This weekend I heard a poet describe a writing exercise she gives all her students, at least for the first six to eight weeks of each class. Whatever they’re writing, she tells them, they have to do it without metaphor. They may make no comparisons; they may not describe X by comparing it to Y. Tell me what you see, she instructs them, but tell me nothing else. It’s a hard thing, she admitted, perhaps because we don’t want to face the reality of what we experience, but, eventually, the students start to understand and, when they do, it’s a miracle: forks come clanking on the table, you can hear the crunch of apple flesh in a first bite, suddenly there’s clear and literal writing happening there in the room. Then she tells them they may use metaphor again, and someone says, “But why would we?”
This idea has stuck to me.
Indeed, it was why, Sunday morning, I looked a moment longer at the kitchen table, dappled with light, potted herbs glowing at the center. It was what made me tuck away, instead of ignore, the simple image of a helium balloon, strung to our neighbor’s mailbox, bobbing back and forth in the heat. I’d told myself to remember a few, I’d thought ten, uncomplicated sights from the day, like this blogger does, in an effort to practice description, to discipline my mind to see. What surprised me was how noticing—the empty glass cake stand on the marble-topped island; Tim’s kneeling, head to his hands, on the white sofa in prayer; Rocco, upright in his crib, hands on the railing, a two-toothed smile on his face; tiny fingers covered in black pizza char; a jumble of freshly cleaned clothes, piled in the blue plastic hamper—took effort. If I hadn’t been trying to collect these moments, I’d still have lived them, the miraculous work of vision would have catalogued and computed them somehow inside my brain, but at the end of the day, like so many days, I’d have said, “Oh, good,” if you’d asked me how things had gone, and I don’t know that I’d have thought much else.
Since moving away from Instagram a few months ago, I’ve had surprisingly (to me, at least) more interest in reading. I’ve missed reading. The year before I started grad school, I read a book a week, but then in 2006 I did an editing internship with a book publisher where I line-by-line edited manuscripts 40 hours a week, and I couldn’t look at books the same way. Thus far, in my 2016 rekindling, I’ve nosed deep into a handful of books, listening to one in the car, keeping a few on my bedside, devouring the unexpected page-turners whenever they come. Over the last two or three weeks, there have been three different books about women who escaped from cults, for example, one right after the other in fast succession, (unintentionally on my end; in fact, it felt in many ways like these books had found me) and, also, Tim and I are reading one book together, A Severe Mercy, reading because of this breathtaking article and together because, halfway through, I shared some aloud with and effectively interested Tim enough to make reading the rest aloud together feel right.
All this reading, this deep thinking, this Tim and I on the sofa dialoguing for hours about intangible things, has been just what I wanted when I got off Instagram, a way to engage more mentally, an opportunity to exercise my brain and make reasoning more of a practice than a pain. But, I will say, for all its virtues, constant thinking is also hard. It can be heavy. You can get overwhelmed. You may even find yourself, walking into a Sunday morning church service, unable to begin to articulate all the complicated subjects you’re juggling in your head.
I say all that to give greater context to the appeal that this writing exercise in tangibility has had for me. I admit the daily practice of recording, be it through Instagram or photography or drawing or other habits, provides a way to stop for a second, to click the shutter on your screen, to give something just a moment longer of your attention here in the present, not only in the world of your head. When your mental world is cluttered and busy like mine can be, pausing for a second to describe the literal stack of square baby books on the fireplace mantel offers welcome clarity. It pulls you out of the muck of disorganized ideas and anchors you, if for a moment, in the physical world in which you live. So if I no longer have a social media platform to fall back on to record and remember tangible realities in my days, I welcome the private practice of observing, participating and remembering.
Another practice in tangibility that’s relevant especially in this space is eating. I have to eat. You have to eat. I am ever grateful we have bodies that require sustenance in order to survive. Whether you’re remodeling a house, growing a baby, recovering from surgery or writing a book, all projects we’ve attempted in the last five years, you still have to stop now and then to eat. You have to direct your attention to the physical necessity of finding something to put into your mouth. Thank you, God. There are days I hate this reality, mostly the days where the sink is full and work deadlines are building, but in honesty I am wildly thankful that something all of us have in common is the finite, desperate humanness of not being self-sustained. I am thankful for the built-in pauses required of us, to focus on something small and basic and yet vital: finding food.
This Monday morning, that meant I pulled a handful of ingredients onto the island: oats, maple syrup, oil, salt, cinnamon, sesame seeds. In one bowl, I measured out dry ingredients; in another, I measured out wet ingredients. Then with a long, wooden spoon, I stirred it all together into a sticky, gloppy mess. I poured and spread the mixture onto baking sheets, looking at them side by side on the island in the morning light, and then I slid them into the hot oven, where the liquids would bake into the oats and nuts and sesame seeds, creating a sweet, savory, golden granola that’s been our favorite version as of late. It’s adapted from a version made by A Couple Cooks for Montmorency Tart Cherries(TM), and I think we’ve had it three times this month.
As I write this post, the granola sits in three glass mason jars in the kitchen, two quart sized and one a regular pint. I have parfaits planned for the morning, layers of yogurt, fruit, granola, yogurt, fruit, granola, beloved, largely, for the very fact that we can grab them, mindlessly, to eat in the car or amidst conversation or quietly at a park. Even these, I will have to force myself to look at, to notice, to taste the salty crunch and to recognize the sesame-studded clumps. And as I think about them now, Rocco is sitting on the rug in front of me, playing with a musical clock, and, when I look at him and catch his eye, he stares at me, smiles, pulls his foot to his ear with a laugh.
Adapted from this recipe and yes, I’ve made the smoothie bowls, too, and they’re great.
Makes about 10 cups of granola
We call this a minimalist granola because its ingredients list is so short and, noticeably, leaves out most of the mix-ins typical in granola recipes. We love mix-ins, mix-ins are great, but we don’t always have dried fruit or extra seeds on hand, and we like have a basic granola recipe we can rely on anyway. The nuts and sesame seeds are not necessary, but they’re nice; pumpkin seeds are also great here. If you like, you can added dried fruit to the finished granola when it’s done.
1/2 cup olive or avocado oil (I love the taste of olive oil in granola, but if you’re less a fan, avocado oil is an acceptable, neutral-tasting sub)
1 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoon fine Himalyan sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup sesame seeds (optional but, I can’t get enough!)
Preheat the oven to 350F and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine olive oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, combine oats, sea salt, cinnamon, almonds and sesame seeds. Mix the two combinations together.
Spread oat mixture amongst the two prepared pans, flattening it with the back of a spoon or a spatula as much as you can. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, stirring the granola twice. You’ll know it’s done when the oats are golden and fragrant.
Keeps in an airtight container for a month, according to the original recipe. Ours has never lasted that long.