composting the details

While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.

The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.

I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.

In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.

Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

This is true of writing about new motherhood while in the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.

I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.

I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.

I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.

july sunshine: celebrating one year of clara

dsc00770A first birthday is a powerful marker of time. When you have a baby, you have a new way to measure a year: in weight gain, in consonant sounds, in sleep patterns and in spoonfuls of purée. Each month takes on new color.

In August, Clara laughed. In January, she ate bananas and avocados. In May, out popped a gap-toothed smile. In July, she hugged me back. Constant surprises.

I filled an album with first-year photos and we flipped through it with great fascination. Most change is sneaky. This kind of change is bold and blatant, letting us in on the secret. Clara’s transformation over one year holds as much drama as a time-lapse of an exotic flower–from nothing seedling to gorgeous bloom in minutes, like magic.

Some friends (also multicultural couples with very young children) came over to celebrate on Bastille Day, the day before Clara’s actual birthday on the 15th. The plans were last-minute, made less than a week before when we were picnicking in the park under Lebanon cedars, the kids playing on blankets.

Keeping the birthday low-key, just Victor and I, suddenly seemed a shame. We needed to celebrate this wild year. It wasn’t just Clara who had changed. We had survived a year of thinking like parents, solving new problems, creating a family culture (which, for awhile, just meant we played rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to change an absolutely vile diaper). My friends were enthusiastic, understanding the significance of this day–especially, maybe, when living abroad–and so it was planned.

We had a little fiesta. I hung up the sunny decorations my mom had thriftily sent from the States in separate standard envelopes. Adriana, who’s Mexican and American, and who seems to have a natural talent for celebration, brought pico de gallo and guacamole and rosé. As soon as she arrived, she stood in my kitchen frying cheese quesadillas for a crowd. Victor made empanadas and prepared mangos and pineapple. I made tre leches cake with luscious whipped cream on top (made by shaking cold cream in a chilled jar like there’s no tomorrow–in the absence of a mixer, try this–it works!).

Seven adults and three people between the ages of one and two was about all our small apartment could handle. The three little ones played, crawling and stumbling over each other, flinging toys, eating fruit. The rest of us sat wherever there was room, sweating as the 4 pm July sun burned through the windows. We balanced plates just out of reach of six chubby fists. The cat, in shock, fled the scene.

When Clara was just about depleted, we hurried her to her highchair. We sang–first in English, then in French. Victor and I, the sweaty, joyful, proud parents, grinned for the camera while Clara sobbed, overwhelmed by so much noise and attention. Things were better when we cut her a fat square of tre leches cake. She gobbled down every crumb, whipped cream dotting her nose. We served seconds of cake before the babies brought the afternoon to a close by collectively deciding it was time for a nap.

It is a new skill, this learning how to follow a conversation with one eye always on a small, ornery person–or a couple of them. This anticipating danger or just the likelihood that someone will pitch a toy off the balcony if given the chance. As our guests stood to leave they surveyed the scene with some regret.

“I feel bad…your house was perfect when we got here and look at this!” We looked. It certainly made an impression, that was true. Victor said it perfectly when he responded, “Well, I think we’re just going to have to get used to this.”

Clara, in her first year, has accompanied me to the Louvre, to Abbot Kinney boulevard, to a blues festival, to a crowded Kansas City BBQ restaurant. When she turned one I saw the end of all that. Or at least the end of the ease of all that. There’s to be no more letting her sleep in a stroller as we linger over coffee or dinner. Her presence will be felt.

The past few weeks have seen her throwing food–motivated by a simple fascination with gravity. She’s been emptying any box or basket she can find of all its contents. Helping herself to a snack from the pantry. Pouring water on the ground and playing in it. Producing quite a terrifying troll-growl when she wants more grapes. She gets bored, now. She likes sitting in her stroller but it must be rolling, giving her new sights to see.

We’re going to have to get used to this.

Her new skills and capabilities bring new joys as well as new frustrations–for her, for us. But the other night while I am putting her to bed after a tiresome afternoon, I hold her close and think that it is like holding the future. She is pure possibility. She smells of her dinner–butter and parmesan on pasta. She looks up at me in the evening dim, bright round face glowing like the moon. She lays her cheek against my collarbone. The curls at her neck are damp from the sweat of summer. I think–savor this! I think–this, here, is the good life.

the joy of quarantine cooking

After a month and a half, our quarantined life feels totally normal–and not. It depends on how much news I’ve been reading that morning. I’m finding the familiar rhythm of mealtime a relief. No matter what’s happening in the news, you’ve gotta eat. Probably now more than ever, I am glad I know how to cook. 

I’m not alone in this. I see peers punching down their worries in the form of homemade bread. I see enthusiasm over the humblest bubbling stew. “Quarantine cooking” feels much more elemental than most trends. What’s cool right now? Self-sufficiency. Nourishment. Beans.

While I’ve always loved the results of time spent in the kitchen, in this slowed-down springtime I appreciate the process just as much. Cooking is an end in itself. I purposefully choose labor-intensive projects, recipes that require kneading and rising, two-hour simmers, long lists of spices. Cooking is tangible enough to wake me up from the stupor of an internet binge or a foggy morning. It’s my one cherished chore.

I like the messes. Turmeric-stained fingertips, focaccia dough bursting out of its bowl, clouds of flour, the firework crackling of potatoes in hot oil.

I don’t love cleaning them up. But that is a part of the lifecycle of this beloved routine: the discipline to empty the sink even when it doesn’t seem to matter. This is something I’ve learned: like getting dressed in the morning, like putting on mascara for another day spent indoors, doing the dishes is an act of hope. I have grown some truly spectacular mold in my time, and I know that a neglect of my surroundings typically belies inner distress.

These days, I leave the mold to the Roquefort. I cook good food, elaborate food, pretty food, even though it’s just the two of us. We use the nice plates–white ceramic platters my mom scoped out at Emmaus–like it’s a party and not just another evening on the balcony.

Food is how we celebrate. We can’t stop in at a trendy bar, linger on a terrace, walk along the rivers, spend the weekend in the countryside. Instead, we dream about menus. On the rainy morning of my birthday, we walk to the Turkish butcher down the street to pick out a giant steak for two. We eat it deeply seared, crackling crust, with roasted radishes and tarragon butter. We eat cross-legged on the floor, our movie on pause because this meal deserves our undivided attention.

For dessert: big slices of a vanilla-bean-speckled cake I had made the day before while chatting with my mom and grandma on Facetime. Separated by thousands of miles, we follow the same recipe, delight in the same alchemy of nutty browning butter. I hold the cake to the camera so they can see if it springs back up after the pressure of my index finger. They tell me it needs a few more minutes.

We had planned, just over a month before, to do this in person, but the compromise is sweet. We adapt. They eat a slice of birthday cake warm from the oven, an indulgent breakfast, while I put mine aside and start working on dinner.

All this extra time inside has given grocery shopping a certain allure. There are often long lines outside the big supermarkets, but smaller produce-heavy markets are mostly quiet. We learn from the news that producteurs are facing a serious demand problem. Shoppers have flocked to shelf-stable comfort foods, leaving delicate spring produce to wilt and flounder. Cameras pan over the brilliant leafy floor of a greenhouse filled with endives that no one wants, tiny strawberries that are delicate and perfect and unwanted.

Producers are also lacking the necessary manpower to realize seasonal harvests. Stone fruits are growing overripe on trees. The problem is so concerning that in March, the French government called on laid-off employees to find temporary work in the fields.

It seems like a good time to fill my bags with things I’ve never cooked with. Fruits and vegetables de saison are gorgeous, abundant, and affordable besides. I grab kohlrabi, tarragon, radishes, fresh peas, fava beans. I bring home potted herbs one at a time, starting a straggly table-garden of thyme, basil, and parsley.

Victor and I both enjoy “cooking” for Clara, blitzing part of our dinner to a thin purée. She likes almost everything, from hummus to the lone, shriveled zucchini forgotten at the back of the fridge. Steam it, blend it, jar it–she is my secret weapon to avoiding food waste. Last weekend we had a mezze meal featuring several small plates from a Persian cookbook. I blended the leftovers and put them in small bowls for a baby-mezze, introducing Clara’s palate to dill and mint and pomegranate molasses, dishes that tasted sour and sunny.

While I make most of our main meals, Victor cooks for me too. It’s enough to plant the img_0887idea in his head (“you know what sounds really good…?”). His signature dish: restaurant-quality mushroom risotto. He cooks on special occasions–like Saturdays–on which he sometimes wakes me up with a chattering baby and a warm blueberry muffin. When one of us is in a funk, the other might take out a cookbook from our growing collection, saying, “Make me something,” knowing that the basic tasks required–level flour, peel potatoes–are grounding, essential. That a carefully-made meal (and cleaning up afterwards, let’s not forget) is a small rebellion against apathy. 

In our home, we prove again (as has been proved in every culture, a lesson I never get tired of) that food is love.

it takes a city

acs_2435In “The Case for Raising Kids in the City,” published last fall, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues that while America’s major cities have developed a reputation as playgrounds for the young and unattached, they have plenty to offer families with children. 

I wanted to clap when I finished reading his persuasive list. We’re not in America, of course, and some of the economic factors and social ideals are a little different, but much of what Yglesias says transfers just fine to a vibrant European city like Lyon.

It’s all uncharted territory for me–the raising kids part and the city part–and it was inspiring to read that these two things might go together just fine. Yglesias writes:

Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I grew up among the flat expanses of the Midwest. As a teenager, I noticed the lack of third places in the community for people my age, though I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I just complained there was nothing to do. Teenagers drove to the historic town square, sat on the tailgate of someone’s truck and presumably drank beer. That didn’t hold any appeal for me, nor did pacing the aisles of Wal-Mart, the other popular way to pass the time.

Third places are those social oases separate from the first main social environment, home, and the second, the workplace. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote that these places restore us, support us, make us happy. In France, tabacs and cafés function as a third place. In England, pubs often play this role. In small-town America, the third place could be the donut shop, bowling alley, barbershop, or the local Elks Club.

The youth, however, don’t have many choices. I craved somewhere I could go just hang out; make a private phone call away from my family. Somewhere I could talk if I wanted to or just read and write when I didn’t. A low-pressure environment to chat and get to know people in a way that whispering during a biology lecture didn’t allow for.

By the time I got to college, I was starving for third places and spent much of my time in them. One of my favorites was the hybrid of a café, bar, indie cinema, and record store. There were always grad students writing, professors having lunch, and people leaving the theater area to stop at the bar for a glass of wine. I’d meet with friends purposefully, or run into people I knew by chance. Either way, it felt like a home, and I was often more comfortable at places like this–alone but not–than at my actual home with roommates.

Third places seem like the kind of thing that will be important for parenting life, too. I don’t know what or where they’ll be, yet, but I like knowing that an abundance of these places exists here, and as Yglesias puts it, they’re not all shopping malls.

I’m interested in how my daughter’s experience with urbanity will differ from my own. The way she’ll play in a park instead of in a huge backyard with hay bales. The way we’ll walk and take public transit instead of driving the ubiquitous minivan around town. Even silly things, like the way elevators–which can hold a hint of glamor for the rural child–will be so totally commonplace.

Into my twenties, I found cities intimidating, intriguing, and somewhat unaccessible. I remember my first trip to a big city when I was old enough to appreciate it. Paris, when I was 16. The main disappointing takeaway was that my year of French didn’t come close to translating. I was irrevocably American.

At the same time, I couldn’t suppress the glee when I saw things as banal as taxis and pigeons. It was all so cinematic, so foreign, and not just because we were in France, where the voltage fried my hair straightener and the hotel breakfast included cute little packets of Nutella. No, more than the French-ness, it was the noise, the rush of people, the dizzying traffic, all so new. New, too, this strange feeling of anonymity.

It took me years to feel really at ease among the frenzied choreography of a city. Depending upon how long we stay and where we go next, this will be Clara’s normal: dodging Vespas, navigating the metro with ease, attending public culture events, hearing the music of multiple languages. I like this for her, that she’ll likely be braver than me. Maybe she won’t spend all her time wondering at “the real world” glimpsed in books and movies, because it will seem like she already lives there. She’ll be acquainted with people from many countries and backgrounds. Her library will include both Petit Ours Brun and Curious George. She’ll have two lexicons available when expressing herself. She might be one of those little kids who likes Camembert.

It fascinates me, how different our stories will be. I chose this cross-cultural life that she inherited. I wonder what kind of marks a place leaves on a person, if the rural-ness of my upbringing forever differentiates me in some way. I wonder if Clara, too, will crave to make a home somewhere far away, or if she’ll feel right at home where she is.