HAVE A CUP OF CHEER

It’s the most…paradoxical time of the year?  Or perhaps the time of year when our paradoxes are made most plain for us to see & pick apart: our relentless consumerism despite clear evidence that it does not bring us happiness, our insistence on family togetherness even though families are fraught territory for most, our messaging about love, peace, and joy painted like a veneer over the stress, obligation, and resentment nearly everyone seems to feel during the month of December.

I’ve been examining these contradictions inside my own lived experience over the past few weeks; I have, for as long as I can remember, loved this time of year.  I don’t love what our late-stage-capitalist culture has done with it, of course, but there is still plenty at the core from which I can derive meaning.  Ritual is my jam, and I also have an affinity for the reflective looking back and meaning-making that comes with the end of the calendar year, however arbitrary that distinction.  This year, everything feels fresh; even the old traditions are happening in a new place, which creates a dynamic I’m enjoying. Certain things are up for grabs, which means we can set a new precedent and workshop our holiday traditions a bit.  

I take great joy in pulling out the Spotify playlist I only let myself listen to for a few weeks out of the year, in driving around with my family to look at lights, in pre-making & aging the eggnog we’ll serve while we trim our tree, and, perhaps most exciting of all, in planning and executing my holiday baking projects.

So, because I used to write a food blog and I still really enjoy feeding people as a way of demonstrating love and affection, I thought I’d share some of the recipes I’m planning to use this year, as well as old favorites, in case you’re still making your own lists.  And please, share with me what your “must make” holiday baked goods are, or the new things you’re trying – I love talking cookies and treats!

NEW THIS YEAR:

Coffee-hazelnut crescents from Domenica Cooks – there are two coffee lovers in my house (Mom & Jill), and while I’m not a big coffee drinker, I do like the flavor in desserts.  I will probably make the suggested switch to almonds for this cookie because, real talk, hazelnuts are expensive and I’m already planning to use them in two other cookie recipes.

Indian-spiced cashews from Genius Kitchen – okay, so technically I’ve made these once before, but I’m bringing them back for the holidays because they were such a hit last time.  They are super-simple to make and I like having something savory to add to the mix of sweet things. FWIW, I use Penzey’s “The New Curry” curry powder.

Peppermint marshmallows from Bravetart – I swear by any & every Stella Parks recipe I’ve ever tried, and the holidays seem like the perfect time to tackle a more-elaborate-than-usual recipe like homemade marshmallows.  Shiv is a marshmallow fan, so I think it will be fun for her to see how they’re made. We’ll gift some for her teachers, along with jars of this hot chocolate mix from Smitten Kitchen.

OLD FAVORITES:

Chocolate-dipped orange shortbread cookies – this one’s on the old blog, in a post that also rounds up a bunch of other cookie recipes, should you be interested.  Jill & Shiv are both big fans of the orange-dark chocolate combo, hence the origins of this one.

Chocolate-hazelnut meringues – this is an Alice Medrich recipe, and as she is the Cookie Queen, it’s no surprise that I’ve made this one several years running.  I’m also fond of this recipe because meringues keep a good, long time, making them a good candidate for mailing out.

Rugelach from Lottie & Doof – rugelach are the best of all holiday cookies; come at me with your disagreements.  This recipe from my friend Tim’s site is messy and labor-intensive and worth every bit of the work. I’ve made it several years running, and I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon.  The recipe yields a LOT of rugelach, which means you can eat a bunch yourself and give a bunch as gifts, making everyone happy.

THIRTY-SIX

I turned thirty-six a week ago today.  It was a beautiful day that included Shiv singing “Happy Birthday to You” at the top of her lungs, my mom’s incomparable samosas, a visit to a winery with my two best ladies, Jill’s fried shrimp which is so good it’s spoiled me from eating it at restaurants, lots of laughter, one of those perfect Arizona sunsets, and, most powerfully, the chance to see a dear friend face-to-face following a scary accident from which she shouldn’t have survived but miraculously did.  

 

Anyone who’s spent significant and unanticipated time inside of a hospital knows that the experience changes you forever, no matter how fully the patient in question may recover.  It’s like trying to reassemble one of Shiv’s Lego kits after playing with it: the pieces clearly fit inside the original packaging before, but somehow once taken out, you can’t get them back in the quite same way.  Hospitals are pretty terrible places, but they’re quite good at eviscerating any previously-held notions of what actually matters. My time with Jill in the chemo ward, with my dad in ICU, alongside two of my closest friends as they cared for their mothers— pushed me to expand both my capabilities and my desires in ways that fundamentally altered my outlook on life.

 

I am not someone who ascribes a lot of meaning or significance to age as a number; when you have been told your whole life that you are “mature for your age” and then marry someone nineteen years your elder, you tend to get pretty annoyed with people who think that numerical age is a surefire indicator of, well, anything.  But this birthday did feel significant, in a way that surprised me.

 

When I was a kid, I had certain achievement-oriented goals for my future self; namely, I wanted to publish a book and become a parent. I’ve wanted these things for as long as I can remember, wanted them deep in my bones. And now, here I am, and both are real: my amazing Shiv, and a book coming out in February.  

 

It would be logical to assume that I might now feel lost, untethered from a set of expectations and plans for my future, unsure of what I might base my identity on going forward.  But instead, I feel free, liberated from my own self-imposed limitations. I never imagined life at thirty-six; I had no idea what else I might want, what else I might do, once I achieved the milestones I wanted so badly, the milestones I thought would bring meaning to my life.  

 

The truth is that my sense of meaning has little to do with what I’ve produced or any titles I can claim: how easily I sometimes forget, and how much I hate that it’s often hospitals that force me to remember. The work of being present on this planet, of living out my core values—love, integrity, & generosity—as consistently as I can, of honoring my commitment to being in relationship and being in reality: those are the things I can still hold onto when I find myself sitting next to the hospital bed of someone I love, or in a hospital bed myself, as we all inevitably will someday be.  

 

What a gift, this life, these thirty-six-and-counting years.

DIWALI 2018

I threw my first Diwali party in Arizona twelve years ago.  It’s funny the moves life makes.

 

In 2006, I was living in Tucson, a second-year MFA student whose father had died unexpectedly, searching for ways to honor him and to make something meaningful with my grief.  When I strung lights outside of my little casita on East Elm and cooked up a storm using every pot in my tiny kitchen, I had no idea that I was starting a tradition that would carry me and my family through so many shifts and changes.

 

In 2011, we celebrated Jill’s completion of cancer treatment; in 2012, we welcomed Shiv into the mix; in 2014, we skipped the party completely because the month was already (happily) filled with the weddings of close friends; in 2015, we celebrated finally being able to get married ourselves.

 

2018 will stand out in future memory as the year we started over: new city, new family configuration (three generations under one roof), new job (for me), and new pronouns for Shiv, who is now using she/her/hers.  Moving has provided an opportunity for Shiv to be known and related to in the way that feels right to her.  It’s been a wonderfully smooth transition overall, and we are proud of Shiv for advocating for what she needs.

 

After twelve years, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to predict what our lives will look like this time next year.  But no matter what else is happening at the time, Diwali always serves to reminds me that love is a commitment I can maintain inside of any circumstances.  When nothing else seems to make sense, love always does.

 

So even if we made different food in a different house for a different set of people, even if we invited folks to 1816 E. Alicia instead of 810 North Elder Grove, the core intention for having a Diwali party remains the same as it was in 2013:

 

Our hope is to create something magical, to render our home a sacred space, one in which strangers can meet and connect, feel and share joy, and leave well fed not just in stomach but in soul.  To me, Diwali is, in its essence, an affirmation of the belief that love is the strongest force in the universe; that, no matter how hopeless things seem, human goodness will always triumph.  And each year, the people whom we are lucky enough to have in our lives show up at our house and serve as living proof of that belief.

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be a Diwali post if I didn’t write at least a little bit about the food we made, linking to recipes where I can:

 

food:

homemade granola (spiced with mace, ginger, & cardamom) served with pomegranate seeds & my Mom’s famous homemade yogurt ~ poha (pounded rice) made with sweet potatoes ~  seminya (vermicelli) upma ~ cilantro and tamarind chutneys for serving ~ Nik Sharma’s Bombay Fritatta (please buy that man’s gorgeous cookbook ASAP) ~ candied ginger scones ~ Molly Yeh’s basbousa (semolina-pistachio cake) ~ turmeric snickerdoodles (I riffed on this recipe, using Diaspora Co. turmeric – no other brand can compare – adding cardamom & cinnamon to the cookies & rolling in cinnamon sugar)

 

drink:

homemade chai, Turkish coffee made by Jill, & a mimosa station with guava, grapefruit, and peach-mango-orange juices

 

Diwali posts, previously:

2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 (no posts from 2007 or 2008 because that was pre-blog; no party in 2014 because of aforementioned flood of weddings!)

SHABBAT

Last night, we lit the outdoor fire for the first time; that good chill in the air, so distinctively November’s.  All four of sat outside with our cups of liquid—red wine and hot chocolate, respectively—while I lit candles and said the Shabbat blessings that are forever ingrained in both my memory and spiritual consciousness after teaching at a Jewish school for eleven years.

 

Jill and I began observing a modified Sabbath many years ago, even before Shiv was born; we stay home on Friday nights, put away our technology, make dinner, and rest.  I wrote about this tradition on the now-retired food blog (bonus content: adorable pictures of Shiv from 4 years ago!), and after experiencing Shabbat in Israel, I came back more convinced than ever that it was a ritual worth holding onto, a sane way to end the work week, decompress, and connect.

 

This week it felt especially important to light the candles, say the blessings, and stumble over the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I don’t have fully memorized.  Judaism is not my tradition, but it is a tradition, like Anglican Christianity, with which I have spent considerable time and inside which I feel at home.  Many of the people I love, including my platonic life partner and almost every student I’ve ever taught, identify as Jewish, and my heart breaks for the current of fear that they’ve been reminded is their birthright.

 

The senselessness of such hate-filled events makes it correspondingly impossible to know how to respond to them; their seeming ubiquity makes the task feel even more exhausting.  There is no one “right” way, of course; each of us has to determine how we think we can best take care of ourselves and the ones around us when the world reminds us of just what we are up against when it comes to creating a just, equitable society.  Personally, I’ve found myself re-convicted in the sense of calling I feel when it comes to teaching my students those topics and histories we often label as “difficult” or “tricky” and therefore avoid.

 

I get the impulse to avoid—believe me, I do.  The work is harder, more nerve-wracking, and can come with sticky consequences.  But no consequences are more dire, in my mind, than the ones that will inevitably follow a generation of students who are ignorant about facts related to the Holocaust, for instance, or who can’t correctly identify the cause of the Civil War.  Though I sometimes fret that my classroom is so often the container for disheartening conversations, I know that it will not serve my students to skirt around the truth.

 

In the end, what I’ve learned about teenagers is what I always return to; they can handle so much more than we give them credit for.  They want to be trusted with real conversations, challenged by material that forces them to reconsider their opinions.  They want to be armed, prepared for the world as it exists, not as we might wish it to be.  After all, as James Baldwin so famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

-Joan Didion

 

Shiv and I flew into Houston on Saturday, a quick trip, a stealth one.  Shiv visited friends and I helped Jill work on our old house, cleaning a LOT of tile grout in order to get the house ready to put on the market.  On Tuesday, the three of us flew back to Phoenix, and as soon as the mountains came into view, I distinctly felt that we were home.

 

Strange but true, Houston is now a Place I Used To Live, the setting for a chapter of my life that stretches nearly as long as the time I spent in Memphis, the Place Where I Grew Up.  I know that this sense of delineated geographic and chronological territory is not at all unique to me, that plenty of people move all over the country and the world, and much more frequently than I have, but this shift is a novelty to me.  I’ve been so focused on the beginnings that this move has created that I forgot to look for the endings inherently tangled up in it.

 

For the past four years, I used Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” as part of the nonfiction unit I taught in my creative writing class for seniors.  The piece (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth your time) describes Didion’s arrival in New York City as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, her subsequent enchantment with the city and the life she built for herself, and finally, manages to capture the experience of falling out of love both with New York and with the person she had become while living there.

 

It was usually around this time of year that we’d approach the essay, me reading it aloud in class to help students immerse themselves in Didion’s language, and also to evoke the tone of reflection that always struck a chord with my eighteen-year-old students, right on the precipice of a great life change of their own, but uncertain as to what shape that change might take.  Which friendships would last?  Who would they become in their new environments?  What would they choose when the majority of their choices were no longer dictated for them?

 

These are questions I’ve been asking myself recently, observing how what I want and what I’m interested in have shifted with my environment.  It’s fascinating data, expanding my sense of who I am and oftentimes surprising me with the results.  Our surroundings necessarily impact how we show up, pulling us into new adventures, like the hike that Jill and I went on this morning, on a trail quite literally five minutes from our house.  And our communities call us into being inside of relationships and the histories those relationships contain—which is why, comforting as it is to be known somewhere, to have a dozen or more years of history to lean on with those around you, it’s also tremendously freeing to start from scratch.  I am a different person than I was at twenty-four, when I started my last job; I have far more experience and far less to prove.

 

Turns out that much of what I had decided was the “norm” in my previous life was a standard of my own creation, one that I built in good faith but grew to feel stuck inside of.  Both my calendar and my mind are much clearer these days, and I am grateful for the chance to create a new sense of myself.