details.

Still, I think I can say this: recently I am enormously comforted to realize that my current preoccupation with this big question is rooted in a deeply familiar instinct. The place where I thrive has always been the place where people come together full of pigheaded hope. This means I am right where I need to be.

Now who wants coffee?

For my mother: things I grew up with

very small

Today my mother turned 65. She and I share an easy and generous sense of humor that is somehow sister to our earnest literal-mindedness and unflappable trust in things working out – a quality that either endears us to you or drives you mad or both. I also owe her big time for my impressive mental catalog of early and mid 80s easy listening and country, my enthusiasm for game nights and meandering drives, and my love of cocktails, cake, baseball, books, stacks of books, ice cream, ephemera, British miniseries, and sitting in my chair at the movies until the very very last credits have rolled. Watching her taught me that kindness matters more than almost everything else, that it’s never too late for another cup of coffee, and that reading on the beach is better when you drag your chair into the surf. She has an astounding mind for minutiae, is fiercely loyal, and remembers my own stories better than I do. She is a marvel. She is my closest friend.

A few weeks ago she came across this post of Andrea’s from 2013 and asked if I might consider making a similar list for her, as a birthday gift. Indulge in some sweet nostalgia and make my mom happy? This I can do.

“A happy childhood can’t be cured. Mine’ll hang around my neck like a rainbow,
that’s all, instead of a noose.” – Hortense Calisher, 
Queenie (1971)

Here you go, Mom. A long and happy list of things I grew up with:

that Strawberry Shortcake album, which I’d listen to with my ear pressed flush against one of the giant wood-paneled speakers (later it was Bookends and Sgt. Pepper)
Steak San Marco
Le Sueur peas in the silver can
Laurie’s chicken
baked potatoes with their steady plumes of steam
Life cereal
languorous Saturdays stretched out on the blue love seat with Johnny Tremain or The Egypt Game or The Baby-Sitters Club
clarinet reeds
road trips to the Smokies, to St. Louis, to Providence/Boston
the smell of church: that heady alchemical fusion of wooden pews and old hymnals and pink soap and sheet music and coffee and perfume and choir robes and wine that to this day, despite considerable wandering, comforts me immediately like little else
doodling with you on the back of a Sunday bulletin insert
lazy summers
Randy Travis
pets, always
Certs (and in fact the composite smell of your purse: Certs, leather, cash, Poison perfume, and CoverGirl Hint of Bronze Lipslick)
Born in the U.S.A.
Fisher Price Little People
Pert Plus in our bathroom, the brown Vidal Sassoon bottles in yours
watching you pull on your knee highs
sticker books
Sticker Page
dinner rolls
oldies radio
cul-de-sac living
Bain de Soleil
MoonPies at PoFolks, the peg game at Cracker Barrel, popcorn shrimp at Red Lobster
Parker pens
piano music at dinnertime
red tip photinias
rock candy
the mall
Georgia pines, sweetgums, Russian poplars
the smell of our street after a summer rain
whole wheat + Provolone grilled cheese
my eraser collection
friends’ birthday parties at roller rinks, McDonalds, ShowBiz
the staccato of orange roller skate wheels on the tile floors of the bathrooms at the rink
“Oh My Darling, Clementine” and “Marianne” and “Stewball”
Weekly Reader, Children’s Choice, and Parents’ Magazine book clubs
riding bikes
fireworks at Fort Gordon
swimming at Clarks Hill Lake
the Hawaiian nativity
the hum of Grandma’s sewing machine
a flamingo sticker on the sugar bin
red dirt
dappled light
seeing you and Dad kiss good-bye and hello every day

(Anyone else want to play? I’d love to read your lists.)

Three things

pipers in the gloaming

Gosh, it’s been almost four months since I did one of these posts, and that one was the only time I did it in 2014. Hogwash! I do like some links.

1) PROJECT | Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out Join WNYC’s New Tech City managing editor Manoush Zomorodi for an experiment in spending less time on your phone and more time spacing out and doing creative work that doesn’t happen if we never allow our minds to be idle. There will be a week of challenges starting February 2, and in the meantime, download the Moment app to learn more about how you’re really using your phone, and follow the podcast and blog for more.

2) WISDOM | The Strange Art of Trying I’ve been meaning to share Deja’s post since last summer, maybe in a post of my own about our family food culture and my kid and all the things we did right and how he’s still so damn picky at five and how if I had to do it all over again I’d still do most of the same stuff. I think that post may linger in Draft Land forever, but I don’t want to wait any longer to share this. In half a sentence about effort and surrender, Deja says everything I felt but couldn’t articulate about kids and food. Hell, about how to live.

3) PHOTO ESSAY | 1989: America’s Malls I was strangely moved by Michael Galinsky’s photos of late 80s mall patrons. I think it’s to do with how I’ve been chewing on the idea of our shifting commons recently. More thoughts on that in another post, perhaps. Anyway, I was 12 in 1989.

A simple pot of lentils


I found some pretty deep peace in a simple pot of lentils this week. It happened like this:

We’ve been hunkering down and making do/merry pretty well, all things considered – imagined Autobot space voyages to Pluto for magical ice, daytime baths, long read-alouds on the couch, good coffee and mugs of bone broth with ginger and cayenne – but it is also true that we’re still coming down from the joyous mayhem of presents and travel, that the weather outside is very grey and very wet, and that all four of us have massive, dizzying, ugly colds. To say I look forward to the moment when my husband walks in the door at the end of the day is a study in understatement.

Tuesday around 4pm: I get a text that a meeting is running long and he’ll be at least an hour late. I’m not mad, of course, but that doesn’t stop a knee jerk inner growl. I yawn and rub my temples, my daughter whimpers on my hip and wipes her snotty nose against my shoulder, and my son leaps off the table and lands with a ruthless thud. “Mom? What’s for dinner?”

Running on empty and knowing I’ve been by neither farm nor store since our return from the North Carolina mountains, I look in the fridge. Hmm. Lots of cheese. Very old milk. Three kinds of mustard. Pickle relish, yeast, simple syrup, tomato paste, miso, wrinkled grapes. Leftovers of indeterminate origin. It’s not looking good.

Popcorn and smoothies is not a terrible dinn– I begin to tell myself.

But I don’t want popcorn and smoothies I interrupt. I want something substantial and healing. I want protein. I want plants. Yes, you’re really tired. No, smoothies for dinner don’t make you a bad mom. Cook anyway.

I close the fridge. I think suddenly of the More-with-Less Cookbook, written by Doris Janzen Longacre and published by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 as an appeal to thrift in the kitchen and a call to arms against the global hunger crisis. I haven’t reached for it in a long time, but it is homely and modest and practical and that’s what I need tonight. I pull it down, find a recipe for Basic Cooked Lentils, and get to work.

Both kids are playing with the dog’s bowls under the kitchen table. I smile, put a couple cups of rice in the rice cooker, and slip out the back door, rummaging through our upright freezer out in the shed for some frozen chicken broth. I wrestle it out of its Ziploc armor, drop it into a big pot on the stove, and set the burner to high. I rinse a cup of lentils and as I agitate them in the sieve under running water I feel my mental fog lifting. The kids laugh and I hear dog food scatter and all I think is it feels good to feed my family. I add the lentils to the broth along with a bay leaf and a pinch of salt and turn everything down to a simmer. I look in the fridge again and surface with three leeks, shriveled and pretty gnarly but not rotten. Perfect. I put our big skillet on another burner and set half a stick of butter to melt in it. I peel away the (many) dried outer layers of the leeks and chop off their roots, slice them, rinse them well, and drop them in the skillet. My daughter clings to my leg with another soft whimper.

“Hello, sweet girl,” I say, hoisting her to my hip and kissing her forehead. “I know you want snuggles now. But I need to get dinner ready.” Like magic her brother appears with a big ball and a grin, and she turns to him with twinkling eyes, already wriggling free.

I step onto the back porch, where we often keep a crate or two of farm vegetables. I’m not hopeful because I know we haven’t filled the crates since our Christmas travels, but lo, there beneath a handful of wilted lettuce leaves sits one plump carrot – it looks a little tired, sure, but not so bad. I bring it inside, give it a quick scrub in the sink, dice it, and add it to the leeks along with another small knob of butter and some curry powder.

Miraculously – or perhaps because I am ignoring them – the kids don’t need anything. All the base components of the meal are cooking now, and I can turn to the tinier tasks of stirring, tasting, adjusting spices. My mind meanders pleasantly. I think of curries, of how little I know about authentic ones, of how much I love them anyway, of the lunchtime curries I ate at any of the half dozen little restaurants along East Sixth Street in the East Village and of the many approximations I’ve cobbled together at home. Almost seventeen years ago I bought two books from a man sitting on a quilt outside a train station in Chennai. One was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other was called Indian Cookery: for use in all countries, by E.P. Veerasawmy. For no good reason I haven’t cooked from it much (despite the back cover’s admonition that it “should be part of any cook-proud housewife’s library”!). But one big lesson from its first chapter has lingered with me for years: you must cook your curry powder or curry spices in the fat with your onions and garlic for several minutes, before adding any coconut milk or other liquids, to cook off their raw flavor. I’d like to learn more someday, I think, about how to really build layers of flavor in a curry. I think of the pact my husband and I make (and break) every year, to each pick a cuisine and cook from it once a week. Maybe this will be the year.

I think of my enormous cookbook collection. I think of what a thrilling time this seems for cookbooks in general: vibrant, clever flavor combinations; deep explorations of single ingredients or techniques; endless options for all kinds of eaters; and of course the beauty of the books themselves. I don’t get to do it much these days, but I love to sit with a stack of cookbooks and a cup of tea.

There’s a clear trend right now toward clean, wholesome cooking, whether you tend toward marrow bones and raw milk and home cured bacon or collard wraps and almond milk and meal-sized salads (or all of it, like me!). But there’s also a clear trend toward luxury in book design: heavy matte paper, breathtaking full bleed photographs, obvious care and cleverness in layout. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

I think suddenly, absent any guilt or shame: what if I only had three or four cookbooks? I don’t mean what if I had to pick my three or four favorites from this crazy collection. I mean: what if, by choice or circumstance or culture, I just wasn’t into cookbooks? What if I was just a confident and unfussy home cook with a few worn references tucked on the counter between the coffee pot and the fridge? More-with-Less, maybe. The 1979 Fannie Farmer? A cookie book? What would that be like?

Our own little family straddles these questions of abundance and scarcity every day really: work that means access to the highest possible quality of produce and eggs and meat, smashed up against a pretty spartan budget everywhere else. Hmm. It’s a lot to think about, and tonight I am grateful to be muting the chatter and making some simple food with what I could rustle up.

I check the vegetables. The carrots aren’t quite done, and over in the pot, neither are the lentils. I scrape the curry mixture into the lentils and pour in another cup of broth. My phone buzzes again: another hour late. I put a lid on the pot, turn the heat to low, and gather my children into my arms.

Wishing you and yours a joyous new year. May your bellies and hearts be as full as mine.

* * *

A Simple Pot of Lentils
adapted from More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre

I like this over rice or another grain. If you do too, get that started first. Then combine 2 1/2 cups broth or water and 1 cup rinsed lentils in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add a bay leaf and a pinch of salt.

In a large skillet, melt several tablespoons butter or warm several tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add an onion (chopped) or a large leek (sliced and very well rinsed) and anything else that sounds good or is lying around threatening to go to waste (chopped small) – a stalk of celery, a carrot, a red pepper, a few turnips maybe. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften. Add some chopped garlic and continue to cook for another minute. Now add some spices or herbs. A tablespoon or two of curry powder is nice. Or try some thyme or rosemary and some black pepper. Italian flavors work great. Don’t skimp. Saute for a few minutes more and then scrape the vegetables into the pot of lentils. Add more broth or water if things seem dry. Taste the lentils. If they’re done, simmer everything for a few minutes more. If they’re not, bring everything back to a simmer, put a lid on the pot, and go read with your kids.

Adjust seasonings and serve over grains. Top with a dollop of yogurt or a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley, if you like.

(seven posts in seven forty-two days)

The rest of it

over broadway

Sometimes the sour looks and the careless words and the doubts make such a ferocious racket. Maybe, probably, almost certainly the racket dons a mask and tries to pass as truth when you’re getting very little sleep.

So let me take a sweet moment to remember the rest of it: one mother, one baby, one 5-year old, and the 19 pounds of fleece/wool/Gore-Tex required to go anywhere this time of year. Dashing with my boy through the drizzle into our favorite coffee shop for hot chocolate. A slow drive up the coast, through sleepy shore towns and across silvery sounds. Wreaths on balconies. Windblown shacks teetering on stilts above the water. Empty osprey nests. Filling an empty diner with our laughter and squeals and stories. Bacon. A white paper bag of donuts tucked quietly under my arm by our waitress as we headed back out into the bluster. Dinosaur bones, fast slides, and 28 wild turkeys in the rain at the playground.

And then this morning: a boy making his own scrambled eggs and talking a blue streak while his dad made me coffee. This album. All the cars pulled over at the end of Beach Ave to watch the waves crash, and all the cars parked where the canal empties into the mouth of the bay, watching the ferries. The way such disparate strangers gather in an accidental kinship of awe and delight warms me every time.

(seven posts in seven days)

(Only one more to go! If I post again by Thursday it’ll be seven posts in 21 days,
which doesn’t have quite the same ring, but is still satisfyingly mathematical.)