Pretty travel pictures, much as I love them, rarely paint the full story of a trip away. Our Maine recap didn’t tell you about the horrible migraine I had our first night, for example, nor about the day we drove a full two hours away from Portland, looking for lunch, only to find three different restaurants closed (all I can say is thank goodness for this coffee shop and its quiche!). The afternoon we flew home from Boston to Chicago, it was after a fast morning stuck in crazy Cambridge traffic during which I had to pee so bad I actually sat there imagining myself getting out of the car, right on the busy highway, to take care of business in the median that was noticeably lacking in bushes or general greenery. (We did finally find a Dunkin Donuts, and even though I had to buy something in order to get the manager to buzz me into the bathroom, I was so happy to enter it, I almost cried.) Sunday night, when we came home, it was after a combined total of 2,000+ miles of driving (most of that driving done by Tim) in the last few weeks, the kitchen had no fresh food but the murcotts we’d kept in our bags with us, and we had a car full of the goods I’m ever transporting, one trip at a time from my parents’ place to mine, to unpack.
I wish you could have seen Tim and me in our little galley kitchen on Saturday, October 12, at around 2 p.m. in the afternoon. There we were, side by side in front of the sink, each of us with a plate of slow-cooked artichokes to our sides. Barely speaking, the both of us stood there, rhythmically pulling tender, wilted leaves of artichokes off their softened, deep green bulbs, scraping the flesh with our teeth, oil and juices dripping down our hands and arms and over everything.
“These are the best artichokes I have ever had,” Tim finally said to me between slurps, halfway through his dish.
My friend Carla was in town this weekend. I love Carla. Carla is soft and sharp and for some reason has always reminded me of a brunette Meryl Streep. Carla can finish my sentences and make me laugh and when she comes to town and eats lunch at my table, she asks me how she can help clean up, and I show her the sink setup, and there she is, doing my dishes for me as I stand next to her, talking, bent over with my elbows propped up on the counter and my rear end up in the air while I barrage her with questions, her barely missing a beat. As she slips spoons and forks, one by one, into the dishwasher in our galley kitchen, like she is the hostess and I am the guest, I let her because she is Carla and because I know she knows me and because all those weeks (or months? or years?) of walls that typically block we humans from finding intimacy with one another have already been torn down. Carla was the person I went to visit a few nights before my wedding, two years ago this month, so she could make me dinner and we could sit on her new back deck, and she could tell me inner secrets of marriage that can only come from someone who’s already been in it for as long as I’ve been alive.
“Being married is awesome!” I later texted her, from my honeymoon, shocked more than blissful, my cynical heart surprised (still surprised!) that a human relationship could be so sweet.
“Well, of course!” she wrote back to me, with either an SMS smile or a “ha!”
She was here Sunday because her son got married the day before, almost exactly two years after Tim and I did, almost exactly 31 years after she and her husband, Pete, did. When they came to have lunch this weekend, we talked about the wedding and the decorations and the food. We also talked about what books we’re reading and about Pete’s job and about the tufted chair in our living room and how we bought it off Craigslist.
“Have you ever thought about how, if you died, I mean, like if I died, and Tim and I had had kids, that the only way they’d learn about me would be what other people told them?” I asked Carla across the table, Pete in the bathroom and Tim at my side. “Sometimes I wonder how different people would explain me to be and how different their ideas would be from who I am. Like who really knows me besides Tim?”
These are the kinds of weird, hypothetical questions that plague me, right up there with the “What will I wear tomorrow?” and “I wonder what makes so-and-so tick?” that most people would find annoying. Carla responded with something about how our perceptions become our realities and the way we perceive something is the way we believe it to actually be.
It’s answers like those, along with comments in our long conversations about entertaining or family dynamics or pride, that make me feel like when I talk to Carla, I am talking to someone who sees me as I am, someone who understands me. And the older I get, the more I realize how rare such an interaction is and, therefore, how good a gift. When you’re the type of person who gets lost thinking about the way your stories are always autobiographical (because, like Jhumpa Lahiri says, you’re always revealing the things your eyes see—the limitation and grace of your own perceptions of the world), it’s nice to be that sort of person alongside someone else. It’s nice to have someone who thinks your analytical mind is okay.
At our lunch, we fed Carla and Pete a (sadly tough) pot roast, abed Brussels sprouts and potatoes, alongside Tim’s salad and our homemade pretzel rolls. I laughed that we were “treating them like family” by serving new recipes we’d never made before, some of which we’d want to apologize for, but none of which we would brag about, and we ate it all, and they ate it all, and afterwards we went out for ice cream in the Nashville drizzly rain.
The next day, Tim picked up our CSA share and, in amongst all the tomatoes and herbs and squash was a bunch of mustard greens. Today, I took those greens and turned them into chips, barely dressed, changed chiefly by the oven’s heat. Eating them, I felt like I was eating mustard greens as they are—spicy and sharp, thin and leafy, albeit mellowed and crisped by the roasting time.
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Two days ago on our morning walk, Tim and I put on sweatshirts. Yesterday, I pulled out my boots for the first time since May. Today, the window’s open in the bathroom, and even from the next room over, I can smell the fresh air and feel a cool breeze coming in (the high today in Nashville was 72 degrees). What’s more, down the hall and in the kitchen, the oven is on, and I have a pot filled with root vegetables boiling on the stove. Fall is here, officially and obviously, and I’ve been dressing, eating and, what I’m trying to say, I guess, is enjoying this new season, even when it means summer’s gone.
But before we get too deep in changing leaves, could I get one last hurrah for summer? I hate to say it as a lifelong October lover, but sometimes I’m nostalgic for the season that ends (besides winter). And while I was all set to pack away this late summer squash recipe for next year, our Monday CSA pickup brought a few more of the yellow squash we’ve been seeing the last few weeks. So I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind if I slipped this late summer squash quinoa dish in? You could, of course, swap out the yellow squash with a nice winter one, cubed and roasted with oil until it’s caramelized. You could, also, decide to go elsewhere for a recipe featuring pumpkin or apples. I’ll understand.
For now, here’s a quinoa dish we enjoyed before the temperatures dropped and the days shortened. It’s a reminder of the beauty that was, even as we walk forward into the beauty that is and the kind that is to come.
They say that love shows in the gestures–
A dash to the airport, a big diamond ring;
They say that this is what’s romance–
All that glitters,
All that sparkles,
All that’s bright and glossy,
(You know, those sorts of things).
True, you proposed: it was poetry,
All of your neat lines of verse, for me, arranged.
You made me a picnic and hid it,
A cooler packed with food and a ring,
Then you asked me,
And I said yes, and remember?
Right there, how everything changed?
It’s true, life is beautiful,
(We are happy,
We are together,
But, also true, life is painful,
And we’ve walked through dark times just the same.
What of the times pacing the halls?
The nights of long talks?
The physical pain,
The wounded hearts,
The crying out, over and over,
To God’s name?
It makes me think it’s love in the small and the hard things,
(Maybe the small and the hard things the most).
The dishes, the laundry,
The trash, the yard.
The kind words,
(When you want harsh words),
The soft words,
(When you want hard).
The long talks,
(When you are tired).
The stretched out arm,
(When you want to run).
Could love look like nights in the kitchen?
Like daily dinner?
Like, simply, life?
She said, “What we need is love that’s not tired*,”
What she said is, I guess, what I think.
Love shows itself in daily somethings,
Somethings as simple as this.
September 11, 2013 has been a beautiful day here in Nashville. Tim and I woke up early to grind popcorn kernels and make skillet cornbread. The cornbread was a dud, but Tim made a berry smoothie that wasn’t. Then, we drove through blue skies and bright sun to our car dealership, twenty minutes south, where a serviceman checked us in to get our air-conditioning fixed and asked the time: It was 9:11 AM on the nose.
Twelve years ago this morning, I was standing in a Wisconsin hotel, curling my hair, when my mom shouted from the TV in the main room, “Come look at this!” and I didn’t say anything, and we called my dad in Illinois, and he was crying. Today, I walked away from a serviceman and into a Tennessee car dealership lounge, where Tim and I would listen to someone making popcorn and watch a 10-month-old baby boy named John crawl around the room.
My mom and I were at that Port Washington hotel because I was scheduled for traffic court on September 11, for driving 24 miles over the speed limit a few months before. I remember telling the judge that day that I was sorry. “I don’t want to ever speed again,” I said to her when it was my turn. Everyone was talking about the planes and the towers, and there I was apologizing for something that was no one’s fault but my own. After court, we tried shopping, but our hearts weren’t in it. I wanted to drive back to school before dark. So my mom drove back to Naperville, and I drove back to college, and, when I got there, I returned to TVs all over campus, broadcasting live coverage of what was going on.
Today, Tim and I drove away from the car dealership and to the grocery store to pick up chicken; I had a dinner idea I told him I wanted to try. In the broad, bright Tennessee daylight, we cruised back up I-65 and then over to our house. We roasted spaghetti squash and tomatoes and chicken, and we boiled potatoes to combine with squash in a puree. We ate dinner by candlelight, the days shorter and the sun gone by before seven o’clock these days. And I exclaimed, over and over again out loud to Tim and Nathan, two men I’d never even met twelve years ago, about how much I liked the dinner tonight and how special it felt.
It occurs to me as I sit down on my bed tonight, fresh from this dinner, trying to write this post, how many people aren’t alive to be able to read it today. There are the ones killed by tragedy on this day twelve years ago, and there are the ones killed on other days by other things since then, from a Boston bombing to a Middle Eastern bombing to cancer to depression to kidney failure to old age. Even as I’ve been writing these thoughts, a mosquito has been bothering me, and I just, almost mindlessly, killed it between my hands and took it to the bathroom trashcan. Death is all around us. Life ends. We all know this, but there are a million ways to pretend it away—and in the pretending away, we miss something true. We are not promised tomorrow. Who of us knows when his or her life will end? Days like today, remembering and reflecting, it’s easy to see. We are finite. Our lives are short. And then, it’s easy to give thanks for the sheer blessing of living, of driving to the car dealership, of eating roast chicken in your dining room, of coming here to write about it in a blog post.
In a world where every company calls itself the leader, and “great customer service” is something of a buzzword, a lot of us have become desensitized to company promises—but this past weekend, about 80 miles south of Nashville, I became a believer once again. At Blueberries on the Buffalo Farm, a small, family-run blueberry farm that is actually a small, one-couple-run blueberry farm, I experienced firsthand such unparalleled kindness from the very people who work the land, I haven’t stopped talking about it since.