die of the past or become an artist

How’s January treating you? It’s pretty dreary here in Portland. Aside from a little karaoke joy on my birthday, I’ve got my scarf wrapped tight around my neck, my head is down, and I’m bucking the wind. Here’s what I’ve got for you.


read

I know I’ve spoken about audiobooks and rereading books you love, well, I’ve outdone myself. I love, I lerve, I’m so smitten with Deborah Levy‘s book, The Cost of Living, that I listened to the audiobook, then immediately I listened again, went out and bought the book, read it through and underlined…well an embarrassing number of paragraphs. I have a girl-crush on this book. It speaks to me as a writer, as a women, a mother and a daughter.
Levy’s memoir focuses not upon her entire life, but on a specific period of time in her life, when she was surviving the break-up of her twenty + year marriage, establishing a new home for herself and her daughters, stepping into the harness of single motherhood, and enduring the death of her own mother. In other words, she was in the midst of living–yes, through a transitional and particularly grueling time. Life is like that, foisting change upon our days. I’m so grateful that we get to go along with Levy. She says:

 I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs. 

We either die of the past or we become an artist.



write

I wait. And wait. And wait. It’s so hard to spend years writing a book, only to languish for months, perpetually checking email. Will the outside world deem your work worthwhile? I’ve distracted myself with travel, with family celebrations during the holidays, I helped my mother celebrate her eightieth birthday, had my own birthday, and took a writing hiatus. Now chilly, dreary January has me in a steel trap and I was about to chew off my own leg (ew). Last week I started writing something and am now in the blush of new love, working on a memoir (inspired by Deborah Levy to be sure) and also by messing around with a few prompts. Check these out and see if they take you somewhere interesting.

Three quick prompts:

1. Write three 250 word pieces from your childhood–each from a different age range: 0-6, 7-12, 13-18. Choose a moment attached to a disquieting emotion and describe that moment with as much sensory information as much as possible.

2. Write a 500 word scene in which you came to an understanding that continues to be important to you today. Be sure to include setting (time/place), believable characters, dialogue, a symbolic object (your sister’s tap shoes? Your mother’s hairbrush? The dog’s bed?) or action, and a shift, a change in the situation, a noticeable arc.

3. In 500 words tell a story your family tells about itself. Share family lore.

Of course these three prompts ask you to plumb your personal life, but there is nothing to stop you from giving the results to a character in your story or novel. Perhaps you’ll come up with some flash fiction?  Have fun. Commit to time at your desk. Try to enforce the rule of prompts: No judgment. No attachment to outcome.

Need a great, comfy as an old sweater, book on writing memoir? Try out, Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas. And while you’re at it, snap up all her books, she’s a gem.



eat

All hail Alison Roman! Do you follow her recipes at NYTs cooking? Do you follow her on Instagram? She has two terrific cookbooks, Dining In, and her latest, Nothing Fancy. I received the second one as a birthday gift and I am all in. Reading her recipes feels as if you’re talking to a good friend about how to eat, how to cook, and how to entertain. The premise of Nothing Fancy is that we all should chill, forget fussy dinner parties, and just have friends over. Her zeitgeist is basically this: making an unfussy meal for friends is an excellent way to say I love you. Right?
I’m planning on having people over. I’m planning on cooking my way through the book. Last night, okay, it was a Monday so I didn’t have guests, but I made her Celery and Fennel with Walnuts and Blue Cheese and I wish I tripled it. So crunchy, easy, lemony and delicious. It’s the perfect antidote for winter. I’m typing it out here because I love you.

½ c toasted walnuts
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
4 celery stalks, with leaves, thinly sliced on an angle
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
½ small shallot, thinly sliced
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice (Meyer if possible) plus more as needed
¼ c good olive oil, plus more as needed for drizzling
1½ ounces blue cheese, perhaps a mild stilton, crumbled

1. Toss walnuts w/a bit of olive oil so they are nicely coated, season w/salt and pepper and set aside.

2. toss celery stalks (save leaves for garnish), fennel, shallot, and lemon juice in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and season w/enough additional lemon to make very tangy.

3. Transfer to a large serving platter and top with walnuts, cheese, celery leaves and another drizzle of olive oil, plus plenty of pepper.

Do yourself a favor, head over to her website and check out her posted recipes. Crab toast w/yogurtSpring Vegetable Risotto w/Poached eggs (yes, spring will come!), or how about Banana Chocolate Chip Cake w/Peanut Butter Frosting? Her food is fun, not fussy. I don’t know, ‘fun not fussy’ seems like a good resolution.

love letters

Wow. Here we are in a new decade and everything old feels new again. The world is troubled. We all want to live happier lives. We rise on January 1st (well, maybe January 2nd ) with bright eyes and an impulse to be more authentically ourselves, to embrace joy, and then, wham, bombs, threats, and bloviators take over the news cycle. Please. Let’s continue with the plan. Embrace your authentic self, whatever that looks like. If it means running for office, if it means taking music lessons for the first time, if it means going back to school to get a degree, if it means dancing in your kitchen and making room for laughter, if it means dedicating time and resources to your favorite candidate, I applaud you!


read

I failed. Yet again. Each year I strive to read 52 books and for the second year in a row, I only read into the 40s, a solid B. Oh well. I made the same pledge to myself for 2020 and if I don’t make it again, I will have watched some great shows or listened to some funny podcasts. (Just today I embarrassingly laughed aloud, and I mean LOUD,  all the way through the grocery story while listening to Conan O’Brien and Al Franken chitchat.)

Here’s what I’m excited to read:

Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom, a memoir about place as much as it is about people, which won the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. I’ve never been to New Orleans. Maybe this memoir will help me understand wider aspects of the city. Broom says in the book, “Much of what is great and praised about the city comes at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness.” Yellow House has received accolades from nearly everyone, here’s what the NYTs had to say.

The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. I LOVE her work. I read about this book on Elisa Gabbert’s list, which is fantastic and you can find it here. Gabbert says her mouth was, “hanging open” as she read the entire second half.  That to me is the best recommendation ever.

Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz, which was described by Dwight Garner in the NYTs as a, “potent cocktail of a book.” This fits the bill for my 2020 desires, no not to imbibe, but to laugh and enjoy.

Drop me a line and let me know what you’re looking forward to reading. I need to reach my goal!



write

I’ve not been writing much since I finished my manuscript. Yes, I have ideas circling in my mind like raptors but I’ve not really committed much to the page. I don’t recommend this. It’s a great idea to keep writing, start something new, remain busy so you aren’t as wed to the outcome of the reception of your manuscript…with agents, with editors, with the world.

What I’m very interested in writing is fan mail. Last year, the editor Susan Kamil died and the NYTs published a love letter from Ruth Reichl. I was so moved reading this, I thought, wouldn’t Kamil have loved reading the emotional and lovely tribute while she was still alive? I’m certain we all could write so many love letters right now, to people breathing and eating and walking upright! Why shouldn’t they know the beauty and value they bring to our lives?

Last year I resolved to make a cake a month, to bring sweetness to my life. Cakes are fun, right? This year, I resolve to write a love letter a month, to bring sweetness to someone else’s life. How about you? Who can you tell that they’ve brightened your life?



eat

As I write this note, I am eating dinner alone for the first time since mid-November. Oh my god! It makes me so happy. I love my husband. I love my friends. And I’m delighted to have this night. I’m surprised by what I cooked for myself, New York steak, (I know, I know, but really I don’t eat much meat, I had a craving, I’m sorry) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, roasted acorn squash with chimichurri, delicious red wine, and sourdough bread with Irish butter. It’s so indulgent and fantastic. The only thing missing from the meal, for a total cholesterol assault, is a slice of cheesecake, which I baked (see my attempt here and trust me, it was prettier in real life) for the final installment of my 2019 cake-a-month pledge.

Smitten Kitchen has a fantastic New York Cheesecake recipe, which I thoroughly recommend… with caveats. Watch it like a hawk during the first 12 minutes with the insane inferno oven temperature of 550 degrees. At the slightest hint of browning, turn the oven to 200 degrees and open the door a crack to release some heat. Instead of the cherry topping, I made a compote of grapefruit, Cara Cara oranges, and pomegranate. It was, and I won’t be shy about it, amazing, the pièce de résistance of the whole cake-a-month delight.

a painter and a writer walk into a bar

I write to you from sunny Spain where we’ve been eating, swimming, strolling, and sipping our way through the end of 2019! When I get home I plan on starting a new holiday tradition, paella for Christmas. What a way to share one big pan of homemade love with our people. I hope the last month of the decade brings you joy!


read

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying T Kira Madden’s, Tribe of Fatherless Girls. There are loads of reasons to tout this memoir: beautiful sentences, at times harrowing narrative, interesting shape and structure, Madden’s use of time, the surprises along the way, her grit. Many of the chapters can stand alone, and one in particular, “Can I Pet Your Back,” I found very moving. It’s use of repetition reminded me of Jamaica Kincaid’s flash fiction, Girl,” and Rick Moody’s short story, “Boys.” The repeated phrase, “I found pretty,” is deeply sad and powerful, exploring the loss of self to suit a toxic worldview of womanhood. Here, finding pretty involves a complete erasure of individuality to fit the bleached teeth, dumbed down, tanning beds, dyed hair, permed eyelashes, G-strings, anorexia, back seat blow jobs for a ride to the mall, expectations of girlhood.

Because we’ve been so close to Madden prior to her finding pretty, the losses tangled up in her “discovery” are more profound. Consider this early moment, when fishing for trout with her mom as a young girl. They catch and release and she has a singular and specific view of the world.

“I wrestled with the hook to free it; I was in a hurry. Easy like this, said my mother, and she did it in one motion, a popping sound…I tossed the fish back into the mud of the pond, and the two of us watched it shoot off like a single strand of tinsel in the sun before it disappeared.
What I mean to say is, it lived.”

Living, in Madden’s world, is slippery, no easy feat, and a glittering thing to be celebrated.



write

Sometimes not writing is the best way to write. In Madrid, I spent a good bit of time at the Reina Sofia museum. It is huge. A labyrinth. Of course there is Picasso’s Guernica to see, which we did, and what we also found incredibly inspiring was the temporary exhibit by Ceija Stojka, “This Has Happened.” The show is a series of paintings that tells the story of her Lovara Gypsy family, Hungarian horse dealers who had settled in Austria. The first paintings in the series are bucolic, the paint joyfully applied in a way that invokes a happy childhood. Lots of color and flowers, caravans, chickens, horses, the cycles of nature. The next paintings deal with the Nazis discriminating against the Gypsies, whose movements were restricted, her father was taken to Dachau, later she and her mother were taken away as well. The colors change in these paintings, the flowers are replaced with recurring frightened eyes crouching in brambles. Canvases are filled with dark, abrupt slashes of paint, and coiling barbed wire. There is a motif of crows, as both harbinger of evil, and a message of hope, for the crows can fly over the fences into freedom. Studying how Stojka applied paint, changed her hues and perspective, her use of repetitions and motifs, was relevant to writing, for all are tools at the disposal of the memoirist, the novelist, the short story writer, the poet.

Another great way to write is to give yourself the gift of time. I will be participating in and guest teaching at a spirit boosting retreat with my friend, Jen Louden. If you need time to hang out with 20 or so fabulous women, if you want to dance to funny and fun playlists in the morning, write in the afternoon, participate in inspired talks, get in touch with what may be holding you back in your work, spend time in beautiful Taos, eat delicious food, move ahead in your current writing project or discover what’s next, this is a wonderful, restful, replenishing experience.  Check it here: Jen Louden.

And, if you want to get an idea of what Jen is about, I loved this recent blog post from her about self recrimination, merciless expectations, and forgiveness during the potential shit-show of the holidays.



eat

I’ve bought so many little packets of saffron for gifts my entire suitcase is redolent. My socks reek! Please stay tuned for some rice/paella news in the future, but for now, I’ve got this perfect nibble for a cocktail soirée.

Before Spain, we spent a couple nights in NYC. I grabbed a quick lunch with one of my all time favorite students/friends at one of my favorite over-priced restaurants, ABC Kitchen.  There are quite a few recipes from ABC Kitchen up at NYT’s cooking that I make again and again. Amy and I shared three: roasted carrots with avocado, micro-greens and crème fraiche, the winter squash toast, which is a fantastic dish, and the kale salad with perfect tiny croutons and jalapeños. All of it delicious.
If I’ve already shared my version of the Squash Toast with you, forgive me, I’m doing it again. Yes, it is that good.

One 3-pound butternut or kabosha squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (you can place in a 250 degree oven for about 15 minutes to soften the squash enough to cut, otherwise it’s a struggle!)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, more to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
1 yellow onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup maple syrup
Bruschetta/toasted baguette slices (why not buy them pre-made and save yourself a little work? 😉)
1 cup ricotta
Flaky salt, for finishing
1/4 cup chopped mint
Pomegranate seeds

  • Dump the squash onto a heavy sheet pan and toss with a 1/4 cup of olive oil, the chile flakes, and a generous pinch of salt.  Roast the squash at 425° F until tender, about 20 minutes.
  •  While the squash is cooking, make the onion jam: In a small saucepan, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil over medium heat, and add the onions, stirring, and cook until they begin to soften and darken, about 15 minutes. Add the vinegar and syrup, and reduce until everything is jammy. Depending on the surface area of your pan, this could take as little as 15 minutes or as long as 30. When it looks as though it’s ready to be spread on toast and it tastes tart-sweet, it’s ready.
  •  Add the onion mixture to the cooked squash, stirring gently so as to preserve a few chunks of squash. Taste, and season with salt or more chile if needed — the mixture should have a nice heat.
  •  Spread a layer of ricotta on the bruschetta, and then the same amount of the squash-onion mixture. Sprinkle with a bit of flaky salt, then scatter the chopped mint and pomegranate seeds on top.

in which I lounge

We’ve rounded the corner into November. Last Sunday we received our extra hour, which is my favorite morning of the entire year. That ‘falling back’ hour assuages my work-ethic addled mind. It’s a gift! A free hour in which I lounge. Soon, there will be a plethora of great movie choices in theaters. It’s chilly enough to tuck into my favorite mac & cheese recipe, the fire is going, and Manhattan makings are fully stocked. Here’s some ideas to cozy up.


read

Do you ever reread a favorite book? Oh my gosh, as I’m writing these sentences I am filled with eager anticipation to dive in…

Howards End, by EM Forster, is a favorite of mine. I can’t wait to meet up once more with the Wilcoxes, and the Basts—oh dear…Leonard with his plot-driving stolen umbrella, Jacky, whose fortunes are chained to men’s perceptions of her and the limited choices society lays at her feet. The Schlegel sisters! Upright Margaret, and Helen, the beating heart of the book, who says of Mr. Wilcox, he “says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely.”

This novel of class and culture feels incredibly à la mode, so appropriate to read on the eve of our election. Pretending class isn’t an issue in the United States had much to do with the outcome of the 2016 election. Forster’s insights into socioeconomics, class, and the belief systems that trap us definitely illuminates politics in our place and time. Henry Wilcox, who behaves as if he is above reproach, says at one point, “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.”

If you do choose to pick up the book, you have three delightful spur trails to follow. First, I highly recommend the Merchant Ivory film with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anthony Hopkins, which is available on Netflix. Next, you can read Zadie Smith’s fantastic novel, On Beauty, which is a retelling of Howards End, set in a genteel Massachusetts college town. And finally, you can watch Kenneth Lonergan’s mini-series which is streaming on Amazon (I know…).



write

It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Anybody participating? I’m not, though I do always toy with the crazy notion of writing a novel in a month. Just to loosen up, right? To unhook from the idea that you have to write beautiful sentences from the get go. I was perusing the site the other day and they gave the terrific idea of changing the color of the font on your laptop to white, that way you can’t look back over your sentences. Give yourself a word count goal, and just keep your eye on the accruing words. You can fix it on the next round through.

The NYTs had a little lead up article recently, giving good ideas and resources for your writing project, one of which was this link to NaNoWriMo Prep. There are some great templates for ways to spark ideas, develop characters, think about setting, support your writing hygiene (like sleep hygiene, which is a thing) and generally get going.

The most apt metaphor for me in search of a new project? My sweet little blind dog, Leo. Like him, I run into walls, walk the perimeter of the room seeking my water bowl, sit an inch away from the dishwasher, curious about the sound and the warmth. This seeking is my least favorite part of writing. Once I’ve latched onto a character, a problem and a yearning, I’m better.
How about you? Any generative tips you can share with me?



eat

I mentioned it’s been chilly. I mentioned Manhattans, with their particular icy, elegant bite. And now I’m giving you my favorite new recipe for some cheesy, gooey delight. I’ve adapted this from a New York Times recipe.

Natalie’s Almost Healthy Mac & Cheese

Kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
2 pounds yellow or Vidalia onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 med size kabocha squash, pre-baked whole at 325° for about 15 minutes, just to make it possible to peel and cut ½ inch cubes
2 Tbs olive oil
1 bunch Lacinato kale, washed, striped from spines and juilliened
5 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more thyme leaves for garnish
Black pepper
1 pound fuselli pasta
½ baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices (I used bruschetta which I bought, pre-made, at the grocery store.)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
12 ounces Gruyère, grated (about 5 cups)
12 ounces white Cheddar, grated (about 4 cups)

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Butter 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Preheat oven to 450°.
  2. In a deep skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the onions, thyme sprigs, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. If the onions look dry, add a few tablespoons of water at a time to prevent from burning, scrape up browned bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet.
  3. Meanwhile, toss squash cubes in olive oil, salt, and spread out on a sheet pan. Bake for roughly 25 minutes, checking at about 20 minutes. You want them to be VERY tender. ALSO, cook the pasta till two minutes under cooking time. You want it just under al dente. Drain and set aside.
  4. When the onions are a deep golden brown, discard the thyme sprigs and add the kale. Stir until the kale is wilted and deep green/black. Remove to a LARGE bowl.
  5. Deglaze the skillet with the vinegar until evaporated, scraping up browned bits as you go. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Once melted, add the flour and cook, stirring, until the flour begins to stick to the bottom of the pan and has turned a light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, whisking often. The bechamel should thicken slightly, just so it coats the back of a spoon. Stir in all but one cup of the cheeses. Mix till melted and delightfully gooey.
  6. Add cheese mixture to the onions and kale. Add the squash cubes, which should be tender enough to fall apart, add the pasta and stir, stir, stir.
  7. Pour into prepared pan, top with baguette slices and sprinkle with the reserved cheese. Season with pepper and back, on a sheet pan to catch bubbly overflow, for 10 to 15 minutes.

 

 

the solace of a grilled cheese sammie

The poet Tony Hoagland said somewhere that February is like a pack of wild dogs getting into medical waste.  Well, October was like that for us. Surgery, bike accident, my mother broke her arm, and then the very worst, we lost a dear friend. Damn. I’ve been thinking a lot about solace and comfort, how to court them, and how they turn up in surprising places. Here’s to a better month ahead.


read

I took a deep, deep dive (okay, maybe I escaped) into Min Jin Lee’s novel, Pachinko, both listening to the audiobook, and reading the actual book in bed with my morning coffee. I loved her characters so much, in all their cruelty and kindness, in their striving to be accepted by family and culture all while dealing with tremendous loss.  I adored this sweeping story of family and history. Pachinko follows Sunja, a Korean woman living in Korea and then Japan, through the arc of her life, from 1910 to 1989. There is betrayal, war, racism, illness, birth, death, food, joy, and love…all the things. The novel offers great solace, for like Sunja, we all suffer tragedies large and small yet somehow, if we’re lucky and available, in the long view we may gain understanding and peace. It’s just that when we are living our lives, the long view is so damn hard.

In an interview Min Jin Lee says of the game pachinko:

“You really can’t walk down the street or enter a single train station or go anywhere in Japan without seeing a pachinko parlour,” she explains. “And yet the middle class view this adult gambling game with enormous suspicion and a kind of contempt. When I interviewed all these pachinko parlour owners about how they messed around with the pins every single day to affect the payout, it occurred to me that pachinko is a rigged game. It isn’t gambling, it’s rigged. The house is going to win. And yet people still play! I think — and this is my little cynicism — that the world is an unfair place and yet we continue to play, and we continue to show up. We have to.”



write

It is with great joy that I write to let you know I’ve finished my book, Must Be Nice. I am currently seeking a home for my book. It is a long game. And, I’ve come to learn that if you don’t celebrate the small steps, you will be miserable. So, I am celebrating that I’ve written a book with characters I love, situations and stories that are complicated and human. I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own and I’m excited for the next step.

While I’m in the waiting phase, I’m digging around for inspiration for the next project. Here’s where I turn:

1. Social Q’s. Philip Galanes column in the Sunday New York Times. I love to read about the quandaries and difficulties that get so far beneath a person’s skin that they take the time to seek advice in the NYTs.  Honestly, it is a wealth of story possibilities.

2. Museums. Take your notebook to a gallery. Give yourself a treasure hunt. Find a piece of art with a pomegranate or a stubbed out cigarette. Sit, write the story. Now find something else, a wine glass, a dog, a baby. Keep going. Turn the soil.

3. Find an artist whose work interests you and take a deep dive. Look at the longevity of other makers. What are they obsessed with? What is your obsession? I’ve recently fallen in love with Lee Mingwei who creates participatory artwork, hovering in the liminal space of aesthetics and intimate human exchange. Mingwei makes the observer an essential part of the artwork in a similar way that a reader is essential to the writer.  Check out his works: Sonic Blossom and Letter Writing Project and The Mending Project.  

Mingwei says about his work: “My projects all serve as a vehicle, a platform for people to come and share their personal history with the audience, with the community where the work is exhibited. Therefore [the work] forms a fabric, a social and psychological fabric.”



eat

I recently went to hear Zadie Smith speak and in her talk she referenced a conversation with Jonathon Safran Foer, in which he described meat consumption as responsible for a “holocaust of animals.” Man, that stuck with me. The power of language to hit the nerve that causes change is remarkable. I don’t know that I will become a vegetarian, but I know I’m on a break. I can’t bring myself to cook meat.

Lucky for me I found this recipe that I have made FOUR times already:

Kimchi Grilled Cheese Sandwich:

·       2 slices bread, either soft sandwich bread or large rustic slices,
·       1 tablespoon mayonnaise
·       ½ cup sliced fresh mozzarella
·       ¼ cup drained and coarsely chopped kimchi

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Spread 1 side of each slice of bread with 1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise. Place the bread, mayonnaise-side-down, in the skillet and divide the mozzarella evenly over the slices.

burn your secrets, thank your mother

My mother gave me a book– ten years ago? fifteen years ago? I finally cracked it open last week. It’s fantastic. Why-O-why, even in mid-life, are some of us so resistant to our mom’s suggestions? The fact that my mom got it so right with this particular book recommendation makes me feel seen by her. Here’s what I propose, instead of looking at a recommendation as an assignment from the Mom Administration, why not look at the book, podcast, recipe, movie or tv show as a declaration of love, as a way of being reminded, “Hey, I know you, and I still love you.”


read

The book is Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. I know I was initially resistant because the memoir is about Gornick’s relationship with her mom. I feared that if my mom and I read the book, we’d end up excavating our relationship. Yikes! The writer Edna O’Brien says that Gornick’s book confronts, “the principal crux of female despair,” that is, the mother/daughter relationship. Yikes again! And it does, though I would add it also celebrates the crux of female strength, resilience, and selfhood.

In alternating chapters, Gornick focuses on her childhood in the Bronx in the 50s, and upon her adult relationship with her mom. The two women walk around Manhattan and argue. It’s fantastic because each woman retains the capacity to be surprised by the other’s insights, reactions, and experiences. Their intimacy is palpable in the way they know how to push buttons and in the way they resist the temptation.

In one section, the mother is disparaging a book suggestion the daughter has made. Of the book she says, “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing?” To which the daughter, Gornick, has an internal rant, “only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” But, the operative word here is internal. She holds back. What she says aloud is, “don’t say it has nothing to teach you…That’s unworthy of you, and the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” After silence and a few blocks of walking the mother returns with an assessment of the main character in the book, and a truth about her own life.  “I’m jealous she lived her life, I didn’t live mine.” Gornick and her mother hug and I feel a tug of recognition about how we try to protect ourselves from the truth, and a wash of gratitude about the way books bring us face to face with said truth.  (Man, I just killed that moment–in a bad way–with this telling. Trust me. It’s marvelous.)



write

A conversation I constantly have with my students revolves around stakes. What are the stakes for your character in this situation? What do they have to lose? How are they playing a part in their own demise? If the student is writing memoir then I wonder, why are you telling me this anecdote from your life? What truth are you uncovering here? Why do you believe this moment in your life has stayed so vivid and bright? What is it illustrating about you, your family, your relationships?

Sometimes we don’t want to know what the truth is. We avoid the stakes in the situation because they are too big, too frightening, and we don’t want to reveal our dark roles, our unkindnesses, or any of our ugly parts. We all want to be loved.

To help my students get to the underbelly of a story or a section of their memoir, we do this fantastic exercise from my friend, the poet, Jessica Bergamino.

Think about your deepest secret, the thing you are most afraid of telling anyone. How would you admit it to:

  1. Yourself
  2. Your best friend
  3. Your therapist
  4. A doctor
  5. A parent
  6. A teacher
  7. A neighbor
  8. A stranger in a bar/seatmate on a plane

Write out each version of the secret (and then burn them!), gradually getting farther and farther away. Perhaps this will help you discover the stakes at the heart of of all your stories, and reveal a way for you to get the risk, the fear, on the page. In our work we take the soft, squishy, and painful bits of our lives and make them into art. In so doing, the work becomes more powerful and the burden of the secret is lightened.



eat

As you may recall, my New Year’s Resolution was to make a cake a month. Cakes, as I’ve said, bring their own parade. It’s been a blast. I’ve made banana cake, chocolate raspberry cake, lemon semolina cake, mocha walnut cake, carrot cake, olive oil cake, apple cake, almond blood orange cake, blueberry lemon yogurt cake. But friends, I now give you the pièce de résistance, the cake I’ve been waiting all year to make…Pumpkin Cake w/Brown Butter Icing.


Can you see how these pages from my hand written recipe book are so well loved? I have no idea from whence the recipe came, all I know is I ADORE it. And, you may too. Boy, I hope so! Maybe you’ll even make one for your mother.

croissant anesthesia

Well, I’ve had two things happen since last you heard from me. First, I enrolled in a French class and it’s been wonderful. Currently we’re studying le marché. In every class we talk about food. Croissant, gateau, brioche, fromage, beurre, et les legumes. Consequently, J’ai faim tous les jours! The second thing, I had a medical procedure (I am well, no need for concern, but thank you) and when I woke from anesthesia, all I wanted was a croissant. Seriously, on the way home from the hospital, I insisted my husband stop á la boulangerie and buy me two, which I ate in bed, and, yes, there were crumbs.


read

I am SO into Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s TaleThe Testaments is fantastic thus far. Atwood uses three points of view to great effect. Each time we leave a narrator for someone else, I feel slightly robbed. I want to stay with narrator #1, but then, as soon as I get into narrator #2, I’m delighted. Same holds true for narrator #3. Honestly, this novel is damn good! If you’ve not read The Handmaid’s Tale, run out to pick it up. Don’t count on the fact that you’ve watched the show on Hulu. (Which, by the way, I have not. I don’t want to ruin the novel. If you think I’m making a mistake, please write to convince me.)

My husband and I went on a little road trip to Suttle Lake. We stayed at the Suttle Lodge, which I highly recommend, comfy, friendly and a damn good fish sandwich. On our drive we listened to Heartburn. Yes, that Heartburn! The old Nora Ephron chestnut narrated by Meryl Streep. It is a bit dated, everyone having nannies and live-in maids, making raspberry vinaigrette and discovering arugula. But man, it was funny and fun.



write

I don’t know about you, but I am signed up for quite a few newsletters. (Yes, I get that that is a slightly meta comment coming from me, as you are signed up for mine! Thank you! I hope you find it useful and entertaining.) I thought I might share a few that I enjoy. Literary Hub weekly is a great round up of articles and book reviews, commentary on what to read, when to read, why you shouldn’t self-publish your poetry, and many other great links. Creative NonFiction and Submittable have newsletters full of submission deadlines, and genre related news from around the web. I just started following eye level magazine, and I’m loving it. They have interesting articles, plus this gem, worth a follow for accounts to check out on Instagram. How about this one. Finally, The Paris Review has lots of newsletter options, daily, weekly, and the redux, which is full of pieces newly released from their archives.

For inspiration and thoughtful commentaries on all things life, try The Red Hand Files from Nick Cave. Here’s a quote from a recent missive:

“Tom Waits famously wrote “You are innocent when you dream”, yet dreams are not nearly as innocent as they seem. Neither are songs nor poetry. Songwriting and poetry are perilous callings, full of intrigue and infidelity. They are covert undertakings that creep around our deepest and most hazardous needs. They are not for the squeamish or the eager to please.”



eat

A long time ago, I was in love with the cookbooks of Patricia Wells. Now with my resurgent love of French, I’ve dug back into her oeuvre. Bistro Cooking, which came out in 1989, was a favorite of mine. The book is not a lifestyle book, it’s a straight up cookbook, full of great recipes from small family owned restaurants in France. Many may become your go to standards. Here’s a few of mine: onion soup, fig clafoutis, chicken in wine vinegar, broiled clams with garlic and parsley, ratatouille, and many delightful salads. In fact, I so want you to love her too, I’m including the best potato gratin in the world just for you and just in time for fall.

Gratin Dauphinois Madame Cartet
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced in half
2 pounds white potatoes—I use Yukon Gold, she likes Russet. I’ve been known to use a mix of white and sweet potatoes
1 cup grated Gruyère
1 cup crème fraiche

1. Preheat the oven to 350º
2. Thoroughly rub a shallow 6 cup porcelain gratin dish with the garlic. Layer half of the potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the crème fraiche. Sprinkle with salt Add another layer of potatoes and the rest of the ingredients.
3. Bake uncovered, until the gratin is crisp and golden on top, from 50 – 60 minutes. Serve immediately.
 

 

 

 

 

is anything better than crying in the shower?

We’re in the shoulder season, enjoying warm days, cooler nights. My tomatoes are still producing, and yesterday my neighbor was raking. Moving into autumn stirs up so many feelings for me. Excitement about a new beginning, ready to bring out my sweaters, but also a tinge of melancholy. I love the summertime warmth on our deck at 10p, sharing laughs with pals, and oh, the blue August sky here in the Pacific Northwest. Holiday season will soon be upon us, both happy and fraught for all. The dog is older, so am I.


read

I’m reading two books right now, well three.

First, I’m so late to the party reading The Overstory. So far, I agree with Ann Patchett who’s blurb reads: “The best novel written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.”  I don’t know what to say about my love of trees without sounding hokey, so I’ll say, reading Powers’ novel has me paying close attention. And my god, are we puny, in every way.

I am also rereading Beloved. Actually, I’m listening to Toni Morrison narrate, hence my walks are getting longer each day as I don’t want to turn her off. In case you need more of Ms. Morrison, and who doesn’t, check out her conversation with Hilton Als on the New Yorker Radio Hour, and an homage from Fresh Air.

The third book, which I’m also rereading, is Citizen, An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine. I was inspired to pick up the book again after watching the post-match exchange at the US Open between Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka. I was inspired by Osaka’s grace and humanity. When she asks Gauff to share the stage in the post-match interview she says, “It’s better than going into the shower and crying. Let the people know how you feel.” I reached for Rankine who writes of the Williams sisters in her lyric. She writes of grace and anger in the face of racial indignities. “At the end of the day, I’m very happy with me,” says Serena Williams. So are we. Do you follow her IG?



write

Pals, I am nose down, working hard to finish this manuscript. Hence, my only teaching this fall will be my memoir class. All of us come to writing memoir, to telling our truths, for different and compelling reasons, but honestly, and don’t be mad at me, I believe the heart of the heart of telling our story is the desire to be loved. Love me, as I am, despite what I did, despite what was done to me. Isn’t that what every memoirist is saying? But does that make the act of writing therapy? I don’t think so. When I wrote Community Chest, about my breast cancer experience, it wasn’t therapy exactly. Though I did feel lighter getting words and thoughts and fears out of my body onto the page, I wasn’t purged. I felt part of a larger conversation, part of the world.

This essay, by T Kira Madden, takes a long look at what writing memoir does and doesn’t accomplish for writer and reader. My best hope as a writer of memoir is that in forging my experience into language, I deeply connect with a reader. As I reader of memoir, I want to nod my head in recognition.

If the trees are all connected and speaking to one another through their root systems (see how I did that…), then we can certainly consider stories our own intricate system of connection.

In case you’re interested, I’m also offering individual editing/coaching. If you’d like to explore working one on one, shoot me a message.



eat

Made this cake, and loved it. And I mean loved it. Whatever you do, don’t cheat on the amount of mixing time the recipe calls for, the cake is so light and tender. I think it would be perfect with wine poached figs for a very elegant dessert.

Read this sweet piece from the NYer archives. Oh man, do I miss Nora Ephron. I loved all the cookbooks she describes, and I made the same entertaining mistakes she did. It was a sweet dive into my own cooking and growing up past. Remember Lee Bailey? I adored his cookbooks when I was a newly married woman. It wasn’t just the food, it was the zeitgeist of conviviality, and the draw of a life that was completely out of reach for me, financially. Oh the envy! (In the act of writing this, I just bought a used copy of Cooking for Friends. Now, this little pet project of mine is costing me money.)

I know I’ve said it here before, but it is worth saying again, I believe buying a cookbook is an act of hope. Cookbooks conjure joy, the meals, the people, the love. In the novel I’m working on, one of the characters is a food blogger with a large following. When she says, “Come eat,” which she often does, she’s really saying, “I love you.” All this yammering is a way of me getting to express my excitement over a new cookbook from Alison Roman coming soon. nothing fancy: the art of having people over, which, I guess, is the same as Cooking for Friends, no? The lack of capital letters in the title, does it make you relax? I’m here to say, it kinda does it for me.

And, here’s a recipe for a little snack I’ve been loving, in case you need something to do with the tomatoes in your garden,  Mediterranean Baked Feta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

quick read, quick listen, quick meal

With this note I embark upon year two of the read.write.eat. newsletter! Thank you all–for reading, for commenting, for letting me know you’re out in the world. As I’ve often bemoaned, writing is a lonely business, and you’ve helped me out by meeting me at the virtual water cooler, letting me know what you’ve read, how your writing is going, and what delicious meal you’ve eaten. I’m so grateful for your company.


read

A quick note here as I’ve not read a new book since last I wrote. I have read two fantastic stories in the New Yorker.

First, “Motherless Child,” by Elizabeth Strout, which appears in the August 5 issue. Hallelujah! It is a story about Olive Kitteridge, my favorite curmudgeon. I loved the novel, Olive Kitteridge, because Olive is so complicated. She doesn’t suffer fools, and her insights about people around her are often spot on, and she has such blinders about her own behavior. I am of the belief that we all have a tiny bit of Olive in us, especially those of us who deny, deny, deny! You can read the story here, listen to Elizabeth Strout read it here, and read a brief interview with Strout here.

Next up, “Elliott Spencer,” by George Saunders, which appears in August 13 issue of the magazine. This story is a challenging read, playful with language, playful on the page, it reflects our current political situation, has characters you come to care deeply about, and is full of pain, regret, and forgiveness. Saunders reminds us what compassion and empathy mean. He reminds us that we all have tremendous capacity for love if we only allow ourselves to really look at the people in our society whom we choose not to see. You can read the story here. Listen to Saunders read it here. Read a brief interview with him here.



write

I’m really moving along on my book! One story to go and I’m so excited about the project. Writing a book takes so much time, love, faith and worry. And then, you release it into the hands of the world who may not get it, may not love it. Ouch!

I think we can all benefit from reexamining our relationship with success. What does success mean for you and your work? What is your condition of enoughness? Certainly we all want to hold our beautiful books. We want to connect with readers. We want our books to sell. And, don’t we also want the satisfaction of writing the truth, whether in fiction or memoir or poetry or personal essays, don’t we want to reveal the truth of human experience to the best of our abilities? Life is messy and we want to successfully portray all the mess with love for our characters, and without flinching. It is so damn hard!

As you consider the definition of success for you and your work, I encourage you to listen to this wonderful interview with Steve Almond (one of the Sugars from Dear Sugar) about what writing success means to him, and even bigger than that, “How do we esteem what we tried to do in life?” The conversation is so uplifting and powerful. Find it at Otherppl Podcast.



eat

Need something to do with the zucchini your neighbors have been giving you? Make this pasta and you’ll find yourself begging for all the zucchini. Just writing it here makes me want to go to the kitchen and cook some up.  It’s adapted from NYTimes cooking. So Delicious! So Easy! Serve it up with a tomato salad and you’ll be all set.

  •      1 pound fusilli or other short curvy pasta
  •      1 ½ pounds zucchini halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2- inch thick pieces
  •      Kosher salt and black pepper
  •      4 tablespoons olive oil
  •      2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  •      1/3 cup cream
  •      Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  •      ½ cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
  •      1 ½ cups roughly chopped herbs, such as mint, basil, Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
  •      1/3 c chopped Marcona almonds
  •      Flaky salt, for serving (optional)
  •      Red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
  1. Prepare the zucchini: Season chunks with salt and pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the squash in one layer (you may need to do this in two batches) and cook undisturbed until it begins to turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from the pan and set aside. Taste and season again, if necessary.
  2. Meanwhile, Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until it is just al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
  3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the zucchini pan. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic becomes translucent, about 30 seconds. Add the squash back to the pan along with the lemon juice and half the lemon zest. Toss to combine.
  4. Put the pasta in a large bowl. Add zucchini and toss to combine. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water, the cream, and the grated cheese. Toss until the cheese emulsifies and is silky. Add the fresh herbs and almonds. Toss again. Top with additional herbs and the remaining lemon zest. Serve in bowls, and pass grated cheese at the table. Season with flaky salt, if desired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

burn the page down!!!

I’m just home from a sacred landscape. I feel so lucky to have visited Taos, New Mexico, where I taught and participated in Jen Louden’s amazing writing retreat with twenty-two women. At 7000 feet we all pushed the pause button on our lives, made writing and our stories a priority. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House hosted us. We wrote, laughed, danced, listened, learned, napped and sweat! (It was hot.) Sometimes we cried, and oh my god did we eat…  Hop over to my Instagram page to see some beautiful photos.


read

I read Deborah Levy’s gorgeous, portmanteau of a book, Things I Don’t Want to Know. Part memoir, part gender politics, part writing treatise, and literary theory, the book is a swift and deep river. I was moved by all that Levy had to say about painful reckoning with one’s past. It is particularly when we don’t choose to remember that our past remembers us, and sneakily invades our lives.

Levy also has much to say about voice and agency. “To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish.” Throughout much of her childhood, Levy spoke very softly and was admonished to speak up, though she could not. Using her voice felt dangerous. (Her father was imprisoned for five years in apartheid South Africa.)

As a grown woman, a writer, she said, “A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly, if she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.” I get it. I intimately understand the rage and dismay that can arise from the loss of freedom a woman feels when she leaves her child body behind, becomes an object, perhaps a wife and a mother, and is told again and again that to voice a wish that is solely of the self, for the self, is outrageous. Because women are givers, we risk merging into anonymity.

But I don’t believe this is entirely gender based. Any giver is threatened with erasure. Nor do I believe women aren’t strong, and cannot write from a place of rage. Don’t be sloppy, don’t harden, remain curious, bold, and recognize your strength. Then, burn the page down!!

In “Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous, the French poststructuralist thinker said, “Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.”



write

Jen Louden, the most authentically enthusiastic person I’ve ever met, led the Taos retreat. She offered many questions and ideas to encourage us go deep into the why of our writing lives. She asked us reflect upon a question that dogs us–in our lives, in our writing. We scrawled questions on slips of paper and dropped them in a cookie jar. Everyone then drew one and held onto the question for a few days, walking the beautiful Taos landscape, jotting answers when inspired, then taping the questions to the wall. Where do I go from here? Who am I without ambition? How will I know when enough is enough?

And this: Is everyone lonely?

The question slayed me. Because of course, the answer is yes. Not all the time, but perhaps more often than we like. We’re lonely binging Netflix on our sofas. We’re lonely swiping through Instagram, or Twitter, or checking our Facebook feeds. We’re lonely sitting at our desks, struggling to write one true sentence, and then another. We’re lonely when we miss connections with those we love. We’re lonely when we don’t feel seen.
Any of the women at the retreat could have written the question. What I came to understand as I thought more about it: Thank God for my writing. Alone at my desk I am challenged and infuriated. I feel really shitty as I try, then fail, and then fail better. But that lonely time writing is when I’m with my best friend. My writing/my friend has seen me through really dark times. It has helped me gain understanding about…well, me. It has helped me develop compassion. My writing has helped me become a better human being.
So yes, Dear Writer who posed the question to all of us. Everyone is lonely. But you have the magic tool to learn the world and bring it closer. Do what you love (and hate) to do, write.



eat

The food was so terrific at the lodge in Taos, mostly fresh vegetables, big salads and lots of baked treats.Yum! But, I didn’t get much Southwestern food. So, I plan on making these, even though Portland weather will be in the 90’s all week.  I promise, you will love these enchiladas. They were a staple in our home when the children still lived with us. Oh, now I’m feeling a little verklempt, missing their sweet faces at our dinner table. Which brings me back to Deborah Levy and the struggle for self. I guess the question is, how do we stay strong in the self and continue to give, to share our lives? I think an answer is to take time, to make time, to retreat and do what you love, just for you.