A Literary Feast

Pink.

Posted on May 15th, 2020

I don’t know when it starts or why, when it does, but I start buying pink.  A pink phone case.  A pink water bottle.  Anything and everything that I will touch daily like a ritual is rosy.  I am alone in a house with a broken leg and I am being stalked by a man I briefly dated and my phone is like a gun next to my bed that I can’t get rid of that presses itself to my temple every morning, and I am buying pink like I just found out what a color is and it’s the only one I can see.  I have never been this person.  It surprises me.  It surprises other people.  My therapist wonders if it’s my reaction to being told, a thousand ways til Sunday, daily, that I am a creature, a howl, a thing.  As if this is a shield, a proof that the man writing to my workplace’s social media accounts about the ruddy-faced obese stringy-haired hunchback who should kill herself is wrong.  I don’t know.  It just keeps arriving.

Four years later, standing at the end of my road and looking out over a river curving away into darkness on my two whole legs, a notion, neat and entire, sits in my brain: I think I might need pink hair.  It is winter.  The landscape is every shade of blue, and the sun is gone.  The last idea of it is at the horizon line, and it is the softest flush.  That color, there.  

I am timid with it, at first, I’m not even sure what it is that I want.  Maybe rose gold?  Maybe the suggestion of it?  Is it too late for this?  Am I too old?  My boss said ‘what took you so long to figure out you should have pink hair’, when I asked if it was professional.  ‘I think maybe the ends?’ I tell Cora, who is excited for me, and spends the next five hours mixing and remixing and rinsing and reapplying and hunting for a shade we aren’t sure how to name but will know when we see it.  At the end of all of this, it is pretty, and immediately not enough.  

‘More, I think?’, I let myself text on the way home, and I go back the next day, thinking ‘this is insane, the amount of money I am blowing on this project of impermanence and for what and for why this is ridiculous’ but I do it anyway.  

Being visible has been a dance I haven’t quite known how to be with, my entire life.  When you’re the only girl on the swim team who wakes up to boobs in the fourth grade, visibility is something you are chosen by, that does not belong to you, immediately.  Your body was yours, and then suddenly it isn’t, it is everyone else’s.  I’m not sure how to dress it.  I’m not sure how to perform or belong to myself, anymore, anywhere.  I cry hot embarrassed tears over undershirts and training bras and the way everyone feels free to comment on the difference I can’t do anything about.   At some point, alone in my room, I take every belt out of my dresser drawer (we had so many belts in the 90s, so many) and buckle them around my chest, flattening my breasts, trying to remember how it felt to belong to myself.  I can’t breathe.  I take them off, and look at the immediate bruises.  I can’t figure out how to love you, I think, and return to my bra.

I am sixteen when I cut off all of my hair.  I am more visible, and less visible, and when another friend does it, I think I see how you can be so pretty that removing your hair is like a sharpening lens, or, you can be me, and feel how it takes you out of focus, and renders you neutral.  I spend all of my time in the woods, wanting to be a machine or an animal, running and climbing and losing myself in dirt.  I hate the performance of things.  I fall in love with college boys.  Adulthood seems like a space where my hair might matter less, and I’m so hungry for it.  I can see how being something else might be easier.  I am only ever able to be myself, though.  Day in, day out.  ‘Girl’ is this one thing that everyone seems to agree on, and I can’t agree with it.  So I don’t.  I am Fugazi and axes and mountains and my dad’s old jeans on my hipless hips and trail running shoes I repair with duct tape and old lady cardigans.  I am a growing mountain of restlessly erotic poems to a lover I’ve constructed out of a boy I met backpacking who writes me long letters from the wilderness and then from Wesleyan, whose envelopes are Annie Dillard quotes and punk rock songs.  I don’t know enough to know what I even want to give him, and so I give him rivers and oceans and wind and empty places and aches.  I bleach my hair.  When I try to dye it back to red, later, it is pink.  Don’t hate me, but, you look like a hot dog, my best guy friend says, when we come in from a run.  I hate him a little.

I keep my eyes closed, the second time.  I want it to be a surprise, and also, I want it to be enough, and try to figure out how to steel myself for it being wrong, or for the feeling that it isn’t something I’m allowed still, when I open them.  I look at the floor, I look at the other people in their chairs, I look at the scissors, I look at the labels on the careful bottles of expensive shampoo and creams and fixatives and oils.  I think about the number of dresses that hang in my closet.  The lingerie that lives next to my wetsuit.  The wholeness I’ve worked to take on, everywhere, letting whatever sort of woman I am be axes.  Letting her be a ruffle, a scrap of velvet.  Unshaven armpits.  Wild rose perfume.  An arm spangled in seaweed.  Two wheels in the dirt.  Whatever says home.

‘I think we’re done.  What do you think?’

I open my eyes.  

‘I think I’m myself’, is the first thing I say.  

What took me so long, is the second.

Hug Atlas

Posted on May 8th, 2020

Your heart is a bucket.  Your heart is nails.  Your heart is a post and beam.  Your heart is an empty bell.  Your heart is an ocean.

What is the wordless language of your chin on the top of my head in a sunlit kitchen, and your hand finding the heat where a threadbare shirt and old sweatpants meet.  What is the light at the window.  What is the first pancake, and me cursing it, and your noiseless chuckle that moves through my back to my front.  What is.

Butter slowly melting, in a well-loved skillet.

Have you noticed the way this clay curve fits into your hand, neatly warm, like the head of an infant.  Because that too.

My legs find power from somewhere even though I forgot to eat lunch and I climb a long hill in a purposefully heavy gear and it is also a love letter that I leave there, on the side of the road, in salt and molecules.

I can’t give you every beautiful thing.  I try anyway.  I’m not sure if it matters.  I do it again.  Anyway.

We have two chairs in the high field, and it is dusk, and we ask: how do you want the world to be, and watch the light go.  This too, I think, this too.

Your heart is a washed stone, half light, half dark.  Your heart is a tide pool, still and breathing.  Your heart is a hum.  Your heart is water so cold it hurts.  Your heart is a shirt so soft, afterwards.  Your heart is an argument I keep trying to have.  Your heart is a hand in the small of my back, saying here.  No, here.  A thousand times.  Here.

Coffee At Home

Posted on May 6th, 2020

I was excited for 2020 to begin. The docket for the year includes my daughter turning six, the completion of my master’s degree, my thirty-fifth birthday and hopefully me becoming a certified food scientist. In January I received an email about a new job opportunity. One that would allow me to leave the world of luxury food items to work for a company with a mission very much aligned with my own personal values and a promise of prioritized employee work-life balance. I accepted the job and gave my employer four weeks notice in order to finish (mostly) the projects I had open. Twenty-twenty was off to a great start.

One of those open items included a trip to Italy for a jetlagged 50-hour work week. I returned home on February 15th, a week before the first cluster of COVID-19 was reported in Italy (hundreds of miles from where I had stayed). I worked the remaining week and half feeling both very lucky and very anxious to begin the next chapter of my career.

I began my new job with the option and intention of working two days a week from home. The commute is long and my daughter is small so I was looking forward to a scheduling reprieve. But I am a social creature and I was also looking forward  to the social camaraderie that comes with working amongst like-minded peers. By the middle of my second week it became clear that anyone not directly involved in operations should be working from home. By the start of the third week it was mandated that we work from home and also public schools had closed. My husband was still going into work and I was about to be working from home while also homeschooling my daughter. I have never been a paragon of patience and this was certainly not how I imagined my new found work-life balance. And yet it had to be done, and I  am so grateful to have the flexibility to do it. Since I’ve managed to all but entirely clone myself I knew she and I would need a schedule to live peacefully through this unprecedented time. A schedule and a quite a bit more luck.

Sunday night I made the schedule and showed it to her. Monday morning we went over it again. Her response this time was “I know this isn’t on the schedule, but it’s important to me, I want to get to make your coffee. First thing in the morning, and if you want another one later.” I said okay.

 I didn’t drink coffee regularly until after I became a mother. It wasn’t for the caffeine – strangely enough, I’ve slept better since motherhood than I ever did before. It was for the ritual, the adultness.  It was to have something that belonged to me, that was unequivocally mine, that I wasn’t expected to give up for motherhood or share with a baby. Over the last six years it has become a ubiquitous part of my morning routine. On weeks when I remember I make a gallon of half-caff cold brew and have it in the fridge and parcel it out each day into to-go cup and rush out the door trying not to finish it during my daily commute. On weeks I don’t remember I shamefully squeeze a mobile order and corresponding stop into our morning routine. On the weekends I use the milk foamer Santa brought us to make evaporated milk cold foam to add a little bit of luxury to my life.

That first morning she made me my foam cold brew in the ‘Best Mom Ever’ mug she gave me for Christmas. It’s clear glass and displays the visual magic of the cold foam cold brew quite nicely. It has melted away my previously long held disdain for mismatched mugs. I sat in my new ‘office’, the far end of the dining room table by the window and sipped my coffee. It was the first weekday morning coffee I had consumed outside of a car in several years.  It was the best coffee I had had in a very long time. She likes to put the ice in last often causing the foam to overflow down the sides. Some days she forgets to put the whip in the foamer and it’s just flat iced coffee. It’s always in the same mug and it’s always the best coffee ever.

We worked our way through our new daily schedule. It began to include several more 7-minute HIIT workouts than I was ready for – two before breakfast, two before lunch, one after lunch, one before the daily late afternoon dance party – I assume this is what it’s like living  with a personal trainer. By the end of week two it also included  A LOT of KidzBop which at the very least has a redeeming entertainment factor. Remarkably, something about a six-year old singing sanitized Ke$ha songs doesn’t get old.  She spent all of her art time, free play time, and the majority of the time originally allocated for television making perler/fuse bead crafts.  (Little plastic cylinders that can be formed into patterns and pictures, then ironed to make the ‘fuse’ magic happen).  She started to make gifts for everyone she could think of – coasters and magnets for all the grandparents, neighbors, friends, always asking what the intended receiver’s interests are. She suggested we mail out her gifts since everyone was under quarantine. She made me a Wonder Woman coaster to keep by my laptop. My husband was deemed essential and continued to go in to work five days a week.

One morning after I emptied my ‘Best Mom Ever’ mug of the finest cold foam cold brew around I requested a second cup of coffee. She responded “Sure. I would like to make you a cup of coffee. I would like a cup of tea. Can you make me a cup of raspberry herbal tea?” It struck me that her natural response was for each of us to make the other’s beverage instead of each making our own. But I remember she is filled with kindness and again I feel very lucky.

I don’t know if anyone is actually feeling that they have more time on their hands during this quarantine. I know I certainly don’t – working, homeschooling, continuing graduate work, keeping everyone fed….I am mentally exhausted and often asleep on the couch by the time my husband reemerges from putting my daughter to bed. But I am also feeling very peaceful. I have tapped into a deep well of patience I never knew I had. I am reaffirming my confidence in the choices I usually take for granted: home, husband, child.  Today as I sat at my laptop in my new ‘office’ at the far end of the dining room table I saw, through the picture window, the blossoms on the magnolia tree in the front yard slowly start to open over the course of the day – something I haven’t taken the time to see in the ten years I’ve lived in this house.

This is 2020. I drink my coffee at home. I am very lucky.  Is it the 2020 as I imagined? Notably not. Is it the end of the world as we know it? Probably. Am I scared? No – at least not when I lift my cold foam cold brew from my handmade Wonder Woman coaster, look across the table at the maker of both and catch a glimpse of what’s coming next.

Covidity

Posted on May 6th, 2020

COVID-19 Shelter-in-place food insults

Gleaned from Facebook comment threads of my friends:

  • A listless can of water chestnuts (credit: Hillary Hoffman)
  • One forgotten smoked duck
  • Bakery pizza
  • A desperate recipe for kale pesto
  • A “timeless” lone packet of instant oatmeal
  • A Google search for recipes involving potato flakes
  • Exploded can of store-bought tomato paste
  • A Hershey bar left over from smores last summer
  • They’ve “…been sprouting more faithfully these days.”
  • A bag of carob chips
  • An aforementioned coconut
  • Freezer burned seafood
  • Old box of Special K
  • What you thought were dried currants
  • Farmers market fatback from 2007
  • A solitary half of red onion
  • A whim of gluten-free pancake bricks
  • First-time baking bread
  • A chided kubota
  • A chest-freezer bottom medley
  • A quantity of discarded curd
  • A recently expired slice of ham
  • The green part of leeks that she put in the compost to spite you
  • A dried up Stovetop pasta water dribble
  • 5 months of quinoa to the wind
  • A cashier’s hourly wage
  • …more piqued than a food bank’s funding right now

Narrative Ecology

Posted on May 6th, 2020

For several months in sixth grade I couldn’t sleep. To solve this problem, my sister shared her bedroom. It had two beds in it (we lived in Texas, space came big and cheap) and my sister’s hushed whisperings before falling asleep cured my insomnia. Her words, her language that I spoke so fluently, comforted me then.

            When we were young Julia was “the athlete” and I was “the writer.” These identities were fueled by our respective chosen activities of sports and poetry writing at Barbara Bush Middle School and Ronald Reagan High School (again Texas).

The imaginary novel I would write was always about my family. It would be big and convoluted, the way my family felt. I knew deep down I would write this novel and talked about it incessantly. As a family we often joked about “the book.” One Christmas my mother was sobbing over a box of cheap ornaments. She looked up at me through tear stained eyes laughed, and said, “don’t ever write about this.”

            For many years the construction of narrative identity has been studied by analyzing how individuals reconstruct their own stories. In Kate McClean’s book “the Co-authored Self” she discusses the concept of narrative ecology. Essentially “narrative ecology comprises the stories that are available to a person as he or she develops, the stories that form each person’s particular narrative landscape.” (Mclean 2016) In this way we can imagine our identities as not simply shaped by our own internal story-making process, but rather as being formed through an ecosystem of stories we tell, stories told to us, and stories told about us.  

Julia published her first article about our family’s history with addiction on July 8, 2015. In my imagined identity, I was the story-teller and Julia was a character. Instead, it ended up being the other way around. In the article she wrote, “I hold very thin relationships with my biological family who have caused this pain” which at the time felt like news to me. Later in the piece she says that she “was baptized” and that a new family had “all but adopted” her. I was hurt, furious, anxious, and stunned.  

With those words I could imagine her walking away from our family. Her back is to us, but before she is completely gone she turns back and marks us. She marks our family’s identity as abusive, dark, sick, and damaging. Then she turns back around and keeps walking. I feel the loss of that identity acutely.

Some of my best memories with Julia have been relegated to her dark pre-evangelical past. Getting stoned and dancing to Bob Marley’s Buffalo Solider in our living room, filling an entire room with laughter at parties together, polishing off a bottle of wine while we bitched about our parents, and sneaking cigarettes with our “bad aunt” during family reunions are all stories I imagine her telling her new family with remorse. I am not remorseful. These are part of my identity, my narrative ecology, and I feel as if they have to be erased.

My identity, my narrative ecology, forever shifted when Julia began to write our family’s stories down. Julia’s narrative will always be first. She shaped the narrative. She told the story.

 I am uninterested in my sister’s chosen genre and subject matter. There is plenty of alcoholic/abusive family confessional writing in the world. We have those stories, they have been done well, and I don’t think our family is particularly unique or interesting enough to warrant this type of public writing.

Thousands of miles away in Namibia, a country I have never been to, Julia is on a mission trip. There is a good chance she too is writing this very moment, as I put these words onto the page. We are not sharing our words anymore, whispering in the night, now we are adults who are writing. Language, her language, our language has always been and remains important to me.  Who has ownership over these stories we both orbit? Like two moons, with vastly different trajectories, we circle the same planet, pulling its tides in different directions.

Immovable Feasts

Posted on May 6th, 2020

Next Year in Person

I’m typing this hastily and I may not edit it much. Several things have changed lately—you’ve probably noticed—and somehow the idea of aspiring toward any sort of polish feels not only disingenuous but also unkind.

            Throw together what you can, hastily if you must. Keep your people near and don’t turn away the stranger. Staying put will feel a lot like running.

***

            “It’s getting to my head,” I tell a friend on the phone. “I swear I’m getting more Jewish the longer this goes on.” I mean it. There’s a pot of kasha varnishkes on the stove. Noodles, buckwheat, and enough schmaltz to hold it all together. It’s the ultimate Ashkenazi-American comfort food, and I’ve never had it before. I barely know how to spell it. But somehow I need it that night. My friend understands. I don’t know why my friend understands. And it occurs to me that this might be a deeper sort of understanding than I’m used to.

The same surreal epigenetic hunger strikes again a day or two later. I’m out on a walk. I suddenly want brisket. Maybe I just want to say the word brisket. “No, not barbeque,” I try to explain. It’s the idea of brisket I want, the kind of brisket they make sitcoms about, served up at the kind of childhood holiday table that hasn’t existed on that branch of my family tree for generations.

The day after that, it’s pastrami.

Maybe longing for what I actually know is too much work right now. Maybe I’m tired from telling myself I don’t already miss every member of my sprawling, ecumenical, pagan-ass tribe. Maybe that hollow ache in the middle of my chest is from the strain of packing bags in my sleep, in my mind, waiting for whatever exodus we’ve already begun.

***

            Then it’s Passover. It almost sneaks up on me this year. Maybe I’ve read the calendar wrong. Maybe we’re just all a little unstuck in time. It doesn’t really matter.

I catch my breath. I’m enough of a holiday prepper that I have everything I’d need for twenty guests. I’ve hoarded matzos the way some people hoard toilet paper. (Don’t think too hard about the implications.) I can grind out charoset in my sleep. But I haven’t found time to grieve the cavernous emptiness that I realize will flood my apartment on Wednesday night when the holiday begins and the raucous, joyful, baffled seder that my sister and I have made for years just doesn’t show.

The whole point is to gather your loved ones and shut out the Angel of Death. This feels like the other way round.

***

            So how does one cope with a holiday that isn’t happening?

I haven’t had this problem since Christmas of 2008. (We do not talk about Christmas of 2008.) But I have a power, a shield, a mighty hand that has guided me through dark times: denial.

I wake up Wednesday morning and my hands begin to cook on their own. A vaguely Russian kugel that serves two dozen. Eggs boiled for an hour in salt and onion skins. A stewed tzimmes of sweet potato, prune, pineapple, ginger, plantain. A tub of apply-nutty charoset. A pile of asparagus and enough horseradish sauce to drown the field it grew in.

I’ve done this before, but I’ve never had to time it around teaching online classes.

As I’m cooking, every guest I know isn’t coming is with me, somehow. I only wish that did them any good.

I hope somehow it does.

I should probably tell them.

***

            I set the table for three. I’m going to have this damn seder even if I have to have it alone. One chair is for me. One chair is because who wants to eat at a table with just one chair? And one chair, the extra chair, is left empty because this is what we do. A cup of wine will sit before the empty chair, a cup of water beside it. They’re there for those unexpected guests, Elijah and Miriam, those mythic heralds who may come to our doors to announce something wonderful. It seems we need them more than usual right now. It seems I should have left them each an extra chair, but four chairs at a table for one feels eccentric.

            I lay out the seder plate as carefully and as beautifully as I ever have. A lump of charoset gritty as mortar sits there as a reminder of generations who spilled their labor and bent their backs for someone else’s profit. I look at it and think how current it seems in 2020. And a bare, charred bone stands in for all the rites and dedications we struggle to remember in a world whose sacred spaces have been ploughed over by empires, swords, smallpox, power looms, and the Yankee dollar.

            Or something like that.

***

            I don’t eat alone that evening. Something wonderful happens: an unexpected guest, a responsible backyard campfire, low seats set six feet apart, a deep, slow talk about ritual and memory, divinity and magic, family and love and food and time. I bring down the feast from upstairs. I planned none of this. We eat cold matzo ball soup and discover that tzimmes is the same color as dusk. No one counts the cups of wine. We’re moving through space and time, sheltered and exposed, running toward and away all at once, and maybe that’s the world.

            Sometimes the rites we don’t plan are the truest ones, and the glow from the fire tells me there will be a next year.

***

            It’s late into the night now. I’ve had my giddy little seder upstairs, back indoors, alone but not alone. I’ve gotten into the slivovitz, and my cat has jumped up into the empty chair that I’ve left at the end of the table in case this is the year some shadowy Iron Age prophet materializes at the porch door and wants a cup of wine. When he comes he’ll come with bags under his eyes, rubbing his numb hands together, shivering in his felt boots. He’ll come reciting Pushkin. It’s time, my friend, it’s time. He won’t need to say what for. We have a hunch already. Me, though, I’m waiting for Miriam, that mythic dowser who could witch a well in the middle of the desert. There’s a gulp or two of water for her in Great Aunt Paula’s Waterford crystal rocks glass. I don’t think she’ll need it. She won’t come thirsty.

Heavy, Or Light?

Posted on May 6th, 2020

Greetings from beneath the refrigerator, bed, sofa, desk, dish washer, tub, toilet, television, desk again, washing machine, and kitchen sink, all the daily stations of the quarantined cross on this little circuit we’re all running now, so I’m glad I made this decision. Yes, I’m glad I piled all these things up before climbing under its multi-ton glory. Because this is what it feels like to be alive right now.

Or, perhaps, being alive right now is a matter of weightlessness—the open expanse of time. Floating, freely. Spacing out, freely. Doing 200 jumping jacks, freely. Staying inside, freely. Everything is cancelled, nothing is happening, so all time feels light, effervescent, moving freely as water.

But water is heavy, one of the heaviest substances.

So which is it—heavy, or light? It is both. The duality of this inversion repeats, permeates: We stay isolated to support our communities. We strenuously avoid each other as a form of kindness, even love. We sit still and call it progress. We are all at home, but home feels like a foreign country.

In our case, home is a foreign country. In January, my husband and I, both Americans, moved to Holland for work. We had planned to be here until July or so. Now—who knows! We had planned to travel and see friends in the region. Now—who knows! We thought maybe we would have tuna for lunch today. Now—who knows! Even small decisions can feel huge, while huge ones inconsequential. Inversions, inversions everywhere.

The other day we visited our local grocery store. Just as we arrived, a man closed the door. He barricaded it with both hands, his palms pressed cold and white-hard against the glass. It happened very fast. We did not expect it. We stood back, watching and waiting. We talked quietly about what food we still had in the house. And we struggled with the intensity of the idea that our access to food had suddenly changed.

After a few minutes, the man turned around. He opened the door. We wandered around for a few seconds, blinded by the infinity of the place. We were inside a grocery store again!

See? It happened very fast. We did not expect it.

Sorry if this essay feels disjointed. My brain is a little addled and I’m having a hard time concentrating. I’ve been forgetting things a lot lately. I hope you’re feeling okay wherever you are and whatever is going on when you read this. I hope things everywhere are better by then.

The only cookbook I brought with me to Holland was Amanda Hesser’s 2003 classic Cooking for Mister Latte. I love this book—full of cheerful good advice and brothy pastas that traces the tale of Hesser’s romance with Mister Latte who, by the end, becomes her husband. It’s studded with lovely details (afternoons spent “plucking meat from crab after crab and watching ships and barges ease across the bay”… I mean…) and wonderful recipes for things like salt-crusted shrimp and coconut layer cake. I adore, adore, adore Cooking for Mister Latte, dating from the days when the story ran as a column in the New York Times and my friend Monique and I would read and compare notes on the latest installment.

I wonder how Monique is doing through all of this.

At the center of the book is a short chapter that recounts Hesser’s experience during 9/11. I’m taking comfort in people writing about food and recipes and telling the stories of how they live, and live through, a disaster. I’m also interested in stories of revelation, sudden discovery, and/or new beginnings. Hesser’s book in general, and the 9/11 “Dinner When No One Wanted To Be Alone” chapter in particular, feel so relevant to me right now. I’m dying to hoist buckets full of crab or pluck peas from green pods or shuck corn with Hesser and her crew. With anyone, really.

Hesser writes of 9/11: “Fear, sadness, anxiety, even exhilaration, all the emotions that are normally tucked away, enveloped us like heavy, humid air.” How similar these feelings sound to what we are all cycling through now. How good it will be when the situation (hopefully) calms, when we can all be together again in the bright, fresh air and light. When we can meet without fear.

For now, here is a little more of the dinner Hesser ate that night with her friends, as the world then, like the world now, reels:

“The grill had caramelized the edges, and when it conked out, the slow dissolution of heat had kept the chops moist. The baby white potatoes, boiled in their skins and tossed with butter and herbs, had a sweetness that resonated with the sugars in the lamb. Green beans and tomatoes in vinaigrette were served cool. The beans were crisp, without tasting green, dripping with the tangy sauce, which bled into the juices from the lamb.”

This is what I am going to make for friends as soon as we can all be together—laughing and talking and eating and shaking our heads and living lightly, as Hesser did on that heavy evening in September 2001, our skin “hot from wine and conversation.”

Sad Pandemic Latte

Posted on May 6th, 2020

My So-Called Latte

It was before 6:00 am, on some day in 1978 or 1979. It must have been spring or fall because my mom was wearing a burgundy velour robe, which would have been too hot for summer and too light for winter. This makes me around 4 years old. My dad hadn’t left my mom, even though she was basically the perfect Italian wife; she stayed at home with two kids all day but managed to wake up at the crack of dawn and brew him coffee and pack a lunch in a red and white Igloo “Playmate” cooler before he took the train into Manhattan to work for Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 28 (also called “tin-knockers”).

Anyway, the coffee was maybe Maxwell House, although I think that was a bit fancy back then, so maybe it was Folger’s. The pot was a stainless steel Revereware percolator with a copper bottom and a glass top. If you haven’t made coffee in a stovetop percolator, it’s 100% magical. There are lots of parts and pieces, and assembling the whole contraption is part of the allure. Then the water starts bubbling up and you can watch the color of the coffee change as it spatters against the glass. Then you start to smell it and it’s really, really coffee.

All of this can go horribly wrong, too. If you have an electric percolator, you might brew all 40 cups of coffee without realizing the spare cord is in the bottom of the pot, then serve all that coffee, to the more than 40 people at Easter dinner (see: “Lagnese Family Easter,” 2002).

Also, you can start to brew it and maybe sort of forget the stove is still on and the coffee keeps boiling up the stem, into the basket, and back down on itself, until it becomes so bitter and charred you sneak some almond extract into it hoping your very kind friends won’t notice (see: “Fall Semester Brunch,” 2004).

I am 44 years old, and I cannot make coffee. I cannot make coffee in that damn Revereware percolator. Not in a French press, not in a pour-over ceramic mug. I cannot make coffee. I’ve come to terms with this but it still pisses me off. I’m passably good at a lot of things — especially foody, crafty, homesteady things. So not being able to make a damn pot of coffee stings a little.

At the same time, I’m pretty resilient, so I’m not going to beat myself up over this enormous personal failure. Nope, instead I’ll bring a reusable mug to Cornucopia in Northampton and pay for a coffee refill with two Sacajawea coins. I will casually wave my phone over the card reader at Familiar’s and pay whatever it costs for a delicious and beautiful latte.

My husband and I have lived in the center of Northampton for 10 years. It’s just too easy to trust someone else to make the coffee. We see Haymarket, Iconica, Starbucks, and Woodstar from our bed (either side!). Now that we are in a temporary apartment around the corner, we’re even closer to Northampton Coffee, Sylvester’s, Familiars, Roost, Nourish (yes, the will sell you coffee), and all the rest. This is great. This was great. Now there’s a pandemic.

We are privileged – there’s no two ways around it. We are white, educated, better off than our working-class parents, and we have jobs we can do by staring at laptop screens. Of course, everyone has their invisible stuff. Ours? We ran out of our burning condo building 18 months ago and still have no idea if or when we might go home, or end up in court, or find ourselves in financial ruin. We rotate through a few t-shirts and eat at a borrowed table, and most things in life feel random, unpredictable, and interminable. So cut me some slack for saying that the thing we miss most during this pandemic is lattes.

Humans are resilient, and we’ve have had more than a year of practice turning lemons into lemonade. So when the stay-at-home order was issued in Northampton (and a few days later across Massachusetts), we figured we’d be fine.

Days 2 and 3 of lock-down we called in orders to two different local coffee shops that were operating take-out only. It felt both fine and dumb. Fine because we needed the couple of blocks walk to get some air and sun, dumb because why risk any interaction just for some lattes?

By Day 4, I decided this was unsustainable on many levels, and extracted a tiny jar of Medaglia D’oro from the back of a top shelf in our borrowed kitchen. I keep it on hand for emergencies, and Day 4 felt like one. As expected, it was crappy. I didn’t pay attention to the proportions, so it was kind of watery. I think I added coconut creamer to it. But my coffee-making is already bad, so expectations were met.

Day 7 was rough. We had picked up seeds and gardening supplies and cat food for friends who live about eight miles from town. On the drive over to their place, I asked my best friend if she happened to make coffee that morning (this was like a lawyer question: I definitely knew the answer before I asked). Not only did she say yes, but she said she’d make me some and add half-and-half and put it in a thermos for me by the backdoor. Hallelujah! That thermos was so big it lasted 3 whole days. Remember, I’m so bad at this, even 3 day old refrigerated coffee is better than I could brew on my own.

On Day 11 the same friend knew that I did not have any longer-term latte plan in place and offered me a spare French press. I was on the fence about it, because, well all the brewing, but I did have a bag of ground coffee in the back of the freezer from my last attempt with a French press 6 months earlier. I figured if I broke down and bought a pint of half-and-half it might be mostly bearable.

No such luck. On Day 15, my husband and I walked up King Street in Northampton to get eggs at the Cumberland Farms gas station. It’s across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, we called in two lattes to that Dunkin’ Donuts and drank them on the walk home. They were…. not good. We felt especially dumb after that and I promised myself to become coffee-self-sufficient.

Fast forward many more crappy cups of instant espresso and a couple of frantic mugs of Earl Grey. Then the Twitter got all sorts of excited about “Dalgona coffee” — you whip 2T of instant espresso, 2T sugar, and 2T water into this foamy deliciousness and plop it on top of milk. Basically, foam makes everything better, and I figured it was worth a slighlty-adapted shot.

Day 27: Latte breakthrough! It’s not great, and I probably can’t even call it a latte, but there’s caffeine, and milk, and since there are no coffee shops open in downtown Northampton anymore, it’s all we’ve got. Since you’ve made it through 1200 words, here’s my recipe for Sad Pandemic Latte. Bottoms up!

Sad Pandemic Latte

Or, A Warm Coffee Drink That Will Take Long Enough to Make You Forget It’s Not a Real Latte But Not So Long You Get Distracted by Pandemic Anxiety and Crawl Back into Bed to Read News Updates.

1 Teapot of Boiling Water

2 Tablespoons of Instant Espresso

(And when I say “Tablespoon” I mean whatever you call the “big spoons” in your kitchen drawer, because all my real measuring spoons are trapped in my old condo, and what does anything mean anymore anyway?)

1 splash of granulated sugar

(If I didn’t have a crumbled little coop grocery brown bag with “75” scrawled on it from however many months ago I would not have any granulated demerara sugar. This is to say that your Sad Pandemic Latte doesn’t care if you put sweetener in it, but I can’t predict how sadder or less sad it might be with something like stevia or honey)

8-10 ounces of milk

(I can say this with certainty because we actually have a measuring cup! Sometimes this milk is 1%, sometimes it’s skim, and sometimes it’s 2%. Sad Pandemic Latte doesn’t care about fat content.)

1 splash of half-and-half

(Except I never think to put the half-and-half in the measuring cup, so use your judgement.)

P R O C E S S

Warm up the milk however you would normally warm up milk (in a pot on the stove, in the microwave, or with the fiery feminist rage that bubbles up every time someone else suggests women stop doing paid work and sit at the kitchen table sewing masks that will end up in a hospital storage room).

Put the espresso and sugar in a mug and add a little bit of boiling water. Start beating it with a fork or a tiny whisk and it’ll get bubbly and then kind of foamy. Don’t throw out your back vigorously whipping it into the solid peaks that are on the internet. Sad Pandemic Latte has no time for that.

*If you’re feeling fancy* Take out your hand-blender and go to town on the milk. If you want to use less milk, cut it with boiling water, then go to town on it. It will also get foamy and lovely. Again, do this for as long as you need to feel like one day life will be normal again, but not so long you forget how many millions of Americans are food insecure and unemployed because Republicans have systemically dismantled our social safety net.

Pour the foamy milk into the foamy espresso, put on some pants, and do your best to help yourself and your community get through this weird, weird, time.

If I Live Too Long, I’m Afraid I’ll Die: A letter from the editor

Posted on May 6th, 2020

In the past, I’ve never published the Farmer General sober.  

I’m turning 39 in another week and a half, and shortly after that, it will be a year and six months since I quit drinking.  I haven’t touched another human being in two and a half months.  Last night, in a field, one of the two men I’m working on a farm with told me that he has suddenly grown a whole inch in the past two years and at 42, is now six ft. one.

The numbers that divide days are a funny thing right now–the numbers that rule our selfhood and wholeness, our ability to allow or disallow certain behaviors, what we do to carve light and space into arcs and into drawers.  Who has value, and where, and how, and how much.  I worked 41 days straight, when this started.  I’ve eaten seven cans of tuna in this time, for different lunches.  Gone on over 200 miles of bike rides.  Stack stack stack.  I’ve lost track of the cups of coffee.  Let’s call it one hundred and fifty.

And numbers are cruel and blank, too.  They are the dead, swept into corners.  They are the dead before this time, that we chose to be less concerned about.  There is the wave of unconcern once again rolling out in a predictable heavy tide, now that it seems that those who are dying the most are those same people we paid no mind to, before this time.  Plagues aren’t equalizers–they are refining mirrors.  This isn’t a new fire, it’s just one that has, at last, wandered on over onto the grounds of the estate.  The numbers are the blades of grass we imagine replaceable, once this ‘all goes back to normal’.  ‘Out of many, one’, it waves across the dollars.  ‘Out of their bones, wealth’, is what it means.

We’re surveying land for a second hoop house.  Mark says that he loves to watch the full expressive swoop of a bird’s path across the meadow, and I think about an Annie Dillard essay about birds and the curvature of the earth.  Keith says it reminds him of Newton, alone and pushing a knitting needle into the space between eyeball and socket, mapping a curve.  I love language in this way, for being so specific and unspecific to a place and a person, and how it is not numbers.  How it reveals us to one another here, our masked faces at dusk surrounded by birds, under a rising ripening moon.  We’ve been marking numbers that tell us where the land dips and rises.  Our words have been marking presence.  When I tell a different friend that our only work here, our only real job, is to love one another, and to support one another on our paths, I think this is what I mean.  One of my favorite poets, Charles Wright, says our lives can’t be lived like saints’ hearts, seared between heaven and earth, and my dirt-laced arms with their infinite webs of thorn traced cuts, know what he means.  

The ask of this time is to be present with what is.  To not look away, from anything.  To not reduce or refine or distract or shy away or dissemble or dissolve.  To acknowledge that there is no ‘over’.  And there was no ‘before’.  There has only ever been what is.  We have been monstrous.  If we choose it, however, we can also be more.

Introduction

Posted on March 21st, 2017

It is somewhere in the neighborhood of five in the morning and you are standing in the bare bulb light of your narrow counter-less hallway kitchen holding your cat that you’re secretly worried is huffing paint every night and she has just drooled on your t-shirt.  You have been painting the back and only bedroom and, knowing its carpet is not long for this world, have been letting the paint fall where it may the entire time and now nightly you find her in there, on the floor in the middle of a half circle of three paint cans, purring, and you think you’ve created a problem.

 

So you scoop her up and think about how this is a tender broken-open sort of time, five in the morning in late winter with its variable weathers and you notice a spot of chipped finish on the fridge and think there’s a crack in everything and then think that’s how the light gets in and then think a line from a poem from Charles Wright ‘to the time before the pen/oh i was the resurrection’ and then wonder if that’s even the line but know the feel of it again, here, in the pre-dawn kitchen.

 

When you think about Saturday it is in snapshots in a way that nothing has been for a long time, and it’s both an old animal gladness and a new one, driving to another small city, finding friendship because you are saying yes again instead of no, finding something like persistent green stubbornness in a layer of scraped-up plow at the edge of a parking lot.  You went to Troy and you brought a bag of vegetables and slid into someone’s life for a day and felt the magic stealing back, the way the light has been, steadily, surely, climbing the glass.

 

When you break, or things do, it isn’t that you put them together again, exactly, so much as it seems the pieces teach you how to assume a new shape.  You will go through several iterations of this, and lose the thread of it, but feel that you are maybe learning the way of calling it to you, of getting it back again more quickly, by allowing the wind that comes through the new empty spaces to feel clean, instead of lonesome.

 

The feeling of driving to Troy to meet someone (that a dating app paired you with two years ago that you’ve somehow become supportive friends with in the interim the way that gravity slyly acts on bodies despite or because of never dating or just because you find your way to your people if you just make space for it to happen which is the backstory you don’t say when you somehow end up telling this to his roommate’s dad in their high-ceilinged kitchen, blushing furiously) ends up being the same as:

 

The day in the summer that you put yourself in the car and did not go to work and instead drove (and driving itself was new again too, and the place where your ankle was broken hurting with each clutch depression but the hurt is freedom) to New Hampshire, paying tolls and emptying out of feeling until you reached the sea.  It is hard in prose to explain how certain choices make you exquisitely aware of all choices, everywhere, that you have ever made, and how often you might have said yes to yourself and instead said no, and how learning the habit of that yes isn’t yet static, and the flicker, when it takes on solid shape and is suddenly you standing facing the open Atlantic in the numb water with salt salt salt is the space you would willingly inhabit always, if you could.  And maybe doing so is the work.  And maybe practicing finding yourself there is the purpose.  And maybe to do any of those things is to stay soft, to stay vulnerable, is to stand in your own body in a cold ocean in a crowd and to find a way to be still and anonymous and perfect and mutable and constant and you and not you and to find a way to be willing.  You didn’t see how small you had allowed yourself to become until you were in proximity to the largest thing.  You take on the sea like a blanket.  You take it on like a sweater.  You take it on like oxygen.  You pack it into the spaces between your bones, until you have a shape you recognize.