Saturday morning I met my old roommates for brunch at a newish place in 12 South, the three of us gathered around an enormous round table that had me leaning in to listen and talk. We’ve been doing these get-togethers…
Edit: I wrote this post before the Newtown tragedy Friday afternoon, but, reading back over it now, I’m struck by how much I need the reminder all over again—to look for the good in people helping, praying, loving; to recognize the darkness that brings murder and heartbreak and how it is so not at all the voice of Light. It feels wrong not to acknowledge the pain that the affected families of children and teachers are facing today. We wish we could do more. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, Newtown.
Some days, I’m overwhelmed by the lack of love in the world: the snubbing, the name-calling, the pushing, the overlooking, the thoughtlessness human beings show to one another.
For as many of you as relate to a genuine curiosity and interest in other people like I mentioned in the last post, there are others who don’t, who never turn their eyes outward, who come to the party and talk but never listen, who sit near you at a table and stare sullenly ahead, who learn your name and job title and put you into a box marked Understood.
I’d like to throw all such offenders into a Them box, one decidedly Not-Me, but then the thought flashes through my mind, while I sit across from strangers at a car dealership this past week, that I should try to talk to them, show some kindness, and I don’t; I share dinner with a friend and know I could encourage him, and, instead, I’m quiet; we run into friends, and, instead of entering into their lives, I’m anxious to get back to work; I go through entire days of regular life with my husband without once stopping to consider and tell him how good I know he is to me.
And other days, I’m overwhelmed by the love there is in the world.
When we go home, it’s not five minutes before I’m bounding up the stairs to my room, the room with mocha-colored walls that my dad let me pick the paint for, where the bookcase is still filled with my books and the windows overlook a backyard I’ve watched, year after year, turn from green to brown to white winter snow before my eyes.
I plop down my bags and head back to the kitchen, a kitchen where the fridge holds unending options, from last night’s leftovers to fresh cherries and strawberries to kombucha. At night, Tim and I share the big wooden sleigh bed I’ve had since eighth grade, and we hear my parents’ voices in the room below us before we fall asleep. My brother makes us banana pecan pancakes for breakfast, and my mom bakes a chicken pot pie from a book I love, and Tim pulls together spinach-ricotta gnocchi, and I chill a tray of coconut dreams.
More than anywhere else we go, maybe because it’s familiar, maybe because of who’s there, home is refreshing, a place where I’m not just telling myself to relax but where I actually do. There’s no work. Nothing to clean or water or respond to. Nothing pressing. Four people who love me are an arm’s reach away. We drive up north, and it’s OK when my Internet stops working. I don’t have to stay on top of email. Everything slows down.
What’s so wrong about spending peaceful hours on a porch swing, cuddled up with your husband, listening to the wind rustle the trees, hearing the frogs and the birds and a boat buzzing by on the water?
Our grand plans each day involve friends to see, recipes to play with, places to take pictures of, stores to visit. Some days, we’re just sitting around, me and Tim and my family, watching movies or reading books or, even, thinking and being still.
Between the two trips, when we’re back from Wisconsin but still with a few days in Illinois, I read this New York Times article (via Joanna) on busyness, about how our culture of iPhones and emails and pressure has turned us into tense, high-stress people caught up with how important our work is (be it writing or administrating or Web designing), perhaps in an effort to make ourselves feel like we’re important, perhaps without realizing what we’re doing at all. And I think how much I relate to that, even from the perspective of half a week away.
In it, author Tim Kreider says this:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
Necessary to getting any work done. This is not the idleness of laziness or sloth, the idleness that means doing nothing; rather, he’s describing the idleness of being quiet, being still, giving your mind space to see. I keep thinking about that, about how we all need this kind of time to think and to process, whatever or personalities or job titles or geography. We need to find regular ways to disconnect—and in a world that makes it incredibly hard to do so—if we are to have any meaningful connecting at all. It’s the first time I’ve ever really considered getting rid of my iPhone, much as I love it; or finding a way to abandon Facebook and help myself remember to pursue real connections in light of the quick-contact perceived ones.
Could it be that the rest I enjoy when I go visit my family, the ability to put other things aside for a while, is a rest my body, and my mind, needs more often? Could it be that there’s a way to find that in regular life?
I’m still thinking about it.
But along those lines, what I want to know is this: How do you find time for quiet, especially, but not only, in terms of the creative process and work? Do you find it necessary? Is disconnecting a part of your regular routine? Do you schedule it in your days or does it happen naturally?
And in the meantime, I bring you those coconut dreams—a raw, gluten-free, six-ingredient recipe inspired by a dessert I love from a local Nashville bakery; one I’ve been wanting to re-create ever since tasting them at The Jam coffee house (which is great! and if you’re in Nashville, go!) but which I only, finally found the uninterrupted creative space for while I was on vacation, in Illinois and in the woods, in the midst of a few days away from it all, resting and remembering what it is to move slowly, embrace where I am and, to see.
There are days when a story chases you, when you feel like it’s falling out of you or like you have to write it, in that moment, before it’s gone; and then there are days when it doesn’t, when you sit, staring at your keyboard and photographs, searching for words like you’re hunting for lost gold.
All it means is that you’re a writer.
Everyone from Anne Lamott to Elizabeth Gilbert will tell you this. For most of us, creativity is less a kitchen faucet, turned on and off like we please, and more a gust of wind, unpredictable and sometimes violent. While there are those of us who tap it well, who know how to do their rain dances of disciplined writing times and creative writing exercises to produce results, for a lot of us, it’s not as simple. We stare at a lot of blank screens, spend a lot of afternoons escaping for want of inspiration, do a lot of wrestling with paragraphs like we’re fighting stubborn pieces of clay. That’s how it goes.
Because I’ve heard them say it, I know it’s true of authors and journalists as well as it is of, say, self-employed copywriters and Nashville food bloggers. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing someone else’s story or your own: you can still feel that same pull, that same hard-won fight and effort. You listen back to your interview, you look at pages of notes, you stare at your WordPress dashboard and you feel the familiar desire to write, the need to write and yet, all you hit is a wall. Words won’t come.
So here’s what I’d love to know: what do you do about it?
The answers out there, like the writers, vary greatly—I recently wrote about this for my day job—and I think in having the discussion, we have a lot to offer one another. Some writers draft outlines; some riff on previous work; others leave the screen altogether, opting instead for a run in the park or conversation with friends to get their creative juices flowing.
In the more specific realm of food bloggers, sometimes it’s less the writing that’s difficult but more the coming up with topics—those of you who blog, do you feel that way? Dianne Jacob writes that finding inspiration as a food blogger may mean thinking outside a traditional recipe post, opting instead for a round-up of products you like or a new series that will set your topics for you.
I tend to be of the camp that free-writes, that sits down and starts writing everything in my head without edits or backspaces, whirling along until something valuable appears, and, three or four or five paragraphs in, it usually does.
Today, for example, this post originally began with “So I want to write about berry cream pie” and progressed into a few lines about Tim Riggins’s dad showing up at his football game (side question: television on in the background while you work—white noise or distraction?) and eventually became a more sculpted set of paragraphs about our living room and the ottomans we bought at T.J. Maxx.
It was only several paragraphs later that I hit on another approach, the direct one that this post has become, wherein I felt like I didn’t know what to say and so, said exactly that.
What about you? How do you approach the writing process? Whether you write newspaper articles or nonfiction essays or poetry or blog posts or in the journal on your nightstand, what does it look like for you?
It’s true that writing can be a lonely business, but it’s less so when you invite others in.
That’s why I’m doing that here, sharing a little of my writing process, asking you to share yours—because I think, maybe, when we share our stories, we not only gain community but also, we help each other grow.
The first week Tim and I got back to Nashville, while we settled into a regular rhythm of making meals and paying bills and sharing a home office together, I began tackling the to-do list that follows a wedding. There were thank-you notes to write, bank accounts to merge, a pretty major name change to take care of—at the DMV, the social security office, with basically every account I have on record anywhere—and even looking back now, with it all done and finished and behind me, I can tell you there were definite low points (i.e., AT&T: Why is it so hard to get two existing users spun off into a new account? WHY?) and definite high points (i.e., these muffins).
I’ve always been the kind of girl to crave a couple hours alone in the kitchen. When I used to work a regular office job, I’d often come home at the end of the day, tired and not really wanting to go anywhere, and I’d comfort myself with cooking (eventually with my camera and you guys to join me, and thus this blog was born). Sometimes I’d play music or watch an online TV show in the background. Sometimes I’d talk to myself out loud. What mattered was the way it felt like downtime—cooking doesn’t always feel like that.
If you talked to our friend Corri, for example, who came over for dinner last week, he could tell you what a different kind of cooking looks like. He could tell you about walking into a house and seeing both cooks still in the kitchen, green beans on the stove, chicken in the oven, flour all over the counters, and about hearing the sad, sad story of two back-to-back attempts to remake macarons and failing. At some point during our meal, I’m pretty sure I was apologizing to him for apologizing, that’s how bad things had gotten in my mind—and I do mean in my mind because the reality was our meal was perfectly good, thanks to that very capable man I married—but rather than loving my time in the kitchen and my contributions to what we were eating, I had been frustrated by it, by how my results weren’t matching my expectations.
I think that’s part of the difference between baking for leisure and baking for a purpose, and I think that’s what made these muffins such a highlight of our first week of Nashville married life.
There were a lot of things I was doing for a purpose that week: waiting for two hours at the DMV, mailing cards, sitting down with Tim to plan our monthly budget—but baking these muffins? That was different.
Because when you’re baking one morning in your pajamas while your husband works in the next room, you can talk to yourself, you can spill flour, you can burn something—you’ve freed yourself to. But when you bake for company or for a business or for the first time at a Thanksgiving dinner with all your family, you constrain yourself into thinking something must be how it must be and anything else is disaster. Or at least I do that.
These muffins didn’t have to be anything special, just a way to use up ingredients and a way to relax for a few afternoon hours. Heaven knows, Tim and I would eat them regardless of how they ended up tasting. I found the original recipe online, where it came with high reviews, and I improvised ingredients with what we had (hello, huge sale on sprouted wheat flour at Whole Foods!) and ingredients I wanted to add.
When I brought one to Tim, sliced and buttered and still steaming hot, it was just a happy bonus that we liked them—not too sweet, the perfect vehicle for a little jam or honey, yet chocolatey and cakey and a nice morning treat.
And so it was these sprouted coconut cocoa banana muffins that, set beneath a glass bowl, first graced our dining room table, the dining room table that Tim built, and made our first week together in our first house feel a little more special, a little more right, a little more like home.
You know those people who are always telling you how busy they are? It’s kind of annoying because really, we all make the time to do the things we really want to do. Even when we’re crazy crazy busy, we still eat, for example—or at least, I still eat—maybe you sleep or meet your friend for coffee or buy a new lamp for the living room. The point is, I’ve always thought to myself, even when it was my own voice I was hearing say it, that hello? You say you’re too busy, but really you are just admitting that you don’t want to make the time for something.
But then the last few weeks happened.
And what I’ve been realizing—amidst taking trips to Chicago, having guests in town, looking for new work, planning a wedding, staying in touch with friends, and dealing with everyday emergencies like an ant problem or a shower curtain that continually wants to fall down—is that sometimes, being too busy is less about all the actual things you’re doing and more about what those things do to your mind. It can be hard to just sit and think and process things, even when you want to. You start to feel lost in it all and you start to forget really obvious things that you should remember.
Last weekend, for example, I had my leftovers packaged up at lunch—and then forgot them at the table.
I took some out-of-town guests on a tour of Franklin—and got lost twice.
While things on the to-do list are getting accomplished (caterer picked! engagement photos done! jazz band found!), I feel kind of at a loss as to how to do anything more than just tell you about them. I worry that I’m becoming the girl who not only tells you how busy she is but then when you do get her talking, has a one-track mind of WEDDING.
Thankfully, yesterday and today, I’ve been given a little bit of everyday time—time to return to work, time to write a blog, time to think about all of these things. And also thankfully, I am continually around a man who is much less ruffled by the activity and to-do lists than I am.
So last night, we made cookies.
We’ve made these cookies before, a few months ago, pretty soon after I’d moved to Nashville. They’re an adaptation of a sugar-free recipe in Dr. Josh Axe’s Real Food cookbook, which uses just bananas and maple syrup as the sweeteners. The first time, they were like banana macaroons—oddly shaped the way coconut macaroons tend to be, but with the hint of banana flavor providing the sweetness.
Last night, when we used buckwheat flour instead of spelt and a simple syrup (half Sucanat, half water, heated over the stove) instead of maple, we ended up with an even more different version: gray in color (thank you, buckwheat) and less sweet.
Regardless though, these funny little mounds of baked goodness were fun to eat—and hard to stop eating—making them perfect for whatever schedule you find yourself in, be it busy weeks, everyday weeks, or something in between.
Thank you all so much for your congratulations and excitement on the last post! I told Tim, getting engaged feels like this giant burst of love from everyone who’s known you—and even some that haven’t. Thanks for sharing in our joy, every one of you. You are the best part of blogging.
And speaking of the best parts of food blogging, let me tell you about another one: namely, getting exposed to new and interesting ingredients—like Xyla (Xylitol), for example, the alternative sweetener I used in today’s coconut-packed cupcakes.
Before an email from Xylitol USA found its way into my inbox a few weeks ago, I had heard a little bit about this “un-sugar.” I knew it was popular in chewing gums, but, actually, it turns out it’s been used in the dental field for more than sixty years, praised for its plaque- and cavity- fighting abilities, as well as power to fight demineralization of tooth enamel and mouth infections.
Even beyond dental benefits, Xyla has a long list of selling points, according to its sellers: way lower on the glycemic index than regular sugar (it’s like a 3 compared to 100) so it hits your body differently in terms of insulin, anti-aging properties, helps prevent ear infections, fights bacteria, increases absorption of B vitamins, aids in weight loss, inhibits harmful yeast. What’s more, Xylitol is said to be all-natural, derived from certain fibrous vegetables and fruit—or, like what Xylitol USA sells, from birch trees.
On the other hand, some research suggests there are dangers associated with this sweetener: an article in Natural News pointed out that not all Xylitol is created equal, as “one commonly used source is corn imported from China”—which then needs to be highly processed before consumption, making it a far cry from all natural. It’s really pretty interesting to read about Xyla; it’s been getting more and more buzz, with all kinds of mixed opinions floating around.
Since Xylitol USA’s product comes directly from birch trees (a change made as recently as last year), I feel a little more comfortable using it in baking, where it’s supposed to be a one-to-one swap for sugar, behaving, looking, and tasting almost exactly like it.
So when, last week, I was in the mood for a cupcake loaded with coconut (we’re talking coconut milk, coconut oil, shredded coconut; coconut in the cake, coconut in the frosting), I pulled out the Xylitol to give it a shot as the sweetener to make it happen.
Just to make sure I was giving you a fair assessment, I had at least seven people taste these cupcakes, quizzing them on level of sweetness, weird after-tastes, anything that stood out to them. The verdict? Xyla is a definite win.
One person thought the cupcakes had a very slight metal taste; a few of us thought they were powerfully sweet (but then, not eating regular sugar can affect your sensitivity to these things); but overall, these cupcakes were deemed delicious desserts. I will also add that since I used whole-grain spelt flour, they had a dense quality that’s hard to get away from with alternative flours.
So would I use Xylitol again? Maybe. It’s hard to find in stores, so the Internet would be the only way to get it (XylitolUSA.com is actually offering a discount code for Food Loves Writing readers: 10% off with code FIRST).
I liked the way it tasted and I liked the fact that it’s a natural substitute for sugar—especially one that is so much lower on the glycemic index. Nonetheless, I’d like to do some more research before feeling confident.
So what about you: Have you ever used Xylitol? Know anything about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions, as well as any interesting research you find!