Every spring, when the ground brings new life and the trees turn every shade of green, I think of Julius.
Julius and I met in grad school. He wore silver-rimmed spectacles, ironed business shirts and dress pants and a neatly trimmed reddish-brown beard that was quickly going gray but lush and full nonetheless, I suspect proper use of beard oil. He came to class with his work I.D. still on his shirt pocket and a bag or briefcase carrying his books and papers in his hand. When he spoke, you’d hear an accent, betraying the Eastern European setting from which he’d come, but, he told me, he and his wife had lived in America quite a while. The first class we took together was a Travel Writing course. It was a workshop class, meaning we’d turn in copies of our assignments to each other and then discuss them, as a class, together. I’d write short, sweet pieces about places like the Wisconsin Northwoods; he’d write long, flowering tales about dining with locals in Morocco.
One October, walking from the fluorescent lights and metal chairs of our night class out into the crisp, cool air of Chicago fall, I told Julius how autumn was my favorite season.
“Do you feel this air?” I asked him as we walked side by side, breathing in deep for emphasis. “I mean, is there anything better? I wish it were fall all year.” I might have talked about pumpkins and apple-picking and Halloween.
“Yes, it’s nice,” this man, 15 or 20 years my senior, responded, almost as if to appease a child, with none of my enthusiasm.
“And I bet you didn’t know this,” I began, my volume increasing and my words coming fast. I was about to share with him a rehearsed party anecdote, a standby that, at the time, was finding its way into any conversation I had about the colors of fall, sort of the way I’m always jumpy today to tell people that dislike for cilantro is a genetic trait. “When leaves turn colors each fall,” I said to him, “they’re actually shedding a layer, revealing the true colors that were always there, underneath. People think the leaves are turning but really they’re just showing what they always were, down in there, but we couldn’t see it! How amazing is that? ”
I waited for his elation and surprise, for him to join me in proclaiming fall’s glory. Instead came counter argument.
“Actually, that’s sort of how I feel about spring!” he said to me, his eyes growing wide as his volume raised to match mine. “All the green! The emeralds, the pale greens, the yellow greens! Everything becomes so alive!”
I hate to say it, but I think at that moment, walking with Julius to our cars in a dark parking lot, I saw spring for the first time.
I was thinking about that conversation, some seven years ago or so now, last week, when Tim and I walked through the park on a 70-something-degree day in Nashville April. There were white buds on branches, pink flowers on trees, leaves of all different shapes and sizes sprouting along a lazy creek.
The sky was fiercely blue—bluer than the bluejay we’ve seen around our house lately, bluer than the ocean hitting white sands—and the smell of grass was in the air. I was thinking about it when we brought home bags of greens from the grocery store and set plates of arugula on our table for dinner one night, streaming sunlight falling on the table.
There’s a verse in the Psalms that exclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” and another in the New Testament that rejoices, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
This spring, with salads like this arugula one, that’s what I’m thinking about: the wonder of a created world with ordered seasons, the kind we can count on to come, and how noticing them, while walking parks and while eating dinner, makes me rejoice.
Arugula Dijon Salad with Figs and Pistachios
Serves two as a meal; four as a side
This is what I like to think of as a celebratory salad, chock full of the sweet chewiness of figs and the interesting crunch of pistachios. Eating it for dinner feels like eating at a fine restaurant, and that makes it pretty celebratory indeed. A quick note on the dressing, however: The dijon has a kick more surprising than spring, so if you’re sensitive to heat, add dijon to taste. Likewise, if you don’t mind having your nose burn and your eyes water, feel free to add more. It’s easy to adjust proportions to your taste.
1/2 bunch of arugula
4 ounces of pea shoots
6 ounces figs, sliced
1/3 cup chopped pistachios
for the honey lemon dijon vinaigrette:
Juice of one lemon
3 tablespoons of honey
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1-2 teaspoons dijon mustard
Dash of sea salt
Combine salad ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk vinaigrette ingredients together. Drizzle vinaigrette onto salad as you like—we used about half the mixture and saved the rest for another salad, but you may like more; also, the leftovers would be great as a dip for roasted sweet potatoes!