Sunday, February 22, 2009

Our Town

"Writers write about things that other people don't pay much attention to. For instance, our tongues, elbows, water coming out of a water faucet, the color purple of a faded sign in a small town.
"When we live in the same place for too long, we grow dull. We don't notice what's around us.
"A writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being."--Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

A couple of years back we moved out of New York to be closer to my husband’s family in Massachusetts. We settled on the town of Brookline. Why? For starters, because it's a pretty town with a long history of happy residents. John F. Kennedy was born here—a 5-minute walk from our apartment building. Mike loves that we can get everywhere without a car. That's been a real bonus with fluctuating gas prices. Plus who wants to try to park in Boston?

In Brookline, there’s a good Irish pub/hole in the wall that serves my favorite roast turkey dinner, and a great dessert place offering gelato and Death By Chocolate. We are a block away from a variety of kosher delis and bagel places where on any given Sunday we can go for bagels with Tofutti cream cheese or any variety of rugelach.

But there is something else in Brookline that has never disappointed us. It's something our New York friends are probably sick to death of hearing about, but that they love to frequent when they visit us. Even people who have been to France are in agreement--there's a foodies paradise just a couple of blocks down the street that has people lining up around the block, and we can go there whenever we want.

Clear Flour Bakery

You can smell it when you're walking past the modest storefront at night—the earthy, pungent loaves of bread the bakers stay up all night to make. The smell is so divine that it overpowers the scent of clean laundry emanating from the late-night laundromat next door. We anticipate the morning when, the Sunday Globe in hand, we’ll get in line to wait among the other carb addicts for our turn to enter the tiny shop. Occasionally someone will gripe about the wait, but that person is usually someone who has no idea what he's talking about. He should be ordered to go straight to Panera Bread on Harvard Ave. where he can settle down to some hastily-served mediocrity. The rest of us know why were here.

It's not like Magnolia Bakery in New York’s West Village, where lines form for cupcakes that, while sufficiently sweet and tasty, are no better than what you could make at home from a boxed mix. No, this place deserves the line. In fact, I hope they never expand the store to make room for more customers. That would make it too easy, and good food should not come easily or it might not be savored.

And then the bell on the door chimes—a middle-aged couple with a little girl in braids exit the shop. We're in! While we wait on the much shorter line inside, I scan the racks for that indelible Sunday treat: the chocolate croissant. These are nothing like the ones I used to get at Au Bon Pain when I didn't know what a proper croissant was supposed to taste like. The chocolate is silky, rich, and dark, and they're not stingy with the filling. Unlike those inferior chain croissants, you don't get three mouthfuls of pastry before you get to the warm middle. No, there is chocolate in every bite. And no worries about pulling a tooth trying to bite into it—this croissant is as soft and warm as cotton candy straight from the cart.

Then there's the breakaway Monkey Bread, a twisty, puffy loaf boasting that same chocolate filling, but peppered with cinnamon and nuts. Rip off a piece and watch the steam rise off. You’ll be surprised how fast it goes when split between two people.

The baguettes are crusty outside, soft inside, and the olive rolls are studded with large Italian green olives. The chocolate macaroons are equal parts tender coconut and smooth chocolate, and the individual quiches are always filled with a mix of interesting ingredients—my favorite is the fire roasted tomato and feta cheese. And the lovely apple galette—that's a crowd pleaser to beat any variety of babka from up the street. For those who need more caffeine than can be found in the chocolate brioche, there’s George Howell’s Single Bean coffee brewed daily.

Yes, we love Clear Flour Bread—it's what we were eating when we sat on the deck of our new apartment for the first time. We imagined a life like Parisians, eating hot croissants and drinking black coffee.

Even in the down economy our home has gone up in value since then. I have to think that's partially because of the universal love for fresh-baked bread.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Then Warren Zevon sings poor, poor pitiful me

"It's painful to face how we harm others, and it takes a while. It's a journey that happens because of our commitment to gentleness and honesty, our commitment to staying awake, to being mindful. Because of mindfulness, we see our desires and our aggression, our jealousy and our ignorance. We don't act on them; we just see them. Without mindfulness, we don't see them."--Pema Chodron, from When Things Fall Apart

I've been resisting starting a meditation practice. I hector my husband to meditate, and then I go off to read a book or take a nap. The idea of meditation scares me because I fear it will be uncomfortable--and like most people, I hate feeling uncomfortable. In fact, I know it hurts because of the few times I've attempted it. It's like starting a new exercise regimen--I know it would be good for me, I know it would help me sleep, stave off my sun-deprived sadness, tone up my somewhat pudgy winter body. But it hurts to workout! I sweat and my face turns red, and my arms and legs shout and complain. With meditation, I envision sitting and struggling to knock out the intrusive thoughts one by one. I imagine the pain in my lower back, the stiffness in my legs, the cat distracting me by rubbing up against my arm. I'd do it for ten minutes max, and then wander off into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a heaping serving of guilt.

I could try going to a class and meditating. This way I'm among others who are struggling, too. The problem with that is, I often have a hard time seeing beyond the surface with people--like at the gym when I see the runners on the treadmill who don't seem to break a sweat and can even keep up a conversation with their workout partner--I don't see how they're suffering. When I see others meditating, I think, oh, they seem very peaceful. They know how to do this properly. I'm the only one who is having problems.

This is where I need to be more mindful; this is the "stuff"I need to work with, as Pema would say. I don't always stop to find out the truth of other people's suffering--at least not people who are in my immediate circle or who live in my city. Yes, I see the suffering on the news, and I read about it in books. And as I've said, I have a hard time feeling happy sometimes when I think of what these "other" people are facing. But when it comes to the people I encounter everyday, I always assume things come more easily for them. It's a convenient lie I tell myself that keeps me thinking it's only me who struggles with meditation or working out or writing or whatever it is. No one else knows how it feels. Yeah, right.

Today I will work to be more mindful of other people. I will listen to them instead of thinking of what I want to say, and I will try to suspend judgement of what I think they're experiencing, because I can't always know the truth. Everyone has their challenges, even that woman running gracefully on the treadmill or that man who looks completely at ease on the meditation cushion.

And I'll go to Shambhala meditation class on Wednesday night instead of just thinking about it or telling Mike he should go.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No Deed Too Small

"Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."--Marian Wright Edelman

I read this quote in a manuscript for a book coming out this summer called Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life" It's about a man (author Stan Goldberg) who is diagnosed with prostate cancer who volunteers at a hospice and learns, well, lessons for living. I know it sounds maudlin, but it's really a moving book--the kind of story that stays with you for a while after you see it (like some movies do, though less and less these days.) Yes, it's sad, but since I've been worrying a lot about death lately, I found the book somewhat comforting. It all goes back to enjoying every day, every moment, and savoring the simple things like a spoonful of chocolate ice cream or the sight of blooming daffodils (not yet, but soon...)

Anyway, he uses that quote as a way to explain why he took on a volunteer project that would scare off most people. Helping others, being kind to others, is our true nature. It's hard for me to think this way sometimes when confronted with a group of loud teenagers or a demanding author. But it's something I want to believe. I could be doing even more to help others. I volunteer once a week with Linda, but that's such a small deed, it's hardly anything. But maybe it doesn't have to be specifically volunteering. It could also be my demeanor to strangers and my generosity with people I don't like.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Do You Mind? I'm Eating

"Studies show that infants and young children have an intuitive sense of what and how much to eat. Given enough choices and time they will eat in a balanced way, just the right amount of calories, vitamins, and minerals, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. This is a skill, an inner listening, that we all were able to do at one time but forgot as we grew older."--Jan Chozen Bays, MD, from her book Mindful Eating

I went out shopping for a pair of work pants yesterday and was surprised to learn that I had not only jumped one size up, but TWO since I last bought pants. It was sobering, to say the least. After all, the women who sit near me at work like to bring in Kit Kats and chocolate cupcakes, and even I've been guilty of whipping up a batch of Toll House cookies to please the ladies and a few of the men. It should have occurred to me that I no longer had the metabolism of a twenty-two year old.

I sit and I type and I talk to authors and editors and I tend to eat lunch at my desk. Part of the reason for this is it's frigid in Boston this time of year, so a walk at lunch would mean facing the wrath of the wind and ice. Or I can stay inside where it's warm and dry, and I can scarf cookies.

I need to start eating mindfully. I tried one time to write down everything I ate in a journal and was surprised by all the bread, chips, and sweet baked goods were on the list. Thing is I was blessed (cursed?) with a thin body for most of my life, but over the past year or so, I'm seeing my hips expand like an accordion. I have a womanly body, as my mother would say. Fine, but do I have to buy all new clothes when I'm still happy with the ones I have?

So next time I reach for that cookie, I'm going to eat it slowly, savor it, lick the chocolate chips and nibble around the center, smelling the rich cocoa and enjoying the smooth texture. And then when that cookie is done, and if I'm still hungry, I'll eat some fruit. I'm not giving in that easily to the mid-thirties spread.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Wet blanket

"Fear has to be acknowledged. We have to realize our fears and reconcile ourselves with fear. We should look at how we move, how we talk, how we conduct ourselves, how we chew our nails, how we sometimes put our hands in our pockets uselessly. Then we will find something out about how fear is expressed in the form of restlessness. We must face the fact that fear is lurking in our lives, always, in everything we do.
"On the other hand, acknowledging fear is not a cause for depression or discouragement. Because we possess such fear we are also potentially entitled to experience fearlessness."--Chogyam Trungpa, from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Sunday night I lay in bed (well, on the covers, not actually IN the bed) clutching the cat like it was her last day on earth. She let me because it's winter and somewhat drafty in our apartment, so she likes to either snuggle with me or bow down to the radiator God.

I was depressed and anxious. I was having a Woody Allen, existential moment, when all I could think about is "I'm going to die." Even worse, my parents and my husband are going to die and I'll be left alone, in a small apartment with three or more cats, everyday the same. No visitors, no company at all. Holidays, birthdays, warm early summer evenings--all spent alone. I felt sorry for that future me and asked myself what was the point of all this if that's what I have to look forward to?

To make matters worse, my husband Mike came in the room to lay down next to me and maybe snuggle, and I instantly started in on my questioning: If I die first, will he be sad? Will he stay in mourning and never love anyone again? Or will he run out and find a new chippy a month after the funeral? If he was dying, should we try to off ourselves at the same time? What if his attempt worked and mine failed? Or what about the opposite: mine worked and his failed, and so not only was he dying, but he would have to die alone, without me as his caretaker. Mike was mildly amused by my questions. He made up some story that if I died first, he'd wear nothing but black for the rest of his life and wear a locket with a picture of me inside. He had obviously taken notes from my Sicilian grandmother. Then he rolled his eyes and said, "Wow, I came in here for a pick-me-up but now I'm totally depressed. Thanks."

"Do you think I could ever be happy if you were gone?" I asked, knowing in my head that I wouldn't.

"Yes, I think you would. You could also be miserable. It's your choice."

Is it? It seems like moods hit me and no matter how much I try to shake them by thinking positively, it feels fake. The world is a messed up place. Wars, hunger, destruction of natural resources, kids with cancer, you name it. So much suffering. And then we die. Buddhists believe life is suffering, but life for me just 5-10 years ago wasn't all about suffering. I was engaged with life, I had a youthful vigor. Now I can only see the harshness and lack of pity in the world around me.

I guess my problem with living in the now is that I've been living in the future so long that it's hard to stop and appreciate what I have. I can be happy that I have a loving partner and family, and be grateful everyday for it. Or I can spend all this time being anxious, fearful, and unhappy. Hmmm...

To try to wrestle my way out of the deep hole of despair and self-pity I'd dug for myself, I sat and read old Peanuts strips. Every Christmas my husband buys me the next two volumes of the deluxe Peanuts box sets from Fantagraphics Books. I used to love Peanuts cartoons growing up, and reading the old strips makes me smile--both remembering some and discovering new ones. Plus, like all good cartoons, it works on two levels: fun for kids and adults alike.

Poor Charlie Brown, neurotic, depressed, with low self-esteem. Sometimes I feel just like him except without the round head. And I love Lucy, especially as she gets a little older and starts fussing. She looks at Snoopy dancing with joy as he does, and she shouts "What do you have to be so happy about? There's war and famine and you're dancing? (I'm paraphrasing here.) I felt just like Lucy. When I see others laughing and happy, I wonder, how can they be so joyful when we're all destined to be food for the worms? When human beings are so cruel to one another and kids go to bed hungry?

Then I realize that I'm wallowing--feeling sorry for myself, being dramatic, employing extreme thinking (years of therapy taught me that last one). Yes, I'm going to die one day. But as Woody Allen discovers in Hannah and her Sisters: if this is it, if this is my one life, then I might as well enjoy the ride.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

I've started taking a personal essay writing class at Grub Street called "Six Weeks, Six Essays." I'm trying to discipline myself into writing within a word count. I'm posting the first draft of an assignment that's due tomorrow (1000 words). The topic is "love." As I go over what I wrote, looking for typos and things to cut, I see that there are elements of mindfulness in my husband's world view, too.

“That’s the dish sponge you’re using. Use the counter sponge.”

I looked at Mike, my boyfriend of less than a year, a question bubble hanging in the air between us.

“The dish sponge becomes the counter sponge, and the counter sponge becomes the floor sponge.” he said, as if explaining a simple math problem, “And then the floor sponge becomes the toilet sponge.”

A brief ewww escaped my lips. I would have thrown the sponge away after a couple of months, or whenever the scrubby side was used up. But it was his apartment I had moved into, so it would be wise for me to observe the native tribe’s customs and rituals.

“Oh, yes, the hierarchy of sponges,” his ex-girlfriend would say later, shaking her head, “Good luck with that.”

I knew from a mutual friend that I was in for a bumpy ride with Mike, but I also instinctively knew that he would be a faithful, loving partner. He had been the first to say “I love you,” he wrote haikus about us, he skipped work to take me to the doctor when I had a health scare. After bad luck dating a string of New York men, I had found my best friend.

So when my roommate of four years moved out, I broached the topic of moving in with Mike. We’d been together for just eight months, but we were idealistic enough to give it a shot. I had never lived with a boyfriend before, but I was only mildly nervous about what I might discover.

It would only take about a week of living together before I’d learn the truth. In addition to sponges, he rarely threw anything away. If he did, he’d make a big show of it: “Look, Jenn,” he’d say, calling me into the room to observe him pitching a stretched-out rubber band into the trash can. When we were first dating we always ended the night at my apartment. I thought he might be hiding something at home, like a crazy wife in the attic. But it turned out he wanted to move all his boxes into a storage locker so I wouldn’t find out that he was a packrat. Better I learn that after I was in over my head in love.

For me, throwing things away was a cleansing ritual, like a two-day fast to rid the body of toxins. I threw out lipstick, half-used bottles of body lotion, skirts that I was tired of looking at, day-old salad. I didn’t feel any guilt about this—I had been doing it since I was twelve, and decided two plastic garbage bags filled with my toys and clothes had to go because I was about to embark on my new, sophisticated life in junior high school.

In a typical purging session, I once cleared off the top of Mike’s dresser. It was heaped with old mail and coins and other everyday debris. I was surprised when he could name everything I had thrown out. The only thing I could discard under the radar were subscription cards, and after a while the thrill of that wore off. It started to sink in what I was up against, and I knew that if we ever bought a piece of furniture together I’d better really like it because I was going to be living with it for a very long time.

When it came to food, if I didn’t want to watch him scrape the slime off of an old carrot in order to chop it into that night’s salad, I would have to avoid buying too many carrots. It took me a while to get the hang of this because I loved making big grocery trips and filling the refrigerator with fresh food. It was like living with a parent who insisted you clean your plate before getting up from the table. My mother, having been raised by a woman who insisted she finish her tripe, let me off easy every time. So as an adult, if something had even a whiff of being old, I threw it away. Mike had been influenced by a grandmother who lived through the Great Depression. If he got to it first, he’d eat around the mold.

“This is like my religion,” he confided, “I’m careful about how many resources I use up in this life. Americans just throw everything away so they can buy more stuff.” This was before Al Gore’s movie, before going green was the theme in Barney’s window display. Mike was also fond of the idea of wabi-sabi, a Japanese phrase meaning “beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” I would come to appreciate this when facing him at the breakfast table with my hair sticking up on one side and wearing my smudged glasses. There were some benefits to him not wanting to throw anything away—at least I knew I was safe.

Mike and I are married now, and I’m careful to respect his “religion” while defending my right to not eat anything that’s sprouting a second life. He tries to respect my wishes by not salvaging my pink socks with the hole in the toe from the trash. His waste-not-want-not lifestyle has been handy during our current recession. I’ve had four of my shoes re-heeled at the cobbler instead of rushing to Macy’s, and I’ve collected clothes I would have thrown away and sold them for cash at a consignment shop.

Mike’s latest endeavor is worm composting. At first I protested, but when confronted with the bin, I realized you couldn’t see or smell the creepy-crawlies. He keeps them out on the deck so there’s no chance of them slinking into our bed at night.

The benefit of having the worms is now Mike feeds all our old produce to them, and they create a rich soil that he then uses for his tomato plants. It’s kind of nice to be that close to the cycle of life, and I love tossing my discarded food into the compost pail.