transitions

The kids have been away at the beach with their dad and his family, and I have been on my own for fewer than four days, yet I’ve managed to paint two rooms in my house, freeze five quarts of homemade marinara and four family portions of baked ziti, and finish my first read of the summer.  I also began putting my office and bookshelves back together after painting, and I’ve got my books organized once again as they were in pre-child days: by genre and then alphabetically. It’s so crazy how much time expands before you when you’re used to having kids underfoot.  I miss them like crazy, but at least my productivity is making up for the weirdness in our summer schedule.

Today I intended to squeeze in a Pure Barre class with a good friend, but traffic held her up, and we decided to go for a quick hike nearby instead.  I usually do this walk with Jude and go a little slower, so I couldn’t believe it when we reached the top pretty quickly, even in the sweaty, burning sun.  We talked the whole way up, enjoyed a perfect view with the tiniest breeze, and then talked again as we walked back down.  It was good for my soul in every way.  I was gross and sweaty and spent when I got home, but it was worth it for sure.

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I finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild early this morning with my coffee, and I think I’ll be turning this one over and over in my head for quite some time. I feel like the last person on earth to read it, but I’m so glad I read it right now at this time of transition for me.

Most likely anyone who is reading this post already knows the premise of the memoir, but in case you don’t…. Strayed is grief-stricken from the sudden loss of her mother and the collapse of her marriage and sets out on a journey of walking over eleven hundred miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s a metaphorical journey as she wants to mark this passage in her life and put so many things behind her, but it is a literal one too – of scary and grueling physical challenges on the trail.  The thought of a woman hiking for 100 days alone from southern California to Oregon is incredible to me.  I couldn’t put the book down, and the details of long distance hiking were fascinating.

But more than that, it is Strayed’s perspective on her life and the transitions that occur for her that had me riveted and underlining so many special passages I want to etch in my memory.  I’m not doing anything at all like walking 1100 miles on foot, but some days it can feel that way.  The thing that was so perfect about the timing of this book for me is her focus on the value of solitude and the importance of transitions in our lives.  The significance of recognizing those moments of change and passage should not be underestimated.  As one of her friends on the trail explains to her about moments of feeling low or confused as your life changes in ways out of your control, “It’s a good thing… It’s the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive” (127).  But as Strayed demonstrates so well, we cannot use the black hole to create anything new at all if we don’t take time alone to reflect on the experience and examine our own behaviors and motivation and where we intend to go next.

This was timely for me as I’m experiencing being alone for the first time in pretty much fifteen years – the entirety of my adult life.  And solitude felt so strange at first, but I am sinking into it and realizing I need it so badly and need to honor this time and space before I move forward.  Sometimes I wish I could fast forward a year or two or three down the road, but then again, I don’t know. This is such a sweet time of change for me. An itchy and painful one, yes. But also a moment when I am feeling all of it, so to speak. I’m in it deeply and boiling everything down to essentials with my kids and me alone.  And in a weird way, I feel like I am seeing things more crisp and clear than I have in the last decade.  I’m seeing and feeling everything for what it really is because I have no one else to lean on or consult as a co-pilot or partner, no one else to diffuse or cloud my perceptions.

As Strayed says when she camps a night or two next to friends she met on the trail, “Being near [them] at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark… But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid.  I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really – all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldn’t do that while tagging along with someone else” (122).  I mean really, friends. Could there be a truer statement given to me at my current moment?

I felt like Strayed was talking straight to me through so much of her memoir – which is my very favorite thing about literature. It’s why I teach and write. Those shared moments of real reflection on the human experience fuel my fire so much.  At one point, she refers to what Pacific Crest Trail hikers call “trail magic” which is simply “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail” (232). And I’m certain you don’t have to be hiking the PCT for 1100 miles to experience “trail magic.”  It’s happening to me all the time – when I read something that pierces me all the way through, when I discover new music that moves me, when I catch my kids in just the right light to be overwhelmed with their sweet little features and the idea that they came from my body and call me mama, when I have shared moments or laughter with friends that fill me up in the best way.  There are so many little joys in life, even on a tough trail and among the tangled mess.

Table for One, Please

One of the things on my long list of summer self-improvement is to eat better when my husband is gone on business.  In efforts to do this, I ordered The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones who, if you don’t know, worked with Julia Child for many years and has now written a cookbook full of recipes she has learned as a result of her new life as a widow.  While that, of course, is not my situation, I do eat alone about 4-7 times a month, and Trader Joe’s stir-fry is good but gets old.  This book has so many promising ideas from a single, stuffed Portobello mushroom to beef bourguingnon for one. I find myself looking at solitary dinnertime with excitement rather than lonely maybe-I-should-just-have-cereal-tonight desperation.

A couple of weeks ago, I ventured to make a steak for myself and use the leftovers 2 nights later in a gratin which was yummy.  My latest try from Jones’s book, however, blew that away.  This was so incredibly good that I think I’ll want to double it and make it when Scott is around as well.  A bonus that makes the dish even better is that it is nourishing, fun to make, and composed of real, wholesome ingredients.  I’ve never thought to eat eggs for dinner before, but she has a whole chapter on the usefulness of eggs for the single cook, and I think I just opened a whole new door that I never knew existed.  The final result of this particular recipe is so decadent and so French.  I seriously felt like I was back in Paris, sitting in a street-side table along the Seine.  Sigh.

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Baked Egg with Vegetables

First grate a single, small zucchini.  Place the shreds in a colander and salt them.  Wait about 30 minutes for the zucchini to drain.  (You’ll be surprised at how much water comes out, and you don’t want your final result soupy.)  Next melt a tablespoon of butter in a saute pan, add diced onions (she specifies shallots) and sliced mushrooms.  Cook for about 3 minutes.  Now squeeze the grated zucchini so that most of the excess water comes out.  Throw the zucchini in the pan and saute with the onions and mushrooms for about 3 minutes.  Next add 2 tablespoons of heavy cream. (DIVINE.  Makes everything better.)  Stir and cook for one minute.  Judith Jones also says you can throw in any other leafy green vegetables you have.  I threw in Swiss Chard from earlier this week, and it was delicious.

Now spoon the vegetables in to a small gratin dish and make a small well in the middle.  Crack one egg on top.  Add a dash of salt and pepper.  Pour 2 more tablespoons of heavy cream on top and sprinkle some parmesan cheese if you have it and want it.  Cook in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the egg is set.  It comes out looking like this and smelling incredible.

There’s something about sitting down to eat a perfectly proportioned one-person meal in a little individual dish.  Heaven.